REVIEW ROUND-UP: Courtney Barnett, Sufjan Stevens, Modest Mouse and more

Matthew E. White Fresh Blood 3 March 2015 DOMINO

Matthew E. White’s lush, swelling productions gained a larger prominence on Natalie Prass’s charming and personable self-titled debut released in January. In some ways, his second LP, Fresh Blood, operates as the perfect companion to Prass’s debut. The opening track serves as an accurate representation of White’s best sonic qualities, with every instrument and vocal positioned in the most flattering and refreshing way. Most importantly, the album is lively enough to still sound modern despite its traditional measures. “Let me look at you, let me look at you / I’m pumping fresh blood for you,” he sings as the opening number closes. That blood courses throughout the album, and some eventually spills on the album’s most emphatic moment, the stirring, climactic “Holy Moly.” 76/100

Purity Ring another eternity 3 March 2015 4AD

Purity Ring got a taste of mainstream success after landing a featured role on Danny Brown’s Old single “25 Bucks,” and go for a bigger slice on their sophomore LP another eternity. The group makes their aim known immediately, as twinkling synths drape over the opening “Heartsigh.” It, along with “Bodyache,” creates a welcoming one-two punch. After that, however, another eternity’s sound lacks much variety, as does vocalist’s Megan James’ performances. While obviously a more-than-capable singer, these tracks largely adhere to a similar formula. “Stranger Than Earth” is the biggest stunner beyond the opening pair of songs, with slowly building, rave-like synths creating a cavernous effect, easily Corin Roddick’s greatest contribution to the album. While entirely serviceable, the duo proved with their debut that they are capable of so much more. 68

Modest Mouse Strangers To Ourselves 17 March 2015 EPIC

Strangers To Ourselves represents a marked point in indie stalwarts Modest Mouse’s career. Their trio of independent (and one major label) release masterpieces – This Is a Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, The Lonesome Crowded West, The Moon & Antarctica – was directly followed by the band’s commercial peak. With it, the band’s sound shifted from barbed, frenetic, chaotic, to something much more palatable to a wider audience. That’s to say nothing of Good News For People Who Love Bad News and We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank’s musical quality, which still houses some of the band’s best material. It’s been eight years since we’ve heard a studio album from the band, leaving many to wonder where Modest Mouse’s place is in 2015.

While the new disc has some thrilling moments – “Shit In Your Cut”, “Wicked Campaign” and “The Turtle and the Tourist” among non-single cuts – it also is wobbly and lacks the cohesion of the band’s best albums. Isaac Brock is still writing some of the best verses in rock music, with “The Best Room” serving as a wonderful example of his best qualities. And while “Pistol” is ambitiously the band’s weirdest moment in a long while, there remains something unnerving about hearing Brock gargle about taking “your panties off” while suggesting he has a “pistol I need to unload.” It’s as surreal as hearing My Morning Jacket’s “Highly Suspicious” for the first time, yet without the noticeable self-awareness. That being said, the five pre-release singles are all as great on record, and there are plenty of album cuts worth digging into as well. Yet, after listening to Strangers to Ourselves, the band hardly sounds concerned in discovering their identity in 2015. 78

Tobias Jesso Jr. Goon 17 March 2015 TRUE PANTHER

When “How Could You Babe” was first released, it initially struck me as a step back from “True Love” and “Hollywood,” with the nondescript second-person direct of “Babe” standing out from the third-person narrative of “Love” and the first-person account of “Hollywood”. It’s also the most formulaic of the three; yet, over time the song stands out as an early highlight in his discography. “Babe,” it turns out, uses its basic structure for maximum impact. Like much of Goon, the single sounds as though its always been here, and finally unearthed by Tobias Jesso Jr. The album hardly deviates from its influences as it unabashedly wears them on its sleeve. It’s Jesso Jr.’s performances, then, that provides the album with a much needed dose of personality. An album like this needs a passionate artist behind it. That makes Tobias Jesso Jr.’s sincere, honest display the most thrilling takeaway from Goon. For an album so familiar, it is, remarkably, the work of only one. 83

Twin Shadow Eclipse 17 March 2015 WARNER BROS.

Twin Shadow wandered on to the scene with Forget, an album of refined hooks shrouded in a midnight fog. Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor noticed Twin Shadow (George Lewis Jr.) early in the artist’s genesis, and produced that stellar debut LP, helping give the album its blurred, edgeless surroundings. It also allowed lyrics such as “You swore you’d never let another black boy break your heart” and “This is everything I’m trying to forget” to resonate due to its directness. Since then, he’s shifted his sound significantly, emphatically announced on Eclipse prerelease singles “To The Top” and “Turn Me Up”. Those songs highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of his new album, as they feature emphatic, hook-laden choruses, but also a melodramatic weight that capsizes the ship.

The album’s best moment is the opening “Flatliners,” as it starts slowly before exploding on the chorus. It’s one of the few moments where Lewis Jr. successfully builds his composition to a stadium-sized refrain. “Pump, pump, pump it up,” he sings on that opening track. And he continues pumping throughout the rest of the album, seemingly forgetting that it can only get so big before it pops. 52

Courtney Barnett Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit 24 March 2015 MOM + POP / MARATHON ARTISTS / MILK!

Courtney Barnett may say sometimes she just sits, but that’s hard to believe when listening to her bafflingly competent and vital debut LP. For the duration of Sometimes, Barnett shows off her impeccable songwriting, filling her album with clever wordplay and ear worm melodies. From the two prerelease singles “Pedestrian at Best” and “Depreston,” to the stellar album cuts “Elevator Operator,” “An Illustration of Loneliness,” and “Dead Fox,” Barnett injects her songs with the menial parts of our lives that we rarely take time to consider on a broader context. It’s as if she’s stopping to smell the poppies throughout the album, reflecting on all the small things that make us whole. 86

Sufjan Stevens Carrie & Lowell 31 March 2015 ASTHMATIC KITTY

When Sufjan Stevens announced way-back-when that he was going to release an album to correspond to the 50 states, and was on a good track with the Michigan and Illinois, that was always meant as a joke. On his masterful 2015 release Carrie & Lowell, Stevens takes a road trip to the place he needed to visit the most: home.

After The Age of Adz and his collaborative work as Sisyphus found the once quite and reflective songwriter expressing himself through digital means, Carrie & Lowell’s purposefully analog construct feels like Stevens returning to his comfort zone. And the songs of C+L are some of the most beautiful in the musician’s vast discography. He loads his songs religious and greek mythology references, while revealing some devastating emotional concerns. “In the veil of great surprises, I wonder did you love me at all,” he sings on “The Only Thing.” Most of this album, Stevens is communicating with his mother, coming to terms with their strained, distant relationship. “Should I tear my eyes out now, everything I see returns to you somehow,” he later sings on the same song, subtly flipping the script on the Oedipal complex. The emotional honesty of the album can be tough to swallow, its open-air recording structure giving the songs even more of a personal stamp. Like Kendrick Lamar on To Pimp A Butterfly, Sufjan Stevens is using music to reconnect with and come to terms with a past he had little say in. Also like Lamar, you get the feeling that better days are ahead for Stevens. By tending to his roots, he’s given himself a little more breathing room above ground. 94

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