12 Best Songs of the Week: Big Thief, Jenny Hval, Julien Chang, Shura, and More | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Thursday, November 21st, 2019  

12 Best Songs of the Week: Big Thief, Jenny Hval, Julien Chang, Shura, and More

Plus Michael Kiwanuka, Ride, Chelsea Wolfe, Death Cab for Cutie, and a Wrap-up of the Week's Other Notable New Tracks

Aug 16, 2019
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Welcome to another Songs of the Week. It was a super strong week for new songs. There was lots of debate about how many tracks we should include this week and what would make the list. Hence we ended up with a Top 12, instead of our usual Top 10. There are also a whole lot of honorable mentions.

Elsewhere on the website this week we posted a My Firsts interview with Boy Scouts and a Keeping Score interview with film composer Emile Mosseri.

Sleater-Kinney's The Center Won't Hold was this week's Album of the Week.

In the last week we also reviewed a bunch of albums, including the latest by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Russian Circles, Sleater-Kinney, Fever Ray (a live album), Skillet, Bon Iver, My Morning Jacket (The Tennessee Fire: 20th Anniversary Edition), The Hold Steady, Beak>, Ada Lea, and Ty Segall. Plus every week we post reviews of various other things (some weeks including DVDs, Blu-rays, films, concerts, and TV shows).

To help you sort through the multitude of fresh songs released in the last week, we have picked the 12 best the last seven days had to offer, along with highlighting other notable new tracks shared in the last week. Check out the full list below.

1. Big Thief: "Not"

This week Big Thief announced a new album, Two Hands, which will be their second album of 2019, and have shared its first single, "Not." Two Hands is due out October 11 via 4AD and is the "sister album" to U.F.O.F., which was released back in May via 4AD. Check out the album's tracklist and cover art, as well as the band's upcoming tour dates (including some newly announced shows), here. "Not" is a minor revelation, at first centering on singer/songwriter/guitarist Adrianne Lenker's poetic vocals, but then erupting into a more primal guitar jam.

The band began work on Two Hands only days after finishing U.F.O.F. Whereas their last album was recorded at Bear Creek Studios in a cabin in the woods of Washington State, Two Hands was recorded at the Sonic Ranch studio 30 miles west of El Paso, in the desert near the Mexican border, surrounded by thousands of acres of pecan orchards. The songs were recorded live in the studio, with largely no overdubs, and the vocals on all but two songs were completely live vocal takes. 

Big Thief consists of Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia. As with U.F.O.F., the band once again worked with engineer Dom Monks and producer Andrew Sarlo (who also mixed the album with Krivchenia).

Lenker had this to say about the album in a press release: "'Two Hands' has the songs that I'm the most proud of; I can imagine myself singing them when I'm old. Musically and lyrically, you can't break it down much further than this. It's already bare-bones."

U.F.O.F. was the follow-up to 2017's Capacity and 2016's debut album, Masterpiece. Last fall Lenker released a new solo album, abysskiss, via Saddle Creek.

Read our 2016 Pleased to Meet You interview with Big Thief.

Read our 2017 interview with Big Thief on Capacity.

2. Jenny Hval: "High Alice"

Norwegian avant-garde musician Jenny Hval is releasing a new album, The Practice of Love, on September 13 via Sacred Bones. Previously she shared its first single, "Ashes to Ashes" (which was one of our Songs of the Week). This week she shared another song from the album, "High Alice."

Hval had this to say about the song in a press release: "For a while, this song felt like my entire album. I had no idea what the rest of it would be, just a feeling like this song and the title, the two words 'High Alice,' would get me there. My guiding stars at the time were Clarice Lispector's The Hour of the Star and Kylie Minogue's 'Confide In Me.' Maybe High Alice is the narrator of this album. I don't know how I wrote it, it was automatic. But I found it really funny that I mentioned the sea three times. 'High Alice' goes to all the places I have taught myself to avoid, like the four Big Themes: Love, death, life, the ocean. The ocean. The ocean."

The album is the follow-up to her acclaimed 2016 album, Blood Bitch, and her 2018 EP, The Long Sleep. The album features guest vocalists Vivian Wang, Laura Jean Englert, and Félicia Atkinson. The title The Practice of Love was partially inspired by Valie Export's 1985 film of the same name.

Hval had this to say about the album in a previous press release: "This all sounds very clichéd, like a standard greeting card expression. But for me, love, and the practice of love, has been deeply tied to the feeling of otherness. Love as a theme in art has been the domain of the canonized, big artists, and I have always seen myself as a minor character, a voice that speaks of other things. But in the last few years I have wanted to take a closer look at the practice of otherness, this fragile performance, and how it can express love, intimacy, empathy and desire. I have wanted to ask bigger, wider, kind of idiotic questions like: What is our job as a member of the human race? Do we have to accept this job, and if we don't, does the pressure to be normal ever stop?"

3. Julien Chang: "Butterflies from Monaco"

This week promising new 19-year-old Baltimore singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/producer Julien Chang announced his debut album, Jules, and shared a new single from it, "Butterflies from Monaco." Jules is due out October 11 via Transgressive. It also features his previously shared debut single, "Of the Past." "Butterflies from Monaco" has a gorgeous Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear vibe, with a touch of The Beach Boys. It takes surprising turns, but also feels comforting. It sounds retro, but modern; timeless. And it's truly hard to believe this guy is not long out of high school.

Check out the album's tracklist and cover art, as well as "Of the Past" and Chang's upcoming tour dates, here.

Chang self-produced the album and played most of its instruments. He's currently in college, but the album began in his senior year of high school two years ago.

"The record was brought to life by uncertainty and experimentation, just like most everything else in life is during the summer before senior year," Chang explains in a press release. "Even in the last weeks of recording, I was unsure of what kind of album it would turn out to be, but I think that was the point of making it-to follow inspirations indiscriminately and to whatever extent I felt."

Chang adds: "The summer before my senior year was a really formative time for me. I got exposed to a ton of revelatory music, all sorts of stuff like Pink Floyd and Tchaikovsky and '70s Afro-funk and Gregorian chants. At the same time, I finally started doing the kinds of things you'd expect a 17-year-old kid to do."

Of the album title, Chang explains: "I called the album Jules because it's a nickname that no one ever actually calls me. Nicknames can give you something to grab onto, a sense of familiarity with someone, but in this case it's actually a false familiarity. Just like people thought they knew who I was but had no idea what I was creating in that basement all summer, you might think you know me well from listening to this record, but the truth is that there's a lot more going on below the surface."

4. Shura: "skyline, be mine"

Shura (aka Alexandra Lilah Denton) has released a new album, forevher, today via Secretly Canadian. Now that the album is out we can include in this week's Songs of the Week our favorite song from forevher, album closer "skyline, be mine." We've been getting down to this track for several months now, since we were first sent an advance copy of the album. It's got a bit of an early Zero 7 vibe to it.

Forevher is the follow-up to her 2016 debut, Nothing's Real. Denton is British, but is based in New York. Denton co-produced the album with Joel Pott. It features Jona Ma (from Jagwar Ma), Will Miller (Whitney), and T-E-E-D, with additional vocals from Rosie Lowe, Kerry Leatham, and Reva from Nimmo. The album includes "BKLYNLDN," a single shared back in March via a NSFW video. Then she shared a video for its second single, "religion (u can lay your hands on me)" (which was one of our Songs of the Week). Then Shura shared another song from the album, "the stage," which a press release said was inspired by Minie Ripperton and Prince.

In a press release Denton describes the album as "a soul record, sung by someone who doesn't have a traditional soul voice. And I quite enjoy the antagonism of that."

Thematically, the album is about Denton's long-distance relationship with her girlfriend, or as a press release puts it: "It's a classic NYC-to-London love-story, but one told through the totally modern filter of dating apps, unanswered texts, and Skype chats."

5. Michael Kiwanuka: "You Ain't the Problem"

This week Michael Kiwanuka announced a new album, simply titled KIWANUKA, and shared a lyric video for its first single, "You Ain't the Problem." It's got that retro-meets-modern-soul vibe producer Danger Mouse is known for.

KIWANUKA is due out October 25 via Interscope. Check out the album's tracklist and cover art, as well as his upcoming tour dates, here.

KIWANUKA is Kiwanuka's third album and the follow-up to 2016's Love & Hate, whose opening track "Cold Little Heart" is also the theme song to the acclaimed HBO show Big Little Lies. As with Love & Hate, Danger Mouse and Inflo produced KIWANUKA, which was recorded in New York, LA, and London. 

Kiwanuka had this to say about the album in a press release: "The last album came from an introspective place and felt like therapy, I guess. This one is more about feeling comfortable in who I am and asking what I want to say. Like, how could I be bold and challenge myself and the listener? It is about self-acceptance in a more triumphant rather than melancholy way. It's an album that explores what it means to be a human being today."

Kiwanuka adds: "When I first signed a record deal, people would ask me, 'So what are you going to be called?' And I never thought of that; calling myself Johnny Thunders or whatever, like singers from the past. So, on this album it's kind of a defiant thing; I'm engaging with who I am and I'm not going to have an alter ego, or become Sasha Fierce or Ziggy Stardust, even though everyone's telling me I need to be this, that or the other. I can just be Michael Kiwanuka."

6. Ride: "In the Rooms"

British shoegazing icons Ride have released a new album, This Is Not a Safe Place, today via Wichita. Now that the album is out we can share its near-nine-minute long closing track, "In the Rooms." We're a sucker for long album-closers and so are Ride. It's a bit more subdued than some epic album enders, but there's a real beauty to it.

Previously Ride shared the album's first single, "Future Love" (which was one of our Songs of the Week). Then they shared another song from the album, "Repetition," which had a bit of an '80s vibe to it and was also one of our Songs of the Week. Then earlier this week they shared the third and final pre-release single from the album, "Clouds of Saint Marie, " which leans into dream pop and is an honorable mention below, alongside album opener "R.I.D.E."

Ride reformed in 2014 to do some touring and finally released their first new album in 21 years, Weather Diaries, in 2017 via Wichita. That was followed by the 2018 EP, Tomorrow's Shore. As with those two releases, Erol Alkan produced This Is Not a Safe Place. Alan Moulder mixed the album, the fourth Ride album he has mixed. The band came together at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019. A previous press release said the band were influenced by "the Jean Michel Basquiat exhibition at London's Barbican Centre and the post-punk sound of The Fall and Sonic Youth, for an album rich in their trademark shoegaze atmosphere, whilst simultaneously sounding rejuvenated and creatively ambitious."

Read our 2017 interview with Ride about Weather Diaries.

Until Weather Diaries Ride hadn't released a new studio album since 1996's Tarantula, which was put out after the band split up and was poorly received. The quartet's original run lasted from 1988 to 1996 and included four studio albums (Nowhere, Going Blank Again, Carnival of Light, and Tarantula). In 2015 they also released Nowhere25, a 25th anniversary reissue of their 1990-released debut album Nowhere. A few years ago we interviewed Ride's Mark Gardener and Andy Bell about Nowhere and you can read that article here. And then in 2015 in another interview we did with Gardener he went through Nowhere track-by-track and you can read that here.

7. Chelsea Wolfe: "Be All Things"

Chelsea Wolfe is releasing a new album, The Birth of Violence, on September 13 via Sargent House. This week she shared another song from the album, the stirring "Be All Things," via a video for the track. Ben Chisholm directed the video, which was partially shot inside Northern California's Moaning Cavern, 450 feet underground, and partially in Iceland.

Wolfe had this to say about the video in a press release: "The video is a culmination of footage taken in a few magical locations. Around southwestern Iceland, while shooting the Birth of Violence album cover, inside Moaning Cavern in Northern California - a marble cavern 450 feet deep that I visited as a child and sang in as an adult, sending my voice out as heavy as I could against the powerful dampness and sparkles of the ancient cave walls. A special spot in nature not far from my home where the Manzanita grows up like a red and green tunnel, and a historic California hotel from the Victorian era where many from the past rested their heads."

Previously Wolfe shared The Birth of Violence's first single, "The Mother Road" (which was one of our Songs of the Week). Then she shared another song from the album, "American Darkness," via an atmospheric black & white video.

The Birth of Violence is the follow-up to 2017's Hiss Spun. It was recorded with longtime musical collaborator Ben Chisholm and features Jess Gowrie (drums) and Ezra Buchla (viola).

Wolfe had this to say about the album in a previous press release: "I've been in a state of constant motion for the past eight years or so; touring, moving, playing new stages, exploring new places and meeting new people-an incredible time of learning and growing as a musician and performer. But after awhile, I was beginning to lose a part of myself. I needed to take some time away from the road to get my head straight, to learn to take better care of myself, and to write and record as much as I can while I have 'Mercury in my hands,' as a wise friend put it." 

Read our 2015 The End interview with Wolfe about endings and death.

8. Death Cab for Cutie: "To the Ground"

Death Cab for Cutie are releasing a new EP, The Blue EP, on September 6 via Atlantic. Previously they shared its first single, "Kids in '99." Now they have shared another track from it, EP opener "To the Ground," which is a bit more propulsive than recent Death Cab for Cutie material and one of their better songs of late.

Death Cab for Cutie's last album, Thank You For Today, came out last year via Atlantic. Two of the EP's songs, "To the Ground" and "Before the Bombs," were recorded during the sessions for that album and were produced by Rich Costey. Peter Katis produced the EP's "Kids in '99" and "Blue Bloods," and the band produced the remaining track, "Man in Blue."

Earlier this week Frightened Rabbit shared Tiny Changes, a new 24-minute behind-the-scenes documentary about the making of their recent tribute album Tiny Changes - A Celebration of 'The Midnight Organ Fight', where different artists covered each song on the band's 2008 album The Midnight Organ Fight. Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard was prominently featured in the documentary (watch it here).

Chance The Rapper finally released his debut album, The Big Day, last month. The album's "Do You Remember" features guest vocals from Ben Gibbard and was co-written by Gibbard and a bunch of other people, including Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. The song is a wistful look back at the freedom of childhood and the joy of summer and was one of our Songs of the Week.

Read our 2018 interview with Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard on Thank You For Today.

Also read our 2018 The End interview with Gibbard about endings and death.

9. Vivian Girls: "Something to Do"

Vivian Girls broke-up in 2014, but now they have reunited and are releasing their first new album in eight years, Memory, on September 20 via Polyvinyl. Previously they shared its first single "Sick." This week they shared another song from it, the refreshing shoegaze blast "Something to Do," via a video for the track that features the band members frantically running around Los Angeles looking for each other. Jason Lester directed the video. "Something to Do" is a wall of noise, and yet somehow the melodies break through.

In their initial run Vivian Girls released three albums (2008's Vivian Girls, 2009's Everything Goes Wrong, and 2011's Share the Joy). The only constants in the line-up have been guitarist Cassie Ramone and bassist Katy Goodman. The current line-up sees the return of drummer Ali Koehler, who was with the band in the Everything Goes Wrong era and replaced original drummer Frankie Rose (but was later replaced by the band's third drummer Fiona Campbell). On September 20 Polyvinyl are also reissuing on 180-gram colored vinyl the band's first two albums (Vivian Girls and Everything Goes Wrong), which were originally released by In the Red.

Since splitting up, Goodman has released several albums with La Sera, Ramone has released two solo albums and two albums with Kevin Morby as The Babies, and Koehler released two albums with Upset. Vivian Girls began playing again in spring 2018 and went into the studio last fall with producer Rob Barbarto (Kevin Morby, The Fall).

A previous press release described the new album as such: "Memory is an album filled with personal reflections on toxic relationships, the false promise of new love, mental health struggles, and finding ways to accept oneself amidst it all. Fittingly, the sonic textures of the album match this sense of desperation and longing. It's a loud, snarling journey and there's a sense of streamlined direction and intensity to the performances: it sounds like a band returning to a core idea of itself."

Revisit our 2008 interview with Vivian Girls.

10. Whitney: "Used to Be Lonely"

Whitney (Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek) are releasing a new album, Forever Turned Around, on August 30 via Secretly Canadian. This week they shared another song from it, "Used to Be Lonely," via a video for the track. Austin Vesely directed the video, which was filmed in Chicago, stars model Janet Yuan, and seems to be shot from the perspective of someone going out on a date with her to a fair.

Previously Whitney shared Forever Turned Around's first single, "Giving Up" (which was one of our Songs of the Week). Then they shared the album's second single, "Valleys (My Love)," via a video for the track (it was also one of our Songs of the Week, at #1 in fact).

Forever Turned Around is Whitney's second album, the follow-up to 2016's debut album, Light Upon the Lake. In May they announced some new fall U.S. tour dates on top of their previously announced dates and in June they shared a teaser video entitled "FTA," which we now know stands for Forever Turned Around (the phrase "forever turned around" was repeated towards the end of the video).

Brad Cook (Bon Iver, Hand Habits) and Jonathan Rado (Foxygen, Weyes Blood, Father John Misty) co-produced the album, which was recorded in various sessions and includes material written on tour. At one point they reunited with original rhythm guitarist Ziyad Asrar in his basement studio in Chicago, which is where much of Light Upon the Lake came together. Chicago musicians Lia Kohland and OHMME's Macie Stewart contribute strings to the album.
 
Whitney's live band also features keyboardist Malcolm Brow, guitarist Print Chouteau, bassist Josiah Marshall, and trumpeter Will Miller, with Asrar also returning to the live band. 

A previous press release described Forever Turned Around this way: "On the follow up to their much-beloved debut, 2016's Light Upon the Lake, Ehrlich and Kakacek grapple with the anxiety and acceptance that time is limited and navigate questions of mortality, doubt, love, and friendship. It's an album about partnership - romantic, familial, and communal, but most importantly a love in friendship: the bonds between two best friends and creative partners and the joy and stress that comes with it."

Read our 2016 interview with Whitney about Light Upon the Lake. Plus read our review of Light Upon the Lake.

11. Sleater-Kinney: "Reach Out"

Sleater-Kinney released a new album, The Center Won't Hold, today via Mom + Pop. It was our Album of the Week and you can stream it here. Now that the album is out, we can include "Reach Out," one of the album tracks that wasn't already a pre-release single. Admittedly, many of the album's best songs have already been released as singles, but "Reach Out" still stands out from the album's remaining tracks.

Also, yesterday we posted our review of the album and you can read that here.

The Center Won't Hold finds the band experimenting with a slightly more polished sound, thanks to producer St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark), and on a new label in Mom + Pop. After the album was announced, drummer Janet Weiss unexpectedly announced at the start of July that she was leaving Sleater-Kinney only a month and a half before their new album was to be released.

Prior to the announcement of The Center Won't Hold, Sleater-Kinney shared the album's first single "Hurry On Home" via a Miranda July-directed lyric video for the track (it was one of our Songs of the Week). When the album was announced they shared its second single, "The Future Is Here," which was also one of our Songs of the Week. Then they stopped by The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to perform "Hurry On Home," in what might be Weiss' last public performance with the band.

Then they shared the album's title track, "The Center Won't Hold," which was also one of our Songs of the Week. Then they shared "Can I Go On," via a lyric video (it was also one of our Songs of the Week). Then they shared a video for them performing the album's closing track "Broken" live, with just Carrie Brownstein on keyboards and Corin Tucker standing next to her singing.

In a previous press release Brownstein also had this to say about recording the album: "Instead of just going into the studio to document what we'd done, we were going in to explore and to find the essence of something. To dig in deeper. It felt like a really crucial part of the process itself, not just the end game."

12. Brittany Howard: "He Loves Me"

Brittany Howard, singer for Alabama Shakes, is releasing her debut solo album, Jamie, on September 20 via ATO. Previously she shared its first two singles, "History Repeats" and "Stay High." This week she shared another song from the album, "He Loves Me." She has also shared a video of her performing the song live. Check out both below.

On a casual listen the song could be about Howard singing to a man, about unconditional love in a romantic relationship. But then it becomes clear she's singing about God, which is hit home by the samples of a preacher. Even if you're not a believer, her soulful voice and the song's crisp production carry you through.

Howard had this to say about the song in a press release: "'He Loves Me' is a very important track on my record. It is a song I deeply want to share to help others realize loving and being loved by God doesn't have to look the same for everyone. When my older sister passed away, it took its toll on our family. We grew apart from one another and therefore, we grew apart from our family church. I thought God had intended to hurt us or punish us, but I later realized that I found God in music and I found God in my voice. I learned that He always had a plan for myself and my family. That is what 'He Loves Me' is about. It is my greatest realization that He has never left me. All those years that I had turned away, I was still receiving His absolute love and forgiveness." 

Howard's sister inspired the album's title. She taught Howard to play piano and write poetry, but passed away from cancer when the sisters were teenagers.

"The title is in memoriam, and she definitely did shape me as a human being," says Howard in a press release. "But, the record is not about her. It's about me. I'm pretty candid about myself and who I am and what I believe. Which is why I needed to do it on my own."

In regard to branching out with a solo album, Howard had this to say: "I turned 30 and I was like, 'What do I want the rest of my life to look like?' Do I want to play the same songs until I'm 50 and then retire, or do I do something that's scarier for me? Do I want people to understand me and know me, do I want to tell them my story? I'm very private, but my favorite work is when people are being honest and really doing themselves."

Honorable Mentions:

These 14 songs almost made the Top 10. Allah Las was the closest to making the main list. Nils Frahm, Hiss Golden Messenger, Little Scream, BROCKHAMPTON, (Sandy) Alex G, and San Fermin were seriously considered too. Like we said, it was a strong week.

Allah Las: "Polar Onion"

Boy Scouts: "Hate Ya 2"

BROCKHAMPTON: "Boy Bye"

Alex Cameron: "Far From Born Again"

Clipping.: "Nothing is Safe"

Nils Frahm: "All Armed"

Hiss Golden Messenger: "Happy Birthday, Baby"

Little Scream: "Still Life"

Sean O'Hagan: "On a Lonely Day (Ding, Dong)"

Ride: "Clouds of Saint Marie" and "R.I.D.E."

River Tiber: "Nevada"

(Sandy) Alex G: "Southern Sky"

San Fermin: "The Living"

Other notable new tracks in the last week include:

Bethlehem Steel: "Empty Room"

Boris: "LOVE"

 

Charli XCX: "Cross You Out" (Feat. Sky Ferreira)

John Coltrane: "Blue World"

Miley Cyrus: "Slide Away"

Chris Farren: "Search 4 Me"

 

Frankie Cosmos: "Wannago"

Liam Gallagher: "One of Us"

Girl Band: "Going Norway"

IDLES: "Colossus (Tricky Remix)"

Kitten: "Memphis"

 

Mark Kozelek: "Where's Gilroy"

Miranda Lambert: "Bluebird"

Lightning Bolt: "Air Conditioning"

Omni: "Sincerely Yours"

Robbie Robertson: "Let Love Reign"

Rosalía & Ozuna: "Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi"

Rose Dorn: "Collar"

(Sandy) Alex G: "Near"

Sleater-Kinney: "LOVE"

Surf Curse: "Hour of the Wolf"

Taylor Swift: "Lover"

Devon Welsh: "Somebody Loves You"

vōx: "I Can Feel Myself Leaning"

Young Nudy & Girl Talk: "No Problem"

Sui Zhen: "Matsudo City Life"

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