Five Notable Releases of the Week (6/29)
The music world just lost another great one: punk legend Steve Soto, an original (and constant) Adolescents member, an original Agent Orange member, and more. The SoCal punk sound that Steve helped define early on with both of those bands has remained wildly influential, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine the last three and a half decades of punk and alternative rock without Steve. If you haven’t, put on some Adolescents or early Agent Orange in his honor. It still sounds timeless. This follows the sad news that Pantera’s Vinnie Paul passed away last weekend. He’s another one who impacted music forever and touched countless lives, as tributes from Metallica, Black Sabbath, Foo Fighters, Guns N Roses, Alice Cooper, and more should make very clear.
As for new music to hear, there’s plenty this week. Some honorable mentions: the surprise Converge EP, Gorillaz, Jim James, Ray Davies (who, speaking of, says The Kinks will reunite!), The Rock*A*Teens‘ first album in 18 years, and the lost John Coltrane album.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Florence + the Machine’s music has always sounded gigantic, sometimes bombastic, but for her last album, 2015’s How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, Florence figured out a way to deliver her music in a more subdued way. The songs still didn’t sound small, but they felt more down to earth than the Ceremonials songs and more refined than the Lungs songs. Florence is now finally following How Big with her new album High As Hope, and she’s continuing to take the tremendous-yet-subtle approach that she took on How Big, which has once again yielded exciting results. And if How Big showed a more intimate side of Florence, that side of her is amplified even more on High As Hope. The most personal moment comes on “Hunger,” where Florence sings about her teenage eating disorder, but there’s also moments like “No Choir,” where Florence sings bluntly about how the older she gets, the harder it is to sing about happiness, or “Patricia,” Florence’s tribute to Patti Smith, where Florence addresses her idol and admits: “I have to tell you something… I’m still afraid of the dark.” It’s simple, but it almost feels like hearing Florence read out of her diary, in a way her songs haven’t really felt before. Both “Hunger” and “Patricia” were collaborations with Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman), who’s long shown off a knack for working on personal, piano-based music (like on the piano songs on St. Vincent’s great 2017 album), and it’s no surprise that he fits right in here too.
Florence also teams up with a few other key collaborators who help add subtle intricacies to these songs. “Big God” has contributions from Jamie xx, one of the current leaders of minimal pop, and his influence can be felt greatly. That same song also works in sax by crossover jazz great Kamasi Washington, who really knows how to liven up modern alt-pop and make things just a little weirder. The delicate piano ballad “Grace” has co-writing from Sampha, and though it sounds like nobody other than Florence Welch, you can hear how some of Sampha’s own intimate piano music may be coming through on this one. Kelsey Lu, who has worked not just with Sampha but also other minimal pop greats like Blood Orange and Solange, adds some gorgeous cello to “100 Years,” which is one of my favorite songs on the album. Though actually, “100 Years” is appealing not for being subdued, but for being frantic and in-your-face in a way that Florence isn’t usually. It’s got pounding percussion and feral background shouts that go further into Bjork or Kate Bush territory than anything else on High As Hope. It’s really wild stuff. As with every Florence album, though, no matter who the collaborators are and no matter how many different directions the songs go in, Florence’s words and voice tie everything together. Her voice is like no other and she uses it in increasingly interesting ways. She’s kind of the modern-day Stevie Nicks; both singers can soar and belt it but they do so tastefully, and both have larger than life, otherworldly, highly individual personalities. You can’t just compare anyone to someone as iconic as Stevie Nicks, but at this point, Florence deserves it. High As Hope is an album that flies by, and the songs instantly feel like you’ve known them forever. The “icon” label has deservedly been applied to Florence before, but High As Hope sets it in stone.
UK art pop duo Let’s Eat Grandma (aka Rosa Walton and Jenny Hollingworth) arrived with a clear, unique vision on their 2016 debut album I, Gemini, and somehow, they’ve managed to one-up themselves in every way with this year’s followup, I’m All Ears. They’ve been compared to musicians from all across the board, from Bjork to Lorde to CocoRosie to Gang Gang Dance, yet they really sound like no one other than themselves, and that’s truer than ever on I’m All Ears. For this one, they got some production assistance from SOPHIE, The Horrors frontman Faris Badwan, and producer David Wrench (who’s worked with countless cool artists), and that definitely helped — especially SOPHIE’s distinct production style, which makes I’m All Ears a similar type of wacky pop to SOPHIE’s own new album — but it also seems clear that this album is a success because Rosa and Jenny have come a long away as singers, songwriters, and musicians since 2016. Something like the SOPHIE beat on “Hot Pink” is a real standout, but I’m All Ears really gets to the next level with songs like the 9-minute “Cool & Collected” and the 11-minute “Donnie Darko.” The lengthy running times are worth it, as both songs see Let’s Eat Grandma taking you on a journey through all kinds of sounds and never wasting a minute of your time. They go from atmospheric guitar ballads to bouncy dance-pop and back, all while delivering wild, unhinged vocal performances that truly separate Let’s Eat Grandma from even their most inventive influences. There are times when it feels like I’m All Ears shouldn’t work, yet it never fails to sound effortlessly enjoyable.
Drake’s career has often had parallels to Jay-Z’s, and when he put out Views, I compared the album to Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2, the album where Jay followed an all-time classic with an album that had great moments but mostly saw Jay plateauing. Jay quickly made a comeback with The Black Album, and while Drake hasn’t made his Black Album yet, he thankfully hasn’t made his Kingdom Come either. Drake followed Views with last year’s 22-song More Life, which again mostly saw him coasting but had its great moments (like “Passionfruit”). Now he’s got another (extremely lengthy) new project, Scorpion, and even if it’s not a total comeback, it sounds pleasantly surprising on early listens.
Scorpion is presented as a double album, though it’s only about four or five minutes longer than Views and More Life, but the length is a little easier to stomach this time because each “side” registers as it’s own distinct album — Side A is mostly a rap album and Side B is mostly an R&B album. It’d still be stronger if Drake cut it down to its 10 or 12 best songs, but it doesn’t drag as much as its two predecessors. Because Drake went in a more overtly pop direction with his last two projects — following 2015’s tougher, rap-heavy If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late — the most exciting thing about Scorpion is hearing him take his rap side more seriously on Side A. Side B has highlights too, but it feels slightly more predictable, while Side A is a little more refreshing and exciting. He opens up with “Survival,” the kind of capital-I Intro track that he did with “Over My Dead Body” and “Tuscan Leather” (“This just the intro, let me not get ahead of myself,” he reminds us twice in the song). It draws you in the way Old Drake always would, and things level up from there with “Nonstop.” Drake’s got plenty of the usual OVO suspects contributing to this album, but the times that he works with much-loved outside producers are the times the album keeps you most on your toes. “Nonstop” has a bass-heavy beat co-produced by No I.D., and — though he isn’t crushing it or anything — Drake sounds more genuinely concerned with reminding you he can rap than he has in a while. It might sound like a weird match on paper, but when Drake teams with boom bap pioneer DJ Premier (and frequent Drake collaborator Maneesh) on “Sandra’s Rose,” Premo gives Drake a gorgeous musical backdrop that his characteristically melancholic bars work perfectly with. On the next song, “Talk Up,” he switches it up and gets aggressive over a beat from Three 6 Mafia’s DJ Paul. Then Jay-Z comes in, and he sounds ominous and fired up in a way the lush-sounding Everything Is Love didn’t make time for. Jay finds time to reminisce about his past, brag about the present, and reference Trump tweeting about him, the murder of XXXTentacion, and Trayvon Martin’s murderer walking free and alive. If a new Drake album means we get Jay-Z rapping like this, it’s worth it.
Scorpion is an event album for a lot of reasons. It’s an event album because Drake is still too big for it to not be. It’s an event album because it has an unearthed feature by the late Michael Jackson. It’s an event album because it comes in the midst of a highly publicized feud with Pusha T, and Drake addresses that feud head-on, adding fuel to the gossipy fire. Push dropped what might be the year’s most ruthless diss track with “The Story of Adidon,” where, among other things, Push accuses Drake of hiding a child. As far as battle rap goes, Push won, and even with Scorpion out in the world, Push still wins. But Drake sort of also wins, because Scorpion sees him taking the high road in a way that’s more emotionally resonant and less instantly-dated than firing back with another diss track. “I wasn’t hiding my kid from the world, I was hiding the world from my kid,” he raps over a lush Mariah Carey sample on “Emotionless,” and it’s hard to not understand that. But the real moment where Drake puts the nail in the coffin of this “hiding a kid” thing, is Side B closer “March 14.” It has Drake in calm, pensive mode, but instead of getting calm and pensive about like, some girl his mom wants him to date, this time he’s rapping directly to his son, and it’s genuinely touching. “I don’t want you worrying about whose house you live at, or who loves you more, or who’s not there,” he says, after admitting embarrassment that he “ended up as a co-parent.” And finally at the end of the verse: “Hopefully by the time you hear this, me and your mother will have come around instead of always cuttin’ each other down… we’ll talk more when you hear this.” Drake’s not even at the point in his career where “grown-up rap” like this is expected of him, but if he’s got more songs like this in him for years to come, maybe he’ll skip his Kingdom Come and jump right to his 4:44.
Brooklyn’s The Essex Green formed back in the ’90s, and then they hooked up with the Elephant 6 collective and signed to Athens label Kindercore (who also signed other Elephant 6 bands like of Montreal) before moving to Merge, who released their 2003 album The Long Goodbye and their 2006 album Cannibal Sea. (All while Essex Green members Jeff Baron and Sasha Bell were also playing in Merge-signed Elephant 6 band The Ladybug Transistor.) They broke up shortly after Cannibal Sea, but now, after reuniting in 2016, they’re back with their first album in 12 years, Hardly Electronic. It basically picks up where they left off, which is perfectly fine, considering The Essex Green were always kind of doing their own thing in indie rock’s margins anyway. Like a lot of Elephant 6-associated bands, The Essex Green took ’60s psych-pop and reworked it to fit an indie rock template, and that’s still what they’re doing today. And the hiatus may have actually strengthened them; Hardly Electronic just hits a sweet spot in a way that not all of their previous material had. Sasha Bell and Chris Ziter’s harmonies still soar in that classic ’60s way, and the songs on this record are really sharp. Hardly Electronic opens on perhaps its strongest note, “Sloane Ranger,” a dose of Byrds-y jangle pop that’s fueled by a peppy organ hook and an earmworm chorus. Elsewhere, they’ve got all kinds of repurposed ’60s sounds, like the baroque pop balladry of “Patsy Desmond,” a slight dose of country rock on “Bye Bye Crow,” the slightly harder psych-rock of “Smith & 9th” (a song about “the highest [subway] station” in the Brooklyn bands’s hometown), and a nice dose of Beatles worship in the form of “Modern Rain.” Hardly Electronic isn’t reinventing the wheel or anything, but if you’re prone to like the bands that clearly influenced them (or newer bands that followed in their path like Tame Impala), you’ll probably find that The Essex Green still do this kind of psych-pop revival better than most.
Between Self Defense Family (and the earlier years when the band was known as End of a Year) and singer Patrick Kindlon’s various other projects (like Drug Church and Loss Leader), Kindlon has made more music in the past nearly-fifteen years than most of his peers (not to mention he’s also a comic book writer). Rarely does a year go by where he doesn’t put out more than one release, and it’s no surprise to hear that that can take a toll on you, especially when the music is aggressive post-hardcore as Kindlon’s often is. Enter Have You Considered Punk Music, which is only punk in spirit, where Patrick Kindlon waxes wisdom about trying to sustain this kind of lifestyle. He’s self-aware enough to know it might make him sound old at best and self-important at worst, but his execution is effective enough that it’s tough to criticize him. SDF have made calmer music before, but Punk Music is some of their calmest, with Kindlon delivering weary spoken word over post rock-ish arrangements. It’s similar in sound to The Van Pelt or mewithoutYou, and if you like either of those bands, you’ll probably be pleased with the direction Self Defense Family went in. And if you’re a longtime SDF fan, you’ll probably find that, though it’s a new sound for the band, it’s consistent with the M.O. the band has always had. Self Defense Family have always been able to fit into various punk-related scenes but they were never tied to one. They’re usually reacting to or defying various norms that people may expect them to conform to, and that’s exactly what they’re doing on this album. Even with a band like Self Defense Family, where longtime fans have come to expect the unexpected, Have You Considered Punk Music feels delightfully unpredictable.