Singles Roundup May 2020
We’re here at the end of another month of lockdown. Although some tenants of society are returning, things are still far from normal. This means artists still don’t have the infrastructure to complete and market their albums to a satisfactory level. So once again we have a collection of singles tossed out into the ether, a testing ground for future LP majesty. This is the May 2020 Singles Roundup!
We have several returning champs this month, who are treating this situation like a trail of breadcrumbs to their eventual album release. Former Dillinger Escape Plan manic vocalist extraordinaire Greg Puciato has released single #2 from his upcoming debut solo record. The first single was the searing ‘Fire For Water’, a frenetic track that could easily sit in between Dillinger’s classic works, albeit with a little less math-metal and a little more brooding texture. The second single ‘Deep Set’ is a driving groover. Drummer Chris Hornbrook from Poison the Well (also currently working with Dhani Harrison) sits in a huge grungy pocket, laying the groundwork for a moody, sinister juggernaut. This has definite ties to ’90s grunge glory. The bottom-of-your-gut single-note guitar lines invoke the darkness of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden, the stuttering broken guitar solo has Cobain written all over it, and Puciato’s vocals growl and screech like all the best deep album cuts from Antichrist Superstar.
(Note: Greg Puciato’s “Fire for Water” was featured in last month’s April 2020 Singles Roundup.)
Maynard might not be hurling insults daily on social media but he always has something to say eventually on the state of the world. It’s that restraint that makes his arguments all the more incisive when he delivers them. Taking 13 years to complete an album with his most famous project Tool, means that they tend to take the long view thematically. Like elves slowly watching the world perish. However, his other projects, particularly Puscifer, have been more apt to cut down current buffoons in a quicker time frame. ‘Apocalyptical’ doesn’t pull punches when attacking the current President’s deadly lack of leadership. Keenan sarcastically croons “Go on, moron, ignore the evidence/ Skid in to Armageddon” while duet partner Carina Round bounces back and forth across the speakers with the refrain “Be damned, dumb/Dumb, be dumb”. The song itself is a choppy, trudging march with a steady pulsing bass and sickly guitars. When discussing the track, it’s almost necessary to involve the music video. Keenan and Round suited up in black suits with red lipstick dance rigidly over a crudely imaged green screen a la Devo, a major influence of theirs. On the screen is the abandoned cityscape of a COVID locked-down Los Angeles as a biohazard-suited skater rides through the deserted streets. Shots of the infamous virus flash as Maynard patents an instantly meme-able chop-handed dance.
Read our prior review of Puscifer’s “Donkey Punch the Night” EP.
SHARON VAN ETTEN AND JOSH HOMME – (WHAT’S SO FUNNY ‘BOUT) PEACE, LOVE AND UNDERSTANDING
Poignant. Timely. Devastating. Beautiful. Written by Nick Lowe for his group Brinsley Schwarz in 1974, the track has been covered numerous times throughout the years, finding a new sense of urgency with each new generation (often during an era where the political pendulum has swung far to the right). Elvis Costello took Lowe’s The Who-like shrug at cognitive dissonance and gave it a more driving, new wave direction heading into the Reagan/Thatcher right-wing ’80s. When W. and his cronies were delivering freedom with bombs in the 2000s following the 9/11 attacks, A Perfect Circle revived the track with a dour and desperate version, losing the playful Ooooh-oh! of the chorus to reflect the increasingly sombre times.
Van Etten and Homme’s version is exasperated to be sure. It’s been a long four years for the majority who don’t see every day as a petty dog fight with your fellow man to be fought with slander, hate, racism, and other manners of economic and cultural warfare. How fucking hard is it? Why would you not want to live free and happy on your own terms? The song re-posits Lowe’s original question with a level of outrage exhaustion but the song still glimmers with hope. It’s airy and surreal, like Galadriel appearing to the Hobbits in their darkest hour (top-level nerd reference). Van Etten has a breathy ethereal delivery that seems to be able to see beyond the current troubles. Completing her sentences, Queens of the Stone Age frontman harnesses his superior crooning abilities honed on his band’s last few albums. Tie this together with the ultimate in inspirational instruments, the pedal steel guitar, and have it score a music video of the artist’s at home in COVID isolation with their families. You’ve got a track that’ll pull on the heart-strings of anyone who’s felt like they’re living in the cruel circumstances of a Black Mirror episode over the last four years.
If you want to be cheered back up again, pull up Bill Murray’s karaoke version from Lost In Translation and you’ll be right as rain.
MENAHAN STREET BAND – QUEEN’S HIGHWAY
When the incomparable Charles Bradley screamed on to the scene in 2011, he captured the world with his earth-shattering voice, towering personality, and surprisingly spry dance moves for a man kicking off a solo career at 62. Perhaps his rise would have never happened without the fortuitous collaboration with the Menahan Street Band. The Brooklyn-based funk-soul group can take it up to a baptist church level of exuberance or chill out with a cool, swaying back alley beat. In either case, their signature sound is unmistakable. The band, which features members of Bradley label mates the Dap-Kings and Budos Band, has been tapped for samples by Jay-Z, Kid Cudi, 50 Cent, and Kendrick Lamar.
The band has released two stellar instrumental albums and ‘Queen’s Highway’ is the first single off of their upcoming third LP, The Exciting Sounds of… Clocking in at a mere minute and forty-five seconds, the track is a tiny taste of what’s to come. The band sits back in their cushy, slinky pocket. A hearty vintage guitar intermingles with a nimble deep bass to give a seductive after midnight vibe. Swelling horns provide a laid-back bed on which to land as The Gospel Queens coo along doo-doo-doo-doo. Sexy times.
ALISON MOSSHART – IT AIN’T WATER
Mosshart is another artist with singles on consecutive Roundup lists. Her debut single ‘Rise’ is exactly the kind of single you want and expect coming out of the gates with a new project. Assertive, propulsive, and relentless. A mission statement. The Kills/Dead Weather vocalist follows that up with a brooding dust-up. The feel of a frontier town in the 1800s, streets cleared by the arrival of a bad hombre. Mosshart prods and questions a mysterious stranger, coaxing and teasing. “I like the way you look at me in that unsuspicious way/Like there ain’t nothing wrong/Nothing to be saved”. The groundwork is sparse; ominous, lightly shuffling drums and slow, woozy guitars. A taste of some of her most compelling work found in the final winding-down minutes of a Dead Weather record. Brimming with spooky southern gothic attitude.
Alison Mosshart’s “Rise” was featured in April’s Best Singles list.
MATT BELLAMY – TOMORROW’S WORLD
Muse frontman Matt Bellamy pontificates on priorities and love in the face of adversity on his third solo single. The track was written during the most uncertain times in the arc of the pandemic and released with no album on the horizon. Though the comparison would infuriate Radiohead’s frontman to no end, the song definitely owes a debt to Thom Yorke. Bellamy carves out a dystopian piano from the day after the bomb went off, as the ashes are still blowing in the wind. Over the foreboding keys, he lays down his vocal brushstrokes in long, languishing lassitude. The semblance to Radiohead tracks like “Exit Music (For a Film)’, ‘Pyramid Song’, ‘Street Spirit’, and many of Yorke’s solo works is palpable. Bellamy may not have the pastiche poetry that makes Yorke’s output genius, but with the support of the BBC orchestra aggrandizing the tune to film score proportions, Bellamy’s words manage to strike a chord in these unwonted times.
Dylan isn’t overly obtuse these days. His lyrics come direct, they staunchly defend his position, they don’t mince words. A long way from the fanciful “To dance beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea”. His steadily lurching bluesy band gives him plenty of hang time to sneer with his gravelly pirate growl. “Well I’m the enemy of treason/Enemy of strife/I’m the enemy of the unlived meaningless life/I ain’t no false prophet/I just know what I know/I go where only the lonely can go”. Though his sarcasm can be cutting, it’s also playful. Still not giving a fuck after all these years.
The man has so much material that he can dig out an album shelved 46 years ago and still come out with a catchy homespun ditty that outdoes most any singer-songwriter grinding away to make it to the top today. The track boasts an all-star cast. Emmylou Harris holds up the other half of the sky on this optimistic little tune while The Band’s Levon Helm sits back on the drums, delivering a tastefully sparse saunter. Longtime pedal steel collaborator Ben Keith lends some meandering beauty at all the right moments. Young’s delivery of his words is that iconic overemphasized syllable, matter-of-fact mid-west lilt. The precursor to the ’92 classic ‘Harvest Moon’ that would make use of this recipe to great ends.
A single spotlight on a smoky stage. A pianist dressed to the nines perched at a shiny black grand. Soft and creamy horns slipping down your spine. And a long-gloved chanteuse stealing every eye and ear in the shoehorned little nightclub.
Annie Clark taps into a pre-war jazz mood with this title track from the new contemporary Parisian jazz drama The Eddy. A track that makes you painfully long for the days where you could cram into a tiny bar where you’re so close you can feel the hot breath of the coquette gracing the stage as she eeks out every breathy note.
This May has a very different feel in the music world than any other. It’s hard to push the non-stop party hit of the summer when we still don’t know what joys of the season we’ll be able to enjoy. Themes are stark, tempos are reserved, yet there is hope through it all. Reflection makes for lasting art and with isolation more prevalent than it’s been in half a century, we’re bound to keep getting more thoughtful pieces coming down the pipeline.