Five Notable Releases of the Week (5/5)
It is a pretty great week for new music. Two of my picks today are long-awaited comeback albums from beloved '90s bands. One (the artist you see pictured above) already feels like one of the very best albums to come out this year. Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Every Perfume Genius album has been a noticeable step forward from the last. His most recent, 2014's excellent Too Bright, proved that Mike Hadreas could make industrial-inspired body music without fully abandoning the intimate sounds of his earlier material. After he put that album out, it seemed like nothing was impossible for Perfume Genius. Which makes the anticipation for No Shape pretty high. For the first time in Perfume Genius' career, we're expecting him to take his sound in all kinds of crazy directions. And No Shape totally delivers.
It opens with "Otherside," which starts out as the kind of minimal piano pop that Perfume Genius was making on Learning. Around a minute and ten seconds, the song bursts into an array of sounds that feels like you're literally getting hit with a gust of wind. It's a truly magical moment, and it takes me by surprise every time I hear it even though I know it's coming. It's clear from that moment that this is a special, ambitious album. On "Valley," Perfume Genius is pairing nicely strummed acoustic guitars with gorgeous string arrangements. It's the kind of baroque folk song that might've been an indie hit in the mid-2000s, and not quite like anything Perfume Genius has done before. Then on "Sides," Mike is singing a duet with '70s-folk revivalist Weyes Blood, only here Weyes Blood is singing over a funky, electronic backdrop. On "Wreath," Mike is dabbling in kinetic art rock. "Choir" is almost entirely an orchestral song. More so than on Too Bright (or any Perfume Genius album), almost every song aims to be different on this album. If Too Bright proved that the sky's the limit for Perfume Genius, No Shape proves that he's still aiming upwards.
Of the large amount of music that Cedric Bixler Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez have released (together and separately) over the years, their finest hour remains At the Drive In's final album, Relationship of Command*. They retained some of that energy on the early Mars Volta records, but that band quickly transitioned to meandering prog territory, and stayed there. ATDI's 2012 reunion got our hopes up but turned out to be short-lived, and the following year, Cedric and Omar appeared to part ways for good. It actually quickly turned out that 2014 saw Cedric and Omar not only reuniting, but making a return to heavy rock with their new band Antemasque. Ultimately, the return to rock wasn't a return to excitement and the album fell flat. When At the Drive In reunited once again last year, they came back without Jim Ward, whose contributions to their classic sound were crucial. Once they finally revealed they'd be releasing a followup to Relationship of Command, the first At the Drive In album in 17 years, it seemed foolish to believe they'd be able to recapture the spirit of their classic era.
And well, it turns out, this time they actually did it. It may have come 17 years later, but in•ter a•li•a sounds like the album ATDI would've released in 2002 if they didn't break up. All things considered, it's a pretty impressive feat. It may very well be the best thing either Cedric or Omar has done since Frances the Mute. Years of "actual singing" has Cedric sounding a little cleaner than he than did during ATDI's initial run, but he's otherwise not holding back any aggression. He shouts and barks when he needs to, and he's twisting words and turning phrases just like he used to. Omar's guitar playing is as technical and spastic as ever, and there's just a bit more Mars Volt-ian psychedelia this time around but not at the expense of staying in attack mode. It's sort of the imaginary album that could've come in between Relationship of Command and De-Loused in the Comatorium, and that's a good thing to get in any year. Some people like to turn their noses up at reunion albums, but in•ter a•li•a is proof that they can be very worthwhile.
* - See you in the comments, Mars Volta stans.
Shoegaze has been more culturally prevalent in the last few years than it had been since the early '90s, so, naturally, tons of great bands are coming back. Almost all the major bands have reunited for live shows and new albums. The latest is Slowdive's first album in 22 years. Like a handful of their peers, Slowdive prove on this LP not only that they've still got it, but that no one does it quite like them. They open up with the pillowy dream pop of "Slomo," which gives followers like Beach House a run for their money. That's immediately followed by the Sonic Youth-gaze of "Star Roving." Then comes the post-punky backbeat of "Don't Know Why," followed by "Sugar for the Pill," which is basically a straight-up pop song. A lot of shoegaze bands get caught up in effect pedals and tremolo arms, but Slowdive waste no time reminding you that they focus on actual, diversified songwriting. The album starts off strong, though my personal favorite song is the last one, "Falling Ashes." It's an eight-minute slow-burner with a simple but powerful refrain of "Thinking about love." Without much more than minimal piano backing, it's sort of like if Brian Eno produced an early '70s Who ballad. It's not surprising that they can pull something like this off, considering Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell explored more traditional songwriting in their post-Slowdive projects. But it's a nice way to bring things back down to earth after the haze of a Slowdive album.
When you release a self-titled album as your fourth album, you're probably suggesting this is something of a new beginning. Joan Shelley has been writing gorgeous folk records for most of the current decade, but there is something immediately gripping about Joan Shelley that does make it feel like it's an album with a greater purpose. It's her first produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy, and Joan has spent this year on tour with Wilco, as well as with another Tweedy collaborator, the legendary Richard Thompson. It doesn't feel like a coincidence that she played such high-profile shows during the lead-up to Joan Shelley's release. This is a new album that people who still listen to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight in 2017 need to hear. It sounds like it could be a lost album from 1971, but not in a dated way. The production is clear and modern, and the songwriting is timeless.
A few years ago, a handful of bands popped up that were simultaneously pulling from emo, pop punk, folk, and indie rock, and all kinda figuring things out as they went. It didn't feel like an intentional thing. It just felt like these were sounds that infiltrated the lives of a new generation of indie rock musicians, and the result was these musicians accidentally stumbling upon a new type of rock music. One of the very best of these bands was Cayetana, whose 2014 debut album Nervous Like Me helped define that new sound. Now it's three years later, and music like this is a lot more visible. New bands that sound like this pop up all the time, and many of them are taking influence from the bands that happened upon this sound, now that it's more established. So Cayetana's sophomore album New Kind of Normal arrives in a much different world than Nervous Like Me arrived in. That shouldn't matter too much though, as it feels like Cayetana are aiming to stay in their own lane anyway. For example, they've launched their own label Plum Records ("an independent record label, founded and run by women, rock and roll without compromise") to release it, and one would assume they could've jumped to a more established label if they wanted to. But Cayetana are a band who do things their own way.
You can hear this in Augusta Koch's delivery on New Kind of Normal. Even more so than on Nervous Like Me, Augusta sounds like she's boldly walking through life and not taking anyone's bullshit. She sings of negative experiences, but she's always keeping her head high and overcoming the negativity. Cayetana are a band who give you strength when you listen to them. Sound-wise, they're still working with a similar template to the one they had on Nervous Like Me, and once again, the secret weapon is Allegra Anka’s basslines. They wear their New Order influence proudly, and like Peter Hook, Allegra's basslines often work more like a lead guitar. It puts a jump in Cayetana's step and lets Augusta keep things on the jangly side. And combined with Kelly Olsen's consistently sturdy drumming, it keeps their musical backbone as strong as their message.