This Week’s Best Albums: January 25, 2011

This Week's Best Albums: January 25, 2011

Each week, editor-in-chief Chris Force and music editor Scott Morrow discuss ALARM’s favorite new releases in a download-able podcast.

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John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: White WildernessJohn Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: White Wilderness (Dead Oceans)

John Vanderslice with The Magik*Magik Orchestra: “Sea Salt”

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White Wilderness, the newest full-length from John Vanderslice, is a first for the indie singer/songwriter, recorded in collaboration with Minna Choi and The Magik*Magik Orchestra.  A malleable ensemble that bills itself as a “modular orchestra” of 18-35 people, the MMO performed live with Vanderslice a few years ago, and it has a résumé that includes collaborations with lots of other great rock and neoclassical musicians, including Jonny Greenwood, Tin Hat Trio, Hauschka, and Ben Johnston.

The group’s addition here has really elevated Vanderslice’s material, which now breathes with a cinematic quality while backed by string, horn, and percussion sections. The material is replete with spare, delicate moments of respite — the result of Choi’s adaptable arrangements.   From its stirring and delicate opener, “Sea Salt,” White Wilderness is an incredibly layered album that shows the depth of Vanderslice’s writing.

Phil Manley: Life CoachPhil Manley: Life Coach (Thrill Jockey)

Phil Manley: “Make Good Choices”

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As a founding member of post-rock/dance-punk trio Trans Am – and as a recording engineer and member of The Fucking Champs and Oneida – guitarist Phil Manley has become endeared to fans and fellow musicians alike.  Now, after two decades of work, he has released his first solo album, Life Coach, and it’s unlike anything that he’s done prior.

The music, by and large, is a group of long-form instrumentals that build and swell with loops, effects, and overdubs.  Both electric and steel-string acoustic guitars are at the fore, with a handful of synthesizers and a touch of drum machine in the background.  Life Coach showcases both technical talent and melodic musicianship, and in the process, it reveals a side of Manley not frequently seen in his other projects.

Andre Afram Asmar: Harmonic EmergencyAndre Afram Asmar: Harmonic Emergency (Mush)

Andre Afram Asmar: “Onward Farword”

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Back in 2003 and 2004, Palestinian-American dub musician Andre Afram Asmar made waves for his unorthodox blend of hip hop, reggae, and Middle Eastern music. His debut for Mush Records and his subsequent full-length collaboration with MC Circus garnered critical acclaim, and Asmar made other notable associations, including work with rappers Busdriver and AWOL One and reggae singer Majek Fashek.

But as he was preparing for a big tour in late 2004, Asmar suffered a serious brain aneurysm, and his recovery since that time has been a slow and arduous process.  As a result of the aneurysm, Asmar lost ability in the left side of his body and lost vision in his left eye.  But he remained undeterred in his musical journey, and he has since had some help to complete Harmonic Emergency, the follow-up to Racetothebottom.

Originally begun being tracked in 2001, Harmonic Emergency is a strange and trippy dub creation, with sung, half-sung, and spoken-word vocals bouncing off rubbery thuds and beats.  Electronics and breakbeats get things moving, and plenty of Middle Eastern melodies and timbres maintain that “world fusion” vibe.

Bruce Lamont: Feral Songs for the Epic DeclineBruce Lamont: Feral Songs for the Epic Decline (At A Loss)

Bruce Lamont: “2 Then the 3”

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From the psych- and jazz-tinged metal band Yakuza, to the industrial homage Circle of Animals, to local improv jams, and even to fronting a touring Led Zeppelin cover band — saxophonist/singer Bruce Lamont has lent his assorted skills to a boatload of notable projects.  Now the multitalented frontman has unveiled his long-stewing solo debut, Feral Songs for the Epic Decline, on At a Loss Recordings.

Composed of seven free-flowing tracks, the album features more acoustic guitar, synthesizer, and unearthly vocals than some might expect.  The album’s foreboding atmospherics are its most consistent attribute, as it unfolds almost as a long-form singer/songwriter experiment.  Dark folk refrains give way to distorted tribal percussion, wailing sax lines, and noise-filled passages, but they’re all united by Lamont’s elongated – and surprisingly potent – chants and croons.

Monotonix: Not YetMonotonix: Not Yet (Drag City)

Monotonix: “Give Me More”

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Hailing from Tel Aviv, Israel, the garage-rock trio Monotonix has attained surprising amounts of exposure in the Western hemisphere.  Much of that is due to the group’s wild live shows, which have caused consternation at venues in Israel.  As a result, the band hit the road and played hundreds of shows in Europe and America before it even had an EP out in the States.  But clearly, the band has connected with audiences thanks to its loud, raw, and unpolished sound, and now it has released Not Yet, its second full-length album for Drag City Records.

Previously, Monotonix has recorded with American musicians/engineers such as The Fucking Champs’ Tim Green and Shellac’s Steve Albini, and the latter was again tapped for work on Not Yet.  With extra fuzz and low end, it’s another disc of aggressive, straightforward, three-minute rock tunes with wailing, off-pitch vocals and errant solos.  To say that the base riffs are minimalist might be assigning too much complexity to it; some of them are built around just two chords.  But regardless, Not Yet is another musical fireball, achieving its appeal with rock energy rather than expertise.

Talib Kweli: Gutter RainbowsTalib Kweli: Gutter Rainbows (Javotti Media / Duck Down)

Talib Kweli: “Cold Rain”

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Following a handful of underground releases in the mid-‘90s, Talib Kweli burst on the national stage a few years later as part of Black Star, his highly successful hip-hop duo with Mos Def.  The two parted ways after one album, but Kweli went on to countless other collaborations and a series of acclaimed solo efforts. Gutter Rainbows is his fifth and newest solo release – his first since 2007 and first in a long time to be released without the aid of a major label.  It’s out now but only digitally in North America; it’s available elsewhere on CD thanks to Duck Down Records.

Compared to his last album, Eardrum, the music has a much fuller sound while striking a nice balance between soulful, funky, and bassy styles and a harder edge. It doesn’t have the big-name producers of Eardrum – which included Kanye West, Will.I.Am, Pete Rock, and Madlib – but it sounds like a more realized album.  Whether it’s with a diversity of instruments and samples, great backing performances, or just Kweli’s relentless flow, Gutter Rainbows is an exciting addition to his catalog.

Honorable Mentions

Banquet of the Spirits / Cyro Baptista / John Zorn: Caym: The Book of Angels, Vol. 17 (Tzadik)

Bill Frisell and Vinicius Cantuária: Lagrimas Mexicanas (E1)

Charles Bradley: No Time For Dreaming (Daptone)

Caroline: Verdugo Hills (Temporary Residence)

Deerhoof: Deerhoof vs. Evil (Polyvinyl)

Destroyer: Kaputt (Merge)

Ensemble: Excerpts (Fat Cat)

Lia Ices: Grown Unknown (Jagjaguwar)

Iron and Wine: Kiss Each Other Clean (Warner Bros.)

Kodo: Akatsuki (Otodaiku)

Georgia Anne Muldrow: Vweto

Thank You: Golden Worry (Thrill Jockey)

Sidi Touré: Sahel Folk (Thrill Jockey)

Zs: New Slaves Part II: Essence Implosion! (The Social Registry)