Adam Torres – Pearls to Swine
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: Fat Possum]
A divine tearjerker
There are a handful of voices that could be regarded as proof that angels do exist. Adam Torres possesses one such voice. On Pearls to Swine, Torres glistens over a perfect mix of finger-picked acoustic guitar, soft percussion and aching strings. It’s an instantly timeless record. There are echoes of Tim Buckley and naturally Pearls Before Swing, but Adam Torres separates himself from his forebears by pouring out his soul in his own magnificent style. It’s an album likely to bring you to tears.
Favorite tracks: Juniper Arms, Where I’m Calling From, Mountain River
Arc Iris – Moon Saloon
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: Arc Iris/Bella Union]
An art pop pixie journeys to space
On their second album, Arc Iris takes the art pop sound of their debut to breathtaking new heights. Intricate and expansive, Moon Saloon is an elaborately orchestrated album that never feels convoluted. Sounding like a combination of Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush, vocalist Jocie Adams sings with a quirky elegance over an unpredictable synthesis of chamber pop, glam, spacey jazz, and unpretentiously proggy art pop. For such an over the top, ambitious adventure of a record, Moon Saloon succeeds in part because the fun they’re obviously having playing the songs crosses over to the listener.
Favorite tracks: Kaleidoscope, She Arose, Johnny
Bon Iver – 22, A Million
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: Jagjaguwar]
The glitchy descendent of Spirit of Eden
Upon early listens, 22, A Million appeared to be Bon Iver’s leap towards the more glitchy post-dubstep sound of recent collaborator James Blake. The autotune is there, as is the textured electronic beats. It’s a major shift for the once minimal folky songwriter. And while contemporary influences are a major presence, it turned out that the undeniable influence of Talk Talk is what shines brightest for me. Decades after the releases of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, Talk Talk’s immaculately composed jazzy, ethereal post-rock has consistently been a catalyst for the growth of other artists. Radiohead continues to draw from that well, and now Bon Iver. This is not to discredit the artistic merits of Justin Vernon. During the evolution of Bon Iver, the project has always sounded unique, and 22, A Million is no different. So, although it’s a significant stylistic shift, there’s no question that it’s a Bon Iver record. Slow moving and atmospheric, the third Bon Iver record is richly detailed in a way that will make it take longer to fully reveal itself, but that’s part of the reward. On 22, A Million, Bon Iver has embraced a subtle maximalism and experimentation without distracting from or devaluing Vernon’s beautiful emotive voice.
Favorite tracks: 29 #Strafford APTS, 666 ʇ, 8(circle)
Cloacas – …and the skies are not cloudy all day
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: self-released]
Every time I listen to …and the skies are not cloudy all day, I can’t help but imagine the bizarre universe of a dustbowl-era carnival. It’s a playful oasis within an otherwise desolate landscape inhabited by serious types of folks. Exploited “freaks” present bewildering feats, flim flam men swindle exuberant children, and to the dismay of religious zealots fortune tellers embrace mysticism. For every bit of playful whimsy, there’s an underbelly of tragedy. And within the childlike wonder of the presentation is an immensely skilled craft. In an instrumental synthesis of guitar, banjo, clarinet, bass, violin, percussion, singing saw, kazoos, whistles and so on, Cloacas is able to embody the odd, intricate realm of the carnival. Their closest musical kin may be A Hawk and a Hacksaw, although Cloacas doesn’t dig quite as deep into their Balkan influences.
Favorite tracks: Playing in Traffic, The Great Rhinehart Tire Fire of 1983, Croissant Moon
The Handsome Family – Unseen
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: Handsome Family]
It took Albuquerque-based Americana duo The Handsome Family over two decades to get the attention they deserve. On their first album since True Detective shined the light on them, The Handsome Family remains just as gloomy as they’ve always been. As usual, Brett Sparks plays the role of the wise old drifter telling sobering tales set in the dry desert landscape of the southwest. With a keen eye of detail, his narratives provide startlingly vivid character portraits set to a theatrical noir sound from the dustier realms of American music.
Favorite tracks: Gold, The Sea Rose, King of Dust
Mickey Theis – Range Songs
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: Self-Released]
A young cowboy sets out on a lifelong adventure
For his solo debut, former Motel Motel guitarist Mickey Theis holds nothing back. At its core, Range Songs is a singer songwriter record rooted in classic Americana and folk, but Theis has brought in a load of other musicians to flesh out the songs into huge productions containing everything from glockenspiel and vibes to soaring strings and brass. Theis’ voice is young but dignified. Combined with the crisp, confident production and bright orchestration, there’s a charming optimism within even his most melancholy songs. He saves his best for last with Nilsson-gone-country closer “Are You Coming Out Tonight?”.
Favorite tracks: Places, True Love, Are You Coming Out Tonight?
Terry Malts – Lost At the Party
[Year: 2016 / Country: UK / Label: Slumberland]
No one’s gonna have fun at the party unless they let loose from their inhibited pretensions
From the jangly pop of The Smiths to the post-punk of The Chameleons to The Jesus & Mary Chain’s noisy version of 60s pop, Terry Malts draws influence from a familiar and exhausted realm. What they’re doing has been done many times over, so the band deserves a lot of credit for somehow not sounding like a tired cliché. Infectious, energetic, and performed with an air of cool, Lost At the Party is a refresher course in the most enjoyable aspects of ’80s rock that is simply too fun to dismiss.
Favorite tracks: Won’t Come To Find You, Seen Everything, Playtime
Two Door Cinema Club – Gameshow
[Year: 2016 / Country: UK / Label: Glassnote]
I can’t be the only one that listened to Gameshow opener “Are We Ready? (Wreck)”, and immediately heard a polished stadium indie version of Kenny Loggins. But that’s not really where the Loggins parallels end on the band’s third album. Undeniably catchy, Gameshow unapologetically draws from the cheesiest aspects of the early 80s. Regardless of whether or not it’s an ironic affection, people still love Loggins, and people will undoubtedly fill stadiums for Two Door Cinema. You just won’t find me in that crowd.
Favorite tracks: Gameshow, Good Morning
Various Artists – Say Yes! A Tribute To Elliott Smith
[Year: 2016 / Country: USA / Label: American Laundromat]
The legacy of Elliott Smith continues on
Even when honoring the best of songwriters, tribute albums can be really hit or miss. The original version are often treasures relics and next to impossible to improve upon, leaving the tributing artists in position to underwhelm. Even with a cast of artists that includes indie greats J Mascis, Tanya Donelly and Lou Barlow, Say Yes! A Tribute To Elliott Smith offers little to be excited. The bulk of the artists take an approach that stays true to the original versions, but in doing so they turn out to be somewhat forgettable. J Mascis and Jesu/Sun Kil Moon offer the most significant transformations by re-envisioning the songs in their own styles. Say Yes! A Tribute To Elliott Smith is a worth a listen but ultimately underwhelming.
Favorite tracks: Waltz #1 (by Escondido), Condor Ave (Jesu/Sun Kil Moon), Angeles (Waxahatchee)