Zeal & Ardor forges an exhilarating new sound on second LP Stranger Fruit; Lykke Li turns inward on the hit-or-miss So Sad So Sexy; and bedroom pop gets a hi-fi makeover on Snail Mail’s full-length debut, Lush. These, plus Angélique Kidjo and Lily Allen in this week’s notable new releases.
And our review of the new Kanye West-Kid Cudi collab Kids See Ghost, also out today, is forthcoming.
Zeal & Ardor, Stranger Fruit
Born of a repugnantly worded 4chan dare, Zeal & Ardor offers a genre fusion that shouldn’t work but does like gangbusters: an oddly simpatico marriage of blistering black metal to American slave music. On the thrilling Stranger Fruit, elements of gospel and the blues coil like twisted roots around the album’s tallest pillars of fury, resulting in anthems at once heavier and more soulful than the “Satanic spirituals” on last year’s Devil Is Fine. The project’s mastermind, Manuel Gagneux, can shift on a dime from a Deep South croon to a Norwegian howl. There’s fire, too, in his lyrics, which drip with menace: “You can’t run, you can’t hide,” he insists on ominous lead single “Gravedigger’s Chant”—the first of many warnings about life in America, circa 1860 or 2018. What he’s accomplished with Zeal & Ardor is a synthesis: multiple sounds merging to make a robust, exhilarating new one.
RIYL: Any of the genres mixed into Stranger Fruit’s strange brew.
Start here: It’s hard to pick a standout on this filler-free monster of a record. For pure ferocity and firepower, “We Can’t Be Found,” with its blast-beat blitzkrieg and unholy chants, probably hits hardest. But closing track “Built On Ashes” showcases the album’s range, the melancholy bubbling beneath the anger. [A.A. Dowd]
Lykke Li, So Sad So Sexy
Lykke Li’s fourth album, So Sad So Sexy, is more introverted and meditative than her previous efforts—the equivalent of sitting at home alone obsessing over bad decisions rather than raging about them with friends. “Don’t go before I get to say I’m sorry I’ve caused you sorrow,” she sings plaintively on the spare ballad “Bad Woman”; on other songs, she laments the bittersweet end of a relationship or the downside of self-medication. On a less positive note, So Sad So Sexy is also a hit-or-miss sonic departure. Gone is her howling panoramic pop, replaced by inward-looking music accented by trap beats (“Two Nights”), bouncy hip-hop (highlight “Sex Money Feelings Die”), and moments of digital vocal manipulation (the cut-and-paste opening track “Hard Rain”). Despite these progressions, So Sad So Sexy is still best when Lykke Li embraces vulnerability and bares her soul, as on the romantic tragedy “Last Piece.”
RIYL: Charli XCX. Dua Lipa. Drunkenly stalking your ex’s social media. ’90s R&B.
Start here: The airy R&B-pop trifle “Utopia,” which ends the album on a hopeful note: not all relationships are doomed to end in chaos or despair. [Annie Zaleski]
Snail Mail, Lush
Bedroom pop gets a hi-fi makeover on Snail Mail’s debut full-length, the appropriately titled Lush. Back in the ’90s, backing intimate confessions with swishing cymbals and professionally produced guitars would have been heresy, but 18-year-old singer-songwriter Lindsey Jordan is bound to no such orthodoxy. The emotional thrust of her music is the same, though, writing about unrequited crushes, boring parties, and the acute loneliness of standing alone in a suburban kitchen in the middle of the night. The self-assurance underlying Jordan’s lyrical vulnerability comes through in Lush’s anthemic dual-guitar approach, overlaid with her strong, clear voice and even a French horn on the melancholy “Deep Sea.” The crushing sameness of the existence described in Snail Mail’s music means that not every song on Lush is essential, but when Jordan hits, she hits a bullseye, with mini-indie masterpieces like “Pristine” and “Heat Wave” set to inspire another generation of songwriters.
RIYL: Liz Phair. Lisa Loeb. Soccer Mommy. Jordan’s old guitar teacher Mary Timony.
Start here: Lead single “Pristine” is also the album’s strongest track, a perfectly calibrated mix of stark lyrical longing and polished indie-rock arrangement that treats a teenage crush with its proper, life-altering weight. [Katie Rife]
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Angélique Kidjo, Remain In Light
In 2017, celebrated Beninese singer-songwriter Angélique Kidjo led a Carnegie Hall concert with a fascinating concept: to reimagine the Talking Heads’ classic Remain In Light through the lens of the West African music that inspired it. Kidjo’s Remain In Light, now arriving in studio form, is a stunning transformation that sheds the nervous, alien nature of these well-worn songs, turning them into something more human, danceable, and, in some cases, more meaningful. Here, the album’s Afrobeat backbone appears in its natural state, dominating songs like “The Great Curve” and “Once In A Lifetime” with walls of clattering percussion and crescendoing horns. But it’s not all breezy, beautiful funk. Kidjo’s take on “Seen And Not Seen” feels as if it’s confronting a society that holds whiteness as the standard of beauty, as it juxtaposes Byrne’s original poem with eruptions of gorgeously accompanied African chants. And “Listening Wind,” which Byrne himself has said concerns a terrorist attempting to drive Americans out of his home, sounds more harrowing than ever.
RIYL: Fela Kuti. Antibalas. Talking Heads.
Start here: With its knife-edge guitars, copious percussion, and overlapping chants, “The Great Curve” is probably the closest the original Remain In Light came to actual Afrobeat. Kidjo’s version allows that inspiration to breakthrough and run rampant, rendering the song a furious, full-throated jam. [Matt Gerardi]
Lily Allen, No Shame
Fourth LP No Shame opens with Lily Allen, she of the charming brattiness and disarming vulnerability, in a familiar place: fed up with the haters. It’s an understandable sentiment, but defensively re-litigating the myriad irritations of online discourse, as she does on “Come On Then,” doesn’t always make for compelling pop songs, nor does it offer much artistic progression (see “URL Badman” off of 2014’s Sheezus). No Shame does mix things up with more ballads than usual, with varied results: “Three,” written from her toddler’s point of view, is a bittersweet heartbreaker, while songs like “Apples” and “Everything To Feel Something” repeat themselves ad nauseam. They’re passable because Allen still has a way with crazy-catchy choruses; “Trigger Bang” lilts through a “Paper Planes”-lite sing-song about no longer fitting in at cool-kid parties, one of her better takes on uneasy domestication. But the reggae-lite beats and rap intros of her uptempo tunes feel more labored this time around (and “Pushing Up Daisies” straight up nicks a lyrical conceit from Natasha Bedingfield’s “I Wanna Have Your Babies”). This is a prettier, more heartfelt record than Sheezus, but only a slightly better one.
RIYL: Keeping detailed lists of your friend and enemies. Cool moms. Everything Lily Allen has ever recorded.
Start here: Allen revives her old sound and concerns with the up-tempo kiss-off “Waste,” and her feather-light singing of “who the fuck are you, though?” temporarily erases concerns that she’s running in place. [Jesse Hassenger]
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