Notable Releases of the Week (5/3)
What a week it's been! Woodstock 50 was cancelled. Or not. But probably. Lil Nas X finally performed "Old Town Road"! Webster Hall is back and already hosted Jay-Z (with surprise guest Nas), Patti Smith (with surprise guest Michael Stipe), and Rosalía (twice). Elsewhere in the NYC-area, Morrissey began his Broadway run just after Johnny Marr played NJ and played Smiths classic "This Charming Man" solo for his first time in the US.
As for this week's new albums, I picked six that I wrote about below. First, some honorable mentions: Sleater-Kinney/R.E.M. offshoot Filthy Friends, the first L7 album in 20 years, the first Versus EP in 9 years, The Dream Syndicate, Tacocat, Tink, Asian Da Brat, Pile, Sick Gazelle (mem Sonic Youth, Yakuza, etc), Frontier Ruckus' Matthew Milia, Florida Man, Amygdala, Empath, and the MorMor EP.
Check out my six picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
The indie album that has everyone talking this week is the new Vampire Weekend album, but don't let the Last Mega Indie Band Standing overshadow the brilliant new Big Thief album, which would be one of the most major indie releases of most other weeks this year. The Vampire Weekend album is a big, lively, immediate album, and the Big Thief album is the opposite of that. It's a hushed, tucked-away album that will really creep up on you if you let it. And I can't recommend it enough. It does have its larger sounding moments, like the massive distorted guitars at the end of album opener "Contact" that recall Big Thief's unexpectedly rockin' live shows, but mostly U.F.O.F. avoids thrills like those. Instead, it tends to favor gently plucked acoustic and clean electric guitars, shuffling drums, and the sneakily addictive vocal melodies of Adrianne Lenker. It might be Big Thief's first album since making the jump to a larger label (they went from Saddle Creek to 4AD), but it's actually the quietest album they've made yet, and possibly the least accessible. It takes a lot of confidence and a lot of natural talent to pull off a more difficult album as your debut for a label like 4AD, but Big Thief have both of those things. And once you let this album consume you, it becomes clear that they've written some of the strongest songs of their career for this one. Songs like "Contact" and "Cattails" and "Century" -- and even some of the ones that don't begin with "C" -- slowly start to feel like songs you've known your whole life. Part of that is Big Thief's old soul and their ability to channel '70s folk with genuineness, but mostly it's their increasingly strong way around a hook, no matter how subtle that hook may be.
Vampire Weekend's first album in six years was worth the wait. It's equal parts enjoyable and inventive, a clear push forward, and the band's most limitless album yet. You can read my full review of it here.
Punk isn't an easy genre to innovate in, partially because so many attempts to do so are considered "not punk," but every now and then a band comes along who breathes new life into the genre without breaking from tradition. Orange County's Fury are one of those bands, and Failed Entertainment -- the followup to their 2016 debut and their first album for Run for Cover -- may very well be their best example of this yet. They haven't written an entirely new language for punk or anything -- they can recall anything from '80s NYC youth crew bands to the warmer, sunnier sounds of their home state's punk history -- but they do it in a way that feels re-energized. They do familiar tricks -- like the headbang fuel of "Angels Over Berlin" or the speedy power chord riffs of "Vacation" or the mosh rhythms of "America" -- with the same conviction as the great bands who paved the way three decades ago. Fury sound like the kind of people who have lived and breathed punk their whole lives, who have spent way too many nights -- as both fans and musicians -- in shitty, smelly punk basements, and who would still go to one today if the right show was happening. They learned how to master the best things about punk and deliver those things in their own way. And it all resulted in Failed Entertainment, a ripper of an album that should appeal to both aging punks and excited young newcomers. With its warmer production and a few clean backing vocals, it's a slightly more accessible album than Fury made last time, but not at the sacrifice of this band's raw power. Jeremy Stith's gravelly bark is still in the forefront, and they've still got a bulldozing rhythm section and guitars that sound like your ear is pressed against a half stack. It's the kind of album where all you need to do is turn up your speakers and let it knock you off your ass. Anything else would be overthinking it.
The first Bad Religion album I ever heard was 2002's The Process of Belief -- which was the first album they did after Brett Gurewitz rejoined the band and they re-signed to Brett's Epitaph Records -- and, if pressed, I'd probably still say it's my favorite. This is worth noting in the context of a review of their new 2019 album because by the time The Process of Belief came out, Bad Religion had already been around for over two decades and already released more than one classic album before my millennial self was even born, but, knowing none of that in 2002, The Process of Belief turned me into a fan all the same. Because almost all of their albums follow the same formula, and all vary from good to great, Bad Religion are a band where you can really jump in at any point and instantly get turned on to what they do. Punk can be considered a young person's game, but it wasn't a negative thing that Bad Religion were already elder statesmen by the time The Process of Belief came out. Punk and Epitaph Records were having a big moment in 2002 and The Process of Belief was just as addictive as the hot new bands of the time, and it made for an instant gateway to Bad Religion's classics. The Process of Belief is almost as old now as How Could Hell Be Any Worse? was when that album came out, yet Age of Unreason has Bad Religion sounding just like their trusty selves. Epitaph is having another big moment (it's home to Joyce Manor, Touche Amore, Pianos Become the Teeth, La Dispute, TWIABP, The Menzingers, and a handful of other great current punk bands) and I wouldn't be surprised if younger fans of those bands stumble upon Age of Unreason and find themselves quickly turning into Bad Religion fans.
Bad Religion's last truly great album was The Process of Belief's 2004 followup, The Empire Strikes First, and that's worth mentioning in the context of this review too. That album came at a period of unrest for America, with a hated-by-liberals president (George W. Bush), the Iraq War, and a massive California wildfire (that inspired the album's minor hit "Los Angeles Is Burning"). We're obviously now in yet another period of unrest, with an even more hated president, and Bad Religion have done what they do best by channelling all that unrest into a fast-paced, ridiculously catchy punk rock album. If Age of Unreason feels like Bad Religion's best in a while -- and it does -- the unrest that inspired it is probably part of why. They're of course far from the only punk band railing against the current system, but they've got a large platform and this album has a lot of good stuff to say. If it gets just a few young punks (or longtime Bad Religion fans who somehow never realized they've always been a strong-minded liberal band) thinking differently, they've done their job.
Age of Unreason doesn't only succeed for its message, though; it's as enjoyable a batch of songs as you'd hope for from this band. They're far from the only band in the past 40 years to write short, fast, catchy punk songs, but they've always had a knack for smart pop melodicism, rich harmonies, and signature "whoa-oh-oh"s that still don't sound like any other punk band, and all of those things are in fine form on Age of Unreason. They waste no time jumping in, with the whiplash-inducing "Chaos From Within," which opens the album with a drum intro and takes less than ten seconds to bring in those soaring harmonies which sound as airtight as ever. From there, Bad Religion deliver ripper after ripper, only slowing it down a couple times (for the mid-tempo rock of "Lose Your Head" and the folk-tinged highlight "Candidate"). The album's chock full of all the razor-sharp power chords and ear-candy melodies that you want from this band, and with 14 songs in 33 minutes, it's over before you know it. An early favorite for me is "The Approach" but there's a bunch of other highlights and really not much filler. It's what you expect from the 17th album by a band who rarely changes things up, but sometimes that's exactly what you need.
I don't know if it's fully safe to say that An Horse were under-appreciated the first time around, but they were at least misunderstood. The Australian indie rock duo started taking off pretty quickly in the late 2000s, released two albums on the big indie label Mom + Pop, and did pretty well on the charts (but got a somewhat mixed reception from critics). But the band said they soon started dealing with "pressure from industry forces to move in a direction with their music that didn't feel natural," and they responded by going on hiatus. They finally returned last year with live shows and the great new single "Get Out Somehow," and since then, they've been carving out a new space for themselves on their own terms and getting the re-appraisal they deserve. They're now signed to the smaller indie-punk label Lame-O Records, who are definitely not known for pressuring artists into certain sounds, and they're seen not as a flash-in-the-pan late '00s buzz band but as the connecting tissue between rock-era Tegan & Sara and new indie-punk bands like Camp Cope (both of whom they have a close relationship with). And now they're back with their first album in eight years, featuring "Get Out Somehow" and ten other instantly-satisfying songs, and it might even be better than the music An Horse made the first time around. The album's got the kind of raw-but-clear production that suits An Horse best (courtesy of Long Island emo vet Mike Sapone), and song after song sees An Horse writing the kind of crunchy, catchy choruses that defined indie rock in the '90s, back when it hadn't fully departed from its punk roots. They give the album some variety with a few slower songs too, but mostly it's no-frills indie rock done right. Longtime An Horse fans have been waiting a while for this album, but if you overlooked them the first time around and you otherwise like guitar-oriented indie rock of any kind, Modern Air just might be the thing that wins you over.
Ringworm have been delivering a crushing mix of metal and hardcore punk for over 25 years, their 1993 debut was massively influential in the development of metalcore, and somehow they manage to make everything new they do feel fresh. Their only real competition comes from bands like Converge and Integrity, and if you dug those bands' recent albums, you'll definitely want to hear Ringworm's first in three years too. As ever, the new album sees Ringworm fully blurring the lines between punk and metal and sounding ferocious while doing so. They've got everything from Slayer riffs to D-beat punk fury to shredding classic metal solos, and lead screamer Human Furnace lives up to his name with every venomous bark. The album starts on a slow, almost doom-like riff, but that only lasts about a minute and a half, before rapid-fire drums come in and the remaining 36 minutes of the album stick to relentless pummeling. A lot of this year's heavy albums have been majestic and adventurous, but sometimes you just want heavy music to sound like a steel-toe boot to the head after you've already been knocked down. Ringworm have been doing that for over two decades, and they still do it better than most.