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
Review: Crumb’s Jinx Is a Psych-Rock Debut That’s Hard to Shake
The album often feels cerebral and off-kilter, and its dreamlike ambience at times turns nightmarish.4
In his 1973 essay “Approaches to What?,” French writer Georges Perec contemplates Western culture’s obsession with spectacle, urging us to ignore the distraction of the extraordinary and drink in the everyday, “infra-ordinary” details. “Question your teaspoons,” Perec challenges, before asking, “What is there under your wallpaper?”
Brooklyn-based psych-pop outfit Crumb’s debut, Jinx, operates in the same regard for the quotidian fabric of life. “Pressed my face up close against the glass I see the people/When they pass they move so automatic,” frontwoman and guitarist Lila Ramani sings on “Ghostride.” Though Crumb’s lyrics are imbued with a heightened awareness of routine and ritual, their music has an uncanny ability to immerse us deeply in reverb-soaked guitars and synths that float in like a fog. This is psychedelic rock that stops you dead in your tracks without calling flamboyant attention to itself, relying on artful touches like a low-key synth, a distant French horn, and a ghostly slide guitar to intensify the songs’ spellbinding nature.
Jinx often feels cerebral and off-kilter, and its dreamlike ambience at times turns nightmarish. The disorienting “And It Never Ends” captures the claustrophobia of city life, conveying a feeling of alienating paranoia reminiscent of Radiohead’s OK Computer. And though demons haunt Ramani on “The Letter,” what torments her most is the terrible vacuity of everyday life. On “Part III,” she’s hyperaware of the subtle yet mindless details of routine: “I waste my time in the morning and evening/Caught in a feeling/I lost my mind looking up at the ceiling.”
With Jinx, Crumb manages to distinguish themselves among the latest crop of promising alt-rock bands. The shape of their sound is clearly delineated: Ramani’s plainspoken vocal glides over the gossamer lightness of the band’s soundscapes, forging a distinctive musical identity for the band. Though their sonic palate is monochromatic, their music is both cogent and engrossing. Jinx feels like a hallucination that proves hard to shake.
Label: Crumb Buy: Amazon
Interview: Calexico and Iron & Wine Talk Years to Burn and Collaboration
Joey Burns and Sam Beam spoke with reverence about each other, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
From “Father Mountain,” which urges you to savor love in the face of life’s inevitabilities, to “In Your Own Time,” with its shadowy images flirting with the nightmarish, there’s a melancholy percolating beneath Years to Burn, the second collaborative album from Iron and Wine and Calexico. In a recent conversation with Iron and Wine, a.k.a. Sam Beam, and Calexico’s Joey Burns, the musicians spoke with reverence about each other, both personally and professionally, revealing their multifaceted relationship.
As elusive as the exact source of Years to Burn’s mellowness might be, the work on the project was, to hear Beam and Burns tell it, focused and grounded. The album grew, as Beam says, “out of a determination and a willingness to work together. After we made [2005’s In the Reins], that time we spent together promoting it, and just sort of playing together for so long, formed really strong bonds—familial bonds—and we just really enjoy each other’s company.”
The questions they faced were, according to Burns, “Well, where do you go next? Do you do begin where you last left off or do you just go somewhere totally different?” As it happened, they wouldn’t have too much of an opportunity to ruminate about that: Their time in the studio was limited to five days, and they limited the number of musicians they used, sticking with tried-and-true band members like John Convertino, Paul Niehaus, and Paul Valenzuela. Burns describes a fairly stoic regimen: “You show up at 10 o’clock, do some work, break for lunch, work up until dinner, finish up or just listen back, and then do it all over again. There’s really not much time for hanging out or doing anything else.”
These limitations ended up working to the album’s benefit. “Having a limited amount of time kind of forces you as an artist to make decisions,” Beam says. “You can get really hung up on what the right choices are, and that’s kind of an endless question. With this approach, I’m able to separate myself in a way where I say, well, this is the best choice that we’ve made on this day from this point in the snapshot of our best ideas at the moment. And to me that’s a freeing thing. You make decisions, and those decisions stick, and you live with them, and then you can move on to the next thing.”
Remarkably, Beam and Burns and the other musicians surrounding them found room to improvise and experiment within their constraints. The most evident sign of this, “Bittersweet,” is an entrancing mix of three songs. Burns says it started with his primary partner in Calexico, John Convertino, who suggested they do one song that was totally free of lyrics, chords, and rhythm. “I came up with a title for that, ‘Outside El Paso,’ sort of connecting us geographically,” Burns remembers. “And, of course, there we were in Nashville. And so Sam had a song called ‘Tennessee Train.’ And I thought, hey, what if we took just one chord and we just made a ‘70s groove? And we wound up putting some really great trumpet solos on that. We added some backing vocals. And since it was sort of linked with the song ‘Tennessee Train,’ we started bridging those together. And then I suggested that we take one of the verses and translate it into Spanish for Jacob [Valenzuela] to sing. And then that became sort of a medley. Everything fell together really naturally and quickly.”
Burns describes other moments of productive experimenting too: “We had John Convertino climb into this big old empty tall echo-chamber. It’s at the studio. And we had him record the drum intro [for ‘What Heaven’s Left’]. And he had to carry his floor tom inside there. It’s a very small opening. It’s like a tiny window. And basically what you do is you put a microphone at one end of this room, and then at the other end you put a speaker. And that’s how you get the natural reverb sound.”
Though Beam had clear ideas about how he wanted the album to proceed, he also welcomed and appreciated these gestures of spontaneity. “It’s what can potentially make music really exciting, recording music and also playing music,” he says. “It’s sort of losing the safety net and stretching out. And so I wanted to make sure that we incorporated that into what we were making this time. Last time, I don’t feel like we really did that, because I didn’t really understand that about them at the time.”
Time has made the two bands more effective collaborators. The way Burns sees it, time has changed them, but that’s inevitable: “We’re just different people. Different experiences have accumulated. And so there’s a different end result. And not only that, but if we were to record the same songs and do another album like this, a week or a month later, it probably would come out a lot differently. That’s the beauty of this—it just depends on the mood and the vibe and the place where you’re at, and where everyone is at internally or emotionally.”
Beam, similarly, takes time in stride but is also curious about the changes it could bring. “It was odd, you know, that almost 15 years had passed in between, kind of crazy to think of,” he says. “The first time we did it, we hadn’t worked together before, so I was just sort of bringing in songs without knowing what it would sound like or what the collaboration would end up being like. And this time, it was 15 years later, so I was looking over my memories, and memories can be not quite so trustworthy sometimes. But I was also working off those strengths, and then also trying some new things.”
And so what of the songs themselves? Many musical collaborations sound like they were were designed by committee. With Years to Burn, like collaborations ranging from that of Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong and reaching all the way back to Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, something just works. While you might hear traces of each individual performer in the mix, the sound created is unique.
Beam says collaboration drove everything here, starting with the track sequence: “There were thematic elements going on in the songs chosen for the album. I think we were all really intent on there being a lot of shared singing responsibilities. And so, in putting the sequence together I really wanted to feel like we kept sort of passing the baton around. When you’re putting those things together, you’re looking for a sort of sonic feel, flow, variety. You’re looking for different kinds of musical movements, and then also passing the baton around like a hot potato of singing responsibilities.”
And yet Beam’s process for writing the songs on the album (he wrote all but one of them) was fairly private and intuitive. “Writing songs is not a math problem,” he says. “There’s not a right or wrong answer. So you kind of do what you feel like at the moment. It’s a matter of what you’re trying to achieve with a song, any individual one. If you want to express an idea outside of your experience and live into that, songs and art are a great place to do that, to explore an ideal or fantasy. I don’t really do that. I just talk about my experience, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly. But I guess that’s just where my mind is when I sit down to write. I get contemplative.” The album, indeed, is all about thoughts, and the emotions behind them, more than it’s about tangible things; these songs float just outside of what we might easily summarize. And yet the feelings and impressions being described in the songs are quite real, and recognizable, becoming more poignant with each listen.
Taylor Swift Drops Star-Studded, Pride-Themed “You Need to Calm Down” Video
The video takes the notion of visibility as a means of acceptance to the extreme.
After years of political agnosticism, Taylor Swift endorsed two Tennessee Democrats during the 2018 midterm elections, prompting a backlash from white supremacists and their dear leader, Donald Trump. In the span of less than a year, the singer went from being the Aryan goddess of the alt-right to being called out as an agent of sodomy in a sermon by a homophobic pastor and sheriff’s deputy in her home state.
Swift’s path to wokeness has been a long one, and while the launch of her new single, “You Need to Calm Down,” during LGBT Pride Month might feel like the equivalent of Google slapping a rainbow flag on their logo, her activism—which included a recent $113,000 donation to a Tennessee LGBT organization—seems like more than just a branding opportunity. “To be an ally is to understand the difference between advocating and baiting,” Swift posted on Tumblr after rumors circulated that she kisses former rival Katy Perry in the video for “You Need to Calm Down,” the second single from Swift’s seventh album, Lover.
The clip does, however, take the notion of visibility as a means of acceptance to the extreme, featuring cameos from RuPaul, Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Lambert, Adam Rippon, Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (whom she serenaded at a surprise performance at New York’s Stonewall Inn last week), and other queer celebrities, YouTube stars, and allies.
Directed by Swift and Drew Kirsch, the video opens with the pop singer waking up in a pastel-colored trailer home adorned with kitschy paintings and a framed Cher quote (“Mom, I am a rich man”). She makes herself a cotton-candy smoothie, takes a dip the cleanest above-ground pool you’ll ever see, and parades through the trailer park’s pride-themed festivities, which includes a “pop queen pageant” featuring drag versions of Swift, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Adele, Cardi B, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry.
The real Katy pops up for a heartfelt reunion with Swift that makes “You Need to Calm Down”—which seems to strive for, but falls short of, the campy eye candy that Perry has honed in her own videos over the years—feel like a bachelorette party at a gay bar. But just in case you question Swift’s allegiance to the cause, the video ends with a message urging viewers to sign her petition for Senate support of the Equality Act.
Swift’s album, Lover, is due August 23 via Republic Records.
Review: Yeasayer’s Erotic Reruns Is a Collection of Benign Love Songs
The album aims for an enthralling vision of infatuation, but the band’s message rings hollow.2
Yeasayer’s decade-plus-spanning discography is eclectic, purveying everything from world music (All Hour Cymbals) to austere electro (Fragrant World) to outlandish psych rock (Amen & Goodbye). As a relic of the bygone age of neo-hippie pantheism marshaled by the likes of Animal Collective and MGMT, the experimental rock outfit faces the quandary of evolving their sound for today’s indie landscape, which favors the low-key over the baroque. On Erotic Reruns, the band dives headfirst into flowery pop-rock, accomplishing yet another stylistic about-face and pruning away their most esoteric tendencies.
Throughout their fifth studio album, Yeasayer aims to transmit an enthralling vision of infatuation, but their message rings hollow. With its truncated verses and refrain, opener “People I Loved” seems hastily assembled, and its “na-na-na” hook quickly grows tiring. The band’s lyrics are often half-baked, making the rapture of falling in love on the plodding piano-driven “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” feel like a rather banal occurrence.
Even when Yeasayer is primed toward eliciting the longing and lust of infatuation, their sound is fettered by exaggeration. “Let Me Listen in on You” is chock-full of sweet nothings like “I can make your dreams come true,” and its florid strings give the chorus a sense of overdone theatricality. Elsewhere, a high-pitched vocal and carnival synth grant “Ecstatic Baby” a whimsy so overblown that one imagines the track would be deemed too cheesy for an Apple commercial. When Yeasayar does accomplish to tap into love’s exhilaration, they relay it with a heavy hand, making already sentimental concepts feel saccharine.
Erotic Reruns is a collection of ultimately benign love songs, as the eroticism proposed by the album’s title is glaringly absent across 29 scant minutes. Yeasayer are amiable, starry-eyed musicians whose sound, at its best, is inviting even as it overreaches. But while a concern for authenticity may not be pop music’s primary enterprise, among its virtues is its capacity to consistently excite and enchant. Try as they might, Yeasayer fail to attain either.
Label: Yeasayer Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk Is All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing
On a superficial level, the ostensibly back-to-basics album could charitably be described as workmanlike.2
It takes balls to open your rock album by screaming about “an inferior version of rock n’ roll,” as Patrick Stickles does on “Just Like Ringing a Bell,” the opening track of Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk. The band’s ostensibly back-to-basics sixth album could charitably be described as workmanlike. Stickles and longtime sideman Liam Betson’s guitar tones are fuzzy and chunky in all the right ways, and Stickles has his punk-rock growl down pat. But these are mere superficialities; loud guitars and screaming have hardly been the main focal point of the band’s sound. On An Obelisk, though, they’re just about all that Stickles and company have to offer. Forgive the cliché, but they asked for it by naming themselves after a Shakespeare’s tragedy: The album is the very epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing.
An Obelisk arrives just 15 months after the expectation-subverting A Productive Cough, but it couldn’t be more different, despite the fact that Stickles wrote both albums around the same time, separating the material into the bangers found here and the prior album’s more complex and mellower epics. This may sound like a welcome news for fans who struggled to embrace A Productive Cough’s cavalcade of guest musicians and auxiliary percussion, horns, and other instrumentation. But anyone who’s been clamoring for Titus Andronicus to make a uniformly hard and fast punk album like this one hasn’t been paying attention to what the band is about.
One of Titus Andronicus’s greatest strengths has always been the dichotomies in their music—those juxtapositions of the quiet and loud, the portentous and the irreverent. This is, after all, a band whose first album, The Airing of Grievances, borrowed its name from a Seinfeld episode, and whose breakthrough, The Monitor, was an epic concept album about the Civil War that they managed to somehow top five years later with a 90-minute rock opera about bipolar disorder. An Obelisk is loosely conceptual, but unlike The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy, there’s no discernable narrative or character to hang onto here. We do, though, get a narrator, known as Troubleman, who serves as little more than a thin veneer from behind which Stickles can excuse his under-baked ideas. After all, one wouldn’t expect the guy who wrote ambitious epics like “A More Perfect Union” and “Number One (in New York)” to be capable of penning the adolescent inanities that constitute the lazy three-chord blunders that are “(I Blame) Society” and “Tumult Around the World.” But he did.
From the generic stick-it-to-the-man platitudes of “(I Blame) Society” and the 68-second “On the Street” (“There’s too many police on the street/And they’re all after me!”), to the clearly unintentional parody of hardcore punk that is the 88-second “Beneath the Boot,” it’s almost hard to believe how dumb these songs are. Stickles has successfully managed to confront his demons in increasingly creative and resonant ways, from inventing a doppelganger on The Most Lamentable Tragedy to turning those demons into a party on A Productive Cough’s “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” but “My Body and Me” is insultingly glib: “My body and me, we don’t always get along/He tells me it’s all right, I tell him he’s all wrong.”
Producer Bob Mould, apparently unable to transfer whatever is powering his late-career renaissance to other artists, does capture an organic live-in-the-studio sound that shows the band’s current lineup—Stickles, Betson, and rhythm section R.J. Gordon and Chris Wilson—doesn’t lack for intensity. But with so many flat, unoriginal riffs and unmemorable choruses, there’s just not enough meat here to reward that approach, and despite its unrelenting volume, An Obelisk just feels empty without the wide-ranging dynamics and ambitious arrangements that have, until now, defined Titus Andronicus’s music.
Mercifully, most of the songs are over and done with quickly enough, though only a couple—the bright “Just Like Ringing a Bell” and the freewheeling “Troubleman Unlimited,” the only tracks here that don’t sound like “an inferior version of rock ‘n roll”—stick to the ribs at all. A few grind on unimaginatively for over five minutes, either to the point of boredom (“Within the Gravitron”) or absurdity (“Hey Ma,” with its face-palm-inducing imitation-bagpipe guitar solo). Like all of Troubleman’s diatribes, they just feel like a lot of hot air.
Label: Merge Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Raconteurs’s Help Us Stranger Is a Robust Return to Form
The album proves that there’s still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.4.5
The Raconteurs were initially billed as an outlet for Jack White to step outside of the self-imposed sandbox of the White Stripes. But coming after a period during which White’s work—as both a solo artist and with the Dead Weather—has become increasingly untethered from his original no-frills ethos, the Raconteurs’s first album in 11 years, Help Us Stranger, feels like a robust return to form for the musician.
But the Raconteurs shouldn’t just be viewed through a White-centric prism. There’s no better contemporary rock example of two halves of a songwriting duo, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, uncannily counterbalancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses than White and singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. Benson’s irrepressible melodic instincts keep White’s focus on his songcraft, while White’s boundless energy coaxes new tiers of passion from Benson, a less expressive vocalist and more rudimentary lyricist than White.
As White and Benson trade vocals on the album’s savage opener, “Bored and Razed,” with White’s spitfire verses building into Benson’s soaring choruses, their twin lead guitars batter away at each other like feral animals. Add Patrick Keeler’s thunderous drumming, and the band enters a dimension of pure rock power they’ve only ever succeeded in accessing together. The Raconteurs may lack the unconventional optics and charming minimalism of the White Stripes or the relentless power-pop hooks of Benson’s solo work, but Help Us Stranger is another compelling exhibit in the band’s continuing quest to prove that there’s still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.
Almost every track here is another example of one that would never have reached the same heights without the contributions of each band member. The main guitar riff of “Sunday Driver” is far from White’s most indelible, but combined with Jack Lawrence’s revving bassline and White’s own swaggering vocals and squealing lead guitar—contrasted with Benson’s laidback, psych-tinged, harmony-drenched bridge—the result is one of the most well-rounded and satisfying straight-up rock songs White has made since, well, the last Raconteurs album.
Likewise, with White’s frenzied guitar and Lawrence’s fat, greasy sonic low end, the Benson-led blue-eyed soul of “Now That You’re Gone” becomes a lighter-waving anthem. The band proves itself able to apply this effortless chemistry to any type of song, running the gamut from the groovy Detroit-style garage rock of “What’s Yours Is Mine” to the yearning bluegrass ballad “Thoughts and Prayers.” With “Help Me Stranger,” the Raconteurs even uncover something fresh, with White and Benson’s Everly Brothers-style harmonizing and acoustic strumming getting a quirky, modern kick from the off-kilter rhythmic foundation provided by Keeler’s upside-down snare drum and Lawrence’s heavy bass-pedal work.
While the disparity in fame between the band members may forever doom the Raconteurs to being remembered as one of White’s “side projects,” such a view is ignorant of both the band’s overall chemistry and White and Benson’s virtually equal songwriting talents. In fact, it’s the Benson-heavy songs here that make the most lasting impression, and White was clearly responsible for the album’s only misfire, “Don’t Bother Me,” a generic bar-band choogle over which White angrily sputters about his old nemeses, the “clicking and swiping” generation.
Both the melancholy Beatlesque pop of “Only Child” and the swooning country-soul of “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” rank among Benson’s very best work to date, with White’s multi-textured, ever-inventive guitar riffs and the rock solid rhythm section elevating Benson’s usual sad-sack routine toward true pathos. Help Us Stranger reaches its emotional apex during the latter’s honey-sweet outro: “I’m here right now, not dead yet,” Benson repeats, leaping registers as the band slowly works up to a fevered pitch behind him. Corny as it sounds, he might as well be singing about rock n’ roll itself. Few other bands out there are such compelling proof of its enduring viability.
Label: Third Man Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Silversun Pickups’s Widow’s Weeds Is a Clear-Eyed and Intrepid Renewal
The album grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal.4
Ever since the success of 2006’s Carnavas, the Silversun Pickups have had a hard time leaving the safety of their comfort zone. Without slipping completely into self-parody, each of the Los Angeles-based rock band’s subsequent releases has seen them tempering their winning formula with only cautious variations on Brian Aubert’s breathy, quavering vocals and their thick Gaussian blur of sonic distortion and reverb. The group’s dalliance with Depeche Mode-style synth-pop on 2015’s Better Nature boasted tantalizing moments of sparkling elegance and pulse-racing throttle, but its dependence on booming yet generically applied electronics left the album feeling vacant, even lethargic.
Enter Butch Vig. For a band that can’t quite quit its love for ‘90s alternative rock, their choice to enlist the production wizard behind Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and the Foo Fighters seems only fitting. But their fifth album, Widow’s Weeds, is anything but a sentimental rehash of the good ol’ days. Instead, the album profits mightily from the veteran producer’s ability to transition established acts into more mature, self-assured iterations of themselves, without scrapping the essence of what made those bands great in the first place.
Widow’s Weeds thus grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal, but also its most clear-eyed and intrepid. After years of lackluster reviews and a string of personal struggles, the Silversun Pickups were perfectly poised for renewal and, as Aubert croons on “Don’t Know Yet,” the band has worked hard to “reboot the machine.” Under Vig’s steady hand, they’ve stripped away the stylistic accretions of their previous albums and come up with a much tighter, more identifiably rock sound. From its opening notes, the album presents a band brimming with reclaimed confidence and vitality, one that need no longer take refuge behind endless waves of feedback and sonic distractions.
Right out of the gate, “Neon Wound,” as it chugs along to the metronomic precision of Christopher Guanlao’s drums, unrolls the perfectly pointed welcome mat for those familiar with the Silversun Pickups. “Hello, my friend,” Aubert sings, almost winkingly, “It’s nice to see you again/Now that we’re on the mend.” The song’s taut spareness gradually drifts off into what sounds like little more than a listless B-side from Better Nature, but “It Doesn’t Matter Why” hurries in to take up the slack in full-charging tempo.
To be sure, Aubert and the gang have given up no ground in creating soundscapes of great power and intensity, sculpting with staccato rhythms and relentless builds the jumpy, nervous tension of a downed power line. Where on previous efforts that tension relied on muddy guitar riffs or Lester’s alchemic keyboard effects, this is an album driven by instrumentation and tightly crafted movements. Excesses of distortion have been peeled away to reveal the musical proficiency beneath, so that the finger-picked intro to “It Doesn’t Matter Why,” the sensuous chord bends of “Simpatico,” and the poppy electronics on “Don’t Know Yet” receive their full technical due. And the timely flourishes of orchestral support across the album add interesting melodrama to the streamlined arrangements. What results is a sultry, if not still-too-hesitant, intimacy that allows songs to shimmer with moments of nuance and sophistication.
In keeping with this shift toward musical accessibility, Aubert’s lyrics have acquired a greater transparency. His customary blend of cerebral metaphors and visual imagery still prevails, but his language has become more plainly self-referential, lending unmitigated tenderness to the songs. And without having to compete any longer with the drone of sheer loudness, he’s able to showcase a range of peaks and valleys that ventures boldly outside of his typical monotone.
But for all of Aubert’s newfound reach, the punch of his vocal thrusts throughout Widow’s Weeds wouldn’t be possible without the harmonic parries of bassist Nikki Monninger. Her contributions on albums past have supplied softness and moderation to some of the group’s brawnier impulses (“Gun-Shy Sunshine,” “Ragamuffin”), and while it seems she’ll always be stuck at second mic, she’s no longer merely echoing Aubert’s lead. Her husky alto provides flawless melodic counterpoint on the ethereal “Freakazoid” and the restless “Songbirds,” and she offsets Aubert’s gravelly baritone on “Widow’s Weeds” with delicate grace.
The album also conjures the ghosts of exemplars past, sampling a whisper of Placebo’s “Pure Morning,” a hint of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” and a whiff of the guitar crunches from Alice in Chains’s “Man in the Box.” Especially on “Straw Man” and “Simpatico,” the sleek, cleaned-up sound does little to hide the band’s influences. But if the going recommendation is to steal like an artist, then Silversun Pickups have appropriated their indulgences happily and in good faith. “Songbirds” bursts out of the speakers like a post-pubertal “Panic Switch,” still bristling with angsty vigor but far more composed and sure of itself. In contrast, “Bag of Bones,” a meandering blunder, just shuffles along aimlessly and repetitiously.
Elsewhere, “Simpatico” spotlights the band’s calmer, quieter tendencies while offering some of the album’s most intricate guitar work. And the hardest-hitting yet most nostalgic track, “We Are Chameleons,” lives up to its title by mopping up virtually every color and texture of Carnavas and wringing it out into a frenzied sonic meltdown that defies the restraint and self-control that led up to it. Widow’s Weeds may lack the arena-sized atmospherics and anthemic party songs of past Silversun Pickups efforts, but with each additional listen the hooks sink in deeper and the melodies stay longer in your head. It’s catchy, heartfelt, and far less forgettable than…what were those previous two albums named again?
Label: New Machine Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Madonna’s Madame X Is a Fearless, Eccentric Musical Memoir
The album is the work of an artist reawakened, and one who’s got something to say.4
Madonna’s 2005 EDM opus Confessions on a Dance Floor is considered by many to be the 21st-century standard for both every new album the singer releases and contemporary dance-pop at large. Though glorious in its own right, it seemed, at the time, like the work of an artist in damage control. The damage was 2003’s American Life, a personal, politically strident, and humorless album that became Madonna’s first commercial failure in 20 years. It also happens to mark the last time the queen of pop appeared to make music purely on her own terms, without any consideration of the charts or what the public expected of her—a novel idea for an artist in the business of making, well, popular music.
Of course, Madonna has never been your average pop star. Though her music has deep roots in R&B and disco, she is, at heart, a rock auteur, with all of the inclinations toward upending the status quo and expressing a singular vision that designation implies. Her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, was designed by committee, while its predecessor, MDNA, was recorded during a period when she seemed more interested in directing movies and extending her brand than making music. So it makes sense that when she decided to forgo songwriting camps and aspirations of a late-career radio hit for her 14th album, Madame X, Madonna turned to French producer Mirwais, her primary collaborator on American Life.
In other words, Madame X sounds like the work of an artist reawakened, and one who’s got something to say. It’s a development reportedly inspired by her time in Lisbon, where she was surrounded by musicians and art in a way she hadn’t been since her pre-fame days in the East Village. The influence of Lisbon’s multicultural history can be heard on tracks like the fado-meets-Motown “Crazy”—co-produced by Mike Dean, the album’s other principal knob-twirler—and the polyrhythmic “Batuka,” featuring Afro-Portuguese group Orquestra de Batukadeiras.
Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: “I came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,” Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected “Extreme Occident,” referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, “Dark Ballet” is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity—an existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track “I Rise.”
The album’s autobiography is also conveyed sonically: It’s a thrill to hear Madonna singing over a ‘90s house beat on the smoldering “I Don’t Search I Find.” But despite its ballroom strings, finger-snaps, and throaty spoken-word bridge, comparing it to “Vogue” or “Erotica” would be too easy. This isn’t a song so much as a mood. It’s downstairs music, the distant bassline rumbling beneath your feet as you slip into a bathroom stall for a quick bump or fuck.
Madonna has a reputation for being a trendsetter, but her true talent lies in bending those trends to her will, twisting them around until they’re barely recognizable, and creating something entirely new. The album’s pièce de résistance, at least in that regard, is the six-minute “God Control,” which begins with Madonna conjuring the spirit and disaffected monotone of Kurt Cobain—“I think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up,” she sings through clenched teeth—before the whole thing implodes into a euphoric, densely layered samba-disco-gospel mash-up. Throughout the song, Madonna’s vocals alternate between Auto-Tuned belting, urgent whispers, and Tom Tom Club-style rapping as she takes on the gaslight industrial complex and so-called political reformers. On paper, it might sound like the ingredients for a musical Hindenburg, but—somewhere around the midpoint, when she declares, “It’s a con, it’s a hustle, it’s a weird kind of energy!”—it all coheres into the most exhilaratingly batshit thing she’s done in years.
If, metaphorically, Madame X represents Madonna’s rediscovery of her voice as an artist, then it also highlights the literal loss of it. Over the years, the soft edges of her voice have grown sharper, and the album’s pervasive vocal effects—most gratuitous on the electro-ragga “Future” and, to a lesser degree, the haunting “Looking for Mercy”—have a distancing effect. The heavy Auto-Tune on Music and American Life was deployed in service of larger conceptual themes like imperfection (“Nobody’s Perfect”) and anonymity (“Nobody Knows Me”), contrasted by the bare performances of more confessional songs like “Easy Ride.” Here, filters are indiscriminately thrown on nearly every song, which only serves to obscure Madonna’s humanity. On “Medéllin,” for example, her admission that “For once, I didn’t have to hide myself” is pointlessly cloaked in Auto-Tune, keeping us at a remove.
When Madonna isn’t singing with what sounds like a mouthful of gumballs on “Crave,” the rawness of her voice amplifies the nakedness of her lyrics: “Ran so far to try to find the thing I lacked/And there it was inside of me.” Likewise, you can hear the grit and grief in her voice when, on “Crazy,” she sings, “I bent my knees for you like a prayer/My God, look at me now.” The track “Killers Who Are Partying” has been flagged by some critics for its lyrics—ostensibly inspired by scripture, the post-World War II poem “First they came…,” or maybe both—but the naïveté of Madonna’s words would be more cringe-inducing if her delivery wasn’t quite so bewitching. Mirwais’s arrangement, too, casts a spell: Old world meets new world as mournful fado guitar and accordion swirl beneath the track’s stuttering beats and warped synths.
Madame X is fearless, the sound of an artist unapologetically indulging all of her whims and quirks. The garish favela funk of “Faz Gostoso” and the racy reggaeton of “Bitch I’m Loca”—featuring Anitta and Maluma, respectively—feel out of place amid the album’s otherwise refined sonic palette. But even when Madonna falters, at least you know you’re getting the real deal and not some version of a pop icon cooked up in a songwriting lab.
Label: Interscope Release Date: June 14, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Mykki Blanco Is a Trans Joan of Arc in Madonna’s “Dark Ballet” Video – Watch
The self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video from the queen of pop’s upcoming album Madame X.
While presenting Madonna with GLAAD’s Advocate for Change award last month, Mykki Blanco hinted that a collaboration with the queen of pop might be imminent. Sure enough, the self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video for “Dark Ballet,” the final track to be released in the lead-up to Madonna’s new album, Madame X.
Directed by Dutch Ghanaian visual artist Emmanuel Adjei, “Dark Ballet” echoes the themes of Madonna’s infamous “Like a Prayer” video, awash with Catholic iconography and a storyline revolving around a persecuted black person. But that’s where the similarities end. The singer only briefly appears in the clip, behind a black veil, and the burning crosses of her 1989 video are traded for a ceremonial burning at the stake.
The video is frenetic and non-linear, opening with Blanco held captive in a stonewalled room, wrapped in a dirty white robe. Wrists bound with rope, he’s led by clergymen to be executed for an undisclosed crime. He’s then seen dancing, first in a cathedral—pleading with the men, who forsake him—and then in the church’s sanctuary, dressed in a gold corset reminiscent of the iconic one designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour. Madonna is, in effect, all over the video, but her casting of a queer person of color as the oppressed, rather than herself, spotlights the disproportionate impact of the patriarchy on minorities.
Produced by Madonna and longtime collaborator Mirwais, the song itself is an ambitious electro suite featuring a heavily Auto-Tuned denouncement of gender, lies, and fame, before the track breaks into Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Pipes” from The Nutcracker accompanied by a robot Joan of Arc proclaiming her faith. (There’s a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc near the beginning of the video.) The song is a reminder of the wacky magic Madonna and Mirwais are capable of cooking up together.
Madame X will be released on June 14 via Interscope Records.
Review: Miley Cyrus’s She Is Coming Feels Like Empty Posturing
The singer finds her groove when she follows a less strident tack.2.5
The only thing Miley Cyrus’s critics found more problematic than her appropriation of black culture on her 2013 album Bangerz was the singer’s utter abandonment of hip-hop on 2017’s Younger Now. That album was marked by a more mellow pop-rock sound, complemented by a newly squeaky-clean image that found her literally frolicking in a country meadow. The move was seen as confirmation that Cyrus’s interest in hip-hop is merely performative, and her recent renunciation of Younger Now and subsequent pivot back toward urban-influenced pop is unlikely to quash that impression.
She Is Coming, the first of three EPs that Cyrus plans to release throughout the year, is rife with references to her newfound toughness. Lead single “Mother’s Daughter” boasts an admirable feminist-adjacent message—“Don’t fuck with my freedom”—but Cyrus’s standoffish pose feels like so much empty posturing, making the bravado of Taylor Swift’s Reputation seem downright menacing. On the mercifully brief “Unholy,” Cyrus tosses off glib vaunts like “I’m a little bit unholy/So what? So is everyone else,” while an unintentionally comical quip about having sex next to takeout food may arouse little in listeners besides a sudden compulsion to sanitize their kitchen counter.
The EP’s dubious employment of hip-hop tropes and graphic sexual metaphors reaches its nadir on ballroom-inspired “Cattitude,” part boast track and part ode to Miley’s female prowess: “I love my pussy, that means I got cattitude/If you don’t feel what I’m saying, I don’t fuck with you.” RuPaul’s presence lends a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to the song, but given the straight-faced appropriation on display throughout the rest of She Is Coming, it’s impossible not to consider this one with as much seriousness—that is, not much at all. When, at the end of the track, Cyrus awkwardly raps, “You’re just mad ‘cause your hair is flat,” it’s hard to tell if she’s taking the piss or deliberately provoking her critics.
Which is a shame, as Cyrus finds her groove when she doesn’t try so hard, as on “D.R.E.A.M.,” a hazy confessional that, true to its title, is dreamy enough to forgive its puerile conflation of chemical and romantic euphoria. Even an initially jarring coda from Ghostface Killah feels of a piece with the impeccably produced track’s distorted guitars and slyly discomfiting beat. The ragga-inspired “Party Up the Street” likewise cushions its drug-induced reverie with pillowy keyboards and swoony orchestral flourishes. Unless the subsequent EPs in this series follow this less strident tack, Bangerz might start to seem like an act of cultural reverence.
Label: RCA Release Date: May 31, 2019
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