Intense times call for intense music, and this week's top picks certainly fit the bill.
Superchunk—What a Time to Be Alive
Not an ironic title, not entirely at least. As all our snickering at snarky memes and angrily @ing fascists registers less like symbolic resistance and more like an exhausting admission of powerlessness, these indie lifers sound miraculously energized by how the sheer unacceptability of our political age requires them to rise up. Old enough to remember the shock troops of “Reagan Youth,” earnest enough to rhyme “family planning” and “free Chelsea Manning,” gregarious enough to insist “You gotta get out/ Out and about/ Meet your weird neighbors/ Once in a while,” happy warrior Mac McCaughan yelps with a focus on the battle at hand rather than the victory far down the road. And before you “punk rock will be so great under Trump” dummies start told-you-so-ing, let me add that North Carolina’s finest have been rocking at this pace since ending their decade-long hiatus with Majesty Shredding in 2010—this is chapter three in the greatest musical comeback story of this miserable century. Here’s to not shutting up. GO
Sometimes she tries too hard—“Good Grief” belabors a conceit that’d maybe have worked as a quick riff—and, not gonna lie, my favorite lines here (“Talk real fast when I get nervous/ Rap real fast, but that's on purpose” and “Always a bridesmaid/ Never an astronaut!”) come from the tossed off 45-second goof “Shrimp.” Still, it’s her all-hands-on-deck determination to wring the most insight and sentiment from each moment that drives our cities’ most restless polymath to the many unqualified successes on her first album in five years, whether she’s rejecting a life spent in a state of “motherfucking vigilance” on “Fire Drills” or self-consciously embodying how desire makes you feel childish on “Boy Crazy.” By my estimation she’s singing more and rapping less, though I don’t pay that division of labor much mind since her melodies flow and she rhymes in tune, and she practices the MC’s art of aphoristically defining herself on her mellowest choruses and indulges a singer-songwriter’s fine-tuned knack for gauging her emotional responses when spitting the most bluntly. And the production from Lazerbeak and Andy Thompson is cannily empathetic throughout, boosting the tension when it suits her righteous impatience, sweetening the vibe when she risks pop vulnerability. GO
Rich Krueger—Life Ain’t That Long
A smart, likable 57-year-old Chicago singer-songwriter records the cream of his songbook in a proper studio setting, with fiddle and guitar curlicuing around his melodies, some horns when it’s time to get bluesy, and a tempo that never flags. In its upper range, his voice trembles without faltering, its timbre somewhere between Levon Helm and some unplaceable ’70s AM singer-songwriter, and his ability to inhabit characters (“The Gospel According to Carl” is worthy of a kinder Randy Newman) is equaled by his insight into his own romantic haplessness: “Though you can’t step in the same river twice/ Don’t mean you’re every gonna quit tryin’.” Gotta admit though, the one where he compares Nero to Spade Cooley gets away from me a little. SLOW
Amy Rigby—The Old Guys
“I tip my hat to the old guys,” Rigby warbles with maybe unintentional but certainly accurate gender exclusivity on the title track to her first solo album in 15 years—whether she’s simulating an email from Philip Roth to Bob Dylan on the occasion of the latter’s Nobel win, explicitly identifying with male prestige TV antiheroes, or peeking over Robert Altman’s shoulder on set, her fascination with the dead (or nearly) white male genius is both unfashionable and wholly in character. Her own personal old guy, husband Wreckless Eric, slips into the background as producer after three fine spousal duet albums, and he knows how to place guitars in the mix: chiming rhythmically up front, feeding back densely behind. Rigby does right by the old gals too: The sharpest of her reflections on life as a touring musician on the cusp of 60 finds her onstage in her hometown of Pittsburgh feeling “like Carrie before the bucket slipped”; “Leslie” celebrates an aging female scenester of diminishing charms but unabated sexuality. But yeah, the best song here is about a dead white male genius: the great punk guitarist, and Rigby’s benefactor, Robert Quine. SLOW
Car Seat Headrest—Twin Fantasy (Face to Face)
With his deviated septum inflecting the bare longing of “I would sleep naked/ Next to you naked,” his Feelies-gone-emo rave-ups casually bridging generational divides of suburban ennui, and his heroic-and-then-some refusal to succumb to his own introversion, Will Toledo should tickle each and all of my indie/alt sweet spots, and it’s driving me crazy that he ain’t. For such a compulsive self-editor (this here’s a re-recording of his 2011 lo-fi breakthrough), he can never get away from the sprawl: On “Beach Life-in-Death,” his guitar builds from scrawny bedroom strum to brawny arena churn over the course of a four-minute rave-up that climaxes with a frenzied shout of “I. Don’t. Want. To. Go. Insa-a-ne!”—then the song lingers for nine more often-but-not-always effective minutes. Similarly, “Famous Prophets (Stars)” kicks off with a witty ramble about mental health (“I'm not gonna end up a nervous wreck/ Like the people I know who are nervous wrecks/ Though I'm not gonna name names/ (Yours was an exception)”) and peters out 16 minutes later with someone intoning a quote from Corinthians. Which leaves me in an awkward place: The skeptical adult writing this review is hella impressed with what he hears, but his unmoved inner teen’s arms remain firmly crossed. SLOW
Laurie Anderson & Kronos Quartet—Landfall
Years of satisfying the expectations of genteel crowds have cast Anderson’s expert intonations into increasingly predictable rhythms. Yet the familiarity of those affectations offer hypnotic reassurance that she’ll get where she’s going, as on her unparalleled 2015 work Heart of a Dog, with its apparent digressions about Buddhism, mourning, and the rise of the surveillance state all gradually revealing themselves as interconnected essential elements of the story she had to tell. So I waited for this meditation on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to imaginatively link her personal experience to, well, anything—climate change, the less comfortable victims of catastrophic weather worldwide, at least our shared mortality and vulnerability if nothing else. But even charming asides (a tetchy rant about how boring everyone else’s dreams are) and perfect opening lines (“I was in a Dutch karaoke bar, trying to sing a song in Korean”) sound precious in this context, and anyway, she doesn’t do a whole lot of talking—the majority of this work is instrumental. And though there’s some productive tension in the way Anderson’s electronic discombobulations chafe against the classical precision of every collaborator’s favorite string quartet, the compositions themselves are too soundtracky. Both her neo-Romantic motifs and her approximations of chaos sound manipulative, as though stirring up memories of other music that once stirred us.
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty self-explanatory: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.