Soul master Charles Bradley’s third album for Daptone is a knockout. Beginning with a genuine interlude of “God Bless America,” the album positions Bradley as someone who has gone though career and personal difficulty and come out on top, sounding upbeat and grateful to be alive and working. On “Good to Be Back Home,” Bradley flips things to explore the dual nature of home and what that means, singing of being back in the land where he was born, “sometimes it hurt so bad, sometimes, so good,” before unleashing a howl that better expresses the notion than any words could. That passion runs through the heartfelt and extremely affecting love songs like “Nobody But You.” Throughout, the Menahan Street Band’s expertly played and recorded horns and jazz grooves deliver the ideal backdrop, while there’s some experimentation beyond classic soul on tracks like “Ain’t Gonna Give It Up,” its moog and bass-drum-heavy groove reminiscent of krautrockers like Can. And if you don’t get goosebumps during Bradley’s cover of Black Sabbath ballad “Changes,” check your pulse. A playful flexibility within the carefully cultivated classic soul sound Bradley and many Daptone artists work within proves to be incredibly fruitful here. It’s Bradley’s best release yet from his second wind, as Bradley remains an expert at getting to the heart of soul music.
Bob Mould’s 13th solo album might be the fiercest thing he’s put to tape since his days fronting Husker Du. Though the guy who practically invented alt-rock never really softened with age, songs like “The End of Things” are shockingly fast and furious. Mould displays the energy of a man less than half his age on songs like the breakneck-speed “Hands Are Tied.” Though less concerned than ever with anything constituting a shiny pop song, his sense of melody is as strong as ever on catchy songs like “Hold On” and “Pray for Rain,” which sound like lost Alternative Nation hits. His returning backing band of bassist Jason Narducy (Split Single, Verbow) and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats) keep things excitingly full-throttle over unfussy arrangements on songs like the shoegazey “Lucifer and God” and the brutal “Losing Time.” Who needs a Husker Du reunion when Mould’s solo career is still going this strong?
Seemingly, all manner of ’90s nostalgia already has come up. But HAELOS find a new place in the hallowed decade to mine, and they come up with gold on their debut record for Matador. Stringing together bits of trip hop and crossover new age (think Enigma), Full Circle forges a unique blend out of forgotten sounds that sounds utterly contemporary — imagine The xx if they were more concerned with upbeat grooves than breathy dramatics. The immediate thing that hits you about tracks like “Pray” are those delicious, turn-of-the-’90s house-inspired beats, but Lotti Benardout’s reverbed, soulful cry and Arthur Delaney and Dom Goldsmith’s hushed whispers keep you around. HAELOS are preternaturally adept at layering sounds together, like the dueling vocal harmonies of “Earth Not Above” and warbling synths in the title track. But they also temper that with space to let the songs breathe, like the heart-stopping breaks in “Dust.” Full Circle is completely enchanting and easily stands strong beyond its influences. Sexiest album of 2016? It’s not too early to call it.
Heron Oblivion's axes clash like fighting wolves, tangling like the brambles and branches that adorn the album cover. Keeping all this Crazy Horse-style madness reined in are the heart-stopping vocals of Meg Baird of Espers. Her voice can simmer low and quavering like a classic British folk singer and then rise to seemingly unattainable heights on songs like the climactic "Your Hollows." The Bay Area band is a supergroup of sorts, with members of psych-rock groups like Comets on Fire and Six Organs of Admittance. I'm sure it's even better live, so don't miss a chance to see them, including today at Amoeba SF at 6 p.m. Read my interview with the band here.
School of Seven Bell’s fourth and final album is a beautiful tribute to the band and its founding member Benjamin Curtis, who died three years ago after battling a rare form of lymphoma, leaving co-member Alejandra Deheza to finish the album they’d started with another producer. But SVIIB isn’t an overly sad affair, though knowledge of the story behind it certainly cast the lyrics of sadness and longing in a different light — most of them were written before Curtis’ diagnosis, in the wake up of the breakup of Curtis and bandmate Alejandra Deheza’s romantic relationship and their forging forward as friends and bandmates. SVIIB looks back fondly on their time together. The band’s combination of dream-pop and electro-pop has never been more lucidly realized than on songs like “Ablaze,” which opens the album on a rush of teenage emotion and big synth-laden beats, like Erasure’s new-wave optimism reimagined for a generation weaned on M83 and Chvrches. “There was a you before me, there was a me before you,” Dehenza sings with hip-hop inflected delivery on “On My Heart.” “A Thousand Times More’s” New Order-style heartfelt synth-pop and the freestyle-flavored “Signals” call to mind happier times for the band, when they were a trio on albums like Disconnect From Desire. On the devastating “Confusion,” Deheza sings wearily over a billowing cloud of synths and organs, exhaling the line, “I understand nothing of these changes,” with the sense of sitting at rock bottom and staring upward. That impression of a light in the tunnel that SVIIB leaves you with makes the album feel not like a sad ending, but a celebration of their work.