As we close in on the end of 2017, we slip into the days of box sets and Taylor Swift albums. But beyond holiday gift ideas and big pop albums, November still has a lot of great music to offer. The month brings us some under-the-radar reissues worth digging into, a new project from a punk-rock vet, one final album from a singer gone too soon, and a band inventing their own path through Cosmic Americana. Here they are: some of the finest independent releases of the month.
Marisa Anderson: Traditional and Public Domain Songs (Mississippi – Nov. 17)
In the American political landscape (read: quagmire), tradition is a thing to hang on our necks, a codified and unchanging was that still should be (or shouldn’t). Thankfully, Marisa Anderson knows better than that. Anderson has established herself as one of the most striking and unique guitar players working today, and Traditional and Public Domain Songs is one of her finest collections. Originally released on Grapefruit Records in 2013, the set is back in print now with two bonus tracks. In Anderson’s hands, the familiarity of the songs is intact — you won’t miss the melody to “Amazing Grace” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” — but the playing, the phrasing of notes, and the expression in these songs is purely Anderson’s. “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” is haunting and haunted, the notes carefully chiming out into space, bouncing back on one another, turning silent plea into a cacophonic echo chamber. “Amazing Grace” begins as a soft plea for forgiveness so simple and self-assured it feels like a demand. And therein lies the heartbreak and breakthrough of this record. Anderson exposes and plays with tradition here, marveling at melodies and structures, without letting them off the hook. John Newton, the slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,” isn’t given a pass on that song; his song is re-imagined, not as a prayer but as a loophole to forgiveness. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is scuffed up and broken and more desperate than heroic here. Anderson exposes the hypocrisy in the hymns of fundamental Christianity while somehow still bringing new beauty to the music itself. Anderson has made plenty of records worth noting — especially last year’s Into the Light — but for guitar fans, and fans of the traditions of folk and religious music, this record is essential.
Escape-ism: Introduction to Escape-ism (Merge – Nov. 10)
Ian Svenonius has been a part of some memorable projects, like the Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, and more. But Escape-ism is his first solo project, and Introduction to Escape-ism is a lean, sinewy set of tunes. Built on drum box, cassettes, guitar, and voice, these songs use spare elements to craft an intense isolation, one that seems both heartbreaking and feverish as Svenonius’s voice whispers and spits and speak-sings its way through these tunes. Despite feeling alone and insular, the songs are also deeply evocative. Haunting notes and a pulsing beat lend a rainy-night noir vibe to “Walking in the Dark,” while the brittle drums on “Lonely at the Top” make the song feel stranded in thin-aired elevation. On the record, Svenonius is skeptical of elevation, of upward mobility. People get lost upstairs as if they’ll never be found. The “top” is “cold and lonely.” So what to do? Well, systematically take it all apart on “Rome Wasn’t Burned in a Day,” or twist the words of power to expose its underbelly on “Iron Curtain.” Even the music itself feels corrupted at times, as if we are all in our own echo chambers of “fame” on “Almost No One (Can Have My Love)” or we tune in to ineffectual music in a time of needed action on “Crime Wave Rock.” On Introduction to Escape-ism, Svenonius isn’t trying to get away, he’s trying to reclaim, to call out, maybe even to gather. But the taut, razorwire hooks and negative space and haunting quiet of these songs suggests maybe we’re not to that last part yet. Maybe we’re not ready. But these tense, stripped down transmissions are a start. In an era of endless shouting, Svenonius teaches us that sometimes its more powerful to whisper.
Gun Outfit: Out of Range (Paradise of Bachelors – Nov. 10)
On their earlier records, Gun Outfit pit slowcore moods and heavy, angular guitars against more expansive dusty movements. But as of their last full-length, Dream All Over, the band has begun melding the two sides into a subtler, more expansive sound. Out of Range finds that sound at its best and most intricate. This is the finest set of the songs from the band to date, and the album itself feels like its own cohesive world. As the guitars melt and stretch out, and the rhythm section holds those sounds up while also poking holes in them, the massive sonic space of these songs becomes home to an impressive collection of characters. Opener “Ontological Intercourse” picks around in Orpheus’s bad end. “Cybele” is about the Anatolian Mother of the Gods. Painters, directors, and poets from real life rub elbows with the more fictional cast of Out of Range, on an album that digs into the myths and stories we carry around with us, the way the past shapes the present, and how we feel the past coat the spaces around us like a permanent dust. The songs themselves feel coated in tradition, even as the band takes them in their own, unique cosmic direction. The honky-tonk shuffle of “Background Deal” feels more jangly than stomping. The guitars on “Three Words” drift and melt, barely holding together at first and then thickening into impressive, twangy layers. “Sally Rose” starts with a thick bass line and propulsive drums, but eventually erupts in a storm of guitars at the end. And that’s how Out of Range plays; every moment seems both surprising and inevitable. It’s an album about myths that itself almost sounds mythic, with a sound so deep and singular it’s both brand new and timeless.
Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings: Soul of a Woman (Daptone – Nov. 17)
Late last year, Sharon Jones passed away all too soon. But Jones and her excellent band the Dap-Kings left us with one last album. Soul of a Woman is no eulogy or sad remembrance. Jones always dealt in the moment, in the deep hooks of her songs, in the infectious energy of her shows, and Soul of a Woman is a series of joyous moments, a celebration of her greatest strengths as a performer. She’s at her high-octane best on stand-outs like “Sail On,” the funky “Rumors,” and the deep groove of “Searching for a New Day.” She can also turn down the lights and knock out a ballad like “Pass Me By” or “Just Give Me Your Time.” Behind her, the Dap-Kings seem eager to cover all the ground they can, from the sharp melodies and smooth rhythms of “Come and Be a Winner” to the sweeping, Hayes-ian strings of “These Tears (No Longer for You).” The band can stretch out or they can do the tighten up, and these songs marks the strongest they’ve sounded on record in years, upping the ante on their consistent sound. It’s easy to see some moments — Jones’s please for change on “Matter of Time,” for example — as sad ones, moments she’ll never see. But to paint too much of this record in loss is to do Jones a disservice. Yes, she should still be here wowing us on stage, but Soul of a Woman is about the powerful moments captured in that studio, about the imposing and impressive strength of her voice, not the fact that we’ve lost that voice. Soul of a Woman is a well-deserved celebration, so while we can keep missing her, tuck that missing into the background and let her voice whip you up once more.
Various Artists: Tokyo Flashback (Black Editions – Nov. 10)
Tokyo Flashback was originally released in 1991 as a label sampler for Hideo Ikeezumi’s PSF label, and 26 years later it still feels like a fresh introduction. Ikeezumi’s wide-open sense of what makes for psychedelic music informs this expansive cross-section of Japanese psych. The album blows the doors off with jangling, squalling opener “22. February 1991” by Marble Sheep and never heads in the same direction twice from there. You get the heavy churning rock of High Rise on “Mainliner,” the dark drone and hum and Ghost’s “Tama Yura,” the murkily recorded buzzsaw “Here-You” by Fushitsusha, and so on. Tokyo Flashback lets imperfections in recording shine rather than hold these things back, proud to bring sounds from the fringe to the forefront. And even as fidelity rises and falls, the set is a bracing, thrilling listen throughout. The metallic low end of Verserk’s “Crime and Laughter” feels like a dark mirror image of “22. February 1991.” Kousokuya’s “End of Dawn” may sound more rock-oriented, but the way it plays with space ties it oddly to Ghost’s work. These songs link and scuff up against each other in fascinating ways. And just as interesting is the overall impact of Tokyo Flashback. We tend to talk about psychedelic music as sound for a mental plane, something abstract and outside of or surrounding ourselves. But Tokyo Flashback reminds us that there is something still deeply corporeal about this music. From the muscular layers of White Heaven’s “Blind Promise” to the emotive howls of “End of Dawn” to the a capella wailing of Keiji Haino’s “Right Now,” these songs shudder in the chest as much as they expand the mind. This is still an eye-opening compilation, one so compelling it barely feels like a reissue, because it still raises questions about what it means to make “psychedelic” music. And because digging into this album to try and find an answer is a lasting joy.