Woly Boly: Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

It’s a rainy, dreary, drab day in Chicago, so seems a good time to try to be a better blogger while my laundry spins. So how about some music talk, huh? Remember how I used to do that all the time here, back before Twittering and other distractions shortened our attention spans to gnat-like levels? Yeah, those were the days.

I tend to spend the early parts of each year listening to old favorites on the house stereo and commuting iPods, just because I work so hard at the end of each year to digest as much new music as I can to support my album of the year report. But four fab new discs have emerged and caught my attention over the past couple of months, pulling me out of nostalgia head space for now. Here’s the reviews and reports . . .

Wire’s Silver/Lead leads the pack thus far. Released on the 40th anniversary of their first show as a quartet, it’s got a smoother, cooler, swingier vibe about it than some of their more frantic and metronomic dugga dugga dugga fare. If I had to liken it to any other albums in their high quality, eclectic canon, I’d probably compare it to 1988’s A Bell Is A Cup . . . Until It Is Struck. Both albums are melodic, mid-tempo and accessible on first listen, but rich with weirdness when you dig into them a little deeper. Colin Newman has dominated the vocals on recent Wire albums, so it’s good to hear Graham Lewis more represented in the mix this time; the variety of their voices is appealing when you listen straight through. Lewis’ lyrics are odd and wonderful, as always, though the album has a bit more directness and perhaps even poignancy in some places, with the emotions showing through more than they usually do in Wire’s often detached and icy worldview. I would judge this to be the best offering of the Wire’s current era with Matthew Simms on guitar, and while the inner workings of the band are inscrutable to outsiders, as as longtime (nearly lifetime) listener,  I feel like I’m hearing Simms really emerging here as something other than a junior partner replacement to founding and retired guitarist Bruce Gilbert. An early leader in the album of the year sweepstakes. Sample Song: “Playing Harp for the Fishes.”

The Residents’ The Ghost of Hope marks, as many Residents albums before it have, a turning point into a new phase or project. We’ve had Mole Shows, and Cube-E’s, and Great American Composers, and all sorts of other conceptual frameworks for short or long runs of Residents’ releases. The last several years have found the (sometimes) eyeballs in highly prolific form with the “Randy, Chuck and Bob” line-up, a bunch of (supposedly) historic album releases, a series of records from (alleged) primary composer Charles Bobuck (who has now apparently retired for health reasons), a (sort of) Spanish language album by (purported) member ex-member Carlos, and their Talking Light, The Wonder of Weird and Shadowlands tour rubrics. The many first person web releases, videos, albums and narratives of this era often purport to dispel the Resident’s permanent anonymity, although, of course, they do not really. The Ghost of Hope is now announced as a “classic Residents” project, restoring the group’s (assumed) quartet lineup, with long-time collaborators Nolan Cook, Eric Drew Feldman and Carla Fabrizio along for the ride. While you can never quite be sure what to believe and what not to believe when it comes to The Residents, they have the following to say about this latest project, make of it what you will:

Following their long tradition of projects based on narrative themes, The Residents are pleased to announce the release of The Ghost of Hope, an historically accurate album based on train wrecks. Pursuing this theme in both a literal and metaphorical sense, the group discovered a series of vintage news articles highlighting the dangers of train travel in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Inspired by the era’s elegant language, the group then contrasted that eloquence against the sheer horror of these devastating events, resulting in an album that sounds both startlingly new and curiously nostalgic.

From a sonic standpoint, it rocks harder than anything they’ve done in the past decade, with Louisiana-inflected crooner Mr Red Eye/Mr Skull/Randy Rose (these days dressed as a cow, while his band mates don plague masks) in very fine voice, and the accompaniments and texts being direct, disturbing, and delicious in equal measure. I don’t know how long this phase is going to last, but it’s a good start to something for some period of time, until it’s not (possibly), so I’m happy to be along for the ride. Hopefully not ending with a train wreck, I should note. Sample Song: “Death Harvest.”

I have to note up front that I was prepared to hate everything about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s Flying Microtonal Banana, and I mean everything. Stupid band name, ridiculous announced intention to issue five albums this year exploring microtonal music (as if their inexperienced offerings would somehow clarify what we haven’t learned from decades of jazz and non-Western tunings, puh-leeze), schmucky visuals, popularity with annoying hipsters, you name it, I knew I wouldn’t like it. In fact: I actually sampled the album for no other reason than to make snarky comments about it. (On Twitter, of course. Because Twitter). But, dammit, a funny thing happened on the way to my 140-character dismantling . . . because I was really, extremely and highly annoyed to discover that this was, in fact, a very good album, and I confess that I like it a lot, having grabbed the whole thing and spun it for a couple of months now. I hate when that happens!!! The microtonality thing is evident, but not overwhelming or annoying, in the guitar and vocal lines, and the whole thing chugs along smartly on rumbly double drum and bass beds, with surprisingly memorable, singalong melodies given the odd intonation of some of the songs. Grumble grumble grumble, dammit. Stop looking at me. Sample song: “Rattlesnake.”

Xiu Xiu’s last album of primarily original material, 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom, was described by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart as an exploration of the “mean, tight-hearted blackness of Neubauten vs Suicide vs Nico” and, amazingly enough, it actually lived up (or down, depending on your worldview) to that evocative description of really dark, really powerful music. Of course, that makes it one of my favorite albums by the assaultive experimental ensemble. Surrounding it, though, were gentler records exploring the music of Nina Simone, the soundtracks to Twin Peaks, and Caribbean folk songs and American hymns, so Stewart and Company clearly hadn’t completely succumbed to the allures of the null and the void. This year’s Xiu Xiu offering, FORGET, is something of a happy medium merger of the aforementioned forays, with (relatively) accessible song structures, melodies and arrangements, spiced with Stewart’s typically frank declamations on all manner of deeply felt things, sacred and profane, wordly and other, sexy and ugly, almost all in equal measure. Core members Stewart, Angela Seo and Shayna Dunkelman are joined this time out by nearly a dozen guests — including genderqueer icon Vaginal Davis, Kristof Hahn (Swans, Pere Ubu), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) — and the record has a richer, less skeletal feel than some of their blunter early work. It’s not easy listening, not by a long shot, and it’s not likely to pierce the pop charts, but it’s a little step closer in that direction from anything that’s come before it, and if that exposes Xiu Xiu’s brilliance to even a few more fans, then that’s a good thing.  Sample Song: “Wondering.”

Other discs I’m enjoying, but not quite long or often enough to review with any depth at this point, are Black Angel’s Death Song, Meat Wave’s The Incessant and Awa Poulo’s Poulo Warali. More on them, perhaps, at the mid-year report, or the next time a lazy, rainy weekend day intrudes on our Chicago schedule . . .

One thought on “Woly Boly: Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

  1. Eric,

    I bookmarked your page (again) and as the choice was between “Dark Ages” and “Entertainment” I chose the former. What can I say, hardly any grey or white about me. 🙂

    Thank for the band descriptions; some sounded as dark as if not darker than me so I”ll be listening.

    I’d never heard the story about how you met Marcia. I met Malen at the officer’s club at the Naval Postgraduate school…here we are thirty years later with three grandchildren.

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