Five Notable Releases of the Week (8/11)
Music can really be such a powerful thing, and two of this week's releases are reminders of just how above and beyond that power can sometimes be. One of these releases is the new Downtown Boys album, which forces you to confront the injustices of the Trump era head-on and actually gives you some hope. The other is the posthumous Sean Price album, which allows you to say goodbye to Sean one more time, all while being reminded that he still had so much more to stay when he left us. In different ways, both of these albums cause you to feel anger, joy, sadness, and confusion at the same time. When music like this comes along, it's worth pausing your life for a second to really let yourself treasure it.
More on those two albums and my other three picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
In just a few years, Downtown Boys have already earned a reputation as an unforgettable live band. Even before the release of 2015's Full Communism, the first album that a lot of people heard of theirs, Downtown Boys’ live shows were a truly powerful experience. Singer Victoria Ruiz's on-stage banter was as political and confrontational as the band's music. She would speak Spanish to show the English-speaking people in the audience how alienating life in America for Spanish-speaking people can be every single day. She would attack racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, and the crowds would cheer her on. In the time since Trump got elected, the only concert I've experienced that's as empowering as a protest rally is a Downtown Boys show. And like at those protest rallies, you aren't only experiencing sadness and anger about the state of the world, you're experiencing joy about the fact that you're surrounded by people who feel like you. You also experience joy at a Downtown Boys show because the band brings a total party. Members jump into the crowd on a regular basis, the sax player fills the songs with sonic ecstasy, and there's a good chance they'll throw in a cover of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark."
Their live show is already destined to be called "legendary" one day -- if it already isn't -- and Cost of Living may be the best that Downtown Boys' power has ever translated on a recording. It's their first for Sub Pop and it was produced by Fugazi's Guy Picciotto, which adds some more anticipation and may be part of why it's their best-sounding album yet. It's a pure punk attack, with driving guitars, bulldozing drums, Victoria Ruiz's uninhibited shouts of anger for the oppressed, and of course the sax. And this time they weren't afraid to dive into a little late '70s power pop with "Lips That Bite," easily their most accessible song yet. It's also the band's first album to come out in the era of Trump, and they waste no time letting you know today's political climate is reflected on Cost of Living -- the first song is called "A Wall." There's a lot of anger on this album, but like at the live shows, there's also a lot of pride -- pride in oneself, pride in the many cultures that America has. One of the rallying cries in protest of Trump's "Muslim Ban" earlier this year was "Immigrants Make America Great." Downtown Boys' music reminds you of that. It reminds you that a multi-cultural society is worth celebrating, not worth destroying. I can't think of another album I've heard this year that instills a sense of Trump-era hope quite like Cost of Living does.
Before Sean Price's untimely passing on August 8, 2015, the Brooklyn rapper had been working on a new album. In the time since then, his label Duck Down and his wife Bernadette put some of the unfinished pieces together and got some worthy guests to contribute, and on the two-year anniversary of his death, the posthumous Imperius Rex was released. The thing that's most immediately clear about Imperius Rex, is that Sean Price was truly taken from us before he reached his full potential as an artist. There's some deserved arrogance in Sean P's lyrics on Imperius Rex, but mostly he still sounds hungry to prove himself as one of the greats of "real" hip hop, and he raps his ass off on nearly every song. They often say music -- and especially rap -- is a young person's game, but Imperius Rex reminds us that Sean was out-rapping people half his age up until the day he died.
The album is mostly hard, no-bullshit stuff, but there is some commemoration on it. On "Apartheid," Buckshot says rest in peace to another fallen New York rapper, Phife. And then there's "The 3 Lyrical Ps," a posse cut put together after Sean's death with Prodigy and Styles P, before Prodigy's time came as well. According to an interview on The FADER with Bernadette, Duck down's Dru Ha, and Sean's daughter Shaun, Harry Fraud had made the song with Prodigy and Styles and handed it over to Bern for the Sean Price album. Styles and Prodigy both gave Duck Down their blessing, and Dru said Prodigy said to him: "Yo, that Sean Price song? I listened to that shit 50 times, yo. I'm telling you, that's the hardest song I done in a long time." The song reminds you that, like Sean, Prodigy was taken from us while he still had creative juice left in him as well.
As you probably guessed already, it's a very New York record. Along with "The 3 Lyrical Ps," look no further than "Clans & Cliks" to see the New York camaraderie of this album. Various members of Wu-Tang Clan and Boot Camp Clik join forces for the album's most star-studded song, and it feels natural, like old friends just hanging out. It's been a tough time for deaths in New York rap these past few years, and a record like this one reminds you of how the city always comes together when one of our heroes is gone.
The Cribs started out as your average post-Strokes/Libertines band, and they had some staple songs off the "garage rock revival" like "Hey Scenesters!" and "Men's Needs," but they always had something of a punk edge that their contemporaries did not. (Even their more polished major label debut had a cameo from a member of Sonic Youth, and they stood out from the pack enough to get Johnny Marr to join the band for one album.) That edge was always there at the band's live shows, and it started coming out more blatantly on their albums at the turn of the 2010s. As the "garage rock revival" and The Cribs themselves waned in popularity, their music continued to progress in interesting ways. Their first album of this decade (2012's In the Belly of the Brazen Bull) was recorded with both underground rock great Steve Albini and Flaming Lips collaborator Dave Fridmann, and it had some of their rawest, hardest music yet. Its followup (2015's For All My Sisters) was a blast of Weezer-y power pop recorded with none other than The Cars' Ric Ocasek, who helmed Weezer's debut. They're back with Albini for this year's 24-7 Rock Star Shit, which makes In the Belly of the Brazen Bull seem poppy in comparison. Any Weezer comparisons this time around would have to be to the rawer Pinkerton (I'm not sure if The Cribs are using Big Muffs on 24-7 Rock Star Shit, but that fat, fuzzy distortion certainly sounds like a Big Muff), but they sound closer to Albini collaborators Nirvana. "Partisan" sounds especially In Utero-inspired, and call me crazy but I hear a little "Old Age" in the melody to "Sticks Not Twigs." Nearly every song on 24-7 is fast and loud, and there isn't an engineer in the world who gets a better snare sound for this kind of stuff than Steve Albini, which helps give these songs the extra punch they need. The only time The Cribs break from their formula is on penultimate track "Dead At the Wheel," a dose of arty slowcore that's more Sparklehorse than Cribs -- and it totally fits. As many of The Cribs' contemporaries have broken up or fallen into mediocrity, 24-7 Rock Star Shit proves The Cribs are still searching for new sounds.
On "Untouchable," a highlight off A1 YoungBoy by YoungBoy Never Broke Again (fka NBA Youngboy), the teenage rapper tells you the story of the tough life he's had since a very young age. "Dropped out of school to chase my dream," he reveals in the first verse. "Now that I made it, ain’t none the same it all changed/When I’m in public people see me they screaming my name/Just a few days ago I was locked up in them chains," he continues in the second. That's all autobiographical. YoungBoy dropped out of high school in 9th grade and was then sent to a youth detention center for robbery, and he released A1 Youngboy just a few months after getting out of jail for attempted murder charges. (He pleaded guilty to lesser charges.) A1 Youngboy follows his 2016 breakthrough 38 Baby, which has features from fellow Baton Rouge rappers Kevin Gates and Boosie BadAzz, and was something of a breakthrough for YoungBoy. The jail time threatened to bring his career to a halt, but A1 YoungBoy -- which has features from two neighboring Southern rappers, Memphis' Yo Gotti and Atlanta's Peeway Longway -- proves that YoungBoy continues to be one of rap's promising new voices. It's no surprise that a rapper from the South has some trap in his sound in 2017, but YoungBoy is mostly closer to Trap Muzik than trap music. Like Kevin Gates, he's always kinda half-singing. Even his hardest bars double as catchy hooks, and he has indeed got some bars. He has a smooth delivery and he's a gifted storyteller, and he sounds like he's been doing this professionally for way longer than he actually has been. Hopefully he'll have good luck from here on out and this is only the beginning of a fruitful career.
As an original member of Vivian Girls, Crystal Stilts and Dum Dum Girls, leader of Frankie Rose and the Outs, and more, Frankie Rose was a staple of the late 2000s lo-fi boom, but she really cleaned things up for 2012's dream pop-inspired Interstellar. It was a sharp, shiny album with a post-punk backbone and still the best thing she's done yet. She quickly followed it with 2013's kinda-forgettable Herein Wild and then disappeared for a while. Now she's back with Cage Tropical (and back on Slumberland), which again finds her in the dream pop realm, but things are a little different this time. Cage Tropical is slower and more electronic than Interstellar, perhaps thanks in part to producer Jorge Elbrecht. On "Red Museum," she even kinda sounds like Visions-era Grimes. Even with the slightly different backdrop, though, Cage Tropical is mostly a predictable album for Frankie Rose at this point. Her vocal range and melodies rarely differ much from song to song (or album to album), and with the big gap between Herein Wild and Cage Tropical, it's fair to expect a little more from her. Still, Frankie Rose can craft quite the blissful pop song, and Cage Tropical has plenty of moments that elicit bliss.