A lush, almost transcendental masterpiece from a genius, “Ghosteen” stood out from my 2019 year of half-hearted, wrong-track listening. At age 64, I hate reprising favorite artists or bands from my 30s (for that’s a feature of today’s music scene, all the oldies keep on giving) but for the life of me, cannot find highly affective, inspiring music from the younger generations. Nick Cave and his longstanding, morphing band, here lightly but potently employed, have crafted eleven keening, yearning songs about loss and seeking and reality and questing and raging (softly) and love … well, you get the picture that for me, each of these synth-and-chorus-soaked songs, some long, some shorter, builds inside me with great force. Every word carries portent and mystery. I can barely present highlights, so strong is each song, but listen to the soaring wordless chorus behind “Bright Horses,” or Cave’s lament or triumph on “Waiting for You,” or the whispering softness of the title track. Oh, why can’t more music move me like this?
Joe Pernice is an energetic wonder, a cult singer-songwriter with melodic chops galore and Elvis-Costello-style cutthroat lyrics. After a number of different forays, he’s back with the eighth offering of Pernice Brothers, featuring his brother and regulars. Nine years after “Goodbye, Killer,” the new one, “Spread the Feeling,” bangs out eleven pithy pop songs. Play it as background to work or let it rip in the car, every track immediately makes sense and can be hummed. Every track is old-fashioned pop magic but check out super-catchy “The Devil and the Jinn,” with backing vocals from Neko Case; the crunchy guitars and wordplay of “Mint Condition”; and bittersweet “Wither on the Vine.”
Roger Daltrey sounds half a century younger than his seventy-five years on the amazing comeback “Who” album, full of vinegar and still soaring. Pete Townshend’s songs, mostly about old rockers shouting and pondering but with 2019 checkpoints, are sprightly and varied, another surprise (most old songwriters have lost their mojos). His guitar sounds as sharp as ever. The anthemic, churning “All This Music Must Fade” is a hoot, “Beads on One String” does hippy lyrics proud, and “Street Song” rages about the Grenfell building disaster. A couple of lame tracks cannot dampen the renaissance.
I swoon over Angel Olsen’s torch song voice allied to her deft guitar and dramatic indie tunes, like a reincarnation of Dusty Springfield. All her releases so far have been wonderful and “All Mirrors” is wonderful again but this time dressed up in extravagant arrangements including a mini orchestra and thumping drums. The songs seem to explore ambiguous thoughts and emotions amidst growing fame, and the several songs speak to that aching emotionality featured on her previous album. If perhaps I enjoyed her solo indie music making before, the super-fried production here does not detract from her soaring climaxes. I play three songs again and again: the torchy title song, the tremulous vocals over the dubby floor of “New Love Cassette,” and the breathy bounce of “What It Is.” But selecting highlights is the wrong way to listen to “All Mirrors.” Instead, revel in the artistry of the entire eleven-song cycle.
Cathy Lucas heads Vanishing Twin, a cross-border, cross-genre mashup of world music, electronica, and burbling pop, held together with busy drumming. Their sophomore release, “The Age of Immunology,” offers some lovely sweet grooves, such as on the six minutes of chugging, bleeping “Backstroke.” On the scrabbling “Cryonic Suspension May Save Your Life,” her ethereal voices chips in right at the end. To my ears, the instrumental passages beguile; the vocal passages less so. Interesting.
Mega Bog is eclectic, subversive, playful Erin Birgy and “Dolphine” is her fifth flitting release. Talk about all over the shop! Songs leap from bouncy folk to glistening jazz to jagged guitar-led pop. Sounding life a refugee from the early 70s prog-folk interface, Mega Bog is, nonetheless, a cohesive marriage of pop trippery and avant music flourishes, and I thoroughly enjoy letting it wash over me while working. Standout tracks include the wonderful, rolling, pulsing title track of yearning, the short duet “Spit in the eye of the fire king,” and the shapely musical odyssey of “Fwee again.” Much recommended, this musical outflowing.
Scott Hansen, aka Tycho, has produced some pitch-perfect ambient albums but “Weather” is not one of them. Epoch, his previous release, featured guitars to great effect, but on Weather he embraces short electro-pop songs and introduces vocals, the breathy lounge voice of Hannah Cottrell, both of which swing him away from effective ambience towards, frankly, boredom. “Into the Woods” is enjoyable jaunty brain fluff that fades away in lovely fashion, and the title track is an instrumental with his old emotional mix of hue and rhythm, but the other six tracks disappoint.
“The Imperial” is modern Americana that sits on the edge of real country and western, a music genre anathema to me, but I enjoyed my numerous listens. Willy Vlautin, of Richmond Fontaine fame and one of the best novelists around, has penned ten melancholic tales of down-and-out tragics, and the band’s singer, Amy Boone (sidelined by a car accident for three years) has a wonderful careworn, yet generous, voice. Standout tracks include the gentle title track with its slide-enriched chorus; the warm-in-spite-of-the-story “Cheer Up Charley”; and the bleak kinda torch song “Holly the Hustle.” A nuanced, unusual album.
Album Number 17 for ultra creative John Darnielle (his novel Wolf in White Van was one of my 2014 standouts), “In League with Dragons” is odd enough and subdued enough to almost be a curio. Continuing Darnielle’s recent phase of semi-jazzy arrangements (again drummer Jon Wurster breathes life into every moment) and quietly enunciated vocals, at first listen this can seem bland. But the left-field song topics and lyrics – we’re talking tales of marsupials, wizards, rock singers, Ozzy Osbourne, cadaver sniffing dogs, and more – ensure a fascinating eleven-song offering. And “Going Invisible 2” reminds us of the declamatory old Goats, with Darnielle building up to sing “I’m gonna burn it down one day.” A genuinely strange but intriguing set.
In their live shows, The Felice Brothers unspool their dual-singer folk-rock with flamboyant ramshackle joy, but their albums vary in intensity. “Undress” is the band at its peak, it’s sound veering from massed instruments and voices to more intimate tunes filigreed by precise guitar or lovely piano or squeezebox. The dozen songs mix political targeting and personal poems and singalongs. The overall effect intoxicates, you find yourself breathless for the next offering. I could name ten highlights but here are three: the title track begins as a humorous ode to “lightening up” before fat horns join the mix to climax at a plea to “find the light of day”; the corrosive jaunty “Special Announcement” in which Ian sings of “savin’ up my money to be president”; “Socrates,” a soaring hymn to modernity’s discontents. But wait, how can I convey the poetry of “Days of the Years,” Ian’s ode to the moment, each line threatening to raise tears! Buy this now and if you can, catch a live show.