I'll be quite busy from now until the end of the semester (yesterday it hit me just how much work I still have to do for one of my classes), but study and solitude aren't half as bad if you have the right music playing on your stereo/computer. I stumbled into Balmorhea's third album Constellations not knowing quite what to expect. When I noticed the instrumental Texas band had listed Debussy as an influence, I was intrigued and sure enough, "Steerage and The Lamp" sounds like a wonderful homage to the classical pianist's work. "Bowspirit," on the other hand (a rival for Constellations' best track) is a spare and spacious, as it eases along into a lush wall of strings, driven by handclaps and a lonely banjo: a hard song not to love once you've heard it through. Combined with upright bass, banjo, violins and other alt-folk staples, Balmorhea's sound is hard to pinpoint but I don't know if I've ever heard such a satisfying instrumental record. I'm hoping to catch up on their back catalogue. Here's a video of them performing "Steerage and The Lamp."
In a similar vein, I've been enjoying new releases by Shearwater and Joanna Newsom. Shearwater's wonderfully lame The Golden Archipelago is like Shearwater's previous work, unabashedly grandiose and sweeping. At its best, Jonathan Meiburg's baritone croon is akin to that of David Bowie. Tracks like "Corridors" and "Black Eyes" tread the same battered territory as "Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five," one of my favourites from 2006's Palo Santo, while "God Made Me" is a haunting acoustic ballad that erupts into a sweeping dirge part way through, and nicely sums how easly Shearwater can turn sublte sounds into massive epics. Epic. There's no getting away from that word with Shearwater, for better or worse. The Golden Archipelago? Do these guys really take themselves this seriously? Judging by their album covers, I'm going to say, "yes." I'm still unsure whether my admiration for Shearwater partly stems from their artistic desire to go for broke, or it has to do with how uncool this music would be if anyone else was performing it.
Joanna Newsom's third LP, Have One On Me, has been getting unanimous support from critics and I have to throw mine into the mix as well. I adored The Milk-Eyed Mender and, like everyone else, didn't quite know what to do with Ys., but was impressed and engaged by it. It's been emphasized again and again how long her new album is, but there's nothing on it that even comes close to filler. I confess that I still haven't had time to listen to it all the way through, but I've heard most of it sporadically and I'm particularly fond of the moments where Newsom aspires to the vocal heights of Joni Mitchell. But it's still unmistakably Newsom, plucking away at her harp, chirping through poetic lines that'll stick with you; that is, unless you can't get past her disarming vocals.
The final album I'm going to tout on this post comes from a much-hyped band from California. The Morning Benders' sophomore effort, Big Echo, not only boasts one of the best album covers of the year, but delivers a huge slab of easy-going, inventive indie-pop. This is surely going to be a big hit this summer when things start warming up. The opening track, "Excuses," has already been making its rounds on music blogs, but what first drew me in was the jangle-pop, non-chalance of "Promises," a perfectly executed summer pop song that admits "I can't help thinking we grow up too fast . . . No, I know this won't last a second longer than it has." This is going to be a moderately big record. That's my prediction.