Five Notable Releases of the Week (1/18)
Like I said last week, this is the week where new album releases really kick in for 2019, and this week is starting the year off with a major bang. All five of the albums I picked this week are big ones, and it was impossible to narrow this week down to just five. If I picked a sixth, I would've picked the Aesop Rock & TOBACCO (aka Malibu Ken) album (which I wrote more about here), and if I picked a seventh, I would've picked the Steve Gunn album (which Bill reviewed). Not to mention, there are also new albums today by Future, Toro y Moi, The Twilight Sad, Juliana Hatfield, Julian Lynch, Buke & Gase, Blockhead, The End of the Ocean, folk legend Peter Stampfel, and the first album in 35 years from supergroup The Flesh Eaters (X, The Blasters, Los Lobos). See? Told you it was a lot.
Check out my five picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Sharon Van Etten has developed a diehard fanbase since her music career took off about a decade ago, and Remind Me Tomorrow is a significant departure from the other albums in her already-beloved discography, so this may come as a controversial #hottake to longtime fans, but I think it's her best album yet. That's not meant as a slight towards anything she's done previously; Sharon's career has been on an upwards trajectory the whole time and Remind Me Tomorrow is just the latest album to prove it. As you may have figured out from lead single "Comeback Kid" or the NY Times profile, Sharon traded her guitars for synthesizers on this album, but she hasn't "gone pop" or anything. Remind Me Tomorrow is different than anything Sharon has ever done before, but it also couldn't have been the work of anyone else. Whether it's the folk music of her early work, the indie rock of Tramp and Are We There, or now the synth-fueled Remind Me Tomorrow, Sharon Van Etten continues to prove herself as a master of several mediums, one whose distinct and increasingly impactful songwriting style comes through no matter what instrument or genre she's working with.
And "Comeback Kid" is actually the most "pop" this album gets; most of Remind Me Tomorrow is less drastically different from her earlier work than that song would have you believe -- you could picture some of these songs showing up on earlier albums if only she was strumming a guitar instead of toying with synths. "Comeback Kid" was simultaneously a red herring for the album, Sharon's most striking song as a standalone single to date, and also a song that works brilliantly within the context of Remind Me Tomorrow. Even if no other song is quite as stadium-ready as that one, there are other ways that Sharon switches things up on this album, and at this point, a change was necessary. In the nearly five years since Are We There, Sharon became a mother, became a professional actress, went back to school, and entered into a healthy new relationship. She's not the same person she was when she was writing her last album, and Remind Me Tomorrow reflects that. A song like "Seventeen" shows off a kind of wisdom that you don't have when you first start making your mark in the music industry. The song sees Sharon talking to her teenage self, giving her advice, letting her know things will end up okay, and telling her she knows exactly how she feels. It may be directed inward, but it also works as a song where Sharon's younger fans can take it as if she is speaking directly to them too.
"Seventeen" is a soaring, anthemic song and one of the album's best, and it's also one of a handful of songs on Remind Me Tomorrow where Sharon proves that the instrumentation may have taken a left turn, but her songwriting is on the same forward-moving path it's always been. "Jupiter 4" (which Sharon wrote with Donna Missal, and which exists as "Jupiter" on Donna's 2018 album) is as effective as any of the great Sharon Van Etten ballads to come before it, just with pulsating synths instead of guitars as the backdrop. "You Shadow" is art pop perfection with blasts of distortion and one of the most satisfying hooks in Sharon's discography. "Hands" is nearly in goth territory, and Sharon sings it like her life depends on it. Remind Me Tomorrow is more immediate than any of its predecessors, and it has more big, memorable moments than any other Sharon Van Etten album to date. It's the kind of late-career left turn that so many artists only dream of making. It truly sounds like a new beginning.
As the 2010s are starting to come to an end, it's clear that James Blake will go down as one of the most influential musicians of the decade. With his self-titled 2011 debut album, he helped define the kind of atmospheric, downtempo R&B that would spend the rest of the decade dominating the sound of everything from indie rock to Beyonce. He then went on to actually work with Beyonce, as well as with other giants like Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, and Frank Ocean, all while staying dedicated to the underground that birthed him and lending his talents to some weirder acts like Oneohtrix Point Never and Mount Kimbie too. If you've listened to music over the course of the past 9 years, be it underground or overground, you've either directly or indirectly listened to James Blake. Even as the sound he helped create became massive, though, no one could ever truly recreate the sound of James Blake's debut album. What makes it so fascinating all these years later, is that even though it's so influential, it still sounds weird. Sometimes groundbreaking music starts to sound a little more average as time goes on and the artist's influence becomes widespread, but the James Blake-inspired music of the mainstream has never been as experimental as the music on James Blake, and that's a big part of why the album holds up so well. On its underrated 2013 followup Overgrown, James flirted with (and mastered) the more accessible version of his work with "Retrograde," while continuing to push his experimental side forward with songs like "Digital Lion" and "Voyeur." Where James started to fall into the background of the sound he helped create was on 2016's The Colour In Anything, on which he went for a (very long) album of "Retrograde"-type songs, with not much variety. It's a good album, but when you start your career with something as monumental as James Blake, even good albums can pale in comparison.
James is now back again with Assume Form, and it at least partially risks facing the same shortcomings as The Colour In Anything. James' voice is as gorgeous as ever and his songwriting style is distinct as ever. The songs are immediately more grabbing than at least half of the buzzed-about new music you hear about in any given year, but it lacks the adventurous side of James Blake and Overgrown that set James' music apart from the atmospheric R&B on the radio. When Travis Scott and Metro Boomin join James on Assume Form's second track "Mile High," that couldn't be truer. James Blake offers up rock solid, easily enjoyable music on Assume Form, but "rock solid, easily enjoyable music" isn't always enough when you set the bar at "groundbreaking." Even if Assume Form doesn't have anything as out-there as James Blake's first two albums, though, the album does find other ways to move on from The Colour In Anything and add new, appealing elements to James Blake's sound. In addition to the radio-ready appearance by Travis Scott, there's the lively appearance by avant-flamenco-pop singer Rosalía on "Barefoot in the Park." She sings with James, and their voices come together to create one of the most invigorating choruses James has written in a while. It doesn't really sound like classic James Blake or like radio R&B, and it's more memorable than anything on The Colour In Anything. The other must-hear guest appearance on the album comes from the now-elusive Andre 3000, who James Blake previously collaborated with on Frank Ocean's "Solo (Reprise)," and whose lack of a solo album makes every verse he records worth hearing. His James Blake collab ("Where's the Catch?") is one of his best. James gives Andre a bouncy, house-inflected beat that recalls his days of making dance music, and Andre navigates it like he was born to rap over this kind of thing. If Andre ever does make that solo album, James Blake has gotta be on it. It's been a while since a producer has found Andre's sweet spot like this.
As his most guest-filled album by far, Assume Form sometimes sooner recalls his work as a producer for other artists than it does his other solo albums, where he's always been the star of his own show. (There's also a well-executed guest appearance by Moses Sumney on "Tell Them," though not a show-stealing one.) But James steals the show back in the latter half of the album with a tool he's never used as prominently as he does on Assume Form: lyrics. Where James Blake once conveyed emotion by repeating "My brother and my sister don't speak to me... but I don't blame them" over and over and over, Assume Form sees him writing candid lyrics like "I thought I might be better dead but I was wrong [...] I thought sex was at my pace but I was wrong" on "Power On," or delivering the kind of stream-of-consciousness storytelling that his past collaborator Frank Ocean might be proud of on "I'll Come Too." He might've tamed the instrumental experimentation a bit, but as a lyricist he's never been more confrontational.
Assume Form also benefits from a lean 12-song tracklist with no real filler, coupled with the fact that James is writing some of the most widely accessible songs of his career. There are more interesting James Blake albums than Assume Form, but there may not be another one that goes down as easy on first listen.
For the first half of their career, Deerhunter took major leaps from album to album, from their 2007 breakthrough Cryptograms to 2008's Microcastle/Weird Era Cont to 2010's Halcyon Digest, each one bigger and bigger-sounding than the last, each one continuing to hone their psychedelic side and massively advance their pop songwriting. After peaking with Halcyon Digest, they took a sharp left turn with the scuzzy glam-punk of 2013's Monomania, and then on 2015's Fading Frontier they settled back into the psychedelic indie rock of Halcyon Digest, offering up a warm, breezy, streamlined version of what became their signature sound. They do a similar thing on Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?, which -- like Fading Frontier -- is immediately recognizable as a great Deerhunter album but more relaxed, still psychedelic but less far-out than they once were. Right now, Deerhunter are sorta like The Velvet Underground circa Loaded or The Beatles circa Let It Be (but hopefully not breaking up anytime soon); they've hit their most creative peak and made their most challenging music, but that doesn't mean they're done writing great rock songs. And Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? may have a familiar sound, but it's also got a few firsts for Deerhunter. It's their first album produced by Cate Le Bon, and you can hear some of the baroque pop tendencies of Cate's own work coming through in the horns, harpsichords, and other embellishments fleshing out this album's sound. It's also not totally void of the far-out stuff; it's got the single weirdest Deerhunter song in years with "Détournement," which sounds like Oneohtrix Point Never covering one of M83's spoken word songs.
The new embellishments do wonders for Deerhunter's sound, and Bradford Cox wrote some of the catchiest songs of his career for this record. (Lockett Pundt, who usually provides Deerhunter albums with some of their most memorable songs, only offers the trippy, ethereal "Tarnung.") Songs like "Death In Midsummer," "No One's Sleeping," "Element," and "What Happens To People?" see Bradford at his earwormiest, singing sticky choruses over gentle, jangly guitars to great effect. That might be another reason the Loaded comparison comes to mind (these songs would work pretty well on a playlist next to "Sweet Jane"), but another band this album makes me think of is a band that influenced Bradford very early on, fellow Georgians R.E.M. It doesn't exactly sound like them, but it's got that deceptively simple jangle that made R.E.M. a favorite amongst fanzine-hoarding music snobs and Classic Rock Radio listeners alike. I don't know if Deerhunter will manage to score a big enough hit to cross over into the latter audience, but that's more an issue of the unlikelihood of a band like this getting mass exposure in 2019 than the quality or accessibility of Deerhunter's music. Do your part and throw this one on whenever your normie friends are around. It probably won't be long until they're humming along.
Pedro the Lion helped shape emo as we know it in the late '90s and early 2000s, and when David Bazan re-activated the band and toured last year, he spent a lot of time on stage talking about the embarrassment he now has after realizing that many of his own songs contributed to the culture of toxic masculinity that the early 2000s emo scene perpetuated. There was some classic material he wouldn't be playing anymore, and he urged the men in the audience to not use his music to contribute to that culture any further. With Phoenix, the first Pedro the Lion album in 15 years, it seems that Bazan is not necessarily looking to release a huge comeback but more of a corrective; an album that offers up the thrill of his classic material without the potentially harmful messages. "Sitting alone here in my grown up mess / I wish I'd known better," he sings on "Clean Up," and it's tempting to take it to be about that same thing he was talking about on stage last year. "Making you the punchline of some random thing I wrote," he sings on "Quietest Friend," with the feeling of guilt drenching his words, and by the end of the song, Bazan stops controlling the narrative and does something he probably wishes he did a long time ago: "Sitting here with pen and paper, I'm listening now."
You can tell, from what Bazan was saying on stage last year, that he didn't want Pedro the Lion's legacy to go down the way he left it in 2004, and Phoenix feels like the album he wishes he made back in the day. It's not all explicitly apologetic; like any great Pedro the Lion album, the lyrics take on all kinds of topics, from childhood memories to Christianity to death. And when Bazan lets out the kind of emo one-liners that dominated away messages and livejournals and Myspace pages 15 years ago, they come baggage-free. ("Don't know what I expected, but that hurt really bad" on "Black Canyon" and "I wanna not be lonely" on "Model Homes" are ones for the ages.) Last year's Pedro the Lion tour also reminded me that, while PTL often favor slowcore-ish songs, they can really rock, and the new album offers up some of that too. The best of it is "My Phoenix," where Pedro the Lion dish out driving guitars and a shoutalong chorus that provide exactly the kind of visceral thrill you want from a band who's long been slapped with the "emo" tag. And as much as I keep throwing around that term, it's worth noting that Pedro the Lion were toeing the line between fervent emo fanbases and critically accepted indie rock way before that became a trend in the 2010s, so it's only natural to see them making their return now. Pedro the Lion were far ahead of their time, and now that the world has caught up, they've given us a new reason to go crazy for them all over again.
If you read music blogs in the early 2010s, you probably remember WU LYF, who were very hyped for a minute, but then broke up after releasing their only album, Go Tell Fire to the Mountain. These days, WU LYF don't get brought up too much, and if they do get brought up, they're sometimes used as a punchline to make a point about the indie rock hype cycle, but Go Tell Fire to the Mountain deserves a better reputation than that. WU LYF really deserved their hype, and a big reason for that was frontman Ellery James Robert's powerful, distinct voice, which set them apart from the dime-a-dozen indie rock bands they were often grouped with. So it's good news that Ellery has kept making music with his new project Lost Under Heaven (aka LUH), a collaboration with Ebony Hoorn. They released their very good debut Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing in 2016, which had Ellery's voice in that same distinct, powerful form, but was musically a whole different ballgame than WU LYF, going into industrial-tinged art pop territory with help from producer Haxan Cloak. Now Lost Under Heaven are back with a second album, Love Hates What You Become, and Ellery has once again changed up his approach. This time Lost Under Heaven worked with rock producer John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen, Cloud Nothings, the above-mentioned Sharon Van Etten album), and a live drummer, and the result is a more "band-oriented" approach that still has plenty of the arty electronics of Spiritual Songs for Lovers to Sing. Also, while Ellery's vocals are still a major selling point, Ebony sings more prominently on this one, and her songs are some of the best. "Bunny's Blues" is a killer dose of driving indie rock, the kind that could've been a hit in the early 2000s (and sounds good today too), and "Black Sun Rising" and the title track see Ebony taking Lost Under Heaven into smoky Mazzy Star territory. They explore their lighter side on this album more than they did on its predecessor, but they haven't given up the harder stuff. Opening track "Come" is the duo's most in-your-face song to date, with laser synths that feel built for pyrotechnics, and the new "rock band" approach really comes through on "Savage Messiah," a dose of punk-blues that Nick Cave fans might dig. Like on the debut, Love Hates What You Become saves the best for second to last. And like on the debut, the second to last song is a communal, singalong anthem that aims to uplift and unite an entire generation. If it's not clear from the title "Post Millennial Tension" that this song aims to do that, then it'll be clear when you hear Ellery, Ebony, and a group choir sing "My generation's burning, still we sing our love songs!" in unison. It's the kind of thing that risks veering into cheesy bombast, but can be truly powerful when it's done right. And Lost Under Heaven do it right.