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Review: Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way




Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way

There’s a trend in current pop-culture criticism toward “consumer reviews,” which amount to little more than recitations of a few key details and two or three descriptive phrases, often lifted verbatim from a press kit, to give the “average” reader an idea of whether or not he or she might like to spend his or her hard-earned money on the product. No one wants to read analyses of form or content or broader context; they want a star rating that validates their own tastes. It’s the reason Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone give three stars or better to fully three-quarters of what they review; it’s not that the products in question really merit such praise, it’s that in trying to validate everyone else’s opinions, you can’t really have one of your own. It’s a reductive and ugly line of unthinking, really, but buried in it is the idea that there’s a certain value to critical objectivity. Since any fanboy can set up a website, it’s important to establish some distance, right?

In the interest of doing just that, I’ve waited a full month since the release of the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way to go on the record as to why it’s a complete failure of an album and as hatefully sold a product as I’ve ever encountered. It’s been deemed an “important” album in the popular press, presumably because it’s one of the first times that a recording artist, in marketing a new record, has done little more than throw a vitriolic, bile-spewing public temper-tantrum and been championed for the bravery of doing so.

But I’ll get to that soon enough. I’ll begin with the last thing that Taking the Long Way is actually about: the music. In looking to make their break from Nashville, the Dixie Chicks teamed up with producer Rick Rubin, the man behind the best country album of the 1990s, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. On first impression, that seemed like a smart decision, but the release of Cash’s Personal File (serendipitously, on the same day as the Dixie Chicks’ album) and the overall sonic goo of Taking the Long Way cast significant doubt on how well-prepared Rubin actually is to turn a country star into a rock star. Cash pulled it off because he’s Johnny Cash and, as Personal File reveals, he’d already figured out, long before working with Rubin, the right production gimmick to launch the second half of his career. The Dixie Chicks, in contrast, have said that their mantra in recording Taking the Long Way was, “What would Bruce Springsteen do?” To hear Taking the Long Way, it seems that the answer to that question, per the Dixie Chicks and Rubin, is, “Try to sound like Train.”

From their breakthrough in Nashville (and, moreover, from their origins as a cowgirl band performing on street corners in central Texas), what’s always been most striking about the Dixie Chicks is that they’re truly accomplished, first-rate musicians, and they figured out a compelling way to incorporate their skills with traditional country instruments—Martie Maguire on fiddle, her sister Emily Robison on banjo and several others—into a take on modern pop-country that was as distinctive for their actual artistic credibility as it was for their girl-group gimmick and kicking-ass-and-taking-names attitude. With the exception of Natalie Maines’s long-range missile launcher of a voice, which is placed front-and-center on every track, Taking the Long Way robs the Dixie Chicks of everything that made them distinctive, entirely losing the vitality of their sound. As bird-named bands who play hybrids of rock and country music go, they aimed for “Lyin’ Eyes”-era Eagles and came up with “Hole in the World”-era Eagles: drippy adult contemporary pap that’s non-threatening enough that it could play over the closing credits of a Disney cartoon.

As great a singer as Maines might be, that Robison and Maguire are given next to nothing to do for the bulk of the album is one of its most significant flaws. When they do turn up, it’s as Maines’s backup singers (singing campy doo-wop chants on “I Like It” or leading into orchestral swells that eventually drown them out on “Baby Hold On”) or to provide accents, such as Maguire’s don’t-call-it-a-fiddle on “Bitter End.” Bogged down as it is with guest contributors (Bonnie Raitt, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Keb’ Mo’, John Mayer, and, of course, Linda Perry), not one of the songs is founded on the fact that the Dixie Chicks are a band. Taking the Long Way could have been recorded by uncredited session musicians without making the Dixie Chicks seem any less involved in its creation. The Wreckers’ Stand Still, Look Pretty is more effective in establishing a sound.

It’s not just Rubin’s production choices that fail, though—it’s the songwriting. Looking at their impressive catalogue of hit singles, it’s telling that there are just two (“You Were Mine” and “Sin Wagon”) on which at least two-thirds of the trio share a writing credit. Their biggest hits were either written by someone else (“Wide Open Spaces,” “There’s Your Trouble,” “Long Time Gone,” “Travelin’ Soldier”) or by one of the Chicks writing with a collaborator (“Ready to Run,” “Without You”). On their first three albums, the Dixie Chicks irrefutably demonstrated that they’re better at choosing material than at writing it as a group. That’s not a knock against them, but an assessment of where, at this juncture in their career, the Dixie Chicks still had some growing room.

Taking the Long Way, in that sense, finds the Dixie Chicks treading water. Too many of the songs lack a melodic hook altogether (“Silent House” and “Baby Hold On” simply let Maines go for whatever high note might strike her fancy, while “Everybody Knows” and “Favorite Year” are interchangeable in their monotony) or take entirely too long to get there (“Easy Silence” drags on forever and ostensible gospel number “I Hope” plays more like a dirge). But for “Bitter End,” a Celtic-leaning toast song that has the album’s one standout melody, “I Like It,” which unfavorably recalls their cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” from the Runaway Bride soundtrack, and the harder rock of “Lubbock or Leave It,” the songs are of a nearly uniform midtempo shuffle. It’s all so very restrained and so very tasteful and so very safe and so very predictable. Or to mince fewer words, so very conservative.

The lyrics fare little better, with mixed metaphors (“We all rode the wave/Of that crazy parade” on “Bitter End”), clichéd images (“I can change like colors on a wall” on “Everybody Knows”), sloppy internal repetition (the overuse of “I’m mad as hell” on lead single “Not Ready to Make Nice”), non sequiturs (“Sunday morning, heard the preacher say/Thou Shall Not Kill/I don’t wanna hear nothing else/About killing and that it’s God’s will” is the logic-defying opening stanza of “I Hope”), and grade school rhymes (“The words that you said/They still ring in my head,” also from “Bitter End”) marring nearly every song. “I Hope” is the worst, though, with its “It’s okay for us to disagree/We can work it out lovingly” refrain at odds with the remainder of the album’s tone and its laughable, decidedly un-Wu-Tang “for the children” attitude entirely hypocritical unless the Dixie Chicks plan to drop signature songs like “Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” and “White Trash Wedding” from their concert set lists. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprising move, since it could self-serve as yet another nail in the crosses they’ve been hauling on their promotional rounds.

And for as boring and poorly constructed as the music on Taking the Long Way is, the album truly isn’t about anything more than the Dixie Chicks’ open contempt for both the genre of music that first provided them with a voice and for the audience that responded strongly enough to that voice to make the Dixie Chicks A-list music stars. Martyr complexes rarely make for real art, and the whole of Taking the Long Way is swallowed by its selling not as an album, but as a manifesto of insightful, focused outrage against both a conservative music industry and a political climate that meets any form of dissent with violence.

Which, if that’s what Taking the Long Way actually accomplished, would legitimize the album’s supposed pop-cultural importance, and which would be a cause célèbre that I’d gladly support. Like anyone who recognizes that lying is generally bad and who can read above a fourth grade level should, I fundamentally agree with the Dixie Chicks that the Commander in Chief is a source of the kind of profound shame that’s difficult to articulate in ways that come off much better than “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” And I agree with the Dixie Chicks that the country music industry’s reactionary backlash to Maines’s statement—made to an audience in London now more than three years ago—speaks not only to everything that’s ignorant and ugly about the “Good Ol’ Boys” boys’ club mentality that still controls that industry, but to everything that’s ignorant and ugly about the “You’re with us or against us” mentality that has controlled the U.S. government since 9/11.

I can’t—and, what with having a conscience and all, wouldn’t try to—defend a reaction so comprehensively indefensible. And, so entirely removed from the reality of the Dixie Chicks’ situation and knowing of that reality only what they have told the press, I wouldn’t tell them how they should respond to it. But as someone who bought Wide Open Spaces on the day it was released, and as someone who values and will defend both traditional and modern forms of country music, I will say that the way the Dixie Chicks have marketed Taking the Long Way—and again, it’s an album that reduces to its marketing—is every bit as reactionary as what they’re trying to reject.

The most obvious point that the Taking the Long Way woe-is-me blitzkrieg ignores is that this is hardly the first time that the Dixie Chicks have railed against the abuses of the country music industry. Following the release of Fly, the band became embroiled in a lengthy, unpleasant legal battle over royalties. They won their lawsuit, but it left them, understandably, bitter and disgusted with the way Nashville operates. In response, they took the moral high road by letting their music speak for itself. “Long Time Gone,” the first single from Home and handily the best country single of the decade thus far, not only outclassed everything played on country radio at the time of its release, it took several shots at the state of radio: “They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard/They got money, but they don’t have Cash.” More so than Maines’s remark about Dubya, shipping the five-minute-long, banjo-driven “Long Time Gone” to radio still stands as the ballsiest thing the Dixie Chicks have ever done.

Whether or not the country industry would’ve found another way to marginalize the Dixie Chicks had Maines not said what she did is purely speculative. But it’s curious that the Dixie Chicks’ history on Music Row has been omitted from the promotion of Taking the Long Way, and even more curious that, for all of their claims of not being ready to make nice, they’ve chosen to give up the fight altogether—especially since it’s a fight that, again, they’re well-equipped to win. With the possible exceptions of Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and Gary Allan, there’s really no other currently popular act in mainstream country that can hang with the Dixie Chicks when they’re on top of their game. You still have full creative control over your career, the across-the-board support of the critical community who will ensure your rightful place among the genre’s all-time greats, and a legion of fans that includes the new converts you won because of your outspokenness. What, really, have you lost?

It’s not clear how the Dixie Chicks would answer that. What is clear, instead, is that in their zeal to discredit country music and its fans, they won’t hesitate to adopt a condescending attitude and some carefully chosen revisionist history. To pick yet another obvious example, the Dixie Chicks insist that Taking the Long Way is an album intended to break them to a wider pop audience. What this ignores, of course, is that their most traditional album, the nearly all-acoustic Home, included their first crossover hit, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and still moved more than six million copies in spite of “the incident.” Moreover, it raises the questions of exactly how big the Dixie Chicks think the country-only demographic is, and why they assume that the 12 million people who bought Wide Open Spaces and the 10 million who bought Fly didn’t already represent precisely the broad pop audience they’re now courting.

Maguire has given some indication, though, stating, “I’d rather have a small following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.” It’s an awfully big statement—far bigger and nastier than anything Maines has ever gone on record as saying—from someone who used to dress up like Dale Evans, playing her fiddle while standing behind an open guitar case and performing for tip money. And it outs the Dixie Chicks as guilty of the exact same brand of ridiculous overgeneralizations and stereotypes as Keith, McEntire, and those DJs who rented a steamroller to flatten copies of their albums. As much as a misogynist like Keith wants loudmouthed women like the Dixie Chicks to know their rightful place, the Dixie Chicks, it seems, want to handpick who buys Taking the Long Way.

Well, far be it from this fan—one who, just two months ago, figured himself for a lifer, and who has never owned an album by either McEntire or Keith—to limit the Dixie Chicks from making music as bland as Taking the Long Way. And I know that liking country music has never been cool, and I know that writing music criticism has never been cool. But I also know that “getting” why the Dixie Chicks’ first three albums were great and that “getting” why Taking the Long Way is a shit storm that’s only about a storm of shit has nothing whatsoever to do with cool and everything to do with having respect for the power of popular music to move people, regardless of genre labels or political beliefs. And more importantly, I also know that artists who think so highly of themselves that they think they can decide who defines the audience that is allowed to respond to their art don’t deserve to have an audience at all. I’d be willing to bet that Bruce Springsteen knows that too. The Dixie Chicks, though, are starting down the long road to finding that out.

Label: Columbia Release Date: July 7, 2006 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Glass Animals’s Dreamland Relies Too Heavily on the Mundanities of Reality

The album makes room for evocative, sensory lyrics and sonics that verge on the cinematic, but it also spends a lot of time on the mundane.




Glass Animals, Dreamland
Photo: Elliott Arndt

Glass Animals’s Dreamland blurs the line between dreams and reality, winding its way through a diaristic tour of frontman Dave Bayley’s life. The album catalogues the singer-songwriter’s relationships, observations, and growing pains with a typically felt and colorful attention toward the senses. As such, it’s more personal than either of the band’s previous two efforts, but that also means that it sacrifices the kaleidoscopic alignment of feeling and imagination that helped make those albums so distinct. It’s a bit of a trade-off, then, as the change in subject matter allows Glass Animals to find new direction, but their previous mode of world-building was, in some ways, more satisfying.

The band’s 2014 debut, Zaba, was seemingly dispatched from another planet, with lyrics filled with oddball imagery that was accompanied by vaguely exotic, waterlogged instrumentals and distant birdcalls, while 2016’s How to Be a Human Being was a playfully literary collection of songs about a cast of fictional characters. Dreamland still makes room for evocative, sensory lyrics and sonics that verge on the cinematic, highlighting the sense of physical touch (the latter word is used several times throughout), but it also spends a lot of time on the mundane artifacts in Bayley’s personal memory bank—Grand Theft Auto, hotels with “pool paintings on the wall,” Scooby-Doo, The Price Is Right—to middling effect. And his expressions of lust for various lovers alternate between the pedestrian (“Sometimes all I think about is you/Late nights in the middle of June” is repeated ad nauseam on “Heat Wave”) and the nonsensical (“You taste like surfing videos,” from “Waterfalls Coming Out Your Mouth”).

Throughout Dreamland, Bayley remains fixated on the carnal escapes that make reality bearable, like sex and drugs, and the fleetingness of those pleasures, which Glass Animals explores with a knowing wisdom. The band’s songs toe the line between dissecting such coping mechanisms and offering an escape of their own: Their bouncy keys, irrepressible melodies, and Bayley’s malleable vocals are intoxicating in their own right, belying the fact that these songs are keenly aware of how temporary their pleasures are.

The standout “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” perfectly encapsulates this threading of the needle, pairing twirling flute and celebratory, horn-like synths with lyrics such as, “I know you want one more night/And I’m backsliding/Into this just one more time.” The relationship described on the song is a momentary fix whose dwindling potency is conveyed by Glass Animals in such a way that suggests time is running out and that they’re making the absolute most of it.

As Dreamland pivots from polished indie rock to electro-pop to hip-hop, it largely sidelines Drew MacFarlane’s guitar, which is only front and center on the self-professed B-side “Melon and the Coconut.” Thumping 808s and skittering hi-hats dominate songs like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and “Heat Wave,” replacing the shuffling drums, marimbas, and raw-material-inspired percussion of the band’s prior work, and it’s surprisingly refreshing. “Tangerine” incorporates a staccato beat that sounds almost identical to the one on Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” while Dr. Dre is name-checked on “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” a West Coast reference that Glass Animals doubles down on by having Top Dawg fixture Derek Ali mix the track.

Like How to Be a Human Being, Dreamland moves into more vulnerable terrain in the end, but the earlier album’s concluding run of emotive anthems, including “Poplar St” and “Agnes,” completed a well-rounded emotional arc. Here, songs like “It’s All So Incredibly Loud” and “Domestic Bliss”—which focus on a relationship’s breaking point and a woman experiencing domestic abuse, respectively—make dreary use of swelling string sections, undermining what should be the album’s tragic fulcrum. Instead, Dreamland’s best moments are propelled by slick drum machines and Bayley’s confidence as a frontman. His turn inward isn’t without humor and insight, but writing about other people on past albums provided a more enveloping experience, fleshing out imagined places and people with an intrigue that’s missing here.

Release Date: August 7, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Billie Eilish’s “My Future” Is an Unexpectedly Upbeat Tribute to Isolation

The singer’s new single is a deceptively hopeful tribute to personal independence.



Billie Eilish, My Future

The world could use a pick-me-up right about now, but those hoping that pop singer Billie Eilish would follow up her multi-Grammy-winning debut with a “Bad Guy”-style banger will likely be disappointed by her new single, “My Future.” The track, produced by brother Finneas, is the 18-year-old’s first new release since February’s “No Time to Die,” the theme from the James Bond film of the same name, which was pushed to the end of the year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like that song, “My Future” starts off as a dreary but gorgeous dirge, with Eilish’s soulful, layered vocals stacked on top of atmospheric keyboards. Halfway through, though, the track pivots to a spry midtempo shuffle, transforming into a deceptively hopeful tribute to personal independence: “I’m in love with my future/Can’t wait to meet her.” During a period in history when time itself seems to have come to a halt, and the future is uncertain, the song’s lyrics smack of irony: “I know supposedly I’m lonely now/Know I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone/But aren’t I someone?”

Eilish gets even more animated in the music video for “My Future.” The clip, directed by Australian artist Andrew Onorato, is bathed in cool blue tones before a rainstorm gives way to a more colorful palette, matching the song’s shift in mood and tempo. In her isolation, Eilish appears to find solace, communing with and eventually becoming one with nature.

Watch below:

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Review: With Folklore, Taylor Swift Mines Pathos from a Widening Worldview

The album anticipates questions surrounding the singer’s genre bona fides and leans into each contradiction.




Taylor Swift, Folklore
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

Country and roots music are too often used as shorthand for “serious” artistry, a notion steeped in matters of race and rockist authenticity fetishes. The implication that pop music is an inherently lesser art form has been the focus of the discourse around albums by Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus in recent years. Taylor Swift’s Folklore has already been subject to similar—and perhaps similarly misguided—scrutiny. That Swift has enlisted Aaron Dessner of the highly regarded indie-rock band the National as both a songwriting and producing partner—in addition to her frequent pop collaborator Jack Antonoff—and has embraced a grayscale, rustic visual aesthetic for the project has led many to declare the album a credibility maneuver or act of rebranding.

What makes Folklore such a compelling album, then, are the countless ways in which Swift, the savviest and most acutely self-conscious artist of her generation, anticipates questions surrounding her genre bona fides and leans into each apparent contradiction. She invites this degree of “What does it mean?” discursive handwringing because, on some level, it frees her to make the music she wants to make at any given moment. Folklore is neither a culmination of Swift’s career to date nor a pivot in a new direction. She’s doing exactly what she’s always done: offering a collection of incisive, often provocative songs that incorporate authentic, first-person details and leaving others to argue over specific genre signifiers.

Song for song, Folklore finds Swift at a new peak in her command of language. While tracks like “Cardigan” and “Invisible Strings” hinge on protracted metaphors, “Mad Woman” and “Peace” are blunt and plainspoken. In every instance, what’s noteworthy is Swift’s precision in communicating her exact intent. “I can change everything about me to fit in,” she sighs on “Mirrorball,” a sentiment that’s emblematic of her ability to bait autobiographical readings while also actively subverting them. If she’s offering a comment on her own desire to keep up with next-gen pop stars like Billie Eilish, then the obvious follow-up question is why nothing on Folklore sounds like a viable Top 40 single. Swift’s answer comes in the song’s final stanza, a marvel of vulnerability: “I’m still trying everything/To keep you looking at me.”

In other words, Swift’s at a point in her career where she knows chart success is incidental to broad cultural impact, and she has the cachet to sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter. “All Too Well,” from 2012’s Red, has rightfully become one of her signature songs despite not ever having been released as a single, and that same fate seems likely for many of the tracks here. Every song on Folklore boasts at least one couplet or stanza that’s simply extraordinary for its command of language, narrative voice, empathy, or some combination thereof.

The standout “Seven” first presents itself as a wistful remembrance of childhood before revealing the complexities of what we lose as we age: “Picture me in the weeds/Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Whenever I wanted.” The song also presents a queer text within Swift’s songwriting for the first time, which broadens the narrative voices she’s employed over the course of her career. “Illicit Affairs” builds to what seems like it will be one of the singer’s trademark middle-eight tone shifts, only to end abruptly without resolving into another chorus, enhancing the sense of finality in her dressing-down of a former lover. Rather than pulling her punches by repeating a catchy refrain or hook, she lets some of her bitterest lines linger, and it’s one of the album’s most impactful moments. Later, she sings from the POV of the rejected party on “This Is Me Trying” to devastating effect: “You told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential.” The track finds Swift giving credence to the other person’s view of her, making for an even more believable narrator.

Swift’s early albums were hamstrung by her insistence that hers was the only story to be told—that, essentially, she was the protagonist in everyone else’s autobiography, and not just in her own. Folklore’s shifting perspectives—an homage to heiress Rebekah Harkness on “The Last Great American Dynasty,” the queer through line in the love triangle of “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty”—highlight how Swift’s widening worldview has deepened her skills as a songwriter. And even if none of these tracks sound like a “hit,” “Invisible String” and “This Is Me Trying” still demonstrate Swift’s masterful grasp of song structure. Her use of repetition throughout the album is particularly effective: “The 1” invokes both “the greatest films of all time” and “the greatest loves of all time” as sources of regret, while each stanza on “Invisible String” begins with a line that uses passive voice to create a narrative remove.

That Swift employs her long-established songwriting tropes in novel ways is truly the most significant development on Folklore, rather than her choices of collaborators or whether the album scans as pop or alternative or electro-folk. She’s mined this type of melancholy tone before, but never for the full length of an album and certainly never with such a range of perspectives. It isn’t the weight of the subject matter alone that makes the album feel so vital—it’s the exemplary caliber of her writing. She may sing of wasted potential, but Folklore finds Swift living up to all of the praise she earned for her songwriting earlier in career.

Label: Republic Release Date: July 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Taylor Swift Drops Surprise Album Folklore and Self-Directed “Cardigan” Video

The special effects-heavy clip finds the singer climbing inside a dusty upright piano and into a moss-covered fantasy world.



Taylor Swift, Cardigan
Photo: YouTube

Less than a year after the release of her seventh album, Lover, Taylor Swift has dropped the follow-up, Folklore, along with a music video for the track “Cardigan.” The singer announced the surprise release on social media early on Thursday, accompanied by a series of grayscale photos of the erstwhile country star in the woods that—though reminiscent of an A24 horror film or a metal album cover—reflects a return to a more stripped-down sound.

Reportedly shot according to CDC-recommended Covid-19 safety guidelines and overseen by a medical expert, the video for “Cardigan” was directed by Swift, who also reportedly did her own hair, makeup, and styling. The special effects-heavy clip finds the singer climbing inside a dusty upright piano and into a moss-covered fantasy world, tinkling the ivories of an overflowing grand piano at the edge of a CGI waterfall. Later, she clings to the instrument on a stormy sea before traveling back to reality.

Co-written and produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, “Cardigan” is an unassuming piano ballad notable for its pointillistic percussion and Swift’s understated vocal performance. As for the titular sweater, it apparently serves as a metaphor for an artist whose love life bears the marks of more than a little wear and tear: “When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed/You put me on and said I was your favorite.”

Watch the video below:

Folklore was written and recorded remotely with Dessner and features collaborations with Bon Iver, Jack Antonoff, and a mysterious songwriter billed as William Bowery (after all, it wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album without a little sleuth-baiting).

Folklore is out now on Republic Records.

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Review: Ellie Goulding’s Brightest Blue Trades the Garish for the Merely Palatable

The album refines the singer’s sound, slowing tempos and removing sonic affectations to reveal a core of amorous pop anthems.




Ellie Goulding, Brightest Blue
Photo: Nathan Jenkins

Ellie Goulding’s Brightest Blue begins with the aptly titled “Start,” a tasteful, piano-driven rumination about the impossibility of new beginnings and the difficulty of overcoming past regrets. The track showcases the British singer-songwriter’s knack for letting songs build and generate suspense, and her skill for creating tension with delayed yet catchy hooks. As the album wears on, though, it’s clear that this opening salvo is a fluke, as the rest of the soporific set tries in vain to refine Goulding’s sound, slowing tempos and removing sonic affectations to reveal a core of amorous, unmemorable pop anthems.

On past albums, Goulding used bombastic production and copious vocal processing to distract from her limited range as a singer. If not for her whimsical phrasing and over-articulation of words, her paper-thin vocals would feel virtually anonymous. She largely downplays the grandiosity on Brightest Blue, instead opting for more stripped-down ballads like “Flux” and “Woman,” wherein she struggles to bring the melodies she’s written to life. These tracks give the impression of an industry songwriter laying down a guide vocal for a more skilled vocalist—a notion furthered by the head-scratching decision to both interpolate Dua Lipa’s “Be the One” and name check Madonna’s “Material Girl” in the same breath on “Power.”

Several songs on Brightest Blue utilize backup choirs, a trick Goulding has employed to maximum effect on past hits such as “Love Me Like You Do,” in an attempt to raise the album’s insistently midtempo pulse. Though fewer and farther between than in the past, strange computerizations mangle the singer’s voice on “How Deep Is Too Deep” and “Brightest Blue,” the hooks of which are either partially or fully sung via Vocoder. That these tracks’ ostensible emotional pinnacles find Goulding harmonizing with a robot counterpart—her voice manipulated beyond recognition—dehumanizes her, eliciting a discomfiting irony that plays as unintentional. It might be fun if Goulding weren’t so straight-faced about it all.

Goulding has tended toward painting co-dependence and submissiveness as causes for celebration. After all, she once opined, “Why don’t you be the artist and make me out of clay/Why don’t you be the writer and decide the words I say?” with little-to-no self-awareness on 2010’s “The Writer.” Here, she gestures toward self-love on “New Heights”—“Love without someone else feels right/Love for myself in this new light,” she sings—and the not-so-subtly titled interlude “Ode to Myself.” Yet, these attempts at thematic course correction feel bland and repetitive, and the red-flag relationship dynamics persist, such as her desire to conform herself to her lover’s identity on “Tides,” blithely relinquishing her own agency.

At times, it seems as if Goulding is pushing back against controlling and abusive partners, but that would require a more self-possessed and attitude-laden POV, which is entirely absent here except, perhaps, on the single “Hate Me.” For the most part, she doesn’t have the chops or soul of contemporaries like Florence Welch, who sings of similar subject matter with a real torch, and who shares a collaborator in Joseph Kearns, who produced almost every song on Brightest Blue. At Kearns’s behest, the album takes a relatively new tack for Goulding, trading the garish for the palatable, but it’s no less grating as a result.

Label: Polydor Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Protomartyr’s Ultimate Success Today Is a Visceral Portrait of Discontent

The album fuses existentially oriented lyrics with ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety.




Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today
Photo: Trevor Naud

Protomartyr’s sound is forged from the bones of punk and the blood of indie rock. The Detroit four-piece delivers heady lyrics with an ironic detachment in the vein of Destroyer and the Mountain Goats, while the blistering noise and distorted intensity of their music brings to mind Sonic Youth and early Sleater-Kinney. Their fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, continues this stylistic balancing act, with existentially oriented lyrics accompanied by ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety.

With their 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, Protomartyr established an effectively brute-force post-punk approach, but by 2017’s Relatives in Descent, they’d mastered the ability to prevent both the literary brawn of their lyrics and the sophistication of their musical arrangements from getting lost in the wreckage. Tracks like “Modern Business Hymns” and “The Aphorist” are reminders of the band’s knack for whipping up a din and then immediately cutting through the chaos, as well as their mastery of the art of modulation—of when to let things simmer and when to let them boil over.

This approach renders the wailing and assaultive crescendos of their music that much more potent. There’s a form to the function, of course. References to philosophical concepts and pre-Enlightenment literature could be considered over-thought if Protomartyr’s sound didn’t possess such raw immediacy. The band’s emphasis on Greg Ahee’s dissonant guitar lines, and their play with different levels of loudness, results in songs that prize forward motion.

A dark vision of the individual’s role in society is given voice by frontman Joe Casey on “Bridge & Crown”: “Everybody knows/We’re holding on to little dreams/To drive our bodies down the line/Until there’s nothing left.” The band’s catalog is strewn with such musings about life as a fulfillment of a disappointing fate, and they’ve perfected that obsession here. Alex Leonard’s drums slam with guillotine-like efficiency, and songs often end with the spike of a minor-key chord, providing little comfort after all the tense buildup. The album externalizes the workings of a tortured mind, one whose only semblance of hope, as evoked on the final track, “Worm in Heaven,” is a basic acknowledgement of existence—of having been alive and leaving a trace of that presence.

Protomartyr’s despair is rooted in capitalism, whose enervating routines the band satirizes throughout Ultimate Success Today. Casey wields a stinging, well-observed disdain for the corporate world and its participants, as well as for the insidiousness of technology. The feral “Processed by the Boys” comes for the free-market patriarchy with teeth bared and guitars ablaze: “Fill out the form, download the app/Submit your face into the scanner/Everybody’s hunted with a smile/Being processed by the boys.” The singer’s cutting truths and humor are delivered in a mode that’s nearly spoken word—forceful, angry, and declarative. Elsewhere he sings with a slurred drawl that’s forlorn and observant. Wishful sentiments curdle into bitter mantras like “Dignity or toil/Syndicate or gang/Rose and thorn,” on “Michigan Hammers,” or the titular lyric, which appears on three different songs, teasing out his pessimistic worldview in loops of self-defeat wrought by systems of productivity and profit.

At times, Ultimate Success Today can be too self-aware. On “The Aphorist,” a title among several here that could double as descriptors for the band’s lyrical aesthetic, Casey muses, “We’re all mowing esoteric patterns in the grass.” And the album is almost too neat, given Protomartyr’s newfound use of saxophone, self-conscious touches like the chirping crickets at the beginning and end of a few tracks, and the seamless sequencing of songs. But the restless punk spirit and flippant, downtrodden ethos that prevail over the project render Protomartyr’s painstaking intellectualizations as fuel for a visceral winding up and release of discontent.

Label: Domino Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Chicks’s Gaslighter Is a Defiant Act of Rebranding

The band’s first album in 14 years is steeped in personal and political rage.




The Chicks, Gaslighter
Photo: Columbia Records

There’s compelling data, generated largely by the work of Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottowa, that draws a clear correlation between the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks from country radio and the immediate and striking downturn in airplay for all women on that format. The statistics are dire and indefensible. Though program directors and radio consultants will deny, deny, deny, there’s evidence that the industry made a purposeful choice to punish all female artists for the Dixie Chicks’s perceived crimes.

So, in 2020, country music really and truly needs a comeback from the Dixie Chicks, an album that will allow one of the genre’s all-time greatest acts to stage a triumphant return and redress the industry’s injustices over the last decade. But Gaslighter, the band’s first album in 14 years, isn’t it. Instead, it’s a defiant act of rebranding: The Dixie Chicks are now known simply as the Chicks—a not-insignificant change that speaks to both the social power of language and to the trio’s stated intent to “meet this moment” in our nation’s history.

Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer figure even less prominently on Gaslighter than they did on the band’s last album, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, and that’s also a not-insignificant development. By teaming up with producer Jack Antonoff, the group has made a decisive transition into a pop act. It’s easy to mourn the sound that defined the band, but to reject the album out of hand for its pop aesthetics is to deny them their own agency as artists.

Gaslighter emerges as a fascinating, messy album that’s steeped in personal and political rage. Divorce is hardly unusual subject matter in pop and country music, but artists who record “divorce albums” often struggle with the notion that they should aspire to making their story universally accessible to listeners. Natalie Maines makes no such mistake in her songwriting here. What elevates Gaslighter above thematically similar albums is the specificity of her unflinching detail as she recounts her ongoing legal battles with ex-husband Adrian Pasdar.

On “Sleep at Night,” Maines retells the story of how Pasdar brought his mistress backstage at a concert to introduce her as a fan of the band. Maines is fully in control of her narrative voice when she sings on the track: “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me/How messed up is that?/It’s so insane that I have to laugh/But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/There’s nothing funny about that.” Later, on “Set You Free,” the soaring ballad that closes Gaslighter, she pleads, “Decency would be to sign and release me,” referencing the still-festering terms of a contract dispute.

On the tracks that explicitly relate to her divorce, which is a full three-quarters of the album, Maines dispenses with the idea of a narrative remove. She sings in first person, and the details she’s chosen to share are autobiographical, albeit presenting only her perspective. At times, that makes standout songs like “Hope It’s Something Good” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” feel, at the very least, like voyeurism. While it’s always a critical dead-end to assume that first-person narrators are stand-ins for a singer, Maines actually invites that reading: On “Gaslighter,” when she sings, “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,” it’s a marvel of bitterness. That the album later includes a song with the title “Tights on My Boat,” though, lessens the mystique or possibility for interpretation or engagement.

That would be more of an issue if the songs weren’t so well-constructed and engagingly performed. But that’s exactly what makes Gaslighter superior to its predecessor. As part of my clinical work, I’ve testified as a witness in some truly nasty divorce cases, and I’ve never once thought to set court transcripts to a percussive four-four stomp or some Lorde-style EDM, but damned if it doesn’t work for the Chicks here. “Gaslighter” and the extraordinary “March March” boast distinctive lyrical hooks, while “For Her” and “Julianna Calm Down” feature real dynamic ranges that give the tracks a sense of movement and depth. Antonoff’s production choices truly draw into sharp relief Rick Rubin’s conservativism at the helm of Taking the Long Way.

While the album sounds current for 2020, there are a handful of moments that suggest how much more strongly Antonoff could have leaned into the Chicks’s previous style. On “For Her,” Antonoff layers one of Strayer’s finger-plucked banjo figures into an arrangement that explodes into a sing-along gospel chorus, while Maguire’s fiddle adds a jarring, ominous tone to the instrumental outro of “March March.” When working with a vocalist as powerful as Maines, the impulse to foreground her performances makes sense—and it’s worth noting that “For Her,” “Julianna Calm Down,” and “Set Me Free” are among the finest performances of her career. But the album gives the impression that Antonoff wasn’t sure how to engage fully with Maguire and Strayer’s exemplary skills with traditional acoustic instruments.

By incorporating country signifiers into what is otherwise a terrific, of-the-moment pop album, Antonoff and the Chicks could have come up with a style that’s even more progressive, akin to the production on Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour. If nothing else, that highlights how the Chicks still have room to grow, either with or without Antonoff, as they move into this new phase of their career. Gaslighter may not have been the album that country music needed, but it’s clearly the one that the Chicks needed to make.

Label: Columbia Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lianne La Havas’s Eponymous Third Album Embraces the Catharsis of Loss

On her third album, the British singer-songwriter settles into a sense of immediacy.




Lianne La Havas
Photo: Hollie Fernando

British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas is an adept storyteller, capable of both capturing who we are at our most alone and making us feel closer to one another. Her love songs conjure a striking intimacy, even when she’s backed by the sumptuous BBC Symphony Orchestra in the storied Barbican Hall, and take on a degree of universality, even when she’s singing directly to a video camera in her living room. But it’s the latter method, when her sound is at its most stripped down, that best conveys the evocative immediacy that caught the attention of Prince, who mentored La Havas in the years before his death.

On her third album, La Havas settles into that immediacy, positioning her guitar as the beating heart of the music. The eponymous album finds her again chronicling the course of a romance, but this time she quite intentionally does away with the glossy fuss of 2015’s blindingly polished Blood, subsisting throughout on her hard-earned wisdom. The album instantly feels more purposeful than its predecessor: Where Blood can feel labored over, perhaps too hungry for hits, Lianne La Havas isn’t seemingly beholden to such expectations.

As she recounts the fate of a relationship from its onset to its demise, La Havas often prioritizes the passion of the moment over the logic of hindsight bias. On “Read My Mind,” you can practically hear her smile as she sings, “The pure joy/When a girl meets a boy/Pure chemistry.” She never loses sight of her needs, however distressing they might be. She’s quick to provide counsel to herself and outright plead with her lover on “Paper Thin.” Her vocal floats, at times on the verge of cracking from emotion, atop harp-like fingerpicking: “Baby, you gotta run free/Please don’t forget about me.” La Havas leans into the heartrending grief of prematurely losing a relationship.

A cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” appears at the climax of Lianne La Havas as a fretful turning point in the album’s central relationship. La Havas’s version of the In Rainbows track is slower and earthier than Radiohead’s more cerebral original, yet it retains all of its fragility. Radiohead articulates the unspoken fears and doubts that occupy a night spent overthinking, and La Havas is seized by the same impulse to verbalize her grievances, gingerly handling the painful edges of rejection and abandonment, albeit with more self-compassion.

Sonically, the warbly synth of “Courage” and frantic drumming of “Seven Times” don’t feel too far removed from In Rainbows’s sonic palette. But La Havas’s style remains tricky to pin down, existing somewhere in the nexus of the soulful warmth of Corinne Bailey Rae, the confessional lyricism of Amy Winehouse, and the folky melodicism of Joni Mitchell. To call it soul music would be reductive; too many black artists have hastily been assigned the label just for the color of their skin, a restrictive tendency that La Havas herself has railed against. But without a doubt, La Havas makes soul music insofar as it originates from the soul.

The album’s twinkling denouement, “Sour Flower,” depicts the metamorphosis that can occur after overcoming a breakup. La Havas’s voice is rich and robust as she belts, “I’m not crying over you/When I cry/Now I’m free.” She attains catharsis by providing herself refuge and realizing that she can heal herself. She leaves us with an empowering moral: that we possess the ability to revive our spirits after loss, and that it may well be boundless.

Label: Nonesuch Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Julianna Barwick’s Healing Is a Miracle Is Music as Spiritual Renewal

The album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures.




Julianna Barwick, Healing Is a Miracle
Photo: Jen Medina

As a singer, composer, and producer, Julianna Barwick uses her vocals as a foundation, stacking multi-tracks of her voice with strings and piano, and blending it all beneath layers of reverb. Save for the occasional poetic repetitions and formed thoughts, she doesn’t sing actual words, fusing emotions and imagined spaces through a collage of vocables and human noise. Upon first listen, her songs can feel monotonous, but tiny modulations give them dynamism. They don’t drone so much as pleasantly sustain a pace and mood.

Barwick’s fourth album, Healing Is a Miracle, is a tale of spiritual renewal that’s both striking and, even at 34 minutes, patience-testing. As its title indicates, the album takes on the abstract subject of systems of regeneration, both natural and otherwise. The opening track, “Inspirit,” comes on like a wall of sound, Barwick’s ecstatic vocals giving the impression of finding wonder in the mundane, the vocal parts joined together in a powerful cluster, barely distinguishable as she sings, “Open your heart/It’s in your head.”

While Barwick’s style can be wondrous, it isn’t fanciful, acknowledging the ebb and flow of life and death. On “Flowers,” a harsh, buzzy synth nearly overwhelms the choral arrangement in a way that grounds Barwick’s breathy vocals, while the percussion on “In Light,” featuring guest vocals from Jónsi, galumphs steadily like a heartbeat before tapering off, evoking the fragility of human life. Healing Is a Miracle is well sequenced, and its songs’ emphasis on direction achieves a circuitousness that plays nicely with album’s chosen theme of life cycles.

A longing for connection to a higher power—a notion of singing to the heavens—is a thread that runs throughout Barwick’s work. While her vocals on Healing Is a Miracle are less celestial than those on her 2011 breakout, The Magic Place, these songs similarly show an interest in the directionality of sound. The trajectory of “Safe” is one of gradual elevation and an ever-approaching proximity, employing distancing techniques for something more terrestrial rather than otherworldly. Likewise, “Wishing Well” seems to find Barwick pining for earthly connection, the vocals reaching outward as opposed to heavenward.

Considered though it is, though, Healing Is a Miracle can sometimes be so delicate as to be weightless, and the music’s accumulation of details and small shifts in tone makes it more interesting in theory than practice. Even still, the album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures, from the electronic flourishes featured throughout to the influence of hip-hop beatsmith Nosaj Thing on the closing track, “Nod.” Healing Is a Miracle is music as balm, with the human voice a vehicle for rejuvenation.

Label: Ninja Tune Release Date: July 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon Is a Half-Baked Epitaph

The album has the feel of a B-sides collection culled together as a cash-in on the rapper’s death.




Pop Smoke, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon
Photo: Amzy Obr

Pop Smoke, born Bashar Jackson, emerged as part of a crop of young rappers who took the morbid bluntness of drill, a subgenre of trap music that originated in Chicago’s South Side in the early 2010s, and adapted it to the ethos of New York City street life. In the Brooklyn rapper’s case, the translation was shrewd, utilizing the help of East London producer 808Melo, who, along with Rico Beats, oversaw the entirety of Pop Smoke’s 2019 mixtape Meet the Woo, creating a sound that was lively, booming, and faithful to Jackson’s origins while cloaking his gang-life testimonials in a new stylistic mode.

When Jackson was shot and murdered in Los Angeles in a home invasion earlier this year, he’d just released his second mixtape, Meet the Woo 2, and was in the process of recording his studio debut, now posthumously released under the title Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon. Unfortunately, yet all too predictably, the album has the feel of a B-sides collection culled together as a cash-in on his death. It attempts to expand Pop Smoke’s sound and ambitions, but without him around to shape and hone the work, his collaborators struggle to assemble something more than a pale reflection of what might have been.

Where Pop Smoke’s mixtape raps were notable for their conviction of delivery and tightly wound compression, here he sounds fainter and less engaged. His verses on “Aim for the Moon” and “Creature” don’t have the same punchy impact. In his best moments, Pop Smoke was able to channel his untamed aggression into repetitive, elemental lyrics that were colored by his force of personality (such as “Dior,” which has been tacked on to all three of his releases, including this one). Though not as adept at complex wordplay, his appeal was akin to the tough-talking, chest-puffing brio of DaBaby, who’s featured on “For the Night.”

Along with a live-wire masculinity, the album also contains the ill-advised forays into R&B found on DaBaby’s Blame It on Baby. Ladled with plenty of Auto-Tune, neither rapper has a compelling singing voice, and yet multiple songs on this album attempt to position Pop Smoke as a softer-spoken purveyor of love songs. “Something Special” and “What You Know Bout Love” sample Fabolous and Tamia’s “Into You” and Ginuwine’s “Differences,” respectively, marking the farthest the rapper has strayed from his patented drill and trap origins, but they’re dreary and tepid rather than exciting sonic departures. When he ad-libs, “Oh, you ain’t know I could sing?,” at the beginning of “Mood Swings,” it comes across as empty boast.

Even the tracks that stick to Pop Smoke’s established drill mode don’t have the inventiveness and coiled energy of his mixtape highlights. Half of what makes a song like “Welcome to the Party” so enjoyable is its menacing yet gleeful production, all warped violin loops and careening, demented bass. Comparable tracks on Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, such as “Gangstas” and “West Coast Shit,” trade these inspired choices for a minimalist piano and snare combination. The production feels mournful rather than charged, which makes sense given the turn of events but doesn’t square with the late artist’s strengths.

A handful of moments here make good on Pop Smoke’s promise. “Got It on Me” and “44 BullDog” find him doggedly racing against their beats, and there are brief instances where the rapper’s glib sense of humor and confidence invest lines like “I need your number and that’s that” and “I ain’t with the talk or the chit chat” with a hoarse individuality. But on the whole, in broadening his music’s scope, those responsible for piecing together Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon have lost sight of the local specificity, quirky charisma, and energy that made a name for Pop Smoke in the first place.

Label: Republic Release Date: July 3, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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