Four by Four: New Releases from the Thrill Jockey Roster

In times of economic stress and uncertainty, there's a natural tendency for people to play it safe, avoid taking risks, and hedge one's bets. But throughout the course of its 16-plus year history, the Thrill Jockey label has never been one to straddle the middle of the road. With it's eclectic roster, the label has long provided listeners with works by adventurous artists from various points on the stylistic map — covering everything from the amniotic glitch symphonies of Oval to avant-jazz albums by members of Chicago's AACM tribe, and numerous points in between. Thrill Jockey's release schedule for this season shows no deviation from that tradition, and below we offer a roundup of some of the label's latest offerings.

Jan St. Werner, aka Lithops (right) with Mouse on Mars partner Andi Toma

Originally hailing from the German city of Düsseldorf, Lithops is the alias for Jan St. Werner, who some may know as one-half of the electronic duo Mouse on Mars. As an ongoing solo project, Lithops has long provided Werner with a sonic sketchbook for putting some of his wonkier ideas and rhythms through their paces. The new album YE VIOLS! is the sixth Lithops recording to be released stateside by Thrill Jockey, and presents a collection of Werner's recent work for site-specific sound installations at various European art galleries and cultural events.

Ever restless and musically promiscuous, Mouse on Mars has never been content with coloring within the boundaries of genre-specific restraints — tossing a fair amount of perverse savantry (if not willful stoopitity) into the sterile cogs of "intelligent dance music." So it comes as no surprise that a number of the pieces included on YE VIOLS! shrug off the usual abstract austerity of most institutional "audio art" fare. True, a few of the works here "behave" in a sufficiently art-minded manner. For instance: "Bacchus," with its amorphic economy of undulating tones, is strongly reminiscent of Werner's prior material with Microstoria (his collaborative project with Oval's Markus Popp). But elsewhere, the album flaunts an odd interfacing between art spaces and the far-leftfield of beat-oriented electronica. "Handed" features layers of cascading bleeps and phased cadences careening within a shifting depth-of-field, while "Subquenz" bumps along on a fractured calliope melody and a skewed, distort-o-beat skank; and on "Penrose Ave," strains of a disjointed bouzouki melody drifts through a digitally granulated haze. One can't help but try to imagine the quizzical or befuddled looks of hapless museum-goers who first encountered these audio works in their original, white-walled contexts.

Mountains: Twin peaks

Mountains is the duo of Brendon Anderegg and Keon Holtkamp. As lifelong friends since boyhood, the two would eventually end up at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; and it was during those art-school days that they began collaborating on musical projects and launched their own record label, Apestaartje. After three warmly received (and currently out-of-print) releases on their own and other small labels, Mountains' new album Choral marks their debut on Thrill Jockey.

The sound of Mountains has a long, prolific pedigree behind it, a sound previously developed and explored by a variety of guitar-drone outfits like Flying Saucer Attack and a number of artists from the Kranky stable. But instead of priming for the cold, flat-lined desolation of the usual minimalist fare, Anderegg and Holtkamp craft warm and richly detailed sonic vistas that are as organic and reassuring as the smell of a distant campfire or the cloud-painting palette of an Adirondack sunrise.

Choral presents six new tracks that are buttressed underneath by sustained swells of harmonium, harmonica, chimes, long-bowed fiddle, wordless vocals and the like. While much of the above is dragged through a sieve of distortion and blurred to tonal abstraction, the duo embroiders everything around the edges with occasional passages of blues-folk filigree on acoustic guitar. In their most luminous moments, Mountains hits a density and depth that is -- yes, I'll say it — gorgeous enough to raise goosebumps. While Mountains's microtonal drone-scapes might be the sort that would provide the ideal soundtrack for eyelid movies, Choral may prove a damn fine thing to have around as a long, harsh winter finally loosens its grip and Spring grows near.

Bmore branch managers: Arbouretum

Speaking of mountains: The Baltimore quartet Arbouretum hails from a stone's throw of the Appalachians. On Song Of The Pearl, the band's second album for Thrill Jockey, they still very much sound like it. Over the past few years, Abouretum have attracted a number of fans in the jam-band camp, all the while garnering some attention in indie-rock circles for their own semi-rustic brand of "death-folk." The former can be attributed to the fact that Arbouretum is very much a guitar band, but the latter mostly hangs on the band's affinity for heavy, sometimes sludgey riffs. Both hinge on frontman Dave Heumann's past tendencies toward ominous and oracular quasi-mysticisms, often intoning about something infinite and inchoate what lies beyond the Natural Sublime like some soothsaying summit-dweller with a 1000-mile stare.

While the guys still don't seem compelled to rein any of their tunes in under the six-plus minute mark, they do manage to bring things closer to sea level with Song Of The Pearl. Heumann still sets out for loftier realms with baroque soloing on lead guitar, but there's more of a pastoral airiness wafting through a number of the songs and some increased effort to fleshing out the arrangements. Heumann's broadened his range as a vocalist, and several tunes evidence attention to something akin to conventional rock "hooks." Still, it's all rooted in the same influences as prior recordings; namely a certain breed of post-psych, dusty-denim'd, vaguely countrified '70s AOR fare — like Gordon Lightfoot splitting bong hits with Crazy Horse, perhaps. "False Spring" recalls Michael Nesmith belting out "Circle Sky" in a slower and less hootenannied mode, and the band finally revs up the boosters to an unprecedented degree on "Infinite Corridors" and "The Midnight Cry." And amidst all the foliage and knelling chordal clangor, the band sets to the off-roads with "Down By The Fall Line," rechanneling the adrift-on-endless-waters desolation of Neu!'s "Weissensee" via some strange mid-Atlantic equivalent thereof.

Extra Golden whipping up a 35-karat vibe at KEXP

The Kenyan/American intercontinental co-op that is Extra Golden made something of a splash with its prior two LPs on Thrill Jockey, and can reputedly count one Barack Obama among its many fans. Political unrest in Kenya caused lull in the band's actvity after the release of 2007's Hera Ma Nono, but they've returned with the new EP Thank You Very Quickly.

The opening track, "Gimakiny Akia," showcases the band's flexibility in a marvelous manner. As Onyango Jagwasi sings in Swahili and laughs between stanzas, guitarists Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff tuck into some knotty riffing, while drummer Onyango Wuod Omari carries the bulk of the beat via the bass drum and some intricate hi-hat work before working the entire kit to guide the band through a brilliant multi-part finale. The disc eventually settles down into some traditional benga grooves on its final two tracks; but in the interim, the listener encounters a number of intriguing twists and turns. Like all of Extra Golden's prior outings, Thank You Very Quickly was recorded on the fly -- during a single day in a bang-on session that perfectly captured the band's exuberance and precision. When all the hot young indie acts that hopped on the "afro-pop" bandwagon last year go scrounging for a new stylistic wrinkle in 2009, this 6-song EP is as good a place to start as any if you've yet to encounter Extra Golden's buoyant groove.

The above releases are currently available via Thrill Jockey records. YE VIOLS! is available in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. In the coming months, Thrill Jockey also plans to releases new albums from Pontiak, Tortoise, and the Baltimore trio Double Dagger. Stay tuned.

Upcoming local concert dates:
Extra Golden @ The Empty Bottle, April 20, 2009.
Mountains @ The Empty Bottle, April 26, 2009.
Tortoise @ Pitchfork Music Festival, July 17, 2009

About the Author:

Graham Sanford is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago. He's been know to read a book or listen to music from time to time.

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