There’s a certain irony to the all-caps stylization of serpentwithfeet’s (née Josiah Wise) latest album, DEACON, as it’s a distinctly mellowed, less assuming offering than the pair of bold records he previously released: debut EP, blisters, and breakthrough full-length LP, soil, both of which were titled in lower case. Those earlier works were rooted in dark romanticism, tracks detailing love and obsession and carnality, and progressing from ominous horns, crescendoing strings, and eerie electronics on blisters, to a cycling of jaunty carnival horror, minimalist plink-and-twinkle balladry, and apocalypse-inflected R&B on soil. Between the two, Wise’s honeyed trill, the heavily-vibratoed runs became increasingly prominent, guiding tracks rather than just supplementing them, a shift augmented by scaled-back production and softened sounds. One of the most welcome results of this notable evolution was soil’s more heavily gospel bent — if of a decidedly brimstone variety — each proclamation of love, lust, and loss imbued with Old Testament doom.
If that epoch, which found revelry in downfall, was thematically apropos for an artist cheekily monikered serpentwithfeet, DEACON represents a move toward some personal Eden, pushing forward with further refinement of Wise’s gospel core and his drive toward a more delicate sonic atmosphere. The baroque flourishes of past records are mostly absent, leaving breeziness in their wake. Where soil felt distinctly like post-midnight listening, with tracks that seemed to spring from the shadows and dwell on dangerous glamours, DEACON is easy afternoon listening: Wise’s falsetto is less menacing, while the songs are more straightforwardly constructed and ride more comfortable rhythms. It’s all part of a worshipful, thankful vibe that permeates the entire album; Wise here celebrates calm, leaving many past peaks and valleys behind. “Derrick’s Beard” takes on a hymnal quality: the track is built on a few piano chords and spaced-out key strikes, with a synthy, electric organ drone and hummed vocal harmonies giving a congregational impression, and, after a ten-second spoken-word intro, finds Wise softly repeating “Come over here / I miss your beard” for the last minute-plus. If most of the songs here feel like psalms, then thirty-second interlude “Dawn” is the album’s doxology, simply exulting “Whoa, what a mornin’ / When stars begin to fall.”
What’s most distinctive, though, is that the album never feels like an artificial exercise in ecclesiastical dress-up. Now that we’re here, it’s clear that Wise has been steadily, organically moving toward — or, at least, circling — this artistic destination all the time, and while DEACON’s instances of canticled songwriting might seem like mere affectation on the surface, the lyrics are elsewhere substantive enough to challenge such assessments. Wise both acknowledges the album’s thrust and offers a bit of meta-reflection on his own evolution in the album’s first-sung words: “I think my green thumb has lead me to a real one / So glad the soil has yielded something more than bad luck” (from opener “Hyacinth”). Artists like Chance the Rapper and Kanye West have in recent years mined rap’s gospel history in their own work — Kanye fusing his production genius to more classical, choral sounds; Chance opting more to add some praise-music inflection to contemporaneous hip hop textures. Wise does much the same for R&B, but without as jarring right-turn as either of those two. Wise’s sound has always been a reconfiguration of the past two decades of the genre, and he here lands at something like a 2021 refraction of the ’90s ethos and sound of Boyz II Men, but still fiercely sexualized and celebratory of queer love; where the end of “Wood Boy’s first verse — “I miss you bein’ in my sheets / I want you on top of me” — could comfortably fit this earlier decade, the song’s pre-chorus croon of “Damn, he feelin’ on my body / Damn, he fillin’ up my body, Damn, I like him inside me” is unrepentently serpentwithfeet. The flipside of this newfound equilibrium is that nothing here quite reaches the heights of his last record, which textured its worship in dissonant, macabre sounds and more emphatic poetry that complicated its spiritualism and found beauty in mania. But there’s a distinct pleasure in the specific way that Wise articulates peace, and to say that his latest album is sub-soil is not to suggest that it doesn’t still mostly soar.
Writer: Luke Gorham Section: Ledger Line
As Miles Davis once said, “Sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself.” This little proverb has become familiar almost to the point of cliche, but it has never described any piece of music as aptly as it describes The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers. The latest from Valerie June, a singer and songwriter from Memphis who has released a handful of very good, idiosyncratic takes on American roots music, her albums honor tradition but never sound completely beholden to it. Her previous record, The Order of Time, reveled in the earthiness of the blues and the sharp twang in June’s voice, even as diaphanous sound effects dappled the edges of her songs, suggestive of another astral plane breaking through. But it turns out everything up until now was a warmup: The Moon and Stars is arresting in its confidence and vision, pure bravado in the way June draws from folk forms but then bursts them at the seams with sound, imagination, and color.
Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t important to know that June grew up singing in church, that she occasionally offers guided meditation sessions via her Instagram account, that her book, Maps for the Modern World, offers poetic reflections on mindfulness and dreaming. Regardless, her music attests to an artist who lives in recognition of invisible realms and spiritual dimensions; what Joe Henry calls “bigger things unseen.” She produced it with Jack Splash, and together they manifest interior worlds and celestial realities through colorful dreamscapes of synths and strings, drum machines, and trap beats. June’s writing is always carefully structured, familiar in its craft, yet here her tried-and-true forms sound like they’ve been left open at the edges, allowing other worlds to come tumbling inside. When she does lay into a more straightforwardly traditional number, it has the effect of anchoring the album’s dreaminess in something earthbound and carnal: check out “Call Me a Fool,” an impossibly swoony R&B jam, or “Fallin,’” almost trance-like in its rustle of acoustic strings. No matter the milieu, June’s voice is a marvel: just listen to how she reaches down into her gut to belt out “Call Me a Fool,” or how she croons “Two Roads” with a sweet caress.
Both in sound and in subject matter, The Moon and Stars operates in a sense of wide-eyed wonder, which means it can take a few listens to realize just how many of these songs are informed by heartache. June typically handles it with sanguinity; in the opening song, she tells a lover she’s never had any regrets, even as she admits that she doesn’t know how long she’ll stay. There’s also “Smile,” which nods obliquely to America’s history of racism and chooses hopefulness as a posture (“all I could do was smile”). Songs in a more metaphysical vein suggest a kind of surrender (“consciousness directs the stream / there’s a flow to everything”), but it’s “Fallin’” where June digs into her spiritual practice for the tools to deal with loss: “Well, I am willing to let go of what was never mine.”.
Writer: Josh Hurst Section: Rooted & Restless
Seven years after their last album, The Antlers have quietly — literally, figuratively — returned. Marking their sixth full-length LP (fourth as a full group), Green to Gold is an album that few are likely to encounter without prior Antlers exposure. It’s of some benefit to the record, then, that one can fairly assume such contextual knowledge, as the radically different shape of the band’s latest is best appreciated as a seven-years-later waypoint. Of course, there’s an accompanying narrative: after the release of 2014’s Familiars, the band’s singer/songwriter/originator Peter Silberman succumbed to a trio of serious hearing ailments that forced him to temporarily step away. By necessity, he began listening to gentler music, and by choice, he started living a gentler life and moved out of the city to a gentler upstate New York. Green to Gold bears out this narrative. 2009’s Hospice launched the band into the music-nerd stratosphere, and the time-place factor can’t be discounted, as the album ticked many of the late-aughts, Pitchfork-approved boxes: their sound was a hazy mix of art rock and dream pop, but also defied genres in the manner of any number of indie rock outfits of the day; it was lightly conceptual and heady, tracing across the album the story of a care worker as metaphor for a failing relationship; and it was speckled with memorable tracks replete with memorable cynicisms: “And all the while I’ll know we’re fucked / And not getting un-fucked soon.”
So while the group continued to refine their particular rock sound and deepen their emotional palette across two further albums and an EP — Burst Apart, Familiars, and Undersea, respectively — Green to Gold is perhaps best understood in counterpoint to Hospice. Look no further than the new album’s second track, “Wheels Roll Home” — the group’s first lyrical offering in the better part of a decade, after an instrumental opener here — which resounds as a resolute statement of intent, about the work it takes to become un-fucked: “Don’t go before you leave / Every second we got, we gotta make believe / That you’ll be right back like you never left / Like you mailed yourself to your return address.” It certainly reflects a more (jarringly) hopeful tenor for the heretofore moody, broody Antlers, but this isn’t just easy optimism. Rather, the group is taking a more meditative stance, an act of manifesting peace where there used to be bleak catharsis, most literalized on the chorus of album highlight “Solstice”: “Sayin’ woah-woah, woah-woah / woah-woah, woah-woah / Keeping bright, bright, bright.”
The Antlers have always thrived on a masterful, often dissonant fusion of songwriting and musicianship. In their preceding work, the joint lyrical and sonic textures were rife with urgency and anxiety, dialogues between nihilism and longing playing out over tracks that felt like they were racing toward destruction, or else, just as often, observing some tempest from the inside. Plinking rhythms and dark crooning kept songs on edge, the content built upon missives on and confrontations with myriad emotional and existential agonies, alternately capturing the beauty and misery of collapse. A melange of electronics, strings, and lite-jazz were infused into the band’s more traditional rock constructions, keeping things unsettled and turning what in lesser hands would be boilerplate emotional exorcism into a kind of apocalypse. But such squalls are calmed on Green to Gold, and the band’s sound is soothed into an easy, swaying lilt that holds across the entire album. Where earlier efforts often felt legitimately threatening, there’s a woozy romanticism beneath this latest, the work less informed by any self-seriousness than it is an organic chill, with even enough jaunty rhythms in a number of these tracks to perfectly background some alt-friendly first dances. It’s a sonic shift as much as it is a psycho-emotional one.
That’s not to say this is any less complex a work than previous efforts. The absence of emotional and aural punctuation admittedly gives the impression of a more minimalist listening experience — Silberman’s vocal vacillations between falsettoed lament and harrowing screech are greatly missed — but the instrumentation is no less lush, only softened and steadied. This is no pluck-and-preen work of songwriterly self-satisfaction, and instrumental opener “Strawflower” declares this new, deceptively-complex mode: opening to the hum and brrr of cicadas, the track briefly looms on a synthy warble before a single drum bleeds in, its steadying beat followed by an exchange between piano and guitar that baselines the song’s duration, as additional notes, including bass reverberations, are slowly layered on top. It’s the difference between delicacy and flimsy, and it feels something like an accumulation of the interpolated, between-the-storm moments from earlier albums made here into a cohesive, mature whole. Put differently — logically, as Silberman is now 35 — you can distinctly feel the shedding of twenty-something emotional histrionics.
The trade-off, then, is that Green to Gold doesn’t sustain back-to-front as effortlessly as earlier albums. “Just One Sec,” the album’s fifth track, marks an organic midpoint, a pause and thesis of sorts after an impressive four-track run to open the record. In it, the song’s narrator doubles as an Antlers mouthpiece, cycling through such lines as “Do you see me now, do you see me then? / Could you clear my cache momentarily? / For just one sec, free me from me?“ to “Free me from your limiting ideas of me / Free me from the version you’d prefer I’d be.” It’s not exactly a subtle reflection on their artistic shift, but then, that’s never been The Antlers’ forte. But after this and the subsequent “It Is What It Is,” a politically-minded song with plenty of throwback cynicism, the early morning, rainy day mood loses a bit of its easygoing oomph, fading over the album’s somewhat weaker back-half. A film was timed to release with the record, and in it, gorgeous, natural compositions background Green to Gold’s tracks: shadowed silhouettes rise against twilit skies, lazy ripples roll across a family pond, and a couple flit through golden and green fields in modes of modern and interpretive dance. It’s beautiful, visceral stuff, but at some point, its same-y compositions start to lose power. The album suffers from similar snags. There’s no denying Green to Gold’s technical craft or delicate vigor, but somewhere, roughly three-quarters through, it starts to feel somewhat too much like background music. But if green doesn’t quite become gold here, The Antlers still execute a mostly successful one-eighty, impressively pulling off a rebrand that few indie rock contemporaries of the past decade have managed.
Writer: Luke Gorham Section: Ledger Line
Armand Hammer / The Alchemist
In the musical and cultural ecosystems of rap, in which the perception of authenticity is often an asset, Armand Hammer loom large. The duo of billy woods and ELUCID, elder statesmen of sorts whose careers began relatively late in life, make hardened, calcified music describing misadventures so specific that their assumed fiction is easily called into question. This rough-hewn approach hasn’t stymied the growth of their audience, spurred on by recent (relative) crossover records like 2018’s Paraffin and billy woods’ 2019 release hiding places. But despite the modest acclaim, Armand Hammer have remained steadfast in their non-conformity. On “Bitter Cassavas,” the opening track from Armand Hammer’s fourth album Shrines, woods bemoaned his misplaced generosity and compared himself to the RZA, while ELUCID continued to marinate in life’s simpler pleasures. The narrative perspective is mirrored in their approach to making music, usually bringing rappers and producers into their imagistic fever dreams, rather than instead moving towards anything resembling an indie rap mainstream.
That isolated perch may change after the release of Haram, Armand Hammer’s first album since last year’s shrines and their first working entirely with one producer: storied hip hop guru The Alchemist, fresh off high profile 2020 collaborations with Boldy James and Freddie Gibbs, among others. The announcement of their team-up made some sense, given their shared interest in creating boom bap that acknowledges the passage of time since its heyday, though Armand Hammer’s corroded palette seemed potentially at odds with Alchemist’s gauzier productions. Fortunately, the resulting album further extends the recent winning streaks of both parties, with woods and ELUCID’s narratives fitted into a selection of Alchemist beats that successfully split the difference: scuzzy by his standards, but regal by Armand Hammer’s. ELUCID solo cut “Roaches Don’t Fly” is one of the album’s most triumphal tracks, with Alchemist’s piercing guitar licks providing an almost cinematic backdrop to ELUCID’s expressions of self-determination. “Scaffolds” and “Stonefruit” are similarly extroverted affairs, the latter featuring a striking, sung hook from ELUCID and a billy woods yarn about being sexually and physically consumed by a vampire. Alchemist’s organic, direct instrumentation offers moods more readable than Armand Hammer’s often inscrutable recent work, though — fittingly — not all moods are good. On “Indian Summer,” a properly menacing billy woods swears vengeance on the human race over a sparse flute line whose relative quiet escalates the song’s threatening tone.
Vampires aside, Haram’s lyrical concerns aren’t radically different from those of Armand Hammer’s recent past, dishing out scathing critiques of rap’s ruling class and the difficult realities of life on the fringes. Perhaps the most notable change, outside of Alchemist’s involvement, is a proportional one. Though one assumes a certain amount of fiction in any artistic offering, Haram’s increased quotient of stories operating within a ‘90s rap paradigm set it apart from Armand Hammer’s recent efforts, scanning as their first work as legitimate storytellers rather than autobiographers. Given the prior credits of their chosen producer — and the cadre’s high volume of group and solo output in the last year — the pivot into pulp fiction isn’t a surprise, but does run the risk of cheapening their supposed authenticity. Tracks “Wishing Bad” and “Squeegee” don’t radically deviate from the shock tactics and bass-snare revival of other recent Alchemist production recipients, more serrated though they may be. Haram’s cover — a decidedly non-haram portrait of two severed pig heads — also clangs with the considered portraiture of Armand Hammer’s recent album art, and instead recalls the bathroom snapshot that graced the cover of Pusha T’s DAYTONA, another picture seemingly chosen with “tastemaker” (rather than tasteful) rationale in mind.
Tactical and aesthetic concerns aside, a victory lap by Armand Hammer’s standards is still a very good album by anyone else’s, and the duo surely deserves it; lines like woods’ call-out of rappers who overuse the experience of being shot for cred on “Aubergine” are proof positive that the group’s disdain for rap industry politicking remains intact. Their identifiably true stories, if less frequent, are also no less meaningful, as on the Earl Sweatshirt-featuring “Falling Out the Sky.” All three rappers strike a wistful tone, circling significant memories and reflecting on them with piercing hindsight, though woods’ short story is perhaps the most memorable, recalling a summer job on the west coast and the mental quiet that comes from a new set of circumstances. One hopes that Armand Hammer’s deserved success and the elevation of their artist profile doesn’t preclude the possibility of future slice-of-life moments like this happening and, eventually, ending up in their music.
Writer: Michael Doub Section: What Would Meek Do?
Clark’s Playground in a Lake, the British electronic composer’s second classical release for Deutsche Grammophon after his OST to 2019’s Daniel Isn’t Real, has all the trappings of a Big Artistic Statement: solemn instrumentation, a heave atmosphere, and, perhaps most crucially, momentous themes that drive home how self-serious it all is. Described by its author as “a story about real climate change, but told in mythological terms” — as opposed to fake climate change, told in candid terms? — the album is an inert, often grandiloquent collection of torpid compositions that articulate a single monotonous tone; it’s far more concerned with sounding crucial than being listenable, similar in scope to the type of laughable releases Max Richter has been dabbling in for the past year. It makes one wonder how the Warp Records mainstay has strayed this far from his usual level of quality, even if the last truly exciting record he produced was his eponymous 2014 album. That one at least had some level of variation in instrumentation and texture, perhaps lacking the kick of 2006’s Body Riddle, but nevertheless solidifying his immense knack for fluid genre swapping. The majority of his output since then has been disposable by most reasonable standards (this writer has a fondness for more cheerful Death Peak) but at least it’s never sounded this hopelessly stilted. He doesn’t sing on it — his vocals have been a major stumbling block since around Totems Flare — which may be the only positive thing one can say about the experience here.
Right from the get-go, things seem off: a long cello solo by Oliver Coates signals a possible emotive quality, only to be undercut by Clark’s encroaching, reverberating synthesizers. It’s as if he can’t wait to begin hitting you over the head with how important this music will be. Other guests are handled a bit more gracefully — including the Budapest Art Orchestra harpist Lauren Scott, violinist Rakhi Singh, and double bassist Yair-Elazar Glotman — though not terribly well, either. All are restricted to dull bouts of instrumental noodling in service of an all too bleak atmosphere — which is ironic that Clark believes this was the best mode at going about this subject matter and mood, as he’s often demonstrated his abilities at crafting desolate soundscapes before — and even more insipid lyrical content. If there’s a worse line given this year about global warming and its permanent repercussions then having a choir boy sing, with a straight face mind you, that “I’m like an animal trapped in a flood” or that “I know you don’t realize how much I already understand / you just pretend to care” to a group of nameless adults, then perhaps Al Gore needs to step in again for An Inconvenient Truth 2.0. At least that wouldn’t be as somniferous as what’s provided here.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: Obscure Object
First Aid Kit
Recorded a few months after Leonard Cohen’s death, Who By Fire is a heartfelt tribute album of his music performed live by Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit, a mainstay in the modern folk/Americana scene. The result is a beautiful effort that builds on the existing work of the all-time master songwriters, a welcome contrast to the majority of cover albums which tend to serve as an artist’s personal push to reach the heights (or audience) of another artist.
The concert is structured according to multiple spoken-word interludes. Cohen’s poetry was as integral to processing his message as his albums were, a reflection of his deepest held beliefs., and Who by Fire opens with a reading of his poem “Tired,” a timeless piece about the exhaustion felt in a world that is always in motion, and a surrender of the constraints that are put on upon us. This runs directly into a rendition of “Suzanne,” a classic Cohen hit from his album Songs of Leonard Cohen, and from the first notes, it’s impossible to miss the immense respect that sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg feel for his music. Minimal changes are made, except for the addition of their signature harmonies, and tt’s in this that the album’s greatest strengths are shown. Obvious technical talent is on display, with a full live band backing the sisters, but it’s delivered with a reverence that is more deeply felt in the immediate wake of Cohen’s death. Concertgoers are silent, hanging on every word (this is obviously more notable in the video livestream), a shared respect palpable between artists and audience. The finely-curated setlist continues to easily flow through Cohen classics, incorporating “Avalanche,” “Chelsea Hotel No. 5,” “You Want it Darker,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and “Hallelujah” into the performance/album, each all-timer interspersed with more of his poetry. The closing song and poetry pair of “So Long Marianne” and “You’d Sing Too” act as a beautiful, final portrait of the artist moment and punctuation on his enduring legacy: “You’d sing / You’d sing / not for yourself / but to make a self.”
First Aid Kit’s initial rise to indie fame came courtesy of a cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song,” uploaded to YouTube. The young musicians sang clearly and confidently, notably adding their own flair to a well-loved song. Having now spent considerable years on tour, they’ve carried on this tradition, paying respect to their breakthrough with interesting covers, often sourcing from outside of their own genre — Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” was a staple of their mid- 2010s shows, for instance. So for them, a tribute show wasn’t an opportunity to capitalize on Cohen clout, but a next logical step on their respective journey, and it’s a boon for listeners that this was recorded and released for all to hear. So as we wait for another original project from the sisters, it’s good to here briefly revel in a reminder of where they came from and where they can go, all while they respectfully do the same for one who came before.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Rooted & Restless
Since The Ward flopped in 2010, John Carpenter has worked mostly on his music, notably providing his familiar touch to David Gordon Green’s atrocious reboot of Halloween, and elsewhere releasing a collection of his indelible film themes as well as several albums of original music. Carpenter has always been considered more of a film scorer than traditional musician — his best music has always accompanied images. Consider the funereal score for The Fog, ephemeral flurries of notes adrift in seas of synth chords, held like breath underwater, organ groans like deep-sea death knells; or Halloween III‘s maleficent monotony of electronic blips and insidious stabs of synth, patterns like microchip algorithms. And then there are the rock guitars, distorted and disformed, chugging ahead in In the Mouth of Madness, Vampires, and Ghosts of Mars.
His most recent work of any kind, the album Lost Themes III, features Carpenter’s son, Cody, and godson, Daniel Davies, and is subtitled Alive After Death, a darkly romantic bit of morbidity (or perhaps optimism) from Carpenter. The record proves to be the most rewardingly cohesive collection of his original music, though, at times, one wishes — perhaps due to pre-existing biases — that the repetition of minor-chord arpeggios consorted with moving images (“Weeping Ghost” and “Vampire’s Touch” have crunchy mechanical guitar riffs that rock in the way a ’90s-era computer game might). The album is something of a comfort listen, like a reunion concert for a favorite childhood band, or the sounds of a film seen on AMC for the hundredth time, and its retro-rock disco Italiano feels redolent of the Chromatics, all laser-precise guitar leads and throbbing, stroboscopic-sounding drum machines and sinister synths. It sounds, in other words, exactly how you’d expect, and there’s something wonderful in such certainty.
Writer: Greg Cwik Section: Obscure Object