June Quick Takes, Part 3: My Picks

And we’ve made it to the third installment of my June Quick Takes. Here we have the releases that aren’t necessarily the biggest name artists that I wanted to make sure I shared my thoughts on them. This will wrap up my scored coverage of the month of June. This will be followed by another round of quick takes for the month of July to get us all caught up to the current month, and I will hopefully be back to full album reviews in a couple weeks. But for now, check out my picks below from the month of June.

LuckyMe

BAAUER – PLANET’S MAD–Yes, this is the “Harlem Shake” guy, and while that song came out all the way back in 2013, this is only the EDM producer’s second full length album. And I would encourage you to not let “Harlem Shake” sour your opinion towards his music. I’m not really sure how to categorize the music that’s on this album. While he has moved on from the trap EDM of his earlier singles, there is still elements of it present. Specifically, some of the production here is beat-centric with minimal sounds outside of the percussion and bass, to the point of some songs having drops that are basically drums only. And these are mixed in such a way that they hit incredibly hard. There’s also a lot of world influence on some of these beats, giving them rhythms that almost compel the body to move. There’s even a track that dabbles in drum ‘n’ bass and the mandatory synthpop song. They’re not all winners, but it’s a very good album nonetheless. 4.0/5.0

Columbia

HAIM – WOMEN IN MUSIC PT. III–For their third album, the Haim sisters enlist the songwriting and production assistance of former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij. This isn’t all that surprising because he worked on a few songs on their second album. But on Women in Music, he worked on the vast majority of the tracks. And his fingerprints are everywhere, to the point that several tracks sound like they could be Modern Vampires of the City era Vampire Weekend songs. But that’s not a bad thing! If you look back at my favorites from 2013, I hold up that VW album as one of the best of the decade, and the Haims obviously bring enough of their own influence to make this clearly one of their albums. In the end, this is a great pop rock album that is loaded with memorable hooks and enough left-of-center production to help it really stand out. 4.0/5.0

Earth Analog

HUM – INLET–I’ll admit that this is the first time I had heard anything from Hum. This album was surprise released back in June and I noticed a lot of people were really hyped on it. I gave it a try and I honestly liked what I heard. Their brand of alternative rock with thick, metallic guitar riffs was pretty cool. I was inspired to go back and listen to their ’90s albums and come back to view Inlet through a more contextual lens. And… my opinion of it decreased a bit. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still pretty good, but when you compare it to the albums from Hum’s peak, it comes across a little one-note and not quite as dynamic, even when compared to Downward Is Heavenward, the album closest to it stylistically. Again, this is still pretty good, but it could be better. Maybe, if this reunion lasts, a really great Hum album is in the future. 3.0/5.0

Dead Oceans/Night Time Stories

KHRUANGBIN – MORDECHAI–This is the third album from psychedelic funk trio Khruangbin. And as might be expected, the band does a good job of pulling off the sound of vintage soul and funk production with their songs. There are a couple tracks that have some really solid grooves and they even dabble in one or two world genres, like on the Latin influenced “Pelota.” But, the bottom line is that the majority of the album is just boring. Save for a few tracks, most of the songs are pretty slow burning tracks that don’t go much of anywhere over the course of four minutes or more. They just end up fading into the background and, before you know it, you’re one or two songs further down the track list. 2.0/5.0

Hospital

METRIK – EX MACHINA–I’m generally not much of a drum ‘n’ bass guy, but I do like a good EDM banger from time to time. And boy, does this new album from Metrik have some bangers. Metrik is an English producer who has been active for over 10 years. What impresses me about this album is that this is DnB music filtered through more modern EDM genres like dubstep and even synthwave. But there’s also an influence of rock music, like the driving verses on “Parallel” that recall down-stroked guitar rhythms, and the literal electric guitar on “Closer” and “Thunderblade.” The best tracks sound like a modern refresh of the kind of songs you’d find on the soundtrack of a ’90s Need For Speed video game. Unfortunately, the album is a little front-loaded with all the best tracks taking up the first half. That’s not to say the back half isn’t good, it’s just not as exciting as the first. 3.5/5.0

Dead Oceans

PHOEBE BRIDGERS – PUNISHER–In 2017, Phoebe Bridgers released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps. Almost immediately, other people wanted to work with her in some regard. Between then and now, she has collaborated in some way with Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Conor Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and The 1975. It’s like all these people recognized her potential and wanted to get on the Bridgers train before anyone else realized it. The thing is, it also appears that Bridgers realized the value of surrounding yourself with supportive and talented people. Nearly all of the people I mentioned contribute to this album in some way, and it’s that much better for it. Everything that made her debut great is improved and all the flaws have been fixed. The songs are personal and emotional and hit you just the right way, and they’re backed up with fantastic instrumentals. This is a real highlight of the year so far. 4.5/5.0

Night School/Thrilling Living

SPECIAL INTEREST – THE PASSION OF–Fair warning, this isn’t going to be for everybody, but if you’re into noisy industrial post-punk that leans more on the punk than the post, then you’re going to love this. I often say that some artists have a punk energy, but this band absolutely has one. They are always loud with lyrics that aren’t sung so much as shouted. Pulsing, unsettling electronic beats drive just about every song on the album, and they’re not afraid to let their drum machines distort or to throw in a little static to accompany their dissonant guitars. And the loudness and anger isn’t just an act. They come from the New Orleans DIY scene, and you sense that this is the product of a genuine, righteous anger. 4.0/5.0

Velvet Blue

STARFLYER 59 – MIAMI EP–Starflyer 59 is the indie rock project of songwriter Jason Martin, has been consistently active for over 25 years, and was one of the original bands on Tooth and Nail records. That translates to 15 albums and 9 EPs. Miami is the latest EP and the first in over 10 years, coming only a year after his last full-length album, Young in My Head. The track list has 3 new songs and 2 reworked tracks from the last album. Sonically, this is pretty much your standard Starflyer fare: guitar driven indie rock with influences from ’80s post-punk and alternative with the tiniest hint of Martin’s shoegaze roots. The only real deviation is a little flirtation with ’60s rock and roll on “Once More” filtered through the Starflyer sound. Martin’s consistency can end up being a bit of a curse rather than a blessing on longer albums, so this EP’s 19 minute run time keeps things from getting stale. If you’re not familiar with Starflyer 59, this is a good way to get introduced to their current style. 3.5/5.0

June Quick Takes, Part 2: Heavy Stuff

Okay, just like last time, round 2 of quick takes will focus on heavy releases from the month. I’ve said it before, but heavy stuff makes up a hefty chunk of the music I listen to over the course of the year, and it feels unfair to limit myself to only general posts and try to squeeze as much heavy stuff as I can in while still giving the other genres their fair shake. Way too much stuff wouldn’t get the time it deserves. So, below are my thoughts, good and bad, on some metal releases from the month of June.

Profound Lore

BELL WITCH/AERIAL RUIN – STYGIAN BOUGH: VOLUME I–Fantastic funeral doomers (and so far, the only funeral doom band I really dig) Bell Witch have returned with a collaboration with dark acoustic artist Erik Moggridge, also known as Aerial Ruin. I’m starting to notice a bit of a trend towards more collaborative songs and albums in the metal world, and I’m here for it, personally. Especially if the pairings make as much sense as this one here. Bell Witch are masters of dark and moody atmospheres, and sometimes you wish you could get a break from all the oppressiveness. Stygian Bough provides just that with Aerial Ruin’s passages and clean vocals, giving you welcome respite before Bell Witch come back and plunge your head into the dark depths again. My only wish is that the mix was better and a little more dynamic. Things got a bit muddy here and the drums especially feel way too far away to make any meaningful impact. I hope the “Volume I” in the title hints at more from this collaboration in the future, and that they solve the production problems on any subsequent releases. 3.5/5.0

Mission Two Entertainment

CRO-MAGS – IN THE BEGINNING–Cro-Mags teased this release with a couple EPs last year, and now we have the first new full-length from them in 20 years! And… it sounds like Cro-Mags. They were one of the earliest crossover thrash bands, and there’s no real reason to reinvent the wheel (haha, early human joke). Much like the prehistoric men whose name they bear, this album stands tall and strong with blistering riffs and thundering drums. The band even recruited Motörhead guitarist Phil Campbell to play lead on “From the Grave” to give them even more thrash cred. The real weakness of the album, however, is that there isn’t much variation, and when it does show up, it’s in the form of the overlong and not very impressive instrumental, “Between Wars.” Fortunately, the album isn’t terribly long, coming in just under 40 minutes. But with the current state of crossover thrash with bands like Power Trip and High Command, I’m not sure this is going to make a huge splash beyond name recognition. 3.0/5.0

BC Music

EMERY – WHITE LINE FEVER–I like to keep tabs on bands from my teenage years because they were so important to my development as a music fan. Emery is especially important to me as their second album was the first I ever purchased with harsh vocals. Their brand of post-hardcore and screamo that emphasized emotional storytelling and melody was a great gateway into heavier music. They’ve continued to consistently release new music, but their recent output hasn’t really measured up to albums from their early, or even middle career. White Line Fever is probably their best album in nearly a decade, but it still falls short. There are moments that are reminiscent of their earlier work, but it quickly loses momentum. I don’t dislike it when Emery makes lighter music, but these particular tracks don’t do much to excite me. The mix feels iffy to me as well, a lot of this album feels muddy and like it lacks definition. 2.5/5.0

Solid State

LIGHTWORKER – FURY BY FAILURE–Along with bands from my youth, I also like to keep tabs on some record labels. One in particular is Tooth and Nail records and its imprint, Solid State. The artists on these labels made up the majority of the soundtrack of my teenage years. Output from both of these labels has slowed down (though, they both appear to be picking back up this year) and their output hasn’t really done much for me with the occasional exception. Lightworker are one of the newest additions to the Solid State roster, and Fury by Failure is their debut album. And… it’s okay. Lightworker play a blend of alternative metal and metalcore with a pinch of djent sprinkled in the breakdowns. And yeah, it’s competent, some of the riffs hit pretty hard, and the choruses are catchy, but it ultimately comes across as pretty generic. Some of the riffs sound like they could have come from an As I Lay Dying album or some other band contemporary to them. I feel like there’s potential here, but Lightworker will have to work harder to stand out. 2.5/5.0

Napalm

MUSHROOMHEAD – A WONDERFUL LIFE–Yes, I know it’s the cool thing to hate on Mushroomhead, but I’m coming from a perspective of actually, kind of liking them. However, even to my more forgiving ears, this albums isn’t very good. A Wonderful Life is the band’s 8th studio album and the first without founding vocalist Jeffrey Nothing. This leaves only two founding members and one other long-time member in the band. Nothing’s vocals were such a key part of Mushroomhead’s sound, that they had to replace him with two new clean vocalists, male and female. The guy sounds like a rough facsimile of Nothing, and the mix usually has him somewhat buried, hoping you don’t notice. The female vocals are a nice change of pace, but the album overall just sounds like generic alternative metal. They also made the odd choice of including nearly 15 minutes of bonus tracks on the standard edition that have their own separate intro and outro tracks. They really play more like an EP that should have been released separately. And weirdly, they’re some of the most dynamic tracks on the album. 1.5/5.0

Heavy Psych Sounds

ORGÖNE – MOS/FET–When an album boasts an 80-minute run time, I go in cautiously, and usually come out the other side with my expectations of drawn-out and boring prog wankery met. ORGÖNE, on the other hand, have brought forth a rare album that is long and interesting. ORGÖNE are a French band that combine elements of proto-punk, krautrock, psych-rock, arabic folk music, and more. It sounds like a messy combination, but these avant-garde jammers find a way to mix it all in a way that keeps things compelling, even over the course of not one, but two 20-minute tracks. Their tracks also cover themes from the Soviet space program, to conspiracy theories about ancient Egypt, to ancient aliens. And their sound is sufficiently spacey to accompany such lyrics. There are a couple passages where things get a little boring, but they are minor in the scope of the whole album. 4.0/5.0

Protest The Hero

PROTEST THE HERO – PALIMPSEST–Yes, Protest The Hero. You either love it or you hate it. I, for one, happen to like them, and Palimpsest is a fine addition to their catalog. It’s also a very timely release given our current political climate and the lyrical content of this album. The band wanted to make an album about American history, but they wanted to present the stories truthfully, rather than through the distorted lens of American exceptionalism. This includes subject that range from the migrant mother in the iconic dust bowl photo to the Hindenburg disaster, Amelia Earhart to the Great Molasses Flood in Boston, and the creation of Mount Rushmore to the suicide of Hollywood actress Peg Entwistle. These stories are all delivered in Rody Walker’s signature soaring vocals, backed by proggy, yet undeniably catchy riffs. The instrumentals aren’t as frantic as previous Protest The Hero albums, but it’s still them through and through. 4.0/5.0

Willowtip

PYRRHON – ABSCESS TIME–So, this was the first time that I had ever listened to anything that Pyrrhon has released, and I didn’t really know what to expect going in. Tech death can take so many forms. What I didn’t expect was something more along the lines of noise-core with elements of death metal. And honestly, it was pretty refreshing. I often find brutal and tech death to be on the oppressive and claustrophobic side, and this noisier, more hardcore approach seemed to give the music (and the listener) a little room to breathe. I also felt like I was listening to something like The Chariot, but death metal. The chaotic, yet intricate collision of sounds is very reminiscent of that band, and if you’re familiar with The Chariot, you realize that that is high praise. The only real weakness is the album’s length. Even with a little breathing room, noise-core can be a bit exhausting. The Chariot knew to keep their albums in the neighborhood of half an hour. Abscess Time is nearly double that, and you feel it by the end. 3.5/5.0

June Quick Takes, Part 1: Big Names

And we’re back! I’ve finally decided to break my hiatus, and to get back into things I figured I’d do something similar to the Quarantine Quick Takes I did for March. I’ll probably end up doing a set of these for July as well to get fully caught up. But these will follow the same format as the ones before, there will be 3 installments and the first will cover releases from big name artists. These will be longer than my typical monthly review lists and they will actually have a score attached to them as well. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on some major releases from the month of June.

Columbia

BOB DYLAN – ROUGH AND ROWDY WAYS–After 3 consecutive albums of cover songs, one of which was a triple album of American standards, Bob Dylan has given us his first album of original material in 8 years. It’s been met with a lot of critical acclaim, but sometimes I wonder if that’s just because he’s Bob Dylan and you’re supposed to like his stuff. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dylan and his songwriting, but I’m not so sure this album deserves all the glowing reviews it’s getting. First off, the album’s title is only really indicative of two tracks in terms of sound. Second, Dylan has become a bit indulgent in his later years. This album is 70 minutes long and no song is less than 4 minutes, and more than half of them are over 6, including the 17-minute epic, “Murder Most Foul.” Of course, there are lyrical highlights because it’s Dylan, but sometimes I feel like I need a Master’s in music history to understand what’s going on. Overall, the album is still good, it’s likely his best work since 2006’s Modern Times, but this isn’t going to appeal to many people who aren’t already fans. 3.5/5.0

will.i.am/Epic

BLACK EYED PEAS – TRANSLATION–2 years after their comeback album, the now Fergie-less Black Eyed Peas have decided to hop on the reggaeton train and release an album with a very heavy Latin influence. It goes about as well as you’d expect an American group trying to capitalize on a foreign genre would go. Though it’s not like they didn’t try their darndest to do it well. The Peas recruit big names in Latin music like J Balvin, Maluma, and Shakira to feature on this album, and there are a couple tracks that pull off some pretty serviceable reggaeton. But the majority of the tracks here just play like generic Latin beats with nothing to make them stand out apart from the Latin artists who built their careers in the genre. The lyrics can be pretty bad too. I don’t know if that’s a product of translating typical Spanish reggaeton lyrics to English or what, but some of them are just laughable. There’s also a pretty corny interpolation of “Super Freak” on one track, and the album’s closer is just an awful attempt at being relevant to current events. I’m not going to say that American artists can’t adapt Latin music, but if we’re going to, we’ll have to do better than this. 1.5/5.0

Easy Eye Sound

CEELO GREEN – CEELO GREEN IS THOMAS CALLAWAY–On his 6th album, CeeLo Green has gone for a bit of a stylistic shift from the super slick, modern pop and R&B with hints of funk and soul to straight-up, old school soul. Honestly, this change is pretty welcome considering Green’s last really good and successful album was 2010’s The Lady Killer, and album whose popularity was undoubtedly bolstered by its smash hit single, “Fuck You.” Since then, Green has released a Christmas album and one other studio album, and you’d be forgiven for not knowing that because I didn’t either. Both were critical disappointments, so Green was in a position for a little reinvention. To do that, he enlisted the help of The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and released it on his Easy Eye Sound label. If you want to record an old-school record, Dan’s the man, but his devotion to vintage sound and recording techniques can be a blessing and a curse. There are definitely highlights here, and Green’s voice is great for the old-school sound. But the album is sometimes vintage to a fault, which is becoming a calling card for Easy Eye Sound. Hopefully this is a sign of good things to come as CeeLo works on this new direction. 2.5/5.0

Interrabang

JASON MRAZ – LOOK FOR THE GOOD–If you follow me on Instagram, I already wrote a pretty scathing mini-review of this in the midst of my hiatus. And no, my opinion of it hasn’t improved over time. I know most people haven’t paid too close attention to Jason Mraz for 12 years or so, but this really has to be the lowest he’s gone. This is a reggae album. Not his typical reggae inspired, ukulele bitch blue eyed soul, but actual reggae. Or at least some ultra polished, major label version of reggae. Not only does this music have no soul, but the lyrics are among Mraz’s worst. There are empty, feel-good platitudes (seriously, there’s a song with the lyrics “make love, not war”), awkward mentions of puberty and masturbation, and even a track where every word is repeated one after another. Add to all that the optics of a white guy from Virginia releasing an album in an inseparably black genre at this particular point in our country’s history. And no, having an older black reggae artist feature on a song doesn’t make it okay. We can hope that things can only get better from here, and maybe this is what will inspire Mraz to make more music like his first two albums again. 0.0/5.0

Epic/Nuclear Blast

LAMB OF GOD – self titled–After the longest break between albums in their entire career (5 years), Lamb of God have returned with their 8th album, and the first without founding drummer Chris Adler. And after over 20 years and 7 albums, they’ve finally decided to put out a self-titled album. (Either that, or they finally ran out of ideas for titles.) Anyway, despite the long break and the new drummer, Lamb of God have picked things right back up as if nothing has changed. They deliver their brand of groovy thrash and metalcore without sounding stale or repetitive. Basically, it sounds like Lamb of God. That might be disappointing to some people, but these guys have a style that works really well for them. Sometimes you’re hungry for a specific type of heavy music, and that happens to be Lamb of God, and they’re good at consistently serving it up. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Even the album cover just screams Lamb of God. An added bonus are the features of Jamey Jasta and Chuck Billy who bring some nice variety. This album isn’t anything new, but it’s really good at being what it is. 4.0/5.0

Reprise

NEIL YOUNG – HOMEGROWN–This is the latest release from Neil Young’s Archives series. Homegrown is made up of songs that were recorded between 1974 and 1975, between the albums On the Beach and Zuma. It was intended to be released in 1975, but Tonight’s the Night was put out instead, despite being recorded almost 2 years prior. Homegrown sat unreleased that entire time until now. The sound of this album leans a bit more towards the folk and country influence of Harvest rather than the psychedelic tone of Beach or the leanings toward hard rock found on Zuma. Some of the songs almost sound like they could have been recorded in the same sessions as the Harvest record. And that should give you a sense of which version of Neil Young you’re getting. These are earthy tracks with personal lyrics inspired by Young’s relationship at the time. These are the sessions where the original version of “Love Is a Rose” was recorded. It’s nice to have these songs from one of the best eras of Young’s career see the light of day and fill in some of the gaps. 4.0/5.0

Hopeless

NEW FOUND GLORY – FOREVER + EVER x INFINITY–New Found Glory have officially hit double digits with their studio albums, an impressive feat for any band. But what’s especially impressive for this one is that not only is this the 10th album of a pop-punk band from the early 2000s, but it’s good! Usually bands of this genre and vintage are broken up, doing reunion shows, or making bland pop rock that only the most die hard fans will hear. That’s not to say NFG haven’t flirted with the more mature pop rock that these bands tend to evolve towards. They have on a few previous albums with mixed results. However, this album is bona-fide early 2000s pop-punk, right down to the lyrics. And the lyrics are written in a way that they don’t sound corny, which is important when you have a band of guys pushing 40 singing songs about feelings and girls. They also reap the benefits of modern production. I know super clean production isn’t exactly in vogue in the pop-punk world these days, but there’s nothing quite like those polished hooks when they hit. In short, this is exactly the album that old pop-punk heads have been waiting for. A legacy band making music like they did 20 years ago but a little more mature. 3.5/5.0

Jewel Runners/BMG

RUN THE JEWELS – RTJ4–El-P and Killer Mike, Yankee and the Brave, not the heroes we need, but the heroes we deserve, have returned when their country needed them most. This dynamic duo of hardcore hip-hop have given us another collection of incredibly solid tracks. They even released the album a few days early in the midst of the protests happening across the country. The beats hit hard and the lyrics hit even harder with their social consciousness, political commentary, and humor. Tracks like “walking in the snow” and “JU$T” hit especially hard, with Killer Mike delivering a harrowing verse on the former where he outlines plight of African Americans and almost prophetically quotes Eric Garner and retroactively, George Floyd. The feature list on the album is impressive too, with contributions from DJ Premier, Pharrell Williams, Zach de la Rocha, Mavis Staples, and Josh Homme. All serving their respective tracks well. Run The Jewels are among the best in the hip-hop game right now, and RTJ4 further proves it. 4.5/5.0