Marnie, “Lost Maps”
For Ladytron fans, it’s been a long wait. Gravity The Seducer came out all the way back in 2011, and nothing from the band has given much reassurance in the intervening years, to the point that some have wondered if the group is even still together. (It is, officially.) But in the meantime there is the excellent solo work of its lead singer, Helen Marnie, who has filled the interim with her own projects like 2013’s Crystal World, which explored a more dream-pop sound than her icy day job. With the upcoming Strange Words And Weird Wars, Marnie is more in the comfort zone of ’80s-inspired electro-pop, as smooth and compelling as anything Ladytron has ever done, with the added benefit of a bit more range and expressiveness in her vocals. “Lost Maps” captures the vibe of retro Euro-cool with an efficiency that puts 95 percent of the current crop of similarly inclined artists to shame. There’s a lot of people trying to make this kind of music at the moment, but Marnie’s inspired work is a reminder that few of them can do it so well.
Roc Marciano, “Marksmen”
Roc Marciano’s long-awaited fourth record, Rosebudd’s Revenge, was released quietly this February, and it’s the sort of rap long-player that discreetly builds in your system like a carbon monoxide leak. The Long Island emcee bounced around major labels early in his career before making a name for himself with 2010’s Marcberg as a film-noir sonic stylist and a writer capable of both Rick Ross opulence and GZA third-eye wisdom. Rosebudd’s Revenge is a master class in sustained mood, but the mid-album highlight is “Marksmen,” Marciano’s collaboration with fellow wandering shogun assassin Ka. It’s all windswept, postapocalyptic myth-making from Ka (“Just wasn’t the sharpest tool, paid for my trespasses / A modest student got saluted when I met masters”) before Roc comes in with characteristically impressionistic bars like, “Push keys no piano lessons / Ambidextrous.” Animoss’ beat is as good a Marciano impression as you’ll find—a minimal, mournful swirl of psychedelic guitars. It’s a collaboration between two ancient-seeming, almost elemental talents, a standout on an album designed to lurk quietly in the shadows.
Nudge, “Two Hands”
Chicago’s Kranky Records is one of the most reliable—and prolific—purveyors of music united by a certain spacey, atmospheric aesthetic, be it the smacked-out jangle of Deerhunter, the kosmische burbles of Steve Hauschildt, the ambient abyss of Tim Hecker, or the wintry, neoclassical drones of Stars Of The Lid. The breadth and reliability of its catalog is a boon to anyone who sparks to that sound, but it can also be a hindrance for artists like Nudge, which, along with having a pretty unmemorable name, can be easily overlooked on such a deep bench. Even a devout Kranky fan like me didn’t come across Nudge’s music until I recently picked up a used copy of its second full-length, 2009’s As Good As Gone, out of pure brand loyalty. I’m glad I did. The collective led by Atlas Sound producer Brian Foote (and featuring other Kranky family members from Fontanelle, Strategy, and Valet) plies a gentle, slowly creeping form of that psychedelic spaciousness, reminiscent in places of Talk Talk’s avant-jazz experimentalism and the dubbier moments of Bark Psychosis—even venturing into trip-hop territory on songs like the smoky “Two Hands,” which deftly balances the minimalist, morphine drip of its hypnotic bass line and Honey Owens’ ethereal vocals with explosions of acid-rock guitar. It’s more than worthy of its label.
Brittain Ashford, “Sonya Alone”
Please hold your judgment when I tell you I am currently enthralled by a song from a pop opera based on War And Peace, currently on Broadway starring Josh Groban. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet Of 1812, based on just a small section of Tolstoy’s tome, is a thoroughly imaginative work, beautifully written by Dave Malloy. The track I’ve kept returning to is “Sonya Alone,” performed by Brittain Ashford, who possesses one of the most distinctive voices I’ve heard recently. The song is a plaintive lament that comes in the second act of the show, after Sonya has learned her cousin, Natasha, plans to run away with Anatole, a match that will result in disgrace for the naive, lovestruck young woman. Ashford’s throaty yet melodic voice brims with emotion as she promises to do all she can to protect her friend. In some ways, it’s the simplest of Malloy’s compositions, but it’s heart-stopping in that plainness. A video of Ashford’s take on the tune for the Broadway cast recording was just released. (You can also listen to the full show with its original Off-Broadway cast, of which Ashford was a member, on streaming services.)
Joshua Abrams & Natural Information Society, “Sideways Fall”
One of the tireless mainstays of Chicago jazz, Joshua Abrams first established himself as a bassist, though he’s also a composer, bandleader, and multi-instrumentalist with a special fondness for the guembri (also known as the sintir), a plucked three-string lute from West Africa. Simultonality, his brand-new follow-up to 2015’s Magnetoception, provides the best introduction to Abrams’ music for people who aren’t already deep into avant-garde jazz; the present Chicago scene came into its own through a close relationship to indie and post-rock, and there is more than a touch of classic Krautrock to the record’s groovy, looping, cross-thatched rhythms. On “Sideways Fall,” the longest cut, Abrams and his five-piece band lead the listener straight into psych-motorik jazz heaven.