Sasami Ashworth’s fangs are bared. On the cover of her sophomore album Squeeze, she’s mostly snake, barely human. The design — created by Andrew Thomas Huang and Rin Kim — was inspired by Nure-onna, a Japanese folk creature with a similar bodily disposition. In the version of the legend that Ashworth draws upon, Nure-onna entices passersby and, depending on whether she judges them to be a good person or not, either lets them go without incident or drains their blood.
That indiscriminate nature — when you don’t know whether something is going to snap or soothe — is an apt concept for an album like Squeeze. The songs vary wildly from one another; you’re never exactly sure what you might hear next. Ashworth’s 2019 debut album as SASAMI was impressive, a collection of soft-edged rock songs with time-worn melodies that wormed their way inside your brain. Squeeze has songs that tap into that same vein, but its boldest moments are also its most unexpected.
And as with her first, Squeeze serves as a showcase for Ashworth’s production skills and highlights her discerning taste in collaborators. Though SASAMI is essentially a solo project, Ashworth has no problem letting other people into her universe. Her new album album was recorded mostly at Log Mansion, the Los Angeles-based home studio of King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas — Hand Habits’ recent Fun House and a forthcoming King Tuff full-length were also made there during the pandemic. Ty Segall also co-produced a handful of Squeeze‘s songs in his studio out in Topanga, and there are contributions throughout from Megadeth’s Dirk Verbeuren, jazz drummer Jay Bellerose, the London experimental artist No Home, and many more.
Squeeze was born out of a desire to make something that sounded more hostile. Ashworth started down this darker path after heading to a writing retreat the day after she attended a show put on by the sludge metal band Barishi. (Ashworth would later recruit them to play as her live backing band.) She couldn’t shake the intensity of that music, and started to think about the sort of power that a performer can wield with heavy sounds. Using the nu-metal that clogged the airwaves while Ashworth was growing up as a jumping-off point — see her hushed cover of System Of A Down’s “Toxicity” from last year — she leans into the aggression that characterizes that sort of music while offering up her own spin on it. Ashworth avoids the pastiche that plagues a lot of modern pop’s more recent flirtations with nu-metal, which can often come across as corny, by staying true to the more classically-minded songwriting principles that steered her debut.
The result is an intriguing and invigorating play in contrasts. Many of these songs are pummeling and noxious — like the furious scurry of opener “Skin A Rat,” or a menacing and mangled cover of Daniel Johnston’s “Sorry Entertainer” — but they retain a sweet center in Ashworth’s voice, which rarely rises to the guttural screams that one might associate with the genre. The harder tracks are also broken up by songs that find Ashworth dabbling in blissed-out Laurel Canyon sunshine — on “The Greatest” and “Tried To Understand,” both of which will pair well when SASAMI opens for HAIM later this year — or “Call Me Home” and “Make It Right,” which pull from the country-inflected rock of the ’90s.
That Ashworth can tie together so many different sounds on one album and make it make sense is a triumph; all these different ideas end up accentuating each other. The wild changes in frequency that occur on Squeeze sound a bit like the inside of one’s head: moments of thinking you have it all figured out chased by crippling self-doubt. On the feverish centerpiece “Need It To Work,” Ashworth repeats the title coupled with some cloying questions: “Do you like me? Do you notice me? Do you want to punish me?”
Throughout Squeeze, Ashworth pushes on some sensitive pressure points — the desire for stability, the fear of not being sure if you’ll ever get it — but all that intensity falls away on the cinematic closing track, “Not A Love Song,” which revels in the glorious moment of creation when all those worries drip away: “Melody so sweet and harmony like waves/ It brought me to my knees and took my breath away/ I tried to turn it into something so profound/ It’s not a love song, just a beautiful, beautiful sound.” Even at its ugliest, Squeeze is filled with beautiful sounds.
Squeeze is out 2/25 via Domino. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Kanye West’s Donda 2, maybe
• Tears For Fears’ The Tipping Point
• Superchunk’s Wild Loneliness
• Gang Of Youths’ angel in realtime
• Soft Cell’s *Happiness Not Included
• Blood Incantation’s Timewave Zero
• Robert Glasper’s Black Radio 3
• Swamp Dogg’s I Need A Job … So I Can Buy More Autotune
• Tangerine Dream’s Raum
• Carson McHone’s Still Life
• caroline’s caroline
• Huerco S.’s Plonk
• ADULT.’s Becoming Undone
• Conway The Machine’s God Don’t Make Mistakes
• EARTHGANG’s Ghetto Gods
• King Hannah’s I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me
• Joan Osbourne’s Radio Waves
• Judy Collins’ Spellbound
• Avril Lavigne’s Love Sux
• Heather Woods Broderick’s Domes
• Lil Durk’s 7220
• Dashboard Confessional’s All The Truth That I Can Tell
• String Machine’s Hallelujah Hell Yeah
• Mom Jeans’ Sweet Tooth
• Lo Moon’s A Modern Life
• Basia Bulat’s The Garden
• Bitter Branches’ Your Neighbors Are Failures
• L.I.B.’s Men’s Health
• Firebreather’s Dwell In The Fog
• Scorpions’ Rock Believer
• Curtis Stigers’ This Life
• Deserta’s Every Moment, Everything You Need
• death insurance’s i’m in your walls
• Johnny Marr’s Fever Dreams Pts 1-4
• Euphoria‘s season 2 soundtrack
• Ty Segall’s Whirlybird (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
• Mdou Moctar’s Afrique Victime deluxe edition
• Guns N’ Roses’ Hard Skool EP
• Parannoul’s To See The Next Part Of The Dream B-sides EP
• Corey Taylor’s CMFB…Sides EP
• Homeboy Sandman’s There In Spirit EP
• NOBRO’s Live Your Truth Shred Some Gnar EP
• Goon’s Paint By Numbers, Vol. 1 EP