Five Notable Releases of the Week (6/8)
As for new albums out this week, a few honorable mentions: the Kanye & Kid Cudi album, the Uniform & The Body album, the Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge album, Gruff Rhys, Jorja Smith, Lily Allen, Hilary Woods, Flasher, Snail Mail, Eartheater, and Zeal & Ardor.
Check out my five picks below. What's your favorite release of the week?
In the late 2000s, there was a trend within indie rock where bands like Grizzly Bear, Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective made these really ambitious pop albums which were still too weird to be actual pop, but which showed a breathtaking knack for melodic songcraft. In the early 2010s, there was another major indie trend, one where indie crossed paths with R&B and resulted in things like the first James Blake album and the early Weeknd mixtapes. Eventually, the indie/R&B acts sort of eclipsed the indie rock acts and modern-day equivalent of albums like Veckatimest and Merriweather Post Pavilion didn't come from other rock bands but from Frank Ocean and Solange. And right in the middle of all this trend-merging comes serpentwithfeet, an artist who blurs the lines entirely between someone like Frank Ocean and someone like Grizzly Bear. For his debut album soil, he signed to the classically indie label Secretly Canadian, and he's an R&B singer that finds himself regularly opening tours for such major indie acts as Grizzly Bear, Perfume Genius, and Florence + the Machine. He'll tell you himself that he's as influenced by Brandy as by Bjork (who he collaborated with last year). In serpentwithfeet's world, these lines between genres and these coming and going trends probably don't even exist (only in the world of a music nerd who wonders if "indie is dead" do these thoughts even occur... and I am guilty as charged), but one thing is clear: soil is one of 2018's finest examples of accessible-but-experimental pop.
serpentwithfeet made the album with an impressive list of collaborators (Katie Gately, Clams Casino, Paul Epworth, and mmph), though he (real name Josiah Wise) is the star. He's a natural-born belter with a set of pipes that certainly could get him on the radio if he wasn't also so interested in the avant-garde. The sounds on this album are wild, from the dizzy, late-night R&B of opener "whisper" to the glitchy electronics and gospel harmonies of "mourning song" to the dark, freaky, almost industrial-leaning "cherubim." And he's not just interested in sound manipulation but also in deep, personal emotion, which fills his lyrics on soil. On the aforementioned "cherubim," he sings "I get to devote my life to him," sounding less like he's reading a vow and more like he's receiving a blessing. That's the way serpentwithfeet sings about love on soil, like it's greater than just a human emotion, almost godlike. Just like the actual sound of his music, his words aren't the kind of thing you hear everyday. R&B songs about love are nothing new, but the creative way serpentwithfeet presents them is. Like the great pop experimenters before him, he takes something that's traditional and familiar, and turns it into something that's distinctly his own.
After two albums of upbeat indie pop, Lykke Li went into more melancholic territory for her third LP, 2014's I Never Learn, and it turned out to be a great look for her. It was a clear progression from her earlier material, and noticeably widened the palette of sounds that her music drew from. For its followup, this year's so sad so sexy, she's making an even more drastic departure than the one she made on I Never Learn. These songs are even darker than the I Never Learn songs, and they aren't sweeping ballads like the songs on that album were. These are atmospheric, beat-centric songs that sound more inspired by modern hip hop than by the indie pop sound Lykke Li started out making. She brought in producers like Drake/Kendrick Lamar collaborators T-Minus and DJ Dahi, Frank Ocean collaborator Malay, and Skrillex, plus she's got a rapped guest verse by Aminé, and even her own vocals sound directly inspired by today's R&B. It doesn't feel like an attempt to get more mainstream though; it seems a lot less calculated than that. "It’s the first time I actually like the type of music that’s played on the radio," Li told Billboard. And it makes sense. A lot of the hip hop and R&B that's currently on the radio isn't just popular, but creative and groundbreaking, and Lykke Li isn't limiting herself to the increasingly creatively stagnant "indie" world she came from. "When you label yourself as indie, it’s very much about what you don’t like, what you don’t do: ‘No, I won’t ever Auto-Tune my voice.’ Here, I was like, ‘Fuck it. I want to try something new.’" she said in that same Billboard interview. It works out really well, and it turns out that Lykke Li's voice is perfect for this kind of stuff. There are times where she clearly takes on a more noticeably R&B cadence, but there are also times where she sings in the same uniquely soaring way she always has, and it's a thrill to hear such a familiar voice in such an unfamiliar setting. On parts of the title track, she's singing over nothing but an atmospheric synthesizer and a few faint bass drums, but her voice makes the otherwise bare-bones song sound massive. Cynics of this album might call Lykke Li a sell-out or a bandwagon jumper or both, but if you look at the core songwriting of these songs and not just the embellishments of the production, so sad so sexy isn't a grasp for relevancy; it's a further exploration of Lykke Li's appealingly melancholic side that -- in hindsight -- she only hinted at on I Never Learn.
The Get Up Kids were a little too early when they returned in 2011 with their reunion album, There Are Rules. The interest in the comebacks of '90s emo acts was still a niche thing, and probably as a result of that, the album wasn't very well received outside of punk circles and it didn't feel like the major comeback it could've been. (It's a good, underrated record though.) But a few years later, the "emo revival" broke on a mainstream level, and reunited '90s bands were welcomed back with open arms for reunion tours and albums, and all of a sudden there was major interest in the new crop of emo bands that were influenced by classic bands like The Get Up Kids. When The Get Up Kids first reunited, they still felt like they needed to apologize for helping to create emo, but now that word isn't so dirty anymore, and almost all of the retrospective praise recently given to '90s emo has included a lot of love for The Get Up Kids. So now is actually a great time for The Get Up Kids to once again make a new record, and they did just that with the Kicker EP (seven years after There Are Rules, which was actually the same amount of time between that album and Guilt Show, though it feels shorter 'cause they've been touring all this time.) There are a few other factors working in Kicker's favor too, like that it's out on Polyvinyl, who released a bunch of classic emo albums in the '90s and recently released well-received reunion albums from American Football, Rainer Maria, and Braid (not to mention they've got new Pedro the Lion on deck). And as worthy as There Are Rules remains, Kicker sounds like classic Get Up Kids in a way that that album didn't. This is never clearer than on opening track/lead single "Maybe," a driving, punky jam with a Something To Write Home About-style synth line and endless snotty, catchy hooks from Matt Pryor. There's just three more songs after that, and though the others aren't quite as punchy as "Maybe," they all find the band making the kind of driving songs they were making in the '90s. Jim Suptic takes lead on "Better This Way" and "I'm Sorry," and though he hasn't hung onto his youthful brightness the same way Matt Pryor has, he's still got no trouble writing singalong choruses. "I'm Sorry" almost has him doing a Replacements-y kinda thing, and it works out super well. Then Matt Pryor closes things out with "My Own Reflection," which is ever so slightly more tender than the rest of the EP (but still not in like, "Overdue" territory), and it's a reminder that Matt excels at the softer, sadder stuff as much as he does at shouty pop punk. At just four songs, Kicker only feels like a taste of where TGUK are at right now and it leaves you wanting more. And if they do in fact have a full-length in the works, Kicker makes that full-length look very promising.
Kadhja Bonet's 2016 debut album The Visitor was way too good to be as overlooked as it often was, and it looks like a lot of people agree, as its followup Childqueen has seemingly already been getting more attention than The Visitor did at first. I'm not sure if Childqueen has anything as immediately appealing as "Honeycomb," and the album isn't a drastic departure from The Visitor, but it sounds more confident, more meticulously arranged, and more expertly produced than its predecessor. It shows Kadjha further honing the breathtaking sound of her debut, and if Childqueen is your introduction to her, you should have no problem getting sucked right in. She's an insanely talented musician who wrote, produced, and mixed the album herself, and she played most of the instruments, including flutes, strings, guitars, horns, drums, bells and more. (She did bring in a bassist.) It sounds like Childqueen was made with a large ensemble, so it's truly impressive to learn that most sounds you're hearing are the work of one individual. It's not just talent for talent's sake though; Kadhja is not just a well-trained musician and a production wiz, but also a very moving songwriter. Like on her debut, she's pulling from sounds like '70s psychedelic soul and melodramatic Bond themes, and there's a very nostalgic vibe to her songs. It feels like music you've heard before, but it's because Kadhja taps so genuinely into sounds from the past, not because she's copying anyone in particular. Her delicate yet powerful voice is the perfect vessel for this kind of thing -- you can almost picture her singing at an old, smoky jazzy club. Her melodies and the way she emotes all sound teleported in from the past, yet she's got a way of not coming off as retro. Compare her to, say, Bruno Mars channelling James Brown. Bruno's style comes off as imitation and homage, whereas Kadhja genuinely comes off like she's just being herself.
Plenty of bands have mixed sludge metal and post-rock, and YOB do this not just with the atmospherics in their sound, but also in the way their songs evolve like post-rock songs, not just following a traditional rock song structure. Their albums tend to have a short number of songs, but all of them tend to be of great length, and that's the case with Our Raw Heart (seven songs that clock in at an hour and 13 minutes), where every track feels like one part of a greater whole. I listened to lead single "The Screen" when it first came out, and it didn't immediately register with me as an exceptional piece of music, but when you listen to Our Raw Heart start to finish -- the only way you should listen to it -- it becomes overwhelmingly clear how exceptional this album is. It moves through so many different sounds: the aforementioned post-rock atmosphere, the slow-paced doom riffs, belted clean vocals, burly growls, parts that astonish without vocals at all, passages of softer rock, passages of thunderous sludge, and more. YOB have of course gotten compared to Neurosis a bunch of times over the years (and their last album came out on Neurosis' Neurot Recordings), and in case you're unfamiliar with YOB, Neurosis is one of the easiest comparisons to make for Our Raw Heart. This album feels like it could've come right out of Neurosis' early 2000s period, and there aren't too many bands right now offering up that kind of sound with this level of quality. (Even Neurosis themselves have slightly drifted towards something else.) It's an album that requires some patience, but it's rewarding if you give it the time it deserves. It's one of the year's most majestic rock albums so far, metal or otherwise, and for its great length and sometimes-abrasive sounds, it's actually pretty accessible. If you like dark, guitar-based rock of any kind, there's a good chance that there's something for you on Our Raw Heart.