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
Madonna and Swae Lee’s “Crave” Music Video Delivers a Message – Watch
Alternating between color and black and white, the video’s concept is refreshingly simple.
Though Madonna’s 2015 album Rebel Heart was infamously plagued by leaks, the singer has kept a tight lid on the follow-up, Madame X. Until last week, that is. Details about the project were scarce leading up to the release of the first single, “Medellín,” but a rough cut of the music video for “Crave,” the album’s second single, leaked after director Nuno Xico inadvertently posted a “fully unfinished” clip to his Vimeo account.
The leak likely cranked up the heat on what already seemed like a rushed release. Madonna reportedly skipped this year’s Met Gala to shoot the video for “Crave,” which is far more radio-friendly than the bilingual “Medellín,” featuring reggaeton singer Maluma. The song is a midtempo trap ballad—yes, that’s a thing—that juxtaposes acoustic guitar and Madonna’s plaintive vocal with 808 snares and a guest verse from rapper-singer Swae Lee.
The video for “Crave,” officially out today, opens with the queen of pop releasing a messenger bird off the roof of a building in downtown New York, overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. One by one, Swae collects her messages, which include a reference to Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Madame X’s favorite novel.
Alternating between color and black and white, the video’s concept is refreshingly simple, even if the frenetic editing and Madonna’s jerky, hyper-sexualized dance moves clash with the track’s unorthodox but elegant arrangement. Thankfully, she ditches the wigs from “Medellín,” though she is seen donning that as-yet-unexplained “X” eye patch throughout.
Madame X will be released on June 14 via Interscope Records.
Review: Jamila Woods’s LEGACY! LEGACY! Is a Chronicle of Black Trauma and Joy
The singer-songwriter imbues her sophomore effort with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her predecessors.4
Jamila Woods imbues her sophomore effort, LEGACY! LEGACY!, with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her artistic predecessors. With the exception of “FRIDA,” which is dedicated to famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, each track bears the name of a black artist, musician, or writer, assembling an illustrious creative lineage stretching from Muddy Waters’s southern blues to Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism. Being given this kind of insight into a cross-section of Woods’s influences is a small but mighty pleasure for all that it reveals about her creative process, but the musician takes it one step further, presenting the songs here as dialectical tribute, not merely homage.
A spoken-word poet and Pushcart Prize nominee, Woods proven herself an emotive wordsmith, and LEGACY! LEGACY!, like 2016’s Heavn before it, revels in the power of language. On the high-spirited “OCTAVIA,” she honors African-American slaves who illicitly taught themselves to read and write, framing that legacy of language within the accomplishments of science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and issuing a call to empowerment: “Don’t ever let a textbook scare you.” She delights in hyperbole on “GIOVANNI,” a tribute to her matrilineage inspired by Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.” For Woods, words are both sword and shield in the way that they liberate one from adversity and honor the ego.
Although the album explores intergenerational black trauma and joy, Woods’s personal insight into such experience functions as the album’s anchor and serves as a more accessible entry point. Inspired by an interview in which Jean-Michel Basquiat refused to divulge the source of his rage, “BASQUIAT” attests to the power of a not allowing other people to regard your anger as a spectacle. Backed by the jagged textures of descending guitar passages and insistent percussion, Woods divulges how concealing the particulars of her own anger allows her to claim absolute dominion over it: “I smile in your face, but the oven’s on high.” On “BALDWIN,” Woods criticizes the “precious lethal fear” and “casual violence” of white people: “My friend James/Says I should love you anyway…But you’re making it hard for me.” Throughout the album, Woods utilizes the knowledge of her forebears as a diving-off point, advancing or contradicting their ideas to relay her own message.
Often, Woods plays with her vocal delivery, extending and contorting her pronunciation and intonation to imbue her songs with a childlike air. An ode to the necessity of preserving independence in a relationship, “FRIDA” alludes to the home Kahlo shared with Diego Rivera, a pair of twin houses united by a bridge. The repetition in the refrain—“If I run, run, would you, you, you see, see, see me?”—brings to mind the rhythms of a playground game, and this guileless atmosphere casts a gentle, carefree light on the tangle of expectations a relationship can conjure. “SONIA” unfolds like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, little girl on the grind/Met a boy, he was nice at the time.” Woods affirms the pain of a toxic relationship to validate it and ensure it cannot be erased, stating simply in the chorus: “It was bad, it was bad.” She sings the word “bad” as an oscillation, fluidly moving up and down the scale like a nursery rhyme.
LEGACY! LEGACY! chronicles the adversity that women of color regularly face, but at the heart of Woods’s music is an urgent desire to heal and be healed. Throughout the album, from refusing to compromise her ideals (on “EARTHA”) to embracing her peculiarities (on “BETTY”), Woods stresses that the first step to healing is a regard for one’s own boundaries, values, and desires—or, to put it more simply, self-respect. That self-respect is emboldening and incendiary in the face of generations of devastating animosity, the rationale behind the battle cry on “ZORA”: “None of us are free, but some of us are brave.”
Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Carly Rae Jepsen’s Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love
The album doubles down on the singer’s devotion to all things love and ‘80s pop-rock.3.5
In a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, music can provide reliable solace and stability. A vital component of callout research—the process Top 40 radio stations use to test the favorability of songs—is “familiarity.” A song that’s recognizable is more likely to receive a high score from listeners, but it also perpetuates a feedback loop where artists are de-incentivized from substantively tinkering with their established sounds.
Carly Rae Jepsen, of course, isn’t your typical radio star. Aside from her breakthrough hit “Call Me Maybe,” her success has been largely fomented by gushing critical praise and word of mouth. But success in the age of Spotify and social media is, like radio, predicated on giving people what they want, when they want it. And Jepsen’s fourth album, Dedicated, is a carefully calibrated attempt at brand extension, reprising the effervescent pop of her last two albums while at the same time acknowledging that the 33-year-old is now a full-grown woman.
For the most part, Jepsen succeeds at threading that needle. The album’s lead single, “Party for One,” initially felt like a retread, its opening strains nodding to “Call Me Maybe” and its whirling strings and bouncy keyboards acting as if not a day has gone by since her last album, 2015’s Emotion. As the closing track of Dedicated, however, the song clicks perfectly into place, a declaration of independence that bookends an album’s worth of frustrated desire: “I’m not over this, but I’m trying,” Jepsen humbly proclaims.
“This” being the various love affairs—consummated or otherwise—that comprise the album’s loose narrative. Dedicated opens with “Julien,” a recollection of a fleeting romance—“I’m forever haunted by our time,” Jepsen sings wistfully—followed by over a dozen songs that luxuriate in love or fret over the loss of it. She ponders its meaning on the euphoric “Real Love,” her voice filled with knowing abandon (“I go everyday without it/All I want is real, real love…I don’t know a thing about it/All I want is real, real love”), and shakes off an affirmation that’s too little to late on “Right Words Wrong Time,” the album’s sole ballad.
Dedicated is, well, dedicated to its theme, revisiting topics Jepsen studiously explored on Emotion. One notable development is the singer’s newly and boldly expressed sexuality. “I wanna do bad things to you,” she declares on “Want You in My Room,” before coyly asking, “Baby, don’t you want me to?” She similarly plays the coquette on “I’ll Be Your Girl,” beckoning her object of desire to “come to bed,” and promises “sweat disco all night” on the squelchy “Everything He Needs,” channeling “Physical”-era Olivia Newton-John.
The album also doubles down on its predecessor’s fixation on ‘80s pop-rock tropes. “Want You in My Room” is awash in Vocoder effects, shimmering new-wave guitars, and a grinding bassline straight out of Cameo’s “Candy”—all within less than three minutes, and topped off with sax solo for good measure. The kitschy “Everything He Needs” is the sonic equivalent of a velvet painting, based on a pitched-up vocal sample of Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye. Producer John Hill lends several tracks a distinct reggae groove, like the simmering “Too Much” and the ska-infused “I’ll Be Your Girl,” while “For Sure” dizzyingly pairs tribal rhythms with swirling synths and chants.
These tweaks to Jepsen’s formula feel less significant when placed alongside more boilerplate fare like the single “No Drug Like Me” and the cloying “Feels Right,” both of which could be leftovers from Emotion. But Jepsen deserves credit for committing to a pure pop sound when it might be shrewder to venture into more hip-hop-influenced terrain. There’s something to be said for the virtues of familiarity—even if it means you won’t get played on Top 40 radio.
Label: Interscope Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: The National’s Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious
The album is the band’s widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.4
In early 2013, I was interning at a recording studio in upstate New York where the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner were working on overdubs for the band’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, which was released later that year. As playback of the lovely “I Need My Girl” filled the control room, one of the brothers remarked, somewhat shockingly, that the National’s frontman, Matt Berninger, isn’t a great singer.
Berninger’s thick, apollonian baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in indie rock, and he wields it like a weapon, lending immense gravitas to everything he sings. He doesn’t have much range as a vocalist—in terms of both emotion and literal notes—endowing a certain level of sameness to the Dessners’ compositions. But he and the rest of the band have managed to parlay that limitation into a consistent, often brilliant 20-year career. Nonetheless, it’s reason enough to approach their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, with skepticism that 16 tracks and over an hour of running time might be a bit too much Berninger for one sitting.
The first half of the album’s opening track, “You Had Your Soul with You,” boasts the same type of deconstructed post-guitar rock that the National has been making for a while now, with glitchy electronics, a lurching drum pattern, and Berninger intoning about loss and failure. But after the building instrumentation fades away into lush piano and strings, the first voice we hear isn’t Berninger’s, but that of Gail Ann Dorsey, longtime bassist and vocalist for the late David Bowie. When she sings, “You have no idea how hard I died when you left,” her steely but buoyant delivery offers an emotional shade to this brooding line that Berninger never could have achieved. It’s this moment that defines the rest of I Am Easy to Find, as Dorsey is one of various women who share the mic with Berninger over the course the album. The result is the National’s widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.
Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables, among others, aren’t just some form of affirmative action for a band that’s sometimes derided as the epitome of self-absorbed straight-white-guy rock. The main impetus for their presence on I Am Easy to Find was, in fact, a short film of the same name directed by Mike Mills, and the band’s desire to more directly reflect the film’s female protagonist, played by Alicia Vikander. Besides, Berninger has often collaborated with his wife, writer and former New Yorker fiction editor Carin Besser, on lyrics for the National, so having female voices sing those lyrics is just a more explicit acknowledgement of how Besser’s perspective has shaped the band’s lyrical identity.
Still, the effect of those voices spotlights the nuances of the Dessners’ compositional craft. From the stately piano balladry of “Roman Holiday” and “Light Years” to the more propulsive “Rylan” and “The Pull of You,” even seemingly standard-issue National songs are made rewarding by the guest singers’ eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. It’s one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date.
The preponderance of other voices on I Am Easy to Find is such that Berninger is at times reduced to little more than a bit player in his own band, as on the swirling, blustery “Where Is Her Head” and the slow-building “So Far, So Fast,” a showcase for Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. On the occasions when he does wrest the spotlight entirely for himself, even the greatest indulgence he can muster—“Not in Kansas,” a seven-minute ballad composed of stream-of-consciousness musings—utterly charms and never becomes overbearing.
Of the many singers featured on I Am Easy to Find, the ones who leave the greatest impression are the members of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, who make multiple appearances throughout the album. Their presence, including on the wordless interludes “Her Father in the Pool” and “Underwater,” is ethereal and indelible, miles away from the band’s usual, insular timbre.
Considering how many of the songs on I Am Easy to Find are leftovers—mostly from the sessions for 2017’s Sleep Well Beast, though “Rylan” dates back as far as 2010—it’s remarkable how much of a piece it feels. That said, one does eventually feel the album’s length, with the stretch of songs in between “You Left Your Soul with You” and “I Am Easy to Find” feeling comparatively pedestrian—the sounds of a band treading more familiar ground before really staring to take chances. But once they do, the sprawl quickly begins to justify itself, revealing some of the most ambitious music the National has ever made.
Label: 4AD Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Vampire Weekend’s Father of the Bride Is Generous with Its Rewards
There’s still darkness flitting around Ezra Koenig’s consciousness, but it’s more of the “middle-aged malaise” variety.3.5
A lot has changed in the world of Vampire Weekend since the band released their last album, Modern Vampires of the City, in 2013. Most significantly, frontman Ezra Koenig’s main songwriting partner, Rostam Batmanglij, announced in 2016 that he was leaving the band. Approaching the release of their fourth album, Father of the Bride, with apprehension, then, would be a reasonable stance. Fortunately, it’s unfounded, as Father of the Bride is overstuffed with the pristine production, sickly sweet melodies, and audaciously off-the-wall genre-bending that’s sustained the band long enough to remain arguably the most commercially relevant of the popular 2000s indie bands that are still standing.
Modern Vampires of the City was nothing short of a quantum leap for Vampire Weekend, possessing a seriousness of purpose and lived-in musicality that made everything the band had done prior sound trite by comparison. Six long years later, one hardly expects Koenig to still be grappling with the same existential dilemmas he did on that album. But absorbed back to back with Modern Vampires of the City, the shift in tone on Father of the Bride is jarring.
There’s still darkness flitting around Koenig’s consciousness, but it’s more of the “middle-aged malaise” variety than the crisis of faith he teased out last time around, and even then the music is so relentlessly sunny that Koenig rarely sounds anything less than content. (It’s telling that the album’s most arresting, confrontational line—“I don’t wanna live like this/But I don’t wanna die” from “Harmony Hall”—is recycled from 2013’s “Finger Back”.) On “This Life,” even as he asks, “Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?” he sounds like a millennial Jimmy Buffet, pondering the question from the comfort of a sonic hammock composed of beachy guitars and effortlessly breezy harmonies. There’s nothing wrong with Koenig achieving this state of mind, of course—in fact, it’s comforting—but if he were a character on a TV show, it would feel as though we missed a few crucial stages of character development.
Taken on its own terms, however, Father of the Bride is generous with its rewards. The resplendent “Harmony Hall” is Vampire Weekend firing on all cylinders; its sparkling guitar arpeggios, sun-drenched chorus, and baroque piano break are all entirely familiar elements within the band’s oeuvre, but they’ve never coalesced so irresistibly before. And while a certain sense of over-familiarity does pervade some of the album’s lesser tracks (like the white-bred funk trappings and use of Auto-Tune on “How Long?”), others are as inventively irreverent with genre conventions as any of the band’s past work, such as the bluesy finger-picking married to Disney-like orchestral lines on “Rich Man,” or the early-1970s Cali-rock vibes interspersed with jazzy scatting on “Sunflower.” In this anything-goes context, even the appearance of country and folk elements on tracks like “Hold You Now” and “Big Blue” that otherwise might be considered conventional feel quietly bold.
In the near-total absence of Batmanglij—he’s listed as the co-writer and producer of one song and the co-producer of another—Koenig turns to HAIM’s Danielle Haim to find a new foil. She’s game, singing with Koenig and playing three very different kinds of paramours on “Hold You Now,” “Married in a Gold Rush,” and “We Belong Together.” The latter of these has the melodic construction of a beginner fiddle tune and the rhyme scheme of a children’s song and yet remains maddeningly infectious. But she can’t fill one role that seems to have slipped beyond the band’s grasp: editor. At 18 tracks and 58 minutes, Father of the Bride is by far the longest release by a band whose brevity was once one of their best characteristics. This results in a not-insignificant amount of bloat, including at least one or two songs—like the lounge jazz disaster “My Mistake”—that should have been left in the outtakes pile.
But Koenig is clearly in no mood for compromise. He’s not shy about putting all this new material out there, or about confronting his critics in the process. Lyrics like “I’ve been cheating my way through this life/And all its suffering” (on “This Life”) and “One rich man in ten has a satisfied mind/And I’m the one” (on “Rich Man”)—not to mention the title, if not the content, of “Unbearably White”—seem designed to provoke the authors of the slate of circa-2010 think pieces about Vampire Weekend, appropriation, and white privilege. He doesn’t much seem to care if his words piss you off, as he seems to be feeling pretty good regardless.
Label: Columbia Release Date: May 3, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy Is Weighty and Understated
DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel weighty and timeless.3.5
Over the course of his seven-year career, Mac DeMarco has proven his songwriting prowess to be both transportive and alchemic. With his fourth album, Here Comes the Cowboy, he once again invites us into his idiosyncratic, hazy world but grounds the album with concrete ruminations on longing and remorse that are sonically stripped down and understated. DeMarco embodies the solitary and resilient figure of the cowboy throughout, divulging moments of clarity and vulnerability alike with an unshakeable stoicism.
DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel simultaneously weighty and timeless. But while his previous work suggested a flair for embellishment and drama—like the lavish “Chamber of Reflection” and otherworldly “Moonlight on the River”—Here Comes the Cowboy is decidedly more reined in. The forlorn “Heart to Heart” simmers with tension, its restrained use of synths entwining carefully around DeMarco’s plaintive vocal: “To all the days we were together/To all the time we were apart.”
Throughout the album, spare arrangements foreground DeMarco’s lyrics and vocals. On “K,” his voice’s proximity to the listener is as palpable as the crystalline plucking of his acoustic guitar. At several points, DeMarco relinquishes control over his voice, sacrificing pitch precision for ardent expression, like when he lets out an animalistic howl on “Finally Alone.”
For all its reflections on regrets and love lost, Here Comes the Cowboy also exhibits DeMarco’s eccentric sense of humor, which has been sorely absent in his recent work. On the closing track, “Baby Bye Bye,” his playful falsetto is accompanied by a zany slide guitar before bursting into crazed laughter and a funk breakdown that recalls the spirit of David Bowie’s “Fame.” In spite of the album’s earlier solemnity, DeMarco bids a tongue-in-cheek farewell as if to assure us that he hasn’t lost touch with the slacker rock goofball of his “Ode to Viceroy” days.
A handful of tracks scan as underdeveloped or incomplete. The three-minute title track plods along sedately—the only lyrics being its four-word title—with DeMarco’s deadpan delivery scanning as more vapid than charming. On “Choo Choo,” he’s lithe and energetic, but without a breakdown, the numbing funk groove peters out. Although elsewhere the album benefits from his light-handed instrumentation, the structural one-dimensionalities of these tracks harbor too many empty, open spaces, yielding songs that flatline. Like 2017’s This Old Dog and 2015’s Another One, the album doesn’t represent a progression so much as a broadening of what DeMarco has already proven himself to be capable of as a songwriter.
Label: Royal Mountain Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon
The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30
Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.
In 1991, when Debbie Gibson’s underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled “The Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.” In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America’s sweetheart—anointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit—to being declared a pop casualty by the nation’s newspaper of record.
Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, “Lost in Your Eyes,” the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson’s four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987’s Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.
The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for “the next generation,” released as Electric Youth’s second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck’s “Loser” and Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, “Electric Youth” dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America’s now-neglected “middle child.” Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr’s bonkers musical arrangement—a frenetic mix of faux horns, “Planet Rock”-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars—and its even more batshit-crazy music video.
The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests—lots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of ‘80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.
Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”
Despite the video’s copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, “Electric Youth” was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna’s iconic “Express Yourself,” which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher’s distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)
“Electric Youth” spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson’s last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and ‘80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.
Review: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s Fishing for Fishies Lacks for the Oddball
The album fails to yield anything truly novel within the scope of blues-rock.3
There’s something gleefully bizarre about King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s pairing of lyrics about environmental doom with spirited blues rock on Fishing for Fishies. Purveyors of sludge-heavy psych-rock and tongue-in-cheek wordplay, the Australian seven-piece is prone to trying different genres, like surf rock, stoner metal, and jazz, before then pulling them apart at the seams. But whereas the band’s most successful forays into genre-bending benefited from their delight in warping styles out of shape, Fishing for Fishies suffers from by-the-book derivations and a shortage of their usual oddball instincts.
As the album’s cover of a cartoon robot fishing in a hellish lake of fire suggests, King Gizzard’s main concern is environmental and social degradation in the digital age. The band amplifies the perils of our world, envisaging an apocalyptic landscape marked by plastic-choked oceans, wildlife extinction, and millennials deprived of meaningful human interaction. They underpin this subject matter with muddy blues guitar, intensifying the sense of doom by emulating the jeremiads of the blues traditions, and with shuffle boogie rhythms. The “boogie” motif that threads through the album juxtaposes the celebration and dance of boogie music with sobering lyrics. “Death will come from plastic/Death will come from people,” singer Stu Mackenzie chants on “Plastic Boogie” as a crowd claps and cheers over a blazing guitar lick.
For all of its attempts at unconventionality, though, Fishing for Fishies fails to yield anything truly novel within the scope of blues-rock. “Plastic Boogie” and “The Cruel Millennial” sound like discarded B-sides from ZZ Top and Ten Years After, respectively. This derivative treatment of blues-rock makes the album one of the band’s most accessible to date, but devoid of their trademark absurdities (eerie soliloquys, road burn-inducing walls of sound, and jigsaw-like song structures), what’s left is arid and unmemorable.
With the introduction of electronic elements and musings about a dystopian, cyborg-dominated future, the tail-end of the album recaptures some of its initial vigor and intrigue. “This Thing” opens with another ZZ Top-influenced guitar lick, but in this case, the track transitions into a strange psychedelic brew of flute, harmonica, and synth drones. The use of microtonal tuning on “Acarine” lends it a disorienting feeling that’s supplanted by a moody house outro. The closing track, “Cyboogie,” returns to boogie rhythms but features zany Auto-Tuned vocals and a cyborg as its protagonist. Certainly, the shift from the humanity and warmth of blues-rock to the synthetic robotics of electronic music is intentional, but the album ends too abruptly for one to clearly discern the full extent of its significance.
Label: Flightless Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Pink’s Hurts 2B Human Peddles Boilerplate Angst and Introspection
The album settles into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.2.5
Pink’s eighth album, Hurts 2B Human, finds the singer peddling the same boilerplate pop-rock songs about self-empowerment and existential angst that have defined her career for almost 20 years. The album opens with two decidedly upbeat numbers—the brassy “Hustle,” featuring Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, and the Auto-Tune-heavy “(Hey Why) Miss You Sometime,” produced by Max Martin and Shellback—before quickly settling into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.
The album’s expectedly earnest lead single, “Walk Me Home,” reunites Pink with co-writer Nate Ruess, who lends the song his signature brand of rousing, if nondescript, pop pathos. Co-penned by Sia, “Courage” is another power ballad in a bizarrely enduring genre seemingly based entirely on Pat Benatar’s “We Belong.” The understated “My Attic” is marred by an on-the-nose metaphor, while tracks like “Circle Game” and “Happy” drown in self-help platitudes that attempt to mask self-pity: “I had a hard day, and I need to find a hiding place/Can you give me just a second to make it through these growing pains?” Pink pleads on the former.
From Khalid’s socially conscious ruminations on the schmaltzy title track to Chris Stapleton’s raspy bellyaching on the ‘80s-indebted “Love Me Anyway,” the contributions of a litany of guest artists largely fail to add much more than mere texture to the proceedings. The sole exception is singer-songwriter Wrabel’s Vocoder-enhanced harmonies, which, in a nod to Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek,” give the minimalist “90 Days” a stirring, otherworldly quality. The album’s closing track, “The Last Song of Your Life,” is a similarly poignant acoustic ballad with reverb-soaked vocals reminiscent of early-‘90s folk and a contemplative performance from Pink that transcends the rest of the album’s turgid introspection.
Label: RCA Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Taylor Swift’s “ME!” Is an Ebullient, Eye-Popping Fantasia
The pop singer drops her new single and music video, featuring Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie.
Earlier this month, Taylor Swift posted an Instagram story with a countdown to the launch of her next musical era. Swift’s 2017 album Reputation and subsequent stadium tour were both sonically and aesthetically darker than anything she’d done before, and the reception was mixed at best, resulting in the lowest-selling album of her career. So it was, perhaps, inevitable that the singer would move away from the combative tone and hard, hip-hop-influenced beats of singles like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “…Ready for It?”
Swift first hinted that a shift in tone was imminent via—where else?—her Instagram account, which, over the last several weeks, has been populated with decidedly softer imagery than usual for the singer, including sequins, butterflies, jewel-encrusted hearts, and fluffy-faced kittens—all bathed in creamy pastel tones. You’d be forgiven for thinking she was preparing to launch a tween apparel line and not the next phase of her global pop domination. But if Reputation taught us anything, it’s that Swift is nothing if not committed, and her new single, “ME!”—which features Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco—is a full-tilt 180.
Produced by Joel Little, best known for his work with Lorde and Broods, the song plays like a piss take on the bright and shiny pop of hits like “Shake It Off,” with marching-band drums, stadium foot-stomping, stately brass, and a cartoonishly ebullient hook: “Hee-hee-hee, hoo-hoo-hoo!” Swift may be one of the most self-aware pop stars alive, so it’s impossible not to view everything about “ME!” as a calculated response to her last album, right down to the song’s effusive title (Reputation precedes “ME!”—get it?). Even her signature self-deprecation—“I know I went psycho on the phone/I never leave well enough alone”—is given a self-reflexive twist: “I promise that you’ll never find another like me.”
The music video, co-directed by Dave Meyers and Swift, begins with a shot of a pink snake—a nod to the singer’s supposed reputation—slithering across rainbow-colored cobblestones before bursting into a kaleidoscope of butterflies, pointedly marking the end of an era. She and Urie are seen arguing in charmingly stilted French accents, setting the stage for an eye-popping, effects-laden fantasia of a make-up session that includes antagonistic clouds, Easter egg-colored pantsuits, liquid dresses, and a 1960s-style variety show.
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