Five Notable Releases of the Week (1/26)
In the music world, it's been a week of farewell tours. Elton John, Slayer, and Lynyrd Skynyrd have all announced plans to retire from touring after one last run of shows. On a similar but sadder note, Neil Diamond has stopped touring immediately due to health.
And in more tragic music news, we had to say goodbye to the legendary Mark E Smith of The Fall. Rest in peace, Mark. Read an all-Fall edition of Bill's Indie Basement that Bill made in tribute to Mark, including a 60-song playlist of some the band's best songs.
It's a good week for new albums though. Before I get to my picks, some honorable mentions include Ty Segall's really ambitious double album where almost every song is a different subgenre, Hollie Cook, Calexico, No Age, Payroll Giovanni & Cardo, Iron Reagan/Power Trip offshoot Mammoth Grinder, Khruangbin, and the new Ravyn Lenae EP.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Scotland's The Spook School have one foot in their home country's history of indiepop, another in driving pop punk, and they dabble in modern-day emo too. Their songs are fun and the members are funny (especially drummer Niall McCamley, whose stage banter is a crucial part of the band's energetic live show), but that doesn't mean they don't take themselves seriously. Though the songs sound bright, they deal with some heavy topics. The Spook School's new album tackles some of the impactful political decisions that have been made in the past year or so (in their case, Brexit). Also, with queer and trans members, The Spook School are making radical music just by having pride in themselves. On ripping opener "Still Alive," the band's multiple vocalists join forces on the joyous refrain of "Fuck you, I am still alive!" and it sounds like it could be a unifying anthem for anyone who faces systemic oppression. On "Body," which has an awesome call and response bridge that sounds like Whenever, If Ever-era TWIABP covering Bizarro-era Wedding Present, they take on self-love, self-confidence, and body dysmorphia. In comparison, the sugary but raucous "I Hope She Loves You" is a tender, personal song. Sometimes you get tired of angrily railing against the system and you just want to sing about love or lack thereof, and there's power in that too. As they say, the personal is political. That's even clearer on closer "High School," an indiepop ballad with a "Be My Baby" beat where The Spook School question how different life may have turned out -- from romantic relationships to coming out -- "if I played sports in high school." Chances are, anyone who's read this far into a review about a Slumberland band can relate to that.
If The Spook School seem simple on the surface, it's deceptive. A lot of modern indie/punk bands have driving guitars, singalong choruses, and powerful lyricism, but The Spook School have all three in a way that quickly stands out from their peers, and Could It Be Different? is quite possibly the best showcase of this yet.
Tribulation made a massive jump with their third album, 2015's The Children of the Night, which added elements of radio-ready classic rock to their black/death metal roots and resulted in music that was still evil but genuinely catchy. It was a close second to my favorite metal album of that year (Deafheaven's New Bermuda). I've talked about how Children of the Night is a metal album that you don't have to be a metalhead to appreciate, and that's even more true of its followup, Down Below. While Children of the Night at least had some truly heavy parts, a lot of the instrumentation on Down Below wouldn't even be recognizably metal if not for Johannes Andersson's harsh croak. (His delivery is clearly metal, but it's not really a scream and, all things considered, he's got some pretty poppy hooks.) Down Below is more atmospheric than its predecessor, really leaning into the prog and psych tendencies and away from the hard rock ones. It's still dark, but more like Syd Barrett era Pink Floyd than like Black Sabbath. Because it's a less drastic progression from Children of the Night than that album was from its predecessors, it didn't instantly blow me away the way Children did. But Down Below is a real grower that reveals its subtle differences with repeated listens. It's got more of those earmworm guitar riffs on opening songs "The Lament" and "Nightbound," and bright, majestic solos on "Lady Death" and "Cries from the Underworld." Compared to earlier albums, this one's got more clean guitars, more pianos (and even a little synth on "Cries from the Underworld"), and one song ("Purgatorio") is an entirely clean instrumental that could fit on a This Will Destroy You album. After frontloading the album with the more atmospheric songs, they bring in "Lacrimosa" towards the end, a song that takes any of the more aggressive moments on Children of the Night to task. It's not a career-changing album but its highs are often as high as the ones on Children of the Night, and between both albums, Tribulation have written some of the best songs of their career.
I should admit that I'm not the biggest Migos fan, but a new album from them is too big to ignore, and if you're a rap fan in 2018 it's impossible to not at least engage with Migos. Their pop-trap has helped define the sound of contemporary rap radio, thanks to their own massive hits, group members Takeoff, Offset, and Quavo's guest verses and side projects, and the many newer rappers who are clearly influenced by their sound. I usually find their albums a little too repetitive to listen to straight through, but most of their hits are undeniable -- including some of the new singles -- so even if Culture II is an hour and 45 minutes long, it needs to be heard.
I first listened to this album when it dropped this morning like everyone else, so it's worth noting that this review is just first impressions, but it already seems like Culture II is at least as worthy as Culture. Culture was one of last year's biggest rap albums, both commercially and critically, and while it's wise of Migos to keep the momentum going and follow it up this quickly, Culture II does more than cash in on its predecessor's success. If anything, it might be a bigger deal. If Culture succeeded with its original, addictive hooks but fizzled out when it got redundant, then Culture II partially fixes that with show-stealing guests whose deliveries deviate more drastically from Migos' sound. Culture II single "MotorSport" was my favorite Migos song of 2017 for reasons that only partially involved Migos. It's got another of their earworm hooks, but it goes from a good song to a great song as Cardi B continues to prove that she's one of the best rappers around and Nicki Minaj reminds you that she can out-rap most people on the radio when she wants to. The Pharrell beat on second single "Stir Fry" switches things up from Migos' usual production style and helps them sound more lively than ever. On "Walk It Like I Talk It," Migos reunite with Drake, who they haven't worked with since he helped them rise to fame by remixing their breakthrough 2013 song "Versace." It's not the hottest Drake verse of all time but it's still a welcome shake-up of an otherwise typically Migos-sounding song. And the hit-or-miss Big Sean is his unmistakable self (and generally in good form) on "White Sand."
The members of Migos are also stretching out their own talents and expanding their sound in various ways. Quavo is getting increasingly comfortable as a producer, and has co-production credits on half the songs on Culture II (and produced one, "Movin' Too Fast," entirely on his own). He's also an increasingly good singer. On "CC," which sounds like it could be the next single, Quavo and DJ Durel switch things up from Migos' usual atmospheric production in favor of a rubbery, bass-heavy beat and Quavo croons on the chorus with more confidence than ever. Takeoff shows off a trap&B side on "Gang Gang" that rivals a handful of Migos' more tender-sounding competitors. On "Made Men," they ditch trap almost entirely and try out '90s R&B (over smooth, nostalgic production from Cassius J) and it works out pretty well.
On closing song "Culture National Anthem," Quavo raps "Believe me when I say we create our own sound." It's true -- whether or not you like Migos, you have to admit that they're trailblazers, and Culture II only takes that highly original sound to new places. It could also probably lose an hour of its running time, but the good moments are worth it. It reminds me of a 2012 Pitchfork article that discusses the downside of grading rap albums on a scale of whether or not the album is a classic. The article gives an example of how DJ Mustard's sound dominated rap in the early 2010s but there wasn't a full-length that properly represented that sound. I feel similarly about Migos. I don't know if they've written a classic album yet, but they've certainly got an album's worth of great songs that define modern-day rap, and it already feels like a handful of them are on Culture II.
As the cliché goes, you have your whole life to write your debut album and then six months to write your second, which is why artists with excellent debuts often fail to recapture that same magic the second time around. Such was the case with Britain's Django Django, who came out swinging on their 2012 self-titled debut album -- an awesome blend of '60s psychedelia and krautrock rhythms -- and flew a bit more under the radar with 2015's Born Under Saturn. Even if they haven't topped their debut, though, they never lost their knack for clever pop songwriting. Born Under Saturn had plenty appealing moments, and the new Marble Skies might have even more. It starts out with its best track, the title track, which is one of Django Django's most danceable and immediate songs yet. Channelling energetic '80s pop, the song brings in arpeggiated synths and a stiff drum machine that's closer to a-ha than to the art rock bands usually namedropped in Django Django reviews. The '60s psych side is almost entirely gone on "Marble Skies," but Django Django still have that atypical approach to melody that really shines in the song's instantly addictive chorus.
Marble Skies never hits a moment as high as its title track again, but others come close. There's the dreamy pop of "Surface to Air," where Slow Club's Rebecca Taylor contributes guest lead vocals and takes the song even further away from previous Django Django territory. The fast, driving "Tic Tac Toe" is more typical of Django Django (and actually they say it was cut from the same jam that produced "WOR" on their debut album and "Shake & Tremble" on the second), and it's got another of those big choruses that the band does so well. "In Your Beat" applies the sunshine pop of their '60s heroes to skittering, contemporary electronic sounds in a way that The Flaming Lips or Animal Collective would probably be impressed by. The album is sequenced in a way where the more immediate tracks are balanced out well with the more unassuming ones, making the whole thing a breeze to listen to, even if it doesn't have the nonstop ecstasy of their debut.
Heather McEntire currently fronts Mount Moriah and used to front Bellafea, and now she's striking out on her own as a solo artist under the name H.C. McEntire. Lionheart is her debut album with the project, and it features frequent collaborator Angel Olsen and other talented pals like William Tyler, Mary Lattimore, Tift Merritt, and Phil Cook. Heather also struck up a friendship with Kathleen Hanna, who was credited as something of a mentor for the album. Kathleen motivated her, gave her artistic advice, and helped her get out of the "dark place" that she was in before writing this record. The process resulted in some of Heather's most personal and powerful music yet. She talked to UPROXX about how, as a queer woman, she always loved country music but couldn't relate to most of it ("they weren't my songs... they were for men chasing women"), and how this record is meant to challenge that. It's also some of Heather's most easily enjoyable music. The last Mount Moriah album, 2016's How to Dance, was their cleanest and fullest-sounding album yet, and Lionheart is even more so, even though it's technically a solo album. Heather's voice is pleasing and welcoming as always, but this time it sounds just a bit more wearied by the world. Like How to Dance, Lionheart finds the true middle ground between indie rock and country music, making it very of the moment as those two genres continue to cross over. By breaking boundaries of both the sound of country music and the topics that country singers are expected to sing about, Lionheart takes a seasoned style of music and makes it feel vital in 2018.