Five Notable Releases of the Week (5/18)
It's been another sad week in the music world, as we had to say goodbye to another legend: Glenn Branca. In case you missed it, read tributes to Glenn from fellow artists, including his collaborators Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore.
In more positive news, we finally got the first taste of the slightly-delayed new Nine Inch Nails album (which was originally going to be an EP but is now an LP). We also finally got new Christine & the Queens music, the return of An Horse, and more.
As for this week's new albums, here are some honorable mentions: Now, Now, Parquet Courts, Quiet Slang (aka Beach Slang making piano/cello versions of their songs), Jennifer Castle, The Sidekicks, and Mary Lattimore.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Courtney Barnett became an indie rock star with her proper debut album, 2015's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, though she already had a fully-realized sound a few years before that on her early EPs. The EPs felt a bit warmer and relaxed compared to Sometimes I Sit, which sounded a little more polished and airtight in comparison, and though Sometimes I Sit made Courtney more famous, I'd say the EPs are still more appealing. So it's good news that the production and Courtney's performance on her new album Tell Me How You Really Feel is a return to the looser sounds of those EPs. Her delivery is even more deceptively laid-back than it was on the EPs, and though it seems like that would make these songs less immediate, it somehow doesn't. Tell Me How You Really Feel is actually more consistently engaging than any of Courtney's previous releases.
The songwriting on TMHYRF is a step forward and distinctly different from Courtney's past material without being a drastic change in direction. It's still got the songs that pull from '60s psychedelia ("Walkin on Eggshells," "Sunday Roast"), the ones that pull from driving '90s indie rock ("City Looks Pretty, "Charity," the amazingly titled "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence"), and the harder-edged, punky songs ("Nameless, Faceless," "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch"), and Courtney still sings in her instantly recognizable plainspoken delivery and still turns clever phrases with wit, wordplay, humor and sadness all worked in. The ingredients are mostly the same, but they come together in a way that feels new. They also blend more seamlessly than they used to. Where Courtney often used to flaunt her '60s influences by getting jammy, here she finds creative ways to quickly sneak them in, like with the fiery acid-rock leads that punctuate her singing on "City Looks Pretty." (Courtney has always been an interesting, inventive guitarist, and Tell Me How You Really Feel is her best guitar record yet; she has really figured out how to pull from the guitar gods of decades past and make it sound modern.) In general, this album is more concise than its predecessors. Sometimes I Sit and the EPs both had songs that crossed the seven-minute mark, and on Tell Me How You Really Feel nothing even makes it to five. Courtney certainly knows how to successfully stretch a song out, but the fat-trimming of TMHYRF is also a good look for her. These ten songs fly by, and it's easy to spend all day listening to the album on repeat and never got bored. It might not ever peak as high as Sometimes I Sit did with "Pedestrian At Best" and the double EP did with "Avant Gardener," but unlike those previous two releases, almost every song on Tell Me How You Really Feel is on the same level. Taken as a whole, it's her most developed project yet.
Ryley Walker only released his first album in 2014, but it's already become difficult to keep up with the mass of music he releases. He's already on his fourth album, and that's not counting his EPs, collaborative albums with other artists, and other various releases. But if you're unsure of where to jump in, at this point, a good answer is Deafman Glance. Ryley started out doing a lot of justice to '60s/'70s psychedelic folk and American Primitivism guitar, but for this album he said "I didn’t want to be jammy acoustic guy anymore." The result is a batch of eight of his finest songs yet (and one interlude), and most of them hardly fall under the "folk" umbrella. Deafman Glance has elements of Sun Kil Moon, The National, the Grateful Dead's song-oriented moments, Chicago post-rock stuff like Tortoise and The Sea & Cake, free-jazz, and a nice helping of rock flute. He can still be weird and out there, like on "Accomodations" which sounds like '90s indie rock meets A Love Supreme, or on album highlight "Telluride Speed," which recalls the Dead's studio experiments like the "Terrapin Station Suite," but this really is a songwriter album, and Ryley proves that he's just as good at writing structured songs as he is at guitar noodling. Any given song on Deafman Glance is evidence of this, but this is one of those albums that ends with its best song. Closer "Spoil With The Rest" channels the heartfelt side of Sun Kil Moon (and none of the troll-ish side), and it's some of the best stuff of its kind to come out since Benji. SKM fans will probably be pleased by Ryley's quiet, speak-sung delivery and the complex-but-not-distracting guitar, but it doesn't sound like imitation. Ryley is a clearly a student of all kinds of eccentric stuff like psych-folk, jazz, post-rock, slowcore, and more, and on Deafman Glance, he really makes it his own.
At the Gates' fourth album, 1995's Slaughter of the Soul, isn't the first Swedish melodeath album, but at this point it's the most definitive. It influenced countless bands for decades to come, not just future generations of death metal bands, but also most of the American metalcore and post-hardcore bands that got big in the early 2000s, and a huge handful of smaller bands across various extreme subgenres, from recent waves of black metal to crust punk and beyond. There's no way to overstate the album's influence, and it didn't just pave the path for harsh, heavy music with sweetly melodic riffs; it remains one of the best albums of its kind. So, needless to say, it was a big deal that ATG broke up a year after it came out and then, after reuniting, finally followed it 19 years later with 2014's At War With Reality. It was exciting enough that the album even existed, but At War With Reality also ended up being really, really good. At the Gates made 19 years feel like two -- they picked up right where they left off and they delivered with as much power and precision as they had in the '90s. Now, a mere four years later, At the Gates are back with another album, and they've done it again. Like its predecessor, To Drink from the Night Itself is cut from the same cloth as Slaughter of the Soul, and that's not a bad thing. If hundreds of other bands can copy At the Gates' sound, there's nothing wrong with At the Gates themselves sticking to their own formula and reminding us that still no one does it quite like this. Tomas Lindberg's shriek is still as piercing as it was in the '90s, and the riffs are still that perfect mix of pulverizing and genuinely bright and catchy. This is actually ATG's first album since the departure of lead guitarist Anders Björler, and that may worry some fans, but Tomas wrote the album with founding bassist Jonas Björler, and Jonas has always been one of the band's core songwriters. According to Tomas, Anders once said "Jonas always writes the best stuff!," and listening to To Drink from the Night Itself, it doesn't seem like Tomas is making that up. The riffs have always been what made At the Gates stand out amongst their peers, and the riffs on To Drink are as sharp and addictive as they are on Slaughter of the Soul. If At War With Reality was the album that proved a comeback was even possible, To Drink from the Night Itself proves that At the Gates are in it for the long haul, and that they're just as crucial today as they were in 1995.
Pavement's scrappy indie rock was in may ways the antithesis of classic rock, but Stephen Malkmus has been embracing the sounds of classic rock on his recent solo albums, like 2014's Wig Out at Jagbags and once again on this year's Sparkle Hard. The new album is full of '70s guitar riffs, orchestral-rock arrangements, Beach Boys harmonies (on "Bretheren"), and the jammy Grateful Dead influence that Malkmus now openly acknowledges, and he does this kind of stuff as well as he did the raw, no-frills sound of Slanted and Enchanted. The album's also got some sounds that weren't even around during the classic rock era, like auto-tune, which Malkmus uses on a few songs to surprisingly good effect. It's heartening to hear Malkmus continuing to explore all these various sounds this far along into his career, especially when he could probably get away with writing a bunch of new songs that sound like "Cut Your Hair" (like plenty of modern bands do). He's really good at whatever sound he tries on here, whether it's the fiddle-fueled, tumblin' country of "Refute," or the symphonic prog meets wah-heavy jam of "Difficulties / Let Them Eat," and he manages to make those sounds accessible to people who might not normally listen to those types of music. The twangy "Refute" also has some added indie rock appeal, as it's a duet with fellow indie legend Kim Gordon, whose band Sonic Youth took Pavement on tour early in their career (and who eventually counted Pavement's Mark Ibold as a member). And for those hoping for some classic, trademark Malkmus, Sparkle Hard does have that too. "Bike Lane" is an indie rocker that could've probably worked on a Pavement album, and even on the weirder songs, Malkmus still has that unmistakable singing style he had back on the day. He also still finds time for his usual clever one-liners -- given the current state of the entertainment industry, "Men are scum, I won't deny / May you be shitfaced the day you die" (from "Middle America") stands out as one that might get quoted a lot this year. He may never have another stone cold classic in him, but as long as he's making music as interesting and enjoyable as Sparkle Hard, we're pretty lucky to have him still churning out albums on a regular basis.
The type of off-kilter yet catchy Canadian indie rock that got big in the mid 2000s may not have happened quite the same way without Carey Mercer, who's been in various projects since the '90s and who has been highly prolific as the leader of Frog Eyes since releasing that band's debut album in 2002. His shaky, Bowie-at-a-carnival delivery sounds like a direct influence on Wolf Parade's Spencer Krug (who has been a member of Frog Eyes and was also in Swan Lake with Carey and Destroyer's Dan Bejar), and as a result, an indirect influence on a bunch of other bands. (For a prominent, modern example, I hear a lot of Mercer/Krug seeping through in Preoccupations.) So it's bittersweet that Carey says that Violent Psalms will be his last Frog Eyes album, and that Frog Eyes will be no more after their summer tour. This under-appreciated band will be missed, but the good news is that they're going out on a very high note. Violet Psalms basically sounds like classic Frog Eyes, and not in a way that feels dated. It sounds like it could've come out in 2003, or 2007, or 2013, and it sounds fantastic and relevant today too. Carey's voice is the same force it's always been, and he's got some cool tricks instrumentation-wise in the mix too, like the Television-y lead guitars of "On A Finely Sewn Sleeve," the dramatically weird sounds in the background of "Itch of Summer Knees," and the bright, shimmering synths of "Pay For Fire." Frog Eyes are going out at the top of their game, and if they really never reunite or anything, Violet Psalms will be the conclusion to a career with basically no low points. (In a recent interview with Exclaim, Carey made it sound like the return of Frog Eyes isn't impossible.) Maybe the time away and this neatly bookended discography will help them achieve some of the fame that their friends and collaborators have achieved over the years, and that they've always deserved.