CEILING STARSCeiling Stars(self-released)

Professional-quality recording software, samplers, and emulators are cheap enough now that singer-songwriters can realize their dreams of Brian Wilson-style instrumental extravagance without leaving their bedrooms. But Joe Phillips, the man behind Ceiling Stars, prefers a restrained aesthetic that contrasts starkly with the baroque confections of Elephant 6 worshippers like Bryan Scary. On this disc of home recordings, the four musicians he plays with live—who include members of Tenki—only occasionally chip in, and even then they tend to tread lightly around his skeletal, folksy guitar parts and plainspoken vocals. A couple tunes rock out gently, but overall the album creates a peaceful sonic space that makes me imagine a Zen pebble garden laid out in front of Townes Van Zandt’s old trailer.

GEMSTONESThe Testimony of GemStones(1st & 15th)

You’d never mistake GemStones for anything but a Chicago MC—on this mix tape, released by Lupe Fiasco’s label, he jacks beats from Kanye, trades raps with Lupe, and occasionally borrows Twista’s rapid-fire cadences. But between the frequency with which he swears to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” and the number of times he claims to be carrying on Biggie’s legacy, it’s apparent that he also takes inspiration from the east coast, specifically a certain former Def Jam president. And occasionally he comes close to justifying a comparison to Jay-Z, especially with his cathartic performance on “Bury Me a Gem”—he makes the beat from Young Jeezy’s “Bury Me a G” his personal property.

JOAN OF ARCBoo! Human(Polyvinyl)

Tim Kinsella has put a lot of distance between himself and emo—he famously asked in an August 2006 Alternative Press op-ed that every band appearing in that issue break up immediately, for the good of the country—so it’s ironic that, after spending most of the decade as punk’s poet laureate of the War on Terror, he’s writing songs about emo’s favorite subject. Joan of Arc’s new Boo! Human is basically a breakup record, albeit one that borrows the language of abstract apocalyptic dread: “It’s 9/11 2,” he howls over claustrophobic strings. “The way you say my name/The future is gone and the past won’t stop happening.” Conflating a breakup with 9/11 is so hyperbolically self-obsessed that it’s borderline obscene—Kinsella’s self-awareness only slightly mitigates the effect—but I’ll wager that plenty of us have been driven to such depths of solipsism by the end of a relationship. The difference is that Kinsella is ballsy or crazy enough to put it to tape. There’s plenty of evidence for “crazy”—Boo! Human swerves jarringly from tense, abstract experimentation to almost perversely smooth pop that sounds like the band’s best Steely Dan impression—but taken together these wild moves start to look a lot like genius.

THE PALE GALLERYThe Pale Gallery(self-released)

A couple weeks ago I just sort of remembered out of the blue how good the Archers of Loaf’s “Web in Front” is, and even briefly tried to figure out a way to play the dubbed cassette of Icky Mettle that’s sitting in a box in my closet. (It seems somehow wrong to BitTorrent an album that’s so quintessentially 90s.) Luckily this EP from the Pale Gallery, which had just arrived in the mail, happened to scratch the same itch. It’s a tightly wound 18 minutes of dissonant jangle, broad hooks, and swaggeringly loose timekeeping, topped by Brent Larson’s sweetly gruff vocals—which reminded me that I also have a few Jawbreaker tapes lying around that I should try to hear again.

PALLIARDBefore the Guns(self-released)

There’s an elegiac mood hanging over this dark, rootsy album that makes nearly every song sound like the perfect credits music for a movie where two lovers have to part at the end. That’s fitting, considering that Before the Guns is Palliard’s farewell to the world—the album-release show on June 21 was also the band’s last performance. The particular kind of sadness it evokes is the type best expressed by setting up a coolly muscular blues progression and then launching a ferocious guitar solo over the top—like one of those Neil Young joints where he plays like he’s wrestling a snake. Palliard may be delivering their own eulogy, but at least you can lift your lighter to it.

JOSH RODRIGUEZCabbin’ It: Vol. 1 Smash & Crunch Mixtape Series(Smash & Crunch)

Over the past year the Smash & Crunch collective has made a name for itself in Chicago’s increasingly crowded club scene, hosting parties with visiting DJs like Pase Rock and Riot in Belgium. But for all the decadent booty-clapping bass and blog-house synth chaos they’ve brought to the city, their mix-tape debut—by co-Smasher Josh Rodriguez—is a surprisingly mellow affair. “Who knows... give it a few beers, this could turn into something,” Rodriguez suggests in what’s probably the most laid-back press release ever. That seems to be about the right tone, though: his hour-long mix of breezy electro-fied house would go better with a crispy Stella in the backyard than vodka and Red Bull in the club.v

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