Mutual Benefit – Life Assuringly

Mutual Benefit – Love’s Crushing Diamond

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Mutual Benefit have a happy knack of bringing order from chaos. Most of the songs begin unformed. The instruments in the orchestra tuning up. The band in the studio playing around. Almost imperceptibly, though, the various sounds coalesce. A gentle melody emerges. The fragile vocals set in. And a special beauty is heard. Mutual Benefit is the creation of 25-year Jordan Lee. It seems like a solo project from a young man, but it sounds like an ensemble work from a mature artist. There’s little change in tempo across the album. The pace is resolutely regal throughout. What varies is the range of sounds. The string section is a constant presence. But there are banjo-led songs and piano-led songs. And while the basic texture is always acoustic, there’s usually a drum machine in the background and more than a hint of electronic frippery. It’s this musical variety rather than any dynamic quality that leads to the inevitable comparisons with the maestro of Michigan. If you hear chamber and pop, inevitably you think Sufjan and Stevens. The comparison is always a compliment, but just as often it’s a misleading one. And here too. In fact, Jordan Lee cites Elliott Smith as a formative influence. And, indeed, there’s a certain Smith-like sense of quiet experimentation across the set of songs. In the end if Mutual Benefit understand how to bring order from chaos, they also realise how fleeting such order can be. For just as the songs gradually cohere and take form, they also have a habit of collapsing back into chaos at the very end. An endless cycle of construction, destruction and reconstruction plays out. A beautiful cycle. A cycle that is very much to our mutual benefit.

Pitchfork review

Stereogum interview

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Kelley Stoltz – Multiple Exposure

Kelley Stoltz – Double Exposure

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There’s a certain magpie quality to the new Kelley Stoltz album. A hint of ‘Artificial Energy’ here. A whiff of the ‘Last of The Steam Powered Trains’ there. Doesn’t that song end just like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’? Isn’t that the guitar break from ‘Eight Miles High’? There’s power pop, surfer pop, psychedelic pop. Pop, pop, pop, pop, pop. And it’s great. Plus, there’s a nice structure to the album. The first four tracks are short, catchy, hook-filled nuggets. The two middle songs are longer, much longer. While the last four songs revisit the shorter format. It makes for a nice symmetry. But there’s a wheel within the wheel. The first four songs are punchy. No time wasted. The last four songs, though relatively brief, are more varied. They’re top-and-tailed by an acoustic-led song and then the slower-paced closer. For an album that has a sonic coherence, there’s more than enough variation to keep the interest alive. And then there are the two long songs in the middle. You might expect them to be slower, but no. They keep up the fast-paced tempo of the first four songs. ‘Inside My Head’ is based on a synthy drone, but over it there’s a great melody and it keeps on going and going for a full nine minutes. As for ‘Still Feel’, it’s built around a funky bass line. Just one of the many on the album. With swirling guitars coming in and out, including that ‘Eight Miles High’ lifting, it’s the stuff of pop dreams. Kelley Stoltz is a seasoned professional. His trade is learnt. Yet, maybe the move to the Third Man label has given him a new confidence. What was once a statement seems now a pleasure. More power to the magpie.

Pitchfork review

Pop Matters review

Dusted review

All Music review

Jonathan Wilson – The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Jonathan Wilson – Fanfare

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The shortest distance between two points is a straight line and Jonathan Wilson likes to go the long way round. Take the second track, ‘Dear Friend’. It begins with a waltz theme, only to break into a guitar-led melody. The waltz theme returns and then the guitar melody follows again. This transforms into a long guitar-led section with three parts, a band-based jam, a middle section with guitar and drums, and then a band jam again. Finally, the guitar melody kicks back in and the track ends. That’s a whole lot of distance to cover. But there’s no great rush. It takes over seven wonderful minutes from start to finish. The great trick with Jonathan Wilson’s songs is that even though they’re usually very long, they never dwell in one place for any great length of time. It’s like the weather in Ireland. The twists and turns are essential to the whole experience. The other great pleasure in any Jonathan Wilson record is the spot-the-influence game. Isn’t that a Pink Floyd guitar sound on ‘Lovestrong’? Surely that’s an Allman Brothers slide guitar on ‘Moses Pain’? Doesn’t ‘Illumination’ sound more than a little like Neil Young’s ‘Dangerbird’? That guitar phrasing on ‘Her Hair Is Growing Long’, isn’t it straight from David Crosby’s If Only I Could Remember My Name? It probably is and, what’s more, it’s probably Crosby himself playing it. In contrast to a whole host of Laurel Canyon imitators, Jonathan Wilson’s address book contains the home numbers of a more than a few of the originals. Here, it’s not just David Crosby who contributes in person, but Graham Nash, Jackson Browne, and Roy Harper too. And that’s not to mention the representatives of a more recent generation of performers, including Josh Tillman. In the presence of such stellar company, the great achievement is that it still sounds like a Jonathan Wilson album. Sure, there are plenty of influences, borrowings, liftings even, but ’twas ever thus in music, writing, art generally. So, play the spot-the-influence game with a contented smile and enjoy the journey from here to there and back again via all the places in between.

Music OMH review

The Line of Best Fit review

All Music review

Hear Ya review

Irish Times review

The 405 review

San Fermin – Bull Run

San Fermin

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San Fermin have put the chamber emphatically back into pop. Music graduate, Ellis Ludwig-Leone, uses the full orchestral range on his first album. But forget pocket symphonies. Here, the sound is full-on Mahler’s 8th. With brass, percussion, and strings aplenty, only the woodwind is absent. Add to that electric guitars and backing vocals, and there’s no shortage of notes. Trying touring this version! What’s so good about this album is that the traditional pop equation is reversed. Unlike bands that add the orchestra to their songs, San Fermin add songs to their orchestra. The classical repertoire is almost always the basic building block, but rarely, if ever, does it dominate. This is no PhD dissertation. The album is packed with wonderful songs. The absolute standout is the first release, ‘Sonsick’, with its classic story that the male is after only one thing. But ‘Renaissance!’, ‘Methusalah’, and plenty of others could grace any of this year’s ‘Best Of …’ lists. There are instrumental interludes, but for most of the album they just whet the appetite for the next tune. Only towards the end does the project start to become a little overly academic. Of the last six tracks, only two are fully realised songs. By this time, Harmony and Melody are mostly out of the room, leaving Symphony and Rhapsody to argue amongst themselves. Unsurprisingly, Sufjan Stevens is a big influence throughout and, at times, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was waving the conductor’s baton. The way the female backing vocals come in on the first track, ‘Renaissance’. The sound of the trumpets on ‘Daedalus (What We Have)’. The chorus on ‘Crueler Kind’. All are worthy of the very best moments on ‘Come On Feel the Illinoise’. But there are other influences too. Notably, the Gershwin-like refrain on ‘Oh, Darling’. With Sufjan’s shift to Age of Adz’s blurting synths, San Fermin are currently fishing in a pool of one. Nothing released this year sounds remotely like this album and very little sounds as good. We can only wait with impatience for Ellis Ludwig-Leone’s second movement.

Pitchfork review

All Music review

The Guardian review

Cass McCombs – Big Wheel and Many, Many Others

Cass McCombs – Big Wheel and Others

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Would The White Album have been better as a single album rather than a double? Just by virtue of asking the question, you know the answer. Of course it would. The same question could easily be asked of the new Cass McCombs album and the same answer would apply. Clocking in at 22 tracks and 85 minutes, the cutting room floor is surely as bare as the cupboard at Old Mother Hubbard’s. Three of the tracks – Seans I, II and III – are brief spoken-word snippets of dialogue from an old Haight-Ashbury documentary. Perhaps they’re an essential part of the meta-narrative, but if you’re on e-music and you’ve used up three of your hard-earned credits downloading them, then you’re probably more than a little ticked off already. ‘Satan Is My Toy’ is jarringly rocky. ‘Unearthed’ is old-style lo-fi. ‘It Means A Lot To Know You Care’ is a syncopated instrumental. ‘Everything Has to Be Just-So’ meanders for nine minutes. Duly filleted, there’s still more than enough to go around. For the most part, it’s classic Cass with some nice variation. Country guitar on a few of the tracks. Jazzy sax on a couple of others. The two stand-outs are ‘Joe Murder’, which gets into a really good groove and generates a great space in which to tell its drug-addled story, and ‘Brighter’, which poignantly features the late Karen Black on vocals. In the end, it’s not that Cass McCombs has lost all sense of quality control. It’s just that even when it’s good, there’s still too much to take in. In that regard, and that regard only, it’s just like The White Album.

Consequence of Sound review

The Line of Best Fit review

NME review

Village Voice review

This Is Fake DIY review

Frankie Rose – Heretofore wilder

Frankie Rose – Herein Wild

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There’s an almost perfectly straight line from C86 through to Herein Wild. From The Shop Assistants, Fuzzbox, and Talulah Gosh through to Wild Flag, Warpaint, and CocoRosie. As part of the Vivian Girls, the Dum Dum Girls, and Crystal Stilts, Frankie Rose is part of this ancestral line, though Fuzzbox and CocoRosie are probably the great aunts that dress strangely, stroke long-haired cats and scare visiting children. Out on her own now, Frankie Rose’s new album, Herein Wild, takes up where the previous one, Interstellar, left off. The first track starts off like a classic indie guitar-led album for the first few bars, only to die away allowing Frankie’s ethereal voice to take centre stage alone. When the drums and guitars come back in they’re now backed by the voice. What started off as just another trashy guitar song turns out to be a thing of wonder. Like its predecessor, Herein Wild has plenty such tropes. The way the voices are left at the end of ‘Minor Times’. The hiatus in the middle of ‘Sorrow’. There are differences, though, between this album and the previous one. Here, the mood is more even. Sure, there are upbeat songs with nervous basslines that betray too many teenage nights spent listening to The Cure. But there isn’t quite range of sound as before. This leads to a more coherent and ultimately a more rewarding listen. Here also, the palette is broader. That really is a trumpet on ‘Requiem’. And the addition of strings is quite an innovation. On ‘Sorrow’, they work really well, adding something different to the sound. On ‘Cliffs as High’, they help create the feel of the song and stay just this side of cliché. With her musical heritage, Frankie Rose has indie-rock blue blood. Tracks such as ‘Question/Reason’ would stand out whichever band she was in. And with Herein Wild the good news is that the ancestral line from C86 onwards is still secure.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

Music OMH review

The Line of Best Fit review

Israel Nash Gripka – Israel, Gripka, Nash and Young

Israel Nash has re-released his great album from last year. Here is the original review

Israel Nash – Israel Nash’s Rain Plans

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There’s fierce competition for the title of the ‘Best song that Neil Young never wrote’. It goes without saying that Songs: Ohia’s ‘Farewell Transmission’ is right up there. Angus and Julia Stone’s ‘Yellow Brick Road’ is a contender. Now, there’s Israel Nash (Gripka). There are various possible entries on his new album, but perhaps ‘Mansions’ is the most worthy. It’s the track where the two guitars play off each other most comfortably. Close your eyes and you’d swear that Shakey and Poncho have entered the auditorium. But this is more than just a tribute album by another name. This is also a wonderfully crafted album. Built around no fewer than three guitars – typically one often slightly fuzzed, one steel, and one acoustic – plus organ, bass, and drums, the musicianship is really tight. There’s a big sound, but it never gets out of control. Everything is beautifully balanced. You can hear all the sounds all the time. It’s a real testament to the guy at the mixing desk. If there’s a danger, then it’s that the serious, slow-paced Laurel Canyon sound will start to wear a little thin after a while. And by track four, the thought that this would have made a great EP starts to surface. But then things start to vary. Just a little, but just enough. The tracks gets a little longer, leaving time for a few surprises. At the six minute mark, the change in tempo on ‘Rain Plans’ works wonders. ‘Iron On The Mountain’ manages to pull off the same trick. And then there’s the closer, ‘Rexanimarum’. It wouldn’t be out of place on American Stars ‘n’ Bars, and there’s scarcely a greater compliment. With six players and a whole bunch of kit, it’ll be expensive to reproduce this sound live. But at least it exists on record. And what a great record it is.

No Depression review

Flyinshoes review

Glasswerk magazine review