BLACK COUNTRY, NEW ROAD Ants from Up There (Ninja Tune) — If Ants from Up There must be the valedictory statement from this particular lineup of Black Country, New Road, at least it’s a bold, bristling farewell. Just days before the album hit store, lead singer and guitarist Isaac Wood announced he was stepping away from the English band, acknowledge struggles with his mental health. The groups will continue in some form, but the remaining members insist they will respectfully retire all material made with Wood from their live sets, putting a firm cap on the era. It’s probably the only reasonable strategy as Wood brings complicated personality to all the songs on Ants from Up There, singing notes that seem charted on a pain measurement scale rather than a musical stave. The boisterous, charging “Chaos Space Marine” and spare, exploratory “Snow Globes” essentially mark the two ends of the spectrum. Tracks across the album were captured in live performance, and they often have the feel of works that are somehow simultaneous works in progress and cohesively complete, like jaw-dropping paintings that the artist might still feel compelled to take a brush to as they hang on the museum wall. There’s a earthy majesty reminiscent of Frightened Rabbit or early Arcade Fire, but Black Country, New Road’s artful unkemptness is distinctively theirs. In addition to the tracks mentioned, “Bread Song,” “Good Will Hunting,” and the fifteen-minute sprawling wonder “Basketball Shoes” soar through the turbulence.
CATE LE BON Pompeii (Mexican Summer) — The latest from Cate Le Bon, and her second for the Mexican Summer imprint, is a tapestry of exquisitely unsettled pop music that marks her as a worthy successor to the likes of Laurie Anderson and Kate Bush. The music soars and swirls, Le Bon’s velvety voice within the soundscapes like she’s expertly maneuvering through a hall of mirrors. The material on Pompeii is odd and challenging, but that doesn’t mean its unapproachable. For example, “Moderation” sounds like Haim after they took cool-kid lessons from Beth Orton, and its hard to conceive of anything more plainly, perfectly agreeable than that. The oddly luxuriant title cut is similarly smooth even as it carries the tingle that came only come from the presence of iconoclastic sonic adventurer behind the bars. Like the previously mentioned esteemed predecessors, and precious few of her contemporaries, Le Bon challenges the listener in a most inviting way. For more unorthodox pleasures, get thee to “Dirt on the Bed,” the sleekly mesmerizing “Harbour,” and “Cry Me Old Trouble.”
ERIN RAE Lighten Up (Thirty Tigers / Good Memory) — Maybe what Nashville really needs is an Aimee Mann to call their own. The new album from Erin Rae, who calls Music City her professional home base, is reminiscent of Mann’s piquant, erudite song-spinning, albeit with a gentle twang that’s a requirement within her particular municipal boundaries. Tracks such as “True Love’s Face” and “Enemy” show that gentle strumming and lilting vocal intonations can carry their own sort of toughness. She also demonstrates a kinship with genre forebears on Lighten Up: “Enemy” is like one of Bobbie Gentry’s just-cooing-by-the-stream numbers, and “Mind/Heart” has a touch of Lyle Lovett’s stately meticulousness. Rae’s lyrics are prickly in all the right ways, suggesting the complicated emotional paths people have to tread nowadays. It’s a rich, warm record that bares its soul. To get to know it further, be sure to cast a beam on “Candy & Curry,” “Can’t See Stars” (a duet with Kevin Morby), “California Belongs to You,” and “Undone.”