The Proper Ornaments, Waxahatchee and Arbouretum Comprise Our Lockdown New Music Playlist

Punk rock should not be your soundtrack for the lockdown. We are playing a lot of Miles Davis, Cluster & Eno, and Philip Glass. To get through being cooped up at home, the springtime view out the window reassuringly normal even as our dreams reveal turmoil, you need music that is at once complex and beautiful, that gives our minds something to hang on to without elevating our blood pressure. We have some recommendations.

For nearly 40 years, when we’ve been in a certain mood, the artist who has filled the bill is Nick Drake, and it of course makes perfect sense that this past week saw a pink moon — a Pink Moon! But there was only one Nick Drake, and he left us Pink Moon and not a whole lot else before his tragic exit. Which leaves us needing… well, here are three albums released in recent weeks that all fit the bill.

It seems like only yesterday but it was actually last May that the Proper Ornaments gave us the brilliant 6 Lenins. Tulip Frenzy ranked it the 7th best album of 2019, and our admiration for it has only increased since. James Hoare and co.’s new record, Mission Bells, is so of-the-moment, playing it seems like it could be a live stream from his own lockdown studio in London.

If, to continue our Nick Drake theme, one could enact a rating system for how closely an album tracks melodic brilliance, quiet authority and mid-tempo thrills, we’d give this record four Pink Moons. We said at the time that 6 Lenins was music for a rainy day, and that we could imagine Woods, the Feelies, Anton Newcomb and Kevin Morby being fans. Mission Bells is music for extended home arrest, and we expand our universe of comparisons for an album that makes us think of the Velvet Underground, David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, the Perfect Disaster, White Fence and, of course, Hoare’s previous band, Ultimate Painting. If you are a fan of melodic British pop music, and who isn’t, this one just might see you through the miserable weeks ahead.

We’ve liked Katie Crutchfield’s Waxahatchee alter ego since 2013’s Cerulean Salt. We’ve admired her music even when it morphed into 2017’s Out in the Storm, which sounded more like an update to Juliana Hatfield’s late ’80s power pop than the quirky Southern gothic rock that grabbed us in the first place. On Saint Cloud, though, she’s put it all together. It’s an album that bears comparison to Lucinda Williams’ Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, which even schoolchildren know got four stars from Christgau and comparisons to Born To Run. Crutchfield has a sweet voice, and she really understands both pop songwriting dynamics and how to pace an album. We put this one on, pretty loud, we have to say, when we wish to think of glasses half full, to remember springtimes when we could go anywhere and hang with, like, people. Lest this read like the album is comprised of upbeat pop music — it is certainly bright and melodic — it’s not, you know, Taylor Swift. It’s just an album that never lets you see Crutchfield sweat as she powers through a nearly perfect run of great songs, Americana in the best use of the word. Somewhere we imagine Tom Petty smiling, even as Lucinda Williams, uncrowned, sighs.

Baltimore’s Arbouretum has done the seemingly impossible. Over the eight songs on Let It All In, as beguiling a record as has ever come out of Charm City, they make us think of artists as different as CSN&Y and Can. From the beautiful folk rock of “How Deep It Goes” to the Krautrock of the title track, it’s clear this is a band that, nine albums and nearly two decades in, have learned a trick or two. They get special points in our book for enlisting Hans Chew to play piano on “High Water Song.” Wilco-level musicianship and imagination coupled with respect for the British folk formalism of Fairport Convention makes for a brisk experience, but honestly, given what we all are going trough, this album is a tonic for our troubled times.

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