New titles by Lizzo, The Sadies and Beach Bunny are on the docket this month
July offered its share of new albums worth checking out by the likes of Metric and Jack White, the latter with his second (and much more subdued) album of the year.
Guided by Voices and Ty Segall released new albums as well, as they seemingly do most months. Honestly, it’s at the point where I’m surprised that they haven’t accidentally recorded an album together (also possibly including John Dwyer, who somehow does not have a new album for now).
For July in Review, we’re focusing on superstar Lizzo’s follow-up to her 2019 breakthrough Cuz I Love You, viral sensations and hooky indie popsters Beach Bunny and the unintentionally bittersweet final Sadies album recorded before Dallas Good’s unexpected death earlier this year.
The first time I became aware of Lizzo was at a place that wouldn’t be the first one you’d think of — a 2015 show at Terminal 5 where she was opening for Sleater-Kinney during their early round of reunion shows.
It was a textbook example of the unknown opening act leaving one wondering, “Who is THAT? They sound like a future headliner. I want to hear more.”
It took a little while — a couple of EPs, one of them — Coconut Oil — sporting the eventually ubiquitous “Good As Hell.” Then came the breakthrough of her major-label debut — 2019’s Cuz I Love You.
Label: Storefront Entertainment/Atlantic Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Since then, she’s remained an entertaining live fixture (pandemic permitting) and a growing brand (her Yitty line of shapewear for example).
She’s done so even in the face of those who have a problem with her size (trolls incapable of much more than “huhuhuhuhuh, she’s fat” like Beavis and Butthead ordered off Wish) or a talented Black woman expressing even the slightest degree of confidence in her sexuality (“She twerks? The horror!”).
The follow-up album, Special, has arrived and it’s full of Lizzo™ Empowerment Anthems and Summer Party Jams one would expect.
Take “About Damn Time” — funky disco pop driven by its bass, which calls to mind Diana Ross, one of Lizzo’s stated influences, circa 1980.
“Everybody’s Gay” could have been one of those songs that produced an instantaneous wince, but Lizzo avoids the pitfalls of forced allyship. It’s a dance party, the door’s open and everyone’s invited to take their mask off and come inside, all set to musical backing that sounds like she traveled back in time to 1982 to have Quincy Jones produce it.
She initially didn’t avoid a pitfall on the catchy “Grrrls” with a lyrical slur about losing control. Of course, by admitting her mistake and changing the lyric (to one that’s better fit anyway), the same trolls muttered something about “cancel culture” and “go woke go broke” before going back to the tired fat jokes.
Lizzo still has knack for a line, starting album opener “Signs” with “Hi, motherfucker, did you miss me?/I’ve been home since 2020/I’ve been twerkin’ and makin’ smoothies/It’s called healing.”
The title track, which has future single written all over out, came about as a response to trolls who attacked her after the release of her 2021 single with Cardi B — “Rumors” (which sadly didn’t make the album). It carries the perspective of knowing that the same people who think nothing of trying to tear down a successful Black performer with millions of social media think nothing of trying to tear down others with a lot less cultural cachet and resources.
For all the anthems, Special’s just as appealing, if not moreso, when Lizzo turns to affairs of the heart — the sensual slow jam “Naked” (where the nakedness is as emotional as physical), the wrestling with impostor syndrome of the subtly hooky “If You Love Me” and the vulnerability of “Coldplay” that, for its namesake sampling, offers a clearer echo to “Say a Little Prayer.”
If there’s a quibble here, it’s that one wishes for a little more grit and messiness to break up the slickness.
Still, Special doesn’t overstay its welcome, keeping things moving through its 35 minutes. If it’s not a great leap forward from Cuz I Love You, it throws enough subtle tweaks into the formula to show that her breakthrough album was far from a fluke.
And, 2022 Lizzo is showing that 2015 first impressions of her as a talent to watch were correct.
This was supposed to be just the 11th album in the long-running career for one of Canada’s most underrated bands (underrated by many in the States, that is).
The events of February, 2022 changed that. Guitarist and singer Dallas Good died while undergoing treatment less than a week after doctors discovered a previously hidden heart ailment.
It was a devastating blow for a band that had remained intact for decades.
Artist: The Sadies
Album: Colder Streams
Label: Yep Roc
★★★★1/2 (4.5/5 stars)
At least one thing the three surviving members — guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/singer Travis Good (Dallas’ brother), bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky didn’t have to worry about while grieving was having to deal with an unfinished album.
The finished result is a bittersweet victory, one that to start with, sounds terrific. Produced by Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry and engineered by Pietro Amato with Dallas Good’s input, it feels like it captured some Sadies show in the middle of the night in some isolated haunt, with the band in great form.
“I got tired a couple records ago of arguing with (Dallas), because it turned out he was usually right when we’d mix it and stuff,” Travis Good told Kreative Kontrol podcast host Vash Khanna.
If Ontario had a Paisley Underground, it would have been difficult for it to spawn a band that fit the bill as well as the Sadies actually have. Colder Streams shows that off to good effect, mixing rock and country together with psychedelic elements in a sound that’s unmistakably them.
“Stop and Start”, bathed in reverb, as if that middle of the night Sadies performance is something you can hear before you see where they’re playing, is a driving rocker, could be about mental illness, addiction or both.
The unexpected nature of Dallas Good’s death means any echoes of his no longer being on this Earth are accidental.
The mournful swing of “More Alone” is inspired by grief, but over the death of Justin Townes Earle, who the band had planned to collaborate with, in 2020. Still, lyrics like “I paid my respects to a close friend I lost yesterday/I learned to accept that there’s nothing that anyone could say/It hurts me to think about what could have been and everything that won’t ever to be” can’t help but hit harder now.
The swinging lope of “Message to Belial” amps up the apocalyptic factor, dealing with the biblical good and evil.
Travis’ “So Far for So Few” manages to mix the R.E.M. towards the end of their IRS era with the R.E.M. guitars of the mid-90s, all with enough twang that it practically comes with a complimentary six-pack of Shiner.
“No One’s Listening” takes that late night show into the garage, complete with a fuzztoned guitar solo from guest Jon Spencer that would do Neil Young proud.
“Ginger Moon” is the Sadies in uptempo rocker mode, seemingly made for stretching out for much longer versions live, versions that sadly won’t be heard by the classic four-man lineup.
The stop-and-start march of “Cut Up High and Dry” may reference floods, but its feel comes out of the desert.
There is light, at least musically, in Travis’ folky “All the Good”, which is full of weary yearning.
By the time Colder Streams closes with the Morricone-esque instrumental “End Credits”, it’s difficult not to be impressed with what the band could still do and not be saddened that it’s the final word from this lineup.
The surviving members got together about a week after Dallas’s death, just to be together and play at their rehearsal space at Travis’ home in rural Ontario. There was no intent beyond that, but the playing did lead them to realize that they wanted to put together some shows to honor Dallas and to honor Colder Streams.
“When we first got together, we weren’t into hashing out old songs that Dallas sang at first. It was just too hard,” Travis Good said.”But what was actually gratifying and felt good to do was to learn the new songs from the new album that we never played (live). That was what sort of got the ball rolling.”
Whatever form The Sadies, who are still feeling things out, take from here, it’s hard to conceive a more fitting farewell to their 28 years of existence so far than Colder Streams. The album that stands with their best work, an explanation point and not an epitaph.
Dallas Good, who wrote the bio for it, said. “Do any bands make their best work this far along in their career? I can think of artists who still make great music after all these years, but their best? Yet, here we are and that’s what I’m accusing us of. I think it’s our best but I’ve been wrong before.”
In all honesty, it appears he might have been right.
It’s one thing to ask “What do you do for an encore?” when it’s an album.
It’s another when one it’s not an album, but a single, taken out of context on TikTok, goes viral and racks up over 250 million streams.
“Prom Queen”, the title track to Beach Bunny’s 2018 EP was a tale of insecurity (“Shut up, count your calories/I never looked good in mom jeans”) ladled with a heavy dose of justifiable anger towards the looks-centric diet culture that acts as the accelerant to those poor self-image fires.
Artist: Beach Bunny
Album: Emotional Creature
Label: Mom + Pop Music
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
It was the first to take off on TikTok, now sitting at almost 250 million streams on Spotify alone, even when who knows how many TikTokers stripped the song of its context.
Likewise, “Cloud 9”, off 2020’s Honeymoon, was plenty catchy enough and surpassed “Prom Queen” in streams. But again, context was lost, as the song was written by leader Lili Trifilio from the perspective of a relationship that was ending. So, not the happy love song some people thought.
But there are also plenty who did get the intent, helping on driving up those numbers.
Emotional Creature eschews any attempts to cash in on viral fame. Trifilo instead became more open with her songwriting, which she realized as the record came together. She told the New York Times, ““That was, like, a therapy moment,” she said. “‘Wow, you have a lot of shame around being an emotional person, even though every human has feelings.”
She also focused on being able to bring more things to the table musically and production-wise, learning more about the latter to be better able to communicate her vision in the studio.
There have been plenty of women who’ve pulled ’90s catchy alt rock influences into modern times in recent years — the Regrettes, led by Lydia Night, did so to great effect on their first two albums. Hatchie threw dreampop into her 2019 debut. And then there’s Olivia Rodrigo who parlayed her online virality into the commercial and critical success that was last year’s Sour, which won three Grammys.
Emotional Creature will definitely bring names to mind for anyone old enough to remember the ’90s when they were actually happening. If not direct influences, they had to have influenced some of Beach Bunny’s influences.
The album might be a little less raw in terms of its sound (thanks to producer Sean O’Keefe), but Beach Bunny haven’t lost their knack for hooks which are strong enough to stand with those influences. They put that catchiness to good use to the relatable emotions of the teenage and the twenty-something (or anyone who remembers what they were like at that age).
It starts right off the bat with the ringing chorus to “Entropy”, about the exhilaration of overcoming fear in new love.
“Weeds” is less self-affirmation and more self-telling yourself “What the hell are you doing putting yourself in this situation? Stop it!”
“Oxygen” is a rush made to be blasting in your car or home speakers, reminding these ears of Velocity Girl (like I said, ’90s names).
Okay, one more ’90s name. “Fire Escape” gets the head bopping like Letters to Cleo did around the time Trufilio was born.
Trufilio is skilled and honest enough to transcend any notions of mimicry, however. “Karaoke” is an absolute gem with keen detail (“You say Tokyo looks the prettiest at the end of May/And I learn all the words to your daydreams/Like I’m trying to sing karaoke”).
“Gone” comes across like the heartbreak before “Weeds”, where the realization hasn’t quite hit that the relationship isn’t worth it because you are.
Trufilio keeps the angst from devolving into woe-is-me territory. “Eventually”, written about a panic attack, is as much about the frustration with having it and the resolve to get past it with another hooky chorus to boot.
While Beach Bunny has a talented frontwoman, it’s not a one-person band, either. Drummer Jonathan Alvarado, guitarist Matt Henkels and bassist Anthony Vaccaro all hit their marks.
Synths enter the Beach Bunny picture for the first time and to their credit, they use them as another palette, rather than a tool to obliterate what was recognizably enjoyable about them in the first place. They pop up most notably in another album highlight — the emotional “Scream”, where self-doubt and the desire to get past it swirl around each other in an ’80s sea.
By the time the album finishes with “Love Song” (which cannily quotes a number of the album’s prior tracks as well as boasting a chorus one can picture Robin Zander sinking his teeth into), it’s clear that Beach Bunny aren’t done being relatable or creating earworms as much as they aren’t done growing.