Two weeks ago, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) released her fourth studio album. I think it is worth noting as well, that this is her first solo album to be released after her collaboration album with David Byrne, Love This Giant. I say that it is worth mentioning because it is quite apparent that her work with David Byrne, and possibly the current friendship that they have taken up after the fact, has clearly had a large impact on her music. So what do you get when you take one of the better female singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists of the current generation, and slap on a nice new coat of influence from one of the better/quirkier musicians to ever grace the presence of popular music? You essentially get what was already a fully developed musician in untried territory. Stepping outside her own comfort zones, and becoming better in ways that weren’t exactly necessary, but incredibly enjoyable for her fans, old and new. You also get one of the best albums that St. Vincent has released to date.
The War on Drugs
Lost in the Dream
Philly indie rockers the War on Drugs admittedly hit my sweet spot when it comes to their sound: they create dreamy psychedelic rock with an Americana soul, sort of Wilco’s experimental side under a cloud of guitar haze. The band started out with 2008’s freewheeling Wagonwheel Blues, where they had fuzz-rocker Kurt Vile in their band as sort of a lo-fi Dylan-worshipping indie band. Since, Kurt Vile has left to do his own thing (which we have loved every minute of), and since the War on Drugs have gotten even more similar to Vile’s music: hazy, sonic explorations filled with atmospheric guitar, synth sounds, and front man Adam Granduciel’s wistful vocals. On their latest, Lost in the Dream, the band has never sounded so confident musically and anxious emotionally, making this a thrilling and wistful ride.
Two albums quickly come to mind as comparison points for Beck’s first studio album in 6 years: Beck’s previous departure into folk, 2002’s Sea Change, and the ultra-specific and ultra-personal Benji from Sun Kil Moon. Morning Phase in many ways acts as the sequel to Sea Change, with Beck shedding his chameleon coat for a straightforward and earnest singer/songwriter record. Sea Change happened following a breakup, and while it was beautiful at points, the overall tone of the record was reflective and sober. On Morning Phase, is similarly beautiful, but takes more of a turn towards the euphoric than the brooding, catching a glimpse of the beauty of life. Benji acts as the antithesis in many ways Morning Phase. Where Benji is hyper-specific and includes deeply personal accounts of Mark Kozelek’s experiences with death, Morning Phase is a very simplified and impressionistic look at life, allowing the viewer to read their own experiences into the words. They also work as a comparison since they are the two best records so far in 2014, masterful at the disparate approaches they take.
Sun Kil Moon
Last week I wrote about a seasoned folk singer and the release of probably his best album to date, and this week I take on another folk journeyman in Mark Kozelek who is grabbing the critical ear with Sun Kil Moon’s Benji. The Ohio-born songwriter first arrived on the scene in 1992 as the distinctive voice behind Red House Painters, a band that established Kozelek’s style of beautifully somber and contemplative songs all played sweetly and delicately on acoustic guitar. Kozelek continued into the 21st century with a new outfit in Sun Kil Moon, keeping many of the characteristics of Red House Painter with a little darker tint. Kozelek has also released a string of solo records since 2000, including last year’s solid Mark Kozelek & Desertshore. Now comes Benji, arguably Kozelek’s most deeply personal and emotionally fragile record, describing in great detail the lives and deaths of numerous people, both near and far to Kozelek’s life.
Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son
Seattle journeyman Damien Jurado has managed to stay almost completely out of the limelight since 1997, when he came up with some of the other spare and haunting songwriters like Elliott Smith and Mark Kozelek. I had been largely unfamiliar with Jurado’s music up until 2010’s Saint Bartlett hit, an album produced by fellow behind-the-scenes singer/songwriter Richard Swift, who pushed Jurado towards a bigger sound and vision, bringing Jurado’s music to a whole new level. Swift added strings, a gospel choir, and a reverb wall of sound that allowed his normally sobering songs to soar. On 2012’s Maraqopa, Jurado continued his roll of graceful songs produced by the lo-fi Phil Spector, Richard Swift. Now on his latest, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, Jurado brings his newfound sound into its full realization with an 11-song musical journey about a man searching for purpose, and like Jurado himself, it seems the central character has truly found where he belongs.