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november 2017

I've been waffling about whether to buy Dan Bejar's new record, Ken, but this new track called "Cover from the Sun" might be pushing me towards a purchase:

My usual gripe with Bejar's solo work is that 1) it sounds very different than the songs he writes for New Pornographers and 2) while each album has a distinct theme/concept, the songs on each release sound too similar to one another, which leads to that bleedover effect where it's sometimes hard to distinguish them when you're listening to the album as a whole.

This song negates both of those criticisms: it's much different than the previous two tracks he's released from Ken, and it has more in common with the uptempo pop sensibilities of New Pornographers. He didn't appear on the band's last record, Whiteout Conditions, which was a first for him (I'm guessing he was too busy making this record), and I wonder if the tracks he might have been saving for the Candidan indie supergroup ended up on Ken instead, "Cover from the Sun" obviously being one of them.

Wavves continue a very prolific year with a new collaborative single with Culture Abuse, another California pop punk band they're touring with:

I kinda like this. The song itself isn't too far off from mid-period Wavves, but the lack of overleveled, distorted guitars gives it a completely different feel——it simultaneously reminds me of 1980s Australian group Hoodoo Gurus and bands that were big in the late 80s/early 90s Chapel Hill scene like Waxing Poetics and Dillon Fence——and of course the early rock bands from the 60s that inspired them all.

Brian Eno and Kevin Shields (My Bloody Valentine) are apparently collaborating, and they shared a track they did together called "Only Once Away My Son" via the Adult Swim singles series:

Both of these artists have some serious cred in the noise wash/ambient drone space, but the work I like from each of them is when they deal in more structured rock/pop. This song is definitely in the former category: nine minutes of deepwater currents sinking and swirling in reaction to geologic forces and dragging you along with them.

It's not my taste for listening (although fans of Eno albums like Apollo will likely be overjoyed), but the vibe would have fit in very well with any number of scenes in the recent Blade Runner 2049——so much so that part of me wonders if this was their sample track in a bid to be allowed to score the film.

Ride recently shared a new song that was not part of this year's Weather Diaries (their first album in more than two decades) called "Pulsar":

I listened hopefully to a few tracks from Weather Diaries, but I was unimpressed and never really considered buying the album, so I was fully prepared to listen to this track once for the sake of confirming it was more of the same and then forgetting about it. But man, it's good——it's easily the best thing they've written/released since 1992's Going Blank Again which, along with Nowhere, are their two defining documents as a band. It's exactly what you would imagine a song called "Pulsar" from that part of the band's career would sound like.

I'm going to have to go back and give a more comprehensive listen to Weather Diaries now——if there are even two or three songs on that album as good as this one, it will be worth a purchase for me. There's no word on whether "Pulsar" is part of a new release, a one-off single, or a leftover from the Weather Diaries sessions, but wherever it came from, I'm in love.

Sufjan Stevens has a previously unreleased song on a soundtrack for a film called Call Me By Your Name. The track is called "Mystery of Love":

It's odd that this isn't going to be on the upcoming Carrie & Lowell companion mixtape, The Greatest Gift, because it doesn't just sound like an outtake from Carrie & Lowell, it sounds like it belongs on the album. It's quiet, delicate, and beautiful in that very melancholy way that Sufjan can make things beautiful. There's little doubt that this was written as part of that package of songs, but who knows how the whole world of soundtrack placement works.

Pinegrove have shared a new song, their first release of new material since their breakthrough 2016 album Cardinal. It's called "Intrepid" and it appears to be a one-off, not a preview for a new album or anything:

This one takes a little while to get going, but that slow build makes the louder part of the song where they lock into a groove and continue to amp up the intensity that much more cathartic. It's always hard to tell what will happen to a band who achieve success so early in their career will do for a follow up, but this song gives me a lot of hope that they can continue to grow musically without losing the sound and emotional essence that made Cardinal so compelling and fresh.

Morrissey has shared another track from his upcoming new album, Low in High School, this one called "Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up On the Stage":

I found the first song he shared with us, "Spent the Day in Bed" to be charmingly low stakes in a way that Morrissey is rarely capable of these days, but this is more of companion piece to teh second song he shared, "I Wish You Lonely". They're both more of what we expect from him late in his career—there's nothing technically wrong with the composition or the recording, but there's not a lot of heart to it despite some nice musical touches.

It's also a darker song than the title might lead you to believe, and the reason for the minor key tone becomes clear once you untangle the lyrics. It's not about someone named Jacky and her dealing with her emotional pain by using it to imbue her stage characters with life——instead, it's an increasingly hamfisted political screed.

By the end of the song, and its "Exit/Exit/Everybody's heading for the exit" refrain, it becomes pretty clearly a commentary on the Brexit process and the drama queens who led the movement and then abandoned it once they realized they'd won and they'd now have to take some responsibility for the decision.

Three of Morrissey's great flaws as an artist over the past decade have been his inability to be lighthearted and funny, his increasing sense of self-importance, and his inability to couch his narratives in the framework of a single individual——he's gone from first person to third person, and that change in perspective creates an emotional gap that's hard to overcome——if he doesn't care about these people, why are we supposed to?

He's so mean to his characters at this distance that it's hard to have the emotional impact or conenction with the songs that we had with his best work. He's always better when he's trying to get into someone's skin and see the world through their eyes rather than judging their actions at a distance, and poor Jacky, who we quickly see is just a stand-in for social commentary, doesn't get nearly her due as a person we could relate to.

Superchunk have announced that they will release a new album next year called What a Time to Be Alive, their first since 2013's I Hate Music. The first single is the title track:

The pace of their releases has slowed down since the 90s——they only released one record in the 00s, and that was in 2001, and this is only their third album this decade——but to judge from this song, their songwriting is as tight as it ever was, filled with ageless energy and a bounty of hooks.

This track could have been from the album they released in 2010, or the one they released in 2001——they're that consistent. But they're not boring, and that's a pretty tough combo to achieve across such a long lifespan. Looking forward to the rest of the record, which will no doubt live up to the lofty expectations from their longtime fans.

There are a lot of things I hate about Pitchfork——their inconsistent judgmentalness about artists' private lives, their obsessive pushing of certain genres that most of their daily readers will never really listen to or care about, and their weak attempts to become something other than a music review site (they don't even do artist interviews very well, so I certainly don't want to read their essays about craft beers and the like) to name just a few——but I will admit that they've been responsible for turning me on to many artists and albums who otherwise might have slipped under the radar for me.

My initial awareness of many of my favorite albums over the last few years has come from positive reviews on Pitchfork, including (but not limited to) Waxahatchee, Jeff Rosenstock, Bent Shapes, Rural Alberta Advantage, Pinegrove, Car Seat Headrest, Frank Ocean, St. Vincent, Run the Jewels, Tune-Yards, Chance, and Titus Andronicus. And recently they've also started writing reviews of older albums, not because they are being reissued (although they do reviews of reissues as well), but simply because the album is in need of being highlighted and recontextualized into the larger history of popular music.

They call these Sunday Reviews (you can guess what day of the week they are released), and the albums chosen vary widely. They've done everything from the Minutemen to Abba to Kate Bush to Thelonious Monk, and the albums chosen are sometimes well known, massive sellers (Lauren Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Tears for Fears' Songs from the Big Chair are two examples), genre/cult classics (Violent Femmes' eponymous debut and Stereolab's Dots and Loops), or overlooked, underappreciated albums that need to be reintegrated into the historical narrative.

I read these reviews with interest even when I'm already very familiar with the album (The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead or Sparklehorse's Good Morning Spider) or when I have no intention of ever owning or listening to the record (Mariah Carey's Daydream or ZZ Top's Tres Hombres), but so far there haven't been too many undiscovered gems, records that I wasn't familiar with that I ended up purchasing and loving based on one of these reviews.

But I recently found one in the form of Brian Eno and John Cale's collaborative release, 1990's Wrong Way Up. I sampled it a bit, and then quickly decided to download it. I adore Eno's more song-based albums, specifically Here Come the Warm Jets and Before and After Science, and this definitely falls into that category (and is easily as good as either of them). Tracks like "Lay My Love" and "One Word" recall his best work with Talking Heads in the 70s, and the whole record maintains that vibe, so it's not really a surprise that in 1990, when we were solidly into the grunge/alt rock revolution that defined the first two thirds of the 90s, this record got overlooked.

Cale's influences are more subtle, even though they are each given equal credit for all the tracks, but it's undeniable that his distinct touches add layers of nuance to the music. Eno and Cale each seem to reinforce each other's quirky pop sensibilities without amplifying their tendencies towards less structured experiments. For a traditional pop song lover like me, it's a perfect hybrid of what I love best about both artists.

Wilco is reissuing their breakthrough double album from 1996, Being There, and the new expanded edition includes remastered tracks, live versions, demos, and previously unreleased outtakes. One of these is a track called "Dynamite My Soul":

It's a spare, country-inflected folk song that gives you a good idea of why Tweedy and Wilco were chosen by Woody Guthrie's family (along with Billy Bragg) to set some of his unrecorded lyrics to music on the Mermaid Avenue albums. Being There was pretty stuffed full (somewhat needlessly so), so you can understand why this wasn't included, but I would have gladly subbed this track out for several on the tracks on the second disc.

Bjork has shared a second song from her upcoming Utopia, this one titled "Blissing Me":

This is another delicate, subdued piece, similar in some ways to the previously shared "The Gate". But while that track felt icy and foreboding, like winter closing in, this one feels more like we're in early spring, and the delicate apeggiated strings are the first signs of the thaw.

(I accidentally transposed the "n" and the "g" in "signs" in that last sentence, ending up with "sings" instead, and I almost left it that way. It really seems to fit the song and the textures she created with the harp.)

This album is shaping up to be another astounding, album-length tone poem from an artist who has produced more than her fair shair of these during her career. I don't buy every one of her records even when I can acknowledge their incredible construction, but these songs are hitting me emotinally as well, and this feels like one I'm going to be listening to a lot in the next few months.

My wife and I went back to the Roxy to see the Shins a couple of weeks ago, the second time we had seen them together. Here's the setlist:

    1. Caring Is Creepy
    2. Australia
    3. Name for You
    4. Kissing the Lipless
    5. The Rifle's Spiral
    6. Mine's Not a High Horse
    7. Cherry Hearts
    8. Gone for Good
    9. Mildenhall
    10. Saint Simon
    11. Painting a Hole
    12. Half a Million
    13. Phantom Limb
    14. Simple Song


    15. The Fear
    16. New Slang
    17. Sleeping Lessons

Even though they're still touring behind this year's Heartworms, they only played about half the songs from that record, with the rest of the setlist made up of fan favorites scattered across their other four albums. It was a pretty good mix——I like the new album pretty well, but it was also great to hear so many of the songs I love from earlier in their career.

The other time we saw them at the 9:30 Club in DC, it was a very technically precise show, but the energy was pretty low, and it felt rote and a little flat. This time there was a lot more energy, especially from frontman James Mercer. I'm still not sure how I feel about this venue in terms of the overall sound quality of the shows and the layout of the floor level, but it's a big room, and the Shins did a great job of staying engaged with the crowd.

I'd love to see this band in a more intimate space——even the 9:30 felt a little too big for some of their songs——but it certainly helps when they're in these larger spaces to have so many dedicated fans who are into the performance. I'm not sure how often I'm going to be tempted to see shows at the Roxy, but I'd head anywhere else in Atlanta in a heartbeat to see the Shins again.

U2 shared another song from their upcoming Songs of Experience called "American Soul". It's a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar, and is the companion piece to "XXX" from Lamar's Damn:

Both songs use the lyric passage "It's not a place/This country is to me a sound/Of drum and bass", which opens the aggressively rock-oriented U2 track but is used in a jazzy, boozy bridge in the Lamar song.

The Lamar track is a better song, and it also uses Bono's vocals more effectively (a friend said that he was able to make Bono sound almost subtle and restrained, which is a difficult trick to pull off with his vocal style and personality), but the U2 track isn't bad all things considered, and I'm guessing it will end up being one of the signature tracks from the new record.

Morrissey released his new album, Low in High School, a couple of weeks ago, and although I really wanted to like it, it's pretty typical of his output over the last decade: a couple of keepers, a bunch of fair to middling tracks, and a couple of clunkers. The two I like the most are "Spent the Day in Bed" and "All the Young People Must Fall in Love", the two most light-hearted tracks on the record.

But even these are run through with the deep currents of political protest that wind their way through most of the songs on this record. The chorus to "Spent the Day in Bed" begins "Stop watching the news/Because the new contrives to frighten you", and the sort-of chorus to "Young People" includes the lines "Presidents come/Presidents go/And oh look at the damage they do". Add this to much more obvious social commentary in titles like "The Girl from Tel Aviv Who Wouldn't Kneel" and "Who Will Protect Us from the Police?", and Morrissey's engagement with the political and sociological spheres has never been more apparent.

The music is pretty standard late-career Morrissey, but there are some interesting deviations that point to a willingness to be a little more experimental in the studio. All the tracks were co-written by his band members, most of whom have been with him for more than a decade, but they're trying things musically I haven't heard before: Spanish horns and percussion on "When You Open Your Legs", Middle Eastern (and again, slightly Spanish) influences on "The Girl from Tel Aviv", and sweeping, unaccompanied piano on "In Your Lap".

The two most interesting tracks are "I Bury the Living" which would close out the first side in a traditional album format, and "Israel", the final track on the record. "I Bury the Living" is a menacing and bombastic anti-war screed from the point of a view of a soldier who realizes he is nothing more than a disposable cog in the military machine...until suddenly, five and a half minutes into its seven and a half minute runtime, it isn't. At that point, we narratively shift to the point of view of the family who has to deal with his death, and the music shifts to a delicate, comforting tone that would probably be my favorite bit on the album if it was a standalone track. The final fadeout is again a lonely guitar intercut with the muted, ghostly sounds of someone laughing.

You'd think that with its title, "Israel" would be another pointedly political song, and while it does have strong anti-religion sentiments (in this context, Israel is a stand in for all of us trying to make our way through this punishing, confusing world), it ends with uncharacteristic affirmation from a man whose many devoted followers consider his music and words their own religious texts:

And they who reign abuse upon you
They are jealous of you as well
Love yourself as you should

The song has its flaws, but after spending so much effort directing his bile outward in negative, critical ways on the rest of the record, the impact of this parting gift to his listeners is even more powerful.

Overall the production feels much bigger, and a lot more attention is being paid to the flourishes and filigree that add more layers and textures to the tracks. But despite the vigorous energy that went into the writing and recording of this album, it still seems more like social commentary than storytelling, which it makes it that much harder to connect to emotionally.

Martha have released a new two song 7 inch and posted it to Bandcamp, the highlight being the A-side, "The Winter Fuel Allowance Ineligibility Blues":

It's billed as a new song, but some light poking around the interwebs shows that it was originally released on a compilation back in 2014 or 2015, and the YouTube version posted back then sounds identical to what's on Bandcamp (and indeed, there is a note on the Bandcamp page itself that this was recorded at a home studio in 2014).

That's actually somewhat comforting though——this doesn't feel like a step forward for them, and knowing that this is actually a leftover from pretty early in their recording career means that they haven't run out of ideas, they're just needed to monetize some of their older stuff while they are presumably at work on their next record.