Violent Femmes: Add It Up (1981-1993) (Craft Recordings)
Folk-punk trio Violent Femmes occupy an unusual place, having produced an electrifying debut album that has somehow sustained them for 40 years. And while none of the records they’ve made since then have reached the same heights as their first, mostly due to their unwillingness to stay in one musical lane for too long, their legacy only becomes more secure with every last spin of “Blister In The Sun” and “Gone Daddy Gone.” This compilation, originally released in 1993, makes the strongest case for a reassessment of Violent Femmes’ oeuvre. Packing rarities and b-sides along with well-known tunes, this double LP set reveals a band that ably handled political pop, country balladry, avant rock and jump blues—all of it capped off with frontman Gordon Gano’s arch, angsty lyrics. So, no, it’s not the greatest hits collection that the average jock rock enthusiast might want, but for fans and curious listeners, it’s the ideal way to dig deeper and potentially find a new favorite among the tried and true.
Monster Magnet: A Better Dystopia (Napalm)
Heavy psych combo Monster Magnet has kept the third eye of the world open for over three decades and, in all that time, remained remarkably consistent in their output. There are no duds among their 11 studio albums. Which only makes the quiet indifference that tends to greet their work all the more frustrating. The group’s latest full-length A Better Dystopia continues this unbroken streak of greatness. It’s an appropriately beastly work. Unable to tour due to the pandemic, perma-fried frontman Dave Wyndorf decided to take a spin through his record collection, plucking out the tastiest morsels from punk, proto-metal and stoner-rock groups new and old for his band to cover. It’s part loving tribute to icons like Hawkwind and Morgen and new groups like Table Scraps and part vehicle for the band’s itchy frustration at the lockdowns and cancellations. Every guitar riff weighs a metric ton, and the rhythm section sounds as if their instruments were constructed from marble and animal skin. Snarling through it all like a perma-fried prophet is Dave Wyndorf, embodying these songs of cosmic destruction, salvation through psychedelics and tales of otherworldly conflicts. Vinyl is the perfect vehicle for this album. There’s no better way to get completely lost in the garish visions that Joe Tait created for the gatefold sleeve and to ecstatically run one’s fingers over the etching on side four.
Brooke Annibale: Silence Worth Breaking (self-released)
Rhode Island singer-songwriter Brooke Annibale has humbly amassed an impressive catalog of folk-pop over the past 15 years, all of it self-released and all of it warm and pliable. As her tour history reveals, she’s willing to tackle her material solo acoustic or with a full band. And she’ll happily hand her songs over to electronic producers for remixes. This vinyl reissue looks back to one of her creative peaks. Originally released in 2011, Silence Worth Breaking was recorded in Nashville, which brought a country-pop twang to the material that fit the dusky allure of Annibale’s voice and her heart-on-sleeve lyrics. Producer Paul Moak and the crew of musicians on this session cradle these songs in a soft grip with restrained playing and the vibrant addition of violin and cello. The orange vinyl pressing of Silence is a bit of a mixed bag, sounding brisk and full at the start of each side but losing a little punch as the needle works its way toward the runout groove. Spinning this in the right twilit setting and with the right company, that audio degradation won’t matter much.
Sarah Jarosz: Build Me Up From Bones (Sugar Hill)
Much like her peers Norah Jones and Alison Krauss, Texas native Sarah Jarosz makes music flutters like a ripple in the space-time continuum, warping listeners joyously between the worlds of folk, country, jazz and pop. Fairly remarkable for an artist barely into her 20s, and even more stunning when listening to her wise, polished original compositions and her thoughtfully chosen covers on this reissue of her 2013 album. Jarosz clearly struck a nerve within the Americana scene considering the level of talent that buzz around her musical flame, like Nickel Creek member Chris Thile, vocalist (and future I’m With Her bandmate) Aoife O’Donovan, Alison’s brother Viktor Krauss and legendary guitarist Jerry Douglas. I found myself returning frequently to the title track, a jangling love song that aches with desire and regret given smoldering energy by Jarosz’s harmonies with O’Donovan and a pitch-perfect cello solo. And as a longtime Joanna Newsom fan, I couldn’t help but adore Jarosz’s take on “The Book of Right-On” that keeps the original’s devilish bounce but paints it in psychedelic colors.
Andrew Hill: Passing Ships (Blue Note)
Blue Note’s audiophile-minded Tone Poet series continued this month with the re-release of an album that was recorded over a two-day session in 1969 but somehow sat on a shelf until 2003. Listening to this crystal clear remaster of the work, it makes a small amount of sense why the label opted to keep this unreleased for so long. The performances are a bit wobbly, with the big horn section that Hill utilized for these compositions—a crew that included Julian Priester on trombone, Bob Northern on French horn, and trumpeters Woody Shaw and Dizzy Reece—often stumbling into one another on the way to the melody. Even Hill sounds as if his equilibrium is off during his solos. I find that kind of overreach utterly charming. It humanizes otherwise godly musicians and only makes the moments when they find their collective balance, like the cracking “Noon Tide,” that much better. This reissue is pressed in a manner befitting the lumbering sound on the vinyl, as there was more music than two LPs could hold and not enough to fill four sides, leaving a totally blank side to one of the discs.
Tomas Nordmark: Exit Ghosts (Valley of Search)
The capacity of electronic music composers and musicians to wring such depth of feeling from lifeless machinery knows no bounds. It’s that exquisite tension between the human and the synthetic, the natural and the unnatural that makes Exit Ghosts, the new album from Swedish artist Tomas Nordmark, so beguiling. Nordmark limited himself to just one synthesizer to create the eight pieces on this record, flooding the stereo field with icy tones and long, sweeping melodies that stretch out before the mind’s eye like a vast Arctic landscape. At the edges of that picture, the pixels start to show and the view gets fuzzier. Putting digital music onto an analog medium often results in an inescapable haze and fritz. It can be ignored when listened to through speakers, but close listening will reveal the flaws in the transfer. Choose wisely.