It's another year of cranky album reviews that you can tell are by me and me alone because I somehow mention Tracey Thorn three times in them.
Run the Jewels 3 (Mass Appeal) [hr]
Nobody but these two is liable to arouse suspicion with a whopping two years between albums, but there's no loss of momentum to be heard on these 14 searing cuts, hitting as hard as ever with the maturity and effortlessness that only a truly solid partnership can bring. You can be forgiven for having little call to distinguish between the three albums El-P and Killer Mike have released under this name; they're essentially one long attack divided into thirds, and if they seem a little madder as time goes on it's mostly the result of an accelerating disappointment we can all understand. Moreover, the choice of guests is masterful apart from an errant Zack de la Rocha, with welcome interjections from Tunde Adebimpe, Trina and Danny Brown. El-P lends his most irresistibly earth-shaking beats to "Legend Has It," "Hey Kids" and "Panther Like a Panther," all unstoppable monsters, but Mike as usual is the man with the uncompromising, unhesitant truth. He starts "2100" by worrying about the pending holocaust, then lays it down, the battle scars of 2016 on all of us unmissable even if he wrote these words beforehand: "I refuse to kill another human being in the name of a government / Cause I don't study war no more, I don't hate the poor no more."
The Flaming Lips: Oczy Mlody (Warner Bros.) [hr]
Every good Flaming Lips song released in the current decade has been a dirge. Everyone knows this, including -- apparently -- the Flaming Lips. But whereas The Terror went too far with this theory by melding their once-distinctive sound into a flattened, interminable slog, and their work with Miley Cyrus seems to have hinged upon a "weird for weird's sake" sensibility that has its novelty but quickly wears thin, their latest album hedges its bets in the best way by burying surprisingly credible dream pop in its bubbling ambient grooves. So while the record makes an initially good impression as one of the best in their long sporadic series of indulgent psychedelic-electronic soundscapes, it keeps you coming back because there is music, hooks even, buried within it, like Forever Changes hiding in a Tim Hecker release. The songs never assert themselves strongly but they're in there, which threatens to make this -- while too low-key to be the group's best effort -- perhaps their most addictive album. Proofs of life: "There Should Be Unicorns," "Sunrise," "The Castle."
The xx: I See You (Young Turks) [r]
Contrarian here: Coexist was terrific, intimate, hushed, romantic. This is Jamie xx dicking around as usual with Sim and Croft as his capable vocal agents, singing beautifully but matched with often bizarrely incongruous electronic and dance music. The sound never coalesces the way that, say, Ben Watt's production used to behind Tracey Thorn's voice, with the rather irritating single "On Hold" and its busy hip hop-infected Hall & Oates sampling something that would have been much more at home on Jamie's solo record In Colour. That said, most of the new songs are well-written and lovely, especially "I Dare You," and I still enjoy this, I just don't find it as magic as its predecessor, which everyone else hated, so... you know.
SOHN: Rennen (4AD) [r]
SOHN's underrated debut Tremors was one of the best of the mid-'10s crop of blue-eyed electro-R&B albums; the follow-up is four minutes shorter but feels half an hour longer. It opens gorgeously with a procession of irresistible melodies, strong beats and radio-worthy hooks but the entire second half apart from the lovely, Perfume Genius-like title cut is meandering and repetitive, basically everything the hip record store clerk in your life accused the first record of being. As so often with promising artists' sophomore records, this might have worked better as an EP, but don't deny yourself the pleasures of its four-track opening rush, especially "Conrad" and "Signal."
Allison Crutchfield: Tourist in This Town (Merge) [r]
Crutchfield is a singer-songwriter, born in Birmingham (with her twin sister, Katie Crutchfield a.k.a. Waxahatchee) and based in Philadelphia, formerly of Swearin' -- a band that also included her former boyfriend and whose breakup inspired much of this raucous, emotionally thorny if carefully performed album. The sound is the grab-bag of influences you'd expect for someone of Crutchfield's generation working within this confessional mode, with the strong presence of new wave synthesizers, traditional Americana song forms and the wordy, wizened speak-singing of Loudon Wainwright or Frankie Cosmos. It's all sharp and pleasingly catchy, and kind of comes and goes. But then you read the words, which are so easy to miss while it's all playing so effortlessly, and holy shit: "Go out and kill some memories." "We sleep in the same bed at the opposite times." "Was this based in love or was it based in admiration? Was it mutual respect or was it the mutual frustration? Was it the great moonlight that night in July? Just remembering the heat's enough to make me cry." "The things you used to hate about me are all heightened now." "I'm figuring out how to not always apologize just cause I'm the one who's always so upset." "Maybe you would be proud, I speak out so loud, but I'm still so self-conscious." "I know you're different now, and I'm still tragically sentimental. But the words I sing don't intoxicate you, they're not even true. Like how I remember making you tea on the last morning we shared, or how more than anything I just wish I didn't care." This stuff is raw, and familiar: forget Vunicura, the cycle of doubt and loathing and confusion that follows the demise of a relationship hasn't been so nakedly, fearlessly captured on a rock record since probably Beulah's Yoko; the challenge of trying and failing to move on and the absolute loneliness of coping not brought out so painfully since Tracey Thorn wrote "Single." But the melodies and vocals can't seem to give full justice to the power of the lyrics; they're like a secret, like she doesn't really want you to parse them out. And maybe that too is finally appropriate.
Ty Segall (Drag City) [r]
Give it up to this guy for sticking to what he knows. Distorted guitars, solid melodies, you only say "so what" because you already know what's coming.
Mark Eitzel: Hey Mr. Ferryman (Merge) [c]
Mindnumbingly boring song cycle from the chief singer-songwriter of former indie darlings American Music Club, about whom I confess I know nothing, but whatever led Eitzel to be once named the best songwriter in the country by Rolling Stone, he's proven no more capable of retaining it than most everyone else who seemed very cool in 1991. I promise I'll listen to one of the old AMC albums -- my knowledge of early '90s indie is a huge gap -- but I must remark that the only appealing song here cribs its hook from the Magnetic Fields, about whom I do know something.
Elbow: Little Fictions (Concord) [NO]
Guy Garvey and Elbow's brand of mediocrity is quite different from the mediocrity of, hmm, Ryan Adams or Frank Ocean or Allison Crutchfield or Win Butler, all of whom have released middling and space-filling music and all of whom nevertheless seem like people who work hard and do their best for their faithful; Elbow, the Mercury Prize-winning Ramsbottom quartet that's been foisting their specific brand of carefully engineered apathy upon the world and the waiting earbuds of various lowly, resentful, mature adults for nearly two decades, does not work for a living. They are not paid to make music any more than Donald Trump is paid or expected to make policy decisions. Elbow is a manmade construct built to faintly and none too enthusiastically push buttons that in some pre-zombie state a large group of people wanted pushed; if Coldplay's music is the half-hearted memory of a memory, Elbow's is the memory of a memory of a memory at best, and at worst a group of nefarious robots' best approximation of what they read in a sensitive teenager's diary about why they enjoyed a Suede concert -- I say "nefarious" because this is part of a plot to make us all calmly accept that it's come to this, even though really it hasn't. But we're all busy and may not have time to verify as such, especially if we're using something like this to try to close our eyes tight and flash back to adolescence. Even if bottom-tier power ballad rock & roll is your sole lifeline to sanity, then jesus ball-crushing christ at least Future Islands are risky and human in their indulgences; at least Chris Martin's written a few songs with hooks, melodies, some sort of actual appeal, and moreover my sources verify that he must have had sex at least twice; at least the most one-dimensional song Bob Segar ever records won't sound this dead-eyed and disaffected. There's no point anymore in pretending this is anything but insipid, colorless trash; whatever goodwill they might glean for generating nostalgia for Britpop groups that actually had some sort of a personality, their work remains the most grating and watery variety of weakly played lifestyle music and there was a time it seemed gauche to fault someone for being dull, but y'know the thing is I never want this Five for Fighting-esque bilge piped into my ears again so goodbye.
Sampha: Process (Young Turks)
Sequencer-oriented singer-songwriter from London lights some incense and drones on into that good night; you can almost feel your opening-act impatience building. As background noise, it's fine.
Surfer Blood: Snowdonia (Joyful Noise) [r]
Modern indie's weirdest, most uncomfortable drama continues with Surfer Blood's first album without guitarist Thomas Fekete (dead of cancer at just 27), whose distinctive tones defined the band's sound and were their saving grace at even their darkest time. In addition, their fourth full-length record recruits new bassist Lindsey Mills, who also contributes backing vocals, so to say the least, the band sounds a bit different. Despite the losses and the attendant controversy, the progression is mostly a positive one and feels like a reasonable approximation of where the group was inevitably headed without the temporary Warner Bros. distraction. The songs are longer, more ornate, and more casually beautiful than ever, and as on the underrated 1000 Palms there's every indication that John Paul Pitts -- who sang "I'm too young to be defeated" just seven fucking years ago before he proceeded to engineer that defeat himself -- has acquired something like humility; without indulging in his own grievances the way he did on Pythons, his lyrics grapple with death and loss without surrendering to it. The music is expansive and smart but never over-indulgent, detailed but never slick, using the band's best song "Anchorage" as its starting point and making the best of the absence of the guitarist who made that track such a propulsive masterpiece. In some universe Pitts' stubborn refusal to hang this thing up is a lingering thread of his adolescent violence, but if this band's incremental evolution into hard-working pop masters presses on like it has, the reward of a career full of immersive music may outpace the reward of the most morbidly fascinating story in modern guitar music.
The Menzingers: After the Party (Epitaph)
This Scranton punk band's been paying their dues for a long while now; I remember wandering around during a performance of theirs nearly a decade ago and thinking that they outran most of their national-touring peers in enthusiasm if nothing else. Assuming you can best past your prejudices -- which is perhaps insurmountably difficult if you're as sick of modern groups that sound like this as I am -- their songs are solid, the lyrics resonant and thoughtful, and the band's distinctiveness manages to peek out. I say this with full honesty: I expected to hate this but my head ends up bobbing on almost every cut. If this is your sort of thing, I bet there aren't many albums out now you'll be bound to love more.
Lupe Fiasco: Drogas Light (Thirty Tigers) [r]
There are times that you could seriously mistake Lupe Fiasco's sixth record as the work of someone who doesn't approach every project with approximately 70 tons of baggage, and for the first half or so (with solid guest shots from Ty Dolla $ign and Rick Ross) this sounds like real hip hop circa 2017; you have to keep looking at the screen to remind yourself who it is. He's still kind of a dummy, and the more he lets little parts of his persona slip back in, the more you recall how charming Kanye West's tone-deaf cluelessness is by comparison. But the emancipation from Atlantic really has been a godsend for Lupe, at least musically; this bangs (check out "Jump") and even at its weakest never strains credibility the way everything else he's done since The Cool has.
Julie Byrne: Not Even Happiness (Basin Rock)
What's the difference between acoustic-based singer-songwriter Byrne, hailing from western New York state and whose second album this supposedly is, and a Lyla Foy or a Kristian Matsson or a Meg Baird? They're all nice people with guitars and the music is pleasant, even (at the right time) reassuring. To remind myself I played a little of Foy's already unjustly forgotten Mirrors the Sky and you know, it's the emperor of all clichés to talk about the medium not being the message but good lord, the difference between a song ("No Secrets") that immediately hurls you around the room and one that flies out of your memory the moment it ends is stark no matter who's playing it, when or how. Byrne's record is mundane, tonally consistent, perfectly straightforwawrd. It might even be what you're looking for in a certain kind of scenario. But should generic indie folk really be striving for the same goals as ambient music?
Priests: Nothing Feels Natural (Young Turks)
Bubblegum DC-area post-punk is flatly produced, its hard-won sarcasm hard to trust as more than a stylistic affectation, but it also feels unfair to judge a debut album in the context of stuff like Savages, who put most of their resources on the "post," and even Iceage, ditto "punk." (God forbid we bring up Sheer Mag or Terry Malts, who have "songs.") Protest music is of course a necessity in this moment, but there already was no shortage of it, and this is too much of a compromise between L7 and Joy Division to hang anything on, though it's not impossible that the boredom could alleviate when they have less to prove.
Migos: Culture (Quality Control) [c]
Unimaginative sophomore album from mysteriously acclaimed Atlanta trap trio sounds ancient already, though "Bad and Boujee" struck some sort of a chord that sold them lots of album-equivalent units and got overly kind writeups across the meme-addled universe. The group's widely celebrated sense of freewheeling fun seems tied to their admittedly tireless penchant for goofy adlibs; theirs is an album of novelty songs and not even entertaining enough to keep one's attention for half its excessive length. More groundless hype for us to look back on in despair.
Jens Lekman: Life Will See You Now (Secretly Canadian)
Fourth album (since 2004) by Swedish singer-songwriter who writes verses, not songs, with slick adult contemporary production, a superficial love of stylistic pastiche, and some scattered moments of sly wit. He gets compared to Stuart Murdoch but knows more about human emotions and less about record collecting, more about quality control and less about melody than Stephin Merritt. It's been over a decade since I last sampled Lekman's work but my impressions are similar enough that I figure his progress has been incremental, apart from an apparent sideline into mournful breakup-lamenting on his prior record. This is OK. One of the songs contains Tracey Thorn. I don't really get it and never have -- as with a lot of wordy pop from Game Theory to Bright Eyes, lyrics wedged painfully into tunes, my brain doesn't handle this style very well -- but at least he's writing about other people now (though it's... something that he had to be commissioned specifically to consider doing so) and he does indeed write better lyrics than lots of people with better voices who write better songs.
FURTHER INVESTIGATION TO COME
* American Wrestlers: Goodbye Terrible Youth
* Romare: Love Songs, Pt. 2
* Bonobo: Migration
* Foxygen: Hang
* Loyle Carner: Yesterday's Gone
* Lowly: Heba
* Jesca Hoop: Memories Are Now
* Tinariwen: Elwan
* London O'Connor: Circle/Triangle
FaltyDL: Heaven Is for Quitters
Madness: Can't Touch Us Now
Tove Lo: Lady Wood
Steve Hauschildt: Strands
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions: Until the Hunter
Jim James: Eternally Even
Lee Fields & the Expressions: Special Night
Martha Wainwright: Goodnight City
Emeli Sande: Long Live the Angels
Loscil: Monument Builders
Simian Mobile Disco: Welcome to Sideways
Dawn Richard: Redemption
Brian Eno: Reflection
Austra: Future Politics
William Basinksi: A Shadow in Time
Rose Elinor Dougall: Stellular
Denzel Curry: Imperial
Moon Duo: Occult Architecture, Vol. 1
Teen Daze: Themes for Dying Earth
Molly Burch: Please Be Mine
Moire: No Future
PVT: New Spirit
Dutch Uncles: Big Balloon
Marching Church: Telling It Like It Is
Frank Iero and the Patience: Parachutes [NYIM]
Esben and the Witch: Older Terrors
Shirley Collins: Lodestar [NYIM]
Kristin Hersh: Wyatt at the Coyote Palace
Bruno Mars: 24K Magic
Miranda Lambert: The Weight of These Wings [NYIM]
Childish Gambino: Awaken, My Love!
John Legend: Darkness and Light
Pete Rock & Smoke DZA: Don't Smoke Rock
Tech N9ne: The Storm
Dropkick Murphys: 11 Short Stories of Pain & Glory
Mick Harvey: Intoxicated Woman [NYIM]
AFI: AFI (The Blood Album)
Michael Chapman: 50 [NYIM]
Throwing Snow: Embers
Gabriel Garzon-Montano: Jardin [NYIM]
Tift Merritt: Stitch of the World
Sacred Paws: Strike a Match [NYIM]
Piano Magic: Closure
James Johnston: The Starless Room
Cloud Nothings: Life Without Sound [NYIM]
Delbert McClinton & Self-Made Men: Prick of the Litter [NYIM]
Eliza Carthy: Big Machine
Duke Garwood: Garden of Ashes
The Sadies: Northern Passages
Chuck Prophet: Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins
Bing & Ruth: No Home of the Mind [NYIM]
Meat Wave: The Incessant
Son Volt: Notes of Blue [NYIM]
Ryan Adams: Prisoner
Lawrence English: Cruel Optimism
Nikki Lane: Highway Queen