Browsing Category New Albums

Grace Cummings

The debut LP from Australian songwriter Grace Cummings snuck out last month and maybe it’s the end of year crush of content, but this one should be kicking up more dust. Cummings’ voice is raw, rankled, and electric – packed full with notes of stripped pine, floral gin, defiance and defeat. It’s no surprise that she’s come to the attention of her label with a cover of Bob Dylan. Her voice falls into that same ineffable, indefinable valley as his own, the kind of voice that divides a room but brings a community together in the right corners of culture. Now, if she were just to possess a voice on par with past idols like Dylan, Buckley, and Van Ronk, that would be notable but not necessarily transformative. Good thing then that she’s also a songwriter of the highest order and that makes Refuge Cove one of the year’s secret gems.

For a debut this hits incredibly hard, a record wrought with rifts as Cummings’ world seemingly dissolves around her in strands of celluloid. Feelings don’t slide in subtly on the record, rather they tear recklessly at Grace’s soul and in turn she exhumes the ghost of grief and glory and sets it to tape. There have been great records that gutted lately, but it’s been a while since one has set the humors on fire like this has. Grace’s songs can be felt traveling through the nerves, alchemically transmuting sorrow and sin to exhaustion in an incredible act of catharsis. The only sad capper on this is that the label (Flightless) only pressed this in an edition of 500 and they’re seemingly gone in a snap. Hopefully this one will return to the fold, though digitally it still delivers. Still some of the year’s best coming out, so don’t let the lists fool ya.




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Donovan Quinn

Like a star on the horizon, Soft Abuse comes creeping in with some essential late 2019 releases, including the fourth solo album from Donovan Quinn. The California songwriter has been a longtime fixture on RSTB, having anchored Skygreen Leopards, New Bums, and Verdure in the past. His albums are few and far between, bucking a trend of so many lately to work feverishly to amass a catalog that could cripple shelves and wallets alike. Quinn’s measured pace always pays off with songs that constantly recontextualize the past into something undeniably new — like beams of a barn brought to new life in new construction. The ghosts of those beams remain ever present and they seep out slowly into the room to mix with the mites and stir up the senses.

The songs on Absolom are even more haunted than most of Quinn’s works, having evolved from an idea to build songs around the lore of other artists. Ultimately that idea was set aside, but there’s still a feeling of these songs having been lived in, lyrically or otherwise by the ethers and embers of the past. On the long, winding highlight “Satanic Summer Nights” Quinn conjures Nikki Sudden with an ear towards ambitious boundaries. Its Sudden rewriting the The Pretty Things’ Parachute for a new age. Elsewhere Quinn’s tales are rife with loss, haunted not only by his heroes but by feelings just out of reach. He saunters through the rooms, touching each stick of furniture and mourning the dust as much as the lack of inhabitants that let it settle.

On Absalom Quinn’s assembled a rotating cast of performers from his circle but their contributions are just paints in his set. There’s rarely been a record that has more of Quinn’s mark on it. His voice is embedded in the grain of the guitars, the worn spots on the piano keys, the magnetic fields on the tape. Whether or not these tales are his, he’s embodied them with his whole and its an undeniable record, one that stands high in an enviable catalog. Its late in the year, which makes me think that a lot of ears have shut themselves tight, but I hope this one reverberates across the cold air and into the hearts that need it.



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Enhet för Fri Musik

Even with the global connective tissue tightening daily in realms of music, its still hard to ferret out some of the best bits from across the globe. Times like these I’m glad that outposts like Grapefruit are looking out for me. In 2017 the LP, Det Finns Ett Hjärta Som För Dig was issued on Omlott, a label run by members of Enhet för Fri Musik and let quietly out into the arms of collectors of psychedelic folk and freeform ephemera. The band’s issued a few others in 2015, but this record shines as a jewel in their catalog. The record seeks to dig into the pastoral folk of their forebears, capturing the winds in their strings like Pärson Sound, Trad Gras Och Stenar, and International Harvester before them. The record is psychedelic in an organic way, not relying on effects or pastiche, but rather rooting itself in the experimental impulses of noise and free folk, spoken word, and concrete ideals. Its not reaching for acceptance, but digging for art in the frostbitten grounds of their homeland — a bracing, barren, yet homespun record.

The band and the accompanying labels run by their members, Förlag För Fri Musik and Omlott, remind me of their Finnish counterparts in Fonal records, a tight-knit collective that pulls light out of frayed and fractured ends of the musical spectrum. The record captures the spirit of a few of their alumni as well, with the intimacy of Islaja coming through alongside the inventive experimentalism of Kemialliset Ystävät and Paavoharju. The band includes members of higher profile Swedes in the mix (Neutral, Makthaverskan, Arv & Miljö, and Blod) but they don’t bleed over too much with these tributaries, giving the record something of a sacred harbor. While there are certainly elements of Neutral’s starkness, the band seems to create its own world nestled among the whispers of the fields. Grapefruit are certainly right that this was a gem that was lost on many on its release and as such the new issue is a welcome addition to a wider Western audience this year. As I sit locked in ice for the last couple of days, the discomfiting warmth of this record has been appreciated. Its like an itchy sweater, just enough comfort to stave off the cold, just enough irritation to keep you from becoming complacent on the couch.



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Hurt Valley

The debut from Brian Collins arrives faded by the sun, a worn-in world of late afternoon shuffle that’s just a bit hazy from the full-bore UV-bake of 3pm rays. The album feels West Coast in a very real and tangible way. There’s no rush, no urgent angle to the songs. From needle in to needle out the record breezes through the air just below the threshold of sweat. The guitars twang just right — a touch of bend on the strings, a whisper of slide. The record feels like it was made for the moment and just happened to get caught up on the tape like a private press session from from the late ‘70s – a touch out of time and even more so once its locked in the time-capsule for a few more decades. When it emerges, though, the air is still rarefied and warm. The streaks from the blinds have imprinted themselves on each note and the private becomes parcel to the masses once more. Out of time becomes timeless and we’re all the better for it.

Like so many before him, Collins trades in melancholy and he wields it well. Between the soft rambles and mournful slides, Hurt Valley lives up to its name, weaving tales of humility, loss, and regret. The album closes with Collins’ musing on building worlds out of lies and holding tight to their boundaries. It’s a beautiful send off for the album, itself an ode to those same “immaterial worlds.” Late year releases have a way of getting lost, but Hurt Valley seems like it might search out that status even if we weren’t careening into December. My advice is to hold onto this one and not let it slip away into the sun. Squint hard and you’ll find the thread. Pull it and you’ll be led into the Valley for a good bask in the sun.




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WOW

Still sopping up some of those releases that fell between the cracks of 2019 and this gem from Italy’s Maple Death hits nicely on a winter Friday. The record doesn’t rush, rooted in the kind of slinky, candle-lit club vibe that’s somewhere between art-house cinema and tragic jazz chanteuse-ism. There’s something of a lost soundtrack vibe as connective tissue on the tracks that span Come La Notte, a narrative that feels riddled with foul luck and lost love. The band creeps into each track with a careful cool, never breaking stride, never working at more than a sultry saunter. Even when the tempo tips towards acceleration as on “Morire Per Amore,” or “Occhi Di Serpente” the band still rides the rhythms with a detached air, calm as killers letting smoke curl around their heads as they aim the wheel, weapon, or gaze at their desired target.

The band is the very definition of buttoned down, aloof, each song is an icy experience that keeps the listener at arms length while also wrapping them in their own imaginary tale. There’s an overhang of Italian cinema at the heart of the record — punk but buy way of Morricone, Alessandroni, or Stelvio Cipriani. Recommended for the mental traveller or soul searcher looking for escapism with a side of quiet cool.



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James Matthew VII

There’s been a wealth of psychedelic country flooding the speakers of late, and I for one couldn’t be happier. Adding to this year’s patch of low-valley shimmer is Canadian songwriter James Matthew (De Long) VII. A longtime studio vet and songwriter, he’d originally found his way to the front of the fray with fellow punk tuned pop magnate Ben Cook in No Warning before the pair went on to softer shores with Marvelous Darlings. From there he found himself subsumed into the session life contributing to Tina Turner and Bone Thugs n’ Harmony records all while still popping up on Canada’s finest (Young Guv, Yacht Club, Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn LPs). All sounds like the perfect setup for an alt-country comedown, eh? Well, maybe. After branding himself Blind Matty he shifted to the slide-swapped shimmer of country for Burger Records, eventually dropping the moniker in favor of a tag closer to the name on his government issue.

His debut LP for Canadian powerhouse of psychedelic ephemera Idée Fixe Records sees him crystallize his vision for twang-tinted ramble. The record pulls at classic psych-country touches handed down from Flying Burritos, Country Funk and Mighty Baby while tumbling headlong into the cloud of smoke that surrounds latter day saints like Beachwood Sparks. De Long makes good on his twenty-odd years behind the strings for others, pulling in guest spots here from an enviable gathering of talent – Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Bob Dylan), Daddy Long Legs, Bill Cutler (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir), John Catfish (Psychic Ills, Nude Party), Sean Dean (The Sadies), and Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn (U.S. Girls, MV&EE). The stacked bench pays off with songs that feel lived-in and natural, heartbreaking and melancholy. The record pulls off the heat-shimmer psychedelia bouncing off the blacktop while still feeling like a leathered country classic that could easily stand another twenty years and sound timeless. This is yet another release swooping in at the tail end of 2019, so don’t let the rush to quantify the last eleven months overshadow one of the years’ best.



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Dhidalah

Back in 2017 Tokyo power trio Dhidalah signed up with GuruGuru Brain and cut a crusher of an EP. Two sides, one song per side and each one a heavy amalgam of space rock and psych with some German Progressive overtones. It was a perfect little pocket universe that dangled the promise of more to come. The band and label seemed a perfect fit and it lit the fuse of expectation. Two years later, seemingly out of thin air the band touches down their debut LP with a whiff of ozone and engine oil. The record, like that EP is packed with lengthy cuts, fleshing this out to four heatseekers, besting the EP’s pervious two side-long kickers. The feelings remain the same from those early days with the air around the record is dense and acrid, swirling with noxious gases like something out of a mockup from ‘70s sci-fi pulp covers. The band eases into the scene with the cosmic creep of “Neuer Typ” before kicking the afterburners into high through the scorch-skidded “Adamski.”

They toggle back and forth between the creosote char of amplifier fry and the Zen of sensory deprivation hallucinations. While the heady excursions into the ether bring solace, their sunburn blasts are lethal and might just take the edge for the band’s more welcome face forward. Sons of Hawkwind that they are, though, there’s no constant crush. The band explodes into atomic particles and bounces signals between them in cooling winds before amazing strength once again. They’ve cracked the code on earthquake DNA and brought seismic rumble to each new terra firma they touch down upon. This kind of release snagging a late-November slot is exactly why the rush to year-end judgment should be avoided. You never know when an album’s going to shake the moorings this hard, and when it does, reverence is owed.




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Channelers

It’s probably a bit obvious to state that cruising through the junkship, scroll-addled future of 2019 comes with a few stressors. Its hard to block out the noise and settle, even when ladled full-stop into the arms of nature it’s hard to let the brainwaves cool and enjoy the sounds and soft green light. The latest release from Channelers, aka Sean Conrad, takes a gentle swipe at easing that tension, or at least placing the listener in a sealed containment unit of perpetual bliss. Conrad lifts the burble of streams, the chirp of birds, the calm, yet vibrant rhythms of nature for his own use and drops them into his own imagined landscapes of synth float and dulcimer yawn. It’s not new territory to create utopian space via the musical landscape, but Conrad is deftly weaving his field recordings with just the right amount of meditative melt.

The Depth of Rest plays on the listener’s core of calmness, evoking what Conrad claims is a form of magical realism – virtual reality splayed on the backs of the eyelids and reaching into the upper echelons of the human condition. The record isn’t wallpaper or noise cancellation, it’s a full reset of the psyche. Between the imagined woodland respites and streamside oases listeners begin to feel the weight lift off of their minds and the everyday grip of sociopolitical body horror release for as long as they exist inside Channelers’ realm. It always ends, as I suppose it must, but while the red light of playback glows, its nice to be alone in this cocoon of calm.




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Sir Richard Bishop & Ed Yazijian

There are always currents quietly bubbling under the collective consciousness – tributaries of sound that go largely unnoticed by a buying public, but for those who are tapped to the right frequencies they are as vital as any. One such current happens to be Unrock’s collaborative 12”s with the brothers Bishop. Dubbed the Saraswati Series, the collection is one that should not be overlooked, despite its low media profile. The ex-Sun City Girls have been working with a plethora of talented musicians, splitting sides and collaborating to create new worlds of acoustic and experimental stringwork. Alan has appeared under his Dwarfs of East Agouza banner, hooking up with Maurice Louca (Karkhana)  & Sam Shalabi (Land of Kush, Karkhana). Richard, meanwhile has collaborated with W. David Oliphant (Maybe Mental) and the series has split sides with Chris Corsano & Bill Orcutt and Karkhana with Nadah El Shazly. No entry has been less than a whirlwind of stings and sound that dazzles with a technical prowess that’s only supplanted by entrancing melodies and thrumming harmonics.

All of this preamble brings us to the latest entry in the series which sees Richard connecting with Cul De Sac’s Ed Yazijian for collaborative pieces laced with guitar, lapsteel, tenor guitar, piano and traditional Indian instrumentation. The three untitled pieces buzz and ramble, scrape through the ceiling of nighttime temperament and bed down in a glow of ethereal beauty. The two play off of one another as a seamless soul, insistent in their approach to touching the nocturne node and setting off a thick fog of permanent midnight doused in cold humidity. The air around this record seems so still that it might shatter like thin frost on tree branches (cold despite its Indian bent). The record revels in intricate arcana that seems forever out of reach. The whole series is beguiling, but this remains the pinnacle of Saraswati so far. Fans of SRB know what to do. Get into this as soon as possible and let it wash over you regularly.



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Woolen Men

Feels like I’m constantly making the point that Portland’s Woolen Men are viciously underrated, or maybe they’re constantly making that point for me. Either way, the band has been consistently kicking out taut n’ toned indie that plucks from the punk and post-punk piles with equal fervor. Their last album amped up the Feelies and Go-Betweens riffage while finding a new muse in rhythm, but this time around they’re toughening up the tincture and heading back to their high-school hangs with rough-nubbed workouts that gnaw at R.E.M., mid-period SST, late-period Dischord, The Fall, and as always, the Dü. The band’s prowess has always been the ability to throw these bits in the blender and not let one of them rise to the surface too heavily, letting the scent of past scenes float on the air while their frothy jams hold down substance of their own accord.

There’s not too many that do this with quite the same skill, but the addition of Possible Humans to the fold this year makes me wish for a double bill by the two bands as soon as possible. Like the Aussie upstarts, Portland’s finest seem to shift gears without any crunch on the clutch. The airy coolness of “Crash,” while worlds away, feels a kinship with the muscular pound of opener “Mexico City Blues” or the reckless rail of “Space Invader.” I’ve made the point in the past that its not style that defines Woolen Men, but an operating level that’s just a touch above the rest. While it would be hard to beat out the latter-day gem that is Post the band does a good job of giving it a companion in their current catalog and I’d highly recommend getting acquainted.



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