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The Body’s tortured album titles usually force a laugh or two. There’s hardly another way to cope with their mixture of progressive doom and power electronics. At this point, it’s obvious that the Portlanders have been doing something right. Their discography wouldn’t flourish without at least a handful of people giving albums like You, Whom I Have Always Hated and All the Waters of the Earth Turn to Blood a try. Thankfully for 2016 inductees, No One Deserves Happiness is the most digestible of the band’s work, but is hardly the least pulverizing.

The placement of The Body in the casual listener queue comes with a few changes. These songs are shorter than those on 2014’s disaster playground I Shall Die Here, an album that forced heads into black water and only let up after they’d taken a good hard look at what lies beneath. Singer/guitarist Chip King has said as much, hailing Happiness as the “grossest pop record of all time.” It’s a fitting description amidst the inclusion of collaborators Chrissy Wolpert and Maralie Armstrong singing leads on all but two songs. They soften the blows of Lee Buford’s analog/digital drum attack, often acting as sole representatives of the upper half of the frequency range.

Past albums have placed King’s shrieks, comparable to those of women and children, in the center of a well-established void. Now, his vocals are even more background. On “Starving Deserter,” gongs ring out in Black Sabbath glory during a meditative section that could go on forever, but instead clears for a soulful vocal. Although it’s definitely The Body we’re hearing, Happiness resolves to pop structure and concision as King’s appraisal suggests. “For You” is the finest bottling of the old and new. First half grimy growl, second half hardcore punk blitzkrieg, it never fails to clean the palette after single “Shelter Is Illusory” curses the world with a fury comparable to early nineties Trent Reznor.

Many songs retain the sprawl of doom metal’s core. “Hallow/Hollow” gives many a patient crash and snare before horns and King’s vocals herald a fitting, yet redundant announcement of “the night has no dawn.” “Shelter” is the total package of electronic metal, and “Two Snakes” follows suit with a vocal cap that impressively transcends even more genres. Closer “The Myth Arc” pushes the trudging instrumental aside to reveal a gorgeous chant bereft of King’s squeal, paving the way for Wolpert’s hopeful pronunciation of “I will find you” until the album comes to a peaceful ending.

The Body are the abyss perpetually staring back at their listeners. Unlocking these elements takes considerable work, whereas other releases have ironically made this process easier with layers of low end fog that enter the mix at a more balanced pace. The existential exhaustion of an album called No One Deserves Happiness is easier to trudge through in its tightly wrapped presentation, although it suffers from a lack of contentment at its end despite the efforts of “The Myth Arc.” Conversely, I Shall Die Here was an empowering release that reinvigorated listeners who managed to crawl their way to the light at the end of its tunnel. However, Happiness is not “hard” and I Shall Die Here is certainly not “easy.” The Body gracefully don’t try to solve the zeitgeist of human suffering one way or the other, but they surely have retained their expert status at describing its pitfalls.

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In 2006, it was hard to forecast that Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, and Matthew Ward would be this generation’s go-tos for conventional folk-pop structure. Ten years on, however, it seems like a no-brainer. A Midwestern supergroup was covering ‘Handle with Care’, and were doing a harmonious job conjuring the Wilbury’s classic malaise, after all.

Monsters of Folk, She & Him, and various other roots rock experiments later, it’s a given that a new M. Ward record will sound like a hi-fi walk through the rock and roll hall of fame. Ward has several albums over proven that this approach can still involve thriftiness, but it’s hard to take a sad song seriously after so much success, and Ward no longer cares to try. It’s harder still to take a goddamn Christmas album with Zooey Deschanel out of the context.

These elements lower the stakes on More Rain, and the potential for boredom is more present than Ward’s other releases. Calling these songs bad however, is way off the mark. On ‘Pirate Dial’, he warmly assures that “I can hear you.” Ward is believable because we can also hear the guitar as if he’s in the room with us. On ‘Time Won’t Wait Up,’ the lyrical tropes are rescued by Ward’s cramming together of the words “want someone to love me,” turning the phrase into something that could be mistaken for a single word. Here amidst all the pep, this playful phrasing makes loneliness much less lamentable.

The brief mandolin inclusion on ‘Pirate Dial’ and ‘Girl From Conejo Valley’ also works wonders, though the tale told on the latter lacks closure in its reminiscence. ‘Slow Driving Man’, however, is the total M. Ward package: Orbison-esque stylings, robust arrangement, and that whispery vocal of his. It’s also More Rain’s longest song with an outro guitar solo that floats along like a breeze. Other songs seem rushed, particularly as the mangled, but rockin’ solo gets faded out on ‘You’re So Good to Me’ as if Ward and company were afraid of straying too far from palatable pop. The guy is one of our generation’s best guitarists, so why not let the solos sprawl out?

Ward’s guitar chops are hardly his only accolade. Few musicians once strictly regarded as “indie” have also written songs ubiquitous enough to be featured on an episode of HBO’s Girls. Ward’s 2016 torch is passed around between those two worlds of household rockist and classic mid-oughts Portlander; and More Rain is a graceful, though somewhat unrewarding member of that career. He’s talented and experienced enough to do as he pleases, however, and it’s difficult to remember that in the album’s short, often candy-coated bursts of energy.

That said, we all need songs of elation as much as we need those of hardship. Closer ‘I’m Going Higher’ is a proclamation of just that, and Ward invites us to celebrate when his past ghosts may have wanted to hunker down and brood. Take it as a sign of intention that More Rain is coming into the world at the dawning of spring.

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In Jim Jarmusch’s 2015 film Only Lovers Left Alive, Jozef Van Wissem’s soundtrack stood up against the likes of Eddie Cochran, Charlie Feathers, and even Bach. Whether in a dark alley in Tangier with a blood-toting Tilda Swinton or a cramped Detroit apartment where Tom Hiddleston composed post-rock funeral dirges, the music filled in the claustrophobic cracks of the film’s darkness.

When Shall This Bright Day Begin has the opposite effect, and sees Van Wissem’s lute reverberating into a more natural vastness; traversing canyons, mountains, and streams. Even the track titles evoke infinity. With names like ‘The Purified Eye of the Soul is Placed in the Circle of the Eternal Sun’ and ‘To Lose Yourself Forever is Eternal Happiness’, Bright Day acts as a blank slate which any number of emotions could be placed upon. With only four chords and effective extensions on ‘On The Incomparable Nobility of Human Suffering,’ Van Wissem layers a verbose monologue of a man discussing the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. The question isn’t “What does it remind you of?” as much as it is “What doesn’t it?” Van Wissem’s home Holland feels eerily present, but the monologue sounds equally compelling as that of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor song. The western and eastern hemispheres are simultaneously present.

Although the production looks outward, the recording of these songs is up close and personal, playing up the physicality of Van Wissem’s playing as much as the notes themselves. Each string slide and pluck is heard perfectly across much of the airy phrasing. Van Wissem does with the lute what Colin Stetson has for the baritone sax; unlocking its capacity by creating a playground of different sounds acoustic and overtonal. It’s boggling to try and guess whether this is the quality of the lute build, the recording process, or simply the sprawling compositions.

For the most part, talking about one track here is the same as talking about the rest. What stands out is Zola Jesus’ “conventional” vocal line on ‘Ruins’, where the album’s busiest playing leaves less room for air than elsewhere. The track remains as ghostly as the rest considering Zola Jesus’ actual words are indecipherable, instead resembling more of a chant than a pop vocal. Here and on ‘The Ecstasy of the Golden Cross’, there’s an ambiguity to affect as Van Wissem himself sings “I can’t breathe/there’s no air,” even though the chords stretch out in a vision of oxygen-filled space. A peaceful feeling remains even if his intention was to conjure outer instead of earthly space. Bright Day could be played among stars and birthing galaxies as much as it could across hemispheres.

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There are enough words on any given Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album to supplant a review of this nature. If there’s conclusions to be made about life, death, love, religion, suffering, or alcohol, Will Oldham has already made them. If, like most, you’ve been struggling to pin down Oldham’s myriad of credits over the last twenty-odd years, this is a perfect record to start. Pond Scum touches highlights of his career, as recorded over the course of several Peel Sessions that could have easily been lost in the echelon of his discography. This retrospective theme not only breathes life back into the songs with new arrangements, but it feels as if Oldham is setting them free; just in case we hadn’t previously realized that they each stand well on their own.

As a result, Pond Scum’s words are scattered seemingly at random. It’s more difficult to trace its origins than even Yo La Tengo’s retrospective collections. Oldham pulls from his Palace Music moniker, his real name, his pen name, and even a couple of tracks from 2000’s Get on Jolly split EP with Mick Turner. One of these tracks, here called “Jolly One (2/15)”, stands as the albums woodsy centerpiece where Oldham gorgeously discusses the act of singing and songwriting itself: “And my love spreads wings/like a glad bird flying over the road.” The track is cut a little shorter than this sweet rendition, but its short nature adds to its intimate message.

If you can drop the retro lens through which it’s easiest to see Pond Scum, the pieces come prettily together. Take “Trudy Dies” at face value, and it seems like another Drag City rambling. Looking closer, there’s exceptional prose: “I haven’t known sorrow for so many years/with no foe to fight/death’s all I fear.” Death is mentioned elsewhere, and Oldham flips its polarity on I See a Darkness rework “Death to Everyone,” smartly playing the minor keys and song titles against the content of the lyrics. “Since we know our end will come/it makes our living so much fun.” On “When Thy Song Flows Through Me”, Oldham further softens the blow of human sadness, instead contending hopefully that “life is sweet, and death a dream.” Without giving these songs requisite time, they could seem bleak. Thankfully, it doesn’t take much listening to realize that the opposite is usually the case.

There are more immediate moments as well. “(I Was Drunk at the) Pulpit” is a funny tale about just that: stepping through a congregation of people, down from the pulpit and only slightly ashamed of inebriation. Even after several songs about death comes a cover of Prince’s “The Cross,” which is filled with revelatory Christian imagery complete with vibraphone overtones that coat the song in sweet salvation: “We all have our problems…soon all of our problems will be taken by the cross.” It takes Prince’s sexual coo and turns it into an alternative folk warble a la Jeff Mangum and the scene he stood on Oldham’s shoulders to bring into the light.

John Peel’s production on these tracks is rightly pristine. Though Oldham is often married to the acoustic/vocal set up, Pond Scum bathes the otherwise barren tones in soft light. David Heumann’s electric additions on the first four tracks don’t increase the dynamic as much as nestle peacefully between the acoustic spaces. Following is the previously unreleased “Beezle,” which eschews the acoustic entirely: “Now I will say what I needed to say/destruction of hate begins today,” sings Oldham over forlorn chording. Here and again on “Jolly One (2/15),” the sound coming through is crystalline, and it’s clear that the Peel/Oldham pairing was a no brainer throughout the six sessions that Pond Scum culls from.

Pond Scum works in the past as well as the present. Without remorse or the idealization of history, Oldham’s past lives are tangible and ready to crack open like a book. Though it offers only one “new” song, Pond Scum freshly adds (even more) depth to the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy cannon as if it were another studio album. Looking at Oldham’s enormous discography at a distance, it may as well be.

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Quilt bring levity to any tale that Anna Fox Rochinski or Shane Butler turn their words to. 2014’s Held in Splendor contained hard-earned, yet rewarding moments of bliss. When “Mary Mountain” eschewed its desert-psych passages to reveal the gorgeous “Tie Up The Tides,” it was pleasantly unclear that a sequenced album was playing at all. Only after several listens did it become clear which songs were which in Quilt’s dreamlike stasis.

It would have been nice if the band took a chance on the new record by pushing these boundaries of empty space and release. Instead, Plaza is a steadfast pop record in structure and vocals. Tracks 3-7 are exhaustingly peppy, dealing in tropes from false starts (“Hissing My Plea”) to repetitive, train track drums (“Searching For”). Still, it’s hard to speak ill of a band that is consistently so down to earth.
Plaza’s opener reminds us of the old Quilt with “Passersby.” John Andrews’ coined kick and tom-heavy drum beat rolls around spacious arpeggios that infinitely reverberate in tandem with the group vocal. Even harp makes an appearance to flesh out the earthly vibrations. “Roller” follows and has the band in straight rock and roll mode. With booty bass and shakers surrounding her, Rochinski begins several phrases with a quick “honey” as if addressing someone who’s close to her. She acts as a teacher as we, her pupils, hear her “give us the undiscovered.” There’s concern behind these lessons.

Plaza is a record that talks a lot about breakup, lack of sleep, and overthinking things. Quilt use their music to take these themes in stride on “Eliot St” where a minimalist synth line and string chorus work to broaden Butler’s upset moods. Even lines like “why was it so hard to love you?” sound lively. On “Hissing My Plea,” it’s Rochinski’s turn. She sings about drowning in one’s own wake, but remains engulfed in a fuzzy bass rollick that hardly betrays a literal image of the lyrics. There’s something there with Quilt that keeps the mood light.

The marathon middle section paves the way for the record’s standout final songs. “Padova,” in particular, slows Plaza’s propulsion peacefully and formlessly. A peppery fingerpicked guitar line underlies Butler’s layers of prose that don’t temp platitudes. Instead we’re given fleeting ideas like “ain’t it funny how we make mistakes?” that push the song along at pace. The tone of his voice is also cooler and more ghostly than on “Eliot St,” perfectly treading water in Beatles-land even more than normal. It’s followed by the similarly poignant “Your Island,” which is sung by Rochinski and only suffers from being too short. The drumbeat here mirrors Splendor’s syncopated rhythms, which leaves her voice to act as the tracks cymbals, coolly coating each passage with fullness: “Want to leave behind the towers in your mind,” she once again speaks of the pain in others.

Letting your grievances be is a major theme here, and even heartbreak is subject to bed down underneath Quilt’s four-part harmonies. On “Eliot St” and closer “Own Ways,” Butler insists on growth. Lines like “How can we go on/I don’t know/but we’ll have to go our own ways” show bravery in the face of loss: “Don’t be afraid/it’s only a death which is only a saying/so begin tomorrow.” It’s bold to talk about death with such brightness. Whether the subjects are abstract or dark, Quilt can be relied upon for cheerfulness and beauty.

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