ooking backwards for musical inspiration is nothing new, and some of the most interesting music can still come from fresh interpretations of styles that are decades old. What follows are five artists whose latest albums summon up eras long past, yet feel immediately vital. Prepare to make like Marty McFly and time travel from 16th-century Europe to 1970s London.
1 – The fifth album from the New York City-based new music group Clogs, led by composer Padma Newsome, is both their most accessible work and their most historically-minded. The baroque instrumentation heard on songs like “I Used to Do” seems designed to soundtrack a walk through the Cloisters, but associates of the group such as Sufjan Stevens and The National’s Matt Berninger bolster a more pop sensibility through their vocal contributions. It’s My Brightest Diamond’s Shara Worden who walks off with the album, however: her out-of-time vocals have never seemed so at home, and the overall effect is that of offbeat pop songs appealing equally to the early-music set.
2 – Luck in the Valley, the final album from guitarist Jack Rose, is a work that delights in give-and-take. At times, it seems to be a John Fahey-esque acoustic guitar workout, massed notes inspiring trance states. Elsewhere, its more measured compositions suggest dreams of a less industrial landscape, and Rose’s incorporation of a trio of covers is seamless. The arrangement of these songs is designed to keep the listener alert, never dwelling in one stylistic corner for too long. Even the album’s title maintains the bait-and-switch sensibility: while it might suggest a pastoral landscape from a Steinbeck novel, its actual roots come from a code phase used in hiring a prostitute.
3 – Amanda Palmer and Jason Webley channel musically-oriented conjoined twins on this album, veering between absurdist pop numbers and longer stretches telling their characters’ sad histories. It’s cheeky, with a three-part number called “The Tragic Events” running throughout the album, adding pitch-black humor and disconcerting cultural references. The vocal rapport between Palmer and Webley is the highlight here — they’re clearly having a fine time making this music and seeing just where their stories will go. The feel is half carnivalesque romp and half Sondheim spectacle — The Gothic Archies’ Lemony Snicket-inspired The Tragic Treasury is probably its closest kin — and then they close things with a ukelele-and-piano version of “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” which seems completely appropriate.
4 – Kristian Matsson’s full-length debut as The Tallest Man on Earth, 2008’s Shallow Grave, sounded like an unearthed folk-blues recording from a century ago. That its world-weary voice and fondness for wordplay came from a Swedish musician in his mid-twenties, was even more disconcerting. Matsson’s followup updates things slightly: it’s a bit more 1960s Dylan, rather than the records Dylan was listening to in the 1960s, but its charms remain abundant. The ebullient “King of Spain,” which may contain a Swedish pop in-joke, is hard to get out of one’s head; “The Wild Hunt” puts lyrical weariness at odds with musical flourishes; and the bittersweet “Kids on the Run” proves Mattson can use a barroom piano as deftly as a rapidly strummed guitar.
5 – Matthew Cooper’s previous work under the name Eluvium has eschewed vocals, opting instead for instrumental passages subtle and sentimental, falling just this side of ambient music. Similies finds Cooper lending his voice to several of its eight songs; if Cooper’s musical predilections hadn’t inspired comparisons to Brian Eno’s mid-1970s work before, his vocal approach certainly will. With “Cease to Know,” the song that brings Similes to a close, Cooper’s use of his own voice pays off: its growing resonance echoes the slowly blossoming sounds around it, a fleeting majesty that recalls Jóhann Jóhannsson’s masterpiece Virðulegu Forsetar.