Ellis Swan, "3am"

3amThis Chicago-based singer-songwriter is a bit of an enigma to me, as details about his discography are quite slim. As far as I can tell, however, 3am is his second solo album, which is noteworthy given that it has been 8 long years since Swan’s similarly excellent debut (I'll Be Around) surfaced. What he was up to during that hiatus is mostly unknown to me (aside from "drawing the night in around his private, unnerving vigil," of course), but one thing I do know is that he formed a duo with James Schimpl called Dead Bandit that released their debut on Quindi last year (the same label behind this album). In any case, 3am is one hell of an aptly titled album, as it very much has the feel of a hushed, late-night confessional via four-track. The overall aesthetic calls to mind the "desolate outsider folk" blurring of an insomniac Elliott Smith or Zelienople with the homespun intimacy of early Iron and Wine, yet the pervasive mood of late night sadness is beautifully balanced with cool production tricks and shades of more lively and eclectic influences like Suicide and Charlie Megira.

Quindi

The album’s description insightfully notes that Swan’s aesthetic plays “on the natural distortion and delirium which occurs at the farthest end of the night,” which is an excellent way to explain how this album differs dramatically from ostensibly similar artists exploring the “after late night television pain” vein such as Russian Tsarlag or Matt Christensen. Swan has some darkness to exorcise, to be sure (check out “Hospice”), but 3am feels more like a batch of poignant and hook-filled gems that were handed off to the night itself for a “late night delirium” production overhaul. Obviously, that is not what actually happened, which makes Swan a bit of a visionary production-wise: he uses the same roughly instrumentation as everyone else, but those instruments are inevitably veiled in hiss, buried deep in the mix, or distorted by their lo-fi recording process (Swan apparently “drags the music through layer upon layer of tape fuzz” as part of his process). Significantly, he goes the opposite route with his vocals, as they sound close mic’d in a way where it feels like Swan is whispering directly into my ear. Rather than hiding himself in a fog of reverb and hiss, he expertly wields murk to weave a haunted and hallucinatory backdrop for his stark, emotionally direct songs. The album’s lead single “Puppeteers Tears” is an especially fine illustration of Swan’s inspired strain of ghostly Americana, as it feels like something from The Creek Drank the Cradle eerily enhanced with a haunting whistle loop, a buried organ motif, and a primitive drum machine groove.

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Andrew Chalk, "The End Times"

The End TimesKeeping up with Andrew Chalk’s discography has always been an amusingly challenging endeavor, but the challenge has shifted from pouncing on limited edition physical releases to vigilantly ensuring that he does not quietly surface with a substantial new opus of some kind without my notice. The most recent substantial new opus is this one on Colin Potter’s ICR label, which is billed as Chalk’s “first new solo album in five years.” It certainly feels like a major statement to me, though the meaning of terms like “new” and “album” can be quite blurry and elusive given Chalk’s singularly minimalist approach to providing album details. In any case, The End Times was (perhaps prophetically) recorded earlier this year and marks a rare CD release after Chalk’s recent run of cassettes. Beyond that, further details are quite slim. That is just fine by me, as the only thing that actually matters is that Andrew Chalk is still making incredibly beautiful and distinctive music, as The End Times is a characteristically sublime and immersive dreamscape of tender melodies, elegantly shifting moods, and vividly detailed textures.

ICR

The opening “House of the Holy” provides an appropriately representative introduction to the album’s overall aesthetic, as a vaporous melody of blurred, lingering notes unfolds over a gently gurgling pulse. As the album unfolds, a few subtle new details emerge that set The End Times apart from some of Chalk’s other recent work, but the most prominent features throughout are the quivering, liquid-like character of the notes and the ephemeral brevity of the pieces. Rather than evolving and expanding, these 13 pieces instead feel like a series of enigmatic mirages that offer a fleeting and flickering glimpse of heaven before dissolving back into nothingness. Given all the gentle, blurred sounds and the tone of meditative reverie, it is deceptively easy to mistake The End Times for ambient music, yet it reveals itself to be considerably more than that for those willing to fully immerse themselves in Chalk’s slow-motion fantasia of beautiful details and small yet significant events. I view it as somewhat akin to looking through a rain-streaked window–it is easy to gaze through the glass and simply think “today is a wet and overcast day,” but it is also possible to appreciate how the individual droplets quiver and roll down the glass or how the streaks of water subtly bend and warp the appearance of the outside world. Albums like this are the reason why the genre term “lowercase” needed to exist, as Chalk’s compositions are incredibly rich, but the size of the reward is directly proportional to how closely one listens.

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Oren Ambarchi, "Shebang"

Shebang Few artists have consistently fascinated and perplexed me quite like Oren Ambarchi, as I absolutely loved his early solo guitar albums like Grapes From the Estate, then witnessed him spend the next 15 or 20 years exploring improvisatory and rhythmic-driven detours to continually intensifying and breathless acclaim. I imagine it feels somewhat akin to being a Velvet Underground fan encountering unanimous rapturous praise for their post-Cale albums–I get the appeal, but that would not be my personal go-to era if I wanted to illustrate that band's greatness. Then again, maybe my perspective on Ambarchi's evolution would shift dramatically if I just liked jazz fusion more. In any case, I can certainly understand the unusual trajectory from Oren's viewpoint, as few would pass up a chance to form a trio with Jim O'Rourke and Keiji Haino and jamming with talented friends over mutant krautrock/fusion grooves seems like a hell of a lot more fun than making slow-motion guitar magic by yourself (can't fault a guy for loving spontaneity and challenging new collaborations). Both spontaneity and inspiring guest performances abound on Shebang, as Ambarchi enlisted quite a killer (virtual) ensemble, resulting in one of my favorite of his albums in recent memory (2016's Hubris being the other serious contender).

Drag City

The album is essentially a single 35-minute piece, but there are four numbered sections that segue seamlessly into one another. The first begins with a quirkily rhythmic and twinkling electric guitar motif that is soon joined by additional layers that bring unpredictably interwoven melodies and a stilted, oddly timed funkiness. It does not take long before the sheer intricacy and rhythmic sophistication of its various moving parts starts to feel dazzling and virtuosic, but the piece soon gets even better as it becomes more bass-heavy while bleary shades of psychedelia begin to bleed in. The second section announces itself when Joe Talia's skittering, shuffling drums emerge from a haze of feedback and shimmer. Curiously, all of the prominent themes from the first section fall away for a very stripped down palette of drums, subtle piano, rhythmic palm-muted guitar, and an occasional bass clarinet skwonk, but that downshift into simmering spaciousness nicely set the stage for me to be completely wrong-footed by the inspired appearance of BJ Cole's Hawaiian-sounding pedal steel.

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National Screen Service, "A New Kind of Summer"

A New Kind of SummerA noisy wall of sound is combined perfectly with atmospheric hooky tunes on this wonderful latest release from National Screen Service. I came across the 2017 release Hotels of the New Wave on Bandcamp, which caught my ears initially (however it is sadly seems no longer seems available from there). The project appears to have started in 2014 (Sea Level Trials can still be obtained from Bandcamp), and apart from being from somewhere in England, that's the extent of all I know of them (him? her?). To me it feels as if that mystery can genuinely make the music more engaging, allowing it to speak for itself while as listeners, we are free to engage the imagination. Released oddly (or tactfully) on the first Friday of October, A New Kind of Summer is a perfect warm summery album adaptable to other seasons.

mpls ltd

With all music crafted without words, I imagine this album title hinting at being created during the first active summer following the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the moodier Hotels of the New WaveA New Kind of Summer positively exudes a warm ambiance from the start with "Safe Dunes," but soon enough, we are greeted with familiar and friendly guitar layers before the music cascades into elegant noise. The beats are motorik, hook upon laden hook from the first song, and well into the following.

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Horace Andy, "Midnight Rocker" and "Midnight Scorchers"

I am a big fan of Adrian Sherwood's passion for luring the greatest luminaries in Jamaican music history into late-career collaborations, as it is hard to imagine a better deal than working with On-U Sound's murderers' row of killer musicians and having a contemporary dub visionary at the console. Midnight Rocker (released in April) was the first fruit of Sherwood's union with Horace Andy and (unsurprisingly) focuses primarily on Andy's legendary voice while putting a new spin on a few of the Jamaican tenor's signature jams (along with a nod to his more recent work with Massive Attack). Given the caliber of everyone involved, Rocker is a predictably likable album and an impressive return for Andy, but a big part of the fun with classic Jamaican music is the inevitable wave of dubs and variations that follow, so I connected much more deeply with the newly released companion album, Midnight Scorchers. Wisely, Andy's voice remains a central focus, so it is easy to recognize the hooks and melodies from the previous album in their new context, yet Sherwood allows himself to go a bit wild in the studio for a "sound system" take on the material. To my ears, the same songs are the strongest on both albums, but the weaker songs from Rocker benefit significantly from the more adventurous arrangements and production on Scorchers.

On-U Sound

Midnight Rocker borrows its title from the opening line of Massive Attack's "Safe From Harm," which was the lead song on their 1991 debut Blue Lines. Notably, that album was the beginning of Andy's recurring involvement with that project, but "Safe From Harm" is a curious song to revisit, as Andy did not sing on the original and it has a darker, more dramatic tone than the rest of Midnight Rocker. Given how wildly successful that album was, I imagine its inclusion here was a savvy choice, but its killer bass and tambourine groove plays far more to Sherwood's strengths than the lyrics and tone do to Andy's. The album's other trips down memory lane are a handful of contemporized resurrections from Andy's own sprawling discography such as "This Must Be Hell, "Materialist," and "Mr. Bassie." Of that lot, "Mr. Bassie" fares the best, as it boasts a strong melodic hook and wades into increasingly dubby territory as it unfolds.

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Greg Davis, "New Primes"

New PrimesBack in 2009, Important Records released a landmark compilation entitled The Harmonic Series (A Compilation Of Musical Works In Just Intonation). Significantly, that album featured a Greg Davis piece entitled "Star Primes (For James Tenney)," which was Davis's earliest foray into composing using just intonation. Nearly a decade later, greyfade founder Joseph Branciforte found himself mesmerized by that piece on a long drive back home from Vermont and was inspired to contact Davis to discuss the unusual process behind the piece. As it turns out, Davis's interest in mathematical just intonation experiments ran quite deeply, as it formed the entire basis for his 2009 album Primes. Naturally, the enthusiastic Branciforte encouraged Davis to revisit his work in that vein, which led to an 8-channel performance at NYC's Fridman Gallery in 2019. The aptly titled New Primes is a reworking of that new material repurposed for a stereo home-listening experience. Needless to say, math-driven sine wave drones are not for everyone, but the cold and futuristic alien beauty of these pieces will likely resonate deeply with fans of otherworldly "ghost in the machine" opuses like Nurse With Wound's Soliloquy For Lilith.

greyfade

My interest in "generative and process-based music" is considerably more casual than Davis's or Branciforte's, but it is not hard to understand the allure, as I imagine every serious musician on earth endlessly struggles to escape familiar patterns and an excellent way to do that is to create some kind of system that either opens new pathways or makes repeating those patterns impossible. Obviously, John Cage's I Ching-driven work is an especially noteworthy touchstone, while Ben Chasny's Hexadic compositions are a more recent prominent example, but there are presumably limitless ways to elude predictable compositional paths (albeit with wildly varying results in listenability). Davis's own system is a bit more complex than my feeble mind can handle, but it can be roughly summarized as "using prime number sets as a way to develop just intonation tuning relationships and intervals" which he realizes through a "custom software system in the Max/MSP environment, using a network of pure sine tones."

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Moth Cock, "Whipped Stream and Other Earthly Delights"

Whipped Stream and Other Earthly DelightsI doubt anyone can truly say that they know what to expect from a new Hausu Mountain release, but I still felt a bit gobsmacked by the latest from this ambitiously unhinged Ohio duo. While it may read like hyperbole to the uninitiated, the label's claim that Whipped Stream is a "durational smorgasbord of new music capable of knocking even the most seasoned zoner onto their ass" feels like an apt description of this triple cassette behemoth of fried and kaleidoscopic derangement (it clock in at roughly 3½ hours, after all). As I have not yet been lucky enough to experience Moth Cock's cacophonous sensory onslaught live, I was also a bit stunned to learn that most or all these pieces were culled from real-time performances. I honestly do not comprehend how two guys armed with a sax, loop pedals, and a "decades-old Electribe sampler / drum machine" can whip up such a vividly textured and wildly imaginative hurricane of sound so quickly and organically, as there seems to be some real hive mind shit afoot with these dudes. Unsurprisingly, I am at a loss to find a succinct description to explain what transpires over the course of this singular opus, but most of Whipped Stream can be reasonably described as a gnarled psychedelic freakout mashed together with Borbetomagus-style free jazz, the '80s noise tape underground, and jabbering sound collage lunacy. In the wrong hands, such an outré stew coupled with such an indulgent duration would be an effective recipe for total unlistenability, but I'll be damned if Moth Cock have not emerged from this quixotic endeavor looking like fitfully brilliant visionaries. I should add the caveat that Moth Cock also seem willfully annoying at times, but it is rare that such bumps in the road are not ultimately transformed into a near-perfect mindfuck or something unexpectedly sublime.

Hausu Mountain

It did not take long at all for me to fall in love with this album, as the opening "Castles Off Jersey" is an absolute tour de force that starts off as a layered and trippy homage to Terry Riley-esque sax-driven drone and only gets deeper and weirder from there. Along the way, it makes stops at gnarled, howling noise and burbling kosmische synth en route to an impressively apocalyptic and layered crescendo of swirling orchestral samples and electronic chaos. The following "Threefer Thursday" is still more bananas, calling to mind the viscous, squirming synths of Rashad Becker's Traditional Music Of Notional Species series before throwing sleepy Hawaiian slide guitar into the mix for an exotica nightmare. It's an audaciously sanity-dissolving collision, but that is merely the jumping off point into an unexpectedly gorgeous stretch of warm, woozy chords…and then the bottom drops out again for a finale of cold, churning industrial-damaged psychedelia that feels like it could have been plucked from a live Throbbing Gristle performance.

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B. Fleischmann, "Music for Shared Rooms"

Music for Shared RoomsThis is apparently B. Fleischmann's eleventh solo album, which surprised me a bit, as I generally enjoy his work yet have only heard a small fraction of it. That said, the eclectic and shapeshifting Austrian composer's release schedule has slowed considerably since the heyday of IDM/indietronica/glitch pop in the late '90s/early 2000s that put him on the map. In fact, it has been four years since Fleischmann last surfaced with the amusingly titled but hopefully not prophetic Stop Making Fans and Music for Shared Rooms is actually more of a retrospective than a formal new statement. That said, most fans (myself included) are unlikely to have previously encountered any of the sixteen pieces collected here, as the album is a look back at some highlights from Fleischmann's extensive archive of pieces composed for film and theater. That archive apparently includes roughly 600 pieces composed over a stretch of twelve years, so Fleischmann presumably did not have much trouble coming up with a double LP worth of delights. To his credit, however, he decided to rework and recontextualize the selected pieces into a satisfying and thoughtfully constructed whole (and one that also doubles as a "kaleidoscopic glimpse of a forward-thinking musician at home in many different musical worlds"). Admittedly, some of those musical worlds appeal more to me than others, but Fleischmann almost always brings a strong pop sensibility and bittersweet warmth to the table, so the results are invariably wonderful when he hits the mark (which he does with impressive frequency here).

Morr Music

The title Music for Shared Rooms alludes to Fleischmann's vision for this album, as he views his recontextualized scores as something akin to "a photo album" in which each "page" conjures a "different scene in which you can immerse yourself." To his credit, the fundamentally "B. Fleischmann" feel of the pieces remains surprisingly constant despite their myriad moods and disparate original contexts, but nailing down the character of that aesthetic is an elusive task. In a rough sense, however, it is fair to say that Fleischmann achieves a unique blend of "seemingly naive" pop simplicity with exacting production and complex arrangements. Sometimes he admittedly leans a bit too much to the "willfully naive" side for my liking, but his instincts generally tend to be quite solid (if sometimes perplexing). Case in point: "Taxi Driver" opens as some kind of Mission Impossible/Peter Gunn theme hybrid, but unexpectedly transforms into a killer dubby groove that calls to mind prime Tortoise. 

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Kyle Kidd, "Soothsayer"

SoothsayerThis first solo album from queer, androgynous soul singer Kyle Kidd is an incredibly strong contender for best debut of the year, but he/she/they (Kidd embraces all pronounds) has been been steadily releasing great music for a while as part of Cleveland's Mourning [A] BLKstar ensemble. Notably, however, Kidd's past also includes a background in church choirs as well as a stint as an American Idol competitor. Normally learning about the latter would send me running in the opposite direction, but Kidd joins the exclusive pantheon of vocal virtuosos like Ian William Craig and Zola Jesus lured away from a conventional trajectory by a healthy passion for more underground sounds. That said, a decent amount of Soothsayer legitimately feels like it could have burned up the Soul/R&B charts if it had been released in the late '70s and had a major label production team at the console. As time travel was not a viable option, Soothsayer instead found a home on the oft-stellar Chicago indie American Dreams and Kidd's sensuous, hook-filled songs eschew the polished sheen of pop production for a hypnagogic veil of tape hiss and reverb (much to my delight, predictably).

American Dreams

The gospel-inspired opener "Salvation (Ode for Eunice)" is bit of a stylistic anomaly for the album, but the understated, minimal piano chords and subtle flourishes of jazz guitar beneath Kidd's soulful, wailing vocals illustrate one of the more notable and consistent themes on Soothsayer: backing music that sounds like crackling rare grooves unearthed by a moodier, more libidinal Madlib. Consequently, I was quite surprised when I glanced at the album notes and saw the large cast of guest musicians involved, as it genuinely feels I am hearing appropriated unheard grooves from Larry Levan, Arthur Russell, or Ann Peebles' backing band transformed into smoky, subtly psych-damaged Sade territory by a producer with a vision. The result does not exactly feel loop-based, but Kidd's songs tend to be built from single-theme vamps, which is exactly the right move: just lay down a hot groove and give Kidd plenty of room to belt her heart out and a killer song is almost certain to result.

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Bill Orcutt, "Music For Four Guitars"

Music for Four GuitarsOver the last few years, it has become quite clear to me that any major new solo guitar album from Bill Orcutt is destined to be an inventive, visceral, and damn near essential release. Unsurprisingly, Music for Four Guitars does absolutely nothing to disrupt that impressive run, yet I sometimes forget that Orcutt has a restless creative streak that endlessly propels him both outward and forward like some kind of avant garde shark. As a result, his discography is full of wild surprises, unexpected detours, and challenging experiments such as last year's wonderfully obsessive and completely bananas A Mechanical Joey, so anyone who thinks they know exactly what to expect from a new Bill Orcutt album is either delusional or not paying close enough attention. Case in point: Music for Four Guitars feels like an evolution upon Orcutt's Made Out of Sound approach of using a second track to improvise against himself, but he now expands it to four tracks and shifts to a more composed, focused, and melodic approach very different from his volcanic duo with Chris Corsano. Notably, this project was originally intended for a Rhys Chatham-esque quartet of guitarists and has been gestating since at least 2015, but COVID-era circumstances ultimately led Orcutt to simply do everything himself. As Tom Carter insightfully observes in the album notes, this album is a fascinating hybrid of the feral spontaneity of Orcutt's guitar albums and the "relentless, gridlike composition" of his electronic music that often calls to mind an imaginary Steve Reich-inspired post-punk/post-hardcore project from Touch and Go or Amphetamine Reptile's heyday.

Palilalia

Given how much time I have spent enjoying a handful of Bill Orcutt's recent masterpieces, I occasionally forget that he has been releasing albums for roughly three decades and his scrabbling, explosive improv eruptions are just one stylistic choice in an endlessly evolving body of work. I bring that up because Music For Four Guitars makes it clear that Orcutt could probably churn out killer riffs, intricate countermelodies, and inventive harmonies in his sleep and would seemingly be perfectly at home channeling his inner Glenn Branca, Built to Spill ("In The Rain"), Gang of Four ("From Below"), or art-damaged '90s emo band like Departures and Landfalls-era Boys Life if he felt like it. All of those stylistic threads appear in varying forms here and the determining factors tend to be whether Orcutt is inclined to craft a tense, jerkily staccato rhythm ("A Different View"), sharpen a melody with a spiky counter motif ("Two Things Close Together"), or do both at once ("In Profile").

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