Two brilliant musicians from different fields, Mark T. Smith from that unforgettable propulsive group, Explosions In The Sky, and Matthew Robert Cooper of crackly, fuzzy ambient Eluvium, combine to make up Inventions. “Continuous Portrait,” their third album, is a modest yet rather thrilling collection of oddball tunes. “Calico” settles into a rattling, shuffling rhythm overlaid by choral voice, banjo and thumped keys. The pastoral title track combines in a smooth organic whole disparate ambient elements such as burbles, rhymic chimes, and whispers. “Hints and Omens,” the longest of the nine tracks, begins with laughter and interjected keyboard figures and sounds, and then morphs into a pleasing EITS-style grandiose panorama. Some of the tracks are properly background ambient, but overall “Continuous Portrait” is more than the sum of its disparate parts, a moody, optimistic ode to modern music.
Pinegrove, a band of jangly, rough-edged indie songs of wordy introspection, centered on writer/vocalist Evan Stephens Hall and nifty drummer Zack Levine, hits number four with “Marigold.” A lovely outing with swirling mixtures of grit and subtlety, the album provides a cohesive whole of familiar-sounding-yet-fresh songs dealing with private lives. It takes a few listens for the persuasive melodies of the songs to penetrate and then they stick like radio hits. There’s nothing tremendously adventurous here, just a directness that penetrates. Highlights include “Dotted Line,” the album’s opening, a juddering, intricate ode to optimism; the delicate country pickings at the end of rambunctious “Moment”; and the long, filigreed instrumental closer, the title track.
What immediately registers with “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately,” the fifth outing of art-pop singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas, aka Perfume Genius, is the wide, sumptuous sonic palette achieved by producer Blake Mills and a troupe of superstar session musos. Every song, be it dark or light, begs to played loud. Hadreas’s floating tremulous falsetto, which can thicken into semi-menace, is a superb instrument, and on this album it fits in perfectly. Stylistically we get chugging electronica, sweeping strings, chamber pop, cabaret largesse, bouncy pop. Sharp, deep lyrics combine with the musical grandiosity to hark back to the old-fashioned, souped-up drama of the 1960s, a la Richard Harris or Tom Jones, yet “Set My Heart on Fire Immediately” also unfurls as subtle and modern. Highlights of the thirteen-song bounty include the opulent, shimmering pop vocals and rich music of “On the Floor”; the eked-out falsetto and Air sound of “Jason”; and Hadreas’s lowered baritone voice urgent amidst the pounding rhythm and string punctuations on “Your Body Changes Everything.” A highlight of this year’s listening.
Indie legend Stephen Malkmus goes folk on “Traditional Techniques” but with plenty of angles, be they blues guitar figurings or slide guitar additions, and always focused on his wry, sometimes mumbled, sometimes yelped lyrics. Always the songs sit up for a chorus that sounds sweet. Loosely constructed songs are held up with hypnotic arrangements. “Traditional Techniques” feels like an intimate club conversation with some sophistications thrown in, a conversation that beguiles and flows. I know many will find the slow pace of many songs and the slacker lyrics to add up to ho-hum, but I greatly enjoyed playing the entire album again and again. Standouts include the sweetly melodic attack on lawyers, “The greatest own in legal history”; the upbeat “Xian man” with a killer chorus, with lovely guitar that somehow echoes Led Zeppelin; and the sublime acoustic picker “Brainwashed.” Oddly memorable.
According to my lights, classical music grates to the point of repugnance, so “The Undivided Five” is a distinct surprise. Poised on the edge between ambient music and a traditional classical bent, the album broods and sweeps and settles in an unhurried tempo that has made it one of my go-to deskwork supports. The band of seven words is actually a duo, Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran, both of repute in the ambient and classical fields, and this is their second outing (at least in this incarnation) since their 2011 debut. Opener “Our lord Debussy,” combining to perfection muted sonorous piano chords and washing strings, is a ten-minute stately triumph that I can’t stop playing. After three slow eerie tracks, “Aqualung, motherfucker” belies its title with ebbing and flowing strings. Later, “The rhythm of a dividing pair” etches an almost invisible melody over fuzzy analogue synths. The lack of any balancing harshness or rhythmicity robs “The Undivided Five” of a standout rating, but if soft ambient music is balm to your ears, I recommend this unreservedly.
Pleasantly jangly, with lilting rhythms enfolding Martin Courtney’s wispy vocals, Real Estate is bedroom music rather than car music, so it easily slots into repeat during lockdown. The last couple of albums from the New Jersey band flirted with mundanity, but “The Main Thing,” while no revolution, sits up in terms of production and swing. The title track thumps out more than usual, “Also A But” offers strong lyrics about climate change, and “Friday” is instantly recognisable Real Estate. An oddly deep album that does not pretend to be anything it is not.
“Mixing Colours” is an additional chapter to the occasional joint works of Brian Eno, the more famous musician/producer, and ambient pianist Roger Eno. Comprising a double album of eighteen gentle medium-length tracks, it immediately strikes one as perfect for lockdown. Roger’s slow, melodic-but-ambient-and-almost-forgettable piano figures are mixed and treated by Brian to produce a sonically spaced-out feel that floats in the background. Played as background, tracks blend into one another with pleasing cohesiveness, the pallid tone offset by occasional striking almost-choruses. Played in the living room with a glass of wine, the album stimulates meditation. Not a single tune seems surplus. How does this add to Brian Eno’s foundational work on ambient music? I have to say I’m unsure, because by definition very little sticks in memory, but right now, in April 2020, “Mixing Colours” is, despite its glacial speed and sombre tone, just the uplifting mind music we need.
Dan Bejar of Destroyer is one of the quirkiest, most intriguing indie rock artists making music. His thirteenth album in a quarter century, “Have We Met” is a kaleidoscope of electronic and guitars, smoothed out by strong bass beats, constructed around free-form abstract poetry. One of the last “I enunciate like Bowie” vocalists around, here Bejar’s lovely voice is often hushed, close to talking. The lyrics are impressionistic oddments that compel attention. The songs brood or swoop or fester, forming a whole that is equally at home on the car radio and in a candlelit living room. Occasional frittery is easily forgiven. Best tracks include the unusually dirty, funky, slow “Cue synthesiser”; the altogether different, ambient “The television music supervisor,” with its hushed voicing and wacko lyrics; and the moody, drifting, winding-up melodies in “The Raven,” which kicks off with lovely lyrics: “Just look at the world around, actually, don’t look.” If you’re not familiar with Destroyer, exercise some caution, but “Have We Met” is a fine, idiosyncratic introduction.
The superb, emotion-ridden, classic rock voice of Dana Margolin, the singer of Brighton quartet Porridge Radio, underpins the ragged, intelligent beauty of their second release, “Every Bad.” Whether crooning raggedly or revving up to a scream, her performance is a tour de force, but there is more to the band than her. All eleven songs marry tumbled personal lyrics, often repeated as melodic incantations, with savvy arrangements built around crunchy riffs and buttressed with keys. “Every Bad” sounds at once typically British and fresh as revolution. Call it indie, call it semi-punk, call it Costello-like pop, call it what you will, this is a gorgeous romp that enlivened Coronavirus lockdown, and I heartily recommend it. If you need tracks to check out, go for Margolin shrieking “you’re wasting my time” on “Long,” a song that builds and then cools; the thumping aching pop of “Give/Take”; and “Lilac,” a lovely scuzzy torch song.
What genre of music suits lockdown best, came the thought. Methinks it’s the earworm indie rock put out by London four-piece The Big Moon. On their sophomore album, “Walking Like We Do,” the band overshadow their guitars with bouncy synths, keys, even some sax. Nothing revolutionary or even evolutionary here, female-singer songs that could have come out of any of the past four decades, but the writing is tight and intelligent, and lead singer Juliette Jackson’s yearning, sweet voice rules over an airy production. The lyrics are light but not silly. All eleven tracks hit a mood in the first second and play out with wonderful timing. Standout tracks, hard to separate from the ruck, are “It’s Easy Then” with its piano/bass intro and synthy harmonies and oh-so-catch chorus; “Don’t Think” sees the roaring twin guitars return for a dark-edged ripper; and “Your Light” is the highlight, Jackson’s voice light over banging bass and drums as the verses build to a Heart-reminiscent chorus. If only all so-called light indie pop could be so accomplished yet unmanufactured.