Five Quality Tracks: September 2015

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This was a feature that I used to do for the Daily Californian’s Arts & Entertainment blog. I decided to give it life again here. At the end of each month, I’ll post a feature highlighting five quality tracks released during that month.

1. Deerhunter: “Breaker”

Bradford Cox is the face of Deerhunter, known for his stream-of-conscious style of writing and erratic genius, but the band’s secret weapon is Lockett Pundt, guitarist and occasional songwriter. Pundt released a solo album under the moniker Lotus Plaza in 2012 that was very important to me during three months that I spent in Chile. It was a time when, being in a new place, my vulnerabilities were more raw, and thus, the music I was listening to was especially potent and life-affirming. The highlight from that album was “Remember Our Days”, which featured beautiful guitar interplay and a simple but welcoming melody singing “If I don’t see you again, I’m glad that you were my friend, I’ll remember our days.”

Rarely does Pundt emerge from the background on Deerhunter songs, but he shares vocal duties with Cox on “Breaker,” one of two excellent singles released from their forthcoming album Fading Frontier. They harmonize gracefully on the verses, before Pundt takes over on the chorus — and let me just say that the chorus is straight-up amazing. It bursts open with a melody so good (and simple) that I can hear Paul McCartney singing it (which, by the way, is basically the highest compliment you can pay to a melody). “Breaking the waves, I can not, no, I tried, I can’t seem to stem the tide.”

 

2. Joan Shelley: “Over and Even”

Folk has a long history of exceptional musicianship and talented voices. Add Joan Shelley to the list. Her latest album is an elegantly modern take on folk, put on full display at a recent intimate concert she did at NPR. “Over and Even” has a delicate, crystalline atmosphere, embellished with bells and a recurring guitar phrase, allowing Shelley’s impeccable, lullaby-like voice shine through.

 

3. The Dead Weather: “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles)”

I have a complicated relationship with Jack White’s post-White Stripes musical output. His solo albums have undoubtedly great tracks and inspired songwriting, but these albums have too much bland filler for them to be considered truly great. The Raconteurs are awesome (you may remember them from their popular single “Steady As She Goes”), but they haven’t released anything since 2008. And then there’s the Dead Weather. I’ve always liked the idea of the Dead Weather more than their actual songs. The Dead Weather has always been the vehicle through which White and lead singer Allison Mosshart (of the Kills) get out their feral itches. How can you go wrong with Mosshart fronting and White on drums, rocking as hard as humanly possible? Well, the tracks are razor blade sharp, but often lack strong songwriting in my opinion. However, there have been a few bright spots (see “Treat Me Like Your Mother” from 2009) where you could feel the potential that bubbled underneath.

“I Feel Love (Every Million Miles” is another bright spot for the Dead Weather. Every instrumental piece to the puzzle fits perfectly, from the unstoppable bass plucking, to White’s frenetic drum fills, to the stinging guitar riff, to Mosshart’s captivating howls. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a Jack White-backed song with so much life. It’s soul-wrenching, blood-pumping rock and roll. Welcome back, Jack.

 

4. Zhu feat. AlunaGeorge: “Automatic”

Remember Disclosure? The British electronic producers took over the airwaves with “Latch” and basically made Sam Smith a star in the process. Their whole debut album Settle was a masterpiece — I’ve never had a proclivity for electronic dance music, but Disclosure’s arrangements were nuanced, interesting, full of surprises, as catchy as hell (the rhythmic “White Noise” and climactic “Help Me Lose My Mind” are personal favorites). Disclosure released their sophomore album Caracal this month and you’ll notice that no Disclosure songs make this list of quality September tracks. That’s because the album is the definition of “meh.” None of the songs have the genius and spark that made Settle so great. There are some solid tracks, but it’s mostly run-of-the-mill.

Why am I talking about Disclosure? Because “Automatic,” by the enigmatic producer Zhu and featuring rising star AlunaGeorge, is the kind of amazing song that should have been on Disclosure’s new album. It has an energy and flare to it. The beat is captivating, every blip and bleep is welcome, the soulful vocals draw you in. For a song made with computers, it’s beating heart is placed front and center.

 

5. Kurt Vile: “Wild Imagination”

Kurt Vile has quietly been making some of the best albums of the past few years. His album Wakin On a Pretty Daze, one of my top 5 favorites of 2013, is perhaps his grandest statement, but he also excels in a more low-key lane. His newest record, the oddly titled b’lieve i’m goin down…, moves along at a leisurely pace, but exudes confidence the whole way through. “Wild Imagination” is understated, but perfect for an album closer — contemplative, with a subtle groove. An acoustic guitar, mild percussion and bass, and a short section of flutes accompany Vile and his unique voice. He reminds me of Neil Young, not just in the sound of his songs, but the special quality of his voice — it will never win him American Idol, but you can tell it’s a voice that’s been places.

 
 
Honorable mention this month goes to a recently released remix of a Funkadelic track (who knew they were still making music!) featuring Kendrick Lamar called “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?”. As you could probably guess from the title alone, it bumps.

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