It's a good week for veteran musicians. Four of this week's five picks have been at it for over 20 years (one's been at it for closer to 40), and the other recently turned 18. The cliche is that an artist's prime is in their early years, but there's a specific thrill you get from a great late-career album that can only be written after decades of experience. That's no secret in 2016 -- as far as the rock world is concerned, two of the year's very best records are by the late, great David Bowie and Radiohead. Another artist of similar stature leads this week's picks.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
When Nick Cave returned in 2013 with Push the Sky Away, which was the first Bad Seeds album in five years, it felt like he had a burst of new inspiration. It was one of my favorite albums of that year, and at this point I'd honestly rank it as one of my favorite Bad Seeds albums overall. Needless to say, this followup was highly anticipated, but there's something other than anticipation riding on Skeleton Tree too: it's Nick's first album since the tragic death of his son, who fell from a cliff at age 15. Sadness looms heavily all over this album, and even if he isn't singing explicitly about his son (though it often sounds like he is), he just sounds more wearied than... maybe ever. This would be far from the first time anyone compared Nick Cave to Leonard Cohen, who is clearly a longtime influence on Nick, but Skeleton Tree specifically feels very in line with Leonard’s recent material (unlike Push the Sky Away which often reminded me more of a band Nick Cave had a clear influence on, The National.) It's got Nick as a gravelly-voiced poet over minimal backing. The power is most directly in the words and the delivery, with vocal harmonies and musical layers mostly providing faint embellishments. It's not significantly short for a Nick Cave album, but it does feel like one of his quickest listens. It doesn't have that classic album-trajectory that Nick's done so well so many times. Instead it's a collection of small-sounding low-key songs that demand your attention but quickly reveal their power.
"Do you remember baby, back in '96, when some record was enough to make you raise your fist?", Will Sheff asks on "The Industry," the third song on the new Okkervil River album. It's probably pretty self-explanatory what Will's singing about on this song, and it makes sense that we'd get a song like this from a musician whose career path is at the place Will Sheff's is. (Not to mention the album's opening song/lead single is called "Okkervil River R.I.P.") Last year the band toured their album Black Sheep Boy in full for its 10th anniversary, and that tour likely means Will Sheff knows as well as anybody that Okkervil River are expected to never be as buzzy as they were in 2005. It might be true, but it says more about "the industry" than it does about the quality of their work. This is clear as ever on Away, the astonishingly good new Okkervil River album that has me excited about the band without an ounce of nostalgia.
It's a different approach for the band, and it works. Black Sheep Boy was the kind of record that could make you raise your fist (both when it came out, and when they celebrated it ten years later), but Away is quieter. Will teamed up with several members of the yMusic ensemble, and together they incorporate elements of jazz and modern-classical. The energy is still in Will's voice though, which sounds as distinct today as it did on the band's earliest recordings. He sounds familiar and reliably great, and he's made the type of album that you usually can't pull off in the beginning of your career. Away sounds like the work of a seasoned musician who's toured the world, entered several studios, met other talented people (like, for example, Marissa Nadler, who is also on this album), and picked up tricks that their former wide-eyed teenage rocker self couldn't have known about. Away may not have the instant satisfaction that makes it fit into the quickly-moving buzz cycle, but it already feels like it has longevity.
Wilco's creative peak as a studio band (late '90s / early '00s) feels behind them, but they continue to prove themselves as a consistent force on stage. At this point they kind of work like a jam band; they mix up their setlists a lot, they're one of a few indie/alt rock bands who can fit comfortably on a jam fest, and their contribution to the recent Grateful Dead tribute album was actually a collaboration with Bob Weir. Like any good jam band, even a new album that doesn't break much ground is a good thing, 'cause it's more fuel for the shows and who knows what will happen to those songs live? Schmilco is one of those albums that doesn't break much ground, but it's got Wilco doing what they do best. If you're a longtime fan, this is comfort food. If you're a new fan, you should probably check out Yankee Hotel Foxtrot but Schmilco will still be one of the better new rock albums you hear this week. And even if this does fall on Wilco's safer side, their love of subtle experimentation still finds time to shine.
Pansy Division were one of the key Lookout! Records bands during the pop punk boom of the early '90s, and one of their biggest moments of exposure -- a moment that's still talked about today -- is when they opened for their onetime labelmates Green Day on the Dookie tour. (Pansy Division were supporting Deflowered on that tour, and if you've never heard that record, I can't recommend listening enough.) They were also one of the first successful openly-gay pop punk bands. They pushed the buttons of close-minded punks and they helped open the doors for bands like recent breakout duo PWR BTTM, who just signed to Polyvinyl and consider Pansy Divison an influence. "Liv [Bruce] and I can name 50 queer bands now that are doing exactly what we’re doing on the same level we’re doing it at. Before that, it was just you," PWR BTTM's Ben Hopkins told Pansy Division singer Jon Ginoli in an interview for AltPress. Now that their influence is arguably being felt more than ever before -- not to mention pop punk in general is having a moment -- Pansy Division are back with their first album in seven years, Quite Contrary. Like a lot of classic Lookout! bands, Pansy Division took the Ramones-style approach of speeding up '60s girl group melodies, and Quite Contrary has them staying true to form and sounding great as ever. The stakes are lower, but it's a better pop punk album than Green Day's made in over a decade. And considering homophobia is sadly not over, it's still pushing all the right buttons. A lot of songs are about love and sex, but then there's a track like "Blame The Bible" where Pansy Division get political. "Do you want religion controlling your life? / HELL NO," the band yells repeatedly. It's hard not to feel something.
People like to say that if Kurt Cobain was still alive, he'd be making bad records now, just like Billy Corgan or Chris Cornell or whoever. I like to think that isn't true, but if it is, then maybe SPIN was right when they ranked Bandwagonesque over Nevermind in 1991. I say this because just about any alternative rock band should be happy to be writing a record as good as Here over 25 years into their career. Nothing here is really unexpected and the album doesn't vary too much from song to song, but the choruses on Here get stuck in your head by the second listen. (Maybe it's because of the album's length and samey-ness, but those choruses never feel more impactful than on the first three tracks.) Here is the band's third album for Merge (and third in 11 years -- their output has slowed down since the '90s), and let's say you never actually got around to checking out TFC but you like newer Merge bands like Waxahatchee or Kurt Vile, you'll probably find that Here fits right in. It doesn't sound dated for a second.