In Listening Post this week, I spend some time with records from Panda Bear, Future of What, Stamping Mill and David Bronson. From ecstatic psych pop patterns to electronic experimentation and classic '70s singer-songwriter rhythms, these albums veer between a handful of genres without pausing long enough to feel staid or homogenous. Which records are you looking forward to hearing this week?
Panda Bear, "Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper"
Noah Lennox (AKA Panda Bear) has always been the pop voice of Animal Collective. That pop doesn't always manifest itself in entirely recognizable shapes, but if there's an ear-catching melody or bit of song that refuses to leave your head for days, it's probably his fault. And on his past solo records, he's been able to bring out this kind of fractured pop sensibility far better than any of his bandmates—though their solo material is often equally fascinating. Incorporating a bit of psych pop here and some frayed electronics there, he's managed to form an unusually dense and vibrant landscape for his songs to inhabit.
On his latest record, "Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper," Lennox once again looks toward the experimental side of pop music for inspiration, although this time around he's bringing along some dub rhythms for good measure. But even though he's working with a few new toys on this record, it doesn't mean that he's left his musical wheelhouse completely—or at all. "Grim Reaper" is a Panda Bear album and couldn't really be mistaken for anything else. But that has less to do with him peddling to fan expectations and more to do with him playing to his own strengths. He's honed and refined his fractured pop tendencies here, and, as always, they are still first and foremost the driving force behind his music. And we should all be glad that his melodic vision and warped creativity are still wonderfully intact.
Future of What, "Pro Dreams"
Brooklyn synth poppers Future of What create a sort of euphoric melancholy; their music is buoyed by waves of elastic synths and thudding percussion, but it's that little bit of hesitation and indecisiveness that makes their songs so instantly memorable and interesting. They aren't simply tossing all their synth pop inclinations into a blender and hoping that something good comes from the mix. Determination and resolve push their music forward with an inborn momentum that highlights the deceptively complex arrangements that envelop each song.
For their latest collection of songs, "Pro Dreams," the band (composed of singer Blair Gimma, bassist Sam Axelrod and drummer Max Kotelchuck) has tapped into something quite organic, even if their execution remains firmly synthetic. The album is a swirling mass of tones and patterns, which are given form and shape under the careful guidance of the band; there is both spontaneity and careful construction here, as if the band had been able to find that curious midpoint within the mechanism of the music's creation. This is synth pop that isn't merely flash and fizzle; these songs feel solid and have a concentrated weight that makes them sound as relevant and reverent as anything you're likely to hear this early in the year.
Stamping Mill, "Agitation Systems"
Randomness is an interesting concept when it comes to music. Most musicians simply try to recreate a sense of something random but rarely let the music actually come from a place of complete spontaneity. For avant composer Stamping Mill (who only goes by the name "Joseph"), the combination of planned and unexpected inspiration is at the heart of his man/machine music. Using a self-constructed computer to pick out notes and patterns to play in random sequence, he allows the synthetic aspect of its creation to clang up against the actual sounds that he's manipulating. The resulting cacophony is fascinating and amounts to far more than just an unusual experiment in the borders between the human and technological elements of music.
On "Agitation Systems," he allows his computer to overlay and reconstruct a series of four guitar lines into an amorphous mass of sound and fury—with his howling, half-spoken vocals laying not so delicately within this fray. But despite his heavy reliance on machines to form this world, there is rarely, if ever, any perceptible notice of the presence of this technology. It's only if we know how the music functions in advance that we truly understand how the process works. The music on "Agitation Systems" is loud, jarring, and wonderfully full of nuance and subtlety—but provides a particular resonance for those who can look beyond the serrated superficiality and see the twin human/synthetic hearts at its core.
Click here to hear a song from the album (no Soundcloud or YouTube links available).
David Bronson, "Questions"
Many people will tell you that the singer-songwriter genre is dead—or, at the very least, that there is nothing new left to mine from this pilfered set of sounds. And although it may be true that the genre has been one of the most abused of the past few decades, writing it off as an unusable base is hardly fair and far from accurate. Just look at singer-songwriter David Bronson; here is a man whose sound is reminiscent of artists like Cat Stevens and James Taylor but that feels absolutely unique and refreshing. There is no hint of imitation or mimicry, only the solemn sounds of a man deeply in love with his influences.
On this latest record, "Questions," Bronson channels these singers and songwriters of the past in a modern and relevant way; his gentle musings and gossamer melodies have a way of getting inside your head and refusing to budge. These songs are windows into the past (as translated through the present) that reflect his own determination in proving these sounds viable. As you let the familiar and comforting sounds of "Questions" fall across you in cascading waves, there will be no doubt left that Bronson has made the singer-songwriter tropes relevant as they've ever been.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.