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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Friday Pin Up


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Connie Converse: The mystery of the original singer-songwriter

Connie Converse remained virtually unknown after 12 years of trying to build a musical career in New York. Connie Converse was arguably the first modern singer-songwriter, writing and playing intimate songs on her acoustic guitar in the mid-1950s. But she remained virtually unknown and disappeared in 1974. Now, her talent is finally being recognised.
In summer 1974, days after her 50th birthday, Connie Converse sent fond letters to family and close friends telling them she wanted to make a fresh start.

Disillusioned with how her life had turned out, she packed her possessions into her Volkswagen Beetle and left her Michigan home. She has not been seen since.

Twenty years earlier, Connie Converse was living in Greenwich Village, the New York district where, in the mid-1950s, beatniks and bohemians were carving out counterculture.

Converse was working for a printing firm, but had hopes of making it as a musician. In her apartment, she would write haunting, beautiful songs with a poetic honesty and melodic sophistication that set her apart from the other singers in Greenwich Village.

With the folk scene still dominated by political and traditional songs at that time, the concept of the solo acoustic singer-songwriter had barely moved beyond Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger's dust-bowl balladry.

Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell were still in school.

Converse was not the most gifted vocalist or guitar player, and her voice had an air of formality that befitted the age.

Yet when she sang, it was with a depth, intimacy and eloquence that were rare for that era.

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Listen to the track, Talkin' Like You (Two Tall Mountains)
She sang of loneliness, of promiscuity, of quarrelling lovers, of frequenting saloons in the afternoons. While some tunes had a more jaunty, fireside air, most carried an underlying sense of sadness.

Despite her ambitions, she did not play conventional gigs and stood on the edge of Greenwich Village's musical coterie.

In 1954, she recorded a set of songs in the kitchen of Gene Deitch, who had recorded Pete Seeger and John Lee Hooker in the 1940s.

Deitch and her other friends tried to help her career, but to no avail.

In 1961, the year Dylan moved to Greenwich Village, Converse turned her back on her music career and left New York for a job at the University of Michigan.

Still unfulfilled, she fell into depression and heavy drinking. She would be 90 now.

"The more I thought about it, the songs were all about herself," says Deitch, now 90, who went on to become an Oscar-winning animator.

"I think that's what makes the songs interesting. No matter what she was singing, it all had to do with sexual frustration and loneliness.

"There's something about those songs that was extremely personal. In those days, this was something you never heard.

"Nowadays, there are lots of women singers who you might call folk singers or personal song singers, who are doing pretty much the same thing as Connie did.

"But I think she was really the first."

Cult following

It seemed that Converse's songs were destined to be forgotten until Deitch's recordings were put out as an album by a small New York label in 2009.

Since then, the legend of Connie Converse has slowly grown.

"The music, considering when it was recorded, sounds eerily contemporary," says David Herman of Squirrel Thing Recordings, which released the album How Sad, How Lovely.

"Her voice is really compelling. Add to that the fact this was a woman writing singer-songwriter-style music in the mid-50s, before being a singer-songwriter was a thing, and before a female songwriter was something people were used to.

"And with the mystery of the disappearance, the whole thing leaves you with more questions than answers."

The next step in her rediscovery comes on Wednesday when a 40-minute documentary by US film-maker Andrea Kannes receives its premiere at the Sensoria film and music festival in Sheffield as part of a Connie Converse tribute night staged by British singer Nat Johnson.

'Funny and sad'

Kannes has had access to the filing cabinet Converse left behind, complete with her home recordings, letters and journals.

"It's almost like she wanted it to be found and looked through," Kannes says.

"What I found most fascinating was how funny she was in her writing.

"Here was a person who struggled through her whole life to feel successful, and you can tell there's a great sadness with a lot of the things she did and the way she lived her life, but she was also incredibly funny.

"You could tell that she was well liked and she had lots of friends. But there was still this wall between her and other people, where it didn't seem like she 100% connected with anybody."

As well as being frustrated in her music career, Converse had a powerful intellect that also never quite found its calling.

'A genius'

At high school, she dominated the graduation prize-giving ceremony and won a prestigious college scholarship.

But her parents were dismayed when she dropped out after two years and moved to New York, changing her name from Elizabeth and rejecting their strict teetotal, God-fearing upbringing.

After giving up on music and leaving New York, Converse edited the Journal of Conflict Resolution. She was also a keen political activist and a talented cartoonist.

Her brother Phil, writing in 2000, described her as "a genius and a polymath", adding: "I do not use the terms lightly." She was also an enigma.

The mystery of what became of her remains unsolved. Her family believe she took her own life, probably by driving into a lake or river.

But 60 years after she made those recordings in Greenwich Village, Connie Converse's voice is finally being heard.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Legitimately Magical Prince Album

In 2010, Prince released an album, called “20Ten,” that ushered in the longest silence of his thirty-five-year career as a recording artist. For most of Prince’s creative existence, he’s put out an album a year, sometimes double and triple sets. After “20Ten,” though, came nothing. Well, nothing by Prince’s standards: plenty of singles trickled out, along with rumors about upcoming projects, but there was no major release. Then, earlier this year, he announced a return to Warner Bros. records, at first for the purpose of assembling a thirtieth-anniversary edition of “Purple Rain,” which would include outtakes and rare demos. This has not yet materialized. What has emerged is his first album of new material since “20Ten,” and the second: this week, Prince resurfaces with “Art Official Age,” a solo album, and “PlectrumElectrum,” a long-delayed collaboration with his all-female backing group, 3rd Eye Girl.
“PlectrumElectrum” is easier to understand and easier to dispense with, which doesn’t mean that it’s subpar, exactly. It’s a short rock record with plenty of guitar, and includes meditations on sex, self-empowerment treatises, and energetic songs about energy. The more ambitious songs often spotlight someone other than Prince. Hannah Ford, the band’s drummer, sings the plaintive ballad “Whitecaps,” and “Boy Trouble” is a strange flower of a song with an out-of-left-field speed rap.

The so-called solo record, “Art Official Age,” is considerably more interesting. For starters, Prince has dispensed with his typical “Produced, Arranged, Composed, and Performed by Prince” credit, the one on which much of his mystique as a one-man band and all-around genius was founded, and has shared production credit with Joshua Welton, who also happens to be Hannah Ford’s husband. Was this an admission by Prince that he needed another pair of ears? Was he in search of a more contemporary sound? The quasi-title track that opens the album (“Art Official Cage”) seems to suggest so. It’s a strange welter of E.D.M. clichés and Europop, with some gnomic lyrics, some grinding guitar, and some rapping. It’s a mess, provocative but not exactly successful; it sounds like a track that was left off Prince’s 1989 “Batman” soundtrack, updated for 20Fourteen.

But the rest of the album is easily Prince’s most coherent and satisfying record in more than a decade. In the past few years, the Prince songs that leaked online seemed to be less about paving the way for a new album and more about trolling the Internet. “Breakfast Can Wait,” a lithe and light funk number, was released with a cover photo of Dave Chappelle as Prince. Only a snippet of “This Could Be Us” leaked, but it was enough to confirm that Prince had written a song about a popular Internet meme that used a picture of him from his “Purple Rain” days. As proper singles started appearing, though, the album came into sharper focus. Songs like “Clouds” and “U Know,” slower and more repetitive than the kaleidoscopic funk-rock we’ve come to expect from Prince, suggested a new direction—a kind of gelatinous, futuristic R. & B.

These tracks worked in concert with the other singles to sketch out a theme: that technology separates us from those we’re close to, and even from ourselves; and that the lack of integration may well result in disintegration. “Clouds,” the second track on the album, which opens with the sound of a radio tuning, critiques the way the computer age offloads experiences to distant servers (that’s what the clouds are); the song instead prioritizes romance and human connection (“You should never underestimate the power of a kiss on the neck when she doesn’t expect a kiss on the neck”). It also folds in a well-constructed argument about the way the Internet era has encouraged empty exhibition and a half-baked argument about violence and bullying, before ending with a sci-fi monologue delivered by a British female voice that seems to suggest that Prince has been placed in some sort of centuries-long suspended animation.

“Clouds” is a kind of manifesto: “When life’s a stage in this brand new age / How do we engage?” Prince’s answer is to do a version of what he’s always done, which is absorb nearly every kind of music available and, via alchemic wizardry, turn it into something that produces thoughts and emotions. That’s even more evident on “U Know,” which is built on a sample of the singer Mila J’s “Blinded” and alternates wordy half-rapped verses about romantic misunderstanding and spiritual crisis with an irresistibly seductive chorus. The songs seem like R. & B., but they’re statements of deep unrest. Then the album hits a lull, with tracks that declare the power of music rather than demonstrate it, and insist on the superiority of the past. It’s grumpy-old-man music, done with plenty of panache. None of this, though, is sufficient preparation for the homestretch of “Art Official Age,” which is where Prince stops worrying about the future or the past and truly inhabits the present. Beginning with “What It Feels Like,” a duet with the singer Andy Allo, Prince delivers a series of ballads, broken up by interludes and a red-meat dance song, that are like nothing he’s done before.

It’s worth thinking about what it means for Prince to step into new territory. He has spent years trying to recapture pieces of his old self: the provocateur in black lingerie who got booed as an opening act for the Rolling Stones, the New Wave-inflected keyboard freak of “1999,” the motorcycle-riding rock god who ruled the world after “Purple Rain,” the tortured psychedelic introvert of “Around the World in a Day,” the jazzy genius of “Parade,” the pop polymath of “Sign O the Times,” the deeply divided spiritual pilgrim of “Lovesexy.” These old selves then became albatrosses. His albums of the late nineties and the past decade found Prince making gestures toward those personas without ever really inhabiting them again. And how could he? Here, for the first time, he suggests an alternative: maybe there’s an entirely new Prince music, possibly aided and abetted by Joshua Welton, that harnesses his talents and his vision. Maybe he’s not condemned to auto-pastiche.

The closing songs are hard to absorb at first. “Way Back Home” sounds sluggish for a while and then, suddenly, it sounds revelatory. It’s a self-portrait painted in the strangest and most accurate colors imaginable, a melancholy confession and bruised boast in which Prince cops to the fact that he’s out of place, out of sorts, pushed forward at times by desperation but “born alive” in a world where most people are “born dead.” And “Time,” which runs for nearly seven minutes, is a love song, briefly lickerish, that’s mostly about the loneliness of the road. In both cases, Prince brings the tempo way down, focusses on the nuances of his melodies, shares the spotlight with female vocalists, weaves in motifs from earlier songs from the album, and adds a steady supply of surprising touches (such as the superbly funky, if subdued, horn outro to “Time”).

The ballads are broken up by “FunkNRoll,” a straightforwardly exciting party song that also appears on “PlectrumElectrum,” but the version here serves the album’s over-all message—it’s knotty, both playful and eerie, with sonar-like sound effects that create a sense of distance and mediation. The closing track, “Affirmation III,” is a haunting reprise of “Way Back Home.” And while it’s abstract (the clipped, angelic backing chorus, which seems to be on loan from Laurie Anderson, is even more prominent), it’s also concrete. For the first time in years, Prince seems not just carnal but corporeal. Way back on “Controversy,” he challenged categories: “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” By the time of “I Would Die 4 U,” the challenge had turned to taunting: “I’m not a woman / I’m not a man / I am something you can never understand,” and then, messianically, “I’m not a human.” Here, he presents himself as something understandable and fully human. In “Breakfast Can Wait,” he pleads with his lover that she can’t “leave a black man in this state.” But that black man is in this state: he’s in his fifties, grappling with loneliness, aging, creative inspiration, self-doubt, a shifting cultural landscape, and love. As luck would have it, he’s also Prince.

Concert to bring back memories of female vocalists of yesteryear

Imagine a jazz club with the voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Etta James, Lena Horne, Rosemary Clooney and others. Jaimee Paul and her jazz combo, led by husband Leif Shires, on trumpet, delivers just that.
“At Last” is a tribute to those fabulous female vocalists of the glory days of yesteryear. For Paul, “At Last” is very personal.

“All the great lady singers saluted were inspirations to me, and the songs selected are among my innermost personal favorites,” she said. “Some of them I have a long history with: My grandfather was a World War II veteran and his favorite song was ‘Sentimental Journey,’ and we used to listen to it together. ‘What A Difference A Day Makes’ always gets me thinking about my wonderful husband, Leif, and the incredible day that we first met. On the other hand, ‘Stormy Weather’ never fails to start me thinking about all the lousy relationships I’ve been through, that we’ve all been through.”

Paul sings of love, loss and the blues at Clover School District Auditorium on Oct. 7.

Raised in Southern Illinois, steeped in church choir, Paul was influenced by gospel and blues, cultivating a special place in her heart for Jazz.

“I was always involved with music,” Paul said. At the age of five she began studying classical piano for almost 10 years, and from the third grade on, she also played the French horn in school bands. She also sang in both church and school choirs. Her parents are both musical: Her mom taught music and piano in the public school system for 30 years, and her dad studied music in college before deciding on a career in engineering. “

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Aretha Franklin’s ‘Great Diva Classics’ Due

Aretha Franklin is showing some R-E-S-P-E-C-T to her fellow divas: The Queen of Soul will release an album Oct. 21 covering classic songs from other female singers.
Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics will include songs such as Gladys Knight's "Midnight Train to Georgia," Barbra Streisand's "People" and Whitney Houston's "I'm Every Woman."

The most contemporary track is a reworking of Adele's colossal hit "Rolling In the Deep," which is the first single off the album. It will be available digitally Monday, when the 72-year-old will also perform the song on Late Night with David Letterman.

"Great Diva Classics" reunites Franklin with longtime collaborator Clive Davis.

"I mean, it is great," he said in an interview. "For her to do all these songs, it's very exciting."

Exclusive: Clive Davis Says Aretha Franklin Is 'On Fire' on New Album of Diva Classics

Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Andre 3000 are among the album's producers. Other songs covered by Franklin include the Supremes' "You Keep Me Hangin' On," Alicia Keys' "No One" and Dinah Washington's "Teach Me Tonight." The icon's version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" will incorporate some of Destiny's Child's "Survivor."

The opening track is Etta James' signature song, "At Last," and Franklin closes the 10-track set with Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U."

Speaking to Billboard ahead of the release, Davis said he was thrilled with the album. "She's on fire and vocally in absolutely peak form," he explained. "What a thrill to see this peerless artist still showing the way, still sending shivers up your spine, still demonstrating that all contemporary music needs right now is the voice. What a voice." The new recording, he added, "is purely and simply sensational."

Friday, September 26, 2014

An ode to trailblazing jazz singers

This year's Joy of Jazz line-up pays special tribute to the influence of vocalists on the genre.

In a dense and soothing voice, akin to her contralto register, Grammy award-winning vocalist Dianne Reeves shares her thoughts on the “importance of the jazz singer” in the genre. It is weeks ahead of her performance at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Sandton when Reeves tells me that, “through their lyrics, vocalists are the conveyor belts of the story in jazz”.

Whether it is Zim Ngqawana crooning about missing his hometown in Ebhofolo, or Anita O’Day’s commanding skat against the beat of Gene Krupa’s drums in Sing, Sing, Sing, vocals can relay literal messages or be the extra layer of sound in a song, or both. 

Jazz singers “have played a great role in the evolution of this music”, Reeves says. “Musicians like Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McCrae and Betty Carter have been such trailblazers in the genre.”

Having taken up singing and piano as a girl in Denver, Colorado, the Vaughan disciple has also been a trailblazer, deconstructing the traditional jazz-singer sound by incorporating a wide range of genres into her music. 

“Jazz-fusion, pop-soul and African- and West Indian-flavoured material vied for pre-eminence in a repertory that was as scattered as it was ambitious,” writes Stephen Holden about Reeves’s sound in a 1992 New York Times article. 

And this mesh of sounds is what audiences can expect when the Detroit-born singer takes to the Joy of Jazz stage this weekend. 

“We’ll be performing songs off the new record Beautiful Life as well as some old favourites from other albums. There’ll be a lot of good music,” she tells me.

And with its vocalist-heavy line-up which features musicians such as South Africa’s Melanie Scholtz, Roberta Gambarini of Italy, Gregory Porter from the United States, and more — this year’s Joy of Jazz is something like an ode to jazz vocals: one of the many powerful instruments of the genre. 

In a country where our own singers have shaken up the genre, while collecting awards and singing for our liberation over the decades, jazz vocals have played a role in documenting our country’s musical past and present.

Singers such as the late Sathima Bea Benjamin, who performed songs of freedom in Europe during the struggle were, as the Huffington Post put it, “a beacon of principled objection to apartheid”.

And then there is Atteridgeville-born Tutu Puoane, who now lives in Antwerp, who has gone on to win awards such as the Old Mutual Jazz Encounters award, the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award as well as two South African Music Award awards.

Puoane, who will be performing alongside other vocalists and Standard Bank Young Artists of the Year winners, such as Scholtz, Sibongile Khumalo and Gloria Bosman, says she has taken cues from singers such as Reeves, and has sonically delved into different sounds on her latest album, iLanga.

Talking to Puoane on Skype, I ask her about the perceived dominance of women jazz vocalists, to which she responds: “We never ask the guys what it’s like being a ‘male jazz singer’. We tend to pay too much attention to female jazz vocalists. There are a big number of male jazz singers, who are just as profound and amazing.”

But with a few male jazz vocalists — such as the Grammy-winning Porter — among a sea of female vocalists on the festival line-up, it’s hard not to overlook the gender imbalance in the genre. 

“Women in jazz? I don’t think we’re where we should be in terms of having that dominance in the genre,” says singer Wanda Baloyi, who will be performing in a tribute show to the late Brenda Fassie at the festival. The performance will celebrate the country’s 20 years of democracy anniversary and the 10-year anniversary of the death of singing sensation Brenda Fassie. 

“What makes the tribute so special is that it’s not just me taking a Brenda song and singing it. Rather, this is my interpretation of it. So I like to call it ‘Brenda Fassie meets jazz’.” 

With a new album, Love and Life, set to drop soon, Baloyi — who says her music is not strictly jazz, but incorporates elements from the genre — laments that gender inequalities in jazz are present, but says that “we’ll get there one day”.

Baloyi will take to the stage with singers such as Port Elizabeth-based, award-winning singer Asanda Bam and Brenda Mtambo. 

With her powerful voice that dips and resurfaces as she sings, Bam will perform a jazzed-out rendition of Fassie’s Boipatong — a song about the 1992 massacre in the township.

Recognising the jazz singers’ position as a teller of our stories, the former Joyous Celebration gospel choir member says: “We have very powerful singers in the country. And we should pay attention to them and the powerful stories they relay in the music.”

Joy of Jazz needed ‘new shoes’

The Joy of Jazz festival, which takes place at the Sandton Convention Centre from September 25 to 27, has moved from its previous location in Newtown, Johannesburg, to accommodate the growing number of jazz fans attending the event.

In an interview with journalist Percy Mabandu, festival boss Peter Tladi says the move to Sandton “was not a decision we came to easily. There were logistical problems we encountered [in Newtown] because of the festival’s growth.

“It was not a case of let’s move because we are bigger than our shoes, but rather that we needed new shoes.”

Tladi said the convention centre’s benefits include the fact that rainy weather won’t spoil any shows, the ability to sell a full festival pass for the various concerts and that the sound quality, staging, security and parking will be better.

The festival is expected to draw nearly 30 000 people this year. Last year 24 178 fans attended the event in Newtown, where the festival had been held for the past 14 years. 

More than jazz on the menu

For fans, this year’s Joy of Jazz might happily be an endurance event. For the first time since the establishment of the festival 17 years ago, audiences will be able to use just one ticket to access all four stages (Dinaledi, Conga, Mbira and Diphala) at the Sandton Convention Centre. At previous festivals, held in Newtown, Johannesburg, fans had to buy separate tickets for each stage.

The event is aiming for a bigger crowd and a broader and more diverse audience. Besides the female jazz vocalist line-up, this year’s programme is peppered with great male soul and R&B musicians.

Joy of Jazz producer Peter Tladi says this year’s event aims to appeal to a broad range of musical tastes.

But this begs the question: Why still pretend it’s a jazz festival? But in the spirit of misreading Dave Brubeck, we’ll assume that jazz stands for freedom, even the freedom to include R&B under its mantel.

The festival includes some heavyweight R&B male vocalists, including Grammy award-winning Billy Ocean from Britain, neosoul singer/songwriter Dwele from the United States and local vocalist Brian Temba.

A winning formula for the festival has been to feature an old-school R&B singer, who is not necessarily known for singing jazz. In 2011, it was Alexander O’Neal and, in 2013, it was Dennis Edwards. This year, it’s Ocean, the singer/songwriter known for pop and R&B hits, who will cater for those who like their music with a bit of cheese. His most popular ballad, Suddenly, was released in 1985, and Ocean will take us back in time with that nostalgic 1970s and 1980s sound.

The Joy of Jazz festival seems to have taken a page out of the Cape Town International Jazz Festival book, by including an international contemporary act who’ll appeal to the younger market. Dwele will perform with the Joy of Jazz Ensemble, and the Subject singer will be bringing soul with a hip-hop edge to the festival.

Temba, who is no stranger to the Joy of Jazz (he was one of the local acts in 2010) will perform on the Mbira stage and will be joined by singers Maz-Hoba and Bo Manamela in the Sounds of Democracy set.

For jazz fans, the genre will be represented by vocalists such as Gregory Porter, who performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival last year, and local singer Presss (Preston Sihlangu), who rose to fame after being selected to be part of the Coca-Cola Popstar band 101 in 2002.

The Joy of Jazz line-up is diversifying as the years go by, but Tladi reassures fans that there won’t be any drastic changes in the direction of the programme.

“We will keep improving on what we have started. The one genre we will not have at the Joy of Jazz is kwaito, unless it’s accompanied by an orchestra.” 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Alt-J’s second album defies expectations

Spearheaded by their hit single “Breezeblocks,” Alt-J’s debut album An Awesome Wave initially had both fans and critics raving over the uniquely 21st-century sound cultivated by the four lads from Leeds. Eager to crown them the next big thing, many compared the four to a certain other group of introverted Englishmen who have also been playing music together since their school days. Back then, they went by the name On A Friday, but most people today know them as Radiohead. Sure, lead singer Joe Newman’s penchant for falsetto recalls post-The Bends Thom Yorke and both groups are influenced by trip hop/IDM acts like DJ Shadow, Massive Attack and Aphex Twin, but so was almost every major British rock musician who was coming up in the ’90s. Newman himself has said that he feels these comparisons and expectations are premature. He is quick to dispel them by citing Alt-J’s lone musical output in comparison to others’ long and consistent careers. Yet, for whatever reason, it feels like there is a disproportionate effort being made to contextualize Alt-J in relation to other bands and speculate on their longevity. This cacophony of hypercritical prophesizing has proven itself to be entirely superfluous to the music itself, mostly unsubstantiated and ultimately detrimental to new fans approaching Alt-J.
On the first album, the band’s experiments in non-English lyricism, apparent fixation on triangles (as evidenced by their name, which is a keyboard shortcut for ∆) and subtle references to the book Where the Wild Things Are and the film Léon: The Professional all served to form a unique aesthetic identity. Barely two years removed from their debut, though, it now seems that many of Alt-J’s idiosyncrasies have become gimmicks in the eyes of critics. For the most part, this is due to hipsters’ (read: Pitchfork’s) aversion to anything popular. As the group continues to convert more and more Mumford & Sons/Ed Sheeran-type listeners, it is simultaneously losing the respect of the bloggers and critics who champion the underground and undiscovered. Such an inverse relationship between record sales and underground critical acclaim is only heightened by the fact that they were awarded the Mercury Prize for Best British Album of 2012. Perhaps it is all of this pressure and denigration that led to the supposedly amicable departure of bassist Gwil Sainsbury (for an example of such wanton abuse, see The Guardian’s January article “Alt-J: what happens when a bland band loses an anonymous member?”). Considering all that has happened and all that has been predicted to happen to the band since their debut, there is a great deal riding on this sophomore effort. With This Is All Yours, the newly slimmed-down outfit delivered a lush set of tracks that surprises without straying too far from their formula.

This Is All Yours immediately harkens back to An Awesome Wave by starting with another “Intro.” It’s a slow-burning chorale done in classic Alt-J style — only this time on a grander scale. The staccato vocals of Newman and keyboardist Gus Unger-Hamilton slowly multiply into a grandiose chant in which each voice cycles through acting as the kick, snare or hi-hat of a syncopated drumbeat. This slowly builds up to a “drop” executed by the actual drums (and distinctive array of woodblocks, anvils, shakers, tambourines, etc.) of percussionist Thom Green. This song sets the tone for the rest of the album — many such climactic moments are to come.

Perhaps the most recognizable remnant of the first album is “Bloodflood, Pt. II.” The song takes lyrics from tracks such as “Fitzpleasure” and “Bloodflood” from their first album and lays them in a more fuller bed of horns and piano. New lyrics placed between resurfacings of old characters such as the Mandela Boys — a gang from Newman’s hometown of Southampton — add an additional dimension to their evolving story. Lyrically, Newman’s fondness of short, simple sentecnes and pithy observations is on display more than ever before.

Hardly a carbon copy, there are some refreshing departures from their established blueprint. In particular, the new album incorporates some distinctive feminine voices. Much has been made of the Miley Cyrus sample on “Hunger of the Pine,” which was released alongside the Black Keys-esque “Left Hand Free” a couple months before the album dropped in its entirety. After a few minutes of ambient build-up, the sampled line “I’m a female rebel” kicks in, sounding like it was taken directly out of James Blake’s repertoire. The most memorable female voice, however, occurs on the track “Warm Foothills,” perhaps the album’s crowning achievement. The track features English female folk singers Lianne La Havas and Marika Hackman, as well as Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. Rather than giving each their own verse or chorus, the guests trade off every other word with Newman and Unger-Hamilton, creating a mesmerizing hocketing effect that recalls fellow indie rockers Dirty Projectors. It will be very interesting to see how they attempt to recreate this effect in a live setting.

“The Gospel of John Hurt” provides another high point. Midway through the elegiac sparsity, the straight 4/4 backbeat seamlessly morphs into a triplet-based 6/8 feel. Moments like this are sure to please the casual music fan as well as the discerning listener. The tracks “Arrival in Nara” and “Pusher,” however, will just as surely become fodder for critics to cite as evidence of the band’s blandness. They seem to have half of the formula: lush harmonies and dramatic swells, but no emphatic entrance of drums or bass. Both prove ultimately disappointing. Still, even when they disappoint, they do it in an interesting way. “Arrival in Nara” experiments with string arrangements, robot voices, bird sounds and a left-to-right panning fly buzz that will have those listening on headphones searching around the room for the source.

As an epilogue, the record has  a secret track: an astonishing cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Alt-J take Robert Glasper’s vocoder-infused interpretation further into the electronic realm; the original tune is almost unrecognizable beneath the wall of synths and bass — that is, until the triumphant chorus hits like a ton of bricks.

It’s hard to believe that a band like this could be considered bland, or that there would ever be an overabundance of “folk-step” bands, that is the state of the music industry today. It does make some sense, though. It seems like almost all pop music today falls into one of two categories: foot-stomping folk a la The Lumineers or bass-heavy dance music from DJ’s like Diplo and David Guetta. Alt-J is just one of few groups who have been placed somewhere in the middle. In light of this, This Is All Yours feels like an appropriate title. It is a recognition that they only have power over the music. After they put it out into the world, they can’t control others’ projections, extrapolations or comparisons. They’re not trying to be the new Gomez, the new James Blake or the new Radiohead. And this newfound autonomy comes through in the puzzlingly polarizing group’s impressive sophomore effort.