Thurston Moore, Colin Stetson, Juliana Hatfield, and more in this week’s music reviews
Thurston Moore delivers his most consistent solo statement so far on Rock N Roll Consciousness
“We’re here for the long run,” Thurston Moore said in a recent interview, insisting that his new band (composed of guitarist James Sedwards, My Bloody Valentine bassist Deb Googe, and Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley) is “a serious endeavor and not a transitional endeavor.” If it sounds a bit defensive, it’s for good reason: Since Sonic Youth disbanded in 2011, amid Moore’s marriage to Kim Gordon falling apart—and actually, even while that iconic group was still together—Moore has dabbled in plenty of stopgap side hustles, experimenting with free-jazz feedback and black metal and hushed acoustic songs in equal measure. He’s perpetually restless, and as a result, he’s never really staked out much of a musical identity separate from his past.
2014’s The Best Day made some inroads toward establishing Moore’s second act, and, not surprisingly, it got there by evoking Sonic Youth’s gloriously cacophonous, cascading sprawl, but giving it a veteran, road-tested band’s sense of locked-in groove. That cohesion yields even greater rewards on Rock N Roll Consciousness, Moore’s most concise, most satisfying solo statement, anchored by a band that’s become an integral part of its expression. At times, I dare say it even rivals Moore’s previous group in terms of dynamic composition—as in “Turn On,” a song that begins in an ambling, wistful mode, shifts into a verse that builds with increasing anxiety before exploding into a freewheeling, string-hammering freak-out, then stopping on a dime to launch triumphantly back into its core melody. Or “Cusp,” in which the whole band is propelled forward atop Shelley’s martial snare pattern. Or especially opener “Exalted,” which functions as a sort of autobiographical suite touching on all Moore’s musical modes, from Glenn Branca harmonics to college-rock strum to Swans-ian drone, shifting seamlessly from one movement to the next.
Of course, these days Moore is on a far more mystical trip than his Sonic Youth days, and his lyrics, written in part by poet Radio Radieux, wander off into some pretty heady yogi territory that seem slightly at odds with the spiky, street-smart Moore of old. You’d never expect that Moore to be gushing about “My morphine woman / My opium girl” the way he does on “Exalted,” for example, a hippie-dad come-on that Sedwards matches with a blistering, downright Santana-esque guitar solo. Such bong-addled classic-rock flourishes—like the similarly bluesy, slow-hand workout that clogs up/catapults the middle of “Smoke Of Dreams,” depending on your tolerance for such things—give Rock N Roll Consciousness a weight of age that belies how vital everything else sounds, but fortunately they’re few and far between. By the time “Aphrodite” grinds to a close, his group slowing intuitively in lockstep while he unleashes lightning bursts of noise, Moore has made a convincing case that this marks a new beginning.
Colin Stetson conjures another otherworldly musical narrative
You’ve never heard anything quite like Colin Stetson, unless, of course, you’ve heard Colin Stetson—particularly via one of his many collaborations with artists like Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Animal Collective, and many more. He’s become the indie world’s go-to saxophonist thanks in part to the ungodly sounds he wrenches out of the once-maligned soft-rock staple, which he manipulates by breathing circularly, such that the sound never breaks, as well as singing into the instrument, banging on it, creating multiple tones at once, and generally bucking every convention we have about what it’s supposed to sound like. The result is rhythmic, enigmatic stuff, almost always recorded in a single take without loops or overdubs, which is a feat that becomes more impressive when you see the clear physical toll that performances like this take on his body. He trains physically and mentally before performing and has described his New History Warfare trilogy of albums as a progression in what he could physically accomplish with the instrument. They’re all unsettlingly beautiful works, but by the third volume he’s evoking pulses of ambient light (“To See More Light”) and massive extraterrestrial death-rattles (“Brute”). Each album sounds like a human body pushed to its absolute limits.
Those albums also trace a post-apocalyptic narrative, evoking Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood in their detailing of a quest for meaning in a world after massive environmental catastrophe. He has placed his new All This I Do For Glory temporally somewhere before that collapse, describing it as an exploration of a more human relationship between a man and a woman. It is, when played against those earlier releases, almost shocking in its warmth. The title track trots forward with an early-’90s IDM breakbeat, while “Like Wolves On The Fold” howls with lonely menace before finding a sprinting rhythmic lifeblood of its own. Indeed, despite the extremely metal maximalism of his more famous trilogy, the lower-key nature of All This I Do For Glory allows him to open up his sonic palette, finding dense polyrhythms and (gasp) traditional melody in addition to the characteristically entrancing push and pull of his technique. (He credits some of his recent innovations to tips picked up from Enya, of all people.) It’s a short album of only six tracks, but it’s a compellingly cohesive listen, with the panicked “In The Clinches” setting the stages for a massive, 13-minute finale during which Stetson crafts a windswept musical narrative as complete as any of his prior epics. By zeroing in on a more human theme, he has found a way to open up, creating an album that’s easier to listen to than its predecessors while still being dazzlingly difficult to perform.
Juliana Hatfield finds purpose in politics on anti-Trump album Pussycat
Juliana Hatfield and Kellyanne Conway were both born in 1967. Had the Boston alt-rock heroine and villainous White House advisor grown up together, they probably wouldn’t have been besties. “You’re so hard, like a rock in my shoe, like every bitch in high school,” sings Hatfield on “Kellyanne,” a song that sums up the bulk of her 14th solo album, Pussycat. Hatfield was apparently planning on taking a break from songwriting, but after Donald Trump’s victory, she was moved to bash out these 14 tight and tidy grunge-pop tunes, playing everything herself.
Hatfield isn’t a protest singer, so she comes with her usual: biting Gen Xer sarcasm mixed with sweetness befitting of her eternally youthful voice. On “Rhinoceros,” Hatfield imagines poor Melania, “an illegal immigrant,” washing up in Trump’s gilded bidet after some gruesome lovemaking. The girls in “Short-Fingered Man” don’t even have it that good. Hatfield ditches the icky sex stuff—and plugs in a piddly organ reminiscent of early Elvis Costello—for “Heartless,” where she asks the president, “How do you expect to win the respect of anyone with a conscience?”
She approaches that question from another angle on “Good Enough For Me,” an attempt to put herself in the shoes of low-expectation-having Trump supporters. When it all gets to be too much, Hatfield tells us she’s “escaped into my childhood memories” on the lovely fuzz ballad “Wonder Why.” Whether the Trump era produces a flowering of art and culture, as some have predicted, it’s given this veteran rocker something to sing about. She should’ve called it Alternative Facts.
The New Year returns after nearly a decade, but not much has changed
The first difference you notice on Snow, the new album from slowcore act The New Year, is the keyboards. Sometimes sparse but omnipresent, other times spritely enough to sound like a children’s toy, the instrument has taken a more prominent place in this collection of songs, even occasionally driving the entire melody, as on the bubbly “‘Baby Elephant Walk’ meets ‘The Entertainer’” organ of mid-album track “The Last Fall.” But that’s one of the only noteworthy adjustments—change, as with everything else involving this quiet and often spare band, comes slowly.
Largely hewing to the sparse, rootsy vibe that started to take hold on 2008’s The New Year, Bubba and Matt Kadane, along with the band’s latest roster, have crafted another batch of ruminative, methodical songs, in which voices rarely rise above a gentle croon, instruments are treated delicately, and melodies drift in and out of stately rhythms, punctuated by periodic crescendos that rise from the relaxed grooves. Songs like “The Party’s Over” feel like old-school New Year, in which a slowly stuttering hi-hat backs a descending guitar riff, until a coda of agitated guitar riffs and hand claps back Kadane’s downbeat lyrics. And some of the more ambitious efforts stand above the others, like penultimate track “The Beast,” in which a steady progression of instruments join a pealing single-note guitar riff, the drums spare and thudding behind the constant melody, and the vocals smoothly sliding across the icy soundscape behind them. But a portion of the record contains a drowsy Americana vibe that gets too listless, the feeling of pensive ennui dissolving into a lachrymose puddle that can’t quite sell the emotion behind them. Songs like “Homebody” and “Amnesia” feel like a country strummer at bar close, wondering where to go, and not quite sure if the music is conveying the combination of wistfulness and hope. It’s unmistakably a New Year album, and a decent one at that, but it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself.
Ryuichi Sakamoto returns with mortality on his mind in the quietly affecting Async
Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto has described his new album, his first in eight years, as “the original soundtrack to an imaginary film by Andrei Tarkovsky,” a convenient prism through which to view a work that has a similarly patient, long-take approach, its sounds resonating and decaying in the way that the Russian filmmaker sought to capture the feeling of time passing. Tarkovsky is felt, too, in the field recordings of rippling water, in the funereal church organs and shuddering synth tones of the opening prelude “Andata” and more obviously “Solari,” which both tip their hat to Eduard Artemyev’s score for Solaris. Even Tarkovsky’s father, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky, makes a cameo, his verses read aloud by art-rocker David Sylvian on “Life, Life.” Viewed solely as Sakamoto’s homage to an artist he admires—and as an extension of his years of scoring films like The Last Emperor and The Revenant—Async is a beautiful experiment, one that yields its own meditative, cinematic pleasures.
But there’s another through-line here: Async is also Sakamoto’s first album since being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2014 and the hiatus his treatment forced upon him. And so, a natural preoccupation with mortality suffuses the work—both subliminally and directly. To the latter point, there’s that Tarkovsky poem: It’s ponderous, borderline pretentious stuff, the way spoken-word poetry tends to be, and it puts into lovely, yet unnecessary words the themes of life’s gossamer threads that the rest of the album conveys so much more elegantly in music. Only slightly more effective is “Fullmoon,” which borrows dialogue spoken by author Paul Bowles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of The Sheltering Sky (for which Sakamoto did the soundtrack), then bleeds them into overlapping voices echoing his words in myriad languages. In these tracks, Async gives the sensation of being inside an art installation, where everything you’re supposed to be thinking is spelled out for you on little white gallery cards.
Async works far better when Sakamoto lets the music mirror that existential ambiguity—to allow the echoing synth chords of “Zure” to be consumed by bursts of static and digital glitches; to hear the persistent sonar pings ticking away like an EKG over the mournful piano of “Ubi”; to listen to the violently plucked strings of the title track and interpret them as locked doors being thrashed in anger. Sakamoto has always excelled at this creation of sonic space, and aside from the relatively busy “Stakra,” with its arpeggiated synth swells perpetually cresting and falling, Async is most affecting in those tiny, pristine flourishes that meld the electronic and the acoustic. Taken separately, sometimes it can be a bit boring: “Walker” is just a low, mournful hum over the sound of footsteps on gravel; “Honk” offers some aimlessly plucked zither over whispering rainfall; “Tri” is literally just Sakamoto hitting a triangle over and over. But still, each of these quiet moments take on greater significance when woven together, creating a transcendent introspective mood that allows the listener to hear their own story within them.