Five Notable Releases of the Week (3/4/16)
This has been one hell of a week for new music, a week absolutely stacked with stuff that’s worth listening to. There’s the first album in in 12 years from country legend Loretta Lynn, the first album in 15 years from forever-adolescent alt-rockers Violent Femmes, solid returns from indie regulars M. Ward and Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, eccentric pop from Prince Rama and Polica, brilliant experimental records from Mary Lattimore and Anna Meredith, records from promising young punk bands Big Ups, ROMP and Muncie Girls, and still more. I recommend hearing each and every one of those, and still none of them make my five picks this week. That’s how stacked this week is.
It might be a coincidence, or maybe I just tend to gravitate towards stuff like this, but all five of my picks this week are artists who have been consistently solid for quite a while yet still feel overlooked or underrated in some ways. Two of them also happen to be debut albums from new bands that those veteran artists recently formed.
And of course there’s also that surprise Kendrick Lamar project that dropped last night, but I need more time with it. Maybe next week!
Check out all five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Heron Oblivion are fronted by Meg Baird, who’s released music as a solo artist and as a member of Espers, and it also features members of Comets on Fire and Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound, so you know you’re dealing with masters of modern psychedelia. Meg’s own music often feels hushed and gentle, like the cult psych-folk singers of the late ’60s and early ’70s, but here she’s howling in a way that makes me think more of Fairport Convention than of Vashti Bunyan. The band doesn’t just sound like a throwback to British folk rock though. As the Comets on Fire and Assemble Head In Sunburst Sound members do in those projects, they’re bringing a serious dose of heavy psych and stoner rock to Meg’s more delicate voice. Not to mention lots and lots of wah pedal. Folk rock and heavier sounds have mixed before — in bands as massive as Led Zeppelin or Jethro Tull — but something about Heron Oblivion still feels fresh. The melodies may sound British but the psychedelia sounds right out of San Francisco, and it’s all beefed up with modern production that none of their influences had. Sometimes it feels like ’60s-inspired psych has nothing left to say, and then a band like Heron Oblivion comes along and rips that notion to shreds.
Indie rock as it was defined in the late ’90s and early-mid ’00s — ambitious, artful rock music with big hooks but too much eccentricity for the radio — saw a bit of a decline for a while there, but it’s been coming back in a huge way. Thanks to bands like Hop Along, TWIABP and Pinegrove, that sound feels as vital now as it did a decade ago. One of the bands who helped shape that sound, Pinback, sadly called it quits last year, and frontman Rob Crow even suggested he was done with music for good. But he quickly got a new band together, the awesomely-named Rob Crow’s Gloomy Place, and wrote the awesomely-titled You’re Doomed. Be Nice., which has him sounding as inspired now as he did on Blue Screen Life. The guitar playing on the record is fantastic, with fidgety rhythms and quiet-loud dynamics that come close to Dischord post-hardcore. It also nears metal at some points, strips down to acoustic parts at others, and incorporates electronics too. Add in the fact that Rob’s songwriting is as melodically and lyrically sharp as ever, and it becomes really hard to let go of this record.
(Soundcloud via Stereogum)
The first Face to Face record I ever heard was 2002’s How to Ruin Everything. There’s probably no one who would consider that the band’s most classic record (that’s their 1992 debut, Don’t Turn Away) but it’s the one I heard first, and probably because of that, it remains my favorite one. It also made it incredibly easy to latch on to Don’t Turn Away and their other records because, with the exception of Ignorance Is Bliss, Face to Face had never changed their sound that much. Unless you exist on a diet exclusively of skate punk, you probably stop keeping up with bands like this for that exact reason. How many people regularly revisit all 16 Bad Religion records? Probably not many, but almost all of them are a perfect entry point into the band’s career. It’s why that band was as important to fans who were teenagers in 1982 as they were to fans who were teenagers in 2002. This is all to say that the new Face to Face record breaks exactly zero ground, but it’s really fucking good. It’s got killer basslines, breakneck tempos, and liberal usage of “whoa”s. Three or four power chords a song, maybe a simple lead riff, instantly memorable shout-sung choruses — it’s all the ingredients that no-frills punk like this needs. And it’s the kind of thing Face to Face have been masters at since their debut album over two decades ago. It could be the record that gets a young teen into Face to Face, or for longtime fans it could just be fun as hell to listen to. Or maybe you haven’t thought about this band in years, and this is the record that reminds you they still rip.
I mentioned in the intro above that all of my picks this week are artists who have been consistently solid for awhile yet overlooked in some way. If there’s something that makes Nada Surf overlooked, it’s that we always expect Nada Surf records to be good and they’re always just as good as we expect them to be. They’ve never made some shockingly classic late-career album like Benji or The Seer, they just keep churning out a steady stream of solid albums. But there’s nothing bad about that at all, especially when they do continue to be this good. This one does have one special treat — it’s their first album with former Guided by Voices guitarist Doug Gillard — but mostly it’s the Nada Surf you know and love. Matthew Caws is a masterful pop songwriter, and this thing is rich with melodies that stick with you after just a few listens. And like most of their best work, it’s the kind of breezy spring afternoon record that you can just throw on and relax to. But it’s a Nada Surf record, so Daniel Lorca and Ira Elliot’s driving rhythm section give it a stronger backbone than a lot of other stuff you’d call “breezy.” You need a few good “comfort food” albums every year, and You Know Who You Are is already proving to be a great one for 2016.
Jennifer O’Connor’s sixth album, Surface Noise, is a deeply intimate, personal record. It’s the kind of album you want to listen to alone and pay attention to every single word that comes out of Jennifer’s mouth. “I don’t know which way I’m going / I suppose I should be knowing / I’d wait and see but my neck is breaking and finally I feel like taking a bow,” she sings over little more than an acoustic guitar on “Standing For Nobody.” That song is about as bare bones as it gets, and it stops you in your tracks every time. Not every song on the album is as quiet as that one; many have backing from drummer Jon Langmead and Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, the same backing band that appeared on 2006’s Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars (released on Matador). And Tom Beaujour, who co-produced the album with Jennifer, also plays guitar/bass on some songs. But even on the full-band songs, listening to this record feels like reading someone’s diary. It’s unpolished, unfiltered, and beautifully written. If you’re a fan of anything like early Cat Power or Waxahatchee and you haven’t heard this record, it’s worth changing that.