It’s not often we have a new release day like the Friday before last, as it was a virtual bonzanza of new music. From ’90s stalwarts like Beck to relative newcomers like King Krule, there was a little of something for everyone. Here’s a grab bag of reviews for the most anticipated albums by some of the hottest artists.
Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice
It’s the age old tale; boy from Philadelphia known for spacey folk laden excursions meets high octane rocker girl from Australia and together they make a pleasantly easy going batch of fun tunes. While the pairing of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett may have seemed like a curveball at the outset, it turns out they complement each other quite well and their conversational style makes it seem like we just wandered into a casual backyard jam session. Sometimes acoustic guitars are the main focus, but other times spindly electric guitars take over and there are even Americana flashes of banjo and harmonica. Lyrically things are predictably loose, with the new Kurt and Courtney trading anecdotes about songwriting and life on tour. Things even get a bit silly on “Blue Cheese” with its references to Chinese Rock n’ Roll and woo hoos. But the biggest surprise is the album closing cover of ’90s alt rock group Belly’s “Untogether“, which uncovers a ragged beauty in the examination of a failed relationship. While most of the album is merely congenial rainy day listening, on this track the two singers touch on something a bit deeper, a heartbreak and yearning filtered through an unlikely platonic partnership.
Beck – Colors
If there’s one thing we know the musical chameleon known simply as Beck, it’s that the guy is never easy to pin down. So it’s no shock that he has taken yet another detour with his album Colors, which represents his most pop-centric album to date. Complete with big glossy choruses, drum machines and layered production, it feels like Beck’s attempt to appeal to the widest possible audience, which is an interesting move for an artist over 20 years into his career who should have nothing to prove at this point. Things start off promisingly enough with the sunny title track with its catchy pitch shifted vocals and what seems to be the sound du jour, tribal flute samples. Next up, “Seventh Heaven” features some well placed new age keyboard cascades and the usual Beck stream of consciousness lyrics about “apple flower doggerel” and “suntan lips” which leads to a soaring chorus with serpentine guitars. It’s a well crafted tune and it’s backed up by “I’m So Free“, one of the more energetic outings on the album. But then the album comes to a grinding halt with “Dear Life“, a tune that’s not only bland, but also seems patched together from secondhand Beatles guitar parts and cops a piano hook from Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things“. Beck has always had some obvious influences, Dylan, Prince, ’80s hip hop, but his genius was in juxtaposing them in ways to make the parts create something novel. Here he merely seems to be derivative, casting about for ideas and grabbing whatever will create a passable song. Sadly, there just aren’t many highlights from the rest of the album, with the exception of the revved up “Dreams”. It’s one of the only legitimately funky tracks, but it’s also over two years old. Previously there had been two major streams running through Beck’s work, the sad singer/songwriter material that was at the forefront on Sea Change and Morning Phase and the genre hopping fun Beck that is most exemplified by Odelay and 1999’s fan favorite Midnite Vultures. Unfortunately on Colors we see the emergence of a third Beck, mediocre Beck or safe Beck. It’s a guise we had seen hints of on a pair of mid 2000s albums, The Information and Modern Guilt. But those were both far more engaging than this material, probably in no small part to the respective contributions of top flight producers Nigel Godrich and Danger Mouse. It seems that the zany dance party incarnation just isn’t a persona Beck can pull off at this stage of his career, so we can only hope that sad Beck re-emerges next time around to give us a new post-modern salve for hangovers, break ups and other assorted bummers.
St. Vincent – Masseduction
Annie Clark aka St. Vincent knocked it out of the park on her last effort, 2014’s self titled album, with a batch of inventively catchy tunes. Clark’s ambition and confidence swelled to such heights that she even positioned herself on a throne and not-so-subtly declared herself some sort of indie rock royalty or cult leader on the album cover. So after conquering the world, it’s no surprise that Masseduction is somewhat of a comedown. But while it can’t top St. Vincent, it isn’t a disappointment either. However, the swagger is largely gone, as are most of the guitar heroics that gained Clark recognition as one the most innovative guitarists of her generation. In their place, we find Ms. Clark somewhat battered by dissolved relationships and the overall pressures of modern life. It makes for a highly personal affair with her musing over losing her mind in a dystopia on “Los Ageless“, catastrophic events on “Fear the Future” and wandering empty streets on “New York”, wondering who can put up with her now that her lover has gone. But she wraps much of her sadness in a sparkling poppy package with a high electronic quotient, as on the thumping “Sugarboy” where she rides Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” synth groove to create an intriguing leftfield facsimile of an EDM track. Similarly, she fuses a bouncey beat with wailing guitars and a clever alternating lyric of “Mass seduction/Mass destruction” on the title cut, which sounds like what would be a huge hit in an alternate universe where people don’t mind thinking while they dance. But some of the album’s most effective material are the quieter moments, like “Happy Birthday Johnny” which revisits the same relationship as her last album’s “Prince Johnny“. Now the affair is long over and Johnny is sleeping on the streets somewhere alone while Clark parades on magazine covers and TV. It’s impressive on tracks like this that she isn’t afraid to bare her soul in such a specific manner. It’s an album not without its own artifice, but we get some peaks behind the facade at something a little more real and it points toward Clark continuing to mature as an artist.
King Krule – The OOZ
King Krule aka Archy Marshall’s been an up and coming artist for a few years now and has recorded under several aliases, including most notably his own name and Zoo Kid in addition to King Krule. With The OOZ, his second proper album under the King Krule moniker, Marshall has released an ambitious, difficult work that is unlike anything else in today’s music scene, or any era for that matter. It’s a true mishmash of styles with jazz, punk, surf rock, hip hop, ambient electronic and even some dub reggae style effects all combining in a soupy concoction that doesn’t always go down easy, but is eerily enveloping. But what’s more impressive than the seemingly disparate genres that Marshall is able to combine, is that the fashion in which he does it sounds remarkably fresh. The term “groundbreaking” gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, it’s not hyperbole. There had been hints at an album like this in Marshall’s previous discography, but this work represents a leap forward for both King Krule and perhaps even music in general. Lyrically, themes of loneliness and depression match the skeletal off kilter soundscapes that provide the backdrop for Marshall’s often unintelligible South London accented baritone. Make no mistake, Marshall’s music is as dreary and sodden as the fog that his hometown is famous for, but there is quite a lot to get excited about here. One particular standout is the pairing of the menacing “The Locomotive” and the haunted house meets The Ventures vibe of “Dum Surfer“. The crossfading between the tracks is seamless as to create the impression of two halves of one whole and they make for unique counterpoints. “The Locomotive” is brooding and dejected with Marshall spitting the lyrics “I wish I was equal/I wish I was people”. “Dum Surfer” on the other hand invokes something more confrontational and violent with lyrics about collisions and gambling, while musically it presents one of the more traditional song structures with something of a hook and even a guitar solo. On other tracks like the warbly “Czech One“, the keyboards recall the minor key electronica of legendary knob twiddlers Boards of Canada. The album does lose some steam toward the end, and at 66 minutes it probably could have been trimmed by three or four tracks to tighten things up. Had that been the case it could have been a contender for album of the year, but even so it still remains a strong favorite for top ten of 2017 status.