Five Notable Releases of the Week (9/16)
This is a REALLY big week for new albums. AlunaGeorge, Usher, Wrekmeister Harmonies, Mykki Blanco, Sumerlands, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy & Angel Olsen's Mekons tribute album, Kool Keith, and Amanda Shires are just a few of the albums not included here, but they're all out today and all very worth hearing. For me, this week is about four excellent rock albums, and an album that pushes the boundaries of modern-day jazz.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
You can never accuse Cymbals Eat Guitars of making the same album twice. Pretty Years is their fourth, and it follows their buzzy '90s-indie-rock-inspired debut Why There Are Mountains, its proggy, "difficult" followup Lenses Alien, and the cathartic rock of LOSE. This time around, they're all over the place. Sometimes they sound like the E Street Band ("Wish" and "Close"), other times they sound like a real-deal punk band ("Beam"). The production is their biggest and cleanest yet, but not in an overproduced way. They went with the great indie rock producer John Congleton (Cloud Nothings, St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Swans), and to quote the band themselves, he "fuzzed the fuck out of" the album's single "4th of July, Philadelphia (SANDY)."
Pretty Years breaks down the barriers between rock subgenres -- not surprising for a band that's toured in recent years with Quicksand and Bob Mould and Brand New and Say Anything (even if, as CEG told us in a recent interview, some of those crowds were nicer to them than others) -- and it ends up coming out sounding like what a rock album in 2016 ideally should. It's too normal for rock bands to pick a pre-existing sound and rehash it; Cymbals Eat Guitars are far too ambitious for that. Pretty Years should sound somewhat familiar to anyone who listens to their recent tourmates or other Congleton-produced bands, but it rarely sounds like any other band in particular. Joe D'Agostino has developed quite a distinct voice, and his lyrics continue to be too personal to seem cliché. "4th of July" tells a story where Joe literally feared for his life. Album closer "Shrine" takes on the death of his high school friend Ben -- which he sang about in great detail on LOSE -- from a new perspective. "Wish" is vaguer and more generally about loss ("it’s just talking to a bunch of different people. It’s just a generalized song about regret about things left unsaid," Joe says). "Have A Heart" has him putting a troubled past behind him in the name of finding new love. These stories may all sound pretty heavy, and they are, but they're set to the most joyous-sounding album the band has ever done. That dichotomy can be jarring at first, as can this album overall, especially if you were expecting something closer to a previous CEG LP. But repeated listens have this thing feeling like the best Cymbals Eat Guitars album yet.
After Against Me!'s divisive major label run, singer Laura Jane Grace publicly came out as transgender, revamped the band's lineup, and put out the powerful Transgender Dysphoria Blues on the band's own recently-launched label, Total Treble Music. It was truly the beginning of a second life for the band -- at recent shows, setlists have been packed with Transgender Dysphoria Blues material and the crowds go as crazy for those as they do for the old favorites. They toured so much behind that album and set those shows in stone with a live album, so it's felt like a very long two years and nine months since Transgender Dysphoria Blues came out, which makes the anticipation even higher for its followup. It's tough not to have your doubts when a band waits a long time to follow a breakthrough album, but Shape Shift With Me crushes those doubts instantly.
One listen to this album and all of a sudden it feels like no time at all has passed since TDB dropped. It's got the perfect production of that album -- crisper than the band's folk-punk beginnings but rawer than their major label days -- plus the brutally honest lyrics, the choruses that quickly dig their way into your brain, and the unfiltered aggression. And if anything, that aggression is higher this time around. The album kicks right off with "ProVision L-3," which is a ripping dose of a melodic hardcore that's harder than anything on the last album. Later on, they offer up "Norse Truth," a dark post-hardcore trip that kinda feels like a Murder City Devils song. That last album made Against Me! a force in the indie rock world, a place where they were usually trashed or just ignored previously, and it's easy to wonder if Shape Shift With Me is more of a traditionally punk album in response to that. (Don't forget they're touring with Bad Religion in support of it.) Maybe they're challenging their new fans, or throwing a bone to the longtime supporters, or none of the above. But it does feel there's some level of "don't forget your roots" at play here. Not that the album is backwards-thinking at all. It feels entirely of the moment, and it's an album that only the Against Me! of 2016 could make. Laura is battling some similar issues to the ones on Transgender Dysphoria Blues, and confrontational songs like "Boyfriend" and "Delicate, Petite & Other Things I'll Never Be" make that very clear. But there's also love, lust, loss, anger, and more feelings, both internal and external, that make it impossible to pigeonhole this album with any one theme in particular.
On Touche Amore's last modern-day post-hardcore classic, 2013's Is Survived By, Jeremy Bolm was grappling with his own legacy, and at least part of the album was actually discussing the pressure of giving their passionate fanbase a successful third album. They succeeded, and now three years later they're back with album four. Stage Four isn't just a clever name for that though; it's something much more tragic. Jeremy's mother passed away from stage four cancer in 2014, and he got the news while he was on stage at The Fest in Gainesville, a story that's told on "Eight Seconds," a genuinely heartbreaking song on an album that only has heartbreaking songs. It's not Jeremy Bolm's style to hide the truth with metaphor, and that makes this 11-song ode to his mother even more crippling than Touche Amore normally are.
Jeremy has a scream that's far from your generic hardcore vocalist, that you'd never mistake for anyone else. He pronounces every word so clearly that you sometimes forget he is in fact screaming. On Stage Four though, he prominently uses clean vocals on an album for the first time. While hardcore/screamo bands that start singing typically go in a pop punk direction, Jeremy's biggest singing influence is The National. It's a unique approach, but Jeremy's screaming voice is still where he excels most. If the album suffers at all, sometimes those sung parts lack the power that the other parts hold. Otherwise, this thing is close to flawless. Like on Is Survived By, the music has the atmosphere and melodic detail of post-rock but the brevity of hardcore. They once again worked with producer Brad Wood (who's also done classic records for Sunny Day Real Estate, Liz Phair, mewithoutYou, and more), and he really knows how to make them sound like giants. Gorgeous backing vocals come courtesy of the ever-rising Julien Baker on album closer "Skyscraper." But it's Jeremy's words that drill this album into your brain. One of the best songs, "New Halloween," ends like this: "Somehow it's already been a year / You keep finding new ways to make yourself reappear / I hope you never leave me be / I haven't found the courage to listen to your last message to me." And on the word "me," the band rings out and you're left with the sting of that line. The shivers don't have time to go away before the opening riff of "Rapture" comes in, and even if they do, they'll return again and again. They'll return on "Displacement," when Jeremy calls his mother "the bravest woman [he] knew." Or on "Benediction," when he recalls a time in Glendale when she helped "that senile woman that has now outlived [her]." They'll of course return on "Eight Seconds," and then once again on "Water Damage" when Jeremy remembers the night his mother "took the wrong dose and [wasn't] making any sense." The album is so brutally personal that you could feel uncomfortable even listening to it, but like good art often does, the honesty usually just gets you thinking about your own experiences.
Preoccupations put out one of the best albums of last year under the name Viet Cong, and sadly, sometimes it felt like the controversy around their band name was talked about more than the music itself. Now they're back with their first album since ditching the Viet Cong moniker, and it's clear from the music itself that this band still deserves to be heard. The Joy Division comparisons still get thrown at them, but unlike the overwhelming majority of "sounds like Joy Division" bands, Preoccupations never seem content to focus on one sound. On "Memory," a song which features guest vocals by Wolf Parade's Dan Boeckner (a great fit if you ask me -- I've always heard a little Spencer Krug in Matt Flegel's voice), Preoccupations branch out from their post-punk roots into an extended noisy jam that sends the song flying to the eleven-and-a-half minute mark. On the super-catchy "Stimulation," they've got a choppy guitar pattern that reminds me a little of The Police. It can feel like a small-sounding album at first, but by the time it's over, it becomes clear that this is a band full of ambition, always challenging themselves, never settling for predictability.
All the songs have one-word titles, and going just by the first two ("Anxiety" and "Monotony"), you can get a pretty good feel for what you're dealing with here. Matt Flegel sounds anxious, nihilistic, and his words are often cryptic. Sometimes though, like on "Stimulation," he clears it up a bit for us: "There's nothing you can do because we're all dumb inside, all dead inside, all gonna die." Those kinds of thoughts were all over the last album (remember it had a song called "Pointless Experience") and they very much resurface here. The dark, stark mood of the instrumentation is the perfect backdrop for such paranoid songwriting. The album's also got a great sense of repetition, whether it's in the often-krauty basslines or in the lyrics (like the very end of album closer "Fever"). It helps the songs stick in your head, but it also feels like it's all part of the band's overall mission, a comment on the repetitive nature of life itself. Of all the feelings this album evokes, hope is not one of them. Preoccupations want you to wallow in your dread.
Crossover between jazz and pop is nothing new, and it's certainly nothing new for Robert Glasper. It's been over a decade since he played piano on Kanye West's Late Registration, and 2012's Black Radio, his first album as the Robert Glasper Experiment, included contributions from Erykah Badu, Mos Def, and Lupe Fiasco, and covers of Nirvana and David Bowie. All that said, jazz/pop crossover is feeling a little more noticeable right now than it was in 2012, and that owes a thing or two to the best album of last year, Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. That album truly had a foot in actual jazz and another in actual rap, and it helped boost the careers of a handful of the album's players, including Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, Terrace Martin, and yes, Robert Glasper. ArtScience is the first Robert Glasper Experiment album since TPAB's release -- though in that time Glasper also did a covers album with a trio and the score to a Miles David biopic -- and it virtually ignores the lines between jazz and pop.
If you judge what you're getting on ArtScience by opening track "This Is Not Fear," you'd be very misguided. The album kicks right off with a fast-paced trip back to mid-'60s free jazz, and that's just about the only time ArtScience feels nostalgic for a particular era. Most songs have Glasper adding his touch to psychedelic neo-soul. "Day to Day" has him dipping into disco, and "Find You" just grazes the early-'70s progressive jazz rock of Return to Forever and The Eleventh House. "Written In Stone" kinda sounds like TV on the Radio using a vocoder. On a song like the nine-minute "No One Like You," Glasper kind of assembles things like a jam band, with a recurring hook sandwiched between extended instrumental passages. But if instead of something like the Allman Brothers, imagine Frank Ocean on the hook and Coltrane's A Love Supreme-era quartet on the jams. And like you need for this type of stuff, the Robert Glasper Experiment have a lot of technical prowess. Derrick Hodge's basslines are really groovy, but it's Mark Colenburg's drumming that often elevates this to a new level. It's as fun to listen to him as it is to listen to Glasper and the vocals. Those vocals, by the way, are usually manipulated by vocoderist/saxophonist Casey Benjamin. While Glasper may famously mix jazz and rap, one thing ArtScience is definitely not is a rap album. It's almost closer in spirit to the human electronic music of Daft Punk's Random Access Memories than to To Pimp A Butterfly.
Listen on Apple Music.