POP / ROCK
The Hold Steady
Open Door Policy (Positive Jams)
The Hold Steady’s eighth studio album, Open Door Policy, opens, uncharacteristically, with a moody, piano-based song called The Feelers, on which singer/lyricist Craig Finn sets the scene for his new collection of short musical stories.
While taking stock of the impressive surroundings in which the song’s protagonists find themselves — a wood-panelled room, portrayed patriarchs, a pistol and pipe on a desk — Finn signals that his little hoodrat friends no longer live in the world of unified scenes and chillout tents. Sixteen years on, the party kids, misfits and druggie grifters of the band’s early albums find themselves fumbling about in a world in which the stakes are much higher than they were in the careless dramas of their youth.
Dealing with life’s disappointments and coming to the harsh realization that most dreams are never fulfilled are the overarching themes of these 11 songs. Finn’s narrators are world-weary and beaten down, but some are wise enough to retreat to smaller lives, as on Lanyards or Me & Magdalena, while others find themselves in rehab or taking prescribed antipsychotics (Family Farm, Unpleasant Breakfast). Most, though, are simply doing their best to get by but aren’t above dabbling in some of their old indulgences to catch familiar glimpses of what once seemed possible (Spices, Riptown, Heavy Covenant).
Alongside Finn’s lyrics, which are some of his finest, guitarists Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge, keyboardist Franz Nicolay, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake find their familiar rock ‘n’ roll groove, one emphasized by the dynamic tension between guitars, keys and voice, expertly balanced and layered by producer Josh Kaufman. The horns of Antibalas’ Stuart Bogie and Jordan MacLean add Springsteenesque breadth in places, and well-travelled ears will also hear hints of Warren Zevon and even Steely Dan (Hanover Camera). ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: The Feelers, Spices, Riptown.
— John Kendle
POP / ROCK
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah
New Fragility (CYHSY/Secretly Distribution)
Alec Ounsworth’s voice threatens to overshadow everything else in Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. It’s an acquired taste, sometimes piercing, sometimes bleating, sometimes tender, always anxious. But it can also be thrilling when he leans into it with abandon or when he rushes syllables with nervous energy, as he does on New Fragility, the sixth album from this New York/Philadelphia band, which is notable for being one of the first indie-rock groups to gain fame and commercial via positive reviews on the internet rather than through the efforts of a record label.
It’s the most consistent set of songs yet from Ounsworth, the sole constant in CYHSY. He plays mostly everything — keyboards, guitars, toy piano, some Neil Young-like harmonica — except bass and drums (which sometimes come from Centro-Matic’s Will Johnson, who helped produce the album.) The arrangements are full of nuanced, inventive details that seamlessly balance everything,
Like Clap Your Hands’ much-loved self-titled 2005 debut, the new album’s songs often build to perky climaxes, although the lyrics focus on broken relationships, both personal and political. "I never want to take another chance on anyone," Ounsworth sings on the title track.
Hesitating Nation depicts a culture that lacks empathy. Thousand Oaks, one of the album’s catchiest tunes, decries gun violence. The seemingly joyfull CYHSY, 2005 interrogates self-sabotaging motives for touring.
The dichotomies — the edgy vocals and the subtle music, the upbeat hooks and downbeat lyrics — make New Fragility fascinating and rewarding. ★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THIS: Thousand Oaks, New Fragility
— Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer
Earth Voices (Empress Music)
Canadian pianist/composer Amanda Tosoff augments her last album, which featured a vocalist and poetry, with this extremely ambitious release. Earth Voices takes a basic jazz trio (Tosoff on piano, Jon Maharaj on bass and Morgan Childs on drums), adds a string quartet, instrumental solos on some tracks by soprano sax player Kelly Jefferson, alto player Allison Au and guitarist Alex Goodman, and uses seven vocalists to express the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare, Rumi, Walt Whitman, Chris Thile, Joni Mitchell and more.
While jazz and poetry are frequent partners, this expands the whole concept wonderfully. Diverse styles by vocalists including Emile-Claire Barlow, Laila Biali, Robin Dann and Alex Samaras offer arresting impressions of the poems that move across moods. The different voices focus the listener in a way that just one voice can’t always achieve. Often, to be fully appreciated, jazz music needs a degree of concentration to focus what is being presented. Add poetry and casual listening is even more unrewarding.
The variety here of both vocal expression and poetic meaning are blended in a very rewarding way. Driving a rhythmic, cheeky lyric or expressing deep hurt, all aspects are there. It’s perhaps needless to say that one achieves a deeper and more complete understanding of the album with each listen. There is often subtlety in the words and the arrangements that is revealed layer by layer. When at the end of a track you find yourself saying "Oh, yes," things are being done as they should be. There are moments like this throughout the album.
The instrumental variation is also fully integrated with the mood of each track, with the guest soloists offering an extra dimension. The beauty of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 49 or Tosoff’s arrangement of Joni Mitchell’s achingly painful protest song, The Fiddle and the Drum, fit within the wide swath of poetry from across the ages. There is truly much to enjoy in this album. ★★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE: A Dream Within a Dream, Sonnet 49
— Keith Black
The Modigliani Quartet
Haydn - Bartók - Mozart (Mirare)
The Modigliani Quartet returns on this new release with three string quartets composed by masters at their craft — Haydn, Mozart and Bartok — each work penned during pivotal moments of their respective careers.
First up is Haydn’s String Quartet, Op.76, No.2 in D minor, a.k.a. the Fifths, written in 1797 after the Austrian composer had been freed from his duties as Kapellmeister at the Esterhazy palace and become recognized as Vienna’s foremost composer following Mozart’s death in 1791.
The Paris-based group bolts out of the gate with the Allegro movement, its opening theme based on an interval of a fifth, followed by a more halting Andante o più tosto allegretto. They then attack the colloquially titled The Witches’ Minuet with steely determination, until the finale, Vivace assai, brings the work full circle on a brighter, lighter note.
Mozart’s discovery of Bach and Handel’s contrapuntal works shook his world, ultimately leading to his six string quartets dedicated to his friend Joseph Haydn in 1785. The well-balanced players launch the opening movement of Quartet no. 19 in C major "Dissonance," K. 465 with brooding, operatic intensity, while its second movement, Andante cantabile, is infused with lyrical longing. The penultimate Menuetto Allegro – Trio is instilled with graceful lilt, contrasted with the final Allegro, including crisply rendered passagework.
A somewhat jarring addition to the otherwise all-classical album is Bartok’s String Quartet, No. 3, written in 1926 after a period of silence for the composer in the dark aftermath of the Second World War. However, its inclusion further showcases the versatility and steely conviction of the Modigliani Quartet, able to bring out the work’s tightly wound, dissonant language, as well as the composer’s idiosyncratic, highly textural effects, including forceful accents, col legno bowing techniques and snap pizzicato that crack like gunfire. ★★★★ out of five
STREAM THIS: Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3, Seconda parte
— Holly Harris