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Review: Culture Club, Colour By Numbers

4.0

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Culture Club, Colour By Numbers

“You know a good drag queen when you see one,” Boy George infamously declared after Culture Club won the Best New Artist trophy at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards. America had already embraced the outrageous singer by that time, but while the group’s 1982 debut Kissing To Be Clever had its moments (“Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?,” “Time (Clock of the Heart),” and “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya”), it was also loaded with substandard filler. It wasn’t until their landmark second release, Colour By Numbers, that Culture Club hit their stride, and the influence of its 10 colorful songs can still be felt today.

Powered by an insanely memorable chorus and a harmonica that wouldn’t stop, the hit “Karma Chameleon” dominated the airwaves in 1984 and became one of the year’s biggest hits (and the band’s only chart-topper in the U.S.). But while Colour By Numbers produced four big hits, its greatness can be measured by the fact that its album tracks are just as good as its singles. From the rock-flavored “Miss Me Blind” to the exotic “Stormkeepers,” Colour By Numbers is truly essential pop from start to finish, with bouncy piano and saxophone riffs sprinkled throughout and infectious hooks all over the place.

Simply describing Colour By Numbers as a “catchy pop record” would be a mistake, though. Boy George has said that Culture Club’s music was the soundtrack to his turbulent romantic relationship with drummer Jon Moss, and that background adds a layer of deeper meaning to songs like the R&B-tinged “Black Money”: “Somebody else’s life cannot be mine/But when you love someone/And they don’t love you in return/When you love someone/You’ve got money to burn.” Even the seemingly silly “Karma Chameleon” is deeply personal: “Everyday is like survival,” sings a frustrated Boy George, “You’re my lover, not my rival.”

Boy George sounded equally at ease whether singing flashy, upbeat numbers or somber ballads, and while his voice wasn’t the strongest in the world, he was able to find his inner Motown soul when necessary, especially when trading vocals with backup singer Helen Terry, whose captivating, gospel-infused voice is a highlight on “Black Money” and “That’s the Way (I’m Only Trying to Help You).” Boy George’s charisma and confidence as a frontman had grown remarkably since Culture Club’s debut, allowing him to carry songs like “It’s A Miracle,” a piece of sweet pop candy that, in another band’s hands, might have come off as a lightweight embarrassment. The same can be said of the album’s first single, the rousing “Church Of The Poison Mind,” in which a carefree Boy George sings, “Watch me clinging to the beat/I had to fight to make it mine/That religion you could sink in neat/Just move your feet and you’ll feel fine.”

Flamboyant, vibrant and fun, “Church,” like the rest of Colour By Numbers, fits the very definition of what pop music is supposed to be, and there were few better pure pop albums made in the 1980s. Part dance, part new-wave, part white-boy soul, Colour By Numbers helped establish the blueprint for the boy-bands that would follow in Culture Club’s wake (the group disbanded in 1986 amid rumors of Boy George’s heroin addiction and his break-up with Moss). The album was re-released last year for its 20th anniversary, with five bonus songs, including the title track, which curiously did not appear on the original record. But, in the end, Colour By Numbers is an album that needs no tinkering.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: April 3, 1983 Buy: Amazon

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Through the Years: Madonna’s Iconic “Like a Virgin” at 35

We’re taking a look back at the song the Queen of Pop has perpetually made shiny and new.

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Like a Virgin

Confession: I’ve never cared much for “Like a Virgin.” Madonna’s 1984 single may be the first, if not the, signature song of her career, but it’s a trifle—a novelty, really—with its plucky, noncommittal guitar licks, sub-“Billie Jean” bassline, and the singer’s helium squeak of a voice. That last, integral element in particular has always irked me, as, from “Express Yourself” to “Don’t Tell Me,” Madonna has proven she’s capable of some deep, soulful performances. Of course, the vocals on “Like a Virgin” were allegedly employed by design, sped up to render Madonna’s voice more childlike and “virginal.” (It’s a trick she’s lamentably reprised on some of her more recent recordings.)

I’m in fairly good company, however, since both producer Nile Rodgers and Madonna herself aren’t particularly fond of “Like a Virgin” either, and she’s chosen to completely reinvent the song in masterful ways nearly every time she’s performed it. The single was released on Halloween in 1984, and this week also marks the 35th anniversary of the album of the same name. To commemorate this milestone, we’re taking a look back at three and a half decades of a song Madonna has mercifully, perpetually made shiny and new by sheer force of will and ingenuity.


MTV Video Music Awards (1984)

Feminists angered by Madonna’s choice of a belt buckle during her performance at the MTV VMAs in 1984 seemed to miss the fact that her groom was a mannequin and that she chose instead to consummate her vows with her wedding veil. By the time she’d descended her giant wedding cake, hit the floor, and rolled around on the stage, showing her knickers to the world, there was no confusion about what the M stood for in the giant MTV logo towering above her.


Music Video (1984)

Shot largely in St. Marks’s Square in Venice, Italy, the music video for “Like a Virgin” found Madonna playing Beauty to a man dressed as a Beast, specifically a lion (which not coincidentally happens to be the symbol of Mark the Evangelist). The singer is depicted as both virginal bride—sauntering impatiently through the basilica, undressing the furniture—and street harlot, hungrily prowling the bridges and canals of the Floating City.


Blond Ambition Tour (1990)

Ostensibly growing weary of her biggest hit, Madonna reinterpreted “Like a Virgin” with a Middle Eastern-inspired arrangement for her Blond Ambition Tour, casting herself as harem girl (the other “girls” being male dancers, natch, dressed in conical bras designed by Jean Paul Gautier). Having long shed her “Boy Toy” image for a more empowering, self-reliant brand of post-feminism, the Queen of Pop once again made it clear that “Like a Virgin” is first and foremost a paean to self-love.


The Girlie Show (1993)

The story goes that Madonna looked up Gene Kelly in 1993 to ask him to give her notes on her Girlie Show Tour, the sets and choreography of which were inspired by Hollywood musicals from the 1950s like Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain. “Like a Virgin” was originally intended to be sung by a man, and Madge had been toying with the idea of paying homage to Marlene Dietrich and French cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier by dressing in drag for a slapstick-and-vaudeville version of “Like a Wirgin.” Kelly, then in his 80s, gave his stamp of approval, and the rest is, as they say, history.


MTV Video Music Awards (2003)

After putting the song into retirement for a decade, Madonna dusted “Like a Virgin” off for the 20th annual VMAs, this time playing the groom to Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera’s not-so-blushing brides in yet another gender-bending performance of her iconic hit.


Confessions Tour (2006)

In 2005, Madonna was thrown from her horse while riding at her country estate outside London, breaking her hand, three ribs, and her collarbone. The accident served as inspiration for her Confessions Tour the following year, which opened with an equestrian-themed segment. A knowing wink to the suggestion that there was nothing left of the pop star to reveal of herself, x-rays of her cracked bones were projected onto giant screens as she mounted a carousel horse, stroking the giant pole, and performing near-acrobatic moves to the beat of a discofied revamp of “Like a Virgin.” Back in the saddle, indeed.


MDNA Tour (2012)

Madonna ended up back on the floor for this striking, unexpectedly poignant rendition of “Like a Virgin” for 2012’s MDNA Tour. The delicate piano waltz was juxtaposed with the singer flashing her lady parts, defying those who’d for years squawked that the fiftysomething performer should put on her clothes and take a bow. Asking fans who likely paid a pretty penny for their front-row seats to throw money at her like a stripper might seem crass, but then this tour-de-force segues into MDNA’s “Love Spent,” a song about the dissolution of the so-called Material Girl’s marriage to Guy Ritchie, who reportedly got millions in a divorce settlement.


Rebel Heart Tour (2015)

After more than three decades performing the hit that made her a household name, Madonna took things back to basics for her Rebel Heart Tour, delivering a somewhat faithful rendition of “Like a Virgin” for fans around the globe. She didn’t roll on the floor and show the world her underwear, but she did hump the stage in homage to her infamous VMA performance and at one point stripped off her shirt.

See where “Like a Virgin” landed on our list of Every Madonna Single Ranked.

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Review: Celine Dion’s Courage Digs Deep But Largely Comes Up Empty

In terms of both length and theme, the singer’s 12th English-language album can feel exhausting.

2.5

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Celine Dion
Photo: Columbia Records

In recent years, Celine Dion has been less likely to generate headlines for her music than for her eccentric fashion choices and personal developments (her husband of over two decades, René Angélil, died in 2016). And the French-Canadian singer’s first English-language effort in six years, Courage, is unlikely to change that. The album opens with the club hit “Flying on My Own,” a rousing house anthem that’s a bit of a red herring. With the exception of “Lovers Never Die” and “Nobody’s Watching”—which deliver just enough peripheral urban-leaning pop and funk, respectively, to not offend Dion’s core audience—the rest of the album’s 70-minute runtime is filled with boilerplate balladry.

Though Dion doesn’t write her own material, much of Courage features lyrical references to loss and mourning. “I would be lying if I said I’m fine/I think of you at least a hundred times,” she sings on the title track, a heart-wrenching piano ballad whose lovely verses—“I talk to you like I did then/In conversations that will never end”—are put into stark relief by its schmaltzy hook. Co-penned by Sam Smith, “For the Lover That I Lost” is expectedly mopey, though it’s less so in Dion’s hands, her vocals erring on the side of understatement. She’s in fine voice throughout the album, though signs of wear are obvious (and welcome) in her scratchy belt on “Change My Mind” and the husky lower register she employs on “Look at Us Now.”

Co-written by Sia and David Guetta, the string-laden “Lying Down” feels both modern and classic, while “Best of All” comes closest to recapturing the timeless quality of Dion’s peak output. Perhaps intentionally, it’s not until the album’s last third that true joy breaks through, on the soulful, doo-wop-inspired “How Did You Get Here” and the gospel-infused closing track, “The Hard Way.” In terms of both its length and themes, the 20-track Courage can feel exhausting, alternating between platitudes about grief and self-empowerment that, with only a few exceptions, make what should feel cathartic sound empty and even anonymous.

Label: Columbia Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: DJ Shadow’s Our Pathetic Age Paints a Grim Picture of Modern Life

The double album speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

3.5

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Photo: Derick Daily

Imagine a magician. He walks on stage and wordlessly holds up a canister of gasoline, which he then drinks from. He then places a stick of dynamite in his mouth and lights it like a cigar. The fuse burns down and the magician explodes, blowing a huge hole in the stage and soaking the audience with blood and viscera. As everyone is shocked and terrified, their ears ringing, the magician appears on a nearby balcony. Ta-da! You might ask how he did it. But a better question is: What does he do to equal if not to top himself?

Such is the problem that’s faced DJ Shadow since 1996’s Endtroducing…, which was genre- and era-defining in a way that few other electronic albums have ever been. His later output simply hasn’t been as innovative or exciting, destined to be read in the context of that triumphant debut. Perhaps that’s why Shadow’s sixth album, Our Pathetic Age, announces in its very title that his concerns are immediate. The cover, rendered in Pop Art style, shows a woman in semi-profile gasping as she looks at a smartphone. The cover art and title, taken in tandem, suggests that this double album is a stinging critique of our age of technological proliferation. Despite this, Shadow has said that he doesn’t intend his latest to be an indictment of modern life as much as a comment on it, one that speaks to the hyper-distracted way we live today.

Our Pathetic Age’s first half showcases Shadow’s renowned ability to build songs entirely out of samples. The best of these evoke clear referents through their soundscapes: “Intersectionality” layers synths on top of an icy, spare beat until it builds to a neon-lit climax that might make you wish you were riding in a spinner from Blade Runner, while “Slingblade” matches glitch-poppy drum programming to a fluttery, Koji Kondo-esque synth melody.

More compact than its sprawling title suggests, “Beauty Power Motion Life Work Chaos Law” shows Shadow’s continued ability to wring humor out of his work. The track starts with a funky synth figure that morphs into something more jazz-inspired, with jittery piano on top of splash-heavy drumming. Everything except for the drums drops out as the song comes to its conclusion, and Shadow delivers the punchline with a voice telling the drummer to “shut the fuck up” against a polite smattering of applause.

On the album’s second half, Shadow takes a back seat and welcomes an all-star cast of guests to bring their own identity to bear on the songs. De La Soul infuses the catchy, high-energy party anthem “Rocket Fuel” with their trademark infectiousness, while Nas and Pharaohe Monch trade furious verses on “Drone Warfare,” the most explicitly political track on Our Pathetic Age. The rappers address mass surveillance, economic inequality, corporate malfeasance, and racial injustice over an explosive, take-no-prisoners beat.

Ghostface Killah, Inspektah Deck, and Raekwon contribute verses to “Rain on Snow,” which starts with a tired Game of Thrones reference but recovers by showcasing the trio’s dexterous lyricism. Shadow lays their vocals over a ghostly hook (“Rain on snow makes it melt away”) and the juxtaposition makes their lines pop even more. “Kings and Queens” gives Run the Jewels another chance to make the case that they’re one of the best rap duos in history, and the gospel choir chorus tethers the song to the group’s Dirty South roots.

The title track and closer is a four-on-the-floor disco jam that makes excellent use of Future Islands’s Samuel T. Herring, whose delivery splits the difference between Tom Waits and Bill Withers and settles perfectly into the groove. His lyrics paint a picture of a relationship recalled through the haze of time, his memories framed by years of emotional decay. Balanced against the propulsive music, the song is as effecting as anything Shadow has ever done.

Less successful is “C.O.N.F.O.R.M.,” which is peppered with boilerplate carping about Twitter and social media from Gift of Gab, Infamous Taz, and Lateef the Truth Speaker, while “Small Colleges (Stay with Me),” featuring Wiki and Paul Banks, feels like something you’d hear in a grocery store. As is frequently the case with double albums padded with filler, Out Pathetic Age’s biggest problem is that too much of it feels disposable, anodyne, or tossed off. But Shadow still manages to get some strong work out of both himself and his guests, and he deserves credit for not trying to merely recreate the same trick over and over.

Label: Mass Appeal Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie “Prince” Billy at His Most Existential

The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.

4.5

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Mickie Winters
Photo: Mickie Winters/Drag City

“You need to knock this one out of the park,” Will Oldham sings on “New Memory Box,” the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like he’s suffering from diminished confidence, don’t be fooled: Oldham’s albums as Bonnie “Prince” Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.

The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldham’s voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. “Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past” is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singer’s indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. It’s weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: “Get your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.”

The word “apocalyptic” is frequently applied to Oldham’s work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilization’s collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.

Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervade—though it’s unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the world’s sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. “This Is Far from Over” finds Oldham contemplating “shorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,” but he reassures us that “new wild creatures will be born” because “the whole world’s far from over.” Oldham’s gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.

Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes he’s funny and sometimes he’s sad, but he’s always there to keep the listener safe. “Squid Eye” delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the album’s funniest lyrics—“I’ll drive right in as if I were Aquaman’s kid”—set to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while “The Glow Pt. 3,” the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.

Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself that’s not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didn’t ask for. His thesis is simple: “I don’t know why I was born, but I have made a place.” In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminar’s worth of existential crisis.

Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

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Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental—intensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, however, the band’s performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer’s death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: FKA twigs’s Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession

A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.

4.5

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigs’s shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her mission—both in the writing of this follow-up to 2014’s LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tour—to embrace her pain.

Despite twigs’s vocal precision, there’s always been an element of unpredictability to her music, as the production on her albums is prone to spareness one moment and cacophony the next. And on Magdalene, she leans even further into that volatility, her crystalline, Kate Bush-esque falsetto shape-shifting into something richer and thicker on “Holy Terrain,” angrier and rueful on “Fallen Alien,” and sweeping on the transcendent “Sad Day.”

At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On “Home with You,” her raspy delivery of “The more you have the more that people want from you” gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me I’d be home with you.” Anger and acceptance coexist here, one growing out of the other.

twigs has a knack for spinning mystical imagery out of everyday experience, and on the album she explores the shifting power dynamics at play in her life. The prying, judgmental gaze of the paparazzi can be easily imagined as a many-eyed monster in “Thousand Eyes.” Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like “I lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take you” on “Sad Day” suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’s feet, yet the phrase “take you” suggests that the object of her affections has no choice but to submit to her. Another often misrepresented biblical figure, Eve, comes to mind when twigs invites her lover to “taste the fruit of me” on the same song, but it’s not an act of temptation, it’s a plea.

For all the strength and self-possession twigs demands from herself and her lovers, she also provides space for the necessary grief that comes with saying goodbye to someone who wasn’t able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power she’s filled with to “cleanse” and “heal” on “Sad Day,” she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical “Daybed.” There’s little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes there’s an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigs’s reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone.

Label: Young Turks Release Date: November 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard Lowers the Stakes to Diminishing Returns

The album lowers the emotional stakes but still manages to dole out plenty of country-rock bombast.

3

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Wildcard
Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth/Sony

In a recent New York Times profile, Miranda Lambert called her seventh album, Wildcard, “straight down the middle Miranda Lambert.” Indeed, the album is a decided shift away from the somber reflection of 2016’s 24-track The Weight of These Wings, which was largely informed by the singer’s split from fellow country superstar Blake Shelton.

In many ways, Wildcard follows in the musical footsteps of last year’s Interstate Gospel, the third effort from the Pistol Annies, Lambert’s supergroup with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. The first half of Wildcard tips its 10-gallon hat toward that group’s style, which is typified by its brazen humor. Opening track “White Trash” is a country-rock earworm that sets the album’s tone with a fuzzed-out beat and rollicking banjo riff as Lambert proudly declares that—despite her 401k, treasures in her closet, and fancy house—she just can’t keep her “white trash off the lawn.” It’s not a confession so much as a flag-waving anthem.

It’s this type of outlaw energy that catapulted Lambert to stardom on 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it’s still present in fits and starts on tracks like “Way Too Pretty for Prison” and “Locomotive.” The album’s lead single, “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” finds her rattling off an embarrassing laundry list of character flaws with a knowing wink. The song’s vignettes range from getting “frisky with your boss at the coffee machine” and “knocked up in a truck at the 7-Eleven” to pouring “a merlot to go,” all delivered with nonchalant coolness.

The album’s second half loses a bit of its impact when the tempo downshifts. Songs like “Bluebird” and “How Dare You Love” harken back to some of the shimmery pop of 2009’s Revolution, and Lambert lets the gloom in on the drinking ballads “Dark Bars” and “Tequila Does.” On the midtempo “Pretty Bitchin’,” she rotely employs various uses of the word “pretty” with diminishing returns, describing the pretty things she owns, how pretty she looks from the front and back, and a general feeling of her life being “pretty bitchin’,” all things considered.

And while the latter half of Wildcard constitutes a bit of a shuffled deck of genres, there’s enough of a kick to the album as a whole to warrant its title, and Lambert certainly has the chops to sell it. Though she lowers the emotional stakes (and tracklist count) here, she still manages to deal out plenty of country-rock bombast, even if she’s traversed these genre paths before. At the very least, it’s nice to see Lambert kicking up her heels and having fun again.

Label: RCA Nashville Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Kanye West’s Jesus Is King Is a Compelling But Veiled Act of Self-Worship

The album is impeccably produced but finds Kanye barely shifting his musical approach.

3

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Jesus Is King

Kanye West has all but solidified his position as popular music’s most innovative high-profile producer, with every shift in his aesthetic focus over the last 10-plus years serving to found a whole new subgenre or micro-culture within hip-hop. That is, when those shifts aren’t merely bringing already extant ones a greater level of attention. Kanye has also consistently come up with compelling ways of giving voice to the various narratives that he’s built his music around. That latter point is likely to be a bit more controversial than the first, but consider this: Even when listeners balked early on at the size of the ego on a Chi-town upstart who thought he could spit as well as he could produce beats for Jay-Z, or later when they took umbrage with the Kanye who spun unapologetic tales of dark, twisted celebrity demigods, or when they rebuked him only after his decadence started to fuel more explicitly autobiographical material, all of the resulting albums have been met with intense amounts of interest from both pro- and anti-Kanye camps alike.

With Jesus Is King, that reliable metric for gaging the success of a Kanye album suggests a less positive result. The music here is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The big problem is how Kanye addresses the shift itself—in that Jesus Is King finds him barely shifting his musical approach.

The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success: his defiance in the face of a press he sees as persecuting him, his resistance to the temptations of social media, his income figures overcoming his debt. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King, the line—taken from this album’s “Closed on Sunday”—that resonates most with the message that a “born again” Kanye has stressed for most of this year: “My life is His, I’m no longer my own.”

Kanye’s own take on Kanye is still very much the focus here—and that becomes immensely frustrating when you consider “God Is,” the counter-example that the album provides. The track is Jesus Is King’s undeniable highlight, a fleeting glimpse of what a Kanye gospel album could sound like. His voice more cracked and vulnerable than he’s ever committed to record (no AutoTune, imperfections left undoctored), and over a looped sample of gospel godhead James Cleveland’s song of the same name, Kanye sings, or rather tunefully sermonizes, about his absolute dedication to his faith, and to this chapter of transformation in his life.

“God Is” is impactful, but more importantly, it shows the grace with which Kanye can deliver the sentiments of religious thought (“All the things He has in store/From the rich to the poor/All are welcomed through the door”) and the power of plainspoken prayer (“I know God is the force who lifted me up/I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup”). The song, almost disarmingly, contains only one genuine brag—“Sunday service on a roll!”— and otherwise gives itself over entirely to “a mission, not a show.” Agnostics and believers alike may be moved by Kanye’s words, or, more specifically, by how he emotes through them: “God Is” comes up against the physical limits of Kanye’s voice at the same time that the artist arrives at an open-hearted acceptance of things beyond his control.

Contrast those sentiments with “Closed on Sunday,” which references Chick-fil-A in its chorus. There’s a schism that threatens the foundation of Jesus Is King, and it’s not one that should prevent Kanye from being both reverent and funny; it’s that his willingness toward blasphemy is so tempered to the point that it comes off as innocuous. “When I thought the book of Job was a job/The devil had my soul, I can’t lie,” Kanye raps leadenly on “On God,” a track that goes on to credit the Almighty with the production of the Yeezy Boost 350 sneakers but nebulously unloads blame elsewhere for the cut that the I.R.S. takes of their sales. Worse are the lyrics of “Hands On,” in particular the dopey outro, thanklessly sung by gospel lifer (and frequent Ye collaborator) Fred Hammond: “To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking.”

Jesus Is King’s saving grace, then, is its predictably sharp production: from the Yeezy-less salvo of “Every Hour,” which features wall-of-sound vocals from the Sunday Service choir—who rip through an impassioned song that already sounds like a canonized gospel standard—to the triumphant, brassy fanfare of the much-too-short closer “Jesus Is Lord,” maybe Ye’s most baroque production since all of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The in-the-pocket production of songs like “Follow God” and “God Is” find him returning to one of his favorite formulas: A vintage soul sample first plays out relatively unabated, then is chopped and looped until it’s put in lockstep with a hard, galvanizing beat. “Follow God” takes as its foundation the Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose by Following God” and grinds a choice selection of bleating church organ and wailing vocal ad-libs against a pummeling bassline, providing the rhythmic bounce for Kanye’s elastic flow. The Sunday Service choir is again on hand to elevate “Selah,” essentially a rousing chant of “hallelujah” that’s augmented by dynamic leaps in octave and by Ye’s colossal bursts of percussive, scraping-metal sound effects.

There’s an issue here too, though, and it’s that some of the music on Jesus Is King may sound awfully familiar to Kanye devotees in the wake of what now probably amounts to the most significant leak of his career. Back in April, tracks from Yandhi, the album that Kanye was promoting until he indefinitely delayed it, made their way online, and included several songs that have been reshaped for Jesus Is King. Leaks can provide all sorts of complications when it comes to the experience of an artist’s finished product, even under normal circumstances, but it’s vexing that many of the Yandhi tracks have been carried over appear to have been tweaked specifically for the purpose of better aligning with Kanye’s embrace of his Christian faith. And the process of that revision has left many casualties, including the ingratiating “New Body” (and its snarling Nicki Minaj feature), which didn’t fit the God-fearing theme here but which also hasn’t been replaced by anything that’s nearly as tuneful or exciting.

The absence of quite a bit of material that would have otherwise been fit for release is especially glaring in light of Jesus Is King’s skimpy, 27-minute runtime. It also points to another problem, which is that Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. All this amounts to Kanye’s least substantial album to date, which is certainly a blow to the faithful, who continue to walk the finest of lines, putting up with Kanye’s erratic career moves as a cost, with the reward being the reward of the music itself.

But Jesus Is King isn’t the work of a has-been either; there are flashes of genius throughout, moments that insinuate where Kanye could go next with his music. In a sense, the album’s modest pleasures play to its (intended) message, which is supposed to be one of human fallibility and the prospect of improving oneself. But Kanye is eventually going to have to confront the serious limitations that his faith is putting on the range of his art’s expression.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Brooke Candy’s Sexorcism Is Torpedoed by Humorless Innuendo

The rapper-singer’s long-awaited debut album proves to be disappointingly one-note.

2.5

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Brooke Candy
Photo: Rony Alwin

Following the visually arresting video for Brooke Candy’s 2014 single “Opulence,” RCA Records reportedly pushed the L.A. rapper-singer in a more mainstream direction, resulting in a series of watered-down pop songs that clashed wildly with her eccentric personality. With the possible exception of 2016’s “Happy Days,” Candy seemingly struggled to reconcile her avant-garde instincts with her desire to deliver a message—in this case about mental health and substance abuse—to a wider audience.

Since parting ways with RCA in 2017, Candy has been free to let her freak flag fly, but her long-awaited debut studio album, Sexorcism, is disappointingly one-note. The daughter of a former executive at Hustler magazine, Candy has always been outspoken about her sexuality, and she expounds on the power of “pussy” on nearly every song here. “When I ride the D, I make it wet…Cum so hard, I wet the bed,” she raps over a spare trap beat on “XXXTC,” which all but wastes a feature from pop doyenne Charli XCX.

Candy has cited Madonna’s Erotica as an influence on tracks like “Rim,” a campy, formless tribute to analingus featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Aquaria and Violet Chachki. But Candy seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the enduring power behind the queen of pop’s 1992 opus. Unlike Sexorcism, the majority of Erotica isn’t about the physical act of sex, and even at its most explicit, both the pop craft and lyrical content of Madonna’s album are smartly layered. Candy’s lyrics, on the other hand, boast a simplistic notion of BDSM: “Tell me where it hurts and I’ll make it hurt better,” she proclaims on “FMU.”

When the album does stray from the topic of sex, as it does on “Freak Like Me,” Candy peddles boilerplate declarations of nonconformity—“I’m not America’s sweetheart, I’m more like Jeffrey Dahm[er]/Rather be hated for what I am than what I’m not”—in a polished pop package that likely would have pleased RCA. Only rarely does Sexorcism strike a balance between Candy’s rival inclinations: With its talk-box hook, opening track “Nymph” is both weird and catchy, while “FMU” is propelled by an infectious sample from Lords of Acid’s “I Sit on Acid.”

Another ‘90s throwback, “Cum,” finds guest Iggy Azalea spitting deliciously stupid couplets like “Murder the pussy, then plead your case/Fuck me good, then feed me grapes.” Unfortunately, the rest of the album is bogged down by humorless assertions of sexual prowess set to repetitive, narcotic beats (the inclusion of last year’s “Oomph” would have provided a welcome change of pace). After nearly half a decade in record label purgatory, surely Candy has something more to say than “eat my ass.”

Label: NUXXE Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guided by Voices’s Sweating the Plague Is Human-Scaled and Inventive

Many of the album’s best moments find the band in near-prog terrain.

4

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Guided by Voices
Photo: Tony Nelson

Composed of just 12 songs, none of which duck under the two-minute mark, Sweating the Plague is a different kind of Guided by Voices album. The band’s 29th effort is expansive rather than fragmentary, creating room for songs to breathe as opposed to smash up against one another. Where last April’s Warp and Woof spit out 24 lo-fi tracks in rapid-fire succession, and January’s double album Zeppelin Over China overwhelmed with a staggering 32 songs, Sweating the Plague gives the impression that frontman Robert Pollard is finally displaying a human-scaled canvas on which to present his work.

From 2012 to 2014, Pollard’s output leaned toward minimalist power-chord crunch in order to fit the endearing looseness of the reunited Guided by Voices lineup from the mid-‘90s; under the current lineup, however, Pollard often writes in a complexly anthemic yet no less shambolic vein, as if the Who’s Quadrophenia were reimagined by a beer-fueled garage band. More successful than similar efforts like those from the Doug Gillard era of the late ‘90s and early aughts (Universal Truths and Cycles and Earthquake Glue immediately come to mind), this spacious album provides a perfect format for this amalgamation.

Sweating the Plague also features several surprises. Opener “Downer” lays a post-punk foundation courtesy of Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr.’s brittle, palm-muted guitar work, while Kevin March’s upbeat-accenting drum hits emphasize Pollard’s suck-it-up denunciation of self-pity: “Oh, I don’t like to see you crying/It’s such a downer.” It’s a sonically combative starting point for a Guided by Voices album, but even when refusing the sing-along immediacy of a “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” or “Space Gun,” “Downer” still charges forward with the requisite burst of momentum-building energy. Swaying ballad-as-battle-cry “Mother’s Milk Elementary,” meanwhile, begins with an uncommonly lengthy vocals-only section that spotlights the mileage on—and the melancholic mortality of—Pollard’s golden-crisp baritone.

Churning out roughly five albums a year, Pollard has frequently been accused of valuing quantity over quality in order to indulge his legendarily superhuman songwriting pace. Yet Sweating the Plague contains fleshed-out realizations of Guided by Voices’s sketches and drafts that have been kicking around for years. “Street Party” repurposes a chiming riff from “The Kissing Life,” an unreleased track dating back to 1998, to wonderful effect, while the Byrds-influenced “Your Cricket Is Rather Unique”—galloping and then soaring in 12/8 time—brings glorious hi-fi life to a demo at least five years old. March assumes vocal duties on the track, in a rare instance of Pollard letting someone else sing his lyrics, and the drummer’s fragile voice makes the cryptic imagery—”Now we’re all unknown/Finding what you’ve sown/Suddenly the eyelids recede”—somehow brim with both sorrow and hope.

Many of Sweating the Plague’s best moments find Guided by Voices in near-prog terrain. While much too power-pop to act as homages to the early Genesis and King Crimson suites Pollard so adores, “The Very Second” and “Tiger on Top” nonetheless contain multiple melodic and structural detours that reveal new dimensions to his craft. “Sons of the Beard,” an album highlight, is inventive and epic in ways Pollard has seldom explored outside of his solo and side-project work. A long, somber, spacey acoustic verse gives way to a rousing electric chorus embellished by fuzzed-out synth glissandos, and before returning to another chorus the band delivers a two-part bridge that climaxes with a towering Gillard solo. That’s an eon of vocal-less instrumentation in GbV-time, but it’s also one of the most astounding feats this latest incarnation of the band has accomplished, a master class in texture, dynamics, and mood.

Not everything rises to this level of greatness, especially “Immortals,” given its pedestrian main riff. And one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at lead single “Heavy Like the World,” which contains a jangly guitar line almost identical to that of “Wormhole” from 1998’s Do the Collapse. But it’s a wonderfully ascendant track, one served well by Travis Harrison’s stellar production and his penchant for bringing March and bassist Mark Shue’s densely pounding rhythm section to the fore. This sound works wonders for the bouncy, chugging “Ego Central High” by discovering a Sabbath-like low end to a riff that would make Cheap Trick proud.

Whether Sweating the Plague initiates a new stylistic phase for this deathless band remains to be seen. While welcome, a more ambitious sound may very well soon make way for another round of succinct instant-classics like the recent “Cohesive Scoops” and “The Rally Boys.” For now, it’s worth appreciating this exciting outlier and a Guided by Voices that can be led triumphantly into uncharted water by its intrepid captain.

Label: Guided by Voices Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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