Music By Month: 13 Glorious Albums from August 2018

August may have been the strongest music month of 2018 so far. There are lots of entries from the UK this month and there’s more overall synthiness too. These aren’t in any particular order, although the first 5 are particularly wonderful. Here are my highlights:

Odetta Hartman, Old Rockhounds Never Die

Probably the most successful carriage of old-timey American folk music into the electronic era yet,Odetta Hartman’s sophomore album achieves greatness though juxtaposition. The roots music doesn’t pretend to be modern and the synths don’t pretend to be organic; they intertwine, by turns subtly and dramatically. Hartman plays many instruments, most notably the banjo, digging deep into her familial Appalachian roots. Her own field recordings lend an extra air of old-fashioned charm. Partner / producer Jack Inslee respectfully girds and surrounds all of that with electronic percussion and waves of synth which build steadily throughout the record. The only way this album could be better is if it were longer. Highlights: “Sweet Teeth,” “Misery,” “You You”

Tunng, Songs You Make At Night

Starting out in the early 2000s, Tunng were among the first to regularly construct folk songs with copious amounts of electronic instrumentation. Thirteen years in, that conceit is less cutting-edge, but it’s no less fertile. The band’s original lineup is back and any trace of novelty has been replaced by the demeaner of a band is in command of a variety of stylings and of instruments — synths take center stage, and this is more an electronic album than a folk one, but acoustic guitar, horns, woodwinds and more enter in too, each at the perfect time. Tunng plays to the strengths of each song, and the album’s highlights sound quite different from one another, while on the whole it’s a cohesive, and remarkable, record. Highlights: “Sleepwalking,” “Dark Heart,” “Evaporate”

Mitski, Be The Cowboy

This is only Mitksi Miyawaki’s 5th album and it’s already her third iteration: Her first couple of albums were all piano and vocal tracks, a result of her grad program. After that she completely reinvented herself with thunderous, crashing indie rock guitars, and that version also lasted two albums. This new effort brings in a bevy of synthesized sounds, and draws from both previous incarnations. While she’s taken a very different route to get here, she demonstrates a similar kind of multi-instrumental mad genius that you might hear on a St. Vincent album, though Mitski’s sound is more polished. This is an epic, 14-song album. The songs are short (most under 2:40) but you wouldn’t realize that without looking at the runtimes. Highlights: “Washing Machine Heart,” “Geyser,” “Remember My Name”

Tirzah, Devotion

As an alternative rock and roll kid, it fascinates me how dramatically both R&B and hip hop have placed themselves at the leading edge of musical experimentation, making most of the bravest and boldest choices in music today. Tirzah Mastin, an English artist who cut her teeth with a couple of dance-pop EPs, sets her debut LP solidly at the forefront of this experimentation. Aiding her is steadfast collaborator Mica Levi, whose arrangements offer beautfully strange keyboards, multi-layered synth beats echoing into the depths, unpredictable pauses and big left turns. Tirzah’s voice lives opposite that exoticism; she sounds grounded and genuine, singing relatable songs about love in many different flavors and phases. Highlights: “Holding On,” “Do You Know,” “Go Now”

Idles, Joy As An Act Of Resistance

This British band‘s sophomore album is a thunderous display of riotous leftist punk about the power of sensitivity, vulnerability and self-love. Their rousing anthems of unity often recall Operation Ivy but Idles is louder and harsher, embracing the tropes of punk’s more aggressive edges — all in service to creating space space for people to feel their feelings. More than one song specifically urges the importance of crying. The music is relatively complex and off-kilter — imagine Op Ivy cut with Wire and a touch of Faith No More. Much of it is angry, much of it is feel-good music; a remarkable portion of it is both at the same time. (It should be warned that “June” is gut-wrenchingly sad). Highlights: “Danny Nedelko,” “Television,” “Samaritans”

The Beths, Future Me Hates Me

The product of four jazz majors who don’t particularly show their roots, the Beths’ debut full-length is unrelentingly hooky, energetic indie rock with frenetic, grungy guitars and punk sensibilities. From New Zealand, this band lives at a charmed intersection of ingenuity and simplicity, with plenty of intricate riffs and clever turns of phrase, all of which wind up incorporated into catchy, chorus-focused, power pop bliss. Elizabeth Stokes’ wry, witty lyrics and confident but unassuming vocal delivery is championed by the exuberant backing vocals of her bandmates, who are obviously all friends from college. Stokes is the only literal Beth in the band, and she’s more than enough. Highlights: “Little Death,” “Less Than Thou,” “Future Me Hates Me”

James, Living in Extraordinary Times

I’ve been listening to James since the early 90s and what strikes me this time around is the size and scope of this band. Mark Hunter’s keyboards may be the album’s MVP, arming each song with an impressive array of synth and sparkle. But Deborah Knox-Hewson’s electronic percussion is the wind beneath his wings, and David Baynton-Power frequently reminds us he’s one of the best drummers in alternative rock. Meanwhile Tim Booth, always the clearest and most sonorous voice of his generation of Britpop, brings his usual impassioned theatrics. The band is remarkably cohesive for its size — the three guitarists, bass and horns all rock too — if a bit uneven here; the album’s second half is much stronger. Highlights: “Mask,” “Better Than That,” “Heads”

DeVotchKa, This Night Falls Forever

The Colorado indie rock quartet launches full bore into arena rock without losing its eccentricities and if “chamber arena rock” is an oxymoron, it’s also fitting. DeVotchKa toured with a symphony a few years back and it stuck: almost every track includes a string section, which lends a grandeur to the already sweeping sound. The similarity between Nick Urata’s voice and Bono’s does nothing to diminish that — it’s not an identical voice but it often seems to resonate at the same precise emotional frequency. The Eastern European folk of DeVotchKa’s roots are not as audible here, but ethey still sound like a bunch idiosynratic indie kids, who slur their dipthongs and allow their imaginations to run free. Highlights: “Straight Shot,” “My Little Despot,” “Second Chance”

The Coral, Move Through The Dawn

These Liverpudlian rockers return to the warmer, often folkier side of psychedelic rock on an incredibly pleasant, hook-laded album full of harmonies and infectious guitar riffs. It’s ear candy. We know the Coral can do experimental, trippy, challenging music but this one’s smooth and easy, optimistic and uplifting. The production occasionally veers toward “retro” but for most of the album, the better word is “timeless.” With their jangly, acoustic-electric guitars, and bright harmonies, The Coral could exist at almost any point in rock history and be welcome wherever they go. Highlights: “Reaching Out For A Friend,” “Sweet Release,” “Stormbreaker”

Amanda Shires, To The Sunset

This Texas-born singer/songwriter began her music career as a violinist and came up through folk and country traditions; now she’s married to Jason Isbell and a member of the 400 Unit, equally at home in a rock band. All talk of genre in regard to Amanda Shires’s new album is incidental, though. These are expertly written songs that could have been performed in a wide variety of genres and Shires’s voice would trascend any accompaniment. They are wise, heartfelt, personal songs and Shires’s bright, crisp voice — almost exhibitionistic in its clarity — resonates with charm and character. Highlights: “Take On The Dark,” “White Feather,” “Parking Lot Pirouette”

The Proclaimers, Angry Cyclist

The duo of Craig and Charlie Reid is an iceberg under the ocean, a “one-hit wonder” which actually produces many delightully consistent albums (eleven now). Their greatest strength is the soulful convinction in both Proclaimers’ voices, which resonate in the same part of the heart whether they’re singing about social justice, a loved one, or being optimistic in the face of adversity. (It’s usually one of those three). Some of the songwriting seems unrefined, and the arrangements occasionally unsuitable — the violins feel overdone — but when they hit their mark it’s sublime, and frankly the passion of the twins’ singing would be a joy to hear no matter the songs. “A Way With Words,” “Classy,” “Questions”

Thee Oh Sees, Smote Reverser

That cover’s going to tempt you to assume this a heavy metal album. Some of the vocals and lyrics might too, and there’s certainly a proto-metal vibe present here. It has some its just plain metal moments too, like the unrelentingly driving “Overthrown” but ultimately this is an experimental, multi-directional psychedelic rock record from a band that’s always stretching itself into new shapes. They go in quite a few directions here, and it’s all tied together by John Dwyer’s spellbinding guitars. While Sabbath is clearly the chief influence, the music rarely gets any harder than Zeppelin and it’s probably accessible to any lover of resplendent guitar riffs. Dwyer does both those bands proud. Highlights: “Last Peace,” “Abysmal Urn,” “Overthrown”

Death Cab For Cutie, Thank You For Today

It’s a new era for the Seattle emo-rockers, but they’re treading surprisingly familiar ground. They don’t sound like a band in the throes of upheaval, even after Ben Gibbard’s divorce, or the departure of longtime bandmate-cum-producer Chris Walla. The songs sound subdued, warm and calm and, sure, maybe there are more synths, or it’s even more polished than usual, but mostly this is true-to-form DCFC. It’s very smooth, and that’s one of Ben Gibbard’s gifts — his peacefulness, mindfulness, and calm wisdom. Taken too far, Death Cab can sound bland or passive. This album isn’t entirely free of that curse, but the standout tracks are enough to redeem it. Highlights: “Gold Rush,” “Northern Lights,” “Autumn Love”

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Stefan Wenger

Stef is a Bronx-bred, California-dwelling, 1977-born Libra-Aquarian lifelong music junkie. He is also a writer, improviser, singer, director and voice actor. .