He's widely acknowledged as one of the best jazz drummers in the world. But he's also a singer-songwriter; a session man for Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell; the son of a singing preacher man from Louisiana. And though a man of such experiences is, as you might expect, quite busy, he's also keeps his own signature band: the Brian Blade Fellowship.
In the way that a jazzman's life often goes into his music, you might expect that a Brian-Blade-led band would reflect and merge all of his overlapping vocabularies. You'd be right, but — this is crucial — not in the overwrought, kitchen sink, jam band kind of way. His is music beloved by the jazz community, distilled to high potency, executed by a frontline (Myron Walden and Melvin Butler on woodwinds) which has committed for well over 15 years and a rhythm section (Chris Thomas, bass and Jon Cowherd, piano) that dates back to college, over two decades ago.
Landmarks is the Fellowship Band's new album, the fourth in its catalog. To the extent that the Fellowship has a characteristic aesthetic, you might call it rural, and this is no deviation. There are trademark slow-moving pastoral dirges, with faux-naive rhythms which bloom into ecstatic saxophone testifyin' and firecracker drum fills. There's the signifying twang of country and folk music cadences, note inflections and guitar overtones (courtesy of Jeff Parker or Marvin Sewell). There are melodies that surge and ebb, harmonium drones and dark bass clarinet lines. It's music tinged by juke joints and black churches, but better placed in wind-swept open fields and porch sits on summer evenings. One 11-minute swell of a song is even called "Ark.La.Tex." as in the three Southern states — exactly.
You hear a lot of "growers" from the Fellowship, songs that build to climaxes, and when you have a drummer like Brian Blade, who can break off a brilliant kinetic flash at just about any moment, the tension is delicious. But it's also telling that he takes "Ark.La.Tex" right into an arrangement of "Shenandoah," the American folk song. Blade lays out almost entirely, and the band offers it up as a chorale, an act of secular worship. It's under two minutes, all devastating. And it's one of many ways he knows how to make a song stick.
The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger is Sean Lennon and Charlotte Kemp Muhl. Lennon, as you may know, is the only child of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Muhl is a successful fashion model and Lennon's significant other of eight years. Midnight Sun is their second proper album together.
Try this while listening: Imagine what your opinion would be if you didn't know these basic facts - if it was just another band on the Internet with a strange name. You might think it was some kindred spirit of Tame Impala or the Flaming Lips, soft psychedelia made for sunny summer weekends. Not so druggy that it erases the day, yet weird enough to start conversations about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III.
Now, listen again, and imagine what it must be like for John Lennon's son to make music. With his girlfriend, no less. This has been the younger Lennon's greatest obstacle since his debut, 1998's Into the Sun - the prejudice against genetic good fortune and the presumption that he sounds, and maybe acts, like his famous father because it's the easiest way to his own fame. In the past, he hasn't done himself any favors by sometimes sounding eerily like the legendary Beatle, but that seems an unfair measurement. If people are willing to believe that "there's something in the water" in any given music scene, then surely the same allowance can be made for actual shared DNA. What son is not heavily influenced by his father, even one he may have only known for a short while?
Midnight Sun should go some way in dispelling those presumptions and prejudices. In places, it still sounds fairly Beatles-esque, but no more than many other bands of the last half century, and much less than Sean Lennon has before. Muhl's influence and contribution pulls him out of his own history and to places that he did not go in previous solo work, like the gloomy "Last Call" or twee "Johannesburg." The two have a natural and obvious chemistry, especially on the songs where her honeyed voice gives direction to his nasal searching.
So, although it may have taken him thirty-nine years to do it, Sean Lennon may finally be moving on with his music. He has always made a fairly valiant effort to carry his legacy forward in interesting ways, to explore his very personal relationship with his near-mythical father in a very public manner. But Midnight Sun is his own musical statement, in his own voice, and one of the best recordings he's ever made.
In their newest album, 9 Dead Alive, Rodrigo y Gabriela return to their roots, reminding listeners why they fell in love with the Mexican duo in the first place. The album finds them at the peak of their musical flexibility, dexterously weaving elements of heavy metal with flamenco.
These Mexico City natives are an if-at-first-you-don't-succeed parable. As heavy metal musicians, Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero had trouble launching their careers. Making it in one of the biggest music scenes in the Spanish speaking world is as pivotal as it is nightmarish: if you break through in Mexico, you've made it in Latin America, but succeeding in an environment that is frequently reluctant to take risks can also be an impossible task. So they picked up to go busk in Ireland, where they perfected the guitar licks that have made them famous.
The band has a loyal fan base that has followed them as they experiment with more orchestral and cinematic sounds (they famously put music to Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean and Puss In Boots.) But this new album is extremely stripped down and minimalistic, a treat both for those who've been following the duo since the beginning, and also for those who recently discovered them: letting listeners eavesdrop on a private conversation spoken between two friends, in the universal language of the guitar.
An interesting temporal phenomenon takes place while listening to Diploid Love, the first solo album from Distillers and Spinnerette frontwoman Brody Dalle. The album feels like a time capsule buried in the backyard of the punk and grunge-drenched early '90s and only unearthed today. But precisely because it's a product of 2014, not 1994, the record gets retroactively imbued with a sort of "older and wiser" gravitas — that is to say, anything that sounds so solidly like music from the past must have some evolutionary advantage to have found a habitat decades later.
Yet there is no evolutionary advantage at work, only evolution. This is Dalle's first solo album, and she was young enough in the early '90s that Nirvana and Hole, her closest sonic relatives, would have been influences, not contemporaries. What she's grasped with Diploid Love is the universal motivator of rock music, the same one Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love, Corin Tucker, and Kathleen Hanna tapped into 20 years ago: to interrupt the musical modus operandi of the day, to deconstruct it entirely, to reveal its superficiality by creating unavoidably un-superficial responses to it. In the last decade of the last century, space opened up — starting in Washington, D.C. basements and Olympia dorm rooms and Aberdeen garages in Washington state — for a new kind of voice. Androgynous, powerful, emotive, not conventionally pretty vocals attained massive mainstream cultural capital. Drawing on this '90s-influenced vocabulary, but incorporating contemporary patois (listen for an undeniably millennial horn breakdown on "Underworld"), Brody Dalle is cashing in.
The earnestness created by Dalle's voice, inherent to Diploid Love, and to all good rock music, is what ultimately renders this record timeless. It's a throwback but doesn't cover old ground. Dalle's raw guitar work and distinctly Cobain-adjacent vocals are familiar but tell a unique story. The angst is honest ("Don't Mess With Me," which is a shoe-in for theme song to whatever the next generation's Freaks and Geeks will be), the joy is honest ("I Don't Need Your Love") and the confidence Dalle exercises in releasing an album rife with sweeping tonal shifts is also honest. Gender-bending screaming gives way to contralto singing so quickly it borders on shocking, as do electric guitars making room for tambourines, violins, piano and even a recording of a gleeful toddler. What all of it has in common, both on this album and with the grunge albums it references, is that every song sounds exactly like the truth.
At some point, even babies who bask in the warmth of attachment parenting need to learn to self-soothe — to regulate their emotions without their parents' guidance or even a hug. Often they do it with a thing: a blankie, a binky, a stuffie. Adults are expected to be free of such fixations, but the truth is, inanimate enablers still fill our lives. Musicians bring them right onstage. Why do you think guitarists name their stringed companions? Electricity makes these toys speak.
But what if your serious toy, your amanuensis, stopped listening and responding? Wye Oak's new album Shriek was inspired by such a crisis. Exhausted after a punishingly long tour to support the duo's breakthrough album Civilian, Jenn Wasner returned to Baltimore feeling depressed and unable to write. Her trusty Reverend Jetstream only seemed to mock her. Wasner finally found solace and new inspiration in other instruments, especially the bass. Her bandmate, Andy Stark, mostly a drummer in the past, put his talismans partially aside in favor of synthesizers. Then, physically separated by the miles between Stack's Texas home and Wasner's on the East Coast, but connected by the technology their analog synths anticipated, they wrote a bunch of songs that explore existential uncertainty, yet sound like comfort.
Comfort might be too solid a word. It conjures images of pillows, and Shriek's songs are more like thick atmospheres made for floating and falling, cloud covers built of shifting emotions. They could be called synth-pop, but their meanings unfold in slower-moving, subtler gradations than that label implies. The album's contemplative tone recalls New Wave sophisticates like Japan or Talk Talk — groups who made music for dreaming more than dancing. The insular spaciousness of '90s R&B savants like Aaliyah and TLC also make a mark. But the story is Wasner's, a struggle she has described as an "intense journey" that "happened in the confines of my own skull." Wasner's lyrics often mention the sleep cycle, and describe elusive, cruel objects of fear and desire who could be real lovers, but seem more like aspects of her own confused psyche.
Her lyrics tend toward poeticism, with images that could at times be apocalyptic. "Even as I stand, is the ever after," she sings in "Paradise." "See it as it lands, fire over water." That's pretty Biblical, but Wasner's gentle alto, made stronger by voice training, persuades the listener to stay with her. "I fear no information," she sings over Stack's birdsong dreams in the title track. "I'm following how it seems in present dreams." Her willingness to gaze inward encourages the same in others.
The contained but deep lushness of Shriek makes the album itself an ideal tool for calming the old thought machine. The album itself could become your talisman, treasured and well-used after many repeated listenings. The process of making this music, Wasner implies in the mystical, impeccably modulated "Before," made her "brand new." Getting lost in this music could have a similarly healing effect on others.