Five Notable Releases of the Week (6/3/16)
That especially stacked May is behind us, and for all intents and purposes (besides the technical start date) summer is here. It's hot (at least here in NYC), festival season is in full effect (NYC's Governors Ball begins today), and people are already debating the best albums of the year so far. No major label surprise-released appointment-listening streaming-service-exclusives this week (bummer, right?!) but still plenty of good tunes to check out. And a handful of this week's releases are very warm weather appropriate.
Check out my picks for the five notable releases of the week below. What was your favorite release this week?
Stranger to Stranger is the legendary Paul Simon's second album of the current decade, following 2011's So Beautiful or So What. That was a perfectly solid late-career album, but Stranger to Stranger instantly feels more essential. It's a noticeably more experimental work than we usually get from artists 50+ years into their career, but not at the expense of accessibility. Like on a lot of his best material, he's still bringing together American folk music with rhythms from around the world, but incorporating new sounds too. He works with Italian electronic musician Clap! Clap! on "The Werewolf," "Wristband" and "Street Angel," the latter of which is the album's most overtly electronic-sounding song. The other two are less obvious about the electronics, but they challenge Paul's sound in other ways. "The Werewolf" marries an Eastern string instrument to clattering polyrhythms, with bells, wolf-like sounds and more thrown in. "Wristband" is powered by an upright bass and it has a chorus that sounds like a lost gem from Paul's early '70s days. The songs without Clap! Clap! are no less challenging. "In A Parade" is another percussion party, with another sticky chorus and brief trips into psychedelic spoken word. The album's strongest moment is quite possibly "Cool Papa Bell," an upbeat dose of folk-pop that reminds us that Paul Simon can still do the kind of sound that Vampire Weekend took from him. It's the album's penultimate song before the lovely closing ballad "Insomniac's Lullaby," the kind of song that makes you want to start this thing all over again.
The now-defunct Smith Westerns never struck me as anything more than a weak and often generic indie rock band, but members Max Kakacek and Julien Ehrlich, the core duo of Whitney, instantly seem more ambitious with this new project. They've got triumphant horns on several songs, and a similar neo-Grateful Dead vibe to recent stuff by Woods (whose falsetto vocals are remarkably similar to Whitney's), Real Estate, Ultimate Painting, and of course, a slew of other bands. Maybe my "no trust me, this isn't slacker rock it's laid-back jammy rock" argument has your eyes rolling all the way to the back of your head, but for real, the arrangements and attention to detail here are way closer to folk rock's '70s heyday than the ~vibe generation~. Clean guitar arpeggios and leads are constantly intertwining, there are some real strong choruses, and seriously, those horns! It takes less than 10 seconds after hitting play to get your first taste, and right away they make the statement that this is a meticulous work. If the band does have room to grow, it might be nice to hear Ehrlich stretch his vocal chords beyond his comfort zone, but Light Upon the Lake is a strikingly confident debut album regardless.
As a solo artist and a collaborator of Kurt Vile, Marcia Bassett/Pete Nolan and other musicians, Steve Gunn has material dating back over a decade, but Eyes on the Lines is his first for classic indie label Matador and it's a fine addition to their catalog. He recorded it with a band that includes Nathan Bowles, Hans Chew, James Elkington, Mary Lattimore, Paul Sukeena, Justin Tripp and John Truscinski; and they provide an excellent backdrop for Steve's guitar and voice. Like his pal Kurt, Steve Gunn is one of modern-day indie rock's true guitar heroes. He's clearly mastered his fair share of '60s/'70s leads, and he repurposes that style in a way that never feels retro or overly showy. His singing here is also subdued yet melodically imaginative, and he never really sounds like anyone but himself. He's working in the realm of folk rock most often defined by Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but he never sounds like Dylan or Neil. He's very much in his own lane. It's a good time of year to get this album too. To once again bring up Kurt Vile, Eyes on the Lines sounds like classic rock in spring, the perfect soundtrack to long car rides with the windows down, barbecues, or just lying outside and soaking up the natural warmth.
I know what you're thinking: Paul Simon, Whitney, Steve Gunn, all these chill vibes. Don't you have anything with a little edge? Glad you asked! Still They Pray, the third Cough LP and first since their 2010 Relapse debut Ritual Abuse, is virtually nothing but edge. It was produced by Jus Osborn of Electric Wizard and co-recorded with Garret Morris of the increasingly-popular Windhand (who Cough have a split and share bassist Parker Chandler with), and if you're a fan of those two bands but still haven't heard Cough, boy are you in for a treat. Cough (and Windand) are true Electric Wizard disciples, with an interest in the same types of chord progressions, the same desperate wails, the same tripped-out psychedelia. You can probably say that about a lot of bands, though Cough feel like the rightful heirs to Electric Wizard's throne (not that Electric Wizard are done) more than they feel like copycats. Also like EW, Cough embrace doom not just in their slowed-down riffs but in their (winking) pessimism, like on the repeated "live to hate, hate to live" ending of "Masters of Torture." Cough can get pretty brutal, like on the harshly screamed "Possession," but they've got a softer side here too. On "Let It Bleed" (which, no, is not a Rolling Stones cover), David Cisco is really singing, sounding passionate, depressive, and highly melodic. On the closing acoustic title track, he's even softer, diving into haunting folk that's more "Something In The Way" than "Sweet Leaf." It's a deeply moving album, and one of the best recent examples of true psychedelia.
For a certain type of indie rock fan, the Wolf Parade reunion -- new music and triumphant live shows included -- is the most exciting comeback of a year that also includes a new Radiohead album and an LCD Soundsystem reunion. Fans go crazy for this band (and yours truly is not immune). It's why in a year dominated by WP's return, it's still easy to get excited that both co-frontmen have new full length albums out with other projects, Dan Boeckner's Operators and Spencer Krug's Moonface. My Best Human Face is Moonface's second album with Finnish band Siinai, and it's probably my favorite thing he's done since the still-great Moonface debut. It's seven songs, but with only one song under five minutes and two over six, it's by all means a lengthy, complete statement. It's also filled with the kind of Krug-isms that don't always sound like much written down, but sound profound coming out of his mouth. "We've all stared at the moon until it's nothing but a rock in the sky," he sings with poise on "Them Call Themselves Old Punks." On "City Wrecker," which first existed as a solo piano song in 2014 but re-appears as a full-band version here, he says it's the year "two thousand and whatever" and that he's still a city wrecker now. With the inflection in his voice and the unconventional melodies, he's got me coming back to lines like those over and over again. It's the same approach that made his singing/songwriting feel so instantly classic a decade ago, and My Best Human Face proves he's still a natural.