Mark Lanegan – Straight Songs of Sorrow (Heavenly Recordings)
Since the dissolution of Screaming Trees in the mid-90s, Lanegan has pumped out a steady stream of solo, quasi-solo, and collaborative projects. Each of these projects falls inconsistently into the generic and not-so-descriptive genre of “rock”. While some of his work has a definite and undeniable relationship to blues, folk, and shoegaze pop, a large proportion of it is rather tightly related to Leonard Cohen’s brand of nearly monotonous croaking. This places the emphasis on the dark poetry of the lyrics, rather than be distracted by trifling diversions like melody and beat.
Straight Songs of Sorrow is not an exception to this tendency. Rather, it feels like Lanegan digging his heels in, daring us to challenge his brand. His voice is croakier than ever, nary finding a foothold on whatever staggered melodies exist. In most of the tracks on the record, we have a choice to make: do we focus on the poetry or the attempt. When the poetry is good, it’s emotive and colorful and we hear his internal struggle. When it’s not good, it’s super-repetitive and banal, grasping at overused imagery and ‘sung’ with no connection whatsoever.
The musical attempt is pretty typical of Lanegan’s tendency toward slow, three-chord progressions. By itself, it isn’t much to write about, as it relies heavily on a relationship with his voice. When that relationship is evident, it bangs. It’s a vibe that Lanegan has repeatedly dubbed “Dark Disco” in the lyrics to his songs (“Ode to Sad Disco” from Blues Funeral, “Dark Disco Jag” from Somebody’s Knocking).
The big problem with Songs of Sorrow is that the 2 elements rarely line up. When the poetry is keen, the music is dispassionate, and the song falls short (“Burying Ground”). When the music is cool and reaching for attention, the lyrics are rambling and incoherent (“Bleed All Over”, “At Zero Below”). And sometimes neither is there (“I Wouldn’t Want To Say”). The middle of the record has the songs that stick out as examples of what Mark is capable of. For 3 contiguous songs, everything lines up, the clouds allow the light in, and we get to bask in his post-grunge, drug-addled perfection (“Stockholm City Blues”, “Skeleton Key”, “Daylight In The Nocturnal House”).
FFO: Screaming Trees, Afghan Whigs, Leonard Cohen, PJ Harvey
Shiner – Schadenfreude (Two Black Eyes)
We have commented a few times here about how disappointing it can be when a band/artist releases something after a long hiatus and it doesn’t meet with our expectations. THAT IS SOOOOO NOT THE CASE HERE.
Schadenfreude is the epitome of the post-grunge, pre-emo, loud-as-hell-but-sublimely-melodic rock of the ‘90s, and Shiner has done something that few other acts have pulled off: they have perfectly managed to be nostalgic AND squarely poised to be relevant in 2020.
Admittedly, I am biased beyond reason, but this is my bread and butter. Self-deprecating, darkly funny lyrics like, “You sold yourself off to the lowest bid/You throw yourself off of the lowest bridge/The low hanging fruit is the safest way” (“Low Hanging Fruit”), are paired with aggressive basslines and loud, but articulate guitar parts. Add reverb, press record.
The album is not particularly groundbreaking or enlightening. It is not going to change the face of rock music or even your opinion of any rock genre. It’s just good.
FFO: Jawbox, Chavez, Sunny Day Real Estate, Chore
Bishop Nehru – Nehruvia: My Disregarded Thoughts (Nehruvia LLC)
I have so many complaints about modern hip-hop records that it’s actually hard to keep track of them. For the purposes of this non-rant, I will narrow it down to 2 complaints. Firstly, I’m not a fan of the trend wherein rappers attempt to mumble over a beatless track. Secondly, I’m not a fan of self-aggrandizing rappers that have no substance or message, just vacant promotions of themselves. This album contains all of this (except the mumbling), and yet…
…it slaps. In no small way. Bishop Nehru has worked with heavy hitters like Nas, MF DOOM, and Kendrick Lamar, and their influence on his style is present. But perhaps more important is the fact that his message sings through clearly. My Disregarded Thoughts is a concept album about getting older and “what it takes to free yourself from mental enslavement”. He references the cultural need for instant external validation of every thought using social media, learning how to be alone with your own thoughts, and healing through imagination. He wants this album to encourage “black people [to be] comfortable with their own shadow”.
True, a lot of this message is spoken through that same self-aggrandizing that I claim to hate. But it’s more in the name of having found an answer, so we will “witness the Emperor” who “ain’t lettin’ nobody stop my gift”.
FFO: MF DOOM, Nas, Dilated Peoples, Sage Francis
Bottler – Clementine EP (InFine)
The word “pioneer” has been thrown around about the debut EP from this electronic duo. When it is, the word is mostly referencing the genre-blending techniques used on the record. Bottler draws methods from electronica, dance, indie-rock, euro-pop and a host of other source material. While impressive and more than a little awesome, it certainly isn’t a pioneer move. They are, however, making great use of the shoulders of those who came before. Bottler now shares functional airspace with pioneers like LCD Soundsystem, Avalanches, and !!!.
At least with these 4 songs.
Over the course of 20 minutes, Clementine takes us from ethereal, to weird, to danceable, to outright funky. The opening track, “Nobody Likes Me”, begins with a heavy-handed piano piece, switches to a synth-dance piece, and culminates with a children’s chorus singing the eponymous lyrics. Track 2 is a twisted, pulsating homage to the stranger side of ‘80s electro-pop. At 7 minutes, “Day Sleeper Peace Keeper” is the longest track and is largely a club instrumental. The closer would comfortably find itself on the soundtrack to The Crow, with its dark, trip-hop vibe. It’s actually really difficult to claim a standout track, as all of them are pretty stellar in very different ways. But give the whole thing a shot.
FFO: Sneaker Pimps, !!!, Zero 7, Add n To x
Deau Eyes – Let It Leave (Egghunt)
Ladies and gentlemen, a battle is brewing at Fairly KickAss. It’s an age old story: boy hears voice, boy falls in love. Another boy hears voice, falls equally in love. We are now pitted against each other in what will prove to be a devastating war for her affection. Lucky for the dozens of lives in the balance, we are both homely critical appreciators who have a snowflake’s chance in hell of ever…
Ok, that took a turn.
In all seriousness, Miss Ali Thibodeau of Richmond, VA has just about the best voice I’ve heard in quite a while. Especially for a record that plays it fast and loose with genre specificity. Is it folk/country? Yeah, a little. Is it punk? Sometimes. It’s the type of thing that could be eaten up by Lilith Fairies and Lollapaloozers alike. It’s equal parts Basia Bulat and Veruca Salt. Some songs are sweet and salty ballads (“Parallel Time”, “The Bow”). Some songs are frenetic, loud and angsty (“Miner and Raven”, “Full Proof”). Others still are a balance of earnest emotions (“Autonomy”, “Dear Young Love”).
FFO: Clare and the Reasons, Jenny Lewis
Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor (Atlantic Records)
Petals For Armor is a Hayley Williams album, but interestingly it’s sort of a Paramore album too. 13 of the 15 tracks in the full album (released five tracks at a time in early 2020) feature bandmates Taylor York or Joey Howard as fellow writers. That’s where the similarities end, however.
Gone are the teenage motifs of yesteryear, replaced by an astonishing level of vulnerability. Hayley puts it all on the table, deftly navigating heavy topics like toxic relationships (“Dead Horse”), depression (“Over Yet”), and deserving true happiness and growth (“Watch Me While I Bloom”, but really all of the tracks tie back to this in one way or another). It’s an album of risks, both in the subject matter and in the music itself, as Hayley decided to completely forgo the familiar for the unknown – and it works perfectly. It’s tough to have a good flow between tracks that are so different, but Petals For Armor still finds a way to establish a solid rhythm throughout.
Petals For Armor sounded like a very cathartic, healing venture, and I can imagine it will be relatable to many folks. Hats off to Hayley Williams for baring her soul to make a beautiful album.
FFO: Emily Haines, Florence + the Machine
Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen – Hold My Beer, Vol. 2
This, my friends, is what country music is supposed to be. For one, both Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen are great vocalists – which is something that many, many current acts could learn a thing from. It helps that both Rogers and Bowen are industry veterans, with 18 studio albums between them (not counting the two Hold My Beer collabs). It also helps that they aren’t trying to make this anything other than what it is: good, ol’ fashioned jukebox country. The track “Speak To Me Jukebox” illustrates this quality perfectly.
You want swing dancing? “Mi Amigo” is your huckleberry. Humor? Look no further than “Rodeo Clown”, a song about a woman who left her beloved for a… well, you know. Would you enjoy a reimagining of Toby Keith’s “As Good As I Once Was”? Well I’d like to recommend the title track, and the closing track on the album. And for my money, “Hold My Beer” wore it a little bit better – no offense to Toby.
This is not as much a sequel to Hold My Beer, Vol. 1, as it is a continuation. These boys have the formula down pat, so why stop now? It’s Run The Jewels, but in cowboy hats. It won’t hit everyone’s radars, but for anyone who has an appreciation for the genre circa 20-30 years ago, it won’t disappoint.
FFO: Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry
Kehlani – It Was Good Until It Wasn’t (Atlantic Records)
It Was Good Until It Wasn’t continues a long line of great R&B albums so far this year. From The Weeknd, to dvsn, to JoJo, there have been some real winners. Kehlani’s second studio album nestles in among them perfectly.
The beats are excellent, if a bit samey. Kehlani opts for a number of producers to put their stamp on these tracks, with the sound still fairly similar throughout them – but none are duds. “Water” is the crown jewel here, and somehow wasn’t chosen as a single (at least not yet). “Serial Lover” exudes a bit more of a pop feel, but not at all to its detriment. Another superstar in the game, the indomitable Jhené Aiko, features on the absolutely delightful “Change Your Life”, and it makes me hope for more collaboration between the two. The James Blake collaboration, “Grieving”, scores very high as well. The vocals are wonderful, but I would like to hear a bit more of her great natural voice without Auto-Tune. I can appreciate its usage as a stylistic choice, but it’s not my preference here.
Overall, you would do well to slot It Was Good Until It Wasn’t into your R&B playlists on Spotify. It’s a great chill album, and well deserving of its place among the other amazing releases in the genre in 2020.
FFO: Jhené Aiko, Normani