The Minnesota music scene has always been more about the live show than the recorded album. Six months into the year, and three months into a quarantine that would make even a Tay “Chocolate Rain” Zonday comeback gig a welcome event, the local music community is carrying on almost exclusively without concerts — and still doing mighty fine. Here’s our midyear roundup of local albums in a year like no other.
Blood $moke Body, ‘Lovesick Animal Online’
The scrappy young hip-hop duo formerly known as Nazeem and Spencer Joles (son of Star Tribune photographers David Joles and Liz Flores) did a lot of growing up musically and emotionally between their 2017 debut and this album under a new moniker. It still sounds like they’re having a ton of mischievous fun on this surprisingly radio-friendly and catchy nine-song set. They added melodic guitar to Post Malone-y tracks such as “Black Velvet” and “Brain on Drugs” but still rip through the rhymes in “As We Fall Into Place” and a couple other edgier highlights.
Capricorn One, ‘Capricorn One’
If you aren’t hip to the back story of this psyche-rock masterpiece, you’ll probably still find it an intoxicating blend of whirring guitars, magic-carpet-ride organs and throbbing rhythms. It’s all the more remarkable and powerful knowing it was the last project by Polara frontman and Minneapolis producer Ed Ackerson before his death from cancer last October. He played all the instruments himself and clearly had a blast blasting away. The joy and strength in these tracks are as audible as they are transmissible.
Chris Castino, ‘Brazil’
What the Wu? The singer/guitarist from Minnesota’s best-loved jam band the Big Wu steps out with his first solo album but doesn’t step up with a lengthy electric guitar solo until Track 5, “Someway.” It’s a telling trait of a decidedly un-jammy but still richly layered, soulful, mellow-cool LP with a local all-star cast including Nicholas David, Jill Mikelson and JT Bates. Airy standouts such as “Chinese Whispers” and “Ms. Missme” are thickened with Band/CSNY-esque vocals, campfire-warm arrangements of piano, organ and pedal-steel parts and an overall Americana-beautiful vibe that’s as in line with Jeff Tweedy as Jerry Garcia.
Longshot, ‘I’m Saying’
Perennially one of the Twin Cities’ most underrated rappers, the Chicago transplant can also now be billed as one of its most immediate. He recorded and posted this swiftly paced, tight, six-song EP all within two weeks of George Floyd’s death, riffing on years’ worth of racial injustice in both his hometowns. “They say freedom ain’t free,” he bellows in the opening title track, “Well how about you lower the price and please stop killing these black kids tonight?” Producer Omen’s ominous beats match the all-black cover art as Longshot provides what amounts to an opening shot in a pivotal battle.
Molly Maher, ‘Follow’
Sounding like a hybrid of Los Lobos’ “Kiko,” a desert-coated Ry Cooder LP and, well, Molly Maher, this inspired and intricately produced collection from a fixture of the Twin Cities scene — largely billed as an Americana musician up until now — pulls heavily from south of the U.S. border. The title and songs such as “Someday Somebody” reflect her self-inventing journeys into Mexico and elsewhere. But the real story here is about Maher not being tied down by musical genres or any other boundaries.
Sarah Morris, ‘All Mine’
Having a beautiful voice and picture-frame-worthy family doesn’t limit this Kerrville Folk Award-winning Twin Cities singer-songwriter to only singing about lovely things. Some of the best tracks on this personally themed, variously alt-twangy and blues-rocky record — featuring her well-jelled live band the Sometimes Guys to great effect — are messy and even a bit manic, from the smoldering, wildfire-metaphoric “Mendocino” to the trouble-seeking rouser “Stir Me Up.”
Ondara, ‘Folk N’ Roll, Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation’
The Kenya-born, Minneapolis-schooled folk-rocker previously known as Jay Smart and JS Ondara was “pulled out of the market” — to use the title of this album’s opening track — just as his career was flourishing via a Grammy nomination and arena tour with the Lumineers. That whiplash-inducing halt thrust him back into a home studio with a rush of songs inspired by the COVID-19 quarantine. Tracks like “Mr. Landlord” and “Ballad of Nana Doline” are raw, urgent and anxious, as suited to the times as they are to Ondara’s dramatic and increasingly fascinating voice.
Dua Saleh, ‘Rosetta’
The second EP by the uncategorizable St. Paul poet-turned-rapper — who’s now more of a singer — expands their already boundless sound even further. Opening track “Cat Scratch” echoes the haunting, subterranean vibe of Saleh’s debut EP, “Nur.” From there, though, the music roams wildly between the almost Interpol-like rocker “Umbrellar,” the slow-booming R&B jam “Smut” and the Massive Attack-throbbing “Hellbound,” the latter being just wow-inducing. Tying it all together are Saleh’s lyrics that dare you to defy expectations, just like the EP’s namesake Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
The Stress of Her Regard, ‘The Stress of Her Regard’
Local musicheads still confused about Irish-born brothers Ciaran and Criostoir Daly dropping the name of their prior band Idle Hands don’t have to overthink their first SOHR full-length (lovingly produced by the aforementioned Ed Ackerson). The blissfully fuzzed-out guitar and snarling pop vocals in opening track “Callipygian” sets a familiar tone that will immediately draw in fans of ’90s-’00s Britrockers like Pulp, Blur and the Libertines. Ciaran’s thoughtful, afraid-of-Americans lyricism in songs like “Meds” and “Wall and Broad” also add greatly to the pull.
Turn Turn Turn, ‘Can’t Go Back’
Honeydogs leader Adam Levy not only found well-matched singing partners when he formed this trio in late 2018 with fellow folk-rock tunesmiths Savannah Smith and Barb Brynstad, he found a level of comfort and harmony (both kinds!) that shines through in their warm, ear-wormy, fiercely accessible debut. Songs like Levy’s rollicking title track and Brynstad’s “Norwegian Wood”-spun “Wide Open Place” speak to modern times. However, there’s a classic, sunbaked ’70s vibe throughout that gives the record a timeless, almost escapist mass appeal.