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Fly or Die is trumpeter Jaimie Branch’s debut album as a bandleader, but she’s no new sensation. For more than a decade, she’s worked alongside artists like TV on the Radio, Spoon, and William Parker, all the while honing the sound that blooms on her new LP.

Though she’s currently based in NYC, Branch came up in Chicago, and the genre-averse quality of the record speaks to her roots there. Blending jazz, folk, drone, and electronic music in an improvisational fashion, Branch and her group — which includes drummer Chad Taylor, bassist Jason Ajemian, cellist Tomeka Reid, and guests — operate with avant-garde curiosity and thrilling, spontaneous energy.

“If I weren’t a musician, high, high goals would be like, criminal, you know, a good one,” Branch jokes at the beginning of International Anthem’s short documentary about her career, but on Fly or Die she plays like someone making a getaway, fueled by adrenaline and on the run. Stream the album below and check out our conversation with Branch.

Aquarium Drunkard: Fly or Die seems to be a conversation about Chicago — about the music freedom you discovered there. How did the Chicago scene shape your approach to music?

Jaimie Branch: I was really lucky to come of musical age in Chicago. Chicago wears its heart on its sleeve — there’s not a lot of pretense. There’s a lot of value placed on making honest music at the highest level. When I say the highest level, I don’t mean technique necessarily, I mean an elevated state. There are musicians in Chicago who consistently transform the space that you’re in when you’re listening to them. So I’ve definitely taken these lessons to heart. I’m trying to make music that’s honest to who I am with my friends, who also happen to be burners. There’s also a toughness to Chicago. “Who cares if you don’t like my music. Don’t like my music then.” I feel that if I came to New York City as a youngster, I might have gotten confused, because I think it’s confusing here. There seems like there’s a hierarchy, and when one notices a hierarchy, one might become preoccupied with the idea of ascending said hierarchy. But because I came up in Chicago, I know that that hierarchy is fake. So I listen, and I trust myself.

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The songs of Kentucky singer/songwriter Joan Shelley have always centered on the beauty of subtle recognition, her lyrics filled with scents, changes in temperature, bird song, and slight rustlings. On her eponymous fourth album, Shelley sings mostly about about people and about their desires in relation to others. It’s Shelley’s most revelatory LP, an album designed to be listened to away from the noise of the world, or to provide that kind of space itself.

It’s temping to call Shelley’s songs “small.” They press close and speak intimately. But with each album, they’ve expanded to the point they now hold massive truths. On album highlight “Wild Indifference,” Shelley cuts like a finely sharpened blade through selfishness and carelessness with a grace no rebuke, hot take, or righteous indignation could hope to possess, directing a question at a character whose world is too small: “Ain’t it lonely?” It’s a simple and poetic display of human concern. It only takes three words for Shelley to say so much: one person isn’t enough, we need each other.

Joan Shelley :: Wild Indifference

Joan Shelley was recorded with Jeff Tweedy at the Loft in Chicago. Shelley plays guitar, Dobro, baritone ukulele and sings, backed by her longtime guitarist Nathan Salsburg, James Elkington on piano, Dobro, and organ, Tweedy on bass and guitar, and his son, Spencer Tweedy, on drums and percussion. Together, they play sparse and deliberately. Even when things veer toward rocking — like on the Fairport Convention and Pentangle recalling “If the Storms Never Came” or the foreboding “I Got What I Wanted” — the band focuses on accentuating the richness of Shelley’s words and song-craft. They share a vocabulary of Appalachian and English folk elements, interweaving careful but engaging accompaniment into the nooks and corners of Shelley’s songs.

And what songs. Her discography is filled with remarkable compositions, but never a set so finely grouped together. “What words hold you in their sway,” she asks on opener “We’d Be Home,” and over the course of the album’s 11 songs, her’s never lose fail to captivate. Singing of doubts (“The Push and Pull”), need (“Pull Me Up One More Time”), and wanderlust (“Go Wild”), Shelley illustrates her themes with a light brush. On “Where I’ll Find You,” a shuffling cousin to “Harvest Moon,” she sings with aching clarity the force of romantic desire: “I blamed the wind when my leg shook/But your eyes, that hungry look/It shot through me/Didn’t you see?”

Joan Shelley is not only Shelley’s best record to date, but her most necessary. It’s a reminder that we are more connected than we imagine. There’s an inherent braveness to the album, an unguarded quality that haunts and lingers long after the record finishes. These songs take up residence. You might find yourself coming back to them as you listen to the world — and the people — around you. “Yes, I can bear you,” you might say, repeating Shelley’s lyrics from “Even Though.” “Yes I can bear it all.” words/j woodbury

Read more: Joan Shelley :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

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Witness: the greatly-anticipated “ambient pedal steel” album from Chuck Johnson. Due June 2 via VDSQ, Balsams is the follow-up to last year’s Velvet Arc, a record we praised for its “widescreen vision of Americana” and “shimmering electric guitar blending with gorgeous pedal steel and folky fiddles fading into mesmerizing minimalist pulses.” In that vein, if Johnson’s previous lp travels across spacious terrestrial grounds both rough-hewn and freshly paved, then his new endeavor, which Johnson describes as “the most filmic music he’s ever released,” finds the maven floating at a glacial pace across celestial shores. For an early taste, check out the below video for album cut “Riga Black.” Director Zeina Nasr takes a visual cue from David Lynch while Johnson evokes the aural tranquility of Harold Budd’s “Afar.” Prepare to get lost in this one, with no burning rush to find your way home. words / c depasquale

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James Jackson Toth (AKA Wooden Wand) gets plenty of praise for his eccentrically evocative lyrics. But on Clipper Ship, his latest album for the mighty Three Lobed Records, it’s the sound that draws you in.

Toth has gathered a stellar lineup of collaborators here, resulting in one of the most sonically pleasing efforts of his wide-ranging oeuvre. Guitarist Nathan Salsburg delivers a pristine, Nic Jones-style accompaniment for the lovely “Sacrificial.” Wilco’s Glenn Kotche, bassist Darin Gray, Califone‘s Jim Becker and ace sideman James Elkington (Tweedy, Steve Gunn, Eleventh Dream Day, many more) show up for the beguiling backwoods ramble “Mallow T’ward the River,” which shifts unexpectedly to an off-kilter rhythm towards the end, pulling the listener into parts unknown. And Toth, Salsburg and Grails’ Zak Riles conjure up a pastoral Popol Vuh vibe on the totally gorgeous song suite, “One Can Only Love.”

Of course, Clipper Ship‘s stories go beyond the sound, with Toth’s cryptic characters and wry observations weaving the album’s songs together into a distinctive whole. This is the first Wooden Wand album in three years; it’s a more than welcome return.

Wooden Wand :: School’s Out

AD caught up with Toth to discuss the record and the nature of psychedelia. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Aquarium Drunkard: This record feels kind of joyful. We live in crazy times, to say the least, and this record seems to offer a kind of relief from all that.

James Jackson Toth: I like the characterization of it as a sort of a rest from the madness. That’s generally how I view music in general. I think there’s always implied social and political bents to a lot of my music, but I like to keep it sort of something that’s not so explicit. I think for instance, the song “Mallow T’Ward The River,” I sort of wrote it as sort of a death ballad,  but I think you can apply it to a lot of things that are happening today in politics and elsewhere: it’s about the sort of madness that comes with power. Similarly, I feel some songs talk about sacrifice, accountability, and rolling with the punches to an extent. I think the best songs, especially songs that have lyrics, can work on multiple levels. As far as the vibe of the record, it was recorded over a pretty big span of time, so it’s hard to talk about my mindset. But any time I’m recording, I’m pretty happy.

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Before the Dwight Twilley Band, there was Oister. Featuring Twilley and his musical partner Phil Seymour, the duo was a precursor to the Twilley Band, the outfit in which the two young Tulsa musicians cut their teeth and began shaping their melodic pop sound. “My partner Phil Seymour and I, when we were kids…we were kind of Simon and Garfunkel guys,” Twilley remarked when we spoke with him in 2014. “We had these pretty little songs and pretty little harmonies. We lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the middle of the country. We had a little collection of tapes and we thought we should have somebody from a record company listen to these. Maybe somebody would like ‘em, you know?”

Chances are people will dig the duo’s nascent sound, now that HoZac Records is set to release Oister: Pre-Dwight Twilley Band (1973-74), a two-LP archival set of Oister recordings on May 12. While a few of the songs eventually made it onto proper Twilley albums, most of the recordings have remained unreleased until now.

Oister :: Like You Did Before

“Dwight Twilley and Phil Seymour met around 1967 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, at an afternoon screening of A Hard Day’s Night,” write the folks at the web’s preeminent Cowsills tribute site. “Dwight had taken his kid brother and Phil had taken a neighbor, each for the same reason: it was ‘bring a kid and get in free day’ at the theatre, and both were Beatle fans. Being the two tallest people in line, they noticed each other, talked, and discovered they had a mutual friend, who had just moved away. It was one of the most fortuitous meetings since the church picnic at which Paul McCartney met John Lennon.”

The rest of the story is just as compelling, as are these rough but charming recordings. Pre-order now direct from HoZac, as it goes without saying that Twilley don’t mind if you do. words/j woodbury

Read more: Dwight Twilley :: the Aquarium Drunkard Interview

RHAfter nearly four decades of consistently inspired/inspiring songwriting, Robyn Hitchcock has very little left to prove. But happily, he sounds absolutely energized on his new self-titled LP, his 21st solo album. It’s his most electric and electrifying effort in quite some time, filled with Hitchcock’s unmistakable six-string leads, Byrdsian harmonies and plenty of weird and wonderful lyrics.

Recorded in Nashville with producer Brendan Benson, Robyn Hitchcocks crack backing band is a pleasure throughout, as effective on the punchy, Soft Boys-worthy “Virginia Woolf” as on the big Lennon-esque ballad “Sayonara Judge,” or the skewed psychedelia of “Raymond & The Wires.” The latter song is particularly notable, Robyn’s memory of a trolley bus ride with his father in 1964 — it’s the sort of oddly touching tune that only he could write. The inescapable ravages of time seem to be increasingly on Hitchcock’s mind (though let’s be honest, he was a death-obsessed young man, too); the chorus of “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” one of the new album’s standouts, goes simply: “Oh God, you were beautiful.” But Robyn Hitchcock suggests that there’s plenty more beauty to come. Here’s to 21 more albums … words / t wilcox

Robyn Hitchcock :: Mad Shelley’s Letterbox

Related: Acid Bird :: A Robyn Hitchcock Companion – The First 20 Years

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This Thursday night, May 4th, Aquarium Drunkard presents Kikagaku Moyo at Rough Trade in Brooklyn, along with special guests Mountain Movers and Jason Spacin’ Killinger. Tickets: HERE. Do not miss this band live. You’ll thank us later.

Related: Kikagaku Moyo :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview