According to the promotional commentary accompanying the release of “Lark,” the new single from Angel Olsen, the song took years to complete. It sounds like it, not because of some evidence strain or a fussed-over meticulousness. Instead, the tracks carries lovely dust from every part of Olsen’s artistic journey, as if accumulated while being carried around. It has the aching spareness of her first couple records, the welling force of certainty found on 2016’s excellent My Woman, and even the questing fulsomeness scattered across the odds and sods collection Phases. And it’s all corseted together with a searing intelligence and emotional openness that confirms the song as progression rather than scrapbook retrospection. It is the sound of an artist staying true to herself while moving forward.
Angel Olsen’s new album, All Mirrors, releases on October 4, 2019.
There are songs and styles that will grab me immediately, tapping into the portion of my inner being that never truly exited my old college radio studio. That sliver of me flips through the heavy rotation shelf for all eternity, eager to find the next artist, track, album, anything that holds the echoing sound of all the college rock I favored to that point and yet takes a little step forward, shifting the dynamics with a revised outlook, an instrumental innovation, or a unique layering of studio sounds. It is classic and new all at once, urgently asserting itself as the next entrant on a long playlist that stretches back to the very first urgent jangles of R.E.M. or maybe the jabbing provocations of the Clash. It doesn’t have to sound like those ancestors — or any predecessors really — but some elusive, unmistakable spirit should linger like a morning mist.
The nostalgic helplessness often comes over me when I hear the finest offerings of Mikal Cronin, and that’s the case with his latest single. A herald of Seeker, Cronin’s fourth solo album, “Shelter” eschews any sort of slow build, opening with a clamorous, but obviously intricately arranged, intermingling of sounds. It is fully formed, lightly psychedelic and restlessly explorative, meant to fill a night. The song is like something the Flaming Lips might have come up with if their drugs were less potent. I want to get lost in it, letting its mysteries sink in rather than be solved. For me, “Shelter” is practically irresistible.
“Water Me Down,” the new single from Vagabon, is lovely and enveloping. A thrilling shard of neo-soul, the track boasts effortlessly elegant vocals and an array of quietly seductive synthesized sounds. What could be just another luxe come-on, hollowed out of meaning that might get in the way of the groove, Vagabon instead layers in lyrics of deep emotional resonance, detailing a dissolved romance that she is determined to make into a learning experience: “So I’ll take my time, next time/ And I’ll do it right.” The repeated title in the chorus might be an acknowledgment of the way ill treatment leads to a sense of diminished self, but the general outlook of the song is a kind reminder that a reasonable amount of water is also a requirement for a plant to grow and bloom.
The self-titled album from Vagabon, her sophomore release, arrives in stores in mid-October.
Raw and brilliantly vicious, “Like Envy” burbles up like magma from beneath the planet’s surface, spreading out to scald anyone in its way. The new single from New York band Weeping Icon bears characteristics familiar from Sonic Youth window-rattlers of olden days: snarling guitar, drums that strike and careen, an archly cool female voice lamenting damaged cultural structures in a tone that somehow exists in the netherworld between speaking and singing. The concerns couldn’t be more modern, though, as Sara Fantry intones the robotic plea “Do you like my content?” The track is burnished steel being rapidly eaten away by miraculously fast-acting corrosion.
I’m supposed to be too cynical to enjoy a rock song that espouses uplift. Reared on the slashing defeatism of college rock heroes who wielded buzzing guitars like impenetrable shields, I am meant to feel my strongest kinship with songs that wallow. And I do. Given the right blast of tuneful moroseness, I can put myself safely back in my bygone mode of melancholic disaffection. As I’ve noted in this space, though, I’ve grown far more appreciative of the tracks that swirl a finger longingly in a more positive body of water. I’ ready to hear that things get better.
Michael Kiwanuka’s third album, the somewhat self-titled Kiwanuka, arrives in late October. “You Ain’t the Problem” is the lead single. It moves with a bounding rhythm and intricate instrumentation, recalling those bright, beautiful nineteen-seventies albums that sat gracefully at the intersection of soul and funk. The lyrics hint at past darkness, a testing of the soul, but ultimately determines there’s freeing power in constantly moving forward: “Don’t hesitate/ Time heals the pain/ You ain’t the problem.”
Finding catharsis in a solidarity of misery is still a fine motivation for dropping the needle on a record, literally or metaphorically. But there’s a pleasure in nodding in recognition to a song that offers absolution from punishing self-judgment, especially if that song makes it all but impossible to resist shimmying along in time.
Achingly lovely and heart-rending in its poignancy, “Looking for America,” the new single from Lana Del Rey, is a perfectly timed reminder that pop music can be about important topics. Engaging with the monumental challenges of the day is one of the critical tasks of any artist, even those who specialize in dreamy soundscapes and cooing vocals. Del Rey has written and performed songs about disappointing boys and other similarly frivolous concerns, but that doesn’t bar her from peering around her society broadly harmed by pervasive gun violence and creatively wrestling with the circumstances using the same intimacy she might bring to a tender love ballad.
“Looking for America” recounts traveling, as the title implies. Mostly, it is concerned with the unwilling existential journey U.S. citizens have been forced to take because a legion of cowards and bullies have willfully warped the second inalienable right laid down in the nation’s foundational legal document. Del Rey sings of watching children play, reflecting, “We used to only worry for them after dark.” And she admits fears for her own safety have mounted, noting that wide public spaces that she once entered into without a care are now continually, instinctively sussed out as venues of potential mortal catastrophe, the place news vans will be stationed the next day so journalists can recite a body count.
I am grateful that Del Rey sings her truth in this way, at this time.
Championing my personal pick for the best new song of the week has been an ongoing endeavor since the start of this calendar year, and I haven’t previously had such a difficult time settling on a selection. This week brought fantastic new offerings from a slew of artists who already have a firm grasp on my attention: Angel Olsen, Mikal Cronin, Haim, Sleater-Kinney (but I can’t feature them again, right?), and Carly Rae Jepsen (collaborating with Gryffin). And then there were stellar turns from new to me acts Parsnip and Snarls. I would have happily slid any of these tracks forth for consideration, bobbing my head joyfully. I very nearly just plunked a playlist into this digital space as a form of surrender.
But I gave myself an assignment, and I aim to fulfill it. Luckily for me, it quickly became clear that one track tickled my inner being more than any other, even in this field of champions. When in doubt, I simply ask myself which song is the one that my old college radio self would play compulsively, helplessly, all besotted and blissful.
Pom Pom Squad is a band started by Mia Berrin, a former resident of Orlando who moved from bedroom recordings to sturdier stages after relocating to New York and picking up a few bandmates. By all accounts, Pom Pom Squad, is Berrin’s creative voice, passion, and confessional all rolled into one. The sound revive a certain bygone punk and riot grrrl spirit, but flavored with a keening tunefulness that’s reminiscent of the path alternative rock could have followed in the nineteen-nineties if it grabbed its map from Veruca Salt, Elastica, and Tracy Bonham instead of Bush and Silverchair. To employ more current references, in a magical realm where one kingdom is ruled by Waxahatchee and the other by Diet Cig, Pom Pom Squad lives in the borderlands.
In advance of a new EP, entitled Ow, Pom Pom Squad has released “Honeysuckle,” a preciously perfect single. It has a chewy melody line, a clicking rhythm, and buzzing guitars that occasionally threaten to turn into an unstoppable swarm. All the while, Berrin moans out lyrics of punishing heartache and toxic romantic dependency, repeatedly asking, “If I’m nothing without you am I anything at all?” The song has a walloping power and intoxicating rock luxury. And it all wraps up in just over three minutes, properly adhering to the wise economy of great pop songs.