Notable Releases of the Week (6/21)
Tons of great and/or highly anticipated albums are out today, but before I get to those, I want to quickly point out that earlier this week we published a list of 5 overlooked albums of 2019 (so far), including five very good albums that I had never reviewed for this column. So much music comes out at once that it's always hard to keep up with everything, so if you haven't yet, check out that list.
One of today's most anticipated releases is the Lil Nas X EP, which is not very good at all -- you can read my review of that here. I picked eight much better albums and highlighted them below, but before I get to those, some honorable mentions: MIKE, Titus Andronicus' Bob Mould-produced LP, Richard Reed Parry (of Arcade Fire), Fruit Bats, Hatchie, Harry and the Potters, Willie Nelson, The Ocean Blue, Beak>, Superstition, Abyssal, Kirin J Callinan (which Bill reviewed for Bill's Indie Basement), Jane Weaver (ditto), Buried Dreams, Gucci Mane, and the instrumental Georgia Anne Muldrow album.
One of this week's new albums is also a very bittersweet one: Cassius released their new album, just after the tragic death of member Philippe Zdar. Philippe also co-produced the new Hot Chip album that's out today (more on that below). Rest in peace, Philippe. You're already missed.
Check out my picks below (oh, and fun fact: two of this week's picks were produced by the same person: Jack Shirley). What was your favorite release of the week?
UK rock band black midi have been one of the most buzzed-about, "hotly tipped" bands since they only had two songs out, and that's even more impressive than it would have been a decade ago because black midi formed in -- to quote Rob Harvilla -- "a music industry that doesn’t prop up hot, young indie bands like it used to." And it's even more impressive when you consider what they sound like. Yes, they're on a historically cool indie label (Rough Trade), they worked with a hip, established producer (Dan Carey, whose credits include Bat For Lashes, Franz Ferdinand, The Kills, and more), and frontman Geordie Greep's voice has been compared zillions of times to David Byrne (black midi even have a song called "Talking Heads"), but black midi are not the next Clap Your Hands Say Yeah or Local Natives or whathaveyou. They're sooner the next Mirrored-era Battles or the next Tree, Swallows, Houses-era Maps & Atlases, and it is pretty wild for a band like that to be this hyped in 2019. The hype is unusual but deserved -- math rock bands in 2019 are usually relegated to underground niche music circles, but black midi are defying the stereotype, and they deserve to. They're the real deal.
Part of the reason that black midi took off before releasing much music was that they built up a reputation for having a killer live show. But they're not one of those bands that relied on antics or gimmicks to do so; their live show blows people away purely on the strength of black midi's musicianship. As the band discusses at length in their "rising" feature for Pitchfork, they're all trained musicians and music obsessives who namedrop everything from Merzbow to D'Angelo to King Crimson to Death Grips to Green Day to Lady Gaga to Soukous. They talk about what they learned studying music at the BRIT School and in church, and they also talk about teaching themselves to improvise and break the all the rules they learned. They don't sound much like Sonic Youth but they share that band's approach to being highly skilled music historians who seem intent on destroying the average person's idea of how to perform music. This all comes across on their debut album Schlagenheim, which is full of complex arrangements, stunning musicianship, and an anything-goes approach to structure and melody. It could seem too weird or too inaccessible, but it's always strangely accessible. Geordie mostly avoids verse-chorus-verse singing, but his vocals -- which can recall the aforementioned David Byrne as often as they can recall '90s post-hardcore -- add a warped sense of pop music to these otherwise instrumentation-focused songs. It already seems like the band have set no limits for themselves, and they've got that sense of wide-eyed ambition that young, not-yet-jaded bands tend to have (the members are all in their late teens and early 20s), like they really feel like they can change the world. It remains to be seen if they will do that, but it's refreshing to get a new band like this. And it's refreshing that when you put all the industry and buzz talk aside, you're left with a fun, heady rock record that feels built to last.
Super producer Mark Ronson is just about everywhere you look. From alternative rock to superstar pop to hip hop to electronic music and beyond, Mark Ronson has spent the last two decades leaving his impact, and he continues to do so today. His recent work includes co-writing "Shallow," so obviously he is still omnipresent, and now he's back with a new solo album, his first since 2015's funk-inspired Uptown Special. He's taken a much different approach for Late Night Feelings, which has 13 songs entirely sung by female guest singers, has more of a fashionable alt-pop style than the throwback funk of its predecessor, and doesn't have anything nearly as annoying as "Uptown Funk." If your tastes skew indie/alternative (umbrella term), you'll probably like this new album more than his last one. It reminds me a bit of the latest Calvin Harris album, another album where a huge producer could have went for lowest common denominator pop on every song but instead went for something with a little more artistic integrity, and did so without abandoning a sense of pop accessibility. And like that Calvin Harris album, this Mark Ronson album comes off like it could be a Songs of the Summer compilation but it flows well as an album too. It has intro and outro tracks, and all the songs are cut from a similar enough cloth that they sound great together, despite mostly having different lead vocalists.
The best of the bunch is the Miley Cyrus-featuring, "Jolene"-esque lead single "Nothing Breaks Like A Heart," which came out last November and still hasn't gotten old. It's got a similar modernized country flair to the work Ronson did on "Shallow" and Lady Gaga's recent Joanne album, and it's a lot better than that hip hop-inspired misstep of an EP that Miley dropped recently. I wish the two of them would've made more like this (and maybe they still will!), but even though Late Night Feelings never reaches those heights again, it comes close many times. The two songs with Lykke Li (the title track and "2 AM") are high quality doses of minimalist alt-pop that are as strong as most songs Lykke Li has released in recent years. "Pieces of Us" with King Princess is a very fun slice of danceable '80s pop. The three songs with gospel-soul singer YEBBA (who you may recognize from Chance the Rapper's "Same Drugs" performance on SNL, among other things) sound like modern updates on '70s soul and they're pretty stunning. YEBBA's one of the smaller names on here, but she comes off like a true diva. Alicia Keys, who already is a true diva, sounds great on "Truth" with The Last Artful, Dodger, the album's successful foray into hip hop soul. And songs like "Find U Again" (ft. Camila Cabello) and "Why Hide"(ft. Diana Gordon) make for enjoyable -- if not entirely memorable -- album fodder. The most anticipated song in indie rock circles was "True Blue" with Angel Olsen, and though Angel is admittedly not as good of a fit on this album as the other guests, she and Ronson make it work and it's great to hear her voice on a new song. (Make another album again soon, please!) Like most albums where the producer is the lead artist, Late Night Feelings still feels more like the kind of album where you'd pick a few favorites to go back to, rather than always listening start to finish. But there are plenty of favorites to choose from and not many low points, so as far as these types of albums go, Late Night Feelings is one of the better ones in recent memory.
The Raconteurs' first album in a decade is a great comeback and the best Jack White-related album in a long time. You can read my full review here.
We named Bedouine (aka Azniv Korkejian) one of the best new-ish artists of 2017 off the strength of her self-titled album, and today she returns with a followup album that I think is even better. Her debut was an excellent update on '70s-style folk, but it always sounded a little too clean and smooth for a genre that's supposed to be personable and unpolished. Bird Songs of a Killjoy isn't drastically rawer or anything, but it avoids the minor shortcomings of the debut and sounds even more breathtaking. A few months before announcing the new album, Bedouine released a Linda Perhacs cover (and an Elton John cover), and even more so than her debut, Bird Songs of a Killjoy sounds like it could be a lost outsider folk classic like Linda's Parallelograms. There are string arrangements and other embellishments on this album, but it's often just Azniv and her acoustic guitar, and that's really all she needs at this point to make compelling songs. The way Azniv tells it, she wrote her debut album without an audience in mind but this time she knew the stakes were a little higher, but to my ears this album sounds less concerned with an audience than her debut. It just seems like the same songs she'd write if she made an album alone in her bedroom, without a producer or a record label or an upcoming tour. For music like this, sometimes that's just what you want.
In the 15 years since their first album, Hot Chip have grown from their quirky roots into a highly consistent band with a strong, romantic sense of songwriting and ever-inventive, danceable production that continues to evolve. They may never have another culturally important, moment-defining album like 2006's The Warning, but some of their best songs came out on later albums, and they've never really released anything that's not worth listening to. A Bath Full of Ecstasy is their first album in four years and it's their first time working with outside producers: Cassius' Philippe Zdar (who sadly just passed away this week), and Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, King Krule). The more collaborative process was new for the band, and it seems like it's helped freshen up their sound a bit. These songs are as bright and colorful as the album artwork, and at just nine tracks, this lean album goes down easy. I don't know yet if I'm hearing another show-stopping single like "Boy From School" or "Ready For The Floor" or "I Feel Better" on this one, but "Spell" and "Echo" (neither of which have been released as singles... yet?) are pretty addictive and would be nice additions to your own personal "best of Hot Chip" playlist.
Back in the early 2010s when the New Wave of Post-Hardcore was gaining traction outside of the niche scene it started in, and bands like Touche Amore, Pianos Become the Teeth, La Dispute, and Title Fight were starting to take off in a big way, State Faults emerged as a band who could've been one of the next to break. Their 2013 sophomore album Resonate/Desperate was really promising stuff, but as the modern post-hardcore scene shifted and evolved, State Faults never capitalized on the buzz of Resonate/Desperate with a followup LP. They're finally back now, though, and if you've been following this type of music over the past few years, you'll probably find that Clairvoyant is very refreshing. The post-hardcore craze has died down a bit, a lot of the bigger bands have softened their sound, and a lot of the bigger bands are already doing things like 10th anniversary tours and reissues. But State Faults still sound like a hungry new band, and Clairvoyant is a much more aggressive record than the higher-profile bands in this scene have released in a while. It's also a more aggressive record than Resonate/Desperate; State Faults once seemed like they could be the next Touche Amore, and now they seem more like they could be the next Deafheaven. There's a post-rocky atmosphere to Clairvoyant and some beautifully melodic instrumentals, but it's rarely a clean or quiet sounding album. It's well-produced (by Jack Shirley, who also did Resonate/Desperate and all the Deafheaven records), but it's a pulverizing record, indebted to chaotic screamo bands like pg.99 and sometimes even to Converge. (This is thanks in no small part to their ridiculously good drummer Jared Cortland.) Sometimes there are clean vocals, but they're always in the background, adding an ethereal layer of melody but not distracting from Jonny Calvert-Andrew's piercing scream. It may have been a bummer that the band hibernated for so long, but it seems like the time away only made them sharper.
Punk can't fix the world, but when you're pissed off about the way things are happening around you, punk can at least be a temporary stress reliever, especially when it's a punk band with a confrontational attitude and a bold message. As you'd probably guess from their band name, Mannequin Pussy are one of those bands. And they have been one of those bands for a while -- 2014's Gypsy Pervert and 2016's Romantic (both released on Tiny Engines) were both among the more talked-about releases in the current indie/punk scene -- but Patience is their best-sounding and most fleshed-out album to date. It's their first for punk powerhouse Epitaph Records, first recorded with the very talented punk producer Will Yip, and it sees band leader Marisa Dabice stretching her wings further than she ever has before. The album touches on everything from raging hardcore to sweet, melodic pop and hits a lot of the in-between, including Sleater-Kinney-ish indie/punk, quiet bedroom pop, '90s alt-rock, yearning emo, sludge metal, and more. Guitars can be riffy or shoegazy or jangly, and Marisa's voice is stronger than ever. She's just as good at delivering punchy hooks as she is at unbridled aggression, and you can really feel the passion in her voice no matter what mode she's in. A lot of recent albums have seen bands channelling one or two of the things Mannequin Pussy do on Patience, but it really isn't everyday that you hear this wide palette of sounds and moods come together the way it does on this album.
Telethon's last album -- 2017's The Grand Spontanean -- was a five-act, 30s-song indie-punk rock opera with guest vocals from Laura Stevenson, Chris Farren, The Hold Steady's Franz Nicolay, and Less Than Jake's Roger Lima, and production by Jack Shirley (whose work with Jeff Rosenstock is most appropriate to mention here). Its followup, Hard Pop, is a mere ten songs, but it still manages to retain that same sense of ambition. It's quirky, indie rock-friendly pop punk that can recall anything from Motion City Soundtrack to Say Anything to the aforementioned Jeff Rosenstock, and like those artists, it's deliberately genre-defying. It can touch on anything from punk to sax-fueled Springsteeny heartland rock to classic rock guitar heroism to piano balladry to ska to Beach Boys-y pop; "Hard Pop" is pretty much the perfect name for it. There are once again guest vocals, this time from Willow Hawks of rising indie punks The Sonder Bombs, as well as strings, horns, and more. Hard Pop is overflowing with ambition, and Telethon are just crazy enough to pull it off.