Will Schube wrote this from Mars.
Sun Ra ― Lanquidity
Most people know and celebrate Sun Ra as an avant-garde mastermind, an impenetrable life force in communication with distant planets undetectable by the untrained eye. He most certainly was that, but there was another side to Ra, something more accessible, something more in communication with the music of his time. Granted, acknowledging that Ra was of a certain time at all is blasphemy―dude was dancing with aliens before Weezy was even born―but albums like Lanquidity, which Strut Records reissued back in June, confirm that at least some reincarnation of Ra’s holy spirit was in touch with the sounds of 1970s jazz and fusion.
Let’s start with this. If you’re a rapper, Lanquidity is a nearly perfect record to sample. The grooves are heavy and the melodies hit hard. Immediately. This is unlike any other Sun Ra project in that the answers are in front of you, the logic is spelled out for us simpletons operating with the brain function of mere mortals. The album came from improvised jam sessions, so let’s call Lanquidity Sun Ra’s best impression of the Dead. All jokes aside, calling Lanquidity Ra’s masterpiece is doing a disservice to the radical reinvention of jazz he spent his career executing, but the immediacy of this record is staggering. The group recorded it during one night in July of 1978, shortly after the Arkestra appeared on Saturday Night Live. We’re stuck with Harry Styles and Dua Lipa. Our generation is cursed.
The record moves languidly―I guess Ra knew what he was doing when he named it―like a river feeding into the sea on a cool summer evening. The songs don’t work sequentially but all flow into each other from different access points, creating something more like a rhizome than an album. All the songs grow out of a particular base that blends jazz and fusion in a unique but accessible way, and from there, the various branches communicate in language coded but crackable with enough listens.
Sonny & The Sunsets ― New Day with New Possibilities
Sonny Smith and his Sunsets have always been around, and have always been very good, and generally when that happens, the group goes underappreciated. It’s not just that Sonny & The Sunsets have been one of the few reliable entities in indie rock over the past decade, but they continue to develop, evolve, and, in most every instance, get better.
Smith reminds me a bit of Luke Temple/Art Feynman, the solo mastermind and visionary behind Here We Go Magic; they’re both restless songwriters, always moving on to the next big idea before we’ve even had time to digest the first. On New Day with New Possibilities, Sonny posits a fun scenario and spends the entire record sketching it out: What if Sonny & the Sunsets made a cowboy country record? The results are―predictably―a blast. There are silly songs that Smith takes seriously, serious songs that he delivers playfully. It’s whimsical without ever being saccharine, diving headfirst into the bogus myth of the American West and pulling its shirt over its eyes and its pants down to the ankles.
Every time this band puts out a record, I wonder to myself how much longer they’ll be able to sustain this run of writing 10 very good songs and putting them out. Surely, at some point, there’s got to be a string of bonafide duds, right? Not yet. The sunset is still far off.
Joseph Spence ― Encore: Unheard Recordings of Bahamian Guitar and Singing
Granted, I know next to nothing about the history of guitar and folk music out of the Bahamas, but this Joseph Spence compilation released by Smithsonian Folkways is excellent. Spence plays guitar and sings in a way I’ve never heard before, using the instrument to follow along a voice that alternates between scatting, grumbling, mumbling, and singing. But his voice sounds like it comes from a guy that just chiefed four cigarettes. It’s perfect. Every once in a while, though, he let’s the thing wail, like on the live version of “Out on the Rolling Sea,” and it’s an absolute marvel. He rolls his r’s and sings like he’s just seen God (perhaps that’s why it makes sense that the song is about Jesus speaking to a wary sailor). It’s arresting. He lets the background vocalists take the main line while he freestyles, or, at least, performs the Bahamnian equivalent of a mixtape-era Wayne verse.
Spence is a playful performer, imbuing his songs with the spirit of humor and joy. It checks out that his playing and performing style influenced 70s and 80s stylists like Jerry Garcia, Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, and Taj Mahal. Back in 1992, Smithsonian released a collection of Spence’s recordings from 1958, and while that record provided an excellent introduction to Spence, Encore is less rough, more refined. The curtain call Joseph Spence deserves.
Museum of Love ― Life of Mammals
If you ever want to go to a disco, but absolutely despise other human beings, just turn on Life of Mammals, the new record from Museum of Love. It’s full of pulsing grooves, strange, looping woodwinds, and hushed lyrics about growing nails and other spooky things. The group consists of Pat Mahoney, founder and drummer of super-not-retired band LCD Soundsystem, and Dennis McNany, known for his production work as Jee Day. The record was mixed by James Murphy, who managed to find time outside of his work with LCD, because, as I mentioned, the band is not over, despite selling expensive tickets for a farewell show at MSG and returning like two years later. Anyways, Museum of Love is really excellent. There are elements of dub, krautrock, trance, and post-punk throughout the record, and the entire thing sounds a bit like an ice sculptor slowly chiseling away at a hunk. It’s not always clear exactly what will form upon completion, but watching it evolve and shift is when all the fun happens.
Duval Timothy ― Sen Am
Duval Timothy remains one of the most exciting producers and musicians on the face of this whole freaking planet. Sen Am originally came out in 2017, but Timothy has reissued it on his own label, Carrying Colour. The album is in part a concept record, a tribute to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Like all of Timothy’s music, Sen Am explores the diaspora, opening up a space for Black voices that are far too often ignored in classical and experimental electronic music. Timothy builds his world from the piano, and his absolutely impeccable ear for the interplay of melodious changes propels Sen Am to a world outside of contemporary classical music and into something far more nebulous and exciting. It is, quite simply, a piano record, but the lone collaborator on the album, Nicholas Mandalos, brings some electronic instruments to the project. Sen Am is unassuming, until you bury yourself in it, by which point it’s all-encompassing, daring, and entirely original.