Record Roundup: 2023 First Quarter Report, Pt. 1
Scratching The Surface of the Year So Far
This is my first post on Substack, but I’ve been publishing AnEarful since 2009, ever questing to do my best to share the finest music of our time, with occasional looks back at older sounds. If you’re new to AnEarful, feel free to take a trawl around older posts to get a sense of what I’m about. The main thing to know is that I am a musical omnivore, and a very hungry one. The soundtrack of my days is filled with everything from tightly constructed “classical” music by living composers, improvised drones, hip hop, rock, folk, jazz, “global” sounds, pop, R&B, reggae…you get the drift. All of it feeds me, body, mind, heart, and soul, in one way or another and I hope it feeds you, too.
That said, I don’t expect everyone to like the same things I do, or even every type of music I do, so feel free to skim past something you know is out of your wheelhouse - or take a chance and possibly expand your horizons.
While some posts focus on one type of music and others are more eclectic, I do manage a series of playlists on Spotify to keep track of everything “Of Note” in a particular year, broken down by genre. If you use the streaming platform, feel free to follow one or all of these playlists.
Of Note In 2023
Of Note In 2023 (Classical)
Of Note In 2023 (Electronic)
Of Note In 2023 (Hip Hop, R&B & Reggae)
Of Note In 2023 (Jazz, Latin & Global)
Of Note In 2023 (Rock, Folk, Etc.)
Of Note In 2023 (Out Of The Past)
Finally, even though I’m on this new platform, the situation is the same: I live in a state of constant overwhelm at all the good music that’s coming out and frantically try to keep up and share what I find most compelling. While I’ve talked about some of what 2023 has gifted us on my podcast, this is my first post focusing on this year’s music and the first of a series that will attempt to bring us up to date starting with…
It’s too early to talk about “best albums of 2023” but these are the ones that have kept me coming back.
Fruit Bats - A River Running To Your Heart This is the 10th album from Eric D. Johnson’s project, but for me he really came into his own on the 9th, The Pet Parade, which was my #1 album of 2021. On that album, not only was he fully in command of his distinctive voice, but his songwriting was full of keenly observed details and universal, deeply human sentiments.
The production on The Pet Parade was by Josh Kaufman, Johnson’s collaborator (along with Anais Mitchell) in Bonny Light Horseman, and was warm and enveloping with a widescreen approach to Americana and folk-rock. On River, Johnson acts as co-producer, a first for him, and collaborates with Jeremy Harris of the long-running Vetiver. Their sonic vision is not unrelated to the previous album, but expands on it, adding synths, brisker tempos, brightly colored backing vocals, and more layers of sound. The results are overall more upbeat and varied across the 11 songs, including two instrumentals that lend a cohesion to the experience.
With titles such as Rushin’ River Valley (a play on Callifornia’s Russian River Valley, where Johnson’s wife is from), See The World At Night, Waking Up In Los Angeles, and Tacoma, there is a sense of travelogue to the album, but one that looks back from a more settled place, as reflected in the last song, Jesus Tap Dancing Christ (It’s Good To Be Home). Perhaps the most unbelievably great song here is It All Comes Back, which soars on a bed of slightly lysergic arpeggiated guitars, clipped bass, crisp drums, and a melody that wraps itself around your heart as Johnson shares wisdom we can all use in 2023: “We lost some time/But we can make it back/Let’s take it easy on ourselves, okay?” The chorus adds assurance alongside a kind of bittersweet acceptance: “It’s like riding a bike/And I wish you were here to see/See it all rushin’ back/Yeah y’know it all comes back.”
In my review of The Pet Parade, I remarked on the “deep well” from which Johnson’s songwriting emerges, and here we have a song called The Deep Well, which gives a mission statement of sorts: “Here it comes, another song/It’s like a bell I ring—/My clarion call/I don’t know who I’m calling to/Or if it’s reaching you/But you know I’m trying anyway.” And succeeding, too, and in wildly beautiful fashion. Let it reach you.
Fruit Bats is on tour throughout April and May, including a New York City date at Webster Hall on April 20th.
Gecko Turner - Somebody from Badajoz A new album from this Spanish master of the groove is an event in my house, so I could barely contain myself when he began leaking singles in late 2022, starting with De Balde, which took a lyric from the late Carlos Lencero (who also came from Badajoz, a city in southwest Spain near the border of Portugal) and built a sweetly melancholy groove seemingly out of thin air. That turned out to be a fine calling card for Turner’s first collection of all-new music since 2015, with many songs exploring how rhythmically deep you can go with only the sparest of elements. The answer is VERY deep, as proven by Twenty Twenty Vision, which opens the album with a hint of bass and a conga that sounds like it’s being played with one hand, creating more than enough to nod your head to. Strings, horns, and organ form a backdrop for Turner’s gravelly vocals, also delivered sparely. It’s like a meal that’s all the richer for every ingredient being so carefully chosen. And while lyrics like “I just can't stand it anymore, another one murdered, racism death toll, another corporation that's promoting hate, another station where decency's gone…” may seem to despair, the music itself provides hopeful contrast in a strategy Turner uses often on the album.
On Am I Sad?, Turner tips his hat to not just Sly Stone, but specifically to There’s A Riot Going On, one of those albums that could be said to have invented its own genre, or at least sub-genre. But Gecko being Gecko, the chicken-scratch guitars, fractured bass, and funky drums are put to much sunnier use than Sly’s venture into darkness. Ain’t No Fun Preachin’ To The Choir brings Turner’s humor to the fore, with an uber-funky beat and what sounds like a chorus of finger-wagging aunties singing the title phrase. On the album’s most disarming song, Everybody Knows Somebody From Badajoz, barely-there acoustic guitar and percussion set the mood while Turner focuses on a childhood memory of being taught to fish in the Guadiana river. When Gecko sings the title phrase you will feel that you, too, know somebody from Badajoz.
Scott L. Miller & Zeitgeist - Coincident Miller has been a favorite ever since 2020, when I discovered his questing ways on Tak Ensemble’s marvelous recording of Ghost Layers. Since then, he’s never failed to fascinate, whether on a witty yet tangled album with UK ensemble Rarescale in 2021 or the “kicky fun and otherworldly atmospherics” of last year’s collaboration with a toy pianist and a trumpeter. As with the Rarescale album, much of Coincident was recorded telematically (i.e. online and across distances), with composer and players recognizing that not all latency issues can be solved by the current technology. Instead they embrace the overlaps and missed connections, leaving the listener to just soak up the results.
Across the album, we get a great variety, whether meditative, spaced out duos for Kyma (Miller’s electronic instrument of choice) and clarinet (Pat O’Keefe) or startling, theatrical stunners like Coincident 5, which features spoken word artist Joseph Horton alongside Miller on Kyma and Zeitgeist players Heather Barringer, Patti Cudd (percussion), O’Keefe, Nikki Melville (piano). At the end of the track, which opens the album, when Horton exclaims “Go to the fringes! Go there!” it feels like a course has been set for the album to explore the unknown and bring back these marvelous sounds.
Adrienne Munden-Dixon - Lung Featuring works by three of my current favorites - Phong Tran, Cassie Weiland, and David Bird - alongside others by Maria Kaoutzani, Carrie Frey, and Munden-Dixon herself, this debut solo album finds the Desdemona violinist stepping out in exemplary fashion. The variety of textures, often including electronics, and expert sequencing, from Tran’s otherworldly Generation, through Wieland’s first meditative then tangled title track, to Bird’s Dimvoid, full of quirks and crosstalk, create a narrative sweep, making for a rich listening experience.
Guy Barash - Killdeer An utterly unique intersection of jazz, electronic, spoken word, and chamber music that had me reaching back to John Zorn’s Spillane (1988) for a comparable. Barash’s abstract electronics, Frank London’s trumpet, Eyal Maoz’s guitar, and Kathleen Supové’s piano, somehow combine to make a sonic surround that somehow fits poet Nick Flynn’s words like a glove. Spiky and hardbitten, Flynn’s words are crafted for impact, as in Tattoo when he says: “You do know, right, that between the no longer and the still to come we’re being continually tattooed, inked, with the skulls of everyone we’ve ever loved…tiny skulls, some of us are covered.” I can relate all to well. Where do you find yourself in Killdeer?
Baby Cool - Earthling On The Road To Self-Love Stepping away from her other project, Brisbane-based psych-rockers Nice Biscuit, Grace Cuell has crafted a sound with a sublimely light touch as Baby Cool. Spacious guitars, a couple of chords, gently propulsive rhythms, and perhaps the occasional harp, flute or keyboard, are all she needs to gently issue tuneful and hypnotic pronouncements like “You and the sky are one” (from Altar). I don’t know about self-love, but I’m far down the road to loving this album!
Boygenius - The Record Until now, I would consider myself more an admirer than a fan of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, who make up this indie(?) supergroup. All are accomplished singer-songwriters who have released terrific albums that I’ve enjoyed, with Bridgers’ Punisher and Dacus’ Home Video both landing in the Best Of Rock, Folk, Etc. in 2020 and 2021 respectively. When the trio joined forces in 2018 for a six-song EP, I thought “isn’t that nice,” listened a few times and moved on. But then came the drip (actually, the promotional method of releasing songs in advance of an album is called a “waterfall”) of singles for The Record and I found myself captivated. $20, an ode to self-belief with killer lines like “Pushing the flowers that come up/Into the front of a shotgun/So many hills to die on,” hit me especially hard. By the time the waterfall was complete with four songs, I kept playing them over and over, hoping they wouldn’t blow it somehow.
I needn’t have worried. A true songwriting partnership, Boygenius is a masterful collection of folky pop-rock that brings out the best in all of them. Listening to interviews with them, it becomes clear that their friendship is genuine and strong enough that they can edit each other’s foibles and reenforce their strengths. The three also produced the album with help from Catherine Marks and others, arriving at a perfect balance of finger-picked gems and driving indie-rock with some of the same “soft distortion” you hear on Horsegirl’s debut. All the songs have richly atmospheric touches and a lot of depth, in a canny combination of stripped-down home studio productions and old school major label record making.
In a (cliche warning!) divided time, this may be the album to bring us all together in 2023. Read any review and you’ll find lines already becoming iconic: “In another life, we were arsonists" (from $20), “When you don’t know who you are/You fuck around and find out” (from True Blue) or “Leonard Cohen once said/"There's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in"/And I am not an old man having an existential crisis/At a Buddhist monastery writing horny poetry/But I agree” (from Leonard Cohen). That last one is an explicit tribute to the universality of song as distinct from personal experience - at least when it’s done right. And as a man a generation or two removed from Baker, Bridgers, and Dacus who is relating hard to The Record, I can say they’ve done it right.
Boygenius is on tour internationally through August, including a sold-out date on the Re:Set series at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, NY on June 17th.
Josephine Odhil - Volatile Refining and expanding the psych-pop moves of her previous band, Amsterdam’s The Mysterons, Odhil’s debut also finds her singing with greater confidence and naturalism - and it’s a sweet sound indeed. Dial her up for a soundtrack to your dreams.
Nyokabi Kariuki - Feeling Body In a work that seems to assemble before your ears, the Kenyan-American composer, vocalist, and clarinetist explores her relationship to her body after illness. Using spoken word, singing, field recordings, and the occasional anchoring sounds of her clarinet and other conventional instruments played by Yaz Lancaster (violin), Michael Denis Ó Callaghan (trumpet), Chris O’Leary (drums), and Ian Fales (double bass), she arrives at an expression in sound that feels both remarkably new and deeply human.
Hiss Golden Messenger - A Midsummer Night's Dream: Live at EartH Hackney Don’t think for a minute that M.C. Taylor is just dropping live albums to fill up his Bandcamp page (or to benefit charities like PORCH-Durham). They all have musical value even for longtime fans like me, who has seen Taylor & Co. in concert several times. And this one - which took even Taylor by surprise, as he found the venue unprepossessing - is simply one of the great live performances of the decade. While trainspotters may claim to miss long-running collaborators like Phil Cook and Scott Hirsch, that’s just because they haven’t listened. Taylor’s current cohort of players, including Alex Bingham (bass), Sam Fribush (organ), Nick Falk (drums), and especially guitarist Chris Boerner - who so frequently catches fire that I call him “Hiss Burner” - are as good as any he’s ever played with.
Recorded on June 15th, 2022, the set list is expansive and the last five songs, starting with a celebratory and too-infrequently played Lucia and peaking with an extraordinary 13-minute Like A Mirror Loves A Hammer that nearly levitated the dining table where I work, are a masterclass in pacing and dynamics, with solos that sparkle, crackle, and soar in equal measure. If you’ve never seen Hiss live - or even if you’re altogether unfamiliar - everything that makes them great is contained here.
Hiss Golden Messenger has tour dates, some solo and some full band, through August, including a set at the free Sound Mind Music Festival for Mental Health in Brooklyn New York on May 20th. My hot live summer will start there!
From the archives:
Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part 1)
Record Roundup: 22 For 22 (Part 2)
2019 First Quarter Report: The Albums