The best new albums this week
The latest round up of choice LP delights
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Tune-Yards – sktechy (4AD)
“We really had been non-stop hustling” says Tune-Yards’ Merrill Garbus, reflecting on a career which established them as one of the most colourful pop acts of the past decade. “And when we’re hustling, we’re complicit in all of the systems I don’t really believe in.”
Despite having the excitement of a child rummaging through a toy box, Garbus and partner/collaborator Nate Brenner’s music is strewn with social awareness. 2011’s breakthrough album Whokill explored violence as forms of oppression and freedom, and remains a furious dissection of America’s entrenched social inequality. Follow-up Nikki Nack kept the playfulness intact, but delved further into the damaging effects of capitalism, colonialism, and misogyny. But it was 2018’s I Can Feel You Creep into My Private Life where they went deepest of all. After attending a meditation course in racism and white privilege, Garbus felt urged to address how the band have perpetuated these issues, resulting in a slightly more tense yet bruisingly honest listen.
After composing the soundtrack for Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You, Garbus felt that Tune-Yards’ race had been run, admitting that “she couldn’t see a future.” The themes that the band touched upon on their last album had left her questioning her place as a musician, subsequently stifling her creativity. Thankfully, the duo pressed on, hitting the rehearsal studio “like athletes” and sowing the seeds for their new album.
Having played around more with live instrumentation this time around, Sketchy is the most stripped-back Tune-Yards LP to date. The arrangements here aren’t as fizzy as they were on albums prior, but that isn’t to say there isn’t colour bursting through the walls. ‘Under Your Lip’ is illuminated by Garbus’ soaring vocals and the presence of a saxophone, while jaunty organs and rickety percussion lend an off-kilter quality to ‘Make It Right.’ Moments like this recall the ferocity of their earlier work, which is largely due to Garbus’ magnetic presence and Eli Crews’ hand on production (Crews also engineered Whokill and Nikki Nack).
Garbus and Brenner found inspiration from the Beastie Boys Book and Questlove’s Creative Quest, which shines throughout the record. Every Tune-Yards record has placed heavy emphasis on percussion, but there’s a distinct hip-hop feel to the beats on Sketchy. Very much in contrast to their lo-fi debut Bird Brains, they land with resounding punch and clarity, like on the slinky yet rapturous ‘Hypnotised’ and the teeth-gritting funk of ‘Nowhere, Man’. Brenner’s bass-playing enhances the album’s bottom-heavy grooves, all while remaining diverse and melodic as ever. The off kilter ‘Homewrecker’ is underpinned by his fuzzy interjections, and he gives ‘My Neighbour’ its shimmering sensuality.
It wouldn’t be a Tune-Yards album without Garbus’ burning interrogations of systemic injustice. Surrounded by warped voices and disorienting electronics, she fervently rallies against gentrification and white supremacy on ‘Homewrecker’ (“Thinking ‘bout your money/think about the homes you wreck”). ‘Hold Yourself’ is much calmer on the surface, but peel back the layers and you’ll find the anger nestled within, this time directed at the stubbornness of the boomer generation (“Parents betrayed us even when they tried”). It’s also laced with self-reflection;
Garbus understands that calling out bigotry and misuse of power isn’t enough, and that looking inward and opening ourselves up to change are even more vital keys to progress.
Sketchy is by no means as daring as its predecessors, but it balances the joyous instrumentals with the cutting social commentary just as well. On the whole, this is fun yet thoughtfully crafted pop music from a band that never disappoint.
Clark – Playground In A Lake (Deustche Grammophon)
There will be some Clark fans out there ready to tell you they were expecting Playground On A Lake to sound the way it does. We’re not sure if that claim is worth buying into; it smacks of denial as to just how surprising the ninth studio album from this titan of forward-thinking techno, IDM and electro actually is. Forsaking anything like any of those sounds in favour of something wholly more organic and — dare it be said — traditional, by going back through the history of popular music as far as he has, opting to turn attention to classical tones, Clark has made the most experimental electronic record we’ve heard in years.
The stylistic route is one thing, overall atmosphere, accents and approach are altogether different aspects to consider. So although we open on the sombre strings of ‘Lovelock’, a track that conjures images of shadows dancing on walls and late night tales told over an eternity, and are then carried away on the jaunty antiquated pianos of ‘Lambent Reg’, as we explore the contents further they become more avant-garde and futuristic. The latter tune cascading into a frenzied arpeggiated build that gives a not-so-subtle nod to the dancefloor.
Later, we encounter the space-saws and synths of ‘More Islands’, the cunning combination of violins, ominous refrains and shimmering notes on ‘Disguised Foundation’, and ‘Small’’s minimalist electronic art pop trappings. And, before too long, we’re in the vast expanses of the record’s third act, at which point epic science fiction moods have been brought to the fore. Contrasting but complementing the opening section, it’s here things really start making sense. From 21st Century processes and equipment, to orchestral arrangements, classical and electronic music are at their best when they sound as timeless as this.
Xiu Xiu – Oh No (Polyvinyl Records)
Whether this is the first time you’ve come across Xiu Xiu or you’ve been an avid follower for the last near-two decades during which they have released 12 albums (including this), Oh No is going to hit you in the face like an emotionally charged work of eccentric genius. A sonic trip that finds room for influences spanning David Bowie, cabaret, opera, Anthony & The Johnsons, lo-fi electronica and confessional rock balladry, it’s an unashamedly big, undeniably broad and constantly adventurous listen as dramatic and outside the box as it is captivating and enthralling.
An album of duets, this is singer-songwriter and ever-commanding frontman Jamie Stewart going in with a long list of esteemed cult musical heroes for 15 collaborative triumphs that truly embrace artistic differences. From Dram Majesty founder Deb Demure’s baritone love letters, to Angus Andrew of Liars on the upfront big-beat-punk-metal oddity ‘Rumpus Room’, while each track carves out a new route the running order, slick melds and perfectly judged transitions mean the listening experience is more mixtape than anything else.
With each number we’re drawn deeper into a strange and surreal world. The industrial horrors of ‘One Hundred Years’ with Chelsea Wolfe sitting at the harshest and most intimidating end, ‘A Bottle of Rum’, featuring Liz Harris representing the most straight talking Americana rock ’n’ roll.
The Twin Shadow workout, ‘Saint Dympha’, arguably the most impactful, hitting us with one hell of a euphoric chorus that goes straight for the heartstrings through vast walls of distortion. Like everything else here, it’s incredible power is accentuated by the arrangement’s constant evolution. Sections dip in and out with an abstract flow, yet somehow it all makes perfect sense, leaving us where every artist wants their audience — desperate for a few moments more.
Various Artists – Edo Funk Explosion Vol. 1 (Analog Africa)
The latest from Analog Africa looks at the Edo Funk phenomena that began taking over clubs in Benin City, Nigeria, during the 1980s. A sub genre born from a desire to incorporate more of the country’s indigenous Edo culture into the soundtracks dominating nocturnal soirees at that time, it offered a local alternative and sonic counterpoint to prevailing disco rhythms. So while dancefloors largely played domestic productions that were polished to the point of blinding, this was as unpolished and raw as it was made to keep us moving.
Edo Funk Explosion focuses things down to three particularly prominent players in the formative years of the scene. Osaymore Joseph was among the very first musicians to throw flutes into the mix with the horn-fuelled highlife tones of Nigeria’s capital, Lagos, returning to Benin City in the late-1970s determined to dedicate his life to the modernisation of Edo music, taking inspiration from funk and afro-funk. Akaba Man was known for putting crowds in trances with his layered and captivating grooves, melding philosophical lyrics with cosmic synths — arguably the most psychedelic Edo artist of his day,
Victor Uwaifo completes the trio, representing the squelchiest and dubbiest side of the genre showcase. Despite clear stylistic differences, though, when their work is presented collectively the end result makes for an engrossing journey into the heart of a country renowned for its after dark cultures, but specifically — and most fascinatingly — a canon that many people may not have spent many hours listening to, and yet one which immediately grabs and sucks you in. Long, loop and hook-based workouts that can’t help but cut straight to the chase by captivating minds and commanding bodies, it’s the kind of release that makes you long for a party, if not also a flight.
Superabundance Superabundance (Future Times)
Is there a label with more pizzazz than Future Times? We’d argue not. The records on the Washington DC label just leap off the platter with joy in their hearts. They’re a misfit bunch, full of unusual quirks and complexities, but they fly in the face of alternative music moodiness to offer something infectious and upbeat. Much like the Will DiMaggio album in 2018, this Superabundance release feels perfectly timed for the tentative steps towards a sunnier time. Admittedly, DiMaggio’s sprightly, wonky jazz has been swapped out for something tougher here, but the sentiment remains.
Superabundance is a collaborative project from Future Times main man Andrew Field-Pickering, aka Max D, and Jackson Ryland, who’s been skirting around labels like 1432 R, Cahoots and Dabit for a fair few years now. Apparently the duo’s aim in the studio has been towards speed and impulse, capturing the energy of the jam with minimal overdubs. That energy seems obvious when you hear the enthusiasm with which Superabundance bursts forth, but equally, it’s tough imagining these tracks were largely captured on the fly when they sound this good. There’s a certain techno structural code being adhered to – these tracks bang, and they’ve been built to get busy in the mix. ‘Hops’ marches out in front with purpose, its toe-tapping groove and blippy bassline lifted immeasurably by a beautifully buoyant lead line. In its cavalcade of tight drum machine hits, ‘Fuzzy Math’ teeters on the brink of being an outright DJ tool. But the beat, however crooked, is only part of the story for Superabundance, and there’s so much juicy melodic goodness splashed all over this record. The chord lurching through ‘Hyperplasticity’, the sprinkling notes raining down on ‘Mindness 64’ – it’s these shimmering delights which give Superabundance its magic.
Placid Angles – Touch The Earth [Figure]
A welcome return to an alias which explored the breaksier angle of his music, John Beltran’s new album ‘Touch The Earth’ is an undeniably forceful comeback. The first Placid Angles album in 1997, while coming out in R&S-era dance music’s heyday, still felt like a burgeoning moment in Beltran’s discography, like the exploration of a sound that wasn’t yet quite ripe. But with ‘Touch The Earth’, 2021 seems to be a standout year, demonstrating the best of the techno gusher’s most watery, mermaid-like outpourings.
For the lead single ‘Beauty Begins With Us’, Beltran enlists mystery siren Malibu and industro-euphoric producer Baby Blue for the dual feature of the year so far, resulting in a techy propulsion piece straight from the depths of Atlantis. But that track, despite being the first to be promoted, is actually a latter-half album statement. Track two, ‘Deep Blue’, feels a lot more laid-back and Drexciyan in approach, with high end-friendly electro drums melded with chirrupy house chords, rave calls, and even a G-funk whistle. There’s a refreshing grime-garage foray on ‘Our Love Is The Place’, sounding like Pulse X’s aqua-themed, infinity pool holiday. This album treats its tracks as nautical ambient moods, not shying away from blissful fade-ins and -outs on ‘When The Sun Shines Through’ or ‘Natsukahsii’. It’s like a pool party rave, except it’s in the Marianas Trench, not your back garden.
Even if stylistic boundaries are steadily melting into the electronic amalgam, there’s still a discernible scene hovering around deeper shades of contemporary techno. Donato Dozzy might be dabbling in synth pop and D&B, but the influence of his and Neel’s Voices From The Lake project feels instructive when considering labels like amenthia, Smoke Machine and Tikita. Valentino Mora, formerly known as French Fries, has emerged as one of the most captivating artists operating in this field, with incredible, immersive incantations on his own IDO label as well as for Dozzy and Neel’s Spazio Disponibile.
Mora returns to Spazio for his debut album, and his patient approach to techno plays out in an even more considered fashion than before. There’s a noticeable preference for strong synth pulses slowly modulating in the foreground, drawing a thematic line between the ceremonial sound bath of ‘Mass Frequenz’ and the steely minimalism of ‘Absorption’. ‘Spiral Falls’ and ‘Morphosa’ also hinge on rich waveforms pulsing in formation.
Much of the album lingers in a meditative stasis, which adds to the impact when Mora opens up the filters and creates a more kinetic piece. ‘Inhalation’ is still firmly planted in the cooling waters of modernist deep techno, but the tickle of a kick and the pointed peaks of the lead synth figure make it dance in the space in front of the speakers with vitality.
Dubharp – Spiral Heights (100% Silk)
Dubharp, real name Luke Thinnes, describes himself as a ‘lifer’, but something about his music tells us he isn’t banged up in a jail cell – instead, the term seems to take on a more spiritual aura. Far from evoking such a claustrophobic or hellish mood, the Denver native here delivers eight new age, harp-inflected house cuts on his new album ‘Spiral Heights’, conveying a fathomless mood of what he calls “future Balearic” music.
From the outset, it is clear that this is music for psychedelic breakthroughs, perfectly fitting for a riverside tropical haunt or clandestine waterfall hideaway. Opener ‘Morning Glory’ sounds fittingly cathartic, with every new washed-out crash and smash serving Dubharp’s mission statement – to blend the propulsive and the meditative, achieving a contradictory mood.
Mallets, tabla and fingered guitar emerge from the mix in ‘Red Ether’ and ‘Dancing Wish’, the latter of which takes on a 2-steppers’ gait topped off with white noise propulsions so lush and spacious that they evoke thoughts of a rainforest grotto; like the sharp intake of breath we take upon diving into the humid water. Dubharp’s self-described “Ourobouros of infinite delay” makes itself known on the following tracks ‘Tundrastruck’ and ‘Lyra’s Ascent’, the latter of which samples Laraaji’s exquisitely melismatic zither escapades. Likewise, ‘Bamboo Cross’ features Lee “Scratch” Perry’s murmurations, blending them effortlessly with bright, cosmic synth and throw-off rhythms.
Blunted Breaks. The name alone evokes memories of rinsed compilations full of anonymous drum manglers pumped out in hotboxed cars. Bristol’s foremost junglist outpost Western Lore has struck the sweet spot between hardcore legitimacy and fresh ideas, and the second volume of their flagship compilation series feels as earnest and exciting as any amen-riddled variety pack dropping in the past 30 years.
There is of course plenty about the sound on Blunted Breaks Vol 2 which is studious and familiar – Drum.Mist and Western Lore junglist-in-chief Dead Man’s Chest face off on ‘Higher’ with one of those haunting vocal licks which evokes the otherworldliness jungle presented to the world when it took shape. Law smartly balances Good Looking-ready atmospherics with rugged drum chops, harking back to when aqueous pads and keys were offset with the ruffest breaks.
But overall, the assembled crew lean forward without losing sight of jungle culture. Sonic throws a shroud of dub techno over submerged rhythms, while Dtch presents a fractured, half-step approach underpinned by a mean monosynth bass pulse. Perhaps the crowning glory on the comp, Double O’s ‘God Is A Woman’ mixes ascendant musicality and advanced drum science with Sheba Q’s meditative vocal, creating something that feels classic and yet wholly unfamiliar.
Various – Oz Echoes: DIY Cassettes & Archives (Efficient Space Australia)
Delightful oddities label Efficient Space – based in Australia – has delivered somewhat of a magnum opus this week. The follow-up to their stellar 2017 ‘Oz Waves’ compilation, ‘Oz Echoes’ now appears, once again focusing on ‘80s Australia’s DIY “hive mind”, but this time focusing more specifically on the country’s underground cassettes, radio archives and studio sessions. Featuring the work of completely unknown musicians, each track has liner notes with rarely published archival visions and artwork courtesy of Video Synth.
Curated by ES head honcho and visual designer Steele Bonus, it’s chock full of retro gemmery. Standouts include Mr. Knott’s ‘Poor Galileo (He Has Gone Mad)’ – a beautiful psych-funk disco freakout – and Height/Dismay’s ‘Mother’s Footsteps’ – an ethereal military band march; both names are different aliases of the same musician, the prolific Patrick Gibson of M Squared and Scattered Order fame. Jittery, fairie-like electro territory is straddled on Shanghau Au Go-Go’s ‘I Cried All Winder’, sounding like – well, being – an ‘80s precursor to an AFX Analord jam, but with a more mournful mood. Our favourite track is Modern Jazz’ ‘Zoom Dub’, a 5-minute slice of existential cold synth. In all, this is a gorgeously tape-smeared compendium of ‘Strayan nostalgia.
Prequel – Love Or (I Heard You Like Heartbreak) (Rhythm Section Intl)
The house music that sticks out as ‘special’ always achieves a certain depth, not heard on your typical bass-drums-vocals-tops formula.
That’s exactly what Prequel has achieved with his new album on Rhythm Section, capable of reigniting a strong love for the genre in anyone who has fallen out of it. It being a multifaceted take on the many aspects of love, Prequel takes on a considered, many-layered approach to sample-based music, achieving a deep – bottomless – mood, without succumbing to excessive high end or complication.
The exposition, ‘When Love Is New’, blends a tinny vocal sample with rapturous strings, demonstrating Prequel’s ability to meld unlikely sample combinations. Then, paired against effortlessly made interlude tracks like ‘I Need Your Love’ ‘Love Is Love’ – which are like broken transmissions from a perfect universe where love is simple and without pain – come anthems for jazzy, blue heartbreak. One such anthem is ‘Unaware Of Love’, which occurs on the latter half and captures that feel of blissful ignorance with infectious, looping piano reverberations and rattlesnakey percussion. Some tracks are grating and chromatic, like love’s complicated side (‘When Love Is New’), while others are wobbly and whirling, like love’s tendency to flutter in the stomach without warning (‘Love Is’). A stunning return from the Melbourne native.
Cathal Coughlan – Song of Co-Alkan (Dimple Discs)
For the uninitiated, Cathal Coughlan was the face of two revered acts, deviant pop heroes Microdisney in the 80s and the heavier, more blatantly confrontational Fatima Mansions in the 90s, before pursuing a fruitful, if perhaps slightly less attention grabbing, solo career ever since. Arguably propelled back into the spotlight somewhat by Microdisney’s recent, brief but highly celebrated reunion for just two shows, Coughlan’s seventh album alone ‘Song of Co-Acklan’ is as full of biting commentary and evocative, nightmarish poetry as anything he’s ever done. Oh, and grim humour too, like the title track’s hilarious portrait of the world working on, arranging Zoom meetings and checking its status, as society collapses around it.
‘Owl In The Parlour’, with its jerky 3/4 rhythm, revisits to the familiar subject of the British Empire’s still hovering ghost to great effect. Elsewhere there are more personal, less overtly political moments, like ‘The Copper Beech’, almost Nick Cave-like in its stumbling gait, followed immediately by the bouncy Northern Soul-influenced ‘The Knockout Artist’, the only constant being Coughlan conjuring images with his words that either chill to the bone or raise a dark laugh. He’s not lost an ounce of his edge, that’s for sure, and in these weird and less than wonderful times we need him more than ever.
This week’s reviewers: Mathew D Watkin, Martin Hewitt, Matthew D Watkin, Oli Warwick, Jude Iago James, Ben Willmott