Usually when artists eponymously title a record deep into their career, it's some sort of statement, either a reinvention of their sound or a capstone that is meant to summarize the best of their work with new songs rather than a hits compilation. But I'm not sure what the motivation behind Robyn Hitchcock's latest, Robyn Hitchcock, forty years into a career where he has nothing left to prove. Anyone who's been paying attention doesn't have any doubt about who he is and what kind of music he makes.
As is typical for Hitchcock's releases over the last decade or so, the record has a few throwaways (the honky tonk inflected
"I Pray When I'm Drunk" and the Sgt. Pepper's emulating "Detective Mindhorn" are the best examples on this album), a fair number of decent songs that any Hitchcock fan will appreciate ("Mad Shelley's Letterbox", "Virginia Woolf", and closer "Time Coast"), and a few that can stand up to his best work.
The best tracks of this record are clustered in a trio at the end. It starts with "1970 in Aspic", a nostalgic ode to that period that hits the same emotional notes as "I Saw Nick Drake", which is followed by the album highlight, "Raymond and the Wires", which recalls both "Raymond Chandler Evening" and "I Often Dream of Trains". The third song, "Autumn Sunglasses", is more discordant and open to chaos than the first two——both musically and lyrically it takes a more existential view of the nostalgia and wistful romanticism of the past from the first two tracks.
I've been listening to Robyn Hitchcock for over thirty years now, and it's pretty amazing to hear an artist like this still writing great songs that remain unappreciated and unheard by the vast majority of listeners. But I think everyone who stuck by him through some confusing major lable releases in the early 90s has remained a stolid fan since then, and he continues to reward our unshakable faith in him by giving us solid new releases every few years.
The first thing I want to say about the new, long-awaited Gorillaz album Humanz is that there's a lot of good stuff on here. But the second thing I'll note is that it's an overstuffed, scattershot release that could have easily been edited down from 20 tracks to around a dozen or so and been much stronger for it (although I will give the band a little credit: the six songs that come with the deluxe version of the album are all rightly deserving of being relegated to b-side/bonus material status——there are no vital tracks among them).
Gorillaz have always featured a lot of guest vocalists, but this is far and away the most feature-heavy release of their career——Damon Albarn will usually show up for a backing vocal or a chorus, but you have to get halfway through the album before he tackles a lead vocal, and the best tracks here are reserved for the collaborators——songs where Albarn's voice are the centerpiece serve mainly as palette cleansers in between the star turns from the guests.
But man oh man what a list of collaborators. Grace Jones, Danny Brown, De La Soul, and Mavis Staples are but a few of the featured vocalists who elevate their tracks to noteworthy status, and there are contributions from other diverse, lesser known artists that give their tracks a distinct flavor. Vince Staples' "Ascension", which is the first proper track on the record, is the standout, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has been following his career——he hit everything he touches out of the park.
But the wide variety of styles and vocal personas from the guests makes it hard to review this as a true Gorillaz album——at best it's a Gorillaz mixtape (a very worthwhile one, but a mixtape nonetheless), and you could argue pretty easily that it's not really a Gorillaz project at all, but instead another one of Damon Albarn's many other stylistically varied musical creations.
My wife and I went to see the New Pornographers at the Variety last night, a band I've only seen once and that was over a decade ago when I saw them open for Belle & Sebastian at the 9:30 Club in DC.
Waxahatchee opened for them, and normallly that would merit an entry all its own because I remeain obsessed with that band, but this was far and away the worst of the half dozen performances I've seen from the band——it was just Katie Crutchfield on stage with an electric guitar and one other peformer playing an electric bass by her side. Every single song they did sounded exactly the same——a slow burning drone that didn't showcase the greatness of her songwriting at all. She's got a new record coming out soon, though, so hopefully she'll do a full band tour behind that.
New Pornographers' latest, Whiteout Conditions, has been growing on me, and I was pretty excited to see them live. Here is the setlist:
The Laws Have Changed
Champions of Red Wine
Adventures in Solitude
All the Old Showstoppers
This is the World of the Theater
High Ticket Attractions
Testament to Youth in Verse
Sing Me Spanish Techno
Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk
The Bleeding Heart Show
Given that they are supporting a brand new album (and their first in three years), that's pretty varied setlist. It got off to a slow start with the first track off the new album——it seemed like they were having trouble locking in on their groove——but they moved into older material after that, and by the time they got to "Moves", they were fully in sync and the didn't take their pedal off the gas again.
All in all they played about half of the new record, and then choice cuts from across the rest of their career. The highlight for me was "Testament to Youth in Verse", which is probably my favorite song of theirs, and one of my favorite songs ever. It would have been a near-perfect experience if they had also played "From Blown Speakers", but I'm not going to get greedy——it was a great
It feels like LCD Soundsystem announced that they were getting back together and releasing a new album YEARS ago at this point, and that record, American Dream, is still months away, but we've finally gotten an official release of new music from James Murphy and Co. in the form of "Call the Police":
Oh my god it's so good have them back. This song almost instantly ranks among their best, like "All My Friends" and "Home", and even if it ends up being far and away the best song on the record, it alone mandates ownership of the entire album.
On the heels of the release of "Call the Police" a few days ago, LCD Soundsystem shared the title track from their upcoming new album, American Dream:
Sometimes I wonder why more bands don't do more of their slower-tempo material in the waltzy-3/4 time that LCD Soundsystem uses here, because it's always so beautiful and amazing to use this off-kilter time signature for a wistful pop song about longing, but I know it's a trick that would probably get old real quick if it was overused.
But it's perfect here. Based on these two songs, it now not only seems possible but actually pretty likely that this record will live up to fans' extremely high expectations. Damn it I love this band so much.
5.11.17 Waxahatchee have shared a new song called "No Curse" that they recorded for a series called Shaking Through:
It's not clear whether this track will be on their recently-announced new album or whether it's a standalone release, but either way, it shares the same 90s alt rock sheen of "Never Been Wrong", a track that we know is on the album.
Katie Crutchfield's songcraft shines through no matter which genres she's experimenting with, and while on paper a foray into a more aggressive rock style sounds appealing to me, neither of these tracks hits the sweet spot that I imagined they would.
It also doesn't help that I was less than enthralled by her performance as the opening act for the New Pornographers earlier this month——maybe if I had heard some of these new tracks with a full band in a live setting I could have had a different appreciation for their recorded versions.
Before I talk about Kendrick Lamar's new album Damn, let me get two things out of the way: First, I refuse to accept this 21st century movement that confuses typography design with spelling, so I'm going to call the record Damn instead of DAMN., because the former is the title of the record and the latter are the letters they put on the front of the album cover.
Second——and I know this makes me a very small minority among those who consider themselves Kendrick fans——I didn't like To Pimp a Butterfly at all. I didn't enjoy a single track, and I actively disliked two thirds of the album. In my memory (because I haven't listened to it in so long), it took the worst elements of preachiness from Section.80 and maginified them over a jazzy noodles of music. It barely counts as a rap album for me, and only in the way that something like the Digable Planets count as rap. It's moralistic spoken word poetry that uses musical references from
the history of black music to underscore its points, but it's not rap, and it's barely listenable.
I disliked Butterfly so much that I never even listened to the semi-official follow up Untitled Unmastered, and I didn't have any interest in Damn until I heard some of the songs online.
I know how much people love Butterfly——for many people, that's the record that made them a Kendrick fan, and for most of his fan base it is unquestionably his masterwork. I get the cultural signficance of the record, both in terms of the stories he's telling on the album and in how transformative it was for his career, but at the end of the day, I just didn't respond to it as a work of art.
Damn, however, is another story, and for someone like me, who became a fan because of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, this record's strong re-embracing of rap feels like the true successor to that record. There are still the social themes, but they are couched in more engaging narratives that do what the best stories always do: get you to be emotionally invested first and then give you something to think about in a more abstract way later.
"Humble" is clearly the standout track here, and like many of Kendrick's best raps from early in his career, it's a critique of standard rap boasting tropes that hides its commentary inside
one of the best examples of the form, making it a lot harder to tease apart the meaning and interpretation from the visceral response you have to the words and music.
While I'm really loving this album, its bigger long term impact for me is that I'm seriously considering giving Butterfly and Untitled second chances. This is clearly an artist whose work I respond to, so maybe there was something off with the alignment of the stars when I heard that record originally (although I swear I invested many hours waiting for a personal breakthrough with that album). There's not a throwaway track on this record, and there are a few genuinely great songs.
I'm curious to know what people who only know Kendrick from Butterfly and Untitled might think of this record, which might feel to them as mismatched with their expectations as Butterfly did to me. But if you're a rap or hip hop fan, regardless of what you think about Kendrick's previous work, this is one of the better albums in that genre to be released in the past few years, and it's well worth owning.
5.15.17 The National recently shared a new song, "The System Only Sleeps in Total Darkness", from their upcoming album Sleep Well Beast.
Both the song and album title have a sort of creepy dystopian feel that perfectly fits the batshit times we're living through, but the music isn't making some sort of Kid A-type shift——this is a solid National track that would be at home on any of their releases since 2010's High Violet, which marked their transition to a band with more awareness from mainstream press and music consumers.
I can't begrudge them for mining the same territory for years when it's so productive. They can still evoke that sense of longing and loss, and it's always amazing to me how they either 1) make a whole bunch of instruments sound minimalistic or 2) make a few instruments sound so rich. Sometimes you have to listen really hard to figure out which category a song fits into, and I'm still not really sure where to put this one.
5.16.17 Broken Social Scene have shared another song from their new record, the first release from the collective in seven years. It's called "Hug of Thunder":
This is more subdued than the track they shared a few weeks ago, but it's still vintage Broken Social Scene, and I tend to like this style better than their more kinetic tempos.
As much as I like this band's previous releases, however, I'm finding myself vaguely concerned that the two tracks we've heard so far could have fit onto almost any of their previous releases despite the longest hiatus of their career. Do they get points for consistency or get docked for lack of new ideas after such an extended fallow period?
My head is still spinning from the rapid fall from grace of PWR BTTM, one of my favorite young bands who I now wonder if we'll ever hear from again. Just a week ago, they were on the verge of releasing their sophomore full length, Pageant, which was already getting rave reviews from the press, and embarking on a major headlining tour. But then there was a note posted to a private Facebook group in Chicago that warned that one of the band members (there are only two of them) had committed acts of sexual harrassment and engaged in sexual activity without consent.
That post was soon shared publicly, which spurred other women to come forward and say they had also experienced that behavior from one of the band members. In short order, their supporting acts quit, their touring band members quit, their tour was canceled, their managment team quit representing them, their record company dropped them and ceased distribution of their new album, and their old record company also stopped selling their debut album (including, in both cases, removing the albums from download stores and streaming services).
Again, this was all based on allegations from a few people that had never been reported to the police (much less prosecuted) and that had very little in the way of evidence. But the band has built a large part of its fan base by appealing to the LGBTQ community (both band members identify as queer) in both their recorded material and in the way they stage their live shows. When you've built your reputation on artists by standing up for the right to be different and to be safe while expressing yourself, the mere allegation that you've been violating trust is enough to get you blackballed, especially when you've become popular spokespeople for the norms and values of that community.
I don't know how all this will shake out, and I certainly don't know what to believe as a bystander who has no idea what the actual truth is, but the band's future looks pretty grim at this point. It's early in the process, but the rapidity with which they were exiled by
the industry suggests that the accusations have more merit to them than it seems on the surface.
It would be a shame if they never recover from this, both because 1) that probably means that at least some of the allegations are true and 2) they made two really good records, and their new one, Pageant (which I downloaded before all this came to light and before it was yanked from iTunes), could have been a massive hit for them, especially combined with a major tour that would have brought them more attention and bigger audiences.
If they're going to make it back into the good graces of their fans and record company, they're going to have to do it quickly——if we get to the end of the summer and they still haven't figured this out, I suspect that they are done forever.
5.18.17 Vince Staples shared another track from his upcoming Big Fish Theory, this one called "Big Fish":
This might be the catchiest thing Staples has released so far (and that's saying something), and this seems to be the looser, more party-oriented counterpart to Summertime 06's signature track "Norf Norf". Everything this guy has done is brilliant, whether it's his own albums or EPs or his features on other artists' tracks, and I can't wait for this record.
I bought Little Dragon's new record Season High a few weeks ago, and it's...okay. I'm realizing that I've now purchased three Little Dragon records based largely the singer's features on Gorillaz' Plastic Beach and Big Boi'sVicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, and my sole purpose in buying the band's own releases has been looking for the kinds of songs that they collaborate on with other artists.
Left to their own devices, the tend much more to slower, more introspective electronic pop, which is fine, but that's not really what I'm looking for. They go full-on dancefloor mode for a few tracks on every record——for Season High, those are "The Pop Life", "Sweet", and "Strobe Light"——and while I think a solid album of those tracks would need to be undercut by their quieter, dreamier pieces, the ratio feels off to me.
This might be their strongest release to date, however, and it could definitely grow more on me the more I listen to it. But if you're discovering this band because of their strong work on other records, where they typically steal the spotlight and feature on the best track on another artist's album, be careful of setting expectations too high. I might actually like them more if I had discovered them independently first and then found the collaborations after I had already grown to love their own style.
Ex-Dirty Projectors singer/guitarist Amber Coffman shared another track from her upcoming solo album, this one called "Nobody Knows":
When Dirty Projectors' frontman David Longstreth released the first album from the group without Coffman early this year, it was easy to assume that he was the dominant songwriter in the group, but the more we hear of Coffman's music, it's much harder to argue that position.
The two songs she shared prior to this one definitely have more of a classic pop orientation, but they also have lots of those little touches and quirks that made Dirty Projectors sound like Dirty Projectors. This track comes closer to the more complex structures and patterns of Dirty Projectors, but it would still be one of the more accessible tracks if it were nestled among the songs that Longstreth released without Coffman.
The diehards who liked the more complicated and dissonant aspects of Dirty Projectors, might not respond to Coffman's solo work as strongly, but for someone like me, who was always hunting for those moments of pure pop bliss hiding amongst the shifting time changes and minor key weirdness, this album might be an overload of the things I always felt were best about the band.
I loved Girlpool's first album, Before the World Was Big, and I was really looking forward to their sophomore disc, Powerplant, which was released a couple of weeks ago. But I've tried and tried, and I just don't like this record.
There's nothing that brings to mind the straightforward charm of their debut record, and even the songs I like sound so typical of what you would expect from a generic indie girl group that they're only likable in that context, and not as Girlpool songs.
I'll keep trying because I'm stubborn, but I don't know that this one is ever going to turn for me. I was really rooting for them, and I knew they'd have to grow their sound eventually, but this record sounds like an entirely different band. Their growing proficiency with their instruments and their desire to record with a full band have sanded down the rough edges that made them so lovable, and what's left behind is so flat that I can't find anywhere I can get traction.
5.26.17 Phoenix are releaing a new record called Ti Amo next month, and they recently shared the title track:
This band has always danced around (PUN!) its disco influences, never really wearing their love for the genre on their musical sleeve, but not shying away from its style either. This is easily one of their most disco-y tracks, and it's got some interesting calls to Aisian pop as well, meaning if you could legitimately describe this as an English-speaking French band influenced by 70s disco with J-Pop overtones.
Anyway. I like it. You might not. And I would totally get it if you decided this wasn't for you. But try to give it a listen with an open mind and not be annoyed by the overwhelming European-ness of it all.