This Week’s Best Albums: May 15, 2012

This Week's Best Albums: May 15, 2012

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.

Squarepusher: Ufabulum (Warp)

"Dark Steering"

Previously a ceaseless innovator, recent Squarepusher albums have followed a holding pattern: a strange departure that feints at a new direction (the strangely light-fusion-inflected pop of Just a Souvenir; the truly weird, limp lounge on the conceptual not-actually-a-full-band Shobaleader One: d'Demonstrator) is followed by an “okay, just kidding” return-to-form release (Numbers Lucent and Ufabulum, respectively).

Whereas Numbers Lucent retained Souvenir’s jazz/prog seventh chords, it grafted them to the harder-edged percussion that Squarepusher cut his teeth on. Ufabulum takes the wide-angle audiovisual glam of d’Demonstrator (light-up LED helmet and accompanying light show included) and adds the breaks, acid squelches, and stutters attendant to a more “traditional” Squarepusher sound.

The result is stunning in YouTube videos, where the audio syncs perfectly to the intricate monochrome light show. It’s all perfectly listenable, but it’s not inherently memorable as a Squarepusher album, as it bears many of the usual melodic hallmarks. Lots of scores and soundtracks get knocked for sounding “like a score” and missing something without the visual accompaniment, and one should think of Ufabulum as the soundtrack to a laser show. You can still lay down and chill out to it for an hour, but it won't be the same without all the flashing lights.

- Patrick Hajduch

Beach House: Bloom (Sup Pop)


Two years ago, Baltimore-based dream-pop duo Beach House released its best effort to date with Teen Dream. The album took the band’s gift for crafting atmospheric, melancholic synth pop to an entirely new level. It took the band’s signature style — droning organs, echoing guitars, digitized beats, and gorgeous vocals and lyrics — and refined them to the point where a successful followup seemed unlikely.

Fortunately for us, Beach House has proved that notion wrong. Bloom, the band’s latest, asserts that Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s melodious prowess and integrity are back — and to stunning effect. Song after song, it’s evident that the band’s sophisticated songwriting and complex-yet-approachable arrangements are more self-assured than ever.

With a majority of these songs written during Beach House’s constant touring over the past couple of years, the songs are to be experienced as a whole rather than by individual tracks (though it’s difficult not to single out stunners like “Myth,” “Wild,” and “Troublemaker,” among others). Churning through layers of languid, twilight-esque pop, Bloom lets listeners witness gorgeously crafted songs blossom on every track — a true work of beauty.

- Michael Danaher

Lungfish: ACR 1999 (Dischord)

"Occult Vibrations" (ACR version)

Thrill Jockey’s site jokes that post-hardcore progenitor Lungfish is “enshrined as one of America’s last true folk bands.” Digging into the vaults, Dischord Records’ latest release shows that the group's hidden relics still have potency, folk or otherwise.

With a stripped-down production style, ACR 1999, a session from ’99 that was recorded by Craig Bowen at Baltimore’s ACR Studios, is a good Janus-faced album that looks towards the past and future of Lungfish, amplifying the band’s nuances while fostering a warm sonic simplicity.

For long-time fans, ACR 1999 provides a look at arrangements of familiar songs from the Necrophones album that shortly followed in 2000. But it also offers four new songs to keep things interesting, and in the rhythmic lyricism of "I Will Walk Between You" and the abstract soundscapes of "Aesop" — two of the new tracks — we hear hints of where Daniel Higgs and Asa Osborne would veer after 2005.

The ACR cuts have a distinctively raw sound, displaying subtle production choices that stand out against the more complex manipulation of Necrophones. For a band like Lungfish, holding such a vast experimental potential, it’s good to revisit the power of simple production to highlight the musical aptitude of each member of the group. After some of the unrestrained aural investigations that Higgs and Osborne have fashioned under various monikers, it’s interesting to see how their unique visions are shaped through more standard forms.

- David Metcalfe

Birthmark: Antibødies (Polyvinyl)


The multi-talented Nate Kinsella (cousin of Tim and Mike Kinsella) has made a name for himself performing in or alongside a slew of out-there indie outfits, including December's Architects, Joan of Arc, Make Believe, and Owen. As Birthmark, his densely layered solo project, he creates a sound all his own by experimenting with a variety of instruments to an effect that is whimsical and unusual.

In many ways, Antibødies, Nate's third album, keeps true to indie-pop/rock form. Its lyrics are emotive and confessional, and the songs are, for the most part, very catchy. But all along the way, Nate takes chances with structure and form, and that's evidenced immediately. "Stuck," the opening track, begins as a polyrhythmic chamber piece as woodwinds dance over a marimba loop. But it quickly transforms to an indie piece on the back of the loop, marrying a steady bass line and guitar effects to his breathy vocals. The woodwinds later rejoin, accenting the transformed piece but not taking it over.

Elsewhere, the album feels nostalgic, something to be enjoyed with the windows down on a long drive. But it lacks the pretension and redundancy that so easily come with the singer-songwriter act. “Shake Hands,” destined to be an instant favorite, is one of the album’s most tender moments; “Please Go Away” is perhaps its most trippy. With no shortage of sounds, Antibødies teeters between the two sentiments without losing its cohesiveness. It's another compelling, sophisticated Birthmark album.

- Danielle Turney

Killer Mike: RAP Music (Williams Street)

"Don't Die"

Like words themselves, Atlanta rap veteran Mike Render (a.k.a. Killer Mike) has the potential to be misunderstood. The hardcore southern rhymer — who first came to prominence thanks to his affiliation with Outkast — is a self-proclaimed "pan-Africanist gangster rapper, civic leader, and activist," and his profile as the latter has been elevated recently by outspoken campaigns for Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis, and the Occupy movement.

He's an anti-establishment MC who's "addicted to literature." And yet many of his previous (and some of his current) word choices don't reflect the equality that he seeks. He has a history of using gay slurs and other defamatory terms, despite proclaiming himself tolerant and being quoted (in a recent interview with AlterNet) as saying, "I don’t care if you wanna marry the same sex. Whatever you want to do is cool, as long as you’re not infringing on other people."

And so it's with trepidation that some might approach RAP Music, Render's collaboration with El-P (who fully produced the album and drops one guest spot) and first release for Adult Swim's Williams Street Records (a relationship that presumably stems from Render's voiceover work on Frisky Dingo).

But RAP Music, though still hardcore, is more reflective of Mike Render the sociopolitical lyricist, the one who decried hypocrisy and injustice on "That's Life" (a track, ironically, that ended with homophobic words). There's still misogynistic language, but, for what it's worth, it's more "of the street" than a deep-seated feeling from Render, who cites the struggles of Gloria Steinem in a recent explanation of "Don't Die," the album's seventh song.

And for every track about "real G shit" or every mention of a "pimp cane," there's a reference to MLK Jr. or a song about the positive influence that Render's grandfather had on his life. "Reagan" is one of the most fiery tracks, addressing the former president's "war on drugs" and how it disproportionately targeted African Americans while actually making black neighborhoods more drug-infested. Render ultimately proclaims, "I'm glad [that] Reagan['s] dead," but he lumps all recent presidents together as serving the same unseen forces, launching overt and covert wars to make the rich richer.

Render's intelligence is obvious throughout the album, and it's a shame that some of his word choices may obfuscate that. But given his continued activism and further push into political rhymes, RAP Music should give listeners a better sense of Render's many sides. Even the title itself is a nod to history and to shared struggles; "RAP" here is an acronym, standing for "rebellious African people's music." It notes the commonalities between and importance of gospel, jazz, blues, R&B, funk, rock 'n' roll, and soul on the album's final track, name-dropping some of the genres' most popular black artists — those who helped break barriers and change the world as much as Render hopes to.

- Scott Morrow

Honorable Mentions:

Andre Williams & The Sadies: Night and Day (Yep Roc)

Evan Caminiti: Night Dust (Immune)

David Daniell & Douglas McCombs: Versions (Thrill Jockey)

Josephine Foster & The Victor Herrero Band: Perlas

Mewithoutyou: Ten Stories

Mike Reed’s People, Places & Things: Clean on the Corner (482 Music)

Philm: Harmonic (Ipecac)

Pinkish Black: s/t (Handmade Birds)

Plankton Wat: Spirits (Thrill Jockey)

Carina Round: Tigermending (Dehische)

Slugabed: Time Team (Ninja Tune)

Alexander Tucker: Third Mouth (Thrill Jockey)

Tu Fawning: A Monument (City Slang)

Violens: True (Slumberland)