It took Death From Above ten years to make their sophomore album, The Physical World, but it's only been three years since that record was released and they've given us its successor: Outrage Is Now, a fitting title for our times.
It doesn't move away from their signature style——a stripped down indie duo of guitarist/singer and drummer
that's what the Black Keys might have been if they were more into heavy metal and math rock than garage rock blues——and that's perfectly alright with me. It's not as frenetic or intense as their debut, but it's still loud and angry even if the pace is more moderate (and that's strictly in relative terms).
If you had to rank their three releases, this one would be the weakest, and similarly, if you were to give them scores for originality, this one would lag behind the others. But that doesn't mean it's a bad record——it has some killer songs on it ("Never Swim Alone" and "Holy Books" are my favorites), and if you were to put all their songs together in one big shuffle, you wouldn't point out any of these songs as being lesser than the songs from their previous two albums.
10.3.17 Run the Jewels have a new track on the FIFA 18 video game soundtrack called "Mean Demeanor":
This is not a bad Run the Jewels track, but it's sort of the worst of both worlds in terms of a previously unreleased track they're licensing to a game. Tjey had two options here: release a b-side level track that isn't good enough to make it on their next album, or share a killer track that will be the lead single for their next record.
Instead, "Mean Demeanor" is a track that has the bones of being a killer track that sounds rushed and/or unfinished. With more work——less dead space lyrically, a couple more interesting instrumental additions, and more interplay between Killer Mike and El-P, this could have stood shoulder to shoulder with some of their strongest tracks.
Who knows? Maybe this is just a draft, and an improved version will make it onto their next record. But when you work outside the typical major label structure and release your albums for free, you have to look at alternate sources of income, inclusing commercial licensing of your tracks, and it oculd be that the money for this one was too big to turn down, even if the song wasn't quite where they wanted it to be by the deadline.
10.4.17 Billy Corgan has a Rick Rubin-produced, acoustic-focused solo album coming out called Ogilala, and he recently shared a track from that effort called "The Spaniards":
I gave this track every chance possible, but...it's just awful. And I'm someone who's always willing to give Corgan another chance——I thought the last Pumpkins album was actually quite good, and Corgan's best work since the Pumpkins' mid-90s heyday.
It was an intriguing idea to pair Rubin's stripped down approach that worked so well with Johnny Cash with a songwriter like Corgan, but it just doesn't work. Adore was the closet comparable Pumpkins album to this approach, and that was their worst with the original lineup. It didn't work for the same reason this doesn't work——it played to the band's weaknesses instead of their strengths.
This song would work better with the standard Pumpkins production——loud guitars and complex drum patterns——because without those acoutrements, it's a bit boring. And Corgan's voice isn't really made to stand alone so starkly——it doesn't have the richness of a Johnny Cash, and whatever nuace it might be capable of is still best esconsed in a wall of sound.
10.9.17 Knox Fortune is a name you've likely never heard (I hadn't until recently), but he's won a Grammy already for his singing on a Chance the Rapper track and he's done production work for artists like Joey Purp and Vic Mensa. On his first solo album, Paradise, his voice alternately sounds like it belongs to an adult woman or a male child, which makes reconciling the mental image you create that much harder when you see an actual picture of Kevin Rhomberg——a long-haired, pedo-mustachioed skinny kid who looks like an extra out of an 80s movie about teenagers who are obsessed with Metallica and Megadeth.
The music has the laid-back vibe not only of Chance without the gospel tinge, but also of London O'Connor——if you had played me some of the songs from this record without telling me who the artist was (like "Stars", "Help Myself", and especially "24 Hours"), I would have immediately guessed O'Connor. But these tracks are better produced, filled with more fully-formed ideas and better execution while maintaining a lacksadaisical, whimsical air.
I'm still trying to figure out exactly where this fits in my musical universe,
but I like this record a little bit more every time I listen to it, and I always love it when one of the songs shows up in one of my shuffle playlists. Putting aside my need to apply a taxonomy to everything and the difficulty of doing that with an artist like Knox Fortune, I don't know what other kind of reaction the pure listener in me should want from an album.
10.10.17 The Breeders have shared their first new music this decade, a track called "Wait in the Car":
I am eternally hopeful that we'll get another Breeders album as good as Pod or Last Splash, where Kim Deal embraced her quirks but did so in the context of hooks and a more richly produced sound, but if this turns out to be the first preview track from a new record, it doesn't seem like that their next full-length release will be that album.
Even though this record was the first one with the lineup that created Last Splash since Last Splash itself, this track sounds a lot more like the Amps or Deal's solo singles series she put out a few years back. And while it's not bad for those personas, it's just not the classic Breeders sound that I keep hoping for. Again, a cute little song, but the whole time I listen to it there's another, better version of it playing in my head.
I still wonder what the new Pixies records would have been like with her as a full participant/collaborator——her contributions to that band were always more than her bass and her stage presence, and I can't help but think that if she and Black Francis had been able to get along in teh studio long enough to get a record done, we'd have a much better outcome as fans.
That said, even though I was hoping for more, if this is going to be part of a larger release, I would be good money it's going to be better than the last Pixies album.
10.11.17 Sleigh Bells have a new EP coming out called Kid Kruschev, and "And Saints" is the lead single:
I still love the debut album from Sleigh Bells, but I've liked each successive release less and less. I only bought their third album, Bitter Rivals, because it was on sale for $5, and I didn't buy their fouth album, Jessica Rabbit (released last year) at all. I expected that as they matured and expanded their sonic palette, they'd write more songs like "Rill Rill", but they went the opposite way, developing their own bombastic brand of bro-rock that makes Def Leppard seem subtle.
But I'm intrigued by "And Saints", since it's definitely exploring some unknown ground for them——no guitars and no drums, just Alexis Krauss singing over a subdued but agitated bass and some synths providing atmostphere. The fact that they chose this as the lead single is also telling——they're clearing signaling a change in their approach.
If it's a harbinger of a more nuanced, experimental take for the rest of the EP, I might consider picking this one up. Even if I don't, this still gives me some hope that they understand the limitations of the style they boxed themselves into and might belatedly return to detours like "Rill Rill" for future inspiration.
10.12.17 Belle and Sebastian have announced a new trilogy of EPs collectively titled How to Solve Our Human Problems, with each EP being released about a month apart starting in December (which makes you wonder why they didn't just combine them into a formal LP, but whatever).
The previously shared "We Were Beautiful" will be on the first EP, and a newly shared track called "I'll Be Your Pilot" will be on part 2:
As with "We Were Beautiful", this track is stronger than just about anything on their last formal album, and actually reminds me a bit of Stuart Murdoch'sGod Help the Girl project crossed with a little bit of Dream Academy (that clarinet sounds so much like the way that band used the instrument).
I would love nothing more than to have a listenable collection of songs from Stuart Murdoch and company, so these two tracks are giving me some hope that we might finally get that from this trilogy of EPs. It feels more like their recorded output is an excuse for them to tour, where their real vitality lies these days, but it would be nice if their albums were the center of their creativity again instead of an adjunct to it.
10.13.17 No Age is back with a new record called Snares Like a Haircut, and they have shared a new track from that album called "Soft Collar Fad" on their Bandcamp site:
Despite having purchased and enjoyed all their records, I somehow forget this band exists until they resurface and I'm pleasantly surprised all over again, both to revisit their previous output and to get excited about new material. This is pretty much classic No Age——noisy, short, and catchy. It seems like a simple formula, but somehow they do it better than almost anyone else.
10.16.17 The Go Team are back with the title track from their forthcoming new album ("Semicircle Song" and Semicircle respectively):
The core Go Team formula——busy arrangements with lots of percussion and instruments that sound like they're sampled but which almost certainly are not, modified girl group vocals, and sing-along choruses that sound like they could have been devised by your local cheerleading squad——would have worn thin after an album or two, but here we are five albums and nearly 14 years into their career and they still somehow managed to make it sound fresh.
"Semicircle Song" is one of their catchier tunes, with halting stop-and-start beats accented by a rich horn section and a steel drum that has no business being so prominent but which works perfectly. This is as good as anything they've ever done, and it's telling about their longevity and quality that there are two or three songs like this on every album.
10.17.17 Sufjan Stevens is releasing a companion mixtape to 2015's Carrie and Lowell called The Greatest Gift. It features remixes, outtakes, and demos, and he recently shared one of the outtakes, "Wallowa Lake Monster":
While the music is similar to the quiet, minimalistic mood of Carrie and Lowell, the subject matter is more like something he would have included on one of his state-inspried albums rather than the intimate autobiographical stories from Carrie and Lowell. Still, I like this track until about four minutes in, when it goes to ghostly underwater instrumental for the remaining three minutes. A minute or so of this would have been fine, but that's just too long to drag it out for a simpleton like me.
Alright: here's where I was planning to write about the new Wolf Parade album, Cry Cry Cry, but...I just can't bring myself to do it.
I don't really have much to say about it, and even writing just these few sentences about not wanting to write about the record is reflective how tedious and uninspiring it is. Which is hugely disappointing given how long fans waited for it and how high expectations were, espcially after a promising comeback EP released last year, the group's first ouput in more than half a decade.
I thought at first it maight be an overly heavy
presence from Spencer Krug, but the writing credits are split pretty evenly——six for Krug and five for Dan Boeckner. But the whole record sounds like the less inspired version of Krug we got on the band's later albums——in the same way that Boeckner emphasized that elements of his songwriting that were similar to Spoon'sBritt Daniel on their Divine Fits collaboration, he seems to be taking on some of Krug's style. And since Krug isn't doing anything particularly brilliant...well, where does that leave us?
10.19.17 MGMT are returning with their fourth album early next year. It's called Little Dark Age, and they recently shared the title track:
I think most MGMT fans are like me: all they really want is another killer track like "Time to Pretend", or at least something like "Electric Feel". Those are both from their first album, and we keep buying into subsequent releases only to be disappointed. I mean, they're decent albums, especially 2013's MGMT, but they lack the pop sensibilities to layer in with the weird psych-techno that has emerged as their true style.
This track seems more in sync with their non-Oracular Spectacular releases, but I do like the heavy references to early Depeche Mode and the goth-ier aspects of OMD, which makes it feel more pop-oriented without actually being more pop-oriented.
I'm still pretty likely to buy this record, and this song is growing on me the more I listen to it. But man, I really think I'd give them more leeway and be able to hear them for who they really are (instead of what I want them to be) if "Time to Pretend" wasn't always lurking on the edge of my listening experience with their music.
I was looking forward to St. Vincent's new album Masseduction more than almost any other record this year, but after an initial couple of listens, I was less than thrilled. Yes, there were still a few songs that immediately grabbed me ("New York" and "Happy Birthday Johnny" are instant classics), but it felt like she got so preoccupied with proving she could do something different from her previous albums that she forgot about the great songwriting that needed to be (and had always been) at the core of her music.
But as I've listened to it more in the week or so since it was released, it has grown on me, and I think it will continue to improve with age. I don't know that it will ever reach the same status with me as Strange Mercy or Actor, but it's already pulled pretty even with St. Vincent and her project with David Byrne called Love This Giant (which is clearly an influence here). Annie Clark has always had a taste for the theatrical, but there's a line between sweeping cinematics and bewildering bombast, and it's a line she crosses a little too often on this record.
There are good odds that St. Vincent could become the American version of PJ Harvey, a fiercely independent artist who transforms herself with each release while maintaining a coherent stylistic thread——you always know immediately when you hear one of her songs, even if it sounds completely different than anything you've ever heard before. This album, then, can be viewed as one of the tentative steps away from a predictable path that are becoming her true signature.
10.23.17 Hamilton Leithauser (formerly of the Walkmen) has released a new single with Angel Olsen called "Heartstruck (Wild Hunger)":
In 2016, Leithauser teamed up with Rostam (formerly of Vampire Weekend) for his first post-Walkmen solo album, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, a record that mined pop tropes from the 50s and 60s with varying degrees of success.
This is another song that could be considered along that continuum——at moments you can hear the influence of pre-Beatles 60s crooners and late 50s country and western pop. The strings sometimes threaten to overwhelm the song——it sounds like they were at some point being used in a semi-comic/ironic way, but then they got a little too fascinated with their own joke. But all in all it's a more compelling exploration of early pop-rock genres than many of the tracks on Dream.
10.24.17 Rural Alberta Advantage has a new record called The Wild which has been harder for me to parse than I expected. I've been a fan of this band since their debut, but four albums in, they've gotten so good at doing what they do that it's become almost predictable. The highs and lows have gotten evened out so that there aren't really any songs I dislike, but there aren't any I love passionately either (although I tend to prefer the ones that are more off-kilter and midtempo over the hyperkinetic thrash-folk ones).
I still like all the elements of this band——agressively used acoustic guitar, subtle and complicated drum patterns that add a lot of texture and complexity to songs that otherwise might be too simple, and frontman Nils Edenloff's unconventional voice that he frequently pushes to the edge of its operating tolerances——but again, I feel like they all know what an RAA song is supposed to sound like at this point, so they're writing within a very constricted framework.
Part of the reason they appealed to me so much in the earlier part of their career was that they took elements I had heard many times before and remixed them into something that felt new and fresh. After four albums of that same type of remixing, however, I'm pining for them to add some new aspects to their sound. Instead, they seem to be paring it back and stripping it down to its core elements, which makes it hard to hear anything new in the ostensibly new songs.
10.25.17 LCD Soundsystem was in town touring behind their new album, American Dream, and they played not one but two shows on back to back nights (Saturday and Sunday) at a newish venue for Atlanta, the Coca-Cola Roxy (I'm only going to use to official name with the branding influence once, just to acknowledge that there was a different venue called the Roxy in Atlanta that was shuttered decades ago but is still remembered by longtime citizens) up at the complex of shops and restaurants that surround the new Braves stadium.
I've only seen LCD Soundsystem once, and that was in the middle of the afternoon at a two-day festival where their set only lasted about an hour, so, not knowing when I might be the chance to see them again, I decided to go to both shows. I managed to get reserved seats upstairs for the Sunday night show, but I only got general admission tickets for the Saturday night show.
I ended up going to the Saturday night show by myself, and I got there early because I didn't know 1) how far away the parking was; 2) whether or not there was an opening act; and 3) whether the 8:00 time on the ticket was the door time or the start time for the show (two shows I've been to this year——Magnetic Fields and Regina Spektor——had no opening act and had the artist starting to play within half an hour of the time printed on the ticket).
(The venue website was remarkably unhelpful in answering any of these questions, and the Yelp reviews had me further concerned, saying the staff was so disorganized at shows that happened only two or three weeks prior that some people who were in line at the time the doors opened still hadn't gotten into the venue by the time the headliners went on stage. And given that my wife was coming with me for the Sunday show, I wanted to get a good sense of how everything worked to make sure we'd have a smooth outing the following night).
It turns out that the parking was pretty easy to find and reasonably close to the venue (although it was stupid expensive), and there were no problems getting through the security line, so I was inside the venue at 7:30, half an hour before the time on the ticket. At 8:00 the music started, but it was not LCD Soundsystem——it was Big Freedia, a New Orleans rapper with some serious drag queen chops and a sound that, in a different universe, would be well known to attendees of pro sports games around the country. I didn't much care for the music, but he had an enormous stage presence and was nothing if not entertaining.
LCD Soundsystem took the stage around 9:00, and I was standing on the floor about three rows of people back from the stage, just left of center from frontman James Murphy. I don't usually try to get up front for big shows like that, but that was the back of the crowd when I got there, and I didn't see a good reason to move, especially after sticking it out through Big Freedia. The setlist was pretty heavy on the new album, but they played plenty of the hits from all the way back to their first release:
Call The Police
I Can Change
You Wanted a Hit
Yr City's a Sucker
Change Yr Mind
Losing My Edge
Dance Yrself Clean
All My Friends
I had pretty high expectations for this show, and the band absolutely delivered. "Oh Baby" was a great start, and "Dance Yrself Clean", with its ecstasy-inducing slow-build, was transcendental in a live setting. There was a nice mix of material from across their career, and it was also good how well the new stuff held up to the fan favorites——the crowd never lost its energy or enthusiasm or wandered off en masse to get a beer in the middle of the set.
I'm prone to tearing up whenever I hear "All My Friends" and "Someone Great" even in such mundane settings as sitting in the car in traffic, so I was full-on holding back sobs here. But it was touching and affirming (and not really surprising) to see how many people in the crowd of strangers around me were similarly affected. That's the real power of a live performance: the communal aspect of experiencing these emotions prompted by the songs, even though all our individual experiences at the heart of those reactions are very different.
For the second LCD Soundsystem show at the Roxy, I was accompanied by my wife, who isn't a huge fan but who was willing to go to check out the new venue, especially since I was able to get reserved seats up in the balcony.
I was a little concerned about the sightlines up there——there was a railing in front of us that partially blocked our view when we were seated——but it became clear that the designers' intent was to have people standing for the actual show and only using their seat before the show and in between sets. Once we stood up for the performance, it was just like standing on the balcony at the 9:30 Club's upper level.
The setlist was very similar to the first show. They rearranged things a little, but the only thing that was truly different is that they played "I Used To" instead of "Losing My Edge". But the last five songs in the main set and the last three songs in the encore were exactly the same each night:
Call The Police
I Can Change
I Used To
You Wanted a Hit
Yr City's a Sucker
Change Yr Mind
Dance Yrself Clean
All My Friends
It was a different experience watching the show from a more physically removed, elevated vantage point, but I don't hold up one experience as better than the other. I'm glad I got to do both, but I didn't find myself pining for the balcony when I was down in the scrum, nor did I want to be back down on the floor when I was up in the reserved seats.
This band validated everything I love about their recorded work in their live shows, and I would go see them again in a heartbeat. It was well worth it to see them two nights in a row, even with virtually identical setlists. Hopefully James Murphy has gotten the producting bug out of his system now and we won't have to wait another seven years before he and the band have new material to take out on the road for us.
10.27.17 Tune-Yards have a new album coming out next year called I Can Feel You Creep Into My Private Life, and they've shared a track from the record called "Look at Your Hands":
I really liked pretty much everything on Tune-Yards' first two records, and when Merrill Garbus shared "Water Fountain" from Nikki Nack, I was incrediby excited. But that song ended up being pretty much the only thing I liked off the entire album, and it was certainly the only one that I absolutely loved.
So while I like this song——there's a heavier 80s influence, especially in the use of keyboards and drum machine sounds, which has become almost a requirement for quirky indie artists these days (although to be fair, she's always made prominent use of percussion loops in her music)——and I'm almost certainly going to preorder this record once it becomes available, I'm not going to set such high expectations for it.
There was a real sense that many people in the industry expected Nikki Nack to be a major breakthrough for her, and I wonder if the pressure affected her writing process negatively——it's almost as if the record was an exercise in career self-sabotage, displaying what she was capable of with "Water Fountain" and then utterly failing (intentionally) to give us anything else like that on the rest of the album.
I hope she's gotten that out of her system and can go back to being her weird, lovable self. When she's at her best, she can take off in a totally unexpected and not always initially comfortable direction, but she never forgets the hooks that keep you coming back until you can follow her all the way down the new path she's forging. "Look at Your Hands" reminds me of some of the more charming moments from Bird-Brains, and that's a good harbinger.
This has been quite the year for releases from some of my favoriate Canadian bands. 2017 has seen releases from New Pornographers, Aracde Fire, Wolf Parade, Broken Social Scene, Rural Alberta Advantage, and now my favorite underdogs of the underdog Canadian rock scene, Stars.
Their latest is called There Is No Love in Flourescent Light, and I'm already more in love with it than any of the albums released by their countryment this year (except for Arcade Fire, whose Everything Now has brought me back to full fandom for that group).
Stars has always had two or three songs on every album that just kill me, but for several of their albums, I felt like those amazing tracks were surrounded by a lot of mediocre filler. But with this record and 2014's dance-oriented No One Is Lost (whose influence is still present here), they've really hit their stride and created two complete albums that work as whole entities but which also have several single-worthy tracks that don't need the larger superstructure of the album to support themselves.
They're on a very strange trajectory, and I don't know how all of this will play out from a career perspective. As they're getting better and better, they also seem to be less and less recognized or included in the conversation about indie pop music, and their commercial prospects also don't seem great (although I have some secret hope that maybe they're big in their homeland and in someplace like, say, France, so that they're able to make a comfortable living making music, but there seems to be little evidence to support this hope).
But there's always a chance that, in this era of 80s revivals, they could at least have a couple of songs end up on film soundtracks——you could easily write a 80s-style John Hughes movie based on their two most recent albums, so it's not hard to imagine that someone making this decade's version of The Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink could find a use for one or two of their songs to help underscore a pivotal scene.
In an alternate universe, they'd be as big as Arcade Fire——they certainly have the hooks, the deeply sentimental/emotional lyrics, and a stadium-sized sound——but in the one we live in now, they seem destined to remain a cult act. They've earned more than that, though, and if they continue to make records as good as their last two, I have to hope that whatever karmic balance might exist in the universe will give them the audience they deserve.
10.31.17 Morrissey has shared another track from his upcoming Low in High School, this one called "I Wish You Lonely":
This one isn't as immediately appealing as the winking "Spent the Day in Bed", and in fact it sounds like it could have come from one of the post-Stephen Street albums from early in his career when he went for more of a rock sound. Is that a complement to say that, more than 20 years later, he's still capable of producing tracks that are similar to songs similar to a part of his career that is generally praised by fans and critics? I don't know, but that's what I have for you.