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The easy listening criticism has dogged Alison Krauss for more than twenty years, and she does nothing to dispel it on Windy City, her first solo record since 1999. Her music is thoughtfully poised between the bluegrass she grew up playing as a fiddle prodigy and the jazzy mainstream adult pop popularized by Norah Jones. At least since the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack made her voice so famous, she has focused more on singing than playing the fiddle. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Krauss has a bright, soft soprano that at its best blends Dolly Parton’s cheery expressiveness with Willie Nelson’s dexterous phrasing. The downside, however, is that her music, while expertly performed and recorded, is often blanched of any distinguishing twang or genre character. The listening becomes too easy.
As though addressing that criticism directly, Windy City includes a cover of the 1967 crossover hit “Gentle on My Mind,” written by John Hartford but made famous by Glen Campbell. The song lives right at the intersection of pop and country, its lyrics even describing how the music should operate: “You’re movin’ on the back roads by the rivers of my memory/And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind.” Krauss isn’t the first female singer to take a shot at the song—Aretha, Patti Page, and the Band Perry have all recorded versions—but she does unintentionally show just how tricky the song can be. While her voice is perfectly suited to the song’s rosy nostalgia, she can’t quite navigate the narrative twist in the last verse, when the narrator is revealed to be not just a wanderer but literally homeless, haunting trainyards and barrel fires with a coal-dark beard and a dirty hat.
Krauss doesn't conjure that kind of character of setting, but then again, Campbell himself barely could. Still, he knew enough to play up the contrast between the grittiness of the circumstances and the gentleness of the memory. This version is all gentle: technically sharp but emotionally blunted. That’s a problem throughout Windy City, as her pursuit of a viable crossover sound opens up new musical possibilities even as it burnishes away the genre edges of these songs. Working with Nashville producer Buddy Cannon, Krauss displays a broad palette, covering left-of-center choices from the Osborne Brothers and Roger Miller, Brenda Lee and country songwriting legend Cindy Walker. But the arrangements on opener “Losing You” and the title track don’t even bother to evoke the messiness of actual loss. They’re stately and elegant, but also cold and detached.
Windy City sounds liveliest whenever Krauss gets away from crossover pop. She navigates the twisting rhythms of the honky-tonk hit “It’s Good-Bye and So Long To You” with a jazzy agility and actually sounds like she’s having fun with it. Likewise, her version of the bluegrass chestnut “Poison Love” has a calypso pulse that seems to defy gravity. Even “River in the Rain” retains its showtune determinism: If this Roger Miller obscurity, penned for a Huck Finn musical, is the album’s centerpiece, it’s because Krauss keeps it anchored to the stage. She sounds more at home with that kind of theatrical drama than she does with a story-song like the title track or “Gentle on My Mind.”
Windy City is not the best place for newcomers to start with Krauss. The curious should search out the 1995 retrospective Now That I’ve Found You, which features a savvier, more imaginative crossover sound. Windy City never quite reconciles her genre history with her populist ambitions, creating an album that toggles back and forth between the two poles and then ends abruptly. Krauss conveys a stately heartbreak in her closing cover of the Cindy Walker/Eddy Arnold classic “You Don’t Know Me,” striking the ideal balance between elegant countrypolitan backing, eccentric piano and pedal steel flourishes, and vocals that convey both power and personality. It’d be a fine starting point for a follow-up.
King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard are a testament to the liberating power of giving yourself restrictions. Whether making every song on a record the exact same length (2015’s Quarters!), or constructing an entire album to connect into an infinite loop (last year’s Nonagon Infinity), the Aussie armada thrive on the symbiotic relationship between governing principles and disorder. The result is psychedelic rock that plays like a pinball game—the action may be confined to an enclosed playing field, but it’s always moving, ping-ponging in unexpected directions and encouraging synapse overload.
The band’s latest—reportedly, the first of five albums they’re planning to pump out this year—is likewise bound to a motif, though this one is as much sonic as structural. Flying Microtonal Banana was the product of Gizzard king Stu Mackenzie acquiring a custom-made guitar modified for microtonal tuning, which allows for intervals smaller than the semitones that govern Western music. And since the new guitar could only be played with similarly tuned instruments, he reportedly paid his bandmates $200 each to also get their gear tricked out with microtonal capabilities. Translation for those who don’t hold a degree in music theory: Australia’s wiggiest band has found a way to hoist its freak flag a few inches higher up the pole. But this time, it flutters in a more gentle breeze.
If the unrelenting Nonagon Infinity turned rock’n’roll into an Iron Man competition, Flying Microtonal Banana is that cool-down grace period your elliptical machine gives you after an hour’s workout. While opener “Rattlesnake” immediately reestablishes the preceding album’s motorik momentum, the pace is tempered—more late-night cruise than rocket to the moon. But even as it maintains a steadier course, the changes in scenery are more dramatic—in between Mackenzie’s chirpy verses about reptilian attacks, the song powers through a fog of stormy synths, staccato guitar pricks, and the brain-scrambling squawks of a Turkish horn-type instrument known as a zurna.
On Nonagon Infinity, the action moved so fast that Mackenzie’s words whizzed by like an out-of-control news ticker spitting out the haziest cosmic jive. He still drops randomly recurring melodies like a pull-string doll with a limited repertoire of phrasing, but Flying Microtonal Banana’s more relaxed vibe and greater sense of space bring his words into sharper focus. As per psych-rock tradition, Mackenzie deals in surrealist imagery, though in this case, those images aren’t the mere product of a chemically clouded mind. “Melting” combines rhythms from ’70s Nigeria with observations on the present-day Arctic (“Toxic air is/Here to scare us/Fatal fumes from/Melting ferrous”). “Open Water” channels anxieties over disappearing coastlines into a marauding, seafaring-fantasy epic, like an updated “Immigrant Song” for Vikings who drive their ships to new lands only discover they’ve been swallowed by rising ocean levels.
Flying Microtonal Banana peaks early with these extended odysseys, before giving way to more conventionally scaled rockers like “Sleep Drifter,” the rare Gizzard track that uses its melody as the foundation for a krautrockin’ jam, rather than the other way around. But as the record rolls on, it starts to resemble an FM dial spun awry. Flying Microtonal Banana serves up brief blasts of spaghetti-western balladry (“Billabong Valley”), acidic Southern blooze (“Anoxia”), and gritty Afro-funk (“Nuclear Fusion”) that are connected only by the chaotic harmonica and zurna bursts that punctuate Mackenzie’s musings. And it becomes increasingly clear that the only difference between a three-minute King Gizzard track and a seven-minute one is where they arbitrarily decide to fade out (sometimes mid-chorus). But if Flying Microtonal Banana’s randomized approach is ultimately less transfixing than Nonagon Infinity’s maniacal focus, it nonetheless shows that, after eight previous albums, this band’s creativity and curiosity knows no bounds, and their singular balance of anarchy and accessibility is still in check. So even if you don’t understand the first thing about microtonality, there’s still plenty of flying banana here to keep you amused.
If “rock” can be a verb, then so can “post-rock,” and Grails know how to post-rock. The Portland group began after the genre’s first wave, but they’re so well-versed in dramatic, soundtrack-ready instrumentalism that they could pass for originators in a blindfold test. Through seven albums over 15 years, they’ve made a convincing case for the potential and durability of post-rock, covering diverse terrain—metal, psych, krautrock, ambience, soft rock—while maintaining a consistent musical language.
In fact, Grails’ language is so strong that the six year gap between their last album, 2011’s Deep Politics, and their new effort Chalice Hymnal feels like a mere blip. The group—sometimes a sextet, for now a trio—continues their wordless conversation so smoothly that one song, “Deep Snow II,” actually picks up almost exactly where Deep Politics’ “Deep Snow” left off. In line with their career trajectory, this album differs from its predecessor only because Grails have subtly deepened their sonic scope, committing even more to each of the many styles they’ve explored in the past.
Yet there’s no gratuitous novelty in Chalice Hymnal’s 11 tracks. Expansion is a goal, but it’s never the main point. As compositionally complex and technically adept as their songs are, Grails are always most interested in building moods and evoking emotions: somber reflection, energized optimism, wistful nostalgia, and most often, cathartic release. At times they prioritize mood-building to a fault, like when the misty “Rebecca” veers toward easy listening. But if they’re going to err, better that they lean toward the overly sentimental than the wankily proficient.
There’s not many errors on Chalice Hymnal, though, since Grails are too experienced and familiar with their own strengths to let anything egregious slip past. Each track establishes a tone firmly and executes it confidently. Hence the chugging groove of “Pelham,” the sludgy riffery of “New Prague,” and the theatrical swells of “The Moth & the Flame” feel like tonal siblings even though they’re stylistically disparate. Some tracks even contrast themselves: “Tough Guy”’s majestic march gives way to clouds of ambience before returning to forward motion.
None of that variety would matter if Chalice Hymnal wasn’t so emotionally resonant. Grails understand that post-rock is largely about structure—the way sounds gather and escalate, the way each part reflects what came before and points toward what’s next—and their mastery comes from treating music as sonic architecture. On Chalice Hymnal, they’ve added another solid story to their growing skyscraper.
Ezra Rubin (aka Kingdom) is an architect of the post-club sound—a new profile cleaved from caustic synthesizers, herky jerk percussion, and crying on the dancefloor. The melting pot of sounds he and his collaborators in Fade to Mind (Nguzunguzu, Total Freedom) and Night Slugs (Bok Bok, L-Vis 1990) offered pulled from UK garage, dancehall, and diva-driven house that still seems prescient. Rubin, in particular, helped shaped a postmodern vision of R&B alongside Kelela and Dawn Richard that’s influenced everyone from FKA twigs to Justin Bieber. Rubin was staged to make a pop crossover. His debut LP, the delightfully titled Tears in the Club, is an earnest and subdued attempt at making his panoply of sounds agreeable to a general audience.
This is immediately clear from the album’s opening moment, “What Is Love,” a collaboration with SZA. Rubin is no stranger to producing for powerhouse vocalists, but with Tears in the Club he dips his toe into the world of major label team-ups, and the result has neutered the outré aspects of his sound. On “What Is Love,” certain trademarks still pop up—vaporous synth pulses and staccato percussion—but he’s slowed down the normally breakneck pace of his music to somewhere sleepier and almost lackadaisical. In the past, Rubin’s slow jams (Dawn Richards “Paint It Blue” for example) had a seething atmosphere just bubbling beneath the surface. With SZA, that feel is gone. This is also true of some of his solo tracks. “Nurtureworld” is a confusingly out-of-focus dance track that spends most of its three minutes finding its proper footing, and the album’s title track is a defanged version of the controlled chaos he once offered.
Yet, Kingdom recovers from these missteps. “Each & Every Day,” his collaboration with Vine star Najee Daniels, adds a shot of bubblegum into his otherwise ominous productions. It resembles what Charli XCX would sound like singing over a DJ Rashad beat. His second song with SZA, “Down 4 Whatever,” benefits from the more vigorous, energetic beat Rubin provides. A solo track called “Into the Fold,” offers a picture of what pop-ified post-club music could sound like—bright whacks of drums and smokey looped vocals mingle well with more experimental elements like a dissonant hiss in the background. But his thesis statement for this album comes on a song with the Internet’s Syd, who might be the perfect vocalist for Kingdom’s attempt at a crossover style. Her slinky voice follows Kingdom’s syncopations beat for beat, and the protean, mercurial change in pace befits Syd’s ability to pitch shift on the fly. It’s a promising peek into what Kingdom could do for a radio-ready artist.
On a recent release, Vertical XL EP, Rubin filled inhuman sounds with soul, and Tears in the Club attempts to take that idea to a mass audience. One wonders if he is unintentionally softening his music for the sake of a breezier product. It’s less a statement of purpose and more of an experiment with an inconclusive hypothesis. Instead of heightening, or focusing the pandemonium he could unleash on the dancefloor, his work is denatured by a fairweather disposition. Even if he never means to, Tears in the Club is a disappointingly genteel work, from an artist known for anything but.
Donatella Versace took over Milan Fashion Week earlier this evening, staging her latest Versace offering just days after turning Kensington into her Versus club kid hangout. Teasing the line-up in video interviews with models including Adwoa Aboah, Kiki…read more »