This Week’s Best Albums: February 23, 2010

This Week's Best Albums

Jaga Jazzist: One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune)

Five years have passed since we’ve heard the powerhouse melodies of Norway’s Jaga Jazzist, the conception of brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth. Though the band is much closer to elaborate post-rock or “nü-jazz,” a few of the group’s winding passages and pieces of its instrumental setup reflect the genre for which it is named.

One-Armed Bandit, immediately the group’s best album, resembles symphonic prog rock, arguably a few steps removed from parts of Frank Zappa‘s expansive catalog and closer to countryman Jono El Grande‘s diverse and theatrical style.

This album, however, is much more cohesive than either of those comparisons suggest, and at times it is nearly overwhelming with grooves and harmonious refrains. Though there is no shortage of talent, there also is no shortage of accessibility.

After an instantly hummable call-and-answer melody, the album’s title track shifts to a trio of passages that sound as though they were designed for the slot-machine artwork that accompanies the album. Marimba, harpsichord, fuzzy bass, and slide guitar steal much of the show on this first standout on a disc of standouts, and the group’s noted assortment expands from there.

If you’re already a fan or have never heard Jaga Jazzist, One-Armed Bandit is not to be missed.

Jaga Jazzist: “One-Armed Bandit” (edit)

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Rob Swift: The Architect (Ipecac)

Turntablist/DJ Robert Aguilar, formerly of the X-ecutioners, has long utilized his love of jazz, R&B, and other musical movements to create compelling hip-hop instrumentals while displaying his tight beat-juggling skills.

The Architect is Swift’s foray into the classical world. In addition to a multitude of sampled styles and sounds, classical cuts comprise a substantial chunk of this Ipecac debut. Rearranged strings, organ, and horns often make the foundation of a given track, occasionally evoking high-tension Italian Westerns, as Swift’s scratches dance atop banging beats.

A few pieces are separated into movements as certain sounds act as themes, and guest MC Breez Evahflowin (the album’s only vocalist) continues the homage while rapping about the album’s concept on tracks “Principio” and “Ultimo.”

Though some may pigeonhole The Architect because of its direction, the truth is that it’s an eclectic instrumental album — a dynamic DJ disc that certainly should be experienced live. Pick this up.

Rob Swift: “The Architect”

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High on Fire: Snakes for the Divine (E1 Music)

Stoner-metal trio High on Fire has built a devoted following over the past dozen years as fans fell in love with Matt Pike‘s gruff vocals and thunderous guitar riffs.

On Snakes for the Divine, Pike uses his throat to channel Lemmy Kilmister; meanwhile, the band has picked up its pace and crafted an album that isn’t as outstretched. Hard-hitting riffery leads an effort that, though diverse at times, may be the band’s most driving release.

The production by Greg Fidelman (Metallica’s Death Magnetic) is getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so — the kick drum often sounds like a popping thud, and the vocals are too high in the mix. But overall, the mix is beefier and conveys a sense of urgency; High on Fire hasn’t sounded quite like this before.

High on Fire: “Snakes for the Divine”

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Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté: Ali and Toumani (Nonesuch)

As two of Africa’s most internationally renowned musicians, guitar legend Ali Farka Touré and kora phenom Toumani Diabaté have displayed impeccable abilities while integrating the styles of other cultures into their ethnic sounds.

Each Malian, the two collaborated for the acclaimed In the Heart of the Moon in 2005, shortly before Farka Touré’s passing in 2006. Fortunately, the two set aside time to record new material before touring for In the Heart of the Moon, and the result is another beautiful set of duets that sees a posthumous release.

Throughout Ali and Toumani, Farka Touré roots each creation in melodious African-blues pieces. Diabaté’s virtuosity accents each track in the form of fanciful scales, which at times evoke classical harpsichord passages, perhaps most notably on “Sabu Yerkoy.”

The album most certainly will garner major accolades in world-music circles. More importantly, it will stand as a final remembrance for Farka Touré.

Ali Farka Touré & Toumani Diabaté: “Ruby” (excerpt)

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Valgeir Sigurðsson: Draumalandið (Dreamland) soundtrack (Bedroom Community)

Icelandic producer Valgeir Sigurðsson has worked with a host of high-profile artists: Björk, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Nico Muhly, Múm, and many more. But despite nearly a decade of noteworthy production work, it wasn’t until 2007 that he released his first official solo album, Ekvílibríum, a dreamy electro-acoustic work.

Now Sigurðsson has released the soundtrack to Draumalandið (Dreamland), a documentary about the exploitation of Iceland’s natural resources. The score, a gentle and mini-orchestral work, is a much more elaborate affair — but one that manages, despite its layers, to feel as sparse as much of the Icelandic landscape.

Swelling and crackling electro-folk turns into uneasy chamber pieces. Often, the score is circular and dramatic, as in the title track, based on a simple up-scaling piano progression that is complemented by a glockenspiel or xylophone. The tempo of “Dreamland” picks up and slows at key spots, capturing an important dynamic.

Muhly and countrymen Sam Amidon, Ben Frost, Daníel Bjarnason, and a host of others lend their talents to Dreamland, a score that proves Sigurðsson capable of much more than augmenting the work of others.

Valgeir Sigurðsson : “Dreamland”

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Rotting Christ: Aealo (Season of Mist)

Despite the shock-value name, Greek black-metal quartet Rotting Christ is much more than a sacrilegious aggro band.

For more than 20 years, the Athens band traversed different directions on the metal path. However, with its last release, Theogonia, the group released a striking, original album that fused its dark sound to the ethnic sounds of its ancestors.

Like its predecessor, Aealo features female Benedictine chants, lingual pipes, and a medieval feel. Combined with dueling high-pitched harmonies and powerful guitar work, these new elements highlight an album that should be among the most original metal releases of the year.

Rotting Christ: “Aealo”

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Honorable Mentions

Cindy Blackman: Another Lifetime (tribute to Tony Williams) (Four Quarters Entertainment)

Johnny Cash: American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American)

Eluvium: Similes (Temporary Residence)

Quasi: American Gong (Kill Rock Stars)

Terry Riley: Autodreamographical Tales (Tzadik)

Jack Rose: Luck in the Valley (Thrill Jockey)