Five Notable Releases of the Week (3/10)
Musically speaking, it's been quite a week. We finally got a new Fleet Foxes song. Judging by how ambitious the song is and how naturally it picks up where Fleet Foxes left off, it looks like their third album is gonna be worth the six-year wait. And that's far from the only major indie rock album to look forward to this year.
For anyone heading to Austin for SXSW, the music portion is just days away. If you'll be there, stop by one of the three BrooklynVegan/Sound on Sound day parties at Cheer Up Charlies. Two of the artists in this week's Notable Releases column are playing our shows (Jay Som and Hurray for the Riff Raff).
In sadder news, this week (yesterday, specifically) marks the 20th anniversary of Biggie's death. We miss you Big.
Before I get to the five albums I picked this week, if there's one glaring omission, it's probably the new Shins album. James Mercer can still write a hook and his voice is still ear candy, but there's a lot of good albums out this week and I thought I'd shine a light on some less established stuff.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Jay Som is the project of Melina Duterte, and Everybody Works is her excellent debut album for Polyvinyl Records. (Last year, Polyvinyl reissued Turn Into, which originally came out as a cassette on Topshelf Records, but that's more a compilation than a proper album.)
If there's one major thing setting Everybody Works apart from other recent indie rock debuts, it's that Jay Som refuses to stick to one style. She tackles shoegaze ("1 Billion Dogs"), dream pop ("Baybee"), Death Cab-esque emo ("The Bus Song"), lo-fi bedroom folk ("BedHead"), crunchy '90s-style indie ("Take It"), and more. No two songs sound alike. And she's got both the vision and the chops to pull off a record this diverse without sounding all over the place. Part of that is likely because she's been a trained musician for years. She played everything on the record herself -- except for a few backing vocal parts -- including the melancholic trumpets that really add a nice touch. She's also already proving to be a skilled producer. The intentionally lo-fi parts are as expertly executed as a Microphones record, and the hi-fi parts are clear as day. If other indie bands start going to her as a producer, don't be surprised. None of this would matter, though, if it weren't for Melina's ability to craft a song. The first time I saw her was when she played solo opening for Mitski and Japanese Breakfast, and even with just a guitar, it was clear how much power is in her songs.
After making alt-country as Hurray for the Riff Raff for about a decade, Alynda Segarra goes in noticeably new directions on The Navigator, her second album for ATO Records (and the followup to 2014's Small Town Heroes). She doesn't abandon her old sound entirely, but the Puerto Rican artist -- who grew up in the Bronx and now lives in New Orleans -- gets in touch with her heritage in a major way. BrooklynVegan contributor Tatiana Tenreyro recently interviewed Alynda, and Alynda discussed incorporating traditional Puerto Rican styles of music like bomba and plena into her sound. She also discussed the more overtly political nature of the lyrics, which are in direct resistance and opposition of the current US president's anti-Latinx agenda. "Now all the politicians / They just squawk their mouths / They say 'well build a wall to keep them out,'" Alynda sings on album highlight "Rican Beach." To quote Tatiana, "The other major standout from the album, and probably the most important track, is 'Pa’lante.'" She continues:
"The phrase translates to 'moving forward' and the song is an empowering ballad with lyrics that encourage those who are not respected in society to keep going despite obstacles along the way. It’s a song that resonates now more than ever, as Alynda sings, 'To all that lost their pride, pa’lante/To all who had to survive, pa’lante.' Mid-way through, the song pauses as you hear Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri recite part of 'Puerto Rican Obituary,' his powerful poem about Puerto Ricans who left their island behind to move to the United States in order to fulfill their dreams, yet struggled to be respected and fulfill those hopes."
After four albums that did major justice to '60s/'70s British folk, Laura Marling went electric on 2015's Short Movie. Now she's back with that album's followup, Semper Femina, which is her first for her own More Alarming label (after releasing all of her other albums on Virgin), and first co-produced with the great Blake Mills. "Semper Femina" is Latin for "always a woman," and as Laura said on stage when she previewed the new album in NYC last week, the lyrical themes focus on female friendships and femininity. "I don’t think there’s a single male pronoun on the album," she told the crowd. Musically, it's got elements of both Short Movie and the earlier material. There is some real traditional-sounding folk on here, but there's also a song like the moody, heavily layered "Don't Pass Me By" that's a clear progression from her first few records. You can really hear the Blake Mills influence on that one. Not to mention, the massive string arrangements on that song and a few others -- courtesy of yMusic member (and former Bon Iver member) Rob Moose -- add a lot to Laura's songs. Semper Femina proves that Laura knows how to take full advantage of a good collaboration, but she remains the star of her own show. The boldest moments are usually lyrical ones, like on "Wild Fire" when she sings: "You always say you love me most when I don’t know I’m being seen / Well maybe someday when God takes me away I’ll understand what the fuck that means." Talk about a punch to the gut.
A lot of the world heard Valerie June for the first time on her breakthrough album, 2013's Pushin' Against a Stone. That album combined country, soul, folk, and blues, but the main takeaway from it was that Valerie can really sing. She's a true vocal powerhouse, and she's got a twangy, soulful voice that you can spot any time it pops up (like, for example, on a Mavis Staples song). Three and a half years later, she's back with a followup, and The Order of Time just might best its predecessor. She's still playing with the same seasoned styles of music, but this time she's modernizing them more. Most of the album has this sparkling atmosphere that doesn't exist on old blues records. She could win you over with just her voice and a few notes on an acoustic guitar if she wanted to, but Valerie and producer Matt Marinelli (who also worked on Beck's Song Reader) clearly took full advantage of the studio. That atmospheric edge isn't the only embellishment to Valerie's songwriting on this album. Equally important to the sound of The Order of Time is the triumphant horns, the lovely string arrangements, and the piano and vocal accompaniment on a few songs by Norah Jones. Valerie also sounds even more confident on this album than on her last, likely thanks to years of playing shows for increasingly-bigger audiences. This is her first album with a serious amount of anticipation, and it lives up.
Buy on iTunes.
Thom Wasluck, better known as Planning for Burial, refers to the music he makes as "Gloom." It's a concoction of outsider genres including doom metal, shoegaze, drone, and post-punk, and "Gloom" is a pretty good catch-all for it. Planning for Burial is kind of a kindred spirit of his revered but underrated labelmates Have A Nice Life. If there's one word you would never associate with either of those bands, it is "happy." His new album Below the House follows 2014's fantastic Desideratum. That album was one of his prettiest works, possibly the closest he's come to straight-up shoegaze. But Below the House brings back some of his harsher metal sounds. The mix of sounds remains thrilling. For every hint of My Bloody Valentine or Joy Division you hear on Below the House, there's a pained scream that sounds transported from the first Godflesh album. Sometimes he hops from one sound to the next, but the best moments are the ones where it's all coming through at once. Take "Somewhere In The Evening," which is what it might sound like if Electric Wizard, MBV and Mogwai jammed together. The way he pulls something like that off so naturally, is what makes Below the House such a special record.