Five Notable Releases of the Week (1/20): Austra, Cherry Glazerr, AFI & more
The thing on everyone's minds today is of course the inauguration of Donald Trump, something basically none of the musicians we talk about on this website are excited about. This week has brought us some very specific music related to this event (like from Fiona Apple and Arcade Fire), tons of great musicians are playing shows in protest of it (many in DC, some in other places too), and there are a handful of compilations from great artists with proceeds going to charities that directly oppose Trump's plans to reverse human rights.
Music can't heal all but it can certainly help a whole lot, and some of the albums released today contain ideas that are in direct opposition to what Trump stands for (and others don't seem related but also sometimes good music can just distract you from all the hate in the world). I chose five that I think are worth hearing.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Austra was a favorite here at BrooklynVegan when they released their debut album Feel It Break in 2011. It soundtracked much of that year for me personally, and Future Politics, Austra's third album, has me feeling more excited about them than I have since their debut. Their 2013 sophomore album Olympia was a fine followup, though maybe a little too similar to Feel It Break at times. Future Politics is the type of third album that overcomes any amount of sophomore slump that existed and reaches for new heights. The electronics on this album feel like their most cerebral production work yet -- it makes sense that they're touring with knob twiddler The Range and Warp-signed pop experimenter Lafawndah to support the album. They've got a lot more in common with those artists right now than, say, Diamond Rings (whatever happened to Diamond Rings?). The main attraction is still Katie Stelmanis' operatic voice, which is truly a force and doesn't really sound like anyone else (she got some Kate Bush comparisons early on, but at this point the most they have in common is that they both pave their own paths). And Katie is using her voice to express heavier ideas than ever. It's probably not entirely a coincidence that Katie, who has become increasingly vocal about politics, would name the album Future Politics and release it on inauguration day. (Yes Katie's Canadian but she's angered by all this too.) (Update: apparently the release date actually is a coincidence.) Katie wrote the record before all this stuff started happening, but it feels very relevant right now. She has a general distrust of government ("The system won't help you and your money won't help," she sings on the title track), though she also has hope that people can come together and make things better. It's part "Rise Above," part "All You Need Is Love," set to beats that work as well in the club as they do in your bedroom.
When Cherry Glazerr first made a name for themselves a few years back, they were still in high school and signed to hard-partying garage rock label Burger Records. Now they're back with their first album for the larger Secretly Canadian label and a sound that's sharper, more polished, and more detailed. Part of that is surely due to a tighter, louder drummer than before (Tabor Allen) and a multi-instrumentalist to flesh things out (Sasami Ashworth), not to mention big-name producers Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, Spoon, My Morning Jacket) and Carlos de la Garza (Tegan & Sara, Paramore), but singer Clementine Creevy's unique personality is what seals the deal. She rails against sexism on the addictive opener "Told You I'd Be With The Guys," revels in her own gross habits on "Trash People" (like wearing the same underpants three days in a row and having a room that smells like an ashtray), and makes love to her guitar in one of the videos off the LP. It's music that confronts certain social issues head on, and Cherry Glazerr sound like they're having a hell of a lot of fun doing so. (As you may expect from a band called Cherry Glazerr and an album called Apocalipstick.) Some of the surfy garage rock of their Burger days is here on "Humble Pro," but mostly the album avoids being easily pigeonholed. There's riffy stoner rock on the title track, bass-heavy punk on "Sip O' Poison," and some mid-2000s dance-rock on "Trash People." At this point, Cherry Glazerr are just a great rock band. If you're on the lookout for rock records that really rock, this is one you need.
AFI are better known to a lot of people for their fashion choices and a few singles than for their rich discography, and that's kind of a shame. They spent the bulk of the '90s (and the beginning of the 2000s) on Nitro Records (the independent punk label run by Offspring frontman Dexter Holland) making increasingly-dark melodic hardcore that varied from good to great. There were moments of brilliance in the early years (like the '90s-punk classic "He Who Laughs Last"), but it was after the introduction of guitarist Jade Puget that AFI really came into their own and cemented the lineup they still have today. 1999's Black Sails in the Sunset and that year's equally crucial All Hallow's EP had AFI perfecting a type of heavy, dramatic goth-punk that was kind of part Misfits, part The Cure (two bands they've covered plenty of times). By the following year's The Art of Drowning, they figured out how to keep that formula intact while also writing pop songs (see "Days of the Phoenix" but also most songs on that album). It scored them some major label interest, and three years later they released their commercial breakthrough Sing the Sorrow, which at this point is basically a classic of 2000s alternative rock.
They got in the studio with Enema of the State producer Jerry Finn and Nevermind producer (and Garbage member) Butch Vig for Sing the Sorrow, and they came out with an album that aimed to be as world-conquering as you'd expect with that production team. It's got huge choruses, huge whoa-oh-ohs, harsh screams, fast-paced punk, an acoustic ballad, an industrial song, an '80s-metal solo, and that still isn't the half of it. It may be a signifier of uncoolness in some circles but it's a beloved example of unfiltered ambition in others.
Nothing that followed Sing the Sorrow ever reached those heights. Decemberunderground explored their Cure influence further and tried a little too hard for commercial appeal. Crash Love was sort of a "return to rock," and Burials got a little closer to nu metal than it ever seemed like AFI would (it wasn't that weird when they toured with Linkin Park the following year). This year's AFI (The Blood Album) is being touted as something of a return to Sing the Sorrow, and while it's only kind of a surface-level return, it does have some of their most enjoyable songs since 2003. Jade Puget's riffs on "Still A Stranger" feel right off Sing the Sorrow, as do Davey Havok's shouts on "White Offerings." The chorus of "Hidden Knives" is one of the most genuinely enjoyable things they've written in years and I'm kind of bewildered about why they didn't make it a single (though they hit similar sweet spots on "Snow Cats" and "Get Hurt," which were singles). The album loses steam about halfway through and even the best songs kinda sound like Sing the Sorrow on autopilot; it taps into that album's style but it lacks its hunger. It's a similar kind of return to form as last year's Metallica album. It reminds you that they've still got chops and it's got a few pleasant surprises for longtime fans, but it's missing the magic of their classic work.
After the breakup of the highly influential emo band Cap'n Jazz, brothers Mike and Tim Kinsella went in pretty opposite directions. Mike formed the even more influential emo band American Football, and then went solo as Owen, using both as vessels to make cripplingly earnest music. Tim formed the troll-ish Joan of Arc, who sometimes seemed like their goal was to write bad music. (The one "Kinsella-inspired" band that you can argue took more after Joan of Arc than American Football is probably The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die.) Joan of Arc were never for everybody, but if you bought into their approach, they -- in their own way -- made some pretty brilliant stuff. The new album, Joan of Arc's first release since 2013's Testimonium Songs, is yet another example of their truly odd approach. First off, it's got the hilarious title of He's Got The Whole This Land Is Your Land in His Hands and punny song titles like "This Must Be The Placenta." Then once you hit play, you're treated to lyrical head-scratchers like "I've had a 26 year-old girlfriend since the day I turned 11" and "I know how the nicest guy in Isis feels." It's all set to music that's got atonal melodies, random sound effects, and strangely danceable rhythms. They sort of find the middle ground between (former Polyvinyl labelmates) of Montreal and an improv night at an avant-garde concert. It's niche stuff, and 20 years into making albums, Joan of Arc are still filling that niche with quality music.
NYC duo Uniform formed back in 2013 with Michael Berdan (Drunkdriver, Believer/Law) on vocals and Ben Greenberg (The Men, Hubble) on guitar/electronics. When they were first starting out, they played shows around NYC all the time, giving the crowd five-to-ten minute bursts of noise while Berdan stalked the floor like he was still in a hardcore band. Now they've got two full length albums under their belt (including this new one), and they're a much more diverse band than they were at those early shows. The noise/hardcore approach hasn't gone anywhere, but they've branched out into all kinds of different abrasive sounds. Berdan ditches the scream for a brooding, gnarly vocal delivery on "Habit," which kind of sounds like Godflesh until Ben Greenberg brings in a UFO-style riff in the chorus. The synthy "The Lost" borders on EBM, while "The Killing of America" has Greenberg bringing in a Slayer-style solo. "The Light at the End (Cause)" is like Big Black in quadruple time, while "Bootlicker" is like Big Black covering Discharge. Wake In Fright makes serious leaps from what Uniform has done in the past. It's by far their best and most interesting album yet.