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.
Review: Thom Yorke’s Anima Finds the Singer Raging Against the Apocalypse
The album’s juxtaposition of lyrical techno-dread with austere, ghostly electronic music is satisfyingly unsettling.4
Thom Yorke has spent the last 25-plus years giving expression to his technophobia. The belief that the bright, shiny gadgets that surround us might not actually present a net positive for humanity pervades his output both as the frontman of Radiohead and as a solo artist. Yorke continues to engage with themes of technological alienation and disenchantment with the modern world on his third album, Anima, and from the vantage point of 2019—when headlines about bot farms, climate change, and the like are ubiquitous—his apocalyptic musings aren’t as paranoid as they once may have seemed.
Both of Yorke’s previous solo efforts, 2006’s The Eraser and 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, lacked the musical and lyrical cohesion, not to mention the sonic punch, that has driven Radiohead’s best work. Like those albums, Anima largely eschews guitar altogether; only album closer “Runwayaway” features a discernible guitar sound, and even that’s heavily processed. But Anima still achieves a sonic and thematic through line. The album’s juxtaposition of lyrical techno-dread with austere, ghostly electronic music is satisfyingly unsettling. The lyrics are evocative in their economy, and rather than feel like guide tracks, the arrangements feel more fully realized than on Yorke’s past albums.
The opening track, “Traffic,” immediately sets a dystopic mood. Against pulsating synth sounds and a glitchy electronic beat, the first word we hear is “submit.” The chorus finds Yorke sneering “Show me the money” and “Crime pays, she stays,” which feels like a side-eyed reference to Theresa May’s increasingly benighted attempts to remain at 10 Downing Street. “Not the News” engages contemporary political turmoil in a similarly elliptical way with its titular reference to the trend toward calling unpalatable news “fake.” Yorke asks, “Who are these people?,” before deciding, “I’m not running/Enough of broken glass.”
The musician’s long-simmering mistrust of technology boils over in “The Axe.” Throughout, multi-tracked, distorted vocals drift like ghostly wails as a droning melody slowly emerges, resolving to an almost insectoid hum. Yorke sighs, “Goddamn machinery/Why don’t you speak to me?” And on the song’s chorus, he moans, “I thought we had a deal,” almost sounding as if he’s on the verge of tears. Though the song begins with Yorke swearing to “take an axe” to his addressee, his delivery is more paralyzed than enervated.
Anima’s title is drawn from the work of Carl Jung, whose theories mapped out much of our current understanding of dreams and the unconscious. Yorke has long had a fascination with dreams and the liminal state of consciousness. On “Last I Heard (He Was Circling the Drain),” he says he “woke up with a feeling I just could not take” and envisions “humans the size of rats.” Overall, the album feels like the soundtrack for a dance party on a melting glacier.
Which isn’t to say that Anima is all doom and gloom. The album’s digital release was accompanied by a short film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in which Yorke plays a nameless character in a dystopic world populated by uniformed quasi-automatons. On a train, he sees a woman (played by his partner, Italian actress Dajana Roncione) who seems to jolt him to life. Yorke’s performance, reminiscent of Buster Keaton, is quite bathetic; his voice has always been deeply expressive, and his physicality here is equally evocative. The clip juxtaposes “Dawn Chorus,” probably the album’s bleakest track, with a moment of unexpected grace and serenity. Even in the darkest of moments, the short suggests, restorative human connection is attainable. This might be the key to understanding Anima: Yorke may not be optimistic about humanity’s future, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe it’s worth saving.
Label: XL Release Date: June 27, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Banks’s III Comes on Strong but Falls Short of Pushing the Limits
There’s no denying the album’s imposing maximalism, but its bells and whistles feel like sensory overload.2.5
Back in 2014, singer-songwriter Jillian Rose Banks’s fusion of downcast synth-pop and R&B provided an antidote to sugar shock like Pharrell’s “Happy” and Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Her affinity for flashy electronic flourishes and moody ambience persists on her third album, the aptly titled III, but it scans as artlessly straightforward by 2019’s standards, where genre-bending is increasingly commonplace and eccentric dark pop by the likes of Billie Eilish sits comfortably at the top of the charts. III does little to push Banks’s own limits, much less the precedents set by her alt-pop contemporaries.
With the aid of producers like Buddy Ross and Hudson Mohawke, Banks wields her most heavy-duty arsenal of sounds to date here. Crammed full of walloping bass, spacious drum fills, and an endless array of pitched vocal samples, the album’s sonic palette is grandiose, verging on excessive. The synth frequencies on tracks like “Gimme” and “Stroke” are so blistering they sound like they’re frying your speakers. There’s no denying the album’s imposing maximalism, but its bells and whistles feel like sensory overload, a red herring that distracts from Banks’s boilerplate commentary on toxic relationships and self-empowerment.
While the electronic pyrotechnics of the album’s first half border on cacophonous, the arrangements on the latter half are comparably toned down and smartly edited. On the standout “Hawaiian Mazes,” threads of cascading harp and piano interweave with pitched-down vocals, forming a serene latticework that brings to mind the music of Jhené Aiko. “Alaska” features the album’s most interesting beat: a syncopated back and forth between off-kilter piano and bongo drums. Throughout these final tracks, electronic touches support rather than overpower the acoustic instrumentation.
Likewise, Banks delivers the album’s strongest vocal performance on “If We Were Made of Water,” delving into her head voice over subdued piano, synths, and strings. Her reedy vocals are better suited for lighter textures like these, as opposed to the suffocating backing tracks of the album’s first half. Her voice grates on “Till Now,” while her attempt at rapping on “The Fall” is nearly unintelligible, her voice so hoarse it resembles a screech.
On album closer “What About Love,” Banks’s outlook on love is optimistic (“What about the life that we could make?/We could grow older”), a deviation from the heartache and hubris that are usually her subject matters of choice. Although they’re empowering in their own right, the anthemic “Gimme” and “Stroke” veer into braggadocious theatricality: “And even though you wanted me sweet, you could call me savory,” she boasts on the latter. When you peel away III’s performative edginess, it’s difficult to form an idea of who the real Banks is.
Label: Harvest Release Date: July 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Decoding Madonna’s Disturbing “God Control” Video
The singer’s new video features a wealth of Easter eggs, hidden meanings, and cameos.
Violence has been a surprisingly consistent theme throughout Madonna’s music video canon, from “Like a Prayer” to “What It Feels like for a Girl” to, most recently, “Dark Ballet,” in which Mykki Blanco is burned at the stake. But the video for “God Control,” from her latest album, Madame X, is shockingly graphic in its depiction of gun violence.
The video, which premiered on Wednesday, was directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who also helmed the clip for 2003’s “American Life,” the original version of was scrapped in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Parallels between the two videos are inevitable: “American Life” is a satire of modern society’s consumption of war as popular entertainment, while “God Control” depicts the carnage weapons of war can wreak here at home. Like “American Life,” the new video features a wealth of Easter eggs, hidden meanings, and cameos.
The brunette Madonna (we’ll call her Madame X) has framed photos of Frida Kahlo, Simone de Beauvoir, and Patti Smith hanging on the walls around her desk. Also visible are portraits of choreographer Martha Graham—who, according to Madonna, christened her with the nickname “Madame X” in the late 1970s because she was constantly changing her appearance—and political activist Angela Davis, a quote from whom is a featured at the end of the video: “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”
The record Madame X listens to while writing is titled “We Need to Wake Up,” printed in a ‘70s-style typeface. The credits, unfortunately, are too small to make out:
Early in “God Control,” a statue of Christ is seen weeping blood, echoing a similar shot in Madonna’s video for “Like a Prayer,” in which a black saint cries tears of blood:
A brief close-up of Madame X’s typewriter pulls focus on the letters “D” and “C,” an obvious reference to Washington D.C.’s inaction:
Later in the clip, Madonna punches the “Power Return” button, an obvious allusion to the people reclaiming their power, which is followed by a montage of gun-control demonstrations:
Though the opening shot of “God Control” establishes New York City as the location of the story, the club scenes were filmed at downtown Los Angeles’s historic Globe Theatre, where the marquee reads “We Need To Wake Up”:
Blink and you’ll miss cameos from RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Monét X Change, YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous, and actress Sofia Boutella, who’s danced for Madonna on tour:
Surveillance footage featured throughout the video is dated “16/05/12,” which some fans have speculated refers to a passage from the New Testament:
In another possible reference to “Like a Prayer,” Madonna is thrown against a wall and attacked, similar to a scene in the 1989 video in which she witnesses a young woman being sexually assaulted by a group of men:
While Madonna gets ready for a night on the town, a poster in the background reads “Straight White Men Rule Everything Around Me”:
Theories abound over whether the two Madonnas featured in the video are the same person, if they’re neighbors, or if the blond Madonna is a fictional creation of Madame X. One clue could be right at our fingertips—or, rather, Madonna’s. Both characters appear to be wearing the same glittery nail polish:
What do you think the video is about? Share your theories in the comments below!
Review: Chris Brown’s Indigo Is a Bloated, Incoherent Personal Statement
The album’s lumbering pace and homogeneity overshadow even its few gems.1.5
On his ninth album, Indigo, Chris Brown goes to great lengths to make sure we know that he’s matured. He’s eager to share the lessons he’s learned about life and love on songs like the smooth “Back to Love” and “All on Me”: “All these wrongs that I’ve done, I’m just tryna make it right,” he bleats on the latter track. You can tell that the self-proclaimed King of R&B is enlightened because he talks about love, energy, and vibrations throughout the 32-track double album, but there’s no sense that he’s attempted to assemble these ideas into a coherent artistic or even personal statement.
Spirituality doesn’t preclude sexuality—“I just wanna realign your chakras,” Brown sings on “Emerald”—but the two are otherwise kept separate across Indigo’s distended two-hour runtime. It might make sense if each section of the album were devoted to a different aspect of Brown’s apparent multitudes, but there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the song sequencing here, shifting abruptly between tracks about self-improvement and sexual hubris.
A series of back-to-back songs in the first half of the album are nothing more than dick-measuring contests between Brown and guests like Tyga, Gunna, and Lil Wayne, with the singer going out of his way—just in case we doubted it—to make it clear just how much he likes “pussy.” From “Wobble Up” to “Just Like That,” he finds no shortage of ways to tell women how to sit on his dick. On “Sexy,” Brown and guest Trey Songz take R. Kelly-style smarm to puerile new depths: “Oh, I’m hard in my pants, give me a hand.”
Indigo is lean compared to 2017’s interminable 45-track Heartbreak on a Full Moon, but the album’s lumbering pace and homogeneity overshadow even its few gems, like the sax-infused “Sorry Enough” and the smooth, disco-inflected “Side Nigga.” And what memorable hooks there are can be credited to sampled songs from the 1990s, including Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” on “Undecided” and Aaliyah’s “Back and Forth” on “Throw It Back.” A handful of two-part suites like “Natural Disaster/Aura” and “Trust Issues/Act In” at least bother with the pretense of ambition. Otherwise, Indigo fails to justify both its duration and existence.
Label: RCA Release Date: June 28, 2019 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
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