Five Notable Releases of the Week (7/14)
This week's a really good week for new albums and it was tough to narrow it down to five picks. In addition to the ones I chose, the new LPs by metalcore pioneers Integrity, grindcore supergroup Expulsion (members of Repulsion and Exhumed), David Bazan's new band Lo Tom, and Katie Ellen (ex-Chumped) are recommended too.
Not only is it a good week for new music, it's a good week for good music documentaries. HBO's The Defiant Ones premiered this week and it's really worth watching. It chronicles the many endeavors of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, and there's some really interesting stuff in there, including interviews with Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Dee Barnes, Ice Cube, The D.O.C., Kendrick Lamar, Nas, Puff Daddy, will.i.a.m., Gwen Stefani, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, Bono, Bruce Springsteen, Trent Reznor, and many others. If you're afraid it's going to have too much self back-patting, it really doesn't. They touch on the lows as well as the highs -- unlike Straight Outta Compton, Dre addresses his assault on Dee Barnes this time -- and the whole thing is gripping, even if you're already familiar with some of the stories.
Check out the five albums I picked below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Dear is Boris' 23rd album, and that number would be even higher if you count their many collaborative albums. I haven't heard all of the music that Boris has put out over the past two-plus decades, but I've heard enough to know that Dear registers as some of their most immediately-satisfying work. It's certainly one of their stronger albums of the past few years. The band say they wrote three albums worth of material for Dear but cut it down to ten songs. The ten they chose offer a concise blend of some of Boris' best traits: sludge metal, shoegaze, post-rock, ambience, and the ability to mix them all together to create a unique form of really, really heavy rock. It's a much slower album than some of Boris' rock-oriented classics, and a more structured album than their noise/drone material. The guitars on Dear are used to create layers of atmosphere as well as traditional riffs, and usually something that's sorta both at once. On the clean, quiet parts, that atmosphere can feel like thin air, and when Boris stomp on the distortion pedals, it can feel like walking through blinding fog. On the painfully gorgeous "Beyond," which goes from minimal dream pop to NeurIsis post-metal and back, you get both on one song. On the nearly 12-minute "Distopia -Vanishing Point-," Boris transition from their dreamy side to a lengthy, '70s-style guitar solo. "Kagero" would've been a delicate, quiet song if not for the layers of sludge thrown on top, and "Memento Mori" would've been a sludge song if not for the pure pop song fighting to come out. "Absolutego" is the most traditionally metal song, but it's also the one with soaring choruses built for rock radio and arena tours. It shares a name with Boris' 1996 debut album but sounds more like the Smashing Pumpkins album released a year earlier. Besides "Biotope" -- the best MBV-inspired shoegaze song released in 2017 thus far -- every song on Dear has too many styles clashing at once to ever pin it down to one in particular. Boris have blended these styles before, but the band sounds so inspired and energized on Dear that the approach feels fresh.
After balancing time between the indie-punk band Little Big League and her solo project Japanese Breakfast, Michelle Zauner chose to focus her attention on the latter following the release of the very promising debut JB album Psychopomp. She since signed to the biggest label she's been on yet (Dead Oceans), and her first album for the label is a noticeable step up from anything Michelle had done prior. Psychopomp was rooted in reverby '80s dream pop, and Soft Sounds has some of that but it's not tied down to it at all. The auto-tune-and-saxophone-solo-filled "Machinist" was an anomaly at her live shows on the Psychopomp tour, but as the third track on Soft Sounds it fits right in on an album that refuses to stick to one sound. The synthetic string-laden "Boyish" is Michelle's attempt at a Roy Orbison-style ballad and she totally sells it. "This House" is an introverted acoustic song and it's a real heartbreaker. The grungy "12 Steps" and the brainy guitar workout of "Body Is A Blade" sound like songs that could've flown in Little Big League. The two songs that most strongly hearken back to Psychopomp are at the beginning of the album to ease you in, and even those branch out from its predecessor. Opener "Diving Woman" dips its toes into dream pop's harder-edged cousin shoegaze, with the kind of hypnotic backbone and wall-of-sound guitars you need for that kind of stuff. "Road Head" is the most melodically similar to Psychopomp but it's less dream and more pop.
When you break it down, there are a ton of different styles on Soft Sounds From Another Planet, but Michelle's substance-over-style approach to songwriting is what keeps this album from sounding like a collage of indie subgenres. Whether she's making distortion-drenched shoegaze or soft acoustic music or throwing an auto-tune fest, Michelle is writing strong, traditional pop songs and tackling death, anxiety and other forms of pain in her lyrics. With Michelle's powerful and increasingly-distinct voice, her words really linger in your head long after the album's stopped playing.
Katie Crutchfield started Waxahatchee as a very personal project. Her first album had nothing more than Katie's own voice, guitar and piano. Her second had just a few more collaborators but was still a bare-bones album and still rooted in sad, introspective songwriting. Then came Ivy Tripp, an album with keyboards, drum machines, and more instrumentation that made it a more musically ambitious album than its predecessors. There was less focus on Katie's words, and the lyrics were more vague anyway. Talking about it now, Katie says that album had "a lot of beating around the bush, and superficially trying to see my life clearly, but just barely scratching the surface." Out in the Storm is a full-band album, but lyrically it's a return to her early days. It's a breakup album, and it's a very honest one. Take "Recite Remorse," a pained, vivid song with shots through the heart like this one: "See, I always gravitate toward those who are unimpressed / I saw you as a big fish / I saw you as a conquest." "Recite Remorse" is one of the album's most minimal songs -- perfect for such gut-spilling lyrics -- though mostly Out in the Storm is the most traditional-style indie rock album Waxahatchee has ever made. Katie recorded most of it live with a band that included her sister Allison Crutchfield, Katherine Simonetti, Ashley Arnwine (Pinkwash), and Katie Harkin (Sky Larkin, touring member of Sleater-Kinney), and it was produced by John Agnello, who's really the perfect guy to help you achieve a traditional indie rock sound (he's worked with Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Cymbals Eat Guitars, and more). Having already mastered a bare-bones sound on her first two LPs and a more ambitious sound on Ivy Tripp, Out in the Storm finds a nice middle ground.
It's clear if you listen to Decemberists records (or Colin Meloy's tribute EP to Shirley Collins) that they're students of traditional British folk, so it's not totally surprising news that they teamed with a modern-day British folk singer to record an album that mostly features new arrangements of British traditionals. OOlivia Chaney is the singer in question. The Decemberists started bringing her out at their live shows and then revealed their new collaborative band with her, Offa Rex. They do folk-rock takes on these traditional songs -- some of which are about 200 years old -- in the style of bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. In fact, two of the best songs on The Queen of Hearts were staples in Steeleye Span's repertoire, "Blackleg Miner" and "Sheepcrook and Black Dog." For "Blackleg Miner," Colin Meloy takes lead vocals and delivers a performance that hearkens back to The Decemberists' Kill Rock Stars days, when their original material was more directly inspired by trad-folk. Olivia Chaney delivers huge, soaring vocals for "Sheepcrook and Black Dog," while the band breaks out the album's most metallic guitar work. There is some weight and darkness to the Steeleye Span rendition of this song, but in Offa Rex's hands, it's more like Black Sabbath or Jethro Tull. (For Decemberists fans, it also evokes some nostalgia for The Tain or the sludge parts of the band's 2009 prog-folk epic The Hazards of Love.) Those two are both highlights, but if you like those, then really you'll like the whole album. The Decemberists and Olivia Chaney sound so natural together, and they sound so natural playing these songs. Whether your record collection has every album Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Ashley Hutchings ever played on, or you're still relatively new to this stuff, Offa Rex have the ability to hit you in that folk-rock sweet spot. If you’re coming to the album as a Decemberists fan, it’s worth noting that the only other song Colin sings lead on is album closer “To Make You Stay”, but it’ll also be immediately clear how talented Olivia is, and the parts where Colin and Olivia harmonize are some of the album’s most gorgeous moments.
Quazarz: Born On A Gangster Star and Quazarz vs. The Jealous Machines are the third and fourth albums by Shabazz Palaces, the main creative concern of Ishmael Butler (aka Butterfly of Digable Planets) for the past eight years. Digable Planets (who have been playing reunion shows lately) were always on the weirder side of rap, but Shabazz Palaces brought that weirdness to another dimension. These two new albums, which both tell the story of a character named Quazarz ("a sentient being from somewhere else, an observer sent here to Amurderca to chronicle and explore as a musical emissary"), might actually be the group's weirdest. With a concept like the story of Quazarz and mind-melting production that rarely resembles a hip hop beat, these albums sooner recall Dr. Octagonecologyst or Deltron 3030 than Blowout Comb. Still, Shabazz use these outer-space concepts to make grounded statements. In between all the vivid psychedelic imagery, they find time for some good old rap shit-talking. On "30 Clip Extension," they spend one verse calling out ghostwriters and another throwing tons of shots at "your favorite rapper" ("he's fashioned by some unseen hand," "he's a chauvinist with feminine vanities"). On the cuttingly titled "Self-Made Follownaire," they assert "the fakeness is ridiculous." If like Shabazz Palaces you think today's culture is too stale, too full of carbon copies of other artists, you won't have to look very far to find something different. Two rap albums that sound like nothing else coming out right now are staring you in the face.