The best albums of the week, from Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and more

Photo credit: Asthmatic Kitty Records
Originally Published: 

On top of everything else this week, I’ve been increasingly bummed about the grim outlook for live music. Although we’ve known for months how doomed the industry looks without federal assistance, Vice’s Josh Terry detailed the dire prognosis for independent venues. It is incredibly bleak, with hundreds of venues nationwide already shuttered, and up to 90% at risk of closing permanently by year’s end. One of the best mid-size clubs in Pittsburgh closed its doors earlier this week, and I have no reason to believe it will be the last. To think that several tiers of live music, between DIY house shows and stadium tours, will be written out of existence due to easily avoidable inaction...does not feel especially great!

It’s going to require some imaginative workarounds for most artists to make it through the next two years, the least of which comes from fans continuing to shell out to support their new releases. The best albums this week are as good a place as any to start, with new ones from Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, Deftones, and more. (We also have new albums from IDLES and Jeremy Renner this week, if that’s your thing.)

Sufjan Stevens — The Ascension

Not like he could follow the debilitating Carrie and Lowell with anything quite in that wheelhouse, but it’s still a little striking how understated Sufjan Stevens’ The Ascension feels by comparison. Make no mistake, this already hits like a bloated, misunderstood double LP ripe for reappraisal down the road. To be fair, we’re looking at 80 minutes, spanning a career lowlight or two (“Video Game,” no thank you) and absolute highlights (“Landslide,” “The Ascension”) sprinkled over decidedly less ostentatious electronic compositions than on 2010’s The Age of Adz. There’s less lacerating autobiography or clear fictional narrative in favor of confusion, frustration, and fleeting spiritual transcendence. Be wary of gut reactions with Sufjan.

Fleet Foxes — Shore

Okay, maybe Fleet Foxes have never been anyone’s idea of fun, as Father John Misty jabbed with his first album title. But their self-effacing reliability has grown a bit more self-aware, dropping Shore with little warning on the first day of fall. They’ve been remarkably consistent, emerging as unlikely survivors of the Aughts folk boom and refining a stronger point-of-view than any of their insufferable imitators. Shore is a more approachable, gorgeous record than Crack-Up’s crashing density — or even Helplessness Blues — and slashes their sprawling section breaks and tempo shifts. Sometimes I fall in a sort of stasis with this band, but that’s quite alright for this time of year. Also, shoutout any artist that releases an album on Tuesday instead of Friday, as the lord intended.

Deftones — Ohms

Earlier this week, I heard some chunky, familiar riffs close out an FM rock radio block, but wasn’t able to situate them beyond knowing they sounded incredibly cool. The DJ told me it was Deftones, a band that I absolutely should love given every indicator of my taste but just haven’t clicked with. Then, she said she was taking the day off on Friday to celebrate the release of Ohms, a level of devotion you have to admire. Although I’m still not a full convert, Ohms is doing its due diligence, with enough utterly pummeling hooks and dynamism to get the blood pumping. Since System of a Down couldn’t follow up the Mezmerize/Hypnotize doubleheader, I can concede they’re the strongest purveyors of genre-gliding mainstream metal we have going. The title track’s outro’s an all-timer, “Urantia” slathers on the overwhelming shoegaze, and I hope that DJ’s enjoying her day off.

Niiice. — internet friends

The music writer tic of the year — that you bet I’m guilty of, too — has been grafting Pandemic Vibes onto a song that opens with a line like, “I feel uncomfortable at home,” no matter when it was written. The Minneapolis emo band Niiice. have traded in these sentiments for as long as they’ve existed, with the kind of scrappy, ceiling-shaking virtuosity of their peers in Dogleg and Origami Angel. You kind of know what you’re getting into with a song title like “schlonkey kong,” but internet friends consistently offers charged-up, cheeky pop-punk shredding that winds up being affecting almost in spite of itself. And much like on Melee’s closer, they push the gang vocals and extra instrumental heft to near-operatic heights on “lockjaw.” Good stuff.

Sad13 — Haunted Painting

Sadie Dupuis’ main gig, Speedy Ortiz, has long been home to some of the most disaffected, whip-smart ‘90s indie rock evangelism. Any strong solo project ought to push an artist into unfamiliar if natural terrain, and her latest Sad13 record follows the extension right to the kind of exuberant pop it feels like she could’ve easily been making all along. Speedy Ortiz songs are always deceptively complex, and the busy, jittery arrangements of Haunted Painting. She’s equally at home alongside the husky synths of “Ruby Wand” and “WTD”’s soaring laundry list of global horrors.

Tim Heidecker — Fear of Death

Tim Heidecker’s never committed himself completely to an earnest music career, with his more traditional songwriting ambitions couched in parody or scathing political satire. His album-length collaboration with Weyes Blood’s Natalie Mering casts these doubts aside, with a collection of lush, complex arrangements that recall classic ‘70s folk rock. While there’s a dark undercurrent to much of his comedy output, Fear of Death is a far more direct confrontation of his own mortality, staring down middle age and trying to buck banal domesticity. While it felt like he was inching toward this all along, he’s finally made a sage enough record to slot in alongside Roy Donk and Marcus “The Worm” Hicks.