Jay Som – Everybody Works (2017) – B+
Starts off just fine, with “Lipstick Stains” drifting in and out of focus; washes of acoustic guitar and horns providing ballast to Melina Duterte’s scene-setting sentiment, the word “stains” contrasting with “smile.” Then the album kicks off with what remains my most listened to song of the year so far. I can’t properly articulate just how much the softly-sung “Take your time” does to me; how “Feel like a firefighter when I take off your shoes” and “My sister knows / She says that ghosts are real” evokes nostalgia in me for memories that I didn’t think I held on to. But I can articulate the other stuff, how the instruments come alive to Duterte threatening to cut through the knots, or the effectiveness of the stop-starts throughout. I can articulate how indelible the tune in the choruses are to how the instruments cycle such that the bass-line is the main momentum of the second verse. Or, I can articulate how the boys yelling in cheerleader fashion “BUT I LIKE THE BUS” remains one of the best musical moments of the year, or how “Why don’t we take the bus? / You say you don’t like the smell” recalls Ricky Roma’s fantastic speech in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, or the sentiment that Duterte enjoys public transit because “I can be whoever I want to be.” Unpretentious and thoroughly enjoyable indie pop/rock; expertly crafted. Nothing on the album comes close to it, even though there are moments: the vulnerable way she sings the vulnerable lyric, “There’s nothing up my sleeves”, on “Remain”; the guitar solo of 1990s love letter, “1 Billion Dogs,” before eventually settling in the bounce of the main hook. But her weltschmerz and the homey bedroom aesthetic makes telling some of these songs apart from others difficult, even after dozens of playthroughs. This is true, even if “One More Time, Please” incorporates the light funk of a scratch guitar or “For Light” slowly canoes towards its climax. I’ll give her this much: she probably tricked a few people into thinking this was a full band experience even though, excepting some vocals, she composed, performed and produced the entire thing by herself. She certainly tricked me.
Laura Marling – Semper Femina (2017) – B-
I feel mean picking on an album where obviously a lot of care has been put into every song, every lyric, as every Laura Marling album really, but methinks her consistency wears especially thin on this one because the average song length is noticeably – and undeservedly – longer than any preceding album. Plus, I could have done without that unintentionally cheesy keyboard tone from “Wild Fire.” Of course, she’s still got her voice (the way she arches her voice on “Always This Way,” the prettiest of the new set) and her notepad (the second verse of “Wild Fire” especially, though she seems needlessly angry to what seems like an innocent thought, “You always say you love me most / When I don’t know I’m being seen”); her orchestra and her guitar (“Wild Once,” where her accent is in full force so she can more plainly deliver the key lines). There are a few surprises: the odd choices of percussion on “Wild Fire” and “Don’t Pass Me By”, and what sounds like an electric guitar roar boiled down to a single blast as the driving mechanism “Nothing, Not Nearly” (that’s honestly a bit distracting but pays off once the song develops). And the opener, which took me by surprise; despite the title, one of the most un-soothing songs in her discography. Set in a haunted attic, Laura Marling paints pictures of “some creepy conjurer … whose hands are in the door” as the bass (or is two?) slowly creeps around while a cobwebbed metronome clicks methodically back and forth. After the first chorus (evoking a brooding God over rising strings), a musical box plays quietly in the background, segueing into the next verse. Other than her unmistakable voice, “Soothing” sounds nothing like anything else in her discography, Semper Femina included.
Grouper – Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill (2008) – B
I’ve heard this record some dozens of times because (1) I’d like to be able to list at least 10 records that I love from 2008*, which has proved incredibly difficult and (2) “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” is a consummate piece of work. I’ve heard this in the shower, I’ve heard it stoned (probably how you’re supposed to hear it, which is problematic), I’ve heard it lying down in bed without a single other thought in my head and just now, heard it individually at my desk while waiting for work to come. (And plenty of other settings besides.) Excepting that song, there’s nothing here but the (easy) atmosphere of haze filling up the empty space of Liz Harris’ guitar and vocals (easy, as in, it’s not even a particularly evocative atmosphere – it doesn’t transport you anywhere, it just sounds hazy); most of it settles into the background and I dare anyone to actually focus on each individual song and tell me how they distinguish themselves. Vocally, there’s a small descending figure in “Stuck” that sounds like Elizabeth Fraser could be singing it but otherwise my heart shudders to think of how many people have compared this to Cocteau Twins, as if the musicianship were in the same ballpark. And the reason why “Heavy Water/I’d Rather Be Sleeping” rises above the rest because, well, her singing actually rises during the choruses! What a revelation! A ‘B’ for personal reasons, much lower if not.
1. Arthur Russell – Love Is Overtaking Me
2. Portishead – Third
3. Deerhunter – Microcastle / Weird Era Continued
4. Erykah Badu – New Amerykah Part One (4th World War)
5. The Roots – Rising Down
6. Parenthetical Girls – Entanglements