Five Notable Releases of the Week (6/9)
It is yet another very good week for new albums. Leading my picks this week is the great, rising indie band Big Thief, who also happen to have two Brooklyn shows this weekend as part of the ongoing Northside Festival. They also play Prospect Park in July with Conor Oberst and Hop Along, and we're giving away tickets to that show.
Another major album out this week is Katy Perry's Witness. It's not in my picks because it's not very good, but it's too fascinating not to mention at all. With production from Hot Chip, Purity Ring, Duke Dumont, Mike WiLL Made-It, and DJ Mustard, and guest spots by Nicki Minaj and Migos, it's looking like her attempt at indie and rap cred. I mean, admit it, you're kinda curious what Katy Perry sounds like over Hot Chip and Purity Ring beats, aren't you?
Check out the five albums I did pick, below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Few indie bands had as rapid a rise as Big Thief did last year. Singer Adrianne Lenker had been kicking around as a little-known solo artist for a few years before forming Big Thief and releasing their breakthrough single "Masterpiece" in late 2015. By February of 2016 they had signed to Saddle Creek for their debut album, and by the first week of 2017 they had sold out Bowery Ballroom. Masterpiece (also the name of their debut album) was a very fine debut, fine enough for us to name Big Thief one of the best new bands of 2016. But they clearly honed their sound a lot during all that time they spent on the road, because Capacity is a noticeable step up.
Big Thief are probably technically an indie rock band and they do use some distorted guitars on Capacity, but Andrianne Lenker & co. are really writing folk songs. And they're writing some of the best folk songs released in 2017. Her voice has that timeless, delicate quality that the best folk singers have. You can picture her hunched over an acoustic guitar in a coffee shop, and causing the whole room to put down their drinks, stop their conversations, and listen to her sing. Her voice is intimate, but it isn't soft. It's full of command and sounds wearied by the world. On "Watering" when she sings, "He cut off my oxygen, and my eyes were watering as he tore into my skin," you can at once see the vivid imagery and feel her pure emotion. You get the sense that Adrianne has a story to tell and would do whatever it takes to tell that story. Big Thief is her vessel.
A couple songs on Capacity are in fact bare-bones acoustic songs -- album opener "Pretty Things" and "Coma" -- and those songs have at least as much power as the fuller-sounding songs. "Coma" in particular sounds like it comes from another place and time. It's so quiet and raw and sounds so hidden from the world, not like the kind of music you expect to hear coming out of New York City in the digital age. With the noisy, high-speed culture we do live in, a song like "Coma" would get drowned out in the hands of a lesser artist. Big Thief have the ability to snap you out of your daily routine and transport you to somewhere more serene.
Rancid have deviated from their classic sound a bit throughout their career, like with 1998's reggae-leaning Life Won't Wait and the pop-rock crossover of 2003's Indestructible, but their last few records have seen them getting back to their classic sound and sticking to it. Like Bad Religion (whose Brett Gurewitz produced Trouble Maker and most other Rancid albums, and founded their longtime label home of Epitaph) have been for years, Rancid are now in a phase where they're doing what they do best, and maintaining longevity because of it. Trouble Maker is the third album in this phase of their career (which started with 2009's Let the Dominoes Fall), and it's the meanest and leanest of the three. If the ellipses in the title of 2014's ...Honor Is All We Know was a callback to fan favorite ...And Out Come the Wolves, then it's probably no coincidence that the band's name on the Trouble Maker artwork is written in the same fashion it was written on their 1993 debut. With only one real ska song ("Where I'm Going"), Trouble Maker is closer to the fast-paced punk of that album and 1994's Let's Go than any Rancid album has been in a while.
It opens with "Track Fast," a ripper that clocks in at under a minute and lets you know right away that Rancid aren't messing around. From there, things stay at a high. Every song on Trouble Maker hits with immediacy and quickly feels like music you've known for years. It could believably be a lost album from the '90s -- not a note of it sounds any more recent. (Or at least year 2000, as "Track Fast," "All American Neighborhood" and maybe a couple others would've fit on the hardcore-inspired album they released that year.) It could come off as too backwards-thinking, but in Rancid's hands, it works. In the past year, Rancid's popular '90s punk peers blink-182 and Green Day released back-to-basics albums too, but neither of them come off sounding as natural as Trouble Maker. Tim Armstrong and Lars Frederiksen sound as spirited and aggressive as ever, and as album highlight "Make It Out Alive" proves, they can still write choruses that fist-raising punks are destined to yell back in their faces. Matt Freeman's kinetic basslines put a hop in Trouble Maker's step that the average punk band doesn't have, and Brett Gurewitz's production gives the album the raw-yet-punchy touch it needs.
Rancid have been doing it for so long, that they're now considered an influence on a handful of modern-day bands. Rancid acolytes like Titus Andronicus and The Menzingers are some of today's most beloved rock bands, and Trouble Maker has enough of a young heart to sound like a peer of those bands' latest records. If you happen to just be discovering Rancid now, thanks to their ever-prevalent influence or Epitaph's resurgence or whatever other reason, Trouble Maker makes for a fine entry point. It remains to be seen whether or not Trouble Maker will in fact unite new and old fans, but it's got real potential to do so. From such a major punk band who are over 25 years into their career, that's no minor feat.
Planetarium, a project by Sufjan Stevens, contemporary composer Nico Muhly, The National's Bryce Dessner, and drummer James McAlister (who has played with Sufjan for years), began as a unique, experimental project at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2013. When the quartet announced they were adapting it as a studio project, I admit I was expecting it to be closer to the avant-garde and contemporary classical music that Sufjan and Bryce have done in the past, especially with Nico Muhly involved. It turns out my assumption was very, very wrong. Some of the hour and 16 minutes of music on Planetarium do in fact near avant-garde or contemporary classical territory, but really it's mostly a pop album. If it was presented as such, it could pass as the next Sufjan album. He sings lead on most of the album, and he sorta blends the hushed qualities of Carrie & Lowell with the auto-tuned glitch pop of The Age of Adz. It's like the more antisocial cousin of The Age of Adz -- darker, more downtempo, but just as schizophrenic. Over the course of the album, there are piano ballads, club-ready dance music, moments where Nico's classical influence looms large, and moments that could pass as Sufjan fronting The Postal Service. Like he often does in The National, Bryce only rarely lets his guitar playing sound like actual guitar playing. Usually he's using it to create textures, which meld expertly with Nico's arrangements and James' beats. Sometimes multiple established musicians coming together means too much ego at once. On Planetarium, everyone puts that aside for the greater good of the music.
The first single off Kirin J Callinan's truly wacky Bravado is called "S.A.D.," which -- if you haven't heard the chorus -- stands for "Song About Drugs." When recently talking to my co-worker Bill about the album, he quipped, "I listen to this album and wonder, 'what drugs made this?' ...and 'all of them' is probably the answer." That just about sums up Bravado perfectly. Kirin and his all-star cast -- which includes Mac DeMarco, Weyes Blood, Alex Cameron, no wave legend James Chance, Connan Mockasin, the Finn Family (Neil & Liam), Sean Nicholas Savage, and more -- have gone ahead and made that album you and your friends got high and joked about making. It is ridiculous. There are at least two songs that sound like '90s Eurotrance (opener "My Moment" and "This Whole Town") and one that sounds like Bryan Adams ("Living Each Day"), and the album is loaded with creepy, sultry whispering from Kirin that gives Jarvis Cocker a run for his money. It's tongue-in-cheek but Kirin also sincerely dedicates himself to the songs, and he comes out with some really good songwriting. The melodies on "S.A.D." are uplifting and catchy and really sell the song as a could-be hit. On the Weyes Blood collaboration, "Friend of Lindy Morrison," Weyes Blood's vocals are so gorgeous that you forget about the silliness of the album for just a second. Some may roll their eyes at quirk for quirk's sake, but Bravado is such a masterclass in quirk that it's hard to be apathetic about. I don't think I've heard another album this year like it.
For the rest of time, everything Phoenix do is probably going to be measured against their fourth album, 2009's Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. It's a true modern classic that only sounds better with age. It's the reason they can headline festivals and arenas. Nothing they did before it is quite as magical, and its 2013 followup Bankrupt! is mostly forgettable in comparison. It's possible that it's an unfairly high standard to keep holding them to, and their new albums should be evaluated on their own terms, which is what I tried to do while listening to Ti Amo. Despite feeling lukewarm on the singles, Phoenix seriously impressed me playing those new songs at Governors Ball last weekend. Their live show is so rock-solid that they would probably sound great playing just about anything. It got me excited enough to give Ti Amo a second chance, but so far I'm still left feeling cold. It doesn't really play to their strengths. Wolfgang and the live show are so thrilling because Phoenix are not just excellent pop songwriters but also a genuinely great rock band. Their razor-sharp guitarists and beast of a drummer put them in a league above your average indie pop band. On Ti Amo, the guitars are often buried (or gone altogether) and the drumming is dialed back. It sounds like their version of chillwave, a sound that died before Phoenix even released Bankrupt!. They're okay at this sound. It's a listenable record and Thomas Mars' voice is as satisfying as ever. It's just hard to not feel like something's missing when you know what Phoenix are truly capable of.