Reviewed: Twista’s disjointed but generous Crook County and 11 more new releases | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Reviewed: Twista’s disjointed but generous Crook County and 11 more new releases 

Seven Reader writers tackle a dozen records, including the long-gestating debut from footwork producer Jana Rush, lost recordings from 60s garage-rock oddballs the Monks, and a riveting solo set from unsung improvising pianist Pat Thomas.

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Booklet

The 100% Rabbit (Jedso)

The second album by this Berlin-based trio carries on its loosey-goosey aesthetic, braiding together various freebop influences and subjecting them to an improvisatory ethos that stresses spontaneous interaction. In fact the name "Booklet" refers to a kind of songbook the group has developed for its repertoire, in which the songs all function as springboards for improv. The focal point of the band is reedist Tobias Delius, best known for his longtime membership in the ICP Orchestra; drummer Steve Heather and bassist Joe Williamson complete the trio. Delius's aesthetic strongly shapes the material Booklet tackles: tunes by fellow ICP member Michael Moore and other Amsterdam-connected folks such as Sean Bergin, Cor Fuhler, and Michiel Scheen, as well as pieces by Johnny Dyani and Dudu Pukwana of South Africa's Blue Notes, a band whose music made a big impact in Amsterdam in the late 60s. Booklet strings together these pieces in seamless medleys, triggering the shifts from song to song according to an internal logic known only to the players—this allows improvisational thinking to influence the music, even when the performances stick largely to sturdy themes (including some by Delius and Williamson). That modus operandi brings out some of the most effective playing I've yet heard from Delius, colliding Ben Webster's throaty tone with Archie Shepp's clipped phrasing. Peter Margasak

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Richard Dawson

Peasant (Weird World)

British singer, songwriter, and guitarist Richard Dawson is a brilliant improviser, his jagged, astringent lines worthy of Derek Bailey, but he's also fascinated by British folk traditions, writing epic original songs and belting them out in a soulful, spellbinding voice that's as earnest as it is imperfect. On his previous records, as good as they are, those two seemingly incompatible approaches have collided only occasionally, but on the new Peasant he goes all-in, fusing them with a cohesion he'd only hinted at before. He packs his ebullient, unkempt folk-rock tunes with fanciful phrases and bizarre imagery, helped along by colorful harmonies from harpist Rhodri Davies, violinist Angharad Davies, horn player John Davies, and a raucous chorus. Dawson draws on folkloric language but adds a biting sense of humor: he opens "Weaver" with the lines "I steep the wool in a cauldron / Of pummeled gall-nuts afloat in urine / And river water thrice-boiled with a bloodstone." No matter how absurd his language gets, though, Dawson sells it with his voice—he's never been more precise and emotive, keeping a tight rein on his outsize howl but leaving in the wrinkles that make him sound so richly human. His music already stood apart from practically everything else I've heard, and with this masterpiece the vivid originality of his imagination has been matched by the fantastic expertise of his arrangements and performances. Peter Margasak


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Japanese Breakfast

Soft Sounds From Another Planet (Dead Oceans)

On her second album as Japanese Breakfast, Philadelphia-based songwriter Michelle Zauner loosens up the punchy, distorted pop-rock of her 2016 full-length debut, Psychopomp. The new Soft Sounds From Another Planet prioritizes grooves over hooks, letting its bass lines drive the action and leaving plenty of space for ripples of retro synthesizers. It's less Cocteau Twins and more Tangerine Dream, though Zauner's voice—now occasionally pitched up or roboticized—burns as brightly as ever at the record's uneasy heart. Ostensibly a failed concept album about a woman who takes to the stars after falling in love with and being rejected by a robot, Soft Sounds retains the cinematic sweep of the sci-fi narrative that it's otherwise abandoned. Zauner's more commonplace subject matter (failed relationships, grief) takes on the drama of interstellar travel as she searches for peace and healing within the turbulence of ordinary life. The album may have begun as an imaginary transmission from Mars, but it sounds perfectly at home down here on earth. This place is surreal enough as it is. Sasha Geffen


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Less Art

Strangled Light (Gilead Media)

On its debut, Strangled Light, Less Art is a claustrophobic machine of a band, playing posthardcore in various shades of sheet-metal gray. Vocalist Mike Minnick ranges from almost conversational proclamations to bitter howls, urged on by whip-sharp Shellac-via-Kinsella guitar riffs (courtesy Jon Howell and Ed Breckenridge) and a cavernous rhythm section (bassist Ian Miller and drummer Riley Breckenridge). Though four of its five members have worked together in baseball-themed grindcore band Puig Destroyer, little of that group's lightheartedness is on display in Less Art. The only humor here is gallows humor, born of a smirking recognition that we humans tend to be our own worst enemies, whether globally or personally. Strangled Light is a record obsessed with death: the churning "Diana the Huntress" was inspired by the real-life story of a woman in Ciudad Juárez who retaliated against sexual violence committed by bus drivers by killing two of them, and album opener "Optimism as Survival" muses almost wryly on suicide ("I'm too curious to kill myself"). Less Art's most impressive skill is their ability to seamlessly shift intensity levels—on a macro scale, the entire album is a carefully built crescendo. It culminates with the title track, where the band provides apocalyptic accompaniment to Minnick's screams of "No one comes back from the dead." Ed Blair


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Limp Wrist

Facades (Lengua Armada)

Facades is the first record in nine years from queer hardcore band Limp Wrist, but I won't say we need it now more than ever just because of Trump—as uniquely awful as his administration is, it didn't invent bigotry. The 40-page zine accompanying the album features contributions from punks around the globe—including Singapore, Melbourne, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and several U.S. cities—who remind us that queer people have been fighting an uphill battle to be treated as fully human since before the Grifter in Chief was even a glint in Putin's eye. In the zine's introductory essay, Limp Wrist front man Martin Sorrondeguy (also of hardcore legends Los Crudos) writes that the band made Facades for queers who lack access to support systems and might experience gay culture only through mainstream outlets that don't reflect their identities. The album's furious songs get that message across quickly and powerfully—and unusually clearly, at least for a hardcore band. Limp Wrist ease up on the throttle, and the slightly less frenzied tempos let Sorrondeguy deliver his passionate lyrics slowly enough to be comprehensible even to someone who's never seen a basement show. He and the band also lead by example when it comes to demonstrating how queerness comes in all kinds of shapes: the B side of Facades is entirely electronic. Those songs are sure to ruffle feathers among hardcore fans, and that's punk as fuck. Leor Galil


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Thelonious Monk

Les Liaisons Dangereuses-1960 (Sam Records/Saga)

Censors, lawyers, and critics all lined up to jab at Roger Vadim's film Les Liaisons Dangereuses when it was first released in 1959. But the first guy to put Vadim and his music producer, Marcel Romano, through the wringer was Thelonious Monk—during negotiations to recruit him to compose the movie's soundtrack, he was so skittish that he once cut talks short by ducking out of a Ping-Pong game with Romano to cook dinner for his kids. After all that, Monk didn't end up writing any new music for the already finished movie; he simply added French saxophonist Barney Wilen to his working band and recorded tunes from his set. A planned LP drawn from those sessions didn't materialize at the time, but the discovery of the original studio tapes in 2014 has resulted in the recent double album Les Liaisons Dangereuses-1960 (the year in the title is an artifact of a lawsuit). It's a delight to hear the easy concord of the musicians on "Ba-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues-Are," and their brief, radiant reading of the hymn "By and By" could melt a glacier. But the proliferation of multiple takes might interfere with a casual listener's enjoyment; even though each version is lovely, it's wearying to hear "Pannonica" three times in a row. For serious Monk students, though, the pianist's 14 minutes of dialogue with drummer Art Taylor as they work out the rhythm of "Light Blue" will be pure gold. Bill Meyer


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The Monks

Hamburg Recordings 1967 (Third Man)

The 2006 documentary Monks: The Transatlantic Feedback offers a Teutonic take on the Monks' 1966 masterpiece, Black Monk Time, casting the album as an avant-garde triumph by German producers who transformed a bar band of American former G.I.s into a dark parody of the Hamburg beat scene. But despite the Monks' high-concept costumes and odd instrumentation (buzz-saw banjo, all-floor-tom percussion), the group was amazingly American. Like the Dirty Dozen, each had an area of expertise (jazz horn, rockabilly guitar, Booker T.-style organ), and this gave the Monks an edge that came more from their own harmoniously incongruent regional quirks than from the schemes of any Svengali. Because their weirdest elements got the chilliest reception from German teens, I feared the previously lost tracks on Hamburg Recordings 1967 might be less ambitious than the LP that preceded them. But opener "I'm Watching You," with its scrambling bass, manic keyboard, and Gary Burger's signature "They're coming to take me away" vocals, is a bizarre injection of pure unfiltered Monkishness. More seductive is "Yellow Grass," which arranges a mixed marriage of Eddie Shaw's absurd trumpet fanfares and the roller-rink organ runs of Chicagoan Larry Clark—together they sound like a dream mashup of Herb Alpert and Dave "Baby" Cortez. Though these five tracks feel more like respectable B sides than a follow-up album, I'm certain they would've been just as rejected by Polydor's American affilate as Black Monk Time was. And what's more American than dissing Vietnam-era veterans? Jake Austen


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Jana Rush

Pariah (Objects Limited)

Chicago electronic producer Jana Rush hadn't put out a full-length until this month's Pariah, and it took her decades to get there. She began DJing as a preteen, spinning at Kennedy-King College's WKKC Radio alongside black Chicago music legends Gant-Man (who helped create juke) and DJ Rashad (who helped shape footwork). In 1996 she released a 12-inch through peerless ghetto-house label Dance Mania, but in 2000 she abandoned music completely. A chemical engineer by trade, Rush returned to music just a few years ago, and Pariah combines many of the sounds she DJed as a teenager with others that continued to evolve in her absence. Throughout the album she employs footwork's M.C. Escher rhythms as a foundation for other electronic styles. On "Chill Mode" down-tempo house keys spread out beneath stuttering, echoing vocal samples, and on "Acid Tek 2" bristling acid synths duel with austere percussion loops. Rush is by no means reinventing footwork, but her approach on Pariah explores some of the untested routes the genre can take without losing what makes it special. Leor Galil


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Tau Cross

Pillar of Fire (Relapse Records)

Because Tau Cross's lineup includes Amebix bassist and front man Rob Miller and Voivod drummer Michel "Away" Langevin, they hardly need introduction. The band's proto-metal sound, something like Motorhead by way of Killing Joke, is poignant and powerful enough that it doesn't need to lean on its members' pedigrees to get over—and neither does it fall short of the high expectations they might create. On Pillar of Fire, their second release for Relapse, Tau Cross successfully recapture the punch and pull of their 2015 debut—it feels like these songs were written alongside their predecessors. The tracks are even more memorable and just as tight, especially anthemic sing-alongs such as "Bread and Circuses" and the barn-burning "RFID." Tau Cross haven't grown much from one album to the next, but on the plus side, it's unlikely anybody will be disappointed by this one—and there are still few faults to find. Though these songs are grade-A stompers, musicians as skilled as these, working in such a lofty and focused direction, are surely capable of broadening their own canon. When they do, it'll put this stellar release to shame. Ben Handelman


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Pat Thomas

The Elephant Clock of Al Jazari (Otoroku)

Keyboardist Pat Thomas has been one of the most inventive and uncompromising improvisers in England for years, and he's got an outsize personality with a riotous sense of humor—he'd surely be far better known if he'd ever displayed much interest in developing his career as a recording artist. But he tends to perform with other strong musicians and leave it at that, which means he's familiar mostly to the cognoscenti. This stellar solo performance was recorded live at London's Café Oto in May 2015, and it showcases Thomas at his most oblique and jarring. The title of the album refers to a water-driven clock devised by 12th-century inventor and scholar Badi' al-Zaman ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari—often called the father of modern robotics—but its connection to the music seems tenuous. Thomas plays with an angular, riveting attack, making great use of the left end of the keyboard with low-end hammering and jagged chords. On "Elephant" he mucks about inside the instrument, complementing his bass figures with grating metal, and on "For Al Haytham" he thrums and scrapes at those same strings, interrupting their turbulent explosions with spooky right-hand stabs and then barreling into a fusillade of broken-glass clusters. The album concludes with "Done," a bruising, barely recognizable abstraction of a jazz standard—it zips along at the lightning pace of "Giant Steps" while Thomas pounds the piano like vintage Cecil Taylor. Peter Margasak


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Twista

Crook County (GMG/Empire)

No Chicago hip-hop veteran has done as much over the past decade to elevate the city's emerging voices as Twista. In 2013 he gave Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa cosigns on the brink of their breakouts by appearing alongside them on the Acid Rap cut "Cocoa Butter Kisses"; on his previous album, 2014's Dark Horse, he featured Chief Keef, whose profile was particularly low at the time; and in 2013 he hopped on Sicko Mobb's "Bitches & Bikinis" as the west-side duo brought bop into the spotlight. Twista is proud of the role he's played, and it's obvious on Crook County. Nine of the album's 13 tracks feature local rappers or singers, some of them on the cusp of bigger things—including Supa Bwe, the Boy Illinois, and YP. Twista has a gift for tweaking his triple-time rapping to fit the personalities of his collaborators, and though this makes Crook County feel like a collection of songs that feature Twista rather than a cohesive Twista album, it's clearly scattered by design. Each of the cuts is easy to settle into on its own, especially the limber, funky "Mortuary," which features Vic Spencer—and which would feel right at home on one of Spencer's albums. Leor Galil


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Lal & Mike Waterson

Bright Phoebus (Domino)

Several years after influential British folk vocal group the Watersons hung it up in 1968, siblings Lal and Mike began working on original songs, a departure from their family band's focus on traditional material. With encouragement from guitarist Martin Carthy of the recently formed Steeleye Span, they committed their evolving vision to tape with a cast of British folk-rock royalty, including Carthy and fellow guitarist Richard Thompson, bassist Ashley Hutchings, and singer Norma Waterson. The record was released in 1972 by Bill Leader's Trailer Records, but fans of the Watersons rejected its psychedelia-tinged folk-rock sound, a judgment that time has proved ridiculously conservative and closed-minded. But by the time the initial pressing of 2,000 sold out, Leader had sold his company, and the new owner put Bright Phoebus to the side—making the album not only a holy grail for modern collectors but also a missing piece of the British folk-rock legacy. Thankfully, it's back in print, letting us enjoy its kaleidoscopic, whimsical range and the devastating beauty of its arrangements and vocal harmonies. The LP and deluxe CD releases complement the 1972 version with the original demos, cut with just voice and guitars—but no matter the version, the songwriting displays the same remarkable power. Peter Margasak v

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