Megan Slankard, Running on Machinery
On her lushly produced new album Running on Machinery, Megan Slankard’s brainy pop-rock evokes the raw particularity of Tori Amos, the complexity of ’70s pop- and progressive rock (Kansas, Heart), and a touch of the mechanistic force of Alison Moyet. At the same time it’s is a forward-thinking document, with current-sounding pop arrangements and hooks (“Diving In,” “Lost Together”) and country-crossover sounds (“If I Knew”).
“Like Always, Alex,” a forceful, intense track, is one of my favorites. The pointed wail of the slow-building “Can’t Keep It In” makes a powerful statement of expressivity: “It’s not staying hid anymore, and I’m exploding.” “Taking My Chances” calls to mind the frenetic pop-punk of Richard X. Heyman and the Riot Grrrl bands.
By all of this I mean to describe the great variety among the songs, not to impute unoriginality. Slankard is a distinctive talent, a gifted melodist (“What a Way to Fail,” “Bones Live Forever”) and a literate and crafty, if hard to parse, lyricist. Good as her early folk-pop was, her new music has added impressive depth. Producer Alex Wong (whom I worked with on a recording years ago) and the excellent backing musicians no doubt deserve some credit for the consistently ear-grabbing variety of sound and the intricate, focused arrangements. Altogether, the well-oiled machinery of Running on Machinery runs hot from start to finish.
Escondido, Walking with a Stranger
There’s a timeless quality to the shimmering pop-rock on Escondido’s new Walking with a Stranger album. Lifted out of their plush bed, the songs could be redefined as country, folk, ’60s pop, even emo. But holding to a firm sonic sensibility, the band intertwines its simple melodic hooks with smoky guitars and keyboards, backs them with sweeping washes of vocal harmonies and an evocative trumpet, and lays it all over dark, suggestive beats.
Most of the best songs – like the howling “Footprints,” the bluesy “Heart is Black,” the sweetly melodic “Idiot,” the folky “Try” – cluster on the first half of the album. The plaintive quality of Jessica Maros’s reverb-drenched vocals loses its charm after a while and starts to come across as rather, well, weak. But Escondido’s distinctive sound leaves its glow in the air for some time after the final strains of the last song die away.
Cristian Perez, Anima Mundi
Guitarist Cristian Perez’s new album Anima Mundi expresses a set of new-age/world-music with a jazz vocabulary. The result is an easygoing journey that veers between breezy thrills and sleepy driftwood. There’s energy in “Hojas Podridas,” driven by Victor Provost steel pan, and in the drama of the rhythmically bubbling, Middle Eastern-flavored “Relentless Dragon in Agony.” Haroon Alam’s energetic tablas and Yana Hristova’s acute piccolo egg on “The Persistent Elephant.” But then there’s the soporific “La Flor que Nunca Te Di” and “Journey of an Exhausted Penguin.” The soft “Longing” features fine work from bassist Daniel Brown. But the equally gentle “Luna Furtiva” swings frustratingly between muted tension and flat-footed languor.
The strength of Perez’s original takes on “El Condor Pasa” and Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango,” the latter featuring Emmanual Trifilio’s bandoneón and a bracing electric guitar solo from Perez, and the café atmosphere of “Moon River,” with night-cool vocals from Lynn Veronneau and another melodically inspired solo from Perez, suggest that fewer original compositions and more covers would have made the album more consistently strong. The best of Anima Mundi is a well-played, worldly pleasure.