Five Notable Releases of the Week (9/14)
It’s another stacked week like last week where there are way more than five worthy albums out today. Some other albums that didn’t make my list but that I’m very excited about include the Aphex Twin EP, Thrice (who I interviewed), Emma Ruth Rundle (who also sings on the Thrice album), the debut Shortly EP, and Bosse-de-Nage. And for even more honorable mentions: 6LACK, The Chills, Marc Ribot, Spirit of the Beehive, Knife Knights (Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler from Shabazz Palaces/Digable Planets), Infernal Coil, Dilly Dally, the Dizzee Rascal EP, Innanet James, Octavian, The Goon Sax, Guerilla Toss, Night Shop, Orbital, Paul Weller, Richard Thompson, We Were Promised Jetpacks, Active Bird Community, and the Sleaford Mods EP.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Low helped define the slowcore genre with their classic ’90s albums, further refined it with their early 2000s albums, and since then, they became one of those consistently reliable veteran bands whose new albums could sometimes be taken for granted. That changes with Double Negative, which sounds like nothing else Low have ever released, and like almost nothing else in general. The one constant between this album and its predecessors is Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s breathtaking harmonies, but otherwise, they’re in totally new territory. Like 2015’s Ones and Sixes, Low made the album at Justin Vernon’s April Base Studios with producer B.J. Burton, but this time B.J. sort of functioned as a fourth band member, and helped bring a noisy electronic vibe to Low’s sound. Almost every song on Double Negative flows seamlessly into the next; it’s really one lengthy piece of music broken down into 11 tracks more so than 11 different songs. So much of the album is murky and noisy, and then, like the light at the end of the tunnel, one of those beautiful Sparhawk/Parker harmonies comes in and steals the show. The album doesn’t function as anything remotely close to “pop music” until track three, when Low deliver an R&B-ish falsetto over a groovy bassline and haunting atmosphere. The absolute prettiest moment of the album — and what you might call its centerpiece — is “Always Up,” where Low’s core duo deliver beautifully psychedelic harmonies over nothing but a reverb-soaked texture and a distant bass drum. It sounds like the Summer of Love repurposed for the Drake era, and it stops me in my tracks everytime. It’s immediately followed by another of the bolder, more “pop” songs, “Always Trying To Work It Out,” which marries effected vocals, heavy drums, bursts of noise, and a faint memory of the classic Low sound. Then, after more interlude type stuff (“The Son, The Sun”), Low emerge from the murk once again for the delicate “Dancing And Fire,” where Alan Sparhawk sings clear and in the forefront, unmasked by noise and effects, over some spare piano chords. More very out-there stuff follows, and the album ends on another unexpected note: the bouncy synthpop of “Disarray.” No previous Low album has thrown this many curveballs. No previous Low album has been this uncompromising or this experimental. Recent Low albums have varied from good to great, but Low haven’t made an album this truly essential in a very long time.
Noname – Room 25
Chicago rapper Noname picked up some buzz with her first full-length project, 2016’s Telefone, but it was really her live show with a full band where her full potential was revealed. She spent the two years since Telefone‘s release touring, and every time I saw her was better than the last. Now she’s finally back with new music, Room 25, which captures the intensity of her live show and easily tops its predecessor. Like at her shows, the instrumentation on this album is so lively and airtight. It’s a refreshing change in an era where most major rap albums favor electronic production, but it’s not just praiseworthy solely because they play “actual instruments.” It’s praiseworthy because the instrumentation on this album is some of the finest instrumentation you’ll hear all year, regardless of genre. (The throwback string arrangements are a great touch too.) And at the forefront of it all is Noname, who has upped her game in every possible way. Her delivery is sharper, her lyricism is more attention-grabbing, and she has figured out how to harness the star power she has on display at her shows. Telefone is a smaller, more modest sounding album; Room 25 jumps out at you and pulls you into Noname’s world on first listen. Noname’s delivery is fast-paced but not showy, and her words are poetic but not vague. They pair perfectly with the musical backdrop, which blends elements of soul, jazz, and classic pop with neck-snapping hip hop drums. Comparisons can be made to ’90s acts like A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets, but Noname does it in a way that sounds totally fresh and in the now.
Indie pop vets Saturday Looks Good To Me made a comeback in 2012, followed by a new album in 2013, but it wasn’t until main member Fred Thomas reverted back to releasing music under his own name that this very exciting new chapter of his career began. Aftering concludes an “unofficial trilogy” that began with 2015’s All Are Saved and continued with 2017’s Changer. All three albums were co-produced with Drew Vandenberg, all three featured conversational, stream-of-consciousness lyrics (in a Benji or A Crow Looked At Me kind of way), and all three have been among Fred’s most acclaimed work yet. Fred says that this new one was loosely modeled after Neil Young’s On the Beach, with the way it’s split up between its more upbeat first half and its slower, more melancholic second half. The format works great for Fred, and he really delivers on this album. The first half has some of his best driving indie rock songs of late, while the second half has some of the best examples of his stream-of-consciousness style.
The album opens with “Ridiculous Landscapes,” where Fred sings over a buzzy, atmospheric synth with gorgeous backing vocals by Common Holly, and it really kicks into full gear with “Alcohol Poisoning,” a real rocker that inches towards Dinosaur Jr/Sonic Youth territory. The rest of the first half is a little less abrasive and a little more peppy (including the great Anna Burch collaboration “Altar”), but the second half goes into some real dark territory. The eight-minute “House Show Late December” sounds like a cross between Sun Kil Moon and Slint, and the lyrics read more like an inner monologue than a song. It’s a song where leaky faucets, iPod DJs at house shows, and murders at vape shops are all given equal amounts of attention, and it’s haunting in how freely Fred can transition between those topics. “Mother Daughter Pharmaprix” pairs a folky acoustic guitar with a synthy texture, and lyrically it sees Fred once again contemplating the pain of everyday life, this time while observing a fight between a mother and a daughter. “Slow Waves” sees Fred moving to piano. It opens with a scene where he’s catching a flight “for two shows outside of Philly that will pay my rent completely,” and it turns into what is ostensibly a fight between him and a significant other, filled with vitriol. Finally the album closes out with the crackling atmosphere of “What The Sermon Said,” where Fred recalls being eight years old, when he was “too angry, [he] hated the kids in [his] grade.” So his parents took him to “a church a couple towns over” where maybe he’d make some new friends. “We never went back to that church,” the song (and album) ends. Like the three before it, this arresting album closer finds Fred looking at things so simple, so mundane, so “normal,” and finding significance in them. It’s more like a diary or a therapy session than a rock album, and it kind of functions as all three.
Saddle Creek has been more on a roll with scooping up great young indie bands in the past few years than they have been since the Bright Eyes/Cursive/Rilo Kiley era, and the new bands all tend to be the kind of bands that would appeal to people raised on the songs of Conor Oberst, Tim Kasher, and Jenny Lewis. Recent years have seen the Saddle Creek roster expand to include Hop Along, Big Thief, Young Jesus, Tomberlin, and now Black Belt Eagle Scout, whose debut album Mother of My Children gets a wider release on the label today.
The album initially came out last year on Portland’s Good Cheer Records, and it followed a 2014 EP and a long history of main member Katherine Paul (or simply KP) playing in Portland indie bands, including Genders and Forest Park. So while Mother of My Children is a first album, it’s by an artist with years of experience, and that immediately comes through when you listen to it. KP clearly has a ton of talent and a ton of confidence. She plays all the instruments on the album she does so with finesse, seamlessly rotating between her formative grunge influences and a more delicate, atmospheric sound; and while these songs have an intimacy to them, KP’s voice soars like she’s singing from the mountaintops in her recent press photo. And the album’s got a fascinating backstory and a very powerful message. KP grew up on an Indian reservation and only really started to get involved in a music scene when she moved to Portland for college, but she never abandoned her heritage. She boldly puts her indigenous identity in the forefront of some of these songs, like “Indians Never Die,” which she calls “a call out to colonizers and those who don’t respect the Earth.” The album was also inspired by the grief she felt after the death of her mentor, Geneviève Castrée, and the loss she felt after “the relationship [she] had with the first woman [she] loved had drastically lessened and changed.” So many heavy topics informed these songs. They are deep, and they are full of purpose, and even without knowing any of the backstory, that all comes across when you listen to the album.
A lot of times with doom bands, you kinda know basically what to expect once they’re a few albums deep — that kinda thing will happen when you’re genre’s whole M.O. is “sound like Black Sabbath.” But this is not the case for Conan, whose new album Existential Void Guardian is full of unpredictable moments and who I hesitate to even still call a doom band. The new album’s still got a handful of doom (or at least sludge) riffs, though nothing quite as snail-paced or swampy as Conan’s early material, but it’s also got a very strong punk/hardcore influence in the faster tempos and shouted vocals. “Eye To Eye To Eye” sounds like the exact intersection of ’90s post-hardcore and sludge metal (somewhere between Unsane, Melvins, Eyehategod, Neurosis, etc), but that’s not even as fast as this album gets. “Paincantation” is a 50-second burst of hardcore fury that could basically pass as grindcore, and its speed is even more noticeable since it’s back to back with one of the album’s slowest songs, “Amidst the Infinite.” The band’s dual vocal attack often sounds angrier and catchier than Conan have been in the past, and it makes for some of their most instantly enjoyable songs yet. Early Conan was meditative music that you could lose yourself in, but Existential Void Guardian is an album to rock the fuck out to.