Five Notable Releases of the Week (9/21)
Happy almost Fall! (Tomorrow is technically the first day.) September is rolling on with a huge amount of worthy albums. Here are a few of this week's honorable mentions: the first Mountain Man album in eight years, Liars, Advance Base, Villagers, Voivod, Suede, Arcade Fire's Richard Reed Parry, BEAK>, milo, Richard Swift, Roc Marciano, Pictureplane, Ash Koosha, Young Dolph, Lupe Fiasco, and Night Birds.
Check out my five picks for this week's Notable Releases below. Fun fact: two of the albums were done with the same producer (Converge's Kurt Ballou), but they couldn't be more different albums from each other. What was your favorite release of the week?
Brockhampton had taken the world by storm by the end of 2017, a year which saw them release not one but three of the year's best albums. They were all home-recorded, all self-released, and they all had a unique, forward-thinking sound that wasn't much like any rap on the radio, not that that stopped them from getting very popular very quickly. They inevitably signed to a major label, and given the rate at which they released music in 2017 and the fact that they had announced a new album before 2017 even ended, it seemed like Brockhampton's fourth album would be dropping at some point in early 2018. But then the group hit a series of roadblocks, the most major one being the sexual misconduct allegations against founding member Ameer Vann, which resulted in his removal from the group. Brockhampton then cancelled tour dates, scrapped material they had recorded, and kept pushing back their new album (and changing its title). After pushing past all the setbacks and relocating to London's historic Abbey Road Studios (their first time recording in a proper studio), they finally came out with Iridescence, which they say is the first installment of a trilogy called The Best Years of Our Lives (one of the early album titles they had revealed). "I don’t know if i would have been able to write another record if we didn’t come to Europe," group leader Kevin Abstract said. And it's a good thing they did, because despite all the factors working against them, Brockhampton came out with an album that's at least as good as its three predecessors.
Like a lot of major rap releases, the album was kept under wraps until release day, so I've only been able to hear it a couple of times, but it instantly feels like the kind of record that's going to beg you to keep coming back to it. Each member has upped their rap game from the last record (especially Joba who is probably Most Improved), the production -- which is still all in-house -- is bigger and cleaner and has a lot more range, and the absence of their disgraced member who was formerly a key player hasn't hurt their sound in any real quantifiable way. The album kicks right off with a banger, "New Orleans," a razor-sharp song that features Jaden Smith and sounds like a clear step forward for the group. (They also have more -- and better known outside of Radio Disney -- outside guests on this album than ever.) The song takes Brockhampton's sound into territory they've only hinted at before, and it puts you in the perfect headspace to want to keep digging into this album.
As on past albums, Iridescence has short, interlude-type songs interspersed with longer, more proper songs, and it helps keep you on your toes and helps Brockhampton explore sounds that go beyond the realm of hip hop. But they're also doing that within songs more than ever. The production is often far from traditional hip hop production; the songs often have shapeshifting musical backdrops that go through unexpected twists and turns rather than sticking to a looped beat. The best example of this is "Weight," which goes from spoken word-rap over orchestral strings to big, reverby soulful harmonies over ambient textures, to breakbeat/trip hop type stuff to slow-jam hip hop and beyond. That song's one of the lyrical highlights too, with the group members getting introspective and looking at the ways their lives have changed since the fame and all the hardships that came with it ("They split my world into pieces / I ain't heard from my nieces / I've been feeling defeated / Like I'm the worst in the boyband," Kevin begins). It's not the only song on the album where you can feel the struggles that Brockhampton went through in the past year. "I want more out of life than this," a gospel-style choir sings on "San Marcos," which might be Brockhampton's strongest Bearface-assisted guitar ballad yet. "I can't sleep like I used to / The world will try to tell you who are before you get to," Kevin raps on the pained closing track "Fabric," before addressing his career more directly: "Why the hell the BBC only writes about me when it comes down to controversy? What about three CDs in one year with no label? And we signed and our story turned into a fucking fable." A few of the other group members add their own thoughts, and it all comes back to Kevin's hook: "You don't understand why I can't get up and shout."
There's other intense musical stuff going on too, like the M.I.A.-featuring "District," which comes right after "Weight" and starts on a similarly orchestral note before quickly turning into a warped, mechanical banger. There's "Tape," which sees the members trading another round of sad, introspective verses over weeping piano, strings, and stuttering glitch/IDM drums. There's "Honey," which has Kevin and Dom McLennon spitting over a throwback club beat, until the song turns into a dose of hazy, psychedelic pop. There's "Tonya," which features serpentwithfeet, Jazmine Sullivan, and past collaborator (and Radio Disney star) Ryan Beatty, and that one turns from a piano ballad into laid-back, throwback hip hop. And then there's stuff that would fit in perfectly with the Brockhampton bangers of last year like the grimey industrial rap of "Berlin," or the ominous, aggressive "J'Ouvert" which is home to one of Joba's best screamed verses, or "Where The Cash At" which is home to one of Merlyn Wood's most wild-eyed verses and one of Matt Champion's toughest. The album isn't without its more unmemorable moments too, but given everything that Brockhampton have been through, and how many instantly-satisfying early highlights this album has, right now it's hard to see it as anything other than a triumph.
So far, Joyce Manor have been one of those bands who make subtle changes to their sound from album to album, rather than drastically reshaping it. All of their albums follow the same general formula (short indie-punk songs with a strong backbone, strong melodies, and no added frills), but each one has just enough of a distinct vibe separating it from the others. Their last album, 2016's great Cody, was their most noticeable leap forward yet, with the biggest, lushest sounding music of their career (thanks in part to Elliott Smith collaborator Rob Schnapf's production). Its followup Million Dollars To Kill Me is less of a leap and sometimes has more of a back-to-basics approach, but still a fine entry into their rock-solid discography that should please old fans and make for an easy entry point for new ones.
This one was produced by Converge's Kurt Ballou, who tends to work with hardcore bands, and Ballou helps give the album a rawer, more stripped-back sound than its predecessor. And especially in the case of the album's faster songs, Joyce Manor are keeping it simple, not trying to surpass the most ambitious moments of Cody. But beneath the no-frills punk exterior of album highlights like "Think I'm Still In Love With You" and the title track, Joyce Manor are continuing to hone the sweeter side of their sound that really started to become fully realized on Cody. Even on the short, driving, power-chord punk songs, they've got sugary, romantic melodies that do a lot of justice to the Smiths influence that's crept into Joyce Manor songwriting since the early days. While singer Barry Johnson's yell took precedence over his gentler singing early on, that script has been completely flipped on Million Dollars to Kill Me. This toned-down, sweeter Joyce Manor is even more prevalent on the album's slower songs, like the soft, jangly indie rock of "Silly Games," "Gone Tomorrow," and "Wildflowers." The album's most significant curveball is its absolute softest song, "I'm Not the One." Joyce Manor have had acoustic songs before (like "Drainage" on 2012's Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired and the Phoebe Bridgers collaboration "Do You Really Want To Not Get Better" on Cody), but "I'm Not the One" is the first Joyce Manor song you can call folky. It sees Joyce Manor going into Americana territory without losing that distinct Joyce Manor-ness that their usual sound has, and it's a more fleshed-out song than JM's past acoustic songs (unlike their others, it has drums... and something that sounds like either a piano or glockenspiel). It's more proof that just when you think you've got Joyce Manor pegged, they've always got another surprise up their sleeves.
Back in 2014, French pop artist Héloïse Letissier released her first album under the moniker Christine and the Queens, Chaleur humaine. The following year, she released an English-language version with bonus tracks as Christine and the Queens in the US, and in 2016 it came out in the UK. It's a fantastic album that pushes the boundaries of both genre and gender, and Héloïse pushed the boundaries of the latter even more as she toured in support of the album. Her athletic stage show led to her becoming more muscular, and eventually she gave herself a shorter, more stereotypically masculine haircut and also chopped off the "-tine and the Queens" for a shorter, more stereotypically masculine name for her character: Chris. But it's not as cut and dry as Christine and the Queens is her "feminine" album and Chris is her "masculine" album. All throughout Chris, Héloïse sings of navigating the world and relationships and sex as a woman. "I wanted this album to complicate things, not for the sake of complicating things, but just to express that a woman can be a contradictory character," she told Pitchfork. One of the best examples of how Chris puts this contradiction right in the forefront is album highlight "Girlfriend." Over G-Funk-inspired production by Dam-Funk (a "more aggressive musical reference," as she put it), Héloïse snarls "Girlfriend? Don't feel like a girlfriend. But lover? Damn, I'd be your lover." And like its predecessor, Chris is constantly toying with the confines of genre too. There's that aforementioned hip hop-inspired song, there's disco, there's '80s synthpop, there's modern alt-pop, there's atmospheric balladry, and so much more. It's not easy to compare Chris to any one thing, but one sorta close comparison is Dev Hynes' Blood Orange project. Like Dev, Héloïse makes music that sounds like the mainstream but feels like it's for outsiders. She challenges what a pop artist can look like, what they can sound like, and what they can sing about. And on top of pulling all of that off, she also made an album that's effortlessly fun to listen to.
Since Isis (mostly) broke up, frontman Aaron Turner has kept busy with plenty of other projects, and the one that comes closest to scratching the same itch as Isis is Sumac. That's still true on their towering third album Love In Shadow, which has plenty of the kinds of atmospheric sludge metal moments that Aaron perfected with his former band, but this album also takes Sumac's sound into much different territory. It was made just like its two predecessors, with Aaron backed by the pummeling rhythm section of bassist Brian Cook (Russian Circles, Botch) and drummer Nick Yacyshyn (Baptists) and with Converge's Kurt Ballou producing, but across its four monstrous tracks -- which clock in between 12 and 21-and-a-half minutes each -- it explores a more diverse set of sounds than any Sumac album ever has. Leading the entire hour-long album is Aaron's beastly growl, which hasn't changed one bit, but the instrumentation he applies his voice to is full of unexpected turns. The album is rarely in straight-up sludge metal territory for very long. Sometimes Aaron will be growling over ambient guitar, or over church organ (like at the end of "The Task"), or over psychedelic tribal rock (like in the beginning of "Arcing Silver"). In between all that, Love In Shadow treks through Sonic Youth noise, acid rock guitar feedback, blastbeat-fueled fury, atmospheric psychedelia, parts that near jam territory, and parts that near jazz. A lot of bands genre hop, but it's not everyday that you hear a band do it as naturally as Sumac do on Love In Shadow. They'll be in very quiet, avant-garde territory and switch over to pulverizing sludge metal with a transition so smooth that you don't even realize it's happening until it's over. It's too soon to say if it's their best album yet, but it's certainly their most beautiful, their most experimental, and their most thought-provoking.
It's not hard to see that we're living in a fucked up America. Lonnie Holley, the 68-year-old outsider artist who has been making his way into the indie rock world, has clearly known this long before the Trump era, but it resonated far and wide when he sang about it bluntly on this past summer's "I Woke Up In A Fucked-Up America." It was the lead single off MITH, his first album for the big indie rock label Jagjaguwar (home of Bon Iver, who he has shared the stage with, and many others), and it's not the only song on the album where he addresses this country's injustices and holds nothing back. It opens with "I'm A Suspect," which travels from present day back to the horrors of slavery and always comes back to the refrain of "I'm a suspect in America." Later on, there's "I Snuck Off The Slave Ship," a first-person account of being chained and beaten on a slave ship and imagining yourself finally running away from all of it. His words read more like poetry than like song lyrics, and he rattles them off with a melodic rasp that isn't much like traditional singing over lively, freeform piano that isn't much like traditional piano playing. It's not always easy to listen to, and that's probably the point. These songs shouldn't go down easy. They should elicit as much pained emotion as it sounds like Lonnie put into them. And if you open yourself up to this album, its level of emotion will overtake you. These are very, very powerful songs that can hang around in your brain long after the record stopped playing. It's an album that knows America has been a fucked up place for a long time and will probably continue to be for a long time (it takes on other long-standing American issues like with the Standing Rock anthem "Copying the Rock"), but it ends with a little hope. Even when times are tough, "Sometimes I Wanna Dance," Lonnie announces with the title of the last song. And it's both lyrically and sonically the most joyous moment on the album. As an artist, Lonnie clearly wants to give his listeners a lot to think about, a lot of real issues to mull over. But as an entertainer, sometimes you just want to write a song that gets people moving. And it's clear that Lonnie can do that, too.