Capsule Reviews for April 2024 #2

There’s a real assortment of great new music that I’d like you know about. So here I present capsule reviews of five new titles in a variety of styles and genres.

Ex Norwegian – Sooo Extra
I recently interviewed Think Like a Key Records head honcho Roger Houdaille about his label’s singles release series; that story will run soon in Goldmine. And as a fan of his group Ex Norwegian, I was keen to hear their latest as well. Sooo Extra picks up where the group left off, purveying immensely catchy and well-arranged, intelligent power pop. Just the right amount of muscle is combined with hook-laden melodies. Plenty of bands have taken inspiration from Revolver-era Beatles, and that touchpoint is certainly one of the influences on Ex Norwegian. But there’s more going on here, and the timeless tunes should be shortlisted for anyone who likes a good melody that rocks. The album’s standout cut is “Real Bad Bunny,” and if you dig that one, the rest of the album won’t disappoint.

Karl Bartos – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
I think there’s something in the air these days. In recent times, classically trained and avant garde artist Min Xiao-Fen has created modern-day scores for classic of Chinese cinema. And now Karl Bartos (formerly of Kraftwerk) has done something conceptually similar for Robert Weine’s 1920 silent motion picture The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Dark, doomy and unsettling, the music is also beautiful and highly evocative. Expressed on a variety of keyboard instruments, it’s filled with just the kind of light and shade that such a project would demand. When synthesizers are used, they’re employed in a way that sounds and feels organic, juxtaposed with chamber instruments. The titles (“Scary Memories,” “March Grotesque,” “Tragic Message”) telegraph where things are going, but the music itself speaks volumes. The pieces are all short, but the album includes 37 of ‘em, adding up to well over an hour’s worth of aural cinema that works even without the accompanying film.

Kim Butler – Kaleidoscope
Asheville, NC-based Butler is perhaps best known as an active and vibrant part of the city and region’s vibrant musical community. A supremely versatile and in-demand electric bassist, she’s comfortable in a wide array of styles. One this solo recording, she presents five songs, all solo compositions or co-writes. Some of the songs were written decades ago, but all are presented here in current-day arrangements and recordings. If all that isn’t enough, Butler sings in a wonderfully warm, expressive and accessible voice, and plays nearly all of the instruments. She also produced the sessions, and the quality of the arrangement is organic and crystalline, yet never sterile or overdone. “If I Told You” displays adult-contemporary song values, while the chiming “House on the Hill” has a bit of twang. “Just Tell Me” shows that a song with a drum machine need not be bloodless. Sexy and haunting horns (or keyboard-horns; who knows?) are the cherry on top of the very tasty on the vaguely bossa-nova “Killing Me (With Kindness).” And Butler rocks things up a bit for the rousing closer, “Somebody Lost the File.” At a shade over 20 minutes, Kaleidoscope is both a quick listen and a delightful one.

Marlon Cherry – Fever Dreaming in Lo-Fi
This haunting and evocative set from NYC-based Cherry moves in many musical directions, often at once. “Row” opens the album with the sound of a music box playing a familiar tune. “Sleeptalking” is simmering percussion, watery electric guitar and a hypnotic arrangement, all in service of a contemplative lead vocal. The eerie “Secret City” takes time to unfold, and features sung and spoken vocals atop a skeletal arrangement. The brief “Moan” is an experimental, unsettling soundscape with wordless moaning. “Desire” is a cappella harmony. And on it goes. Really: no song on this album is like the one that comes before or after it. For adventurous listeners, Fever Dreaming in Lo-Fi can be an exciting sonic experience.

Christian Fabian Trio – Hip to the Skip
This exciting jazz trio features Fabian on electric bass, Matt King on key – lots of Rhodes – and drummer Jason Marsalis. The kinetic, funky interplay between the three has the urban sophistication of Steely Dan, the jazz chop of – well, Steely Dan and – a strictly jazz trio, and the whole thing is delivered with the energy and spirit of progressive rock. All three of the players are composers as well, and they deliver compositions that display musical prowess in the context of sturdy and inviting tunes. Their choice of covers is sterling as well, with a funky-soulful reading of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” alongside a percussion-centric take on Zawinul’s immortal “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Jazz is alive in 2024, and these cats prove it again and again on Hip to the Skip.