Five Notable Releases of the Week (2/17)
Before I get started, a few honorable mentions to some artists we love who have new albums out today: Future, Ryan Adams, Grails, Jens Lekman, and Son Volt. Also, I haven't heard Fat Joe & Remy Ma's Plata O Plomo yet, but after last year's world-conquering "All the Way Up," I'm curious.
As for the five releases I did pick, head below to check them out. What was your favorite release of the week?
Philly-via-Indiana songwriter Tim Showalter started Strand of Oaks as a quiet folk project, but he went electric for 2014's HEAL, his fourth album and first for Dead Oceans, which also got him more success than ever before. Now he's finally back with a followup to that breakthrough album. Hard Love remains in full-band mode but takes his sound in various new directions. It begins with the slow-burning, airy title track, and then really kicks off with lead single "Radio Kids," the album's clear "hit." "Radio Kids" has Showalter singing about nostalgia for listening to rock records, in his most Paul Westerberg-ian melodies, and the production's got a modern psychedelic take on heartland rock. This prompted me to once say the song sounded simultaneously like Strand of Oaks' Philly neighbors The War On Drugs and Beach Slang. Then I realized he said this to Stereogum:
"If I hear that fucking ‘Boys Of Summer’ drumbeat one more time I’m gonna lose it. I’ve been obsessed with ‘Mountain Song’ by Jane’s Addiction lately. All the beats on the new album are going to sound like that. That ‘Boys Of Summer’ indie, that’s like, ‘Uh, I guess we’ll go on a date and have a drink and check Instagram, and maybe have some sex later.’ ‘Mountain Song’ is ‘We’re gonna fuck all fucking night long.'"
Okay, I guess he wasn’t channelling The War On Drugs. In that same interview, he makes it clear that (past tourmates) My Morning Jacket are a more apt comparison for his psychedelic take on modern indie rock. Like MMJ (and Jane's Addiction and Pearl Jam and U2), Strand of Oaks would rather sound like actual arena rock than be called "hip." And as for his interest in psychedelia, he doesn't shy away from acknowledging the copious amounts of acid that inspired this new album.
Strand of Oaks embrace rock's sex and drugs the way Japandroids embrace its Highways and Hells. They don't ironically re-appropriate cheesy elements of rock history, they incorporate them so earnestly to the point where they don't sound cheesy. Plenty of tried-and-true rock cliches appear on Hard Love. It's got the piano ballad ("Cry"), the Stonesy rocker ("Rest of It"), the lengthy, jammed-out album closer ("Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother"). The idea to add shoegazy, neo-psych atmospheres was likely more a result of the diverse era of rock that Tim Showalter was brought up in, than an attempt to cover up guilty pleasures. Hard Love is dad rock for dads whose teenage record collection had U2, Jane's Addiction, and The Jesus & Mary Chain.
If that kind of sex and drug-fueled rock feels a little too celebratory or vapid to you -- especially in today's political climate -- know that Hard Love has a dark side. "Taking Acid And Talking To My Brother" gets its name from Showalter witnessing his brother's near-death experience after a cardiac failure. His brother was induced into a coma by doctors, who said he had a 10% chance of surviving, and, miraculously, he survived. Showalter said that for all the psychedelic experiences he had from drugs, nothing was trippier than seeing his brother in that situation while he was 100% sober.
It can be kind of a tricky thing for an artist if their song becomes a meme or goes viral. For every D.R.A.M. (the virality of "Cha Cha" feels like a footnote in his career at this point) there's a Baauer (who you might still know better as "The 'Harlem Shake' Guy"). I'm not sure if Jidenna has fully escaped "The 'Classic Man' Guy" just yet, but going by the strength of his debut album The Chief, I'd say he's bound to. "Classic Man" went viral after the then-unknown Jidenna recorded it for a 2015 compilation by Janelle Monae's Wondaland Records, and like Janelle, Jidenna has a sound that can not be pigeonholed. On one hand, Jidenna's Nigerian identity comes through loud and clear on this album. He was raised in Nigeria for a few years as a child, and he recently traveled to perform there during the making of The Chief. Fully re-immersing himself in the culture surely had an impact on his music. He's got Afrobeat rhythms on a handful of songs (notably "Bambi" and "Little Bit More"), and some vocals in pidgin.
On the other hand, the album is strongly rooted in Western pop music too. "The Let Out" is as good a trap song as anything on the radio right now, and it features Quavo of Migos (who have the biggest trap song on the radio right now.) With "Chief Don't Run," "Long Live the Chief" and "2 Points," he delivers the kind of dark, hard-hitting rap songs that never go out of style. He straddles the line between rapping and singing in a way that sounds like he takes some cues from Drake, and Drake's own recent flirtations with Afrobeats are probably part of why The Chief fits so naturally with today's pop music. Sometimes Jidenna puts the two cultures in front of you at once, like on "Safari," which has gorgeous backing vocals from Janelle Monae, and which I'm pretty sure compares a wild African safari to the Apple web browser. Jidenna is already an expert at tackling all these various styles at once, and the album is pretty damn cohesive for something rooted in so many different sounds.
DeJ Loaf needs to drop the album. She's been talking about it for a while, and just about everything she's put out in the lead-up to it has been gold: 2015's And See That's The Thing EP, last year's All Jokes Aside mixtape, and now this collaborative mixtape with Cash Money R&B newcomer Jacquees. All Jokes Aside had DeJ in hard-ass rapping mode, but Fuck A Friend Zone has her fully embracing her R&B side. (To paraphrase Nicki Minaj, DeJ Loaf is real rap but she does sing.) It's probably no coincidence that this came out shortly before Valentine's Day. DeJ and Jacquees range from romantic to hot and steamy on Fuck A Friend Zone, and that's just about the only ground they cover here. Jacquees told The FADER that they intended this to be feel good music, and it's a total success in that regard. The best part about it is hearing how DeJ Loaf continues to progress as a vocalist. She sounds increasingly like no one else out there, and it's as thrilling to hear her sing about romance as it is to hear her rap about being on her grind.
Morristown, NJ's Trophy Scars are one of the more underrated rock bands of the past 15 years or so. They started out as a relatively straightforward post-hardcore band, and by 2006's Alphabet. Alphabets. they had perfected a unique, arty take on the genre that still has few peers. It's sort of the middle ground between mewithoutYou and Circles Takes the Square, but even that comparison doesn't do it justice. After that album, they went in a wholly different direction. Singer Jerry Jones adopted a Tom Waits-ian growl, and the band got increasingly into '60s/'70s psych, prog, and blues rock. They went on hiatus last year, and Jerry Jones is now focusing entirely on Super Snake, who formed back in 2012 but just finally released their debut album. Leap of Love doubles down on the prog/psych of latter-day Trophy Scars and take it into heavier, doomier directions. To put it simply, "Where Trophy Scars was jamming Hendrix, Floyd, Waits, and Clapton -- Super Snake was jamming Sabbath, Butthole Surfers, Swans, and Slowdive," Jerry told us.
Even if Trophy Scars weren't your thing, Super Snake is worth checking out... especially for fans of heavy music. I have a feeling Leap of Love will appeal to metal fans more than anything Trophy Scars ever did. Jerry still uses his Waits-ian growl, and when he does it over Sabbath-inspired riffs Super Snake sound as evil as a plenty of stoner metal bands. It's a relentless onslaught of riff after riff after riff, with just the right dose of psychedelia.
After about 20 years in music, Mark Kozelek adopted a type of wordy, stream-of-consciousness folk music on 2012's Among the Leaves and he perfected it on 2014's Benji. Benji put him more in the spotlight than he'd ever been... and it also put his say-whatever-the-fuck-i-want attitude in the spotlight, which hasn't always gone over well. He's been bringing that attitude to his post-Benji albums too (2015's Universal Themes and his 2016 collaborative LP with Jesu). At this point, it feels like the anticipation for a Sun Kil Moon album is "What will he say this time?" not "What does it sound like?". On Common as Light and Love are Red Valleys of Blood, he spends two hours and ten minutes saying whatever the fuck he wants, and he covers just about everything. On "Philadelphia Cop" he mocks music journalists bragging about their SXSW credentials ("I'm friends with Jim James, Doctor John Misty..."). On "Highway Song" he talks about an Eric Clapton impersonator known for embracing yacht rock, "or in other circles, dad rock." On "Lone Star," he talks about being banned from playing in Texas after someone read that he was sexist. In that same song, he advocates for gender neutral bathrooms and says Donald Trump winning the election is "proof that we choose apps over education."
On "Window Sash Weights," he talks about playing a show at Sarah Lawrence College, where "something I say will likely be viewed as offensive and cause a student to be alarmed, and if a college girls is nice to me and I speak to her it might be misconstrued and I won't be pardoned." He dedicates part of "Bergen to Trondheim" to the victims of the Orlando shooting, and calls school and movie theater shootings a "sick epidemic." On "I Love Portugal" he calls the president "a huge asshole." On "Bastille Day," he sings about Mick Jagger having a kid at 73 and compares it to his own grandfather eating baby food and having people wipe off his drool at 72. If you're looking for a quick and easy way to decide if this album aligns with your personal morals, you probably won't find one.
All that said, is it even possible to have a conversation about how the album sounds? It feels more like Facebook rants set to music than songwriting. But if I try, I'd say it sounds about as good as a lot of his recent material. His conversational, wearied voice and finger-picked guitar have moments that sound as pretty as anything on Benji. And it's his third album in a row with Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley on drums, so you know it has a strong backbone. Whether you view it as unfiltered honesty, or trolling, or just plain old offensive (or all three), is up to you, but if there's any takeaway from this album, it's that Mark Kozelek probably doesn't care what you think. Voice your opinion loud enough, though, and you might be a character on his next record.