Congotronics International – Banza/Beyond

Ten years in the making, the debut from the supergroup Congotronics International is sounding fantastic so far. The two singles released so far really highlight the group’s range. “Banza Banza” is as raucous as heck, a high-energy mish-mash of skronked-out guitars, distorted thumb organs, and other unexpected sounds. “Beyond the 7th Bend” is more subtle, with acoustic guitars, meandering melodies, and atmosphere to spare. Between the two, it’s about as promising as it gets.

The full album is due out on April 29, with contributions from Konono Nº1, Deerhoof, Juana Molina, and more. I can’t wait.

Podcast: The AM, Feb. 28, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com): Take a deep breath and submerge yourself in the oblique sounds of The AM, a three-hour respite from a chaotic world. This week is bookended by new music from Bitchin’ Bajas and Orange Crate Art, finding room for vintage soul, modern pop experiments, jangling guitars, desert psych, and other offbeat albums old and new.

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Pneumatic Tubes – A Letter From TreeTops

A project from Mercury Rev and Midlake multi-instrumentalist Jesse Chandler, A Letter from TreeTops was written in the aftermath of his father’s death, its foundations laid in only a few days of solo recording in his family home. Knowing that, you can certainly pick up an undercurrent of melancholy in TreeTops’ meandering melodies, but it isn’t the dominant emotion by any stretch.

Take “Mumbly-Peg”, with its bubbling synths and gentle clarinet, a riverside walk propelled by quietly insistent drums; or the playful buzz of “Saw Teeth” and its overlapping melodies clamboring over one another. Both are album highlights, and both seem rooted in sun-dappled nostalgia. “Magic Meadow,” one of the few tunes to feature prominent guitar (and what sounds like maybe a singing saw?) perfectly captures the feeling of emerging from a dense wood into an open expanse; it’s a song to bask in.

With a variety that belies its rushed creation, A Letter from TreeTops is a gorgeous addition to the Ghost Box catalogue, a collection of richly textured, contemplative instrumentals.

Podcast: The AM, Feb. 21, 2022

This week’s episode of The AM (also streaming at CJSW.com): The holiday Monday made for a groggier-than-usual episode, but fortunately the music holds up even if the hosting is slightly off. After all, it’s hard to go wrong with new tunes from Cate Le Bon, Animal Collective, Exek, Ombiigizi, Congotronics International, Reptalians, and the list goes on…

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Steve Gunn – Protection (ft. Mdou Moctar) (Matador)

The opener to Nakama, a collection of collaborative reworkings of songs from Gunn’s 2021 release, Other You, “Protection” swaps out the laid-back motorik of the original for an even more stripped back arrangement. Percussive guitar and hand-claps give the song a quiet momentum, a gentle current for Gunn’s melody to drift on. Tuareg guitar hero Mdou Moctar is known for his scorching solos, but his contributions are more restrained here, approaching the tune like a sister-song to his recent album closer “Bismilahi Atagah.” It’s all sunshine and warmth, four and a half minutes of shelter from the world outside.

You can preview “Protection” on Gunn’s Bandcamp, or stream the full Nakama EP, with contributions from Circuit des Yeux, Bing & Ruth, and Natural Information Society over on Spotify.

Animal Collective – We Go Back (Video by Winston Hacking & Michael Enzbrunner)

Winston Hacking’s videos never fail to blow my mind. Whether it’s his work with musicians like Flying Lotus, BadBadNotGood, Washed Out, and Andy Shauf, or his own personal work, his endlessly inventive collages make for some of the most beautifully surreal media artworks out there.

His worlds are always in motion, and are never quite what you think they are. Scene transitions don’t follow any obvious logic. The ground falls out from under you. The camera rotates and reveals that what you thought was a flat surface is a 3D sculpture. Everything is collage and deconstruction, constantly reshaping and reorienting. As someone who’s never had much of a visual sense, I can’t wrap my head around what it takes to map out these kinds of nested illusions.

It’s basically a magic trick, and I’m more than happy to keep falling for it.

Spencer Cullum’s Coin Collection – In a Mist (Full Time Hobby)

Cullum’s 2020 debut slipped under my radar on its initial release, but made it onto my 2021 year-end list thanks to a conveniently timed reissue. Its mastery of pastoral British folk and psychedelia made it an easy album to get lost in, and this tune from Aquarium Drunkard’s Lagniappe Sessions covers series is a welcome addition to his catalogue. Borrowed from British folk singer Duncan Browne, it’s a prettily finger-picked tune that hides devastating lines like “we are born alone, and we die alone, and we cannot possess anyone in between.” It’ll break your heart, in other words, in more ways than one.

Group Listening – Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 2 (PRAH Recordings)

The second full-length from Stephen Black and Paul Jones is another testament to the Welsh duo’s impeccable taste. That’s apparent in eclectic covers assembled here, including takes on two outsider Can-con classics in Syrinx’s “Hollywood Dream Trip” and Beverly Glenn-Copeland’s “Sunset Village,” one from new-age legend Laaraji (“All of a Sudden”), and an offering from unheard-of-outside-Wales New Waver Malcolm Neon, among a half-dozen others.

It’s also obvious in the arrangements, which generally feature the two titular instruments, embellished by occasional flourishes of keyboard, guitar, glockenspiel, and subtle percussion, but always given plenty of room to breathe. It’s clearly a labour of love, the sort of affectionate reinterpretations that can only come from a deep and respectful understanding of the originals.

Reverent and playful in equal measure, Selected Works Volume 2 is a work of beauty in its own right, a collection of thoughtful, inventive instrumentals. Better still, it doubles as an entryway into the catalogues of a diverse assortment of ambient, new age, and otherwise left-of-centre artists, a rich vein of sounds waiting to be unearthed.