This Week’s Best Albums: May 11, 2010

This Week's Best Albums

Sage Francis: Li(f)e (Anti-)

Paul “Sage” Francis has built a career out of going against the grain, tackling thorny sociopolitical issues while embracing the limelight of poetry slams and rap battles. His idiosyncratic style garnered him underground buzz well before his Anticon debut in 2002.

Following two more acclaimed albums on Epitaph in 2005 and ’07, Francis has delivered the most adventurous album of his career. Li(f)e is a collaboration with a dozen different singer-songwriter and acoustic-music types, finding Francis at his most personal over styles that aren’t necessarily conducive to rappers.

Folk, country, western, indie rock, and more — it’s all delivered via big names such as Calexico, DeVotchKa, Califone, Tim Fite, ex-Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle, Chris Walla of Death Cab for Cutie, Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, and producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine).

A few moments seem like odd fits, but by and large, Francis’ style adapts well to his surroundings. He’s at his most poetic, trading between spoken-word confessions and rapid-fire rhymes while building to the occasional eruption.

For Li(f)e, Francis sought singer-songwriters who hadn’t worked with rappers, and the results are commendable. Though some pieces were essentially leftover tracks by collaborators, Francis overlays his words with care and works with the dynamics of each track.

“Diamonds and Pearls” with DeVotchKa is one of the best on the album, featuring Tom Hagerman’s dancing neoclassical violin lines as well as ghostly backing vocals by Nick Urata and Jeanie Schroder. “The Best of Times” with French composer Yann Tiersen, however, is the album’s single, and as its closer, it serves as an apt summary of the album’s adventures.

Ultimately, fans may be divided on Li(f)e, but no matter how you feel, it’s certain to be a watershed album in an already uncommon career.

Sage Francis: “The Best of Times”

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Zs: New Slaves (The Social Registry)

Name any sort of “out there” genre and it likely applies to Zs, a Brooklyn quartet that puts the experiment in experimental. Avant garde, free jazz, no wave, noise — these guys have covered it all, generally with impenetrable rhythms and piercing effects.

Released less than a year after the six-song Music of the Modern White LP, New Slaves may be the group’s noisiest but most direct effort. Despite its impregnable qualities, the album possesses a generally hypnotic characteristic, as improvised electronic sounds coat looping beats for a transfixing effect.

True to form, the album is very percussive and very noisy, best described by The Social Registry as “a clanging mishmash of industrial raga,” recalling the trance-inducing, non-diatonic elements of Indian music on top of tribal beats.

Those who don’t enjoy improvisational or “out” music will skip right over New Slaves, which tosses a 20-minute noise jam after five relatively “short” tracks. But fans of Steve Reich or Terry Riley-esque minimalism may dig a track such as “Masonry,” which recalls a rain forest with its über-reverberated xylophone runs over distant thuds and super-speedy humming-bird percussions.

Zs: “Acres of Skin”

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Holy Fuck: Latin (Young Turks / Beggars Group)

Once listeners realized that Holy Fuck didn’t sound quite like its name might suggest — with hip-hop beats and electronics instead of screams and blast beats — this “rock-tronica” group caught on in a hurry.

Now, after two essentially eponymous albums, Latin settles the band on a “permanent” lineup. Its touring rhythm section, now a pair of regulars, provides organic break beats and bass grooves for the fuzzy keyboards and hazy and alien effects of Brian Borcherdt and Graham Walsh.

Latin isn’t terribly dissimilar to Holy Fuck’s first two albums, but it doesn’t need to be. There are enough different sounds and enough instrumental interplay to engage listeners, old and new alike.

Honorable Mentions

Marco Benevento: Between the Needles & Nightfall (The Royal Potato Family)

Howl: Full Of Hell (Relapse)

Misery Index: Heirs To Thievery (Relapse)

River City Extension: The Unmistakable Man (XOXO)

US Christmas, Harvestman, and Minsk: The Hawkwind Triad (Neurot)

Various artists: Egypt Noir (Piranha)