Stream the podcast for This Week’s Best Albums: November 16, 2010.
Black Francis: The Golem
Black Francis: “Miriam and Florian”
In 2008, the iconic Pixies frontman Black Francis — a.k.a. Frank Black — was invited by the San Francisco International Film Festival to write a score for The Golem: How He Came into the World, the classic 1920 silent film and prequel to the 1915 film The Golem. Black took the challenge, performing an hour-and-a-half of material as a live accompaniment, and earlier this year, he released a limited edition of the music alongside a DVD.
Now the quirky singer/songwriter is self-releasing most of the music individually, reordering it, and billing it as a rock opera. Most of the material remains unaltered from its earlier recorded forms — the biggest difference, largely, is that this pairs down the reprises and extra song versions.
The music is easily recognized as Black Francis, but it establishes a playful, campy vibe thanks to harpsichord, saxophone, bass clarinet, and flute parts as well as string melodies that are played in reverse. The challenge, ultimately, was a success, and The Golem shows a new side to an already multifaceted musician.
Multi-instrumentalist Justin K. Broadrick has been involved in many boundary-crossing industrial, metal, and electronic bands — including Godflesh, Techno Animal, and Final — but these days, he’s best known for his post-metal/shoe-gaze work as Jesu (and its electronic offshoot, Pale Sketcher).
Jesu’s debut came back in 2004 with the Heart Ache EP, which presented two behemoth 20-minute tracks that were slow and doomy yet covered a lot of sonic territory. Now Hydra Head Records has re-released Heart Ache and packaged it with a new EP of unreleased material, called Dethroned.
Much of the Dethroned EP was written and recorded in 2004, but Broadrick didn’t complete it until this year, and it better resembles the newer Jesu material – more concise, with seven-minute tracks instead of those 20-minute beasts. The stylistic changes on Dethroned are a little more self-contained within each song, and though it still has heavy, occasionally chugging riffs, Broadrick’s vocals are more pronounced and airier, at times sounding vocoded.
Though Jesu only has three full-length albums since 2004, Broadrick’s output under this name is expansive, and this is just the latest in a lengthy series of EPs. Jesu fans already know the story, but because this is now packaged with Heart Ache, it presents a good starting point for the uninitiated.
Harmonious Bec: “Progress”
With members who go by ZaMaRoo and From Vapor to Water, Harmonious Bec is a relatively mysterious Japanese duo that makes exotic, far-reaching IDM. Her Strange Dreams is the duo’s debut, and it’s a marvelous first effort.
The material is packed with hyperactive melodies, glitchy cut-ups, atmospheric effects, and sporadic dissonance. Everything is cohesive, but from track to track, Her Strange Dreams is liable to take sharp turns. “Funny Hierophant” combines massive drum-and-bass beats with glockenspiel and a harp-like instrument; “Shunrai” adds a quivering sample over a pretty piano line and a hip-hop beat; “Solitary Bonze Prayer” is a senses-altering journey through chopped-up vocal clips.
When put together, it channels more than a dozen electronic sub-genres — it builds upon some of the best genre-smashing artists that electronic music has to offer, such as Aphex Twin. Undoubtedly, Her Strange Dreams is one of the best electronic releases of the year.
Most known around their home base of Chicago, Serengeti and Polyphonic are a pair of unorthodox indie hip-hoppers who jumped to Anticon with their second LP, Terradactyl, in 2009.
Each has his hands in many forward-thinking releases. Serengeti is particularly prolific, with too many projects and characters to list here. (One such character, a sports-loving super fan, will be reprised on a forthcoming release with Anticon’s Jel and Odd Nosdam.)
Bells and a Floating World, essentially, is a pair of combined EPs — six tracks of new material and six remixes featuring Why?, Jel, Son Lux, and others. In the new material, Polyphonic’s electro-classical style is every bit as vital as Serengeti’s spoken-word musings and off-beat rhymes.
There are many great entry points to discover either artist, and listeners interested in this collaboration should start with Terradactyl. After that, however, get this extra dose of strangeness and hear a few older tracks in a new way.
TOMO: “Carnival in Full Bloom”
TOMO – an acronym for Transcendental Organic Magical Objective — is a multi-instrumentalist and native of Japan who spent his late teens in Missouri, where he learned a bunch of folk-based styles of music (including blues, country, bluegrass, ragtime, and Dixieland jazz). In addition to the guitar, he became proficient in the oud, saz, sitar, banjo, violin, hurdy gurdy, and more, and he later returned to Tokyo, where he picked up Middle Eastern and Indian techniques.
And if that weren’t enough, he also is proficient with the saxophone, his instrument of choice in psychedelic improv trio Tetragrammaton.
Butterfly Dream and Other Guitar Works is TOMO’s newest solo album. There are scores of beautiful folk melodies, often care of super-fast finger-picking, and many tracks contain Eastern undertones as well as the hazy drone of the hurdy gurdy. Ranging from slide-guitar blues to an Indian raga to a European waltz, the material is beautiful, intricate, and multicultural.
Soviet League: “Shylight”
Singer/songwriters Ben Eshbach and Matthew Kelly have a history in the LA underground, respectively fronting indie-rock bands The Sugarplastic and The Autumns. By combining forces a few years ago, however, the two may have created something even better than what they’ve done individually — leading to a dense and masterful indie opus.
With the help of countless guest musicians, their new project, Soviet League, presents 12 meticulously crafted tracks, tapping into orch-pop, electronica, and Western music. There are oodles of pretty guitar tones, big bass tones, and overabundant harmonies. With the guest instruments, the music routinely crosses into baroque pop; there’s plenty of pizzicato strings, horns, marimba, glockenspiel, organ, and whistling.
Certain tracks, naturally, are denser than others. “Row,” the album’s opener, is a lighthearted rock romp, whereas “All the Sailors Wave Goodbye” is a complex exhibition of classical technique. Most of the album falls somewhere between these ends of the spectrum, and the music will appeal to both casual and hardcore music lovers.
The Soviet League debut threatens to be one of the best indie-rock albums of 2010. No matter your tastes, if you love pop music, you’ll love this.
Ranjit Barot: Bada Boom (Abstract Logix)
Ches Smith & These Arches: Finally Out of My Hands (Skirl)
Norah Jones: …Featuring Norah Jones (Blue Note)
Lavinia: There is Light Between Us (The Mylene Sheath)
Stereolab: Not Music (Drag City)
Bjørn Torske: Kokning (Smalltown Supersound)