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Recap: Record Store Day 2015

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Black Messiah (CD)

D'Angelo

The long-awaited  Black Messiah  caps off 2014 as the year’s best soul album. But to call it soul or R&B would be reductive. Even more so than D’Angelo’s previous two albums, the excellent  Brown Sugar  and neo-soul masterpiece  Voodoo ,  Black Messiah  eschews any preconceived notions of what R&B, pop, music in general should be.  Black Messiah  draws upon a rich history of black music, notably blues, jazz and gospel and funk, and blows them out into billowing, smokey jams that seep under your skin, work their way into your veins. “Ain’t That Easy” rides hard on The Vanguard’s hip-hop beat and raunchy funk chords, while D’Angelo delivers an impassioned vocal and conciliatory lyrics like a sleek modern-day update of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” “1,000 Deaths” lays out  Black Messiah ’s other theme, starting with a powerful passage by an African American preacher that rails against the presentation of Jesus as a white savior. Over The Vanguard’s stuttering, skronking beat, D’Angelo’s multitracked vocal paints a harrowing picture but makes its most memorable couplet a rallying cry for the oppressed (“A coward dies a thousand times/But a soldier only dies just once), ending in an ecstatic, Prince-worthy cry and Hendrixy guitar explosions. Like Erykah Badu’s  New Amerykah  albums, or (aesthetically) like Kanye West’s  Yeezus ,  Black Messiah  is remarkably adventurous throughout. “The Charade” shuffles along a beat reminiscent of Radiohead’s “There, There,” dazzles with springs of sitar and builds to a thick climax. Similarly, “Back to the Future (Part I)” and “II” breaks up a future-funk suite about breaking up, keeping you engaged with its heady groove.  Black Messiah ’s more accessible moments make for some of the loveliest songwriting D’Angelo’s put to tape, with lush devotionals like “Till It’s Done (Tutu)” and “Really Love” and the jaunty alien jazz of “Sugah Daddy” making for perfect mixtape material. D’Angelo definitely kept us waiting a while for this one, but his remarkably consistent catalog to this point shows that the best things come to those who wait. Truly,  Black Messiah  is a densely layered soul masterpiece.

To Pimp A Butterfly (CD)

Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough second album,  good kid, m.A.A.d city , left such an impression that hype for a follow-up has been through the roof. So forgive the Compton rapper if he kind of Beyonce’d  To Pimp a Butterfly , teasing singles before announcing a release date and suddenly putting it out a week early. Pulling the rug out from hype and inevitable backlash, it gives us a change to all hear  To Pimp a Butterfly  at once, in all its glory.  Butterfly  doubles down on the idiosyncracies of  good kid , eschewing club-friendly tracks in favor of those that cast a light on Lamar’s pure skills as a rapper and wordsmith—always celebrated, yet perhaps distracted by stellar production and  good kid ’s concept-album style—as well as his ability to put together a layered and compelling album. Tracks like the “For Free” interlude are showcases for Lamar’s dexterity, while “u’s” desperate, verge-on-tears delivery find him at his most vulnerable —Drake’s never done anything like this. The production across  To Pimp a Butterfly , courtesy of such luminaries as Flying Lotus and Thundercat, like those artists’ work (and similarly to D’Angelo’s recently released  Black Messiah ), effortlessly melds hip-hop, R&B and jazz on excellent tracks like the off-kilter “Institutionalized” and gorgeous “These Walls” to exist in some mystery middle space, without drawing attention away from Lamar’s star power. While headier tracks dominate the album, Lamar unleashes a couple of huge singles at the album’s closing. At first, “i” could come off as Lamar’s “sell out” track, catchy enough to sit alongside Pharrell’s “Happy” as a crowd-friendly that sands off his rough edges, but it serves as a bit of a breather here, dressed up in The Isley Brothers’ unstoppable “Who’s That Lady,” though Lamar’s lyrics remain deeply dark, exposing his own depression, and a spoken word passage that delves into a discussion on racial slurs adds context. Following the reclaiming of racial stereotypes on the absolutely killer “The Blacker the Berry,”  To Pimp a Butterfly  ends ultimately feeling conflicted yet triumphant. It’s a deep, complicated work, yet not one that feels the slightest bit overstuffed or overwrought. Kendrick Lamar successfully defies all expectations yet again, on what’s sure to be one of the year’s best albums.

Hyperview (CD)

Title Fight

Title Fight had made a name for themselves on a handful of releases based around heavy, melodic guitarwork and razorwire vocals. On  Hyperview , Title Fight stray further from the emo/punk format by turning their guitars into dream-rock vehicles and toning down the vocals in favor of soaring shoegaze melodies. The change suits them, as Title Fight are able to shake things up with mangled noise rock chords on “Chlorine,” moody basslines on songs like “Hypernight” and power-pop arrangements on tracks like “Mhrac.” The band’s watery, textured guitar playing makes for pleasant listening on the plaintive “Your Pain Is Mine Now,” but the band can still deliver a dose of the good ol’ screamo-style singing on “Rose of Sharon,” placing them in the same boat as bands who’ve similarly paired picturesque guitarwork with corrosive singing and driving beats, like Fucked Up and Deafheaven. Fans may have to get used to the more impressionistic style they use here, employing Chapterhouse and Swervedriver as influences as much as Jawbreaker or Rites of Spring. But those who are willing to evolve with the band will be rewarded with a perfect marriage of pulse and shimmer, on songs like standout “Liar’s Love.” And those of us new to Title Fight have a much-needed dose of gorgeously loud music on our hands with  Hyperview .

Escape From Evil (CD)

Lower Dens

Lower Dens’ music has always carried a certain adult drama to it that rewards patience and repeated listens. So it’s a bit of a shocker at first to hear  Escape From Evil ’s deliberately retro synths and new-wave beats. But shifting gears proves a winning gambit on their third album. These songs are every bit as intricate and mysterious as those on their last album, the excellent  Nootropics , but are more immediately grabbing, offering cinematic soundscapes for Jana Hunter’s elegant voice to wind in an out like a disintegrating reel. Cinematic isn’t an empty descriptor here, as the widescreen synthesizers of a track like “Suckers Shangri-La” call to mind soundtrackers like Vangelis and Angelo Badalamenti. The snaking guitars and sumptuous vocals of “Ondine” are reminiscent of ’80s Stevie Nicks-led Fleetwood Mac songs, with well-cultivated adult-contemporary touches. First single “To Die in L.A.” is an easy highlight, bouncing on a  Flashdance -style percolating synth riff while Hunter sings in a romantic croon, as though illustrating the quiet desperation bubbling underneath a jazzercise class, and peels into one of Lower Dens’ best anti-choruses yet. Those who miss the band’s more languid tracks will still find plenty to dig into in the album’s middle tracks, like the fluttering “Your Heart Still Beating” and darkly jazzy ballad “I Am the Earth.” And it’s hard to deny how great they are at re-creating The Cure’s dreamy vibes on tracks like elastic post-punker “Société Anonyme.” It might seem an obvious choice for Lower Dens to have gone the new-wave route, but they end up being so incredibly adept at navigating well-worn terrain that it doesn’t really matter.  Escape From Evil  is easily Lower Dens’ most fun album, yet they haven’t lost the nuance that made them so captivating in the first place.

Run The Jewels 2 (CD)

Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels, the super talented hip-hop power duo of El-P and Killer Mike, outdid themselves in 2014 with their anticipated follow up to last year's excellent self-titled debut on Fool's Gold. For the all killer no filler sequel, released via Nas' newly launched Mass Appeal Records and simply entitled  RTJ2  or  Run The Jewels 2 , they turn up the sonic and lyrical assault with an in your face album that is as much rock as it is hip-hop and, while only eleven songs deep, it satisfies on every level, leaving listeners longing for more. If only for the pitch-perfect second single and best song on the album "Oh My Darling Don’t Cry," this album would be worth buying but everything on here kicks ass. As E-Lit at Amoeba Berkeley noted, Run The Jewels is better than anything either El-P or Killer Mike have done individually up to this point in their respective careers - and they've each done some amazing work!  RTJ2 's select featured guests include Zack de la Rocha, Travis Barker, Diane Coffee, and BOOTS.

Short Movie (CD)

Laura Marling

At only 25, Laura Marling is releasing her fifth album, following 2013’s excellent, Mercury Prize-nominated  Once I Was an Eagle . Like that album, Marling expertly details relationships and breakups on  Short Movie , only there’s more variety here—sometimes she’s playing wistful acoustic dreamscapes a la Joni Mitchell, other times she lets loose with snarling attitude like a young Chrissie Hynde. She delivers medieval kiss-offs to a caustic relationship over majestic guitar playing and ambient guitar noise on “Warrior” (“I can’t be your horse anymore/You’re not the warrior I’ve been looking for”); immediately following, the rockier “False Hope” describes urban loneliness in detail. Tracks like “Walk Alone” explore the nuance in Marling’s exquisite voice, while “I Feel Your Love” and “Strange” approach bluegrass and spoken-word delivery from a unique standpoint. “Do I look like I’m fucking around?” she asks on the alluring yet slightly menacing “Don’t Let Me Bring You Down.” The answer’s no—whatever Marling tackles on her remarkable fifth album, she does so capably, transforming her demons into songs that cut to the heart.

Uptown Special (CD)

Mark Ronson

Uptown Special  picks up where the funk and soul of the (now seemingly long) past left off: fuzzy guitar, crunchy keyboards, punchy horns, and funky bass make an album that is jamming, and I mean jamming like roller skating in a tracksuit while rocking a gold chain on a neon lit city street.

Primus & The Chocolate Factory With the Fungi Ensemble (CD)

Primus

Les Claypool and the original mid '90s lineup of Primus reunite to take on childhood! More precisely Primus pays homage to  Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory .  Primus & the Chocolate Factory  is a terrifying psychedelic nightmare wrapped in childhood wonderment and sugar coated with joy, much like the 1971 masterpiece. To ring in 2014 Primus played a hometown show with a rollicking classic set followed by a cover set of the soundtrack of  Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory . The show featured Claypool donning full Wonka attire, a magical set of lollipops and mushrooms, Oompa Loompas and a Glass Elevator. They even sold limited chocolate bars all named after Primus tunes! Life changing. Now they have taken that magic and distilled it into the release  Primus & the Chocolate Factory . The track listing is almost directly identical to the order the songs play out in the film. It opens with “Hello Wonkites” which is an introduction more fitting than the “Pure Imagination” medley. Aided by Critters Buggin percussionist Mike Dillon, the zip-bang drum work of Tim “Herb” Alexander gives the whole recording a topsy-turvy progressive feel. The guttural “Candy Man” begins and we get a full sense of what type of Wonka Claypool really is (imagine Gene Wilder fronting The Residents.) The freaky conductor on this boat ride fades in and out vocally through the “Oompa Loompa” refrains and the less than hopeful “Pure Imagination.” The whole journey leaves the listener like the proverbial Veruca Salt wanting More! Now!

The Powers That B (CD)

Death Grips

Remember when rap-rock was a bad thing, before Death Grips came along and radically re-created the genre? That’s not really fair to Death Grips—they basically created their own genre of aggressive electro noise, Zach Hill’s wildman drumming and MC Ride’s berserk raps.  The Powers That B  might be the last Death Grips album, since the band announced it was disbanding last year, and accordingly, the trio plays through  The Powers That B  as if their lives depend on it—or, perhaps more appropriately, like they’re on a suicide mission. From the get-go, Disc Two doesn’t let up, starting with out-of-breath spring “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States.” From there, we rev up through “Inanimate Session,” which starts literally sounding and feeling like the uphill chug of a roller coaster before the inevitable set of winding loops that unsettle your sense of balance. By comparison to its opening tracks, the robot-metal of a track like “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie” may feel like a reprieve; at the very least, it’s a worthy entry point, as is the nearly danceable caveman-stomper “Beyond Alive” and epic “On GP.” Although Death Grips aren’t really about accessibility,  Jenny Death  is the most engaging thing they’ve done in some time, since their breakthrough release,  The Money Store . Meanwhile, the previously online-only first disc,  Niggas on the Moon , features Bjork samples warped into hyper-real chirps and percussive elements; it’s a more difficult listen, but one that fans of Death Grips’ extremism should appreciate. Taken together, it’s an utterly intense listen; you may not remember your own name after taking in two discs of Death Grips’ unrelenting force, which means it’s the consummate way to experience Death Grips.

I Love You, Honeybear (CD)

Father John Misty

Father John Misty’s fearless second record builds on his folk-rock sound with orchestral touches, genre diversions and direct, conversational lyrics that cut through singer/songwriter clichés. The title track introduces Beatlesesque melodies and weeping steel guitar to prepare you for the scope of the record. J. Tillman starts going into crooner mode with the spectacular “Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins),” his crushed-velvet vocals singing over a sweeping, country-symphonic arrangement, but his lyrics nicely keep the romanticism from getting too gooey (“I wanna take you in the kitchen/Lift up your wedding dress someone was probably murdered in”). “True Affection” takes a sharp turn into MIDI-electro-dream-pop, with some Fleet Foxes-style harmonies keeping things grounded in Tillman’s wheelhouse. “The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment” takes another turn, this time into Velvets-third-album twinkling indie pop, while Tillman calls out an airheaded groupie (“She says like, literally, music is the air she breathes,” he sings hilariously). Tillman’s lyrics work so well because of their specificity—you feel like you’re watching him break hearts at a local bar when he sings “Why the long face? Blondie, I’m already taken,” over a sultry Southern sway on “Nothing Good Ever Happens At The Goddamn Thirsty Crow.” Such subject matter could read as self-serving, if not for the album’s more self-effacing tracks, like “The Ideal Husband,” in which Tillman admits various wrongdoings, petty or otherwise, over nervy rock ‘n’ roll; or “Bored in the USA,” a piano ballad that seems to mock Tillman’s own first-world problems of alienation and dullness (“Save me, white Jesus!” is an awesomely cutting exclamation). Tillman’s refusal to do anything in a typical way while still keeping the music highly polished helps  I Love You, Honeybear  to never feel indulgent. Rather, it’s an extraordinarily giving album, as Tillman’s honesty and strength as a songwriter and performer has grown immeasurably. It’s easily one of the best albums of the year thus far.

Edge Of The Sun (CD)

Calexico

Calexico releases have always been eclectic collections stringing together various strings of Americana and indie rock into what’s been referred to as “desert noir.”  Edge of the Sun  feels like their most refined release while staying as diverse as ever, augmented by the duo’s sojourn in Mexico City while writing the record. Though it’s dotted with upbeat, jangling country-rock numbers,  Edge of the Sun  pit stops in Tejano territory (“Coyoacan”), hits up dusky biker bars along the road (“Bullets & Rocks”) and stops to come up with a killer electro-cumbia tune (“Cumbia De Donde”). Guests show up to keep the party going—Neko Case makes “Tapping on the Line” a gorgeous electro-country duet, while Ben Bridwell from Band of Horses helps take the soaring “Falling From the Sky” achieve lift-off. It’s a fine line Calexico walk, but nine studio albums in and the band is able to confidently wrangle a wide swath of sounds for an unpredictable album that is altogether gripping.  

Moonlight (CD)

Hanni El Khatib

Hanni El Khatib’s throwback rock ‘n’ roll grows longer fangs on third album  Moonlight . The sinister title track sees El Khatib engaging in some swampy blues with chords that hover too closely together, like kissing cousins. “Melt Me” adds some much-appreciated full-and-dirty fuzz to the mix. El Khatib largely supplants ambiance and swagger for melody, but you won’t mind when the results are as pulsating with life as songs like stomping blues-rocker “The Teeth.” While his last album,  Head in the Dirt  was strong,  Moonlight  sees El Khatib finding his voice more and dedicating himself to it, coming up with a deliciously whiskey-soaked album that suggests grimy, dimly lit dive bars and the things that happen after closing time.

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On this ethereal Columbia gospel 78 from 1927, Washington Phillips' musical mini-sermons are accompanied solely by a zither-like instrument (or possibly two at once!)...