Noise So Wonderful: A rock ‘n’ roll round-up feat. Dinosaur Jr., The Armed, & The Hold Steady

Rock and roll!

Sweep It Into Space | Dinosaur Jr.

Who would have predicted the sustained pleasure of Dinosaur Jr.’s second act? If forced to choose, I would probably still name the rip-roaring Beyond as my favorite record of their comeback era, which has now proved far more durable than their first go-around. But all of the Mach II albums have been good, and the Kurt Vile-assisted Sweep It Into Space may be the one that sounds most effortless. The critical buzzword is “breezy,” and sure enough, the group has never sounded less strained as it rattles off guitar heroics, garage-rock clatter, and relaxed drawl. A full four songs start with the word “I,” attesting to the loose, conversational tone; my favorite is the gleeful “I Met the Stones,” sadly not a fan encounter between J. Mascis and Keith Richards, though its abundance of riffs suggest it might have been a fruitful summit for both parties. After a few listens, I have even grown fond of “Garden,” an endearing jam-bandy turn from Lou Barlow. Throughout the album, these guys sound like they’re having a blast; like they could keep doing this forever.

ULTRAPOP | The Armed

I’m mostly a dummy when it comes to hardcore music. When last I spent any extended time in this space, it was because of the bruisingly good Turnstile record released in early 2018. The acclaimed new album from The Armed is bruising-er still, a 38-minute pummeling of screams and wails, what sounds like a dozen guitars and at least half as many drum kits. But while the music is cacophonous, it never feels undirected: At times the noise congeals into mutant pop melodies, and even at their rowdiest these noisemakers move with a certain fluidity of sound and unity of purpose. I’ve been playing it as ambient music: Its ripples of maximalist energy signify as sheer exuberance, and who couldn’t use some of that?

Open Door Policy | The Hold Steady

Their best album at least since 2008’s Stay Positive, and maybe even since the classic Boys and Girls in America. Granted, that’s a low bar. America’s bar band realized long ago that they couldn’t maintain their piledriving momentum forever, but it took several so-so albums for them to come up with a worthy substitute. Open Door Policy is it, a slower but by no means enervated collection of textured, colorful rock and roll. It’s orchestrated with drama and a real sense of narrative flow, which is the perfect kind of accompaniment for Craig Finn’s loquacious character studies, each one an exercise in empathy. In fact, Open Door Policy feels like a bridge between early Hold Steady and Finn’s solo work: It’s as painterly as I Need a New War, but with the kind of effortless flexing that only a veteran band can deliver.

It Ain’t Wrong for You to Play Along: Jon Batiste’s coming-of-age blockbuster

Jon Batiste has referred to WE ARE as a culmination, a bold claim for someone whose career has already proven so fruitful and unpredictable; in addition to his tenure with Stephen Colbert and his venerated association with Pixar, a quick scan of Spotify reveals 10 projects credited to his name, including the handsome, T-Bone Burnett-produced Hollywood Africans and a pair of live jazz recordings from 2019. But even a cursory listen to WE ARE proves that he is telling the truth. The album proceeds with a  purposefulness, confidence, and vision that suggest Batiste has effectively been apprenticing, honing skills that he’s only now summoning into the service of a fully-formed statement. Elsewhere, Batiste has christened WE ARE a “Black pop masterpiece,” another comment requiring some contextualization. It’s not a statement of hubris nor even an assessment of the album’s quality so much as a simple acknowledgement that he’s drawing from some particularly deep wells, synthesizing a variety of traditions into something that feels modern, lively, and accessible. This is one of those albums that sounds like it’s in dialogue with the ancestors, bringing history to bear on the concerns of the present. Indeed, Batiste recorded much of the album in quarantine, and wrote some of the material following a series of jazz marches and peaceful protests against the continued violence against Black bodies; it is a document of the George Floyd summer but also a reminder of all the historical ghosts we’ve yet to really reckon with. Conveying urgency in its sound and its steady momentum, WE ARE attests to its gestation in a pressure cooker… but it meets the moment with a graceful poise, a hopeful heart, and irrepressible joy. It’s hard to overstate the confident bearing of this record; its clarity of mission.

Loosely sequenced as a kind of bildungsroman, WE ARE posits Batiste’s coming-of-age in New Orleans as a model for collective awakening and engagement. The album journeys through blues, early rock and roll, R&B, and Black church music, with connective tissue provided by Batiste’s Soul-ish piano interstitials and grainy field recordings from his hometown. To list every Curtis Mayfield-styled string arrangement or diamond-cut James Brown groove might give the wrong impression— this is a work of synthesis and evolution, not pastiche— though it is at least worth mentioning how much the structure of the album resembles the imaginative, socially-conscious pop records of Stevie Wonder’s golden age. A student of history but by no means a stodgy traditionalist, Batiste understands you can’t celebrate Black music (nor the music of the South) without acknowledging hip-hop, which he does with surprisingly persuasive trap beats on the muggy, hometown-repping “BOYHOOD.” That he proves himself a nimble rapper is no surprise given how much this album celebrates Black voices, literally and figuratively: You’ll hear Batiste the hype man, the husky soul belter, and the smooth-talking loverman, plus the beaming voice of Mavis Staples as the oracle of ancestral wisdom. Indeed, one of the triumphs of the album is how much it signifies through pure sound. “CRY” gets around to acknowledging the plight of migrants and immigrants, but the lyrics are almost unnecessary; everything from its form to its solemn gait attests to an unspoken history of lament, in much the same way that “WE ARE” carries so much culture and context in its crisp marching band rumble. These sounds articulate above and beyond written language.

In fact, Batiste’s lyrics are the only component of the album that ever feel anything less than sure-footed, mostly when his efforts to balance autobiography with universality coalesce into generalization. “SHOW ME THE WAY” has a sweet premise— the singer is inviting a woman home with him for the chaste yet intimate act of spinning some records together—  but Batiste’s laundry list of luminaries, including the Beatles and the Stones, skews a little too generic. (A reference to jazz flutist Hubert Laws is the one really fascinating insight into Batiste’s own stacks of wax.) He sounds much more confident in “BOYHOOD,” where even his references to the most touristy of New Orleans haunts are delivered with hometown pride and familiarity. And maybe in the end, Batiste’s attempts to make WE ARE as broad as possible are part of its point, and key to its charm. Listening to the album over and over again, I thought a few times of Prince, another Black music polymath who gave the impression he could do anything, and whose superhumanity was often in service of weirdness, cheerful transgression, and kink. By contrast, Batiste’s vibe is wholesomeness. (“ADULTHOOD” reminds us all to go to church on Sunday; “BOYHOOD” features a fatherly voice declaring that he’s proud, just in case any listener needs to hear it.) When he creates loose-limbed, hip-shaking funk, as he does on “FREEDOM,” it’s not narrowly erotic so much as it’s broadly affirming of Black dignity, and suggestive of an entire range of human experience. When he sings “I just need you,” which he does on the inhibition-slaying “I NEED YOU,” he could be addressing anyone, but he is definitely addressing you, the listener. WE ARE is doggedly inspirational and clearly quite serious in its premise of unity, forward motion, and hope. And because it’s also clear-eyed in its lament, that premise feels credible. This album is good enough to make true believers out of just about anyone.

In Dreams: A breakthrough for Valerie June

A Valerie June fan of many years, I can say without hyperbole that The Moon and Stars is the kind of album I always dreamed she would make. I wrote about it for In Review. A teaser: “The Moon and Stars is arresting in its confidence and vision, pure bravado in the way June draws from folk forms but then bursts them at the seams with sound, imagination, and color.”

Serenity Now: The disciplined beauty of Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra

Speaking of the great and the jazz-adjacent, I wrote about Promises, new from Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I didn’t listen to the album until after it had been anointed by other prominent critics, and confess to being initially underwhelmed by the music’s simplicity and repetition. Suffice to say, it has won me over in a big way, and I have returned to its unpretentious elegance more than a few times. Would recommend.