This Month's Picks

The Ghosts Of Highway 20 [Indie Exclusive] (CD)

Lucinda Williams
Between this album and 2014’s double-album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone , Lucinda Williams is experiencing her second mid-career renaissance (the first, of course, was the release of her fifth album and masterpiece Car Wheels on a Gravel Road ). On her latest, she inhabits various characters inspired by the Interstate 20 from Texas eastward, painting Southern Gothic shades on rollicking country-rockers and dingey acoustic odes. “Call me a prostitute and a whore too, I do these tricks your wife refuses to,” she sings in a curdled slur on “House of Earth,” which is adopted from a Woody Guthrie novel. Guitarists Bill Frisell lines theses songs with spindly, jazz-inspired lines while Greg Leisz pours Crazy Horse-ish riffs all over “Dust” — the result is a gorgeous blend of grit and grace. Though Ghosts runs long, it never drags, thanks to excellent pacing — “Doors of Heaven’s” gospel-rock comes around at just the right time, while second-half knockout “If My Love Could Kill” shows up with its spine-tingling melody and swampy shuffle when you’re nice and buzzed on Williams’ whiskey-soaked drawl. It’s no exaggeration to call The Ghosts of Highway 20 her best album since 2003’s World Without Tears . Her 12 th album is a highlight in a career full of ’em. More
Genre: Rock

Is The Is Are (CD)

DIIV
Brooklyn’s Diiv are back after four years with an album that delivers on the promise of their debut, Oshin . Musically, Zachary Cole Smith and co. still dole out shimmering guitar-pop nuggets that surf on waves of reverb and atmospheric distortion. Songs like “Under the Sun” offer a pure rush of new wave beats and summery melodies, even as Smith’s lyrics delve into his struggle with addiction. It follows one of The Cure’s best tricks: sounding lively even at their bleakest. Songs like “Dopamine” are far from numbed out — Smith’s jaunty vocal is as close as he’d let himself get to Tom Petty, while still encased in a fog of reverb. Is The Is Are is a bit sprawling at 17 tracks, and after a dynamite opening, some of its shorter tracks in the middle don’t sink in, compared with the relatively taut Oshin . But that also gives Is The Is Are room to roam and the feeling of some alt-rock record of yore, like a Guided By Voices or Sonic Youth album (speaking of the latter, Smith’s girlfriend, Sky Ferreira, shows up to play Kim Gordon on the breathy “Blue Boredom”). Smith also should get credit for expanding his guitar palette while keeping things trim and stylistically consistent, adding My Bloody Valentine-style bends and distortion to his crisp, Felt-ish tones only when necessary. As layers of heavily distorted riffs close out “Waste of Breath” like interlocking corroded piping (epic by Diiv standards at nearly six minutes), Smith’s talents are firmly re-established. We’re perfectly willing to follow Smith’s meanderings when he lands in such fertile territory on the ultimately victorious Is The Is Are . 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 idiosyncrasies 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

MartyrLoserKing (CD)

Saul Williams
In the great tradition of Gil Scott Heron and 2Pac, Saul Williams doesn't approach lyrics lightly. He grabs you by the throat and confronts you with the ugliness and aftermath of the post-9/11 world of endless war. Williams himself personally described the album as "connecting the dots between the Arab Spring, the Civil Rights Movement and now" with a fiery and sharp delivery that slams your ears, a complete 180 from his previous dancier album, Volcanic Sunlight . The album's single, "Burundi," is angrily bitter in its furious depiction of an endlessly problematic world with economic issues, empty technological advancements, cruel treatment of young black men by authority figures, and unethical repression of entire groups of people. Warpaint's Emily Kokal supplies a strange harmonic background against the powerful track that adds a beauty to an otherwise tough song. And Williams doesn't go for feel-good positivity or easy answers. He knows that our system is rotten from the core and wants to make it clear that this tough world we live in needs to change. This is our gospel music for a world that always feels on fire; a sonic cataclysm that's something to move to and live by. More
Genre: Hip Hop

A Coliseum Complex Museum (CD)

The Besnard Lakes
Jace Lasek, the singer and lead guitarist of The Besnard Lakes, doesn't go for straight-to-tape grittiness that seems to make up the bulk of modern psychedelia. Working together with his partner, Olga Goreas, The Besnard Lakes are the closest we have to a modern Flying Saucer Attack, albeit it more up-tempo and upbeat. Breaking away from their traditional method of recording, Goreas and Lasek created demos in the wilderness of Saskatchewan before moving into the studio. What initially started off as intimate, acoustic tracks influenced by nature suddenly explode into reverb, spacey glee without losing the closeness or intimacy of their demos. Lasek approaches his own Breakglass Studio with an ear as careful as legends Phil Spector and Brian Wilson to sculpt a sound you couldn't make playing live. Things gets stretched, gooey, and melted as he warps each track into layers so dense they could cause Tame Impala's Kevin Parker to break a sweat. Just when you think you're over space rock, The Besnard Lakes pull you right back. More
Genre: Rock

Mutant (CD)

Arca
In just a couple of years, Arca went from being a relatively unknown Venezuelan DJ to a mega producer. Producer Alejandro Ghersi has added his beautifully uncomfortable blend of noise and electronic dance to tracks by Kanye West, FKA Twigs, and Bjork, giving them a fresh and unheard modern sound. But under the nom de plume Arca, his solo projects push sonic barriers rarely taken by artists whose work often fits into comfortable parameters. As groundbreaking as Underworld, Aphex Twin, and Squarepusher were in electronic music in the '90s, Arca is today. Constantly shape-shifting and unsettling sounds reach a peak where they resemble something as grotesque and intriguing as the morphing imagery on the cover. Tackling 21st century gender fusion and politics head-on without in-your-face lyrics and overt messages, his music oozes out of your speakers and confronts you directly as its raw digital sound takes you to unexpected territories. But beyond all the strangeness and static,  Mutant  follows last year's  Xen  as some of the most exciting music coming out today. There's nothing quite like it. More

Malibu (CD)

Anderson .Paak
Anderson .Paak has been the go-to guy to feature when artists have wanted their tracks to have a certain something special. His voice is a malleable instrument than can be gravelly or velvety smooth, able to deliver fast-paced raps and pour out soul syrup in equal measure. Though his debut, Venice , drew plenty of attention and acclaim, he’s now been lifted up into the upper echelon of R&B artists working today, thanks to a series of high-profile collaborations with Dr. Dre on his comeback album, Compton , on which Anderson .Paak consistently threatened to steal the show on his six tracks. He takes that opportunity and knocks it out of the park with Malibu , a gorgeous psychedelic swirl of lush neo-soul backdrops and alternative hip-hop tracks, featuring a cadre of high-profile guest apperances (Talib Kweli, ScHoolboy Q, The Game). Gorgeous tracks like “The Birds” evoke the classic soul stylings of a Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Yet he keeps things current on the jazz-inflected hip hop of a track like “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance” or thumping banger “Come Down,” keeping in line with the likes of Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar. As the lines further blur between the experimental and mainstream, vintage and current within hip hop, Malibu masterfully strings these styles together for an accessible, highly listenable album that should make Anderson .Paak a deserved star in his own right. More
Genre: Soul

The Traveller (CD)

Baaba Maal
There's no doubt that Baaba Maal is in the pantheon of world renowned and eternal African musicians who broke sonic barriers along with Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba, and Youssou N'Dour. He takes clear risks with new sounds and doesn't regurgitate the upbeat post-reggae sound that made him famous. Taking a bit of inspiration from recent popular acts like Bombino and Tinariwen, Baaba Maal transforms his distinctly Senegalese sound by teaming up with a Western producer. Having previously cut his teeth with M.I.A. and Coldplay, Johan Hugo Karlberg adds elements of electronic dance and strips away Baaba Maal's large band to make a sparser, grittier album. Guitars that feel right out of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western soundtracks blare against a cacophony of vocals and percussion that almost feels disorienting. Maal takes himself out of the optimistic comfort zone for which he's known and is stripped away for a raw sound that feels influenced by hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar and Drake. But this is Maal's album, and his distinctly soaring vocals steal the show. Against the sparse backdrop of the music, his voice feels more naked and stark than ever before. At 62 years old, the Senegalese pop hero still captures your ear and makes sure you're listening.More
Genre: World

Manhattan Intermezzo - American and British Works for Piano & Orchestra (CD)

Brown University Orchestra, Jeffrey Biegel, Paul Phillips
With classical's influence having morphed all sorts of genres, it's no surprise that the worlds of pop, jazz, and prog can do the same for classical. Opening with the composition "Manhattan Intermezzo," Neil Sedaka lets loose as a Copland-esque composer of cosmopolitan joy. Though he's mostly known for his eternal radio standards like "Calendar Girl" and "Oh Carol," Neil Sedaka originally was classically trained musician and pieces like "Manhattan Intermezzo" gives him the room to breathe. The delicate piano and strings fill the air as it gives a warm, nostalgic feeling that recall the best Burt Bacharach instrumentals. Following is Keith Emerson's "Piano Concert #1," originally heard on Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Works Volume 1 . It's given new gravitas and polish that the original could have used and a more airy production that gives the piece more depth. It doesn't sound like a rock musician stumbling into more complex territory, but a work that perfectly fits among the great Western composers of the 20th century. Culminating the album is two pieces by pre-rock composers: Duke Ellington's early foray into classical, "A New World A-Comin'," and George Gershwin's eternal "Rhapsody in Blue." Both are shiny-eyed and their enthusiastic fusion of jazz and classical feels like an optimistic view into the 21st century. Under the direction of Paul Phillips, the velvety sound of the orchestra feels inseparable from Jeffrey Biegel's sensitive piano. More
Genre: Classical

Bloodshot Six Pack To Go (7")

Various Artists
What do you think of when you hear “drinking songs”? You think of Guided By Voices’ Robert Pollard’s ramshackle instrumentation and surrealist wordplay? How about Merle Haggard’s hard-livin’ anthems? Both are here on Bloodshot’s Six Pack to Go: Working Songs for the Drinking Clas s, a clever box set of six 7”s, each with two songs, made to celebrate Bloodshot’s 21st birthday. Deer Tick tears through legendary pub rockers The Pogues’ “If I Should Fall From Grace”; Pollard goes orchestral on “Drinker’s Peace”; Nashville acts cover classic drinking tunes by Haggard, The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag; and local Chicago acts layer on whiskey-swillin’ country-blues and garage-soul. Getting this set is a no-brainer; just be careful with those 45s and your can of Schlitz. More
Genre: Rock