February was an insane month for album releases. Usually, I find myself listening to far more albums that are uninteresting, or just plain bad each month, than I do gems. This month however, I’ve found myself really struggling to narrow four weeks of incredible releases down to the essential listens that have stuck with me. The last few weeks have been pretty stressful for me, so it’s a testament to how wonderful these albums are that they’ve latched onto my imagination in a period of time where I’ve seriously struggled to keep my head on straight.
This month’s roundup features releases from incredible jazz and folk musicians, indie rock bands and an off-the-wall singer/songwriter project. There’s a lot to sink your teeth into here, but I won’t lie and say that this is an exhaustive list of every worthy album to be released in the month of February. These are the albums which most spoke to me, and I hope you can find at least something to like here, if not fall in love with.
Modern Lore by Julian Lage (Mack Avenue Records)
Guitarist, Julian Lage was a fairly recent discovery for me. I was aware that he had worked with Gary Burton and Chris Eldridge, but it wasn’t until his last solo record, the electric trio album, Arclight, came out that I listened to one of his albums in full, and unfortunately, I came away disappointed. Unlike his acoustic output (which I have since completely and utterly fallen in love with), Arclight felt unfocused and incoherent – divided between its attachment to a sense of nostalgia and a drive to innovate, without successfully bringing the two concepts together.
Lage’s follow up, Modern Lore, succeeds where Arclight failed. Rather than letting his nostalgia taint his creativity, Lage uses his nostalgia as a tool for innovation. Modern Lore is a melodically and harmonically adventurous approach to the electric blues guitar trio aesthetic, with each track demonstrating Lage’s ability to craft memorable, lyrical melodies without ever letting them lead the harmony in overly predictable directions. It was a smart decision not to get bogged down in standards, like he did on Arclight. The new record’s dedication to Lage’s original tunes makes it feel more stylistically coherent and makes its 42 minutes feel like a single musical journey for which it is definitely worth sticking around until the end.
Broken Stay Open Sky by Red River Dialect (Paradise of Bachelors)
The Falmouth/London contemporary folk band, Red River Dialect, have been consistently releasing some of the most emotionally taxing folk music of the last few years. Their last album, Tender Gold and Gentle Blue was a heart-breaking series of quiet, subtle tales of loss, grief and spirituality, performed and recorded, primarily, by the band’s frontman, David Morris. Now expanded into a larger, five-piece band, Red River Dialect’s new album is a grander, more optimistic undertaking. Their sound is bigger, with full, lush instrumentation (the fiddle playing is particularly gorgeous), but they haven’t lost the intimacy and spirituality of their previous work – in large part due to Morris’ characteristically fraught vocal style and wonderfully poetic, pastoral lyrics.
I was meant to see the band live, in Liverpool, at the end of January, but I was sick with the flu and couldn’t make it. The particularly upsetting thing about that, is that I recently found out that Broken Stay Open Sky was recorded live in a small room. The performances on the record are seriously impressive and knowing that the band’s chemistry is not even slightly manufactured leads me to think that they must be incredible live. Listen to the album’s lead single, ‘Kukkuripa’, to see what I mean. The way that the musicians interact, and the arrangements soar, is a wonder to behold.
Thought You Knew by Snowpoet (Edition Records)
Snowpoet is the creative lovechild of vocalist, Lauren Kinsella, and composer and multi-instrumentalist, Chris Hyson. This project is, perhaps, the most aesthetically striking record I’ve heard this month. A blend of exquisite vocals with some of the most delicate, and stunningly intricate instrumental arrangements I’ve heard on a singer/songwriter album since Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.
Thought You Knew follows in the footsteps of musicians like Sufjan Stevens, Becca Stevens, Gabriel Kahane, Sam Amidon and Laura Mvula, whose music brings together elements of folk, jazz, art song, and non-Western musics to create a sound that’s diverse, eclectic and esoteric. The end result is a beautifully arranged album with a hauntingly gentle, almost ghostly aesthetic. While most of the tracks are airy and languid, a minority have a rhythmic drive to them. One might expect such songs to stick out like a sore thumb, but Kinsella’s wispy, layered vocals, and Matthew Robinson’s light touch on the piano keeps the livelier moments within the wistful Snowpoet sound world – a world that is unendingly inviting.
TWIO by Walter Smith III (Whirlwind Recordings)
I’d never really come across American saxophonist, Walter Smith III, before I found out about this record, but two things about it caught my eye, and I will absolutely be looking out for his future releases. Firstly, the album was due to come out on Whirlwind Recordings, who have had an excellent track record as of late (TWIO being the first of two excellent February releases from the label), and secondly, the album’s line-up caught my attention. Smith’s trio is definitely a solid one, featuring Harish Raghavan on bass, and the wonderful Eric Harland on drums, but around half of the track list features guest performances from two of the most well-regarded musicians in US jazz, Joshua Redman (sax) and Christian McBride (bass).
Guests aside, TWIO is real creative feat. At its core, the record is a fresh take on the post-bop saxophone trio, incorporating complex, more contemporary ideas over classic genre tropes, whether that be more esoteric rhythms over standard chord progressions, structural oddities, or (perhaps most excitingly) slightly atypical approaches to instrumentation. That’s where the two guests come in – particularly Redman. My two favourite tracks on the record are ‘On the Trail’ and ‘Contrafact’, both of which open with, and are structured around, wonderfully frenetic saxophone duets between Smith and Redman. The fast-paced, 5/4, melodically complex unison playing at the start and end of ‘Contrafact’ was my favourite moment on the record.
It’s that marriage of old and new, combined with a whole lot of excellent performances, that makes TWIO such a fun listen.
See You Around by I’m With Her (Rounder Records)
This is the record I’ve returned to the most this month. See You Around is the debut album from I’m With Her, a trio consisting of arguably the most influential women in the contemporary bluegrass scene: Aoife O’Donovan (Crooked Still, Goat Rodeo Sessions), Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek) and Sarah Jarosz, all of whom are virtuosos, both vocally and instrumentally. After an impromptu collaboration at a bluegrass festival a few years ago, they decided to form a band and start writing and performing together, making guest appearances on all of each other’s most recent solo recordings, and releasing a few singles as a group, but it’s taken until now for I’m With Her to finally release an album, and it’s definitely been worth the wait.
O’Donovan, Watkins and Jarosz all have very distinct, idiosyncratic song-writing styles, all of which are represented here. It’s really satisfying to be able to hear all of their creative voices represented in each song, whether it’s through the combination of O’Donovan and Jarosz’s distinct melodic styles on the record’s title track, or through the presence of Jarosz’s clawhammer banjo playing, which adds a new sense of character to the Watkins led ‘Overland’ which owes a lot to the latter’s cutesier writing from her Nickel Creek days.
‘Game To Lose’ is the album’s most dramatic track which includes astounding three-part vocal blending, a phenomenal lead vocal performance from O’Donovan, and some of Jarosz’s best mandolin playing since her 2013 album, Build Me Up From Bones. Another standout is the trio’s genius vocal reworking of Julian Lage’s solo guitar instrumental, ‘Ryland’ (subtitled ‘Under The Apple Tree’ on See You Around). This record is sure to be remembered as one of this decades defining bluegrass collaborations.
Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest (Matador Records)
Car Seat Headrest’s front man, and songwriter, Will Toledo, is the angstiest voice in contemporary indie rock. His last record, Teens of Denial, was an angry, defeatist, existential, yet somehow anthemic collection of exaggerated teenage anxieties in song form. With the foundation of great arrangements and songwriting, Teens of Denial is one of the best rock records in recent memory.
Any follow up from Toledo and Co. would struggle to reach similar heights, even if it were incredible, and with, Twin Fantasy, a complete, top-to-bottom remake of an early Car Seat Headrest Bandcamp release of the same name, the group actually manage to come really close to the genius of their last record.
Twin Fantasy, is a sparser sounding record than its predecessor. Gone are the dramatic horn arrangements and outlandish, slowly building instrumental intros, which seems pretty apt, considering how much of the record’s lyrical content deals with the mundanity of everyday life. To that end, Toledo’s angst here is just as intense as it is on Teens of Denial, but it’s a more banal variety of angst, dragged out over monster length tracks like ‘Beach Life-In-Death’. Weirdly enough, that combination of exaggerated angst, banality, and long-form musical storytelling is insanely compelling. Toledo has an uncanny ability to take you on winding emotional journeys where nothing much actually happens, and you end up pretty much where you started. Listening to this album is like watching a Cohen Brothers movie, and I absolutely love that about it.
Romaria by Andy Sheppard Quartet (ECM)
More often than not, the saxophonists I listen to play with speed, intensity and rhythmic drive. Every so often, however, it’s really great to hear a jazz album featuring a saxophonist that has a fundamental appreciation and understanding of space – one that seeps into every aspect of their music. This latest record by the Andy Sheppard Quartet for ECM, Romaria, is just that.
The compositions are airy and spacious. There’s no ego present at all, and none of the musicians are ever fighting for space. Even in the livelier moments on tracks like ‘Thirteen’, which has an insistent, frenetic, echoing cymbal part, the album never feels competitive or intrusive. The sound here is so roomy, Romaria almost borders on the ambient. Thankfully, the record is saved from melting into the background by Sheppard’s gorgeous tenor and soprano saxophone playing. One thing that I really appreciate about Sheppard’s playing here, is that he is virtuosic without ramming it down your throat. His playing is pensive and wistful, but he has a real command over the instrument’s entire register, and a huge dynamic range, and he demonstrates this without ever getting showy, or sacrificing tone for dexterity. This is definitely a record to listen to alone, in a comfortable space, with your eyes closed.
We Are by Alina Engibaryan (Ground Up Music)
Alina Engibaryan is a vocalist, pianist and songwriter, and is the newest signee to Michael League’s Ground Up Music label. I have to admit, I wasn’t all that excited about her debut release, We Are, initially. It seemed, by all appearances, to be a pretty generic, soul-esque vocal jazz album in the same vein as Maz’s thoroughly unimpressive album from last year, Idealist. I was however, pleasantly surprised by how much of an utter delight this album is. Engibaryan’s voice is lovely enough and her keyboard playing is wonderful, but the record’s main attraction is its outstanding writing. Engibaryan, has put together one of the most consistently enjoyable vocal jazz records I’ve heard in a while. Her arrangements are gorgeous – pulled off to perfection by a particularly impressive band, featuring the talents of Michael League on bass, Larnell Lewis on drums, Zach Brock on violin, Chris McQueen on guitar, and incredibly, Chris Potter on saxophone.
Engibaryan’s chord sequences, which are often slight diversions from typical jazz standard chord patterns, are enhanced by less conventional song structures and rhythmic emphases, as well as characteristic Ground Up bass lines from League and subtle string arrangments. This gives the record a more contemporary feel that helps it stand out from the endless piles of mediocre vocal jazz floating around these dyas. We Are definitely benefits from the added flair of Chris Potter’s blistering saxophone solos, which add a greater sense of feverish energy and textural contrast to the record. Engibaryan is a hugely promising talent, as demonstrated on pretty much every track on We Are, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Animal Image by Verneri Pohjola and Mika Kallio (Edition Records)
The latest record from Finnish trumpeter, Verneri Pohjola (following his electric romp, Pekka, on Edition Records last year) is a collaboration with percussionist, Mika Kallio. It’s also the most abstract, ambient record in this roundup. Ambient, semi-free improvised duo records featuring highly regarded trumpet players have been something of a trend recently, thanks to the incredible 2016 Wadada Leo Smith/Vijay Iyer record, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, which released on ECM to huge critical acclaim. So much so that it was written about by mainstream music outlets that tend not to touch this kind of abstract jazz with a ten foot pole.
Pohjola and Kallio’s new record Animal Image has a similar feel to the Smith/Iyer record, featuring open, contemplative, melding of sounds, creating a series of beautiful musical landscapes which draw out visceral, emotional responses from the listener, which makes complete sense when you realise that this album was written as a soundtrack to the visually stunning, Finnish documentary of the same name. The similarities don’t persist beyond the basic premise of the record, however. Kallio’s collection of unpitched percussion instruments and the huge range of beautiful, all-encompassing sounds they make, provide atmospheric direction, but almost no harmonic support, so in addition to Pohjola’s atonal ramblings and mind-rattling extended techniques (such as the unexpected, earthshattering, guttural growl of his trumpet’s lowest register on the track ‘Outside’), the trumpeter has to provide some kind of melodic idea, which sometimes (but not always) develop over the course of a piece, in order to provide something for the listener to latch on to. Sometimes, like on the track ‘Foxplay’, the melody toes the line between the unidentifiably fragmented and the uncannily familiar – almost, but never quite reaching the point of recognition.
Animal Image is not a subtle record, but it plays with subtlety in amongst the in-your-face chaos of it all, and the end result is truly something to marvel at.
Traveling Pulse by Cloudmakers Five (Whirlwind Recordings)
The final record in the February roundup is another Whirlwind release. It’s a live record of brand new music from Cloudmakers Five (formerly Cloudmakers Trio), a wonderful jazz quintet, led by British vibraphone player, Jim Hart, and bassist, Michael Janisch. On this record they’re joined by Dave Smith (drums), Hannes Riepler (guitar) and Antonin-Tri Hoang (reeds).
I’m really glad that the quintet decided to record this album live. The lack of restriction that comes with logistics of recording in-studio, allows for longer tracks that let the band really create a narrative with their improvisation. Stage performance captures the band’s chemistry far more effectively than a studio recording could, and the audible audience reactions factor into that as well, with the scattered applause enhancing the dramatic peaks of the musicians’ interactions. The compositions themselves are kind of skeletal. Their purpose is not to bring melodies that stick in the mind, but to provide interesting vehicles for some of the best communicative improvisation I’ve heard in a while. The title track is probably the most memorable, but the star of the show is less the melody, and more the way in which Hoang and Hart play with it in their solos.
Travelling Pulse is a conversation between five musicians who have a hell of a lot to say. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to jazz fans who are looking for the next collection of epic compositions, topped off with some decent soloing – this record isn’t lofty or conceptual. Hart, Janisch and Co. have simply demonstrated that when they’re on stage together, they can pull of something spectacular.