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august 2016

For the past month, I've spent most of my time in the car listening to a playlist of all my four and five star rated tracks from the 90s, and now MTV has announced that they are rebranding VH1 Classic to MTV Classic, and dedicating to playing the music and original programming from the channel in the 90s.

I don't know what's more disturbing——that I'm somehow psychically connected to a zeitgeist that's bringing the 90s back in vogue, or that the 90s happened so long ago that we can now talk about bringing them back on a cable channel with the word "classic" in its name.

In April 2015, Frank Ocean put up a post on Tumblr implying that his new album, apparently titled Boys Don't Cry, would be released that July. Of course, July 2015 came and went without a new album or any information about what happened to the release date, and Frank Ocean fans, after initial waves of anger and disappointment and anger, moved on in the absence of any further developments.

Then a couple of weeks ago, Ocean posted another image to Instagram that strongly implied that Boys Don't Cry would be released sometime in July 2016, a full year after it was initially promised, and fans (like me) started to get our hopes up again. And now we have major media outlets reporting that it will be released this Friday, August 5, and while that's not quite July, it's not that far off.

I'm still a little skeptical——he's toyed with us before, and he doesn't seem to have any problem getting people's hopes up and then vanishing again for months without a word to the press or his fans. But there are other indications that something is coming soon, like a livestream on his web site that includes an Apple Music logo, so I'm allowing myself to start beleiving that we'll have a new album from him soon.

I'm tired of music review sites (like Pitchfork) reviewing albums that aren't available via typical music distribution outlets without noting exactly what hoops you'll have to jump through in order to access the music. If you're going to review an album, and especially if you're going to hype an album, part of the review needs to include information on where to find it, whether that's by signing up for an exclusive music streaming service or going to a mixtape download site.

I'm dismayed by this recent trend among artists (some of them major artists like Chance the Rapper or Kanye West), but the least sites like Pitchfork can do to help out the consumer is to tell us how the average person——not a connected music reviewer who gets everything hand delivered in whatever format they want——can access the music they're talking about if you can't find it on Amazon or iTunes.

The Drive-By Truckers have announced a new album, American Band, and shared a song called "What It Means":

2014's English Oceans was their best record in years, and so I was looking forward to this one, but this is shaping up to be their most overtly political record yet, and I traditionally haven't responded well to overt polemics, even from artists I like. Both songs that have been shared so far are strongly political with lyrics the verge on lectures ("What It Means" is about police shootings of black Americans, and "Surrender Under Protest" is about the conflicts over the Confederate battle flag)

Drive-By Truckers have always had a political undercurrent, especially in terms of criticizing the racist heritage of the south and how that still informs politics and social interactions today, but their best work has come when that's woven into personal stories instead of narratively barren statements of purpose.

I like the music on both of the songs they've shared so far, and that might be enough to be me through, but given that they wanted to make an album about the state of America as it comes to grips with its racial tension, especially in an election year that features a major party candidate who stokes those flames unrepentantly, this seems like a wasted opportunity to make an album that serves as a contemporary document about the nation but which also finds ways, through personal narratives, to transcend this particular moment in time.

Because albums that are so specifically about the now in which they are made often remain stuck in that instant and lose their power to continue to influence the conversation and be agents of change once that moment has passed.

Hamilton Leithauser and Rostam (of Vampire Weekend) have announced a new album together called I Had a Dream that You Were Mine that will featured the previously shared "A 1000 Times", and also shared a second track from the album called "In a Black Out":

Whereas the previous song sounded like it could have come from a Walkmen album or Leithauser's solo album (which soudned for all the world like a Walkmen album), this one has a different feel to it——more subtle and subdued musically than even the ballad-leaning tracks in Leithauser's catalogue up to now.

Whenever there's a new collaboration involving artists whose work I otherwise enjoy, I usually wait to hear the record in its entirety before I decide whether it's worth adding to my collection. But this song might have tipped the scales enough for me to preorder this album; the two songs shares so far reinforce what I love about Leithauser but also show him being willing to move in a new direction that still suits his unique style.

Fuck you Frank Ocean.

Tennis shared a new song last week called "Ladies Don't Play Guitar":

While they haven't officailly announced this as a track from a new album, it is from material they wrote in preparaton for their next record, so it wouldn't surprise me if in another month or so we got another single along with an official album title and release date. This isn't a bad Tennis song——there really aren't many bad Tennis songs——but it's lacking that one moment of pure revelation/bliss, or that little twist on a hook that marks their strongest material.

I'm still excited about the possibility of a new record sometime in the next six months, but let's hope this isn't the strongest effort from their most recently songwriting sessions.

of Montreal's new album, Innocence Reaches, doesn't officially drop until Friday, but if you preordered it from the Polyvinyl web site (which of course I did), you were given access to a link to download the album last Friday.

I've mostly given up on the possibility of Kevin Barnes creating anything that can stand with his best work back in the latter half of the last decade, but on this one he returns to the synths and electronic beats (and his use of his own voice as a synth-like backing instrument) that were prevalent on his strongest albums like Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? and Skeletal Lamping.

And I will say this about it: it's weird in a way that he hasn't been in a while, and that alone is keeping me interested. This one could be a grower——I didn't care for Paralytic Stalks so much at first, but it eventually became my favorite record of the post-Skeletal Lamping period, and this one has enough little moments that catch my interest that could lead to a deeper involvement.

There are still plenty of musical references to the early part of the band's career, during which the band was heavily influenced by 60s Britpop like many other bands in the Elephant 6 Collective. In some ways this album reminds me of Satanic Panic in the Attic, which was still mostly referencing 60s psychedelic pop, but which on a couple of songs (such as "Rapture Rapes the Muses" and the final third of "Lysergic Bliss") we start to hear hints of the sound that would emerge on The Sunlandic Twins and come to define the band during their creative and commerical peak.

The Olympics are going on now in Rio, and although Belle & Sebastian aren't officially a part of the activities, they apparently really, really like the Olympics, so they wrote a song about it called "Olympic Village, 6AM":

This is just an instrumental, which is a shame, because musicallly this is one of the best things they've recorded in years, and for the first time in a while they seem okay with referencing their classic sound instead of spending a lot of energy running away from it and futzing around with electronic beats and sounds. Here's hoping Stuart will get inspired to add some lyrics to it and re-release it as a proper single someday.

The Faint have always been one of my favorite bands that never quite broke through, so I'm always happy to have new music from them. Just recently they shared a song called "Skylab 1979":

Unfortunately this isn't the first single from a completely new album,, but it will be released as one of two all-new tracks on a career retrospective called Capsule: 1999-2016. This song would have fit right in on their career-defining Danse Macabre, which remains just about everyone's favorite album, and since they're going to be touring behind this release, I'm hoping that this will expose them new audiences and spark interest in more new material from them.

I've never seen the Faint live, but they will be coming to Atlanta as part of this tour (with Gang of Four opening up for them, oddly enough), so I'm going to try to catch them if I can. And although there's little reason for me to buy Capsule in its entirety since I already own all of the previously released songs on it, I'll definitely be doing single purchases of "Skylab 1979" and the other new song.

I'm starting to lose track of all the concerts I have tickets to over the next couple of months, so I'm going to list there here:

Sep 8: Car Seat Headrest——Terminal West
Sep 21: Okkervil River——Terminal West

Oct 11: The Faint/Gang of Four——Center Stage
Oct 18: Echo & the Bunnymen——Variety Playhouse
Nov 9: Guided By Voices/Surfer Blood——Variety Playhouse
Nov 10: Bob Mould——Georgia Theatre

I didn't realize until I made this list that the Guided By Voices and Bob Mould shows were back to back, were both on weeknights, and that the second show is in Athens, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes each way. So that will be an interesting one to figure out stamina and work-wise.

I'm also seriously considering of Montreal on Oct 31——it's the final date on their tour, and the last time they played on Halloween night was the first time they decided to play "No Conclusions" in years, so I'm very tempted. But it is on Halloween only a couple of days after I get back from a business trip that will last nearly a week, so I'm not sure if I can sell my wife on it.

Regina Spektor has shared another track from her upcoming new album, this one called "Small Bill$":

Granted, my exposure to Spektor's music is limited to one album at this point, but this sounds different than anything I've heard from her before——a dark, slinkly, slightly evil groove combined with stop-start percussive elements (including a menacing string section) and interstitial vocals inspired by a goth kids choir. But I mean all of that in the best way possible, because I really like this track.

The Pixies shared another song from their upcoming new album, this one titled "Talent":

For the first few seconds, I started thinking, "Well, this isn't really a decent Pixies song, but it might be a decent song from the early part of Frank Black's solo career, which is something, I guess." But it quickly goes downhill, devolving into something that's barely recognizable as either the Pixies or Frank Black, even at his middling to poor.

This is nowhere near as good as the first song they shared from this record, and the last line kind of sums it up for me: "What a waste of talent."

I've never been a fan of artists doing one-off singles for movie soundtracks, but I'm going to be covering two songs in this category today and tomorrow. At least in the digital world it's pretty easy to buy just that song and add it to your music collection if the artist happens to produce something worth keeping, but that doesn't happen very often.

First up: Grimes' "Medieval Warfare" from the Suicide Squad soundtrack:

Given how much I like her last two albums, I had some hope that this might be a decent song, but I was wrong, wrong, wrong. It sounds like someone ripping off all the worst parts of Grimes and adding them to the worst parts of Sleigh Bells, and it's just as unlistenable as anything from the latter band's most recent release.

The second song from a movie is Car Seat Headrest's "Does It Feel Good (To Say Goodbye)?", which frontman Will Toledo composed for the short film Loudini:

This is actually a pretty solid song from this band, and it could have fairly easily nestled itself among the other tracks on his most recent album, Teens of Denial, which is turning into one of my favorite albums of 2016. There's a little bit of a 60s/70s jam band feel a la The Band, the Allman Brothers, or the Grateful Dead, but I think I can get past that with a few more listens. I'm on the fence about purchasing this one as a standalone, but at least it sounds like something he would have released in the absence of a movie soundrack album that needed a song from him.

Two weeks after the New York Times announced that Frank Ocean would finally be releasing a new album (four years after his last album and more than a year since he announced on social media that it would be released), he finally came through for his long-suffering fans, releasing a "visual album" called Endless that showcased 18 new songs over a video of Frank building a spiral staircase to nowhere, a video for another new song called "Nikes" on Saturday, and another completely new traditional album called Blonde on Saturday evening.

I'm still hoping that he'll release Endless as a real audio album, broken up into tracks and in studio quality (of course there are downloads of it that extract the music from the video and break it up into separate tracks, but the sound quality just isn't there), but even if he doesn't, Blonde is going to give me plenty to chew on for a while. It's very different than Channel Orange or Nostalgia, Ultra, and it's also unmistakably Frank Ocean, and so far I'm either completely in love with a track or somewhat indifferent to it——my initial ratings after a few listens are either fives or threes. But it's a great album as a whole, and it reaffirms that he's one of the premiere vocal and songwriting talents of our time.

M.I.A. shared another track from her upcoming new album A.I.M., this one called "Bird Song":

This song is just bonkers lyrically and musically, even for M.I.A., which is a pretty hard trick to pull off these days. But I mean that in the most affectionate way possible——this song along might convince me to preorder the record.

I was really looking forward to the new Dinosaur Jr., Give a Glimpse of What Yer Not, but as an album, it hasn't really settled in with me. There are some really great songs on it, like "Goin Down", "Tiny", and "Lost All Day", but for there's very little that's remarkable about the remaining J Mascis tracks——aside from "Knocked Around", which I think I might be in the process of falling in love with, there's a sameness to the songs that makes them blur together.

Also: I didn't like Sebadoh, and I don't think there are any Lou Barlow-penned Dinosaur Jr. tracks that I've ever liked either, so his two tracks are essentially wasted space as far as I'm concerned. I get making concessions to bandmates for the sake of harmony, but this is concise 10 track album, which means J Mascis is ceding 20% of the album to a far less talented songwriter.

Vince Staples has a new EP called Prima Donna coming out soon, and today he shared a track from it called "Smile":

It's got a little bit of a different vibe than the material on his debut double album Summertime '06, and while I'm not responding to it as strongly as I do the best tracks on that record, it also took me a while to warm up to that release, and now it's one of my favorite relases, rap or otherwise, of the past few years, so I'm sure I'm going to pick up this EP.

I was initially a little disappointed with Frank Ocean's Blonde, especially given the extended run up to the album release, but now that I've had a chance to soak it in a bit, I'm just as obsessed with it and just as impressed with it as his other two full albums.

It's definitely got a different feel——overall it's much more intimate and subdued, and although he's had songs like this before, his albums have always been a good mixture of different styles. That's still true here, but they all share a quiet, introspective quality from a musical perspective that creates a more unified sound across the whole record.

It also has a surprising amount of guitar in it, although that instrument is still used so sparingly that even when it's the only other instrument accompanying Ocean, you still don't really notice it——his voice and his songs are at the center of everything here, and while the instrumentation is often brilliant and always enhances the song, that's never the focus of the songs.

In some ways this record feels like a companion piece to Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool, which I've now finally been able to submerge myself in after listening to Blonde for a couple of weeks. That's another subdued, intimate album and uses guitars prominently but in less obvious and less traditional ways. I've enjoyed bouncing back and forth between these two discs, while Blonde is definitely the one I identify with more strongly, I love that Frank Ocean somehow primed me to appreciate the beauty of A Moon Shaped Pool after several months of not being able to get into it.

There are only a few albums that I owned and loved (or at least remember loving) on cassette that I was never able to buy on CD or find in the digital backwaters of music sharing sites: Bourgeois Tagg's eponymous debut; Broken Homes' eponymous debut; and the Grapes of Wrath's September Bowl of Green.

There were some others that fit into this category——Cactus World News' Urban Beaches, the Bolshoi's Friends, the Screaming Blue Messiahs' Gun Shy, the Waxing Poetics' Hermitage, the Models' Out of Mind Out of Sight, the Balancing Act's Three Squares and a Roof, and Scruffy the Cat's Tiny Days——but I was eventually able to locate legal copies of all of these either on CD or iTunes over the years (I recall paying a pretty penny for the Gun Shy CD on eBay sometime in the late 90s——which had a very limited release on CD and was incredibly hard to come by).

You'll notice that all these records have something in common: they were released in 1985-1987 when CDs had become a major format but were still expensive enough (compared to cassettes, which were the dominant format then) that only guaranteed strong sellers were released on CD. None of these records received a CD release when they initially came out, although some received limited or archival releases years——sometimes decades——later.

These records are also all from bands who had a limited career post 1987——a lot of their peers who also did not have their albums released on CD at the time stuck around long enough for their entire back catalogs to eventually be given the CD treatment, but the three bands I listed in the first paragraph were all defunct within a few years and hadn't built up a big enough fan base for the record company to justify re-releasing their material in CD format.

Anyway. Every now and then I dig around on iTunes for these last few missing pieces of my early adolescence, not really expecting to find them, but a couple of weeks ago the Grapes of Wrath's September Bowl of Green showed up in a search on iTunes, and I couldn't resist buying it. It turns out that the band released a new album in 2013, and that may have led to the digital reissuing of their two previous albums, including their debut, September Bowl of Green.

To be honest, I remembered very little about the album——there were two musical snippets that would run through my head: "My heart is a cannonball and it weighs a million pounds" and "I had a dream about you/Your love for me was gone" from "Breaks My Heart" and "Dream (About You)" respectively——but other than remembering that I liked the album and listened to it a lot the first year after I bought the cassette (after which time I myself transitioned to CDs and didn't listen to tapes much anymore), I didn't have a clear sense of who they were as a band or what their sound was.

It's still hard to describe, but it's distinctly part of that jangly, serious college rock that was a strain of 80s alternative that never really made it to the big time——elements of R.E.M.'s jangle are definitely present, but the sound on this record also has some common DNA with bands like Dumptruck, early Mighty Lemon Drops, or the Bolshoi, although none of these bands is an exact match for what the Grapes of Wrath were doing.

I've enjoyed revisiting this album, and it holds up as well as some of my other favorite albums from that period, which surprised me a bit——I was expecting to like a handful of the songs and hear the rest as outdated relics of the time in which they were made. The production and instrumentation definitely places this album at a discrete point in time, the songs themselves are all pretty decent.