Holy Ghost! released one of the best albums of the year a couple months ago: “Work.” Their first album in six years. I’ve been a fan of this band since I heard them on Beats in Space randomly (looks like it was in 2010), and I’ve enjoyed their albums and EPs a lot. “Work” still feels like a huge surprise though, and I was sad to see that this album didn’t get more attention or better reviews, because it feels like their best and most vital work since their debut. All the songs on this album have strong melodies, great sound craft, interesting textures. “Epton on Broadway, Pt. 1 and Pt.2” open the album, and those songs are big and compelling, full of showy synths, disco guitars, guest-star piano. Alex Frankel sings, both imperious and pleading, “Look at the smile that we can’t crack/Oh what a clever notion/Look at the time we can’t get back/I’m stuck inside the motion/Look at the dial my favorite track/I felt a feeling growing/Look the time we can’t back/Just give me one more moment.”
If I had to take a guess at what this album is about, it feels like it’s about change: big changes in the world, time passing, and smaller changes, in relationships especially. “Heaven Forbid,” which is my favorite song on the album, falls into the latter category. On the chorus, Frankel sings “Heaven forbid we start to/Forget and forgive like two hearts do, maybe it’s past due/Heaven forbid we start to/Forget and forgive like two hearts do, maybe we ought to,” suggesting that it’s past time to move on, let it be, find acceptance and peace. I don’t think I can stress how good everything is about this song–the vocals, the insanely catchy synth riff that makes up the backbone of the song, the wild, clambering bass: it all moves together so well. Enjoy it.
Katherine Paul (Black Belt Eagle Scout) might be the best writer of love songs working right now. Her new album, “At the Party With My Brown Friends,” is full of amazing love songs that cover the spectrum of loves: romantic, physical, communal, familial and more. She talks about friendships, relationships, belonging to communities, supporting people, living in different dynamics. The whole album is bursting with affection and warm feeling and humanity.
“Mother of My Children” is a brilliant album, animated by sharp emotions: grief, sadness, regret, disappointment. The overall vibe of the music on “Mother of My Children” was louder and bigger than what’s present on “At the Party With My Brown Friends.” The songs on the new album feel poppier and more clearly expressed; sometimes in the course of observing an artist as a fan, you get to witness a moment when there’s a perfect marriage of subject matter and execution, like the artist has seized their own ideas so thoroughly that the work seems like a magic trick. That’s what “At the Party With My Brown Friends” feels like.
I love all the songs on this album, but I wanted to write about “My Heart Dreams” because Katherine Paul sings something that I’ve thought about and felt for a long time. “Wastin’ this life/I only want me and you/I look at this life/I only want me and you.” I think about my wife and our families, and how there are so many more worthwhile things to do than what we all do every day, so many people to witness and love.
“Anak Ko” is Jay Som’s great new album. Melina Duterte has a knack for melodies—almost all her songs are super-catchy and tough to let go of once you’ve got them in your head—and she has a wonderful voice and a fantastic way with guitar sounds. That’s the baseline of what to expect with any Jay Som release, since her music is consistently wonderful. “Anak Ko” has a different feel from “Everybody Works” and “Turn Into”—it’s more considered, sometimes a little somber or elegiac, and sounds like a statement from a place where Duterte is taking stock of life. Reading through the album’s lyrics, it’s like she’s reckoning with the last few years—getting out of disappointing relationships, making changes, getting into a situation where she feels more stable and secure. Duterte turned 25 this year, and this album feels like that era of life when you’ve acquired enough life experience to have a better handle on who you are, but you’re not quite satisfied or complacent, you’ve still got aims and ambitions and moves you want to make. “Anak Ko” is a beautiful snapshot, another big work by a big artist.
“Tenderness” (one of my many favorites on the album) is a sweet and smooth groove; it sets off with a faint mechanical beat and some gauzy guitar strumming, then Duterte’s voice enters, singing, “Tell me/Did you fall in at first glance/Do you think you’ll take a chance/Do you think on the weekend I could know,” and then, “Show me/Before you haunt me on the screen.” Later the song emerges from behind the veil after the third verse, when Duterte sings, in full fidelity, “I’m feeling like we’ve just begun/Nothing’s ever good enough/Tenderness is all I’ve got.” She said the sentiments in the song emerge from her feelings about social media, about scrolling on your phone and seeing someone who haunts you. There’s a classic (smooth) rock vibe on this song that I can’t quite place, like a gentler Steely Dan—or maybe Papas Fritas’s song “I Believe in Fate,” and it’s so good and satisfying.
The great and underrated Outer Limits Recordings (OLR) was one of Sam Mehran’s many post-Test Icicles projects. I wrote about his music a couple times over the years. Outer Limits Recordings was so fucking weird and so fascinating—a kind of detritus-rock, made of discarded junk sounds, clichés, tinny beats, but assembled with purpose and affection, in a way that made it all sound new. It provoked thought and reconsideration. The best analogue I’ve come up with for OLR’s music is that it’s a little like Adult Swim’s fucking bonkers “Too Many Cooks” video. Same use of junk, cliché, old and worn-out culture to make something new and enjoyable and weird as shit.
Sam Mehran was a great artist and I would urge everyone to track down and listen to the music he made (I always found his Discogs page helpful for finding aliases, etc.)
MELT is the project he was working on with Marion Belle when he killed himself in July 2018. These handful of tunes show the range of Mehran’s production capabilities—these songs are pretty far away from the stuff he was doing with OLR. MELT’s music is sweeping and dramatic, with big sounds, huge percussion. You can still hear some of Mehran’s favorite sounds in these songs too—there’s a beat on “Strictly Dior” that sounds so brittle and basic, like a preset on one of the Casiotone keyboards from the 90s. There’s a lot to like on this MELT EP, and some of the songs (especially “Strictly Dior”) have a vibe like a more emotive and direct version of Felt.
Resavoir’s album “Resavoir” sounds like imaginary jazz, like speculative jazz, the kind of jazz you read about in a magazine or a book and then wonder about—what does it sound like? Could it possibly be as good as you’d heard it in your head? “Resavoir” is that good. It’s full of beautiful playing, surprising melodies, gorgeous grooves. It’s the kind of album that’s light enough to hang in the background, but also stands up to close and rigorous listening.
It makes me think of when I first read about Madlib’s record with Blue Note, “Shades of Blue,” where Madlib remixed portions of the Blue Note catalog to fit into his aesthetic—I imagined something else entirely, jazz with heavy mind-blowing beats, crazy breaks and transitions. I like that record fine, but it definitely doesn’t match up with the sound I had in my head. Makaya McCraven’s work and a lot of the stuff on International Anthem (including “Resavoir”) sounds like what I envisioned, jazz animated by the energy and dynamics of modern hip hop. (Some of Floating Points’ “Elaenia” has this vibe too.)
Automatic do vivid post-punk: songs that feel like humming electrical substations. Imposing, metallic, sort of beautifully utilitarian. “A picture of your changing face/another standing in its place,” Izzy Glaudini sings. The latter part of the song erupts into something more sinister, someone observing an unfolding disaster and deciding that they’ve seen enough. “Let’s call it off and start again,” Glaudini sings. Automatic have also released “Too Much Money” on their Bandcamp page, and both songs are worthwhile.
Los Retros’s “Some to Spend Time With” is an old-fashioned romantic duet, straight-up crooned. The song practically levitates: loose guitar lines are barely tethered to a loping beat, while Mauri Tapia sweetly sings, “My sweetheart/where are you?/I need someone/to spend time with/to give and share all my love.” Firelordmelisa enters the song midway through and offers a similar complaint, and her and Tapia’s voices sit together so nicely. It all seems so effortless and joyful. Los Retros just released their debut EP, “Retrospect,” on Stones Throw, and it’s all great like this, sort of an effervescent mix of Elvis, Motown, and Neon Indian.
Palehound’s new album, “Black Friday,” is a stunner. Ellen Kempner sings these songs with openness and vulnerability, songs about love and being loved, but also about tougher and meaner emotions: uneasiness, shame, anger, rage. Where “A Place I’ll Always Go” felt like intimate letters or a collection of short stories, “Black Friday” feels like a bigger production, a brave swing for the fences. Kempner sings about what it takes to love people, about losing friends, about trying to pull the people you love out of sadness. Every song on the album is fascinating and affecting, and the music, like the lyrics, feels like it’s more explorative, more outdoors than indoors.
Two songs I want to highlight: “Aaron” and “In Town.” The first is one of the most moving love songs I’ve heard in the last couple years. “Your mother wanted to name you Aaron/but her body built you/as a different man/And my friend, if you want me to I’ll call you Aaron/I can/I can/I can/I can/I can, Aaron/I can.” Kempner has said that the song is addressed to her partner, who’s transitioning. She sings those lines, and the whole song, with such focused tenderness. A beautiful song.
“In Town” is also full of love, but turns on thoughts of loss. “At the thought of losing you/my muscles hum familiar tunes/and curl me into a naked ball/wet on the shower floor.” And later, “If there’s anything I learned/when I was back in town/it’s that nothing worth loving/ ever sticks around/But you.” The music of “In Town” shadows the lyrics, with mournful piano and a unsettled guitar riff. The song ends with Kempner singing wordlessly over both the riff and a group of violins ruminating together.
You can listen to “Superbike,” the lead single from “Anak Ko,” via the lyric video below. “Superbike” has the same kind of protean and melodic qualities as a lot of Duterte’s songs, twisting in interesting and surprising ways throughout the course of the song. “I’m not the kind of fool/who needs to read the room,” she sings at the start of the song, sounding confident, but then undercuts that pose a little, with a pleading request, “Somebody tell me,” which she repeats throughout “Superbike.” A fantastic song that also features the band’s prettiest outro yet.
Here’s the tracklisting for “Anak Ko:”
1) If You Want It
3) Peace Out
5) Nighttime Drive
7) Anak Ko
9) Get Well
Ellen Arkbro is back with a new record, “CHORDS.” Her “For Organ and Brass” was one of my favorite records of 2017, a record of beautiful, circulating drones. Judging by the excerpts posted from “CHORDS,” the new record has a tighter focus, with a slightly more koanic quality. You can hear it in “CHORDS for Guitar,” where she offers a series of discrete, strummed chords that ring out and dissipate, encouraging the listener to consider each one, the initial bloom of the sound as the chord is struck and the manner in which the sound decays. “CHORDS for Organ” continues her fascinating experiments with that instrument, and you can listen to an excerpt from that track too. “CHORDS” is out on June 7. Looking forward to hearing the whole thing.
A new single by Black Belt Eagle Scout is reason to celebrate. “Loss & Relax” and “Half Colored Hair” continue the vibe from “Mother of My Children,” thoughtful, full of invention, colored both by joy and a sense of mourning. If I remember correctly, Katherine Paul played “Loss & Relax” during the band’s stop in Tacoma, and she really ripped into it, with the whole band jamming out on the ending of the song. Paul writes fascinating and beautiful guitar lines for her songs, and you can hear in “Loss & Relax” how easily she moves from a meditative/contemplative mode into explosive, ecstatic emotion. She has a great note up on the band’s bandcamp page about what inspired “Loss & Relax” and what she was thinking about when the song came into being, and you should real all of it, but here’s an excerpt:
“As I was writing the guitar line, I kept seeing the water of the Salish Sea and the local ferries drifting people in and out of place. Ferries are such a beautiful part of my childhood and served as a major form of transportation. Thinking about my home and how canoes have turned into ferries is a sad but also beautiful thought. Nowadays with Canoe Journeys, canoes are alongside ferries, roaming our waters to lands, sharing customs and culture. That is what I think about now, when I listen to the fully recorded version of the song. I see a strong and fierce community of my people, continuing to thrive in whatever comes our way. That is how I feel about myself, a survivor and thriver of this land, a water protector, a womxn, the future.”
“Half Colored Hair” is another gorgeous love song from Paul (like “Soft Stud”), a sketch of sweet intimacy, caring touches, moments of realization. She sings, towards the end of the song, “I never knew I’d like/half colored hair so much/But I knew/I’d like you/So I didn’t care/’Cause I care for you.”