This Month's Picks

Primrose Green (CD)

Ryley Walker

Chicago-based folkster Ryley Walker has taken a leap from the primitive to the profound in his sophomore album. Primrose Green weighs in with less hero worship homage to the likes of Fahey, Basho, and Jansch in favor of a more spontaneous original flighty groove anchored by a truly savvy and tight band. The playful finger picking of the titular track, “Primrose Green,” bounces along piano keys as Walker’s soulful vocals corral the melodies into an elaborate '60s folk garden. Much of the work of the record is left to the seemingly reborn vocal style of the 25-year old singer/songwriter. When infused with the fuzzed guitar of Brian Sulpizio on “Sweet Satisfaction” Walker ably wails like a man experiencing a pain way beyond his years. On “All Kinds of You” drummer Frank Rosaly leads the band in a jazzy jam session where the poetry of Walker’s words remain hidden in the crests and valleys of every beat. The only place on the record where Ryley’s voice may have to take the backseat is the elegant piano work of Ben Boye. That being said the interplay of Walker’s guitar and Boye’s keys on “Love Can Be Cruel” is a showstopper. Walker’s band sound rounds out with some heartbreaking string work led by Fred Lonberg-Holm and Whitney Johnson. Primrose Green is a lush charming '60s folk record made by excited musicians in 2015. Ryley Walker, being the most excited and exciting of the bunch.

More
Genre: Folk

Carrie & Lowell (CD)

Sufjan Stevens

“Death With Dignity” opens Carrie & Lowell as a touching elegy to Sufjan Stevens’ mother, yet it also could describe his relationship to his own music. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings, and “I’ve got nothing to prove” over a familiar bed of bluegrass-inspired folk. Stevens was like the A-plus student of indie pop, turning out album after album of perfectly manicured orchestral folk-pop, but lost his way a bit with The BQE, an album and project that felt unwieldy, as well the hectic electro-folk of The Age of AdzCarrie & Lowell, by comparison, is one of his most stripped-down albums to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have his trademark fixation on detail— songs shift halfway through, like “Should Have Known Better’s” turn into stuttering, laptoppy acoustics and choral touches, or “Drawn to the Blood’s” extended string finale; “you checked your text while I masturbated,” he sings casually, telling a girl she looks like Poseidon in the sexually turbulent “All of Me Wants All of You.” Lyrically and musically, Stevens remains a curious tinkerer, but Carrie & Lowell never feels busy in the slightest. It’s an intensely focused work, one that places Stevens’ voice and songcraft over bells and whistles. Whereas locations and history seemed to hold Stevens’ interest in the past, here he’s death-obsessed (and still spiritual as ever). “Fourth of July” feels romantically morbid and carries the happy refrain “we’re all gonna die,” and on “The Only Thing,” he sounds stricken with grief to the point of barely being able to keep going on. Stevens’ way with language, drawing on mythology and Christian imagery, and ascendant voice keeps the songs from wallowing too deeply, even as they describe an immense sense of loss, allowing those moments when he does break—“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’” “Fuck me, I’m falling apart”—to land all the more effectively. Without the filter of a state’s history or the heavy religiosity of Seven SwansCarrie & Lowell finds Stevens turning his studious eye inward to fully explore his own grief, and the results are never short of breathtaking.

More
Genre: Rock

Ebb & Flow (CD)

Judith Owen

Owen writes songs that are emotional and timeless, recalling the golden age of avant-storytellers like Joni Mitchell & Elton John in their heyday, effortlessly combining jazz, folk, and rootsy rock into an exquisite blend of classic songwriting and musicality. The Welsh singer's technically gifted piano playing and strong, smooth, smokey voice ensure a musical experience of exceptional quality and depth as she directs a truly all star band of session players (Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, Waddy Wachtel) through her repertoire. Fans of Carole King and Joni Mitchell will find not an imitator but a new and growing voice making good on that legacy.

More
Genre: Rock

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.

More
Genre: Rock

Rebel Heart (CD)

Madonna

Faithful Madonna followers, rejoice. Rebel Heart is the return to form we were hoping for. It’s a classic Madonna album that keeps up with modern trends without chasing them in the way MDNA did, calling to mind Like a Prayer-era Madonna in the way it commands the dance floor. “Living For Love” is her best single in years, as Madonna delivers a confident lead vocal over a gospel-infused Diplo house production. On powerhouse “Iconic,” Madonna steps into the ring with a Mike Tyson intro and delivers some inspiring lines that move into a huge chorus of pounding beats and funhouse synths. She still courts controversy, of course. “Devil Pray” sees Madonna reciting a laundry list of intoxicants. “Illuminati” has her turning a favorite hip-hop subject into a nasty club banger that calls out everyone from Lady Gaga to Oprah. “Unapologetic Bitch” takes its vocal cues from Beyonce and M.I.A. and sees her delivering kiss-off lyrics over swaying dubstep that can’t help but read as missives to ex-husband Guy Ritchie (“You never knew how much you loved me ‘til you lost me, did you?”). It doesn’t always work—Nicki Minaj barely saves the jarring “Bitch I’m Madonna”—and there are some throwaways here and there that could’ve been trimmed for length. But it’s great to hear her being a firebrand once again, experimenting and trying different things out. With Rebel Heart, Madonna proves that musically speaking, she’ll never go gentle into that good night—she’d rather flip us off, have a good laugh and entertain us all the while.

More
Genre: Rock

Escape From Evil (CD)

Lower Dens

These indie rockers drew comparisons to their Baltimore brethren Beach House with 2012’s excellent Nootropics, but they get synthier and catchier with this follow-up.

More
Genre: Rock

Cry Is For The Flies (CD)

Le Butcherettes

I caught Le Butcherettes as the opening act for Melvins last fall, and I was completely blown away. I can’t get enough of Teri Gender Bender’s vocals. Her voice mixed with punk-tinged mangled circus organs make for a driving, yet dark, record.

More
Genre: Rock

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.

More
Genre: Rock

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.

More
Genre: Hip Hop

Vestiges & Claws (CD)

José González

It’s tough to pin down just what makes Jose Gonzalez’s music so special. On one hand, the Swedish troubadour writes simple songs that don’t stray far from a template, drawing inspiration from Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkle and Latin folk. On the other hand, the songs on Vestiges & Claws, his third solo album, possess a paralyzing beauty, their lyrics a clarity that is all too rare in a time when folk music seems to be more about looking like you were born in 1918 and festival-style chanting. Lyrically, Gonzalez deals in existential themes and inward thoughts. “Stories We Build, Stories We Tell” seems to be about a fight, but his line “sitting in silence, wondering what to do” sums up the feeling, capturing a rare in-between state while some snarling acoustic solos untie a homespun groove. Musically, Gonzalez still can pack hidden hooks into these songs the same way he did on a song like “Heartbeats,” but he’s boosted them ever-so-slightly, adding swelling choral harmonies to the curative “Let It Carry You,” for instance, or tracing private heartache with a beatific flute while he sings “Why didn’t I see the forest on fire behind the trees?” on the stunning track “The Forest.” Vestiges & Claws may deal with heartbreak, but Gonzalez has the uncommon gift to turn it outward and craft relatable songs about dealing with loss and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, especially on the album’s core tracks, the rousing “Leaf Off / The Cave” and “Every Age,” a universal ballad about knowing oneself, being good to one another and “making the best of this short-lived stay”—that may sound cheesy, but Gonzalez makes you believe. In the end, Gonzalez’s music communicates hard-won optimism, and as such, Vestiges & Claws feels restorative, passing through you and filling in the empty spaces.

More
Genre: Rock, Folk