SPIN Overlooked Albums Report: JPEGMAFIA Is the ‘Black Ben Carson,’ Esperanza Spalding Surprise-Wins Again
Plus: Quality first-quarter releases from Seth Bogart, Sam Irl, Gogo Penguin, Saul Williams, Emmy the Great, Sunflower Bean, and Yuck
You know it’s a good year when there’s not one, but two jazz releases making the rounds outside of jazz circles for the right reasons. We miss great music all the time, and three months into 2016, there’s already subversive hip-hop, classic-rock revival and navel-gazing indie worth catching up with. And jazz of course. Here’s nine records of all stripes that you need to hear yesterday. — DAN WEISS
Esperanza Spalding, Emily’s D+Evolution (Concord)
Unlike Courtney Barnett, this BNM recipient actually won Best New Artist. And her fifth album is indeed one of the most alt-friendly jazz cycles you’ve ever heard, pivoting constantly on tight, proggy arrangements that evoke St. Vincent, tUnE-yArDs, and Incubus in their odd-angled crunch more than anything on Blue Note.
Whereas To Pimp a Butterfly and Surf played jazz for elegance, Spalding muddies up on rock to shake off the olds, though the speed-rapped intro to “Ebony and Ivy” is her “For Free?.” The circular hooks of “Rest in Pleasure” throw down for Dirty Projectors just as “Unconditional Love” nods toward Erykah. Then she nicks the closer from Veruca Salt, and I don’t mean the band. Pretty good for a Grammy winner. — D.W.
JPEGMAFIA, Black Ben Carson (Memorials of Distinction)
Promises to take hip-hop out of the Drake era, “I piss off white boys in my spare time,” beats that sounds like El-P hooking up with Oneohtrix Point Never, and even lines from Forrest Gump crooned à la Young Aubrey. And that’s just the first track of Baltimore-based rapper JPEGMAFIA’s incendiary, ethereal, and seriously mind-flicking mixtape Black Ben Carson. Emphasis on the tape there, btw — Carson is structured like a proper C90, divided into a molotov-cocktailed A-side and a downtempo, more subtly s**t-stirring B-side.
Over soundscapes that make you realize how long cloud rap has been missing some goddamn thunder and lightning, JPEG’s rhymes mix the righteous fury of Killer Mike, the what’s-this-button-do firestarting of Tyler, the Creator (sample title: “I Just Killed a Cop I’m Horny”), the pop-culture smartassery of Heems, and the all-out anarchy of Death Grips. The result in one of the most volatile, frightening, and exciting voices heard in mid-’10s hip-hop — one that probably won’t succeed in getting Drizzy “the f**k” out of [his] genre,” but among the rare few with even a punter’s chance of doing so. — ANDREW UNTERBERGER
Not since the mid-’00s and his days as a backup dancer for cute’n’nasty electroclash band Gravy Train!!!! have we seen Bogart this groovy. Sultry “Lubed (feat. Jeremiah Nadya)” and helium-voiced “Club With Me” are a back-to-back double shot of K-Y jelly on a Slip ’N Slide that splooges directly into a ball pit full of jelly beans. You won’t forget Bogart crooning, “ah, love to lube you, baby” à la Donna Summer through his John Waters pencil-stache any time soon. — ANNA GACA
Saul Williams, Martyr Loser King (Fader)
Leave it to one half of the justly forgotten She Wants Revenge to help perpetual talent Williams attempt a damn good rap-rock album. Except it’s not rap, it’s whatever form slam poetry takes in 2016, and it’s not rock, it’s a fake Tricky album complete with Reznor detours, especially the mutated interpolation (muterpolation? Better call Saul) of At the Drive-In’s “Invalid Litter Dept.” in “Ashes.”
Williams shouts out the sunken city of Atlantis on the goth-saloon piano rag “Horn of the Clock-Bike” and throws a wake for drum’n’bass on the trans-positive “Think Like They Book Say.” Obviously, there’s a significant contextual difference to Williams chanting “F**k you / Understand me” on the wonderfully titled “All Coltrane Solos at Once” than if, say, Chester Bennington did. But this smart, jagged, contemplative work makes you wonder if Williams could wring amazing stuff out of Bennington too. — D.W.
With every fret change comes another echo from the past — the harmonized “Easier Said” sounds like a more kaleidoscopic homage to CSNY, and the singularly strummed “Oh, I Just Don’t Know” has Kivlen and Cumming trading off sweet-and-sour vocals in a near-precise emulation of Nico and Lou Reed. Reassuringly, though, Sunflower Bean have enough homegrown ability between them to draw up a series of immersing and original compositions. Which is to say, they never stay anyone’s mirror for too long. — RACHEL BRODSKY
GoGo Penguin, Man Made Object (Blue Note)
There’s not much artifice to be found in U.K. trio GoGo Penguin’s sophomore album, as even though the LP is a construction of jazz, classical, electronica, and trip-hop building blocks, it flows together naturally. Their playing centers around delicate piano, which weaves in and out of a tumultuous maelstrom of intense drumming, and a fury that seems to push the limits of what a double bass can achieve.
On “Smarra” especially, what begins as a flighty, relaxing jaunt gradually builds tension until it reaches its frantic, static-laden conclusion. And then, after taking you to the brink, the next track, “Surrender to the Mountain,” is a more traditional, comforting piece whose orchestral swirls seem to right the universe without solving all its mysteries. There’s an almost dangerous kinetic energy to Man Made Object, explaining the “go go!” cry in the group’s name — especially when compared to their more leisurely flightless fellows in Penguin Cafe Orchestra. — JAMES GREBEY
Yuck, Stranger Things (Mame)
It’s one thing to be a fussbudget when a band changes singers, and quite another to compare Yuck’s departed Daniel Blumberg to Lou Reed and new leader Max Bloom to Doug Yule. Yuck’s beloved self-titled debut was an enjoyably fuzzy hodgepodge with lots of good tunes, but when the dust settled, the best one was a bonus cut (“Milkshake”) and its runner-up wasn’t sung by Blumberg at all (“Georgia”). The toothless follow-up Glow and Behold you can skip.
But this third batch has something to prove, and Bloom makes the most of it, stutter-riffing his best Toadies impression on “Hearts in Motion” and sneaking the timeless gorgeousness of Sebadoh’s “Too Pure” into “Down.” So what if they boil down to indie-rock Mad Libs? It’s fun to try and pinpoint which Yo La Tengo album “Swirling” should close. Or is that the Stratford 4? — D.W.
Sam Irl, Raw Land (Jazz & Milk)
There’s not much out there — in English, anyway — about Bavarian producer, composer, and all-around artful dodger Sam Irl. The farm-raised, Vienna-based sound engineer’s debut LP, Raw Land, is a masterful assemblage: luscious keys spray over crate-dug oddities while crunchy breakbeats whoosh like water from a fire hydrant.
On “Brothers,” a slow, sampled countdown rides a hiccuping percussion across sizzling synthesizers, while “Lost Chords” reverberates with drum pads fat and funky enough for Norwegian disco wizard Todd Terje. With immaculate splicing and arrangements, he dusts off the timeless echoes of speakeasies, jazz clubs, and velvet-walled lounges for a generation that actually communicates via the handshakes on his fresh-to-death album art. — HARLEY BROWN
Emmy the Great, Second Love (Bella Union)
The kind of low-key, non-confessional album of gently delivered guitar-pop songs you forget for no good reason that artists still make. The finest moments of Second Love sound prime for decade-old VH1 heavy rotation, which isn’t to say their sole purpose is to end up soundtracking an iPod or Old Navy commercial — they subvert quietly; Emmy finding new technical language through “Algorithm” and “Hyperlink” to express matters of the heart, and using her sampled speaking voice in “Dance With Me” to approximate her own excited subconscious.
The songs are foundationally solid enough in their swaying rhythms and sublime melodies that they don’t need twists to keep them interesting, but the care Emmy puts into the album’s crevices makes it one of the fullest-sounding and fullest-feeling singer/songwriter LPs of early 2016. — A.U.