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The saxophone is the most recognizable of band instruments. In 2011, Bon Iver’s and Destroyer’s records showcased its uses to millennials. In 2016, it’s grown darker and more jaded in the independent music spectrum. The saxophone takes a song like “The Governor” and turns what could be a dancefloor cut into something decaying and glaring. Stack Nicholas Jaar’s disorienting piano loops on top, and we have something that dodges electronic music precedent in a handful of ways.

The saxophone isn’t the only acoustic instrument revered on Jaar’s Sirens, his first proper rollout since 2011’s mind-bending Space Is Only Noise. There’s reggaeton pop with full auxiliary percussion on “No.” Sung in Spanish, the track references the 1988 election to keep late dictator Augusto Pinochet in office for another 8 years. Leftists and artists subverted a negative word into a positive message that underlies much of Sirens and Jaar’s family history. It’s all kept in peaceful balance with a child’s voice and satisfying lute strums that complement a 21st century hope for Chile.

Seldom does an electronic album open up its doors so quickly. These songs go from divisive to palatable, opener “Killing Time” waiting a full minute before birthing a musical sound: a glass vase falls off a table and reconstructs itself before introducing the gloomiest pianos this side of A Moon Shaped Pool. Funnily, the only sad part is that it ends after eleven minutes.

“Three Sides of Nazareth” has propulsion like a revving engine, but breaks itself up elegantly across its ten minutes with a bridge of white noise and paranoid vocal blips. Following is “History Lesson”, which has romantic and soft words akin to Avey Tare. It’s the doo-wop pillow talk track that Kevin Parker has dreamed of in his penchant for attempting to do psychedelic love as well as The Beatles. Even when Jaar says “we fucked up” about a certain part of his relationship, he does so with a long view that ensures his subject that he’s thankful for shared moments despite relational hiccups. Seven chapters of this tale go by in whimsical summation even though it all ends before the four minute mark. Nailing down Jaar’s thoughts is easiest here, and it’s a lesson to the listener on accepting the impressionistic glow of many of the albums words.

“The Governor” opens with two utterances of the word “deicide” before Jaar begins singing about what could be commentary on the club, politics, or the end of civilization as Jaar imagines it. This is a choose-your-own-adventure lyric sheet, as guided by the mantra of an “automatic dial” that sets off unnamed alarms before a saxophone solo cuts through and reinforces the tension of Sirens’ undertones.

But don’t let the fact that Jaar sings throughout the whole album, a first for him, tell you that this is pop music. Sirens remains something immeasurable in terms of style, genre, songwriting, and overall production. Where Space Is Only Noise and side project Darkside were mostly musical thinkpieces, Sirens asks questions of society that develop in cohesion through repeat listens. Is a point trying to be made here, or is it all just building up to a romantic (or political) climax on “History Lesson?”

Though Jaar’s music bears significant resemblance to the prolific natures of Trent Reznor, Brian Eno, or Kieran Hebden, these are merely devices with which we can begin to piece together his pallet. Sirens runs swimmingly from track to track, and it’s ideal to consume it without a tracklist; listening as its samples, beats, and voices travel without a map or a compass. It’s clear Jaar wanted to do something similar to what the average listener considers to be an “album”, but making a strong case for his intentions takes patience. Contrary to pop music and accessibility at large, it works well in his favor.

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What happens when a particular event dismantles the patterns of emotional response that come with age? One might take the long view like 2013’s Push the Sky Away, where Nick Cave and company told a tale of humanity’s ever present history as told by Wikipedia and Miley Cyrus. “I used to know how I would react to things,” says Cave in One More Time with Feeling, the second Bad Seeds documentary in as many years. The death enveloping Skeleton Tree doesn’t get in the way of his limitless sense of emotional elaboration.

But Cave needs to cope, and he does so here by projecting his music across the rings of Saturn, into the mist rolling off the sea, and into a bathroom mirror; vomit, blood and someone else’s diseases on display. Grieving doesn’t limit itself to places in a house or on a map. You recognize the person in the bathroom mirror although the person on the inside has been overhauled, and mundane tasks like standing in the supermarket queue become new and confusing. “Maybe I’m just too tongue tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain,” Cave sings on “Rings of Saturn” where we catch him attempting normalcy with his loss painted across his face; which looks older and less familiar than it did before July of last year.

In this way, death also transcends people and places, ultimately fucking with time itself. Slide Bad Seeds cuts like 1997’s “Into My Arms” into the tracklist, and they breathe (or, in this case, “bleed”) new tenderness into the album’s portents. On “Girl in Amber,” we hear about 1984, the year the band debuted with From Her to Eternity. Cave’s wife Susie Bick is this eternity, and he’s giving her space for her equivalent grief. If Cave has changed his mind about his belief in an interventionist god, now’s the time he may need its help.

The farthest time’s icy hand gets from death is on “Anthrocene,” where Cave guides us, also in outer space, in search for new love. Drums sputter across formless piano chords and sonic errata. Angelic voices respond to Cave, who’s finding it “hard to believe that we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene;” a play on the word “Anthropocene,” humanity’s current geological period which has been fantastically reformed to fit Cave’s notions of life, love, and loss. It’s a follow up to Push the Sky Away’s “Higgs Boson Blues,” where the volume of available information coalesces into a humorous void of beauty and near nihilism.

The elastic snaps back to the present on the following “I Need You,” where the album’s most concentrated prose is found: “You’re still in me, baby/I need you/Cause nothing really matters/when the one you love is gone.” Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis balances looped space with thick gothic tones, making it hard to know exactly where the chorus fits in. The rest is ornately arranged – piano, vibraphone, bass, acoustic guitar, drums, and a commanding vocal that repeats itself in pained transcendence: “Nothing really matters” becoming a greater mantra of devotion than the sum of its words.

Skeleton Tree ends with fewer lyrics and abstractions on the peaceful “Distant Sky”, which suggests that there are still places to go and horizons to explore with your remaining family. Whether “down there” with the hard blues of “Magneto” or “on the edge” of a dark force on “Anthrocene,” Cave’s distant sky remains attainable despite the deceit he feels in the lies he’s been told about the afterlife of his child. But he still rises on Sunday morning on the closing track, and has the gumption to claim that “It’s alright now.” Whether we want to explore grief or learn to live with it, Skeleton Tree provides a sagacious guidebook.

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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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