Great Records You May Have Missed is a monthly music column highlighting a handful of new releases we really enjoy that you might not have heard about elsewhere. It’s curated and written by former Paste music editor Lizzie Manno, so please tell her if you found something in here that you love. Explore all editions of the column here.
In a month characterized by rats doing the backstroke, a devastating hurricane and poop in the Turnstile moshpit, I did my best to find peace wherever I could get it. For August, that meant watching a lot of soccer, relaxing on my front porch and trying to convince myself that binge-watching The White Lotus wasn’t a complete waste of time.
On the music front, I allowed myself to listen to songs that make me feel good over and over again—something I don’t do very often, because there’s so much music at our disposal that relistening with no regard for the play count feels like an indulgence. I also have an unhealthy worry that listening to a song I love enough times will eventually spoil it—kind of like the way many people can take a perfectly nice photo of themselves, and then find something they don’t like about it after staring at it long enough.
For the past couple of weeks, one of those indulgences has been Kiran Leonard’s “Sights Past.” Leonard is one of my favorite singer/songwriters, and his new single is so great that I tried to find something wrong with it to avoid sounding crazy and hyperbolic in my praise—because how could anything sound this powerful—but I came up empty. Spanning 17 minutes of ambient folk beauty and violent art-rock thrust, this song is a primal flood of emotion, and if you’re feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders, it will break you down and build you back up in the best way possible. Stay tuned for more on Leonard in next month’s edition of this column.
Another lengthy tune that caught my ear in August was Angus Johnson’s “Something To Be Done,” a warm, folky electro-pop number with a killer crescendo. And if that song makes your ear perk up, I highly recommend checking out his other project, Savage Mansion, a charming indie-rock band from Glasgow. Plus, I found solace in Peel Dream Magazine’s collaboration with Living Hour, “Double Bus.” At this point in their discography, I’ve learned to never underestimate the healing properties of a Peel Dream Magazine song, and after dipping my toe into Living Hour’s back catalogue, I presume the same is true of their music.
Now, for some more words about good sounds, here are half a dozen August releases that brightened my month and are worth your time.
Sault have only been around for a few years, and they have yet to make their live debut, but in a short window, their five albums of forward-thinking soul have captured hearts and minds from all over the world. Sault vocalist Cleo Sol also releases music under her own name via the same independent label that spread the U.K. group’s songs far and wide, Forever Living Originals, and her debut LP Rose in the Dark arrived last year. Her album largely flew under the radar, but listeners will be able to detect similar kinds of sophisticated flair and emotional honesty that also make Sault so electrifying. Sol became a mother earlier this year, so it’s only fitting that her follow-up record is a celebration of the gravitas of motherhood. The LP is titled Mother, and according to Sault’s Inflo, who produced the album, Sol recorded most of the vocals with her baby in her arms. Mother is the most understated release from the Sault universe so far, opting for slow piano numbers and tidy instrumentals that allow Sol’s vocals and lyrics to do most of the heavy lifting, heightening the record’s intimacy. Sol writes about the enduring love between generations, and how faith and resilience have only strengthened these bonds. Her compassion is unwavering, though she doesn’t shy away from describing the more messy, conflicting emotions that threaten one’s patience and commitment. The sudden gospel rush midway into “Don’t Let Me Fall,” peppered with lines about fostering love, is a high point, as are the delicately pretty vocals on “23,” which hover over harp swells. And if you’ve already devoured the grace of both Cleo Sol records, you can also hear Sol on “Woman,” a track from Little Simz’ new album Sometimes I Might Be Introvert.
The new songs from Vancouver trio Curves scratch a lot of itches. “Crybaby,” the opening track of their lo-fi project Women’s Fitness Centre, is one of the funniest, grubbiest songs I’ve heard in a while, evoking crazed eyes and violent giggles, and the tune itself is pretty damn good, too. Their disheveled vocals are bratty to the core, heightening the humor of their lyrics, which find the narrator berating themselves as a “loser,” “substance abuser,” “bonafide crybaby” and, perhaps the sharpest dagger, a 2012 Mitt Romney voter. They also mimic the cries of an actual baby with a snotty snarl, a fitting inclusion to a song full of bluesy punk crud. Then comes the happy-go-lucky guitar pop of “Models,” which is sonically cleaner, but also packs some smirk-worthy lyrics. “No, you’re not a famous model / But you’re full of things that I wanna bottle,” they sing with charm. Curves sound more moody and aloof on “Skinny Bitch,” a song about the burning fear of loneliness, and they show their soft, sentimental side on “Malt Liquor,” an ode to clumsy, young love. They even hold the unique honor of releasing the best Galaxie 500-esque tear-jerker about a forklift (“Never Leave a Forklift Running If You Aren’t Certified”). The pretty melodies, garbled background voice, backwards guitar loops and chorus vocals that start to trip over themselves create this wonderful, ’90s lo-fi sound, simultaneously triggering feelings of warm safety and heartbreaking regret. Reader, when I tell you I wept over this song, I mean a few times. While virtually all the songs on Women’s Fitness Centre are a scrappy good time and prime candidates for a sticky dive bar, especially if you’re feeling washed up and just wanna drown your sorrows with friends around, you’d be selling yourself short if you didn’t also use these for a good cry in your bedroom or some menacing laughter during your morning commute.
Admittedly, any release with the title MAXIMUMBLASTSUPERLOUD would’ve caught my attention, but Dazy’s recent compilation has proved to be so much more than its eye-catching name. And sure, this release has plenty of thundering girth, but the band pairs it with classic, tuneful pop, which, in my book, is one of the most lethal combinations in all of music. Virginia-based musician James Goodson is the sole mastermind behind Dazy, and this latest release collects everything the band’s put out so far—two EPs plus four singles with accompanying b-sides—along with a handful of previously unreleased songs. Recorded at home with a lone mic and amp, these songs are loaded with lo-fi rock goodness of the power pop and Britpop varieties, and some of the vocals even have an emo-adjacent charm. Their distorted guitars provide a colossal rumble throughout the whole record, and the sun-drenched melodies make it an absolute must-listen during these dying days of summer. One of my favorite moments is Goodson’s citrus-themed refrain over delectable, modulated guitar squeals on “Crowded Mind (Lemon Lime),” along with the swagger and meaty force of “See The Bottom.” I view this album as a cousin to recent releases by similarly sunny lo-fi pop/rock outfits Alien Boy, Pendant and Young Guv—which is to say it not only appeals to my interests, but it also absolutely rips. Just like many authentic pizzerias forbid takeout to preserve the pizza’s integrity, you should crank this album as loud as you can or not at all.
Skydeck’s groovy, pop-oriented music falls somewhere between electro-pop and post-punk, mining the sounds of ’80s new wave while speaking to the grave anxieties of the present. Armed with a keen understanding of our demoralizing economic reality and relatable fears about the future, their songs are as sharp-tongued as they are stylishly magnetic. The Australian duo’s second album Coupon opens with “Dogshot,” which showcases this mix of inspired wit and earworm-y goodness. The bass-driven pop tune centers on the gig economy and the way capitalism tends to mutate in terrifying new ways (“Nothing’s changed, you just call it by a different name now”), and I can’t say there’s another 2021 song I’ve hummed more fervently than this one. Their FM synths and programmed drums bring a sterile, retro sheen to everything they do, while their guitars add dynamic distortion and a much-need rawness. Their songs are versatile, in large part due to the contrasting styles of their vocalists—Dom Kearton opts for melodic pop, while Mitch Clemens speaks in a self-assured low tone. Clemens brings a pensive dread to songs like “No Change” and “Salt,” while Kearton gives their songs a kick of bittersweet joy. The forlorn nature of Coupon often fills out the foreground, which makes for a cathartic sulk, but don’t underestimate Skydeck’s euphoric abilities. The candescent guitar warbles on “Uptight” are sublime, and the enlivening melodies of “Anthony” end the album on a heartwarming high. Coupon finds the band, like many people, at the crossroads of “a better world is possible’’ and “we’re beyond fucked,” and while this album won’t push you one way or the other, maybe it’s enough to know we’re not alone—but if it’s not, then holy hell, Skydeck are just plain good at pop music.
Last year, Chicago post-punk outfit Stuck released their debut album Change Is Bad. It brimmed with forceful, intricate guitars, and it captured the kind of anxiety and emotional tension that quickly changes form, merely subjecting you to a ride in its sidecar. While the album was largely written out of introspection, processing the more vague, skin-crawling feelings of living in our current hell, their new EP Content That Makes You Feel Good examines these social and political agitations on a larger scale. With more exaggerated vocals and a bit more rhythmic muscle this time around, they hone in on the ways capitalism alienates, exploits, and manufactures consent. Their guitars alternate between nimble quick turns and swaggering, grimy wallops, while vocalist Greg Obis spits into a frenzy or at least wears an amused smirk, adding to the exasperation of their sentiments. “Labor Leisure” lays out the far-reaching ramifications of a work-obsessed society, while “Serf the Web” unmasks the ugly cycles of online gratification and alienation, and describes how art is inherently at odds with our sociopathic, data-driven world. “City of Police” and “White Lie” then shift the focus to unaccountable oppressors and the devastating sacrifices we make to keep the system churning. Crucially, the latter track also addresses the lies capitalists tell themselves to feel better about their exploitation, and perhaps even more depressingly, the lies average people tell themselves to quell their resentment. We live in a time when so many horrors and dark forces blend together, making it difficult to diagnose the source of our general malaise, but Content That Makes You Feel Good succeeds in explaining why scrolling through Twitter makes you miserable, and why your self-care matcha latte doesn’t actually make you feel better.
California singer/songwriter Chloe Zelma Studebaker makes dewy-eyed folk-rock as Zelma Stone. Following 2019’s Layla and 2020’s Dreamland, Studebaker has returned with a third EP, The Best, and its glimmering sway is hard to resist. With its pedal steel warmth, calming mid-tempo tracks and Studebaker’s majestic vocal airiness, you can practically feel the glow of golden hour. The Best centers on grief—not the immediate aftermath, but the point at which you finally start to feel yourself moving forward again. It’s sprinkled with messages of weighty encouragement, and reminds us to be gentle with ourselves, particularly in times when we must change course in order to regain our sense of self. It’s a cleansing, reassuring listen, and conversely, its rustic, weathered guitar tones pay reverence to inevitable bumps along the road to recovery. The unhinged, wailing guitar solo on “Money Honey” feels like a symbolic opening of the emotional floodgates, while her gorgeous, breathy vocal performance represents a headstrong tranquility. “Sea of Diamonds” finds Studebaker collecting cherry blossoms, which represent renewal and optimism, and she pledges to “never let them go”—it’s a heartening recognition of self-worth and the importance of making special, intimate pacts with yourself. After a period of loss, Studebaker has found wisdom, regained her desire for companionship and, most importantly, stored up reserves of patience for herself, and because of that, these songs are more than just sparkling, timeless pop music—they’re wonderful works of poise.
Lizzie Manno is a music writer, Coldplay apologist, bread lover and Spongebob memer. She’s a former Paste editor, with bylines at Billboard, Cleveland Scene and GRAMMY.com. Follow her on Twitter @LizzieManno