Wye Oak |If Children | Merge
Let’s nerd out a bit. Remember in 1995, when Belly was on the cover of Rolling Stone? No? Really? Wait — come back! Totally understandable, seeing as how it was one of the worst-selling issues in the magazine’s history, and King bombed to the point where not only did Tanya Donnelly soon thereafter break up the band, but its sound was essentially shuttered — until four minutes into Wye Oak’s Merge debut, If Children. Yet “Warning” is so good, it may just prompt a run to Amazon to figure out how much it would cost to cop Star for a second time. (Answer: one cent. Own the whole discography for $8.02 — and its Greatest Hits accounts for $8 of it.) If Children is far too modest to be seen as a brazen throwback; it’s not easily pegged either. Like fellow B-more duo Beach House, Wye Oak’s pop is skeletal, but rather than letting the breezes pass through the hollow bones, they blanket it with fuzz and coy harmonies. It rarely becomes suffocating; other than the fizzy buildup of “I Don’t Feel Young,” most of the record can resemble a more acoustic-based Low, every bit as cynical (“Family Glue”) and occasionally ponderous (“Archaic Smile”) as you may imagine. But let’s talk “Warning”: Maybe the words will come with time, but the wobbly harmonies, saturated riffing (close cousin of “You! Me! Dancing” or Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown”) and vocal unison are teenhood, dumb love and spring time … or at the very least, a sunny afternoon indoors watching Alternative Nation.
Toumani Diabaté |The Mandé Variations | World Circuit/Nonesuch
I’m a sucker for a well-played kora, and no one plucks the West African harp-lute better than Toumani Diabaté. Twenty years after releasing Kaira, the first-ever solo instrumental kora album, Toumani has gone from young buck on the Bamako block to maestro on the Malian music scene, his chops on the 21-string griot axe acknowledged as indisputably virtuosic. Known for his boundary-blurring collaborations with the likes of Taj Mahal, Björk and Roswell Rudd, Diabaté returns to unadulterated, unaccompanied form on The Mandé Variations. Opening track “Si naani,” stretching over 10 minutes and sounding blindfold-test Asian at times, promptly reveals Diabaté’s uncanny ability to play bass, rhythm and melody lines simultaneously, his flair for creating luscious ancient-future ambiance, then fingerpicking at hummingbird-wing-flutter speeds. As much celebration as lamentation, Diabaté’s freeform improvisation on “Ali Farka Touré” (a tribute to the late Niger Delta bluesman and good friend) inhabits that gorgeous, unfathomable space where temporality loosens and emotions overflow.
Boris |Smile|Southern Lord
After two years of touring and recording with sunn0))), Ghost and Merzbow, longtime Japanese psych-prog band Boris is back with a double album. Regarding its last, mind-melting sludge masterpiece, Pink, the band has no comment, instead offering eight formally bounded songs bristling off-kilter with gonzo effects and absurd pop girl-guys vocals. As released in Japan, the album was mixed “experimental,” but for the U.S. it was mixed “rock,” which, if anything, must mean more compressed. Take “BUZZ-IN” for example: A shrieking baby gives way to fuzz bass and distortion boogie rock punctuated with skate-punk-anthem screams and big, ugly drums somehow hidden below strands of reverse reverb guitar and other psyched-out novelties. The single “Statement” is even more straightforward — a Blue Cheer verse/chorus/wail led in by cowbell count — which to Boris’ Jesu-loving Pink-won fans will be more alienating than the bleakest isolating metal doom it could have conjured. Smile brings back the inconstant, occasionally brilliant Boris weirdness.
HEALTH |“Perfect Skin,”7-inch | Suicide Squeeze; “Heaven,” 12-inch | Flemish Eye
Like bro-band No Age, HEALTH puts its debut on perpetual single cycle, only with indie dance denizens giving HEALTH’s noise-pop some 4/4 slicks after the fact for collectible vinyl. The bombastic guitar distortion and silent space of “Perfect Skin” morphs into a surprisingly linear, cowbell-rific explosion of New Order homage in the hands of break-core guru Drop the Lime (now posing as Curses!) on the 7-inch. The yellow 12-inch offers two remixes of “Heaven,” the minorly tense opening track from the HEALTH debut. Philly’s Pink Skull isolates the song’s wordless drone-vox with black-latex beats kept cool by shards of big-room organ glint, transforming HEALTH idol worship from no-wave noise (Ex-Models) to no-wave disco (earlier Liars). Japan’s Narctrax grabs swaths of distortion and clipped ahhs to frame its nearly unrelated Italo-disco bouncing-bass epic. Of all, these beats fit best the gleeful DayGlo sloganeering featured on both singles’ back covers: //Noise //Disco //Fashion.
Elbow | The Seldom Seen Kid | Fiction/Geffen
Artsy but unpretentious, introverted yet inclusive, The Seldom Seen Kid can stain entire days in its gorgeously chilly glow. Elbow lubes its increasingly eclectic building blocks — globetrotting grooves; unlikely show-tune sensibilities; fuzzy bass; crystalline keys; and Guy Garvey’s lived-in, together-alone laments — with relentless musicality, classic melody and attention-holding strands of sonic re-invention. There’s an everyman’s honesty at work here, which, for all of Elbow’s gently proggy adventurism, evokes both the pensive gray streets of its native England and the oft-confused inner dialogue common to us all. Elbow has crafted its finest disc of a decade-long career, lullabying us to lonesome precipices of sparse grooves and almost conversational vocals, then cushioning our fall in meshed strings and updrafts of pseudo-chorale melody and heady harmony. There’s even an aching, oddly Anglo faux-bluegrass folly (first single “Grounds for Divorce”). As ever, Elbow doesn’t reach out and grab by the ears, instead offering endless, timeless caress.
Wighnomy Brothers | Metawuffmischfelge | Freude Am Tanzen
The cover of German minimal-ish dance-music superduo Wighnomy Brothers’ Metawuffmischfelge features little boys blowing bubbles to the sunset, but the sophisticated sustain of this debut mix on the F.A.T. label is anything but childish pop. A serious contender for best mix of ’08, Metawuff starts with the exotic melismas of Lisa Gerrard and slips quickly into a seamless mix of minimal house and tasteful techno, with samples flicked in from Brother Wruhme and recurring glimpses of tracks by Mathias Kadens, Agoria and Tadeo. Climax there’s not, but rather a series of mood shifts from retro-future ice-storm to sentimental, trance-y strings to splonky after-hours deep-house silliness. There, among sub-bass rumbles, piano trinks pitch-matched to dull bell strikes EQ’ed to match eerie, unfulfilled Latin-percussion breaks and half-cut utterances of divas, there really are bubbles. Here I thought they were just quietly blowing in our minds, silly little bros.