Best Albums of March 2020 Featuring Stephen Malkmus, Shabaka & The Ancestors, Porridge Radio and more...
It has been the most remarkable and distressing month in collective memory. But amidst it all, some fantastic albums made their way into the world.
March 2020. What a month. What history to live through.
Given all that’s been going on these past few weeks, you’d be forgiven for missing out on some of March’s album releases. However, if you get a spare moment, we really recommend that you check in with this lot. It’s been another stellar month for new releases, from boundary-pushing electronics of all styles to worldly jazz and a re-release of some doomsaying dark balladry from the late Rowland S. Howard. Let’s go for a deep dive. Stay safe, everyone.
Some of Shabaka Hutchings’ projects - The Comet Is Coming, Sons Of Kemet, Melt Yourself Down - are all about overwhelming the listener, be that through atmosphere or rhythm or sheer musical force. His latest LP, Shabaka & The Ancestors’ ‘We Are Sent Here By History’, isn’t quite like that. This is one of the most ruminative projects Hutchings has involved himself in, the grooves that he creates with his South African band swaying in a manner which invokes John Coltrane, Horace Tapscott’s large-ensemble work and the 70s/80s fusion of Lloyd McNeill. Like Sons Of Kemet’s ‘Your Queen Is A Reptile’, ‘We Are Sent Here By History’ draws strength from African and Caribbean musical traditions, with poet Siyabonga Mthembu taking on a role similar to that of griot (storyteller) throughout.
Ok, you’ve got us - Rowland S. Howard’s ‘Teenage Snuff Film’ isn’t a new LP at all. However, the 1999 record gains entry to this column courtesy of a new reissue from Mute. Howard’s former Birthday Party colleague Nick Cave tends to get all the plaudits for this solo work, but ‘Teenage Snuff Film’ can go toe-to-toe with any of the LPs that Cave and his Bad Seeds put out in the 90s. Indeed, the gallows balladry of songs like ‘Dead Radio’ and ‘Exit Everything’ have a steely potency similar to Cave’s very best work - ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Do You Love Me?’ and the rest. At the centre of ‘Teenage Snuff Film’ is a delicious noir-rock cover of Billy Idol’s ‘White Wedding’.
The fact that Horse Lords make a dense, knotted corruption of rock which also features saxophone means that you could be forgiven, on paper, for mistaking this Baltimore group for The Physics House Band. However, Horse Lords’ music is less bombastic than those Brighton instrumentalists, and they have no time for noodlesome proggery. On new LP ‘The Common Task’, Horse Lords do the impossible by making math-rock utilitarian, the genre’s jerky energy harnessed and deployed with a radical precision derived from both Devo and Steve Reich. Some of the guitar lines here lean to the liquid-smoke fretwork of Sahel bluesman Mdou Moctar.
You may know Bryce Cloghesy from his work in beloved post-punk groups Crack Cloud and N0V3L, but the Canadian artist also makes strange industrial fare by the name of Military Genius. ‘Deep Web’ is a pretty bold thing to call your record in this post-Death Grips age, but the music here is both strong enough and strange enough that it should hex any toxic comment sections. There is an etherised feeling to ‘Deep Web’ which gives it a watery beauty, and when combined with lilting drum loops and softly degraded keyboard pads the effect is not dissimilar to James Ferraro or early Yves Tumor.
As you may have heard by now, Islet are part of that much-loved Welsh psychedelic scene. Their new LP ‘Eyelet’ is full of those same sonorous rock stylings which adorn the records of Cate Le Bon, Gruff Rhys et al. However, what has been less discussed is how this album can, at points, resemble the organic electronica style that sometimes takes hold of Pantha Du Prince and DJ Koze. We’re not saying that ‘Eyelet’ is full of club bangers or anything, but there’s definitely a buoyant quality to the synths on cuts such as ‘Geese’ and ‘Treasure’.
Rustin Man LPs are how people tell me London buses used to be before they got sorted out. Of course, I mean that you wait ages for one to show and then two come along at once. ‘Clockdust’, the follow-up to 2019’s ‘Drift Code’, is another sparkling set of old-world songs from the man known to his nearest and dearest as Paul Webb. There is a stately, almost gentlemanly air to numbers like ‘Love Turns Her On’, but ‘Clockdust’s instrumentals and arrangements have a bit of an old curiosity shop flavour about them which means that the record comes off as friendly rather than aloof.
It might be called ‘Every Bad’, but the second LP from DIY darlings Porridge Radio has very little about it that you’d term bad. It is, in fact, good, actually. Led by the passionate and charismatic Dana Margolin, Porridge Radio embolden the grungy twee-punk of their previous output here with arrangements that are both heavier and defter than what they’ve done before. Certain moments have something of Field Music’s quixotic indie about them while harder tracks - single ‘Sweet’, for instance - crunch like a more wracked take on Courtney Barnett.
Nazar’s LP ‘Guerilla’ is one of the most striking things we’ve heard in quite some time. The Manchester-based Angolan producer makes what he terms ‘Rough Kuduro’, a hard-bitten version of the high-octane Lisbon club sound popularised by the Príncipe label. In Nazar’s hands the emphasis of these beats shifts from the physical liberation of dancing to confronting personal, familiar and collective trauma - namely that of the Angolan civil war, a conflict in which Nazar’s father fought as a general. The feeling of turbulence that is inherent in many Kuduro tracks warps into something volatile here, with chaotic drums, lurches of bass and a muddle of voices passing in and out of ‘Guerilla’ to hound both artist and listener.
There’s both a giveaway and a red herring in the title of Stephen Malkmus’ new LP ‘Traditional Techniques’. The Pavement chap does indeed construct the ten tracks here from what one might term traditional techniques - largely a twelve-string acoustic guitar, but also assorted Afghan instruments that were knocking about at the Portland studio where Malkmus taped the record. However, Malkmus’ arch, off-centre approach to his craft means that ‘Traditional Techniques’ is hardly the record of a revivalist. A dense and whirring tune like ‘Shadowbanned’ wouldn’t sound out of place on a Richard Dawson LP.
This month’s roundup comes full-circle with a new release from a leading light of London’s jazz underground. Emma-Jean Thackray may not have been around for as long as Shabaka Hutchings, but the polymath musician/composer/producer/DJ is fast becoming a lynchpin of similar standing. Her latest EP ‘Raindance’ shows off all of the best facets of the scene’s wide-ranging sound. The opening track ‘Raindance/Wisdom’ may end with a hard-bop throwdown, but its first half is a gorgeous neo-soul lope - a vibe which carries through to following number ‘Open’ - and ‘Raindance’ rounds out with the Theo Parrish-esque house bump of ‘Movementt’.