This page is dedicated to the music on high rotation, recommended by staff and friends.
Wolves in the Throne Room -Diadem of 12 Stars
As the home of labels such as Kill Rock Stars and K Records, Olympia, Washington has blessed us with a wide variety of off-kilter music. Unwound, Bikini Kill, and Microphones/Mount Eerie were birthed in the city, while Nirvana and the Melvins used it as a hub, connecting with a population of fans not available in their own smaller hometowns. Something about the bustling college town seems to breed a restlessness that can't be cured with mainstream music. In that sense, Wolves in the Throne Room fit perfectly with their geographical peers. Musically, however, the band is a wholly different monster, combining intense, desolate black metal with dark folk and goth.
Wolves claim inspiration from the "mystical witch ideology" of the Olympian forests (a Googling only revealed news stories about a woman robbing banks dressed as a witch, but I don't doubt the mythology exists), and the imagery on the disc adheres to that. The cover is a misty forest waterfall scene, and the sparse booklet shows the three flannel-and-jeans-clad band members ritualistically jamming out in the woods, complete with a naked woman and enough candles to make Smokey the Bear bristle. Oddly, the picture shows two members playing acoustic guitars while a third blows on some sort of woodwind. These instruments don't really reflect the music on Diadem of 12 Stars, but they do give a hint that there's more here than your typical muddy barrage of black metal muck.
The four songs, shrouded in a just-slightly-cleaner version of black metal's usual lo-fi production, range from 13 to 20 minutes. For many of those minutes, the band sticks to the genre's typical facets. An impenetrable wall of wailing instruments is set to a rhythm that alternates from blindingly fast to a slow crawl, and the vocals, mixed low, are desperate rasps peppered with bestial growls. But it's the inclusion of folk and goth that separates Wolves in the Throne Room from the pack, breaking up the madness with moments of poetic clarity. Opener "Queen of the Borrowed Light" is a relentless assault for the first five minutes. But seemingly out of nowhere, the distortion gives way to quiet, clean picking and atmospheric keyboards, ushering in the song's second act. "Face in the Mirror (Part 1)" introduces witch-inspired, gothic female vocals provided by Hammer of Misfortune's Jamie Myers. But after another brief acoustic folk interlude, the band erupts again into familiar territory with dizzying speed and demonic howls.
Those who aren't familiar with this style of music might find it hard to see the beauty that is here, and the songs' epic lengths certainly don't invite new listeners. Admittedly, listening to the record is daunting. The songs are complex, with layers of melodies that at times seem to be working completely against each other. Even with the breaks and quiet interludes throughout the songs, it will take multiple listens for songs to differentiate themselves (but really, that's probably not the band's intention anyway). But art doesn't have to be pleasant to be pretty, nor easy to be enjoyable, and Diadem of 12 Stars is a dark, haunting piece that's as gorgeous as it is ugly.
Steve Earl and the Del McCoury Band -The Mountain
On The Mountain, Steve Earle has teamed up with one of the very finest bluegrass ensembles around, the Del McCoury Band. All 14 of the songs here were written by Earle, who confesses in the liner notes that his dream is to create a timeless bluegrass classic that will live on like Bill Monroe's "Uncle Pen." Well, he might very well have attained his dream. Each of the songs on The Mountain holds its own particular charm, and there isn't a loser in the bunch. "Carrie Brown" could have come from the very pen of "the father of bluegrass" himself, Monroe, and "Connemara Breakdown" has plenty enough fury to carve its own niche in the bluegrass tree. Outstanding performances from talented artists abound: there are the vocals of Emmylou Harris and Iris DeMent, the Dobro of Jerry Douglas and Gene Wooten, some smoking Sam Bush mandolin, and the fiddle fire of Stuart Duncan, all wrapped around these instant classics and played straight from the heart. Marty Stuart, Gillian Welch, and John Hartford all drop in to embellish the sound as well. Anyone who saw Earle perform with the McCoury Band was anxiously awaiting a CD, and with The Mountain, the wait is over. The smooth strains of "Pilgrim," with its unparalleled roster of guest artists, fills the room, and everything in the world seems just a little bit happier. Steve Earle has truly gone to the mountain and had his vision quest answered in the unmistakable tones of a Dobro, a banjo, and a guitar. Some good ol' American music, right from the peak of the mountain.
Nicholas Jaar -Sirens
The Chilean-American sophisticate Nicolas Jaar is often derided by people who like their electronic music robust and to the point. Understandably, really – his noodlings often make James Blake sound like AC/DC . But Jaar is something of a left-field superstar. On his 2011 debut album, there was at least a semblance of a slow club-music pulse, while last year’s Pomegranates consisted of 20 glitched-out instrumental sketches. Sirens is something else again: in just 40 minutes, you’ll hear Suicide’s louche techno-punk (albeit slathered in high-gloss electronica and French lounge jazz), Karl Hyde of Underworld’s dada chants, lashings of Talk Talk, and Phil Collins doing Chilean cumbia. The song structures constantly meander and fragment and often dissolve into silence and drone before reconstituting. If this idea seems baffling, it makes no more sense at all in the listening, and by turns hypnotises, frustrates and dazzles. This obstreperousness will only further alienate the doubters, but you cannot fault Jaar’s preposterous ambition.
Paul M's choice:
Gotan Project -Lunatico
After the global smash that was La Revancha del Tango, issued in 2001, expectations for Gotan Project's Philippe Cohen Solal, Christoph H. Muller, and Eduardo Makaroff were high. After all, they created a new kind of electronic fusion in taking the tango, street, and folk music forms from Latin America (played by studio musicians) and melding them with dub, downtempo, other more subtle forms of electronica. On Lunatico (named for tango master Carlos Gardel's racehorse), the band took a step back into the music that inspired them in the first place. They engaged a full tango quartet, with returning vocalist Cristina Villalonga, pianist and musical director Gustavo Beytelmann, and a small host of others (including desert moodscape rockers Calexico on "Amor Porteño"), a rap performed by Xoxmo, and a spoken word performance by Jimi Santos. The album was recorded alternately in Paris and Buenos Aires. Musically, Lunatico is adventurous, it engages the tango directly, both musically and in spirit.