Five Notable Releases of the Week (8/17)
The last few weeks felt a little slower for new albums compared to the rest of this year, but things picked back up like crazy this week. All five of the releases I picked today feel really essential, and that's not even counting some of this week's major albums like Animal Collective, Death Cab For Cutie, Oh Sees, Young Thug, Amine, or, if your tastes veer more pop, the new Ariana Grande. There's also other cool albums out this week like Flying Nun vet Roy Montgomery's guest-filled album featuring Grouper, Julianna Barwick, Circuit Des Yeux, and more; Great Lake Swimmers; Papa M; and Stefflon Don.
Before I get to my picks of the week, I want to say rest in peace to a true musical legend, one that's embedded in the DNA of American music, Aretha Franklin. Rest in peace, Aretha. You will be missed and definitely never forgotten.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Mitski's breakthrough third album, 2014's Bury Me At Makeout Creek, portrayed her as sort of a lo-fi indie rock artist, but it quickly became clear that her songs were too explosive for her to stay one for very long. Its followup, 2016's Puberty 2 (her first for Dead Oceans), showed her diving head-first into hi-fi production and fleshed-out arrangements, and now Be the Cowboy sees her going even further in that direction. The most noticeable difference: horns! And not just a trumpet here and there, but a serious horn section -- listen to how it comes in on the bouncy synth-rocker "Why Didn't You Stop Me" and makes the song sound big enough for arenas (which Mitski has now played after touring with Lorde). She said she's hiring a bassist so now she can just sing at live shows, and her huge-sounding alternative pop songs like "Why Didn't You Stop Me," or the addictive, quirky groove of "Washing Machine Heart," or the danceable, Cardigans-esque "Nobody" seem like they're gonna be perfect for this new setup.
Those songs feel like they could help propel Mitski into a level of stardom where she is the headliner on her arena shows, but Be the Cowboy isn't her "pop album" by any means. There's still weird stuff like the ominous, atmospheric opener "Geyser," or the crunchy, noisy "Remember My Name," or the bedroom ballad "Two Slow Dancers" that make it clear that Be the Cowboy favors artistic choices over commercial ones. Like its predecessors, the album was still made mostly by her and frequent collaborator Patrick Hyland (the horn players were guest musicians). And lyrically, Mitski is still writing as personally as ever. As larger-than-life as some of the songs may sound, they still feel like they're coming from one (uniquely talented) individual. People will relate to these songs because the feelings are often universal, and people will sing them along with Mitski at her shows because they're super catchy, but they don't feel written for that purpose. For the most part, these feel like the songs Mitski might've written even if she didn't have an increasingly large audience, and that's part of what makes them sound so genuine.
The songs on Be the Cowboy also often eschew the repetitive verse-chorus-verse formula. This album has more songs than any of its predecessors, but the songs are often very short, just moving from point A to point B, making the point they set out to make, and then it's on to the next one. Be the Cowboy is almost but not exactly like a song cycle, though the songs do tend to transition very smoothly -- or maybe it's more like a series of vignettes, all very different and all coming together to make one big whole. There are the moments that stand out and beg to be played on repeat (like the ones mentioned above), but Be the Cowboy truly works best when played from start to finish. Taken as one whole piece, Be the Cowboy is more than just a collection of songs. It's an experience, and it shows that Mitski's music is more commanding and harder to pigeonhole than ever.
Trevor Powers' new album starts with a sole piano chord, followed by a scream. It's a heavily distorted and manipulated scream, and it's not even immediately clear if it's Trevor's own voice, but it's one hell of a way to grab your attention. And what is clear just one second into this album is that Trevor has not strayed from his M.O. of drastically shifting his sound from album to album. Having gone from the piano pop of his early bands to the reverb-soaked bedroom pop of his Youth Lagoon debut The Year of Hibernation to the whimsical psych-pop of its followup Wondrous Bughouse to the bold art rock of the final Youth Lagoon album, Savage Hills Ballroom, Trevor has now taken yet another left turn for his first album under his own name. From that attention-grabbing intro, Mulberry Violence remains a jarringly and distinctly unique addition to Trevor's discography until the moment Trevor rings out the album's final note. Most of Mulberry Violence is in experimental electronic pop territory, somewhere between Kid A and Bjork's recent Arca collaborations. It's got synths that sound like orchestras, or -- as is the case on "Clad In Skin" -- like a jazz band, and the album is obsessed with background noises, sound effects, and manipulating voices and instruments to sound nothing like they would otherwise. The first Youth Lagoon album -- the one that introduced Trevor to a wider audience than ever before -- showed a young, curious artist trying to figure out the world around him. Mulberry Violence is a world of its own.
Early Youth Lagoon was lyrics were personal and introspective. Here, in the moments when the lyrics are actually decipherable, they're revealed to be as vague and abstract as the music that's backing them. The public statement he gave when he announced the album and the very few recent interviews he's given have followed suit as well. Mulberry Violence isn't about Trevor telling us what's on his mind; it's an escape from reality. One of the few things that was revealed about Mulberry Violence in Trevor's new bio is that he spent two years creating a "library of sounds" that became the source material for Mulberry Violence. When you listen to it, you can envision him getting lost in his own rabbit holes and painstakingly toying with all of these sounds and bringing them together in different ways over the lengthy period of time that this album was made. It's like an album of samples where the artists responsible for the source material and the artists doing the sampling are all the same person. Youth Lagoon's debut felt isolated in that it sounded like it was made by a kid up late night in his bedroom, but Mulberry Violence feels isolated in that it sounds like a maddened artist chasing a downward spiral into his own mind. It's awe-inspiring, and it's less pretentious than it may sound on paper. Underneath the sonic murk of every song on this album is a pop song trying to fight its way out, and that constant tug-of-war is what makes Mulberry Violence not just technically impressive, but fun to listen to.
Black Tusk became one of the definitive bands of the 21st century Georgia sludge metal scene, but they started out as more of a punk band and they never really let that side of them disappear. But it's been a while since that side of them shined as brightly as it does on T.C.B.T., which is Black Tusk's most straight-up punk album since their debut... or ever. It's their first album since former Kylesa bassist Corey Barhorst joined as a permanent member (he replaces Jonathan Athon, who sadly passed away in 2014, and whose last recordings with the band appeared on 2016's Pillars of Ash), and it's their first for Season of Mist after several albums on Relapse. So Black Tusk may be a veteran band, but with a new lineup, a new sound, and a new label, T.C.B.T. feels like a fresh start. Save for "Scalped," which has a slower, more atmospheric, more psychedelic vibe, T.C.B.T. puts the pedal to the metal the whole time. Guitarist Andrew Fidler is almost always churning out zippy, down-strummed chords in classic punk fashion, and the band's multiple vocalists all favor some variation on a hardcore-style shout, never veering into the sung or growled vocals that a lot of their peers do. T.C.B.T. is actually a good eight or so minutes longer than Black Tusk's past few albums, but it whips by in a way that its predecessors don't. Nearly every song is an adrenaline rush at breakneck-speed. You might miss Black Tusk's sludgier moments, but they've done that kind of thing so many times before that it's cool to hear their speed demon side come through for an entire LP.
mewithoutYou announced a new album, [Untitled], which will be out in October, but first they're releasing this companion EP. They said earlier this year that the new album would have a heavier sound, and lead single "Julia (or, ‘Holy to the LORD’ on the Bells of Horses)" very much lives up to that promise, but this EP takes the opposite approach. The songs are all on the band's lighter side; presumably they were written and recorded during the sessions for the full-length but didn't fit with that album's vision. The EP includes an acoustic version of "Winter Solstice" (which will appear in different form on the full-length), and six other non-album tracks, including another acoustic song ("Kristy w/ the Sparkling Teeth") and five others that are fueled by cleaner guitars. "Kristy" is one of the most twangy, rustic folk songs in the band's discography -- even more so than the stuff on It's All Crazy! It's All False! It's All a Dream! It's Alright -- and the other five songs show off various other aspects of mwY's softer side. Opener "Bethlehem, WV" has that sorta whimsical vibe of It's All Crazy and Ten Stories, while "Dirty Air" and "Cities of the Plain" have an atmospheric, post-rocky vibe that could've fit on Pale Horses or Brother, Sister. "August 6th" is maybe the most "rock" song on the album, another that could've fit well on Pale Horses, and then "Existential Dread, Six Hours' Time" is a reverby, downtempo song that sounds like nothing mewithoutYou have ever done before. In just seven songs, this EP brings together sounds mewithoutYou have experimented with for over a decade with musical territory they haven't explored before, and they blend all of it together seamlessly. If these are the songs that didn't make the cut for the new album, it feels safe to assume that the album is gonna be well worth your time. There aren't that many rock bands who have been at it for 18 years and who are still taking risks like the ones mewithoutYou take on this EP.
Uniform didn't "need a drummer" the way a lot of bands who start out using a drum machine out of necessity do. They used a drum machine as an artistic choice; they wanted their drums to sound more mechanic than humanly possible. And it worked. Their early live shows were furious, and by last year's Wake In Fright, they'd perfected an industrial/noise/hardcore/metal blend that was superior to a lot of similar bands with two or three times as many members. Nonetheless, they started playing with a human drummer, and they couldn't have picked a better one: Greg Fox (of Liturgy, Ex Eye, Guardian Alien, and other projects). Greg's one of the most talented drummers in Uniform's NYC hometown, and he's a perfect fit for a band who wants to make boundary-pushing heavy music. The Long Walk is their first album with Greg, and while the mechanic sound of their earlier work is missed, a lively new sound is here in its place. With a human behind the kit, Uniform played up their hardcore and metal sides and came out with a crushingly heavy rock album. They didn't leave behind the noise of their early work either -- this album sounds like it was wrapped in steel wool and thrown in the microwave. It's far from easy listening, and even if you tend to like this kind of music, it's not the kind of thing you can just throw on whenever. It feels like it's literally scratching your eardrums, trying to force its way in and then do the same to your brain. It's music that's meant to alienate, and it succeeds. If you go into it with the right mindset, though, you can lose yourself in it.