‘Post-rock’ is a musical label that has become almost as thorny and contrary as ‘indie-rock.’ So much so, that the term has been rendered almost-meaningless through indiscriminate usage. To some, it means the imposing instrumentalist idioms of Slint and Tortoise; to others, it’s a fusion of ‘70s radicalism (prog-rock, Krautrock, Brian Eno and Miles Davis) and ‘80s underground-rock (Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine et al.); or even just simply ‘indie-rock’ in its most highly-evolved and vocally-unanchored state. It’s a debate that will rage forever probably, but in this writer’s view, it’s a pigeon-hole that loosely fits those with the imagination, ambition and stubbornness to reach beyond the strictures of rock traditions and clichés with lateral-routes to melody (or non-melody) making…just like the following quintet.
Chris Brokaw – Canaris (CD/download, Capitan Records/Thrill Jockey)
Genial Bostonite Chris Brokaw certainly does know something about lateral routes, especially since he voluntarily downed tools for the seminal Come after 1998’s masterful Gently Down The Stream. Just taking into account his jobbing collaborations with Evan Dando, Pullman, The New Year, Steve Wynn, Thurston Moore, Consonant, Dirtmusic, Eleventh Dream Day and Empty House Cooperative (amongst innumerable others) alone, Brokaw has crossed a lot of ground and a lot genres. His solo run of inspired vocal-free explorations (2002’s one-man debut Red Cities and 2004’s I Was Born, But… film score), stripped-raw troubadour earthiness (2003’s wonderful Wandering As Water) and rousing leftfield-rock (2005’s Incredible Love), has laid an equally expansive and intriguing trail to follow. This new – wordless – release should certainly add another interesting segment to Brokaw’s far from myopic career mosaic. Connecting into the most challenging links in his sonic chains, the naked solo guitar workouts of Canaris revisit both the sparest edges of Pullman’s avant-folk and the dissonant minimalism of the solitary I Was Born, But… soundtrack. Two lengthy epics dominate the six-track suite; “Drink The Poetry Of Celtic Discipline” (a meandering yet stirring acoustic cover of mid-‘90s French black metal outfit Vlad Tepes) and the punishing title-track (a 17 or so-minute plugged-in dronefest). However, it’s perhaps the four surrounding shorter-pieces that invite easier and greater affection; namely the John Fahey-meets-Rainer Ptacek meditations of “Exemptive” and “Watching The Clouds,” the delicately-mournful “Sanguinary,” and the all-too-short Eastern-scented “Exempted.” It’s not easy listening for sure, but Canaris is a brave and uncompromising stepping-stone towards Chris Brokaw’s next collection of more conventional song-based material, due in early-2009.
David Grubbs – An Optimist Notes The Dusk (CD/LP, Drag City)
Like Chris Brokaw, David Grubbs has certainly been a promiscuous team-player (in Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr del Sol and The Wingdale Community Singers), a keen hired-hand (for Will Oldham and The Dirty Three), and a solo artist who has previously segregated his recorded output between inviting song-orientated gatherings (like 2004’s Guess At The Riddle) and the defiantly-oblique (such as 2001’s half-hour one-track Thirty Minute Raven). Yet unlike Brokaw, Grubbs has a much more intellectually-angular approach and – possibly due to his recently-acquired parenthood status – a far less restless foot on the prolific-peddle. This new solo six-song long-player – the much-belated ‘official’ follow-up to Guess At The Riddle – captures him unapologetically smudging the lines between his more outré impulses and his singer-songwriter urges. The result is an album that finds Grubbs retreating into himself; erecting walls of circuitous wordplay whilst simultaneously swapping warm drum and acoustic guitar interplay for sparse knotted electric-six-string-dominated dirges.
Thus, An Optimist Notes The Dusk is not a straightforward record to like, with its nocturnal shrouds being less appealing than the colourful threads of Guess At The Riddle, 2002’s Rickets & Scurvy and 2000’s terrific The Spectrum Between. This doesn’t mean that this new platter should be avoided by regular Grubbs followers. The bleaker methodology has at least shaved-off some of the more over-precocious lyrics Grubbs once tried to hang precariously on to his song structures. Furthermore, some cuts certainly suit a murkier presentation. The foreboding centrepiece of “An Optimist Declines” is arguably the greatest beneficiary of the bleaker line of attack, with its slowly-ebbing strains fixing a purposeful gravitas at the heart of the LP. Other low-key highlights include the likeably-chugging “Holy Fool Music” (the closest we get here to another Grubbsian ‘pop song,’ albeit one that is drenched in the dirt of a frazzled-out amplifier) and the sombrely-elliptical “Eyeglasses of Kentucky.” But if there’s one thing that should definitely have been put aside for an even artier side-project, then it’s the not-so-grand finale of “The Not-So-Distant,” which drags out an ambient soundscape into nearly 12 minutes of barely-audible pointlessness. Whilst An Optimist Notes The Dusk is a tough-loving affair, that David Grubbs probably had to get out of his system, here’s hoping that he hasn’t shelved hooks, tunes and choruses forever, in the potentially-dangerous name of maturity.
Smile Down Upon Us – self-titled (CD, Static Caravan/Yacca)
A genuinely international-concern, this eponymous debut from Smile Down Upon Us is the pan-global offspring of an internet-based collaboration between Japanese artist moomLooo (sic) and the post-everything English duo of David Sheppard and Keiron Phelan (collectively ‘on-loan’ from Phelan Sheppard, Ellis Island Sound, The Wisdom of Harry, State River Widening, ad infinitum). The fact that the two parties have yet to meet beyond broadband connections seems to have had no detrimental affect on the warmth and cohesion of this communal endeavour. Playing with the combined potency of their native artistic lexicons, as well as sucking-up influences from pretty much every continent in-between, makes for a truly delicious example of wide-eyed experimentation rubbing-up melodicism in the right way. Phelan and Sheppard’s benevolent deployment of exotic layers of synthetic and organic instrumentation supplies a near-perfect fit for moomLooo’s bewitching half-English/half-Japanese vocals. There’s almost everything here, from studio-enhanced baroque-Britfolk (“Rayla No Lullaby”) and glistening electronica (“Ken Ken Pah”) to Middle-East-meets-Far-East atmospherics (“Child’s Walk”) and slightly-menacing Piano Magic-like darkness (“My Body’s Continents”). Arguably, the most captivating passages come within two magnificent covers (a fresh take on antique interwar ballad “Tip Toe Through The Tulips” and a beatific interpretation of the Sandy Denny & The Strawbs standard, “Two Weeks Last Summer”) and the gorgeous galloping State River Widening-style instrumental “The Qookino Farm And Tractor Family Band.” Fans of Phelan Sheppard’s Harps Old Master and State River Widening’s Early Music should stock-up on this immediately, along with those who know that there’s a lot more musical life in the world beyond what the overbearing Anglo-American cultural axis might have you believe.
High Places – self-titled (CD/download, Thrill Jockey)
Picking-up from where the twosome’s early splattering of singles left-off – as collected on the recent 03/07-09/07 compilation – this first ‘formal’ High Places full-length release reveals that Mary Pearson and Rob Barber undoubtedly have the energy, freshness and ideas that many of their older Thrill Jockey labelmates lack these days. That’s not to say that the two New York-dwellers have yet to fully harness and channel their kinetic creativity into truly enduring shapes. There are times throughout this record that make you wonder if Pearson and Barber had to be physically-restrained from squeezing all they know into every single song. But then debut albums aren’t always solidified works of art; they can be more about the potential for future greatness. And High Places is certainly brimming with potential. With its super-busy blur of samples, electronics, quirky percussive loops and Pearson’s heavily-manipulated yet sweet tones, this a throng of songs that takes time, patience and an open-mind to truly soak in the diverse and dizzying sonic torrents. But once the sponge-like absorption into your ears begins then more defined flashes of inspiration come to the fore. Hence, you’ll eventually find that the rubbery Arabic rhythms of “The Storm” imagine a fruitful coupling of Jah Wobble and Tortoise’s John McEntire; the tropical voodoo-pop of “The Tree With The Lights In It” strangely speculates how Suzanne Vega’s underrated 99.9F° would sound if it were remixed at a higher temperature by Four Tet or Solex; the ethereal rippling of “Papaya Year” brings in a serene cinematic edge; and the dreamy “From Stardust To Sentience” closes proceedings with the promise of sharper and more sublime things to come. Let’s pray that Pearson and Barber get a chance to reach-up further into lofty locations in the near future, because they clearly have plenty of non-fossil fuel to propel themselves forwards productively.
Mogwai – The Hawk Is Howling (CD/LP/download, Wall of Sound/Matador)
Over the last decade or so years, Mogwai’s career has represented ‘post-rock’ in both its best and worst extremes. So for the band’s first ‘proper’ LP since 2006’s self-over-hyped Mr. Beast, expectations weren’t especially high. But perhaps the recent reissue of the Glasgow-based group’s shadow-casting debut – Mogwai Young Team – led to an internal-reassessment of Mogwai’s strengths and weaknesses, which in turn fed into the recording of The Hawk Is Howling, arguably the band’s most-focused and streamlined selection in years. That’s not to say that there are any remarkably new revelations to be uncovered over the course of its 10 expansive tracks; because it’s more about what has been jettisoned this time around to enable smoother flight. So, there are no shoe-horned-in guest singers; no sappy teenage poetry or weedy-whispering from Stuart Braithwaite; and no unnecessary strings, brass, electronics or over-production. Instead, we’re given a tightly-wound core-ensemble product that soars, scolds and soothes in almost equal doses. Although there is still some tuneless-sagging in parts, there’s at least a good mini-album’s worth of top-notch Mogwai moments inside. The searing noise-terror of “Batcat” is arguably the best blast of decadent savagery unleashed by Mogwai in some time; the lulling “Local Authority” benefits greatly from its restrained poignancy; the looming “I Love You, I’m Going To Blow Up Your School” un/intentionally twists the James Bond guitar theme motif into a mutated blood-dripping mangle; and “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead” reclaims some crescendo-building blocks from Explosions In The Sky and Sigur Rós. Best of all though, is the stunning “The Sun Smells Too Loud,” which sounds uncannily like it’s a melodic-jam stolen and spread-out from Stephen Malkmus’s recentReal Emotional Trash sessions. Overall, The Hawk Is Howling is proof that the horny beast of ‘post-rock’ can successfully renew and regenerate itself like any important genre, even if some of its older anti-social habits will never die-easy.