Sun Kil Moon – Benji


Mark Kozelek delivered two of the finest albums of 2013. The first in conjunction with Jimmy Lavalle. The second with Desertshore. Both were full of beautiful songs, with sad but not depressing lyrics. “Somehow the wonder of life prevails”. Only a few months later, he’s back again. This time he’s largely by himself and performing under his Sun Kil Moon moniker. The album has received some of the best reviews of his career. Pitchfork awarded it a 9.2. The Line of Best Fit gave it 9/10. The Guardian called it “utterly riveting”. So, what’s the problem? Well, in one way, nothing. The lyrics are as a powerful, poignant, funny, moving, intimate and, yes, as crushingly sad as usual. Whether it’s the story of him being afraid of an albino in kindergarten and that evening his Dad putting on an Edgar Winter album to reassure him, or him simply encouraging us to remember “the families that lost so much in Newtown”. Whether it’s about how he confesses that he won’t have the courage to sort through his mother’s things when she passes, or how he recounts multiple deaths of second cousins, uncles, grandparents, friends, innocent victims, and serial killers. Every story is touching. Utterly riveting indeed. And, at times, the delivery is also captivating. ‘I Watched The Film The Song Remains The Same’ is wistful and tender. And on tracks such as ‘Dogs’ and the beginning of ‘Ben’s My Friend’ there’s more of the wonderful rap-style of singing that he’s recently perfected. But something doesn’t fully work this time. Maybe it’s because the previous albums were collaborations, but the songs on Perils From The Sea and the Desertshore album just sounded better. More melodious. Here, some of tracks lack imagination. ‘I Love My Dad’ chugs along to the most primitive beat. ‘Jim Wise’ tinkles unremarkably. And on ‘Ben’s My Friend’ the saxophones actually spoil the delivery of some of the great lines towards the end of the song. Mark Kozelek is a poet. On ‘Carissa’ he even describes his words in that way. And he’s someone who delivers his poetry through music. There are times, even on this album, when the mixture of the two is almost unbearably beautiful. But here, there are also times when the music lets them down a little. With luck, though, another album will come along later in the year. And the thought of that is still something to savour.

Pitchfork review

The Line of Best Fit review

Consequence of Sound review

Music OMH review

Spin review

Band of Horses – Acoustic at The Ryman


The best ideas are the simplest ones. Band of Horses playing an acoustic set. Now that’s a genius idea. The guys like to thrash out the heavy numbers. And they can be really good at them. But some of the best Band of Horses songs are the more thoughtful ones. ‘Window Blues’ from Cease To Begin, ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ from Mirage Rock and the magnificent ‘Reilly’s Dream’ from the Sonic Ranch sessions. Now, having debuted the idea on a Spotify exclusive, they’ve taken a bunch of their most well-known songs and given them the full acoustic treatment. And at The Ryman no less. The good news is that they sound great. The interplay of the piano with the guitars works really well, keeping the melody up front while giving the songs a nice new sound. ‘The Funeral’ really stands out and ‘Factory’ picks up a melancholy that was slightly buried before. But they do make a couple of strange choices. For one, there are no drums. Maybe it makes things more acoustic, more authentic, but it also means that some of the arrangements lack a little lustre. And then there’s the song selection. For the most part, they’ve chosen tracks that are already pretty down tempo. ‘Neighbor’, ‘Marry Song’, ‘The Funeral’, ‘Detlef Schrempf’. Only a couple of choices are originally up tempo numbers. One, ‘Wicked Gil’, is totally transformed. Slowed down, it’s almost unrecognisable and in a really good way. But, amazingly, ‘Weed Party’ is the revelation. While sometimes the down tempo song selection make things sound just a little too reverential, this one is allowed to retain its zip. It’s only a shame that it’s not on the standard version of the album and that a few more like it aren’t included in the set. (Tip: try You Tube). Band of Horses acoustic at The Ryman is a genuinely good idea that works really well. Next time, break out the drums, play ‘Ode To LRC’ and things would be perfect.

Paste review

Consequence of Sound review

The Line of Best Fit review

Music OMH review

Pitchfork review (oh dear!)

Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread


“A feather’s not a bird, The rain is not the sea, A stone is not a mountain, But a river runs through me”. With these words, Rosanne Cash establishes the theme of her wonderful new album. Individually, each of us is very small. Almost imperceptible. But, however small we might be, we each share something with many others. And together that makes us much bigger. On her two previous albums, it was the sense of family that made her strong, even in the face of loss. With audio clips of her father talking to her as a child on Black Cadillac and with an album of cover versions of songs that he recommended to her, strength clearly came from close by. Here, the source is much wider. For one, the family is extended. ‘Etta’s Song’ remembers Marshall Grant, former band member and close friend of her father, and also a sort of surrogate father to Rosanne after Johnny passed away. But the real inspiration is the south itself. As she winds her way through the land, the songs are full of names and places. Biloxi, Tallahatchie Bridge, and Memphis again and again. The result isn’t a travelogue, but a journey. And it’s one that’s perfectly complemented by the music. The temptation in today’s country is to genre hop. A little rockabilly here. Some rocking blues there. But this is a very steady album. One that follows its own course. There are ebbs and flows along the way, but there’s no place for histrionic balladry or other musical excess. And throughout both the playing and the arrangement are superb. The licks are just right. On The River And The Thread Rosanne Cash has perfected her sound. And she hasn’t done it alone. Individually, she’s just one more country-flecked singer. Together, with her family, her home and her land, she is an artist.

Uncut review

Paste review

Consequence of Sound review

Slate review

No Depression review

Irish Times review

Rosanne Cash in the Oxford American

Jess Williamson – Native State


The comparisons between Joanna Newsom and Jess Williamson are inevitable. Two female indie singers with aereated vocals. One with a harp. The other a banjo. And there are times on Native State when the comparison is fair. There’s a cadence to Jess Williamson’s singing that on occasions is reminiscent of Ys-period Joanna Newsom. When on the title track she sings, ‘I wish you well, I wish you peace, I wish you realise some day, You’re beautiful and you always need someone’, you could imagine Monkey saying exactly the same thing to Bear in exactly the same way. But in truth the resemblances are only fleeting. Perhaps a better comparison is with another female indie artist also with sometimes aereated vocals, Anais Mitchell. Whereas Ys-period Joanna Newsome is full of whimsy, Jess Williamson, like Anais Mitchell, is more at home with human-sounding stories. Their songs seem populated by real people. When she repeats ‘And your hair all up in braids now’, you feel likes she’s addressing someone directly. But comparisons can be invidious. The great thing about Native State is that Jess Williamson has carved out her own sound. It’s a very spare sound. The vocals. The banjo. And only subtle touches of other instrumentation here and there. But still just enough to fill out the songs and keep things interesting. And the aereated vocals give the songs a real personality. A strange one at times, to be sure. We hear ‘mayer-ther’ for mother. ‘Dayer-zens’ for dozens. Maybe it’s a Texan thing. But it doesn’t matter, because they always sound authentic. The trick for Jess Williamson is now to move on. Just like Joanna Newsom and Anais Mitchell. And the orchestral backing, understated at the moment, hints at where to go. The chances are it could be an genuinely beautiful place.

Pitchfork review

In Your Speakers review

Gozamos review

Broken Bells – After The Disco


James Mercer is a great song writer. The Shins’ Oh, Inverted World was one of the finest albums of the previous decade. And Brian Burton is a genius producer. Sure, he once made even a Martina Topley-Bird record sound listenable. As Broken Bells, they’ve the potential to make a great team. And their first album proved that. Coming out of nowhere, it was packed full of joyous melodies and wonderful sounds. It was a genuinely refreshing record. A Broken Bells record. Three years on, James Mercer and Brian Burton are back together in the studio. Rumour has it they didn’t bring any pre-existing ideas to the recording sessions. Instead, they composed new material from scratch. It sounds great in theory. A perfect way to recreate a true Broken Bells sound and not just a Danger-Mouse-produces-The-Shins record. In practice, though, the result is just a little bit underwhelming. Perhaps the law of diminishing returns has started to kick in. There are some nice melodies. ‘Perfect World’ sets things up well. The title track itself is more than just hummable. ‘Leave It Alone’ is built around a nice guitar theme. And the sound has moved on too. The BPM is higher. The bass is bouncier. There are fewer musical tweaks and twiddles. But maybe recording from scratch has left them without the proper time to work things through. It’s as if they’re banking on the beat. Betting on the bass. Without all the tweaks and twiddles the songs can sound pretty lightweight at times. With Danger Mouse at the helm you were guaranteed pocket symphonies and Broken Bells was full of them. While collaborating with Danger Mouse still makes James Mercer sound less like The Shins, this time around collaborating with James Mercer seems to have made Danger Mouse sound less like, well, Danger Mouse. It’s all a little bit of a come down. Just like after the disco.

Pitchfork review

Consequence of Sound review

Pretty Much Amazing review

Pop Matters review

NME review

The 405 review

The Autumn Defense – Fifth


If Wilco are Dad rock, then The Autumn Defense are Grandad rock. Comprising John Stirratt and Pat Sansone from Wilco, this is their fifth album together. As The Autumn Defense, they’re unashamedly backward-looking. They cite their influences as The Beatles, naturally, The Kinks of the Village Green-era variety, good choice, and The Beach Boys’ later period, what L.A. (Light Album) and MIU, surely not? Well, here, The Autumn Defense seem to be aiming for a George Harrison vibe, but of the Dark Horse years rather than the Apple variety. While some of their influences were on occasions pretty finickety recorders themselves, The Autumn Defense make some of the most deliberate-sounding music out there. Every note seems considered. Every break seems well planned. Every harmony seems straight from the rule book. The result is that each song is almost perfect. The musicianship is superb. The craft is astounding. The professionalism is sheer. But what an interminably dull listen. There’s no spontaneity. No sign of enjoyment. It’s all sounds like work, work, work. And then there are the lyrics. Maybe this time The Autumn Defense have run out of inspiration. But the words are so vapid, they make you hanker after some that are merely banal. “Well I know with what you’ve written”, they sing on ‘Can’t Love Anyone Else’, “I’m absolutely smitten”. At least no small cats were hurt in the making of that rhyme. But they save the best for the last track, ‘What’s It Take?’. “In the blue blur of Chicago”, they croon, “Where is all our precious cargo?”. Well, it was either that or something to do with Wells Fargo. On this album The Autumn Defense have performed an important social function. They’ve reminded everyone that Wilco are still a fine band and that Jeff Tweedy remains the driving force behind them.

Relix review

Americana UK review

(Salt Lake) City Weekly

Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son


What was once a stream is now a river. On earlier albums, Damien Jurado was content with minimal arrangements. It generated some great songs, like ‘Gillian Was A Horse’, but they were always built on just a basic band sound. On Saint Bartlett he teamed up with Richard Swift for the first time. The change was noticeable, but only barely. ‘Cloudy Shoes’ swathed a typical Jurado melody in strings and echo, but little else was different. On Maraqopa the current became stronger. It was still recognisably a Damien Jurado album, but some of the songs began to swirl. Now, three albums in with Richard Swift, the flow is unstoppable. Damien Jurado’s ‘difficult’ 12th album marks a radical departure for him and a revelation for us all. Full of lovely, liquid sounds, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is the work of an artist with a new-found confidence. ‘Silver Timothy’ is based on a simple latin rhythm, but it’s filled out with the funkiest of bass lines and interspersed with spangly synths. ‘Jericho Road’ covers the vocals in effects, but the melody is still given the space in which to lilt and lift. ‘Return To Maraqopa’ simply bubbles with sounds. ‘Silver Katherine’ and ‘Silver Joy’ hark back to quieter times, featuring just Jurado and an acoustic guitar. But they’re really just setting the scene for the closer, ‘Suns In Our Mind’, which is a Penny Lane-era gem and which includes the best snoring you’ll hear on any track this year. For some time now, Damien Jurado has been on a journey. Musically, that journey has now come to a certain end. With careful and expert guidance, his sound has been reborn. The trick is not to give in to the temptation to go backwards.

Pitchfork review

Drowned in Sound review

KEXP review

The Line Of Best Fit review

Music OMH review