Every week, I’ll share an album or two I’ve been listening to. Feel free to list your favorite recent releases in the comments below.
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This week, we’ll take a listen to two very good releases from this past week: Richard Thompson’s “Electric” and Grouper’s “The Man Who Died in His Boat.” The former is a study on virtuosic guitar and gifted songwriting; the latter is a gorgeous, wavering, ambient journey into the mind of one-woman band, Liz Harris (she goes by the name “Grouper”).
In the coming weeks, I’m looking forward to new music from Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. A month in, the year has been excellent so far. I think my favorite album to this point is Foxygen’s debut, “We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic.” Jim James has released a heck of a record that I’m still trying to process. I think it’s great. And I have to give props to Tegan and Sara for making me like an album I didn’t think I would. Let’s keep on. Let’s talk about this stuff. After all, the title of the column is “Let’s Talk Music!"
Other notable releases this week:
—Roxy Music, "The Complete Studio Recordings" (reissue)
Album releases next week:
Liz Harris recorded this album during the same time she recorded her most well-known (and well-received) record, "Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill," in 2008. So, technically, this isn’t a “new” album; it’s more like a collection of unreleased recordings. Having said that, "The Man Who Died in His Boat" is even softer and more sparse than previous albums—if that can be imagined. This music requires much of the listener, but the effort is worth it. It’s very ambient, folk-heavy and ultimately great late-night driving music if you’re brave enough.
What the critics think:
Overwhelmingly positive reviews have been given to this sparse record. The key word in most reviews is “challenging.” Drowned in Sound offers advice to new listeners of Harris’ music: “... To take each song separately is to miss the point: It's useful to view Grouper albums as one continual sound, one without any iPod-friendly singles or obvious peaks and troughs.” Pitchfork gives the album a strong 8.3 on their scale, saying, “When it really hits, as it often does here, the music of Grouper creates a feeling that can only be defined as awe, an uncanny mixture of wonder and dread that nobody does better.” The Quietus tries to describe the album by saying, “It's not folk music, though it certainly contains elements of folk ... these songs have a deliberately aged patina, but unlike, say, phony Instagram filters ... they feel eldritch rather than retro.” They go on to say the songs are “devastatingly beautiful,” which is also a common theme among critics describing the album. The best description comes to us from Mojo: “[The album] is suitably haunted and becalmed.”
What I think:
"The Man Who Died in His Boat" is a difficult but rewarding listen for those willing to branch out a bit musically. After a brief opening instrumental called “6,” we begin the album with a song called "Vital," which contains all of the elements of Harris’ sound: distant acoustic guitar, far-away vocals and an eerie—though at the same time beautiful—floating, underwater sound. The music of Grouper always makes me feel that either I’m dreaming or that I’m swimming. "Being Her Shadow" and "Cover the Long Way" are, again, examples of an artist finding her sound and riffing on it. If I were to make a horror movie, I’d use the next song, "Vanishing Point," as the theme. It has a completely unnerving sparkle to it that brings together the beauty and sinisterness. The most accessible song on the album is the final track. "Living Room" is intelligible low-fi folk. It’s also my favorite track on the record. Grouper, again, can be difficult listening, but going into the experience with an open mind is key. This is highly recommended for those willing to expand beyond their comfort zone.
Richard Thompson’s latest album was recorded in Buddy Miller’s Nashville studio. It’s a mix of both twangy rockers and soulful, acoustic ballads. An acquired taste, Thompson’s voice has never sounded better, and the songwriting is among his best. Thompson was named one of Rolling Stone’s Top 20 Guitarists of all time. He is known for his ability to jump around musical genres and virtuosic guitar playing. “Electric” is getting wonderful reviews.
What the critics think:
“It's a vibrant set with a live feel, alternating between rowdy folk-rockers and some of Thompson's most poignant ballads,” says UK’s Uncut. Similarly, Blurt says of the album: “Buddy Miller's production is fresh, tuned to the immediacy of Thompson's performances; any fault with 'Electric' can't be laid at his door—only at the strangely stiff quality of the first few songs.” In fact, most of the reviewers credit Buddy Miller with the success of “Electric” as much as Thompson himself. All Music Guide says, “As good as the songs are, the distinguishing characteristic of 'Electric' is its atmosphere, how the music jumps and breathes, how Miller has given Thompson his liveliest album in years and, on just sheer sonic terms, his best in a while, too.” American Songwriter—a publication that adores artists like Thompson—says, “This is another in a seemingly endless streak of quality albums from Richard Thompson, a journeyman artist in the homestretch of his long career, whose best years never seem to be behind him.” Rolling Stone is more dismissive of the release, but not ornery, saying, “The thrills are few, but the excellence is undeniable.” The final quote is a fair summation of Thompson’s entire career.
What I think:
There will be no bias on my part when it comes to the music of Richard Thompson. I was once asked by a friend the following question: “If you could only take the music of one artist with you to a desert island for the rest of your life, what would it be?” Not surprisingly, I answered, “Richard Thompson.” I’ve seen Thompson in concert at least a dozen times. To me, he can do no wrong. For others, despite his obvious status as a guitar god, his voice can be an acquired taste. His latest album is a continuation of several recent albums where his electric guitar prowess is featured. “Electric” is also a better album than many he’s released in the past few years, primarily because of the involvement of producer/musician Buddy Miller. Miller has the ability to produce albums that crackle with spirit and intense aliveness. Early highlights include a comment on the American dream called "Stuck on the Treadmill," which is a very biting commentary, even for Thompson. "Good Things Happen to Bad People" is a classic Thompson relationship song with classic Thompson elements: tongue-in-cheek lyrics, forced rhymes, an excellent chorus and a ferocious guitar solo. Thompson is backed on several songs by vocalist Siobahn Maher Kennedy. Is this the best Richard Thompson album ever? No, it isn’t. However, it’s a very good effort and shows what an excellent producer can do with only average songs. For the uninitiated, I recommend starting with acoustic Thompson. There’s no better example than this video of Thompson performing his “hit” "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" in a hotel room. The guy is a genius.