Notable Releases of the Week (2/15)
This week's been full of ups and downs in the music world. On a positive note, the Grammys turned out pretty well, with awesome deserving artists like High On Fire and St. Vincent taking home awards, St. Vincent putting on a truly great performance with Dua Lipa, Cardi B setting a record as the first female solo artist to win Best Rap Album, and Kacey Musgraves beating out some way bigger stars for Album of the Year.
There's also a ridiculous amount of worthy albums out this week. I highlighted eleven new releases below, and here's even more: the new Broken Social Scene EP, Sir Babygirl, Endon, Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, Rina Mushonga, Anemone, Vanum, Lenny Lashley's Gang of One, Rotting Christ, Herod, Perfect Son, and The Long Ryders' first album in 30+ years.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
The Queen of Funk is back with her first album in 12 years, and there couldn't be a better time for an album like Hello Happiness than right now. Chaka's brand of funk can he heard resonating all throughout modern music, from "indie R&B" acts like Dawn Richard and Anderson .Paak all the way up through some of the biggest stars in the world like Bruno Mars. But nobody does it quite like the Queen, and you're reminded of that as soon as you hit play on Hello Happiness. Her voice hasn't aged a bit; she still sounds like just as much of a powerhouse as she did decades ago. And much more so than her last album (2007's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis-produced Funk This), Hello Happiness updates Chaka's sound to compete with the modern-day artists she influenced. It was produced by long-running DJ and former Major Lazer member Switch and his collaborator Sarah Ruba Taylor (who are co-releasing the album with Island on their label Diary Records), and Switch and Ruba Taylor nail a balance between modern-day electronic music/R&B and the synthetic strings, groovy basslines, hard-edged funk guitars, and wailing organs of '70s funk/disco. You hear the influence of the '70s stuff on modern music all the time anyway, so it's no surprise that Chaka Khan sounds like a natural singing over Ruba Taylor and Switch's production, but this is more than just a modern-day recreation of the disco era. If you didn't know any better, Hello Happiness could pass as a new artist's debut album in 2019, and that's no small feat when you consider it's actually coming from an artist who's been singing since the early '70s. It's similar enough to her classic material that I suspect it'll go over well with the longtime fans when she tours with Michael McDonald later this year, but I also think these songs have got the power to win over kids who have never heard a Rufus record. The songs instantly feel like classics, and with a lean seven-song tracklist, it's so easy to quickly digest this album and be left wanting more.
J.S. Ondara was born in Nairobi, Kenya but he fell in love with American folk music, particularly that of Bob Dylan, and he moved to Dylan's home state of Minnesota of 2013 to chase his very own American Dream. Just a few years later, he put out his debut single, and not long after that, he was opening for Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham. Now he's finally releasing his debut album, a tender folk album directly inspired by albums like Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' and Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska that tells the stories of a Kenyan-born man's experiences living in America. One listen to his voice, and it's easy to see why he's quickly taking off. Ondara is a true natural, with a beautiful, soaring voice in the upper register that sounds like it's coming from an old blues singer from decades past. But he never oversings (he did learn from Dylan, after all), and he never sounds overtly retro. The songs do have the kind of classic sound that would resonate with the audiences who go to Lindsey Buckingham shows, and there are a few where Ondara's decade-old influences really come through loud and clear ("Days of Insanity" is a dead ringer for The Beatles' Dylanesque "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away"), but mostly these songs sound new and fresh and could win over audiences of all ages. My favorite is "Saying Goodbye," which is just a great folk-pop song no matter who you are, one that could impress fans of Simon & Garfunkel or Cat Stevens as much as it could impress fans of Adele or Michael Kiwanuka. He also sounds like he could be as big as some of those artists some day, but he benefits from the calm folk arrangements of these songs (aided by Jenny Lewis producer Mike Viola, who -- fun fact -- also co-produced and sang the title track from That Thing You Do!), and it suits him well that he never goes into pure pop territory. He's struck a very likable middle ground between pop and folk, between retro and modern, and I hope he continues to explore stuff like this for a long time.
Czarface (aka Wu-Tang Clan's Inspectah Deck + Boston duo 7L & Esoteric) has been one of the better current Wu-Tang-related projects for a while, and making this new album even more exciting is that it's a collaboration with Deck's fellow Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah. As is always the case with Czarface, Czarface Meets Ghostface is a comic book-style concept album, but you don't have to be invested in murderous superheroes for this record to get your head nodding. With psychedelic, retro-futurustic production from The Czar-Keys (7L & Jeremy Page), Czarface and Ghostface deliver the same kind of hard-hitting bars that defined New York rap during the Wu's breakthrough era, with enough modern-day punchlines to remind you you're listening to an album from the 21st century (with references to Buzzfeed, Breitbart, Shazam, and other recent phenomenons). Like last year's Pusha T and Black Thought albums, Czarface Meets Ghostface sees veteran rappers really leaning into the kinds of intricate rhyme schemes and the venomous delivery that they've always done best. It doesn't try to fit in with modern rap, but it feels so energized that it doesn't really matter.
On previous albums, Finland's Hexvessel made a type of psychedelic rock that recalled the greats of the late '60s and early '70s and had big, soaring choruses that made them stand out amongst the hundreds of modern-day psych acts. For their new album, All Tree, though, they're going in a slightly different direction. It's the most firmly rooted in folk music of any Hexvessel album yet. Folk was always a major influence on Hexvessel, but they've always had a harder rock side that's mostly absent on All Tree. And while songs in the vein of the great "Transparent Eyeball" are missed, this new direction suits them really well. It's clear right off the bat that All Tree is a calmer album for Hexvessel. It opens with "Blessing," a choral a cappella that sounds like the kind of 16th century traditionals that bands like Steeleye Span brought into the folk/rock realm on their early '70s albums. Hexvessel do a ton of justice to it, and from there, they deliver beautiful folk song after beautiful folk song. Hexvessel seem to be most popular in the metal and neofolk worlds, probably due to founder Mat “Kvohst” McNerney’s past playing in metal bands (which is probably also why Hexvessel have always been signed to metal labels), but All Tree is the kind of album that would probably most appeal to fans of classic folk rock acts like Fairport Convention and the aforementioned Steeleye Span, or even newer indie folk bands like The Decemberists and Fleet Foxes. They really know how to tap in to what makes centuries-old folk music so appealing, and they've got the angelic singing voices to pull it off. They're way too accessible to be as niche as they are, but who knows, maybe All Tree will finally be the breakthrough they've always deserved.
Scottish dance-punk vets Bis made a post-hiatus comeback in 2014 with Data Panik Etcetera, and they went kinda quiet again after that, but now they're back with their first album in five years, Slight Disconnects. Bis may not have been as big in America as most of the bands playing the mid/late 2000s indie nostalgia fest Just Like Heaven, but if you're excited about the music on that lineup, you should probably check out this new Bis record. Bis were making the kind of super catchy dance-punk that took off in the mid 2000s years before that sound got big, and by the time they came back, that craze had died down. So you could say they keep showing up at the wrong place at the wrong time, but you could also say they were ahead of their time, and Slight Disconnects reminds you they were always just as good as the more popular dance-punk acts. They don't make 'em like this anymore, so Slight Disconnects is pretty refreshing stuff. Bis are still shooting for the stars as much as they ever were; these songs sound big and you could imagine almost any of them coming on MTV in between The Killers and Franz Ferdinand, back when MTV was playing those bands and Bis were on hiatus. And, with all due respect, most of those bands aren't making music this fun anymore.
Like the above-mentioned Czarface album, SOS finds a veteran act doing what they do best. But instead of hard-hitting NYC rap, this time it's catchy Swedish punk. Millencolin have been at it for about 25 years -- they caught a whiff of success during the mainstream pop punk boom of the late '90s and early '00s, but even after that died down, they just kept sticking to their guns and churning out records that sound like they could've come out in 1997. It's obviously nothing new, but it's saying something that Millencolin are still as good at writing effortlessly enjoyable pop punk songs as they were two decades ago, and if you're a fan of this kinda thing, it's nice to have a band to rely on like this. It's also easy to take them for granted -- especially given how under the radar Millencolin are at this point in their career -- but, like, if the latest blink-182 and Green Day albums sounded like SOS, they would probably be hailed as epic returns to form. And it's a good time to be making an album like this. Pop punk may not be as popular as it used to be, but its influence has infiltrated everything from DIY indie rock to SoundCloud rap to arena pop acts like The Chainsmokers. And though SOS may just seem like more of the same to longtime fans, there are upsides to having this level of consistency. If SOS is the first Millencolin album someone hears, their charms would be immediately clear, and it'd be easy to go right from this album to classics like "No Cigar" and "Lozin' Must." It's never too late to get into any band, and it's impressive that these vets have provided such an easy entry point this far into their career.
Last year, Grouper released the album Grid of Points which stripped away Grouper's usual haze and featured the most traditional piano ballads of her career. This year, she's taken almost the opposite approach, having surprise-released this album late last week under the name Nivhek, which is entirely made up of lengthy, ambient, mostly-instrumental pieces. She created the album with "Mellotron, guitar, field recordings, tapes, and broken FX pedals" and used her score for 2014's Hypnosis Display as a "compositional reference point." Don't go into it expecting a new song-oriented Grouper album (it makes sense that it came out under a different moniker), but taken for what it is, it's a gorgeous and meditative piece of music that's powerful in its minimalism.
Rancid guitarist/co-lead vocalist Lars Frederiksen is always busy with a project or two on the side, and for the past eight years he's also fronted the band The Old Firm Casuals, whose second full-length album Holger Danske comes out today. The last Rancid album (2017's Trouble Maker) was a pretty great return to form, but if you miss the edge of Rancid's hardcore-inspired 2000 album or the harder songs on their first two LPs, then Holger Danske should do a great job of quenching your thirst. Outside of the title track (which is an enjoyable update of punky '90s alternative rock), this album varies between mile-a-minute hardcore and boot-stomping street punk, and it's ripper after ripper. Lars' gravelly shout sounds as great as it does on the early Rancid records, and though I've got nothing against Rancid's poppier moments, it's nice to hear him doing a full record of aggressive punk like this. And the aggression isn't aimless. "I don’t try to preach to people. I think it turns people off," Lars says. "But music is a place where I can be artistic and also have my own opinion. A lot of these songs have this underlying theme of your immortality, and how temporary this life we lead is, and the fighting of oppression and fascism."
Piroshka is a new indie supergroup featuring Miki Berenyi of Lush, Justin Welch of Elastica, Michael Conroy of Modern English (who also filled in with Lush at their final reunion show), and KJ McKillop of underrated inventors of shoegaze Moose. Their highly anticipated album Brickbat comes out today, and Bill reviewed it for Bill's Indie Basement.
Seattle's Endorphins Lost's sophomore album Seclusions is a truly killer record in the hardcore/grind/death/powerviolence realm, the kind of thing that could appeal to fans of Poison Idea as much as fans of Napalm Death. It officially comes out tomorrow, but it's streaming now. You can read my full writeup on the album here.