Isabel Baker, "I Like God's Style"

I Like Gods Style In 1965, sixteen-year-old Isabel Baker stepped into a recording studio with some session musicians, and two days later emerged with what could be considered the very first Christian rockabilly album, if not the only one of its kind. I've never heard anything like it. 

First of all, imagine being sixteen years old and so in love with someone that you write an entire album about them, belting out every song with a ferocity that can only come from teenage love. Now imagine the object of your love is Jesus Christ and you will understand why and how Isabel Baker came to record this album.

Although hearing this album for the first time stopped me in my tracks, it's unlikely that recording it was a pivotal moment in Isabel's life the way it might have been for other teenage musicians. Isabel's evangelical preacher parents had simply booked the recording studio for her for two days, and then the three of them continued traveling around the country preaching the gospel. She was dedicated to Jesus, not music. Or not exactly.

Romco (1965) / Harkit (2015)

It is obvious that she was listening to the country music of her day, but according to Joe Utterback, the lead guitarist on the album (Isabel played rhythm guitar), "Isabel had no understanding of music and had written nothing down for the sessions. She did not know about keys, time signatures or chord names." She apparently played the songs to the studio musicians over and over and Joe "wrote down the musical layout for each song." This hardly matters. The music is right on from the start and the words only make it better. And Isabel truly sings her heart out. Not for one second would there be any doubt that there is anything more important to her than Jesus and her love for him. 

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The Soft Pink Truth, "Was It Ever Real?"

Was It Ever Real?I had successfully deluded myself into thinking that I had spent my pandemic downtime wisely and constructively for the most part, but learning that Drew Daniel spent that same period assembling an all-star disco ensemble is now making me lament the sad limitations of my imagination and ambition. The resultant album—Is It Going to Get Any Deeper Than This?—is slated for release this October, but this teaser mini-album (part of Thrill Jockey's 30th anniversary campaign of limited/special releases) is one hell of a release in its own right and a true jewel in Daniel's discography. Naturally, the big immediate draws are the killer single "Is It Gonna to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)" and a disco/deep house reimagining of Coil's classic "The Anal Staircase," but the other two songs are every bit as good (if not better) than that pair, so no self-respecting fan of Daniel's oeuvre will want to sleep on this ostensibly minor release (very few artists choose to release their best work on cassingle in 2022). Naturally, there is plenty of psychotropic weirdness mingled with all the great grooves, but I was still legitimately taken aback by how beautifully Daniels and his collaborators shot past kitsch/homage/pastiche and landed at completely functional, fun, and legit dance music. No one would raise a quizzical eyebrow if someone secretly slipped this album into the playlist at a party (not until "Anal Staircase" dropped, at least).

Thrill Jockey

Some years back, one of Drew Daniel's friends was fatefully asked "is it going to get any deeper than this?" while DJing at a club. That question became a "kind of mantra" for Daniel, as he was fascinated by the elusive meaning of that question. I am somewhat fascinated now myself, as it inspired me to think about which elements can imbue a piece with "depth" and whether or not the opening "Is It Gonna to Get Any Deeper Than This (Dark Room Mix)" could be said to meet that enigmatic criteria. My official verdict is "absolutely," as Daniel's bevy of outsider disco brethren inventively ride an absolutely perfect, sensuous, and thumping dub techno-style groove for 8 glorious minutes without ever dispelling the magic with a single misstep. It almost feels like Coil and Rhythm & Sound teamed up to record a libidinal, floor-packing party anthem (it's a damn shame that never actually happened, but it seems like Daniel is perfectly happy and willing to fill that stylistic void himself).

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William Basinski and Janek Schaefer, ". . . on reflection"

. . . on reflectionThere are several William Basinski albums that I absolutely love, but his various collaborations are rarely as compelling as his solo work (the leftfield Sparkle Division being a notable exception, of course). The fundamental issue is that Basinski's finest moments tend to be an intimate distillation of a single theme to its absolute essence, which does not leave much room at all for anyone else to add something without dispelling the fragile magic. While it is unclear if Janek Schaefer is unusually attuned to Basinski's wavelength or if the duo simply waited until the path to something lasting and beautiful organically revealed itself, I can confidently state that the pair ultimately wound up in exactly the right place regardless of how they got there. If I did not understand and appreciate the sizeable challenges inherent in crafting a hypnotically satisfying and immersive album from a mere handful of notes, I would be amused that Basinski and Schaefer first began working on this album together all the way back in 2014 and that the entire 8-year process basically resulted in just two or three simple piano melodies. In fact, I am still a little amused by this album's nearly decade-long gestation, but that does not make the result any less impressive. Significantly, " . . . on reflection " is dedicated to Harold Budd, but an even closer stylistic kindred spirit is Erik Satie (albeit a blearily impressionistic channeling of the visionary composer's work rather than any kind of straight homage).

Temporary Residence

The opening ". . . on reflection (one)" lays out Basinski and Schaefer's shared vision in gorgeously sublime fashion, as a simple and tenderly melancholy piano melody languorously and unpredictably flickers across a barely audible backdrop of room sounds. Naturally, things are deceptively far more complex than they initially seem though, as it soon sounds like two or loops of different lengths are all playing at once. A lingering haze of delay and decay gradually adds some muted streaks of color, but that is just icing on an already perfect cake, as I could listen to the melodies lazily intertwining forever. In a general sense, the piece calls to mind the delicate prettiness of a music box melody, but beautifully enhances that illusion with weighty emotional depth and seemingly endless variations in the shape and emphasis of the shifting patterns.

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Steve Fors, "It's Nothing, but Still"

It's Nothing, But Still Previously based in Chicago, Steve Fors has build a small, but strong discography first as half of the duo the Golden Sores, and then on his own as Aeronaut. Now based in Switzerland, It's Nothing, but Still is his first full length solo work under his own name. It certainly feels like a new album, but traces of his previous projects can be heard, which is for the best. Lush with both beauty and darkness, it is nuanced and fascinating.

Hallow Ground

The six distinct pieces that comprise It's Nothing, but Still follow similar structures:  mostly leading off with field recordings, Fors then weaves in dense layers of electronic and acoustic sound that build in intensity and complexity. Even though there may be structural similarity, each piece stands out as unique. A piece such as the opener, "(Good Enough) For Now," begins with wet crunching amidst rain and insects before a swelling passage of cello gives the piece an uneasy sense of inertia. To this, he blends in fragments of conversations and the occasional harsher, wobbling bit of noise, all the while continuing to expand upon the droning tonal elements.

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Ashley Paul, "I Am Fog"

I Am FogTen years after her first appearance on Keith Rankin and Seth Graham's perennially bizarre and eclectic Orange Milk label , Paul returns to the fold with her new trio. Naturally, there are plenty of similarities between this latest release and the trio's 2020 debut (Ray), but there has been some significant evolution as well. To my ears, I Am Fog feels considerably more sketchlike and challenging than Ray, but that is not necessarily a bad thing, as anyone seeking out an Ashley Paul album would presumably already have a healthy appreciation for dissonance and deconstruction. A decent analogy might be that Ray is like a short story collection while I Am Fog is more like a series of poems: the voice and vision are instantly recognizable, but these nine pieces are an unusually distilled, minimal, and impressionistic version of that voice. In less abstract terms, that means that I Am Fog again sounds like some kind of unsettling and psychotropic outsider cabaret, but the emphasis is now more upon gnarled/strangled textures and lingering uncomfortable harmonies than it is on melodic hooks and broken, lurching rhythms. In addition to the trio's overall step even further into the outré, the album also features further enticement with one of Paul's strongest "singles" to date ("Shivers").

Orange Milk

As a devout fan of Paul's unsettling and singular work, I am intrigued and fascinated by how her vision has evolved since Otto Willberg and Yoni Silver became regular collaborators. While I do miss her prickly, pointillist guitar playing a bit with this album, I quite like how Silver and Willberg provide a somewhat more traditional "jazz trio" foundation for Paul's excursions into the alien and unknown rather than simply following her into increasingly broken and sickly frontiers of strangled dissonance. The opening "A Feeling" is an especially interesting example of that dynamic, as the slow-motion chord progression and male/female vocal harmonies approximate a curdled and unraveling "black lodge" version of Low. My favorite pieces tend to fall on the "creepy and lysergic outsider cabaret" side of the spectrum however. "Escape" is the strongest incarnation of that aesthetic, as it resembles a haunted nursery rhyme recited over an obsessively repeating bass pulse, a broken-sounding martial beat, and sax playing that unpredictably drifts back and forth between a blearily melodic hook and a host of tormented whines and squeaks. It feels like someone accidentally left their childlike whimsy outside and it became partially rotted and macabre overnight.

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Insect Factory, "Celestial Cycles"

Celestial Cycles Jeff Barsky has been quietly releasing alternately sublime and noise-ravaged guitar albums for years and this latest album finds him returning to LA's oft ahead-of-the-curve Already Dead Tapes (where he last surfaced with 2015's Flickering). Normally, I would not describe an edition of 100 tapes as a major release, but most of Barsky's solo work has historically appeared on his own Insect Fields imprint so Celestial Cycles will likely reach more ears than usual. Fittingly, it is an especially strong album, capturing Barsky at the absolute height of his powers. While few solo guitarists can summon dreamlike beauty from their ax as reliably and masterfully as Barsky, the centerpiece of this album is unquestionably the swirling and nightmarish closing epic "Become The Birds," which arguably recaptures the magic of Campbell Kneale's Birchville Cat Motel project in its prime (which is damn high praise coming from me).  

Already Dead Tapes

The brief yet lovely "Follow the Moon" introduces Celestial Cycles' general aesthetic of quavering drones, flickering harmonic whines, and rippling flurries of hammer-ons and pull-offs before the album begins in earnest with the more substantial "Celestial Shift." Given the loop-based nature of Insect Factory, extended durations tend to almost always result in increased textural and harmonic sophistication and "Celestial Shift" is a solid illustration of that, as the expected shimmering beauty is nicely enhanced with a host of twinkling, smoldering, buzzing, and seesawing themes. If the remainder of the album was simply four more variations of that vision, I would be perfectly happy, but Barsky instead chose to go with a parade of cool twists and curveballs and the album is better and more memorable for it.

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Locrian, “New Catastrophism”

On the trio's first album in seven years (the largest period of dormancy ever for them), Locrian simultaneously return to their origins while evolving and refining their sound forward. Stripped back to the barest essence of their sound but with some 17 years of evolution, New Catastrophism feels both like a reset but also a culmination of everything they have accomplished thus far.

Profound Lore

Much has happened for the band since 2015's Infinite Dissolution. Guitarist André Foisy and vocalist/synth player Terence Hannum relocated from their previous home base of Chicago to the east coast, leaving drummer Steven Hess as the only member in Illinois. Both Hannum and Hess have been extremely prolific with other projects, with the former starting Axebreaker, The Holy Circle, and Brutalism. Hess has continued with Haptic, Cleared, and RLYR. Foisy, on the other hand, has mainly pursued non-musical endeavors.

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Laura Cannell, “Antiphony of the Trees”

Antiphony of the TreesI only recently heard Laura Cannell’s fabulous album The Earth With Her Crowns from 2020 and could easily spend 500 words praising its dazzling allure and stark—yet comforting—beauty. Time marches on, though, and since she already has two new releases in 2022 I am focusing on the present year. Both are excellent but, of the two, I am most immediately impressed by Antiphony, wherein Cannell uses alto, bass, and tenor recorders to riff on the birdsong of rural Suffolk , where she lives, which called to her amid the quietness of lockdown. It is riveting and a work that I am unlikely to set aside any time soon. 

Brawl

Laura Cannell’s background in baroque, medieval, and renaissance music suits this project down to the ground, as does her understanding of folk music tradition. Her playing makes it easy to visualize figures throughout the centuries inspired by the call and response of the winged creatures around them to blow into recorders in castles, churchyards, classrooms, farmyards and meadows. Cannell can play double recorders and also create a third tone between the two oscillations. This ability, along with her penchant for drone and delay, indicates a sensibility which honors tradition without being rooted in any regional spot. She clearly understands the power of simplicity and repetition without becoming predictable, and embraces imaginative  abstraction without sacrificing melody or sounding feeble. All of which lifts her compositions on Antiphony of the Trees away from the mimicry of nature and into a magical realm closer to sacred chamber music. 

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Earthen Sea, "Ghost Poems"

Ghost PoemsThis latest release from the long-running ambient dub solo project of erstwhile Mi Ami/Black Eyes bassist Jacob Long is stirring up some feelings of regret about how I managed to sleep on this project for so long.  While I am not yet sure if Ghost Poems simply caught me at the right time or if Long has been unusually inspired recently, my previous exposures to Earthen Sea left me feeling like the ambient/dub balance was too heavily weighted towards the "ambient" side to leave a deep impression.  I suspect the balance has not changed all that much since I last checked in, but Long seems to have made a big leap forward in perfecting his execution with this album (it "further refines his fragile, fractured palette into fluttering arrythmias of dust, percussion, and yearning," according to the label).  Apparently, I am very much into fluttering arrhythmias of yearning now, as the first half of this album boasts a handful of pieces that can stand with just about anything in Kranky's rich and influential discography: rather than resembling dub techno that has been deconstructed and dissolved into a soft-focus haze, Ghost Poems often feels like Long has managed to seamlessly combine the best of ambient and the best of dub techno into something fresh, wonderful, and uniquely his own.

Kranky

According to Long, one of this project's central themes is "the melancholy of 7th chords on a fake Rhodes patch," which feels like quite an apt and self-aware description.  In lesser hands, that might be uncharitably viewed as a formulaic approach, but Long seems to instead belong to a more rarified type of artist who is passionately devoted to perfecting a single theme that obsesses him and he seemingly has no trouble finding myriad intriguing ways to keep that theme evolving. Unsurprisingly, blearily melancholy and repeating fake Rhodes chords are indeed the heart of the album, but Long inventively enhances that simple theme with a host of delightful textural and rhythmic elements.  Some of those elements are expected ones, such as the presence of deep bass throb, understated kick drum patterns, and subtle cymbal flourishes that give these pieces their physicality and sense of forward motion.  Those more conventionally musical touches are just pieces of a larger puzzle though, as Long also gets a lot of mileage from "domestic sounds (sink splashing, room tone, clinking objects) filtered through live FX to imbue them with an intuitive, immaterial feel." 

In theory, that is not exactly new territory, but it sure feels like it sometimes (particularly on the opening "Shiny Nowhere," as crackling, shuffling, and dripping sounds gamely replace the expected snare and cymbals in the lurching, slow-motion groove).  Given how explosive and cacophonous some of Long's previous bands have been, I was quite surprised by his talent for distilling a piece to its absolute essence and never playing a single wasted or unnecessary note.  My favorite piece is the hiss-soaked and sensuously seductive "Stolen Time," but "Felt Absence" and "Snowy Water" help make the whole first half a murderers' row of elegantly frayed and dreamlike hits.  To some degree, Long's "variations on a theme" aesthetic unavoidably starts to yield diminishing returns as I get deeper into the album, but some of his best ideas do not surface until later pieces like "Slate Horizon" and "Deep Sky" (both of which make very inspired use of subtly shivering cymbals and clicking drum sticks).

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Jon Mueller, "The Future is Unlimited, Always"

The Future is Unlimited, AlwaysSimilar to his recent works Family Secret and House Blessing, the newest work from drummer/percussionist Jon Mueller features little in the way of overt rhythms or obvious instrumentation. Instead, The Future is Unlimited, Always captures Mueller at his most spacious: layers of frequencies and tones that are as engaging as they are mysterious, and capturing more than just audio, but a deeper sense of existence.

Virtues

Consisting of a single 33-minute piece, The Future is Unlimited, Always features Mueller working with sustained tones, ghostly frequencies, and shimmering, low-end rumbles. The abstraction of sound takes on an almost spiritual quality that is palpable through the tones and textures that never fade into the background, but also never become too aggressive or oppressive. Instead they sit just at the right level to be mesmerizing while still allowing breathing room.

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