Five Notable Releases of the Week (5/25)
It’s Memorial Day Weekend, the unofficial start of summer! Here in NYC, it’s starting to feel like summer too — ’80s and mostly sunny, and hopefully not too many of those predicted thunderstorms for later in the weekend. If you’ll be in NYC this weekend, check out our guide to Memorial Day Weekend events and concerts in NYC. If you’re looking for a more festive music weekend, maybe Boston Calling, Sasquatch, Maryland Deathfest or Movement?
Boston Calling is where I am this weekend (stay tuned for coverage), and this column was written before I heard the semi-surprise A$AP Rocky and Pusha T albums, so I might discuss those more at a later date. Before I get to my picks for this week, a few honorable mentions: Isis/Converge/Circle offshoot Split Cranium (read Chris Harrington’s review), Tracyanne & Danny (aka Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura and Danny Coughlan of Crybaby), Retirement Party, Ruler, Prefuse 73, the Jenny Hval EP, the MIKE EP, the Hatchie EP, and the Wand EP.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
The first song by Sudan Archives that really hooked me wasn’t an original, but a cover of Kendrick Lamar’s “King Kunta” renamed “Queen Kunta.” She released it with a live session video that showed her toying with effect pedals and electronics, playing live violin, and delivering a soulful, sung version of Kendrick’s raps. Even though Sudan didn’t write it, it’s a great introduction to her many unique talents, and her ability to completely blur lines between genres. “King Kunta” is a rap song, but “Queen Kunta” sounds like a cross between Erykah Badu, Four Tet, and the Sudanese style violin playing that she studied after leaving her hometown of Cincinnati for LA as a teenager. (She was actually given the name Sudan as a nickname from her mother before she started studying Sudanese music.) That cover was followed by a self-titled EP in 2017 and now Sudan is back with another EP, Sink. Like the s/t and “Queen Kunta,” Sink pulls from countless styles of music and could never be pigeonholed into one, and Sudan has also improved in just about every way. Her singing is bolder, her electronic production is both bigger and more outré, and her violin playing is even niftier than before. Her singing has hints of modern hip hop and R&B, but Sudan Archives is clearly not making pop music. It’s accessible, but she approaches her music with the mindset of an experimental artist. Some of the beats sound like the kind of underground electronic music you might hear on the Night Slugs label, while the African influence on her violin playing is clear, and it’s awe-inspiring how she blends that style of playing with Western music. In many ways, Sink is of the moment — artists like Frank Ocean, SZA, and Solange helped establish a dominant style of experimental R&B and fans of that music will surely hear similarities in Sudan Archives — but it also feels like outsider music. Not much else in the zeitgeist really sounds like this, and it’s no small feat that Sudan Archives has figured out how to make music with mass appeal that also sounds truly distinct.
Dear Nora (the project led by Katy Davidson) has been called your favorite band’s favorite band, thanks to being namedropped as an influence by current indie staples like Girlpool and Joyce Manor. And longer-running indie listeners may remember them as a staple of early-to-mid 2000s indie — they were a touring member of YACHT and Gossip, had a split with Mates of State, a close affiliation with Owen Ashworth (whose Orindal Records they are now signed to), and the revolving Dear Nora lineup once included Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors (whose upcoming album features Katy Davidson). They re-activated the project last year for shows and a reissue of their 2004 sophomore album Mountain Rock, and they continue to get increased acclaim and get acknowledged as an artist ahead of their time. Now they’ve finally got a new album too — their first in 12 years — and it’s not just a victory lap to remind people of their classic material. It’s a clear shift in direction.
Their past material usually rotated between lo-fi indie rock, bedroom folk, and noise pop, and the new Skulls Example isn’t miles away from those sounds, but it’s their most cleaned-up, poppy album yet. On Skulls Example, Dear Nora doesn’t just appeal to fans of DIY/lo-fi/bedroom type stuff, but much more. “Morning Glories,” “New To Me” and the title track almost sound like a less polished Vampire Weekend. “Sunset On Humanity” could be mistaken for Julia Holter. “Simulation Feels” sounds like a home-recorded “Let My Love Open The Door.” With its primitive drum machines and modest synthesizers, it’s still much more “alt” than “pop” and still honors the long history of bedroom music that Dear Nora is part of, so Skulls Example is kind of the best of both worlds. It should be instantly satisfying for the longtime fans that waited 12 years for a new Dear Nora album, and it has the potential to make them even more popular and more influential than they ever were. Tons of indie bands have reunited to put a cherry on top of their legacy in recent years, but few seem primed to create an entirely new legacy the way Dear Nora does.
It’s pretty much impossible to picture what rap would be without the influence of George Clinton, whose music with Parliament and Funkadelic basically became the source material for the entire G-Funk subgenre. George Clinton has since collaborated several times with many of the rappers he’s influenced, but the last time Parliament released an album — 1980’s Trombipulation — rap music was only just starting to get its footing. Now, 38 years later, Parliament are finally back with another album, and it embraces rap and modern R&B almost more than it embraces the psychedelic funk they pioneered decades ago. There are still a handful of moments where they get funked up, and original Parliament horn players Fred Wesley, Pee Wee Ellis, Greg Thomas and Benny Cowan all appear here to help deliver that classic sound, but George Clinton is not at all stuck in the ’70s. When asked what he’s been listening to lately in a Reddit AMA this year, he replied, “Flying Lotus, Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z’s new album, Tra’Zae, and all that shit coming out of Atlanta. All that trap shit. I’m trapped in it.” Tra’Zae is George Clinton’s grandson, and he takes lead vocals on album highlight “Backwoods” (which actually dropped as a Tra’Zae solo track a couple years ago), and it sounds closer to Drake than to Mothership Connection. There are songs that sort of blur the lines between funk singing and rapping, like “Medicated Creep” and “Loodie Poo Da Pimp,” and then there’s a song like “Mama Told Me” which sounds right out of the mid 2000s Dirty South explosion. The only credited guest on the album is the legendary Houston rapper Scarface, who shows up on “I’m Gon Make U Sick O’me,” which is otherwise one of the most classic-sounding, psych-funk songs on the whole LP. The record hops across genres and eras of music like crazy, constantly reminding you that George Clinton is both a veteran and forever relevant. It’s all over the place — often in a good way — but at 23 songs that clock in at over 100 minutes, it could’ve used a better editing job. There aren’t any noticeably weak songs, but the album starts to drag after a while and it feels like it’d make a bigger impact if it lost about half the songs. Still, it’s exciting just to finally hear a new Parliament album after nearly four decades, and the high points make it worth it.
If you’re familiar with Wooden Shjips, you basically know what to expect by now — a strange brew of all various types of tripped-out psychedelia — and their fifth album V, their first since 2013’s Back To Land, gives you another seven doses of exactly that. They didn’t return after five years away with some drastic change in direction, but they did return with another very solid album that reminds you they still do this kind of thing really, really well. V pulls mostly from various corners of ’60s psych, from Dead-like jams to Beatlesque studio work to jangle pop to garage rock, but it dips its toes into later eras of psych too, like driving krautrock and droney, Spacemen 3-style space rock. At just seven songs, most of which are about six or seven minutes, Wooden Shjips basically take every track into jam territory, and they do it tastefully, without ever dragging. The album starts out on its most krauty note, “Eclipse,” before simmering down with “In The Fall,” which recalls both the Grateful Dead’s late ’60s studio experiments with its echoing vocals and their live jamming with its freeform guitar solos. They’ve got some Revolver-esque guitar on “Red Line” and they get jangly for “Already Gone,” both of which also have some of V‘s most melodic hooks. “Staring At The Sun” starts out kinda sounding like “Just Like Honey” meets “Walk on the Wild Side,” and that one ends in another lengthy, freeform jam. They turn up the fuzz for the garagey “Golden Flower,” and then they end the album on its prettiest note, with the balladry of “Ride On,” which kinda sounds like a trippier “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” Even that one’s got an extended jam, but the soloing on this one is cleaner/bluesier to match the song’s more tender tone. Of the many, many modern bands that get called “psychedelic,” few make music that mimics the psychedelic experience the way Wooden Shjips do, and “Ride On” is the sobering, relaxing comedown that a great trip like V needs.
Vancouver’s Baptists haven’t released an album since their 2014 sophomore LP Bloodmines (but their pulverizing drummer Nick Yacyshyn put out two albums with Sumac and one with The Armed since then), and it’s good to finally have them back. They once again worked with Converge’s Kurt Ballou, who has now worked on all three of their albums, and Ballou’s touch is absolutely perfect for Baptists, who basically sound like a slimmed-down version of Converge. They don’t offer spastic freakouts or post-rocky grandeur like Converge, but they do a killer job of channeling that band’s blasts of head-bashing metallic hardcore. Some of Danny Marshall’s leads sound right out of the book of Kurt Ballou, while Andrew Drury’s gravelly bark keeps them more rooted in traditional hardcore than Converge usually are. The comparison is easy to make, but it’s not totally fair. Three albums in, Baptists are clearly a force of their own within both metal and hardcore, and Beacon of Faith reinforces that in a major way. Besides, sometimes it’s actually better to get the no-frills fury of an album like this where you can just rock the fuck out and not be distracted by an artsy side or a complex one. Baptists do have a little technical stuff worked in, like the quick tastes of those aforementioned guitar leads and especially Nick Yacyshyn’s drumming. It’s easy to see why so many bands wanna work with that guy — he’s seriously a beast. But mostly, Baptists’ style is to get in and get out in no time, leaving behind a breakneck-speed sonic assault while they’re here. Save for the six and a half minutes of sludge that is “Eulogy Template” and the more atmospheric closing track, Beacon of Faith cruises at a mile a minute and many songs are near or under the two-minute mark. Baptists seem highly capable of making grander statements with their music, but they’d rather offer up the wild ride of whiplash-inducing hardcore. Nothing wrong with that at all.