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Donna Summer (1948 – 2012)

Rest in peace high up where the stallion meets the sun.

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Donna Summer (1948 - 2012)
Photo: Universal Music Group

The deaths of celebrities don’t usually knock the wind out of my sails. Sure, Michael Jackson’s untimely passing felt so much a natural piece of his Greek tragedy of a life that it took my breath away, but when I learned of Donna Summer’s death at 63 to cancer yesterday, the sinking feeling that accompanied the news exceeded any similar experience I’ve had since Robert Altman passed away. While I can’t say I ever took Altman’s work for granted, especially given the remarkable 11th-hour upswing his career took with his last string of films, Summer’s death instantly forced me to consider just how much I’ve underrated the place her music has had in my life.

She made it so easy to do. Though she was the incontestable Queen of Disco, her demeanor was always markedly at odds with that moniker. The throne simply didn’t seem to suit her, and I could never really tell whether it was because she transcended disco or because, as I continued to burrow into the rich history of the genre, disco was far too big a territory to be served by the monarchy. Whereas disco, at least the above-ground disco that was Summer’s stock in trade, came to represent the hedonism of the Greatest Generation’ presumably not-so-great descendants, the tackiness of the ennui era, and the perpetual search for Mr. Goodbar, Summer herself was a bashful-seeming, church-trained goody two shoes. Yes, her big break came from a long series of faked orgasms (“Love to Love You Baby”), but as a kindred prude, I buy her story that she was doing them as a piss take. There’s a dash of contempt in her moans. That she reprised them in her massive cover of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” seems both a capitulation to her blossoming potential to be marketed and a reluctant acquiescence to the discomfort of pleasure. (More on that particular track in a moment.)

Then there’s the question of authorship, which has always dogged Summer as rockists across the board sought to rectify their love for her formidable collection of hits (and concept albums like Once Upon a Time and I Remember Yesterday) against the critical establishment’s long-standing bias against musical acts who don’t write and produce their own material. In other words, subscribing to the cult of Giorgio Moroder has given far too many people a convenient out. (That Summer’s name often appeared alongside Moroder and Pete Bellotte in the songwriting credits more often than not apparently meant nothing to them.) Moroder’s relationship with Summer was admittedly as symbiotic as Janet Jackson’s with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Missy Elliott’s with Timbaland, but take another listen to “State of Independence,” “This Time I Know It’s For Real,” or even “I’m a Fire” (from her last album, Crayons) and tell me you can’t hear an artist capable of putting her own imprint on radically diverse forms.

As the world party dims all the lights, I can remember that when Slant was in the thick of crafting its 100 Greatest Dance Songs (c. early 2006), YouTube was really starting to take off. It was through that bit of circumstance that I’ve forever linked the site I’ve since visited nearly every day with Donna Summer. Suddenly, it seemed there was a gold mine repository at my fingertips for vintage video clips of live disco performances, which made up for their poor video quality with the notion that the VHS (Beta?) tapes they came from were well-worn and well-loved. One of my very favorite clips was a concert performance of “I Remember Yesterday,” another arguably German song carried to loopy heights through harnessing an antiquated rhythmic pulse, and a song whose prominence in the soundtrack of my life (the song = 10th grade) has always been a source of regrettable embarrassment.

The song is always goofy as all hell. But the video… Here Donna can be found twirling a cane, sticking her pooch out in some sort of sad-sack guess as to how dancing to a doo-wop disco throwback should look, using the cane as some sort of trombone/clarinet hybrid (that still comes out “doot doot”), bugging her eyes out in stern appreciation of corn camp like some schoolmarmish part-time music teacher leading sugar-laced kids through a calypso unit. All the while, the backup dancers do the windshield wipe. But at least the singing is live. It sounds a lot better when she puts some brass into it. Her poltergeist vocals on the studio version—which, though I never had the balls to play it on my disco-only college radio show, I’m now man enough to admit is one of my three favorite Donna Summer songs ever—always seemed sort of inadequate for the barrage of banjos and spoons Moroder threw into the mix, in their own way as densely layered and punishing as his programming on the album-capping “I Feel Love.” But seeing and hearing her perform this song live is like watching someone stick their tongue simultaneously in both cheeks. In case you wanted further proof that disco knew its camp potential, watch Summer demonstrate how “we both looked around the room.” Then swoon to the most gratuitous and satisfying middle-eight key change ever. (I always wanted to arrange this for my high school jazz band. As one of the alto saxes, I would’ve choreographed it so we’d stand up from our chairs at this point.) And then note that empty drum set behind them. And then mourn the lack of a hardwood floor panel and a pair of tap shoes. And then watch Summer struggle to figure out exactly where “on the one” would be on this bitch and stop mourning that lack.

I can no longer find the YouTube clip that fascinated me back in 2006 of Summer performing “The Hostage,” her pre-“Love to Love You Baby” track about a woman’s husband being kidnapped that was a minor hit in Europe—though not the U.S., which would explain why, despite having more greatest-hits compilations than Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder combined, it hasn’t shown up on a single one. (Except for this one, an identical copy of which was pressed by Holland’s Groovy Records, and I know that because I snatched the vinyl from my aunt years ago.) Well, because of that and also because the song is an incredible effing downer: “Well, they finally found my husband a few days later…Yes. The funeral’s tomorrow.” Since then, another clip from Dutch TV has surfaced, and it’s a brilliant study in cognitive dissonance. The staging completely undercuts the song’s telephone interludes and turns that ridiculous all-is-full-of-bleak epilogue, which took its nihilistic cue from every American movie made between 1968 and 1976, into a punchline.

During the turbulent, half-year gestation of Slant’s dance list, I think I fought for no song’s inclusion more virulently than “Could It Be Magic.” Sending decidedly mixed signals, when the original list of 100 was set in stone and each participant was asked to come up with a list of three “honorable mentions” that we wished could’ve made the real list, I opted not to mention Summer’s cover of the Manilow’s song, itself a rework of a Chopin piano prelude. My line of reasoning was that, by that point, Summer was already well enough represented on the main list. (With three songs, she tied Madonna for the most overall mentions.) Though I had bigger fish to fry, like pointing out the lack of deep house on the feature presentation, maybe this was yet another in a string of moments I could cite in my life where my weak soul just couldn’t admit to loving Summer that much. If that’s the case, I atone completely.

Now that the list is almost as old as dance music itself (or at least reminds me of that time in your life when your parents realize you’re over half their current age and will always be henceforth), I can admit that I unabashedly dig this tossed-off cover as much as I dig “I Feel Love,” though in saying that I admit to having off-kilter Donna Summer tastes—rarely looking for some “Hot Stuff” baby this evening. Maybe it’s the galloping tempo, maybe it’s the fact that the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte sound hadn’t quite hardened into the impenetrability they reached a couple albums down the road (the percussive kick is more organically propulsive than metronomic), or maybe it’s the melodramatic heft of Chopin’s original chord progressions and the fact that what once was funereal is now treated as an erotic rush. Or maybe I dig that Summer unashamedly rehashes the bridge-orgasm interlude that made her famous, only this time she can’t claim it to be a recording-session lark that somehow ended up on the finished product. (The dirty secret about prudes, as Rose Nylund could tell you, is that deep down we’re always looking for, but rarely finding, the moment to break our ever-elongating streak.) Or maybe it’s the fact that the bridge that accompanies Summer’s moany plea to “come into my life” is tormentedly gorgeous, and used to great effect during one of Looking for Mr. Goodbar’s depressing sex scenes. Or maybe I’m just tickled by the mental image of Barry Manilow sending Summer whirling like a cyclone in her mind.

“I Remember Yesterday, “The Hostage,” and “Could It Be Magic” are the most potent sort of camp, the kind that’s apparently presented with grave sincerity. Pondering that, the contradictions of Summer as the Queen of Disco make so damned much sense.

Rest in peace high up where the stallion meets the sun.

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Review: Bright Eyes’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

The band continues to be unmatched at tackling the biggest questions with a profound, heart-wrenching intimacy.

4

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Bright Eyes, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Photo: Shawn Brackbill

For those with a certain affinity for emo music, Bright Eyes might as well be a classic rock band. Over the course of their first nine albums, Conor Oberst and his longtime collaborators, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, defined and refined a kind of sprawling, intensely honest brand of indie rock that would become an essential touchstone for a genre and an indelible document for an era. So when the band took a hiatus in 2011, following the somewhat divisive The People’s Key, it unofficially marked the end of an era.

As such, Oberst’s return to Bright Eyes after nearly a decade is no small gesture. But Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was feels less like a monumental happening and more like a seamless continuation, the sound of a band shrugging off a long hiatus and simply getting back to work. They’re still making deeply emotional indie rock songs, still flirting with the same grandiosity that helped cement the legacies of albums like Lifted and Fevers and Mirrors, and the songs still revolve around Oberst’s warbling search for the reasons we insist on continuing to exist when the world quite frankly seems to be crumbling all around us.

There’s something intoxicating about Bright Eyes tripping back onto a (purely metaphorical) stage on the album’s first proper song, “Dance and Sing,” which opens with a throat-clearing sound check before kicking into gear: “Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end,” Oberst sings. Adorned with a gorgeous string section, the track represents a kind of effortless widescreen ideal of a Bright Eyes song while setting the scene for one of the album’s key themes. “All I can do is just dance on through and sing,” goes the chorus, bringing to the fore the idea that, even as catastrophe seems to wait around every corner, the only way to carry on is to, well, carry on.

The songs on Down in the Weeds reprises the sheen and clarity of Bright Eyes’s later records, like Cassadaga and The People’s Key, and mostly eschews the rawer qualities of their early recordings. But the band also continues to pick up influences and incorporate new sounds into their foundation. “Mariana Trench” takes on a light ‘80s-pop aesthetic with its high-pitched foundational synthesizers and big, bouncy chorus, while “Pan and Broom”—a small little tune that rests on a back and forth between a popping beat and an imitation sweeping sound—recasts Oberst’s bedroom-pop days with a more modern sound. With contributions from heavyweights like Jon Theodore and Flea, the album continues to expand Bright Eyes’s sonic palette while staying true to their core: “Persona Non Grata,” for instance, takes one of the band’s typical funeral dirges and exacerbates the drama with a bagpipe solo.

Perhaps the most integral component of Bright Eyes’s music is Oberst’s ability to probe deep into the heart of despair, ennui, and regret. There’s plenty of that here, but his aptitude for going right for the heart of the matter is most powerful on “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” and “Comet Song.” The former recalls Oberst’s more unwieldy early days, for how it’s stuffed with ideas and little details that pack a real emotional punch: “I’ll ask my love/What will she say?/What’s it like to live with me here/Every fucking day.” It’s a testament to the band’s sharpened songwriting that the most affecting part of the track is the bright, ruminative guitar solo that appears where a chorus might go. Though they let their maximalist instincts shine, Oberst still resists the opportunity to sum things up neatly in favor of remaining ambiguous.

On the other hand, Down in the Weeds’s swooning closing track, “Comet Song,” does a good job of articulating some of the band’s main concerns. Oberst considers the existential weight of nostalgia and memory in some of the most affecting lyrics of his career, a crescendo of horns punctuating some of his most honest and gutting moments. “Spent decades in search of/What meant so much to you/Then sold the whole collection/Because the rent was due,” he sings in an aching reflection on the realities of growing up and moving on. But as “Comet Song” continues to swell, Oberst considers the sublime beauty in that fleetingness: “She doesn’t know yet what a comet does/You’re approaching even as you disappear.” No matter how much time has passed, Bright Eyes continues to be unmatched at tackling the biggest questions with a profound, heart-wrenching intimacy.

Label: Dead Oceans Release Date: August 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Twelfth Finds Old 97’s Looking Backward with Surprising Optimism

The album is defined by surprising positivity in the face of, not only the troubled times of the present, but decades of life on the road.

3

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Old 97's, Twelfth
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

One of the few, if only, remaining alt-country bands from the 1990s with their original lineup intact—not to mention the most consistently active—the Old 97’s are a living relic. They don’t seem one bit ashamed of it, armed with the standard two guitars, bass, and drums, and still playing the same sort of semi-twangy barroom rock songs about drinking, women, the road, and drinking with women on the road. And the fact that they’ve remained, in non-pandemic times, a popular touring act for nearly 30 years without making any major or lasting changes to its approach speaks to the appeal of their original formula.

Just as remarkable is the fact that after all this time, Miller and his cohorts don’t sound jaded in the least: The band’s 12th album, predictably titled Twelfth, is largely defined by the singer’s surprising positivity in the face of, not only the troubled times of the present, but decades of life on the road. Miller delves into the past often throughout the album, from the young-love nostalgia of “Our Year” to the self-referential tribute to the band’s early years of “The Dropouts,” which isn’t the first such song Miller has written in recent years. There’s even a cheeky nod to one of the group’s few other still-active contemporaries, the Bottle Rockets, in the form of a honky-tonk shit-kicker titled “Bottle Rocket Baby.”

This backwards-facing view may seem a little on the nose for a band that’s not doing much of anything new musically, once again pairing the plainspoken barroom wit of Miller’s lyrics with Ken Bethea’s revved-up guitar work. As usual, the latter dominates so much of the mix that it may take a couple of listens to realize there’s barely a single distinguishable riff to be found across the album’s 12 tracks. But when Bethea pulls the ripcord on that heavy bottomless-pit tremolo effect for the dramatic moments, it nearly makes up for it.

Still, that also means that there’s not much to latch onto beyond Miller’s melodies and lyrics, both of which are entirely shopworn but at times winsome nonetheless. On “Turn off the TV,” which recalls the band’s past forays into power pop, Miller portrays the same sort of dorky pick-up artist who sang one of the best-loved Old 97’s songs, “Barrier Reef”: “Turn off the TV, let’s go back to my room/I’ve got a window with a hell of a view.” On the slow, hazy “I Like You Better,” he compares a paramour favorably with the exact things you’d expect a dude in a cowboy band to love the most: sleeping in, playing guitar, and drinking beer. “We got nothing/But nothing’s good enough for the dropouts,” Miller sings on “The Dropouts,” which might well serve as a decent rallying cry for casualties of the Covid economy.

Miller isn’t always so glib though. He got sober five years ago, which he does address on Twelfth, albeit with little depth. When he sings, “And the wine turns into whiskey/And the whiskey turns to tears/It’s been this way for years,” on “Absence (What We’ve Got),” it’s both sharp and revealing. Conversely, “Confessional Boxing” offers mostly surface-level hints at the dark times of the past, as the song growls but doesn’t ever bite. Miller fares better when he’s in pure storytelling mode on the after-hours waltz “Belmont Hotel,” on which the titular hotel becomes a metaphor for romantic renewal: “The ceilings were charred and the air thick with fumes/Now there’s a garden where bluebonnets bloom/And it’s better than brand new now.” You could say, then, that for the Old 97’s, all that’s old is new again.

Label: ATO Release Date: August 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Listen: Dua Lipa Elevates “Levitating” with Help from Madonna and Missy Elliott

The track has been transformed from a midtempo pop-funk earworm into a sleek electro-disco gem.

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Dua Lipa, "Levitating"
Photo: Twitter

Rumors began swirling of a possible collaboration between U.K. pop singer Dua Lipa and Madonna earlier this year when the former’s manager floated the idea in an interview. Lipa has cited the queen of pop as an inspiration for her sophomore effort, Future Nostalgia, a collection of dizzying dance-floor fillers that draws on disco, house, and funk, so going straight to the source for the lead single from Club Future Nostalgia, her forthcoming remix album, feels like a natural through line.

Remixed by DJ/producer the Blessed Madonna (formerly the Black Madonna), who also helped curate and mix the entire album, “Levitating” finds Lipa trading verses with Madame X and fellow genre-bender Missy Elliott, whose early-aughts brand of hip-hop famously blurred the lines between rap, R&B, and dance. The track has been completely transformed from a midtempo pop-funk earworm into a sleek electro-disco gem worthy of Moroder or Cerrone.

Aside from some of her usual vocal tics, including a very Jody Watley-esque “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Madonna’s voice is nearly as unrecognizable as the song itself, vibing effortlessly atop a crisp backdrop of handclaps and skittering bass, while Missy flaunts her versatility by half-singing and half-rapping an expectedly #NSFW verse.

Watch the music video below:

Club Future Nostalgia is due August 28th on Warner Records.

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Review: King Buzzo’s Gift of Sacrifice Brazenly Veers Off the Beaten Path

The album sacrifices conventionality for weirder, wider possibilities.

3.5

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King Buzzo, Gift of Sacrifice
Photo: Mackie Osborne

Despite its peculiar, even revolutionary approach to the acoustic singer-songwriter format, This Machine Kills Artists, the solo debut from the Melvins’s Buzz Osborne—a.k.a. King Buzzo—generated buzz (pun intended) almost exclusively among the band’s faithful. Now, as if to encourage a second look at his pursuit of heretofore unrealized sounds, Osborne has delivered Gift of Sacrifice, another album that veers off the beaten path.

On This Machine Kills Artists, Osborne plowed through 17 propulsive numbers that rarely broke the three-minute mark in the process of reimagining the acoustic guitar as a primarily rhythmic, at times almost percussive, instrument. In contrast, Gift of Sacrifice offers mostly lengthy atmospheric tracks that achieve a dark, pensive beauty, in large part due to the added presence of Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, who’s featured throughout the album. “Delayed Clarity” begins with a series of brooding, heavily strummed acoustic chords to which Osborne eventually adds a gorgeously melancholic guitar lick. Two minutes into the song, Osborne begins to sing, and Dunn uses his standup bass to create—with the help of substantial delay effects—an eerie, swirling soundscape that submerges the track’s vocals in a psychedelic fog.

In the course of inventing their own brand of overpowering sludge metal, the Melvins have been often overlooked for their experimentation, but Gift of Sacrifice—with “Delayed Clarity” as its centerpiece—often spotlights Osborne’s masterful ability to explore strange worlds of sound by slowing down the pace and emphasizing texture over melody. “Housing, Luxury, Energy” reverses the structure of “Delayed Clarity,” with another set of brooding, heavily strummed chords accompanied by simultaneous tracks of Dunn’s arco patterns, including a scraping, atonal noise. Over more than six minutes, the song intensifies to the point where Osborne’s baying vocals and thunderous strumming produce an overwhelming maelstrom. The common thread of Osborne’s two solo albums is the transference of metal’s sonic density to the acoustic realm, and with this track and most of Gift of Sacrifice he’s especially succeeded, with Dunn providing thick foundational tones for extra heaviness.

Motifs of our oppressive, delusional, and arrogant ways seem to pervade Gift of Sacrifice. The surprisingly catchy “I’m Glad I Could Help Out” possesses a creepy, lurching rhythm aided by Dunn’s plucked bass notes as well as Osborne’s lyrical portrait of endurance through persecution: “They came to terrorize/The wisest of the wise/You have to survive/Before you can do anything.” While possessing only a rough intelligibility, the lyrical fragments on “Science in Modern America” appear to paint an all-too-relevant portrait of intellectual and moral decrepitude: “Forget everything and face nothing” is one such fragment, and it speaks volumes as to how Osborne views a world ruled by ignorance and cowardice.

The biggest surprise on Gift of Sacrifice is “Mock She,” perhaps the first “Hey, foxy mama” song that Osborne has ever written. It’s certainly the album’s breeziest offering, even as various elements undermine any straightforward sentiment it might express. After all, Osborne’s idea of a come-on is “Hey, baby, if you do what you’ve been told/My insulation’s gone, girl/You make me overload.” And as if to further suggest the breakdown of the authoritarian, mechanical narrator, his voice eventually disintegrates in a metallic gurgle while Dunn’s frantic bassline becomes increasingly atonal and arrhythmic.

Gift of Sacrifice flirts with such chaos, though sometimes in a compartmentalized manner: Three tracks, including the opener and closer, are short instrumentals that might have been elongated for further immersive and exploratory effect. Otherwise, the album is an off-kilter musical gift born of Osborne’s sacrifice of conventionality for weirder, wider possibilities.

Label: Ipecac Release Date: August 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Aminé’s Limbo Skillfully Melds Traditional and Modern Hip-Hop Modes

The album proves that the rapper can keep pace with his contemporaries while drawing on the history of hip-hop.

3.5

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Aminé, Limbo
Photo: Micaiah Carter

On the intro to his 2018 mixtape, Onepointfive, Aminé demonstrated his talent for verbose, declaratory scene-setting. The opening track of the Portland-based rapper’s second studio album, Limbo, likewise sets the stage with a chopped soul sample-driven beat and telling references to hip-hop’s past (Jay-Z) and future (Rico Nasty), while unfurling some of the moral concerns plaguing his thoughts. The album also contains new spins on the dormant practice of skits, and one such interlude pays tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, while others serve as outros for the tracks “Riri” and “Fetus.” These skits find Aminé conversationally musing to himself and his friends about growing older and his place in the world, and they’re a welcome, thoughtful nod to the rap opuses of yesteryear.

By the album’s halfway point, though, it’s clear that this isn’t just another throwback, as Aminé’s full-bodied beats, vintage soul samples, and clever rhymes set him up as a deserving carrier of Kanye West’s torch. “Roots” features R&B/funk icon Charlie Wilson, a favored collaborator of Kanye, while “Pressure in My Palms” includes a reference to the origin of the divisive rapper’s beef with Taylor Swift, as well as a brief but unmistakable interpolation of Kanye’s 2005 track “We Major.” On “Mama,” Aminé lovingly sings the praises of his mother and her herculean efforts to raise him, as if in homage to Kanye’s “Hey Mama”—though the song also links to 2Pac’s “Dear Mama.”

One of the album’s more complex lyrical moments, “Becky” is an examination of racial inequality in America that centers on Aminé’s suburban upbringing, repeatedly returning to the line “Mama said/don’t ever bring a white girl home to me.” The song fascinatingly looks at the contradictions between the behaviors of individuals and the trends of the masses, a kind of liminality hinted at in the album’s title. Aminé is also frequently caught between his swagger and his conscience, resulting in a moral ambiguity that’s further explored on “Fetus,” which, in another stroke of highly uncharacteristic attitudes in rap, ponders the potential harms of bringing a child into the world. The production of these songs, like much of the rest of the album, is unhurried, allowing Aminé to enunciate words fully, the percussion patiently churning and the guitar lines slowly strummed.

Aminé isn’t quite as good a singer as he is a rapper, and certain songs, like “Compensating” and “Riri,” feel encumbered by their repetitive hooks. But when he’s spitting verses, Aminé’s bars feel as painstakingly worked out as those of J. Cole, though his looser, more blasé demeanor saves him from the strident handwringing of the North Carolina MC. (Cole would not, for example, say “Get off my dick and my balls” with the gusto that Aminé manages here.)

In melding traditional hip-hop form with just the right amount of modern trap verve, Limbo makes the case for Aminé, if not as the next great rapper, then as a pop-rap workhorse. The album proves that he can keep pace with his contemporaries while drawing on the history of the genre in ways many of today’s innovators are unconcerned with engaging.

Label: Republic Release Date: August 7, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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

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

3

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Glass Animals, Dreamland
Photo: Elliott Arndt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Release Date: August 7, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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

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

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Billie Eilish, My Future

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

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

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

Watch below:

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

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

4.5

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Taylor Swift, Folklore
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taylor Swift, Cardigan
Photo: YouTube

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

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

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

Watch the video below:

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

Folklore is out now on Republic Records.

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

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

1.5

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Ellie Goulding, Brightest Blue
Photo: Nathan Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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