Charlotte Gainsbourg takes full creative control on Rest; the late Sharon Jones takes one final encore on Soul Of A Woman; and OCS reverts to its lush, reflective roots on Memory Of A Cut Off Head. These, plus The Body & Full Of Hell, Mavis Staples, and Kamaiyah in this week’s notable releases.
And in case you missed it, read our review of Morrissey’s Low In High School here.
Charlotte Gainsbourg, Rest
Over her slight but decades-long discography, Charlotte Gainsbourg has honed an understated yet assured electro-pop sensibility all her own. That said, her albums have largely been driven by other, stronger musical personalities: Her father, French-pop icon Serge Gainsbourg, wrote her 1986 debut, Charlotte For Ever; Jarvis Cocker wrote most of 2006’s 5:55; and Beck penned 2009’s IRM in its entirety. But with Rest, Gainsbourg finally steps forward as the main creative force. Working from a list of cinematic reference points Gainsbourg provided, producer SebAstian renders her intimate, deceptively dark songs on a grand architectural scale, with chiming, oversized synths and Moroder-esque disco beats that belie the songs’ heavy subjects. Gainsbourg—here singing mostly her own words for the first time (and mostly in French)—reveals herself to be a stunningly vulnerable lyricist as she takes on personal demons predominantly marked by grief for the loss of her half sister Kate in 2013. The influence of Gainsbourg’s famous musical parents, both Serge and mother Jane Birkin, has been a constant in her music, but on Rest, she seems less daunted by her lineage, and she begins to bend it to her own ambitions.
RIYL: Older Charlotte Gainsbourg records. French pop. Giorgio Moroder. Daft Punk.
Start here: The title track, co-written and produced by Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel De Homem-Christo, relies on a single hypnotic bass line to drive its low-key disco-chanson, and the deliberate, whispered vocals are quintessential Gainsbourg. [Kelsey J. Waite]
Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Soul Of A Woman
The first half of Soul Of A Woman is a powerful final encore for the late Sharon Jones, showcasing the dizzying array of soul and funk styles that she and the Dap-Kings crew perfected over the last 20 years. But after the James Brown frenzy of its opening tracks and the less memorable Motown-inspired middle ground, the album changes course. This reprise of Jones’ established work ends and listeners get a peek at what would have come next: an odyssey of densely symphonic funk and soul. By the time you get to “These Tears (No Longer For You),” the group is well into electrifying uncharted territory, an experimentation that peaks with “Girl! (You Got To Forgive Him),” where the reverb, swirling violins, and thundering brass send the album spiraling into psychedelia. Appropriately, Soul reverts to more familiar ground for its finale, “Call On God.” It’s the one track Jones wrote herself, and here she pulls double duty, sitting down at the piano to belt out one, last heartbreaking gospel number. It’s a bittersweet ending to the career of this tremendously talented and inspirational woman, both a farewell and an eternal, uplifting message of hope.
RIYL: James Brown. Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger.” A good cry.
Start here: For anyone with any attachment to Sharon Jones, “Call On God” is a nuclear warhead of emotion that you’re going to want to approach with tissues in hand. For everyone else, start with “Girl! (You Got To Forgive Him).” It’s the most successful of the album’s symphony-backed tracks, and it captures every syllable of an incredible Jones performance in stunning detail. [Matt Gerardi]
A little over two months after John Dwyer released an album as Oh Sees—which was itself a switch from his long-running moniker, Thee Oh Sees—the psych-rocker reverts back to his mid-’00s name OCS for Memory Of A Cut Off Head. As with most things Dwyer does, the change is significant. The album echoes the quieter, reflective tone of the original OCS records, albeit with more polished influences—namely, trippy orchestral folk and fractured ’70s classic rock—as well as a lusher instrumental palette. Dainty strings proliferate on “The Baron Sleeps And Dreams”; “Time Tuner” is a stoned psychedelic drone with needling sonic effects; and the burbling, Stereolab-esque “Lift A Finger” boasts foggy vocals from Brigid Dawson. Although Memory Of A Cut Off Head might benefit from some more garage-rock grit and aggression here and there, its manicured tranquility leaves a lasting impression.
RIYL: Early Destroyer albums. Recent Foxygen records. Proggy ’70s folk. Obscure psychedelic-rock LPs.
Start here: The strident folk of “The Chopping Block,” a strings-heavy duet with Dawson that, musically, is a dead ringer for David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” [Annie Zaleski]
Mavis Staples, If All I Was Was Black
Mavis Staples has something to say, damnit. After the relatively feel-good grooves of 2016’s Livin’ On A High Note, Staples has reteamed with Jeff Tweedy (who produced two of her earlier albums) and handed over the songwriting to the Wilco frontman, the two musicians working in tandem to create a record that feels very much of the moment. If All I Was Was Black is suffused with contemporary political resonance, married to Staples’ timelessly transcendent gospel-meets-bluesy-folk. That push-pull between sorrowful analysis of the current state of the country and hope for the future is its defining quality, and it works—mostly. From uptempo hand-clap revivals to stately ’70s grooves, Staples anchors music that occasionally struggles to match her soulful voice. But by the final acoustic track that finds her singing, “My friend, I’d do it all over again,” Mavis Staples has once again convinced you to join her somewhere better.
RIYL: Mavis Staples, obviously. You should know her by now.
Start here: “Build A Bridge” strikes just the right balance between the more uptempo rhythms and the spare ballads, providing a gentle swing wedded to subtly incisive lyrics that function as a rejoinder to anyone insisting that All Lives Matter. [Alex McLevy]
Kamaiyah, Before I Wake
With Kamaiyah’s major-label debut trapped in sample-clearance limbo, the 25-year-old rapper recently dropped the first of two mixtapes, Before I Wake, intended to hold fans over, while also regaining some momentum amid a tough 2017 for her. The Oakland native announced the release with an Instagram post citing the death of her brother and a battle with depression as particularly dark shadows over the year, and these 10 songs appropriately reflect a more muted, introspective side to the lighthearted party starter who broke out in 2016 with A Good Night In The Ghetto. But part of Kamaiyah’s appeal is that, behind that 1,000-watt smile, she isn’t afraid to get heavy, and Before I Wake showcases her ability to balance all the champagne-popping (“Playa In Me,” “How I Live”) with candidness about the quiet nights away from the crowds, as well as her growing fame (“Me Against Myself,” “Therapy”). It’s a solid mixtape, but one very much anticipating still greater things to come.
RIYL: West Coast hip-hop. ’80s and ’90s R&B. Missy Elliott.
Start here: An undeniable Tha Dogg Pound sample brings out Kamaiyah’s scrappier side on “Dope Bitch.” [Kelsey J. Waite]
The Body & Full Of Hell, Ascending A Mountain Of Heavy Light
Unholy alliances dot the discographies of doom oddballs The Body and grindcore savages Full Of Hell. But if both groups play well with others, they play best with each other, as evidenced on last year’s collaborative manifesto One Day You Will Ache Like I Ache. Matching the alien, joint-effort cacophony of its predecessor, Ascending A Mountain Of Heavy Light often sounds like if the voices in a deranged person’s head started making music together—especially when Full Of Hell’s Dylan Walker abuses his vocal cords trying to compete with the inhuman howls of The Body frontman Chip King. But little pockets of melody (notice the anxious electronic squiggles that kick off opener “Light Penetrates”) bubble to the surface of the album’s feedback swamp. Light is two harsh, ugly sounds that sound harsh and ugly together, but the hint of a pop sensibility throbs underneath: a heartbeat faintly audible over the screams of hell.
RIYL: The individually apocalyptic music of either of these bands. Eraserhead. Whatever your nightmares sound like.
Start here: “The King Laid Bare” is almost danceable, in a Reznorian sort of way; its throbbing industrial tempo sounds like Nine Inch Nails caught in the garbage disposal. [A.A. Dowd]
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