Notable Releases of the Week (11/8)
The year (and decade) is quickly coming to an end. Halloween is over, Christmas decorations are already appearing in stores, and here in New York it's been getting pretty cold. It's the time of year where music obsessives are already probably starting to compile their year-end lists, but don't do that before hearing this week's new albums, as there are some definite AOTY-list contenders out today.
I highlighted four new albums below, but before I get to those, some honorable mentions: Moor Mother, Kele of Bloc Party, Agnostic Front, Greet Death, FITTED (ft. Mike Watt & members of Wire), SebastiAn, Dave East, Clams Casino, Kate Davis, Doja Cat, Macseal, Pendant, Live Skull (first in 30 years), Martin Bisi, Criminal Instinct, Fyrhtu, Girl Ray, Vegyn, Esoteric, Schammasch, Xylouris White, Tsunami Bomb, Friendship, Charles Rumback & Ryley Walker, the Lucy Dacus EP, the Andy Stott EP, and Graham Coxon's soundtrack for The End of the F***ing World 2.
Read on for my four picks. What was your favorite release of the week?
FKA twigs' 2014 debut album LP1 was one of the most game-changing debut albums of its time, and it's one that -- with 2020 right around the corner -- people are now calling one of the best albums of the decade. She quickly followed it with the M3LL155X EP a year later, but five years passed without another full-length. We eventually learned that part of the reason was twigs had to deal with serious medical issues, but thankfully she overcame them and is now finally back with her second full-length, and it was worth the wait. It's not uncommon for an artist with a heavily buzzed-about debut album to fade away, especially when that album is so tied to the trends of a time (LP1 was well-suited to indie's growing interest in pop and R&B, though FKA twigs understandably rejects being called R&B). But while the hot trends of the moment keep changing, FKA twigs has outlasted many of her former peers and written an album that proves she's here to stay.
Magdalene is front-loaded with three of twigs' four recent singles (all except lead single "Cellophane," which is the last song on the album), so if you've been keeping up with Magdalene's rollout, you've pretty much heard its first half. But don't let that fool you into thinking you've got this album pegged; Magdalene saves some of its best tricks for the deep cuts towards the end. One of my favorite songs on the album is "Fallen Alien," a track that's loaded with one surprise after another and manages to combine Radiohead, Kate Bush, glitch, punk swagger, and what sounds like an electronically manipulated children's choir without ever being too much at once. It's on a song like this that you're reminded FKA twigs is no trend-following buzz artist; she's a top-tier maker of experimental pop.
She's also a top-tier maker of regular pop, as evidenced by the Future collab "Holy Terrain" (which was also made with Skrillex and Jack Antonoff), which is Magdalene's one song that might work on the radio. For a lesser artist, including a song like "Holy Terrain" might just seem like an attempt at adding a potential hit to an otherwise hit-free album, but for twigs, it just shows the breadth of her abilities as an artist. It reminds me of Grimes including the pop/EDM-friendly "Realiti" on an album that also had out-there songs like "Kill V. Maim" and "Scream." Like Grimes, FKA twigs challenges pop listeners to explore more experimental music while also challenging fans of underground music to embrace the thrill of mainstream pop. (A lot of other poptimism-era albums have engaged in pop/indie cross-pollination too, but even after all the thinkpieces have been written, Magdalene feels like it will live on as one of the more unique examples of this.)
Twigs also embraces a lot of atmospheric balladry on this album, and it's allowed her to put raw emotion in the forefront more so than on LP1. For an artist who frequently manipulates her face on her album artwork and the sound of her music, it's extra stunning to hear a song like the heartbreaking "Mirrored Heart," where Twigs just belts it with no filter over some simple piano. It kind of reminds me of the first time I heard Beach House's "Real Love," the song where they pretty much dropped their whole aesthetic and proved they could tug at the heartstrings with something a little more bare-bones and traditional. As much as twigs can often be very maximalist, she strips things back a lot on Magdalene (the aforementioned lead single/album closer "Cellophane" is pretty bare-bones and heartstring-tugging too), and it's a testament to her power as an artist that she can be so impactful on this quieter album. LP1 was a pretty beat-driven record, but Magdalene often succeeds with songs that only have a faint hint of percussion. On paper, it might seem like a less accessible album than its predecessor (except "Holy Terrain"), but it doesn't really feel that way when you're listening. As with most of the best experimental pop, Magdalene's daring musical tendencies go down like crushed pills mixed with honey.
Over a decade ago, Have A Nice Life's debut album Deathconsciousness quietly landed and hardly made a stir, but internet chatter slowly turned it into a cult classic. Eight years later, one of its songs was sampled by Lil Peep. HANL hadn't even played live before releasing Deathconiousness, and they wouldn't do so for two years. Even once they did, shows remained rare. It took them six years from Deathconsciousness' release to put out a second album (2014's great The Unnatural World), and seven years from their first few shows to start playing shows again. And after all that, they are only just now starting to function as kind of a normal band. They played more shows in 2019 than they played in every other year of their career combined (including a set at Roadburn where they were asked to perform Deathconsciousness in full), and they've got a new album out today that was preceded by more widespread anticipation than any HANL album before it.
In some ways, the high quality of The Unnatural World was even more surprising than that of Deathconsciousness, because it's one thing to write an accidental cult classic, but it's another to follow it with a record that's at least as good. Now, HANL have gone from being known for complete unpredictability to actually being known for being kinda consistent, so it's no surprise at all that their new album Sea of Worry is yet another excellent LP. It opens with its title track, which is perhaps the most accessible song of the band's career. It takes most of their usual elements (driving post-punk basslines, shoegazy atmosphere, doom and gloom, and powerfully emotive vocals) and distills them into a four-minute, forty-second song that's as catchy as anything happening in rock music in 2019. They keep it going with more driving post-punk on the next song ("Dracula Bells") and successfully dip their toes into their own weird version of new wave after that ("Science Beat"). And then Sea of Worry hits its highest peak on "Trespassers W," which rocks harder than any other HANL song to date. It's the closest they come to straight-up punk and post-hardcore -- complete with a thrilling mix of scream/sung vocals, riffy guitars, and apeshit drums -- and it's all done in a way that's unmistakably the work of Have A Nice Life. HANL have always had a knack for making just about any genre of music sound like their own, but they've never done it with this much of an adrenaline rush.
The only real downside of Sea of Worry is that it's a little top-heavy and it's hard not to wonder if it would have functioned better as an EP. It trails off a bit after "Trespassers W," with an ambient piece ("Everything We Forget") and the dull "Lords of Tresserhorn," which sounds like an undercooked version of songs HANL have written plenty of times in the past. HANL redeem themselves a little on the slow-burning album closer "Destinos," which is a pretty song, but not necessarily engaging enough to earn its 13-minute running time. But one dud and a more tedious second half can't fully take away from the gold HANL struck on Sea of Worry's first half. And even if this one doesn't grow to be another cult classic, they're reaching more people than ever right now, and Sea of Worry does a fine job of letting any newcomers know what Have A Nice Life is all about.
Wiki's last album, 2017's great No Mountains In Manhattan, was a carefully constructed concept album that channelled the sounds and feelings of Wiki's home city, serving both as a proper introduction to Wiki as an artist and as a portrait of the madness of New York City. It's an Illmatic or a good kid, m.A.A.d city kind of album, and like those two albums did for their respective authors, NMIM put Wiki on the map as a force to be reckoned with. Now, two years later, he's back with a followup album that he only announced last week and only revealed the guests and tracklist for yesterday. It's out on his own Wikset Enterprise label (NMIM came out on XL), and though it's peppered with some of the same bodega scenes as NMIM, it's got less of an overall concept and it's more just a collection of badass rap songs; more of a DAMN. than a good kid, m.A.A.d city. Once again, he made the album with a handful of fellow New York artists, including frequent collaborator Your Old Droog, Princess Nokia, Lansky Jones of World's Fair, and R&B singer Duendita, and as you'd probably expect, they all fit perfectly into Wiki's world. The best guest appearances, though, are the ones from the two non-New Yorkers, Lil Ugly Mane and Denzel Curry, who both appear on album highlight "Grim." Lil Ugly Mane already formed chemistry with Wiki in their former supergroup, who broke up after group member Antwon was accused of sexual assault, and I don't think Wiki and Denzel Curry ever did a song together before this one (though Denzel and Lil Ugly Mane have), but I hope this isn't the last. They're kindred spirits -- both are highly skilled, in-your-face rappers who know how to flirt with the mainstream while remaining distinctly underground -- and on "Grim," they and Lil Ugly Mane all bring out the best of each other. The triple threat star power of "Grim" makes it an obvious standout, but OOFIE has plenty of other great songs where Wiki's is the only voice you hear. He remains a gripping storyteller and a deft rhymer, and his immediately recognizable voice is still distinct and powerful enough to grab your attention as soon as he hops on the mic. OOFIE isn't the gigantic leap that NMIM was from Wiki's EPs and mixtape, but it continues to propel him forward and assists him in carving out his own niche as an artist. It's only his second proper solo album, but he (as a solo artist and a member of Ratking) has been putting music out for nearly a decade, and on OOFIE he still sounds fresh, and still sounds hungry. It makes me think he's someone we're going to keep getting compelling art from for a long time.
Phil Elverum's last two albums as Mount Eerie, 2017's A Crow Looked At Me and 2018's Now Only, were painfully personal albums that addressed the 2016 death of his wife Geneviève Castrée head on. But for this new batch of songs, he said, "I tried to make songs that did not rely at all on who I am or who I am singing about. 'The song, not the singer' is my guide, even while singing inescapably as and about myself." He also isn't always the only one singing, as he chose to reunite with former Eric's Trip singer Julie Doiron, with whom he also made 2008's Lost Wisdom. This album is accordingly titled Lost Wisdom pt. 2, and it has a lot in common with the first Lost Wisdom, but it also does sometimes sound more like a sequel to A Crow Looked At Me/Now Only than a sequel to Lost Wisdom. As Phil wrote in his announcement for the album, "Love returned [but] it didn’t work out and I had to move again" (referring to his brief marriage to actress Michelle Williams), and even if Phil aimed to not have himself at the center of these songs, you can hear some clear references to his recent divorce in the song. He once again uses the plainspoken delivery that he used on his last two albums, though as with the first Lost Wisdom, the music and melodies often hearken back to '60s psychedelic folk (except "Widows," where Phil shows off his love of heavier music). If you're coming to this hoping for more of the wonderful Phil Elverum/Julie Doiron harmonizing of 2008's Lost Wisdom, you'll probably be satisfied, and if you wanted more of the diary entry style songwriting of the last two Mount Eerie albums, you'll probably be satisfied with that too. It's the best of both worlds, and it does nothing to stop the late-career songwriting hot streak that Phil Elverum has now been on for nearly three years.