The Best of the New Releases I Heard in 2016: Q1 | Willie Edward Smith

The Now became my focus for 2016. I had no clue what that would mean going forward.

My music consumption is most likely a compulsive habit I can’t afford to maintain. I fail at exposing myself to all the things I purchase or are available to me because I just don’t have the time to immerse myself to the degree I was accustomed to when my pool of artists was exponentially smaller. Like many, I fold under the weight, and happenstance and prioritization shape my exposure. Because of that, emotions dictate how and why I listen to music. Here’s what I heard, in quarterly doses, chronologically, with insight into omissions.

Winter 2016

I haven’t listened to Black Star. I watched the video for the title track once, dreamed David Bowie released a song that was meant to inspire those who were mourning his loss that didn’t exist, and never looked back. His discography was one I had contemplated exploring many years ago, but as more and more artists caught my attention, I kept on the backburner the task of seeking out the parts of his catalog that appealed to me. When death punctuates a career in music, something that is inevitable, the propensity for morbid fascination sends me off in other direction, until I can reconcile the loss on my own terms. The loss of Bowie, whom I consider an iconic figure in music and fashion perpetually in The Now, forced me to make my peace with my inability to digest the depth of his role in all the music of which I have found myself fond. So The Now became my focus for 2016. I had no clue what that would mean going forward; instead I lost myself in these releases.

Eliot Sumner | Information (Cherrytree)

I knew nothing of Sumner’s work prior to attending a show at Firebird in 2015, when she opened for On an On. I was duly impressed. I thought of many bands from the turn of the century like Interpol, Longwave, and Editors, as well as early ’80s new wave that edged toward shoe gaze. Released via a PledgeMusic preorder, Information was a pensive, propulsive soundtrack for someone at the end of their rope trying to reconcile discord in the world. It was the right album at the right time, and I wish more people were aware of it. Sumner’s natural intensity permeates Information to the point of being intimidating. The authority of the vocal is reminiscent of Gordon Sumner (aka Sting), patriarch of the Sumner clan, but with more gravitas. Sumner’s authority as a vocalist and lyricist couples well with that swelling hum of their four-piece. The music seems like it’s bound to drone, but sweeps over you coolly, with a soft luminescence. It’s as if the unrequited solitude of a night spent alone has found a voice, like a ghost in the machines of Information’s genesis.

Lissie | My Wild West (Lionboy)

Lissie tapped into my affinity for Fleetwood Mac’s moodier tendencies, undercut with a power and grit I hadn’t heard in that sort of music in a long time. My Wild West was the soundtrack of a fork in the road in her life, and is every bit as inspired as the choices she made about her future as a person and musician. Rather than turning inward, Lissie gave us a collection of anthems to balance the introspection. Her return to the Midwest from California is soundtracked by My Wild West. Though cut from a different cloth, Ryan Adam’s Gold documents a similar transition as an artist. I was a little underwhelmed by Gold, though, and it took the special edition’s bonus tracks to get me to warm to it. Lissie have never failed to create pop music I feel no shame or reservation about celebrating. It balances a timelessness that feels unbleached and weathered, but bathed in the light of the golden hour of dusk. Lissie gave me something that felt like a document of our regional spirit, in the pop-rock format I hadn’t heard since Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. It’s what road-rock with pop power could be if the tropes of genre are abandoned in service to the song. An album of that kind of earnest motivation lifted my spirits.

Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place | You’re Doomed. Be Nice. (Temporary Residence)

When Rob Crow left social media and music a few years back, I was let down. Starting in 2003, his band Pinback was responsible for providing one of my favorite permutations of the music of my prepubescent years. During that time period, new wave, synth pop, goth, and new romantic music were as common to hear on the radio as conventional pop. That Pinback melded elements of those styles with low fi, indie, and a version of alternative rock that was closer to college rock, left me feeling a particular kinship with the music and its fans. Then Crow, who had a plethora of side projects, released his solo debut Living Well, and was even more appealing to me. His other projects continued and his sophomore album He Thinks He’s People made a great impression on me.

So when Crow and his new band returned with You’re Doomed. Be Nice., I felt especially happy. The album managed to tap into a frenetic energy and technical aptitude I was seeking out all those years ago when I was first turned on to Pinback. I’d seen Pinback on the tour for Autumn of the Seraphs and it was a thrill, but seeing Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place at the Creepy Crawl was a treatise in perfectionism. They played the majority of You’re Doomed. Be Nice. with precision and intensity that was a stark contrast to Clownvis, of whom I was completely unaware and thoroughly amused by. Crow’s absence from the music world and his subsequent return, not unlike his choice in opening acts, was an off-speed curveball, but there he was again, hitting us with the heat.

The Joy Formidable | Hitch (s/r)

Some bands come on the scene with a level of hype that puts my inner contrarian on guard. It takes a little prodding, or providence, to get me to lend an ear in their favor. The Joy Formidable is one of those acts. Simply put, if Rolling Stone champions a band, my kneejerk reaction is to consider them suspect from the jump. Lucky for me, my exposure to the Joy Formidable affirmed the efforts to herald their arrival as an act to watch. Three albums in, they have yet to disappoint; Hitch is a showcase of their ability to embrace a gamut of emotions and stylistic dynamics. When I listen, there are moments when I expect the sky to part and a comet to impact the ocean, showering us all with prismatic shards of otherworldly minerals. There are times they lock into a groove so grounded and tense, you’re taken aback by the inescapable pervasiveness of your debt to the hormonal secretions that make you who you are. They do it all while maintaining a level of artistic integrity that other bands sacrifice in pursuit of mainstream appeal. Hitch is a well-crafted document of their consistency and refined craft. And when they did it live at the Ready Room for all to see, I overcame my fear of witnessing their intensity firsthand, and was happier for it.

O’Brother | Endless Light (Triple Crown)

Being a fan of dense, melodic, heavy music can leave a person compromised as they try to find artists who capture those varying elements and approaches to executing sonic and emotional affect. O’ Brother typifies what I like. They got my attention opening for Thrice a few years back, on a bill with Moving Mountains and La Dispute. They were an unexpected and life-affirming find for someone like me, whose ideal metal album as a teen (if you want to call it that) was Black Sabbath’s Paranoid. Contrasting that with a propensity for enjoying ambient instrumentals and jazz from the late ’80s by Spyro Gyra, Bob James, and David Sanborn, made my musical extremes hard to reconcile—at least until the ’90s and the many permutations of rock subgenres opened up the possibilities of what you could do.

Artists could embrace impressionistic tendencies, or revel in noise and music concrete. You could tap into the pathos of balladry or operatic wailing, and then abruptly shift to a bellowing cry of agony or frustration. Art rock, post rock, emo, math: there was no one way to explore rock music’s capacity for documenting and exorcising tumult. Not being a fan of atonal screaming, I felt an immediate affinity when O’ Brother offered up meditations and dirges that could entrance me while pummeling me. At times, they relieve the tension of their ominous wall cloud of sound with songs that elevate my pulse. They were everything I wanted out of Deftones but didn’t quite get back in 1997, exactly what I wished I’d gotten from Quicksand circa–Manic Compression. They encompassed all the promise I saw in Muse on their debut, Showbiz. Fittingly, Endless Light propels O’ Brother into a class all their own. They have mastered the art of showcasing how darkness is a source of fear and mystery, but from it comes a chance for illumination and surprise. Given the way the year began, this was timely; little did we know what would follow a few weeks after it was released. | Willie Edward Smith

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