Jlin's strange sounds beguile; Shelby Lynne produces fantastic country

Randall Roberts
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
Critic Randall Roberts selects work by Jlin, Shelby Lynne and Girlpool as his Essential Tracks this week

Jlin, "Dark Energy" (Planet Mu). For reasons known only to Rahm Emmanuel, R. Kelly and Chance the Rapper, Chicago has generated some curiously weird sounds. One of the strangest and most beguiling is the electronic dance music sub-genre known as footwork. A strange offshoot of the city's rich house music history, footwork (and its sibling, juke music) thrives on jerky, synthetic rhythms, wind-sprint tempos and loopy samples. It's the sound of choice to accompany the South Chicago dance style of the same name. It's unlike any music you've ever heard.

"Dark Energy," the first album from the Gary, Ind., producer who makes tracks as Jlin, showcases footwork's most modern manifestation and takes it in ridiculously innovative directions. The artist, born Jerrilynn Patton, earns her income as a steelworker. In off hours she bangs, creating rhythmic instrumentals that explore the joys of repetition with beats that bounce around like super-balls. "Expand" is a wobbly, frantic work that samples and manipulates human voices, most notably the experimental composer Holly Herndon's. "Abnormal Fan" is a wicked, harrowing track that harnesses Faye Dunaway's classic "No wire hangers!" tantrum from "Mommy Dearest," wrapping around it scattered, pointillist beats with shrieking aggression. Those with weak hearts might want to avoid this.

Shelby Lynne, "I Can't Imagine" (Rounder). Lynne has been making records for 25 years, and despite a discography that contains some miraculous work the Virginia-born country artist has never received attention equal to her talent both as a songwriter and an interpreter. "I Can't Imagine" is her 13th studio album and first for the respected imprint Rounder.

She produced it herself, and it sounds fantastic. Rich with texture that compliments her elastic contralto, Lynne and band luxuriate amid songs she either wrote herself or co-wrote with collaborators including Ron Sexsmith and Pete Donnelly. "Paper Van Gogh," which opens the record, addresses the suffering-for-art dilemma, wondering on the cost of creation. "Back Door Front Porch" was recorded so intimately that you can hear the birds singing in the background.

Girlpool, "Before the World Was Big" (Wichita Recordings). Last year the Los Angeles duo Girlpool relocated to Philadelphia — what's wrong, too many New Yorkers here? — to explore the lesser coast. If their debut album is any indication, they prevailed. Called "Before the World Was Big," the album features 10 smart, minimalist guitar pop songs that recall the pared work of Young Marble Giants and the influential British post-punk label Rough Trade as well as sparse Northwestern indie rock.

Consisting of Cleo Tucker on guitar and Harmony Tividad on bass, Girlpool isn't interested in fanciness, complicated arrangements or scream-along anthems. Musicianly types might guffaw at their instrumental prowess. They work for each note, move through measures with a deliberateness. When they sing big, they do so in a screamy way. When they sing small, they whisper. But yet these are lovely songs. "Chinatown" balances its melody as if on the head of a pin, with a delicacy that makes each note feel special. "I am nervous for tomorrow and today," they sing in unison. Opening song "Ideal World" celebrates a non-event: "No one's noticed, things are OK."

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