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Review: Drake, Views

Drake continues to reflexively balance out this egotism by dredging up old demons and initiating new beefs.

3.5

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Drake, Views

Leading a paradigm-shifting youth movement of like-minded eccentrics, Drake emerged in the early 2010s as a devotee of the icy sound pioneered on Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak, a profoundly influential work that at the time seemed like little more than an odd lark. Picking up the mantle of the half-singing, half-rapping, fully introspective MC, Drake and other guilt-ridden softies—voices as varied as Kid Cudi, the Weeknd, and Frank Ocean—embraced a turbid, melancholic production style and confessional approach that initially seemed poised to introduce a new level of emotional candor to a famously taciturn genre. In conquering the mainstream, this anomalous subgenre has also hardened into its own form of orthodoxy, its emphasis on catharsis balanced out by updated forms of tough-guy posturing.

Now, eight years after 808s & Heartbreak, West has again changed the game with his stunning, transcendent The Life of Pablo, and recent works like Beyoncé’s Lemonade have further expanded the definition of what hip-hop and R&B albums can accomplish. Drake, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate only negligible growth, gaining in fame and prestige while calcifying the remote qualities that secured him those accolades, building up the walls of his own personal fortress of solitude. Views is a truly glacial, intensely morose album, one that confronts the same basic concerns as previous efforts, while further amplifying their significance.

More successful and satisfied with himself than ever, Drake continues to reflexively balance out this egotism by dredging up old demons and initiating new beefs. Whether this a psychological response or his only available artistic mode is hard to determine, but his ennui has now expanded to an epic level, as evidenced by the album’s ridiculous cover art, featuring an image of the star slumped atop Toronto’s landmark CN Tower, sulking over the city like a sad-sack Canadian Batman. Always torn between the promise of his future and the wistful burden of his past, he continues to make music that celebrates the high life while undercutting it with a persistent focus on low spirits.

This is admittedly a common conflict for ascendant artists, who in gaining celebrity become fearful that they’re losing their original selves; Kendrick Lamar explored it to great effect on last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Yet while Kendrick is a technician, working within micro-focused networks of dense, allusive wordplay, Drake is a stylist, with a broad platform of slogans, catch phrases, and goofy puns spouted over glitzy, crystalline sound beds. Lead single and glum summer anthem “Hotline Bling,” which caps off the album, sums up all these concerns. Distilling the distance between the vibrant familiarity of his Toronto home base and his spacious L.A. manor, Drake monitors the exploits of an old love through social media, while fondly reminiscing about their history of late-night booty calls.

A similar sense of stylized emptiness is conveyed via the track’s famously sparse video, anchored by James Turrell-inspired installations that, like Drake himself, became a flashpoint for all varieties of responsive memes, confirming him as a distinctly interactive artist, whom fans can both easily empathize with or heap scorn upon. In short, a man of the people whose struggles with technology-enabled angst, and the related connection between confidence and self-loathing, make him eminently relatable.

If the perversely sunny L.A. is the prevailing symbol for dislocation in Drake’s universe, then Toronto, while depicted as characteristically frigid in the album art—perfectly compared, in another recent meme, to Grand Theft Auto loading screens—is a warm space. Seasonal change is another motif on Views, which alternately blows hot and cold, its geographical contrasts functioning as a symbolic stand-in for the struggle between domestic and professional spheres. This hometown, whose flag Drake flies with a fervency common to hip-hop’s many local standard bearers, gets represented as a haven for family, friends, feuds, and old flames alike. Its invocation consistently surrounds him in a warm crush of memories, serving as a Proustian pleasure garden that assures that even frosty reminders of failures and lapses possess a flicker of warmth. This feeling is cemented by the bursts of Jamaican patois and island rhythms that crop up frequently throughout the album; Nods to Toronto’s vibrant Caribbean community, such affectations appear throughout, most prominently on the smooth, sinuous “Controlla,” which fittingly closes out with a blaring Beenie Man co-sign.

A corollary to the album’s dominant professional/domestic conflict, the most interesting tension that develops on Views is between normalcy and luxury. This comes across most clearly on songs like “Weston Road Flows” and “Child’s Play,” the latter intended as a rebuke to a small-minded lover that instead reveals more about the artist himself, particularly his apparent low-/high-culture affection for peaceful meals at Cheesecake Factory and hiding the keys to his Bugatti, keeping it safe from being reduced to a vehicle for everyday errands. Yet rather than engage in some real analysis of this topic or perform a serious emotional reckoning on himself, Drake continues to fall back on a now-familiar template: the humblebrag declaration of loneliness that doubles as admonishment to the unidentified figures who’ve indirectly wronged him, exhibiting a passive-aggressive haughtiness that claims to take the high road while subtly twisting the knife. He again confirms himself as a master of the backhanded compliment, and perhaps the consummate poison-pen artist of the iPhone era, conveying his disdain through the filter of technology, which serves to both compress distance and amplify its effects.

Drake is still skilled enough to carry off this pose with the effortlessness needed to make it credible, freighted as Views may be with cheeseball lines and repetitive refrains. These soft points have always been part of the charm, however, and while the album is overlong and presents nothing truly explosive or exhilarating, it generally works as a steady low-key collection of modish, contemplative mood music. The consistent production from OVO house producer and longtime collaborator 40 is again a huge asset, even if it does contribute to an overall feeling of sameness.

No one expects the rapper to get as religious as Kanye, as methodical as Kendrick, or as political as Beyoncé, but their recent works only serve as another reminder of how much Drake has left to explore about himself, rather than continuing to sublimate all his concerns into the same formulaic, dilettantish navel-gazing. As a biracial former child star with a background far afield from the usual rags-to-riches hip-hop template, prone to petty feuds and squabbles, he could easily plumb unexplored emotional depths by accordingly escalating his trademark frankness and self-scrutiny, instead of sloughing off responsibility for his problems onto ungrateful lovers and unfaithful friends. Until he’s ready to face his real demons, Drake seems doomed to circle about in the same stylish, faux-soul-searching limbo, perhaps mounting ever-higher structures to adequately express his essential feelings of existential emptiness.

Label: Cash Money Release Date: April 29, 2016 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Battles’s Juice B Crypts Is an All-Out Aural Assault on the Senses

The group’s fourth album occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of its overstuffed songs.

3.5

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Battles
Photo: Atiba Jefferson

In her book Our Aesthetic Categories, literary and cultural critic Sianne Ngai describes “zany” as a type of artistic quality that reflects the exhaustion engendered by late capitalism. By that token, Battles makes some of the zaniest music imaginable, drawing on jazz, art rock, avant-garde classical, and electronica for its maximalist, experimental soundscapes. On their fourth album, Juice B Crypts, Battles and a handful of guests launch an all-out assault to overload the listener’s brain, and with mixed results.

There are stretches of the bass-driven opening track, “Ambulance,” that suggest the soundtrack to a podcast about Theranos before shifting into a screechy, cyberpunkish second movement. Guitarist-keyboardist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier eventually blend those two sonic ideas together as the song builds to its climax. The track’s distinct parts represent a microcosm of the album’s ethos: Every song features a plethora of ideas that, when it works, the band manages to weave together into a unified whole, with no gesture wasted.

Prog-rock icon Jon Anderson and the Taiwanese psych band Prairie WWWW contribute to “Sugar Foot,” a mile-a-minute frenzy of a song. Though Anderson’s singing is a tad anonymous, his vocals are smartly processed and buried in the mix. It evokes Nikola Tesla’s ghost watching the assembly line at a Foxconn plant, with ethereal chants duking it out with the synths for supremacy. The final section matches a breakneck drum part by Stanier with some incantatory singing by Anderson, like the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack played at triple speed. The track is one of the better examples of Williams and Stanier’s compositional skills, as they blend a range of disparate sounds together into something truly ethereal.

Taking a cue from Liquid Liquid frontman Sal Principato’s ecstatic guest vocal, “Titanium 2 Step” is a no-wave rave up with explosive percussion and synth parts that recreate the skronk-y, out-of-tune jazz horns that mark that band’s work. But the album’s pièce de résistance is “Izm,” which matches a skeletal, skittering drum part and playful electronic flourishes with an icy guest vocal from Shabazz Palaces. The song’s rap-tronica is a promising new direction for Battles, evidence that there are still creative registers they’re only just beginning to explore.

Juice B Crypts biggest drawback is that, with so much going on, some of these songs get lost in the album’s frenetic whiplash pacing. “A Loop So Nice…” is a fleeting piece of crystalline glitch-pop that suffers from its placement alongside its superior companion piece, “They Played It Twice,” which features a vocal part from Xenia Rubinos that attains almost religious levels of ecstasy. “Last Supper on Shasta, Pt. 1” gets some mileage from Merrill Garbus’s typically wild vocals, but “Pt. 2” buries her singing under a mountain of noise.

Juice B Crypts occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of its overstuffed songs. But even when it’s too maximalist for its own good, Battles’s music is still compelling. That’s thanks in large part to Stainer’s mind-meltingly good drum work, which culls from an impressive array of influences, from breakneck-style jazz playing in the vein of Buddy Rich to polyrhythmic adventurism like that of Chris Frantz to post-punk thudding reminiscent of Stephen Morris. He remains Battles’s stabilizing force.

Label: Warp Release Date: October 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Big Thief’s Two Hands Crackles with the Intensity of a Live Album

The album is a portrait of the band’s skills as musicians, a document of a group hitting its stride.

4

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Big Thief
Photo: Dustin Condren

Big Thief’s U.F.O.F., released in May of this year, found the Brooklyn-based band fleshing out their sound and exorcising a bit of the darkness that pervaded their first two efforts. Five months later, the band has released that album’s evil-twin opposite. Where U.F.O.F. is ethereal and haunting, the earthier Two Hands boasts the kinetic energy of a live album. Big Thief’s latest isn’t quite the revelation its predecessor was, but it’s a portrait of the band’s skills as musicians, a document of a group hitting its stride.

The biggest difference between U.F.O.F. and Two Hands is that, while the former features copious layers of vocals and reverb, the latter was recorded largely in single takes with minimal overdubbing. As a result, Two Hands is like lightning in a bottle. Big Thief’s enthusiasm for playing together comes through clearly throughout the 10 songs here, many of which have long been featured prominently in the band’s live sets.

These songs wear their influences on their sleeves. Throughout, Big Thief filters 1960s and ‘70s folk and rock through the lens of shoegaze. Two Hands doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but the songs are delivered with enough enthusiasm and musical dexterity that they manage to feel fresh. “Shoulders” is a blooze-inflected barroom jam with the soul of a murder ballad: “The blood of the man who killed our mother with his hands/Is in me, it’s in me, in my veins,” howls singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker. On “Not,” as its title implies, the band dabbles in nihilism with images of fire, drought, famine, and decay. The song concludes with a soaring guitar solo that would make Nels Cline proud. “Forgotten Eyes,” which rollicks and crashes in ways that recall mid-‘70s Crazy Horse, features Lenker’s most impassioned vocal performance: “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection,” she sings during the chorus.

The group’s playing is tight and sharp throughout, but Lenker is what makes Big Thief more than just a bar band. Her lyrics are spare and dark, with a poetic sensibility inspired by Anne Sexton and Raymond Carver. Her singing voice is as distinctive as her writing, with a tremulous warble that’s loaded with emotional resonance. Ranging from guttural yowling to barely contained explosiveness, Lenker’s voice is the perfect vehicle for Big Thief’s dark, pretty songs about personal and political wreckage.

Label: 4AD Release Date: October 11, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Anna Meredith’s FIBS Defies Boundaries, Shape, and Form

The album finds the singer-songwriter continuing to defy genre and break the rules.

3.5

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Anna Meredith
Photo: Gem Harris

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” British singer-composer Anna Meredith’s albums are wrought with ironclad technical precision, and yet, for all of her classical training, her compositional sensibilities are markedly genre-nonconforming. Just as her 2016 debut, Varmints, blended orchestral pomp and heart-pounding electronics with references to 8-bit video games and science-fiction soundtracks, FIBS finds Meredith continuing to dissolve boundaries, resulting in an album that’s both monumental and intimate.

Shape and form are key to the songs on FIBS. Meredith’s songwriting process reportedly often begins with a drawing—perhaps a sequence of interlocking polygons denoting build, attack, release, or a tornado-esque squiggle leading into a single line bisected by another—and it’s on the tracks that are most easily imagined visually that FIBS is at its most propulsive. From the disorienting clashes of tuba, electric guitar, and drums on “Bump” that eventually cohere into a single, clear resolution, to the thwarted romance of “moonmoons,” pizzicato strings bursting happily like little bubbles as bowed violins creep in, Meredith is a master of misdirection.

The songwriting on FIBS is just as experimental as the arrangements, at least on the album’s first two-thirds. The exhilarating “Inhale Exhale” is driven by a galloping synth line, with an unconventional vocal melody and refrain sung in the round leading to a cacophonous climax. Lyrical references to self-deception—“You say you’re dancing in the deep end, but to me it looks like drowning”—are juxtaposed by a triumphant synth on “Kill Joy,” and a fractured chorus is eventually joined by a disorienting guitar section reminiscent of mid-2000s math-rock. It’s a twisting, confounding song, as all of Meredith’s best are.

If there’s a dip in momentum, it starts at FIBS’s most conventional song, “Limpet,” which follows a more typical guitar-rock arrangement. Downtempo tracks like “Ribbons” and “Unfurl” also suffer in comparison to the album’s richer, bolder experiments. These songs’ lyrics can feel at times perfunctory, more in service to the melody than any actual meaning. The album’s purely instrumental songs—like “Paramour,” a hulking behemoth of a track—spark more of a visceral, emotional reaction. It’s on tracks like these that Meredith is at her most daring, building and refracting shards of sound into bewildering, kaleidoscopic patterns.

Label: Black Prince Fury Buy: Amazon

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Review: Chromatics’s Closer to Grey Resplendently Charts the Passage of Time

The album is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends mere nostalgia.

4

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Chromatics
Photo: Johnny Jewel

The Chromatics’s Closer to Grey begins with the sound of a ticking clock, gradually and ominously ramping up in intensity. That same sound closes the album on “Wishing Well,” a twinkling dream-pop ode to a “nowhere town.” Fans of the synth-pop band will know this clock sample well, a trope that dates back to “Tick of the Clock,” from 2007’s Night Drive. It’s been five years since Dear Tommy, the still-unreleased follow-up to the critically acclaimed Kill for Love, was first announced; the album was delayed and retooled multiple times by de facto frontman Johnny Jewel, and the sinister timepiece that bookends Closer to Grey is, perhaps, a coy acknowledgement of the years that have passed since Kill for Love.

The album is instantly enthralling, with that ticking clock drifting into a lush synth-rock cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” The Chromatics have a history of deftly covering other artists’ songs, dating back to eerie renditions of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” from Night Drive and Kill for Love, respectively. And the through line for many of these covers is time slipping away as dangerous outside forces mount an offensive, both themes that the band continues to explore here.

“The Sound of Silence” is complemented by a bright and fuzzed-out rendition of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “On the Wall” later in the album. Singer Ruth Radelet stretches out the original track’s ambling post-punk rhythm into a more luminous and beguiling affair, replete with a tick-tock beat and a commanding vocal performance. She repeatedly sings of clocks perched on the wall throughout the titular refrain and, by the song’s end, the clockwork beat and fuzzy electric guitar are replaced by a synthetic flute. It unravels in three acts, a cinematic journey that’s reprised on the title track, originally released in 2014 on Jewel’s SoundCloud.

The Chromatics have always looked to the cinematic past through an apocalyptic lens. Jewel is deeply influenced by classic horror film scores by composers such as John Carpenter, Tim Krog, Charles Bernstein, and Angelo Badalamenti. The group’s nostalgia trips continue on Closer to Grey: The musical DNA from the soundtrack to Halloween can be heard in the slinking piano of “Whispers in the Hall,” while the textures of “Love Theme from Closer to Grey” similarly harken back to the grainy aesthetic of horror films from the 1970s and ‘80s.

The album, though, finds Jewel stretching beyond these familiar touchstones. “Move a Mountain” is run through with elements of elegiac folk, and “Touch Red” and “Through the Looking Glass” are two of the group’s most chilling and sparse tracks to date. The uptempo “Twist the Knife” is about a disappearance, but its portentous lyrics are complemented by an unexpectedly danceable synth groove. Jewel and company are more unabashed in their approach this time out, even right down to the album’s indiscriminating track sequencing, a welcome change for the typically fastidious band. Closer to Grey is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends the nostalgia of the Chromatics’s prior work.

Label: Italians Do It Better Release Date: October 2, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen Is a Haunting Meditation on Grief

The album explores the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death.

4.5

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Ghosteen
Photo: Matthew Thorne/Nasty Little Man

In a message posted to Nick Cave’s online portal The Red Hand Files, a woman named Malina asked a hard, raw question: “My husband died some years ago but I feel him all around. How can this be?” Cave replied that, for those who’ve lost someone, “Sometimes these intuitions hold more truth than the rational world can ever hope to offer—when we are faced with a world that has long since stopped making sense and, indeed, lost its reason.” Released four years after the accidental death of the singer’s 15-year-old son Arthur, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen explores those intuitions with immeasurable generosity, acknowledging the line that separates magical thinking and faith, and the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death.

Sonically, Ghosteen is not unlike its predecessors, Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, each propelled by Warren Ellis’s unearthly, pulsing synthesizers rather than a traditional rhythm section. Although most of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death, it’s often interpreted as being marked by a ghostly presence thanks to those weightless, searching synths. And while they’re still very much present here, Ellis and Cave create an ambient field where all of the ambiguities of grief and hope can exist at once.

Across much of Ghosteen, those synths expand and contract, seeming to leave Cave’s voice floating alone in the abyss. And yet, again and again, a choir rises out of the gloom to join him. “Peace will come,” they sing on “Spinning Song,” and it sounds like an assurance from those who’ve walked this path already, or a wish made by all the people left behind.

For Cave, communal grief seems often as beautiful as it is painful. He calls us all together to witness the “spiral of children climb up to the sun” on “Sun Forest,” and invites his “darling” to watch the vessels carrying the dead “circle around the morning sun” on “Galleon Ship.” Elsewhere, though, not even that bright light is enough to outshine the darkness: Sweeping strings give way to a stomach-dropping bass on “Hollywood” when “the kid drops his bucket and spade and climbs into the sun.” When he dreams that he’s holding Arthur’s hand on “Bright Horses,” or reassures a loved one—perhaps his son, perhaps his partner—that he’ll always be there on “Waiting for You,” Cave’s voice is shot through with pure emotion.

Those imagined “riders” of “Galleon Ship” gallop through Ghosteen like an omen. On “Night Raid,” Cave sees the same “bright horses” running through the streets on the night of the conception of Arthur and his twin brother, Earl, as a dampened bell tolls in the background, slow and funereal. They’re there again, “flaming” in the quasi-Eden of “Sun Forest” before Arthur is lost and he finds the trees burned, the horses screaming. He seems to try to find a pattern, a way of working the chaos of loss backwards to a single point in time, but “nothing can be predicted, and nothing can be planned,” he concedes on “Fireflies.”

In the end, it’s impossible to know what parts of these visions can be understood as an expression of grief and what’s simply beyond explanation. “Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire,” Cave concedes on “Bright Horses,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t believe that there’s more than what he can see, and by the end of the song he can “hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord.” On Ghosteen, Cave doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s comfort to be found in keeping the questions open-ended.

Label: Ghosteen Ltd Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Vagabon’s Self-Titled Album Expands Her Musical and Lyrical Scope

The album flits between topics of love, feminism, and cultural identity with relative ease.

3.5

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Vagabon
Photo: Tonje Thilesen

Poet and author Nayyirah Waheed’s emotionally taut and minimalist writing has inspired tens of thousands of posts on Instagram, even including a Mother’s Day message from none other than the Duchess of Sussex. Brooklyn singer-songwriter Lætitia Tamko (a.k.a. Vagabon) is a kindred spirit of Waheed and other female artists in the burgeoning instapoetry scene. In fact, the original title for Vagabon’s self-titled sophomore effort was inspired by a meditative Waheed instapoem line: “All the Women in Me.”

Vagabon serves as an inflection point for Tamko, who expands her sonic palette beyond the indie-rock of her past releases. The album also sees the former computer engineer tinkering with the central marker of her craft: her wafting vapor trail of a voice. Where her seemingly fragile instrument was sometimes pushed to its natural limits on 2017’s Infinite Worlds, here it’s given necessary breathing room, nested within synths and drifting R&B production. “I want to make you a flood in my hands,” Tamko sings on “Flood,” her vocals sending shockwaves through a dark, ebbing morass of synths, while the pulsing “Waters Me Down” boasts a similarly strong vocal performance, laid over a jaunty synth-pop beat.

With its stirring strings and skittering production, opener “Full Moon in Gemini” judiciously lays out its melody and chronicles the beauty of self-destruction. Tamko likens the song’s central relationship to watching over an irrepressible garden: “So many months before I lay with you after I’m through/Tending to the garden that I only just started.” Notably, a reprise of the song closes the album from a male point of view, courtesy of guest artist Monako.)

Whereas electric guitar theatrics built up to some joyful releases on both Tamko’s 2014 EP Persian Garden and Infinite Worlds, Vagabon finds the singer retreating to the comfort of her computer’s Logic program to fashion a world almost entirely around her honeyed vocals. Although you won’t find many ‘90s-infused indie jams like “Minneapolis” or “The Embers” here, Tamko’s voice never sounds strained in ways it once did either.

The penultimate track, “Every Woman,” serves as Vagabon’s de facto closing bell. Its lyrics nod to the #MeToo movement, but its overall message is much broader. “We’re not afraid of the war we brought on,” Tamko sings in the final verse, “And we’re steady while holding you all.” Representing a new generation of women and people of color, Tamko democratizes art in her own way, and moments like these tie her music back to the instapoetry movement, flitting between topics of love, feminism, and cultural identity with relative ease.

Label: Nonesuch Release Date: October 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Wilco’s Ode to Joy Marches to a Comfortable but Monochromatic Beat

The band’s 11th album doesn’t break the mold, though its sound is a bit more pared down.

3.5

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Wilco
Photo: Annabel Mehran/Pitch Perfect PR

Wilco gets a lot of credit for being weirder than they actually are. Incorporating elements of genres ranging from krautrock to electronica, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born—two of the most indelible rock album of the aughts—suggested the band would continue to evolve beyond their alt-country origins. Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, though, they’ve pretty much been returning to the same well over and over again, blending together light electronic elements and straightforward rock structures, with guitar pyrotechnics thrown in to show off Nels Cline’s undeniable chops.

Wilco’s 11th album, Ode to Joy, doesn’t break out of that mold, though its sound is a bit more pared down. The project grew out of frontman Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche’s close collaboration, with the two forming the basic shape of the songs around the latter’s percussive ideas. The album’s primary sonic thrust is a driving, two-step march meant to evoke the rising tide of global authoritarianism, with current geopolitical climate influencing the album’s lyrical content as well. Tweedy insists that Ode to Joy’s title isn’t meant sardonically: Even in the midst of chaos, the album suggests, humans have a right to feel joy.

Wilco’s recent sonic stagnation has been an easy enough pill to swallow thanks to Tweedy’s lyrical gifts, and, indeed, his use of language is customarily suffused with a wonderfully poetic economy throughout Ode to Joy. The album is filled with small details that unpack the joy and the squalor of life in equal measure. “White Wooden Cross” is a gentle meditation on love and mortality, with Tweedy asking, “What would I do/If a white, wooden cross meant I’d lost you?” And on “Quiet Amplifier,” he sings, “I wish your will was mine,” a line that could just as easily apply to a personal crisis as it could to a political one.

Tweedy edges toward politics most clearly on “Before Us,” the central thesis of which is the repeated line “alone with the people who have come before,” which suggests that, while politics shape the future, we also have a responsibility to rectify the injustices of the past. Closing track “An Empty Corner” succinctly offers, “You’ve got family out there,” an outward-looking sentiment that shows Tweedy isn’t entirely without hope. As a vocalist, he’s often underrated, and the way his voice nearly cracks on high notes is deeply bathetic.

Some of the songs on Ode to Joy tap into the kind of sonic unease that the band hasn’t achieved since “Less Than You Think,” an 11-minute epic from A Ghost Is Born that captures the feeling of a panic attack. The beat of “Quiet Amplifier” sounds like jackboots goose-stepping across a town square, and the song’s production is compressed to the point of claustrophobia. It feels like a migraine—another of Wilco’s common musical motifs is trying to replicate the types of headaches that plagued Tweedy for years—until its last moments open to gentle, acoustic plucking, offering some relief. The percussion on opener “Bright Leaves” is high in the mix, giving it a Phil Spector-like monolithic sound, while “Before Us” is similarly percussion-forward, with a droning vocal take that approaches anhedonia.

Lead single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” is, perhaps, Wilco’s prettiest song in years, with some down-home finger-picking serving as a counterpoint to a swirling electric line. The lyrics find Tweedy threading a needle between optimism and defeatism: “Right now, love is everywhere,” he sings on the chorus, an odd sentiment given the state of the world. But darkness creeps in on the song’s bridge: “Right now, I’m frightened how love is here: beware.”

Ode to Joy can sometimes feel like a Tweedy solo effort. Cline is oddly penned in here; his guitar playing is unmistakable, but he never gets a chance to truly shine. Cline’s guitar parts on “Hold Me Anyway” and “We Were Lucky” are crunchy and powerful, with the energy of a coiled snake, but neither is as memorable as his solos on “Impossible Germany” or “Hell Is Chrome.” As a result, the album is a bit monochromatic, lacking the classic guitar heroism that has, in the past, allowed Wilco to buck the dad-rock label. Twelve years on from Sky Blue Sky, the band would benefit from opening up their sound again—and getting a little bit weird.

Label: dBpm Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: All Mirrors Finds Angel Olsen Embracing Her Own Forward Motion

The album is the sound of an artist carving out a space where she can be as loud—or as quiet—as she likes.

4.5

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Angel Olsen
Photo: Cameron McCool/Pitch Perfect PR

Angel Olsen reportedly recorded two different versions of her fourth album, All Mirrors. One is raw and stripped down, more akin to her early releases, while the second is lusher, wilder, and layered with orchestration—less a mirror image of the first than a reflection in rippled water. On an album that ultimately sees Olsen make a solemn commitment to accepting change as an implacable force, it only seems right that she chose to release the latter version, documenting the growth of her sound into uncharted territory.

For Olsen, accepting that change is a constant has required the acknowledgement that no two people experience change in identical directions. On All Mirrors, she lets go of those who’ve required her to privilege their desires over her own, finding peace in solitude. That this is, ironically, her loudest, densest album to date seems to speak to the liberation that came with that solitude. On the album’s opening track, “Lark,” strings gather like clouds, only to burst in time with Olsen’s voice as her delivery shifts from low and restrained to loud and confrontational. There’s a kind of ecstasy in the enormity of moments like this and others—like the tense, trilling strings on “Impasse” and the ebb and flow of the synths on “All Mirrors”—that reflects the scope of the personal and professional place Olsen is seeking.

Of course, the route to freedom is circuitous. Olsen’s voice shapeshifts from song to song as she explores the behaviors that perpetuated her need for validation. “Lark” and “All Mirrors” follow a similar pattern, both of their melodies jumping octaves, oscillating between nostalgia for a different time and a relationship lost, and defiance in the face of everything that relationship cost her. Elsewhere, she seems resigned: “I’m beginning to wonder if anything’s real/Guess we’re just at the mercy of the way that we feel,” she sings on “Spring.” She’s the breezy ingénue on “Too Easy,” surrendering to her lover’s will, but she’s tougher, her vocals throaty and low, on “New Low Cassette”: “Gonna gather strength/Give you all my mind,” she sings, imagining—or perhaps remembering—herself in the role of the sacrificing partner.

But Olsen refuses to play that role anymore. “Dream On,” she howls over and over on “Lark,” the full force of her band and string section swelling, before she asks, “What about my dreams?” Olsen’s most intimate performance comes on “Tonight,” on which she acknowledges that she’s better off alone: “I like the air that I breathe/I like the thoughts that I think/I like the life that I lead/Without you.” It’s a quiet, painful track, the strings keening over the words “without you” as she repeats them, as if admitting it to herself for the first time.

All Mirrors is challenging and confrontational, and rewards close, present listening. “I’m leaving once again, making my own plans/I’m not looking for the answer/Or anything that lasts,” Olsen sings on album closer “Chance.” This is the sound of true independence, of an artist embracing her own forward motion without having to be concerned with someone else’s, and protecting a space where she can be as loud—or as quiet—as she likes.

Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: M83’s DSVII Traffics in Nostalgia But Not Much Else

The album embraces nostalgia, even if it sometimes feels like that’s all it does.

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M83
Photo: Jeremy Searle/Mute Records

Running bare-chested through an alien-infested landscape, blasting at invaders with a massive laser gun, the bandana tied around your head flapping in the wind. Climbing the steps to a crypt that houses the vampire stalking your village, your fingers nervously drumming the pommel of your whip. Battling an army of psychotic turtles to rescue a princess from their king. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you likely spent much time in front of the family TV playing video games in the 1980s. M83’s eighth album, DSVII, draws its inspiration as much from that classic era of video gaming as it does from Brian Eno, resulting in an album that traffics in nostalgia, even if it sometimes feels like that’s all it does.

A sequel to 2007’s Digital Shades Vol. 1, DSVII is a step away from Anthony Gonzalez’s more pop-inflected work. The album’s lodestar is the work of Koji Kondo, the Japanese composer famous for his iconic contributions to the Mario and The Legend of Zelda series. Opener “Hell Riders” comes on slowly, climaxing with an arrangement of choir, honky 8-bit synths, and finger-picked guitar that will make you feel like you’re collecting power-ups ahead of a boss fight. The song sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which features small pleasures like “Hell Riders” and “Lune de fiel” that conjure the sounds of the Reagan-Bush years. The hammy piano riff on the interlude “A Word of Wisdom” even sounds like it was plucked from the credit sequence of some lost ‘80s-era family sitcom.

Gonzalez has a way with language, like the portrait of childhood innocence he drew on “Kim and Jessie” or the incredibly evocative poetry of “Graveyard Girl,” that sets him apart from any number of shoegaze/electro also-rans. But the most memorable part of M83’s most popular track, “Midnight City,” was its synth hook, proving that Gonzalez doesn’t need lyrics to create bona-fide earworms. Still, the instrumental songs here—many of which began as drafts for earlier M83 projects—lack the attention to detail of his best work.

Nostalgia has always been part of Gonzalez’s shtick—he did release an album called Saturdays=Youth after all—and DSVII is an undeniably florid soundscape of ‘80s pop culture touchstones. But hearing Gonzalez flesh these castoffs out into full songs through the lens of video game music feels like little more than an amusing experiment.

Label: Mute Buy: Amazon

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Review: Tool’s Prog-Rock Tendencies Reach Their Zenith on Fear Inoculum

If nothing else, the band deserves credit for releasing an album as challenging and incrementally rewarding as this.

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Fear Inoculum
Photo: Travis Shinn/RCA Records

Tool may have come of age in the early 1990s as a riff-driven alt-metal band, but they were always navel-gazing art-rockers at heart, owing as much to King Crimson as to Zeppelin or Sabbath. It’s fitting, then, that Fear Inoculum , the band’s fifth full-length album and first in 13 years, opens not with a bang, but a relative whimper.

The title track starts as a muted industrial soundscape, with Adam Jones’s guitar drones merely adding to the atmosphere. Soft Eastern-inflected rhythms skitter by, eventually merging with Justin Chancellor’s sinewy yet supple bassline. Frontman Maynard James Keenan’s contributions are similarly unassuming, at least at first. He croons and chants his way through the main verses, but when the hard-won chorus finally arrives, his voice rises to a crescendo, and we’re reminded of the sheer power of his instrument.

Ever since 1996’s Ænima, Tool has been expanding their sonic palette to include extended instrumental passages, odd time signatures, and lyrics that touch on concepts like Zen Buddhism and Jungian psychology. And these progressive tendencies have reached their zenith on Fear Inoculum; all of its tracks with vocals exceed the 10-minute mark and largely eschew traditional “rock” songwriting for more downbeat arrangements and exotic, laidback grooves. Drummer Danny Carey is arguably the album’s MVP, coloring the proceedings with complex polyrhythms and a diverse array of percussion.

Keenan, meanwhile, continues to outgrow the anger and cynicism of his youth, opting for more reflective lyrics that match the mood of the music. “Long in tooth and soul/Longing for another win,” he sings in “Invincible,” before describing himself as a “warrior struggling to remain relevant, consequential.” On the trippy, psychedelic “Pneuma,” he yearns for transcendence beyond a life “bound to this flesh.”

Sadly, there’s nothing on Fear Inoculum  as immediately accessible or anthemic as past Tool glories like “Sober” or “The Pot,” but what is here will reward repeated spins, even if listeners initially find themselves waiting for those mammoth riffs to show up, a la “7empest,” or for Maynard to finally kick into high gear, as in the rousing refrain of “Descending.” Sure, the quasi-ballad “Culling Voices” feels plodding and overlong, and the album’s brief instrumental interludes (“Litanie Contre la Peur,” “Legion Inoculant”) and musique concrète pieces (“Chocolate Chip Trip,” “Mockingbeat”) offer little more than inscrutability for inscrutability’s sake. But if nothing else, Tool deserves some credit for releasing an album as challenging and incrementally rewarding as Fear Inoculum .

Label: RCA Release Date: August 30, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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