Five Notable Releases of the Week (9/29)
Can you believe it's the last weekend of September? Time really flies. October in NYC used to mean CMJ but now it means Mondo. (It also used to mean colder weather, and today might actually be the first long-sleeves day of the season?!) The world continues to get weirder and weirder and music keeps reflecting that, including a handful of the albums I picked this week.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
Torres' third album is also her first for 4AD, and if you hope a jump to a giant label also means a massive step forward musically for Torres, Three Futures delivers on that hope. She's moved on almost entirely from the grungy singer/songwriter sounds of her first two albums, now pulling off a complex art-rock style that brings to mind (former 4AD artist) St. Vincent. Also, in her album artwork and essential music videos, Torres is explicitly putting queerness in the forefront of her art in a way she never has before. The "Skim" video features Torres with a nearly-nude woman wrapped around her, and both that one and the "Three Futures" video feature sex scenes between Torres and another woman. As Sasha Geffen discusses in a must-read (and Torres-approved) essay on Vulture, Torres is not merely portraying lesbian sex in her art. She's coming from a place of having been objectified herself in the male-dominated rock world, and reacting to the ways that straight male rock musicians have sexualized women's bodies for decades. And she's also coming out with really fucking good rock music in the process.
She gets some of that gender-role-defying in with her lyrics too, like on "Righteous Woman," which opens with: "I am not a righteous woman, I'm more of an ass man / And when I go to spread, it's just to take up all the space I can." She uses more synths and drum machines than ever before on Three Futures, yet she remains an inventive guitarist. The atypical guitar playing and some of her vocal delivery are what warrant the St. Vincent comparisons, and STV fans will likely find a lot to enjoy about this album. For all of those comparisons, though, it's interesting to note that Torres begins the album with a song that keeps reminding me of someone else entirely. Opener "Tongue Slap Your Brains Out" has strong hints of Mitski, who had a major breakthrough in the time since Torres last released an album. St. Vincent is still a pretty new artist and Mitski is an even newer one, and there's something to be said for taking influence from extremely new sounds instead of reinforcing the canon. Between the three of them, they're creating something boldly unique that feels entirely in the now. The album also has moments that don't really sound like anyone else at the moment, like "Helen In The Woods," which is the album's danciest song but also the one where Torres shows off her most aggressive screams. It's moments like those that prove Torres has no limits to her sound. She can do aggressive or gentle, upbeat or slow, electronics or live-band. Hopefully Three Futures is only the beginning of these new explorations.
Not only have TWIABP never made the same album twice, they haven't even had the same band make an album twice. For Always Foreign, the band's revolving-door lineup consists of David F Bello, Josh Cyr, Tyler Bussey, Dylan Balliett, Chris Teti, Katie Dvorak, and Steven K Buttery. Six of them sing on the album -- taking lead at different times and overlapping with each other at others -- and the only member who didn't (Chris Teti) produced it. They also brought in notable guest musicians like mewithoutYou's Aaron Weiss and Emperor X's Chad Matheny, plus a handful of horn/string players and more. Things are different this time around but there are also some things that have stayed the same: TWIABP still sound and act like no other band in the world, and they remain truly genre-defying and lyrically powerful. They've noted that this album is a reaction to the Trump era, and that's never clearer than on the album's longest and most ambitious song, "Marine Tigers." It's a slow-building series of suites (sort of following in the footsteps of "I Can Be Afraid of Anything") and it was inspired by David F Bello's father Jose Bello's new book of the same name, which discusses the discrimination he faced when he moved to America from Puerto Rico in the 1940s, and the feeling of being looked at as "always foreign." David may be singing about his father's experiences from over half a century ago, but he contextualizes them in a way that still feels relevant today. When he asks, "Can you still call it a country when all the states are broken?", it's a question that remains unanswered.
"Marine Tigers" is followed by "Fuzz Minor," an angst-ridden song driven by a classic-rock riff that shares some DNA with the new Brand New album. On this one, David (who is also of Lebanese descent on his mother's side) keeps tackling racism and makes it even more personal. "Call me 'a-rab,' call me a 'spic,' I can't wait until I see you die," he spits.
It's tempting to let those songs overshadow the rest of the record given the current political climate, but Always Foreign is too rich with ideas to try to pin just one narrative on it. The lyrics on this album are as diverse as the sounds themselves. "For Robin" is bedroom folk in the Nick Drake/Elliott Smith tradition, with stream-of-consciousness lyrics that read more like a diary entry than a song: "Missing an artist for the loss of their art isn’t grief. We’re heartbroken for Robin and hate what he did, but real, true, and private loss is so hard to express." It's not the only song on this album where the lyrics could work as written word but also sound natural as music. "Hilltopper," which is classic TWIABP-style math-pop with a dark side (and has a callback to the "evil" character), sounds like a carefully-worded letter sent to an ex-band member. "Can’t seem to erase you. I threw out all the records you’re on. Every week there’s another friend who doesn’t know how bad you got," the song opens. And later: "I wish for you to suffer like I had wished that we would not. I left once, but I’ll stay now, if we promise that I can. I begged her to apologize for what was said inside the van." "Hilltopper" segues seamlessly into "Faker," which aims a similar amount of vitriol at someone over hushed, clean guitars, before exploding into a heavily-layered ending.
For all the bitterness, anger, and anxiety on the album, there are also moments that are at least searching for positivity. The album opens with a song that says "I'll make everything look like it's happy / I'll make everything look like it's rad." And, even if they don't mention happiness by name, you can hear a lot of joy in the pop punky "The Future" and the upbeat "Dillon and Her Son," the latter of which has enough bubbly synths to win over anyone who wishes The Unicorns would reunite again. And the middle section of the aforementioned "Marine Tigers" sounds genuinely uplifting, like the song's fight of resistance is built on hope.
As the first two TWIABP albums did, Always Foreign ends with a lengthy, climactic song that really lets things go out with a bang. This album closer, "Infinite Steve," has a post-rocky first half, with alarming violins and impressively busy drumming adding to the tension. It sounds like it's building to something louder and louder, but TWIABP end up taking the song to a softer place, where the guitars and drums quiet down and the violin parts sound more at ease. Overlapping vocalists enter, and the singing sounds more peaceful, even as they sing "You brought a gun to the department store and won't let them go." Vocals eventually cut out, melancholic trumpets take their place, and the song slowly fades out. TWIABP's first album ended with repeatedly shouted gang vocals and their second ended with a folky hidden track, both of which gave the albums a hard, punctuated conclusion. The fade-out on this one kind of suggests that there's no conclusion to be had just yet. Given all the unsettled feelings on this album, maybe that was the point.
As the frontman of both Knapsack and The Jealous Sound, Blair Shehan has become one of guitar-rock's most underrated songwriters. The heart-on-sleeve lyricism and ear-candy hooks of "Thursday Side of the Street," "Katherine The Grateful," "Hope For Us" and "Anxious Arms" rank among the best indie rock, punk, and emo of the past two decades. Blair's songwriting took a darker turn on The Jealous Sound's long-awaited 2012 sophomore album, A Gentle Reminder, but for his new project Racquet Club, he's back to writing punchy songs that could stand next to his classics. For this band, he's joined by Jealous Sound drummer Bob Penn and Knapsack guitarist Sergie Loobkoff (also of Samiam), plus bassist Ian Smith, and he teamed back up with producer Alex Newport, who worked on Knapsack's final album, This Conversation Is Ending Starting Right Now. Maybe having three of the same people from the Conversation sessions in the room helped, but whatever it is, Racquet Club sounds like it could've come out somewhere between that album and the first Jealous Sound LP. It's ten songs long and all of them are bangers with the kind of huge refrains that Blair does so well. Blair is a master of the softly-sung verse transitioning into the roaring chorus, and he does it on songs like "White Knuckles" and "Blood on the Moon" with the same spirit he did in 1998. Given his cult following, my guess is Blair Shehan diehards are already on the Racquet Club bandwagon, but if you're new to his music, this album stays so true to his classic sound that it's not a bad place to start. Fans of the bands who helped pave the path for this kind of sound (Jawbreaker, Samiam, Superchunk) and the newer bands keeping it alive (Beach Slang, Joyce Manor, Japandroids) should not sleep on Racquet Club.
Protomartyr's fourth album is their first for Domino (their last two were on the smaller Hardly Art label) and their first with noticeably cleaner production, thanks in part to co-producer Sonny DiPerri (who's fresh off making records with Domino bands Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective). They haven't sacrificed their hard-hitting sound or their wry wit though, only sharpened it. Protomartyr have always been a band that keep the "punk" in "post-punk," and Relatives In Descent is more proof of that. Drummer Alex Leonard still attacks his kit and often deviates from standard rock beats, guitarist Greg Ahee is always doing something dark and atypical, and bassist Scott Davidson helps keep their backbone strong. As with every Protomartyr album, though, the star of the show is frontman Joe Casey, who uses his distinct speak-sung delivery to rattle off all the things that piss him off. On Relatives In Descent, he's often criticizing the state of the world that the album was released into. On opener "A Private Understanding," he comments on the Flint water crisis: "The river doesn't move, it doesn't flow / It's been leaded by snider men to make a profit from the poor." On "Don't Go To Anacita," he attacks a fictional town of phonies like a modern-day Holden Caulfield: "The liberal-minded here, they close their eyes and dream of technology and kombucha / The anti-vagrant system sounds like 20 dollar bills being sorted in a counter." The album is full of that kind of annoyance and dread, with the band's ominous backdrop always matching. A few moments of beauty pop up here and there, but Protomartyr always get back to the gritty stuff before you know it.
As a DJ, Four Tet can keep the dancefloors moving all night, but his recorded music is often something gentler that acts more like post-rock than like dance music (which makes sense considering Kieran Hebden played guitar in the post-rock band Fridge before starting Four Tet). It's been 14 years since he released his first classic, Rounds, but he remains prolific and consistently great. New Energy is his fourth full length in the past five years (counting Pink), and he's still far from out of ideas. Over the course of the album, he works in shuffling dance rhythms. gorgeous vocal samples, freeform sax, and delicate pianos and stringed instruments -- and usually a few of those at once. When he makes drastic changes in sound, they're unpredictable but never awkward. There's "SW9 9SL," which starts out as deep, danceable bass, until the drums cut out and it becomes a collage of ambient synths, only to later become something much more chaotic. "Memories" starts out sounding like it could be an orchestral Philip Glass composition, and quickly turns into something percussive and amelodic. The flipped vocals and click-clackity drums of "Daughter" make it seem like one of the album's more low-key songs, but the creeping synth in the background eventually makes it one of the most overwhelming. Four Tet also continues his knack for finding beautiful melodies and looping to them to the point where you never want the song to end (see "Planet," "Scientists," and "Lush"). And in between the more instantly-addictive songs, he's got plenty of other cool stuff going on. The laid-back drums of "Two Thousand and Seventeen" recall the trip-hop and chill-out sounds of the '90s, while "You Are Loved" sounds like this year's best Sigur Ros song. All the various peaks and valleys make for an album that's truly most compelling when played from start to finish.