Spring New Releases Album Review Round Up

Once again we’ve had a cavalcade of fresh new releases flooding in this Spring, which is going to make for some epic Spotify playlists and other enjoyable listening this summer. Here’s a recap of some of the cream of the recent crop.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks – Sparkle Hard

Stephen Malkmus has been indie rock royalty for decades, going back to his critically lauded work with Pavement back in the 90s. Since their break up in 1999, Malkmus has released a string of well received solo albums with his backing band The Jicks. For my money, his masterpiece as a solo artist remains 2008’s Real Emotional Trash, where Malkmus let his freak flag fly with a full four tracks breaching the six minute mark and the title cut even stretching out over ten jammy minutes. His newest album, Sparkle Hard, represents his strongest work since that high water mark. The lyrics are as offhandedly witty as ever, with Malkmus critiquing everything from the proliferation of bike lanes to social media, while taking a few swipes at confirmation bias on the earworm highlight “Brethren”. Musically things are still pretty casual, although there a couple instances of rocking out, like the big fuzzy guitars of “Cast Off” and “Shiggy”. But most impressively, there’s also a willingness to experiment a little, such as the sophisticated string section on “Solid Silk” and the country swing of “Refute” where guest Kim Gordon delivers a winking verse about infidelity and dysfunctional families. Not all of it gels, I’m still not completely sold on the autotune vocals of the chugging “Rattler”, but you have to hand it to Malkmus for at least trying out some different approaches. Which ultimately is one of the great pleasures of the album, it’s a portrait of an artist comfortable enough to deliver the goods effortlessly, but also with the confidence to take a few risks and throw in a few well placed curveballs.

Skee Mask – Compro

German producer Bryan Müller has been generating some serious heat with his second full length under the Skee Mask moniker, Compro. Not only did it snag the coveted Best New Music seal of approval from Pitchfork, but the initial vinyl pressing sold out in just a couple of days. With good reason though, not only is Compro now a front runner for best electronic album of the year, but it may just be a new classic. Throwing out the classic tag is not just hyperbole here, this is a strikingly mature effort that has an oddly timeless quality to it. Occasionally it even calls to mind the early work of the great Aphex Twin, especially on the brooding “Via Sub Mids“. Even though Compro sounds like it could have come out in the 90s, it doesn’t come off as dated or recursive. The album also embraces a wide variety of moods and tempos, from the enveloping ambience of “VLI” to the muscular breaks of “Dial 274” and the skittering drumnbass of “Soundboy Ext.“. But what’s extraordinary is that despite the array of subgenres that Skee Mask tackles, he nails each with equal aplomb. Additionally, he manages to weave these styles into a cohesive whole that flows naturally from track to track. Technically this is a masterfully work, the mix is crystal clear with each sound occupying just the right amount of space, even when elements become stacked high upon each other. But it’s the callbacks to earlier classics that give the tracks emotional heft. By tapping into the sense memories of the giants upon which Skee Mask is standing upon, a new dimension of depth is added to his music and it opens up the possibility of him joining the pantheon of electronic music greats one day.

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel 

When Courtney Barnett broke through to a wide audience with her full length debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, it was a breath of fresh air, injecting a much needed authenticity and rawness back into rock. She followed that up with last year’s collabo with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, which was decidedly more laid back and breezy. That project’s aesthetic, at least in terms of the music, has seeped into her latest effort Tell Me How You Really Feel, which for the most part is a slow burning affair of ballads and midtempo material. There’s certainly nothing as punchy here as the snarl Barnett unleashed on Sometime’s big single, “Pedestrian at Best“. Lyrically, the opener’s “Hopefulessness” advice of “Take your broken heart/ Turn it into art” seems to be the album’s manifesto, as much of the album deals with relationships problems and disillusion. There are a couple more energetic numbers, including “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence“, but the oversharing title really says it all in terms of the song’s meaning. Elsewhere, Barnett ruminates on the isolation and monotony of touring on “City Looks Pretty” and just when it seems things might get too grim, she busts out an unabashed love song with the closing “Sunday Roast” which builds to an uplifting coda and ends things on a positive note. There’s been some negative buzz around this release, but that may be disappointment on the part of those who were looking for a raucous summertime album to play while partying in the sun. While this isn’t that, the songwriting is still strong and Barnett’s loose guitar leads have a shaggy dog charm. Plus, summer isn’t always all bbqs and beach days, this album will be a good one to spin on those cloudy mornings while waiting for the sun to break through.

Jon Hopkins – Singularity

Jon Hopkins has been making intellectual leaning electronic music for a while, but previously he was best known for his production work for Brian Eno and Coldplay. However, that changed in 2013 when he knocked it out of the park with his fourth full length release Immunity, an album superlative enough to land on my own top ten list of that year. One particular standout from that set was the pulsating “Open Eye Signal” that featured a modulating bass synth that sounded like electricity coursing through corroded circuits over a house beat. Unfortunately Hopkins’ new album opens with a trio of tunes that practically sound like reworks of that track, with the same dirty tones and similar chord progressions appearing throughout. To be fair, these are still well made compositions with an admirable attention to detail. One of Hopkins’ most remarkable feats is that he makes music that is both expansive and yet also somehow feels like a window to the molecular. If there were a soundtrack to the relatively enormous swaths of empty space between an atom’s nucleus and electrons, this could be it. But having said that, it’s hard not to hear Singularity as merely treading the same ground Hopkins broke open so creatively with Immunity. The second half of the album skews more toward the ambient and cinematic, and it’s here that there’s a little more room for the music to push forward. But by then we’ve already spent nearly a half hour traversing Immunity 2.0. Hopkins remains a world class audio sculptor, these tunes will sound simply miraculous on your speakers, but it’s hard not to wish that there was a bit more in terms of ideas to fully flesh those elements out into something that builds upon his earlier work.

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