Three Outstanding New Releases…and a Couple of Pretty Great EPs

Three Outstanding New Releases…and a Couple of Pretty Great EPs

Written by Tom Gibbs

Jaga Jazzist  Pyramid

Pyramid is the seventh studio album and first new release by the Norwegian eight-piece jazz-fusion group Jaga Jazzist in almost five years. It’s the long-awaited follow-up to 2015’s Starfire, and finds the band continuing to play in long-form compositional structure; the 40-minute total runtime of the album only covers four rather longish tunes. The group has been around for over a quarter-century, making their debut in 1994, and the lineup has gone through multiple personnel changes over that time period. The core of the band and main creative force remains brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth; Lars handles saxes and woodwinds, guitars, keyboards and synth programming, and brother Martin is the drummer and percussionist. Their older sister Line Horntveth has also been there from the beginning, playing tuba, flute, percussion, and also adding vocals. Guitarist and percussionist Andrea Mjos rounds out the original crew, with bassist and percussionist Even Ormestad coming on board very early on as well. The remainder of the group has been present in the current lineup for over a decade now, with Erik Johannessen on trombone and marxophone and Oystein Moen on keyboards and percussion; Jaga Jazzist is rounded out by guitarist Marcus Forsgren. The combination of synths and more traditional acoustic instrumentation throughout Pyramid allows the band members ample room to stretch out within the album’s very striking musical diversity.

The previous record (Starfire) was a bit harder-edged; Pyramid smoothes out those musical edges. Jaga Jazzist’s version of fusion is filled with wonderful, multifaceted ideas; the album kicks off with “Tomita,” which is a hypnotic homage to the famed Japanese electronic musician. The leisurely, ambient vibe of Lars Horntveth’s saxophone intro swirls around layered keyboards and woodwinds, eventually emerging with heavily-reverbed guitars into a compelling rock groove. Even Ormestad’s bass playing has been often compared to that of the late Chris Squire of Yes, bringing something of a prog rock feel to the tune. And clocking in at nearly fourteen minutes — it’s about as long as your typical prog tune, as well. “Spiral Era” finds drummer Martin Horntveth providing a funky downbeat, while sister Line provides a dreamy, wordless vocal that’s augmented with a heavy synth and keyboard mix. The beat pounds along, but that hauntingly diaphanous vocal keeps the overall feel divinely ethereal. Alternate versions of “Spiral Era” were released in advance of Pyramid’s street date, including a remix that pulls out all the stops, and explores the song’s further possibilities — they’re well worth seeking out online (try YouTube).

“The Shrine” (which is a tribute to legendary saxophonist Fela Kuti’s Lagos, Nigeria nightclub) begins very quietly with synths and muted woodwinds; the further layering of instrumentation creates a feeling of chaos, while additional synth and horn figures build intricate melodies that provide a thrilling counterpoint to the more muted and sustained lines of the song. Pyramid closes with “Apex,” with its ferocious, incessant beat that seems perhaps more perfect for the dancefloor than a jazz-fusion record; I couldn’t help but also detect a few obvious nods to Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” deftly buried within the mix.

Jaga Jazzist is a very innovative and forward-thinking jazz-fusion octet; and Pyramid both pays homage to the past while clearing the path for the band’s future. The 16/44.1 digital stream from Qobuz sounded exceptional on my home system; this album is very highly recommended!

Brainfeeder Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Bandcamp, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)


Washed Out  Purple Noon

Atlanta-based producer, songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Ernest Greene is the core of the band Washed Out. Greene graduated from the University of Georgia with a Masters in Library and Information Science, but was unable to find a job in the field. He started recording and producing songs in a studio in a bedroom of his parents’ home, where he produced a pair of 2009 EPs that were eventually released under the Washed Out moniker. The “band” — which frequently consists of only Greene — performs predominantly in the genre known as chillwave. In fact, Pitchfork recently referred to Greene as the godfather of chillwave. I feel like I have a fairly broad knowledge of a diverse variety of music, but I had to admit that I drew a blank on exactly what type of sounds chillwave actually encompassed. A quick trip to the Urban Dictionary came up with the following: “chillwave generally features a fuzzy sound with a slow but steady pulse-beat that hearkens back to 1980’s pop culture; it may sound like the radio being played in the car during an episode of Miami Vice recorded on a crappy VHS tape and played back after said tape’s been melting in the attic for a few years. Although it can be either electronic or markedly lo-fi, lyrical and sonic themes hinge nostalgically on a longing for lazier times and may or may not involve references to inert romance or drug use.” Okay, then — that definitely clears things up!

Actually, the name is fairly self-descriptive; the sound of the new album Purple Noon is both very chill, and literally a wave of synth-based pop that simply washes over you with every listen. Signed to the Sub Pop label in 2011, Greene released his first full-length Washed Out album, Within and Without; it achieved a fair amount of critical acclaim, and peaked at #26 on the Billboard Top 200 Chart, all the while creating the chillwave template that has formed the basis of his three albums since. While each Washed Out album has explored new territory, with Purple Noon, his fourth album, Greene has returned to Sub Pop (he briefly walked away on 2017’s Mister Mellow). And he delivers what is probably his most accessible album to date, and a strong return to his chillwave roots.

On Purple Noon, Greene again wrote, recorded, and produced the entire album, leaving only the mixing of the tapes to frequent collaborator Ben H. Allen. The sessions for the album commenced following a period of writing for other artists (including violinist and singer Sudan Archives on her debut album Athena); this experience enabled Greene to explore both R&B and modern pop in depth for the first time. Greene’s enchantment with these sounds has allowed them to permeate the fabric of Purple Noon, and these songs mark a new chapter in Greene’s growth as a producer and songwriter. His vocals here are more prominent in the mix, he’s slowed down the tempos compared to those in his recent albums, and Purple Noon is perhaps more dynamic than previous Washed Out records. That said, the songs here are extremely chill, maybe even too chill for chillwave; though this is maybe the perfect make-out record. A serendipitous first meeting is detailed in “Too Late”; a passionate love affair in “Paralyzed”; the disintegration of a relationship in “Time to Walk Away”; and the reunion with a lost love in “Game of Chance.” This album has a pretty compelling groove, and Greene tells some evocative stories in his songs, but my bottom line found me mostly listening to Purple Noon as background music.

Qobuz’s 24 bit, 44.1kHz digital stream sounded pretty magnificent, and you might want to take a listen before settling on a CD, LP, or cassette hard copy. YMMV — I found Purple Noon to be pretty irresistible, and an enjoyable listen, if maybe not particularly cerebral.

SubPop Records, CD/LP/Cassette (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


Deep Purple  Whoosh 

Deep Purple keeps slugging along; I’m not typically one to fawn over seventy-plus-year-old rockers on stage, but these guys keep cranking it out, and Whoosh — which is their 21st studio album — is actually surprisingly entertaining. I kind of continued to pay attention to the band up until the mid-eighties, but didn’t find them particularly interesting, especially after the departure of Richie Blackmore and with the release of Come Taste The Band in 1975, which featured Tommy Bolin as his replacement. I always liked Ian Gillan in the vocal lead; he’s still here on Whoosh, which also features the only original Deep Purple member, Ian Paice on drums — he’s the only member of the band to appear on every Deep Purple release, all the way back to 1968’s Shades of Deep Purple.

Gillan is in surprisingly good voice here (for a 74-year-old!), and Paice’s drumming is spot-on, if not filled with the excellent flourishes and song-ending runs that made the group’s albums throughout the sixties and seventies so memorable (think, “Speed King,” “Highway Star,” or “Lazy”). Long-time bassist Roger Glover is also here, and the group is rounded out by keyboardist Don Airey (Rainbow, Black Sabbath, Ozzy) and guitarist Steve Morse; this marks his seventh studio album with Deep Purple. I find that absolutely amazing, especially since I thought he’s really fallen on hard times from his glory days with the Dixie Dregs, when he was announced as the guitarist for DP back in the nineties. And Don Airey’s keyboards are remarkably effective; I never thought anyone could compete with the late Jon Lord’s keyboard theatrics, but Airey puts forth a really good effort here.

Anyway, the songs here are all surprisingly tight; Steve Morse alternates repeatedly between a more modern guitar tone and a sound that’s not all that different from Ritchie Blackmore’s signature tone back during Deep Purple’s heyday. Gillan still has essentially the same voice as back in the day, even if he doesn’t quite scream the lyrics, like he did on Deep Purple In Rock, Fireball, or Machine Head — his voice is still one of the signature sounds of the band. And they even throw in an updated version of “And The Address,” which was the lead track on Deep Purple’s 1968 debut, Shades of Deep Purple — it’s really a blast from the past, and Steve Morse gives a quick nod to Richie Blackmore’s classic riff, before expanding the tune with his own embellishments. Recommended.

Ear Music, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)


Isobel Campbell  Voices In The Sky (EP)

Scottish vocalist and cellist Isobel Campbell initially gained prominence as a member of Stuart Murdoch’s campy group Belle and Sebastian; she lasted through the first three albums before breaking out on her own. She’s since been associated with Snow Patrol and several good albums with former Screaming Trees/Queens of the Stone Age frontman Mark Lanegan — a partnership that seemed quite promising, but was then suddenly and unexpectedly came to an end in 2013. Her February 2020 release, There Is No Other, was expected to be her breakthrough album, but the onset of the pandemic prevented her from touring the record, and has effectively diminished the album’s effect on the public, in general.

Voices In The Sky strikes me as essentially her response to the pandemic, where on this five-song EP she’s giving the tunes (several that are essentially rock classics) her unique and breathy vocal treatment, along with pared-down instrumental accompaniment. There’s an ultra-breathy take on The Association’s 1967 hit “Never My Love,” which is followed by a heavily-reverbed reading of George Harrison’s “Something,” and it’s then followed by a pretty enjoyable (if Mariachi-tinged) take on Justin Hayward’s “Voices In The Sky.” The three recognizable tunes are bookended by the opening track “Together” (which I can find zero information for), which is a very pleasant tune that has a neat plucked banjo midsection, and the EP’s closer, “Sa Ta Na Ma.” Which is a Sikh meditation chant that essentially translates into “truth is our identity.”

There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but I nonetheless found this EP to be a completely mindless, enjoyable listen, even if I probably couldn’t endure an entire album’s worth (my wife’s impression was significantly less positive). The Qobuz stream sounded pretty incredible in 24/96 digital sound. Recommended, if only as filler for part of your otherwise unremarkable quarantined day.

Cooking Vinyl Limited, (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)


Aubrie Sellers  World On Fire (EP)

Aubrie Sellers is the daughter of country singers/songwriters Jason Sellers and Lee Ann Womack; she’s been performing now for about five years, and has two indie-label albums to her credit, including February 2020’s Far From Home. And she’s already a two-time nominee in the Americana Music Awards, although I’ve recently heard her music described as “garage country.” As with Isobel Campbell’s situation above, the timing of her full-length album’s February release couldn’t have been worse with regard to the onslaught of the pandemic, and cancellation of the upcoming tour; this three-song EP, World On Fire, is pretty much her response to the pandemic in general and her inability to tour in support of her work. Although technically a country artist, Aubrie Sellers cites influences to her work as diverse as The Kinks, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Led Zeppelin. Pretty diverse group for a country artist!

The EP kicks off with a reverb-drenched, subterranean bass-heavy take on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” with a gritty, screaming guitar intro that’s totally in sync with the original, while still taking the dense and dreamlike vibe of the song far beyond the original’s already dreamy mood. Sellers’ voice is country through and through, but she offers the tune the requisite authenticity to keep it working, and boyfriend/collaborator/guitarist Ethan Ballinger handles the guitar parts with plenty of grit and grime. Next up is “Somebody Was Watching,” most notably covered by Pops Staples (The Staple Singers) back in the day. With its message of hard times and redemption: “Now my bad time is better than my good time used to be.” Ballinger’s unyielding guitar tone keeps the mood flowing from track one right into the EP’s closer, which is a cover of Dwight Yoakam’s classic “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” The mood is a bit more uplifting here, with Ballinger’s guitars layered in a wash of reverb, but Sellers’ voice remains crystalline throughout. The song ends with a crush of synths, crunching guitars, and distortion that slowly fades to nothing; the effect is absolutely breathtaking.

Despite only being three songs, this EP is absolutely essential listening, and bodes very well for Aubrie Sellers’ future in the music world. The 16/44.1 digital stream from Qobuz was superb, and this music is very highly recommended!

Aubrie Sellers, (download/streaming [16/44.1] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube)

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