Five Notable Releases of the Week (6/17/16)
It's yet another stacked week for new music. To name just a few releases that almost made this week's list: Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs' collaborative album, DJ Shadow, Gojira, Nails, and Margaret Glaspy. Those are all worth checking out, but I picked five others to dive into this week.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Mitski first made noise in the indie rock world with her third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, which came out in 2014 on the small Brooklyn label Double Double Whammy. For Puberty 2, her fourth album overall and first for the larger Dead Oceans label, she's back with the biggest-sounding and best thing she's ever done. Mitski and frequent collaborator Patrick Hyland play all the instruments on the album, and they cover ground that ranges from heavily-arranged chamber pop to bare-bones folk to lo-fi punk. It's not everyday you get an album pulling from sounds as different as those, but in Mitski's unique musical world they don't sound so different after all. Some songs stick to a specific sound, like "Dan the Dancer," which is one of the better straight-up indie rock songs you'll hear all year. But usually Mitski is toying with a lot of sounds on the same track. Opener "Happy" begins with nothing more than a drum machine roll, and it slowly builds, bringing in Mitski's voice, then a hushed synth line. Eventually more percussion, sax, and finally live drums enter and all of a sudden this minimal track becomes something much more massive. That's the kind of approach a lot of songs on Puberty 2 take. Lead single "Your Best American Girl" starts with just Mitski and an acoustic guitar, and about halfway through it becomes the kind of fiery grunge-pop that would've sent radio DJs into a frenzy in 1996.
With a lot of indie rock feeling content to tap into one specific pre-existing style lately, it feels like a major breath of fresh air that Mitski so skillfully blurs genre lines. What really drives these songs home though is that no matter how loud or soft the music gets, Mitski's voice remains a distinct force. She doesn't quite sound like any other singer I can think of, and she's both vivid and honest in the lyrical department. With lines like "One morning this sadness will fossilize / And I will forget how to cry / I'll keep going to work and he won't see a change / Save perhaps a slight gray in my eye," she's poetic without losing the directness of a good rock song. She can bring her voice to a scream (like on the raggedy "My Body's Made of Crushed Little Stars") and one song later ("Thursday Girl") she can turn it into something much more delicate. It's kind of wild to think that just two years ago you could regularly find Mitski playing first on three-or-four-band bills at intimate Brooklyn venues and now she's got upcoming Bowery/MHOW shows that sold out well in advance. But with music this ambitious and skillfully put together, it's hard to go unnoticed.
"I'm the only one who made it out the west without Dre," YG raps on "Twist My Fingaz," a song produced by jazz musician and frequent Kendrick Lamar collaborator Terrace Martin. It's true that he became a major force in west coast rap without Dre's help; YG's breakthrough was always associated with modern pop-rap guys like DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign. But more so than ever before in his career, YG's excellent sophomore album Still Brazy has Dre's influence all over it. He's no longer rapping over those trademark DJ Mustard beats (Mustard isn't on this album at all), and instead he's pulling from the warm, thumping sounds Dr. Dre got on The Chronic, Doggystyle and "California Love." Classic G-funk is all over this thing, but he echoes those sounds without losing the modern, danceable vibes that he already won people over with. And while YG reps Compton (or, Bompton) hard, he often sounds more like a southern rapper. He reminds me a lot of T.I., who he's collaborated with before. Every now and then he sounds a bit like Big Boi too. So if you often find yourself torn between "'90s rap was the best rap" and "but I love that modern rap is progressing" AND "but mid-2000s southern rap was THE JAM," then Still Brazy is your album.
It's already got at least two certified bangers with the aforementioned "Twist My Fingaz" and "Why You Always Hatin?," which has appearances by Drake and the shockingly good Oakland newcomer Kamaiyah. But just about every song sounds ready to be bumping out of car windows and at block parties all summer. I thought Chance the Rapper had Summer Rap Album of 2016 on lock, but YG might be giving him a run for his money. What really drives this thing home though, is that it's not just fun in the sun. YG is more serious and more political than ever, especially on the last three tracks. The Nipsey Hussle-featuring single "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)," which is about exactly what you think it's about, apparently already has the Secret Service watching. "Blacks & Browns" discusses the injustices blacks face in the news and in the eyes of the law. "Police Get Away Wit Murder" is, again, exactly what you think it's about. If you still had doubts about YG, the no-nonsense Still Brazy should erase them.
Olympia punks G.L.O.S.S. began their 2015 demo with an eponymous song that doubled as their manifesto: "They tell us we aren't girls / Our femininity doesn't fit / We're fucking future girls living outside society's shit!" Now they're back with a new EP, Trans Day of Revenge, and they start this one off in a similar way: "When peace is just another word for death / It's our turn to give violence a chance!" vocalist Sadie Switchblade shouts before the band breaks out in the menacing, mile-a-minute hardcore of "Give Violence A Chance." It's exactly what a punk song in 2016 should be. It flips a classic protest song on its head and more or less says "your protest didn't work, here's our protest." "Black lives don't matter in the eyes of the law," Sadie shouts later on in the song. She's fighting a fight that needs to be fought, and she's leaving subtly, passivity, and remorse at the door. Every song on the EP has this kind of passion and this kind of defiance, and G.L.O.S.S.'s vessel for delivering their message is classic '80s-style hardcore. It's a sound that's timeless and intuitive; when you're angry and you have something to scream, four power chords will always do. All of these songs flip a big middle finger to injustice, but none do it as ruthlessly as the closing title track: "Black trans women / Draped in white sheets / Beaten to death / harassed by police." Punk is often a very timely thing -- most of the problems Minor Threat were singing about just aren't problems anymore -- and G.L.O.S.S. are stopping at nothing to attack the very issues our society is currently dealing with on a daily basis.
If Swans stayed broken up after their initial run in the '80s and '90s, they'd forever be a legendary underground rock band. But instead they came back to write new records and tour mostly new material, and they're more of a force now than they ever were. You could argue that 2012's The Seer, their second album since returning at the beginning of this decade, is their best album yet. The almost-as-good To Be Kind followed, and now they've got The Glowing Man, which main member Michael Gira says will be the last Swans album with this lineup. It basically follows the same formula as the previous two -- a few 20+ minute crushingly dissonant noise explorations, a few beautifully haunting trips into noir-folk -- but the formula isn't tired yet. Opener "Cloud of Forgetting" is one the stronger songs in the current Swans' lineup's discography, starting off in the folk realm but ending in Neurosis-style sludge metal. All three of the 20+ minute songs here keep you on the edge of your seat, particularly the hypnotic jams in recent show-opener "Frankie M" and the title track. Michael Gira's music can usually be described as "creepy," but perhaps the album's creepiest song is the one that isn't sung by him, "When Will I Return." His wife Jennifer takes the lead, opening with the line "His hands are on my throat / my key is in his hand." It was written specifically for her by Michael, who says it's about a "deeply scarring experience she once endured, and that she continues to overcome daily." It's heavy stuff to hear on record.
When I first talked about Laura Mvula's 2013 debut album Sing to the Moon, I suggested that while she had an adventurous side, she also had a side in line with the easier-listening adult contemporary of fellow British singer Adele. On her sophomore album The Dreaming Room, her adventurous side wins out. Laura's not working with guaranteed-hitmakers like Max Martin; she's got disco legend Nile Rodgers playing guitar (on lead single "Overcome") and musicians from The London Symphony Orchestra playing all over the record. She's clearly aiming for artistic integrity over big hits, and it's working. The Dreaming Room feels most directly routed in classic soul and vocal jazz, but it doesn't sound retro or anything, and it doesn't really fit in with today's trends either. The closest it does come to feeling modern is its guest verse from grime MC Wretch 32 on "People," but even that song feels too heady to come on at a party or a club. In some ways, this is a record that reminds me of Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly. It's an artist who already proved themselves as a force in the pop realm, now focusing on obscurer sounds and succeeding equally.