Not much among this year’s album releases excites me more than the long-awaited return of The Raconteurs. Jack White is always at his best when he brings together a strong team of collaborators, and with the Raconteurs, he’s got not only great collaborators, but also great mates. It has been 11 years since their last album together. A lot has changed in a lot of ways, obviously. Not least, as White himself pointed out, is that everybody’s a lot older now. The wonder boy is a middle-aged man now, and has to live not only with his personal failings but also the collective failure of his generation. It is right on point and right on time to release a song with “I’m not dead yet” as a refrain. That’s about as bushy-tailed as any of us can expect to get nowadays. Well, at least we have The Raconteurs still producing the feelsy blues-rock they’re known for as if no time had elapsed, though there may be more songs about depression and maybe not as many hooky melodies as there were in 2006. And the thing about blues and blues-based music, is that it’s always been about depression and spiritual reckoning. That’s why it keeps on coming around.
Representing the glacial soundscapes of Scandinavia, is my new-ish discovery Jonna Lee. You may or may not know her as the mastermind of the electronic music performance art project iamamiwhoami, or for her collaborative work with Röyksopp. She founded her own record label, To whom it may concern, and has been associated with the avant-garde fashion company Comme des Garcons. She also records as ionnalee, which is the identity behind her fourth album, Remember the Future. She is, obviously, a real renaissance woman. Her music ranges from the catchy nearly-pop-oriented you hear here, to surreal, ambient and mildly disturbing. I don’t know if Lee is entirely representative of the Swedish music scene, but she is definitely the vanguard of what the Swedish music scene is most successfully exporting. It’s atmospheric, conceptual musical art that is also accessible to pop audiences. It’s music that’s emotionally versatile, good for dancing and good for relaxing, equally.
It’s a challenge keeping up with the stream of new releases. There’s just so much that comes out, and a lot of it stays under the radar unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon it. Amongst all that, it’s particularly hard to predict which new records will turn out to be keepers. It’s too early to call the field at this point in the year, but so far I’ve enjoyed a couple of records enough to play them twice. The National’s I Am Easy to Find is one such record. It is, of course, just The National doing what The National does. It’s an hour of sadness and gloom, which may not be everybody’s idea of a hot summer album. Nobody does sadness quite like Matt Berninger. Nobody takes it seriously, nobody wants to make a career out of being seriously sad. But I still want to hear a really good sad album, and my sad record library doesn’t get much fresh restock. So I think it’s safe to say that this record will find its way into heavy rotation next time I feel like I have something to cry about.
Hard to believe that Cage the Elephant has been around for over a decade, and I don’t think I’ve ever written about them. Maybe it’s partly because we’re living through another one of those phases where rock music doesn’t get very much attention and guitar bands aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re trying to think of what the happening new thing is. Even a very good guitar band doesn’t get much hype these days. So it goes that Cage the Elephant has been slipping through the cracks, despite being a very good guitar band. Well, their new album – their 5th! – is out and it’s very good, if you’re in the mood for a rock album with influences of garage rock, psychedelia and blues. I mean, yeah, your library is probably already heavily stacked with albums that contain exactly those things, but if you need a new one…
I wasn’t there when Neneh Cherry’s debut album Raw Like Sushi was a critics’ darling in 1989. I wasn’t around to question why, instead of becoming an R’n’B sensation, Cherry only made four more albums. As far as I’m concerned, Neneh Cherry is a brand new artist fresh off the boat from Sweden. I only found out about her new record Broken Politics because some critic thought it was one of the year’s best. And much to my surprise, it was. It takes a special kind of giftedness to write a sexy slow-jam about deep vein thrombosis, but Cherry does it. (Go ahead look up Deep Vein Thrombosis by Neneh Cherry, I’ll wait.) Imagine my surprise to learn that this gifted rising star is a woman of 55 who had her shot at pop stardom in 1989, decided it wasn’t for her, and has been quietly honing her chops on her own terms ever since. Obviously, I regret not paying attention sooner.
My blog doesn’t always reflect my listening habits in real time, so you probably didn’t know that I had been listening to K.Flay just about every day in 2018. Yeah, her and Yaeji. Blood in the Cut was a suitable soundtrack for a mental breakdown. Kristine Flaherty is by no stretch of the imagination a good singer, which is painfully apparent when she performs live, and her white lady rap skills are no match for Debbie Harry’s. Her strength lies in her confessional songwriting, and her trainwreck-next-door charisma. She will remind you, painfully, of yourself at your worst times; or of your most dysfunctional friend, the one who can never quite stop spinning her wheels. There are a lot of confessional female singer-songwriters these days – a lot! – becoming critical darlings by laying out their feelings, but most of them belong to a tradition of ladies being sad in a genteel and harmless manner, acceptably doe-eyed and acoustic and vaguely reminiscent of Joni Mitchell. K.Flay belongs to a much smaller contingent, the ones who fly their “fuck you I’m a drunk slut” flag loudly and proudly and trace their lineage to riot grrrl and punk rock and old school hip-hop. Being sad isn’t a genteel conversation with an acoustic guitar, it’s a lonely and drunken journey of dark nights and splitting headaches and barely remembered sex with ugly people. For some people life is a quest to wring themselves into some kind of shape, and a drive to redeem your shitty experiences by bleeding it all into art. That’s what being a rock star stems from: just being a fucking rock star, even if you’re homely and can’t sing.
I just realized that I haven’t been doing much to introduce new artists lately. That’s partly because of the hassle of updating my playlist format as I change over from iTunes to Spotify. Like, seriously, that shit is tedious. But trust that I have very much been making a big effort to keep up with and take note of new releases and exploring new artists. (This is something that using Spotify gives me a leg up on, so yay for that.) From here on out, I’m going to be more actively filtering more new content in with the old faves. Today, here is someone I discovered last year, and if y’all’s public playlists are any indication, a lot of you are in love with her too: Kacey Musgraves. Okay, she’s not exactly an unknown off of the street here; she’s won a basketful of Grammy awards, and her album was one of 2018’s most acclaimed. Still, she’s a relative newcomer who didn’t break mainstream until recently. I think she represents what I hope is the future of country music, and not just alt-country or roots-country or whatever you want to call it, I’m talking about what they actually play on the radio. That future is young, female, empowered, and progressive. We really, really need this next generation of young artists to wipe away the pandering beer’n’tractors cliches and the stink of unwashed MAGA hats. Mainstream country music has for far too long been a last bastion of glorified toxic masculinity and thinly coded bigotry. We need young artists like Musgraves who can write tuneful songs with mass appeal, minus the redneck posturing, and with something relevant and positive to say.