It's a big week for music, especially here in NYC, where the three-day Panorama festival happens starting today. Tonight's co-headliners are Frank Ocean and Solange, an amazing back-to-back pairing of modern psychedelic soul from two artists whose 2016 albums were among the best of that year. Saturday's headliners are Tame Impala (who made one of the best albums of 2015) and Alt-J (whose latest LP was a Notable Release last month). Sunday's headliners are Nine Inch Nails (who are in the midst of a great new EP trilogy, including last week's Add Violence) and A Tribe Called Quest (whose first album since the '90s was one of the best of last year -- rest in peace to Phife Dawg).
Whether or not you're going to Panorama (or Newport Folk Festival or This Is Hardcore or Classic East), there are some major albums out this week. Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Manchester Orchestra's debut album I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child was released on Canvasback exactly ten years ago yesterday. To celebrate the anniversary, I wrote about why it's such a classic and how it touched so many people. Manchester Orchestra don't need to rely on nostalgia for that album though. They've got a new one out today and it's easily their strongest in years. It's got co-production by John Congleton, whose recent work with Cloud Nothings, Angel Olsen, Swans and St. Vincent has made him one of the best indie rock producers around, plus contributions from Catherine Marks (who engineered/mixed PJ Harvey's Let England Shake, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's Belong, and Death Cab for Cutie's Codes and Keys), and frequent Manchester collaborator Dan Hannon. That production dream team is at least partially responsible for immediately setting A Black Mile to the Surface apart from its recent predecessors. 2011's Simple Math was too polished for Manchester's rawer style and everything felt a little too compressed on 2014's Cope. That album has some of the band's heaviest songs, but the recordings didn't give them enough room to breathe. On A Black Mile to the Surface, Manchester Orchestra sound more natural than they have on any album since their debut.
It's not only the production elevating this new album. Andy Hull & co. have written some of the strongest songs of their career for this one. Manchester have busted out some seriously ass-kicking riffs over the course of their career, but they're at their absolute best when they're playing the kind of impassioned songs that sound like folk songs at their core. That's what they're doing on Black Mile. Strummy lead single "The Gold" and the quiet, under-two-minute "The Sunshine" hold a candle to some of the best explicitly-folky songs in their catalog. When Manchester do get loud on this album, they do it more in the cathartic, towering way of "I Can Barely Breathe" and less like the Sabbathy grunge of "Pride." "Lead, SD," for example, ends in one of the more unrestrained performances they've put to tape. (Fans of Manchester Orchestra associates Brand New should check out this one.)
Andy also successfully finds a new way to get emotional this time around. When he wrote I'm Like a Virgin Losing a Child, he was just saying goodbye to his teenage years, a time when autobiographical sadness is just about the only thing you want to write about. Now he's married, has a daughter, and he sounds like he's overall in pretty good shape. "It's hard to write content," Andy told Touche Amore singer Jeremy Bolm a few years ago (which became the basis of a great Touche Amore song), so an album like Virgin would be tough for Andy to pull off right now. Instead of trying -- and inspired by working with Manchester Orchestra bandmate Robert McDowell on the score to the Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano-starring film Swiss Army Man -- Andy wrote these songs from the perspectives of characters he created. Whether he's meaning to sing about himself or not, these songs pack an emotional punch. Lines about not wanting to die alone ("The Mistake") and falling out of love ("The Gold") have the ability to dig into the hearts and souls of Manchester Orchestra's fans the way the songs on their debut did.
Manchester Orchestra have talked about how approaching this album with films and film scores in mind was new ground for them. They tried to think about songwriting differently than usual, test themselves, push themselves into places where they were less comfortable. That's probably why it feels like such a fresh start. Working in unexplored territory instead of embracing the familiar put them back in a similar place to the one they were in as a hungry, new band.
It's clear from the grand, soulful opening song on The Autobiography that Vic Mensa intended his debut album to be a Big Statement kind of album. After winning people over with his verse on Chance the Rapper's "Cocoa Butter Kisses" and his own 2013 mixtape Innanetape, Vic dropped a handful of promising pre-album singles, only to later scrap his original plans for a debut album (titled Traffic and set for a 2016 release). He released two EPs instead. In hindsight, it seems like he used the lower pressure and shorter running time of an EP to hone his skills as a rapper, but didn't want to bestow an album upon the world until he crafted one that aims for "classic" status. (Not to judge a book by its cover, but the album artwork literally has him pictured on the floor with pages ripped out of his lyric book and crumpled up around him, which adds fuel to the fire that he’s going for a "perfectionist" image. Also, could an album called The Autobiography not be aiming for "classic" status?) From the soul samples to the introspection to the perfectionism to the grandiosity of the hour-long LP, The Autobiography is the kind of album a lot of young rappers have attempted in the wake of Kanye's success. In fact, given Vic and Kanye's past collaborations (on Kanye's "Wolves" and Vic's Yeezus-channelling 2015 single "U Mad"), it's noteworthy that Ye doesn't appear on The Autobiography at all. Especially because his influence is all over it.
It's sort of surprising that Vic took this more traditional, more throwback approach to his album, given the trajectory he had been on since breaking through. After touring with Disclosure, making a song with Skrillex, and appearing on Kaytranada and Flume's guest-filled 2016 albums, it looked like Vic was headed for futuristic, electronic type of rap music. I would've expected him to make the album that fellow Flume collaborator Vince Staples did in fact make this year. (It's also interesting to note that most of The Autobiography was produced by No I.D., who produced most of Vince Staples' storytelling debut Summertime '06.) Given that he instead churned out this type of star-reaching, post-Kanye album, it's tempting to get cynical and read the album as both too safe and too bombastic. You could see it as written to please critics who already love albums like this. You could see the grandiosity as a way to make it seem too big to fail.
Ultimately, though, Vic can only make an album this huge-sounding because he has the chops for it, and that comes through on The Autobiography. The album does indeed read like an autobiography, with stories of Vic as a kid growing up in Chicago ("Memories on 47th St"), his own infidelity ("Homewrecker"), his fast-rising career ("Wings"), and a brush with suicide ("Rage"). (On "Homewrecker," by the way, No I.D. samples the bridge from Weezer's Pinkerton gem "The Good Life" and turns it into a head-nodding hip hop beat -- kind of amazing given Rivers Cuomo's awkward relationship with rap over the years.) Vic is talking about dead-serious stuff on this album, and he has the ability to deliver his words in a way that make you pay attention. He spends most of the album proving that he's a gifted rapper, but he reminds you that he's no one trick pony. "Coffee & Cigarettes" shows he can kinda sing too (he sort of sounds like an aspiring Miguel), and he takes a break from all the dead-seriousness to have some fun with "Down For Some Ignorance (Ghetto Lullaby)," complete with an awesome auto-tuned Chief Keef hook. Even if his electronic side is missed, The Autobiography is evidence that Vic is turning into quite the versatile artist and that's worth celebrating.
Margo Price had one of the best albums of last year with her debut, Midwest Farmer's Daughter, and she's spent a lot of her time on the road since its release. A bunch of her shows included some new songs, and now she's recorded four new ones for an EP that should keep us tided over while we wait for a new full-length. Each song on Weakness has a distinct vibe, and all four easily rank with the material on her debut. The opening title track is one of her rowdy, rollicking country songs. It's perfect for a night of drinking and dancing, but as in other Margo Price songs, the drinking quickly turns sour: "Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me," goes the refrain. "Just Like Love" is practically the sonic opposite, a slow, melancholic song with some hints of "Jolene" in the melody. Then there's the lengthy "Paper Cowboy," a song that was surely influenced by Margo's busy touring schedule. She had some real-deal Southern rock on Midwest Farmer's Daughter, but she and her band never jammed on that album the way they do on "Paper Cowboy." For all the Loretta Lynn comparisons Margo gets, "Paper Cowboy" would be more accurately compared to the Allman Brothers. And finally it's the somber country rock of "Good Luck," where Margo reminds you how good a storyteller she is, and, in the chorus, how much her voice can really soar.
Brooklyn's Couch Slut are, in some ways, your classic hardcore band. From the sarcastic, illustrated album artwork to the lyrical fuck-yous, they could pass as today's answer to Black Flag. But there's way more to them than that. They've taken in the filthy noise rock of hometown heroes Swans and Sonic Youth, and they've got a little black metal in them too. Vocalist Megan Osztrosits is an absolute monster, both lyrically and delivery-wise. On Couch Slut's 2014 debut My Life As A Woman, she lashed out at the people who deserve it, and Contempt is no different. You can hear genuine rage in her voice as she screams her goddamn head off, but she has a more accessible side too. On the nine-and-a-half minute Swans-y closer "Won't Come," her delivery is cleaner and clearer (but still covered in anguish), and that song could easily gain them crossover with people who don't usually listen to metal and hardcore. Hopefully the move to Gilead Media (which has released music by mewithoutYou, Thou, Krallice, and more) helps with that. Couch Slut are too good to stay underground for long.
Arcade Fire's new album is out this week and it's the first album in their career that lacks ambition and excitement. My review of the album is HERE. Read an excerpt:
On Everything Now, hardly anything is exciting. The lyrics range from predictable to self-parody. On the chorus of "Peter Pan," they rhyme "we can walk if we don't feel like flying" with "we can live if we don't feel like dying." You can guess the second line before they even sing it -- not something you'd expect from a band who rhymed the title of their album Reflektor with "thought you were praying to the resurrector."
The characters on this album are "some boys" and "some girls," they're "a thousand boys that look like you" and "a thousand girls that look like me," they're "those cool kids stuck in the past." It sounds like they're channelling the every-suburban-kid approach that they emerged with, but without the big-hearted sincerity that caused so many actual suburban kids to latch on to their music. On "Creature Comfort," they sing about the impact Funeral had on people, but fail to come out with a song that could cause that type of impact again.
On Everything Now, the only people who sound "stuck in the past" are Arcade Fire. A move towards dance music could be seen as an attempt to stay modern, but the musical direction of Everything Now has the opposite effect.
Read the rest HERE.