Music Reviews

Music Roundup 2/18/20


We’re here to tell you what’s hot and what’s not on this week’s music roundup

music roundup Algiers


Genre: Art Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Hour of the Furnaces,” “Unoccupied”

THERE IS NO YEAR is perfectly fine, which is in a lot of ways a step back for a band with so much obvious talent. While their self-titled debut violently kicked the doors down, and their follow up, THE UNDERSIDE OF POWER, felt both defiant and urgent, a necessary, acid-spitting rally cry in 2017, THERE IS NO YEAR ends up spinning its wheels for a third go-around. Fundamentally, this simply is what Algiers aim to make at this point, brooding, intense music seeking to fight the powers that be while occasionally dabbling in rare moments of optimism (“Seen the kings and the soldiers / On the throne they consume / Run and tell it to everybody underground / Freedom is coming soon”). It’s a sound that by and large works and likely will work for as long as the band continues putting out music. And yet while I do think that Franklin James Fisher;s soulful, industrial sermons are important, nothing here genuinely excites me the way that THE UNDERSIDE OF POWER did. The drum machines and synthesizers give mixed results this go-around; “Unoccupied” borders on musical bloat before blossoming into a John Carpenter-inspired rave cut, and Fisher’s performance on “Hour of the Furnaces” and the dazzling, fiery hook does wonders, but stuff like “Chaka” or the ‘90s New Order pound of “Repeating The Night” never quite reach the restless, fevery highs of the far more direct and poppy previous album or the sheer rawness of the self-titled. Again, fundamentally this is just an Algiers record, a bit messier perhaps than the ones that came before it, but nonetheless specific in its blend of post-punk, gospel, and industrial music, so if you walked away from both of the last albums hoping for more of the same you’re going to find plenty to like, but by and large THERE IS NO YEAR feels like a band stalling out. [CJ Simonson]

music roundup Headlight


Genre: Bluegrass, Country

Favorite Tracks: “Headlight,” “The Long Game,” “I Like It When You’re Home,” “Waiting for You”

The three most insufferable quotes about music are:

  1. “I listen to everything but metal.”
  2. “I listen to everything but country.”
  3. “I listen to everything but rap.”

I was in the #2 camp for a long time and resolved to change it last year. I’d dismissed the genre as old-fashioned and steadfastly traditional, but it’s not like rock isn’t also dominated by grumpy old men who lament their genre’s increasing isolation even as they quell any grassroots movements, dismiss new sounds and ideas as inauthentic, and balk at anyone who blasphemes against its sacred canon. Plus, I gravitate toward earnestness, gritty texture, and a “less is more” mentality when it comes to arrangements and production that emphasizes the core melodies. In my quest, Ashley Monroe’s LIKE A ROSE became one of my favorite records of the decade, and Brad Paisley’s low-key guitar wizardry and delicate balance of sly and sincere has not dulled over the course of 20 years. Recently, Caroline Spence’s MINT CONDITION slipped under way too many people’s radar in 2019: its poignant vignettes aching with maturity and introspection was a perfect complement for its dreamy atmosphere. “What You Don’t Know” and “Sometimes a Woman Is an Island” are some of the best songs you probably didn’t hear last year. All this to say I gave HEADLIGHT, the fourth record from this acclaimed Boston bluegrass act after a five-year hiatus, a shot, since it featured the same producer as MINT CONDITION, Dan Knobbler. With his help, Della Mae have taken risks with their new record, as its unapologetically feminist lyrics and dexterous fiddle solos mark the album as definitively theirs even as it spans across more genres than ever before.

Knobbler’s influence is present and positive: subtle background texture and swells within a spacious mix that gives every banjo and guitar a presence and echo without bleeding into another. The only production mishap is “It’s About Time,” with a heavy drumbeat and too many synthetic background waves. Nevertheless, he makes the anthems like “Headlights” feel more powerful and the quieter moments like “Waiting For You” so much more devastating. Outside of a finale in “Wild One” that forces her into a hoarser tone than she’s used to, lead singer Celia Woodsmith has ironed out her occasional pitchiness and out-of-breath delivery into something that’s a lot smoother. It complements songs like “The Long Game” that are more fit for adult-alternative pop than country and the McCrary Sisters, a Christian gospel group who contribute pleasant harmonies and credibility to some attempts at soul. However, it’s the lyrics and subject on HEADLIGHT that deserve the most attention. The title track, inspired by the Kavenaugh hearings, is a empathetic plea to listen to victims of sexual abuse, “Waiting For You” features a struggling with infertility even as her friends ask her when she’ll have kids, and “I Can’t Pretend” is about admitting that “we have not always been saints” in the face of the treatment of migrants. Even if there are a few production missteps and tonal inconsistencies, HEADLIGHT is an undeniable force of good for both the world and bluegrass, and it combines Della Mae’s forceful anthems and songwriting with Knobbler’s knack for textured, lively production into maybe not their best, but certainly their most interesting record. [Blake Michelle]

Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats – UNLOCKED

Genre: Hip Hop

Favorite Tracks: “Pyro (leak 2019),” “So.Incredible.pkg,”

Joining two of hip hop’s most du jour personalities for a whiplash early 2020 EP is a great idea on paper: TA1300 and ZUU commanded a lot of the genre conversation in their respective years, and Kenny Beats’ meteoric rise to the A-list of household-name producers is impressive any way you slice it. That said, while I certainly wouldn’t go so far as to say “unfortunately,” UNLOCKED surprisingly maxes out somewhere at a good idea in realization. By this point, you’ve no doubt experienced UNLOCKED’s requisite slew of MF Doom comparisons. In some regards, they’re accurate, Beats’ penchant for eclectic, pop culture-skewing samples and the INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE update of Doom’s affinity for comic book culture contributing to an arresting album cover. But whereas Doom came out of the gates fully committing to his bit and self-provided lore, UNLOCKED falls just a little bit short due to lacking some of that sense of deep-seated context. Curry and Kenny simply don’t ever feel like a producer-MC duo that was meant to be together. The results are genially engaging, to be sure, UNLOCKED intermittently locking into a pocket where Curry’s percussive bouts of bodying fit perfectly in the seams of Beats’ oddball grooves, but this feels like a novelty one-off EP far more so than the Manna from Heaven many are claiming it to be. And to be fair, that’s all it likely set out to be: Curry’s hardcore-adjacent chops are delivered with such ruthless efficiency that we barely have time to register that they feel as if they’d be better suited on beats that aren’t operating in an avant-alt sphere of zaniness (just tell me there isn’t a little bit of dissonance on the feverish “GET MONEY FROM A SHOW…” bit of “DIET_”). Nevertheless, while perhaps a tad overproduced, UNLOCKED deserves its place as a conversation starter, and Denzel Curry and Kenny Beats are still two of the most vital voices on the scene, even if the definitive Beats collab is still Rico Nasty. [Thomas Seraydarian]

music roundup HMLTD


Genre: Art Rock, Glam Rock

Best tracks: “The West Is Dead,” “To The Door,” “Satan, Luella, and I,” “Death Drive,” “Blank Slate”

It’s been quite a lengthy wait for the first full-length LP from British rock group HMLTD, who released the lead single to this album (“To The Door”) all the way back in the spring of 2017. After years of anticipation it brings me great joy to report that our collective patience has been rewarded with one of the most daring and boundary-annihilating debuts in recent memory. WEST OF EDEN genuinely sounds like nothing else, blending classic post-punk sounds with elements of trap, modern electronic pop, and EDM, decidedly country/western-tinged guitars, and the totally singular charisma of frontman Henry Spychalski to create a completely unique listening experience. Sonically fearless and politically confrontational, HMLTD immediately establish tone with the provocative and sinister “The West Is Dead” and keep the energy going through a torrid opening run of tracks that also includes the explicitly threatening “LOADED” and the unbridled schizophrenic mania of the aforementioned “To The Door.” The highlights don’t stop there. “Satan, Luella, and I” uses a lengthy and foreboding intro passage to foreground a sultry and seductive piano groove, and the band explores issues of gender dysphoria and the inner turmoil that comes with it on the sister songs “Joanna” and “Where’s Joanna?” “Death Drive” sees the band at their most evocative and industrial, punctuating periods of near silence with overpowering swells of bass and other assorted sonic detritus. On the other side of the coin, they also show off a talent for near-mainstream pop songwriting with the Billie Eilish-isms of “Nobody Stays In Love” and the revelatory idealism of “Blank Slate.” WEST OF EDEN isn’t a perfect record. It has its fair share of swings and misses, but every swing at least represents a sincere creative attempt at capturing a new idea or sound on tape for the world to hear, and far as debuts go, there’s no question that HMLTD represent a very talented and exciting young group who isn’t afraid to push envelopes and has a lot to say. For that we can all be grateful. [Jacob Martin]

Frances Quinlan

Frances Quinlan – LIKEWISE

Genre: Indie Rock

Favorite Tracks: “Went to LA,” “Detroit Lake,” “A Secret,” “Lean,” “Your Reply”

Frances Quinlan has led one of the more consistent indie rock projects of the last few years in Hop Along, and on LIKEWISE she keeps that hot streak going. Few people write with such lyrical depth as Quinlan, and she pairs that intelligence and sharpness with a dynamic voice that ranges a spectrum between a breathy cooing and a serrated near-scream. Her ability as a singer to guide the momentum of not only entire songs, but single phrases within a song, is just about unmatched. Quinlan’s compositional style on LIKEWISE strays from the “groovier” elements of Hop Along’s work, with an increased emphasis on keyboards and electronic elements, though still often grounded in folky acoustic guitars. The arrangements of each song remain relatively sparse, allowing her words and vocals to fully take the spotlight, and the results are often spectacular.

Lyrically, LIKEWISE is concerned with consequences of and anxieties about human action, both in interpersonal relationships and on larger scales. Quinlan often juxtaposes them in order to contextualize the events of each song. “Detroit Lake,” “A Secret,” and “Went to LA” all have underpinnings of anxiety about the environment amongst their lyrics, while “Piltdown Man” and “Your Reply” compare the pursuit of understanding in relationships with (sometimes unsuccessful) attempts to answer key questions of science and literature. Throughout the album, though, we’re asked to connect the dots between the lives and works of others and our narrator, and to consider how interactions not only with people, but with knowledge, shape our lives on both a small and grand scale. Ending with a cover of Built to Spill’s “Carry the Zero” sort of punctuates this point—though it might be a tad bit over-thought musically, Quinlan delivers a cover that most of her audience is likely to be familiar with and ends on a track that, like a lot of this album, is about a person who is “occupied with what other persons are occupied with, and vice versa.” LIKEWISE is one of 2020’s first great records—musically arresting on the first listen, while also being richly rewarding on closer relistens. [Adam Cash]

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