A merry month of new music
Neil Young & Promise of the Real
The question was never if Neil Young would release an anti-Trump record, but when. “The Visitor” reunites Young with the Lukas Nelson-led band Promise of the Real for a collection of protest songs that reaffirm his well-documented passion for the environment and communal activism. The record alternates between Crazy Horse-style rockers and gentle acoustic folk, though as always Young throws a few curveballs. How else to explain “Carnival,” an eight-minute recollection of a youthful circus visit, with Santana-esque guitar licks and no discernible political message? Elsewhere, Young’s anger over the current state of affairs is unmistakable, as he rants wild-eyed through the haunting “Fly by Night Deal” and grumbles “lock him up” through gritted teeth on “When Bad Got Good.” Yet he still makes time for a more introspective take, concluding on “Almost Always” that “I’m not gonna work it out/ right here and right now.”
“War & Leisure” Miguel
On his last album, 2015’s “Wildheart,” silky-smooth R&B sensualist Miguel infused his funked-out bedroom jams with a psychedelic swagger, making for some of the year’s most imaginative (and explicit) pop music. The shimmering “War & Leisure,” the singer’s fourth LP, finds him operating in a similarly creative groove but tamping down wolfish eroticism in favor of breezier, tropical vibes. The Travis Scott-assisted single “Sky Walker” is an airily infectious highlight, Miguel’s dulcet vocals layered over a trap beat and snatches of fuzzy guitar reverb. Equally compelling is the strutting, synth-driven “Told You So,” which paints Miguel as the heir apparent to Prince’s purple throne. It’s a look the singer wears comfortably, particularly on suave “Come Through and Chill” and stirring capper “Now,” where Miguel’s songcraft holds a timely political charge.
“From a Room: Volume 2” Chris Stapleton
Hot on the heels of May’s “From a Room: Volume 1,” country troubadour Chris Stapleton serves up another collection of covers and originals written before his star-making 2015 album, “Traveller.” It’s a short, casual release, so much so that it’s easy to miss just how expertly crafted these songs are. With over a decade as a Nashville songwriter under his belt, Stapleton has mastered all manner of classic country tropes, from the honky-tonk romp (“Hard Livin’ ”) to the hard-times ballad (the mournful working-class tale “Scarecrow in the Garden”). Ironically, the covers that bookend the record feel more personal than many of Stapleton’s originals, though he sounds just as convincing playing the lonesome outlaw on “Drunkard’s Prayer” as he does sweetly harmonizing with his wife, Morgane, on Kevin Welch’s can’t-buy-me-love ode “Millionaire.”
“How to Solve Our Human Problems”
Belle & Sebastian
Scottish twee-poppers Belle & Sebastian are doing something a little different with “How to Solve Our Human Problems,” their first new music in two years; starting with this week’s “Part 1,” the group will release the 15-song album in three installments, one EP arriving each month. The strategy’s a glance backward (the band similarly unfurled three EPs across 1997), but the music draws on two decades of musicianship to showcase the indie veterans’ trademark versatility. Anthemic “We Were Beautiful” melds euphoric horns with programmed drum machines; elsewhere, “The Girl Doesn’t Get It” floats its lyrics across a sea of synths. Best of all is delicate opener “Sweet Dew Lee,” on which Stuart Murdoch’s honeyed delivery posits him as the missing link between Simon and Garfunkel.
Having exorcised the pain of divorce on 2015’s “Vulnicura,” Björk wastes no time rededicating herself to the pursuit of rapture on “Utopia.” The liberal use of sampled birdsong, along with the flute and harp-heavy arrangements, evoke natural beauty, though the contrast between these pastoral sounds and cutting-edge electronic producer Arca’s cold, fidgety beats adds a certain tension. Perhaps most significantly, “Utopia” envisions a society centered on the contributions of women, a philosophy embodied both in Björk’s actions (assembling a 12-woman flute ensemble) and words (“Break the chain of the [expletives] of the fathers/ for us women to rise and not just take it lying down”). Both resolutely avant-garde and absolutely beautiful, “Utopia” is an instruction manual for a better society, an account of the journey from heartbreak to joy, and a triumph on all counts.
“The Good Parts” Andy Grammer
There’s little to like about Andy Grammer, an artist in the vein of Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes, and Charlie Puth, musicians so predisposed to platitude that their songs often resemble sonic Wonder Bread. Early singles presented him as a cheerful everyman, a skin Grammer shed on “Honey I’m Good,” his three-minute ode to staying faithful whilst ogling anonymous women at bars. On “The Good Parts,” the singer's third disc, Grammer comes up short on hooks so instead plays parrot, alternately mimicking the Chainsmokers (“Smoke Clears”), Maroon 5 (“Fresh Eyes”), and Train (“Workin’ on It”). Glimmers of self-awareness lie on “Grown [Expletive] Man Child,” where Grammer sings about winning Monopoly and “crush[ing] brunch like a mother,” perhaps aiming for the same brand of winking uncoolness Sheeran has somehow made bankable.