It's Summertime

And the living is easy.

Music sounds good again.
In between early morning searches for fresh dandelions with my daughter and the endless joy that seeps out from heated pavement into summer dusks, there is the day. For me, the day is usually bogged down with brightness and and its own dry realities. And so a rhythm emerges of the hot hours, abrasive and stifled, sandwiched between a cool dream. This is the high-contrast trade off of the summertime extreme. A whole change of seasons in a 24-hour span. I accept this, but am always looking for ways to stitch those higher summer sentiments into the boring fabric of facts I call a job. And this summer, I have the music to do it.

Thom Yorke – This is a masterpiece of focus and restraint. A multi-instrumentalist, peerless composer, and leader of this generation's The Beatles, Radiohead's Yorke could have indulged his most avante garde whims for his first solo project and it would have been, no doubt, arresting. (When it comes to bold leaps of style, Yorke has never not nailed the landing.) Instead, he's chosen to work within a refined pallette – the slippery, crunchy drum programming he perfected records ago, a little slinky bass playing, and various shades of pianos bouncing around the stereo spectrum - all in service of his crookedly delivered croon and a smattering of songs in various shades of black. The result is crisp and current.

Carelessly described, it's just glitch beats under sad songs. But there's more nuance in here than normal for this micro-genre. This is electronic-based music that finds a way to be twisted, soulish, funky, and yearning, with lots of asymmetry written in. Yorke first mastered, and has now subverted, the grid, discovering how to make machine-based music with enough loose ends to still be an analog to the human condition. He has a strange sense of harmonic rhythm, flipping or dropping a beat without telegraphing it; changing chords in the wrong part of the measure... But that sounds academic. This isn't just geek-good. Its tunefulness and energy are accessible in the way that records felt when I was a teenager.

I have this theory that Yorke sings best when it's not Radiohead (duets with Bjork and PJ Harvey come to mind) - his delivery is more open, less constricted without the burden of warding off evil that his band has imposed on itself. Here he sounds like more of a human, and more of a man.

The Eraser finds him working again with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead's in-house producer on their last four releases. Not to slight a brilliant sonic innovator like Godrich, who has become a star in his own regard – this generation's Phil Spector, a leading name-brand producer – but I've never been a big fan of the way he records rock bands like electronic groups, putting the instruments in neat sonic drawers, everything in its right place. However, this compartmentalization couldn't be more appropriate for a collection of recordings which is essentially the sound of Yorke and his toys.

The record, titled The Eraser, comes out July 11.

Thom Yorke - Harrowdown Hill
Thom Yorke - Analyse

Augie March - You probably haven't heard of Augie March. That's not a dig on your with-it-ness, just the sad reality. The reason for this is something as stupid as distribution. They are a magical five-piece of Australians making literate, inventive rock on par with all the records you reach for in moments of weakness. But nobody's done much to put their records out in the states or for sale digitally, and paying import prices to discover new music is not something the kids are willing to do lately. So they toil in genius an ocean away while entire continents miss out on their glory sound. The thought of this should scare the shit out of people who are serious about music. Imagine if Jeff Buckley had been German but never signed a stateside distribution deal and we never heard of him here. Remember the bleak alternate reality of George Bailey's dream lesson in It's a Wonderful Life, where he sees what the world would be like if he hadn't lived? We are living in such a dark version as American music fans. An Augie-free reality.

That was a bit dramatic. But I've made my point. Don't feel bad for Augie March. They're kind of a big deal where they're from. Feel bad for us.

Augie March and I go way back. Through an Aussie friend, I became obsessed with an EP they released in '98 called Waltz and followed them as they made the antiquey, smoky masterpiece Sunset Studies in '01 and its refined but overly wordy, grown-up successor Strange Bird three years later. The staggering breadth of this triple feat established enough of a track record to expect excellence from anything they might do. But the beauty of this new album is beyond even that promise. There's a point where the artist looks back and recognizes that all of his periods, most now neglected, are his children, and embraces them again as part of himself. Augie was definitely on a path from fumbling brilliance to cool headed craft, which was a less interesting trajectory for me. But their singer Glen Richards seems to have summoned his dead strengths from the tomb, finding a sturdy resonance in his throat that didn't exist before. It's commanding and above all true. Richards has always aspired to understated honesty in the tradition of Gillian Welch, only working the sentiments he truly owns. And the meticulous arrangements (featuring the best use of piano in a rock band I can think of) have such chiseled simplicity that you are forced to look at Richards' new creations for what they are: his best writing yet.

The new record, unfortunately titled Moo, You Bloody Choir, is out now. (Warning, their songs are "growers" and this record also makes more sense turned up loud.)

Augie March - Victoria's Secrets
Augie March – Stranger Strange

The French Kicks – I don't really understand why this band isn't a bigger deal than it is, even among the indie. My guess is that there's a backstory. Like, the lead singer broke the heart of a sexy witch and they were cursed by some kind of rock hex. I've always had a thing for bands with rock hexes though, so this is right up my alley. The French Kicks are kicking it exactly the way a band should kick it in '06. A modern approach to a live rhythm section informed by electronic production, understanding the value of space in arrangements (another five-piece on par with Radiohead and Augie March in terms of knowing when not to play), insisting on yin for yang – prettiness for every crudeness - and employing their secret weapon: falsetto harmony. Harmonizing in a falsetto voice is a difficult thing to pull off and keep the in tune, but they don't seem to have any problems with it. In fact, they make everything they do seem easy, like the groomed, privileged prep schooled pretty boys of their press photos. I smell rich kid all over this band, and yet I hate them not. Maybe it's the hex. I mean, these guys are better looking than the cast of most TV shows. So if the masses won't join me in valuing their artistic merits, I can't figure out why the superficialities haven't made the broader case.

A friend (who doesn't exactly love them) described them as Motown by way of Morrissey. Totally. The new record, with its out-of-date title Two Thousand, comes out July 18.

French Kicks – Cloche
French Kicks – Also Ran


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