10 Best Songs of the Week: Sufjan Stevens, This Is the Kit, Bill Callahan, Lonnie Holley, and More | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020  

10 Best Songs of the Week: Sufjan Stevens, This Is the Kit, Bill Callahan, Lonnie Holley, and More

Plus Ganser, Glass Animals, NZCA LINES, Fear of Men, and a Wrap-up of the Week’s Other Notable New Tracks

Jul 03, 2020
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Welcome to the 26th Songs of the Week of 2020. Tomorrow is Independence Day here in America, but it’s hard to feel overly patriotic this year with the Trump administration continuing to botch the response to the pandemic and with so much to fix in this country—including systemic racism, police brutality, gun reform, climate change, and wealth inequality, to name just a handful of challenges. This country was built from rebellion, so I guess it’s no surprise that so many Americans are having trouble following the social distancing and mask wearing rules that could slow down the spread of COVID-19. No doubt many will gather in large groups to watch fireworks displays and some of those will get sick because of it. This includes those joining President Trump at Mount Rushmore for a fireworks display where social distancing and mask wearing won’t be enforced, and where they haven’t had fireworks displays in years for fear of starting a forest fire. Wouldn’t that just sum up America in 2020 if thousands got sick at a Trump appearance that also led to a preventable natural disaster? Let’s hope it doesn’t go down that way.

Anyway, onto this week’s songs. Despite the impending July 4th holiday weekend, it was still a fairly active week for new songs, in part because Bandcamp once again waved revenue fees today. Fittingly, our #1 track this week is a protest song timed to Independence Day. 

This week we posted a My Favorite Album interview with Emily Haines of Metric. We interviewed two progressive Democrats running for Congress, J.D. Scholten of Iowa and Rob Anderson of Louisiana. We also interviewed British music legend Paul Weller (The Jam, The Style Council) and spoke to an exciting new British band, bdrmm. The latest episode of Why Not Both, the podcast we present, featured an interview with Big Black Delta

In the last week we also reviewed a bunch of albums, including the latest by Pottery, Ravenlight, Peter Bjorn and John, Porcelain Raft, TTRRUUCES, Remo Drive, Paul Weller, bdrmm, Noveller, and Braids. Plus every week we post reviews of various other things (some weeks including DVDs, Blu-rays, films, concerts, and TV shows). 

To help you sort through the multitude of fresh songs released in the last week, we have picked the 10 best the last seven days had to offer, along with highlighting other notable new tracks shared in the last week. Check out the full list below.

1. Sufjan Stevens: “America”

Sufjan Stevens is releasing a new album, The Ascension, on September 25 via Asthmatic Kitty. When it was announced on Tuesday it was promised that the album’s first single, 12-minute long closing track “America,” would be released today. Accompanying the song is a video of an American flag slowly blowing in the wind. With a title like “America,” its timed release the day before July 4th is no accident and in a press release Stevens says it’s “a protest song against the sickness of American culture in particular.” 

“Don’t do to me what you did to America,” Stevens sings in the chorus. “Don’t do to me what you do to yourself.” A press release further says the song “is an indictment of a world crumbling around us—and a roadmap out of here.”  

Stevens says The Ascension is “a call for personal transformation and a refusal to play along with the systems around us.” Could this be his protest album?

And while “America” may seem written for these times, it was actually written six years ago, prior to the election of Donald Trump, when he was working on his last fully fledged studio solo album, 2015’s Carrie & Lowell.

“I was dumbfounded by the song when I first wrote it,” Stevens says in the press release. “Because it felt vaguely mean-spirited and miles away from everything else on Carrie & Lowell. So I shelved it.

“But when I dug up the demo a few years later I was shocked by its prescience. I could no longer dismiss it as angry and glib. The song was clearly articulating something prophetic and true, even if I hadn’t been able to identify it at the time. That’s when I saw a clear path toward what I had to do next.”

Stevens then re-recorded “America” and used it as a jumping off point for The Ascension.

The B-side for the “America” single, non-album track “My Rajneesh,” was also written around the same time. The two songs will be released as 12-inch single on July 31, with “My Rajneesh” getting an earlier digital release on July 10.

Musically, “America” is much closer to the experimental and disorientating sounds of his 2010 album The Age of Adz, rather than the more delicate folk of Carrie & Lowell. 

Stevens recorded most of The Ascension himself, on his computer, and basing it around a drum machine and synthesizers. Stevens calls it a “lush, editorial pop album,” one that finds us all at a “terrifying crossroad.” 

“My objective for this album was simple: Interrogate the world around you,” Stevens adds. “Question anything that doesn’t hold water. Exterminate all bullshit. Be part of the solution or get out of the way. Keep it real. Keep it true. Keep it simple. Keep it moving.” 

 

2. This Is the Kit: “This is What You Did” 

This week This Is the Kit, the project led by British-born singer/songwriter Kate Stables, announced a new album, Off Off On, and shared its first single, “This is What You Did,” via a video for the track. Off Off On is due out October 23 via Rough Trade. Check out the album’s tracklist and cover art here. 

Off Off On is the follow-up to 2017’s breakthrough record, Moonshine Freeze, which was their first album for Rough Trade. Josh Kaufman of Bonny Light Horseman and Muzz produced the album. 

“We were on the same page about a lot of musical ideas, as well as doing things I wouldn’t do musically,” Stables says of Kaufman in a press release. “It was a lovely mixture of ‘you’re exactly in my brain and exactly at the opposite end of my brain.’”            

Stables’ band in the studio included Rozi Plain (bass/vocals), Neil Smith (guitar), Jesse D Vernon (guitar, keyboards), and Jamie Whitby-Coles (drum/vox). The album was recorded at Real World Studios in the UK and finished just before the pandemic. 

In the press release Stables says that “This Is What You Did” is “a bit of a panic attack song.” She adds: “The negative voices of other people that are your own voice. Or are they? Hard to say when you’re in this kind of a place. How to get out of this place? Needing to get outside more. Cosmically topical what with these recent days of inside all the time. Knowing the things you should do because they’re good for you and make you feel better, but for some reason you still stay inside and fester in your own self-doubt and regret and self-loathing. Fun times! We all get into negative mind loops sometimes. Especially when you’re not getting the fresh air and outside time you need to stay healthy.” 

Since Moonshine Freeze Staples has also been performing with The National and sang guest vocals on their 2019 album I Am Easy to Find

“I think it did me loads of good,” says Stables of her experience with The National. “It was so brilliant when I was writing to be away from my songs and the responsibility of overseeing a band or a project—just to forget about that for a while and be a minion in someone else’s band was brilliant, I loved it. I think it really helped my writing and my getting through whatever I needed to get through.” 

Read our 2017 interview with This Is the Kit.

 

3. Bill Callahan: “Pigeons” 

Bill Callahan is releasing a new album, Gold Record, on September 4 via Drag City. It was announced last week and on Monday he shared the first single from it, “Pigeons.” It humorously opens with Callahan declaring “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Then he sings from the perspective of a limo driver who mainly works weddings. Callahan then reflects on marriage, as he looks back at the newlyweds in the back of the limo. 

Gold Record is the follow-up to 2019’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest, released last June via Drag City. That was his first album in six years, since 2013’s Dream River, so Gold River represents a quick turnaround time for Callahan. Following Dream River Callahan got married and had a kid and after those big and happy life changes he had trouble tapping into his usual songwriting well. It seems like the songwriting is flowing more freely now. While prepping to go on a long tour for Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest and contemplating being away from his family for a long time, he pulled out some sketches from his notebooks and finished some of them. The basics of Gold Record were recorded live with Matt Kinsey on guitar and Jaime Zurverza on bass. 

Callahan will be releasing a new single from the album every Monday up until the release date.

4. Lonnie Holley: “Like Hell Broke Away”

Seventy-year-old Alabama-born folk artist and musician Lonnie Holley released a new EP, National Freedom, today and also shared a music video for the EP’s “Like Hell Broke Away,” which is also its strongest track. The late Richard Swift produced the five-song EP, recording it at his National Freedom Studio in Cottage Grove, Oregon in 2013 when Holley had a day off from his tour with Deerhunter. Swift is also seen in the video for “Like Hell Broke Away,” which chronicles the recording of the song. “Like Hell Broke Away” has a timeless quality, almost like something Danger Mouse would’ve also been involved in. Stream the full EP here

Holley’s last album was 2018’s MITH. Swift died in 2018 at the young age of 41. As well as being an accomplished solo artist, he was a member of The Shins and The Arcs and produced or co-produced albums by The Shins, Foxygen, Laetitia Sadier, Kevin Morby, Tennis, The Mynabirds, Springtime Carnivore, and others. 

Read our review of MITH.

5. Glass Animals: “Heat Waves” 

British four-piece Glass Animals are releasing a new album, Dreamland, on August 7 via Republic. This week they shared another song from it, “Heat Waves,” via a video partially filmed on phones by neighbors of frontman Dave Bayley during the pandemic lockdown. Colin Reed directed the video and it features Bayley walking down an East London street pulling a wagon featuring AV equipment, while being filmed by neighbors from inside their homes. 

Bayley had this to say about the video in a press release: “The ‘Heat Waves’ video is a love letter to live music and the culture and togetherness surrounding it. It was filmed at the peak of the lockdown in my neighborhood in East London by the lovely people who live around me, just using their phones. These are people who are usually out at shows, in galleries, going to cinemas, etc. These venues are left empty now, and many of them will not survive. The song is about loss and longing, and ultimately realizing you are unable to save something...and this video is about that but for art, being together and human contact. Huge love and thank you’s to everyone who got involved and helped out. When everyone was leaning out of their windows filming, I felt that same sense of togetherness and spine-tingling energy that happened at live shows. It made the coldness of performing to an empty room with the band stuck on screens feel even more heart-breaking.” 

Previously the band shared the album’s first single, title track “Dreamland,” via a video made by Bayley while under quarantine via instructions from director Colin Read. “Dreamland” was one of our Songs of the Week. The album also includes “Your Love (Déjà vu),” a new song the band shared in February that was one of our Songs of the Week

Dreamland is the follow-up to 2016’s How to Be a Human Being. It’s the band’s first album since drummer Joe Seaward was hit by a truck while cycling in Dublin in 2018, forcing them to cancel their remaining tour dates that year. The band also features guitarist/keyboardist Drew MacFarlane and bassist/keyboardist Ed Irwin-Singer.  

6. NZCA LINES: “For Your Love” 

NZCA LINES, the London-based project of Michael Lovett, is releasing a new album, Pure Luxury, on July 10 via Memphis Industries. On Wednesday he shared another song from the album, “For Your Love,” a slow jam of sorts that’s backed by Barry White-esque strings. French/English composer Josephine Stephenson arranged the strings, which were recorded by The 12 Ensemble in London. The drums from Kwake Bass were also recorded in London, whereas Lovett worked with producer Bastien Doremus at Studio Ferber in Paris to record the piano and bass. 

Lovett had this to say about “For Your Love” in a press release: “‘For Your Love’ is about constructing a relationship across video screens, longing for intimacy with one another yet always one step removed, caught in the thrill of doing something completely irrational.” 

Back in March NZCA LINES shared the album’s title track, “Pure Luxury,” which was one of our Songs of the Week. Then he shared a colorful video for the song that had shades of Pulp’s classic video for “This Is Hardcore.” Lovett co-directed the video with his wife Alina Rancier. Then when the album was announced he shared a new song from it, “Real Good Time,” via a video for the track. “Real Good Time” was also one of our Songs of the Week. Then he shared another song from it, “Prisoner of Love,” which was also one of our Songs of the Week. Then he shared a video for “Prisoner of Love.” 

NZCA LINES previously announced a ticketed livestream concert, a virtual album release party, on July 15. Tickets only cost £6, but are limited, and are available here

Read our recent COVID-19 Quarantine Check-In interview with NZCA LINES.

 

7. Fear of Men: “Into Strangeness”

Brighton, England’s Fear of Men are back with their first new song in four years, “Into Strangeness,” which was shared on Wednesday via a moody black & white video for it. It’s the first new music since the band’s sophomore full-length album, Fall Forever, released in 2016. The band are seemingly a duo now, with singer Jessica Weiss and guitarist Daniel Falvey appearing in the press photo, but with no mention of drummer Michael Miles. Weiss and Falvey founded the band in 2011, so they are back to their core lineup. 

Fear of Men are donating the first week Bandcamp sales of “Into Strangeness” to The Audre Lorde Project, which supports LGBTQ+ POC in the New York area. 

Falvey produced “Into Strangeness.” A press release says the song’s title is “influenced by quantum theory, evoking a place where things fall away and decay, leaving only the essential, but also feels apt for where we now find ourselves.” 

It was written before the pandemic, which has halted the band’s work in the studio on their third album. The band self-directed the video with Mikael Johansson, filming it on their phones while under lockdown. A press release says it’s “inspired by 16th Century British witchcraft, uncanny dreamscapes and feminine power.” 

Weiss had this to say about the song in a press release: “It's been a strange and extremely charged four years since we last released music. It's been overwhelming and painful, hopefully leading to tangible positive change. In contrast, this time has personally brought a lot of healing, shutting the door finally on elements that have been toxic and draining in my life for too long. This song is an assertion of a voice, a cry of independence. As the lyrics state, I 'spent a few years in tears, but now I'm steel'. It's a song about the role of words in constructing the self. We create ourselves like books, and I'm ready to tell a different story.” 

8. Ganser: “Emergency Equipment and Exits” 

On Monday Chicago-based rock quartet Ganser shared a self-directed video for their new track “Emergency Equipment and Exits,” off of their forthcoming LP Just Look at That Sky, due out July 31 on Felte, and we were pleased to premiere it. 

Out of the din of distorted pads emerges a groove that bursts into a soaring melody at full speed, immersing you in a hook only to branch elsewhere. The video features the band performing at their practice space interspersed with shots of downtown Chicago before settling on a swamp for a fleeting instance of pastoral quiet. 

Alicia Gaines (vocals and bass) describes the video as follows: “Sometimes everything gets too close, even when things are good, and you get this screaming desire to run away. The song and video are both about feeling estranged from reality and choosing nothing over too much—the floor drops out, and you only have yourself to deal with. It was very strange to be focused on not only the video direction, but also safety precautions during this time.” 

Ganser is presently scheduled to tour with Algiers this December. By Stephen Axeman

9. Madeline Kenney: “Double Hearted”

Oakland, CA-based singer/songwriter Madeline Kenney is releasing a new album, Sucker’s Lunch, on July 31 via Carpark. On Tuesday she shared another song from it, “Double Hearted,” via a lyric video for the track that features a dessert being made. 

Read our recent COVID-19 Quarantine Artist Check In interview with Kenney

Previously Kenney shared the album’s first single, “Sucker,” via a self-directed video for the track. “Sucker” featured guest vocals from Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner and was #1 on our Songs of the Week list

Sucker’s Lunch is Kenney’s third album and is due out July 31 via Carpark. Check out “Sucker” below, followed by the album’s tracklist and cover art. 

Sucker’s Lunch is Kenney’s third album, the follow-up to 2018’s Perfect Shapes and her 2017-released debut album, Night Night at the First Landing (which was produced by Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bear). Perfect Shapes was produced by Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak and Flock of Dimes. Wasner returns as producer for Sucker’s Lunch, but this time she’s joined by her Wye Oak bandmate Andy Stack (aka Joyero). The album was recorded in Durham, Oakland, and San Francisco. 

A previous press release explained that “thematically, Sucker’s Lunch sees Kenney soberly contrasting the risks and rewards of falling in love, eventually deciding to dive headfirst into her own foolishness and relish in the unknowing.” 

10. Devendra Banhart: “Let’s See” 

This week Devendra Banhart announced a new EP, Vast Ovoid, which will be released on July 24 via a limited edition colored vinyl 12-inch on Nonesuch. He also shared another song from it, the delightful “Let’s See.” The EP features three songs recorded during the sessions for his 2019 album, Ma, that didn’t fit that album’s vibe, along with a Helado Negro remix of Ma track “Love Song” (the remix was previously shared back in January). 

Banhart partially had this to say about Vast Ovoid in a press release: “This EP was born during the Ma recording sessions, three songs that didn't quite fit in with Ma's theme of maternity. Ultimately all three songs are about the difference between disappointment and disillusion. Bigger difference than I realized. Lots more freedom in disillusion, lots more breathing space.”

Honorable Mentions:

These eight songs almost made the Top 10. 

Beverly Glenn-Copeland: “River Dreams”

 

Fontaines D.C.: “Televised Mind” 

 

Jenny O.: “Psychedelic Love”

Man Man: “Dig Deep”

Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire: “Black Mirror”

 

Porridge Radio and Lala Lala: “Good For You”

Sad13: “Ghost (of a Good Time)”

Twin Peaks: “Whistle In The Wind (End of Everything)”

Other notable new tracks in the last week include:

A Certain Ratio: “Always In Love”

Courtney Marie Andrews: “How You Get Hurt”

Bartees Strange: “The Geese of Beverly Road” and “Looking For Astronauts” (The National Covers)

Black Marble: “In Manchester” (Wire Cover)

Boris: “Anti-Gone”

John Carpenter: “Skeleton” and “Unclean Spirit” 

CHAI: “keep on rocking” 

Christine and the Queens: “Eyes of a Child”

Shirley Collins: “Sweet Greens and Blues” 

Disclosure: “My High” (Feat. Aminé and slowthai)

James Elkington: “Beechwood Park” (The Zombies Cover) and “Corridor Country” 

Father John Misty: “Anthem” (Leonard Cohen Cover) 

The Front Bottoms: “montgomery forever” 

David Gilmour: “Yes, I Have Ghosts”

Jason Isbell: “Maybe It’s Time” (Demo From A Star Is Born) 

Mary Lattimore: “A Unicorn Catches a Falling Star In Heaven”

Jason Molina: “The Mission’s End”

Tom Morello, Shea Diamond, Dan Reynolds, and The Bloody Beetroots: “Stand Up”

The Radio Dept.: “You’re Lookin’ at My Guy” (The Tri-Lites Cover) and “Could You be the One”

Emma Ruth Rundle: “Staying Power”

Shamir: “Wedding Day” 

Soccer Mommy: “Drive” (The Cars Cover) and SASAMI: “Toxicity” (System of a Down Cover)

Ty Dolla $ign: “Ego Death” (Feat. Kanye West, FKA twigs, Skrillex)

Washed Out: “Time to Walk Away”

(Special thanks to Lily Guthrie for also helping to put this week’s list together.)

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