Five Notable Releases of the Week (3/18/16)
While a lot of the music industry is in the midst of SXSW craziness right now, there’s still plenty going on outside of Austin. For one, it’s another week heavy on new albums that are worth hearing. I picked five, which range from the return of a legendary electronic duo, to a metal band’s “pop” album, to new music from one of punk’s godfathers.
Check out my picks below. What’s your favorite release of the week?
Electronic music legends Underworld haven’t released an album since 2010’s Barking, and main members Rick Smith and Karl Hyde used the time since then to work on solo/side projects (including two Karl Hyde albums with Brian Eno). Now they’re officially back, and they’re in fine form. Some Underworld albums, like the classic Dubnobasswithmyheadman, focus on heady techno experiments, but this is very much a songwriting album. It’s a seven-song album split into two parts, with a first half that digs into the band’s abrasive side and a second half of lighter, more gorgeous material. They’re split by “Santiago Cuatro,” an instrumental passage of psychedelic acoustic guitar. Opener “I Exhale” is the kind of dark synthpop that predates even Underworld’s first album, with Karl Hyde dishing out attitude-heavy spoken word. He keeps those kind of vocals going on the more hopping “If Rah” and the house-y “Low Burn.” Then switches it up for a delicate croon on “Motorhome,” the gentle track that transitions out of “Santiago Cuatro.” “Ova Nova” brings a thumping beat back, but this time it’s all sugary melodies and angelic vocals. And the album’s closing track, “Nylon Strung,” is the album’s most anthemic moment and quite possibly its best. It’s a major difference from “I Exhale” and it’s almost weird to think about how we managed to get here. Those last two have backup vocals from the members’ daughters, Esme Smith and Tyler Hyde, who add even more to this album’s sonic palette. It’s quite a trip.
The Body have been making noisy, droney experimental metal for over a decade, but for No One Deserves Happiness they set out to make “the grossest pop album of all time.” (They make no secret about the fact that they think mainstream pop is progressing more than modern metal.) If you’re already a fan of The Body, a move like this shouldn’t be too surprising — they’ve already made a record with electronic musician The Haxan Cloak and covered Fleetwood Mac with Thou — but if you’re not usually into stuff like this, No One Deserves Happiness could be The Body album that wins you over. The band’s harsh screams are contrasted by the delicate, ethereal voices of Chrissy Wolpert (The Assembly of Light Choir) and Maralie Armstrong (Humanbeast), who make the album sound a bit like a different Haxan Cloak collaborator, Bjork. The Body also combine their own drumming with 808s and a noted hip hop influence. If any of this makes you worry they’ve gone too accessible though, that’s not the case either. The record is still covered in distortion and noise and still ready to alienate the close-minded.
Epic Jammers and Fortunate Little Ditties is the first collaborative album from spacey drone duo Bitchin Bajas and Will Oldham (aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), who’s been consistently writing great, sad, post-On the Beach songs since the ’90s. It’s a meeting of the minds that doesn’t exactly seem likely, but it ends up working really well. As far as the musical backdrop on these songs go, Bitchin Bajas’ influence shows much more strongly than Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s folkier sounds, but the latter’s unmistakable voice is at the forefront of every track. His lyrics often have little more than the song title repeated, and some of the songs actually have nothing more than the title repeated, yet a number of these reach the eight or nine minute mark without ever feeling too repetitive. His lyrical approach works the same way Bitchin Bajas’ drone does, looping endlessly until you’re unconsciously sucked in. Not only is this album expertly executed hypnotic psychedelia, it’s also inspirational. “Your Heart is Pure, Your Mind Is Clear, Your Soul Devout”; “Show Your Love and Your Love Will Be Returned”; and “You Will Soon Discover How Truly Fortunate You Really Are” are just a few of the repeated lyrics/titles on the album. For a lot of us, Will Oldham is a musical hero, someone you look up to, and hearing these wisdoms and prophecies come from him feels truly hopeful. On “Your Hard Work Is About To Pay Off, Keep on Keeping On,” the one song that works as a single and the one that sounds most like a Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy song, he adds “your strength inspires others,” “you will have many friends when you need them,” “your success will astonish everyone.” It almost feels strange, if only because optimism this genuine is pretty rare in rock (this is coming out the same week as rock albums called No One Deserves Happiness and Post Pop Depression), but it’s very satisfying.
The album isn’t streaming anywhere, but you can pick it up at the Drag City webstore.
Visions of Us on the Land completes Damien Jurado’s Richard Swift-produced trilogy that began with 2012’s Maraqopa and continued with 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, all of which tell the story of the same unnamed individual. Those albums were both ten songs that clocked in around 35 minutes, but Damien is going for something more ambitious this time. It’s 17 songs that pass the 50-minute mark, and while it’s certainly an album that demands patience, it’s not overstuffed with ideas or filler. The first thing I noticed is that Visions is such a great sounding record. It’s got warm, earthy production, and it’s fleshed out by pounding drums and grand arrangements that make it sound much more massive than your average folk album. “TAQOMA” evolves into a psychedelic rock jam, “On the Land Blues” is an arresting, bare-bones folk song, and “Walrus” has a bassline you could actually call “funky.” Those three songs all happen consecutively right in the middle of the record, and that’s still just a small sample of what Visions achieves. Even with some new ground explored, it’s no major departure from the Damien Jurado we know and love. Damien was making this kind of reverb-vocal Seattle folk before bands like Band of Horses and Fleet Foxes took it to greater levels of fame, but the former has moved on to more radio-ready sounds and the latter hasn’t released an album in five years (maybe this is a start), while Damien remains prolific and consistent. If you’re a true believer in that sound, you can’t let this one slip by.
I had higher (or at least different) expectations for an Iggy Pop album written and produced with Josh Homme and featuring one of the best drummers in modern mainstream rock (Arctic Monkeys’ Matt Helders). So my initial reaction was an underwhelmed one, but putting those expectations aside, it’s clear that there’s a lot to like about Post Pop Depression. It’s the first Iggy solo record of rock music since 2003’s Skull Ring (and first to thankfully not feature Sum 41 since 2001’s Beat ‘Em Up), and it’s certainly a more essential record. Those albums (and the two recent Stooges LPs) focused sonically on Iggy’s rep as a proto-punk icon, but this one has him recalling the two albums he made with Bowie in the late ’70s. He’s crooning in his trademark baritone, keeping things mid-tempo, and more concerned with arty arrangements than raw power. It’s kind of his The Next Day. (Imagine what Iggy’s Blackstar could sound like though?) It does have more garage rock swagger than The Idiot or Lust for Life do, but more in a Queens of the Stone Age way than a Stooges way. Homme (and Helders) knows how to make riff-heavy rock that still sounds sexy, and that’s exactly what this is. Not to mention it gets a little evil. Maybe I was hoping it’d have the crunch of “Feel Good Hit of the Summer” with the drums from “Brianstorm” and the shredded vocal cords of “Search and Destroy,” but it’s still a consistently solid record from a guy who changed the world of rock music almost half a century ago. That shouldn’t be taken for granted.