Five Notable Releases of the Week (2/19/16)
by Andrew Sacher
It's been a crazy week for new music, overshadowed immensely by the new Kanye West album, which, as you may have guessed from the picture above, does of course appear here. Plenty of other great stuff came out too though, from exciting young rock bands to lifelong soul veterans.
Check out all five of this week's picks below. What's your favorite new release?
Kanye West - The Life of Pablo (G.O.O.D. Music/Def Jam)
Every Kanye West album prior to The Life of Pablo has been a cohesive work that's made a grand statement. TLOP is far from cohesive and the only statement it makes as a whole is that it doesn't make one at all. This, and the fact that it could stand to lose a few songs, make it less immediate than his previous work. Coming off his rarely-paralleled run of six essential records, a less immediate seventh album is bound to feel like a failure at first. But immediacy doesn't always result in longevity (in fact it often doesn't), and Kanye surely knows this. There's a lot to unpack on The Life of Pablo, and it keeps revealing itself over repeated listens. I still don't have any kind of verdict regarding where it stands against the rest of his catalog and I probably won't for a while, but I know it's good and often great.
To start with the great, like the album itself does, opening track "Ultralight Beam" is one of the strongest Kanye West songs yet. Though we did first hear it when he debuted the album at MSG, it was a smart move playing this one on SNL right before we heard the official album. (What's presumably the official album at least. Who knows if he'll insist he has yet another version coming?) It's a true gospel song -- gospel mixed with auto-tuned rapping and minimal, futuristic production, but gospel nonetheless -- and the image of Kanye and his guests bringing it to life with a dancing, stomping, finger-snapping gospel choir is the image that comes back every time this song plays. Kanye's own voice is actually hardly heard on the song. He quickly turns it over to the smooth sounds of The-Dream, then the belting soul powerhouse Kelly Price, then Chance the Rapper with a show-stealing verse that's one of the best things he's done yet, and finally contemporary gospel musician Kirk Franklin, who delivers preacher-style spoken word. Kanye may not use the mic much on this one, but his fingerprints are all over it. Is there another contemporary pop musician who could pull this off, or that would even try to? Not likely.
The album peaks again with the run of "FML," "Real Friends" and "Wolves." Kanye is often at his best when he looks inward, and "FML" does that expertly. Over drum-less production, he sings, "I been thinking about my vision / pour out my feelings / revealing the layers to my soul." Unlike "Ultralight Beam," this time he's front and center. And when he does bring in a guest, it's The Weeknd soaring on the chorus and driving the song home. Coming off a year marked by a Max Martin-penned pop smash, it's refreshing to hear The Weeknd on a song like this. Then it's "Real Friends," the climax of the record. It's Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign not so much trading verses but trading words inside individual lines and creating one beast with their two voices. Ye and Ty go off on fake friends who only use you, over some of the album's most gorgeous production. "Wolves," another minimal song with a verse from the beloved Frank Ocean, wraps up the run perfectly.
Those are just a few early highlights, but TLOP has only existed for a week and it won't be a surprise if some of the tracks that feel weaker now become favorites later on. Are there some head-scratching decisions made here? Definitely. The Taylor Swift line in "Famous" was funny and shocking in a "He didn't just say what I think he did, did he?" kind of way when he first dropped it at MSG, but now that its origins have become a case of conflicting reports and it's caused news story after news story, the line becomes "I have to hear this every time I play the album?" It's confusing that he picked relative unknown Desiigner to do Future impressions on an album with tracks by Future's frequent collaborator Metro Boomin (and Future's voice on Metro's DJ drop). And it doesn't seem like Max B's "Silver Surfer Intermission" is there for any purpose other than to prove to Wiz Khalifa that he could have named the album Waves if he wanted to. But this is a fascinating album from start to finish, and a sure outlier in Kanye's rock solid discography.
Listen to it at Tidal
Somos - First Day Back (Hopeless)
Somos came out of the gate with their 2014 indie-punk debut Temple of Plenty (on Tiny Engines), a solid record but not one that distinguished them much from their peers. They've since switched labels twice, continued to develop their sound, and have now written a sophomore LP that blows away everything else they've done. The music is a lot more delicate this time around, the production is richer, and they take their sound down a handful of new paths. The songs are filled with subtle intricacies, which Somos have the chops to pull off. The structures are rarely predictable, switching from somber passages to big rock hooks on a whim, and Michael Fiorentino's melancholic voice steers them clear of any cheap thrills or bombast. They also weave downtempo electronics into their otherwise rock songs. Picture if Ben Gibbard didn't envision Give Up and Transatlanticism as separate records, and you might have an idea. For all the layers they work into First Day Back, one of its most striking moments is "Bitter Medicine," which pairs Fiorentino's voice with nothing more than a clean guitar. If you're the type who seeks out spirited, exciting rock albums, don't sleep on this one.
Animal Collective - Painting With (Domino)
Animal Collective's 2009 album Merriweather Post Pavillion will likely (and deservedly) go down as a defining record of its time, and when you make an album that great, merely good albums tend to pale in comparison. With Painting With, Animal Collective are now two for two with post-MPP albums that are merely good. (Panda Bear's solo career has fared much better.) If this was a new band's debut, that band would probably have a lot of buzz right now, but it's not looking like a very essential Animal Collective album. Most of the tricks are the same and those tricks are getting old, and it's a more repetitive record than AnCo's usually are. Still, it has its redeeming moments. Lead single "FloriDada" is a bouncy left-of-the-dial pop song that would sound great on a greatest hits one day, and songs like "The Burglars" show they can still nail the totally strange-yet-addictive approach like few other bands in this realm. It's also less all over the place than Centipede Hz, and it does them good to not ever hand lead vocal duties over to Deakin like they did on that one. (Like on MPP, Deakin actually doesn't contribute to this at all.) And even if we're dealing with a good album from a band capable of great ones, it's still impressive that 15 years and ten LPs into their career they're still knocking out good songs.
Mavis Staples - Livin' on a High Note (ANTI-)
The 76 year old soul great Mavis Staples has been putting out records since the '60s, both on her own and as a member of The Staple Singers, and she's been on a hot streak in this current decade thanks in part to some key collaborators. Her last two albums were produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, and this time she enlisted M. Ward to produce it and a handful of very talented artists to write songs for her. Sometimes you can tell who it is, like Nick Cave's brooding "Jesus Lay Down Beside Me" or tUnE-yArDs' energetic, playful "Action," but mostly -- and even on those -- the authors really catered to Mavis' style. Justin Vernon co-wrote "Dedicated" with M Ward, and it certainly sounds nothing like a Bon Iver song (which is probably for the best here, and it also shows how diverse Justin Vernon can be). Other songs come courtesy of Neko Case, Valerie June, Benjamin Booker and more, and even with such a diverse cast, the album is nothing if not cohesive. Mavis is as soulful and powerful as ever, and she's not just repeating her past work. Unlike, say, Charles Bradley, who keeps the sounds of '60s/'70s soul alive, much of Livin' on a High Note recalls and recontextualizes the folk-blues that predate Mavis' early hits. It's exciting, fresh, and instantly familiar.
Lushlife - Ritualize (Western Vinyl)
Philly indie rapper Lushlife has never been one to stay inside boundaries, and his guest-filled genre-hopping new album Ritualize (co-produced by CSLSX) is no exception. He brings together dream pop band I Break Horses, lo-fi pop guy Ariel Pink, gloomy singer/songwriter Marissa Nadler, the great underground rap producer RJD2, fellow rap weirdo Deniro Farrar, veteran rhymers Killer Mike and Freeway and more, and they somehow all fit right into Lushlife's eccentric world. His delivery is rooted in rap's golden age, but he namedrops Roky Erickson and Richard Hell in his lyrics, and he flows over production that often has little to do with hip hop. The I Break Horses and Ariel Pink collabs would just as easily fit on those artists' albums if Lushlife wasn't rapping on them. It's a thrilling mix, and one that'll probably appeal to hip hop heads and indie rockers alike, without sacrificing any realness on either end.