“Faith Healer,” the third track on Julien Baker’s latest album, Little Oblivions, opens with a lament: “Oh, I miss it high, how it dulls the terror and the beauty.” Specifically, she’s singing of the paradoxical nature of substance abuse, the way it can flatten an individual, an inoculation against both joy and pain. Or, as she sings on album opener “Hardline,” it “split[s] the difference / between medicine and poison.” But on Little Oblivions, a record that is both a deepening of and doubling-back on the themes and emotions of her first two albums, it’s the use of “terror” and “beauty” that proves most instructive to the experience, each more present in these tracks than ever before. On the title track of her debut LP, Sprained Ankle, Baker sang, “Wish I could write songs about anything other than death,” and while she hasn’t exactly managed to divorce herself from that subject matter, she has left behind easy confessionalism for a deeper interrogation of what exactly singing of death means. “Appointments,” from sophomore effort Turn Out the Lights, found the songwriter considering that “maybe the emptiness is just a lesson in canvases,” before ending that track with what starts as a primal scream and fades into a whimper: “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right / Oh, I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is.” As a lyricist, Baker has always tended toward such portentous cogitations, but here they take more abstract linguistic shape, while also speaking to a new degree of emotional and experiential specificity.
Those two previous albums were released when the singer was 19 and 21, respectively, and so while it shouldn’t necessarily surprise that the now 25-year-old would evince a maturation, it’s no less impressive to find that Little Oblivions so successfully complicates her trademark fatalism. From Sprained Ankle to Turn Out the Lights, she progressed from bleak expressions of trauma and struggle to declarations of willful and cynical hope, almost a statement of intent for her continued survival. But on Little Oblivions, no such tidy summations suffice to capture her tendrils of thought. “Hardline” finds the singer both absent from and haunting herself — “Say my own name in the mirror / and when nobody appears / say it’s not so cut and dry,” just one in a number of self-recriminations across the album. Later, album closer “Ziptie” sees her facing the existential ennui of disappearing from one’s own life: “I was disappointed to find out / how much everybody looks like me.” Most evident, however, is the spectre of Baker’s relapse a few years back, which looms over much of Littles Oblivions’ lyrical content, and leads to some of the album’s most cutting, introspective moments: “I wish that I drank / because of you and not only because of me.”
Most important is that these thornier ruminations feel organic to Baker’s development, and her contention with life’s continued messiness brings about her best artistic instincts. Evolution is, of course, integral to any art, but even more so for musicians placed within the singer-songwriter box, as such raw feels can become dank in short order, resulting in an impression of angsty performativity that can easily undermine lyrical trenchancy and raw emotionalism. But even more pronounced than the enrichment of her writing is the expansion of her sound, newly feeling like a full rock outfit rather than a lone songstress. Turn Out the Lights added moody strings and a few more piano twinkles to the electric guitar plinking and warbles of Sprained Ankle, but the multi-instrumentalist fully opens up on Little Oblivions, showcasing bold progressions and sequences of heavy, guiding percussion. The aforementioned “Faith Healer” starts in the way of many of the singer’s tracks, before pounding drums and heavy piano strikes build immediate tension into the song. They quickly drop out, and a momentary lull ushers in another mini-crescendo, set to the end of track’s second line, an observation of rediscovered sobriety: “Now I see everything in startling intensity.” Elsewhere, Baker incorporates garbled synth blasts that sound ominously like alarms, guitar distortions, and some upbeat, puckish drums that work in tandem with her more melancholy inclinations.
The result of all this evident growth is an effort that feels legitimately dangerous, her bolder, sometimes even anthemic sound providing gloss to the pained exorcisms therein — the impression is something like hiding her pain in plain sight. Her sonic palette boasts both swells and respites that aren’t so easily found in her stark expressions of little oblivions and small, daily deaths, and the startling contrast marks a peak in Baker’s artistic voice. It’s not all easy listening, even as the singer softens her voice more than ever — fans will note the difference from her usual mode, mostly abandoning the melodrama of her punctuating, cathartic screeches. But it’s precisely these interpolations — the comforting into the painful, the novel into the familiar, the terror into the beauty, and vice versa — that make Little Oblivions her most challenging, lingering work to date.
Aaron Lee Tasjan
Because he’s found a home on the New West label and has generally adopted a retro-minded style, Aaron Lee Tasjan has been characterized as an Americana act. But his third album, Tasjan! Tasjan! Tasjan!, recalls very little of the homogenized Dave Cobb aesthetic that has come to define that catch-all genre, and that’s absolutely a credit to Tasjan’s adventurousness. If anything, Tasjan! sounds like the first true heir to Kacey Musgraves’ landmark Golden Hour, drawing heavily from elements of vintage pop, “cosmic country,” and late-’90s folktronica. More significantly, it’s the first album on which Tasjan sounds fully at home in his own skin, as though he’s finally figured out exactly what territory he wants to stake as he defines himself as a truly vital artist. To that end, Tasjan retains his wiseass sense of humor and leans into his queerness throughout the project, mining inspiration from his unconventional path as a college dropout turned in-demand touring musician. The album is strongest when Tasjan is at his most direct and forceful. “Sunday Women” slathers a Fountains of Wayne-style power-pop song in psychedelic flourishes, as Tasjan exclaims, “All I wanted was to dream with you / And make one of our dreams come true,” before asking, “Whatever happened to Sunday women?” “Up All Night” is even better, with Tasjan backed by some tympani drums as he remarks, “Broke up with my boyfriend / To go out with my girlfriend / ‘Cause love is like that,” with a plainspoken matter-of-factness that projects something more akin to wisdom than braggadocio.
Tasjan is a terrific singer, armed with a lithe tenor that he can use to affect a sneer or lapse into a falsetto: that his voice could best be described as “pretty” on “Not That Bad” and “Got What I Wanted” is a reflection of his deliberate choices and his refusal to be bound by how an Americana singer-songwriter is ostensibly supposed to sing. That’s most apparent on the album’s centerpiece, “Feminine Walk.” Over a finger-plucked guitar figure out of an Ennio Morricone score and some swirling, hazy synths, Tasjan calls himself a “metropolitan Conway Twitty” while name-checking To Wong Foo and drawling the “a” in the word “walk” in the song’s hook into the kind of vowel George Jones routinely invented. It’s not the kind of performance given by an artist lacking in confidence, and Tasjan is truly in peak form here. As an album that is definitively his in content and style, Tasjan! earns each one of its exclamation points.
Black Country, New Road
Duh-dum, go the bass and the drums, starting in unison on “Instrumental” — the opening track off Black Country, New Road’s debut album, For the first time — and so, in a sense, also goes their genesis. The drums break off into a nervous solo, provoking an incessant synth line that repeats, noodling around a klezmer scale. These are sounds seldom heard in punk music (and they’ll be revisited before the record’s through). Deeper into the track, Black Country, New Road further differentiates their music from that of other guitar bands, complimenting a moody Tool-ish counter-melody with layered saxophones. By the two-minute mark, “Instrumental” has been nearly fleshed out, amounting to an anxious and cinematic groove. As it intensifies, it brings on new shades, introducing coy surprises and foreboding sensuality. (It’s one of the only hints of sex you’ll get on the album, despite lead single “Sunglasses” containing a fan-favorite cry of “Fuck me like you mean it, Isaac,” replaced on the album with a more obfuscated, “Burn what’s left of all of the cards that you’ve kept.”)
Prior to this debut, Black Country, New Road generated unparalleled hype from their live shows and the tracks they’ve dropped since 2019 — at least, that’s the impression for stateside listeners, where punk music hardly has the same acclaim it does in the UK. But despite their relative newness as BCNR, six-sevenths of the group are veterans of another post-punk, experimental rock outfit, Nervous Conditions, which dissolved after frontman Connor Browne was accused of sexual assault. That dissolution is a spectre that hangs over For the first time, especially in album closer “Opus,” a grandiose, virtuosic, dance-punk track that astonishes in its ambition, all flying notes and a bizarre amalgamation of sounds. The eight-minute track switches between ensemble runs and downtempo verses, spoken — in usual style — by frontman Isaac Wood. As with most of their music, what comes off as opaque is actually personal, and the rebirth described in this song seemingly alludes to the founding of Black Country, New Road, ending the album on a masterpiece rife with gaudy, angsty self-reference.
But there’s plenty more to thrill in on the way to that fitting end. “Sunglasses,” the aforementioned 10-minute centerpiece, tells a perspective-shifting story of a couple’s relationship torn apart by its proximity to pharmaceuticals: a Sertraline-prescribed man struggles to accept his relationship with his girlfriend due to her father’s riches, secured by questionable means. Starting with droning guitars, the track grows grittier with each successive verse, breaking out into intense polemics of the contemporaneous. “She sells chemtrails / to the students at Bedales,” Isaac screams, “I try to free myself from the grip / of Shellac nails.” Such emo inspiration is further felt on “Athens, France,” a caustic early single made less distressing and more beautiful for the record, in the process becoming a song about re-releasing a song with some self-censorship: “And write the words I’ll one day wish that I had never said,” Isaac laments. “References, references, references,” he repeats on the cacophonous, uneasy “Science Fair,” after earlier in the track referring to Slint by name, whom they’re oft compared to — by skeptics and admirers alike — and sound most like here. Labelmates and frequent collaborators, Black Midi, are likewise name-checked on “Track X,” a softer, art-pop cut that seems to hint at the direction that the band is going (if teased songs like “Bread Particles” and “Basketball Shoes” are any indication). It’s Reich’s minimalist chamber music that’s the guiding inspiration on this ballad, but it’s not hard to hear whispers of Blackstar-era Bowie or even a slower Los Campesinos! track, too. It all amounts to a mystifying combination — of grit and polished musicianship, accessibility and art school affectation — that seems both sustainable and ever-changing. Between the disparate genres and self-mythologizing, For the first time bubbles with volatility and Black Country, New Road’s paths forward are many. The hope, then, after such a rousing debut, is that this isn’t for the last time.
After shopping himself around to different labels and being met with the same rejection, Ryley Walker finally self-released this set, which he recorded live with psych-rock band Kikagaku Moyo at a music festival under the moniker “Deep Fried Grandeur” (which is now this album’s title). Soaring to the top of Bandcamp’s charts, the record notched a resounding success for independents in light of the extreme circumstances of the pandemic and the normal ones of a monopolistic recording industry. It’s for these reasons that Deep Fried Grandeur feels especially triumphant when you listen to its thick, radiating psych-rock guitars as they wind through beat changes and blend together different genres, still holding attention through the record’s two 18-minute tracks. Said “track” distinctions exist primarily to mark a clear side A and B for the recording; in reality, this is one cohesive work presented in multiple movements.
It would be a sham of an understatement to say that Walker’s four-piece live band and the five-member Kikagaku Moyo produce a hell of a lot of sound on this recording. But even with that in mind, the music never feels chaotic or inscrutable. The distinct drum patterns that underpin the dominant guitars give a framework to the piece, with each gradual change in rhythm accompanied by an appropriate tonal shift in the rest of the ensemble’s playing. This 36-minute jam session was the result of only one afternoon of practice, as well as a general familiarity with each other’s work. Just on its face, that’s an impressive achievement — but more than that, it’s true to the spirit of the jam band’s genesis, which relied on being in tune with your fellow musicians on the stage, even with limited-to-no practice time. At its core, that’s what makes Deep Fried Grandeur such a satisfying listen: Each of the nine players featured are all feeling each other out as they play, the sign of true musical talent. What’s more, it can’t be discounted that Deep Fried Grandeur helps make the argument for the small label release more valid, especially for the modern psych-rock movement. Hopefully, that also means future collaborations between Walker and others; and if his upcoming schedule is any indication, it appears as if he wants the same.