Reviews: Jlin, Julie Byrne, Priests

Three great albums we overlooked. Don’t do that.
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jlin black origami

Black Origami by Jlin

Jlin (Jerrilynn Patton) continues to push the boundaries of electronic music in her newest record, Black Origami. The highly anticipated follow-up to 2015’s Dark Energy, the album is an innovative, pulsating work that’s indicative of the future of IDM. At a time when many artists in Jlin’s field are moving toward wetter and more melodic synths, lush production, and muted beats, she takes the opposite approach—think sparse, minimalistic production and tinny, metallic percussion—creating music that’s rarely heard in today’s electronic soundscape. The first half of the album is an onslaught of driving, sharp beats and can feel overwhelming, even exhausting, but Jlin slows things down in the second half. Though the record has a distinct aesthetic, sometimes it wavers in its identity.

The title track, “Black Origami”, lays out the blueprint of the record: the song is richly textured, sharp, and rough, sonic motifs that run throughout the entire album. Jlin also employs layered repetition to keep the tracks engaging. Jlin avoids artistic boredom by applying subtle changes that hold your attention.

If you’ve followed Jlin’s career, you’ll know that the late, great DJ Rashad was one of her mentors. While the footwork influence is clear in Black Origami, it’s not a footwork record—Jlin explores the outer edges of the genre while still making something that you can bump in the club. “Enigma” and “Kyanite” are great examples of Jlin’s mission combining unexpected instrumentation (windchimes, handheld shakers) while using the voice as a means of percussion. Jlin stretches a vocal sample into something unrecognizable, adding to the sonic depth of the track, heard on “Holy Child.”

Make no mistake—this is an album that’s challenging and demands attention, but if you can stay focused, you’ll be richly rewarded. B PLUS

julie byrne not even happiness

Not Even Happiness by Julie Byrne

Julie Byrne has a gift for songwriting and experimenting with the boundaries of folk music. Her tender and ethereal voice is a pleasure to listen to on its own but blend it with plucked acoustic guitar and lush instrumentation, and the result is magic. Byrne’s second album, Not Even Happiness, builds on the themes set out in 2014’s excellent Rooms With Windows and Walls.

Like the poems of Dickinson, Byrne’s songwriting recalls the desire to understand the unknowable through the mundane. Dickinson and Byrne also share a unique fascination with death (“Follow My Voice”). Neither of them seems to be afraid of it, rather, they see it as a state of peace and rest. The Buffalo, New York native’s writing also embraces the pastoral and simpler times in an ever chaotic world (“Natural Blue,” “All the Land Glimmered Beneath”).

Not Even Happiness hears the singer explore new territory musically; more than just her voice, some synths, and acoustic guitar. This new direction is a small step in the development of Byrne’s sound, but the mixing feels out of place and distracting on certain tracks; some elements sound too aggressive when combined with her tender voice. Though I prefer hearing just her and her guitar—there’s a blend with her voice and the instrument that suggests a deep connection to her craft that’s unmatched (“Sleepwalker”)—it’s encouraging to hear Byrne step out of her comfort zone to make a more expansive, but not overwhelming sound.

The result is a record that’s concerned about faith, death, and the metaphysical. It’s heady stuff but grounded with vignettes of everyday activities—a beautiful, comforting second work from the singer. B PLUS

priests nothing feels natural

Nothing Feels Natural by Priests

Nothing Feels Natural, the first studio album from D.C.-based punk group Priests, is loaded with anger and anxiety, apt for the post-truth era. It’s a roaring album that spans the genre from the experimental to the classic. “Appropriate,” the opening track, combines harsh punk minimalism—distant-sounding brush strokes from drummer Daniele Daniele and robust vocals and lyrics from singer Katie Alice Greer. This song is one of the most interesting on the album, combining the structure of punk with experimental jazz-skronk sax, recalling elements of Bowie’s Blackstar. Mixing the parts of both genres works surprisingly well for Priests.

“JJ” is a quintessential punk track about a relationship got wrong, with Greer ultimately realizing that writing songs for this person (“The most interesting thing about you/Was that you smoked Parliaments, the babiest cigarettes”), or anyone, is pointless. That pointlessness remains constant throughout the record. Existential dread and anxiety abound on “No Big Bang”, perhaps a reflection of Greer’s struggles with writing and the creative process. A steady guitar riff accompanies an increasingly frantic Greer, firing off thoughts seemingly at random. If “No Big Bang” is the lyrical apex of Nothing Feels Natural’s anxiety, then the short, explosive “Puff” is its musical equivalent—angular guitars played by G.L. Jaguar, dissonant bass lines played by Taylor Mulitz, and thrashing drums release tension that’s been building since the first track.

Themes of distance and consumption run through Nothing Feels Natural (“Nicki,” “Leila 20”). Though the lyrics are ambiguous in meaning, listeners get the sense that members of Priests are critical of late capitalism, America’s neoliberal policies, and the perverted sense of patriotism that runs through the country, and anger with a system that keeps people in narrow boxes (“Pink White House”).

“Suck” is a fun funk-inspired dance reminiscent of early Blondie, but doesn’t match the overall mood of the record, leading it to sound out of place. Nonetheless, Nothing Feels Natural is a great debut from an exciting band; arguably the best debut of the year. B PLUS