Five Notable Releases of the Week (3/24)
SXSW craziness is behind us, and the music world is back to a normal schedule. If you missed any of it, catch up on our SXSW coverage here.
A lot of big stuff happened this week. The Record Store Day list came out. FYF Fest was announced (including a Cap’n Jazz reunion!), Brooklyn’s Northside Festival was announced (including huge Thursday, Dirty Projectors, and Miguel shows), and Lollapalooza was announced too. Gorillaz finally revealed details (and four new songs) on their new album. That’s coming out in April.
Meanwhile, it’s also another great week for new albums. I picked five that I think you should hear, and you can check those out below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Writing about Pallbearer’s second album, Foundations of Burden — my third favorite album of 2014 — I said that, although it’s doom metal through and through, it was one of my favorite pop albums of that year. On its highly anticipated followup, Heartless, Pallbearer take the making-pop-music-out-of-doom-metal formula to even higher levels. The riffs that kick off album opener “I Saw the End” are beefy, towering trad-doom riffs, but they sound like pure sugar. They had the legendary Billy Anderson behind the boards on Foundations of Burden, but Pallbearer did this one on their own and they figured out how to give it the extra shine that pop music needs. The guitars have always been melodic, but now they’re clean and rubbery too — not the kind of thing you’d usually go to a metal producer for anyway. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but Heartless comes one year after Kvelertak released Nattesferd, and they share a lot in common. Nattesferd was also that band’s third album, also self-produced, and also blurred the lines between metal and pop more than they ever had before. (Not to mention the artwork for Nattesferd and Heartless have similar hues.) Together, these two albums seem to suggest: take things into your own hands and nobody can stop you from knocking down boundaries.
Pallbearer are a doom band so there’s always been a little Sabbath in them, and their soaring vocals have gotten a comparison or two to Geddy Lee. In the past, the Geddy Lee influence only really crept in through the vocals, but Heartless reminds me more of Rush than Pallbearer ever have before — conceptually, at least. Rush are a complex prog band that have managed to write true radio hits, and metalheads like them. Heartless doesn’t sound like Rush, but it shares a lot of traits with them. This is an album with 12-minute prog journeys and some serious guitar-nerd stuff, but the driving force is the hooks. Music theory heads might praise “Limelight” for its proto-math rock rhythms, headbangers for its riff, and casual music fans for its addictive chorus; and Heartless could please all three of those groups too.
“Death is real. Someone’s there and then they’re not. And it’s not for singing about. It’s not for making into art. When real death enters the house, all poetry is dumb.” That’s how Phil Elverum opens the heartbreaking new Mount Eerie album, A Crow Looked At Me. And yes, he is singing it, but this album works less like art and more like a diary. The musical accompaniment that is there is very minimal, usually not much more than a soft guitar, piano, or some light percussion. And the songs don’t fade out or have codas or anything; they sort of just stop. It might be the most frank, plainspoken, and depressing album since Benji.
The entire album is an ode to Phil Elverum’s wife, the artist Geneviève Castrée, who passed away last year after battling cancer. She was survived by Phil and their one and a half year old daughter, who Phil also sings about on so much of this album. Phil makes the tiny moments feel massive. He remembers Geneviève when he takes the trash out at night. He remembers her when a package comes that Geneviève ordered — a backpack for when their daughter would be old enough to go to school. But he also goes deeper. He talks about the room he watched her die in, and how he doesn’t go in it anymore. He talks about how he leaves the window open in that room, “just in case something still needs to leave.” Maybe death isn’t for making into art, but A Crow Looked At Me succeeds as art. It’s art so powerful that you can’t consume it without wanting to grieve yourself.
London musician Kelly Lee Owens got her start working with techno producer Daniel Avery, whose Drone Logic she contributed to. She then put out her own EP and two 12″s, and is now releasing her debut full length. Kelly keeps one foot in the electronic-music world that she started in, but Kelly Lee Owens really shows off her strengths as a songwriter. She writes hushed, minimal songs, the kind that subgenre fanatics tend to give the “bedroom” prefix to. Still, her thumping beats on the album are ready-made for the club. (Does that make this… “bedroom club”?) The clash of those sounds is an exciting one, and Kelly really knows how to pull it off. In a post-James Blake world, combining quiet songwriting and dance beats isn’t super uncommon, but Kelly doesn’t do it like James and his followers. Her album’s a bit like the great Holly Herndon album released a couple years back. Like Holly, Kelly knows the power of a good synth workout, but also the power of a literal whisper. Another artist with a sound as off-kilter and trend-defying as Kelly is Jenny Hval, who lends her voice to “Anxi” on this album. Jenny’s style is a little more in-your-face than Kelly’s, but she fits right in on this LP.
Craig Finn never strays too far from the style that we know and love, but so far, every solo album he’s done has been distinctly different. His solo debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes, really sounded like the kind of songs Craig could truly play solo. They were folkier and quieter than anything he’d done with The Hold Steady. Its followup, 2015’s Faith In the Future, took a deep dive into Springsteen’s mid-’80s era. (Not that Craig never sounded like The Boss before that, but this was the most Born In the USA he’d ever gotten.) Now he’s back with We All Want the Same Things, which might be Craig’s best work since Stay Positive. Though he’s still got the Springsteen-y everyman’s lyrics, and it’s still unmistakably the work of Craig Finn, it doesn’t really recall anything in particular. It’s a keyboard-heavy album, but a modern-sounding one. It’s full of horns, but the horns don’t echo the late Clarence Clemons. The horns are by Antibalas/Superhuman Happiness member Stuart D. Bogie, who’s worked with Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the arrangements on WAWTST are often closer to those bands than to the E Street Band. (Other notable guests on the album include Rainer Maria singer Caithlin De Marrais, Grateful Dead family members Joe Russo and Jon Shaw, and Craig’s Hold Steady bandmate Tad Kubler.)
It hits so much harder than Craig’s other recent material because it feels so much more natural. The Hold Steady don’t write songs like “Chips Ahoy!” anymore and they probably never will again — that part of their lives is behind them. There’s always a little awkwardness in a musician’s career when they can tell a fan-loved phase is behind them (and by playing Boys & Girls In America in full, THS are probably admitting that they can tell), but WAWTST is the sound of Craig Finn settling into a new phase in his career. The album also has one song that truly sounds like nothing he’s done before: “God In Chicago.” “I’ve done a lot of songs that have been called ‘talky,’ but this is the furthest I’ve gone towards spoken word,” Craig said of that song. It’s true that we’ve never heard a spoken-word ballad from Craig Finn like this one, and it suits him well.
It’s a really good time to be a shoegaze fan. My Bloody Valentine put out the looong-awaited followup to Loveless a few years back, and this year we’re getting the first Ride album in 21 years, the first Slowdive album in 22 years, and today, the first Jesus and Mary Chain album in 19 years. (Not to mention the recent Swervedriver and Lush comeback records.) These bands are more influential than ever, with a huge crop of new bands pulling from the style they helped pioneer, and basically all the major shoegaze comebacks have been triumphant ones.
The Mary Chain were never really shoegaze — Psychocandy was at least “proto-shoegaze” and they moved on from that sound pretty quickly — but there probably isn’t a shoegaze band on the planet who doesn’t consider them an influence, and enough of Psychocandy‘s wall of sound pops up on Damage and Joy that modern-day guitar-swirlers should take note. The album doesn’t exactly break new ground for JAMC, but it whips out a few of the band’s time-tested tricks — the “Be My Baby” beat, the sweet-as-honey vocals, male/female duets (featuring Sky Ferreira, Isobel Campbell, Linda Fox, and Berndette Denning on various songs) — and it’s fun to hear them back at it.