Five Notable Releases of the Week (4/6)
Before I get to my picks for this week's Five Notable Releases, I have to point out that Cardi B's debut album Invasion of Privacy is finally out today. As it's one of my most anticipated albums of the year and I'm only first hearing it today like the rest of the world, I want to give it a really good listen and give it a more proper writeup in next week's column, rather than rushing one together this morning. Plus, today is stacked with worthy albums and next week is a little lighter, so delaying Cardi gives me a chance to get to some lesser heard stuff that has a higher risk of flying under the radar.
Again, it's a stacked week, so I've got a handful of very honorable mentions in addition to my five picks: Flatbush Zombies, Wye Oak, grungy Frightened Rabbit/Editors supergroup Mastersystem, Black Angels/Horrors offshoot MIEN, Eels, The Books' Paul de Jong, Rafiq Bhatia, Panopticon, and Kali Uchis.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Not many bands in the internet era have had the kind of organic rise that Hop Along did. After turning from singer Frances Quinlan's solo project into a full-fledged band, they quietly released Get Disowned in 2012, which gradually took off thanks to relentless gigging and word of mouth. With no big label, significant radio play, or much mainstream press, Hop Along continued to play to bigger and bigger crowds in the years after Get Disowned's release. Even if they were first on a three-band bill, there'd be a portion of the crowd who came just to yell every Hop Along lyric back at Frances Quinlan. It wouldn't have happened like this if Get Disowned wasn't such a special record, one that's still home to some of their best songs and biggest singalongs at live shows. Hop Along eventually got signed to the venerable Saddle Creek, and released the excellent 2015 album Painted Shut, which deservedly got the band more popularity and more acclaim. Painted Shut was more of a refinement of the Get Disowned sound than a drastic departure, but now Hop Along are back once again with Bark Your Head Off, Dog, and this one is a huge progression from their first two albums. It's their best record yet.
The album opens with lead single "How Simple," which is up there with "Tibetan Pop Stars" and "Waitress" as one of the catchiest songs in Hop Along's discography. But while those songs were peaks of their respective albums, "How Simple" is only the beginning on Bark Your Head Off, Dog (both literally and figuratively). From there, they frequently depart from their driving indie rock and successfully experiment with the most ambitious arrangements of their career. The best example of this is "Not Abel," the second single and the strongest song on the record. "Not Abel" makes you think you're listening to twangy alt-country for exactly 13 seconds, and then Hop Along switch gears into a complex, string-laden song that sounds like Ys or Have One On Me era Joanna Newsom. From there, a soaring, uplifting chorus with one of Frances' most gripping vocal deliveries kicks in. Rinse, repeat, throw in a part where Frances nearly screams over sinister strings like The Mountain Goats did on "Dilaudid," and then after a quiet bridge, Hop Along shift gears into the kind of indie rocker that they've been excelling at since the early days. It's just one song, but it's more colossal and shapeshifting than some bands' albums.
Bark Your Head Off, Dog pulls off a similar type of 180 on "One That Suits Me." Its first half bounces back and forth between soft delicate textures and a louder rock refrain (with an imagery-inducing chant of "The sun is yellow, and the ground is moving!"), and it turns into an entirely different song once the guitar solo hits, but does so without ever sounding awkward or losing focus. They do it again on "Look of Love," which starts out like the kind of bedroom folk Frances may have written for her 2006 solo debut, and later it becomes the kind of intricate indie rock that Hop Along make today. Elsewhere on the album, there's "How You Got Your Limp," a deceptively simple folk song with Frances in storytelling mode that's aided by contemporary classical-style strings and some Andrew Bird-esque whistles. "The Fox In Motion" finds time for percussive avant-pop, a double-time rock rager, and a few parts you might call "funky." "What The Writer Meant" starts out sounding like a chamber pop group with Radiohead's rhythm section, and it evolves into a driving chorus with shouted one-liners from Frances ("God is the one who changed" / "Will you tell me your mind has changed?"). It still also finds time for blues fiddle and a psychedelic freakout. The album ends on one of its most brilliant notes, "Prior Things," which is constantly jumping back and forth between maximalist orchestral rock and softer, more intimate moments, before closing out with Frances howling her head off without an ounce of restraint. The most unexpected moment of the album may come on second song "Somewhere A Judge," though: vocoder!
As Hop Along navigate all of these fresh waters, they do so without ever losing the parts of their sound that fans initially fell in love with, and that's no easy feat. The sophisticated strings, off-kilter percussion, nifty lead guitar, and other embellishments help take these songs to the next level, but at their core, they're classic Hop Along. Frances is still a singer like no other, who can go from a whisper to a rasp to a feral scream without ever tripping up over her unique melodies, and she continues to progress as a lyricist. The songs on Bark Your Head Off, Dog can be conversational, poetic, funny, sad, blunt and metaphoric, and sometimes more than one of those things on one song. It's also clear that the band gels more on this album than they ever have in the past. Each member brings their own distinct personality to the band and has moments with their individual contributions shine, but they also all know how to dial it back and give someone else the spotlight. Perhaps more than any prior Hop Along album, Bark Your Head Off, Dog sounds less like a group of individuals and more like one tight-knit unit.
Since even before the release of their excellent and highly ambitious 2015 album No Closer To Heaven, The Wonder Years have been slowly moving from the "Defend Pop Punk" scene that birthed them towards the more respected "emo revival" scene that's been thriving in recent years. If you don't pay much attention to this kind of stuff, you might be thinking that there can't possibly be much of a difference between those two descriptors, but they really aren't all that similar. At this point, the latter is basically a subgenre of indie rock and though "revival" is in the name, it's often used to describe a batch of bands who are musically and emotionally progressing at every turn. The former is a bunch of bands that want to sound like New Found Glory circa 2002, and The Wonder Years' recent material sounds nothing like New Found Glory.
It couldn't have felt more natural for The Wonder Years to go in the direction they did. They've now been releasing albums for over a decade and their seasoned, insightful version of pop punk became an influence for some of the most acclaimed modern indie-emo acts like Modern Baseball, Sorority Noise, and Julien Baker, who looked up to them early on in their careers. As these artists continued to explore deeper issues in their lyrics and garner more love from critics, and Warped Tour continued to go in ill-advised directions, it just made sense that TWY would go the way of their well-respected followers. But really at this point, The Wonder Years are too monumental a band to be easily lumped in with any music scene. They're the kind of band who forge a new path on every album, who grow with their large, dedicated fanbase, and who probably aren't done changing lives with their music. And more than any previous Wonder Years album, Sister Cities asks you to check any preconceived notions of the band that you may have at the door. If No Closer To Heaven was the furthest that The Wonder Years (or any band) could push the pop punk sound that they began their career with, Sister Cities is the beginning of an entirely new chapter.
Sister Cities takes The Wonder Years' sound in all kinds of new directions, and there's no easy way to pigeonhole it. It has the heaviest music The Wonder Years have ever written and the softest music they've ever written, and both sounds provide the perfect backdrop for singer Dan Campbell's dead-serious ruminations on life and death. The song structures are more experimental, and there's a greater focus on atmosphere and using the studio as an instrument (like with the manipulated drums at the beginning of "We Look Like Lightning"). Some of the credit surely goes to the knockout production team -- Joe Chiccarelli, who co-produced Manchester Orchestra's grungy Mean Everything To Nothing, and Carlos de la Garza, who engineered and mixed Paramore's After Laughter, another record where a pop punk band reached great new heights outside of their genre -- but as you know if you've seen The Wonder Years live, they're an impossibly tight band, and Sister Cities mostly has a no-frills approach that presents them as the rock powerhouse that they are. The album opens on one of its heaviest notes, "Raining In Kyoto," which has nearly-metal riffs and one of the most aggressive vocal performances of Campbell's career. If there's one song on this album that makes it clear why The Wonder Years wanted to work with the producer of Manchester Orchestra's grungiest album, it's this one.
Things get even more interesting from there on "Pyramids of Salt," which starts out as a haunting, minimalist atmospheric song, before turning into another alt-rock crusher. The heaviness continues later on the album with the punishing, passionate post-hardcore rippers "Heaven's Gate (Sad & Sober)" and "The Ghosts of Right Now," the latter of which could fit in with prime-era Thrice. In contrast to those, "When the Blue Finally Came" and "Flowers Where Your Face Should Be" are some of the most tender ballads of TWY's career, and they're stronger than the ballads on No Closer To Heaven. Lyrically, "Flowers Where Your Face Should Be" is one of the record's most hyper-specific and heartbreaking, and on a song like this, it's easy to see how Julien Baker called The Wonder Years one of her favorite bands. Sister Cities' title track and "It Must Get Lonely" are both punchier, easily digestible rockers that tip their hat to TWY's earlier material (and still sound great here). Then there's a song like "We Look Like Lightning," which goes through countless unexpected changes and runs the gamut from '90s trip-hop to '90s hardcore. It's got one of the most atypical song structures and heart-stopping vocal performances in the band's entire catalog. And The Wonder Years go out with the seven-minute "The Ocean Grew Hands to Hold Me," which builds like a post-rock song and has Dan Campbell spilling his guts about coming to terms with death in a way that requires wisdom and a poetic delivery, and he has both. "I’ve been running for a decade now, but I think I’m ready to go," Campbell sings, showing a maturation in both his outlook on life and in his artistry. The lyric is ostensibly about a deceased loved one, but it could also describe where The Wonder Years are at as a band right now. Sister Cities sounds like the album where they settled into being the band they were always destined to be.
Saba's 2016 project Bucket List established him as one of the many artists to watch in Chicago's thriving hip hop scene, and it's clear from his just-released followup Care For Me that he's only getting better. Scene leader Chance the Rapper is on the album (on "Logout") but he doesn't steal the show at all; Saba is the star and Care For Me establishes him as a force of his own. Care For Me sounds more like a soul record than a traditional hip hop record, but Saba is a real-deal rapper. On "Life," which is not surprisingly just as much about death, Saba contemplates the young deaths of 2Pac and Jesus in relation to his own life, and comes out with the cold, hardened conclusion of "Life don't mean shit to a nigga that ain't never had shit." He raps at a slow pace, so you can make out every single word, and out of nowhere, he hurls himself into a breakneck flow, matching his purposeful lyricism with an athletic delivery: "I'm bonded with profit / I made what I made and allot it / Amount of time that's in my mind the time you was watching / So stop comparing me to people, no I am not them / A lot of people dream until they shit or get" -- and then a gunshot rings out. Saba knows that quality content is often more important than quantity of syllables, but his ability to offer both is what makes him stand out against the masses who bet their whole stash on one or the other. He does a similar thing on "Smile," which at one point is all gorgeous soulful harmonies, groovy bass, and snappy percussion until, all of a sudden, Saba tries on a fast-paced trap cadence without ever falling into anything you'd call "mumble rap." Saba may pal around with Chance, but the popular rapper he sounds most like on that song is Kendrick, and it's not the only time that Care For Me channels K.Dot. On "Grey," he's basically rapping over free jazz and it sounds like it could fit right in on To Pimp A Butterfly. The very next song sounds inspired by good kid, m.A.A.d city; it has similar soulful production to that album, and Saba's in a similar storytelling mode, reminiscing on the real-life struggles of growing up surrounded by violence. It's a two-part song with a GKMC-style beat switch in the middle, and Saba sounds more and more desperate as he goes on to recount the life and death of his cousin and collaborator John Walt. After a heart-stopping mic drop, it's the late John Walt's voice you hear singing, "Just another day in the ghetto / Oh the streets bring sorrow / Can't get out today with a schedule / I just hope I make it 'til tomorrow." It's eerie, and it puts the world-weary view of "Life" into new perspective. Saba has seen and been through some shit, and when he tells it the way he does on Care For Me, it's truly bone-chilling.
It's a big day for Philly indie-punk, with rightfully anticipated new albums from Hop Along and The Wonder Years, two of the biggest and most loved bands in that thriving scene. But if you're excited for those records and haven't checked out younger Philly indie-punk act Kississippi, let their great debut album Sunset Blush change that. Kississippi debuted with a couple promising EPs and main member Zoe Reynolds went through a few lineup changes, and now she has come out with Sunset Blush, her strongest release yet. Zoe played most of the core instruments herself, with some help from Thin Lips members Kyle Pulley (who also recorded, mixed, and co-arranged the album at the same studio the Hop Along album was done, which Kyle also worked on) and Mikey Tashjian (whose drumming gives this album its rock-solid backbone), and a few others. Not only is the instrumentation tight, but Zoe has also noticeably taken a leap forward as a singer and songwriter. Her songs on Sunset Blush are her most focused, most confident, and catchiest yet. They're intimate-sounding songs that you can imagine Zoe writing or performing with just a clean guitar, but only on "Who Said It First" are they actually delivered that way (and even that song is fleshed out by some nicely atmospheric keyboards). Sunset Blush jumps from jangly indie rock, to driving punk, to electronic indie pop, all without ever straying from a unified vision. It's a personal record, one where Zoe lays self-doubt, anxieties, and past struggles out on the table, but she does so in a way that's hopeful and empowering. It's a record you can put on when it feels like everything is going wrong, and you need to hear upbeat, ridiculously catchy songs from someone who gets it to get you through.
Kool Keith has been defying the notion that rap is a young person's game for years now. The former Ultramagnetic MC has continued to release solo albums three decades on from the formation of that group, proving again and again that he can put out worthy music at an alarming rate. Any of his last few albums are worth hearing, but it's been a long time since he's released a new album as high-profile as the one that came out today. Dr. Octagon, Kool Keith's ahead-of-its-time surrealist rap project with Dan The Automator and DJ Qbert, are finally back with their first official album since their now-legendary 1996 debut Dr. Octagonecologyst. (There's a 2006 album called The Return of Dr. Octagon, but it's of questionable validity and not with the original Dr. Octagon lineup.) Keith has made plenty of great music since 1996, but Dr. Octagon remains one of his most beloved and unparalleled projects, so that -- combined with the rarity of music under that moniker -- adds a lot more anticipation for Moosebumps: An Exploration Into Modern Day Horripilation than other recent Kool Keith albums. Predictably, Kool Keith, Dan The Automator, and DJ Qbert deliver. Their 1996 album (set in the year 3000) still sounds futuristic today, so Dr. Octagon didn't have to change up their formula much (or at all) for Moosebumps to sound fresh. It's got everything you want from this trio: Dan The Automator's warped, psychedelic violin and production, DJ Qbert's trademark scratches, and Kool Keith's wild-eyed, abstract flow and absurdist lyricism. There are moments when it's clear that you aren't listening to an album from 1996, like when Keith makes lyrical references to Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but for the most part, Moosebumps sounds more like a long lost followup to Dr. Octagonecologyst than a long-awaited comeback (in a good way). There are some other new tricks too, like when Del the Funky Homosapien from Dan The Automator's likeminded Deltron 3030 project (which took place in 3030, 30 years after Dr. Octagonecologyst) shows up on "3030 Meets The Doc, Pt. 1." We got a taste of this when Del and Keith teamed as Dr. OctoTron back in 2013, but with Dan The Automator in the mix, it really seals the deal. It could seem like a cash-in to revisit such a beloved project this far down the line, but Moosebumps doesn't sound like an album that was done to boost a fizzled-out career. It sounds like three old friends having a lot of fun together in the studio, and coming out with something that doesn't tarnish their legacy, only adds to it.