in Review

So here we are with another installment of me looking back at some of the music I’ve enjoyed from the first half of this year. I guess that means this’ll mostly be music from March or April. I don’t know if you remember much from that period, since I was mostly just sitting around waiting to get vaxxed. But hey, at least I remember some of these albums.

Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers

Like Level: Really Liked It

This album falls into the category of ones that I regretfully would’ve missed in a busier year of music, considering Valerie June has been putting out albums for a while and they managed to pass me by completely. Some of this has to do with the fact that I don’t keep that close of tabs on American and folk music, though it is a genre I sometimes enjoy. Also, it’s a genre that tends to get bogged down in its own straightforwardness, but June does a great job of sidestepping that by incorporating other genres steeped in the past like soul and gospel.

I can’t really speak for June’s previous releases, but she does a great job of making these very traditional-sounding genres sound fresh with some spacey production that includes lots of strings and the occasional electronic flourish here and there. Additionally, she has just the most distinct voice, which has this nice nasally lilt to it and seems to comfortably float over each composition with an ease and comfort you love to hear. Perhaps there are times where I wished June pushed herself a little bit outside of the twangy soul that she’s clearly a pro at, but when the songwriting is as strong as it is here, it’s hard to complain.

Lana Del Rey – Chemtrails Over The Country Club

Like Level: Kinda Liked It

It’s a little odd how forgotten this album already feels, because it’s actually not bad. Music aside, I think some of this is Lana Del Rey’s fault, since shortly after its release she announced another album that would be released by the end of the year. This makes Chemtrails Over The Country Club (love that title) seem like something that kept getting pushed back due to the pandemic and doesn’t actually reflect where she is in her life right now. It also doesn’t help that after releasing the most ambitious, critically acclaimed album of her career, she decided to follow it up with something that more or less sounds like another Lana Del Rey album, though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

However, it’s probably not the best thing for someone like me who only really came around on Lana Del Rey after 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. It was a little hard for me to pin down why that album worked for me when it wasn’t that much different from LDR’s other albums, but I think it had something to do with the sultry sweep of it as well as how Del Rey had managed to master combining playfully gauche lyrics with her elegant melodies. Chemtrails is more or less in the same vein, though a little scaled back. She seems to be reflecting on her past a fair amount, which actually makes this album feel fairly appropriate to pair with the self-reflection we all did during our quarantine year. Jack Antonoff’s production is also hard to take issue with, as it suitably feels like a black and white photo applied to music. That said, I’m undecided if he’s really bringing out the best in the women he’s choosing to collaborate with these days, but perhaps Lorde’s upcoming album will convince me one way or the other.

Taylor Swift – Fearless (Taylor’s Version)

Like Level: Kinda Liked It (don’t murder me, swifties!)

After a year that saw Taylor Swift reclaiming her likeability in the public eye with two fantastic albums, you could say she’s trying our patience for how much Taylor we can handle in 2021. Though at the same time, this re-recording of her breakout second album is a fairly low stakes affair seeing as its importance lies less in the music and more in what it means for artists trying to assert more ownership over their catalogs. That isn’t to say that this was a waste of time, as it serves as a nice introduction to her earlier songwriting for people like me who only recently came around on Taylor Swift. Meanwhile, it also gives longtime fans a reason to revisit this crucial album in her discography, this time with a little more polish and whole lot more bonus tracks.

I haven’t spent a lot of time with the non-Taylor’s version of Fearless, but from what I can tell, this version was clearly intended to be a pretty faithful recreation of those songs, though Swift has clearly grown as a singer in the years since. She’s also clearly grown as a songwriter, as Folklore and Evermore were clear indicators that Swift can write about so much more than her relationships, while Fearless is pretty unapologetically boy-crazy. Though that’s also indicative of how well she was able to capture teenage feelings in a song while also being a teenager, but with the poise to transform them into well-manicured pop-country hits. I’m not sure that we’ll see many other pop stars re-recording their catalog like this since few artists have the caché or determination that Swift does, but it’ll still be an interesting project to watch unfold.

Dinosaur Jr. – Sweep It Into Space

Like Level: Really Liked It

It’s hard to think of much new to say about Dinosaur Jr.’s output after reuniting the original line-up in the mid-’00s, because it still continues to be dependably great. It’s also hard to think of another once-volatile rock band that reunited and settled into such an impressive groove, but I think it’s just part of some weird cosmic math that these three musicians were meant to play together. You’d also think the overall solid-ness of the band’s late-period albums would get boring, but somehow it doesn’t. It might be because Dinosaur Jr. have always had such a timeless sound, which undoubtedly harkens back to the alt-rock of the ’80s and ’90s, but only because Dinosaur Jr. were such ground-floor architects of that sound.

Not much of Dino’s signature sound has changed on Sweep It Into Space, as J. Mascis’s guitar work is as crunchy and melodic as ever, while Lou Barlow adds two of his best compositions with the band. The most notable shake-up the album features is that Kurt Vile serves as co-producer (J. Mascis produced all of the band’s other post-reunion releases). It’s hard to imagine that Vile made a conscious effort to change the band’s sound since he seems like both a pretty chill dude as well as a big fan of the band, but there is something a bit more breezy about these songs. This could be a byproduct of Vile’s influence or it could just be Dinosaur Jr. getting older and taking their feet off the gas just a little bit. Either way, it suits the band well and it’s always reassuring to hear a great guitar band doing their thing in a world that has mostly moved on from guitar heroes.

Matt Sweeney & Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Superwolves

Like Level: Kinda Liked It

This album was a dip into multiple worlds that I was barely familiar with, but was worth wading in nonetheless. I think I had checked out one of Will Oldham’s album’s under the moniker Bonnie “Prince” Billy, but still remain pretty clueless when it comes to the singer/songwriter’s body of work. Still, it didn’t seem like a bad idea to get a better sense of his music when I’ll be talking about Oldham’s acting in Old Joy this Criterion Month, not that I’m sure it’ll have much impact on my viewing. This unfamiliarity is also on top of the fact that I hadn’t ever listened to the (formerly) one-off collaboration, 2005’s Superwolf, which Oldham wrote and recorded in collaboration with journeyman guitarist Matt Sweeney.

The approach that Oldham and Sweeney have taken with Superwolf, and now its follow-up Superwolves, is that Oldham will send Sweeney lyrics without a melody and Sweeney will send back guitar parts for Oldham to wrap melodies around. It’s a process that you’d think would feel a little unnatural, especially considering the two seem to collaborate so infrequently, but it’s quite the opposite. The songs here sound seamless, as Sweeney’s flittering guitar parts and soft harmonies match Oldham’s earnest croon quite nicely. Some of the songs here are a little dark and brooding while others are more on the playful side, but they all feel like the product of two dudes wrestling with the various anxieties of middle age and fatherhood, but with the comfort of a companion to make sense of it all.

Jorja Smith – Be Right Back

Like Level: Really Liked It. Though Also Would’ve Like More Of It

It’s felt like 2021 has seen the release of more EPs than usual, possibly because musicians were just as creatively drained as the rest of us last year but also wanted to have something to show for all that time on their hands. As this EP’s title suggests, it’s intended to be a brief detour before Jorja Smith releases her sophomore album, though it feels like with a little more effort it could’ve been a fully-realized album. Both because at 8 tracks and 26 minutes it’s almost album length and because the songs excellently produce an ultra-chill vibe that feels anything but tossed off.

That said, it also makes me excited for whatever Smith’s second album might end up being. She’s a singer who’s already had a fair amount of success in her native UK, but it’s hard to say if she’ll cross over into the U.S. pop/R&B world. I’m a little skeptical whether she will considering how much her sound is indebted to the past, as she’s clearly a disciple of Sade, while her inclusion on the recent Blue Note Re:imagined compilation shows she also has a deep affinity for jazz. That’s all kind of superficial speculation though, as what’s more important is that the EP shows Smith gaining more confidence as a singer while also having a great ear for what producers can bring out the best in her.