Lo-fi psych-pop band Unknown Mortal Orchestra grow and refine their sound by leaps and bounds on their second album. While the band’s fine self-titled debut reveled in its Syd Barret-inspired weirdness, II ups the ante by funneling its odd turns into pop songs that seem to activate new nodes in your brain. “From the Sun” makes like a White Album demo, stuffing its rich arrangement into the washing machine — it comes out with colors mismatched but intact. “Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)” is high-flying indie-pop that doesn’t have to ask to make itself at home on loop. By the time you’re three songs in, with the soft vintage soul of “So Good at Being in Trouble,” II becomes remarkable rather than merely enjoyable. From space-rock (“No Need for a Leader”) to glammy soul (“Secret Xtians”) to Madchester-style Britpop (“Faded in the Morning”), Unknown Mortal Orchestra seem to have digested decades worth of bargain-bin records and made the sounds their own on II.
The Motown and soul influences My Morning Jacket showed on their recent releases continues on frontman Jim James’ first solo effort, Regions of Light and Sound of God. First song “State of the Art (A.E.I.O.U.)” is like a psychedelic blue-eyed soul version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” in which James riffs on the vowels over a stately blues piano riff. “We got our wires all crossed/Tubes are all tied/And I’m strainin’ to remember just what it means to be alive” in one particular example of his old-time-soul-meets-Radiohead-technodread. It’s a bold new sound for James, and one that sounds natural. “Know Til Now” plays closer to the MMJ line, with a looped, digitized horn loop blaring in the background while James ethereal chants dance with a mellowed-out funk track. MMJ’s southern riffs and bombast are missed, but James sounds liberated to develop some of the ideas he unveiled on albums like Z and Evil Urges as well as new ones, creating lush backdrops for his heartfelt vocals on “Of the Mother Again,” taking a detour into Middle Eastern tonality in “All is Forgiven” and even offering an MLK-refing paean to equality in “God’s Love to Deliver.” Whether or not James’ solo career ends up being his main priority, Regions of Light and Sound of God sounds like the start of something grand and new for Jim James.
The Man Who Died in His Boat consists of previously unreleased recordings by the experimental artist, who creates landscapes out of little more than her acoustic guitar, simple piano and haunting voice, encased in reverb and tape hiss. Opener "Vital" has the same stunning simplicity of standouts like "Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping" from Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, which has also been released as a reissue (CD or LP). Overall the songs themselves are more pronounced than on double-disc predecessor A I A/Alien Observer (likely because they were recorded earlier than that album), though even when they become lost and threaten to float away, as on the oscillating waves of sound that make up a more instrumental tracks like "Difference (voices)," you remain rapt by Harris. While Harris' music borders on ambient, it isn't lacking in personality. The Man Who Died in His Boat is affecting, at times unsettling, and altogether a unique listening experience.
Deluxe CD $16.98
Deluxe DIGITAL $15.98
One of the few alt-rock bands to transcend past the mid-90s, Eels’ ornate guitar-based songs and frontman E’s disturbed growl continue to develop on Wonderful, Glorious.
The Bronx are back under their original moniker (after a couple of albums as Mariachi El Bronx), releasing a fourth album of fast-paced hook-laden hardcore punk.
Deluxe CD $19.98
Folk legend Richard Thompson, who’s had a solid run of 20 previous solo albums, plus albums with Fairport Convention and his ex-wife, Linda Thompson, returns with an album that isn’t so much anti-folk as it is folk amplified beyond even what its cheeky title would suggest.
The Long Songs Collection explores the soul great's many love songs, making it perfect for Valentine’s Day gift as well as a great Al Green sampler to whet the appetite for his greater canon.
Deluxe CD $22.98
Fela Kuti’s Best of the Black President Vol. 2, like the volume before it, is essential for anyone hoping to traverse the peaks and canyons of Kuti’s vast catalog.
Darkstar’s sound is one part goth, one part electronic indie pop, emerging with a formula for nighttime music that never gets too dark nor too cloying.