We’re here to tell you what’s hot and what’s not in this week’s music roundup
Bill Callahan – SHEPHERD IN A SHEEPSKIN VEST
Genre: Americana, Singer/Songwriter
Favorite Tracks: “Morning Is My Godmother,” “747,” “Watch Me Get Married,” “Tugboats and Tumbleweeds”
The brand of minimalist, dreamlike, heavily lyrical Americana yarns Bill Callahan spins on SHEPHERD IN A SHEEPSKIN VEST just aren’t quite my bag. Some of the adjectives getting tossed around the release aren’t wrong, necessarily, “sun-warmed” being a particularly appropriate one, but it seems as if a lot of the album’s appeal relies on the overall context and career of the artist, not on the songs themselves. 53 years old and with a career that’s roughly three decades in the making, Callahan’s six-year hiatus from music since 2013’s lauded DREAM RIVER gave more than a few people cause for concern. Returning seemingly much more content, reflecting on the small joys and comforts of a middle-aged family life, I feel happy for Callahan, even if I don’t necessarily feel particularly stimulated. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the challenging and experimental, and as such I respect Callahan’s often uncompromising arrangement and production choices on paper, but by the fourth-or-fifth time an odd time signature or striking, out-of-nowhere counterpoint rears its head, in the full spotlight considering the skeletal production techniques, you can’t help but hope he’ll just give it to you straight. And when he does, SHEPHERD IN A SHEEPSKIN VEST tends to shine! Callahan’s baritone drone, which often fails to cohesively fall in line with the more searching, scattered guitar work on display here, works perfectly with the more straightforward, firmly tethered hat-trick of “Morning Is My Godmother,” “747,” and “Watch Me Get Married,” “747” featuring my favorite line from the album that fully shines a light on Callahan’s talent and potential as a lyricist: “I woke up on a 747 / Flying through some stock footage of Heaven / This is the light right here / Before clouds bittersweet with suggestion / This is the light / Bald and bold as a baby crawling toward adulteration.” At the end of the day, I can find enough middle-ground with SHEPHERD IN A SHEEPSKIN VEST I can appreciate, vibey enough for an early morning, watch-the-sun rise kind of tableau, but it’s certainly more of something I can respect than seek out for a repeat listen. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Death Angel – HUMANICIDE
Genre: Thrash Metal
Favorite Tracks: “Divine Defector,” “I Came For Blood,” “The Pack”
Quick: name a thrash metal album released after 1991. Further question: name one that is not by the Big Four and actually mattered, or was something people cared about. My point is that the genre is not one that is filled with unfairly overlooked classics, and individual bands are often hard to differentiate without extensive listening. With all that said, if you do venture outside of the Big Four and into the Big 8 or 16, you could do a lot worse than Death Angel. They’ve got tighter, more understated musicianship and songwriting, and their production is not as overbearing as so much of their Nuclear Blast or Roadrunner brethren. However their latest, HUMANICIDE, runs into the opposite problem in that it’s noticeably more loose and less compressed and snarling than previous efforts like THE EVIL DIVIDE, which doesn’t fit with Mark Oseguada’s groggy, Zach de la Rocha-without-the-rapping delivery.
I know nobody goes to thrash metal expecting insightful lyrics outside of Voivod or Sacred Reich, but man, Death Angel just brought out all the cliches here and aren’t even having any fun with them: apocalyptic imagery and allusions to holy war, vague political stances against a nebulous enemy, raging against a false prophet, gonzo rock-star posturing pulled right from the ‘80s. If the rhythm guitars had a steady, infectious pulse, if the solos were impeccably performed and placed, then all of this would be excused and would actually be kind of awesome in a cheesy way. Sadly, even that is not present here, and the “dramatic” acoustic opening of “Aggressor” and the piano coda of “Immortal Behated” do not help matters: it’s a bad sign when the attempt to break up the formula have become formulaic themselves. Then again, my opinion on thrash metal can vary wildly depending on when I listen to it and what my mood is, but even if I’m pissed off and in need of something to headbang to, this will not be high (if appearing at all) on my listening queue. [Blake Michelle]
Hot Chip – A BATH FULL OF ECSTASY
Genre: Synthpop, Indietronica
Favorite Tracks: “Melody of Love,” “Hungry Child,” “Positive”
Almost a flagship entry in the “They’ve been around how long???” class of indie dance acts, it’s sobering to piece together that A) I was first being told to listen to Hot Chip almost a decade ago and B) all of the albums and songs I was being instructed to check out had actually come out two-to-five years before that. But upon looking back at a more storied career than I realized, Hot Chip’s discography is remarkably consistent, A BATH FULL OF ECSTASY not doing anything to dispel that conviction. It would be easy enough to phone things in at this point, but Alexis Taylor and company are still giving their all to earnest and bright-eyed explorations of retro-fitted dance and pop styles, the New Romantic inclinations here the chief differentiating factor, with just a touch of modern internet weirdness to add an edge. RANDOM ACCESS MEMORIES-era Daft Punk, while admittedly perhaps just on the brain considering the recent Fitzmaurice hub-bub, is a reference so obvious as to be mildly slack-jawed, but certainly not off-the-mark, a similar sense of meticulously curatorial navel-gazing present as we tour through the Human League and Madonna as opposed to disco, but the brief moments where the slightest hint of a PC Music or Four Tet influence sneak in prove that Hot Chip is certainly open to new tricks, if not entirely confident on being sold on them. Regardless of the fact that not every track is a slam-dunk, some of the back-half falling into the pleasantly forgettable lull of late-career electronic acts, I just keep coming back again and again to how wholesome the overall listening experience is. While the lyrics and sentiments can be hokey, how can you not be swept away in the contained assurance of something like the expansive joys of something like the opening track? How can you not get tangled in the feverish dance-floor climaxes of “Hungry Child” or “Positive”? How can you not at least respect the AMERICAN DREAM stripped-back reveries of “Clear Blue Skies”? It won’t crack my top albums of the year, but there are few aughts acts still coming across this gracefully. [Thomas Seraydarian]
Lil Nas X – 7 EP
Genre: Viral Rap
Favorite Track: “Old Town Road – Remix (featuring Billy Ray Cyrus)”
Had it not been for the windfall of controversy surrounding its status as a country song, “Old Town Road” wouldn’t have become the #1 song in the country at all. Had it not been for the fact that the song and, to a much further extent, its remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, was actually semi-intriguing as a piece of overly-examined pop flare, it wouldn’t have held off the likes of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry on the Billboard charts. And, and this has now become the most important part of this equation, had it not been for his likability through social media, we’d have correctly dismissed the whole experience as a one-off long ago. It posits the question: In a vacuum, had Semisonic or Lou Bega or the Cardigans fell into a combination of national controversy and Twitter fame at the time of their respective hits, would we have expected more from them immediately? Would we have expected that full length album from LFO or OMC to be good?
For me, the tragedy surrounding 7 EP lies less in how instantly forgettable and poorly thought-out it is (most of these tracks are the equivalent of a mixtape your brother’s non-musically inclined best friend has been working on, with beats he mostly found via YouTube), and more in the thought behind its conception, something not rooted in music and instead rooted in post-viral success. If not Lil Nas X himself, someone in his camp for certain looked at the insane success of “Old Town Road” and assumed that if a follow-up of some kind didn’t follow soon, he’d go away forever, relegated to a one-hit-wonder viral star status in the vein of PSY for the rest of his life! And perhaps that’s true—the millions he’ll make on endorsements and the single’s inevitable platinum status I’m sure will hold him over. But the answer, I can assure you, was not to put out an obviously rushed EP that has exactly one okay song (“Panini”) and a series of some of ill-conceived pop rap that tragically enforce the fact that while “Old Town Road’s” DNA may have had a streak of country in it, its creator isn’t interested in that idea at all. “F9mily (You & Me)” is some rap rock that I’d gladly like to never hear again, “Kick It” is some ill-fitting Future worship, “Bring U Down” is some ill-fitting Kid Cudi worship, and “C7osure (You Like)” is only barely listenable in general, with a click-track beat that’s moving just slightly ahead of the vocals in a way that makes me both anxious and deeply upset. The one country track we are blessed with is a Cardi B feature called “Rodeo” that mostly misses the cool effortlessness of what makes the remix of “Old Town Road” so listenable, with Lil Nas X’s country voice becoming more exaggerated yet lazier; the track is simply a box meant to be checked for the country purists who will inevitably come for him now that he has more music. The whole thing is a slightly embarrassing mess, but I’ll ask you this: Isn’t this what we expected? “Old Town Road” wasn’t meant for the horrors of this world, but this EP certainly is. [CJ Simonson]
Mark Ronson – LATE NIGHT FEELINGS
Genre: Late Night Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Late Night Feelings (featuring Lykke Li),” “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart (featuring Miley Cyrus),” “True Blue (featuring Angel Olsen),” “Why Hide (featuring Dianna Gordon)”
Lest you forget, Mark Ronson is only human. The producer has been influencing pop and rock music since the turn of the millenium, acting as one of the most important voices in the industry during that run—my favorite Ronson fact is that the version of Blondie’s “Call Me” that plays in the opening of 2001’s ZOOLANDER by Nikka Costa was produced by Ronson, the kind of fact that tells you everything you need to know about his status as a cool tastemaker. The fact that Ronson is, well, cool, feels like it got lost there for a moment—that UPTOWN SPECIAL and, more importantly, “Uptown Funk,” were so popular and so corny upended his status I think, but hopefully his role in Lizzy Goodman’s excellent book Meet Me In The Bathroom remedied that. LATE NIGHT FEELINGS, his latest, is inherently cooler than its predecessor, with an all-female vocal panel including the likes of Miley Cyrus, King Princess, Angel Olsen, Lykke Li, Camila Cabello, and Alicia Keys, among others. Ronson’s consistency as a producer and curator certainly pulls together such an eclectic lineup, but just as he did on UPTOWN SPECIAL, he lives and dies by how compelling his talent is.
The highlights here by a country mile belong to Cyrus and Olsen. “Nothing Breaks Like A Heart” is Cyrus and Ronson’s tasteful ode to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” a dark disco send-up that perfectly melds Cyrus’s country and pop sentiments into a brooding dancefloor banger, and “True Blue” finds Ronson effectively pulling at Olsen’s perceived harrowing vintage vocals, opening with a faded, lo-fi warble to make it almost seem as though the song is a cleaned-up remix of something from a different time and place—Ronson produces Olsen’s next record? Who says no? Lykke Li walks out a winner as well on two tracks, including the groovy ‘70s four-on-the-floor title track and the drifting ballad “2 a.m.” Beyond that we get into dicier territory.
“Find U Again” is a decent cut, but unlike some of the other performers, Cabello fails to really fall into Ronson’s two-drink-deep late-night haze, instead just turning out a track that would do well on one of her own projects. Gadget background singer YEBBA has appeared on various high profile tracks over the back half of this decade, but Ronson gives her three tracks in a row to play here, and it’s a stretch of the album that yields mostly mixed results. For one, Ronson’s attempt at momentary vocal consistency ruins some of the otherwise playfulness of the record, but also YEBBA in general is over-the-top performative on these tracks in a way that becomes somewhat exhausting somewhat quickly. The LVP here is easily Alicia Keys, who sleepily plays chorus to forgettable verses from The Last Artful, Dodgr, but just feels out of her element here compared to the highlights. As with Ronson’s past collaborative projects, it’s got a singles focus to it, but there’s more than enough late-night pop fodder to make this an excellent listen for your summer playlists, and Ronson’s quarterbacking of these kind of collections remains at a high level. [CJ Simonson]
Titus Andronicus – AN OBELISK
Genre: Pub Rock
Favorite Tracks: “(I Blame) Society,” “Hey Ma,” “The Lion Inside”
Patrick Stickles hates THE MONITOR. He probably hates that I’m kicking off this review acknowledging that fact, or acknowledging THE MONITOR at all, really. But I think it’s worth noting that while my fandom for Titus Andronicus certainly peaks with that album (especially as we stare Best of the 2010s list-making in the face right now) that I don’t actually think I’d want Stickles to try and make that album again. It’d genuinely be like capturing lightning in a bottle twice—the things he hates about it (the referencial and pop culturally specific writing, the larger analogies being made, the Civil War motif, the “oh oh oh ohhhhhh” pop rock songwriting) are things we obviously love and when masterfully delivered in combination are espeically unique, but it should be acknowledged that they’re also things that are very fucking hard to do well. Had he come back with something that had the audacity to try and look and sound like THE MONITOR he’d have been a fool. Instead, and this is to his credit, this decade he’s (mostly) swung for the fences. Both triple-album rock opera THE MOST LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY and piano-led lounge rocker A MOST PRODUCTIVE COUGH are love-them-or-hate-them kinds of records, and I personally think that’s a commendable status to be striving for as an artist. So Patrick, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry I led with THE MONITOR, but I think it’s worth saying that your propention for big risks is commendable.
All of that said: AN OBELISK isn’t a huge risk by any stretch, but I’d hardly call it safe. Stickles’ raucous love for the ethos of classic rock and roll drives a lot of these songs; certainly his punk edge and Bob Mould’s messy ear guides the actual sound for a lot of this album, but from his “Bad to the Bone” send-up “My Body and Me,” to the ramshackled EXILE ON MAIN ST. blues swagger of highlight “Hey Ma,” these represent some of his most conventional songs, moments of dad rock reprieve from someone whose music frequently and contextually keeps itself arms’ distance from such labels. He even brings back just enough “oh oh oh ohhhhhh”-esque songwriting (“The Lion Inside,” “Tumult Around The World”) to make you believe there is just a trace of early pop-rock Stickles in there somewhere.
Certainly that “dad rock” label I’m colloquially throwing around could’ve applied to last years MOST PRODUCTIVE COUGH, which has Springsteen and Zevon balladry at the forefront, but those songs were eight minutes long, rambling and involved and winding in ways that felt like holdovers from THE MOST LAMENTABLE TRAGEDY’s brilliant audacity. AN OBELISK opens with a good ‘ol fashioned Clash-esque rocker, rolling downhill and gaining traction as Stickles’ guitar playing becomes more impassioned and his voice excited and less distinguishable. That’s the album as a whole, a form of celebration rock that is Stickles truest primal rejection of the headier moments of his 2010 breakthrough, with AN OBELISK being the id to THE MONITOR’s super-ego. Mould lets Stickles loose, his growl as intense and slurred as it’s ever been on record to the point of being unrecognizable at moments, but AN OBELISK is all about finding a pocket and a groove, a feeling or a vibe and less a true statement. It’s his best work in a long time, and Patrick, if you’re reading this, I hope you’re proud of it. [CJ Simonson]