ALBUMS: January 2023 In Review

Looking at new albums from Margo Price, Belle and Sebastian and Fucked Up

Margo Price (Image: Loma Vista)

After a holiday break with fewer new releases in December (shoutout to Little Simz’ terrific surprise No Thank You), things are starting to pick up again.

For January-in-Review, we make three stops around the globe — Nashville (Margo Price), Glasgow (Belle & Sebastian) and Toronto (Fucked Up).



Margo Price Strays, Loma Vista 2023

Margo Price hadn’t walked away from music, but spent time putting her honesty on the written page with her memoir, Maybe We’ll Make It. 

Price also ended a long-term relationship with alcohol, telling Jezebel, “I thought for a really long time that there was like, this magic in being a hot mess—like I’m fucking Bukowski or something. I need to destroy myself in order to make good art, and it’s got to be this struggle. And it’s like, oh shit, it’s so hard to live in that constantly. It’s not sustainable.”

Artist: Margo Price

Album: Strays

Label: Loma Vista

★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars) 

Her manageable indulgences these days are weed and mushrooms, which informed the process in creating Strays. In fact, the album started with a trip (the kind that didn’t require booking a room) that Price and husband and musical collaborator Jeremy Ivey went on. 

“Well, psilocybin has been very good to me lately. Getting into the psychedelic nature of this album was where I wanted to venture,” Price told Vulture. “That’s How Rumors Get Started felt like, ‘Yeah, I want to make a rock-and-roll record.’ That’s what I told Sturgill (Simpson, that album’s producer). But with this one, it was listening to a lot of different things while we were on mushrooms. And then, the next day, we would wake up sober and then we would write. When I started writing it, I was still drinking. Then through it, a lot of things have changed, but there was definitely a lot of weed smoked, a lot of mushrooms eaten, several other things sprinkled in there on top of it.”

This is not to say that Price has shifted into sounding like lysergic explorers of the past. This isn’t Piper at the Gates of Dawn 2, but rather, she’s exploring without worrying about making an album that hews to any set rules.

As unsparing as Price was with herself in her memoir, Strays is not a companion piece. Two of the album’s most affecting songs aren’t autobiographical in the slightest.

“County Road” was written about Ben Eyestone, a drummer and friend of the band who passed away from an aggressive cancer in 2017, imagining him getting a car in the afterlife that he never got here. The pain of missing someone like that is palpably present (“Remember when we got drunk that time in Ontario?/Listening to Warren Zevon on the stereo”). Musically, the track favorably echoes any number of late ’70s singer/songwriters.

“Lydia” is an unflinching pro-choice character study, an against-the-grain choice for a musician living in a red state where reproductive rights are under attack.

There’s a lot of empathy in the details of Lydia’s series of unfortunate events and bad decisions with no judgment attached (“Nice neighbors, bad cough / No health insurance this year, transitional neighborhood / Gentrification comes like it always does and some nice condos, they go in / But the needles in the alley, they’re still layin’ there”).

That eye for detail gets turned inward on “Hell in the Heartland”, in which doubt and dysfunction take over with Price’s vocals, clear at the start, getting obscured in haze towards the song’s finish.

“Been to the Mountain” starts the album with organ that’s a hat tip to psychedelia’s past before unveiling a confident defiance that, if not a strut, is an emphatic stride.

Only six years ago, Price hadn’t yet released her first album, one that she had to sell her car and pawn her wedding ring to record. The years-in-the-making “overnight” success would appear as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live two weeks after Midwest Farmer’s Daughter release.

Price’s success has been as a busy touring act, finding audiences on the road without ongoing love from country radio, instead finding a little bit of an inroads with the Triple A format. She’s avoided big pop moves and turned down lucrative commercial paydays ($200k to shill cell phones).

Sometimes, it’s a matter of being right at the wrong time. “Radio”, featuring Sharon Van Etten, has a hook that wouldn’t have been out of place on one of Sheryl Crow’s ’90s hits, set to lyrics about trying to find a position of peace and needed isolation when you’ve been a pretty open book.

“Light Me Up”, which features longtime Tom Petty bandmate and collaborator Mike Campbell, amps up the ’70s classicism even further.

“Change of Heart” splits the difference, needing no guest stars to goose things up, a song that sounds currently alive no matter how retro its trappings.

Price becomes the queen of wishful thinking on “Time Machine”, where the woozy feel deliberately undercuts its seeming cheer.

The final guest stars are Lucious, whose vocals are the perfect addition for a song that’s equal parts Southern rock and classic British pop from, you guessed it, the ’70s.

Price clearly has more than country in her quiver, but it doesn’t stay there. Album closer “Landfill” gets atmosphere from pedal steel, cutting through the comedown haze.

By this point, Price doesn’t have anything to prove as an artist. But even without that kind of chip on her shoulder, she’s crafted an album that someone with that chip would’ve loved to have created.




Belle and Sebastian Late Developers, Matador Records 2023

Late Developers is a surprise release, as nobody was expecting another Belle and Sebastian album so soon after last year’s A Bit of Previous.

Frontman Stuart Murdoch had put together a lot of material during COVID-19 downtime, around 30 songs worth. The pandemic scuttled plans to record in Los Angeles, so they converted their rehearsal space into a studio. The plan quickly turned into making two albums.

“I just said to the band, ‘Come on, let’s make it two LPs! Let’s give the record company what they want first, and then keep the second one back as a secret,’” Murdoch told NME.

From there, the idea was to have the first album be a “proper” one, with the second being less beholden to the expected Belle & Sebastian formula.

Artist: Belle and Sebastian 

Album: Late Developers 

Label: Matador Records 

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

“Juliet Naked” , written for the 2018 film of the same name, wasn’t used as star Ethan Hawke sang his own songs. But Murdoch still liked the end result, which kicks off Late Developers. It sounds like a previously undiscovered New Pornographers track.

Stevie Jackson’s “So In the Moment” covers similar turf, more insistently power poppy, with some almost country guitar flavoring.

“Give a Little Time”, with Sarah Martin on lead vocals, moves closer to the band’s traditional sound, complete with handclaps, although the guitars are a little louder.

The song that sounds the most like classic Belle and Sebastian comes by that sound honestly. Over 25 years after forming, Belle & Sebastian still have unreleased songs and ideas from before their debut. Murdoch often goes back to pull something from that period for an album. This time, it’s “When The Cynics Stare Back From The Wall”, which arrives near the album’s end.

Tracyanne Campbell from Camera Obscura, who also happens to be one of Murdoch’s neighbors, is his duet partner on the track. It’s a combination that’s as sweet as it sounds. If it doesn’t soar like their respective band’s best moments, it still charms. And if we some day get a Stuart & Tracyanne album, I wouldn’t complain.

The other guest Glaswegian isn’t a contemporary, but someone younger who’d been a fan of the group for years. Producer/performer Peter Ferguson, better known as Wuh Oh, is the first outside writer in group history. He co-wrote “I Don’t Know What You See In Me”, which shows how open the band was to new ideas. They adapt themselves to the more modern pop Wuh Oh works in, grafting the sensibility of their more joyous songs to pushy hooks, complete with non-words (“La-ba-dee, la-da ba-dee, la-da ba-dee, la-daba-da”).

Nobody would accuse Belle and Sebastian of aiming to revive the sounds of, say, the Human League’s Dare. They do dabble, though,melding synths into the traditionally wistful “When We Were Young” and the more danceable “When You’re Not With Me”.

Not every moment clicks as well as one would hope. The soul-flavored “Evening Star” never quite takes off and the closing title track is pleasant, but not transcendent. Still, this far in, Belle and Sebastian are clearly having fun creating with no desire to coast.

Belle & Sebastian understandably had to call off tour dates due to Murdoch needing further recovery from the latest flareup of the chronic fatigue syndrome he’s lived with for decades. Beyond rescheduled tour dates, Murdoch has hinted a band break could be in the offing, as he wants to finish a book he’s been working on.

However long it takes for the next Belle and Sebastian album to appear, Late Developers shows there’s plenty of life for the beloved indie Scots well into their third decade.




Fucked Up One Day, Merge Records 2023

Let no one say that Fucked Up can’t do a 180.

The Canadian hardcore/art punk veterans, when last heard from on 2021’s Year of the Horse were capitalizing the “A” in “Ambition. No stranger to long albums, they indulged in magical fantasy plot over 94 minutes worth of often really good songs that had everything but Rick Wakeman in a cape.

Released as part of their Zodiac series, it was the first such release that was a proper album and not just a 12″ maxi-single. It was hardly a traditional release, given that it was put out initially in four installments via Bandcamp, with liner notes and lyrics put out through a WeTransfer link.

Artist: Fucked Up

Album: One Day

Label: Merge Records

★★★★ (4/5 stars) 

Year of the Horse worked modern themes into its fantastical plot. But for their first non-Zodiac album since 2018, they’ve traded such plotting for realism and sprawl for economy.

One Day clocks in at 40 minutes, half the average length of their previous four albums, their shortest since 2013’s terrific Glass Boys.

The album was put together quickly. Guitarist and primary songwriter Mike Haliechuk put together the core of the album together over three eight-hour sessions. He then handed it off to the rest of the band, strongly recommending they record their parts in similarly swift fashion.

The quick recording time was a direct response to other albums in the band’s catalog, with Year of the Horse taking six years to complete.

Relatively short length  isn’t the only thing One Day has in common with Glass Boys, as it’s the first time since that Abraham felt ready to contribute lyrics again. “I think a lot of it for me, coming back to writing lyrics was about how I would want to go out,” Abraham told Northern Transmissions. “If this was the last time we were able to afford the luxury of recording an album, what would I want to say and who would I say it to? What are some things that I really struggle with internally and constantly?”

Abraham and Haliechuck finished with a 50-50 split, with each having lyrics on five of the album’s songs.

Much of the punk part of the equation comes from Abraham’s vocals, which remain as growly and full of gusto as ever. This creates a contrast and, at times,a musical tension as the band explores territory well beyond punk.

Take the commentary on “Broken Little Boys”, set to a track that could be almost glammy in another band’s hands. Nobody, be it Abraham or deity, is spared with the ongoing spread of toxic masculinity. The lead singer delivers the perfectly sacrilicius punchline, “God was corrupt and the whole world is fucked/ And a question’s struck/ Is God a broken boy?/ God’s just a broken little boy!”.

The title track could have fit in as a centerpiece on a number of previous albums as well, a rocking statement of love and hope in the face of, well, the whole world being fucked.

Even with distinct personalities (Abraham admits to being the more extroverted), the two lyricists don’t shy away from similar concerns.

The path from colonialism to gentrification crops up. Abraham-penned opener “Found” honestly tackles the former (“There I stood on the shore/Of a story we don’t tell anymore/All the names were erased/Buried under a land that my people stole”).

Haliechuck’s “Lords of Kensington” turns its eye to what’s lost when the people who make a neighborhood what it is get squeezed out (“Where was the place we used for shows?/Now it’s buried underneath where the condo grows/We were the lichen/We let them in/As we rose, all the other lights dimmed”).

With Ben Cook departing the band, Haliechuck’s guitars take on a bigger role. For the short recording time, they make songs like “Huge New Her” sound soaringly epic and give “I Think I Might Be Weird” a precise stomp.

“Nothing’s Immortal”, another highlight, opens with electric piano before giving way to a catchy verse that betrays familiarity with a certain band from Rockford. Seriously, you can almost sing “Mama told me/Yes, she told me/I’d meet girls like you” to it. And lyrically, it could be read as self-critique, although Abraham says it’s more about other bands not being true to themselves.

Fucked Up get more personal over the album’s stretch run. 

The title track, full of shifting tempos,is about facing middle age and the increased threat of mortality while wanting to make a mark. Abrahams yells the chorus of”At the end of all history/Let just one thing be left of me/What could you do in just one day?/Fall in love, spend your time away”.

Haliechuck handles the vocals on “Cicada”, a heartfelt song about lost family and friends in recent years that shows a flattering Bob Mould/Hüsker Dü influence.

“Roar” looks at fatherhood and life with doubt (“How’s this asshole gonna raise a kid?”) before shifting to hope (“I’m still there standing with you and in the end that’s all we need.”).

Even with the band recording separately (Haliechuck says he and Abraham haven’t been at the same session since 2011’s David Goes to College), there’s still a chemistry at work when the elements are put together. As Haliechuck puts it, slightly tongue-in-cheek, “I think Fucked Up invented pandemic-style recording.”

Even if there was a little fudging in the recording time, One Day is not an album excessively fussed over. Still, the band is able to sound big and epic, without self-consciousness or flagging creativity.


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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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