The pandemic is still a very real concern, but the vaccine rollout is really speeding along (everyone 16+ in NY is eligible) and live music is starting to return. As of this past weekend, live shows (with restrictions) started happening again in NYC, and we posted photos and recaps of three of them: Kelsey Lu, The Natvral (ex-TPOBPAH), and Jesse Malin, the latter of which features an essay by Jesse about what it was like to get up on stage in front of an audience for the first time in over a year. We're also starting to see more and more tours get announced, like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Julien Baker, and Japanese Breakfast. Let's hope these (and the many tours and festivals that have been postponed and postponed and postponed) happen when they're scheduled to!

As for this week's new music, I highlight five albums below and here are some honorable mentions: Vijay Iyer Trio, Lakeyah, Assertion (ex-Sunny Day Real Estate), Evan Greer, Purgatory, Max Richter, CFCF, Requin Chagrin, Elephant Micah, Zao, Arabrot, Come Closer (Tiltwheel, Dan Padilla), Bill MacKay & Nathan Bowles, Silver Synthetic, The Pink Stones, Nick Waterhouse, HIRAKI, PONY, LAPÊCHE, Raf Rundell (The 2 Bears), the Rejoice EP, the Skullcrusher EP, the Andy Bell (of Ride) EP, the Miguel EP, the Sorry EP, the Field of Flames EP, "Taylor's version" of Taylor Swift's Fearless, and volume one of Sufjan Stevens' five-volume ambient album.

Read on for my picks. What's your favorite release of the week?

Damon Locks & Black Monument Ensemble - NOW
International Anthem

Damon Locks has been a staple of underground music for over three decades, first as the vocalist of Chicago post-hardcore Trenchmouth (whose drummer was Fred Armisen), then as leader of the experimental rock/dub/jazz/etc band The Eternals (which also included a member of Tortoise) -- among a few other projects -- and lately he's been leading the thrilling, genre-fluid jazz collective Black Monument Ensemble, whose lineup also includes Angel Bat Dawid, Ben LaMar Gay, Dana Hall, Arif Smith, and a six-piece choir. BME released their great debut album Where Future Unfolds in 2018, and they're now following it with their sophomore album NOW. The album was written in summer 2020, and it was inspired by the pandemic-induced isolation and social unrest that defined that summer. "It was about offering a new thought," Damon said. "It was about resisting the darkness. It was about expressing possibility. It was about asking the question, ‘Since the future has unfolded and taken a new and dangerous shape… what happens NOW?’"

From the sampled speeches to the many singers on NOW, the themes become very apparent as soon as you click play. Like Where Future Unfolds, NOW is rooted in avant-garde jazz but just calling it "jazz" undersells it. It owes as much to jazz as it does to neo-soul, Afrobeat, found sound, hip hop-style sampling and electronics, and more. Genre aside, NOW is just a bold, lively, breathtaking album that sounds like an act of defiance in the face of corruption and oppression. The album is informed by the confusion and pain of 2020, but -- like a lot of great protest art -- it's also uplifting.

 

Spirit of the Beehive - Entertainment, Death
Saddle Creek

Before forming Spirit of the Beehive, vocalist/guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Zack Schwartz fronted the emo revival band Glocca Morra, so SOTB first caught on with people from the emo/punk scene. Those roots sort of shine through on Spirit of the Beehive's fourth album (and Saddle Creek debut) Entertainment, Death -- a very small amount of post-hardcore-tinged parts remind you where this band came from -- but for the most part, this hazy, psychedelic, mindfuck of a record is a far cry from emo and it's only punk in spirit. They've also been called shoegaze and post-rock, and they do share the atmosphere of those genres, but even that doesn't quite describe them. The best way I can think to describe Entertainment, Death is like a modern DIY band simultaneously channelling pre-Strawberry Jam Animal Collective and the production of Earl Sweatshirt's Some Rap Songs, but even that leaves out the many other styles of music this album flirts with, from hypnagogic pop to folk to goth to noise and still more. I wouldn't say this kind of thing if I didn't mean it, but I really can't think of anything else this album sounds like, and its extreme originality invites repeated listens. At first you might listen twice in a row just to try to figure out what the hell it is you're actually hearing, but Entertainment, Death ultimately keeps you coming back because it sounds that good. To attempt one more comparison, it fits in very nicely next to the recently-released Really From album and the new album from The Armed that arrives next week. Those three albums sound nothing alike, but they make for a nice likeminded 2021 trilogy. All three of them are somewhat tied to punk, and all three of them completely ignore any pre-existing notions of genre.

 

Brockhampton - Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine
Question Everything/RCA

Brockhampton only released their first proper mixtape five years ago, but they've already put out more music and gone through more career ups and downs in that time than some artists do in 10 or 15. At this point, they're basically veterans. They hit the scene as a rowdy, Odd Future-inspired group before attempting maximalist My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-esque art rap on 2018's Iridescence, and they mellowed out a bit on 2019's largely R&B-inspired Ginger. Now they're back with their first album in over a year and a half -- which, because of how prolific they were at first, feels much longer -- and Roadrunner: New Light, New Machine brings back some of the energy of Brockhampton's early days but puts a psychedelic, matured spin on it. It feels like a natural progression for the group (similar to the one Odd Future members Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt made on their recent albums), and it also feels like a bit of a course correction after the often-lackluster Ginger.

Probably because they have so many members, Brockhampton haven't usually relied on big-name guest verses in the past, but after including a standout slowthai verse on Ginger, they've brought more familiar faces into the fold on Roadrunner, including Danny Brown, A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, and JPEGMAFIA. Those are all smart choices; Danny and A$AP Mob helped pave the way for the kind of futuristic psych-rap that Brockhampton deliver on Roadrunner, and JPEGMAFIA has spent the past few years as a rising artist within that same subgenre. Like their guests, Brockhampton are currently making music that's catchy enough to be mainstream-friendly but still too weird to actually sound like "mainstream rap," and they're also learning to progress musically without forgetting what made them so unique in the first place. Roadrunner has hints of just about every previous Brockhampton era -- the loud, in-your-face sound of the Saturation trilogy ("Don't Shoot Up the Party"), the arty Iridescence (the string arrangements on "When I Ball"), and the R&B-leaning Ginger (the Charlie Wilson-assisted "I'll Take You On," "Old News") -- and it also takes noticeable steps forward. For a group who have talked about breaking up on several occasions, Roadrunner makes it sound like they're in it for the long haul.

 

Rhiannon Giddens - They're Calling Me Home
Nonesuch

North Carolina-born Americana/folk/blues artist (and Carolina Chocolate Drops co-founder) Rhiannon Giddens apparently didn't plan to write a record in 2020, but once the pandemic-induced lockdown caused Rhiannon and her partner, Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, to be stuck in their part-time home in Ireland, they took advantage of the moment and started writing. The result is They're Calling Me Home, and as the title suggests, making this album helped the couple cope with homesickness. They ended up recording innovative takes on traditional songs that reminded them of home, like "O'Death," "Amazing Grace," "I Shall Not Be Moved," "Black As Crow," and "Waterbound," as well as the Italian songs "Nenna Nenna" and "Si Dolce È'l Tormento." "You know how singing sad songs makes you feel better in this weird way?" Rhiannon said to Rolling Stone. "Themes of death and homesickness and leaving and loss in all these old traditional songs, they express things so well and so simply. Generations of people have gone through things as bad or worse for many, many, many years, and these songs connect us to those generations."

The pair also collaborated on Rhiannon's 2019 album there is no Other, and like that album did, this new one seamlessly fuses the folk and blues traditions of Rhiannon's home country, the Italian music of Francesco's home country, and the Celtic folk of their current home in Ireland. But perhaps due to the influence of isolation, They're Calling Me Home is a more bare-bones album than there is no Other. The duo said that they recorded the album with just the two of them sitting around a microphone, and that intimacy and rawness adds to its power. Some of these songs are centuries old, but this album feels urgent. The arrangements are fresh and exciting, and Rhiannon's voice is as soaring and show-stopping as ever.

 

Matthew E. White & Lonnie Holley - Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection
Spacebomb/Jagjaguwar

Lonnie Holley is a 71-year-old outsider artist and sculptor who entered the world of recorded music in his '60s and quickly became embraced by indie/alternative rock artists like Bon Iver, Deerhunter, Bill Callahan, David Byrne, Xiu Xiu, and more. He recently added a new name to that list: singer/songwriter, producer, and Spacebomb Records founder Matthew E. White. As the story behind their new collaborative album Broken Mirror: A Selfie Reflection goes, in 2018 Matthew had recorded some improvisational instrumentals -- pieces that were much less structured than his usual material -- but shelved them. Finally, after playing a concert with Lonnie about a year later, Matthew showed Lonnie the material, and "when [Lonnie] liked something, he’d consult a notebook overflowing with lyrical conceits, then sing complete first takes to music he’d never heard." It ended up sounding as good in execution as it does on paper. Matthew's instrumentals turned out to be the perfect fit for Lonnie's usual improvisational style, and these five pieces -- four of which are fairly lengthy -- make for a hypnotic, stream-of-consciousness trip. It's music that manages to simultaneously feel formless and direct.

 

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