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Jenny Lewis' new album, The Voyager, comes out July 29. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Jenny Lewis, 'The Voyager'

Jul 20, 2014

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Ann Powers

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"Nostalgia has no place for the woman traveling alone," the great travel writer Mary Morris once wrote. "Our motion is forward, whether by train or daydream." She's describing a necessary ruthlessness: Women are so often defined by their attachments (family, romance, even the fetishes of style) that becoming light enough to move often requires behavior others might read as cruel or, at best, distanced. "Nothing lasts forever when you travel time," Jenny Lewis sings in a deliberately spacey drawl during the title track of her rich new solo album, The Voyager. The song, with its gentle string crescendos and angelic backing vocals by First Aid Kit, seems at first like a panegyric to the spirit of wanderlust. But Lewis' version of the Voyager — the NASA craft, currently floating beyond human perception? the only Star Trek ship to be captained by a woman? — goes up in smoke.

Like Lewis' great 2006 album with The Watson Twins, Rabbit Fur Coat, The Voyager plays the way a short-story collection reads, its disparate narratives united by musical and lyrical undertones. This time, Lewis goes not for country-music references, but for a wider palette that pays tribute to the history of studio rock. She chose to make The Voyager with Ryan Adams as producer because she loved his Pax Am studio, which is tricked out with gear that dates from the 1960s to the present. Lewis and Adams took full advantage; their arrangements move through time without ever getting stuck in one era. "Head Underwater" recalls the New Wave sounds of The Motels and Aimee Mann's first band, Til Tuesday; "Slippery Slopes" rides a Tom Petty-worthy chord progression. "You Can't Outrun 'Em" cultivates the surf sound Lewis touched on in her duo with Johnathan Rice, Jenny and Johnny. "Love U Forever" steals its opening riff from classic rock's ultimate studio band, Cream. "Late Bloomer" connects Lewis to her own past; it would fit on her former band Rilo Kiley's finest album, More Adventurous.

The Voyager's clever (but never too-clever) sound builds an open structure within which the 38-year-old Lewis can explore her current fascination: the weight of full adulthood, and its paradoxical precariousness. Some of her writing is confessional, colorfully describing her fight with chronic insomnia or alluding to the death of her often-absent father and her doubts about marriage and monogamy. "Just One of the Guys," a collaboration with Beck, is the funniest reflection on anxiety about not having children this side of Sarah Silverman.

But while it's possible to locate Lewis within the "I" that shares these vignettes, it's not inevitable. The woman who discards a good-enough lover in "She's Not Me," the one coping with a cheater in "Slippery Slopes," the one trapped with someone she once thought was perfect in "Love You Forever": They come alive in their imperfections, because Lewis doesn't try to explain or justify them, or even exactly get the listener to empathize. She observes. She adopts different vocal styles to accommodate her characters, going from a rock growl to the singsong of a little girl to a soulful sound that comes from below her heart. The risk Lewis takes is not confession's emotionalism, but witnessing's honesty.

Throughout her writing, Lewis maintains this measured perspective, shored up by her fanatical attention to detail. Like other literary travelers from Joan Didion to Joni Mitchell, she finds the emotional intensity in relationships and scenarios through observations that require a step back, so that she can see the whole room, and that absolute refusal to slip into the generalities of nostalgia. "Forgive me my candor," she sings as an aside in the middle of "Late Bloomer," a coming-of-age story about an instantly regretted threesome. But listeners are so lucky to have her candor. Moving forward, Lewis keeps her eye on everything we need to know.

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Shabazz Palaces' new album, Lese Majesty, comes out July 29. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Shabazz Palaces, 'Lese Majesty'

by Andrew Matson
Jul 20, 2014

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Andrew Matson

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Broadcasting live from the land of legal weed and sliding into the frame like a giant Pacific octopus, here comes Lese Majesty, the third album from Seattle's Shabazz Palaces. It's definitely hip-hop, but... was that a drum? Human? Synthesizer? Sample of an old record? We may never know. MC and producer Ishmael Butler keeps his cards close.

As leader of Digable Planets, Butler had an accessible radio hit in 1992's "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)," but he hasn't done anything straightforward since. He began his Shabazz Palaces project in 2008, and Lese Majesty is its most relentlessly noncommercial chapter yet. No hits, no singles; just raw, graceful tunes.

"Dawn in Luxor" opens the 45-minute document with a line about "throwing cocktails at the Führer," and the album's title comes from the French phrase for sacrilege against royalty. The sentiment can be interpreted in several ways, with Butler lyrically protecting what's precious to him — blackness, hip-hop, eccentricity — and going hard at oppressors.

"Luxor" morphs into "Forerunner Foray," which captures the buzz of the entire hip-hop era, with prototypical rapping spliced in from 1973 and fluid, controlled jazz singing from Catherine Harris-White. She's Butler's main co-star on the album — not Tendai Maraire and his mbira, like on the last two Shabazz records.

As melodic as much of Lese Majesty is, the words might be the album's most important element. Close listeners will find brilliant inventions ("plushtrous," "unstill") and plenty of quotable passages. From "They Come in Gold," a cool literary reference: "Ish dances with the white whale on the Pequod." From "Harem Aria," after a string of bizarrely simple similes: "I'm not messing with your mind / I don't have that kind of time."

If you're in Seattle before Sept. 5, Butler's crew Black Constellation has an exhibit at the Frye Art Museum called Your Feast Has Ended, with textiles, sculpture, paintings and video work from Nicholas Galanin, Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes (Shabazz Palaces' video director and mask maker) and Nep Sidhu (Lese Majesty album designer). There's no better way to hear this album than while walking through the museum wearing headphones.

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Bear In Heaven's new album, Time Is Over One Day Old, comes out July 29. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Bear In Heaven, 'Time Is Over One Day Old'

Jul 20, 2014

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Tom Moon

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Two minutes and 11 seconds into "They Dream," from Bear in Heaven's fourth album Time Is Over One Day Old, the music takes a strange turn. The band has been shuttling along at a riveting adventure-movie clip, with Jon Philpot's reverb-swaddled voice functioning as the primary distinct element in a sleek blur. Then, abruptly, the tempo stops. A wash of Space Mountain synths dissolves slowly — the set has been struck. When Philpot begins to sing again, he's the sole occupant of the spotlight. Now he's offering a curious stray thread from a love story, and though the melody is new, its lovely elongated phrases echo those in the first part of the tune. What began as a thrill ride ends as something shadowy and mysterious and poignant.

The song lasts a little more than five minutes, and it never circles back to the money-shot "hook"; once that riveting moment disappears, it's gone for good. Those who expect their tunes to follow a strict verse-chorus schedule might find it unsettling, but those who have immersed themselves in Bear in Heaven's previous efforts — notably 2012's I Love You, It's Cool — will adjust. Because a signature lure of this Brooklyn band lies its fresh thinking about song structure: Philpot and multi-instrumentalist Adam Wills write epics that behave like highly concentrated energy shots. Their themes are sometimes somber, in a rock-anthem way that suggests it could take many long verses to get the full story. Their dramatic ramp-ups summon the thundering fury of U2. Their memorable refrains (and most of them are unshakably memorable) reach for and regularly glimpse celestial peaks. But there's a big catch: It's all highly concentrated. You have to pay attention, because these elements arrive and depart in a blink.

Bear in Heaven has been criticized for this compressed approach in the past, and with reason — its synth-centered landscapes are so intoxicating, you could imagine them easily inspiring extended romps in the vaguely psychedelic space-rock sphere. The band might want to visit that realm someday, but for now, its songs are edited for maximum impact. Philpot and multi instrumentalist Adam Wills have always had a clear sense of how the music should unfold, even if that means jettisoning beloved sections and messing with listeners' expectations.

On Time Is Over One Day Old, the band has achieved a golden mean on the expectation/disruption axis: The ethereal verses and nectar-like hooks last just long enough to become familiar, yet never return frequently enough to wear out their welcome. Part of the credit for this goes to the sumptuous textures: "Autumn" has an intriguing and beautifully harmonized refrain that happens exactly twice and ends with a hypnotic electric drone-scape, with vocal phrases like "a pleasure bearing down" peeking through its thick array. Even when Philpot intends to be explicit about a message, as in the swamp crawl "If I Were to Lie," he doesn't convey it by hammering some catchphrase over and over. He's more likely to string along stray fragments of story, relying on the shimmering atmosphere to fill the scene with detail.

Time is to the composer what an open canvas is to a painter. Philpot and Wills have evidently been thinking generally about time — see the album title — and within the songs themselves, they test out provocative notions about duration and repetition; about what happens when; and about different ways to create drama. Melding the gravitas of majestic, slowly unfolding anthems with punk's cut-to-the-chase brevity, Bear In Heaven has created vibrant, defiantly imaginative music for a rapidly expanding market segment: twitchy souls with short attention spans. But even those whose minds move at analog speed should learn to savor Bear in Heaven's sublime, episodic music. There's really no choice, because these songs blossom quickly and evaporate quickly, as fleeting as time itself.

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Quetzal's new album, Quetzanimales, comes out July 29. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Quetzal, 'Quetzanimales'

Jul 20, 2014

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Felix Contreras

Twenty years is a long time in the life of a band. In the case of Quetzal, its two decades have been spent playing the soundtrack of its East L.A. neighborhoods: an evolving mash-up of Mexican son jarocho, low-rider oldies, cumbia, boleros, rock and blues.

Many Angelenos consider Quetzal as much as an institution as its East L.A. brethren in Los Lobos. Much of the current revival of son jarocho can be traced to Quetzal's history of playing the music when few others bothered.

Its latest album, Quetzanimales, expands the band's legacy with a concept that pays tribute to different animals found in the urban landscape: night owls, coyotes, spiders, squirrels, a rooster. The lyrics offer lessons that reflect the group's stated philosophy: the re-imagination of human life in relation to other living things.

Quetzal pulls off its mission with inspiring lyrics and gorgeous, expert musicianship; Martha Gonzalez's voice has developed the kind of deep resonance found in the best mariachi belters and soul crooners. On top of it all, the steady presence of band founder and guitarist Quetzal Flores guarantees a multi-genre musical journey that's both eclectic and magically cohesive.

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Wildest Dreams' new, self-titled album comes out July 29. (Courtesy of the artist)

First Listen: Wildest Dreams, 'Wildest Dreams'

by Andy Beta
Jul 20, 2014

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Andy Beta

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In a career spanning three decades, Harvey Bassett has done a bit of everything. He bashed drums in a John Peel-approved U.K. punk band in the late '70s, then found himself taken with hip-hop and turntables while visiting New York City in the early '80s. Technics in hand, he returned to the U.K., where he set about becoming a prime mover in his country's nascent dance-music scene, responsible for bringing Paradise Garage legend Larry Levan over at the end of his life.

Bassett became a resident DJ at Ministry of Sound and Fabric as the "Summer of Love" landed in London, but in the early 21st century, he relocated to the U.S. Here, his eclectic and woozy DJ sets took root and influenced a new generation of DJs (James Murphy, Todd Terje), while his peculiar alchemy transformed the likes of The Beach Boys and Paul McCartney into dance-floor staples. Such is Bassett's influence that even the man's look became a dance subgenre unto itself: beardo disco.

Starting with his Locussolus project back in 2010, Bassett showed he wasn't interested in repeating himself, as he instead crafted a hybrid of minimal techno and '80s rock. Now comes his new band, Wildest Dreams, which renews his love of garage music. But don't expect the group's self-titled debut to dabble in Paradise Garage-era disco, or even U.K. garage: Bassett and his cohorts are making psychedelic garage rock, full-stop. Here, Nuggets-era bands and Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels intermingle with spacey Pink Floyd and Dire Straits. In the eight-minute rave-up "Last Ride," Dan Hastie's electric organ and Sergio Rios' stingray guitar leads power the groove, while Bassett howls in his smoke-laced tenor about feeding a hungry succubus. That said, don't slot Wildest Dreams as a rehash of raw '60s rock: The last three minutes of the song unspool into a darkly slinky groove.

As any great DJ or race-car driver might do, Bassett knows when to rev it up and when to lay off the gas. For every roiling stomper on Wildest Dreams ("She Loves Me Not," "Scorpion Bay"), there's a number that simmers instead. Hear how he crafts a laid-back disco shuffle for "405" that's as influenced by Steve Winwood's Traffic as it is by SoCal traffic. In the album's centerpiece, "Pleasure Swell," Bassett pays tribute to L.A., be it surfing in the Pacific Ocean or recalling the seedy Sunset Strip era of The Doors. The keyboards here bring to mind Ray Manzarek's gloomy tone in "Riders on the Storm" as the song ebbs and flows for seven minutes, dark and dreamy in equal measure. It's the kind of strange, unslottable song that makes perfect sense to open a DJ Harvey set.

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