Five Notable Releases of the Week (2/3)
Another week in Trump's America. I wish I could say I'm as focused on new records as I always am, but I can't. In the past week, Trump called for a ban on Muslims and quickly began proving he plans to do the terrifying things many of us feared he would. It's been wonderful to see the many ways the music community is fighting back though. If you'd like to join the fight, maybe buy something on Bandcamp today (Bandcamp will donate 100% of its share of profits to ACLU, and over 200 artists and labels pledged to do the same). Here's to hoping these protests are just the beginning of the resistance.
All that said, life must go on ("We been hurt, been down before... but we gon' be alright," a wise man once said) so let's take a look at some records released this week. My five picks are below. What was your favorite release of the week?
The Menzingers released something of a modern punk classic with 2012's On the Impossible Past, their third album and first for Epitaph. It blended The Bouncing Souls' and Hot Water Music's singer/songwriter-y punk with keen Craig Finn-style lyrics, and a little Springsteen-y heartland rock, and did it all in a way that felt fresh and ready to be jumped on by a new generation of punks (which is exactly what happened). Its 2014 followup, Rented World, leaned a bit more heavily on '90s alt-rock and had some true bangers that you could imagine dominating the radio during that decade. Now The Menzingers are finally back with another record, After The Party. It opens with "20's (Tellin' Lies)," which sets the tone for this record both lyrically and musically. Musically, it's a dose of simple, classic-style punk, and After The Party mostly leaves Rented World's alt-rock behind for a return to punk. In the chorus, they ask, "Where we gonna go now that our twenties are over?" and that's the question The Menzingers aim to answer on this album. "We’re turning 30 now, and there’s this idea that that’s when real life comes on. In a way this album is us saying, ‘We don’t have to grow up or get boring—we can keep on having a good time doing what we love,'" said co-frontman Greg Barnett.
The album really takes off when it gets to lead single "Lookers," which might be the best song they've written since On The Impossible Past. The Menzingers are great storytellers, and they're at their best when those stories get a little heartfelt and a little nostalgic. The characters in this song are "the old you" and the "the old me." The latter is certain he'll find the former "in a teenage memory" (also, because this is a Menzingers song, he'll find her "in the back of the diner" and "in a cloud full of nicotine"). It's kind of The Menzingers' own "Younger Us." It also includes the lyric, "Jersey girls are always total heartbreakers / Julie from the Wonder Bar, I still wonder where you are." I told you they were Springsteen-y.
"Lookers" is the album's highest peak, but a handful of moments come close. The next song, "Midwestern States," is the kind of plainspoken, everyman type of song they do so well. It's a telling of their years on the road, just looking for a place to crash after a show, without an ounce of metaphor. "Bad Catholics" is another highlight, and like "Lookers," it's another super-specific "remember when" song. It opens up with the protagonist and a girl getting stoned and driving around "with just half a pack of smokes," and by the next verse, he sees her in a beer tent with her new husband and a baby on the way. It's simple, but so vivid. The Menzingers do that sort of thing again and again on After The Party. On "Your Wild Years" ("I got drunk in the afternoon, with your father in the living room"), on the title track ("Your silhouette in hightop sneakers, hardcore from laptop speakers"), and so on. The details are so commonplace, but the delivery is so poetic.
When Odd Future first broke, Syd (then known as Syd tha Kyd) was more in the background, providing backup vocals, some production work, and DJing at their live shows. The spotlight was finally on her when she formed the neo-soul group The Internet (especially after releasing their breakthrough third album Ego Death in 2015), and now Syd's going solo. She wrote and produced most of Fin on her own, with some production help from Melo X (who worked on Lemonade), Hit-Boy (Watch the Throne), Rahki (To Pimp a Butterfly), Haze, and Syd's Internet bandmate Steve Lacy. Syd proved her vocal prowess in The Internet, but where that band's neo-soul often sounds warm and organic, Fin sounds cold and metallic. These are bold, sultry, late-night jams, and Syd sings like she takes nobody's bullshit. If you're the kind of person who gravitated towards "6 Inch" on Lemonade and "Desperado" on ANTI, all ten of Fin's songs will scratch a major itch for you.
Fin is the kind of dark, downtempo R&B that takes a lot of influence from underground electronic music, so it's sure to snag the "alt-R&B" label in a few places. That label can be problematic for a few reasons, but also not totally correct. While Fin is certainly an alternative to a lot of pop-R&B on the radio, Syd has never sounded this much like a superstar. Listening to Fin, you really do get the vibe that she could strut out on stage in a packed stadium, with 30 dancers and a big screen behind her, and drive tens of thousands of fans crazy. (In real life, you can see her play these songs backed by the rest of The Internet in mid-size clubs this month and next.) It's a thrill to see an artist this ground-up, and this humble, get in the studio and make a record that competes with the stars.
Sampha's voice was first heard by many on SBTRKT's debut album. He and the now-much-more-popular Jessie Ware sang on the bulk of the album (and also collaborated with each other), and Sampha was SBTRKT's singer at live shows. In the six years since then, he's elevated himself in the world by appearing on Drake, Kanye, Frank Ocean and Solange albums, and dropped a solo EP. Now he's finally releasing his debut album. While Sampha got his breakthrough singing on thumping dance tracks, much of Process is softer and slower and sometimes ditches beats all together in favor of piano balladry. If that sounds a little too much like the unfortunate career path of Sam Smith on paper, don't worry just yet. Sampha is still doing plenty of interesting things, and I doubt there's a cheesy Bond theme in his near future.
The most piano ballady song of them all is "(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano." "No one knows me like the piano in my mother's home" is the full opening line, and it sounds like the kind of song you could picture Sampha playing quietly to himself late at night in his mother's living room. That one, and the next track "Take Me Inside," show that Sampha's pretty good with the quiet, intimate stuff. He does still sound his best on the pop songs though, as the album's single "Blood On Me" proves. But the most creative moments on Process are when he brings in the futuristic synths on "Reverse Faults," or combines Eastern melodies with a galloping beat on "Kora Sings." They remind you that, while Sampha has gotten increasingly popular, he's still got a wild side.
Last year, Norwegian metal giants Kvelertak released their third and best album yet, Nattesferd (BrooklynVegan's #9 album of the year and my personal favorite metal album of the year). While Kvelertak are metal through and through, it's always been clear that they have a power pop side too, so it makes sense that two members -- Vidar Landa (guitar) and Marvin Nygaard (bass) -- also have a power pop side project, Beachheads. They formed the band with Espen (“a metal drummer with a pop heart”) and Børild (a “former synth-pop singer”), and their self-titled debut album is out today. There's one song on the album that has an ass-kicking riff that sounds right out of Kvelertak's catalog ("Una"), but the rest of it rarely recalls that band. "Your Highness" has verses that sound like late-period Husker Du and a chorus that sounds right off Weezer's Green Album. "Give Me Som Love" is a jangly rocker that reminds me of The Go-Betweens. The harmonies on "Reverberations" make me think of "Another Girl, Another Planet." I could go on with the comparisons but you probably get the idea. Beachheads have absorbed the last four decades of catchy, driving guitar pop and condensed it all into one album that's fun as hell from start to finish.
For three albums now -- including this one -- Iron Reagan (featuring Municipal Waste vocalist Tony Foresta and guitarist Landphil) have remained revivalists of '80s crossover with one foot firmly planted in thrash and another firmly in punk. They aren't the only band doing this right now, but there aren't too many that will rip a solo as truly shredding as the one on album opener "Dying World" and then go as full-on jokey punk band as Iron Reagan do on "Fuck The Neighbors." (Or at least not with this level of crossover appeal... no pun intended.) Iron Reagan's sense of humor might be their biggest sell -- and clearly (or, thankfully) a band with song names like "Blatant Violence," "Bleed the Fifth," "Dogsnotgods," and "Eat Or Be Eaten" have a sense of humor -- but it's their technical ability to pull off a bit of Slayer worship here and there that makes the whole thing convincing. If you love a good eardrum-smashing riff, you know the ridiculousness that can often come along with them (like vikings and satan and too much weed). Iron Reagan have riffs for days, and as for the ridiculousness, they always make sure you're laughing with them.