Music by Month: 13 Notable Albums from May 2018

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May was ridiculous. I listened to so many albums that warranted writing about, I extended my usual load of 10-ish bite-sized reviews to 13, and still had to leave out some excellent offerings. These aren’t necessarily in any particular order, though Jess Williamson’s Cosmic Wink is certainly my pick of the month:

Jess Williamson, Cosmic Wink

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If Ani DiFranco is right and a record is ideally “a record of an event,” then this here is the positively stellar record of Jess Williamson falling head over heels in love (with a bandmate). That event has clearly blown her heart and mind wide open, and the heightened sense of meaning that such a love can give to one’s life is palapable throughout the album, as Williamson examines the greatest mysteries of life and death through this newfound lens of boundless love. This exploration runs as mystical as the album title suggests, and the beauty of it is, it feels grounded in personal experience. Williamson has invested a great deal of herself in this one and it pays off at every turn. Highlights: “Mama Proud,” “I See the White,” “Love on the Piano”

Belly, Dove

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Tanya Donelly founded three of the best rock bands of the 90s, leaving the Throwing Muses and then the Breeders to found Belly, the band that channeled her sound best. Then Belly, wonderful as they were, called it quits after two albums. Donelly went solo I don’t know that anyone expected her to reunite the band 20 years later, but here she is, showing just how much she can do a with with a full band behind her. They’re in good form and they’re in true form. This is not an update on Belly’s sound. It’s thoroughly guitar-driven, grunge-adelic indie rock and it sounds like you might’ve expected the third Belly album to sound like in the late 90s; textured, swirling, subtle, driving. The primary difference between then and now is the wisdom, power and maturity of Donnelly’s voice, and that is 100% a positive. Highlights: “Suffer The Fools,” “Human Child,” “Army of Clay”

Parquet Courts, Wide Awake!

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The Brooklyn band delivers an inescapably political and ideologically direct album here. The first three songs are unrelenting and sometimes abrasive, with Andrew Savage often forgoing melody entirely, shouting proclamations in an unabashed intellectual’s vocabulary. The urgency is unyielding, until at track 4 we take a wild left turn into rich harmonies and psychedelia (!!!) and suddenly the record opens up, in many new directions, as though the band is satisfied its message has been received and can now enjoy themselves and explore. From then on Wide Awake centers on agile, punk-tinged indie rock that makes this band great, but each song takes it in an untried new direction. Highlights: “Almost Had to Start a Fight / In and Out of Patience,” “Tenderness,” “Normalization”

Leon Bridges, Good Thing

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The Texas-born retro-soul singer/songwriter all but abandons the “retro” on his sophomore effort and incorporates a wider variety of soul and R&B flavors. The 60s stuff is still there, the Sam Cooke influence worn proudly, but Bridges’ new record integrates the modern and the classic, and a range of styles in between. This is a smooth and amorous record, most of the songs about love or dealing with heartache, but it’s got teeth too. The songs that aren’t romantically inclined all teem with a confidence pledged to the resistance to the sociopolitical ugliness of our time. Highlights: “Bad Bad News,” “If It Feels Good (Then It Must Be),” “Mrs.”

Courtney Barnett, Tell Me How You Really Feel

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There’s a newfound earnestness to Courtney Barnett’s sophomore full-length album of grungy indie rock. While her badassery is still unmistakeable, with plenty of caustic wit and wry sarcasm, the Melbourne songwriter establishes that she actually does care — enough that she paraphrases both Nelson Mandela and Margaret Atwood at key moments — on this deftly uneasy set of songs. The mixed reviews this album is receiving may reflect that people have put the singer into a box of impenetrable slacker cool, and don’t know what to do with a Courtney Barnett who rages against misogyny with quite so much passion or who offers her listener this much intimacy. Highlights: “City Looks Pretty,” “Nameless, Faceless,” “Sunday Roast”

Steven Malkmus & the Jicks, Sparkle Hard

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This is probably as diverse and unpredictable as it can be while still registering as a reliably Stephen Malkmus-like record. Much of it is built on musical flights of fancy — complex instrumental melodies that dig their way in a little deeper with each listen. Like Barnett’s album, there’s a little less cool reserve here than usual, and a little more passion, and it’s a welcome shift. The best songs are the most intense ones, musically and thematically, and if “Bike Lane” is the most sincerely impassioned political song Malkmus has ever written — it’s about the murder of Freddie Gray — it‘s also one of the most best songs he’s written. Other highlights: “Shiggy,” “Rattler”

Ry Cooder, The Prodigal Son

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A wonderfully lively album from an elder statesman of the blues, Prodigal Son cobbles together a bunch of covers and just three originals to produce a fascinatingly unified vision of a leftist Gospel. All the hallmarks of a classic Gospel service are here — from repentance of past wrongs, to the joy of being redeemed, to rebuking those that have gone astray, to rejoicing in the grace the believer have found — and all of them are wrapped around a center of love and kindness in a very practical, explicitly political timbre. Highlights: “Gentrification,” “You Must Unload,” “In His Care”

Illuminati Hotties, Kiss Yr Frenemies

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There’s only one Illuminati Hottie — this debut album is producer Sarah Tudzin’s solo project — but when you’ve got a name like that in you, you put that out into the world any way you can. Curiously, it wasn’t Tudzin’s original intention to unleash her music upon the world at all; she was recording and producing music to show off her production skills. Her range as a producer is evident, and the album holds together nicely too, as an indie-pop album that vacillates between fast, lithe rockers and patient, pensive ballads. An unexpected highlight, given the album’s genesis, are Tudzin’s lyrics, as she expertly captures the uncertainties of twenty-something romance, ambition and confusion. Highlights: “Paying Off The Happiness,” “The Rules,” “(You’re) Better Than Ever”

Arctic Monkeys, Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino

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A complete 180 from the blues guitar theatrics of AM, Alex Turner and his band have composed a concept album that centers around a lounge singer living in a Lunar colony. The guitars are more relaxed and the rhythms are jouncier, making plenty of room for some fantastic piano work and, better still, for Turner’s marvelous lyrics. This is the kind of grandly experimental album that will split die-hard fans down the middle, ranking at, or near, either the top or the bottom of each fan’s favorites list. Regardless of whether it was the right direction, it’s a well-executed pivot. Highlights: “Four Out Of Five,” Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino,” “Science Fiction”

Poster Children, Grand Bargain!

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The present political climate will make activists of us all, even 30-year-old bands that haven’t been seen for 14 years that were (mostly) seemingly apolitical the first time around. The opening title track throws in an extra touch of hardcore to highlight the point that the band have returned newly impassioned; aside from that, Poster Children’s music sounds pretty much exactly like it always has — crunchy, fuzzy-guittared garage rock — but the lyrical shift is so profound that they suddenly feel like a different band. It works for them, and the side effect of the straightforward lyrics makes the songs seem more direct and approachable than anything they’ve done before. Highlights: “Devil and the Gun,” “Hippie Hills,” “Final Offense”

Tracyanne & Danny, Tracyanne & Danny

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Here’s an under-the-radar offering from a collaboration between Tracyanne Campbell of the tragically suspended Camera Obscura and Danny Coughlan, the singer/songwriter known Crybaby. These are easy-going, breezy 60s guitar-pop tunes mixed with a few slow, sad numbers. The duo only once touches on the tragedy from which Campbell is still recovering — the death of Camera’s co-founder, Carey Lander, after which her band is still on hiatus — and when they do, it’s the highlight of the album, “Alabama.” Other highlights: “Home & Dry,” “Jacqueline”

Snow Patrol, Wildness

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Frontman Gary Lightbody’s been through a full cycle depression, addiction and recovery, and Snow Patrol’s new record signals his emergence into a newfound hope. A balm for the world-weary soul, Wildness aims unambiguosly at lifting its listener up through the very sort of melancholy that the band has spend so much time hanging out in, and finding higher ground. Each song strives for this; mercifully, those that don’t attain that peace are content to be as they are — nothing is forced. When the hope does emerge, it always feels earned. Part of that is Lightbody’s vocal delivery. Even when the music soars and swells, his voice is vulnerable, even sometimes faltering and refreshingly ungarded. Highlights: “Don’t Give In,” “A Dark Switch,” “Wild Horses”

Damien Jurado, The Horizon Just Laughed

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The Seattle indie folk pioneer’s 13th album is his first self-produced record and that fact isn’t lost in the listening. There is a calm confidence in the pacing of each song, the thematic density of the lyrics and the album’s overall cohesion that speaks to Jurado having arrived at a place in his career where he can truly do what he wants. These are storytelling songs, often addressed to characters Jurado names, and all these characters seem to inhabit the 1970s, a conceit driven home by the production. Jurado is no stranger to concept albums, but this one works just as well as a collection of individual songs too. Highlights: “Percy Faith,” “Over Rainbows and Rainier,” “Florence-Jean”

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Stef is a Bronx-bred, California-dwelling, 1977-born Libra-Aquarian lifelong music junkie. He is also a writer, improviser, singer, director and voice actor. .

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