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 warranted in order to more completely recommend all of the music that we have been listening to. Unmetal Monday is a bi-weekly column which covers noteworthy 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. As is tradition, we’ll be highlighting a few albums and tracks that struck our fancy over the past few weeks. Head past the jump to dial down the distortion:
Bill Callahan – Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest
Life changes tend to have an impact on musicians and what they create. They’re human beings, so to expect an artist with any sort of longevity to never move into new artistic territory as their lives progress is naive or unrealistic at best. Hell, even sad boi stalwarts like The National and James Blake released the most uplifting music of their careers this year as marriage, family, new relationships, and other factors worked to enliven their typically bleak lyrical perspectives. We can now add Bill Callahan to the cavalcade of newly happy men, and Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is his most expansive, emotionally joyful, and contemplative record since his days in Smog. It’s over an hour’s worth of guitar-based balladry that not only shows the long-running musician in a new mental space, but also at his very best as a songwriter and performer.
Opener “Shepherd’s Welcome” bids listeners warmly into Callahan’s headspace. “It’s been such a long time / Why don’t you come on in,” he croons over some serious lo-fi guitar production reminiscent of early M. Ward material. The track segues directly into “Black Dog by the Beach”, which serves as the antithesis of the album’s raw opening salvo, presenting instead a warm, rich country-tinged ballad, complete with harmonica and slide guitar. This sense of warmth will become a staple throughout the record, as “The Ballad of the Hulk”, “747”, “Watch Me Get Married”, “Call Me Anything”, and “Son of the Sea” display Callahan’s signature introspection regarding his new life circumstances in the six years since his last release. The music follows suit with Callahan’s happier circumstances (marriage, children, the standard pains and joys of a growing family), presenting more energetic arrangements and performances by Callahan and his collaborators. This is music created by a man who has watched far more sunrises than newsreels over the past few years, and it’s a delightful breath of fresh air. It’s an inviting, long, and winding record that more than fills the void left by his extended absence.
It’s always a bit jarring when the artists that speak to the darker, more melancholy aspects of our nature find happiness, as the familiarity we’ve come to expect from these artists is uprooted by spouses, children, and other such joy-giving circumstances. I can’t begrudge these individuals for finding the happiness they’ve been seeking, and as a listener 2019 has taught me to keep my expectations open to natural shifts in human circumstance. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is a perfect example of the riches available to us as listeners if we are able to adjust our expectations to account for joy among the saddest of our favorite musicians. Callahan’s latest may not be another slab of end-of-the-world sadsackism, but it sure is lovely and relatable regardless.
City Girl – Chrome Velocity
While I’m not fully in a band (I write lyrics and do narration for Instar), I’m in there enough to understand how much work goes into making music. The level of repetition, refinement, and sheer creative work is truly mind boggling and once you realize that, even average albums become something of a miracle. Not to mention great albums. Not to mention releasing two of them in the same year. But that’s what City Girl, a synthwave/glitch/retro/chill project has done in 2019. Following up on the excellent Somnolent Nova from earlier in the year, Chrome Velocity presents a more scattered and beat oriented version of the project’s timbre and you know what? It absolutely works.
While Somnolent Nova was definitely a more ambient and chilled out album, Chrome Velocity still maintains those ideas and sounds at its core. Take the opening track for example, the excellently named “Endless and Artificial”. Most of it is all verve and bright notes, skipping happily from idea to glitchy idea. But there’s still somber piano at the end of it, blending into the more lo-fi influenced “Saturation in Delay, Love in Anger” (featuring tiffi, who does an excellent job on the vocal melodies). The overall result is certainly a more energetic beat in parts but always married and muddled with the “colder” elements that have been always been part and parcel of City Girl’s vibe.
Thus, you get an album which can be melancholic at times, upbeat at times, a complex and satisfying jaunt through a chaotic urbanscape, capturing the intricacy of its aesthetic field with deft capability. As to which 2019 City Girl album is “better”, I leave that up to you; some might gravitate more to the nocturnal themes of Somnolent Nova, while others might prefer the more intense trappings of Chrome Velocity. Regardless, one thing is certain: City Girl is one of the best projects operating in these spaces today and we can’t wait to see what comes next.