Five Notable Releases of the Week (4/27)
It's an especially good week for new releases, and before I get to my five picks, I've got a few very honorable mentions. Detroit punk collective The Armed use a different drummer on every album, and their great, spastic new Only Love is with Ben Koller of Converge. Sub Pop-signed indie rock newcomers Forth Wanderers' self-titled album is very enjoyable. Long-running indie-psych band Dr. Dog's new Critical Equation proves they still know how to make trippy, high quality stuff. Post-rock greats God Is An Astronaut's new album Epitaph was inspired by a tragic death and there's more despair in the music than any other GIAA album. Plus, two longtime legends have new albums out today: Willie Nelson and Van Morrison (who are also touring together).
Check out the five albums I picked below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Liz Harris has gradually developed the sound of her Grouper project over the years, transitioning from the psychedelic-folk-meets-ambient music of her breakthrough Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill to the piano-based music that she made on 2014's Ruins and now again on Grid of Points. Ruins was still a highly atmospheric record, but it stripped away a lot of the hiss of her earlier music and was, in many ways, the most straightforward singer/songwriter type album she's ever made (but still in her own unparalleled way). Grid of Points is even more dialed-back than Ruins. It sounds rawer, but not because of noise or distortion. She mentioned that she wrote the entire album in a week and a half, and it sounds like she was content to release what she came up with without polishing the edges. The songs are also the simplest Grouper songs yet. Even more so than Ruins, they sound like traditional piano ballads, but slowed down and without any unnecessary frills. In many ways, it feels like the album you'd have expected an artist to make before coming out with the astonishing works that Grouper has come out with in the past decade, though it's no less impressive to hear her make an album like this now. The songs may be simpler but simpler doesn't always mean of lesser quality, and especially not in the case of Grid of Points. Like any of Grouper's last few records, this is an album that you can put on at any point (though ideally when you're not focused on anything else), and be stunned at how Grouper can make such overwhelming music with so little.
It's been five years since Janelle Monae last released an album, 2013's The Electric Lady, but it's not like she hasn't been busy. Her acting career took off in a big way, after she starred in two Oscar-nominated and one Oscar-winning films (Moonlight and Hidden Figures). That, combined with the moving speech she gave at the Grammys and what her coming out as pansexual has done to increase queer visibility, has made it clear that Janelle has become a bigger cultural icon than we ever could've guessed at the time of her last album. So it won't be surprising if Dirty Computer becomes a Big Deal album, and it will also be deserved.
It already is a bigger deal than an average album because for Dirty Computer, Janelle is combining her talents in music and cinema and releasing the album with an accompanying film of the same name. I haven't seen it yet, but going by the very ambitious music videos Janelle released already, I have a good feeling about the film too. The ol' album-film trick pretty much secures you'll have an Event Album -- just look at Lemonade -- and if it seems like Janelle is copying Beyonce at all, it's worth noting that without Janelle's 2010 album The ArchAndroid nudging popular R&B in a more experimental direction, Beyonce may have never made Lemonade.
Like both The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, Dirty Computer blends psychedelia, funk, soul, R&B, rock, hip hop and more, and at this point, Janelle is a natural at pulling off a cross-genre experiment like this one. She begins the album with a dose of psychedelic sunshine pop, the kind that, say, The Beach Boys might've made in the late '60s, and she brings former Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson in to help out on the track. (I'm not 100% positive, but I assume he's doing the Beach Boys-y "ahh"s in the background.) From there, she tackles big '80s pop ("Crazy Classic Life," "Americans"), groovy funk ("Take A Byte"), modern Atlanta trap ("Django Jane"), jazz-soul ("Stevie's Dream"), psych-rock ("So Afraid"), and more, without ever losing focus. Because of her ability to hop between these types of genres, the artist Janelle is most frequently compared to is Prince, and Prince actually worked on the album before he passed away. (He also contributed to The Electric Lady.) He definitely worked on "Make Me Feel," which sounds more than a little like his own "Kiss," and though we don't know exactly which other songs have his fingerprints on them, you can hear his guitar style on "Screwed," "Pynk" (which features Grimes), and more.
Dirty Computer is also Janelle's most overtly political album, one that's definitely meant to stick a middle finger up at the current president. On the Pharrell-featuring "I Got the Juice," she chants a play on a popular Women's March slogan, "If you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back, hey!" On "Screwed," she asserts "You fucked up the world now, we'll fuck it all back down" and then threatens "We'll put water in your guns." She also paraphrases Oscar Wilde's famous "Everything is sex, except sex, which is power" quote before breaking the fourth wall and telling us, "You know power is just sex / Now ask yourself who's screwing you." Later in that same song, she raps about "fake news" and on "Django Jane" she raps "we gon' start a mothafuckin' pussy riot!" On album closer "Americans," she pleads, "Don't try to take my country, I will defend my land. I'm not crazy, baby, I'm American." The album is partially a fuck-you to Trump, but it's more so a celebration of female power and sexual fluidity -- which, by default, are also sort of fuck-yous to Trump, but the tone is celebratory, not angry. This is a musically experimental, joyous-sounding album where Janelle is being her weird self and inviting you to do the same. Such challenging music rarely feels so welcoming.
Nandi Rose Plunkett already has two great albums under her belt with her art pop project Half Waif, 2014's Kotekan and 2016's Probable Depths, but Lavender is her first for Cascine (a larger label than she'd been on previously) and her first since getting a lot of increased attention, so it's probably going to be the first Half Waif album that a lot of people hear. That's not a bad thing at all, as it's also her best yet. Musically, it's a similar type of synthetic art pop to her first two albums, but a little bolder and a little darker (you may hear hints of Imogen Heap, The Postal Service, or late '90s Tori Amos). Lyrically, it's the most emotionally resonant music Half Waif has ever made. Nandi said she wrote the album as her grandmother was nearing the end of her life, and Nandi sings bluntly and passionately about her grandmother and the feelings that come with watching a loved one's life come to an end. They're universal feelings, and Nandi sings about them with wisdom, conviction, and a truly powerful set of pipes. Nandi can go from a captivating whisper to a soaring wail, and there's a show-stopping moment on the album where she almost brings her voice to a scream. She also weaves in expert harmonies and a bit of vocoder to great effect. It's a blessing to be treated to a voice like this one, especially when it comes with such a perfect musical backdrop -- the tones and melodies of the synths on Lavender are crucial to the album's blissful sound. With this type of balance between the pain that informed the album and the beauty we can hear in it, Lavender is such a perfect title. Nandi said it's inspired by her grandmother plucking lavender from her garden and boiling it in a pot on the stove to make her house smell nice. "I believe it was also a ritual of purification, clearing out any shadows that may have tried to creep into the old English home she'd lived in, alone, for fifty years," Nandi said. Much like that ritual, Lavender has its aesthetic beauty and it has its shadows.
The way Will Sheff uses his voice remains the thing that makes every new Okkervil River album exciting. He's been in a lane of his own for years, making reliably good music and never sounding like anyone else, and his music has become so familiar that just hearing him sing anything is comforting. What makes In The Rainbow Rain so interesting, is that he's not relying on comforting familiarity this time. It may have seemed like Okkervil River were settling into a more "adult contemporary" sound with 2016's folk, jazz, and classical-inspired Away, and that's not necessarily a bad thing (Away is a very solid album), but Rainbow Rain is the opposite of settling. It's still closer to folk than to the driving indie rock they made on their mid 2000s classics, but it's got a real hop in its step and it jumps on the heartland synth rock train that's been en vogue lately. For an example of this, check out "Love Somebody," which does '80s synthpop revival about as good as anyone else is doing right now, but separates itself from the pack with Will Sheff's trademark sense of wordy, detailed lyricism. There's also "Pulled Up The Ribbon," which threatens to beat The War On Drugs at their own game, or "Shelter Song," a dose of sophsti-pop revival that fans of recent Destroyer might dig. The best song, though, is the laid-back folk rock of lead single "Don't Move Back To LA," which is the most memorable song Okkervil River have written in years. When I saw them at SXSW last month, that song was almost as much of a highlight as "Black" and "Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe," and those are two of the most memorable songs that Okkervil River ever wrote. It's hard to say for sure, but it already feels like "DMBTLA" will be a fan favorite for years to come.
When Speedy Ortiz released their great 2013 debut album Major Arcana, they were met with comparisons to tons of classic indie rock bands, including but not limited to Helium, Pavement, Liz Phair, Polvo, and Archers of Loaf. Since then, they kept honing that sound with 2015's Foil Deer, singer Sadie Dupuis' 2016 album Slugger as Sad13, and now the new Twerp Verse. Though their sound hasn't changed drastically over the years, none of those comparisons they used to get come to mind when I listen to Twerp Verse. They've kept hammering away at their own unique take on this sort of thing that they sound like nobody other than Speedy Ortiz. They've also become an influential band themselves -- it's easy to hear how Speedy Ortiz influenced newer buzzy indie rock bands like Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail -- so at this point it's clear that they're not just a product of their influences but a force of their own. And Twerp Verse is as good an example of this as its two predecessors. As always, Speedy work complex, off-kilter guitar riffs into deceptively simple pop songs, and Sadie's dry-but-passionate delivery is unmistakable and effortlessly enjoyable. Like on Foil Deer and Slugger, the songs sound happy but Sadie is dealing with some important, difficult topics in the lyrics. Take album highlight "Lean In When I Suffer," which Sadie says is "about that fun breed of 'ally' who wears out their already exhausted friends by relying on us for excessive emotional labor. They want props for their wokeness, but don’t want to put in any actual work or divest themselves of power." You can feel all the frustration and exhaustion that drives the song, yet Speedy Ortiz still come out with an endlessly catchy chorus. They nail that balance between the messy stuff and the fun stuff in both their music and their lyrics, and Twerp Verse is a reminder of how effectively they pull it off.