Five Notable Releases of the Week (11/9)
As is usually the case in the living hell that is the Trump administration, it's been another maddening week, but at least this time we finally got some good news when voters helped give Democrats back control of the House. Even if there's still a lot to be mad about, it feels good to be able to celebrate a victory for a change.
There's good news in the music world too: Ian MacKaye has a new band! And as usual, there are plenty of great albums out this week. Before I get to my five picks, some honorable mentions: IDK's IDK & Friends EP (ft. Denzel Curry, Rico Nasty, Maxo Kream, and more), the new Tee Grizzley mixtape, Cult Leader, Evoken, Muse, Rhett Miller, the late Charles Bradley, the late Lil Peep, Old Wounds, Marcus Strickland, Cripple Bastards, Vessel, 9th Wonder's Jamla Is The Squad II comp (ft. Rapsody, Big K.R.I.T., Black Thought, Busta Rhymes, and more), the Westerman EP, the Little Dragon EP, the THEY. EP, the Tiny Hazard EP, and the surprise Mal Devisa album.
Check out my picks for this week's Notable Releases below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Against Me! singer Laura Jane Grace has said that she looked to Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever for inspiration for her first solo album (with backing band The Devouring Mothers), Bought To Rot, and the parallels are plentiful. Petty was 38 when that album came out and Laura turned 38 yesterday (happy birthday, Laura!), Full Moon Fever followed seven Heartbreakers albums and Bought to Rot follows seven Against Me! albums, Petty had one Heartbreaker in his band for that album (guitarist Mike Campbell) and Laura has one Against Me! member in her band for this one (drummer Atom Willard). (The Devouring Mothers are rounded out by bassist Marc Hudson, who has engineered, co-produced, and contributed to Against Me! records in the past.) And like Full Moon Fever, Bought to Rot doesn't sound overwhelmingly like a solo album. It sounds like songs Laura could've written for Against Me!, just as Full Moon Fever sounded like songs Petty could've written for the Heartbreakers, but there's something different about it; something that sounds like the start of a new chapter. Against Me! already started a new chapter of their career not long ago with 2014's powerful Transgender Dysphoria Blues -- which was Laura's first album since coming out as trans and written about the struggles that accompanied that -- but even still, Bought to Rot sounds a little older and wiser... though it's not without a sense of humor (see tongue-in-cheek divorce anthem "I Hate Chicago" and its zingers like "learn to make a pizza, you fucking jack-offs!").
As this is a solo album and released on a mostly alt-country label (Bloodshot Records), you might be expecting Laura to lean into Against Me!'s folky side, and that happens sometimes like on standout single "Apocalypse Now (& Later)," "The Friendship Song," album closer "The Apology Song," and parts of other songs, but that's not the main approach. The album opens with "China Beach," a "London Calling"-esque stomper that doesn't take long to turn into a blast of gnarly hardcore. It's a bold, powerful, and very punk song that should get longtime Against Me! fans very excited about the Devouring Mothers, and it's just one of many rippers on the album ("Amsterdam Hotel Room" and "Valeria Golino" are two others that especially rip). As you might expect from a solo album, the songwriting is often personal (it doesn't sound like "I Hate Chicago" is the only song about her divorce), but it's not like Laura has shied away from writing personal songs in AM! either. So, it's not immediately clear from listening to Bought to Rot why Laura didn't want this to be an Against Me! album, but what is clear is that her songwriting is stronger than ever. The new songs have enough in common with classic Against Me! that they won't turn off longtime fans, but they sound fresher, newer, and more refined than AM!'s classic work. There aren't many musicians who were regulars in the early 2000s punk scene that you can say that about today. As Petty did on Full Moon Fever, Laura Jane Grace has really found the sweet spot between the familiar and the new, and the result is one of the best records of her career.
As both a solo artist and the frontman of Dinosaur Jr, J Mascis has spent the last decade or so on a serious creative high. The original Dinosaur Jr lineup has released four albums since reuniting (one more than they released together in the '80s), and J has now put out three solo albums during this era too (having put out just one in 1996 before this). Those seven albums, including the just-released Elastic Days, all vary from good to great, and all see J working generally in the same realm he won everyone over with in the first place. The Dinosaur Jr albums have that fuzzed-out and pummeling yet sugar sweet sound, while the solo albums are tender and mostly acoustic but melodically in the same boat. And all of them are full of shredding guitar solos. Because J has been so prolific and consistently great, it's easy to start taking his recent output for granted, but he manages to make each album fresh enough to feel exciting each time, even if you basically know what you're getting. If Elastic Days was J's first album after a hiatus, it would probably be praised as a hugely impressive return to form, as Dinosaur Jr's 2007 comeback Beyond was. But we shouldn't hold a large discography against J, especially not when he continues to make music this effortlessly enjoyable. Elastic Days may never rank anywhere near You're Living All Over Me and Bug, but it feels like a hug from an old friend if you're a longtime fan. His humbly sung hooks and guitar god solos on this album have the same appeal as the ones J delivers when he's plugged into his Marshall stacks, but here they're presented in a calmer, more relaxed manner that makes for a nice foil to Dinosaur Jr's sludgefeast. J has gotten compared to (and looked up to) Neil Young for a very long time, but his recent output has been especially Neil-like, with the Dinosaur Jr albums serving as his Rust Never Sleeps side B type stuff and his solo albums serving as his Rust Never Sleeps side A type stuff. As with Neil, sometimes you're just in the mood for the heavy stuff and sometimes you're just in the mood for the somber acoustic stuff, but you're always happy to have both. And as with Neil, it's actually a nice thing -- not an intimidating thing -- that there's so much to choose from. Whenever the leaves start changing colors, I find myself reaching for some less obvious Neil Young album that I haven't heard before, and I'm always instantly warmed by his voice and pleasantly surprised to discover yet another great record from rock's cool uncle. If J keeps going at this rate, maybe young people will doing the same thing with his albums 50 years into his career too.
CupcakKe's second album of 2018 -- following January's Ephorize -- proves that not only is she not slowing down the pace of her output, she is becoming even more of a force. There are a handful of songs on Eden that find her sounding sharper and more biting than ever before, and at 12 high-energy songs that fly by in just over a half hour, it's a lean album that only leaves you wanting more CupcakKe. She's still got plenty of the raunch that's been a part of her appeal from the start (look no further than the first verse of "Garfield" for such punchlines as "On my period so you know it's cum red," "I'm not afraid of no penis/Baby with the head I am a genius," and "I sip on that dick, call me Mississippi"), but Eden also continues to make it obvious that CupcakKe is no one-trick pony, and that she means business. "This for the 'CupcakKe a joke'/One million in and you broke/He fainted as soon as I spoke," she boasts at the start of album opener "PetSmart," and she does so with a whip-cracking delivery that puts half the rappers on the radio to shame. There's plenty more shit-talk where that came from on this album, but Eden finds time for a softer side too. With "Dangled," she's got a genuinely touching love song, and she tackles some really powerful stuff with closer "A.U.T.I.S.M," a booming, stadium-ready rap song that doubles as a plea to treat kids with autism the same way you'd treat anyone else (the acronym stands for "a unique-thinking individual strongly matters"). This album comes one week after the new Vince Staples album and they've actually got a lot in common. They're both concise but stuffed with powerful messages and multi-faceted ideas, and to borrow a sentence from Rodney Carmichael's NPR review of Vince's new album that also applies to Eden: "It's a statement, but it's also a bop."
Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore are both super busy artists. This year alone, Meg Baird reunited Espers, and she's about to get back on the road with Heron Oblivion, the psych-rock supergroup she fronts. Mary Lattimore released her own new solo album Hundreds of Days, and as one of the most in-demand harpists in indie rock, she played on new albums from Kurt Vile, Hop Along, Marissa Nadler, H.C. McEntire, and more. And now they've joined forces for this wonderful, six-song, 36-minute collaborative album Ghost Forests. The album truly sounds like one part Lattimore, one part Baird. It's full of the kind of meditative harp playing that dominates Mary Lattimore's solo albums, and there are a few long instrumental stretches where her harp is the driving force. It's also equally rooted in the bare-bones psychedelic folk music of Meg Baird's solo albums, and like on those albums, Meg's old-soul voice is a force even during the most minimal moments. The very best moments, though, are the ones where you can strongly feel both of their presences at once. The song that comes through the most on is actually one they didn't write. The album ends with a version of the traditional "Fair Annie," which Meg Baird and Mary Lattimore interpret brilliantly. Meg's singing gives it a psychedelic twist not unlike the way bands like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span interpreted traditionals, while Mary's harp on this song is absolutely spellbinding. It feels too oversimplified to compare every modern folk song with a harp to Joanna Newsom, but I would say that there aren't many modern songs in this style that rival Joanna the way this song does. And like her music, it's a lengthy song (over eight minutes) that flies by in what feels like half that time, begging to be instantly replayed.
After a run of mixtapes and EPs, Smino put out his proper debut album blkswn in March of 2017 and he's been on a steady rise ever since, having opened tours for SZA and T-Pain, played tons of major festivals, and more. Now he's back 20 months later with his sophomore album, Noir, and it's clear that he's only getting better. The production on this album pulls from a wider variety of sounds than blkswn, from jazz-soul ("Kovert," "Spinz," "Z4L") to out-there, experimental electronic stuff ("Klink," "Fenty Sex," "MF Groove") to reggae ("Tequila Mockingbird") to atmospheric R&B ("Pizano"), and more. And Smino navigates all these various beats with an increasingly adept flow that's usually somewhere between singing and rapping. He's got a few cool guests, including Valee on "Krushed Ice," Ravyn Lenae on "MF Groove," Bari and Jay2 on "Z4L," and a show-stealing verse from Dreezy on "Fenty Sex." All of the guests are in Smino's local-ish circle (either from the nearby Chicago or his hometown of St. Louis), and save for that Dreezy verse, Smino always remains the star of his own show, which is especially good given how unique his sound continues to be. Loading this album up with big-name features or radio-ready production would only hurt it; Smino's got a style that he can really call his own, and it's exciting to watch him continue to develop it.