The Dears – Lovers Rock (Dangerbird)
Before getting into the music on this album, a couple points of clarification need to be made. Firstly, this is not a band. It is an undefined collective led by Montreal-based icon and presumed Bond villain, Murray Lightburn. Secondly, any act that self-indentifies with Serge Gainsbourg is saying 2 things: 1) “We don’t want to be pigeon-holed into a genre”, and b) “We might be French”.
Their eighth studio release is a collection of reflective tunes that can best be described as eclectic orchestral pop. From the Bowie-esque “Is This What You Really Want?”, to the early-Weezer sounding “I Know What You’re Thinking About And It’s Awful”, to the Motown love song “Play Dead”, the instrumentation is always full and rich. This is no surprise, since the list of contributors on the album may as well be the Montreal phone book.
Throughout all of it, Lightburn’s voice shifts between styles effortlessly, doing what is needed to float, cut through, punch up and generally take control of every track. His charisma has a Neil Diamond-at-the-cabaret quality to it that’s undeniable and enchanting. The flow of the record feels more like a well-crafted playlist, easily moving from song to song without seeming repetitive or jarringly different.
FFO: Serge Gainsbourg, Broken Social Scene, British Sea Power
Zach Aaron – Fill Dirt Wanted (Zach Aaron)
We all have roots. For some of us, those roots are convoluted and hard to trace. For others, like Zach Aaron, those roots are easy to identify and powerful as hell. Storyteller folk, workin’ man blues, and outlaw country, along with the rebellious spirit of Woody Guthrie, combine to form Fill Dirt Wanted.
Lyrically, this album is a lamentation of our humanity in its current condition. That might take the form of a personal relationship (“Shelter of the Storm”), the plight of a hard-working Joe (“Animal of Burden”), ridin’ the rails (“Dying Hobo Blues”), or just having to wait your turn (“Dayton Train”). Ultimately, it’s an album about how we treat each other.
Zach makes use of a pantheon of traditional instruments. Most prevalent are the acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, piano and fiddle, but if you’re paying attention, you can hear a dobro, a washboard, and an honest-to-god gutbucket. As much as the lyrics tell the stories here, the music plays a significant role in presenting the emotion of the songs. Some of these tunes are funny, and the music tells you it’s ok to find that amusement. Some tracks are serious and sad, and the band lays that out for us as well.
It is unpolished, raw and unfiltered and all the more powerful for it.
FFO: Woody Guthrie, Ray Stevens, John Fogarty
Bloods – Seattle EP (Share It Music)
Marihuzka Cornelius is as close as you could get to a hidden-identity superhero. By day, she’s the A&R Manager (which I learned stands for “Artists & Repertoire” – thanks Google!) of Sydney, Australia’s own Ivy League Records. But by night – or maybe also by day? – she’s MC, the frontwoman of peppy pop-punk band Bloods. Their music is hard to find on the typical streaming services, as I am instead more commonly seeing the early-90s musical collaboration between the Bloods and the Crips. (I did enjoy “Piru Love”, but I digress.) A quick search on YouTube or Bandcamp should get you the goods, however.
The Seattle EP is surfer rock with sass. MC has plenty of middle fingers to go around for her haters, notably in the delicious, aptly-named fuck-you anthem “Girls Are Just Fucking Cool Like That”: “‘When we age, we go away…’ fuck ’em all, we’re here to stay”. She’s got more to dole out on “The New Guy”: “Seems to be I’m not on my knees / so just leave the key and close the door”. MC is as unapologetic as she is scathing, not pulling any sardonic punches along the way. Bandmates Mike Morgan and Dirk Jonker do well to emphasize the songs, but make no mistake: this is MC’s work through and through.
Seattle clocks in at 14:45, which means you could dust the whole thing off during a smoke break. And you should, because it’s a worthwhile listen. I will be trawling through their previous releases, and I am excited to see Marihuzka continue to balance the glasses and tie with the cape and tights.
FFO: The Regrettes, SWMRS
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Reunions (Southeastern Records)
Okay, so riddle me this, FKA Faithful. What do you say about an act when everything has already been said, and when those things all still apply in force? Because that’s what we’re faced with. If you’ve heard any tracks off of Here We Rest, or more recently The Nashville Sound, then you’ve heard the beauty that Jason, and his band The 400 Unit, bring to the table. That’s to say that Reunions is “more of the same”, but the “same” in this sense is just really amazingly delightful music.
Consider: according to Wikipedia, Jason Isbell has never had a charting single, either solo or with The 400 Unit.
Also consider: Isbell’s last two albums, Something More Than Free and the aforementioned The Nashville Sound, have peaked at #1 on the Billboard Country chart. And at #1 on the Folk chart. And at #1 on the Rock chart. They also peaked at #2 and #1 respectively on the Indie chart, and #6 and #4 respectively on the overall Billboard 200.
Without a charting single to speak of.
I guess that’s maybe something to say that hasn’t already been said.
I won’t sit here and tell you that every track is the best track on this album, even though that would be an accurate take. I’ll instead narrow the list a bit and give a shout-out to “Overseas” (“This used to be a ghost town / but even the ghosts got out”), “River” (“And running till you’re nothing/sounds a lot like being free/so I’ll lay myself inside her/and I’ll let her carry me”), and “Be Afraid” (“And if your words add up to nothing then you’re making a choice/to sing a cover when you need a battle cry”).
Jason takes us through several phases of being and growth along the way: from being a young child on “Dreamsicle”, to seeing his own child grow up on “Letting You Go”, to the deeply personal “It Gets Easier”, detailing his struggles with alcoholism with intense candor. He has a special knack to tell you a story without you realizing that it’s actually a story. Like a great movie or book that pulls you into its world, Jason Isbell’s words are magnets that attract the most vibrant scenes from your imagination. The members of The 400 Unit are more than deserving of acknowledgement in their own right: Sadler Vaden, Jimbo Hart, Derry DeBorja, Chad Gamble, and Jason’s wife, Amanda Shires, are ever in lockstep with Jason’s perfectly-nuanced delivery.
Jason Isbell is all your video game characters that you have all the stats maxed on, yet you still continue to play the game. Can he get better? Not really, because he’s already mastered the craft. Does that detract from how amazing he is, album after album? Absolutely not.
Asking Alexandria – Like A House On Fire (Sumerian)
I must have missed something. I knew they had a different vocalist a few records ago. I further know that they were angling toward a more mainstream sound when Danny came back. Even armed with that information, I was totally unprepared for Like A House On Fire.
Eschewing every last vestige of metalcore, the British quintet has made the move to a modern brand of loud-pop. The guitars are groovy, precise, and crunchy, but with very predictable patterns. The drums are watered down for a metal act, relying heavily on tracked electronics to keep the songs moving. Above it all, the vocals are the single most surprising element of their new sound. While a few times, grit and emotion color the vocals, there is not a single metal scream on the entire package. There is even a duet ballad with fellow Brit and social media pop-cover starlet, Grace Grundy.
All this sounds like I don’t like the album. Quite the opposite is true, actually. After several listens, I can safely say that it is my favorite Asking Alexandria record. The problem is that even I don’t know how to feel about that.
FFO: Fall Out Boy, Issues, Nothing More, Starset
Noah Cyrus – The End of Everything EP (RECORDS)
Let me go on record and say that I adore Miley Cyrus’s singing voice. I think she has beautiful vocals that are overshadowed by the content of her songs. And with all that said, I think her sister Noah’s voice is even more impressive.
I’ve already gushed about the lead single, “July”, but there are several more gems to be found on sophomore effort The End of Everything. Noah is able to strip a topic down to brass tacks with incredible tenderness, both vocally and lyrically. The album is primarily made up of piano or acoustic guitar, with very few additional instruments. Doesn’t need ’em – it would only detract from the beauty coming directly from Noah. In fact, one case where there’s a more defined beat (“Ghost”) is a bit worse off for it.
Noah Cyrus is like so many of us these days: “Young & Sad” (“I was born to rain clouds/When they blew the flame out/Blessed in our shadows”), “Lonely” (“I’m slowly killing myself/I’m trying so hard at the back of the shelf”), remembering the “Wonder Years” (“Why do I keep doin’ it to myself?”) with a melancholy reverence. She remains hopeful though, as many tracks are uplifting at the root, and not completely downtrodden.
“July” was one of my favorite tracks when it dropped back in 2019, and “Young & Sad” is becoming one of my favorites of 2020. I’m excited to think about what new Noah Cyrus track will make my list in 2021. At the young age of 20, she still has plenty left to sing about.
FFO: Lana Del Rey, Lucy Dacus
The Magnetic Fields – Quickies (Nonesuch Records)
Quickies marks the 12th studio album for The Magnetic Fields, an impressive career spanning 4 decades (1991-2020 so far). It features 28 tracks, none longer than 2:35. You might think that’s not long enough to really cultivate a song, a thought, a feeling… and I would agree. The tracks on Quickies tend to be the first part of an incomplete conversation (“Kill a Man a Week”), the first part of a random thought that didn’t really need to be shared (“I Wish I Had Fangs and a Tail”), or something different altogether (“The Biggest Tits in History”, “Death Pact (Let’s Make A)”). In any of those cases, more would be better; fewer, longer songs would be a definite improvement.
That’s not to say that there aren’t tracks that land at all. “Evil Rhythm” is a very fun track, and I laughed out loud at parts of “My Stupid Boyfriend”. But those few gems are quickly drowned out by the rest. It’s impressive from a volume perspective, but Quickies comes off like an album chock-full of cutting room floor ideas that didn’t make it into the previous 11 albums.
Sometimes, things end up on the cutting room floor for a reason.
*Side Note: Jeremy really enjoyed this record
FFO: Tim Minchin, Moldy Peaches