Julia Brown is the home recording project of Maryland-based songwriter Sam Ray, who recorded a quaint little mini-album called To Be Close to You “at various peoples houses over a long period of time.” The album was released to tape back in February, and its DIY recording techniques are apparent throughout the album’s 16 minutes. Atop the perpetual hiss and occasional chatter are eight gorgeously constructed slices of lo-fi bedroom pop with a diverse range of acoustic instrumentation. Yet it’s Ray’s propensity for brooding, meticulously crafted pop songs that makes the album so alluring. “Library” — with its gleaming guitar picks and morose string arrangements — recalls Phil Elverum or Elliott Smith at their most buoyantly endearing. And no matter how dense the melancholy, it’s one of the more pleasant things to emerge from a four-track recorder that you’re bound to hear all year.
Any song in which Jenn Wasner sings automatically assumes the character of her voice. The Baltimore native’s silk-laden vocals have been featured generously over the last few years: everything from her own Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes projects to collaborations with Titus Andronicus and Sharon Van Etten, among others. Which is to say that pipes like hers are justifiably in high demand, resulting in a resume of material as unique as anyone working today. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that her latest work — along with fellow Baltimorean Jon Ehrens under the Dungeonesse moniker — is yet another venture into unforeseen stylistic territory.
The duo’s self-titled album — out today — is an infectious foray into synth-driven pop and modernized R&B. It’s especially striking given the earthy soundscapes of Wasner’s prior work, yet she sounds so at home as a crooning diva that you’d have thought she’d been writing these types of songs for years. Of the album’s many standouts, “Drive You Crazy” is especially infectious, with a rollicking electro-beat and whirling synthesizers that recall the kind of Balearic pop that’s been dominating blog-waves in recent years. Yet, appropriately, it’s Wasner’s voice — and her modern pop-influenced vocal inflection — that carries the song into irresistible anthem territory.
From Dungeonesse; Out now via Secretly Canadian.
There are basically two paths you can take Friday at NMF: ear-splitting punk or trance-inducing electronica. I’ll probably find myself running back and forth during sets, as there’s no shortage of difficult decisions to make (a festival staple). Like Thursday, it’s a day heavy on the local scene, though there are some intriguing national (and international) acts worthy of your time as well. I was able to narrow it down to 16, which was an accomplishment in and of itself. If you’re able to catch all of these (and I’m going to try), I’ll buy you a beer.
Since its inaugural event in 2008, Norman Music Festival has been – for me, at least – the quaint little college town’s rite of spring. Its downtown premises have hosted an endearing mix of old fogies and college-aged hipsters for six years running now, and the fest has grown from a single-day celebration to a three-day exposé of talent from the Sooner State and beyond, featuring such headlining acts as of Montreal, Dirty Projectors and The Walkmen. Even with a bevy of talented musicians each year, NMF’s organizers somehow manage to keep this thing free (which means more money for booze — I mean, records and merch), so for that, let us rejoice.
We kick things off on Thursday again, and music-wise, it’s pretty stacked. Almost all of the bands playing come from within the confines of Oklahoma, but there are some heavy-hitting locals – and even some under-the-radar bands on the verge of breaking out that are sure to please. So to make things a little easier, I’ve selected the acts I’m most looking forward to Thursday – a mock schedule of sorts – and compiled them into a chronological playlist for your reference/listening pleasure. You can check out the full lineup here and explore Thursday’s NMF primer after the jump. Oh, and make sure to keep an eye out for Friday and Saturday’s picks in the coming days as well. See you there, dudes and dudettes.
It’s a shame – a damn shame, even – but for whatever reason, Mikal Cronin has been living in the shadow of his axe-shredding bandmate Ty Segall since the latter stormed onto the scene a couple years ago. While Segall has consistently and forcefully established himself as one of garage rock’s most revered defenders, Cronin has quietly produced some of the most superbly crafted music within the genre. The two have their distinctions, sure: Segall’s songs are relentlessly scuzzy, as he often buries his hooks deep beneath a barrage of feedback and distortion. Cronin, meanwhile, has such a knack for 60s bubblegum pop that his melodies often tame the guitar, rather than the other way around.
“Weight” is unabashedly melodic and absorbing, and finds Cronin singing about “the weight” from the perspective of an aging adolescent wearily lamenting the prospect of adulthood. But what makes this arguably his most compelling and infectious song to date is the way in which he playfully juxtaposes between fuzzy riffs and sugary power-pop – something he’s done routinely in his prior work, but exceedingly well in this instance. If nothing else, “Weight” ought to serve as a warning to unsuspecting listeners: the man is a force in his own right.
From MCII; Out May 7th via Merge.
The video for Phosphorescent’s superbly lavish “Song for Zula” unfolds in a manner similar to that of the song itself: the camera, transfixed on an individual – in this case, a woman – glides at a placid, yet deliberate pace along its earthy foundation. Filmed in only a single elongated shot, we gradually come to realize this woman’s struggle to be free from the chains that bound her, each strike of a rock emitting a vivid burst of light. And as the camera inches closer, the torment on her face becomes more apparent, the metaphor more discernible and the struggle more absorbing. This imagery, coupled with the words of Matthew Houck – who co-directed the video – suddenly makes phrases like “I saw love disfigure me” and “I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free” all the more affecting.
From Muchacho; Out now via Dead Oceans.
Coco Beware, Caveman’s mesmeric 2011 debut, was an exercise in slow-burning melodrama, each cut warping and warbling along through textured harmonic layers. Though, for the most part, the album was largely muted and understated, opting for hushed intricacy over big, sweeping choruses. “In the City” – the stellar lead single from the band’s forthcoming self-titled follow-up – takes this notion and shoots it through a confetti cannon filled with molten platinum. From its opening notes, a towering synth assumes the forefront, serving as its bruised metallic backbone. Meanwhile, reverberating guitar noodles and a flurry of “oohs” and “ahhs” mount atop this synthetic glow, as singer Matthew Iwanusa yelps through discharge with relentlessly impassioned melody. It all amounts to a soul-churning, yet deeply enthralling listen. And in an album filled to the brim with standouts – many of which display a familiar, albeit more refined sense of muffled grandeur – “In the City” is perhaps the most distinguished output from a band of remarkable ability; one that refuses to rub it in, no matter how great the temptation.
A couple months back, Sigur Rós hinted that their new material was more “aggressive” than anything they’d done. Granted, the glacial soundscapes that came to define the band in the early 2000s were hardly adrenaline-fueled, having routinely demonstrated a propensity for the dainty and fragile. It was part of what made them so great; Sigur Rós did (and still do) “pretty” better than anyone else. But it was the louder moments, the moments of brooding catharsis, that benefitted most from the more ambient passages (side two of ( ) comes to mind).
“Brennisteinn” is the band’s answer to those who said Valtari — which I happened to love — was too quiet. The song is unabashedly sinister in its approach: a scuzzy bass stab warbles like a cog in an underlord’s factory, while their signature bowed guitar adds layers of metallic sheen to emphasize the industrial flair. Yet despite its confrontational stature, there still resides beauty beneath all the chaos — and that’s a good thing, because it just wouldn’t feel right if it didn’t.
From Kveikur; out June 17th via XL.