Winston Hightower, “Insubordination Rules” (K Records/Perennial Records)

Winston Hytwr collects 12 songs from obscure Columbus, Ohio lo-fi tune machine Winston Hightower. It makes all kinds of sense that Olympia's K Records would champion this hard-working bedroom tunesmith, who since 2015 has been toiling in relative obscurity in the vicinity of one of his most obvious inspirations—Guided by Voices. It also figures that Hightower has collaborated with other Ohio luminaries such as Ron House (Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments) and members of Slant 6 and Times New Viking.

Born in 1993, Hightower has been dubbed "the Black R. Stevie Moore," and if that appellation will attract more ears to his music, then let's boldface it and put it near the top of his bio. Because Winston has undeniable talent, and if there's any justice, he will become much better known in the near future and will shed the need for such comparisons. 

"Hip Swayer" immediately conveys Hightower's status as a lo-fi bedroom rock mensch. His catchy, unobvious melodies and his earnest, unslick vocals cast him as a Robert Pollard acolyte, yes, but Winston's much more of an unpolished loose cannon at this point in his career. When Hightower veers into tender-ballad mode, as on "A Moment Like This," "Hue Nose," and "TF," he increases the oddity factor by tuning his guitar weirdly and finding the strangest tones on his synth. "TF" actually sounds like a sideways homage to David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes," albeit propelled by a casual, midtempo disco rhythm.

"Blind Pig" is an excellent specimen of slacker funk, with a peculiar, chintzy synth motif warbling through it. Meanwhile, "O N O"'s a cavernous rock near-instrumental that flaunts exciting dynamics and some of Hightower's most incisive guitar playing. The longest song here at 2:48, "Insubordination Rules" features the declamatory vocals and wobbly legged dub-rock of early-'80s Rough Trade post-punks such as Raincoats and Glaxo Babies. This is rarefied territory, and Hightower treads it with panache. The most ebullient Hightower cut is "Wainbow," whose archetypal K Records cuteness gets distilled into dubby, midtempo rock. It's so winsomely askew, you can't help getting hooked within seconds. 

Horse Lords, “Truthers” (RVNG Intl.)

For eight years now, I've been telling people that Horse Lords have reigned among the greatest live performers in underground rock. For the uninitiated, the new As It Happened: Horse Lords Live provides a glimpse into the mesmerizing cyclone that is a Horse Lords show. And, fortuitously, Seattle's Vera Project is hosting the Baltimore/Berlin quartet Horse Lords on July 2. 

On this blog in 2022, I wrote, "Horse Lords have mastered the fine art of hypnosis through manic repetition in their epic compositions, but offering slight variations in riffs and intensities to maintain a vibrant edge. It would be easy to plunge into monotony with this approach, but Horse Lords—Max Eilbacher, Andrew Bernstein, Owen Gardner, and Sam Haberman—savvily alter their parts and forge fascinating microtonal textures to avoid stasis." All of that applies to this live album, which corrals HL songs dating back to 2014's Hidden Cities.  

Speaking of Hidden Cities, its song "Macaw" epitomizes Horse Lords' ability to find many ingenious ways to turn abrasive riffs into eternal mantras; their m.o. is minimalism of maximal intensity, in which exhaustion feels like ecstasy. "May Brigade" from 2022's Comradely Objects moves with the oblong, staccato propulsion of late-period Captain Beefheart and UK post-punk jazzers Blurt; the time signature seems to be in 7/4 or some other ungainly meter. Its coda of madcap electronic tingles and wind-tunnel whooshes show that Horse Lords can bring the element of surprise, too. 

The Interventions track "Bending to the Lash" makes you understand how enjoyable it is to be wound up tight as a motherfucker in a churning rhythm while guitar chords and sax melismas cycle and twine around each other with ever more intensity. Rarely is trance music this bruising. Another Comradely Objects cut, "Zero-Degree Machine," starts with Eilbacher's bizarre, insectoid electronics, which leads into a lumbering approximation of King Crimson's early-'80s gamelan rock. Halfway in, somebody says, "To be continued," and then the group bust out some roiling African desert rock, spiked with triumphant saxophone by Bernstein. 

As It Happened peaks on "Truthers," a scorcher of Saharan freak rock with a potent sting in its tail. It exemplifies Horse Lords' manic intensity, intricate instrumental interplay, and the transcendent euphoria they induce. Even though you're wrung out from the track's heat and speed, you never want it to end. 

But don't just take my word for it. Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's also a big Horse Lords fan. He told Stereogum: "I'm mesmerized by how impossible their music seems... It's not much you see anymore,... a real band forging a super-individual language." Dad-rock-icon validation!

Horse Lords perform Friday July 2 at The Vera Project, 7:00 pm, $15 adv/$18 DOS, all ages.