Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Nick Jonas, Grouplove, Hikaru Utada, Rob Zombie, Pupil Slicer

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This week is jam-packed with a lot of fun, even if everything doesn’t land. There are throwbacks galore of all styles, as each record pulls from a bunch of enjoyable and fun places. 


1. Nick Jonas – Spaceman


Released March 12, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

The Jonas Brothers made a very big comeback in 2019. I was mainly unaware of their music, but I did enjoy Joe Jonas’s group DNCE a bit. I always thought of the three of them in relation to each other, so beyond Joe’s one-off side project, I didn’t know they had solo work. Well, I guess only Nick has a solo career, but the point still stands. “Spaceman” is the fourth of Nick’s solo albums and is a surprisingly mature outing.

Normally, boy band members who attempt a mature R&B-based solo career end up making uncomfortably intimate music that tries to capture the provocativeness of Marvin Gaye all those years ago. At first, Nick subverts this by looking more inward and not in a way that tries too hard. There is a subtlety to this album that is impressive coming from a prior teen pop icon. A large part of this album’s success lies in how well produced it is. Every instrument sounds crisp and clear. The synths on this album are particularly pretty. The way each song progresses into the next gives the whole thing a nice flow that really makes this whole album feel like a complete, cohesive project.

Now, when I say there is some subtlety to this album, I mean the themes are subtle and tender. Lyrically, there is almost no nuance. There are plenty of awkward lyrical phrases throughout. The aforementioned Gaye is even name-dropped on the track “Sexual,” which makes my prior point all the funnier. Once this album hits “This Is Heaven,” it falls off a cliff in terms of lyrics, but the first half only has the advantage of having more interesting lyrical topics rooted in loneliness and isolation. Nick also has a pretty standard milquetoast voice that doesn’t do much to make him stand out. Bland delivery paired with generic lyrics really mar these songs.

Still, this album sounds so gorgeous, with many of the instrumentals being some of the best in mainstream pop I have heard in a bit. “If I Fall” vaguely reminds me of Don Henley’s classic “The Boys Of Summer,” and “Delicious” is easily the best cut here. Cutting off “Death Do Us Part” in the middle of the chorus was also a surprising turn. This album is also unique in being among the trend of 80s revival albums without sounding like it is stuck in that decade. This album cannot be mistaken for something of that era, but it pulls from it in a way that works well compared to some of the other releases this decade. Overall, this is a solid album from Nick Jonas, but his vocals and lyrics keep this from being anything other than pretty alright.


2. Grouplove – This Is This

Indie Rock

Released March 12, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Grouplove is a group that is undoubtedly a large building block for a lot of people my age. Put a bunch of college kids in a room and play “Tongue Tied,” and they will know every word. Play “Ways To Go,” and you might lose a few people, but everyone will still be on board. Like many of the early 2010s indie-pop bands, they fell off over time. However, those first two albums are eternal for me. Last year’s “Healer,” the group’s fourth album, was a major letdown. Now, in 2021, the group has shed the synths and picked up their guitars to surprise drop “This Is This.”

This album draws a lot of influence from ‘90s power pop and alternative rock, which is a surprising turn. The opener “Primetime” even has a guitar solo! In 2021! Many of these songs have guitar solos! “Deadline” lightly incorporates the synths in the bassline and during a brief instrumental interlude, but those shouted vocal breaks are straight from the riot grrrl movement from decades prior. “Scratch” sounds like a Pixies song and shows that Grouplove can bring some edge to their music. Hannah Hooper takes over the lead vocals more than Christian Zucconi on this release. Both of them sound better than ever. Hannah could’ve fronted a riot grrrl band back in the day, and Christian’s quivery voice fits the rough aesthetic this album radiates.

The lyrics on this album are dumb, but in the fun way that makes them easy to shout along to. The final two songs on the record aren’t all that great either. Still, the rest of the album ranges from great to awesome. It bristles with energy that screams, “we will tear down the house when we can play shows again,” and I couldn’t be more on board. This isn’t a perfect album, and none of the songs reach the highs of prior hits like “Tongue Tied” and “Ways To Go,” but I can firmly say this is their best overall album.


3. Hikaru Utada – One Last Kiss


Released March 10, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

There is a lot to unpack here, so make it as simple as possible. Hikaru Utada is a Japanese-American pop artist who also happens to be one of Japan’s highest-selling artists. For some people, they know her as the vocalist for the themes of the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion’s reboot trilogy of films. I have only seen the original series and haven’t seen them since I was in middle school, so my emotional connection to these songs is nonexistent. This release rounds up all of her songs related to Evangelion in one place, with the songs ranging from 2007 up until last year.

The release opens with “One Last Kiss,” which features a surprise production credit from none other than A. G. Cook, whom I’ve spoken about at length in other reviews. The song sounds nothing like what I would equate with Evangelion, but those who have seen the movie say it fits well. Musically, it is a mellow, bouncy tune that could fit in with many of the softer hyperpop and bubblegum bass from over here. Most of the tracks are mainly in Japanese, so I can’t comment on the lyrics, but they do occasionally shift into English. “Beautiful World” is represented in three versions, with the “PLANiTb Acoustica Mix” being the one featured in the first reboot film. All three versions are lush, having their own distinct arrangements that make them fresh listens.

Speaking of lush, “Sakura Nagashi” is gorgeous with its sweeping strings. Utada also ropes in a cover of “Fly Me To The Moon,” a song that closes out every episode of Evangelion and holds a lot of emotional weight for fans of the story. This cover is stellar and is one of the better renditions of this endlessly covered song. The closing two tracks are instrumental versions of “One Last Kiss” and “Beautiful World (Da Capo Version),” with the former track’s instrumental mix really showing just how immensely pretty Cook’s production is. The release is dragged down due to it really only being four songs and a few remixes, but they are all very good. It is just hard to listen to as an album, but I don’t think it is meant for anything more than rounding these tracks up.

Even if you haven’t seen the show, give this release a shot. I need to revisit the series desperately, and this soundtrack kicks me closer to doing so. While this isn’t much of a traditional release, I felt it was necessary to cover it due to the cultural impact Evangelion has had on art and entertainment as we know it. It also helps that the music is fantastic.


4. Rob Zombie – The Lunar Injection Kool Air Eclipse Conspiracy

Industrial Metal

Released March 12, 2021

3 Globes out of 5

Rob Zombie, veteran horror director and metal musician, has returned. After harping on the same aesthetic for about three and a half decades, he decides it is finally time to do the same thing again and not mess with his formula in the slightest. I can’t blame the guy; it works for him, and he is still incredibly successful. From his days in White Zombie and through his continuing solo career, he has had a pretty singular identity. This album is no different.

Continuing with the industrial metal he is known for; Zombie feels like he is into it a little more than his last few albums. He still writes like every day is Halloween, and it still is just as fun as ever. A lot of his music is so dumb it loops back around into being enjoyable, and this album is no different. Like his films, he leans hard into talking about hillbillies and spooky horror stuff. The album takes a few tracks to get going, but once it does, it is stupid fun. “Ghost Train” made me audibly laugh when I heard the country guitars come in, and by the end of the track, I was thoroughly entertained. Zombie doesn’t write poetry or attempt anything out of his wheelhouse. This album is pure schlock in the way that the trashiness adds to the listeners’ enjoyment. I really wish this album was structured better as the interludes don’t add anything to the tracklisting other than making the album feel way longer than necessary.

You know exactly what you are getting into with this album. Just read the song titles. “The Satanic Rites of Blacula.” “The Ballad of Sleazy Rider.” “Shadow of the Cemetery Man.” Need I go on? Even the album title reads like an adlib. The music is pretty standard industrial metal with Zombie’s trademark coat of paint, but it really does sound better than some of his prior work. The album is pretty forgettable when it’s over, but while it is on, it is fun enough. Not everyone will enjoy this, but if you like B-grade horror movies, cheap alcohol, or loud noises, then this is the album for you.


5. Pupil Slicer – Mirrors


Released March 12, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

My favorite part of writing these album reviews is that it gives me a platform to introduce people to music they might have otherwise not have heard. I spend a lot of time on the internet reading about, researching for and discussing music. Every year, an underground metal album kicks my face in. This year, that award looks like it is going to the United Kingdom’s Pupil Slicer and their debut album “Mirrors.” 

Pupil Slicer takes their name from the infamous silent surrealist short film masterpiece by Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel titled “An Andalusian Dog.” This film has a long musical history, from inspiring Pixies on “Debaser” to David Bowie showing it at concerts before his 1976 tour. Pupil Slicer’s name comes from one of the most shocking and brutal scenes in film history, and boy does it match their sound.

Mathcore can be a bit of an overly maximalist genre that alienates many listeners, but Pupil Slicer trade in the overindulgence in the technical ability for pure aggression. Don’t get me wrong; all three members are incredibly technically proficient. They just manage to work in their playing in a way that isn’t distracting from the songwriting. Kate Davies is the real highlight of this album, with her dissonant guitar playing feeling both crushing and cutting. Her vocals are insanely powerful, and I have no idea how that voice comes out of her. She never lets up, except for the brief melodic break on “Wounds Upon My Skin.” Tracks like “Worthless” and “Husk” make me want to put myself through my dorm room wall in the best way possible. Closer “Collective Unconscious” lets the album end on a more atmospheric note. The lyrics are biting and emotionally bitter, each word dripping with pessimism in all their misanthropy.

I don’t see many more albums in this vein topping this one for the year for me, but it is a bit of an exhausting listen. At 37 minutes long, it does tend to get tiring as none of the songs let up in their aggression. You would really have to be in a certain mood for this one to hit properly. But when it hits, you end up on the concrete.