There’s a lot happening in the music world, and we here at Heavy Blog try our very best to keep up with it! Like the vast majority of heavy music fans, our tastes are incredibly vast, with our 3X3s in each Playlist Update typically covering numerous genres and sometimes a different style in each square. While we have occasionally covered non-metal topics in past blog posts, we decided that a dedicated column was once again warranted in order to more completely recommend all of the music that we have been listening to. Unmetal Monday is a weekly column which covers noteworthy news, tracks and albums from outside the metal universe, and we encourage you all to share your favorite non-metal picks from the week in the comments. This week, we’ll be highlighting several albums that struck our fancy over the past few weeks. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
This is the album I always knew Fleet Foxes could make. Gone almost entirely are the precious, borderline twee lyrical themes and musical progressions. Filling this space instead are lush, contemplative, beautiful and beguiling musical arrangements coupled with leading man Robin Pecknold’s most deeply personal and abstract lyrics yet. Crack-Up is no reunion record (though Fleet Foxes have had a longer hiatus as an active band than LCD Soundsystem did as a disbanded one), but instead a bold statement of intent that may well prove to be their most impactful and obtuse release as a band.
From the opening notes of the multi-part epic opening track “I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumbprint Scar”, the decidedly more fatalistic and jaded tone the band has espoused here becomes clearly evident. Opposing the lo-fi harmonies of the opener of their self-titled record and the light-hearted build of “Montezuma” on Helplessness Blues, Crack-Up unfolds in a more subdued, almost contradictory juxtaposition of sound and song. Slow, languid guitar tones quietly stroll and slip through the cracks of a spare sonic palette as Pecknold gently whispers “I am all that I need” as if only a small portion of his heart and mind believe it. The song then bursts into that gorgeously composed cornucopia of sound that fans of Fleet Foxes have grown to know and love, but with a twist: Pecknold’s mood refuses to improve. “So it’s true I’ve gone too far to find you”, he intones with a reserved, almost passive sadness that feels both familiar and oddly foreign in the context of the band’s previous work. This level of melancholy permeates the record like an overwhelming cloud of oppression that is as saddening as it is oddly soothing. The remainder of the album builds on these concepts and explores them in potent and refreshing ways, culminating in an incredibly cohesive record musically that speaks to the listener at an emotional depth that Fleet Foxes had not plumbed until this release. It is a step in a new direction for the band, but thankfully an overwhelmingly positive one.
This is a record of juxtapositions. Of contradictions and complexities. It is Fleet Foxes’ most soulful, honest, complex, and beautiful record to date. With Crack-Up, the band has brought to the music world an album worthy of the time it took to create. Uniformly excellent.
Larkin Grimm – Chasing an Illusion
A heavy emotional burden and bittersweet inspiration prompted Larkin Grimm to journey back into the studio and record Chasing an Illusion, her first album in five years. Her coming forward with allegations of sexual assault against Swans frontman Michael Gira—and the ensuing backlash, death threats and attacks on her mental health—clearly played a role in her songwriting, particularly with the somber ballad “I Don’t Believe You.” Grimm says the “song was written for all the survivors of abuse,” and the track’s themes of scarring self-realization and being confronted with doubt and ridicule after coming forward make for a powerful and all-too-real statement.
Perhaps just as painful an influence was the death of musical legends David Bowie and Ornette Coleman, both of whom have some spiritual input lingering on every note. Bowie’s presence on the album is quite literal; his longtime producer Tony Visconti accompanies Grimm on bass, and the album was mixed with “the same dusty, unlabeled mixing board” used for Bowie’s ninth full-length, Young Americans. Coleman’s influence, on the other hand, comes from a much more sentimental source. Grimm says she was profoundly moved by the jazz legend’s three-hour, music-filled funeral celebration a couple years ago, adding that “Coleman believed that every listener is equal, and no particular education is required to understand the language of the heart. I hope that this album will heal your pain as it has healed mine. I hope it will bring you closer to the divine.”
These themes of overcoming pain through an embrace of spirituality and inner strength directly bolster the incredible triumph that is Chasing an Allusion. At its core, the album combines all manners of contemporary folk, with particularly noticeable parallels to the lush orchestrations of Grizzly Bear and the bright, beautiful compositions on St. Vincent’s Marry Me and Actor. Grimm expands upon this base with her own background with free folk’s unhinged approach to maximizing every sound at her disposal, whether in a more heavenly or harrowing direction. Top all this off with the bluesy jazz soul of Coleman and transcendental spirituality of Alice Coltrane, and you have a folk album unafraid to let its superb, unique voice soar above listeners’ expectations.
Though this eclectic blend of influences may seem jarring, Grimm maintains a compositional thread that grounds each track without curbing their diversity. After a gorgeously transcendental introduction with “Ah Love is Oceanic Pleasure,” she launches right into the album’s folky core on “Beautifully Alone,” which fleshes out themes similar to Yellow House-era Grizzly Bear with some Okkervil River thrown in for good measure. The album continues to ebb and flow from there, ranging from a Chelsea Wolfe-esque somber acoustic ballad on “A Perfect World” and the prominent bassline, fluttery vocals and playful whistling on “Keeping You Alive” showcasing that early St. Vincent style. As the title-track closes out the album, Grimm fully embraces all aspects of her sound, pushing her vocals to a Björk-level croon and then coming back down for some Laurie Anderson-inspired spoken word. And as the textured, Middle Eastern vibes of the track unravel more and more until it’s triumphant conclusion, it’s clear that Grimm has conquered her pain and poured her journey into an album as healing as it is enthralling.
Dougmore – Outerboros
From his blog Can This Even Be Called Music, Dave shares with us that “Dougmore‘s debut album is a foray into folkloric music through the lens of art rock. Indeed, Outerboros is lush and complex, deep and progressive, and, on top of that, inspiringly beautiful. Don’t be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the folk singer-songwriter foundation of the project – with Douglas and his banjo –, for there is here a plethora of invited artists playing a wide range of instruments, from wine glasses to trumpets, from bouzouki to double bass, from dulcimer to harp, and a lot of other things in-between. This not only brings in a variety of timbres and sonorities to the record, but it also helps flesh out the heavily-layered compositions of Dougmore. With poetry, fantasy, fables and surrealist mundanity, Douglas crafts an entrancing otherworldly avant-garde folk album that will stay with you for a long time.”
Big Boi – Boomiverse
In the current era of post-Drake rappers dominating the hip hop discourse, it’s refreshing to have Big Boi return and show everyone what’s up. Despite being in the game for close to a quarter of a century, the statesman and ATL-native continues to sound so fresh and so clean with his latest solo album, Boomiverse. Whether he’s part of a group or on his lonesome, you can guarantee that any project involving Sir Lucious Left Foot will go against the grain of whatever’s popular at the time while, at the same time, feeling quite familiar. With Big Boi you can always expect the funk and the Dirty South to be brought, but you can also expect experimentation as well. Outkast built their career on it, and subsequent collaborations with Phantogram have saw the rapper embrace dream pop.
For his latest outing, Boi is evoking the spirit of the ‘70s and ‘80s with tracks like the disco-funk tinged “Mic Jack’’ which features Maroon 5’s Adam Levine reminding us that he’s still worth a shit after making consistent garbage since Songs About Jane. “Get Wit It’’ sounds like “Sensual Seduction’’ era Snoop Dogg and it also features him. “Freakamonics’’ and “All Night’’ featuring Sleepy Brown and Lunchmoney Lewis respectively are just bizarre, but you’ll love them after a few listens. The same can be said for a few tracks here; it’s not Boi’s most accessible album by any means and it takes a few listens to fully embrace, but when it finally clicks, it goes off like a sex bomb.
Tracks like “Order of Operations’’ and “In the South’’ are up there with some of the rapper’s best work, but only the latter is what you’d consider conventional Daddy Fat Sax fare. The beauty of Big Boi is that he has a love for a wide variety of music and he’s in a position to do whatever the hell he wants. He incorporates so many elements into his sonic palette and continues to push hip hop forward. In 2017 he might not be dominating the airwaves, but he’s showing these young bucks a thing or two. Now if only he could show Young Buck a thing or two…
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Nashville Sound
“I heard enough of the white man’s blues”, intones Jason Isbell on the lead single, “Hope the High Road”, from his and his vaunted collaborators in the 400 Unit’s new album, Nashville Sound. The rollicking Southern rock on this track is the attention grabber Isbell had to be hoping for when they hit the studio to follow up on his previously strong efforts Southeastern and Something More Than Free.
Lyrically, Isbell is once more in fine form with his character tales from the Deep South, investigating the torn and broken psyches of several people he may have once been or known but he’s at his most powerful here when channeling his anger into pointed jabs at various societal elements that he encounters regularly enough to drive him to put those folks on notice in song.
“White Man’s World” is about as close as we’ve gotten in pop music to an introspective look at white, male privilege as Isbell takes the hammer to Nashville, its musical hegemony (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s world/Under our roof is a baby girl/I thought this world could be her’s one day/But her momma knew better”), street-level patriarchy and sexism (“I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes/Wishing I’d never been one of the guys/Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke”), and its Southern foundations. This is the kind of song, in subject, that we might have expected from punk or hardcore bands but instead we’re hearing about these issues with a certain venom and rectitude from the alt-country realm. It’s a brave stand for a guy who knows he’s spitting in his core audience’s eye a little bit here.
That said, beyond this track and the lead single, you have a track that invokes the musical legacy of Pink Floyd’s the Wall (“Anxiety”) before it settles into its contemplative groove, another rocker in “Cumberland Gap” that rivals anything Isbell’s old colleagues in the Drive-By Truckers lay down, a track that seems to draw some Elliott Smith-style inspiration in “Chaos and Clothes”, and a pair of classic Isbell acoustic numbers in “Last of My Kind” and “If We Were Vampires”. If anything, Nashville Sound establishes that Isbell and the 400 Unit are capable of convincing in a variety of ways, and for that we’re all a little richer than we were before.
Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
With Big Fish Theory, Vince Staples speaks his truth over bass heavy, industrial instrumentals that have the atmosphere of a party but the content of a call out. This album is Vince solidifying his position as a star in the rap game while showing us how different he is from his peers. The song “Big Fish” has the legendary Juicy J on a hook that’s bound to get wedged in your brain before it’s over, yet also contrasts the celebratory hook about counting money and ballin’ with the struggles that led him to even be able to have any sort of peace of mind to begin with, all while “swimming upstream” and trying to keep his money from the sharks.
Though songs like this are subversive while still being club friendly, there are those songs that see Vince stripping away a lot of the noise to prove a point, such as “Alyssa Interlude”. It features an interview with the late Amy Winehouse, delving into how she wrote her music and the various subjects she explored with Vince singing about a woman that he misses dearly whom he feels he should have protected. These songs are alongside each other on the tracklist and are a testament to the concept of the fish bowl magnifying the fish inside, magnifying their isolation to anyone who happens to pass by, and the fish can’t swim away because wherever they go they’re visible through their glass.
Aside from the concept being interesting, the music is incredibly sound. Though this record is also trying to separate itself from mainstream rap albums, it has many of their hallmarks, such as the abrasive, booming “Yeah Right” having a Kendrick Lamar feature, or most of these songs not even or barely reaching the three minute mark. I think these were smart choices (especially that Kendrick feature because wow he snaps) but it also takes experimental moments in recent rap history and runs with them. The industrial, noisy instrumentals and minimal physical album packaging (no physical booklet and clear case just looking in on the CD) echo Kanye West’s 2013 opus Yeezus, with Vince even saying “I’m the blood on the leaves” in the album closer. There’s another moment on the track “Homage” where he interpolates A$AP Ferg’s “New Level”, which was a song that was part of a larger album of more edm influenced trap/hip-hop that reflected Ferg’s newfound space in that scene. Both of these feel like Vince winking at his audience a bit, though I could be misreading his intent. Regardless, Big Fish Theory is an album that is risky yet has undeniable mainstream appeal and should see Vince being moved to a larger tank very soon so that he can grow larger and more defiant in his stature and approach to his art.