Caleb scours Spotify to bring you ten songs you should listen to like right now. In the queue this week: woods, water slides, and a ghost from the past.
A quick note: playlists are provided via Spotify, which likely has the most exhaustive streaming library available. Free Spotify users are still able to listen to playlists, albeit only in shuffle mode. If you’re a premium user, this list will sound better in sequence. I realize that sounds pompous, but just take my word for it.
1. “The Woods,” by San Fermin
Things start quietly enough as San Fermin opens their sophomore album, Jackrabbit. Two children head into the woods over the innocent chords of a solitary piano, but things begin to creep into the arrangement – the muddy grunge of an electric guitar, the sudden bleating of a baritone sax. The serenity fades as a demented fairy tale emerges, colored by centipede dances, spider blood, and salamander mutilation. It’s a violent scene, but as is typical of the band, this disturbing trek eventually finds its way to beauty, as everything opens up at the 2:34 mark in a bright blast of woodwinds and strings. And while the music finds some resolution, the narrative avoids a tidy ending, as you’re left with the feeling of waking from a hazy nightmare.
2. “I Saw Ashes Where You Once Lay,” by Hymns from Nineveh
A hairy Danish folk singer is probably the last person I’d expect to recall the sultry whispers of an artist like Sade, but every time I hear Jason Peterson’s breathy coo over “I Saw Ashes Where You Once Lay,” I find myself caught in the track’s warm sway. The opening picture is like something from a John Donne poem, with Peterson quoting his lover’s request to watch goldfinches singing from shady summer vines. “Stop the clocks,” he proclaims. “Let the bells call for my love.” When you get to the second verse, though, you realize that Peterson isn’t setting a romantic mood. He’s saying goodbye to a dying lover. It’s a sudden twist, but the song earns its sunniness when you realize the singer’s joy is shining through a lens of heartbreak.
3. “Water Slides,” by Mew
Mew stumbled into the weirdest formula in all of music. The Danish band combines nonsense poetry, abstract vocal melodies, and prog sensibilities to cut an unlikely, gorgeous sliver of dream pop. +/-, the band’s first album in six years, might be the clearest expression of their approach, with moments of intense beauty, epic movements, and the occasionally bizarre lyrical reference. (This might be the only album you’ll ever hear with nods to Beverly Hills Cop 2 and ninjas.) Standout “Water Slides” is a great example of what makes the band so unique. The lyrics read a bit like someone put Danish poetry through Google Translate, but the sentiment remains strangely familiar. When Jonas Bjerre sings “For such a long time I didn’t know if I’d find you / Say stop, made up, lying on the bathroom floor,” you don’t quite know what he means. But the shimmering guitars and ambient vocals are just too pretty for you to care. Mew isn’t for everybody, but if you can allow for silliness and beauty to occupy the same space, there is a lot to like.
4. “Sunshine On My Back,” by The National
The brooding “Sunshine On My Back” might be the most The National song The National has ever done. If you were to jot down all the things that make the band unique – airtight drums holding together impossibly precise arrangements, Matt Berninger’s baritone reciting the poetry of the broken, haunting strings (and a clarinet!) darkening the atmosphere – “Sunshine On My Back” would play a bit like a checklist. But while the song does approach paint-by-the-numbers territory, the band’s palette is a vivid one. The “Tina” that Berninger creates here is one of his best characters, tortured (natch) and finding solace in shadows, and the band supports the conversation he orchestrates with a steady uneasiness. The song doesn’t appear on any of their albums, but it’s a nice stop-gap while we wait for the follow-up to 2013’s excellent Trouble Will Find Me.
5. “On My Life,” by Ryan Adams
After the return to form of last year’s Ryan Adams, Adams released 1984, a short but explosive ten-song punk EP, to begin his PaxAm Singles series. Over the course of nine months or so, Adams released six other singles, each featuring previously unreleased songs. (He also just released a 42-track live acoustic album, bringing his total to some 90 songs released in under a year. The man never sleeps.) Each of the releases in the PaxAm series has its own identity. Jacksonville is classic Adams alt-country. Vampires is a throwback to the sounds of 2003’s Rock N Roll. The most recent release, I Do Not Feel Like Being Good, is a quiet, pensive acoustic set. They’re all really good, but the best in the ongoing series might be Blue Light, an addendum of sorts to Ryan Adams. Jangly 80s guitars over moody atmospherics provide Adams with a background to express the bleakness of his horizon (a view that feels earned after a recent divorce). “On My Life” is an unlikely standout, a gloomy march to an unlikely crescendo that suggests not denouement, but a fiery burnout.
6. “Almost Home” (featuring Damien Jurado), by Moby
Damien Jurado has spent three outstanding albums honing his latest sound with producer Richard Swift, crafting a surprisingly cohesive and bouncy mix of Swift’s 60s pop leanings and with his own brooding folk. For the most part, Jurado has stayed in this same lane for half a decade, so it was a surprise to see his name pop up on the latest Moby album, Innocents. Given that I haven’t listened to much Moby, other than the occasional early 2000s car commercial, I wasn’t sure what to expect. “Almost Home” doesn’t sound like anything else Jurado has done. And while Moby approximates some of Swift’s pop aesthetic, it’s very clearly a Moby-produced song. It’s also very, very good. Jurado’s voice is searching, haunting, delivered mostly in falsetto, and the song occupies an odd space, perfectly suitable for a church service but also fitting in just fine at a funeral. (Given Jurado’s religious leanings, this is surely intentional.) The live version Moby and Jurado recently played together employed a full choir, and it’s worth checking out as well.
7. “Broken,” by The Amazing
The Amazing are a difficult band to describe. The swirling ambience recalls shoegaze, particularly Slowdive at their most whisper-y, but the familiar jangle of the guitars also bears resemblance to old psychedelia. “Broken” opens the band’s new album, Picture You, and provides a good introduction to their sound. The vocals are sung in a distant hush that wouldn’t feel out of place on a Nick Drake song, but the song moves – grooves, really – on a shuffling rhythm that bounces like some Washed Out chillwave. As the band’s songs often do, “Broken” takes a turn midway and becomes something else altogether, shifting smoothly into a light, whispered coda that could be a song on its own had the band preferred. Picture You, which might seriously be album of the year, is full of little moments like this, twists and turns that sneak onto other tracks to elevate the experience. And somehow, they recorded the whole thing in three days. Crazy.
8. “The Right Stuff,” by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds
Most people associate two templates with Noel Gallagher’s music: stadium-filling anthems (think “Rock And Roll Star”) or mopey, heart-string pluckers (“Wonderwall,” duh). His latest solo effort, the excellent (no, seriously) Chasing Yesterday, debuted at number one in the UK after the success of “In the Heat of the Moment.” Say what you want about Gallagher, but he knows how to write a hook. It’s worth noting, though, that his albums are more nuanced than they’re given credit for, and throughout his career, Gallagher has developed an appreciation for baroque pop and slow-burning 70s grooves. Though much of Oasis’ discography could charitably be described as “uneven,” each album after the band’s creative peak offers some surprising tangents. 2000’s Standing on the Shoulder of Giants, a mostly miserable album, snuck in “Roll It Over” as a closer, and songs on later albums like “The Cage” and “Soldier On” would see Gallagher exploring new sounds. “The Right Stuff” continues something of a tradition then, a droning, bass-heavy crawl tucked away in an album of big anthems and emotional downers. It doesn’t really sound like anything else he’s done, with Joy Rose’s backing vocals and Jim Hunt’s saxophone(!) featuring prominently, and it offers a nice reminder that aging songwriters can still surprise.
9. “Orion,” by A Grave With No Name
I miss Sparklehorse. A lot. Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain remains one of my favorite albums, and it’s been five long years since Mark Linkous took his life and with it his music. Before this year’s Orion, A Grave With No Name wasn’t a group you’d associate with Sparklehorse (though 2011’s Lower approaches the group’s lo-fi aesthetic). A Grave With No Name’s last proper full-length, Whirlpool, was a slice of Smashing Pumpkins-inspired dream pop, recalling the shoegazing of Jesus and Mary Chain at their most sincere. (It also sounds a lot like Polaris, but that could just be the Pete & Pete nostalgia talking.) Orion is a departure from that sound, a distorted creep rather than a mad dash. The album is a grower, to be sure, but “Orion” is immediately recognizable. The light grungy guitar, the tape hiss, the sharp bass – it all screams Sparklehorse. But it’s when Alexander Shields begins singing, his voice filtered like it’s coming through an old radio, that you’ll swear you’ve just heard a ghost.
10. “Dark Bird Is Home,” by The Tallest Man On Earth
Kristian Matsson has been recording and producing albums as The Tallest Man on Earth since 2006, and he’s built a steady following with his raw charisma and unique perspective, which marries the bounce of early American folk with the lyrical introspection (and occasional guitar tunings) of Nick Drake. Since Mattson left his old band, Montezumas, to begin a career as The Tallest Man on Earth, he’s been remarkably consistent, and this year’s Dark Bird Is Home continues his streak, adding larger instrumentation to a sound that had previously rested on the starkness of a solo acoustic guitar or piano. Perhaps it’s the addition of the full band, but Dark Bird Is Home feels like his happiest album, the quiet focus of his old songs set aside for sunnier celebrations. And while it might not be his best album – I still prefer The Wild Hunt – the expanded sound is a welcome change. The title track closes with what might have been a bare arrangement on another album. Here, Matsson’s outlook seems to rise with the band’s assistance, and we’re given a fresh taste of hope as the music opens before us.