ben donnelly

Back Row: Jordan Cole, Georgann White (Bennett), Kristin Zatkoff & Avery Lovejoy

Middle Row: Maureen Kunitz, Veronique Larosee, Kathy Leutner (Crosby) & Kayla Ermold (Dumoulin)

Front Row: Katherine Donnelly (Clendening) & Sandra Pereira (Kessel)

Théorème - L’appel Du Midi à Midi Pile (Bruit Direct)

Théorème is a one-woman show, solitary inquiries built up from drum patterns and loops and low-end chunks. Her noisy rhythms aren’t so much danceable (though you could do that, for sure) as they are head-fogging. The blocky hits and dub frequencies would sound at home in the post-punk past, especially the turn of the century outbreak where ESG was rediscovered and elevated, where disco was the driver, but the ride remained off balance, skidding around in the dark. We’re so far beyond that second wave, it’s hard to judge how many post- prefixes one could add. L’appel Du Midi à Midi Pile feels like the aftermath of something, though, fragments that assemble into bold silhouettes.

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Mick Harvey — Intoxicated Women (Mute)

Photo by Jayne Spruyt

Mick Harvey’s career has played out in peripheral vision, sometimes in the blind spot, yet indispensable to a certain red-lit, black-walled corner of rock. In the Birthday Party, he was the clean-cut guy holding together the vampire, witch doctor and cowboy who fought for the front of the stage. For years he continued with Nick Cave, shaping the muddy alleys of the Bad Seeds sound as Cave provided the specifics. He’s had a similar advisory role in PJ Harvey’s work and others working in the velvet backdrop setting.  

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Esben and the Witch — Older Terrors (Season of Mist)

A band adrift, Esben and the Witch are one of those uncommon cases where a combo gets gutsier as their career progresses. Older Terrors follows up A New Nature, a double-length album that sustained tension even as it shed the nuance of their early work. The songs on Nature placed crescendos in odd places, taking cues from 1990s post-rock, but also the cloudy paranoia of doom metal, populated with first-person narrators sinking into abyss. Esben started out in the early 4AD mode, each member exploring tone and echo, half analog and half digital. They’ve been reducing their palette with each release, embracing power trio heft. Their current rapport more than makes up for the drained colors. 

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I Have a Tribe — Beneath a Yellow Moon (Gronland)

Patrick O’Laoghaire, like anyone working the contemporary singer-songwriter angle, is beset with a challenge: how to navigate blessings and curses of the 1970s? The idiom is defined by me decade self-involvement, but also by professionalism. In our times, there’s no song-factory proving ground to hone one’s craft and connections. (Unless you’re talking about the dance pop world, which he most certainly isn’t.) The form’s reliance on confession and mirror gazing was liberating to those raised in the stoic mid-century. Our culture is so awash with self exposure, it’s hard to earn the indulgence. The strengths of the form include an earnestness that remains at odds with the venom that drove the New Wave and most of what followed, so the artist has got to juggle a 45-year-old context without falling into retro affect. You want a bit of the sappy, without appearing like a sap. He pulls it off.

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Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds — Skeleton Tree (Bad Seed Ltd)

At the core of Nick Cave’s long songwriting career are the issues of melodrama and mannerism. While he traffics in big, existential emotions like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits, he’s never written a standard like those guys, something universal enough to be reinterpreted and seep into the culture. The core of his appeal is the exact same thing that makes him unappealing to many: characters in his songs commit mayhem and collapse into self-pity, and it’s ambiguous whether he earns the right to play with these elements. In the early Bad Seeds, he’d adopt a plainly fake southern drawl and hop on a Mississippi raft with Huck and Jim, or strap his character to an electric chair while a cowboy soundtrack whistled in the background. His complete refusal to wink made it hard to decide if he was being ridiculous, abusing the ridiculous, rescuing and exploring it or simply unable to judge. Those in the pro-Cave camp delectate that it is impossible to tell. Those who are anti- feel like they’re stuck listening to a creative writing assignment. 

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Lucrecia Dalt — Ou (Care Of Editions)

The music from Lucrecia Dalt’s first phase, starting late in the last decade, was plenty experimental, though it consisted of songs built around rhythm tracks and lyrics. A broad range of ideas filled up the middle, foremost being meditative bass guitar. Between her 2012 and 2013 albums, Commotus and Syzygy, the structure started to break apart like ice floes at sea. Words retreated and beats shrunk to clicks and pulses. Always nocturnal, the air shifted from humid stillness to a cold breeze. Even as her work moves towards purely electronic sounds, it retains something natural and analog. Like Forest Swords, Dalt’s music feels like it’s made in the open air.

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The Third Annual Dusted Midyear Music Exchange: The Lists

We close our our midyear report with individual contributor lists, with apologies to Chris Forsyth, above, who made three of these lists but whose review never materialized.

See parts one and two, too.

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Various Artists — Sherwood at the Controls Vol. 2 1985-1990 (On-U Sound)

If we’re measuring influence, there’s no doubt that the late 1980s were peak Adrian Sherwood. This is when his blend of dub voids, industrial clanks and hip-hop rhythms came into its own. Thoroughly electronic, these are still rock productions, because rock was the dominant musical culture. Hip-hop was admired in Britain but hadn’t taken root, and the trans-euro vision of house and techno was still forming. The artists on this compilation are all trying to dismantle rock clichés from the inside, and their sounds are on the cusp of the next era, but not part of it. Most of these artists were not bands in the conventional bass-drums-guitar sense, but they were competing for the same set of ears. More conventional lineups would have been releasing 12" remixes at the time, too.   

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Bert Jansch — Live at the 12 Bar (Earth Recordings)

Until development forced the nightspot’s relocation this year, the 12 Bar Club sat on Denmark Street, home to an abundance of London’s guitar shops. Bert Jansch stayed a folkie throughout his life, but a set recorded on the street level of Denmark captures his figurative role the larger pop world quite nicely. As rock guitarists ascended to godhead in the late 1960s, Jansch’s style informed lots of the players that were trading up their guitars for ever nicer models, and trading flats for manor houses. Jansch was next door.

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Exploded View — Exploded View (Sacred Bones)

Annika Henderson’s debut album, as Anika, was one of those quick collaborations where everything gelled. A writer who fell in with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow as he was developing his band Beak, she fit with Beak’s approach: use the basic rock lineup to hit upon simple, cold rhythms, recorded live before anyone could overthink it. They did a bunch of covers — Kinks, Dylan, Ono, Skeeter Davis — excising any good times the originals possessed, leaving awkwardly posed skeletons that fit alongside the dub-punk originals. 

Henderson sings like the journalist that she is in her daytime gig. Hitting notes with a Nico-like sharpness and la-la-la-ing through love songs, it’s like she’s reporting on incidents from the police blotter. Anika was record that had hooks: grappling hooks to pull down a burnt-out apartment tower, perhaps with a stubborn widow inside. With Exploded View six years later, she’s working in Mexico City with a new group of musicians, hitting upon a similar cold sympathy through studio improvisations. 

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Fuzz — II (In the Red)

Photo by Denee Petracek

If it’s hard to keep up with all the Ty Segall bands, calling one of them Fuzz doesn’t help. They’re all pretty fuzzy. Given the mandatory muffling of the Ty style, Fuzz is about as distant from the Epsilons as you can get, Epsilons being the seltzer-charged brat band that presented him to the world all the way back in 2006. Those guys were all horndog girl chasing, trebly cheap synths colliding with trebly cheap guitars, sounding like his whole high school clique was in the band. Fuzz ain’t like that. It’s is heavy, man. It’s a power trio, the tone pitched between Hendrix and Iommi. Things happen. Like, finding your baby dead, but still going for the glory on the solo. As far as Segall projects go, it’s the furthest from his Nuggetsy comfort zone. 

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Cate Le Bon — Crab Day (Drag City)

The questions posed by Cate Le Bon’s latest batch of songs are well served by the cover art: having shaved off one’s eyebrows and painted arcs under the lower lids, how long can you make eye contact with a face partially reversed? Wrong at first sight, Le Bon’s visage escapes from uncanny valley only with a steady stare. 

The songs that make up Crab Day have the same effect, full of approachable motifs and lovely passages, always with a few lines unnervingly askew. Her early records have plenty of near-capsizing moments decorating the folk melodies, but the melodies steady the boat. These new songs steer away from calms. Le Bon moved from Wales to Southern California before her last album, and she seems to be the sort that internalizes the landscape: the green hills and silver skies of her early work have been replaced by olive scrub brush and beach brightness. Pushing towards the treble, songs like “Find Me” layer dry guitars, whacks at the snare and refrains at the top of her range. She hits notes that make you squint. Like walking across a parking lot at noon in LA, you want sunglasses. 

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Dan Melchior's Broke Revue — Lords of the Manor (In The Red)

Fashion hardly seems to be a concern in the sundry adventures of Dan Melchior, yet maybe trends play into sound of Lords of the Manor. This latest incarnation his on-and-off Broke Revue is as cranky and creaking as the rest of the Melchior discography, but from a certain angle, the band buzzes along with the same hum that’s powered other DIY rock for the last few years. Kraut drive is the signature feature of low budget rock from this decade, just as thrift-shop Casios powered the last decade, and surf/rockabilly guided the decade before. Melchior turns toward the cosmic under dingy light, and the beats are fractured by his exasperated delivery, but there’s a flow at work here that different from his 1990s-forged rock ‘n’ roll sound.  

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Duke Ellington & His Orchestra — The Conny Plank Session (Grönland)

I’ve had this pet idea poking around my head for a long time: you could explain much of 20th century music through just two artists; Duke Ellington and Lee Scratch Perry.  That’s Ellington, because he was among the first who composed for records rather than performance, and Perry because he was an early proponent of a recording as the starting point for a piece, rather than the end point. Ellington is generally considered a composer, Perry a producer, which sums up where western music ideals were at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 21st. While their life spans overlapped, they never crossed paths.

But if you continued working this absurdly reductionist game, you could substitute German producer Conny Plank for Perry and cover a lot of the same ground.

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Fire! Orchestra — Ritual (Rune Gramaphone)

Photo by Petra Cvelbar

Fire! Orchestra tops twenty members, most of them on horns. They skronk it up with Mingus-like tides of brass, yet the overall effect isn’t exactly jazz. Their success come from the unlikely facets they fuse. Twinned drummers lock into a nearly industrial crunch at times, with the opening of Ritual pounding like early 1990s Haitian Fight rockers Gallon Drunk or Thee Hypnotics. There’s a long section of no wave guitar and one drummer, like a William Hooker/Thurston Moore workout, the guitar commencing with a plain ol’ power chord. 

But what ties the project together is the very element that flirts closest to the ridiculous: of their two singers, the one who takes the foreground goes by the title Mariam the Believer. She brings a guileless hippy sincerity to the free jazz theorizing, and when joined by Sofia Jernberg they elevate into ululating trills, like witchy battle cries. Leader Mats Gustafsson is intent on bringing together just about every genre he’s found inspiring to Fire!, and spiritual jazz is a sizable slice of the fruitcake. 

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Nisennenmondai — N (Bijin)

Nisennenmondai take their name from the Japanese term for the Y2K bug, a big concern when they formed, and N feels like the logical end of a bunch of other concerns that popped up around the turn of the century– minimal techno, vibrating disco-punk, home appliances with brushed steel finishes. There are three long tracks, each barely changing and barely distinct from the others. Nisennenmondai’s playing has grown ever more precise, and this record is a bit like staring at rapidly rotating gears of a machine, trying to figure out the number of teeth as they spin. You are oblivious to the machine’s purpose, but fascinated that someone could engineer it, that ultimately it’s the work of human hands.

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Drinks — Hermits on Holiday (Heavenly)

Drinks is a pair of solitary songwriters working as a duo. On their own, Tim Presley and Cate Le Bon have established themselves as introverts and miniaturists, both creating songs as melodic as they are askew. Working from templates established in the 60s, with Presley’s chants (as White Fence) holding the sky-high soar of Syd Barrett and twee Pete Townshend, while Le Bon’s stoic tunes have the potent reserve of John Cale and Nico.

Their work as guitarists has provided the askew part, with Presley laying a thick crust of fuzz over his creations, and Le Bon drawn towards the staircase spirals of Television and Pavement. If their influences haven’t been far afield, introversion is what’s elevated their work. They take familiar paths but wander away from expectations. One can imagine a lot of head scratching from Tim or Cate’s touring bandmates when they get directions for a new song.

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Wildest Dreams — Wildest Dreams (Smalltown Supersound)

An artist who has been on the scene for long enough to watch a generation pass before them is going feel a mid-life tug to explore the music that predates their own career. In the case of DJ Harvey’s rock band Wildest Dreams, the pull between his life in dance music and what we get on this platter is distant, over the horizon, even. Like a lot of first generation UK DJs, he followed a New Order-ish path from post-punk to club music. Working backward from that, you’d expect him to arrive at some kind of tight and tense fun, danceable in a glam way perhaps, ready for DFA records. It’s easy to see why a veteran would want to take a break from the contemporary, yet use his experience to acknowledge the tension between the modern world’s digital timekeeping and the slop of rock at its cultural peak.

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