POP / ROCK
Sugaregg (Sub Pop)
Bully’s third full-length album (which came out in August, while this reviewer was on vacation) is many things at once. It’s the record with which Alicia Bognanno breaks up the band she founded seven years ago in Nashville and goes solo. It’s the first Bully album she’s created with the help of another producer and engineer (Grammy-winning indie heavyweight John Congleton is here as a co-producer) and it’s the first collection of songs she’s written and recorded since being diagnosed with and undergoing treatment for bipolar II disorder.
So… yeah, there’s a little bit of everything going on here. That said, the core of 29-year-old Bognanno’s musical sound is the interplay of her roaring, chiming guitar, her razor-throated scream and her innate ability to blend melody with the loud-quiet-loud guitar rock dynamic. This sound is somewhat refined here — the guitars are a little more textured, the vocals are fleshed out with multiple tracks (she even calls and responds with herself) and the mixes feel cleaner — but it offers the same sense of energizing catharsis and yowling frustration that was working for bands such as the Pixies, Nirvana, Hole and a host of others while Bognanno was still a preschooler in Rosemount, Minn., a bedroom suburb of the Twin Cities.
The best rock ‘n’ roll, though, transcends genre by connecting at an emotional and visceral level with its audience, and Bognanno does this here by revealing her struggles with mental health (she doesn’t so much sing about it as she sings at it on tunes such as Prism, You and Like Fire), her romantic relationships (Add it On, Every Tradition, Let You), her family (Hours and Hours is about repairing her bond with her mother) and the never-ending struggle to find peace and contentment in herself and those around her. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Where to Start; Every Tradition; Prism; Like Fire
— John Kendle
Idiot Prayer (Bad Seeds Ltd.)
On the heels of last year’s excellent Ghosteen, Nick Cave had scheduled a tour with the Bad Seeds that would have seen him playing North America this fall. But the pandemic, of course, scuttled everything.
Instead, Cave filmed a solo performance last June, in part inspired by his 2019 "conversations" tour that merged audience Q&A with solo piano renditions of song requests. The starkly beautiful, surprisingly compelling film shows Cave seated at a grand piano in the middle of London’s cavernous, empty Alexandra Palace. It streamed for a paying audience in July and was released theatrically earlier this month.
The 85-minute soundtrack album serves as a toned-down Cave retrospective, including early Bad Seeds songs such as Stranger than Kindness and The Mercy Seat, Grinderman songs such as Palaces of Montezuma, recent works such as Galleon Ship and one new song, the brief Euthanasia. It’s pristine, sombre and stately, with a spotlight on his earnest love songs.
The dominant tone is elegiac and heartfelt. It’s a formal recital, with none of his early goth-punk blues wildness.
It doesn’t display Cave’s range — although Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry turns impassioned and insistent, and Higgs Boson Blues builds to an intense climax — but highlights his thoughtful voice, his romantic piano playing, and his poetic lyrics. ★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE: Papa Won’t Leave You, The Mercy Seat
— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
Luke Sellick & Andrew Renfroe
Small Vacation (Self-Produced)
Whether by coincidence or not, pandemic times have led to a number of albums that feature more easily produced solo or duet formats. Whatever the case, this album is a fine release, the first studio release of these two artists as co-leaders.
Winnipeg-born bassist Luke Sellick, now mainly working in New York, teams up here with his fellow Juilliard alumnus, guitarist Andrew Renfroe, to offer an appealing and effective partnership. These colleagues have been playing together for several years, including on the content of this album.
The playlist here is made up of covers of classic tunes. The list moves from traditional folk tunes or hymns to Tom Petty, Neil Young, the Beach Boys and Glen Campbell. There are two Delta blues tracks, Someday Baby and Hard Time Killing Floor Blues, that are standouts.
The sound here is surprisingly full, with generous time allowed for both artists to shine. Sellick and Renfroe are in total control and sync, meaning at times there is no clear line between the written score and the improvisations. Also, the disparate-sounding range of the tunes might appear incongruous, but whether it’s a hymn or Dolly Parton’s Jolene, things fit together seamlessly.
To Winnipeggers, Renfroe might be less well-known than Sellick, but rest assured that he is extremely creative and competent. The two musicians have been mentored by some of the best in the jazz world, and it shows; Renfroe in particular has a wonderful feel for blues guitar.
Like everyone trying to make a living in a pandemic, jazz musicians are suffering. Creative production and distance-blending technology notwithstanding, if you listen to music, buying albums now and then would not go amiss. This duet release would make a fine and accessible gift. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Wichita Lineman, Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
— Keith Black
Errollyn Wallen: Peace on Earth
Choir King’s College, Cambridge (King’s College)
Amid a paucity of festive choral recordings typically released this time of year, no doubt resulting from the ongoing global pandemic in which singing is now regarded a potentially lethal, virus-spreading activity, comes this latest digital offering on the King’s College label, Peace on Earth.
The Choir King’s College based in Cambridge, U.K., performs three short vocal works by Belize-born composer Errollyn Wallen, hailed as one of Britain’s most accomplished contemporary composers alive today.
This is not your typical jubilant festive offering, but a highly contemplative journey into the heart of the yuletide season. The first offering is the album’s title work, Peace on Earth, a hypnotic piece that weaves a gentle organ accompaniment throughout the suspended long tones of the choristers.
The spell is immediately broken by the more arresting and tonally dissonant See that I am God, including the sweet sounds of boy treble voices juxtaposed with pungent harmonies and often startling chord progressions. The composer is clearly unafraid to push singers to the limit, with the renowned group matching her note for note in tackling the difficult virtuosic work.
Pace returns listeners to more subdued waters, bringing the album full circle, and heightened further by closely knitted tone clusters in which unison voices rise and fall like crests on a wave. The incorporation of white vocal tones allows this mesmerizing work to shimmer and shape-shift as the singers intone the Latin word "pace" — peace — a timeless concept always welcomed, and never more sorely needed than today. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Peace on Earth
— Holly Harris