By Spencer Davis. January saw a number of new releases from acts facing an identity crisis. The xx (pictured above), Cloud Nothings, Japandroids, and Run The Jewels each come into their third album with the need to refresh their sound or risk becoming stale. What’s fascinating is how they each manage to thread the needle and find ways to say something new without ever abandoning their core.
The xx – I See You: When The xx released their sophomore album, Co-Exist, and it largely rehashed their stellar debut in terms of style and substance, I said that they could get away with repeating the formula once—but probably not a third time. They appear to agree, because I See You takes the band’s identity into thoughtful and seductive new directions. Early reviews have focused on the newfound poppier elements, as best heard on the lead single, “On Hold,” and that’s unsurprising—as it ties together neatly with the trendline set by Jamie xx’s 2015 solo detour into electronic dance music, In Colour. But that’s only part of the story. Half of I See You delves into quieter, darker sounds, sometimes abandoning beats entirely in favor of more organic sounds like cello, or just letting their trademark walls of echoing guitars sing to us like a capella choirs. Both storylines comes together on “A Violent Noise,” a signal of how moving forward as artists doesn’t require wholesale reinvention—just a willingness to be flexible at the fringes of your sound.
The xx – “A Violent Noise”
Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound: Coming into their third album, grunge revivalists Cloud Nothings faced a similar conundrum to The xx. Their last effort, Here And Nowhere Else, sounded like, well, an effort. But what works so well about their newest album, Life Without Sound, is that it holds on to the distortion-heavy guitar textures that have defined them to date while finally eschewing mere imitation of their early-90s forebears. Those grunge influences had weighed them down and the songs were becoming plodding, almost gloomy. Adding sounds and tempos that might recall the best days of Spoon, now, everything sounds lighter by comparison, giving the band a newfound breeziness to compliment their jagged edge. Imitation can make for an appealing debut, but it can only take you so far; Cloud Nothings finally seem like a band capable of writing their own story.
Cloud Nothings – “Enter Entirely”
Japandroids – Near To The Wild Heart Of Life: No band has ever gotten so much mileage out of the G-chord as Japandroids. But in this time of constant political heartburn we could all use a little brightness, so it’s no small saving grace that the power pop duo has stuck to their tried-and-true formula of energetic guitar anthems on their third album. The meaty guitar hooks ride heavy on the fuzzbox as always, but the effect is less like a slap to the face and more like a splash of cold water. Unlike The xx or Cloud Nothings, Japandroids aren’t doing anything new here; sure, there’s the occasional flourish like the marching drumbeat on “True Love And A Free Life Of Free Will” or the slowdown that comes halfway through the crowdpleasing “North East South West.” But to call these innovations is a bit too much. The lesson here, rather, is that sometimes a foolish consistency isn’t so bad after all.
Japandroids – “North East South West”
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3: As I’ve said many times on this site, I’m not exactly a lyrics guy. But the lyrical showmanship that the duo of El-P and Killer Mike have been putting out under the moniker of Run The Jewels is something unique within hip-hop. Their vocal deliveries are intense, even rage-like (or is that “Rage-like”?), but it’s the complicated rhythms of their wordplay that makes their rhymes sing. Combine that with overtly political messaging and a focus on creative production that is anything but run-of-the-mill hip-hop, and you wonder how people can even stomach the safer, blander rap coursing over the radio these days. The sounds are inventive, the beats raw and punchy, and while there’s plenty of anger in their descriptions of the state of Trump’s America, there’s also this: “You defeat the devil when you hold onto hope.” It’s rap music that speaks to both the intelligent and the outraged—which, these days, is almost a redundancy.
Run The Jewels – “Down”
Bonobo – Migration: A lot of electronic music suffers the deficiency of focusing too much on sounds at the expense of songs; tracks drag on for minutes and minutes but never really go anywhere. Or you get the DJ acts who are more concerned with crafting megahits for pop superstars, throwing aside mood and meaning for the sake of an abrasive hook. Simon Green, under the stage name Bonobo, finds the sweet spot in-between, crafting soundscapes that tread the line between song and trance. His beats shuffle gently through clouds of snyth, violins, pianos, and even touches of African and Indian instrumentation to create something that sounds timeless and global. And while much of it stays instrumental, guest vocals by the likes of Rhye, Nicole Miglis, Nick Murphy, and the NYC-based Moroccan music collective, Innov Gnawa, ensure that things never get sleepy. It’s more like a warm blanket of aural comfort—which we could all use right now.
Bonobo – “Bambro Koyo Ganda”