Albums of the Month: February 2021

Clockwise from top-left: Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, Katy Kirby’s Cool Dry Place, CAMERA’s Prosthuman and Cloud Nothings’ The Shadow I Remember

2021 continues to impress with another brilliant haul of albums in February. Here are some of the very best I’ve found.

WARNING: All albums and their accompanying videos are completely uncensored. A number of them contain bad language that is unsuitable for children, NSFW topics and images, and/or political commentary that may offend or disturb some.

Album of the Month

The Staves – Good Woman (Folk/Indie, Atlantic Records UK)

Not that far off a decade ago, I found myself waiting for a Bon Iver gig held in one of the many spaces unconducive to great live music found at Glasgow’s SECC (which has since been replace by the much better Hydro). The night’s support act, a folk group made up of three vocalists and an acoustic guitar, put in an extremely impressive set. The intimacy and warmth of their music temporarily made listeners forget that they were in a room much better suited to large corporate conference speeches. Shortly after they had finished, my wife began displaying signs of illness, so we decided to call it a night before the main act even took the stage and begin our near-two-hour drive home. Disappointed as we were, the night hadn’t been a complete loss. We had seen a great support set, and I made a mental note that I’d have to check out The Staves. In a perfect example of how fickle and crowded my listening habits can be, shortly after that night I listened to an early single that I didn’t gel with, and I foolishly assumed that they would be one of many, many bands who I’d really enjoy live but not so much on record. I never checked back in until this month, when I read a recommendation on a music forum that suggested people who enjoyed last year’s excellent HAIM album Women in Music Pt III might love Good Woman too. I’m very glad that I did.

I’m not entirely sure how far their first three albums stuck to the traditional folk style that I encountered at that support set in Glasgow, but by this point The Staves’ sound has grown and diversified considerably. In fact, the only tracks that really classify as “folk” are midpoint highlight Nothing’s Gonna Happen (a stunningly wistful arrangement with Landslide-esque acoustic guitar) and, to a lesser extent, the track that follows it, Sparks. Instead, much of the album features a classic soft-rock sound. Peak Buckingham/Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac is perhaps the most consistent and pronounced reference point, but I can hear hints of Local Natives in the stomping anthem Best Friend, Bruce Hornsby in the rolling piano of Waiting On Me To Change, and former tour mates Bon Iver’s self-titled album in Next Year, Next Time amongst others.

It would be wrong, however, to interpret the above as me saying that Good Woman is some sort of patchwork of other artists’ ideas. Every great album has its influences. Good Woman succeeds so convincingly because of The Staves’ ability to filter those influences through their own well-established artistic identity to make an album that has elements that sound familiar to listeners whilst remaining unquestionably the work of its makers. And perhaps no element has been more vital to The Staves’ sound from the very beginning than their signature three-part vocal harmonies. There are many instances here where the three sisters’ pristine voices are arranged in a similar fashion to their previous work, but in others they take on different, less-conventional qualities. At times (e.g. Paralysed, Failure) they even adopt a strained, weary tone that reminds me of Sharon Van Etten, which can only be considered a very, very good thing. There are moments of subtle instrumental experimentation too: Careful, Kid centres around a vocal loop fed through distortion pedals and amps until it’s unrecognisable as a voice, and the treated drums at the start of Failure really elevate the track’s entry.

If musically Good Woman can mostly be described as warm and cosy, the lyrics are often a much less happy affair. Friendships and/or relationships that appear to have deteriorated beyond the point of being healthy abound in the likes of Devotion (“Your affliction isn’t mine to hold and how should I know how to?”) and Failure (“I’m sorry if I pissed on your party… So kind of you to remind me, When I got so low but I really tried, Let it go, Let it Die”). Underneath its sunny musical exterior and Californian soft-rock vibes, meanwhile, the title track sarcastically skewers society’s ridiculous expectations of women to conform to “appropriate” feminine behaviour (“My song is a song, even buried in the black, Well, I cover my mouth and I straighten my back… I’m a Good Woman”). On more than one occasion the pervading sense of unease turns inwards on themselves (“Too much to say… I shoot my mouth, But I never do enough… I’m sorry, You should be sorry too”). All this turmoil gives the record a very different complexion, adding a pleasingly bittersweet feel to what otherwise might have been an overly-optimistic experience. But by closer Waiting On Me To Change, The Staves display a sense of peace within themselves (“Said you’re waiting on me to change… I’ll change when I want to, But I don’t really want to”) which reflects the blissful tranquility that their music instills in the listener over the course of the album.

Good Woman has undoubtedly been the musical highlight of February. I must have listened to it at least twice as many times (if not more) as any of the other excellent albums I encountered. With each listen I’ve been rewarded with some new flourish or detail that had escaped me on previous occasions and I look forward to many, many more. At the time of writing, my first gig since February 2020 will now be, vaccines permitting, a chance to see The Staves as a headline act in September, when they will grace my local venue (which they are much too big for). Maybe it really is never too late to begin to make amends for a past mistake.

The Contenders

2. Smerz – Believer (Electronic, XL Recordings)

The skinny: The Norwegian duo’s risky decision to leave college to focus on writing music seems obvious in retrospect. Many artists’ debut albums are an understandably tentative first step, an effort to get a foot in the rapidly-closing door before developing further down the line. That is definitely not the case with Believer. It’s an eclectic mix that draws elements from ambient, maximalist electronica, trance, modern classical, trip hop, and many more genres. The album is dark, unpredictable, and at times downright confusing, but that’s all part of the appeal as it constantly grabs your attention and entertains with its unexpected steps. How it manages to flow from the nightmarish trance of Hester to the tenderness of Flashing (which features an array of synths ranging from gorgeous to ridiculously unfashionable) is impressive.

Standout tracks: Believer, Glassbord, I don’t talk about that much

For fans of: It feels foolish to even attempt this. If I were to try I’d say I could see glimpses of Sevdaliza and FKA Twigs, but that doesn’t really come anywhere close to a satisfactory comparison.

3. Cassandra Jenkins – An Overview on Phenomenal Nature (Singer-songwriter, Ba Da Bing!)

The skinny: Many music fans (myself included) were introduced to the singular music of Cassandra Jenkins with the arrival of Hard Drive last month (which featured in January’s tracks of the month on this very blog). Unsurprisingly, it is the centrepiece of Jenkins’ second album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature; however, that’s not to say that the rest of the album is lacking. The acoustic strum and whip-smart lyrics of Michelangelo (“I’m a three-legged dog, Workin’ with what I got”) share elements with Aimee Man’s finest work, and Ambiguous Norway’s delicate guitar trills and mournful synth pads should please any fans of Sleep Well Beast-era The National. Both would be the star of the show for many of Jenkins’ competitors, speaking to the extremely high quality on show here. My only reservation is that the seven-minute ambient instrumental closer The Ramble doesn’t quite match up to the six amazing tracks that precede it. Still, this is a special album that I can’t recommend highly enough.

Standout tracks: Hard Drive, Michelangelo

For fans of: Aimee Mann, Destroyer, The Weather Station

4. Ghetts – Conflict of Interest (Rap/Grime, Warner Music UK)

The skinny: Ghetts’ third studio album has been a smash both critically (sitting on a Metacritic score of 95/100 at the time of writing) and commercially (reaching number 2 in the UK Official Album Chart). In terms of sonic approach and production, Conflict of Interest is definitely located more towards the big-budget end of grime’s spectrum, not only in its sleek mid-tempo beats and many high-profile guest appearances but also in its regular use of sweeping string sections and haunting choirs. But the candid autobiographical lyrics detailing the author’s success in spite of struggles both inside and outside the music industry tap into the genre’s enduring legacy of honest and insightful storytelling. At seventy minutes it would definitely benefit from being shortened, and the problem could be fixed almost entirely simply by cutting out the classic mid-album slump from Good Hearts to 10,000 Tears (Ed Sheeran FFS). Nevertheless, the sheer number of great tracks makes this one of the most entertaining albums of the month.

Standout tracks: Mozambique (feat. Jaykae & Moonchild Sanelly), No Mercy (feat. Pa Salieu & BackRoad Gee)

For fans of: Dave, Kano

5. Cloud Nothings – The Shadow I Remember (Alternative, Carpark)

The skinny: Cloud Nothings return to the studio with legendary producer Steve Albini for the first time since 2012’s career high-water mark Attack On Memory. In doing so, they’ve produced their most focused and consistent album since 2014’s Here and Nowhere Else. Fitting 11 songs into a brisk 32 minutes, with only one track exceeding the 4-minute mark, brevity and a consistently high tempo are The Shadow I Remember’s most obvious traits. However, there are a lot of ideas packed into these fast-paced hits, and tracks like Nothing Without You and The Room I Remember demonstrate that frontman Dylan Baldi’s knack for addictively simple guitar riffs and anthemic choruses remains undiminished.

Standout tracks: Oslo, The Room Was It

For fans of: Japandroids, Dinosaur Jr.

6. Nana Yamato – Yoakemae (Before Sunrise) (Indie, Big Love Records)

The skinny: Yoakemae (Before Sunrise) is a curious and rewarding album from the 20-year-old Tokyo resident balancing education, employment, and making engaging bedroom pop music. It flits between quirky synth pop (Do You Wanna, Gaito) and lo-fi indie guitars (If, The Day Song) with a completely justified confidence, melding both into an odd-ball world of fashionably old-school drum machines and charming stabs of synth brass. As the droning guitar outro of The Day Song brings proceedings to a close, you’ll be reaching for whatever button which will allow you to restart this wonderful journey all over again.

Standout tracks: Do You Wanna, The Day Song

For fans of: Air, Blur (kinda!)

7. Katy Kirby – Cool Dry Place (Indie-Pop, Keeled Scales)

The skinny: On Cool Dry Place, Texas resident Katy Kirby crafts an indie-pop sound that’s upbeat and hugely accessible whilst feeling anything but lightweight. Kirby’s lyrics and vocal delivery carry a substantial emotional weight in amongst the cheeriest of melodies found here, bolstered also by moments like the gorgeous break in Traffic!. Her talent as a composer, guitarist, and vocalists shines in both stripped-down settings like Eyelids and Tap Twice as well as full-band efforts like Juniper and Peppermint. A hugely impressive debut.

Standout tracks: Peppermint, Cool Dry Place

For fans of: Big Thief, Chairlift

8. Adrian Younge – The American Negro (Soul/Jazz, Jazz is Dead)

The skinny: The American Negro is one of many projects through which composer and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Younge explores the systematic racism of life in the United States both historically and in the modern day. Consequently, it is an emotionally and psychologically challenging listen in spite of its accessible mix of jazz and soul music, a lush and cinematic sound not dissimilar to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. The album’s fifty-three minutes are split between the songs themselves and thoughtful spoken-word considerations on matters such as police brutality and the difficulties which black Americans face in understanding their own true identities when the vast majority of what has been written by others on the subject is a fabricated fiction to serve a specific colonial/racist agenda. Challenging subject matters should not be misinterpreted as an excuse not to listen, and The American Negro is an intellectually rewarding experience for those who listen to these powerful pieces. It can open eyes and minds to important truths that listeners (especially non-black listeners) might otherwise have not realised or fully comprehended.

Standout tracks: The American Negro, Light on the Horizon

For fans of: Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron

9. Julien Baker – Little Oblivions (Indie-Rock, Matador)

The skinny: Fans have been fretting for months whether the intimate magic of Baker’s earlier work would survive the imminent transition to a full band sound. They need not have worried. The music is much grander on Little Oblivions, from the jagged organ that introduces the arena-rock of Hardline to the driving bass and drums of Bloodshot, an achievement that is made all the more impressive when you discover that “nearly all of the instruments [were] performed by Baker” herself. Crucially, the new, beefed-up sound never threatens to drown out the spellbinding vocals even at their quietest whisper. A very sensible move, too, as Baker remains a devastating lyricist and highly emotive performer, which has always been a huge part of her appeal as an artist.

Standout tracks: Hardline, Bloodshot, Favor

For fans of: Sharon Van Etten, Lucy Dacus

10. Camera – Prosthuman (Kosmische/Instrumental, Bureau B)

The skinny: This brooding instrumental kosmische from Berlin contains a dazzling array of tricks to consistently wrong-foot the listener. Opener Kartoffelstampf sounds like a 21st-century, post-apocalyptic update to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds with its almost-disco drums, sinister bass, and squealing guitars. Then Alar Alar mixes a tom-heavy drum beat with reggae guitar stabs and a creepy flute-imitating synth. Prosthuman/Apptime features arpeggiated synths that would sound at home on Emeralds’ 2010 masterpiece Does It Look Like I’m Here?, a subtle drum pattern that expertly shifts part-way through, and a guitar riff towards the end that’s reminiscent of the one found in Nine Inch Nail’s Closer, all before transforming into an entirely unrelated hyperactive piece of synth shoegaze for the final minute. And that’s just the first three tracks! It continues in this beguiling vein until the very end, delighting as it does so.

Standout tracks: Kartoffelstampf, Prosthuman/Apptime

For fans of: Genre-hopping, though you see flashes of Neu!, Depeche Mode, The Horrors

Honourable Mentions

Altin Gün – YOL (Alternative/Psychedelic, Glitterbeat Records)

Black Country, New Road – For the First Time (Alternative, Ninja Tune)

Carwyn Ellis & Rio 18 – Mas (Tropicalismo/Samba/Singer-Songwriter, Recordiau Agati / Banana & Louie Records)

Django Django – Glowing in the Dark (Indie-Rock, Because Music LTD.)

The Weather Station – Ignorance (Indie-Pop, Fat Possum Records)

Leal Neale – Acquainted with Night (Singer-Songwriter, Sub Pop Records)

Ol’ Burger Beats & Vuyo – Dialogue. (Rap, Jakarta Records distributed by Groove Attack)

Psymon Spine – Charismatic Megafauna (Indie-Pop, Northern Spy)

Steady Holiday – Take the Corners Gently (Pop, Steady Holiday)

Tala Vala – Modern Hysteric (Experimental/Instrumental, Number Witch)

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