Jason Molina never sang to — or for — the many. The singer-songwriter, who died last year at 39, gave voice to despair and solitude, and to a lonely pursuit of the comfort and strength necessary to face each day. Whether he performed as Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co or Jason Molina, his big, yearning voice encountered only a small but intense cult following that heard in him a crucial combination of fatalism and fighting spirit.
Like many whose fan bases run narrow but deep, Molina was widely beloved by musicians; anyone who's ever tried to channel the blues would know how pure his were. Within the last year, Molina has already inspired two double-length tribute albums, each intended to help his family and spread word of his work. Both, while naturally uneven in execution, nicely convey the sturdiness of Molina's songcraft — not to mention his considerable gift for quotable melancholy.
Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina is the newer of the two collections — the other is last year's Weary Engine Blues — with proceeds split between the singer's family and a charity called MusiCares, which battles Molina's twin demons of alcoholism and depression. In 27 songs and just less than two hours, it provides a fine overview of the singer's best-known work, highlighted by My Morning Jacket's suitably epic take on the title track.
Given the reverence in which Molina's work is held, it's no surprise that Farewell Transmission rarely strays far from the singer's original intentions, though it's intriguing to hear Squares recast the almost impossibly desolate "Get Out Get Out Get Out" as a bold rock song. Molina's former bandmates even come together as Memorial Electric Company to perform a new track, "Arm in Arm," as well as to tackle the unrecorded Molina song "Trouble in Mind (Fade to Blue)." Between the incredible source material and a fine assortment of contributors — including Sarah Jaffe, Murder by Death, Catherine Irwin, Wooden Wand and another past Molina collaborator, Will Johnson of Centro-Matic — Farewell Transmission marks a fine way to both celebrate a great career and mourn a man for whom mournfulness was stitched into the fabric of his art.
The Detroit band Death spent a chunk of the '70s making vital music that went almost entirely unheard for decades. Inspired in part by Alice Cooper, brothers Bobby, David and Dannis Hackney made furious, hooky proto-punk music that existed alongside bands like the MC5, yet never reached an audience. When it finally saw national release back in 2009, Death's music seemed to emerge from an alternate-universe canon.
Five years ago, ...For the Whole World to See surfaced as a frequently masterful lost album from the mid-'70s, and the years since have spawned a second collection of recordings (Spiritual, Mental, Physical) in 2011, a documentary (A Band Called Death) in 2012, and now a decades-spanning compilation titled Death III. Taken together, they paint a picture of a group that deserves its new-found place in rock history.
Given that its nine songs span nearly two decades — these recordings were made in 1975, 1976, 1980 and 1992 — Death III can't help but project an odds-and-ends vibe. Two tracks, "Introduction by David" and "First Snowfall in Detroit," are instrumental, while others convey the raw feel of home demos. But the recordings still capture the creativity of the minds that made them: From 1980, the skittishly paranoid "North Street" chronicles the perils that await the have-nots in Detroit, while "We Are Only People" spends nearly nine minutes transforming from a trippy, meandering seether to a boldly rocking epic.
Until recently, Death's story was one of obscurity and disappointment: an aborted major-label record deal, ill-fated attempts to regroup as The 4th Movement in the late '70s and, most sadly, the death of guitarist David Hackney from lung cancer in 2000. It took bassist Bobby Hackney's sons stumbling across some tapes in the family attic for Death's story to even begin to be told, but now there's a true archive to complement its amazing resurrection. As anyone who's seen the reconstituted Death on the live stage can tell you, it may well be time for some new recordings — welcome additions to an unlikely story that almost went untold.
Food is life. It's the connective tissue between families, communities and cultures. At base, it's sustenance, and at its most complex, like when it appears in song, it can evoke nostalgia, carnal desires and comfort. For Kelis Rogers, R&B's resident provocateur, Food — her first album since 2010's dance-heavy Flesh Tone — is the embodiment of what she has always contended as an artist: that she can't be molded to fit inside one genre — one flavor, one dish, one cuisine.
Since her first blip on the radar in 1999 as the hook singer on Ol' Dirty Bastard's "Got Your Money," Kelis' work has run the gamut of musical experimentation; her approach has been nothing less than bombastic. Whether she was screaming about how much she hates you, spearheading the shift toward a new R&B sound or diving into the world of electronic dance music, Kelis has never been one to sound subdued or stagnant.
At 34 years old — post divorce, contract liberation and since becoming a mother — Kelis is beyond the point of trying to fit into any box that the industry has tried to squash her into, whether it was a label with misgivings or a radio station that couldn't figure out where she belonged. In flipping her sound once again, she found an unlikely partnership with indie/art-rocker Dave Sitek (of TV on the Radio fame) and the 13-piece band that came with him. The result is songs that we'd never have expected from the singer. Instead of playing her position and exploring with futuristic interpretations, Kelis tips her hat to the past with a palette that revels in soul, doo-wop and layered girl-group harmonies. It's a pace further away from the massive hit song that, more than a decade later, refuses to go down.
But there are also moments on Food when it seems that two steps toward a new life are stalled by a backward stumble to a not-so-forgotten past. On tracks like "Rumble," you can hear a mixture of relief and reluctance as she repeats, "I'm so glad you gave back my keys." There's no authority in the way she says it, but in the end, she's persistent enough that she's convincing herself, if nobody else.
With her signature throaty growl, Kelis relays what she needs throughout Food. Whether she's asking for something as deceptively simple as ice-cold water in a song like "Friday Fish Fry," or something as complicated as love itself on songs like "Floyd," where she huskily, sweetly, sings, "I want to be blown away," Food represents Kelis' most heartfelt demand — graciously intoned, especially compared to the ways she has insisted before — that we acknowledge where she is now.
As of last September — some 36 years after their launch on Sept. 5, 1977 — NASA's Voyager 1 & 2 space probes were some 12 billion miles from home, easily the farthest man-made objects from Earth. Voyager's primary mission ended back in 1980, when both satellites provided the closest, most detailed pictures taken of the gaseous planets of Jupiter and Saturn and their moons before continuing outward into space.
But in addition to their planet-photographing abilities, both Voyagers also contain instruments able to record the electromagnetic radiation fluctuations of those heavenly bodies — which means they can pick up what truly is the harmony of the spheres. And since each body — be it an asteroid, Saturn or any of Jupiter's numerous moons — has a unique mass and elemental make-up, each emits a different "sound." Spread across seven seven-inch singles to be released on Record Store Day (along with a CD, digital and regular vinyl release), Lefse Records' The Space Project compilation features 14 modern bands and electronic-music producers who imbibe and ground such cosmic noise into an earthly delight.
For some acts, adding actual "space" to their space-rock is a given. Chilean duo The Holydrug Couple deploys leisurely drums and heavily reverbed guitars and organ in "Amphitrites Lost," then has the song dilate midway through to allow in the noise of Neptune herself. Former Lungfish member Asa Osbourne's spare project Zomes embraces the transmissions of Saturn for the haunting and hushed ambient drift of "Moonlet."
The lineage of artists and composers imagining the sounds of our solar system — think the exotic bachelor-pad swing of Esquivel, the outré transmissions of Sun Ra or the "New World" weirdness of Joe Meek — is vast, and not every conjuring of the cosmos is so reverent. DFA's Larry Gus pays tribute to the moon Io and fills in all that space with Henry Mancini hi-hats, caffeinated piano lines, krautrock bass and garbled transmissions. And Blues Control weaves and floats in "Blues Danube" like a UFO operator about to get a DUI.
Curiously, The Space Project's finest moments are its most terrestrial. Beach House suggests not so much the weightlessness of space as the sensation of floating in a warm pond in "Saturn Song." And space-rock master Jason Pierce and Spiritualized's "Always Together With You (The Bridge Song)" meanders about before swan-diving into the interplanetary noise of its source. Ever so subtly, it announces: "Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating on earth."
"This is a matter of the heart — a matter of the soul," Jesse Boykins III declares toward the end of his new album, Love Apparatus. His heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears and laughter have merged and culminated in the project, out April 22, which is his first full-length solo album in more than five years. When he released his last LP, The Beauty Created, in November 2008 — only 9 months after his debut, Dopamine: My Life On My Back — Boykins was an earnest, bright-eyed kid who emanated potential. With two records under his belt in a breakout year, he was on the radar of forward-thinking music blogs and new-school R&B fans alike. And then ... nothing. Aside from a peep here and there, he went quiet for the next half decade.
Despite not having a new album to call his own all those years, Boykins has crafted an eclectic and powerful presence in the undulating landscape of contemporary R&B. Now known equally for his sensuous vocals, unsettling charm and unduplicated aesthetics (see the photo above), Boykins has managed to remain musically relevant by collaborating with fellow Soulquarian-influenced artists like Melo-X and MoRuf and by putting his own spin on popular songs, like Drake's Jhene Aiko-assisted "From Time." His experiences over the past few years — which include touring extensively in Europe and working closely with electronic producer Machinedrum — have influenced who and what he represents in the present. Boykins took his ever-loving sweet time creating Love Apparatus, and reimagined himself in the process.
On the opening track, "GreyScale," Boykins stages an awakening. Over the rhythm of a heartbeat that sounds like it's been poised to pump for years, he seeks acknowledgment of his reincarnation and reinvention. By combining earthy, soul-tinged vocals with funk-infused new-age production from Machinedrum, Boykins carves a unique place in R&B. Not quite Miguel, nor Jeremih, but somebody all his own.
Throughout the record, the singer's breathy vocals are matched by Machinedrum's production, which expands and retracts with Boykins' every inhale and exhale. Against the backdrop of playful horns and flirtatious 808s on "Show Me Who You Are," Boykins seductively pleas with his female counterpart to let him see the real her. "I'll take haste to learn the trails of you," he promises.
And so goes the entirety of the album. Boykins is by now a professional persuader: he persuades romantic interests to believe in him, to trust his ability to love; he persuades himself that his love is worthy; and he persuades us listeners to give him an honest shot, to accept all that he's emoting, all those feelings he left out for us to consume.