Three excellent new releases from Detroit-based Wolf Eyes, Illa J, and Jr Jr 

Wolf Eyes

I Am a Problem: Mind in Pieces

(Third Man)

Wolf Eyes' new album is the sound of devastation. The new record, their first for Third Man, sounds more carefully considered and focused than many of their 500 releases. Vocalist Nate Young, who founded the band in 1997, describes it as one of their "most intense records." It is perhaps sonically less harsh than many Wolf Eyes releases but nonetheless harsh in other ways. The press release says "Like it or not: problems are everywhere: waiting dormant under your bed, writhing in the dust in your basement." No matter what you do, life is full of problems and they are relentless. All you can do is try to cope, and that's what the Wolf trio does on this record. The results are emotionally draining, but ultimately satisfying.

It was recorded over the last three years, longer than they have spent on most records, at the M.U.G. (Michigan Underground Group) and Young's home studio Burning Log. Young says they recorded two or three records' worth of material in that time, but kept working until they had the right sequence of tracks. That three-year period was a personally intense one for the band members. The album's artwork represents a few things that happened in that time: The cover is a painting by Young's brother Peter Bradley Young, who passed away earlier this year (and also did the cover of the first Wolf Eyes album). The back cover features a photo of the group at Detroit's Satanic Temple — they performed at its unveiling, which is said to be "the largest Satanic event in history." The record finds them reflecting on these experiences as well as looking back on the lifespan of the band.

Opener "Catching the Rich Train" is the soundtrack to when you wake up in the morning and remember all the fucked up things that have happened that you are trying to get through. It sounds like having your insides carved out. "Twister Nightfall" finds the band actually grooving with bass and drums. "Asbestos Youth," opening the second side, is bubbling with anxiety and dread that only grows stronger over the course of almost seven minutes. Eventually vocals creep in: "Every single day, every waking hour, every single thought." Single "Enemy Ladder" is the most aggressive track on the record, but in the context of the rest of the record, it feels like a cathartic release from the problems piling up: "Over and over again, nightmares happen." Closer "Cynthia Vortex aka Trip Memory Illness" reminds me of Young and Olson's project Stare Case. Young opines that he "can't see through the haze," but also remembers that all is not lost: "I can't complain, I have everything." Through it all, they aren't giving up; they're pushing through it. The album closes with 10 seconds of cut up music concrete vocals. —Shelley Salant

Illa J

Illa J

(Bastard Jazz)

Illa J's much anticipated self-titled album was released on October 2, and it doesn't disappoint. This is his first solo joint since 2008's Yancy Boys. The production work was handled by Potatohead People, and the album features appearances from Canadian superstar Moka Only and Toronto songbird Allie. The album is a mix of hip-hop and ballads accompanied by smooth and groovy beats.

The album starts off with the super melodic "She Burned My Art". "Yeah that shit broke my heart, she took the spark we had and burned my art/ And we are worlds apart; cassette player rewind back to start," he sings on the song's hook. The track is a perfect table setter for the rest of the album. Illa has a Dwele-like approach to singing with a voice tone reminiscent of the late Nate Dogg.

The easygoing keys and subtle bass of "Cannonball" provide the perfect backdrop for Illa to serenade some young lady off her feet. "Cause you a diva, call you my Whitney Houston. Heaven, is this the angel that you sent? I know that's cliché but I had to share my 2 cents," he sings. The crooning and courting continues in "Universe," where he raps, "none of these chicks thicker than you/Google sexy on my table and there's a picture of you/it's deja vu cause 2 nights ago when I was dreaming, I swear it was a vison of you." Illa takes a soulful approach when combining singing and rapping. He's not as mainstream-sounding as Drake nor as abstract as Childish Gambino. He's a rocket launcher of neo soul with plenty of 16-bar verses in his holster at the ready.

"Strippers" feels like a slowed-down techno beat as Illa ego trips a bit about being a ladies man while he praises the beauty of Montreal (where he currently resides) women in the futuristic synthesized sounds of "French Kiss." In "All I Need", "Perfect Game," and "Who Got It," Illa sticks mostly to emceeing as he shows off his improved lyrical dexterity and rhyming skills. The quality of these three songs will make you wonder why more of the same wasn't added. The album closes with "Never Left," a tribute to his late great older brother J Dilla, one of the most influential producers in hip-hop history.

The most important aspect to Illa J's album has nothing to do what it is, and more about what it isn't. This isn't a Slum Village album, or a Yancy Boys 2.0 record. This is an Illa J album composed and produced in the direction he wants to take his music to. There are no traditional boom-bap tracks, no old school '90s backpack music, no obvious samples, no trap music. And he sings more than he raps. There are no appearances from any of Detroit's usual suspects, and there's a chance that your girlfriend may like this album more than you will. This is Illa J's sound, the music he wants the world to hear and thank God it's good. —Kahn Santori Davison

Jr Jr

Jr Jr

(Warner Brothers)

The newly rechristened Jr Jr fired its first full-length in almost two years into pop culture ether on September 25. After letting fans know the new situation a few months ago, the artists formerly known as Dale Earnhardt Jr Jr released what appears to be an eponymous record, Jr Jr.

Longtime fans of the band don't need to worry — the changed-up name doesn't foreshadow an unfamiliar sound. From the very first second of the record, you'll hear the same kind of bouncy indie pop that made Jr Jr famous. "As Time Goes" is everything you could want from an opening track, as Jr Jr shoots off all the fireworks in their bag and does everything short of screaming in your face that this album's going to be a fun listen.

Earworm after earworm just keeps on bludgeoning your brain. With bright, shiny vocals and festival-ready pounding percussion, these are anthems for rockists and poptimists alike. Fuzzy guitars and traditional song structures often cut in to add some muscle and keep things from getting too crazy, but the backbone of all these tracks are electronic beats, joyful and groovy. Lead single "In the Middle" is the least secretive about its dance-floor ambitions. Its beat is impossible not to move to, and its chanting chorus that's the most obviously pop moment on one of the catchiest tracklists of the year. If Jr Jr ever gets tired of making its own albums, there's a lucrative career ahead of them writing hits for pop stars.

Even when Jr Jr lets its foot off the gas just a little, at the midpoint of the record, the music doesn't get any less fun or catchy, just a little more subtle and deliberate, a little less caffeinated. "Philip the Engineer" matches a relaxed, strolling beat with philosophical lyrics about getting older, while "James Dean" is an especially deep, longing breath — a moment of calm where you actually have room to think while you're trying to fit in your head everything the record's throwing at you. The back half of the record as a whole serves as an almost necessary counterbalance to the unbridled energy of its opening run. Songs have space to move, melodies are airy and light instead of intense with forceful brightness, and the pace becomes a jog rather than a sprint.

Jr Jr feels like it's genetically engineered to wake you up in the late afternoon, keep you going during a study session, or just make you smile on a bad day. As long as people can keep a bead on what they're calling themselves, Jr Jr is impossible to ignore or forget about. —Adam Theisen

Jr Jr is playing the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Friday, Nov. 13. Doors open at 8 p.m. and tickets are $20.

More by Kahn Santori Davison

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