These New Puritans - Field of Reeds: This wonderful record was released pretty quietly last year, but I’m so glad it’s being reissued for college radio spins because it made my Top 10 list at year’s end. On Field of Reeds, weirdo art-rockers These New Puritans have pretty much removed “rock” from the equation entirely, replacing angsty shouts and guitar squall with sighing clarinet and mournful trumpet. The neoclassical sound on display here is highly reminiscent of Talk Talk’s masterpieces from the late 80’s and early 90’s (by the way, if you haven’t heard Spirit of Eden yet, please thank me after your spiritual reawakening), from the nearly unintelligible vocals to the ominous sense of space that pervades the album. Field of Reeds invites you to places that music doesn’t often venture to and then explores those settings in unconventional ways. This is often a quiet record, but don’t mistake it for easy listening or background music. “Fragment Two”, for instance, begins with a catchy piano hook that effortlessly skips between 3/4 and 4/4 time. The song veers between time signatures with a practiced unease as the song unspools itself; the arrangement feeds off its own dizzying energy, with motifs being passed from piano to violin, violin to French horn, French horn to voice. These tracks were clearly fussed over for an unimaginable period of time before being put to tape, as evidenced by the intricacy of the songwriting. Listening to a 30-second sample of this music is useless, as context is so essential to its power. There are no verses or choruses to latch on to here, only moments: the achingly beautiful horn harmonies on “This Guy’s in Love with You” (a wistful half-cover of the Herb Alpert tune), the thick, stagnant synth hovering over the outro of “V (Island Song)”, the surprisingly excellent kazoo (!) melody on the title track. I want to build a nest inside these moments. They stir up those well-worn feelings of joy, uncertainty, loneliness, and yearning in ways I’ve never heard before – and I’d like to think they help me understand the complexity of those emotions a bit better. TL;DR: Field of Reeds reminds me of why I love music so dearly. ZN
Recommended Tracks: "This Guy's in Love with You", "V (Island Song), "Fragment Two"
SOHN - Tremors: I was eager to review ‘Tremors’ because I thought I was getting my hands on something really interesting. While it doesn’t cease to intrigue from time to time, it certainly doesn’t captivate in the manner that I was expecting. Vienna based singer-songwriter/producer Christopher Taylor (aka SOHN) has amalgamated an array of stuttering beats, auto-tuned vocal loops, and ambient textures that struggle to find catharsis. It’s almost there—close to the surface but it doesn’t quite come up for air, missing the emotional release that would have been achieved if Taylor’s diverse blend of sounds were cogently brought together rather than swirl incoherently in an airy sonic sphere. My attention was grasped for about the first fourth of ‘Tremors,’ but then it quickly dissipated into the same monotonous, scattered structure of escalating arpeggios and modulated synth patterns. I didn’t really start paying attention again until the second to last track, the confessional ‘Lessons.’ It is also hard not to be reminded of James Blake when listening to ‘Tremors.’ Taylor’s production techniques, often polished and well thought out, are very comparable to Blake’s in that they both grasp an abstract form of indie/electronic R&B. Yet Blake seems to surpass Taylor when it comes to true authenticity. Blake’s vocal approach is extremely dynamic; his inflections can be both guttural and ethereal, densely baritone for one phrase and then glide up effortlessly to a weightless falsetto for the next. Taylor, while not exactly inadequate as a vocalist, does not however offer anything show stopping. Rather his voice, often times unmelodious, sort of just wavers in between triplet rhythms like a stranger pacing awkwardly through a crowd. Moreover, Blake has a much more rich and in depth understanding of music composition; while Blake’s songs set a mood, build, climax, and gracefully exit, SOHN’s feel as if they begin and end in the same place, like showing a film to an audience midway through or giving someone a half eaten candy bar. All criticism aside, there is no doubt that Christopher Taylor is talented. While probably not used to its full capacity, his voice is still listenable, his production still quality, and there are still a handful of imaginative warm spots. Just don’t go into it expecting the music to be as epic as the earth-porn on the album cover. JIMMY CLIFF
Recommended Tracks: "The Wheel", "Bloodflows", "Lessons"
Afghan Whigs - Do to the Beast: The Afghan Whigs are old. Like older-than-my-parents old. Sure, age brings musical maturity, and The Afghan Whigs have certainly matured since the release of their last record in the late nineties. However, I do not like listening to music that sounds like it was made for people of Mitt Romney’s generation, and “Do To The Beast” is that kind of music: soft alt rock sprinkled here and there with country flair that NPR totally digs (they did – you can Google their early review of the album). Many of the songs are unbelievably slow, mellow, and kind of depressing (namely “Lost in the Woods”, “Can Rova”, and “It Kills” that sounds like a song by The Fray). Another half of the album sound uncannily similar to music by Kings of Leon, especially “Royal Cream”, “These Sticks”, and “Parked Outside.” I cannot decide whether “The Lottery” sounds more like U2 or KOL, but I am not sure that it matters; for our purposes, we can agree that it is a hybrid of different middle-aged man music. “Matamoros” does not fit into either of the above two categories of condemnation, but the whiny guitar melody is just a little too cheesy for my taste. However, despite all this reproach, a couple songs are not that bad: “I Am Fire” has a cool, dominant drum melody, and “Algiers” sounds like it could be the soundtrack to a shootout in a Western film. Even “Parked Outside” is decent despite its unoriginality, but I would try out the other two (mentioned above) first. ASHLEY
Recommended Tracks: “Algiers”, “I Am Fire”, and “Parked Outside”
Teebs - E S T A R A : Four years after his debut LP on Brainfeeder, Teebs is back with E S T A R A, offering up 40 minutes of wistful, ambient tunes with some guest appearances including Jonti and Prefuse 73. I’ve got to say, the cover art (which I’m 99% sure Teebs created himself) is a great description of the auditory experience. Layers of sounds from live instruments and the digital world, crackling, birds chirping, vocal samples, and at the forefront, something pretty is always flourishing and drifting into my ears. “Holiday,” which features a vocal contribution from Stones Throw’s Jonti, is a lush, dreamy (I’ll have to refrain from re-using those words in describing other tracks) four minutes that sounds like a forest in spring, a light morning mist, wildflowers blooming. “SOTM” spends a minute and a half building a tender, nostalgic mood, until the beat comes in and it becomes a positively head-bobbing track, and as busy as the rhythm is, the sentimentality is preserved. “Piano Days” and “Piano Months” are, uh, piano-centric, and among the album’s most enjoyable moments. They float, echo, and show Teebs doing more with less. While E S T A R A is certainly a pleasant listen, some of the tracks are ultimately forgettable. The collaborative tracks are all consistent strong points, however, and gee willikers, I love Lars Horntveth’s bass clarinet at the end of “Wavxxes.” FRESH NICK
Recommended Tracks: "Hi Hat", "Piano Days", "Piano Months", "Wavxxes"