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The best new albums this week

Our choice selections from the week’s array of albums

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Dinosaur Jr – Sweep It Into Space (Jagjaguwar)
In a way, you don’t need this new album by the classic Dinosaur Jr line-up of J, Lou and Murph, their twelfth overall and fifth of their comeback albums, following on from 2016’s Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not. Chances are, you own a handful very much like it, awash with radioactive fuzz, spiralling solos, and those gloriously laconic vocals. But that’s what makes this record all the sweeter. You don’t need it, but you’d like to have it nevertheless. It’s an indulgence, a treat, a luxury.

A fifth of the way through the new century, with a genuinely life-changing historic event under our belts, we have the emergence of a new breed of band. Following on from the Buzz Bands, those sun-dappled, blog-powered sideshows of the early Noughties, and the Legacy Bands, those time-rich, mortgage-heavy eternal survivors of the Tens and onwards, we now have the latest evolution of the Legacy Band – the Luxury Band. You already own and cherish their greatest records. You don’t expect any artistic progression from their new release. But even so it feels good that they’re still having a crack at it, not just bashing out the greatest hits sets on what we hope is left of the festival circuit. They’re music as feelgood, music as comfort.

And what a comfort an unfettered, amp-melting blast of prime, don’t-fix-it-if-it-ain’t-broke Dinosaur Jr is. As the warm cloudburst of distortion breaks in exactly the way it always has, the bass and drums take up their familiar positions, and J manages to sigh and soar and exhale and light up in the way that only he can, a huge, overwhelming sense of everything finally being as it should be floods through you. Remember all those hugs you haven’t been losing yourself in for the last year or so? Well, J Mascis’s guitar is here to make up for lost time, throwing itself around you and confirming the suspicion that it takes more than four walls and family to feel truly at home. You need the kind of friendship that picks back up without missing a beat.

It helps that the songs are as good as ever, of course. Single ‘I Ran Away’, bolstered by the twelve-string of producer Kurt Vile, is a joyous, brightly coloured breeze, centring around a chorus – “I ran away/I gave it up today” – that somehow manages to make defeat sound like utter flag-waving triumph. ‘And Me’ surges forward with an optimism that feels like glucose powering through your bloodstream, and when J’s solo lets rip precisely where it should and goes precisely where you want it to, the response is Pavlovian. ‘Hide Another Round’ and ‘I Met The Stones’ are harder edged – they crunch rather than glide – but they never lose the pop core that’s always propelled the best Dinosaur Jr moments.

There’s also a lyrical tone that feels pertinent for an album that’s being released just as lockdown is easing. From “I ain’t getting along” in opener ‘I Ain’t’ and “I got excited/I got depressed” in ‘I Met The Stones’, to “Trying to get back/Trying to get free” in ‘To Be Waiting’, to “Everybody’s living through it/Must admit I get into it” and “Look into my eyes/We’ll survive” in ‘Garden’, through to “Rolling back the fear” in ‘N Say’, and “Back on track and upside down” in ‘And Me’, it sounds like Dinosaur Jr have had a year we can all recognise. Even if these songs were written before All This, they’re striking a chord right now, and that’s what counts.

And for a certain fan, the greatest luxury. ‘Garden’, written and sung by Lou Barlow, showcases the soft, sweet magnificence of this most precious of songwriters, and album closer, ‘You Wonder’, written by J and sung by Lou, could be a lost Elliott Smith gem, Lou breathing out tender truths while – here it comes – J’s guitar takes off – 3-2-1 – right on time. An album of business-as-usual Dinosaur Jr, then, unbroken and unbowed, with two blissful vocal turns from Lou, that sounds exactly how you need it to. A luxury. But a luxury that right now we can’t live without.

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Nadia Struiwigh – Pax Aurora (Nous’klaer Audio)
When Nadia Struiwigh first appeared on the wider radar with her Lenticular album on CPU in 2017, she presented a vision of electro that reached beyond the restrictions of the genre into more expressive, psychedelic realms. By the time she released a follow-up, WHRRu, on Denovali a year later, she was already moving further away from forthright structures into a more ambient realm. In the past couple of years, the Dutch-born producer has moved to the other side of the world, now settled in Sydney and fully immersed in a blossoming online platform where she fuses in-depth production and performance chat with live and DJ sets from herself and other kindred spirits.

In the midst of a flurry of activity, Struiwigh’s new album finds her partnering with Nous’klaer Audio, one of the strongest beacons for Dutch talent at present. Keeping company with the likes of upsammy, Konduku and Oceanic, she’s in a logically open-ended space for her music on the Rotterdam label. Following the Ooso 12”, which found her touching on spiky yet atmospheric electronica a la early Autechre, Struiwigh reveals what might be her most stylistically focused release yet.

Pax Aurora feels utterly clear-sighted in its intentions, residing in a purely ambient setting and guided from piece to piece by the gentle swell of inspiration. This is the kind of richly layered, synth-led ambient you might well associate with the early 90s electronica scene, but there’s also an orchestral, high-definition finish to the sound which is certainly not retro, lo-fi or throwback in anyway. Rather, Struiwigh paints with broad, sweeping gestures from a full spectrum of tools, balancing glacial drone pads with pealing leads, teasing in simple phrases which define the pieces or subtly shifting the energy of a piece through texture and modulation alone. All these qualities can be felt throughout, but no more so than on the gorgeous, dappled sunlight of ‘Einaudi’. We may not be short of ambient electronica these days, but Pax Aurora is a cut above in every way.

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Satomimagae – Hanazono (Rvng Intl)
Travelling on a continued trajectory into an infallibly pretty hinterland of delicate repose, Rvng Intl usher us into the enclosed, intimate world of Satomimagae. The Tokyo-based musician has previously recorded and released a string of albums and EPs over the years, operating with a certain unhurried pace which reflects her glacial music – a quiet folk with subtly masked depths marked out by spatial processing and errant textures.

There has certainly been a healthy uptick in fragile but free-thinking folk music in recent times, and Satomimagae’s simple vocal and guitar formation feels like a comfortable companion to artists like Above The Tree, Brannten Schnüre and Sessa. Reaching further back you might detect echoes of Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs – pinnacles of alternative, psych-tinged folk. But even by their standards, Hanazono feels particularly slight. There’s a constant grainy sonic draped over the album – whether it’s the by-product of lo-fi means or a purposeful gauze of noise hardly matters. The point is, it gives the record a spectral quality which only strengthens via the hushed, nearly-whispered sound of Satomimagae’s voice.

Given the emphasis on atmosphere and texture, you might be thinking this is one of those formless ambient folk experiments which meanders without restriction, but in fact each song is wholly formed in a traditional sense. At times Satomimagae sings in English, at others in Japan, and she allows room for pronounced guitar parts where she positively sings through the instrument and uses her hums as a backing tone. There’s a certain sadness lurking behind ‘Houkou’, but it’s not immune from attaining a fierceness at its climax. For all the vulnerability Satomimagae implies in her style, the songs themselves are so bare as to betray even the slightest accent in delivery, affording her voice and playing great power as each song unfurls.

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Ambulance vs Ambulance – Industrial Country (Drowned By Locals)
In a pairing that spells trouble before a note has been played, Ambulance vs Ambulance sees Bristol-based miscreants Robin Stewart (of Giant Swan fame) and Jeffrey-Lee Hearse (from the Bokeh Versions firmament) team up to indulge their deep south fantasies way out west. Recorded between bucolic spots and sealed with a bloody kiss across the socially distanced wastes, it’s a journey across the wide and desolate expanses beyond the one-horse town of leftfield artistry both artists drown their sorrows in. How fitting it should appear on Drowned By Locals, a promising label doing strange things out of Amman in Jordan.

The striving for space is palpable across Industrial Country, spelt out by tortured, dissonant drones which provide ample backdrop for the other dislocated threads of sound inhabiting this collision of emergency vehicles. From schlocky B-movie cowboy croon to Laith’s distorted Arabic incantations, broken guitar twang to eerily upfront harmonica, listening to this album feels like stumbling in on a very private séance between two people who don’t even remember who they’re trying to reach on the other side. Yet within the murk and weirdness, there are tangible moments of cracked beauty and lonesome country heartache too. Like all the best outsider art, Stewart and Hearse leave just enough rope to keep you hanging on as you get dragged through the dust.

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Dame Area – Ondas Tribales (Mannequin)
Usually experimenting with the Industrial side of electronic music, Dame Area’s newest release comes with a seal of approval from Mannequin Records. Compared to many within the darkwave synth scene, this effort by the Barcelona duo Dame Area is interlaced with heavy drum beats and tribal bass with much less synth than expected in this particular record. With lyrics in Spanish and Italian, the duo keep listeners attention throughout the record and keep the pace steady with this dark groovy effort. Starting off with a grinding but harmonious opening track ‘Scopri Le Tue Passioni’, Dame Area are looking to drill their fluctuating beats into the minds, and legs, of their fanbase only to lead them to the dance floor and keep them there.

As the record progresses on, expect much harsher and melodic sounds to emerge from this mostly drum based production courtesy of Victor Hurtado. In comparison to their previous works, there is a firmer Latin influenced tribal flow within this record, with minimal synth melodies leading in the background which are only complimented by the sometimes screaming and spoken word style vocals from Sylvia Konstance Costan. This sounds much murkier than expected, but a captivating listening experience from start to finish.

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Jimmy Batt – Retrospection (Opia)
Apparently, Jimmy Batt’s intention was to take listeners all the way back to the 90’s with this powerful nostalgic rave record. Though slightly updated with a modern twist, it’s quite the masterclass in production and comparative styles. Blending heavy bass, calculated notes and tones and lots and lots of synth instruction, Batt’s record can easily find a place even in new fans collections, and his already strong fanbase. Going from strength to strength, each track has its own synth elements weaving through the record creating different listening experiences for each track.

Leaving no stone unturned, this particular effort has a collaborative mix with DMX Krew which suits Batt’s technique throughout and compliments the record. Already known for their nu-wave synth electronics, the DMX Krew remix of ‘Inception’ works well considering their similar styles and delivering a solid track for this nostalgic effort. Taking it back to the 90’s dance floor, Batt continues his effort strongly and keeps taking his listeners on a journey of rave music, building on to make every track better than the last and encouraging to keep the groove continuing on til the end. This is an all round solid creation, that will leave the record spinning without skipping a track.

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Cal Fish – Plastic Flag (Fire Talk)
Multi-disciplinary – or, as is self-described – non-disciplinary artist Cal Fish explores a dastardly but lovable intersection between tape loops, live vocals, and sculpture. This week Cal releases ‘Plastic Flag’, a musical compendium tracking and accompanying the making of Fish’s homemade ‘plastic flags’, which are essentially shareable plastic polybags aiding Cal’s various performances throughout the Brooklyn indie scene.

Piecing together both loops lifted from cassette tapes and beats made on an iPad, ‘Plastic Flag’ is an enjoyable flurry of neo-psychedelia and detuned, new wave weirdness. As much is conveyed on the opener ‘Feather’, which hears Cal unsettlingly croon over slapping drum machine beats and sunnily off-key ambiences, a trend which continues into the following track ‘Kids who Love the Earth’. Tapey distortion becomes characteristic of the album, with overloaded 909s and lazily blissful guitars overloading mixes, as on ‘The Treadmill of Destruction’, which hears Cal and backing singer Lucia Arias double up in unison. Weird interludes abound; ‘Flutez Kafkaa’ sounds like the back-end of a folky hive mind’s Boltzmann brain, revealing strong influences from Arthur Russell and Sun Araw. Cal sings cryptically of bureaucrats and poisoned ecosytems, lending quizzical charm to a jaunty portrayal of the artist’s regular performing, teaching and sculpting. The softer, slower moments – ‘No List’, ‘Too Many Cars’ – likewise reveal a shoegaze influence, but the heatstroking mood is tinged with brown rather than awash in traditional MBV pastel. With the disco dyamics and demo-quality buzz, Fish has manifested a gem.

This week’s reviewers: Ian Watson, Ava Yusuf, Oli Warwick, Jude Iago James.