Notable Releases of the Week (8/31)
It's Labor Day Weekend, which means the unofficial end of summer, and there are plenty of musical ways to close out summer with a bang this long weekend. If you're staying in NYC, check out our guide to Labor Day Weekend NYC concerts (including the Drake/Migos run, the final weekend of Warm Up, Electric Zoo, a joint album release show for one of the albums on the list below and one of the albums that was in this column two weeks ago, and more). This weekend is also the Made In America festival in Philly (check out our list of 10 non-headliners to see), and if you're on the West Coast, there's Seattle's Bumbershoot.
Even if this is the unofficial end of summer, it doesn't look like temperatures plan on dropping anytime soon, and the big outdoor music festivals really continue through all of September (like Riot Fest). Plus, there are plenty of fall albums to look forward to.
As for new albums that are out this week, I picked five that you can check out below and then spend your long weekend listening to. Not included is the surprise Eminem album (which features Justin Vernon, whose own new album is included), but on first listen it's... at least better than his last one. What was your favorite release of the week?
Thou last released an album in 2014 (Heathen), and after taking four years to finally announce a followup, they returned with one of the most ambitious undertakings of their career. Thou released three EPs this year, each one focusing on a different specific element of Thou's sound (and each one released on a different record label), and now they complete the project with a new full-length, Magus. They showed off their harsh, noisy side on The House Primordial (Robotic Empire), their delicate, slowcore-ish side on Inconsolable (Community Records), and their grungy side on Rhea Sylvia (Deathwish Inc), and like Thou said they would be, all three of those styles are represented on the Sacred Bones-released full-length Magus. They aren't broken down clearly on Magus though. The EPs were a worthy exercise in genre, especially if you gravitate towards liking one of those elements of Thou's sound (I personally am a big fan of the grunge side shown on Rhea Sylvia), but not one of those individual EPs is a feat as great as the vast, genre-less Magus. The vocals tend to be on the harsh side on this album, though there are moments, like on the tribal-y interlude “Divine Will” and the following track “In the Kingdom of Meaning,” where Thou’s clean, melodic singing shines. Mostly, the melody and delicacy of Inconsolable and Rhea Sylvia comes through in Magus’ instrumentation. For example, the guitar on "Greater Invocation of Disgust" and "Elimination Rhetoric" nears gorgeous post-rock territory, while some of the riffs on "Transcending Dualities" echo '90s alternative rock. Though it's not an album for those who don't like screaming, Magus' blend of harsh vocals and beautiful/melodic instrumentation is no less accessible than that of underground metal's current biggest Metal Band For Non-Metalheads, Deafheaven. (And in terms of its boundless musical scope and in how tremendous it all sounds, Magus easily rivals the new Deafheaven album.) It's heavy music, but it doesn't feel aggressive -- it's more thought-provoking than headbang-inducing. Even during the riffs that feel like they could move mountains, Magus sounds more focused on being an artistic triumph than on starting a mosh pit. The attention to detail is stunning, as is the dedication to melody and songcraft. Magus is an album that requires an hour and fifteen minutes of your time, and it will test your patience if music this harsh is not what you consider "easy listening." But when it sucks you in, the experience is overwhelming.
Since breaking through with Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago, Justin Vernon has been involved with too many projects to keep track of, usually ranging in quality from good to great to masterpiece. The most essential ones tend to be the Bon Iver and Volcano Choir albums, both of which have Justin's earth-shattering voice in the forefront, and the debut album by Big Red Machine falls into that same category. Big Red Machine is Justin plus The National guitarist Aaron Dessner, and they were aided by tons of their talented friends, including other members of The National, Phoebe Bridgers, Lisa Hannigan, Brad Cook, Jan St. Werner (Mouse on Mars), Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire), Mina Tindle, This Is The Kit, Boys Noize, The Staves, and more. And not to discredit any of these very talented musicians, but you wouldn't necessarily know it was such a star-studded affair if you didn't read the liner notes. Like with Bon Iver and Volcano Choir, Justin's voice is the star of the show. All of the other contributions are subtle; it feels like Justin and Aaron worked with all these people not just to have big name guests, but because they really gelled with them and they knew each musician could play a high-quality supporting role without stealing the spotlight.
Sometimes these songs have a lot in common with Bon Iver, but there's a lot that makes Big Red Machine very different too. Like 22, A Million, it's largely an experimental pop album with lots of electronics worked in. As he did on that album (and on "Woods"), Justin manipulates his voice a few times, like on "Gratitude," "Forest Green," and "OMDB" (which stands for "over my dead body"). But he also has songs where he sings more clearly than he has in a while, like on the stuttering art pop of "Deep Green" and the folky, For Emma-style "I Won't Run From It." There's a song like "Air Stryp," which ranks among Justin's glitchiest electronic work, and there's a song like "OMDB," which has live drums that mimic glitchy electronic ones. Some of the really lush-sounding moments come when Justin is joined by choir-like backing vocals. This happens on the mesmerizing art rock of "Lyla" (with The Staves and Phoebe Bridgers), and again on the ballad "Hymnostic" (with The Staves, Lisa Hannigan, and This Is The Kit), the latter of which goes into similar smooth pop territory as "Beth/Rest." The album seems like it was probably a lot of fun for Justin, Aaron, and their collaborators to make, and it was also probably intended to help promote their new streaming platform PEOPLE, which has lots of other new music by Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner, and their many musical friends. But Big Red Machine isn't just a tossed-off side project for fun and it isn't just promotional material. It may have a lot going on and it may have been made by a huge cast of people, but it sounds surprisingly cohesive. Some of the PEOPLE stuff, like the 17-and-a-half minute "Santa Agnes," sounds like a bunch of talented people messing around in the studio, but Big Red Machine really sounds like structured, obsessed-over songwriting, just like all of the best albums that Justin Vernon sings lead on do. It may not have the name recognition (yet?), but purely in terms of musical quality, it rivals his best work.
Anna Calvi's music has always had a big sound, yet somehow, she manages to always make each album sound even bigger than the last, her third, long-awaited album Hunter included. Hunter comes five years after her last album, 2013's One Breath (it also follows her 2014, David Byrne-featuring covers EP), and the wait was worth it. Working with producer Nick Launay (Nick Cave), keyboardist Adrian Utley (of Portishead), and bassist Martyn Casey (of The Bad Seeds), in addition to her bandmates Mally Harpaz (various instruments) and Alex Thomas (drums), Anna Calvi made an album that does everything she's always done best and more. It's got songs like the title track, which sounds like it would be a hit in a world where weirdo Kate Bush-style pop ruled the airwaves. It's got guitar god songs like "Indies or Paradise," gripping ballads like "Swimming Pool" and "Away," and lyrically bold and defiant songs like "As A Man" and "Don't Beat the Girl Out of My Boy." In a statement about the album, Anna said "I want to go beyond gender. I don't want to have to choose between the male and female in me. I'm fighting against feeling an outsider and trying to find a place that feels like home." You can hear that immediately in those latter two songs. Hunter sees Anna moving forward in every possible way. Her words are more direct, her guitar screams more than ever, and her pop songs really pop. You can still pick out the influences that were always heard in Anna's work, all of which are strong-minded underground heroes like Anna herself (in addition to the aforementioned Kate Bush, you can hear Patti Smith, Television, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, etc). But the more Anna goes on, the more she sounds like no one other than herself, and Hunter is a fine example of this.
Iron & Wine is on a roll lately. Last year, he released Beast Epic, which was his first album on Sub Pop since his classic first three albums and also a brilliant return to the style of those albums. Now he's following it with the Weed Garden EP, which mostly includes songs from the same songwriting phase as Beast Epic, but these don't feel like songs that weren't good enough for the album. Sub Pop's description of the EP says that the title "could easily imply that which doesn’t belong," and that feels like the vibe here -- five great songs that just didn't fit on Beast Epic (and the slightly older "Waves of Galveston," which Iron & Wine fans may remember him debuting a few years ago for AV Club "State Songs" series). The new recording of "Waves of Galveston" sounds great, and it works with these songs a lot more naturally than it might've worked with the Iron & Wine album that came out the year the song first surfaced (2013's Ghost on Ghost). Like the Beast Epic songs, the music on Weed Garden hearkens back to when Iron & Wine was known for stripped-down, folky music, and at this point, that seems to be the sound that suits him best. "Milkweed" is a bit more ambitious, with strings and piano fleshing things out, but otherwise, the material on this EP tends to focus on Sam Beam's voice, his acoustic guitar, and little else. They sound so instantly like classic Iron & Wine songs that it might be easy to take this EP for granted, but it deserves better than that. Especially when you consider all the different sounds and different types of collaborative projects that Sam worked on for the decade leading up to Beast Epic, this continuation of his return to his classic sound is really quite an impressive comeback.
After years of blending sludge, post-hardcore, noise rock, and more, KEN mode leaned more heavily than ever on their noise rock side for 2015's Success, which saw frontman Jesse Matthewson taking on a cleaner, more speak-sung delivery, and paying more of a direct homage to the AmRep and Touch & Go bands that influenced them than they ever had before (they also recorded it with Steve Albini, who recorded many of the bands they were nodding to). It felt like a regression for KEN mode, who had never shied away from those influences but also never worshipped them this bluntly. It's good news, then, that KEN mode are returning to the sound they won everyone over with on this year's Loved. With crisp, modern production by Andrew Schneider, the songs don't sound anywhere near as retro as the songs on Success, and Jesse is back to dishing out the blood-curling screams that made KEN mode's best albums so appealing. And musically, KEN mode are back to pulling sounds from all over the place. They've got the atonal noise rock stuff on a lot of songs, but they've also got pulverizing sludge metal ("Feathers & Lips"), some tech-y riffage ("Not Soulmates"), speedy post-hardcore ("Very Small Men"), and even a taste of avant-garde jazz (the beginning of "This Is A Love Test," the end of "No Gentle Art"). It all comes together in a delightfully crushing fashion, wreaking havoc on your ear drums from start to finish.