Album Picks: Sufjan Stevens, Lower Dens, Death Grips, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Soft Moon, Male Gaze

Posted by Billy Gil, March 31, 2015 11:30am | Post a Comment

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell

“Death With Dignity” opens Carrie & Lowell as a touching elegy to Sufjan Stevens’ mother, yet it also could describe his relationship to his own music. “I don’t know where to begin,” he sings, and “I’ve got nothing to prove” over a familiar bed of bluegrass-inspired folk. Stevens was like the A-plus student of indie pop, turning out album after album of perfectly manicured orchestral folk-pop, but I felt like he lost his way a bit with The BQE, an album and project that felt unwieldy, as well the hectic electro-folk of The Age of Adz. Carrie & Lowell, by comparison, is one of his most stripped-down albums to date. That’s not to say it doesn’t have his trademark fixation on detail— songs shift halfway through, like “Should Have Known Better’s” turn into stuttering, laptoppy acoustics and choral touches, or “Drawn to the Blood’s” extended string finale; “you checked your text while I masturbated,” he sings casually, telling a girl she looks like Poseidon in the sexually turbulent “All of Me Wants All of You.” Lyrically and musically, Stevens remains a curious tinkerer, but Carrie & Lowell never feels busy in the slightest. It’s an intensely focused work, one that places Stevens’ voice and songcraft over bells and whistles. Whereas locations and history seemed to hold Stevens’ interest in the past, here he’s death-obsessed (and still spiritual as ever). “Fourth of July” feels romantically morbid and carries the happy refrain “we’re all gonna die,” and on “The Only Thing,” he sounds stricken with grief to the point of barely being able to keep going on. Stevens’ way with language, drawing on mythology and Christian imagery, and ascendant voice keeps the songs from wallowing too deeply, even as they describe an immense sense of loss, allowing those moments when he does break—“No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’” “Fuck me, I’m falling apart”—to land all the more effectively. Without the filter of a state’s history or the heavy religiosity of Seven Swans, Carrie & Lowell finds Stevens turning his studious eye inward to fully explore his own grief, and the results are never short of breathtaking.


Lower Dens - Escape From Evil

Lower Dens’ music has always carried a certain adult drama to it that rewards patience and repeated listens. So it’s a bit of a shocker at first to hear Escape From Evil’s deliberately retro synths and new-wave beats. But shifting gears proves a winning gambit on their third album. These songs nearly as intricate and mysterious as those on their last album, the excellent Nootropics, but are more immediately grabbing, offering cinematic soundscapes for Jana Hunter’s elegant voice to wind in an out like a disintegrating reel. Cinematic isn’t an empty descriptor here, as the widescreen synthesizers of a track like “Suckers Shangri-La” call to mind soundtrackers like Vangelis and Angelo Badalamenti. The snaking guitars and sumptuous vocals of “Ondine” are reminiscent of ’80s Stevie Nicks-led Fleetwood Mac songs, with well-cultivated adult-contemporary touches. First single “To Die in L.A.” is an easy highlight, bouncing on a Flashdance-style percolating synth riff while Hunter sings in a romantic croon, as though illustrating the quiet desperation bubbling underneath a jazzercise class, and peels into one of Lower Dens’ best anti-choruses yet. Those who miss the band’s more languid tracks will still find plenty to dig into in the album’s middle tracks, like the fluttering “Your Heart Still Beating” and darkly jazzy ballad “I Am the Earth.” And it’s hard to deny how great they are at re-creating The Cure’s dreamy vibes on tracks like elastic post-punker “Société Anonyme.” It might seem an obvious choice for Lower Dens to have gone the new-wave route, but they end up being so incredibly adept at navigating well-worn terrain that it doesn’t really matter. Escape From Evil is easily Lower Dens’ most fun album, yet they haven’t lost the nuance that made them so captivating in the first place.


Death GripsThe Powers That B

The Powers That B might be the last Death Grips album, a sad thing indeeed since the trio in their short time together have basically created their own genre, combining aggressive electro noise, Zach Hill’s wildman drumming and MC Ride’s berserk raps. Accordingly, Death Grips play through The Powers That B as if their lives depend on it—or, perhaps more appropriately, like they’re on a suicide mission. From the get-go, Disc Two of The Powers That B, Jenny Death, doesn’t let up, starting with out-of-breath spring “I Break Mirrors With My Face in the United States.” From there, we rev up through “Inanimate Session,” which starts literally sounding and feeling like the uphill chug of a roller coaster before the inevitable set of winding loops that unsettle your sense of balance. By comparison to its opening tracks, the robot-metal of a track like “Why a Bitch Gotta Lie” may feel like a reprieve; at the very least, it’s a worthy entry point, as is the nearly danceable caveman-stomper “Beyond Alive” and epic “On GP.” Although Death Grips aren’t really about accessibility, Jenny Death is the most engaging thing they’ve done in some time, since their breakthrough release, The Money Store. Meanwhile, the previously online-only first disc, Niggas on the Moon, features Bjork samples warped into hyper-real chirps and percussive elements; it makes my head feel like chop suey a bit, but it's still plenty intriguing, and fans of Death Grips’ extremism should appreciate it. Taken together, it’s an utterly intense listen; you may not remember your own name after taking in two discs of Death Grips’ unrelenting force, which means it’s the consummate way to experience Death Grips.


Godspeed You! Black Emperor'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress?'

Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s last album, 'Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, was such an achievement of monolithic post-rock sound that it’s hard to believe it’s only two-and-a-half years later and they’ve done it again. ?'Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress?' is based on the singular piece “Behemoth,” which the band has performed live many times, and as such it’s one of the band’s shorter albums at a manageable 40 minutes stretched over four tracks. “Peasantry, or ‘Light Inside of Light’!” rides on sunbaked guitar swells that call to mind some unmade space-Western. It crests into “Lambs’ Breath,” whose echoing sounds creak among waves of dark distortion. Though Asunder starts more reined in than ’Allellujah’s darker, more aggressive tones, its closing track, “Piss Crowns Are Trebled,” utilizes overdistorted riffs to clash against the strings that return the album to melodic territory and as the drums march forth militaristically, give the album a dramatic finish. Asunder isn’t perfect—the title track feels too much like dead air—but it’s also one of their most digestible sets while still leaving listeners on the edge of their seats as it progresses and evolves from one intricate movement to the next. Like the best of Godspeed’s work, it’s a singular listening experience.


The Soft MoonDeeper

Deeper finds Oakland’s Luis Vasquez doing what he does best, creating thrillingly nihilistic darkwave tracks like “Black” but also expanding his sound a bit with more melody (“Wasting”), IDM-fueled electro-pop (“Wrong”) and even balladry (“Without” calls to mind vintage Depeche Mode songs like “A Question of Lust”). While Vasquez has always been adept at creating bleak soundscapes, his songs feel more fully formed than ever on Deeper. The best Soft Moon album yet. 


Male GazeGale Maze

S.F.’s Male Gaze is Matt Jones of Blasted Canyons’ new band, signed to Castle Face. Like their label brethren, they’re re-creating garage-rock for a post-punk generation, yet there’s a lot more going on in this seven-song record, from Kinks-ian rock ‘n’ roll (“Mr. Wrong”) to psych-punk fronted by Jones’ Ian McCulloch-ish croon (“The Shining Path”) and all-out garage assaults (the title track). An incredibly promising look at what’s to come.

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Album Picks (146), New Albums (213), New Releases (214), Sufjan Stevens (15), Lower Dens (7), Death Grips (20), Godspeed You! Black Emperor (4), The Soft Moon (17), Male Gaze (4)