Five Notable Releases of the Week (8/25)
The last Friday of August is a particularly stacked one for new albums. Albums that almost made the cut today include Wiki's XL debut (
stay tuned for more on this one), Action Bronson, Queens of the Stone Age, the first album from Small Brown Bike/Casket Lottery offshoot Able Baker Fox since their 2008 debut, the 19th Oh Sees album, A$AP Mob, Sleater-Kinney/R.E.M. offshoot Filthy Friends' debut album, Gogol Bordello (which features Regina Spektor on a song), post-rockers Sannhet, Kevin Abstract's unique rap group Brockhampton, Ultimate Painting and Mazes member Jack Cooper's solo debut, Norwegian art pop artist Susanne Sundfor, and the new dream pop LPs from Widowspeak and Turnover. That's already a lot of good stuff, and the five I did pick this week all come very highly recommended.
Check out my picks below. What was your favorite release of the week?
The War On Drugs - A Deeper UnderstandingAtlantic Records
The War On Drugs' 2014 breakthrough album Lost in the Dream perfected a formula of indulging in cheesy '80s heartland rock, all while keeping an air of shoegazy cool. Now they're on a major label for its followup -- just like Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, and Bryan Adams -- and they're embracing those '80s heartland rock influences even more fully. There are still ballads, but they've cut out the lengthy ambient interludes this time. There's still some real lush atmosphere fleshing out these songs, but the self-conscious indie rock veil has mostly been lifted to reveal arena-sized synths, electronic drums and guitar solos transported in directly from VH1 Classic. It's a bigger-sounding and overall more accessible album than Lost in the Dream without abandoning a sound that's distinctly The War On Drugs, which pretty much makes it the perfect album for a major label debut. Assuming TWOD have a lot more reach this time around, A Deeper Understanding should have no trouble welcoming in fans who have yet to be exposed to their charm.
The album actually starts out with its most surprising moment, "Up All Night." It's one of the album's most heavily-electronic songs, and it favors bouncy polyrhythmic percussion over TWOD's usual sturdy backbeat. After that, TWOD mainly toy with familiar sounds. "Holding On" is basically a rewrite of Lost in the Dream's most immediate song, "Red Eyes," down to a nearly identical piano and guitar hook and the "Boys of Summer" drums. Two more "Boys of Summer"-y songs appear in the forms of "Nothing To Find" and "In Chains," the latter of which is particularly appealing. It's a little slower than the other two, leaving room for a little more intricate instrumentation (including nice use of a harmonica at one point), and it might have the album's most anthemic chorus. Most of the other songs are ballads, and with less psychedelia and more studio polish, they sound even more like '80s heartland ballads than TWOD songs ever have. Of all the ballads, "Strangest Thing" is perhaps the most astounding.
It’s not a total reinvention, but repeat listens reveal it has more new tricks than it may seem at first. And it’s the band’s most effortlessly listenable album to date.
EMA - Exile in the Outer RingCity Slang
It's clearer than ever that Erika M. Anderson is an uncompromising artist with outsider tendencies, even (or, especially) within the realm of indie rock, where she presumably fits in. The first time I saw EMA, Erika played impromptu covers in the encore with the drummer of Vancouver punks Nu Sensae. Someone in the crowd requested Modest Mouse, and Erika laughed at the idea. When she covered "Crimson and Clover," the crowd started singing along thinking she was playing "Sweet Jane." Erika may be hugely influenced by Lou Reed, but she's not here to do what anyone else expects of her. Before releasing this new album, she cut ties with indie rock powerhouse Matador Records, and we're still not sure exactly what went down, but it wasn't pretty. Her resistance to conform is evident in her choice of tourmates too (like Nu Sensae). Another time I saw her, she brought out the highly political Downtown Boys before that band started getting mainstream buzz. Her upcoming tour is with The Blow, another artist who constantly pushes forward and always stays in their own lane no matter what is going on around them.
As Erika said Exile in the Outer Ring would be, the album is highly political, but not in the easily-digestible way that you expect from a Trump-opposing artist. In a time when literal nazis are a fear in America, it can seem a little disconcerting that EMA named a song "Aryan Nation" and said, "This is for my people in the middle country. I don’t look down on, or laugh at, serious issues such as poverty or drug problems. I believe your situations are real, your pain is real." Erika is from a Red State, South Dakota, so she doesn't have to pretend to understand life in Middle America; she lived it. She knows that poverty in rural areas is a real problem and she sings about it all over this album (see "Down & Out"), but you shouldn't mistake her empathy for Middle America as Trump support. It's easy to throw insults around on Twitter, but Outer Ring urges Erika's fellow liberals to try something that can be a bit tougher: listen to the other side.
If you're looking for an easy, quick way to label Outer Ring, you probably won't find one. The album rejects liberal elitism, but it doesn't reject equality. Outer Ring is a very feminine album, and often challenges gender stereotypes. For example, with "Breathalyzer," Erika said she "wanted to present a non-moralizing view of a woman deciding to take drugs." Outer Ring is complex music that forces both sides of today's volatile political climate to think.
Like her last album -- 2014's great The Future's Void -- was, Outer Ring is noticeably influenced by industrial, which is a perfect musical backdrop for an album with a challenging message. Erika made Outer Ring with Unknown Mortal Orchestra bassist Jake Portrait, and the two of them came out with a record that's dark, intense, and at odds with whatever sounds are trendy at the moment. For all of its experimental tendencies, though, Outer Ring is not an unapproachable album. There's always an underlying pop song beneath Outer Ring's more abrasive sounds, and Erika’s voice remains a force. She has a knack for making even the simplest phrases sound dramatic and towering, and she continues to sound like no one other than herself.
Iron & Wine - Beast EpicSub Pop
After Iron & Wine's third album, 2007's The Shepherd's Dog -- the last of his "classic" era -- Iron & Wine made the jump to a major label, and started experimenting with bigger arrangements, more studio polish, and a bit of jazz influence on 2011's Kiss Each Other Clean. A similar approach was taken for 2013's Ghost on Ghost (Nonesuch/4AD), and the following years saw main Iron & Wine member Sam Beam making collaborative albums with Band of Horses' Ben Bridwell and Jesca Hoop. Now Iron & Wine is back on Sub Pop for the first time in ten years, and he returned to the quiet, folky style of his first three Sub Pop albums for this one. Sam produced the album himself, and said he "[employed] the old discipline of recording everything live and doing minimal overdubbing." He also added that he feels there's "a certain kinship" between this new album and his early material. The return to form is a good look for Sam Beam. This is the Iron & Wine that we all fell in love with, and Beast Epic proves that he's still got more to say with this style. Sam is 15 years older than he was when the world was first introduced to Iron & Wine, so naturally Beast Epic isn't exactly the same as his early material. He sounds like a more seasoned, wiser songwriter than he did back then. Of all the previous Iron & Wine albums, the overall sound of Beast Epic most closely echoes 2004's Our Endless Numbered Days, but the perspectives on this album are much different. It may be a return to his classic sound, but it feels like a step forward.
Liars - TFCFMute
There are few bands that like to switch things up as much as Liars. Once regulars of Brooklyn's early 2000s art/noise punk scene, recent albums have seen Liars dipping into glitchy Radiohead territory (2012's WIXIW) and into danceable-but-still-weird electronic pop (2014's Mess). For this year's TFCF, Liars have taken yet another new direction. TFCF is one of Liars' softest albums -- there are actually a few parts that remind me of The Microphones. But because it's a Liars album, one or two songs will never tell the whole story. They have a delicate folky side on TFCF, but these songs aren't without the caustic electronics that Liars have used on most of their albums. Two back to back songs, "Emblems of Another Story" and "No Tree No Branch," sort of tackle the whimsical psych-pop that was going on in late '00s indie rock while Liars were interested in darker, stranger sounds. Liars have a nice take on that style, one that manages to not really sound like other bands. At this point, we should know not to be surprised when Liars reshape their sound. Still, it feels like a triumph that they continue successfully exploring such drastically different paths.
Tera Melos - Trash GeneratorSargent House
The more Tera Melos' career progresses, the harder it is to classify them. Their arty math rock makes them kindred spirits with bands like Deerhoof and Lightning Bolt, and they also make as much sense on a bill with spastic metalcore band The Dillinger Escape Plan as they do with indie rock heroes Pinback. (This fall, they'll tour with Speedy Ortiz, which is a pretty great fit too.) Trash Generator, the followup to 2013's X'ed Out, could be their most versatile album yet. The start-stop rhythms and off-kilter timing are as complex as the most niche math rock bands, there's enough weight to rival metal bands, there's an authentic punk spirit, and the songs are all pop songs in the bright quirky way of, say, Menomena or early Animal Collective. It's a mix of sounds that can sound ridiculous on paper but is such a thrill to listen to. This album basically jumps in with the weirdness and the momentum both at a high, and it stays like that through the final track, only rarely slowing or quieting down. The album's lead single, "Don't Say I Know," was really the perfect song to preface Trash Generator. All of the band's sides are represented in one way or another on that song, and if hearing it got you excited, you're gonna really dig the rest of this LP.