This Week’s Best Albums: December 6, 2011

This Week's Best Albums: December 6, 2011

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow choose ALARM’s favorite new releases for This Week’s Best Albums, an eclectic set of reviews presenting exceptional music.

The Black Keys: El CaminoThe Black Keys: El Camino (Nonesuch / Warner Bros.)

The Black Keys: “Lonely Boy”

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The Black Keys has come a long way from its modest start in Akron, Ohio. Ever since the early 2000s, the band has been one of the most consistent acts around, churning out album after album of gritty, blues-infused garage rock. But with recent appearances on The Colbert Report and Saturday Night Live, as well as a North American tour featuring numerous arena stops, the band has refined its sound to adapt to its new surroundings and mounting exposure. And El Camino, the band’s latest effort, showcases that adaptation, as the band has cultivated a bigger, more varied sound.

Guitarist/vocalist Dan Auerbach and drummer Patrick Carney once again teamed up with Danger Mouse to oversee the production, and the result is one of the band’s most instrumentally diverse offerings. Though the songs are firmly fixed in the classic Black Keys style (tactile distortion, clamoring drums, bluesy vocals, and noodling guitar solos), El Camino builds on the band’s recent exploration of musical diversity and experimentation. The excellent “Dead and Gone” sounds like a ’60s jamboree, chocked full of xylophones and layered, harmonized vocals; “Gold on the Ceiling” features a variety of synths and new guitar sounds that integrate seamlessly into the duo’s signature rock-outs; “Little Black Submarines” starts out with a heartfelt, acoustic folk arrangement before colliding with a wall of grunged-out guitars and crashing cymbals.

The Black Keys may be getting bigger, but that hasn’t hindered the duo’s creative energy. If anything, it’s gotten stronger on El Camino.

– Text by Michael Danaher.

The Roots: UndunThe Roots: Undun (Island / Def Jam)

It’s rare when an album asks deserving questions yet doesn’t let the message overshadow the music. But that’s what The Roots has done with its tenth studio album, Undun, which does for Philadelphia what The Wire did for Baltimore — portraying the dark and ruinous underworld of a drug trade that preys disproportionately on certain races and classes, especially their young.

The record traces the last hours in the life of Redford Stephens, a fictional Philly man whom Roots drummer ?uestlove says was inspired in part by The Wire’s Avon Barksdale. A low-level drug dealer, Stephens is a protagonist but not quite a hero. Over funk-fueled bass lines, ?uestlove’s signature beats, and a tasteful sprinkling of soul, the story is unraveled — backwards from the time of death — by MC Black Thought and a handful of guests, including Aaron Livingston, one half of Icebird.

It’s hardly a holiday record, though it does include a cameo by indie darling Sufjan Stevens, whose “Redford (for Yia-Yia and Pappou)” also helped inspire the Roots’ character and comprises the final four tracks of the album, interpreted in various styles. The third of these segments, “Will to Power,” is the most compelling, showing ?uestlove battling avant-garde pianist DD Jackson in a frenzied duel that owes more to free jazz than R&B.

It’s not untruthful to say the music on Undun stands alone — it doesn’t need its narrative any more than Fucked Up’s David Comes to Life needed its — but the words add a weight that transforms it from a solid hip-hop release into a powerful record. Musically, it ventures into some surprising territory, and lyrically, it communicates an urgent message.

– Text by Timothy A. Schuler.

Jacaszek: GlimmerJacaszek: Glimmer (Ghostly International)

Jacaszek: “Dare-gale”

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Polish composer Michał Jacaszek has made a specialty of moody, atmospheric ambience using a classical palette, with bowed strings, operatic voices, and chimes to construct a brooding build. His new album, Glimmer, is his first for Ghostly International, and though it might be misclassified as an electronic album — partly due to its affiliation with Ghostly — it’s almost entirely an ambient classical release.

There’s enough digital treatment and rearrangement to warrant a partial electronic tag, but it’s otherwise a very organic album. Jacaszek wrote and recorded the acoustic-guitar and mellotron passages, and then he enlisted a number of other Polish musicians to play the harpsichord and clarinet parts. It’s all a very stirring mix, with the harpsichord, bass clarinet, guitar, and vibraphone — not to mention the washes of fuzz — creating a richness of texture.

The album’s inconspicuous complexity and professional performances make it a gem among ambient releases. Those factors also help explain why it’s been a bit since Jacaszek’s last release, and Glimmer was worth the wait.

– Text by Scott Morrow and Patrick Hajduch. Read the debate here.

Keep Shelly in Athens: Campus MartiusKeep Shelly in Athens: Campus Martius EP (Planet Mu)

Keep Shelly in Athens: “Campus Martius”

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Hailing from Athens, Greece, Keep Shelly in Athens (whose name is a play on the Grecian suburb Kypseli) is a down-tempo/chill-wave electronic two-piece that has garnered steady ‘Net buzz since last year. The hype, to this point, might be a tad undeserved, but the duo’s recent In Love With Dusk EP demonstrated potential across a spate of digitized genres, even if it was heavy on the Ibiza influence.

The major appeal here is the interplay between singer Sarah P and producer RPR, whose styles seem to be coming into their own. With Campus Martius, the duo’s first release on Planet Mu, there’s less of the beach-y nightlife and ’80s cheese; instead, there’s an urban, industrialized, and ambient vibe to better fit Sarah’s elongated and reverberated vocals.

The EP also includes bits of spazzy Aphex Twin drum-and-melancholy, deep bass lines, vocals that would sound at home on a Sneaker Pimps record, and of-the-moment pitched vocal slicing. These elements hang together in a way that seems familiar and yet revelatory, and as a result, Campus Martius occupies a pleasant, bassy corner of the dubstep/post-dubstep/synthesizer continuum.

– Text by Scott Morrow and Patrick Hajduch. Read the debate here.

Loka: Passing PlaceLoka: Passing Place (Ninja Tune)

Loka: “Sam Star”

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In 1999, Liverpool residents Karl Webb and Mark Kyriacou began an exciting studio collaboration as Loka, merging psychedelic, classical, groove, down-tempo, and jazz elements in a daring but foolproof fusion. The project quickly signed to Ninja Tune, but the duo’s first full album wasn’t released until 2006, and Webb retired from the project in the following year. But now Loka is back, led by Kyriacou and the live Loka band, and the results were worth the wait.

Like that debut full-length (Fire Shepherds), Passing Place is a hybrid of the aforementioned elements. Here, however, a calmness meets the subdued tempos, and celestial vocals are part of a multilayered mélange. In fact, the oft-mentioned down-tempo feel of Fire Shepherds seems lively in comparison to Passing Place, which, despite its active moments, achieves a rare balance of beats and serenity.

“Entrance,” Passing Place’s opening track, almost tricks the listener into thinking that this album will be just like Loka’s first, with the heavy, haunting bass rumblings. But just as the song seems ready to launch into a break beat, a beautiful wordless vocal solo sets the mood of the album’s remainder. The vocal additions (by live-band members Lido Pimiento, Eleanor Mante, and Jaci Williams) weave through the keyboards, drums, and guitars and often determine the haunting, melancholy, or calming feel that each track transmits. It’s a wonderful new direction, helping Loka to reestablish itself as a forerunner in classical psychedelia.

– Text by Lauren Zens.

Honorable Mentions

Anomie Belle: Machine EP

Czar: Vertical Mass Grave (Cracknation)

Eastern Blok: Underwater

Goldmund: All Will Prosper (Western Vinyl)

Sunn O))): øø Void reissue (Southern Lord)