Tracking New Music Releases with Zac Wittman: Silk Sonic, Courtney Barnett, Idles, Aesop Rock x Blockhead, They Might Be Giants

Written By Zachary Wittman, Music Columnist

This is the week of duos, with many great albums being dropped by collaborations both new and old. Everything from punk to soul is represented, creating one of the most interesting release weeks yet!

Silk Sonic – An Evening With Silk Sonic
Smooth Soul
Released November 12, 2021

4.5 Globes out of 5

This is exactly as good as everyone thought it was going to be. When “Leave The Door Open” came out at the beginning of this year, it was inescapable. Silk Sonic, the duo consisting of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars, had instantly taken the world by storm.

After months and months of waiting, the duo have released their much anticipated debut album, and it was well worth the wait. Mars and .Paak work perfectly together. Mars’s clout allows .Paak to get the mainstream recognition he deserves, while .Paak’s artistic adventurousness allows Mars to branch out to other sounds he would otherwise not explore on his own. Thus, Silk Sonic is a soulful creative triumph between two incredible talents. Mars shows off some impressive guitar playing throughout that is largely absent from his solo career and .Paak’s unmistakable drumming makes an appearance throughout. There are a number of musical guests, namely Bootsy Collins as the albums emcee and Thundercat making a special appearance.

Mars and .Paak fit together perfectly from a vocal standpoint. .Paak usually takes the verses on many of these songs, with his rougher voice introducing each song with swagger until Mars swoops in with his much smoother voice taking up the soaring choruses. That particular formula appears on almost all of the songs except for a few, but it doesn’t get that distracting when you notice it as the album is only nine songs that cover the album’s half an hour runtime. The lyrical bravado throughout works for the album’s throwback style, with songs like “Smokin Out The Window” having lyrics that could fit both now and 50 years ago. It is crazy how well these two emulate the sound of seventies soul so well. If these two weren’t such recognized voices, this could pass off as a genuinely retro album.

“Fly As Me” and “777” are probably the two most un-retro sounding songs, as they have a good bit of hip hop influence to them that really make them pop. The latter song is especially rambunctious due to .Paak’s enthralling delivery and humorous casino euphemisms. Out of all of the songs, only “Skate” leans into disco territory. This song was made for the dancefloor and could inspire a generation to take up skating as a mainstream pastime again with how infectious it is.

I don’t think anyone had any concrete doubts about how good this album would be. It might be a little short and a tiny bit formulaic in regards to song structure, but it grooves so hard that it makes up for it. This is certainly one of the best records of the year and is undoubtedly the best project both artists have been involved in thus far. We can only hope that the two have more in the well and that this isn’t our only evening with Silk Sonic.

Courtney Barnett – Things Take Time, Take Time
Indie Rock
Released November 12, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

For a lot of these reviews, I turn to streaming through Spotify. I do collect physical music, but I am more of a CD kind of guy than a vinyl guy. Still, there are a few artists who I will shell out the extra money for to get their record on wax. Courtney Barnett is certainly one of those artists. I have both of her prior solo albums in the same format. In fact, both albums are my respective albums of the year for 2015 and 2018. Her debut is firmly in my top 10 albums of all time and is a piece of art I hold incredibly dear to me. For the first time, I was strangely apprehensive about her third album “Things Take Time, Take Time.”

The singles did not rock my world on first listen, but after sitting down in my dorm room and putting the sublime baby-blue colored record on the turntable, I realized that this album was not a revelation. Like she has had many of her characters in her songs do, Barnett is just checking in on fans with this album. Recorded by herself in collaboration with Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, this album’s sound is dictated heavily by the thorough pandemic precautions laid out by the Australian government. Away from her usual band, Barnett handles all of the instrumentation aside from the drums and synthesizers. Mozgawa’s drum machines give the album a much more laid back approach, leaving no room for Barnett’s prior intensity on past albums. While this is disappointing at first, Barnett shows that she is still a skilled and poignant lyricist. Even if her stream-of-consciousness style has been abandoned for a more melodic and simple approach, she still knows her way around a touching line of poetry.

“Things Take Time, Take Time” is her most melodic work yet as she edges closer towards shortened verses and more frequent choruses. Her past work was no more instrumentally complex, but she kept the listener enraptured with her clever wordplay, always keeping the cathartic release in the chorus at bay until the right time. Here, she strips it down to the bare necessities. It seems that this is just a result of her being subjected to time away from touring and just wanting to take stock of what is going on around her. There is also some lingering air of Barnett’s divorce from her ex-wife since her last record that I am sure influenced the lyrics on here. Even then, this doesn’t feel like a breakup album. In fact, it feels like it was an experiment in different songwriting for her to have a palette cleanse. “Turning Green” sees her setting down her guitar to deliver two verses over bass and drums before she arms herself with her six-string to give a left-field sounding solo. “Rae Street” sees her at her most melodic, with one of her catchiest choruses. “Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To” might be my favorite song title of the year.

Overall, the songs on here are not bad, but they are a little bit of a step down from her past work. Many of her fans might be alienated by how simple this one sounds, but I think it won’t reflect on her music after this album. Even if this is disappointing by her standards, it is still an absolutely lovely album.

Idles – Crawler
Released November 12, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

On the topic of somewhat downward slopes, the much lauded punk band Idles have been seeing some backlash in recent years. Their first two albums saw them arrive as fresh voices with something to say. From there, they had many fans turn on them for what some felt were hamfisted on-the-nose lyrics and a general lack of subtlety in the wrong kind of way on last year’s “Ultra Mono.” While their fourth and most recent album “Crawler” is an improvement, it still feels like the band isn’t quite reaching the heights it could.

Every Idles’ album thus far has taken on an overarching theme, with “Crawler” being about surviving and living with addiction. Vocalist Joe Talbot gets introspective from the getgo on opening track “MTT 420 RR,” which details his near death experience in a motorcycle accident. The track is a departure for the band’s usual sound, as it is entirely stripped back to an ominous rhythm track and various haunting synths. From there, the album returns to much of the abrasive and loud punk the band is known for. While the majority of the album isn’t bad, it is just a little derivative compared to their prior work. However, a few songs really do stand out.

I’ve already mentioned the opener, but it isn’t the only sonic experiment the band takes on this record. “Car Crash” would almost be a rap song if it wasn’t so heavy due to Talbot’s delivery and the steady industrial beat the band lays down behind him. “Progress” brings back the textural synths to build a morphing and changing landscape for the groups foray into progressive-electronic infused art rock and ambient pop. The repeated verses cause the song to be a little repetitive, but it is a very cool experiment for them nonetheless. “Meds” wins brownie points for the ludacris saxophone solo in the middle that squeals and squelches like it was pulled from a Peter Brötzmann composition. The band even gets a little goofy with the track “Wizz,” a 30thirty second long noisecore song that is worth a good chuckle. However, the best song on the album is far and away “The Beachland Ballroom.” The song slows things down and takes production influence from brill building songs of the sixties. Talbot gives up the yelling to deliver his most soulful vocal take yet. This track is absolutely gorgeous and is certainly one of the group’s crowning achievements.

Even if “Crawler” isn’t quite up to the snuff of the band’s earlier work, it isn’t as much of a letdowndropoff as their prior album. Hopefully, they do more tracks like the more adventurous songs on this album in the future. Those tracks are keeping the band from becoming stale, which is a shame given that they have a lot of talent and a very unique sound.

Aesop Rock x Blockhead – Garbology
Abstract Hip Hop
Released November 12, 2021

4 Globes out of 5

Out of all of the big name but less mainstream rappers, Aesop Rock is certainly one of the most consistent. His new album “Garbology” sees him team up with producer Blockhead for the first time in quite a while. The two have made many of Aesop’s most acclaimed albums and the two converging on a project again shows just how well they work together.

The two have diverged out into various other projects and have worked with numerous other artists since their last time together, but they sound just like their heyday when paired back up. Blockhead crafts some of his best beats in quite a while while Aesop serves up the dense lyrics he has become known for. AlthoughWhile his lyrics are certainly caked in less metaphor than past works, they are still layered deep. “Difficult” is a great example of how the two fit together, with Blockhead’s off kilter beat matching the energy of Aesop’s “easy” delivery. There are a lot of introspective lyrical moments on the album, namely “Jazz Hands” being a loose observation of the past year and a half of the pandemic. I can’t even begin to comprehend what “Fizz” is sampling or what Aesop is talking about and that is how the two work together. They craft an atmosphere that feels otherworldly.

This is certainly some of the strongest work the two have been apart of in a few years. It is a shame that this was released with little promotion and few people have been talking about it. It certainly is one of the most interesting hip hop albums of the year and is a great introduction to the work of both artists. We can only hope that the two continue to work together more, as they bring out the best in each other.

They Might Be Giants – BOOK
Indie Pop
Released November 12, 2021

3.5 Globes out of 5

There is a fine line that one can ride when it comes to being quirky, as it can fall into being endearing versus being annoying. They Might Be Giants are the kings of staying firmly on the enjoyable side of the quirky line. The duo of Johns have been cranking out albums of silly tunes for 35 years now with no signs of stopping. Over that time period, the two have made countless albums and even deviated into children’s television, including the music for “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” The fact that every album they put out ranges from being 15 to 30 tracks long is only a greater testament to their work ethic.

“BOOK” is the band’s 23rd album and it sounds like they haven’t aged a day. John Linnell and John Flansburgh sound like they haven’t aged a day. Their lyrical content is as nerdy and off the wall as ever. Linnell even brings back all the kooky woodwinds and accordions on this album. The two are in top form from the opening seconds of the album, as “Synopsis For Latecomers” is a humorous recap of absolutely nothing that never actually begins to convey any information. It is classic TMBG through and through.

“I Broke My Own Rule” and “I Can’t Remember The Dream” are great songs that would fit on any indie pop lover’s playlist. “Wait Actually Yeah No” is about the most TMBGs title ever written and includes a lovely muted trumpet solo. Some of the songs start to blend together a little bit due to the duo’s writing style, but this is a perfectly serviceable album. If anything, it is crazy to see a band as prolific as them still put out albums of quality songs so often after so long. Anyone remotely familiar with the band will certainly have a good time with “BOOK,” but it won’t blow any minds.