Five Notable Releases of the Week (3/23)
The craziness that is SXSW is now over and the music world is back to our regularly scheduled programming. In case you missed it, check out The 18 Best Sets We Saw at SXSW 2018 and browse our "SXSW" tag and BV Austin for even more.
Some highlights of this past week: studies show that Smiths fans are neurotic, punk legends 7Seconds have sadly broken up, Glenn Tipton reunited on stage with Judas Priest after retiring from the band, and Cat Power announced a one-off 20th anniversary performance of Moon Pix (on a fest with the return of Mazzy Star!).
As for new music, the biggest album out today is the new you-hated-it-before-you-heard-it Jack White album. I don't know if it's the worst thing in the world... but mostly just kinda boring. What did you think?
I picked five others to write about, and you can check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Courtney Marie Andrews' last album, 2016's Honest Life (released on Mama Bird Recording Co), didn't make a huge splash when it came out but it gradually picked up steam and Courtney stayed busy while it was doing so. She released a Will Oldham collaboration, did a lot of touring including a run with Hamilton Leithauser and some major festivals, and eventually signed to Fat Possum, the label on which she releases her anticipated new album May Your Kindness Remain today. There's a lot more riding on this one than its predecessor, and Courtney has no trouble exceeding expectations. She sounds wise beyond her years on May Your Kindness Remain (she's 27), and the music sounds imported from a past era without feeling retro or unoriginal. The easiest comparison to make is Joni Mitchell, who Courtney's singing voice can be very similar too, but Courtney takes her sound in all kinds of different directions on May Your Kindness Remain and usually never sounds like one specific person. The album has gospel harmonies and wailing organ that pull from classic soul, upbeat rock parts that sometimes sound a little like The Band, and softer, more intimate moments where Courtney is backed by little more than a piano or acoustic guitar. She takes a handful of the best rock, soul, folk, and country sounds of the post-Woodstock era of the early 1970s, and brings it all together with help from the timeless-sounding production of Mark Howard (Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits). Courtney has said the theme of the album is "coming to terms with depression and the reality of the world we’re living in," and that comes through in the tone of these songs, which is melancholic yet hopeful.
An intense band from the start, Preoccupations have managed to get more intense than ever on their third album, and they waste no time showing that off. Opening song/lead single "Espionage" is one of the fastest songs in the band's catalog, and Matt Flegel brings his voice closer to a scream than he usually tends to. It sounds like a trip back to the original goth/post-punk era, with all the evil and fury and none of the new wave shine. It's a great way to kick the album off, and things go in all kinds of interesting directions from there. "Espionage" is the most in-your-face song, but the others keep the intensity on a high in their own ways. (And second single "Antidote," while a bit slower, comes close to that same evil goth dancefloor territory.) As we've come to expect from Preoccupations, the lead guitar work is dizzying, the rhythm section is pounding, and Flegel's vocals just roar through the mix. They've also once again got that unique production style, where every instrument kinda sounds like it's being scraped with metal (they self-produce all of their albums, though for this one they brought in Justin Meldal-Johnsen to mix and master, and one can't help but wonder if it's because of Meldal-Johnsen that sheogazy closer "Compliance" has strong hints of latter-day M83). Like the last album, every song has an ominous one-word title, and the mood driving every song is dark and desperate (Flegel has called the album an "ode to depression"). The influences aren't too hard to guess, but Preoccupations re-purpose old sounds in a way that make them sound like the work of no other band, and the passion in their delivery is so strong that you won't be thinking much about influences anyway.
Erika Wennerstrom has been fronting the garage rock band Heartless Bastards for 15 years now. They aren't broken up or anything, but she's taking the time to step away from her main gig and release her first solo album, Sweet Unknown. When a solo album comes in the middle of a band's career, there's usually some expectation that the album is either songs that wouldn't work with the style of the main band, or that are literally more "solo" and not meant to be performed with a band. That doesn't immediately seem like the case for Erika, as all of Sweet Unknown was recorded with full rock band arrangements and it wouldn't be totally out of left field if this was the next Heartless Bastards album. To hear Erika tell it, what it really comes down to is this: "It's just more of me. It's as simple as that. I was able to get deeper and you get another level of my heart and soul." Solo, band, or otherwise, the one thing I know for sure about Sweet Unknown is that it's a hell of a record. Erika is as commanding a frontwoman as she's ever been, and the arrangements are gorgeous. While Heartless Bastards have had slower songs before, Sweet Unknown tends to stay on that side throughout. It's not a quieter album though. It's got some parts that really rock, and "Extraordinary Love" and "Gravity" have moments of shoegazy wall of sound. It also often tends to favor an atmospheric side that Heartless Bastards have hinted at before but never been this dedicated to. The songs are still often bluesy and rootsy, but there's almost a dream pop element to Sweet Unknown that you may not have expected. At the core of every song though, whether it's an atmospheric ballad or a rustic folk song, is Erika's strong songwriting. On this album, she reminds me a bit of Sharon Van Etten, another modern artist whose songwriting is so warm and instantly classic sounding that it feels like she could've gotten a job at the Brill Building. By slowing things down, it sounds like Erika has been able to hone in on her songwriting in a way she never has before. As a vocalist and a lyricist, this might be some of her best work yet.
When people talk about the highly unique Montreal collective Yamantaka // Sonic Titan, they tend to talk about their theatrical live show. Their live show is really a sight to be seen, but it's a bit of a disservice to the band to always make that the focal point. It can start to feel like they might be something of a gimmick, and YT // ST are anything but. Their music is overwhelming and attention-grabbing even when you aren't looking at them. This is very clear on their third album, Dirt, which sounds like six different bands playing at once but never in a messy way. There are times where they're heavy enough to pass as a metal band, others where they're trippy enough to pass as psych, and others where they're complex enough to pass as prog. Sometimes they dive fully into their atonal noise rock influences, and other times they're making true pop music. Hints of folk, indie rock, and choral music are peppered throughout the record as well. It's very weird but never inaccessible, and their contrasts between heavy/soft and consonant/dissonant are always seamless. On paper, it sounds like they're trying to do too much at once, but when you listen to it, it sounds like the most natural thing in the world. These are the kinds of "X meets Y" songs that music nerds/record collectors fawn over, while still being enjoyable enough for a casual rock fan. Music fans like to say this a lot, but there's truly not much out there like Dirt.
It's easy to take for granted how good Monster Magnet still are, but really think for a second about much worse it could be. Here's a band that toured with Soundgarden and had MTV play in the '90s; they could very well be making washed-up, dated grunge or be long broken up by now, but instead they've been chugging along at the top of their game for nearly three decades (with tons of lineup changes, but still). They may not be popular enough for whatever the equivalent of MTV play is today, but maybe that's for the best. When was the last time the Foo Fighters or Pearl Jam made an album that rips as hard as Mindfucker? And, while not making any crazy departures from their core sound, Monster Magnet aren't just making the same record over and over again or anything either. Their previous album, 2013's Last Patrol, dove deep into their space rock side. You can still hear some Hawkwind in the mix on Mindfucker, but this time they're almost exclusively interested in a faster, more punk sound. The Stooges, MC5, and maybe a little Motorhead are the reference points on Mindfucker, though it still just sounds like Monster Magnet being Monster Magnet. True to its title, it's a punk record but one that's not afraid to fuck with (and expand) your mind. They've got songs that reach the six and seven minute marks, giving Monster Magnet time to break out acid rock guitar solos and trippy vocals that hearken back to the Summer of Love. This sound was kinda retro even when Monster Magnet made rippers like this back in 1991, but somehow even today they manage to make it sound fresh.