Here we go starting off the new year with yet another artist I never heard of before, even though Big Sigh is Marika Hackman’s sixth album. Of course that just means I have five albums to go back and delve into, because this one certainly makes me curious to hear more.
I’m liking everything about this record more and more on repeated listenings. I’m especially taken with her lyrics, which exist mostly in varying shades of bleak. Even singing about a desirable, lusty, romantic encounter, her phrases and metaphors are almost uniformly ominous (and the name of that particular track is “Slime”). But it’s not all about compelling lyrics. Her melodies are catchy, and the arrangements for every song are spot-on.
I’m expecting this one to stay in heavy rotation for a long while.
More than 20 years after his last release, Peter Gabriel picks up right where he left off with his new album, I/O. Judging from much of what I’ve read, lots of people are apparently a little miffed about that, figuring there should have been more of a progression after such a long wait. I’m personally more aligned with the notion that he left off at a pretty damned good spot, and I’m plenty glad to get more of it
For anyone who may not be aware, the album is actually two different mixes of a dozen new tunes: a “bright-side” mix, each song of which was released on twelve consecutive full moons, and a “dark-side” mix, each song of which was released on the corresponding new moons. For whatever it’s worth, I’m mostly partial to the dark-side mixes, but both are pretty great. (There’s also a surround sound Dolby Atmos mix, which I like less, but as I don’t have a surround sound system to hear it on, I don’t really feel qualified to judge.)
To be completely honest, I feel like there are a few lyrical rough spots here and there throughout the record. On the other hand, I kind of can’t stop listening, and my nitpicks bother me less and less over time. On the whole this is very easily one of my favorite albums of the year.
The only new record that got repeated listens from me in the month of November was Kurt Vile’s Back To Moon Beach. Vile apparently refers to this release as an EP. I’m not going to quibble with the artist, but there are 9 tracks here with a runtime of 52 minutes (on the physical album, 6 songs at around 40 minutes), so don’t pop this on thinking you’ll give it a quick spin while you’re waiting in line at a hot dog cart or something.
As has generally been the case with Vile’s music, especially in recent years, the songs here consist of relatively simple, mostly mellow grooves that sort of wash over you, in support of quasi-spoken-word lyrics that seem nearly stream-of-consciousness, yet simultaneously self-aware and keenly observant. And maybe just a shade darker this time than in the past. This collection even includes a cover of Must Be Santa that comes across, at least to me, as slightly on the melancholy side. But maybe I’m just reading that into it; I happen to be a guy who thinks the world needs a few more pensive Christmas tunes.
The Feelies Some Kinda Love: Performing The Music Of The Velvet Underground
We had an unusually busy October, so I have to admit I missed listening to a number of the month’s new releases. But I think there was really only one contender this time around, anyway.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nobody else out there who rocks the roll quite like The Feelies. Pretty much anything they’ve ever done is solid gold in my book. So it is that, although I generally don’t like live albums or tribute albums, I am nevertheless recommending Some Kinda Love: Performing The Music Of The Velvet Underground as this month’s pick. I can’t think of a better band for The Feelies to cover than the Velvets, and there’s probably nobody better to cover the Velvets than The Feelies. It’s a perfect matchup of musical sensibilities from both sides of the equation. Much to their credit, it’s pretty obvious The Feelies recognize this, as evidenced by the fact that they clearly aren’t attempting to clone the original versions of these songs. Rather, they strike the perfect balance of faithfulness to the material and the infusion of their own unique aesthetic. I don’t have a lot more to say about it, except that this one definitely deserves your attention.
Buck Meek Haunted Mountain and Gregory Alan Isakov Appaloosa Bones
Long time readers (haha! I say that to make myself feel like I have readers) may recall that Buck Meek’s last record, Two Saviors, was tied with Valerie June’s The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers as my favorite recordings of 2021. Well, I still love Two Saviors, and now I also love Meek’s latest, Haunted Mountain. Lyrically this collection doesn’t grab me quite as much as Two Saviors did, but I’m very taken with Haunted Mountain’s more expansive musical production. These arrangements bring a fuller sound without sacrificing any of the delicacy and spontaneity I associate with Meek’s solo work.
And on the topic of arrangements, I have read that Gregory Alan Isakov had originally intended his new album to be a stripped-down, “lo-fi” rock-n-roll record, but the songs wouldn’t cooperate. While I do enjoy speculating on exactly what an Isakov rock-n-roll record might sound like, I couldn’t be happier to find that Appaloosa Bones hews more closely to the path forged by his previous effort, Evening Machines. I can’t get enough of the way Isakov marries his relatively straightforward, down-to-earth lyrics to treatments that range from the simplest, contemplative strummed guitar to broadly atmospheric, often nearly surreal, soundscapes.
Haunted Mountain is, overall, the more spritely of these two picks. Spin it up while you’re enjoying a sunny afternoon. Then ease into Appaloosa Bones when you’re sipping a cocktail on the porch, watching the sun set.
I’ve flip-flopped so many times about which of these records to pick as my favorite of June’s releases that I finally just have no choice but to call another tie.
First up is Teeth Marks, the second record from Kentucky singer/songwriter S. G. Goodman. Goodman immediately went into permanent heavy rotation in our house with the release of her first album, Old Time Feeling, during shut-down-era 2020. This new release will definitely follow suit. Interesting lyrics and melodies, and an older-than-her-years vocal quality reminiscent of NPR storyteller Bailey White; this woman has it all.
We discovered Caamp several years ago at the Newport Folk Festival. For me their latest record, Lavender Days, is feel-good music at its finest. (I could say the same about the rest of their catalog, as well.) It sounds like we’re all in this together, doing what we can to have a little fun while we make our way through the day. There’s nothing pretentious or fancy going on anywhere near a Caamp record. Just a handful of chords that flow well, and good solid hooks to hold them together. Maybe with a nice, cool drink by your side. Put this on and enjoy a little piece of your summer.
One of this month’s contenders was Mike Clark & The Sugar Sounds with their new release, Moon Rock. I wasn’t familiar with Clark, but it seems that although he’s been around a good while, this is only The Sugar Sounds’ second record. Bluesy, funky R&B. Certainly it makes me want to hear more.
I am also really enjoying Superchunk’s latest, Wild Loneliness. Technically it was released in February, but since I managed to not know anything about it until Pitchfork reviewed it on March 1st, I’m calling it a technicality and allowing it into my March reviews. In fact, it was a veritable coin toss decision not to make it this month’s pick. Top-of-the-line power pop through and through. Nearly every song on it seems like something we would have wanted to cover back in the day when I was playing in the not-very-cover-song-oriented Frankie Big Face band.
I’m giving the aforementioned coin toss, though, to Julieta Eugenio’s debut album, Jump. While I love the spontaneity of live jazz, it’s pretty rare for me to like a jazz record this much. (It’s precisely the spontaneity that I miss.) But for whatever reason, the whole feel of this record —straight ahead sax/bass/drums trio arrangements— has just knocked me out this month.