Five Notable Releases of the Week (5/12)
There are also some good albums out this week, including a Paramore album that may not sound the way you expected it to. That one leads my five picks, which you can check out below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Paramore's sophomore album Riot! turns 10 next month, and when that anniversary rolls around, there are likely gonna be some retrospectives on it calling it some kind of classic. Rightfully so. Compared to the influx of overly whiney, overly dramatic bands passing as "pop punk" in '07, Riot! just kinda sounded like good, catchy alternative rock. It's aged much better than a lot of their peers of that era. Like a handful of those peers (including their equally massive Fueled by Ramen labelmates Fall Out Boy and Panic! at the Disco), Paramore aren't writing pop punk songs anymore. They hinted at their new direction on their 2013 self-titled album, but After Laughter -- their first with original drummer Zac Farro in eight years -- is full-on, shiny pop. For Paramore, that's less unexpected than FOB and P!ATD. Atlantic had planned to sign Hayley Williams as a pop singer before Hayley instead formed Paramore. The change in sound also suits Paramore more naturally than it suits other FBR bands trying this kind of thing. Hayley has hardly changed her vocal style from the early days, and her voice still fits with the synthy, danceable approach perfectly. In an entirely different way, After Laughter has moments that are as enjoyable as Riot!.
For After Laughter (and their self-titled), Paramore went to producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who helped Tegan & Sara make a similar rock-to-pop transition on Heartthrob. His credits also include M83 and YACHT. On a similar note, Zac Farro spent his time away from Paramore leading the Tame Impala-inspired Halfnoise, and Paramore's recent tourmates include alt-pop artists like CHVRCHES, Charli XCX, and Metric. The music on After Laughter is far more in line with any of those artists than with what Paramore was doing in the previous decade.
After Laughter succeeds, though, because Paramore sound more like they're carving their own path than following trends. Lead single "Hard Times" is kind of a callback to mid-2000s (via mid-'80s) dance rock, and who's really doing that anymore? "Rose-Colored Boy" is as good a Madonna/Cyndi Lauper revival as you'll get these days. Right in the middle of this upbeat album comes "26," a somber, string-laden acoustic song that brings back memories of Rilo Kiley's emo/country blend. "No Friend" has guest vocals from Aaron Weiss of mewithoutYou (who featured Hayley Williams on their 2012 album Ten Stories), and the result is a dark and twisted song that sounds like, well, mewithoutYou meets current-day Paramore. The fact that it fits right in on After Laughter speaks to how open-minded the approach is on this one.
On Girlpool's debut EP and debut album, Harmony Tividad and Cleo Tucker had come up with an undeniably original sound. They both sang loud, high-pitched, and in unison, and they performed without a rhythm section. You could point out some influences, but there wasn't really anyone who sounded like them. For their sophomore album Powerplant, a lot of things have changed. They're on a big label now (ANTI-), they have a drummer (Miles Wintner), and they're really taking their sound in more directions. The songs are more dynamic, more fleshed out. Harmony and Cleo are doing more harmonies and less unison-singing, and for much of Powerplant, they're singing in a more hushed tone. They're closer to Cerulean Salt-era Waxahatchee now than to their own early material -- not just with the hushed singing but also with the bedroom-folk-meets-'90s-indie-rock approach that a lot of Powerplant songs take. In some ways, you could argue that the more traditional indie rock sound makes them less original now. But that's not a huge deal when you consider that these are their strongest songs yet.
Before accusations of sexual abuse came out against PWR BTTM's Ben Hopkins yesterday, I fully intended to include Pageant in this week's Notable Releases column. It's a great album. It takes all the best parts of '90s pop punk and repackages them with rawer indie rock recording and lyrics that are endlessly relatable for the millennial generation. Its best song ("Answer My Text") sounds like "Teenage Dirtbag" meets "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and the fact that a song like that has become an indie rock anthem of 2017 is fucking awesome. Better yet, it's an album that speaks to and empowers the queer community and it's got more visibility than most albums that do this as explicitly as Pageant does. This is why it pains me to hear about these accusations. I don't want them to be true. I don't think any PWR BTTM fan wants them to be true. This is a band who has been so vocal about creating safe spaces and it stings to hear people say that members of the band have demonstrated behavior that made others feel unsafe. Sadly, these accusations coming to light can ruin the record entirely. PWR BTTM don't feel very empowering right now.
KRS-One spends about half of The World Is MIND dissing modern rap, keeping boom bap alive, and talking about how he's still better than everyone in 2017. From a lesser rapper, this could come off as bitter, as denial that they're out of touch. But KRS sells it. KRS not only helped shape rap as we know as it a member of Boogie Down Productions, but he competed with future generations of rappers as a solo artist as many of his '80s-era peers were falling off. He never really lost his bite, and he's certainly still got it on The World Is MIND. When he yells "You looking for authentic and real? WELL I'M IT!" on "Show Respect," you believe him. He's got quotable shit-talking and bragging for days on this LP, but the album isn't carried by that alone. It avoids ever feeling too throwback-y because of how incisively KRS attacks the current US government. On "You Ain't Got Time," he raps: "The US president? He's endorsed by the klan, damn. You don't understand what's going on? Slavery coming back and most y'all just gonna go along. Not me. They ain't feeling me. You can see, I ain't vote for the president or Hillary. America trying to put the fear in ya. They the reason for the fake war in Syria." On "No Problems," he adds, "Now the country's being run like a reality show."
On "Hip Hop Speaks From Heaven," KRS switches gears and pays tribute the late legends of hip hop (and black icons like Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley). He shouts out Tupac, Eazy-E, Biggie, Heavy D, Big Pun, ODB, Phife Dawg, Big L, J Dilla, Pimp C, Left Eye, Nate Dogg, and more, including of course his former Boogie Down Productions partner Scott La Rock (who he pays tribute to on several songs, and who he credits with "overseeing" The World Is MIND). (He also shouts out Ad-Rock, who is alive, but possibly meant MCA.) As the penultimate track on this very aggressive album, it's a touching song, especially from KRS-One who was around for all of those artists and collaborated with a handful of them. It really reminds you, as KRS does bluntly throughout the album, that he's been there the whole time, making albums for 30 years straight. By the sound of it, he's not stopping anytime soon.
Update: KRS-One issued a statement explaining that he did in fact mistakenly pay respect to Ad-Rock instead of MCA, and that he's going to pull the original version of the song and re-record it.
Veterans of the Elephant 6 collective (along with Neutral Milk Hotel, of Montreal, and more), Elf Power have been making their brand of lo-fi, kinda-psychedelic pop for over two decades now and they continue to stick to their roots. The songs on Twitching In Time could easily be mistaken for some of the band's '90s material, and that's not a bad thing at all. Especially since a handful of modern lo-fi bands pull specifically from the sound Elf Power helped shape. All of the band's best traits are intact on Twitching In Time: the low-key vocal delivery, the quirky sound effects, the clash of styles (folk, heavy rock, synths, etc). Given the band's consistency and how prolific they are, it's easy to take them for granted. But you shouldn't -- it's really a treat that Elf Power still give us albums like this every few years.