Anna St. Louis’s “If Only There Was a River” feels like it could have come out sometime between “Niño Rojo” and “Ys.” It’s a gorgeous album, full of well-written songs whose constituent parts are mainly voice and guitar (and occasional strings), and in that way it’s got a vibe like a Smog or Bonnie Prince Billy record. St. Louis has a fascinating voice, like a country singer crossed with an old-style crooner, and it’s that charismatic voice that makes the record as compelling as it is. She sings about love, wanting, understanding, and counterfactuals (i.e. on the last song on the album, “River,” she sings “If only there were a river,” in an interesting grammatical change from the title of the album—this suggests that wherever she’s singing this line is definitively arid and there’s not even a remote possibility that a river might emerge, as opposed to the title of the album, which suggests that a river is possible). She also incorporates natural imagery throughout her songs, singing about water (on “Water” and “River”), wind (“I lean into the wind/and drown” on “Wind”), and big skies.
On “Desert,” especially, she creates a kind of Western vignette out of this natural imagery. Someone has been left to eke out a living in the desert while waiting for a beloved to return, all while observing the actions that take place out there: “nobody knows/nobody sees…that the back roads seem kind of wild/that the dust blowing around for miles/the pilgrims are hoping to find/their rivers had not run dry.” Resigned to isolation and abandonment, she sings, accompanied by lightly distorted guitar and strings, that “nobody sees/this deserted maze that is wrapped around me/and the fire went out/honey/long ago/But still I pretend that you’re coming home.” A beautiful song about a bizarre relationship.
“Certainty Waves” is the Dodos’ new album and it’s wonderful. I did not expect a new album from the Dodos, especially not after Meric Long’s solo debut, “Barton’s Den,” as FAN (understated & great), but that solo album actually plays a pretty big part in “Certainty Waves,” which exhibits much more diverse soundcraft and instrumentation than some of the band’s previous albums. Synths were a big part of “Barton’s Den” and feature in a number of the songs on “Certainty Waves,” either undisguised or as inspiration for other sounds (Long mentioned that the guitar tone on the latter part of “Center Of” is modeled on the sound of a distorted synth), and it gives the band a lot more versatility.
The pleasures that come with every Dodos album are here, of course: the astounding and kind of insane percussion work of Logan Kroeber; Long’s gentle but assured singing; the coiled energy that both Long and Kroeber display; the melodies that shift and slide in playful and unexpected ways. And while the last few Dodos records have felt a little elegiac to me, “Certainty Waves” has an even stronger vibe of resignation and valediction.
“Coughing” is one of my favorite songs on this album, though “Center of,” “Excess,” “Ono Fashion,” and “Sort of” are also remarkable. “Coughing” starts as a beat-heavy groove, and then a more expressive guitar comes in. The song is mostly Long leveling criticisms at someone: “Not like you to/give a shit anyway/always coughing/always coughing.” And then the song changes and dissolves near its end, into quiet cymbals and finger-picked guitar, with Long singing, almost apologetically, “How can I ever ask you to be/more than I need/How can I ever/expect you to be/more than I am.”
New Jay Som, in collaboration with Justus Proffit. Melina Duterte’s lovely vocals are the driving force and focus of “Tunnel Vision,” the third song on the “Nothing’s Changed” EP. It’s a quiet, subdued song at first, Duterte whispers “You were clean/you were calm/standing in the doorway/singing afterthoughts,” with a simple guitar figure repeating alongside her voice. A minute in, the song opens up for a moment: percussion, another guitar, and Justus Proffit’s voice echoing Duterte’s. But the voices recede, and the last two minutes of the song are composed of commanding bass notes, shifting and fluttering percussion, heavy keys. Where Jay Som’s “Pirouette” lifted off into space, “Tunnel Vision” has a different trajectory, drilling downward, inward.