in Review

I’ve been wanting to get back into reviewing my favorite albums on a (roughly) monthly basis just as I did last year, but it’s been a little hard. The early months of a year in music usually take a little while to take shape, as there’s a decent amount of spill-over from the year before spent listening to albums that made a lot of Best of the Year lists. Also, these past months have been a bit slow in terms of big-deal artists releasing albums, though it seems that things are starting to pick up these last few weeks. However, I’ll probably save reviewing more recent releases for the end of this month, after I have the chance to really spend some decent listening time with them.

But for now, let’s take a look at some albums from January, February, and March of this year, which I’ll just broadly refer to as Winter 2023, a season we can now safely say is in the rearview.

Yo La Tengo – This Stupid World

When I saw Yo La Tengo live during the tour accompanying their last proper album release cycle in support of There’s A Riot Goin’ On pre-pandemic, there were a few things that stood out to me. First of all, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something remarkably harmonious about the way the three members of Yo La Tengo played with each other, often switching instruments in between songs without missing a beat. I also remember feeling like they weren’t really pandering to the audience, as there wasn’t much banter and the band would also delve into abrasive noise-laden freakouts that seemed closer to free jazz than the cozy indie rock that the band is most closely associated with.

These traits very much carry over into the band’s latest release, This Stupid World, which plays up the band’s effortless live jamming as well as their ability to veer into noisy, knotty directions. I’ll admit that this latter quality made it a little hard for me to tap into this album initially, but after giving it a few more listens, I would say this is one of the better Yo La Tengo albums in a while, even considering how consistent they’ve been since their ’90s heyday. There isn’t a ton of the gentle production flourishes that have been in a lot of their later work, as the band has stated that the album came out of intimate practice sessions that were held throughout the pandemic that eventually morphed into songs. The album in turn has that feel of three old friends playing together in a way that is comforting for longtime listeners of the band, but also proves that they’re still somehow full of surprises after all these years.

Kelela – Raven

As a fan of what I’ve heard referred to as progressive R&B – the recent crop of hip-hop-influenced soul singers that sit just outside of the mainstream – Kelela was an artist that I often felt obligated to like. While I found it easy to vibe with her first two albums, they never really sunk their teeth into me the way an album by Solange or Jamila Woods has. While I wouldn’t say Raven has necessarily turned me into a Kelela superfan, it’s an album I have spent a lot of time listening to, just because its luscious, atmospheric sounds are so easy to put on and swim around in. Though at the same time, it has these occasional detours into dance territory, which makes it a welcome presence after a year spent listening to Beyoncé fuse house music with R&B, even if the results here are better suited for a night spent dancing in your apartment alone rather than at the club.

Caroline Polachek – Desire, I Want To Turn Into You

Speaking of dancing, it’s hard not to feel compelled to do the lamest white person dance imaginable while pumping Caroline Polachek’s latest album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. Ever since Polachek left her duo Chairlift in 2017, it seems she’s been on this trajectory of dance-pop semi-stardom comparable to the likes of Christine & The Queens or Charli XCX, and here that totally comes to fruition. This genre of dance-pop with a tinge of indie edge is a sound I’ve mostly been receptive to, and when an album comes out blazing with as many infectious songs as this one does, it’s very hard to resist. It’s possible Polachek tries to do a little too much on Desire, occasionally dipping her toes into international sounds, but when the highs include the likes of “Welcome To My Island”, “Bunny Was A Rider”, or “Blood and Butter”, it’s hard to ever want to leave Polachek’s island.

Kali Uchis – Red Moon In Venus

Kali Uchis’ debut Isolation was the rare pop album that had just enough of a retro vibe to hook me initially, eventually revealing a kind of poise that I found intoxicating enough to put on my Top Ten Albums list that year. It’s an album that was both so satisfying and so low-key that Red Moon In Venus‘s release came out of nowhere, as I hadn’t really been keeping tabs on when she’d release an album that would serve as a worthy follow-up. Of course, I should mention that she released a Spanish-language album, Sin Miedo (del Amor y Otros Demonios), in 2020, but I guess I was just too unfamiliar with contemporary Latin pop to really get into that one. Red Moon In Venus, on the other hand, is just steeped enough in American pop (both classic and contemporary) to appeal to my uncultured ears. Though at the same time, Uchis’ Colombian roots are all over the album, merging Latin jazziness with the moon and the stars and all sorts of celestial imagery wrapped up in a comfortingly chill package.

Death Valley Girls – Islands In The Sun

Of all the artists I’ve talked about, this is easily the one I knew the least about going into their latest album, even if the sounds they merge together are quite familiar in all the right ways. Death Valley Girls are clearly fans of the ’60s, bringing garage rock, psychedelia, and girl group angst together in a bewilderingly witchy package. Thankfully, the production on the album isn’t content to just recreate older sounds, as it has this great atmospheric hauntedness to it, making lead singer Bonnie Bloomgarden sound as if she’s singing from beyond the grave, all while the rockin’ nature of the band makes these songs sound positively alive.