Five Notable Releases of the Week (7/1/16)
After a low-key but rewarding final week of June, July kicks off with a bang. This week I picked three albums that are massive, sometimes-overwhelming statements, and YMMV, but I don't recommend trying to hear them all at once. For a good palate cleanser, I included two fuzzy punk albums in there too.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Dev Hynes has penned hits for several pop singers and led several of his own projects, and he clearly hasn't run out of ideas yet. His third album under his Blood Orange moniker, Freetown Sound, is moodier and more minimal than its 2013 '80s-synthpop-reviving predecessor Cupid Deluxe, closer in spirit to modern R&B. Like a couple high profile R&B albums this year (Drake, James Blake), Freetown Sound demands your time and attention, with 17 songs that clock in at almost an hour. But already, this has more instant-replay value than those other albums. Part of that is surely the spirit in the lyrics -- those Drake and James Blake albums look inward but Freetown Sound is an album for the people. It's one of Dev's most overtly political works yet, a To Pimp A Butterfly or a Lemonade, and it's easy to see this album empowering people the same way those albums have. It not only isn't insular lyrically, but with its wide range of guest singers, it's a very communal sounding record. And the guests here are wisely picked. One of the most exciting art pop newcomers, Empress Of, takes the lead on "Best to You." A true legend, Debbie Harry, shows up on "E.V.P." A singer who was always too alternative for the pop world she inhabited and hasn't put out a great single in way too long, Nelly Furtado, reclaims her throne on "Hadron Collider." Dev also manages to switch it up musically without straying from the album's cohesive vision. "Chance" has hints of quiet storm. "E.V.P." recalls '70s funk. "Desirée" comes close to Tame Impala or Neon Indian-style psych pop. And as you might expect from Dev, you can hear a lot of Bad-era Michael Jackson all over this record. It really feels like the kind of an album where an already-accomplished musician shoots for the stars and succeeds.
Natasha Khan's first Bat For Lashes album since 2012's The Haunted Man was written as the soundtrack for a film she had in mind, which follows the story of a woman whose fiancé has been killed in a crash on the way to the church for their wedding. It's of course highly conceptual, but to quote Bill, you don’t have to follow the plot to become immersed in the emotions. The album plays out like the Bat For Lashes we know and love, which it means that for all its ambition (and there is a lot of ambition), it remains accessible. Like her past work, it's dark pop that's really pretty difficult to put a finger on. Human sounds meet synthetic sounds, the dreamy meets the industrial. And it's Natasha Khan's wide-range vocals that always remain the focus. She sounds as gorgeous as ever over the album's ever-changing backdrop, which is thrilling at times but demands your patience at others. If you give it, The Bride will be very rewarding.
It's a good time for comebacks by classic neo-soul artists. It feels like just yesterday that the new D'Angelo album came out, and now we get the first Maxwell album in seven years. blackSUMMERS'night is the sequel to 2009's very similarly named BLACKsummers'night, but it is indeed a different album and quite a good one at that. Maxwell packs a lot into the album's 12 songs, with groovy basslines, triumphant horns, bits of jazz, bits of funk, and he leads the way with a voice that can be molasses-sweet or a bold rasp. The album sounds rich, but it also sounds raw. The drumming is hard and crisp, not like the rubbery drum pads that dominate R&B these days. The Marvin Gaye comparisons he's always gotten are there, but some James Brown is too. (If there's a contemporary musician doing stuff like this, it's Anderson Paak.) It's been 20 years since Maxwell's first album, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite, an album many people still consider his best. So it's pretty amazing that he's not only still doing it, but still sounding fresh and vital. You could sit around asking Frank Ocean where his album is, or you could treasure that a guy he probably took some cues from is still killing the game. And hey, maybe when Frank finally does give us the album, it'll be as worth the wait as blackSUMMERS'night was.
GØGGS is something of a garage punk supergroup, featuring Ex-Cult frontman Chris Shaw, the insanely prolific Ty Segall, and Charles Moothart of Ty's band Fuzz (and CFM and Mikal Cronin's band). Ty Segall AND Ex-Cult AND CFM all have their own albums out this year, but don't let that make you think GØGGS is some tossed-off side project. Their individual talents come together in a way that's not quite like the sounds these guys make on their own. Ty Segall has been heading in an increasingly proto-metal direction, both with his latest solo album and with Fuzz, and those distortion-drenched heavy riffs are all over this album. But while the axe is where Ty really shines, Chris Shaw is the more memorable frontman, and his distinct shout over Ty's riffs is a great mix. If you've ever seen Ex-Cult live, you know that Chris is the kind of singer that you couldn't look away from if you tried. He's confrontational, in-your-face, and always loud enough to cut above his ripping band. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he stalks the room with that same glare on his face when he records, 'cause you can envision his live show the second you hear him on the album. Ty Segall's favorite Black Flag singer is Keith Morris, but with his metallic fuzz backing Chris Shaw's '80s-hardcore bark, GØGGS is the closest Ty has ever come to My War. But it's still Ty Segall we're talking about, so it's like, My War on a lot more acid.
(Soundcloud via SPIN)
Between F.Y.P, Toys That Kill, and Underground Railroad to Candyland, Recess Records label head Todd Congelliere has been churning out classic-style pop punk since 1989, and he's basically never strayed far at all from that formula. It works, because this stuff never goes out of style and these bands keep coming up with hooks. Sentimental Ward, the latest album by Toys That Kill, is another winner. If you're uninitiated and unsure of how forever-relevant these guys are, consider that they were hanging with The Dwarves and Propagandhi in the '90s, and they're hanging with Joyce Manor now. And it's easy to see how anyone from The Marked Men to The Ergs to Tenement have pulled direct influence from them. Just like he was over two decades ago, Todd (and co-vocalist/guitarist Sean Cole) is writing instantly-sticky power pop with a true punk drive. It's as raw, fuzzy and stripped-back as a good punk album should be. How can pop punk age well? By finding a timeless approach and sticking with it.