SOUNDGARDEN – Superunknown (1994)

Review by: Nina A
Album assigned by: B.b. Fultz

When you think of nostalgia, you probably think of 80s cartoons and such because these are the properties that have been aggressively revived for the past decade or so for um… your money, yes. But I think the 90s are properly in the nostalgia realm too already as the eventful conclusion to the already very eventful “short century”. Amid hip hop, boybands, collectible bubble gum stickers and regrettable fashion choices there’s always of course heavy metal’s ugly step-sibling: grunge. A genre that, so far as I can tell, nobody who hasn’t been between the ages of I guess 13 and 30 during its peak years cares about much anymore. Sure, Nirvana get played occasionally on the all-purpose throwback radio and so does “Black Hole Sun”, Soundgarden’s megahit from this record, which I imagine its regular listeners attribute to Nirvana too, but nobody seems to be giving grunge extended attention yet. However, I too, occasionally start to miss “the heavy sludge of ‘70s metal” and “the raw aesthetic of ‘80s punk”, and so I approached this record very enthusiastically.
Stretch the bones over my skin
Stretch the skin over my head
I’m going to the holy land
Stretch the marks over my eyes
Burn the candles deep inside
Yeah you know where I’m coming from
Oh… I had forgotten about this. Yeah, it’s gonna be one of those whiny “poetic masterpieces”. People lashed out at emo at the height at its popularity but seriously, I think people back in the 90s could get even cornier, especially in metal. Okay, screw this, let’s look at the music. 
Well, Soundgarden do deliver on their promise of a heavy sound, a heavy psychedelic one at that, and there are some delightful nods to Zep in tracks like “The Day I Tried to Live” and “Fresh Tendrils”. But at some point these tracks seem to really start blending in with each other, and they are neither the most sophisticated examples of the genre nor truly visceral in their nature – frankly, they are kind of forgettable with the possible exception of the above mentioned “Black Hole Sun”, which I assume has earned its vh1 status purely on its anthemic qualities. So you know, all things considered, and although I’d hate to deliver a lazy pun, Superunknown may go on to become indeed um… superunknown.

ANN PEEBLES – I Can’t Stand the Rain (1974)

Review by: Jonathan Moss
Album assigned by: Charly Saenz

My introduction for this review can’t hope to be as good to the introduction to this album. Based on the album cover and Wikipedia page I expected soul music and yet the title track decided to announce itself with a really strange, cool synth riff that wouldn’t sound out of place in a some sort of electronic song, maybe Jean-Michel Jarre. Outside of this the song is soul but it’s a very strong soul number, featuring a passionate vocal performance which isn’t without its nuance, such as the way Ann almost trembles the word “rain” in the chorus. Its very catchy as well, with a kind of triumphant vibe, and a melancholic undercurrent. With all that and the cool synth riff what more do you want from your soul?

Unfortunately the rest of the album for the most part really doesn’t live up to it. The second song doesn’t have a cool riff but still sounds almost identical in its instrumentation and vibe, even quoting the first song. It’s not nearly as good, though it has some nice horn playing. For the most part this album is VERY similar instrumentally and vocally, featuring keyboards, strings, horns, electric guitars and some very good, punchy drumming, over which Ann Peebles delivers her passionate but tastefully restrained vocals. The songs are alls able to distinguish themselves in some way. “(You Keep Me) Hanging On” opens with a cool, suave guitar lick, “Run Run Run” has some boisterous horns, “If We Can’t Trust Each Other” features bouncy, melodic keyboard playing, “A Love Vibration” particularly stands out with the punchy, fun drum playing and “You Got to Feed the Fire” has a groovy organ. Despite this the similarities of the songs can’t help and the album gets a bit samey and boring.

This leaves three stand out tracks outside of the title one. “Until You Came Into My Life” is a very nice ballad with pretty guitar playing and strings. The organ playing sounds a bit like “A Lighter Shade of Pale” and I can imagine the song fitting perfectly over a dark, rainy scene in a gangster movie. The others are “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse” and “One Way Street” which thankfully end the album, leaving it on a high note. “Playhouse” is a sassy, sexy song which lyrically is about a cheating husband (I think). The vocal performance is suitably biting, especially with the accompanying strings and horns, yet there’s also some very nice subdued guitar playing which suggests the sadness and betrayal Ann Peebles must feel deep down about her husband being unfaithful. “One Way Street” has a great instrumental, with a glistening keyboard line opening it and a melodic piano line carrying it. It’s a catchy song and Ann’s vocal is strong as well, with that restrained passion I talked about earlier.

Overall this is a good album, with several stand out tracks. Despite this it’s probably best served as background music, though hopefully you do pay close attention during the highlights.

Strait to the Point: JAPAN – Tin Drum (1981)

Review by: Michael Strait

Rated: 5/5
Japan embrace China – didn’t expect to read that sentence anytime soon, now did ya?

The idea of a band named after an East Asian country embracing East Asian influences for the title and cover is hardly a far-fetched one. A band called Japan taking influences from China, though? Man, that’s just asking fer trouble. Though one could say, of course, that Japan plundering China is really nothing new – but that’s opening a can o’ worms that could get me into trouble with the Japanese government, and maybe stretching the metaphor too far anyway. Let’s get back to the album! It’s really good – are you surprised?

If I’ve a problem with this album, it’s that most of the songs follow the same basic formula. You’ve got a drunken, woozy, fucked-up bassline, some mostly snare-based weirdo drum patterns, a bunch of riffy synth atmospheres and, coursing through all of it like a mountain stream, you’ve got Sylvian’s clear, glistening voice. But that’s not really a problem, ‘cos this formula is near-guaranteed to result in excellence, and accordingly this album is pretty much perfect. The vaguely gothic darkness of Gentlemen Take Polaroids is mostly gone (even if one of the songs is called “Ghosts”), and the tone that replaces it is much harder to define, but I guess, in a pinch, I’d say the album sounds like it takes place in a white-backdropped world of bizarre right-angled shapes and oddly asymmetric geometries, from which Sylvian observes the world in which we live and attempts to understand our designs.

I’ve waxed lyrical enough about the godlike genius of Mick Karn on previous reviews, so let’s devote a bit of time here to appreciating Steve Jansen. He’s not as good on the drums as Karn is on the bass – who is? – but the strange patterns he traces with his kit & machines are essential components in the construction of this album’s atmosphere. Take “Talking Drum”, for example – the drums don’t talk, as such, but pay attention to those little skittering cymbal taps that subtly fill the spaces between the big snare hits and you might be able to imagine that they are at least whispering, tapping at the edge of one’s consciousness like pattering rain on a corrugated roof. Then there’s “Visions of China”, which has all sorts of hand-drum sounds (mayhaps synthesized, mayhaps not) playing the sort of danceable pattern that many a well-meaning liberal journalist has probably described as “influenced by world music”, and which go very nicely with the very hip-swayingly funky bassline. Dancing to this would be difficult, but not impossible, and if ye don’t feel like getting out of yer chair then there’s plenty enough going on to satisfy the inner workings of yer mind. Yer heart, too – Sylvian’s voice is just pure velvet, all seductive and high-class and sophisticated. If he sounded like a dark parody of the average new romantic vocalist on Gentlemen Take Polaroids, here he just sounds like the logical endpoint of the entire style – he is peak new romantic; there will never be a more new romantic singer than him. If you’ve an aversion to over-enunciated posh vocals, you’ll probably find him absolutely insufferable; myself, I can’t get enough of it. I’d contract Sylvian to sing me to sleep every night if I had the money.

I might contract Barbieri to back him up on piano, too. After all, it’s just him and Sylvian on “Ghosts”, and it’s great! Sylvian’s just being his usual self, of course (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but the best part is hearing Barbieri fully exploring what he can do when freed from the rhythmic confines imposed on him by Karn and Jansen. Of course, the boundaries of those confines were always unusually wide and fluid – this is Japan we’re talking about, after all – but it’s fascinating to hear just how fully Barbieri can fill up a song with nothing but his synths. There’s a placid, reserved atmosphere that conjures an art gallery or tranquil old museum, and the tones are all fulsome and glowy like any good futuristic synthpop tones should be, but it’s also plenty melodic and quietly riffy. In fact, Barbieri might be an underrated riffster in the synthpop world – he’s not obvious about it like Paul Humphreys or Magne Furuholmen, but he’s got a real talent for coming up with catchy, melodic riffs. It’s easy to forget them with so much else going on, but just look, for example, at “Still Life In Mobile Homes” – there’s nary a moment in that song that doesn’t contain some memorable synth bits, and the only reason they’re not more noticeable is because a good portion of them are buried under even more memorable bass riffs and vocal melodies. The whole song is pretty much just pure melodic bliss from beginning to end; come to think of it, the entire album is pretty much pure melodic bliss from beginning to end. 

The catchiest song on the album is probably the closer, “Cantonese Boy”, which is one of the two songs to immediately spring into my head whenever I think of this band (the other one being “Gentlemen Take Polaroids”). It’s got Barbieri’s most noticeable and immediately memorable riff(s), and the vocal melody in the chorus is gently, incisively perfect, like a surgical device designed specifically to painlessly and smoothly stimulate the relaxation and pleasure centres of the brain. There’s also the opener, “The Art Of Parties”, which has some of Barbieri’s most left-field riffs, some of Jansen’s most unusual drum patterns and some of Sylvian’s best tunes – especially in the pre-chorus, when the synths drop to this low, dark hum and he croons out perfectly controlled, placid meditations on futility and entropy. Funnily enough, this is also the first Japan song since Quiet Life to contain really substantial guitarwork – there’s even a solo! Poor Rob Dean must have felt mighty put upon when he heard this. Mind you, even he couldn’t possibly have had any complaints about the instrumental track “Canton”, which is awesome – it’s basically a Chinese folk song played as if it were a synthpop song, and it turns out that traditional Chinese folk-style melodies make great synth riffs. I’m not sure what the traditional Chinese masters would have made of Karn’s jumpy bassline, but as far as I’m concerned it fits just fine.

There ain’t a weak track here at all, in fact. Some might be willing to call “Sons Of Pioneers” a bit boring or repetitive, but to them I say phooey – it’s patient, steady and comforting, and if there’s one man I’d listen to play the same bassline over and over for seven minutes it’s gotta be Mick Karn. As far as I’m concerned, this album is flawless, and it’s as fitting a sign-off from this group as one could ever have hoped. I guess this much raw creative energy could never have stayed in one place for long without finding some way to dilute itself anyway, so I’m not too upset, and I’m certainly glad the band finished on their highest note rather than steadily descending into bullshit like certain other groups I’ve reviewed (ahem). As you might expect, this wasn’t the end of the road for any of the members: David Sylvian went on to a long and apparently very rewarding solo career in which he collaborated with everyone from Robert Fripp to Sachiko M, creating art-pop double albums and cavorting with the avant-garde in a way that presumably alienated a good deal of his old-school fans; Barbieri eventually decided to pollute himself by joining Porcupine Tree in the nineties, taunting us with an ambient solo album every so often just to keep us on our toes; Steve Jansen briefly formed The Dolphin Brothers with Barbieri and has sporadically collaborated with him and with Sylvian ever since, while recording the occasional solo album whenever he can find the time and/or motivation; and Mick Karn, naturally, almost immediately jumped into the world of jazz fusion, perhaps the only genre in the world truly suited to his phenomenal talents on the bass. All four of them briefly reunited in 1991 for a project called Rain Tree Crow. As for Rob Dean, well, he eventually ended up retiring to Costa Rica and became its leading expert in ornithology, and never had to worry about egotistical singers or disloyal bandmates ever again.

DAVID CLEREST PROJECT – Mission: Earth (2001)

Review by: Alex Alex
Album assigned by: Tristan Peterson

“David Clerest Project: Mission Earth”. This is a metal band like they used to have back then.

Actually, it’s a one-man metal band but this is not important for the purpose of this review. While we are still on it this man used to play for some other bigger bands, I believe. To hell with it. Let’s discuss what needs to be discussed.

The main question when discussing metal bands is: “from where and how have they got all the equipment?” This is as opposed to a question we usually ask about non-metal (singer-songwriters, progressive rock, punks, any other shit) artists: “how has it happened they have composed all that stuff and, tell me the hell, why?” Such question does not arise for metal bands.

Such question does not arise for metal bands because, having obtained the equipment, they proceed with that equipment usage in a normal way, the same way I would be watching my new TV if I had managed to steal it from my rich neighbor. There is only one way to watch a big TV. You turn it on and you watch. Punks and singer-songwriters and progressive rock bands they all are trying to watch a TV which has not been turned on. So, understandably, there’s a lot of questions for them: is the TV really there? Is it big or small? WHAT WOULD YOU THINK THE PICTURE WOULD BE IF ONE DAY YOU MANAGE TO TURN IT ON? DO YOU NEED ANNE FRANK TO TURN IT ON? ONLY TO TURN IT ON AND SHE CAN GO? PROMISE? And that’s the discussion of Art.

Nostalgia is the synonym for love. Visiting the old parents house is (as the “Forrest Gump” movie shows in regards with Forest) either nostalgic or (as the “Forrest Gump” movie shows in regards with Forest’s girlfriend) is an act of hatred. These two resolutions correspond to the binary outcomes of love which is always there. Metal bands are full of love, spreading the love to the audience, bathing the people in the warm waves of love supreme. We are too proud to admit this is the true love. We say “nostalgia” and we go away.

The binary resolution is provided by the equipment. An idiot can say metal bands can do other music. HAHAHA. EVEN SATAN CAN NOT. It is the equipment which uses the people, building metal bands of them. Those who do not know how to play go this and that way pleading to be used by big big amplifiers, pleading to become nostalgic. This is why the future of progressive rock lies in the extreme metal and the punk, being too humane, is expectedly dead.

VIRGINIA ASTLEY – From Gardens Where We Feel Secure (1983)

Review by: A.A
Album assigned by: Julien Mansencal


This is an ambient album that evokes nostalgia, and does it better than some but not all similar albums. Mostly pianos and soundscapes and samples/field-recordings comprise the sound. I do not have a lot to say about it, but I’m somewhere between appreciating it and liking it. On the whole, I think most people would be positive toward it than negative.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: DEATH GRIPS – Niggas on the Moon (2014)

Review by: Jonathan Moss

Man, Death Grips are such a good band. Some people give them shit for being edgy and to be fair they are edgy but in the 21st century they really are doing something new. MC Ride for one is a very original rapper. He gets typecast as an angry black man but I think there’s a lot more to him than that. He can do a lot more than express anger and on niggas in the moon in particularly he displays moments of playfulness. I’m going to start a new paragraph now but i’ll pick this thread back up later. 

Niggas on the Moon is somewhat overshadowed by Jenny Death but its a fantastic album by itself. It opens with Up My Sleeves which starts off with a female computer voice and car alarm (I think) after which Ride rapidly says the title of the song over zach hills cymbals. Then it goes into Bjorks vocal samples and this really interesting droning, fucked up synthesizer playing. I wont analyse Ride’s lyrics or anything but they’re really fantastic, including the simply GREAT PUN “quench my hearse”. The song continues along this line before going into a really creepy subdued bit with MC Ride monotonously saying “If I’m so necessary, blank blank obituary, at Broadway cemetery, at Broadway cemetery, was like I’ll ever know, was like I even want to know, was like I never didn’t know, was like I don’t know I don’t know, if I’m so necessary, blank blank obituary, at Broadway cemetery” then manically laughing before going back to the main, erm, hook of the song. This easily makes it for me one of my favourite Death Grips songs. 

It segues perfectly into the second track Billy Not Really which features more great Bjork vocal sampling and a strange almost paganistic, possibly synthesized flute line, or something that sounds like it. Either way it gives the song an almost night time woodsy vibe, despite being synthesized. Black Quarterback- the song that follows- is really fucking manic and has a very catchy chorus. The “Eddy’s crazy, abrogate me” bit is hooktastic as well, containing an almost infectious bouncy, dancey synth line. Say Hey Kid is cool as well, featuring MC Ride delivering the line “dont it feel good to drive a bus? People need to get picked up” in a disconcertingly playful way. It’s one of the creepiest songs on the album, with the synth line sounding almost sickly- and IDMish- and lyrics which contain references to overdosing and seem to be about vampires, though probably as a metaphor, idk. Have a Sad Cum BB is definitely the noisiest song on the album, with buzzing synth lines bobbing against each other, synthesized MC Ride vocals, really frazzled Bjork (i’m not even sure if its Bjork on this one) vocal samples and some female sing-shouting the title of the song. This gives it a very raucous seasick vibe, but hell, its danceable. Fuck Me Out is interesting lyrically, seeming to be about how sexual contact is preferable to love. Its got a catchy chorus as well. Voila is one of the weaker songs in my opinion but it still has some great high pitched screaming from MC Ride. Big Dipper is a strong closing song, with MC Ride rapping in the chorus “I’m a bullshitter, I’m a shitty stripper, I’m a silhouette lifter, I’m a struck stuck off kilter, I’m a bent bewildered, I’m a fucking downer, I’m a binge thinner, I’m a Big Dipper”, before repeating it again, but y’know, with more shouting. It’s a very fun line to quote randomly at people on facebook messenger. The song features more strange sounding synth lines and is definitely the most abstract song on a pretty abstract album. 

Shit, that’s all the songs on the album! So what can be said about it as a whole. Well, its one of Death Grips leanest albums, the jittery IDMish vibe of the album giving it the same thin, distorted image of MC Ride on the album cover. The Needle Drop critiqued Ride for sounding listless on it but I very much disagree, I think it has some of his most varied vocal performances and the parts TND found as being listless were I would wager intended that way for effect. 

So, to conclude, this is a very strong and somewhat overlooked Death Grips album, and one that helps to negate the image somewhat of Death Grips being a purely edge based band centred on shouting and profanity. Very much recommended.

A YEAR IN MUSIC: ANGRA – Secret Garden (2014)

Review by: Victor Guimarães

OK, I reckon that if you’re not a metal enthusiast, it’s unlikely you know Angra. But let me give you a short intro to this Brazilian metal band. With a name inspired in the Goddess of Fire of Tupiniquim indigenous people, Angra is a power metal band, with traces of progressive rock and heavy metal, in a NWOBHM way. Like fellow brazilian death/thrash metal giant Sepultura, Angra constantly brings new, different sounds into their music, augmenting their musical depth as well as not limiting themselves from most rock and metal clichés. Inspiration for Angra’s music varies, ranging from classical music, strongly present in albums, such as Angels Cry and Rebirth, to sounds from traditional and popular Brazilian genres, as one can see in Holy Land and Temple of Shadows. Angra always seemed to follow a very parnassian style of making music, so expect strong technical performances in every instrument and vocals. So, acquaintances made? Alright?

Secret Garden is their seventh studio album, the first to feature vocalist Fabio Lione, who is originally from Italian power metal band, Rhapsody of Fire. This album was criticized by part of the fanbase, as it sounded quite differently from what Angra used to sound. Personally, I didn’t find it any worse than their previous works, only different in its essence. And what’s the issue? The normally strong but melodic metal, with heavy songs and some ballads here and there was turned into something a bit more experimental. Yes, Angra went on and experimented, resulting in a somewhat different sound, although not far from its roots. OK, it’s not like they were as bold, as alternative or even experimented as much as 70s art-rockers – Secret Garden is not the prince of metal innovation, but it’s a clear big push on traditional power metal boundaries. Apart from some classical-Angra songs full of speedy power metal, strong melodies, passages and riffs, expect a lot more of progressive traits, such as tempo-changing, and complex instrumentation and also other characteristics, such as some crescendos, ballads, use of percussion and classical themes. Another great feature were the mood changes from previious albums and take note of the amazing guest singing of Simone Simons (from Epica) and Doro Pesch (Warlock, solo).

Finally (and not wanting to make myself much longer), I had my reasons for liking Secret Garden. It’s true that I’m a long-time Angra fan and a strong metal enthusiast, but the key feature that really made me put this album over many other 2014 great albuns was the way it exceeded my expectations. Secret Garden was different from many new albums of long-loved bands, who were just newer versions of the same (Angra included). In this effort, while searching for something new, they were beyond their rational parnassian music-making: It was a creative, future-seeker effort, much more emotional and human than most of their previous works. Yes, it might be a bit difficult to digest sometimes, or even a little boring for non-metal listeners, but don’t doubt: it’s worth your time! Believe me, listen to it to its end, and then, listen again, focusing on its great instrumentals and imagine what kind of potential was unveiled from this experience. If this surprising album that made a pessimistic long-time fan replay the record over and over again doesn’t make you, rock/metal fan, interested or any music-lover curious, I’ll be surprised with what would make.


Review by: Andreas Georgi
Album assigned by: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Consider this my contractual obligations review. Quite honestly I was unable to sit through this album even once. I’m sure there are people out there who can appreciate this and therefore write something meaningful about it, but I cannot. What immediately hits you in the face is a very aggressive, driving drum beat. Everything else is pretty much is a soundscape accompanying this drumbeat, and this drumbeat, with little significant difference, dominates each and every track. The soundscapes do have some interesting elements, but ultimately it’s all about that drumbeat. I don’t like it and don’t care to hear it, so that pretty much negates any other attribute of this music. Not for me, sorry!

A YEAR IN MUSIC: PETER HAMMILL – …All That Might Have Been… (2014)

Review by: Andreas Georgi

Peter Hammill is a rare breed. Very few rock artists in their 60’s are still producing top quality material that is not rehashing their old glory. This album is a welcome new addition to his work.

Peter Hammill’s discography is long, convoluted, highly eclectic, and it must be said, rather erratic. After a long relative weak patch in the late 80’s and 90’s he’s been on an upswing in the last 12 years or so. Starting with 2009’s “Thin Air”, he has released consistently challenging and rewarding music. His music is intense, dark, and defies categorization. His recent work incorporates a lot of avant-garde elements like sound treatments and dissonance. Hammill’s work is never “easy listening”, and his albums always take repeated listenings to reveal themselves to the listener. This certainly applies to this new album. I’ve been a big fan of his music, and of his recent work, so I am not coming at this new album as a novice. Nevertheless I have to say that it’s taken time to grow on me over the last couple of months – more so that his previous albums. The first listening was underwhelming, to be honest. Ultimately, though, I have come to appreciate it as another high point in his career.

The album, comes in 3 formats. There are two versions of the CD release.  The “Cine” version is like a movie for the ears, with short segments moving in and out in a continuous sequence. This is the version PH considers the “primary” one. The format reminds me of his “Incoherence” album (2003), but this one is much more eclectic and certainly doesn’t suffer from that album’s monochromatic “sameyness”. The release I have is a 3-CD set that has two further versions. The “Songs” version presents the material in a relatively conventional individual song format, although listening to this, it will be evident that there is nothing conventional about these songs. The third format are versions of the basic instrumental tracks. This version is very good, but ultimately not as impressive as the other two, although it does verify that the music has a definite cinematic feel to it. Listening to this disk, I am reminded a bit (although it shouldn’t be overstated) of Peter Gabriel’s movie music. Having 3 versions (2 with vocals) probably didn’t help me absorb the material into my gray matter. Perhaps I should have familiarized myself with one version at a time.

As far as a “plot” for the “movie” goes – I have no idea what it is. PH rarely spells out his ideas in a didactic “message song” way. The only thing I can say is that it seems the characters get themselves in rather unpleasant circumstances. The whole album has a sense of ambiguity and precariousness throughout it. The musical elements are the ones that he has used in the recent past, and it sounds most similar to 2012’s “Consequences”. He uses overdubbed falsetto vocals as a counterpoint to the lead vocals’ narration, which have been compared to a Greek chorus. The music itself tends to me mostly slow-paced with relatively sparse, often echoing instrumentation.

So, in a nutshell, this is another solid contribution to PH’s discography, and fans who like his recent works will definitely want to pick it up, and won’t be disappointed – just be prepared to give it time.

This review is also posted on Amazon here.


Review by: Graham Warnken

Anaïs Mitchell can certainly never be accused of a lack of ambition. Her most well-known project is the folk opera Hadestown (currently playing as an acclaimed Off-Broadway show), which transplants the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a Great Depression-type American dystopia and features guests such as Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (Orpheus) and Ani DiFranco (Persephone). The fact that that album is even coherent is an achievement—that it’s one of the best releases of its year is incredible.

Due to her fans’ desire to see many of the full-band numbers from Hadestown and its follow-up Young Man in America recorded solo, as well as Mitchell’s desire to release a few new songs and re-record earlier pieces she deemed unsatisfactory in their original form, 2014 saw the release of xoa. It’s an oddball fusion of a greatest-hits collection with an inverted demo reel, familiar numbers rendered new in their stripped-down format and new songs peeking their way through the sea of music from days gone by. Fortunately, what could have been a perfunctory toss-off ends up being a wonderful album in its own right, equalling and often outright improving upon the earlier material that gives it life.

As with each of Mitchell’s preceding records, xoa is a mix of the personal and the political. The former category includes the heartbreaking “Out of Pawn”, written as a letter from a Katrina survivor to an uncle who didn’t make it; “Come September”, the lament of a migrant picker jilted by her lover; and “Now You Know”, a quietly gorgeous fusion of lullaby and lovesong, among others. Each of these tracks elevates sentiments that could come across as maudlin, thanks to the craft with which Mitchell shapes her lyrics. Internal rhyme and alliteration are constant presences, but avoid calling undue attention to themselves; the sonic rhythms formed by these poetic devices are as natural as they are precise, drawing the listener in unawares. The same holds true for the record’s political half—the propagandic round “Why We Build the Wall” (written a decade before America’s current Trump problem), the barren climate-change panorama of “Any Way the Wind Blows”, the desperate hungry yowl of “Young Man in America”, rise above mere polemic due to the wit and intelligence with which their words are wrought.

Besides wordplay, another constant is emotion. Playful and joyful numbers are lifted up by the little-girl lilt of Mitchell’s tongue, which seems genuinely pleased to be here; desolate dirges are delivered with a grief that’s completely believable. Perhaps the most effective emotional moment on the record comes with its re-recorded version of “Your Fonder Heart”, originally present on Mitchell’s The Brightness. In its original version, the song is a warm, teasing greeting to someone who could be a friend come out to play or a lover with whom to wander under the stars, evoking memories of adolescent summer evenings in all their nostalgia-tinged glory. The xoa recording takes the exact same melody and lyrics and twists it into something entirely new—the arrangement, sparse and bare, summons a vision of a caffeine-insomniac awake at two in the morning with no idea how to sleep, and Mitchell’s voice is crushed and yearning. The juxtaposition of the two cuts is startling; it’s as if they’re bookends on a broken relationship, and in hindsight complete each other.

I don’t know that xoa is the album I would direct new listeners to as a starting point for Mitchell—a couple of the Hadestown cuts don’t make much sense out of context, and while there’s the cohesive sound of Mitchell alone on her guitar the subject matter is too varied to form a unified album. That said, it’s the record of hers I find myself listening to the most, and is easily in my top ten albums. In almost every step it takes it improves on material that was already incredibly good, intimate and perfectly constructed. It’s the latest in a long string of storytelling achievements from the current Queen of Folk Music.