Five Notable Releases of the Week (10/27)
Happy Halloween weekend! Do you have any exciting, spooky plans? If you're still looking for something to do, maybe check out our 2017 NYC Halloween events guide for concerts and other events in NYC from tonight through the night of All Hallows' Eve (which falls on a Tuesday this year). Halloween weekend also means tons of great punk and punk-related bands are headed to Gainesville for The Fest. If you're headed that way, check out our guide to The Fest, where we break down some bands you won't want to miss, from reunited veterans to worthy newcomers.
As for music this week, if you decide to take a break from "Monster Mash" and you know what Misfits song, there are plenty of great new albums out to listen to. Before I get to my picks, some honorable mentions include the first John Maus album in six years, psych folk legend Ed Askew's new album, Obits/The Make-Up/Holy Fuck offshoot SAVAK, Curtis Harding, Gnaw, Ty Dolla $ign, Big K.R.I.T., and a new Burial EP. Not to mention the surprise new Krallice collab with Neurosis' Dave Edwardson.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Julien Baker arrived fully formed on her 2015 debut album, Sprained Ankle, which was released on the small punk label 6131 Records and was one of our favorites of that year. In the time since its release, she's taken off significantly. She signed to the much larger Matador Records, landed opening slots with The Decemberists and Paramore (the latter of whom have been vocal fans), had her music covered by Brand New and Dashboard Confessional, got invited to sing on songs by Touche Amore and Frightened Rabbit, and got Sharon Van Etten approval when Sharon sang on stage with her in NYC. All the while, Julien has been playing to bigger and bigger crowds, and though she almost always plays solo or with minimal accompaniment, you can still hear a pin drop during her quiet songs no matter how big the crowds get.
She finally follows all of this with her second album and first for Matador, Turn Out the Lights, which manages to sound bigger and better than her debut in every way without sacrificing any of the intimacy that made people fall in love with her music. Just like at her live shows, the bulk of Turn Out the Lights is largely just Julien and her clean electric guitar. Even the parts that sound like they would explode into big rock codas remain free of drums, bass, or distortion. This approach comes across most strongly at the end of the title track, a song which captures the internal monologue and the downward spiral of depression in its lyrics (and also borrows some guitar from "I Can Feel A Hot One" by one of Julien's biggest influences, Manchester Orchestra). She expands her sound by using gorgeous strings (by Camille Faulkner, who is joining Julien on her US tour), and a lot more piano than she used on Sprained Ankle. A few songs -- "Televangelist," "Everything That Helps You Sleep," and "Claws In Your Back" -- are based almost entirely around piano. A few other minor embellishments are added -- her Forrister bandmate Matthew Gilliam sings harmonies on "Hurt Less" and Sorority Noise's Cam Boucher provides clarinet and sax on two songs -- and Julien also lets her voice soar in a way that she only hinted at on Sprained Ankle.
Julien gives you a taste of the piano and strings right away on instrumental album opener "Over," which transitions seamlessly into "Appointments." "Appointments" was the album's first single and it's a perfect song to introduce the album. It starts out sounding like Julien fronting Explosions in the Sky, and by the end of the second verse, she hits you with one of her finest gut-punching lines yet: "Maybe it's gonna turn out all right, and I know that it's not but I have to believe that it is." Then she repeats the "I have to believe that is" over and over while showing off her newfound knack for belted vocals. That line sort of acts as the thesis statement for this album, which tackles various forms of pain on nearly every song.
The pain on this album often stems from love or lack thereof, substances, or a complicated relationship with Christianity (she was raised by a very religious family and is also openly gay). On "Happy To Be Here," we get a little of all of that, with loads of religious imagery and this stops-you-in-your-tracks line: "I miss you the way that I miss nicotine / If it makes me feel better, how bad can it be?" On one of the album's most musically dark songs, "Shadowboxing," Julien sings about "throwing punches at the devil" and you get the sense that it's more of a reference to the Bible than to horror films. It also has a piano and strings-aided ending that truly deserves to be called "epic."
One thing that's notable about Julien Baker is how she tends to favor electric guitar, despite making music that would fit in folk music and singer/songwriter circles. When she does go full-on acoustic, which she only does once on Turn Out the Lights, it stands out. The song she does it on is "Even," which is also one of her most lyrically powerful songs to date. The pain she's singing about on this song is physical, and Julien uses such specific detail and vivid imagery to describe it: "You think I forgot the fireworks? The black eye? Trading blows on the Fourth of July -- you were right, I was asking for it, I always am. It's no good if the pain doesn't make you feel like you earned it, and I probably deserved it." It's so powerful that you can feel the pain in your own bones as Julien sings, but she isn't necessarily playing the victim or "the good one" here. "I know that I'm evil, I guess I was trying to even it out" is the conclusion to the song. And in the second verse, Julien sings about her own rage: "Putting my fist through the plaster in the bathroom of a Motel 6, I must have pictured it all a thousand times." Physical violence is hinted at earlier on this album — on "Shadowboxing," punches are thrown at the devil and on the title track, there’s a "hole in the drywall still not fixed" — but Julien never spills her guts on that topic the way she does on "Even." It makes the others seem almost tame in comparison.
Surprise/last-minute releases aren't as common in indie as they are in pop and rap, but Karin Dreijer is an indie musician who can generate a lot of excitement for one. With The Knife unfortunately broken up and no Fever Ray album since her 2009 debut, Karin shook up the online world yesterday when she surprised everyone with the news that she'd release a new Fever Ray album in less than 24 hours. Most music that Karin makes takes a long time to process, so it might be too soon to fully evaluate Plunge, but it's already clear that this is a wildly unique and wildly impressive album. As Karin's music has been before, it's also a topical album in these politically charged times. Karin made it clear that she wouldn't be holding back on this album with the not-so-subtle sexual imagery of lead single "To the Moon and Back," but the lyrics on Plunge that grabbed me most on early listens are on "This Country," when Karin chants for "free abortions! and clean water!" and at the end when she repeats, "this country makes it hard to fuck." Karin is from Sweden, but those lines resonate a lot in Trump-era America. And as you'd expect, backing these strong messages are bold, buzzing synths, clattering drum machines, and a general sense of utter strangeness. It's a record that demands repeated listens and most likely deserves them.
Montreal's Common Holly (aka Brigitte Naggar) self-released her debut album Playing House on Bandcamp last year, but she pulled the album after signing to Solitaire Recordings, who are giving it a wider release today. It pulls from both folk and jazz-pop and Brigitte has a truly wonderful voice, and Common Holly has some similarities to the early work of another Canadian artist who fits that same description, Feist. Like Feist, I wouldn't be surprised if Common Holly ever has a mainstream breakthrough, but she is definitely not making music for the radio. On Bandcamp, Brigitte included "dark," "moody," and "weird" in the tags for this album, and all three of those apply. Playing House requires some patience from the listener, and it also feels like patience went into making it. The songs seem simple on the surface, but there's a lot of attention to detail (in the form of violin, cello, atmospheric lead guitar, and subtle vocal harmonies), and they seem like the kind of songs that Brigitte obsessed over until she got them right. The album is mostly guitar-based, but for "Lullaby" she brings in the Polaris Prize-nominated Jean Michel Blais to play piano and proves that the two of then make a pretty excellent team. All nine songs are instantly enjoyable and replayable, and they sound like they're only the beginning of something great.
It's a bummer that Modern Baseball remain on hiatus (save for those three Philly shows two weeks ago), as they've become one of the defining indie/emo bands of our time. The way I see kids react to songs like "Your Graduation" today is the way people my age used to react to Brand New singles in the early '00s (which back then probably reminded people of how kids reacted to like, Jawbreaker in the early '90s). We can only hope that, like Brand New and Jawbreaker, Modern Baseball make a massive comeback one day (but let's also hope it doesn't take them as long as Jawbreaker). In the meantime, co-frontman Jake Ewald is spending his time with his solo project Slaughter Beach, Dog, which is really doing a great job filling the void left by MoBo's hiatus. Jake was always responsible for Modern Baseball's best folky songs, like "Pothole," and he's working mostly in that style on Birdie. Jake also sings on the band's various Weakerthans covers, and the Weakerthans influence is stronger than ever on Birdie. (With all due respect to John K Samson's great 2016 solo album, Slaughter Beach, Dog's "Sleepwalking" could be the best Weakerthans-sounding song since that band broke up.) It still feels inherently like a side project, as there's no crowdpleasing banger like "Your Graduation" and it's understandable why Modern Baseball wouldn't want to make an entire album of songs like "Pothole." But Modern Baseball's folky side has always been one of their best sides. And if, like me, you've always wanted them to explore that side a little further, this album was made for you.
Next week, we're getting a new Converge album (yay). But first, Converge drummer Ben Koller is releasing the third album with his crushing metallic hardcore band All Pigs Must Die, which also includes Hope Conspiracy vocalist Kevin Baker, Adam Wentworth and Matt Woods of Bloodhorse, and Brian Izzi of Trap Them. As you know if you've listened to APMD's first two albums, these guys are pulverizing and they almost never let up from turning up to 11. Hostage Animal is no different (except for on "End Without End," when they pause the brutality for a little "Fade to Black" homage). Ben Koller remains one of the finest drummers in modern hardcore and metal, matching his bulldozing assault with dazzling precision, and Kevin Baker has the perfect bark for this kind of darkness and aggression. APMD let their guitarists show off a little on Hostage Animal with the post-rocky leads of "Cruelty Incarnate" and album closer "Heathen Reign," but mostly the purpose of the guitars here is to keep everything as blunt and loud as possible. Over the course of these ten songs, they never fail to succeed at that goal.