can feel summer’s grip slowly letting go when I lose count of good new releases. Cut Off Your Hands and their second album Hollow (Frenchkiss) is in that group. I wasn’t aware of a Hoodoo Gurus revival, but the Auckland, New Zealand quartet are only too happy to lay on harmonies, jangly ambiance, modest drumming and late first-wave post-punk guitar rings — all of which can feel like Hoodoo’s early-1980s work.
Cut Off Your Hands will also make you think of Echo & The Bunnymen. On songs like opener “You Should Do Better” or the casually strummed closer “Buried,” vocalist Nick Johnston slurs his perfectly patented Anglo accent. It works. The nine songs help the band put three years of frustrated touring, countless lineup changes, and scrapped studio sessions behind them. It’s a performance that works all the way through.
The same can’t be said for Danny Brown, the Adderall-addicted Detroit emcee with a chip on his shoulder and a new album called XXX (Fools Gold), a self-assessment as he rounds 30. Like Shabazz Palaces earlier this year, Brown is a tough listen. While Shabazz Palaces is succinct, Brown is expansive: This free album (available as a ZIP file on his website) runs wildly through 19 songs and a host of topics designed to “get as many people as I can possibly get to hear the music.”
In recent years, Brown’s unique voice — now slightly higher-pitched with an aggressively anxious spit — has attracted attention from G-Unit’s 50 Cent and the late J Dilla. And even though Brown’s songs rarely break the three-minute mark, it still takes some time to adjust to his humor and delivery.
XXX may be inconsistent and even exhausting, but some of the music is amazing. “Die Like a Rock Star” shouts out to dead celebrities, “Radio Song” sounds nothing like what post-Drake radio would want to play, and “Fields” is the ideal hard-spitting performance over a soul-sampling beat.
The backing music is stunning to boot. Present and accounted for are Detroit’s best producers, including DJ House Shoes, Quelle, Nick Speed and Frank Dukes (a collaboration with Black Milk is in the wings). The sound varies from classic soul samples to sparse snaps and clicks on “Bruiser Brigade” and “Scrap or Die.”
If you can meet Brown on his level, XXX is more than just a weird rap freebie by a dude who just happens to be listening to a lot of David Bowie lately. This might be one of the best albums of the year.
That also goes for San Francisco duo Barn Owl, whose Lost in the Glare (Thrill Jockey) brilliantly marries their Ennio Morricone-like spaghetti western sand-stretching with occasional post-rock climaxes. It’s one of the most moving performances of the year.
Evan Caminiti and Jon Porras have been working together long enough to get their bearings straight as a twosome, and Lost in the Glare is the culmination of years of releases (including last year’s less bombastic, and ambitious, Ancestral Star).
Fingerpicking guitar interplay, e-bow drones and manipulated tape cassettes, their signature touches, are all present here. One key difference is a Farfisa organ replacing the harmonium of previous recordings.
If you pick a song at random, say lead single “Turiya” or the fantastic climb of closer “Devotion II,” the change doesn’t seem to matter. Producer Phil Manley’s tape-recorded touch captures the duo’s previous strengths as well as a still-developing sense of purpose. Barn Owl was good at hitting a specific melody and mood, but rarely did they seem willing to take it anywhere. That’s changed here. The eight songs are dynamic, in perpetual motion, and evolve over the course of 41 minutes. Lost in the Glare is their best performance, not to mention a fitting way of putting summer to rest. It’s about time.