Five Notable Releases of the Week (11/17)
I feel like I say this every week in 2017, but what a week this one has been. It's been another reminder that bad, powerful people are everywhere, and it's not always easy information to learn. At least it also happens to be an unusually stacked week for new music this late in the year, and some of the stuff released today is truly awe-inspiring in times like these.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Mavis Staples lived through the civil rights era, and as a member of The Staple Singers, she sang legendary protest songs like "Freedom Highway" as people like Martin Luther King Jr (who was a fan of the group) were fighting for a version of America where everyone was equal, no matter the color of their skin. Fast forward over half a century to today, where we have a president who is unable to condemn white supremacists and neo-nazis, and it sadly appears that we still need fighters like the ones we had in the '60s. Some hope and feelings of solidarity come from the fact that Mavis herself is not only still around and still making awesome music, but that she's tackling those issues head-first on this year's If All I Was Was Black. The album was written and produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, making this the third album they've made together, and the pair work together so naturally at this point. It may be Tweedy's compositions, but the emotions that are delivered are all Mavis. The lyrics take on police brutality, the problem with "all lives matter," and on the track that gives this album its powerful title, the notion that a person cannot be defined by skin color. She also quotes a Michelle Obama speech on the chorus to "We Go High." And while Mavis has every right to be angry or upset that she's fighting a similar fight to the one she was fighting over half a lifetime ago, she approaches these songs with a sense of hope, like she really feels that if we keep fighting and keep singing songs like this, one day we won't have to anymore. As she sings on "No Time For Crying," "Got no time for crying, no time for tears, we've got work to do."
One of the toughest losses that the music world suffered last year was the death of Sharon Jones. The great soul singer had been singing all her life but only saw a breakthrough in her career when she began working with backing band The Dap-Kings in the 2000s, and she released several acclaimed albums up until losing her battle with pancreatic cancer at age 60. Some positive news came when it was revealed that, before she died, Sharon completed what would have been the next Dap-Kings album, and now that album is finally seeing a release. Dap-Kings bassist Bosco Mann, who produced the album, said, "When she was strongest, that’s when we’d go into the studio— Sharon couldn’t phone it in, so we would only work when she was really feeling it." It's even more amazing to hear just how strong Sharon sounds, given the circumstances. If her illness was ever getting her down, it doesn't show on this album. She sounds full of joy, and her voice is as soaring and commanding as it ever was. It proves that, like Bowie and Phife and many others, she was an artist who was taken from us while she was still at the top of her game. We'll always miss you, Sharon, and we're grateful for this one last collection of songs.
Electric Wizard have become one of those bands where you pretty much know exactly what you're getting on each new album, and they always deliver. As far as consistency goes, they're sort of the Ramones of Sabbath-worshipping doom metal. And if the title of Wizard Bloody Wizard didn't give it away, Electric Wizard have not toned down the Sabbath worship on this album one bit. Across its six songs, they've got countless riffs taken right from the book of Tony Iommi, and even when they risk crossing over from homage into imitation, they still somehow find a way to make the songs sound like their own. On recent albums, they've taken a bit of a faster approach to their songs than they had on sluggish classics Come My Fanatics and Dopethrone, and it suits them well. Those will probably always be the highest peak in their discography, but newer LPs like Black Masses, Time to Die and now Wizard Bloody Wizard are maybe just a bit more accessible. For this one, they're also heading a little closer to Stooge-y garage punk territory than they have in the past, and it works. I could see this one being favored by punk fans who are a little less into the super slow doom stuff. Either way, it's another great addition to an already-legendary catalog.
In certain circles, Justin Broadrick needs absolutely no introduction, but in case you do need an introduction, here's a quick summary. He was briefly a member of grindcore legends Napalm Death in the '80s and played on their highly influential debut album Scum, then he formed Godflesh with G.C. Green and released perhaps the defining industrial metal album, Streetcleaner, in 1989. It's one of the best and most important albums in any metal subgenre, and it still sounds great today. Over the years he was involved in countless other projects, including the beloved post-rock band Jesu, who in recent years has struck up a collaborative relationship with Sun Kil Moon (whose primary member Mark Kozelek once released a covers album called Like Rats, named for his cover of the Streetcleaner song of the same name). In 2014, Godflesh released A World Lit Only By Fire, which was their first full-length in 13 years and shared a lot of musical common ground with Streetcleaner. Now they are back with a followup, Post Self.
Justin Broadrick has said this album would be more industrial and post-punk and less metal, and that's mostly true, though it does kick off with three heavier, classic-sounding Godflesh songs: the title track, "Parasite," and "No Body." If A World Lit Only By Fire was sort of a reboot of Streetcleaner, then Post Self is sort of a reboot of Streetcleaner's followup, Pure. Like on several parts of Pure, this new album has more atmospheric moments and some quieter vocals, and it works as two sides of a coin with its predecessor. More so than A World Lit Only By Fire though, Post Self looks towards the future. Broadrick brings in some of the sounds that he worked with in other projects over the years, and it really may be the most non-metal album that Godflesh have ever put out (save for those first three songs). I've talked in this column before about how industrial sounds are creeping into indie rock more than ever lately, and for that reason, Post Self might resonate strongly with modern-day indie rock fans. You could also argue it's sort of a strange move -- if Broadrick has so many other projects anyway, why not keep Godflesh for the really gruesome sounds? But it does work and it's cool to hear how he and G.C. Green can make ragers like "Post Self" fit perfectly on an album with gorgeous songs like "The Cyclic End."
It's only been two years since Talib Kweli last released a proper studio album, Fuck the Money, but it feels like longer, especially when you consider all the many other things he's done in that time. Since then, he's released collaborative projects with 9th Wonder and Styles P, as well as a mixtape, celebrated the 15th anniversary of his classic debut Quality at live shows, and stayed active in other ways, both on and off stage. Almost 20 years since he became a legend as one half of Black Star, Talib remains as prolific and consistently good as rappers half his age. Radio Silence, out today, is more proof of this. He still stays true to the underground/conscious rap style that made him the respected artist he is (and as you'd probably expect from a Talib Kweli album in 2017, the political climate is addressed; see "All of Us" for example), but Talib doesn't limit his sound. That's most obvious in his diverse selection of guests, all of whom bring their own flair to Talib Kweli's musical world and sound right at home doing so. Anderson .Paak gifts "Traveling Light" with his neo-funk, Waka Flocka Flame goes full Dirty South on "Chips," Amber Coffman gives an indie-R&B touch to the hook on the title track, BJ the Chicago Kid makes "The One I Love" the most soulful song on the album, Rick Ross stays in luxury rap mode on "Heads Up Eyes Open," and Robert Glasper adds some jazz to the album's closing song, "Write At Home." In between all of that, Talib proves his delivery and lyricism are still at the top their game and still better than a handful of buzzier rappers out there.