Five Notable Releases of the Week (9/22)
It is yet another huge week for new albums. A few honorable mentions: psych-folk legend Linda Perhacs‘ third album I’m A Harmony, which follows 2014’s The Soul of All Natural Things and 1970’s Parallelograms, and has noticeable contributions from Julia Holter, members of Wilco, and more; Long Island melodic punk greats The Movielife‘s first album in 14 years, Cities In Search of a Heart; The Clientele; Luna; The Horrors; Cut Copy; METZ; The Blow; Hiss Golden Messenger; Fischerspooner; Wolves in the Throne Room; G Herbo; Young Thug & DJ Carnage; Kevin Gates; and The Killers. There’s also a surprise Jhene Aiko album.
Check out the five I picked below. What was your favorite release of the week?
On “Smoke Signals,” the first song on Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album Stranger In The Alps, she references David Bowie’s and Lemmy’s deaths, Walden, and listening to The Smiths in an ’80s sedan, as if to quickly establish a bond with the listener. If these things induce strong feelings in you, Phoebe’s music probably will too. But the part that always trips me up most is: “I want to live at the Holiday Inn where somebody else makes the bed.” In that one line, Phoebe captures what it feels like when you’re too lazy or depressed to do even the simplest household chore. Or maybe it’s a comment about taking something so intimate and personal like the place you sleep, and turning it into something generic and soulless — you never see the beds get made, you just leave in the morning, come back at night, and there they are. Or maybe it means something else entirely. Either way, it’s one of many lines on this album that I’ve been obsessing over. The album also ends with a reprise of “Smoke Signals,” and if it sells you as an opener, you’ll be sold on the nine songs in between too. They’re filled with lines that will worm their way into your brain and stay there.
Every song on Stranger In The Alps is a sad, slow song, usually based around an acoustic guitar or a piano, really putting Phoebe’s hair-raising lyricism in the forefront. It follows in the footsteps of Elliott Smith, Jenny Lewis, and Conor Oberst, the latter of whom has been touring with Phoebe all year, bringing her on stage to duet on “Lua,” and also duets with her on “Would You Rather” on this album. (The album was also mixed by Conor’s longtime producer Mike Mogis.) It’s the only lead vocal you hear on the album besides Phoebe’s, and it feels like a torch-passing moment. Writing heart-clenching bedroom-folk is a young person’s game; Conor was 20 when he released Fevers and Mirrors and Phoebe is 22 now, and Stranger In The Alps could be as much of a coming-of-age classic.
After “Smoke Signals” warms you up, Phoebe knocks you out with the album’s second and possibly best song, “Motion Sickness,” which is also a rare song with distorted electric guitar and upbeat drums. Its chorus has one of the most quotable lines on the album: “I have emotional motion sickness, somebody roll the windows down.” It’s the kind of line you know you’re going to see plastered all over social media, and in fact you already do. On “Funeral,” Phoebe opens telling you that she’s “singing at a funeral tomorrow for a kid a year older than me.” She goes on to tell you about bad dreams and how she doesn’t believe they have deeper meanings, about calling a friend to laugh away her tears, and about blacking out in her car and waking up in her childhood bed wishing she was someone else. Only then, when you’ve probably forgotten the first line of the song too, she admits she was “feeling sorry for myself, then I remembered someone’s kid is dead.” If you’ve ever felt a little selfish for wallowing in your own sadness, you know what she means.
In Phoebe Bridgers songs, even the simple moments come with sadness. On the conversational “Scott Street,” she asks someone, maybe an old friend or an ex, “how’s playing drums?” Their answer: “It’s too much shit to carry.” That sadness reaches even higher levels on “Killer,” a new version of a song carried over from her Ryan Adams-recorded 2015 debut EP. Compared to the comparatively upbeat folk rock of the EP version, the Stranger In The Alps version is a bare-bones, melancholic piano ballad, and it allows for Phoebe’s words to hit with even more power. The chorus is pure, pop-ballad catharsis (with harmonies from John Doe of X), but the heartstrings are never tugged more than the verse where Phoebe insists, “When a machine keeps me alive and I’m losing all my hair, I hope you kiss my rotten head and pull the plug.”
Another song that gets an excellent makeover from that 2015 EP is “Georgia.” What was once an acoustic-guitar-and-vocal song is now the most fleshed-out song on Stranger In The Alps. In the background, it’s got effected guitars, clattering percussion, and gorgeous strings, and if those strings sometimes remind you a little of Bon Iver, it might be because former Bon Iver (and current yMusic) member Rob Moose arranged them. And for an album that’s so lyrical, the wordless “whoa-oh-oh” hook on “Georgia” could be its catchiest moment.
Phoebe proves that she’s a highly talented songwriter on Stranger In The Alps, but she also proves she’s a great interpreter. The penultimate track (before that brief “Smoke Signals” reprise) is a cover of “You Missed My Heart” from Mark Kozelek’s collaborative album with The Album Leaf’s Jimmy LaVelle, and Phoebe entirely makes it her own. Compared to the downtempo electronic pop of the original, Phoebe turns it into a delicate guitar-and-vocal song that sounds more like something off Benji. She borrows a little of Kozelek’s speak-sung delivery on the “like going to the movies with her / and the way she kissed me” line, but for the most part, you’d think it was an original if you didn’t know any better — Phoebe’s own conversational style on “Scott Street” pairs well with Kozelek’s on “You Missed My Heart.” It says a lot that the work of one of indie rock’s most beloved lyricists could be mistaken for the work of a 22-year-old artist’s debut album.
North Carolina rapper Rapsody first collaborated with Kendrick Lamar on “Rock the Bells” off her 2011 mixtape For Everything, and her profile got a serious boost when K.Dot returned the favor by putting her on To Pimp A Butterfly. In the time since TPAB‘s release, Rapsody released an extended version of her Beauty and the Beast EP and the Crown EP, but Laila’s Wisdom is her first proper album since her rise in fame, and severely raises the bar that she set on “Complexion.” She said she had something like 80 songs written for this album, and the 14 she chose make up her best and most cohesive-sounding work yet. From the piano and gospel harmonies of the opening title track, to when Rapsody first starts rapping, to when the beat finally drops, you can just tell that you’re listening to an album that Rapsody obsessed over. It’s got “aiming for a classic” written all over it, and it’s one of those cases where it may actually be one.
Kendrick is on this album too (on the second song, “Power,” which also features TDE’s Lance Skiiiwalker), and it was executive produced by frequent Kendrick collaborator Terrace Martin — along with frequent Rapsody collaborator 9th Wonder (who runs Jamla Records, which co-released Laila’s Wisdom with Roc Nation) and frequent Jay-Z collaborator Young Guru — and you can feel a lot of spiritual similarities between this album and Kendrick’s past work. The lush production is cut from a similar cloth as good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly, and Rapsody’s intricate flows should appeal to fans of Kendrick. When Kendrick does come in on “Power,” it’s the most natural sounding thing in the world. Kendrick is a star no matter whose song he’s on, but none of his 2017 guest verses have been in his wheelhouse as much as this one. The other major guest on Laila’s Wisdom is Anderson .Paak, whose Malibu features Rapsody. He’s on “Nobody” (with Black Thought of the Roots and Moonchild) and “OooWee” (which was carried over from the Crown EP) — not to mention the hook and production of “Pay Up” sounds like something Paak wishes he wrote.
It’s a good selling point that Rapsody is such a perfect collaborator of both Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak, but it also does Laila’s Wisdom an injustice to boil it down to its guest appearances. Rapsody is one of the finest MCs around. She seamlessly transitions between various flows, and conveys such real emotion in her voice. And she’s no one-trick pony when it comes to lyrical content. She raps about black excellence and female empowerment, usually fighting injustice with pride rather than anger, and she also throws some shit-talking boasts in there, and she’s also got love songs. Whatever she’s talking about, she’s always convincing.
Chelsea Wolfe was in this column last week as a guest on the Myrkur album, and now she’s back with her own, which also has some impressive guests. Kurt Ballou of Converge (whose Blood Moon ensemble counts Chelsea as a member) produced this one, Troy Van Leeuwen (Queens of the Stone Age, Failure, A Perfect Circle) played guitar on multiple songs, and Isis/Old Man Gloom/Sumac vocalist Aaron Turner lends his harsh growl to “Vex.” Every Chelsea Wolfe album is noticeably different, but each one is also unmistakably Chelsea Wolfe. Since her 2010 noise-folk breakthrough The Grime and the Glow, Chelsea explored raw goth rock on 2011’s Apokalypsis, acoustic music on 2012’s Unknown Rooms, synths (and clearer production) on 2013’s Pain Is Beauty, and doom metal on 2015’s Abyss. Hiss Spun sort of brings together the synthy sounds of Pain Is Beauty with the metallic sounds of Abyss for an album that could be Chelsea’s closest thing to industrial rock (it makes sense that she’s touring with EBM duo Youth Code behind this one). In my recent review of Nine Inch Nails at Riot Fest, I talked a bit about how industrial sounds have been creeping into indie rock lately, and Hiss Spun is a perfect example of this. It’s got one foot in trendy, modern music and another in The Downward Spiral. And it makes sense that she recorded it backed by Troy Van Leeuwen, a guy who once backed Maynard James Keenan and now backs Josh Homme, artists who — like Nine Inch Nails — are among the very few popular aggressive rock acts in 2017. I’m not saying Hiss Spun is going to skyrocket Chelsea Wolfe to stardom, but at the very least, it balances melody and aggression in a way that could be very popular, and in a way that never sounds generic or dated. Sometimes cynicism comes along with an artist who once made outsider music and now has widespread appeal, but Hiss Spun shares enough haunting qualities with Chelsea’s early work to keep longtime fans satisfied as she gains new ones.
Post-rock giants Godspeed You! Black Emperor have been reunited since 2010, and with the release of Lucifierian Towers, they now have as many albums in their current run as they did during their initial run. The power of 2012’s Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! was the most shocking, mostly because you never know how a reunion album is going to go, but even if Godspeed 2.0’s shock-factor has died down, their power has not. Like similarly monstrous sounding bands Swans and Neurosis, no matter how much time passes, Godspeed just can’t help but make truly astonishing music. Even without lyrics, Godspeed have always had a punk spirit, and they wrote this album to fight the oppression and corruption that’s far too rampant in today’s political climate. You can read their description of each song to learn their message, but even if you don’t, you can feel it in the playing. Godspeed play with purpose on Lucifierian Towers. Your average post-rock band focuses on beauty, with a lengthy build up to an explosive climax, but Godspeed don’t concern themselves much with that type of thing. Their songs always feel driven by emotions that are too complex for a predictable rise and fall, and if the emotions driving Luciferian Towers are emotions of discontent with our current world, it’s easy to see why the songs feel so powerful. You can feel the confusion burning beneath those violin notes, you can feel the power of resistance driving the drums, and on opener “Undoing A Luciferian Towers,” you can feel the panic of the modern world in the frenzied sax (courtesy of guest musician Bonnie Kane). Luciferian Towers has its moments that sound like defeat, but for an album presented to the world with such anger, it also has some of the more uplifting moments of Godspeed 2.0. There is a sense of hope on Luciferian Towers. Those big crashes on “Bosses Hang” sort of say “we’re going to be alright.”
Moses Sumney didn’t arrive at his sound immediately. The artist — who was born in San Bernardino to Ghanian parents, moved back to Ghana with them when he was 10, and now lives in LA — debuted in 2014 with the Mid-City Island EP, which proved Moses had some vocal chops but was still figuring things out as a songwriter. Three years later he’s signed to Jagjaguwar (home of Bon Iver, Angel Olsen, and more), ready to release his first full-length album Aromanticism, and developed a truly impressive, distinct sound. Like on that first EP, Moses’ vocals are the selling point on Aromanticism, but the songs are way more powerful. He can belt it but he tones it down when he needs to. He sounds just fine when he sings cleanly, but he knows that sometimes the right vocal effect can work wonders. The backdrops of these songs are so minimal that sometimes you forget you’re listening to anything other than Moses’ voice, but the musicians he recorded the album with are actually very impressive: Thundercat, Paris Strother of KING, and Matt Otto of Majical Cloudz. If those collaborators aren’t enough proof of how many high-profile artists ride for Moses Sumney, consider that Solange had him sing on her last album, James Blake and Sufjan Stevens toured with him, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor put out one of Moses’ singles on his Terrible Records label, and TV on the Radio’s Dave Sitek is a known fan and friend as well. You can draw comparisons between Moses’ music and the music of his popular supporters. The effected vocals bring to mind early James Blake, his soulful croon made him a perfect person for that Solange album, and the eccentricities going on in the background of his songs share a lot with Grizzly Bear and TV on the Radio. He should equally appeal to fans of 2000s indie and ’90s R&B, and he does it a really natural-sounding way. It doesn’t sound like a forced attempt at combining those sounds, Moses just sounds like someone who grew up listening to both and it’s instinctively reflected in his music.