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Review: Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

Pure Comedy’s understated arrangements ensure the focus remains squarely on Tillman’s lyrics and captivating voice.

4.5

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Father John Misty, Pure Comedy

At a concert this past July, Josh Tillman inadvertently summed up his approach to Pure Comedy, his third album as Father John Misty, with one statement in the midst of an extended rant: “Maybe just take a moment to be really fucking profoundly sad.” While one particular event may have triggered his despondence in that instance (the RNC had just nominated Donald Trump for president), the rest of what he had to say indicated that he was down on all of humanity, not just its “next potential Idiot King,” as he put it in an online note the following day. He also bemoaned a population “so numb and so fucking sated and so gorged on entertainment” that “stupidity just fucking runs the world,” before ending his set after only two songs.

Tillman had already entertained such sentiments with “Bored in the U.S.A.” on 2015’s I Love You, Honeybear. Pure Comedy is essentially a 75-minute extrapolation of that song. But where the stately piano and portrayal of a post-passion corporate dystopia that comprise “Bored” are buoyed by a laugh track and absurdist lines about seeking salvation from “white Jesus,” this time around, there’s no ironic sense of detachment insulating listeners from Tillman’s relentlessly bleak diatribes on The Way We Live Now.

Eschewing I Love You, Honeybear’s genre-hopping eclecticism, Pure Comedy’s understated arrangements of barebones piano and acoustic guitar ensure the focus remains squarely on Tillman’s lyrics and captivating voice, which in terms of tone and delivery remarkably melds austere Leonard Cohen-esque matter-of-factness, billowing would-be croonerisms, and silky-smooth falsetto. It’s certainly a pleasing, reassuring vehicle through which to be informed of all the reasons Tillman believes the human race is doomed.

The substance of Tillman’s prophecies and commentary concerning the decline of Western civilization aren’t original. From wizened ancient philosophers to grammatically challenged Facebook uncles, the last few millennia have been saturated by similar screeds about the vapidity of popular entertainment, technology’s deteriorative effect on individuality, and the follies of gods and politicians. Tillman’s triumph here is managing to filter the whole range of that tradition through a post-millennial membrane that allows for reference points ranging from Plato to Taylor Swift.

Tillman tackles fairly low-hanging fruit on “Ballad of the Dying Man,” eulogizing a man who fears the loss of his righteous message-board crusades against “the homophobes, hipsters, and one percent” will leave the world in a dire state. But he’s much weightier and more ambitious on “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” spinning a Dante’s Inferno-like parable in which he takes the Lord himself on a horrific tour of his “creation’s handiwork.” Neither man nor god receive much benefit of the doubt here. “And now you’ve got the gall to judge us,” Tillman accuses, even after admitting: “It’s just human/Human nature/This place is savage and unjust.”

Tillman’s wide-ranging survey of the “horror show” he’s found himself in ends up resembling a cultural zeitgeist: indulgent yet eloquent, passionate yet apathetic, engorged with media stimulation yet always seeking more, at times cuttingly honest and at others shrouded by alternate personae. Fittingly, then, the album isn’t easy to digest, with its almost uniformly ponderous tempos, lengthy running times, and reams of less than upbeat lyrics. “Total Entertainment Forever” is about the only song here with much rhythmic bounce to it, and with its bleating horn section and already-infamous opening line (“Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift”), it would be very nearly joyous if Tillman weren’t essentially setting up the premise of a horror film in which everyone is helplessly plugged into the grid.

Tillman takes a different approach to making his doleful mindset palatable to the ears on the rest of Pure Comedy by contrasting his bitter musings with heartbreakingly beautiful melodies. He positively revels in this approach on the 13-minute stream-of-consciousness “Leaving LA,” which seems designed to test the listener’s patience before grabbing it back with gorgeous, droning strings and irresistibly meta turns of phrase. “Some 10 verse chorus-less diatribe/Plays as they all jump ship, I used to like this guy/This new shit really kinda makes me want to die,” he sings at one point. At least he’s self-aware—and even after all that, he still ends the song in the middle of a sentence, as if he would have kept going if given the chance.

The remainder of Pure Comedy isn’t as scattered or unwieldy. Indeed, “Leaving LA” and the downtempo title track, which serves as sort of an opening thesis statement for what follows, are the exceptions here; almost every other song is a focused and authoritative study on a single theme. “The Memo” is about how our entertainment preferences are chosen for us in corporate boardrooms; “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” posits the inevitability of our over-reliance on convenience; “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” examines the futility of political polarization.

The result is that by the time Pure Comedy reaches its end, it feels like Tillman has just about covered everything wrong with the world today. And yet, he claims in the closing “In Twenty Years or So”: “It’s a miracle to be alive.” It’s something of a miracle, too, that he’s managed to wring such beauty and profundity out of the mess of a society he sings about.

Label: Sub Pop Release Date: April 7, 2017 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule

The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

3.5

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Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.

It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.

If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.

While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.

Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead

The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.

3.5

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Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.

Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.

“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.

Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.

At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.

Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Ariana Grande Embraces Her Flaws on Thank U, Next

The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album.

3.5

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Thank U, Next
Photo: Republic Records

Ariana Grande doesn’t care if you like her. The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album, Thank U, Next. She fantasizes about her ex while her lover sleeps beside her on “Ghostin,” she picks fights with him for the make-up sex on “Make Up,” and she glibly coaxes a guy into dumping his girlfriend just for kicks on the plainly titled “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”

As Grande recently proclaimed on Twitter, “Life is full trash,” and it’s this willingness to reveal herself warts and all that makes it easy to forgive her various indiscretions. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s “Needy” and—on the very next track—that she simultaneously requires her personal space. “Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch/Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she declares on “7 Rings,” which finds the singer boasting of her financial prowess in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”

Today’s pop stars typically rely on rappers to deliver the kind of braggadocious verses that would otherwise dirty up their squeaky-clean personas, but Grande spits her own rhymes throughout Thank U, Next, and they’re so slick that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy have both accused her of biting their flows. There are no guest rappers on this decidedly lean follow-up to last year’s Sweetener, and while one might expect it to be filled with at least a few stale leftovers from that album, the songs here rarely sound like sloppy seconds.

Thank U, Next is easily Grande’s most sonically consistent effort to date, even if that means some of the album’s sleek R&B tracks tend to blur together. Aside from a wealth of trap beats and finger snaps, the album’s most notable characteristic is the recurring use of orchestral flourishes. The opening track, “Imagine,” is a dreamy midtempo ballad, with Grande pining for an Instagram-perfect romance that comprises sharing sexy baths and pad thai. The song takes a sudden turn in its final third, as it builds to a hypnotic climax filled with cinematic swells and Grande’s euphoric, Minnie Ripperton-esque whistle notes.

That same tactic makes slightly less thematic sense on the reggae-inflected “Bad Idea,” on which Grande espouses the temporarily amnesiac virtues of casual sex. Elsewhere, the use of a sample by the late soul singer Wendy Rene on “Fake Smile” initially smacks of misappropriation, followed as it is by seemingly mindless lines like “Another night, another party, sayin’ hi to everybody.” But by the end, the song reveals itself to be a modern expression of the blues, about a young woman trying to navigate life in an era where privacy is virtually nonexistent. Grande ultimately earns the use of that sample, and it’s her refusal to fake a smile that proves to be what makes her so damn likeable.

Label: Republic Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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