Yukon Blonde – Vindicator (Dine Alone Music)
It’s a little “on the nose” that a Canadian indie-pop outfit would go by the same name as a Territory of the Great White North, but I can’t really fault them for the homage to home turf. And at least one of them is actually mostly blonde. So there’s that.
This is their 7th studio album under the name Yukon Blonde (they actually had 2 EPs as Alphababy beforehand…what do you think of the name change?), and I have to say, they absolutely nailed it. I can find no fault in anything on the record. Vindicator focuses a lot of attention on being smooth as melty ice cream and as funky as the weekly sock laundry.
Wait…I mean…You know what I’m saying?
There is a flare for creativity that doesn’t often get heard outside of a Beck album. Take “You Were Mine”, for example. It starts out sounding like a Michael Jackson tune, played through a box fan, then breaks down as a slow jam love-child of George Clinton and Teddy Pendergrass, before going full-on funkadelic. And that only covers 5 minutes of the release.
Wonky, warped synth sounds are the dominant trait of the album, perfectly orchestrated atop beautiful R&B vocals. This is all backed by a rhythm section that should be heralded: bass for days and some of the tightest drumming in pop music.
The stand-out tracks on Vindicator are the aforementioned “You Are Mine” as well as a few mid-album cuts. “Good Times” is a sad, wallflower anthem set to a slow club beat, and “Fuck It” is a Flaming Lips-esque jam about doing your own thing.
Honestly, the whole thing is a romp.
FFO: Jamie Lidell, MGMT, Portugal. The Man
Jesu – Terminus (Avalanche Recordings)
Justin Broadrick is an enigma. Trying to categorize him as an artist is, at best, asking for an argument and will most likely result in catastrophic existential failure. “Extreme music” is generally how he is boiled down, but largely that’s due to his work with Napalm Death in the mid-late 80s and his subsequent work with industrial metal outfit, Godflesh.
Jesu is the more cerebral, experimental cousin of those groups. It is slower, sludgier, and significantly more personal. Throughout the 00s, Jesu released some college-radio-lauded opuses (opi?), including a duo of 20-minute think pieces called “Heart Ache”, off of Heart Ache & Dethroned; and Infinity, an hour-long composition that bordered on classical with its meditative movements. Terminus has many of those same earmarks. The ambient sounds of indeterminate synth-strings haunt nearly the whole thing. Deep echoes and plunging electronic bass are similarly pervasive. Guitar work is sparse, and sometimes nearly non-existent, accenting Broadrick’s departure from the metal world. The vocals are similarly subdued, relaying genre-less themes of isolation, wont, longing, and nostalgia.
I still believe this can be classified as “extreme”. Though it has a different flavor and mouthfeel, it requires the same type of discerning palette to appreciate it. Terminus is meditative and transcendent, and just about impossible to absorb one track at a time. I recommend setting aside the full 50 minute extension of the record, sit comfortably, and allow the wash of emotion to overtake you.
FFO: Sun Kill Moon, Dead Meadow, Red House Painters
Aesop Rock – Spirit World Field Guide (Rhymesayers Entertainment)
You have to go all the way back to 1997 to find hip-hop virtuoso Aesop Rock’s debut album, Music For Earthworms. The term “find” is a bit of a misnomer though; you won’t find it on Spotify or Tidal or Apple Music. In fact, the only place I could find this gem is on YouTube. But in case you wondered if Aes was really as sick back in 1997 as he was throughout his career, look no further than the opening lyrics off of the opening track, “Abandon All Hope”:
“Is a love such as that which I exhibit for my practice / The factor which then amalgamates debates with straight-jackets and robes / Huddled in brackets that blacken the average globe / Xenophobe, loathe to modify the fly, feel this / I carve a notch in my wall for every stall / Every fifth mark slants diagonal to symbolize your downfall.”
Just stop it. This was the year that “MMMBop” came out, for goodness sake.
I know, I know – you don’t give a shit about something that dropped 23 years ago. But you should! Because it’s every bit as good as his latest release, Spirit World Field Guide. To say that Aesop Rock has “improved” over time is to insult what he was at every step along the way, which is one of the best rappers in the history of rap music. Not one of the best underground rappers, not one of the best collab rappers (although those are not false statements). But one. of. the. best. ever. For that reason, I won’t call Spirit World Field Guide his greatest work, since they’re all his greatest work.
This one is mighty great, though.
You got silly tracks (“Dog at the Door”, “Flies”), you got introspective tracks (“Crystal Sword”, “Attaboy”), and you got whatever the fuck “Boot Soup” is (“Boot Soup”). But all tracks have the trademark triad: fly beats, dense lyrics, and Aesop Rock’s signature, undeniable flow.
And with that, I will end this review just like Aes ends the album, via the final track “The Four Winds”:
“I get the hooks in, I hold the helm down / I stand the hell up, I see myself out.”
FFO: Murs, El-P, Illogic
Jules Shear – Slower (Funzalo Records)
Having written songs that charted for artists like Cyndi Lauper, The Bangles, Til Tuesday, and Alison Moyet, it isn’t really a surprise that the 68 year old can bring tunes that are touching and full of life.
On Slower, he seems to be a man out of his time, nostalgic for a time when lyrical depth was an important part of pop music. His voice is perfect in its dry-rasped imperfection, his unfettered thoughts bared for us all to hear. Songs about love, mostly, but also growing older in harmony with the world (“Sugar All Day”) and sarcasm in the face of willful ignorance (“Smart”).
The musical aesthetic of the album is equally retrophilic, reverent to the sounds of yesterday. Easy listening piano music, walking basslines, and very little percussion put all the focus on the vocal delivery, highlighting the stories being told.
Listening to the whole thing at one time rendered me a bit listless and I had to depart and return a few times to give the songs my full effort. So my recommendation would be to ingest a song or three at a time.
It’s worth it.
Start with: “It Came Down From Heaven”, “Between Hell & Hello”, “Feels Like Fall”, “One Pretty Please”
FFO: Paul Simon, Belle & Sebastian, Randy Newman
Nuclear – Murder of Crows (Black Lodge)
With a brutal combination of thrash and death metal, plus a dash of hardcore and punk, the Chilean outfit, Nuclear, is a violent uncompromising sonic assault.
On their 6th studio album, they only spare the onslaught during the absolutely beautiful acoustic intro, “Pitchblack”, which also bookends the album, and the gothic instrumental interlude, “Blood to Spare”. The rest of the album is a consistent face-punch, delivering a social diatribe with every barbed fist. With songs like, “Hatetrend”, “Useless to Mankind”, and “Facing Towards You”, they leave no question as to the level of vitriol, even if the sentiments are a little vague.
This is a blood-pumping 40 minutes of South American venom, ascerbic and bitter, but oh so delicious.
Start with: “Useless to Mankind”, “Facing Towards You”
FFO: Hate Eternal, Hirax, Sepultura
Chris Stapleton – Starting Over (Sound Records)
I will keep this short and sweet, for a change. Starting Over (the album) is a gruff, emotive, stripped-down masterpiece of an album, regardless of genre. This is country music in the way that gold is a metal; technically true, but a significant short sale.
“Starting Over” (the track) is one of the finest-written, best-performed songs of the year, full-stop. Minimal guitar anchoring the instrumentals, with Chris’s vocals floating on top like the Grand Marnier in a B-52. (I’m far from an expert in the intricacies of boozin’, but the What-Tails gents will be your huckleberries there.) His wife, Morgane, is the other voice in the chorus, and adds that additional needed spark to round out the track.
“Cold” and “Maggie’s Song” are not to be slept on. There are a few more traditional country tracks, like “Devil Always Made Me Think Twice” and “Whiskey Sunrise”, but it’s traditional in a more 90s country sense – it’s miles away from the current bro-country movement.
It will certainly suffer from a stigma that country music generally gets, and I’m sure they folks are a bit desensitized from all the success Chris Stapleton has enjoyed in the last few years. But if you give Starting Over a try, you will be rewarded with a true unique gem of the genre.
FFO: Tyler Childers, Ian Noe