Five Notable Releases of the Week (4/15/16)
Depending on how into record collecting you are, this weekend may be more about Record Store Day than anything else. No RSD exclusives are here, mostly because they technically aren't out yet but also because already ran down 15 RSD titles we recommend picking up. And if you're at a record store this weekend, maybe consider picking up one of these five albums too.
Check out which five I picked below. What was your favorite release of this week?
PJ Harvey's last album was 2011's Let England Shake, the rare kind of album that comes about two decades into an artist's career yet feels like an instant classic. It's probably my favorite PJ Harvey album next to 1993's Rid of Me, though it sounds nothing at all like that album. Really it doesn't sound very much like anything else she had done beforehand. Now just over five years later we finally get a followup, The Hope Six Demolition, which is often very much in the vein of Let England Shake. The way the guitars are strummed, the way the backup vocals are sung -- it's all cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. The albums have some major differences though. The Hope Six Demolition Project was recorded in public as part of an art installation in London, and while Let England Shake is a war album and a very British one at that, the new one is at least partly inspired by the Hope IV plan to revitalize housing projects in the US (specifically in DC, where Harvey visited while writing the album).
She's gotten some criticism for taking on a topic that her critics suggest she doesn't know enough about, but just taken as a piece of music, The Hope Six Demolition Project succeeds. It's often as enjoyable as the best parts of Let England Shake, and while the similarities to that album are undeniable, it certainly finds ways to change it up. This one has a lot more raw distortion (though not quite in the way her early albums did), and the American influence is not just in the lyrics. "River Anacostia" is basically a rework of the black spiritual song "Wade In The Water," and "The Ministry of Social Affairs" pulls liberally from traditional blues. Plenty of these songs -- "The Community of Hope," "Chain of Keys," "Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln," "Medicinals" and "The Wheel" -- already feel like songs that are gonna stand out in a live set, and they're so unmistakably the work of PJ Harvey and no one else.
After playing in The Babies and Woods (whose new album I was talking about in this column last week), Kevin Morby began a solo career with 2013's Harlem River that continued the following year with Still Life. Singing Saw is his third solo album, and it's his most ambitious and possibly best one yet. It's got cleaner, bigger sounding production than its predecessors, and it's heavily layered. He's got gorgeous strings, bold horns, backing harmonies, pianos, acoustic guitars meeting distorted electric guitars, and more. His Dylan influence is still undeniable, but like kindred spirits Kurt Vile and The War on Drugs, he continues to turn that influence into a sound that's clearly his own. And he certainly does more than just your standard folk rock. The excellent lead single "I Have Been To the Mountain" has a clear Spanish music influence, the seven-minute title track is haunted and bare-bones in a way that suggests Leonard Cohen more than Dylan, and "Destroyer" is a piano ballad with a late-night drunken sway and a hook that sicks with you.
Ashley Shadow (real name Ashley Webber) has been leaving her mark on folk and indie rock for quite a while. She used to play bass in the now-defunct band The Organ, and she's collaborated with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Pink Mountaintops and The Cave Singers. It's also worth pointing out that her sister is Amber Webber of Lightning Dust and Black Mountain (whose new album got love in this column earlier this month). Ashley sings a lot like her sister, both in cadence and tone, which of course just means that she sings really, really well. Both kind of sound something like Stevie Nicks with a folky quiver, and both know how to craft a strong melody. Much of this album features the kind of somber folk guitar playing that fans of anyone from cult '70s singer Sibylle Baier to recent revivalist Jessica Pratt would like, but Ashley belts over that type of music in a way people usually don't. I'm as much a sucker as anyone for hushed singing, but it's a nice change to hear it this way too. The album isn't only songs like that though. "Laws" has Ashley wailing over a big distorted guitar, and she sometimes brings in a drummer like on the upbeat "Another Day" and "Tired." (An interesting coincidence this week is that "Tired" actually sounds kind of like the new PJ Harvey album.) Whichever mode this album's in, it's pretty tough to deny.
Sam Beam is, of course, better known as Iron & Wine, whose early 2000s albums like The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days were the kinds of albums that really meant something to people. (The same year as the latter, he contributed a Postal Service cover to the Garden State soundtrack, which is probably something you've either listened to 300 times or almost never.) Jesca Hoop, meanwhile, is an underrated folk singer who has never achieved the kind of following Sam has, but who certainly deserves a larger fanbase. Sam's recent Iron & Wine albums have seen him taking his sound into a more heavily-arranged pop realm, while Jesca has been doing the exact opposite. Her two most recent records are stripped-down, mostly-acoustic reworkings of her first two albums, and some of her most intimate music yet. (The most recent, 2014's Undress which reworks 2009's Hunting My Dress, features Sam Beam on a song.) With their careers heading in those respective directions, Love Letter for Fire often proves to be kind of the perfect middle ground. Sam sounds reinvigorated by Jesca, who's arguably making better music than ever right now (this is a much better pairing for him than Ben Bridwell was), and Jesca really deserves the career push this album will hopefully give her. They sound great together (even if I sometimes wish it was a bit less precious sounding), and they're backed by some nice embellishments. Strings, sharp percussion, and more show up on this album, but of course Jesca and Sam's harmonies remain the main draw.
Mr. Lif has been a staple in underground rap since the early 2000s, when he put out a handful of albums and EPs on El-P's revered Def Jux label. Don't Look Down is his first album in seven years and first for Mello Music Group, which is increasingly becoming a force in underground rap of its own (thanks to releases by Oddisee, Georgia Anne Muldrow, L'Orange & Kool Keith, Open Mike Eagle and more). It's a quick album, with ten songs and only one that passes the five-minute mark, and it's a very psychedelic one. One of the songs ("Whizdom") has him bringing in psych-rap great (and longtime collaborator) Edan on production, but that's not the only time these beats have trippy atmospheres. In some ways, it's not completely unlike what his past associate El-P is now doing in Run the Jewels -- hard-hitting, classic-style flows over blown out retro-futuristic production. One of the druggiest jams, "World Renown," boasts a guest verse from another underground king, Del The Funky Homosapien. The two sound great together, as if you'd expect otherwise.