Five Notable Releases of the Week (2/10)
The Grammys are this weekend, which you may or may not care about, unless you live in LA and it means you get a chance to see an intimate Metallica show. Like every year, your favorite album probably won't win and actually it probably wasn't even nominated. That said, let's go Lemonade!
One of the artists in my picks this week has actually won a Grammy before. Most of the others will likely never set foot on the red carpet. Check them all out below.
What was your favorite release of the week?
Last year Sub Pop released Love Letter for Fire, a collaborative album by Sam Beam (aka Iron & Wine) and Jesca Hoop. While Sam Beam was of course the more popular artist on the album, Jesca was the star of it. She had been around for a while, gradually building towards something greater and greater. Memories Are Now, her first solo album for Sub Pop, is arguably her best work yet. She made the album with Fiona Apple collaborator and Alabama Shakes producer Blake Mills (who Jesca’s worked with before), and, if nothing else, it's her best sounding album yet. Blake really gives every instrument a bold sound; he makes even the most intimate moments sound huge. Jesca's voice is also in top form here. She can jump from something soft and delicate to something loud and manic seamlessly. She's gotten comparisons to Kate Bush and Bjork over the years, and while her tone differs from those two singers, she has a similar knack for sounding all over the place but not disorganized.
You can, to some extent, call Jesca Hoop a folk singer. And some of the truly great moments on Memories Are Now are the ones when she traditonally sounds like one. But the very best moments are when she expands her sound into other territories. Lead single "The Lost Sky" kind of sounds like an updated, minimal take on the sort of chamber pop that Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird were making about a decade ago. "Cut Connection" is Jesca's atypical take on blues rock and it ends in a tribaly, psychedelic freakout that I'd like to hear her do more of. "Unsaid" starts out sounding like one of Cat Power or Sharon Van Etten's darker, edgier songs, but it turns into something that's entirely Jesca's own (and Blake Mills' drum production on this one really adds a lot). The way she sandwiches louder songs like those last two between hushed songs like "Songs of Old" and "Pegasi" is what makes this album such a trip.
Hand Habits is the project of Meg Duffy, who's played in Mega Bog and Kevin Morby's band, and her debut album Wildly Idle comes with high praise from Kevin Morby. "Like many bedroom-debuts before it (The Microphones, Jessica Pratt, Little Wings, Grouper) let this be the first of many to come, for Meg has music in her touch – and this is only the beginning," he said when the album was announced. She's also signed to Woodsist, the label run by the band Woods (who used to count Kevin Morby as a member). So if you don't believe us that it's good, maybe you'll believe Woods and Kevin Morby.
Kevin's comparisons to those other bedroom-recorded debuts is spot on (the album "feels incredibly intimate, like a secret between her and the listener," he adds). And like The Microphones, Jessica Pratt, etc, Meg has one of those voices that you know is distinct from the minute you hear it. The self-recorded, self-produced album has sleepy, On the Beach-style drumming, some twangy lead guitar, and simple, folky chord progressions. It's familiar sounding, and nothing too flashy, but it never falls into the background thanks to Meg's gripping voice. She's really got a way with melodies, and there's a unique quality to her voice that makes her stand out amongst the many people making bare-bones folk like this. It's already a great year for this kind of stuff, thanks to the Julie Byrne album. If you've been spinning (or streaming) that one, Hand Habits might be your new favorite thing.
After touring as a member of Yeasayer, of Montreal and Caribou, Ahmed Gallab picked up some buzz for his solo project Sinkane and eventually signed to DFA, where he released a couple albums that weren't a million miles away from the bands he used to tour in. Now he's back with a new label (City Slang) and a new sound. Life & Livin' It has Sinkane pulling from '70s funk more directly than ever before, and -- true to its title -- it's his most lively album yet. Ahmed said a main inspiration was listening back to his favorite Funkadelic records. And who knows, maybe he picked up a thing or two as a member of David Byrne's William Onyeabor tribute band or while opening for Cymande. Not to mention he and his band got help from the horn section of Brooklyn Afrobeat band Antibalas, who know exactly what they're doing with this kind of thing. In a world where some of the most popular and beloved artists around are pulling from '70s funk and soul (Kendrick Lamar, the Knowles sisters, etc), Life & Livin' It manages to be a throwback that also sounds very in the now.
Also like Kendrick and the Knowles sisters, Sinkane is using this album to address issues with identity that still remain in the world... especially now. While he tells Bandcamp he didn't specifically set out to address current political events, he did say, "With this album, I wanted to talk about my personal experience—my experience as an American in the United States, being an American in Sudan, being a Muslim, being a Black American. I wanted to detail my issues as a Black American with black people, with white people, with everyone." Even without paying too close attention to the lyrics, you can tell this is an album that puts Sinkane's multi-cultural identity in the forefront. It's an album that knows political issues are personal issues. But Sinkane doesn't sound afraid or angry, he sounds joyous. Two years after Kendrick Lamar sang "we're gonna be alright," Sinkane sings that same line on "U'Huh." "It's always been this way," he sings on the same song. There might be more protests in the streets this year than there have been in a while, but Sinkane has seen this social injustice before. And he sounds confident that we can get through it with communal joy and overwhelming positivity.
If you're familiar with Tinariwen, you probably know their story by now. They're a band of literal rebels from Mali who met in refugee camps over 30 years ago, and they play a kind of guitar-based Tuareg music that has enough in common with American blues rock that it caught on in the Western World. Some of the people it caught on with are well-known rock musicians, and each of Tinariwen's albums since 2011's Tassili have had some of these rock musicians appear as guests. Elwan stars Kurt Vile, Mark Lanegan, Chavez's Matt Sweeney, and veteran producer/musician Alain Johannes. Those guests don't steal the show though. It's clear that Tinariwen's own style is still the driving force here. The guitar lines are hypnotic and often revolve around a single chord. The percussion is polyrhythmic and lively, built from both hand drums and handclaps.
The band's homeland has turned into a conflict zone in recent years, and while Tinariwen left home to record Elwan (they recorded it in California, France, and Morocco), the unrest of their homeland comes through in the music. If you don't speak the language -- Tinariwen usually sing in their native Tamashek -- you can still feel the troubled emotions in their voices.
Co-frontwomen Jen Razavi and Poli van Dam formed The Bombpops back in 2007, and over the year's they've gone through several rhythm sections and released a couple EPs on Red Scare (the label that helped launch the careers of The Menzingers and The Sidekicks, and more). Now they're signed to Fat Wreck Chords, and their debut album is finally here. The SoCal band were brought up on the pop punk of their hometown region, and that comes through loud and clear on Fear of Missing Out. They make the kind of sugary, driving, post-Ramones/Buzzcocks pop punk that needs nothing more than three speedy power chords and a nice vocal melody to win you over. They kinda sound more like a classic Lookout! band than a classic Fat band. And if you skipped out on '90s punk but you dig newer bands like Big Eyes, Chumped, Colleen Green, Lisa Prank, etc, know that The Bombpops are also for you. Do they reinvent the wheel? No, but if you like this stuff at all, Fear of Missing Out is pure fun from start to finish.