Courtney Barnett, "The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas" (Mom + Pop Music)
Courtney Barnett writes assured, smart songs packed with detail and delivered through the voice of a writer who seems to have discovered some sort of hidden secret. It's immediately evident that she's got a gift for sharp detail and a knack for vocal phrasing that hits notes with both drama and a conversational ease. She begins the record "busy underwater, seeing how long I could hold my breath" when beauty brings her back to the surface. Elsewhere she suggests further isolation: "Let's start an anonymous club, we can sit close in the dark," sings the young Australian singer, guitarist and songwriter on "Anonymous Club," an alluring pitch for an intimate communion.
Filled with the Rolling Stones' way with dueling-guitar strum and swagger and Elvis Costello's way with snapshot detail, "A Sea of Split Peas" features six older songs and six new ones, and all suggest a career artist. When Barnett performed the single "Avant Gardener" on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," she did so with the casual grace of an artist at ease in the spotlight, conveying a sing-song story of a day that descends into chaos through an allergic reaction and an ambulance. She capped it with one of her typically mesmerizing Fender solos, showcasing an equally thrilling (left-handed) fluidity with her instrument.
Nas, "Illmatic XX" (Columbia)
Twenty years ago a 20-year-old New York rapper named Nasir Jones released "Illmatic," an album considered by many hip-hop aesthetes to be the genre's second-generation apex — the culmination and perfection of an East Coast ideal of rap as imagined by area artists including Gang Starr, Main Source, A Tribe Called Quest and Boogie Down Productions. To celebrate the release, Sony has just dropped a double-disc anniversary edition featuring a second disc of outtakes.
Years later the record still pops, confirming itself as the peak of New York's snare-and-kick-drum-centered "boom-bap" movement. Filled with minimal, tense tracks produced by ace beat makers Large Professor, DJ Premier of Gang Starr, Q-Tip (A Tribe Called Quest), Pete Rock and others, the record swings with perfect grooves and the spirit of free jazz as introduced by Jones' father, Olu Dara. With that support Nas delivers wildly inventive lines with a prodigious flow and a novelist's eye for narrative.
After an eerie introduction, he opens the record in "N.Y. State of Mind" already overwhelmed, admitting he doesn't even know where to start — so much trouble on his mind. Less than a minute later Nas is in full-on revolution mode, running in fourth gear but maneuvering through verses like a finely tuned sports car. He rolls through internal rhymes with a jazz drummer's sense of timing, building a momentum so rich that 20 years later it still burns.
Protomartyr, "Under Color of Official Right" (Hardly Art)
"I'll take that applause — cuz I deserve it." So sings Joe Casey, vocalist and lyricist for Detroit rock band Protomartyr on its grumpy new record, "Under Color of Official Right." Featuring songs with titles such as "Scum, Rise!," "What the Wall Said" and "I Stare at Floors," Casey and band deliver smart, bitter, tight guitar rock songs about inner turmoil, dead-end lives and love lost. Casey wonders about either death or a breakup in "What the Wall Said": "What will you miss? Alice in Chains played on repeat? Not feeling great?"
Such grimness could get old — goth was built on such bummerdom — were it not for the band's way around echoey chords, humming melodic drama and Casey's dry wit. That's especially apparent live, where the singer's lack of pretense (and thick Detroit accent) bring working-class grit to the oft-ivoried towers of American indie rock. "Tarpeian Rock" is a particularly biting indictment. In it, Casey rails against a list of enemies, including gluten fascists, alt-weekly types, envious cowards, smug urban settlers, neon bands on laptops, rich crusties, adults dressed as children and do-nothing know-it-alls.
Woo, "When the Past Arrives" (Yoga/Drag City)
An utterly beguiling instrumental record that at various points suggests minimalism, ambient and meditation music, "When the Past Arrives" is only the third album in 25 years for British brothers Mark and Clive Ives. Collaborating as Woo, the pair's new release features 14 curious melodic explorations crafted on instruments including guitar, clarinet, midi horn, toy glockenspiel and synthesizer, all sprouting within various mysterious rhythms.
Each is its own delicate miniature. "1001 Decisions" is built with 3:36 minutes of nuanced electric guitar fed through a synthesizer/sequencer, sweet tings of a toy glockenspiel (credited as "pixiephone"), bass and clarinet. "Om Shanti" is a meditation built on a Roland synthesizer. "Teddy Bears" features "rhythm guitar with fuzzboxed clarinets." Many of these songs were first set to tape in the mid-1970s — you can hear the hiss of a Teac 4-track throughout — but have been augmented over the years with the occasional harmonic decoration. Taken as a whole, "When the Past Arrives" offers a level calmness that, remarkably, never lapses into mush or treacle. Listen to "1001" Decisions here.