Reformation Post T.L.C.
For a world-class misanthrope who's been happily stewing in his own bile for 50 years, the Fall's frontman Mark E. Smith sounds pretty chill on Reformation Post T.L.C. He even pulls out a Muppety Fat Albert voice and channels your wacky uncle on a couple of tracks. Bummer—a harmless Mark E. is as much fun as a sober Paula Abdul. For the past 30 years, the Fall have been an industrial-strength irritant lurking in the babyproof cabinets of pop music, a garage-punk outfit of famously unstable membership that evolves and devolves to suit the whims of addled dictator Smith. So it wasn't exactly surprising when the band's young rhythm section got fed up with our cantankerous hero and bolted back to the U.K. midtour last year, but it was sad; that lineup was responsible for The Real New Fall LP and Fall Heads Roll, two fun and bracingly caustic albums marking the Fall's third golden era in as many decades. Any Fall fan knows a fourth MES resurgence is in the works, but Reformation ain't it—this is a fallow album of weakhearted and muddily recorded blathering. Smith's belligerent rants never make much sense, but at their best, his "crap-raps" manage to be sharply prophetic, funny, and cruel; here MES is just vaguely sneering in his sleep. The only song with any drive is a cover of Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever," where Smith's almost-nodding-off vocals are punched up with thick, countrified backing harmonies. FRANCES READE
Rumor has it Gonzales recorded this sublime album (issued stateside for the first time) during the middle of a difficult session with French pop legend Jane Birkin. This would explain the deep relaxation permeating every note he plays. Here we have Gonzales, a Canadian-born musician whose past résumé includes production work for Feist and Peaches, as well as his own electronic albums, sitting alone, meditating over his piano. It's almost a set of études. They sound like they could be sketches, with only a few hours practice on each, but the numbers all have a definite form. It's not jazz, and it's not classical, but it is undeniably romantic. Taking cues from French pianists Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel, as well as Keith Jarrett's solo concerts, Gonzales' Solo Piano is warm and slightly eerie. There are echoes of silent film scores, and Gonzales even says it himself in his mildly arty liner-notes statement: "Although they say the piano can create the most colors of any instrument, it is actually black and white, much like an old silent movie." There is no film to accompany this, however, so pour yourself a glass of wine, sit back, and conjure your own in your head. BRIAN J. BARR
Formed in 1990, and infamous for epic, lumbering walls of buzzing sludge, Earth is widely considered the progenitor of the drone-doom genre, which includes the likes of Sunn O))) and Japan's Boris. Helmed by Dylan Carlson, the band has gone through a variety of lineups over the years; Carlson's pal Kurt Cobain even sang on an early demo. Despite the roster fluctuations, the group's snail-rock dirges remained gloriously noisy throughout, with 1993's Earth 2 album being a watershed doom recording. But a funny thing happened when Earth released Hex (Or Printing in the Infernal Method) in 2005: All the scuzz went away. The slo-mo plod-prog was still there, but the guitars were all clean and shimmery, and effects didn't go far beyond reverb and tremolo. Hibernaculum continues where Hex left off, sounding kinda like a despondent Low trying to channel Ennio Morricone. And that's not a bad thing. The first three songs on Hibernaculum are radically cleaner versions of earlier Earth tracks, and the fourth is "A Plague of Angels," a desolate, wind-swept number clocking in at 16-plus minutes and previously available only on a rare split 12-inch with Sunn O))). All four tracks, with their judicious layering of instrumental swaths over somberly haunting melodic riffs, are suitable for background ambience, hypnotically active listening, and, of course, getting baked. MIKE ROWELL
There's No Home
Lots of today's new folk artists can convey the sensation of woozy drifting. Jana Hunter, however, is particularly good at it. Her voice, highly androgynous, carries her rambling acoustic numbers through an album filled with dark bedrooms, sun-baked highways, and lost loves. Like her friend and label owner, Devendra Banhart, her lyrics are about little things we take for granted, such as birds and hands, and the songs always remain sketches. It's easy to imagine Ms. Hunter recording these tracks while glancing at the scribbles in her notebook. But a couple of fully formed pop numbers, "Babies" and "Bird," stick out on There's No Home. Both contain the faintest trace of country music, the pop sensibilities of Magnetic Fields, and the post-hippie dope-folk of David Crosby. It's more proof that Hunter, regardless of her connections to the freak-folk movement, is her own artist. BRIAN J. BARR