April 2018: Album Review Roundup

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We’re back for another (slightly-delayed) roundup of new releases. Between procrastination, life, and launching the newly-designed version of Swim Into The Sound, this post has just managed to slip through the cracks. I also lost progress on this document an unprecedented four times, so at this point, I’m convinced that it’s cursed. 

Personal drama aside, I’m also thankful that April broke the upward-trend set by previous months and gave me a bit of a break from the torrential flood of new music that we’ve been lucky enough to receive this year. And while April may have been a relatively quieter month in terms of albums released, the quality of the albums we got more than made up for it. In fact, this month’s roundup possibly contains the single widest array of genres we’ve written about, as well as some of the strongest contenders for Album Of The Year we’ve seen thus far. There’s also a weird through-line of albums about death, so it’s gonna get morbid, but you’ve been warned. Let’s get right into it and start off with one of my biggest surprises of 2018 thus far.


Fiddlehead - Springtime and Blind

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Fiddlehead is an emo supergroup comprised of members from Basement and Have Heart who are making hard-charging punk in the style of Jawbreaker or Balance and Composure. A recent addition to the Run For Cover family, the label’s co-sign immediately put the band on my radar and got me to give this debut a shot. While the 24-minute running time makes Springtime and Blind an easy listen, the lyrical content makes it anything but. After witnessing the impact of his father’s death on his mom, lead singer Patrick Flynn set out to bottle up that emotion and hurl it back in the face of his audience. Opening track “Spousal Loss” immediately sets the tone of the record, and (aside from an interlude or two) the heavy-hearted energy of this release doesn’t let up until its final moments. It’s a compelling and expansive listen that grabbed me on first spin and has somehow managed to hit even harder with each subsequent listen. It’s musical and spiritual forward momentum.

 

Hop Along - Bark Your Head Off, Dog

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Known for their agile guitar-work, hard-hitting lyricism, and Frances Quinlan’s destructive vocals, Hop Along have made a name for themselves as a figurehead of the growing indie folk rock movement. Fusing indie rock, emo, folk, and even a dab of twangy country, Hop Along’s sound is both unmistakable and immediate. On Bark Your Head Off, Dog the group is more reserved than ever, playing their cards close to the chest and only letting their emotion get the better of them when it matters most. Each song unfolds with a rich tapestry of instrumental layers, passionate vocals, and haunting lyricism. It’s a feast for the ears and an album that explodes with both color and vibrance.

 

Saba - Care For Me

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While most listeners will probably recognize Saba for his contributions to Chance the Rapper’s “Angels” in 2016, he’s been a figure in the Chicago hip-hop scene for years now. Taking cues from the SaveMoney sound, Saba makes woozy and poetic jazz rap in the vein of Noname or Towkio but ratchets the darkness up to near-uncomfortable levels. Just as the cover would lead you to believe, Care For Me is neither a “fun” or “bright” album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable. Like a mix between I Don’t Like Shit and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, Saba takes an open-heart approach to his music, using the album’s 41 minutes to vividly depict the loss, sadness, and strife that he encounters on a daily basis in Chicago. The album’s high point comes in the form of its penultimate “PROM / KING,” a song that recounts the life of Saba’s childhood friend and cousin who was stabbed to death in early 2017. Through these stark second-hand accounts, it quickly becomes clear that the album’s title is acting, not as a half-hearted ask, but a mission statement, a demand for compassion, and a plea for help. 

 

Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Sex & Food

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For their fourth record as a band, the New-Zealand-born, Portland-based psych group seem to have taken a negative perception of the world and spun into something positive. “Sex and food are the only two good things left anymore” UMO mastermind Ruban Nielson explained as he officially announced the album at the beginning of the year. Perhaps thanks to that focused but vague viewpoint, we now have what is essentially a Seinfeld of an album about nothing in particular. “This record is not political at all, to me. I'm surrounded by everything that's happening, but it's just about my feelings” and thus; Sex & Food. The approach Ruban & co. seem to be taking with this record is actually shockingly-similar to my own personal philosophy: the world may suck, but it’s important not to drown in that fact. There are still wholesome acts, beautiful moments, and communal strength to be found in the face of absolute oppression. Sometimes it can come across as a borderline-hedonistic fixation on the positive, but for Unknown Mortal Orchestra, it simply means good music. Sex & Food ends up being a wonderfully-groovy outing featuring chilled-out and laid-back tracks that perfectly mirror this philosophy of pleasure. 

 

Underoath - Erase Me

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If there’s such a thing as a “legacy act” in metalcore, Underoath has undoubtedly achieved that status. Active since 1997, the group has released eight albums, survived a breakup, and acted as a genre-wide entry-point for millions of fans (myself included). They’re about as close to a household name as metalcore gets, yet unlike most other bands in their position (The Devil Wears Prada, August Burns Red, Bring Me the Horizon), they are now in the unenviable position of releasing their first album in nearly a decade. Stuck at a crossroads between accessibility and expectations, the band embraces pieces of each style resulting in an enjoyable, yet somewhat-uneven pastiche of opposing voices. There are spots of genericism in both the lyrics and the instrumentals, but these instances can probably be chalked up to time more than anything else. The band members have changed just as much as their army of listeners over the course of the past decade. They’re not the same people that recorded “Reinventing Your Exit” in 2004, and they never will be again. Erase Me is about as solid of an album as one could expect given all the elements at play. This comeback album is a nice compromise between the Underoath we know and the developments that have occurred in the genre during their absence. Erase Me is not bad, but it’s not an instant classic either, and the truth is it doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day it’s just great to have Underoath back.

 

Half Waif - Lavender

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As the lead singer, keyboardist, front-woman and overall creative force behind Half Waif, a lot of responsibility lies on the shoulders of Nandi Rose Plunkett. After rocking the world (and my emotional state) with 2017’s form/a, Half Waif has returned only one year later with her full-bodied third LP titled Lavender. Created in the wake of a family death, the album acts as a memoriam; a loving document of Nandi’s recently-passed grandmother. More than that, Lavender stands as a testament to maternal strength, inter-generational wisdom, and the ever-shifting self. Tender, loving, and deeply personal, Lavender swirls around the listener and slowly bathes them in an aroma of loss and compassion for 38 minutes. If any of us are fortunate enough to have such a gorgeous work of art commemorating our lives, we should consider ourselves lucky.

 

The Wonder Years - Sister Cities

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The Wonder Years are my favorite band of all time, full-stop. As documented in my Upsides write-up (and the fact that I spent over $110 on the ultimate bundle of this album), this is a band I love, trust, and follow implicitly. While I was originally drawn to the group for their fast-paced pop-punk stylings and heart-on-sleeve lyricism, its members have (expectedly) matured in the near-decade since I’ve been following them. Gradually shifting away from that explosive in-your-face musicality, the band has been growing up, mellowing out, and moving on to the point where they no longer identify with that aggression any longer. Using their last album as a bit of half-step between these two styles, Sister Cities finds the band fully-realizing their new sound with a now-fleshed out and fine-tuned musical pallet. 

Opening track “Raining in Kyoto” finds lead singer Daniel Campbell an ocean away from his dying grandfather, regretfully missing his last opportunity to say goodbye before he passes. While it starts on a dour rainy mood, the song (and album as a whole) eventually shift toward positivity and even joy in some spots. Sister Cities is a record about how little distance truly matters. It’s about love, and life, and heartbreak, and death, and all these concepts that bond us as humans. No matter where we are or who we’re with or what we’re doing, there are life events that are so intrinsic to the human experience that they bond us in this beautiful and inescapable way. It’s an album about the resilience of humanity. The good in us and the beauty within others.

I’ll admit I still like the band’s “faster” music much more, but even then I can see that Sister Cities is just as poetic and personal as the band’s early work. Their first few albums were about longing for happiness, purpose, and a sense of being, and now that they’ve finally achieved some of those things, they’re looking back in appreciation. Their discography is like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; those base-level traits are the things bond us. Meanwhile those higher needs are are the things that we’re all striving for, but you cant skip straight to them. When the band members were in their 20’s those base level things seemed almost impossible to maintain (or achieve in the first place), but now that they’ve grown as humans, they’re looking up at the next level confidently for the first time in their lives. As they stretch and reach to those top-tiers towards self-actualization, they find themselves tumbling back down over and over again, but the point is that they never give up.

 

Janelle Monáe - Dirty Computer

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It’s a bit early to claim anything as album of the year, much less pronounce a record’s eventual impact on an entire genre, but if there’s a better candidate for both of those accolades than Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, then I haven’t heard it yet. Wonderfully-accessible, powerfully-confident, and unabashedly-weird, this is the album we need in 2018. Dirty Computer is about extending the middle finger to assholes of every type from close-minded bigots to our very government. It’s an album about being yourself and owning it. It’s an album about the prison of technology and the hangups of society. It’s an album about everything. There are bangers like “Django Jane,” and undeniable bops like “Pynk,” even Prince-esque perfection on “Make Me Feel,” and those songs are all next to each other on the album. Dirty Computer is expertly-balanced, wonderfully-varied, and well-paced, but most importantly, it’s coming at the perfect time. It all hangs together beautifully and should cement Janelle Monáe as one of the most fantastic and creative thinkers of our time. An achievement of pop.

 

Quick Hits

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  • I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats - All Hail West Texas: A full-album cover of The Mountain Goat’s seminal All Hail West Texas featuring a compilation of artists from the Night Vale-adjacent I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats podcast.
  • Cardi B - Invasion of Privacy: personable bangers of empowerment from the stripper turned platinum rapper. 
  • Adam Ackerman - Autobiologist: Sorority Noise guitarist and known shredder Adam Ackerman gets emotional on his first release as a solo artist.
  • Kississippi - Sunset Blush: Sunny, shimmering, and soulful, Kississippi’s long-awaited debut is a brightly-colored reflection of interpersonal drama.
  • Flatbush Zombies - Vacation in Hell: The Brooklyn trio unleashes a series of never-ending and always-varied flows against a background of brightly-colored tie-dye.
  • Young Thug - Hear No Evil: A triplet of rubbery trap songs with big-name features, all of which allow ample room for Thug to zanily bounce around like the living Animaniac that he is.
  • Animal Flag - Void Ripper: Heavy alternative rock that’s not afraid to bask in regret.
  • Princess Nokia - A Girl Cried Red: The latest development in the emo trap movement ignited by Lil Peep.
  • King Tuff - The Other: Sun-drenched psych rock in the style of Ty Segall.
  • J. Cole  - KOD: I’ll be the first to admit I’m no J. Cole fan, and while KOD sometimes veers into Mr. Mackey territory, there are still enough scattered moments of poignancy to make this an endearing listen.
  • Sleep - The Sciences: It’s not often that you can point to an entire genre’s definitive album, but Sleep managed to craft one with 1999’s Dopesmoker. Now nearly two decades later they have an official successor in the form of The Sciences, an album about smoking weed in space (suitably) released on 4/20.
  • God is an Astronaut - Epitaph: Monolithic and star-dusted instrumental post-rock from the enigmatic Irish trio.
  • GIRAFFES? GIRAFFES! - Memory Lame: The first album in seven years from the doubly-named math rock duo. 
  • Royal Coda - Royal Coda: Legendary post-hardcore singer Kurt Travis returns to the genre with a new band and a blistering debut that proves he’s still one of the best in the game.
  • Grouper - Grid Of Points: Pensive and slow-winding piano ballads that bottle up the trauma of heartbreak and serve it up to the listener in a foggy, dreamlike state.
  • Post Malone - Beerbongs & Bentleys: Admittedly wack, but somebody needed to fill the void left by Kid Rock, and therefore; Post Malone.
  • Sigur Rós - Route One: After driving around Iceland for a full day creating procedurally-generated post-rock with stems from "Óveður," Route One is a 40-minute album highlighting the best moments from the highly-conceptual nation-wide commute.
  • Dr. Dog - Critical Equation: An extraordinarily well-polished psych album from the band that’s now been around almost long enough to have received an actual doctorate. 

Plus we got new singles from Drake, St. Vincent, Dance Gavin Dance, A$AP Rocky, Get up Kids, Haley Heynderickx, Amine, Dr. Dog, Slim Jxmmi, Field Medic, Denzel Curry, Beach House, Kid Cudi, Florence + The Machine, Nicki Minaj (twice), God is an Astronaut, Lil Uzi Vert, Lithics, Lil Pump, Father John Misty, Denzel Curry, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, FIDLAR, Billie Eilish, Mitski, Ariana Grande, Ty Segall, Clairo, Mogwai, The Internet, and Kanye West.