The Music Review is a weekly set of capsule reviews on the biggest releases of the previous week, all curated by myself. Each week has an Album of the Week and a Dud of the Week (although, let it be said that the Dud is rarely a particularly awful album, just the one that I deem the weakest of that week’s big releases). The format allows for more reviews to make their way into the website without laboriously long essays on each album getting published.
In what has to be the best week for new releases this entire summer, The War on Drugs and Queens of the Stone Age return and BROCKHAMPTON unleash their hip-hop sequel…
ALBUM OF THE WEEK: A Deeper Understanding – The War on Drugs
How do you follow up the perfect rock record? Moreover, how did anyone expect Adam Granduciel to expand on a sound so meticulously crafted on a record like Lost in the Dream? It seemed as though the touchstones that made that album so wonderful, and the way that Granduciel twisted them into his own dreamlike shapes, could only be done right once. Certainly, the progression from that last album to this one is subtle. Tonally, it’s the same expansive sound that feels like it’s trying desperately to take in the landscape of a ravaged America before it disappears. His songwriting largely takes a similar stance as well; in between longing balladry is tight-fisted driving rock that continues to thrill and inspire three years later.
But his arrangements and production choices are sometimes bombastic. Often the dazzling busyness of the sonic tapestry feels like a million fireflies battling inside your eyes, or like a sunset exploding into a supernova. But, when the bleary-eyed emotional sucker punches clear to let you see properly, the craft is astounding. From the muscular, pounding drums on opener ‘Up All Night’ to the shimmering synths on ‘Holding On’, Granduciel’s studio trickery has advanced tenfold in the past few years and has mutated his sound into a classic rock geek’s wet dream. A Deeper Understanding is, for all intents a purposes, a proper rock record, the kind they don’t make anymore: blockbuster-quality, emotionally gratifying and rewarding to no end.
Highlight: ‘Holding On’
Saturation II – BROCKHAMPTON
The best sequels are ones that do something notably different to their predecessor but somehow improve on precisely what the original did in the first place. By that measure, Saturation II succeeds pretty brilliantly. By this point we have a clue as to BROCKHAMPTON’s identity and ethos, as exhibited on their Janus-headed ambivalent debut, Saturation, by turns sounding like Death Grips and Frank Ocean, often only a few tracks apart. It was a blindsiding, if a little messy, piece of work that impressed because of its schizophrenic nuttiness.
Here, the collective has better synthesised their two strands of musical interest, sometimes by rapping with particular precociousness in their flow over a beat that sounds lifted straight from a NAO record. Often the music has a charming, Youtube-mashup quality that works simply because of how zany it is. Yet, it’s controlled; the group never lose their grasp on this tight balancing act, even though they are clearly aiming for a more radio-friendly sound. Indeed, on highlight ‘SUNNY’, the group liberally (and, somehow, unironically) sample the delicious guitar line from Natalie Imbruglia’s ‘Torn’ and make it sound refreshing again, all whilst throwing out explicit lines like ‘It ain’t my birthday yet and I’m acting like a bitch’. That sums up their ethos: a wonderful, unhinged and unholy marriage of the smooth and the gritty.
Beast Epic – Iron and Wine
Right at the heart of this record is Samuel Beam’s voice and his guitar. No matter what bouts of wistful headphone trickery, delicious drums or stylistic shifts he can gently weave into this record, he is centre-stage the entire time. It’s refreshing in a way: it’s rare for folk artists now to rely so heavily on their primary weapon of great songwriting. But Beam’s is so warm and inviting, whilst still occasionally diverting itself down paths that might cause a listener to really sit up and listen, that none of the listenability is depleted. Cheap sentimentality isn’t his game; Beam melts your heart with a very simple skill of writing great songs, a quality rare for someone so exposed by their music’s stark style.
Highlight: ‘Bitter Truth’
Villains – Queens of the Stone Age
Mark Ronson should have been death for Queens. Don’t get me wrong; I think Ronson is extremely talented, but it was clear before that his skill was suited to a very specific type of music. What this seemed to signal was a move into AM territory, where style is heaped on top of the substance to an almost suffocating degree. Instead, once the opening salvo ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me’ properly kicks in, the fear dissipates; the groove overtakes any anxieties about something with no soul.
Largely playing like an expansion of Like Clockwork‘s ‘Smooth Sailing’, Villains has such an unmistakeable strut and plays with such force that it actually feels tighter than much of the band’s back catalogue. Indeed, my largest complaint about their weakest album, Lullabies to Paralyse was that there was no focus on the meandering, wishy-washy psychedelic songs that took the ‘stoner’ part of stoner rock a little too literally. By comparison, Villains is as watertight as Ronson’s many pop records, and just as enjoyable too.
Highlight: ‘The Evil Has Landed’
DUD OF THE WEEK: Orc – Oh Sees
It says something about the quality of the releases this week that Orc was very nearly an 8/10. Indeed, for the first half of the album it seemed that way. Pulsating garage rock that pushed the outer limits of the sound managed to achieve what King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have been trying to do properly for years. Yet, the second half is ever-so-slightly underwhelming; it’s unfocussed, and much slower than the opening stretch, and Oh Sees are another artist where the the quality of their music correlates (most of the time, I must stress) to the speed at which the music is performed. I say ‘most of the time’ because it’s on album highlight ‘Keys to the Castle’, a psych-rocker that turns into Porcupine Tree-esque eeriness, that they really stretch their legs. Even despite the flaws of the second half, they even do the courtesy of leaving the album on a high note: across an album of absolutely stellar drumming from Paul Quattrone and Dan Rincon, closer ‘Raw Optics’ is the place where that drumming becomes truly interstellar stuff.
To call it a dud almost feels unfair; it is the weakest release of the week, but by a hair. It’s confident, expertly played and features some quality songwriting. Don’t be fooled by the format of this review; Orc is just as worth checking out as this week’s other releases.
Highlight: ‘Keys to the Castle’