Back in March, the spread of the pandemic nixed countless musicians’ plans for spring and summer shows around Massachusetts, but just because the live performances have come to a stop doesn’t mean that new music releases have slowed. With that in mind, here’s a roundup of some of the standout local releases worth getting caught up on, across genres from hip-hop to experimental folk.
“Vicious Nonbeliever” — Mal Devisa x DJ Lucas
Under the moniker Mal Devisa, Amherst multi-instrumentalist Deja Carr has spent the past few years cutting her own lane on the strength of her incredible vocal range, lyrical talent, and ability to fuse genres on a whim. But her latest EP, “Vicious Nonbeliever,” marks a shift. It’s the first time she’s partnered up to push boundaries with more complex production, aided by DJ Lucas of Western Mass. collective Dark World.
In the process, the duo tackle their home turf’s reputation as a progressive haven for indie artists. It’s not always as idyllic as it seems: The local population and the “college rock” history the area is known for are majority-white, and Carr, a Black woman, sheds light on her own experiences across the EP. At the outset, she lays out past lows and plots her ascent over an unflappable groove on “Never See Me Do It.” Later, on irreverent hip-hop cut “Next Stop,” she reflects on her rise and spares no opportunity to dunk on clout-chasing DIY scenesters. It all culminates in a stomping, glitched-out finale on the album’s title track — possibly the hardest-hitting sound she’s ever worked with, but one that fits her bold vision.
“Coasting” — Honey Cutt
Sunny, surf-y melodies and jangling guitars create a bright first impression on Honey Cutt’s full-length debut, but a darker undercurrent stirs in bandleader Kaley Honeycutt’s songwriting. While the indie-pop project is based in Boston, where it formerly went by the name Baby!, its songs trace back to Honeycutt’s childhood, spent moving around central Florida as her family of eight struggled with poverty. The song “Coasting” offers the frankest look at Honeycutt’s self-imposed pressure to maintain composure during the hardest times. Tracks like “Suburban Dream” and “Fashion School” take on more than just superficial concerns; after breaking free from her small-town trajectory, she arrives in Boston only to discover an expensive brand of art-kid cool that feels worlds away. Forging a new path isn’t easy, but Honey Cutt finds its way with a balance of disarming hooks and determination, no rose-colored sunglasses required.
“Space Garden” — Optic Bloom
Some albums build worlds; Optic Bloom’s debut creates a galaxy. On “Space Garden,” Boston’s self-described “future soul” duo addresses marginalization and healing with an expansive, experimental sound. Wrapped in starry electronic textures, it’s an album about asserting one’s identity, warding off depression, and creating spaces free of harmful assumptions about all aspects of identity.
Its 13 songs flow together and unfurl in unpredictable directions. Raw R&B, looping mantras, and contributions from three of the biggest names in local hip-hop — Oompa, Cliff Notez, and Latrell James — create shifting currents over atmospheric beats. The album’s energy never settles entirely, but the powerful, acrobatic vocals of frontperson FlowerThief anchor a searching narrative, and field recordings from the natural world stand in as percussion at the hands of beatmaker/producer Dephrase. The result is a sound that’s simultaneously intimate and billowing, grounded in this reality but imagining a better one.
“Mom Come Pick Me Up” — Square Loop
With a title that doubles as a self-deprecating meme, the second album from Worcester emo band Square Loop comes as a flailing quest toward self-responsibility. As a result, there’s no shortage of lyrical melodrama, but that sets the stage for a satisfying melange of pop-punk and post-rock tricks. Twinkling arpeggios, hearty gang vocals, a dreary piano reprise — you get the idea. It’s permeated by a sense of isolation but still begs to be hollered along with a sweaty crowd.
At the outset, all seems well. Ambient intro “I Can’t Believe” offers a sense of calm that lasts for exactly one song, after which the foursome trudge directly into the twentysomething muck, a mix of messy friendships, knee-buckling anxiety, and aggressive self-scrutiny. Cue the call to Mom: There’s something to be said for knowing when you’re in over your head, and at times the desperation becomes crushing, but eventually all that pressure pushes toward a better path. The relief is palpable. Album closer “Let’s Get Cathartic” hits like a blast of air conditioning and fully earns its name.
“Old Blues” — Bad History Month
The brain is the only organ in the body that can compose a song about itself, and at this point, Sean Sprecher’s brain might be a leading authority on the discipline. As one of the area’s most prolific local musicians, he’s honed his perspective over at least 17 other releases under a variety of names, but on “Old Blues” Sprecher turns his attention inward. There’s plenty of quiet but very little peace as he shuffles through layers of meta-analysis in avant-folk fashion.
The process sounds torturous at best; he’s more or less trying to sandblast a couple of decades of cynicism off of his soul. Still, it’s worthwhile as an effort to back out of mental dead ends, winding backward through a lifetime of anxieties about aging, wanting, and repeating old patterns. Make no mistake: “Old Blues” isn’t exactly an uplifting album. But in its final minutes, Sprecher somehow manages to calculate his way backward toward hope in spite of his own suspicious outlook on the world, and that’s a victory in itself.
“Lil Nothin’ ”— Jymmy Kafka x Rilla Force
As the origin story of hip-hop artist Jymmy Kafka, it’s only fitting that “Lil Nothin’ ” starts back at the address of his childhood home in Framingham. Teaming up with Boston producer Rilla Force, Kafka reflects on the years spent in his hometown with a combination of simmering frustration and hard-earned pride. Album opener “35a,” named for the tenement unit in which Kafka grew up, lays out some of the experiences that fuel his plans to break out: “They label us fragile and delicate, but to whom are they selling it?/ Amazed when we sound so intelligent/ We were raised with the etiquette.” There’s a bite to his delivery, but it’s tempered by the determination to see his plans through. He moves along at a fast clip, but literary nods and subtle wordplay lurk in his verses. Internal rhymes pulse through his work, building intensity over earth-shaking bass and woozy synths, but the title track might be the album’s ultimate standout. Altogether, it’s not just a message about appreciating his backstory; it’s a call to pay attention to whatever he does next.