Five Notable Releases of the Week (3/30)
It's been a wild week in the music world, especially for fans of '90s rock. My Bloody Valentine (who are supposed to release a new album this year)
may have had their first US show of 2018 revealed (update: confirmed). Jawbreaker are planning new music. The Get Up Kids signed to Polyvinyl for their first music in seven years. June of 44 announced reunion shows. Oh, and this is all not long after Fugazi played together in private. Joe Lally insists there's still no reunion happening, but I am a patient boy. I wait, I wait, I wait, I wait.
As for the new albums out this week, some honorable mentions: The Weeknd’s semi-surprise EP, Julian Casablancas' band The Voidz, Frankie Cosmos, Bob Nanna's band Lifted Bells, Kate Nash, the No Joy / Sonic Boom collaborative EP, the guest-filled DJ Esco album (ft. Nas, Future, Schoolboy Q, Future, Young Thug, Dej Loaf, and more), Rich the Kid, and Queen of Jeans.
Check out my five picks for this week's Notable Releases below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Country singer Kacey Musgraves has been defying the sound and expectations of her genre from the start. She's always been someone who made just as much sense sharing the stage with Katy Perry as with Conor Oberst, and fortunately for fans of the latter, her third album Golden Hour has more musical crossover with "indie" than her albums ever had before. She calls it her "trippy" album (and says psychedelics have had an impact on her music), and she takes noticeable influence from all kinds of cool-kid-approved sounds. "Butterflies" has a bouncy keyboard line that sounds like '60s sunshine pop or Grizzly Bear's "Two Weeks." "Oh, What A World" cuts an otherwise country-folk song with the kind of vocoder that Daft Punk or Moby might use. The minute-long "Mother" sounds like it could've been part of the song cycle on The Beach Boys' Smile (and it's perhaps worth noting that Kacey has collaborated with Brian Wilson). "High Horse" keeps one toe dipped in country, as the rest of the song dives head-first into '80s sophisti-pop (there's that Sade influence Kacey was talking about). Golden Hour is also a lyrical change for Kacey. She's become something of a liberal hero within country music for songs like the gay pride anthem "Follow Your Arrow," but this time she took a break from the more overtly political stuff to write love songs. Since her last album, she got married (to singer/songwriter Ruston Kelly), and that monumental life milestone was a huge inspiration for Golden Hour. For all its noticeable new ground, though, Golden Hour isn't a wild departure from the addictive, deceptively simple sound Kacey has had since Same Trailer Different Park. It feels like a natural progression, and it shouldn't turn any old fans off; hopefully it'll just pull in new ones.
After murkier beginnings, Amen Dunes (the project of Damon McMahon) cleaned up his sound for his fourth album, 2014's Love, a confident and bold-sounding collection of psychedelic folk rock songs and a true gem of its kind. But if Love was the album where Amen Dunes poked his head out from the murk, then Freedom is the album where he steps proudly into the spotlight. His face is on the album cover for the first time in his career, he's unashamedly citing "mainstream music" as an influence, he brought in a big-name producer (Chris Coady), and he is not holding back at all from making a big-sounding rock album. He's not really "folk" anymore and he's hardly "psychedelic" either; these are indie heartland rock songs that aim to have a similar wide-reaching appeal to Amen Dunes' past tourmates The War On Drugs. He's probably just got the same influences (Dylan, Petty, etc), but maybe he got some increased courage from seeing the great reception those guys have gotten for doing a similar type of thing. Also like TWOD, he often fleshes out these rock songs out with airy synth textures floating in the background. He's got some fiery lead guitar too, usually courtesy of Delicate Steve or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner ("Believe" is an especially good example of this), but really the thing driving these songs is Damon's singing and songwriting, which is more attention-grabbing and self-assured than ever.
The Shacks first caught our ear back in 2016 with their appealing single "Strange Boy." In the time since then, the band (and especially singer Shannon Wise) was introduced to way more people thanks to an iPhone commercial, and now they're finally releasing their debut album, Haze. It's clear from just a few listens through Haze that The Shacks are no one-iPhone-commercial wonder. The whole 13-song, 36-minute album is a very pleasing dose of smoky dream pop that should easily appeal to fans of Mazzy Star or Beach House. The songs are trimmed of fat, quickly satisfying, usually very accessible, and they have just the right balance between clarity and haze (no pun). The Shacks also escape sounding like a dime-a-dozen dream pop band by bringing in influences from outside of the subgenre. "Birds" is kinda funky, "Sand Song" is kinda jazzy, and "My Name Is" sounds like organ-fueled '60s rock (and is not an Eminem cover). "Cryin'" is fronted by guitarist Max Shrager, who sounds a little like Marc Bolan, and the song's sweeping string arrangements recall '60s baroque pop. My favorite song on the album, "So Good," starts out sounding like Motown and ends up sounding like something off Odessey and Oracle. You can pick these influences apart when you listen for them, but The Shacks have already figured out how to bring the sounds they love into something they can call their own. Haze sounds less like a record collector's mixtape and more like a young band with a very promising future.
Jean Grae has been an underground rap staple for over 15 years, though she hasn't released a full-length album in a decade (she instead put out a series of EPs in recent years and has been busy with comedy), and Quelle Chris is a comparatively newer rapper whose 2017 LP Being You Is Great, I Wish I Could Be You More Often has gained him some increased attention over the past year. Now they've joined forces musically (and in life, as they recently got engaged), and Jean's veteran talent mixed with Chris' hunger as a rising artist work brilliantly together. Everything's Fine has hints of all kinds of different styles of alt-rap, from Native Tongues style jazz rap to Rhymesayers/Def Jux style indie rap, to surrealist Deltron 3030/Dr. Octagon kind of stuff, and it all comes together seamlessly in Jean and Chris' world. Jean also brings some of her comedy pals into the mix, with guest appearances from Hannibal Buress, John Hodgman, Michael Che, and Nick Offerman, as well as other comedy-connected underground rappers like former Das Racist member Dapwell (aka Ash Kondabalu, brother and collaborator of comedian Hari Kondabalu) and Your Old Droog (whose excellent 2017 album Packs boasted three skits by comedian Anthony Jeselnik). As you may guess, Everything's Fine has its humorous side, but as with a lot of good comedy, the humor is balanced out by a powerful message. First you might notice Jean and Chris' punchlines and deserved boasts, but as you make your way through the album, it becomes clear just how ironic its title is. One of the biggest standouts is Quelle Chris' first verse on "Gold Purple Orange," where he lists stereotypes that plague our culture with a clear amount of sarcasm in his voice ("everybody alt-right gotta be white," "everybody disagree gotta be wrong," "every Jew, golden rule, gotta save bills," and "if you dressed like that you gotta wanna fuck" are just a few of the many examples). Instead of outwardly preaching for change, it's the kind of album that makes you confront today's often-absurd social and political issues head-on and absorb their absurdity in a deeply satirical way. Everything's Fine is effective as both biting social commentary and an excellent display of rapping, and it's not everyday that those two things come packaged together the way they are here.
MF Doom has appeared on a Czarface album before, but an entirely collaborative LP between the two of them? It's a match made in backpack rap heaven. MF Doom needs no introduction and it's pretty known amongst Doom fans that he remains at the top of his game today. Inspectah Deck needs no introduction either, but in case you aren't familiar with his Czarface project (Deck + long-running underground Boston duo 7L & Esoteric), it's been one of the finest Wu-Tang related projects in recent years. The project has helped Deck sound totally reinvigorated, and 7L provides fast, loud, and hard-hitting production that's influenced by rap's classic '90s era but not a rehash of it. Past Czarface albums have been ear candy for fans who miss turn-of-the-millennium underground rap, and with MF Doom in the mix, it's even better. (Not to mention guest appearances from Open Mike Eagle and Jedi Mind Tricks' Vinnie Paz make this even more of an indie-rap dream.) Czarface's world of superhero comic rap and MF Doom's world of Adult Swim and (mad)villains work perfectly together, as the two team up to create an alternate reality where real-life politicians and pop-culture icons come together with famous fictional characters, and Czarface the hero and Metal Face the villain take on the world (or the galaxy) together, with some action-packed fake violence along the way. The concepts may all be a little more imaginary, but there’s a comparison to be made to Run the Jewels. Both are collabs from rap lifers coming together to constantly try to out-rap the other, and coming out with a lively record that's partially rooted in these rappers' pasts, partially rooted in the future.