There are a couple moments in "Where Mountains Pierce the Sky" — after nine minutes of acoustic guitar, fiddle and Native American flute, what could conceivably be called a black metal riff with a pop-punk bounce and flurry of twin lead guitars — that clue you into Roads to the North's M.O. (As if the first nine minutes weren't enough.) First, the key-change climax, which may not seem like much, but this tectonic shift is the sound of a mountain piercing the damn sky. Then there's the chugga-chugga breakdown, the enemy of all that is grim. Those lines blur more often these days, but late '90s-style hardcore (think Earth Crisis, Shai Hulud) and black metal are still infrequent bedfellows, so to have a pulling-up-change move come out of a blast beat is a trip.
Panopticon's sole member, Austin Lunn, always works best from his own life experience: loss (On the Subject of Mortality), the social justice system (Social Disservices), and unions (Kentucky), to sum up these very different LPs all too briefly. With Roads to the North, Lunn has a lot to celebrate: the birth of a child, and a career-making sojourn through Norway that begat a move from Kentucky to Minnesota to make — wait for it — craft beer.
Those triumphs inform Roads, but not without hardship. It's difficult to discern without a lyric sheet, but the three-part "Long Road" feels the like heart of the record, starting with a bittersweet farewell to Kentucky bluegrass-style ("One Last Fire"), raging through crusty black metal-cum-prog ("Capricious Miles") and ending with the appropriately titled "The Sigh of Summer," its Rodan-like cadence sounding like a nod to his time in Louisville. There's a weight and texture given to this triptych, building on melodies that feel lived in, desperate for more. It doesn't hurt that Colin Marston (Krallice, Dysrythmia) engineered and produced, ever with an ear for tuneful arranging and making unexpected sounds come alive.
Members of When Bitter Spring Sleeps, Waldgeflüster, Altar of Plagues and Obsequiae all make important contributions here, but Road to the North — as all Panopticon albums — lies solely in the realm of Austin Lunn. This is a triumphant, ebullient metal record that steps outside Panopticon's curveball mixture of American folk and metal (black- and melodic death-metal, in particular) but also makes a space to rein everything in.
To music obsessives of a certain age, the current generation of listeners sometimes appears as lightweight grazers at the Internet smorgasbord who seem unwilling (possibly unable) to focus attention at depth on a single piece of music. The summary dismissal: The kids today, they can't handle all of what somebody like a Frank Zappa (or a band like King Crimson) throws at them.
It's a reckless, ageist generalization. But as often happens, it carries a shred of truth. Zappa exists now as a ghost, a figure on the margins of music discourse whose significant contributions are savored by an elite few. That's perhaps because his intricate, idea-crammed compositions require a bit of patience and listening skill to fully appreciate. And let's face it, those skills are in short supply — listeners want the "Happy" hook that arrives right on schedule. Even indie-rock snobs have a soft spot for the instant eureka moment payoff.
This does not augur well for the commercial prospects of Adult Jazz, a four-piece from Leeds whose debut, Gist Is, is filled with intricate, idea-crammed, expectation-defying compositions. It's a dizzying work that, like jazz itself, doesn't always charm instantly; it takes a bit of work to warm up to it.
The album begins with an instrumental drone and three full minutes of somber, highly processed vocalizing from frontman and lyricist Harry Burgess. The drone sets an odd scene, transporting listeners away from the chatter of the moment and into an abandoned place of worship where Gregorian chant once rattled from the rafters. Burgess' fluttery voice and strange groupings of words extend the sense of mystery, and when the drums finally kick in, with a fitful pulse that doesn't immediately sync up into something as obvious as a 4/4 beat, the message is clear: It's time to abandon hope for the ear-candy refrain that will snap things into focus. The governing structure of "Hum" is not your typical verse-chorus pathway, but rather a swervy series of stream-of-consciousness melodic inventions, some more accessible than others. When the sassy marching band trombones arrive, at 5:57, the listener has had plenty of warning. You have to be ready for anything, be it liturgical song or a nasty New Orleans groove.
Adult Jazz doesn't sound like Zappa. (Or, for that matter, much like a band that is often mentioned as kindred, Dirty Projectors.) But its endeavor shares Zappa's subversive irreverence and his belief that disparate and severely mismatched musical elements can, if linked together properly, open up new sonic landscapes. Even before track two starts, the casual listener can sense there's a cagey, astute musical sophistication at work on the structural level.
Motifs and narrative ideas move fast in the Adult Jazz maelstrom; riffs erupt, take center stage for a minute and then just as quickly disappear. It's as though the four-piece, which writes the music collectively and in live performance is prone to switching instruments mid-song, is chasing super-concentrated bursts of bliss — fleeting episodes rather than extended explorations. It just so happens that when they're strung together like pearls, some of those episodes gather into music that's epic, both in length and scope.
The rivetingly filmic "Spook" lasts nearly 10 minutes, and throughout the excursion, there isn't much in the way of recurring melodies. "Idiot Mantra" situates lovely ethereal vocal riffs ("my heart, it is spinning all over the ground") against a purposefully pounded tribal drum pulse. As the piece unfolds, Burgess goes from singing in measured cadence to riffing like a jazz cat through polyrhythms that rachet up the tension.
The ecstasy-glimpsing "Donne Tongue" unfolds its sideways homage to the metaphysical poet and cleric John Donne in just under six minutes, but it feels longer. What begins as a spry shuffle grows darker as electric guitars galumph and grind into the forefront. As happens elsewhere, Burgess' vocals reflect and reinforce each new musical wrinkle — even if you don't like all the abrupt gearshifts, his array of personas and emotional nuances is impressive and captivating.
In interviews, Burgess has said that there are unifying themes running through the lyrics of these nine densely packed songs — among them, the challenges of communication, empathy, morality and the search for meaning in life. At first these lofty notions didn't register with me; only after listening several times, and actively tracking the trippy wordplay, did this narrative thread become apparent. Which is to say there are layers in these songs, and strange juxtapositions of images within the verses, and then big "meta" contrasts between text and musical accompaniment. It's trippy to encounter a song that talks about what constitutes a right way to live propelled by music that breaks the rules with such delighted giddiness.
Thing is, even as it makes a kind of weirdness Zappa could dig, Adult Jazz does not serve it up by the pound. This band deploys its quirkiest quirks with surgical precision. What sounds, at first, like circus-sideshow novelty music acquires dimension over time, often becoming disarming and profound on subsequent listens. There's so much going on, in fact, it can be hard to fix any given song's center. So take the album title as one more bit of flimflammery. This music rambles and sprawls in ways that mock the notion of a well-defined and neatly encapsulated "gist."
Maybe Adult Jazz is saying that we lose something important by cutting to the chase all the time. Maybe our perpetually time-strapped mode of discourse prevents us from fully engaging the wonder and illumination that surrounds us. Then again, maybe it's all a slipstream. Maybe there is no gist.
Christopher Denny's voice wasn't the easiest to place when he debuted with Age Old Hunger in 2007. His sensitive vibrato was likened to Roy Orbison's, but there's really quite a chasm between the Big O's ethereal elegance and Denny's more earthbound timbre and flickers of humor. Jeff Buckley's been invoked as Denny's kin, too, since each of their singing styles responds to the slightest emotional breeze and avoids hard or guttural vocal attacks that read as masculine. But the late alt-pop singer was markedly citified, as opposed to Denny's down-home inflections.
Denny, an Arkansas boy, absorbed at least as much country as anything else growing up and never felt the need to rebel against it. Instead, he went searching for idiosyncratic voices within the tradition, initially getting into Willie Nelson because Nelson was too out-there a singer for his grandmother's taste. "To me," Denny told me in an interview, "it was like, 'Oh, she doesn't like it, so I wanna understand why this is different.'"
On his long-time-coming second album If the Roses Don't Kill Us, the now 30-year-old Denny aimed to strike a new balance, to reach out to the listener or, as he put it, "make myself a little more approachable."
There's a similar tension at play in Denny's songwriting this time around. The offhandedly inventive turns of phrase and dreamed-up imagery of "God's Height," "Million Little Thoughts" and the title track bear unmistakable stamps of quirky individuality. His way of illustrating feelings of inferiority is to tell his lover that, to him, she's grown as tall as God — and he's reluctantly accepted that she can no longer fit in his bed. On the other hand, confessional tunes like "Our Kind of Love" and "Wings" are vehicles of tender regret, and nearly as broad in their sentimental impact as enduring country standards or selections from the Great American Songbook.
There are reasons why Denny went seven years between albums. He was slogging through debilitating bouts of depression and addiction. He split with his first wife, got back with his high school sweetheart for a time, then married a new love. You'd think he would've been due for a breakup or recovery record, but he didn't tether himself to either theme.
Denny telegraphs more inclusive intentions with the antic, mood-swinging opener "Happy Sad," embroiders his parting ballads with quiet affection and frames the readiness to change as reason enough for celebration (see: "Some Things"). For the Roses is full of little surprises like that, as the peculiar sweetness of his expression is prone to both pique curiosity and resonate.
Upon the dissolution of his old, great New Jersey punk band, the DC Snipers, Dan McGee's two former band members went the way of Horatio Alger, with Eric Holmgren running the Daggerman label in the boom-bust heyday of late '00s garage punk, and Mike Sniper helming the wildly popular Captured Tracks imprint. McGee stayed the course with music, moving down to North Carolina and toughing it out with his follow-up group, Spider Bags. Following multiple lineup and label switcheroos, McGee has stripped the group down to a trio and made another fine rock 'n' roll record in Frozen Letter.
What's made Spider Bags such a worthwhile band to follow, aside from peeling back scalps with blistering fuzz when they want to, is McGee's preternatural understanding of his niche. He writes songs that reach back to the canon but retain more personality than almost any in the garage spectrum, solely on his words and riffs, and he lands both with a lot of comfort and a little abrasion. There's a song of his called "Hey Delinquents" that I heard on a seven-inch single years ago that stuck with me instantly, and continues to this day; I would have no trouble singing it for you if asked.
Frozen Letter contains a handful of those moments, even as the record is split between four short, catchy bangers and just as many longer tracks that poke holes in the formula. The eerie sensitivity of "Coffin Car" builds and ebbs across six minutes of a hangdog, sing-song melody until the whole thing explodes with the force of the E Street Band closing out the night. Elsewhere, tracks like "Chem Trails" speak of the perverse paranoia of an ill-informed populace through a fusillade of synth treatments, and closing track "Eyes of Death" extends a groove so deep it could run the full length of this album.
However, it's the one song McGee didn't write here — "Summer of '79," on loan from the Golden Boys' John Wesley Coleman — that frames the entire record with the unabashed glee that comes from rock music played hard and with reason. With an opening lyric like "Why you wanna be a Rolling Stone? / Why you think your dad is the king of rock 'n' roll?" McGee borrows a big stick to draw a bigger line in the sand, leaving him and his bandmates on one side along with all the true believers, and those playing dress-up on the other. He's been at it long enough that you can't help wanting to stand with him.
"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.