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Indie 500: 2008 Drive-Bys and Endgame

The curious Mr. West’s folie de grandeur didn’t, as initially widely predicted, blow up in his face.

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Indie 500: 2008 Drive-Bys and Endgame
Photo: Def Jam

According to a quick check, this column has now been up 22 times since October 2007, which indicates that the month-long gaps between installments are no longer the anomalies I was hoping they would turn out to be and pretty much have become the norm. This means we’re into February and I’m now, at this very second, wrapping up 2008, by which I mean I’ve given up on my completist efforts. Below you’ll find a fairly anal-retentive collection of odds-and-sods from the year, mostly for my future benefit more than any kind of relevance. (I ran out of steam entirely on this house-cleaning effort—sorry anyone who badly wanted to know what I thought of Van She—so there’s also a “Regrettably unremarked upon” list below all that [hat-tip for the phrase to Noel Murray’s most awesome "Popless” project].) Normal service will resume shortly.

Of Montreal, Skeletal Lamping: Skeletal Lamping:2008 music :: Synecdoche New York:2008 film? Kevin Barnes’ follow-up to the surprisingly accessible Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? is a monolithic, near-hour slab of disconnected ideas within a conceptual framework probably only Barnes fully comprehends. Forget segueing one element into another: Barnes doesn’t mind juxtaposing Bernard Herrmann synth-strings against faux funk with minimal turnaround time. Discrete pieces of hookiness vie against lyrically-centered dirges (and dirges are what they are, regardless of how upbeat they are); much of it is no fun, and what fun there is is subsumed in the overall narrative slog. Barnes is so unyielding the single comes last on the album. For all this we apparently have Georgie Fruit to thank, Fruit being Barnes’ new alter-ago (“a black man who has been through multiple sex changes. He’s been a man and a woman, and then back to a man. He’s been to prison a couple of times. In the 70s he was in a band called Arousal, a funk rock band sort of like the Ohio Players.”). We also have Fruit to thank for Barnes’ newfound fascination with blunt sexuality, all in the name of shaking up staid ol’ indie rock. (You may also like to know that Barnes is a self-acknowledged Bataille fan.) “I wanna turn you on / I wanna make you cum 200 times a day” blurts the aptly named “Gallery Piece” (maybe Barnes is slyly acknowledging that his “confrontational sexuality” is as hackneyed as a stale conceptual art piece, but somehow I doubt it). There’s dozens of such moments on the album; trouble is, I can’t tell how different that is from an undersexed 13-year-old’s musings (or an oversexed grad student’s), or what I’m supposed to learn from it. (Barnes is still funny: a throw-away I enjoy is “You’re the only one I would roleplay Oedipus Rex with” on “Plastis Wafers.” But he follows that up with “I want to know what it feels like to be inside you.” Oh, I get it now! It’s about sex!) I took up and sort of encourage the Synecdoche challenge; this I’ll have to pass on though. The work to make it all fit together just isn’t worth it for me. Grad literature majors with an emphasis on challenging heteronormative sexuality (or just excited to hear songs that use “phallocentric”) should have a blast though.

Portishead, Third: Hm. #2 album of the year, huh? Certainly Portishead deserve some form of gold star for staging a much-delayed comeback as worthy of respect as any serious album by a fresh new band, and god knows they’ve shown considerably more staying power than, say, The Prodigy (or Massive Attack, for that matter). Even at their bleakest, Portishead always retain a sense of the hypnotic, which is true here as well no matter how minimal they go: “Silence” cuts itself off at a moment when things threaten to get lush, but they’ve already proven in the past they can take things back to pretty if they feel like it. “Nylon Smile” ends with Beth Gibbons singing “I never had the chance to explain exactly what I meant.” So then: deliberate incompletion is our main thematic register, if not exclusively so. “We Carry On” lives up to its title for 6:26, though it peaks with a gorgeously intense acceleration about 2:30 minutes in. It ends, like many of the tracks, playing out a fierce rhythmic groove to its logical conclusion. Early reviews played up how “scary” the album is, which is all relative: compared to Dummy, sure, but we’re still not talking late-period Scott Walker here. I’m limited to abstract comments because this is mostly a very intelligent album that’s very absorbing but kind of leaves me cold. Someone made a decision to let Gibbons’ voice get more curdled and less cooing-centric, which is a brave choice but has the side effect of highlighting the dourly simplistic lyrics, which is frankly a bad idea. Best track: “The Rip,” featuring a bravura, minute-plus extension of one held vocal note without any change in volume or pauses for breath, which is obviously impossible, thereby undercutting the up-to-then airy feel.

Kanye West, 808s & Heartbreak: The curious Mr. West’s folie de grandeur didn’t, as initially widely predicted, blow up in his face. If anything, it blew up in Axl’s: in the final indignity of Chinese Democracy’s lengthy saga, Axl’s endless labor of love (metal’s very own Smile!) was handily outsold (in its initial week by a ratio of roughly 2:1) by an album recorded in under two weeks, give or take however long it took West to mess around with additional elements and mixing afterwards. For once the stories surrounding the album might be almost as interesting as the finished product (normally not the case with West), and there seems to be no end to the bizarro shit connected with it: people complained about Kanye’s apparently godawful, un-AutoTuned performances on SNL, but even his Letterman “Love Lockdown” performance featured him contorting in skinny jeans in bizarre and frequently painful-looking directions, appearing for all the world like some kind of emo James Brown, or a less spastic Thom Yorke.

I could talk about this stuff all day, but that’s persiflage. West got away with the arrogance of a quick album entirely in the mode of the widely-hated (though not by me) AutoTune about his break-up and mom dying (in other words, things of interest to roughly no one besides himself) because—despite the fact that he keeps reminding people of it—he’s a staggeringly talented musician whose fundamental instinct for instantly catchy and lush melodies never deserts him. 808s & Heartbreak is, at the very least, slightly better than Celebration: for all its feel-bad vibes, it’s not as self-consciously light (Celebration was fun, but it had the least replay value of any West album—there just wasn’t much there there) and it’s, somehow, more fun. It’s a little drawn-out towards the end—I enjoy the endless, three-minute ominous outro of opening “Say You Will,” which somehow leads into “Welcome To Heartbreak”’s ominous synth intro, which by that point is freakier than, say, any Tangerine Dream ‘80s score (note: this is an entirely specious comparison.)—but the vamping at the end of “Bad News” is pretty dull and Lil’ Wayne’s continuing verbal scat fetish almost sinks “See You In My Knightmares.” But most of it is surprisingly good fun, and “Street Lights” is a strong contender for best Sappy Ballad That Works of the year. My only real complaint is that this is the first time I’ve completely tuned out what West is saying: these are some of the dullest, least insightful or clever things he’s ever come up with. Good thing the tunes are so strong.

Truckasaurus, Tea Parties, Guns & Valor: How to describe this? Truckasaurus are a collective from Seattle who build electronica out of antiquated video game systems and other musty gear. They use monster-truck imagery and wrestling footage in their videos. Their last.fm (presumably ripped straight from some press kit or other) says that “fishing vests, trucker hats emblazoned with bald eagles, and American flags-as-capes are the fashion de rigueur for this crew.” They’re not, in short, my usual listening fare. I can’t really claim, after three listens, that I can really tell the tracks apart—all I know is that “Super Copter” samples the sounds of (presumably) a TV show I’ve never heard of called Airwolf and then covers the theme song, which comes out sounding like the funnest cheesy ‘80s TV theme ever—but it’s a warm and pleasant album nonetheless, albeit without any particular highlights, which always makes it difficult for me to evaluate things. Pretty much half of the “album” is actually remixes, so if you want a brief primer on what’s happening electronically in the NW (a very specialized interest, to be sure) this is probably a decent place to start. “Knuckle Buckemruff (Basic Remix)” proves Aphex Twin is alive and well and chopping up ambient strings in the NW; etc. etc. This has been my annual underqualified excursion into contemporary electronica.

Bonnie ’Prince’ Billy, Lie Down In The Light: BpB is generally pretty hit-and-miss for me album-wise, so I’m not terribly surprised or bothered by the fact that he followed the sporadically transcendent The Letting Go (and excellent covers EP Ask Forgiveness, plus at least two demo/live things I haven’t bothered to keep up with) with the mostly unengaging Lie Down In The Light, though I’m surprised it was generally received as one of the best things he’s done in years. I listened to this two or three times without it making a real impression, so I played it again while reading the Pitchfork review, which seems more like some kind of detailed instruction manual on which instrumentation to listen for in each song than anything. It didn’t really help: it’s factually correct that a clarinet comes in during “For Every Field There’s A Mole” or woodwinds en masse on “(Keep Eye on) Other’s Gain,” but it doesn’t really help push the songs out of sunburned stasis. The general feeling is of an album that doesn’t want to do the hard work of tension-building before offering relief and hope at the end, so it just goes slack and uninflected from the beginning. But I’d like to say sincerely nice things about the first two songs: “Easy Does It,” the right kind of ramshackle, pseudo-spontaneous fiddle-inflected trot, and the grinding duet “You Remind Me Of Something (The Glory Goes),” which benefits much from a continuously expanding arrangement that starts just with guitar and vocals and manages to make the addition of percussion and two violins midway in count for as much as possible. It got stuck in my head a week after I’d listened to it for only the second time, so I’m not real inclined to question it. Next time, Mr. Oldham.

Department of Eagles, In Ear Park: I flubbed this one initially, writing it off as Grizzly Bear-lite when it’s really a sneaky, infiltrate-your-brain grower nearly on par with The National. DoE is partially masterminded by Grizzly Bear member Dan Rossen, which explains the similarities, which are deceptively close at first. What they share is a firm allergy to full-on traditional everyone-at-once assault: you’ll never hear a one-two drum beat, two guitars and a bass all working in concert in service of a hook. (Also, tremulous vocals I can take or leave.) Grizzly Bear, though, likes to digress and amble before building to moments of unexpected intensity: it takes a bit of work to get used to, but they use song structure as so much connective tissue to make highlights even more intense. Department of Eagles feels similarly about the instrumentation thing, but they still adhere to fairly compact structural forms, which means they’re a bit more fun to listen to and definitely a little less work. They have a song called “Classical Records” where they ask “Do you listen to your classical records any more?” I suspect the answer, for them, is no but they used to be quite familiar with them. At least I don’t know how else to explain “Teenagers,” which is all gauzy in-studio band except for an exceptionally clear piano on the chorus, which plays two chords each ascending three octaves, clearly mic’d and overall sonically and melodically suggestive of a piano concerto, possibly by Tchaikovsky. (The chord changes on “Herring Bone” are freakily close to a romantic lieder too.) DoE take this potentially messy fusion of intelligences and make it not just admirable but fun, which means I like them more than TV On the Radio.

Fujiya & Miyagi, Lightbulbs: I’m probably more entertained by the Krautrock-for-dummies stylings of Fujiya & Miyagi than I should be. Though Lightbulbs isn’t as strong as Transparent Things (the monotony of cranking out 11 songs in the same mode—the closer is the opener, chord-wise, just sans vocals, which inadvertently sums it up), it has its moments: opener “Knickerbocker” is as propulsive and whisper-centric as anything they’ve done (I applaud the band’s continuing commitment to deliberately obfuscatory stream-of-consciousness tangents, which creates its own delirious kind of logic: “Vanilla strawberry cherry knickerbocker / I saw the ghost of Lena Zavaroni.” When I looked her up, I got a valuable historical lesson. Also: “We’ve got no room for Technicolor / Emeric Pressburger said to Diedrich Knickerbocker.” Ha etc.), and downbeat “Dishwasher,” with its stand-up bass opener and unexpectedly slack rhythms, suggests a way out and direction to head next. Even if they become one of those bands good for only two songs per album—and those two songs sound like everything else they’ve previously succeeded at—I’ll always be happy to hear from them.

Fucked Up, The Chemistry of Common Life: As far as things I don’t really care about but which I don’t really mind either, hardcore is a prime example. Fucked Up’s break-out disk has been compared repeatedly and inaccurately to Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come; it’s missing both the strident anarchist lyrics and the sense of musical play Refused indulged in. (That’s one of the few truly loud albums I adore.) Fucked Up alternate pummeling passages with flute solos, drone-y interludes (“Golden Seal”) and other self-consciously diverse frippery that never coheres convincingly for me. I can totally understand and sympathize with someone’s urge to get pumped up by singing along to growly loud music, but it’s just not my thing (aside from “Twice Born,” which screams “Hand up if you think you’re the only one”; what follows is irrelevant, but it’s a nice dose of FUCK YOU I WON’T BE EXCLUDED that I guess is hardcore’s original purpose). I say this, however, a bit sheepishly, given that Fucked Up give entertaining interviews and also don’t seem to take it personally if you dislike them, and have a pretty big tent for collaboration; witness this frankly adorable clip of Fucked Up rocking out with Ezra from Vampire Weekend (!). Godspeed merry gentlemen.

The Bridges, Limits of the Sky: The Bridges are a family band, four of whom are named Byrd, which is just about a perfect coincidence. They’re Christians making secular pop music, and they’re really into Fleetwood Mac. Lead song “All The Words” is mostly perfect, four minutes of shamelessly over-the-top three part harmony and soft-rock piano; this works. The rest of the album isn’t really my thing; Matthew Sweet may be a power-pop god to many, but he’s always been a little same-y for my taste, and as producer he drags The Bridges through the same idiom over and over again, and it’s one (‘70s-influenced rockin’) I prefer to dip into sporadically rather than sit down with over the course of a whole album. (You know what this actually sounds like to me? The last two depressive Cardigans albums.) But hey, if this sounds like your kind of thing, dig in; it’s well-tuned all the way through. Should they last, they’ll always be a singles band to me. Probably.

Parenthetical Girls, Entanglements: Apparently one day Zac Pennington discovered sex and found out that sometimes people have sex and then feel guilty and lustful and hysterical, so he formed a band so he could sing in a quavery voice about creased sheets etc. Like Rivers Cuomo’s Pinkerton-era angst, I can’t really claim to be on the same wavelength. Talented guy, lots of neato arrangements—he sure knows what to do with a string quartet and doesn’t just use it for generic prettiness—but the only song I can really get behind is his cover of “Windmills of Your Mind,” because it’s the only song with an excellent arrangement (it turns into a tango grind) yet without lyrical hysteria. Grow up and report back IMO.

Rivers Cuomo, Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo: I interviewed Mr. Cuomo a while back, and for prep, I blasted through his two much-acclaimed volumes of miscellania, and they’re indeed pretty excellent; II trumps the first volume handily. I’ve never been anything more than a casual Weezer fan; they have some really fantastic songs and a lot of mediocre and clunky ones, but I can’t deny that for people my age, Weezer seem to be the fucking Rolling Stones. (I.e., they won’t go away even though they probably should at this point, they have a successful touring fanbase, and pretty much everyone 30 and under seems to know “Buddy Holly” et al. by heart.) Alone II begins with the goofy brass serenade “Victory On The Hill” and segues into a lot of mostly really fun, power-chord heavy angsty: “I Want To Take You Home Tonight” is exactly what you think it is (“I probably won’t see you no more” etc.). I’ve always felt mixed about Cuomo’s lyrics—sincere, sure, copping his lyrical moves after Brian Wilson’s model, but sometimes stupidly so (there’s a confessional song called “I Was Scared”)—but Alone II is mostly pretty tasty rocking-out regardless, mixed with sporadic weirdness (excerpts from the legendary lost Songs From The Black Hole space opera, which I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing it never happened; the excerpts here sound remarkably like Alex Chilton’s experiments in arranging 17th-century arias for full band, and that’s not a good thing) that keeps things lively just by breaking up the monolithic sound approach. Highlights: a cover of “Don’t Worry Baby” that sounds exactly like what you’d imagine and “Can’t Stop Partying,” which is obviously the songwriting collaboration of the year. Jermaine Dupri, master of perfectly crafted R&B vapidity, handed off some typical in-da-club-with-Patron-and-babes lyrics to Rivers, who undercuts the whole thing by turning it into a minor-key dirge, complete with ominous VU organ hum. We’re dangerously close to Dynamite Hack “Boyz N Tha Hood” territory here, but this is no joke: Cuomo uses Dupri’s perfectly catchy words to propel his moody song forward. It’s not subversion, it’s synthesis. Well done Mr. Cuomo.

Empire of the Sun, Walking on a Dream: Sometimes you should just cut your losses and listen to the singles. Empire Of The Sun is a collaboration between two pop-inclined Australians: one is Nick Littlemore of Pnau (no clue), and the other is Luke Steele, a sort of Aussie Anton Newcombe. At least 10 people have come and gone through The Sleepy Jackson, including Steele’s own brother (!); for what, exactly? One excellent guilty pleasure of an album (2003’s Lovers, which is all derivative hooks that stick) and one overblown mess (Personality, which had none). Steele believes he’s some kind of god on earth, when he’s really just a very talented pop scholar. Empire Of The Sun have a full-length album, sure, but I’ve gone through it a few times and it all tends to melt into sludge. Stick with much-feted single “Walking On A Dream” and “We Are The People,” two neo-disco affairs that will never leave your head until you get sick of them. By the time his career is over, Steele will at the very least have a killer best-of compilation somewhere in him.

Vivian Girls, Vivian Girls: A certain kind of music critic has a drooling Pavlovian reflex to girl groups (there’s no other way to explain the Pipettes, frankly), Jesus And Mary Chain-fuzz, self-consciously crude garage rock, low-fi mock-four-track recording, anything that flaunts its brevity, and/or any combination of the above. Hence, Vivian Girls; they’re certainly not bad, but I don’t really have a reflexive response to any of those elements. Vivian Girls pretty much do what they promise to do, which is give you 10 songs in 21 minutes, fuzz it out and sound vaguely snotty/sweet at the same time. I’ll never understand why some people go crazy for this stuff, and I’m sure they’ll never understand why overorchestrated bombast holds a special place in my heart. Really, you don’t even have to listen to the album to predict how you’ll feel about it.

Giant Sand, *ProVISIONS*: By all reliable accounts, Howe Gelb’s been mining his own distinctive brand of spaghetti western-damaged country-rock with remarkable consistency since 1982. In between, he does minor little miracles like providing backing for the lovely Ms. Neko Case (his 2006 solo album ’Sno Angel Like You has the excellent “Howlin’ A Gale,” which is my only other real context for him). This is the first time I’ve engaged with his real claim to fame, and I’m certainly duly amused. “Ready to roll,” growls Gelb Johnny Cash-style to kick off “Can Do,” a dark sort of country rumble, then navigates the lonely ballad “Out There” with equal aplomb. I can’t quite put my finger on Gelb’s vocal style—it’s somewhere between conspicuously-accented baritone crooning and zonked-out carny barker—or the micro-genre shifts he makes from song to song; it’s all one idiom, broadly, but distinguished by little touches from one song to another. (One alarming stand-out: the skronking brass breakdown on “World’s End State Park,” which isn’t that far from free jazz.) I need some more time with Giant Sand’s back catalogue, but I’m duly bemused.

Dominique Leone, Dominique Leone: My official submission for Most Overlooked, 2008. Leone is a former Pitchfork writer, which presumably is at least part of the reason this was barely reviewed; Pitchfork themselves did, and noted that “the majority of Dominique Leone is sunny pop, and as such suffers a bit from over-consistency.” In whatever universe they live in this may be true, but I’m pretty sure a lot of people would find this completely unbearable, which is pretty much the opposite of pop. (It also contains a 13-minute suite not for the faint of heart.) Leone sings in a constant falsetto over skittery keyboards and prefers atonal hooks to simple melodies; at best, he’s appealingly chromatic. XTC has to be cited, but invoking Prokofiev will give you a better idea of what’s actually going on here. Maybe. I find all this immensely appealing, but, as my friend said “Great. Just what we need. XTC with more pretensions.” This is definitely music-critic music—hermetic influences, visceral kick predicated upon your fondness for what it’s constructed out of, and it would annoy hypothetical listeners at least as much as The Fiery Furnaces. Approach with caution.

Listened to, regrettably unremarked upon: Boduf Songs, Danny!, Wale, Monkey, Times New Viking, Cut Copy, Giant Sand, Jeremy Jay, Max Tundra, Van She, Sebastien Tellier, Amadou & Mariam, Deerhunter, Dj/Rupture, Air France, Carrie, Johnny Flynn, Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, PAS/CAL, Quiet Village, Van She, The Last Shadow Puppets, Hercules And Love Affair, The Rosebuds, Mount Eerie with Julie Doiron & Fred Squire, Guillemots, Shearwater.

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Review: Sum 41’s Order in Decline Presents a Band in Total Control

The album’s pitch-perfect production and riotous bombast make for a hell of a fun ride.

4

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Sum 41
Photo: Katy Cooper/Big Picture Media

With their seventh album, Order in Decline, Sum 41 has wisely ditched the snotty, smart-aleck pop-punk that launched their career in the late 1990s and reset their equalizer to the full-throated, gravel-meets-bone howl of hardcore rock. Invigorated by the metal cred they gained on 2016’s 13 Voices, and emboldened by the permanent addition of Dave Baksh on guitar, Sum 41 leans into their new hard edge with an album that absorbs all the bravado of guzzling a case of Monster before leaping on stage.

From start to finish, Order in Decline exudes all the studded-jacket braggadocio of a band in total control. With frontman Deryck Whibley himself taking the helm of production, engineering, and mixing, every one of the album’s 10 tracks explode the full-bore rev of an engine that even Vin Diesel would hesitate to strap with nitrous. Gone is their stubborn dependence on fuzzy distortion and speedy tempos from the pop-punk playbook. In their place, the band has tightened the screws to extract a darker, burlier sound worthy of Bullet for My Valentine or Rise Against. Such metalcore references are deeply embedded into the structure and pacing of “The People Vs…” and the roaring breakdowns of the album’s first single, “Out for Blood.”

For all of its hat-tipping, however, the album’s crisp execution belongs not to Sum 41’s myriad musical influences, but to incredibly tight arrangements and well-designed movements that showcase the individual contributions of every band member. The meticulous attention to details and fine-tuned aggression brings a hard-won confidence and swagger to each track.

For all its newfound muscularity, the band doesn’t bother with any cocky posturing. As a primer for everything to come, the album’s opening track “Turning Away” gets right to the point, presenting a band that’s mastered the art of bottling its restraint and knowing when to smash it against the wall. Following a swell of reverb, Frank Zummo’s punishing drum work and Jason McCaslin’s pulsing bass set a foot-stomping rhythm for an ominously calm Whibley to slide into. Once Tom Thacker’s driving guitar breaks in, the song’s battery of teasing crescendos and high-octane build-ups finds pent-up relief in Baksh’s blistering guitar solo.

To keep up with the musical onslaught, Whibley’s vocals bite down harder and reach further than ever. “A Death in the Family” reels from his guttural screams, only to see him pivot into the soaring vulnerability of “Never There,” the album’s wistful, orchestra-backed letter to an estranged father. Whibley has stated that Order in Decline is the most personal of Sum 41’s albums, and “Catching Fire” poignantly expresses his attempt to deal with his shortcomings. But however personal this album may be for Whibley, it’s also Sum 41’s most unabashedly political. The band’s frustrations with the Trump administration, namely the sociocultural impact of its offenses, undergird almost every song here. In particular, “The New Sensation” and “A Death in the Family” are fist-pumping calls to arms, and “45 (A Matter of Time)” bristles with fury at the president whose name Whibley can’t even bring himself to say.

Clocking in at just over 35 minutes (not including two bonus acoustic tracks), Order in Decline mercifully sheds the filler that bogged down the band’s previous releases. Ten amped-up tracks provide just the right amount of time to savor but not tire of its focused intensity. And even if “The New Sensation” gallops along like a B-side from Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations, and “Catching Fire” comes off a bit too much like Green Day singing Yellowcard, the album’s pitch-perfect production and riotous bombast make for a hell of a fun ride.

Label: Hopeless Release Date: July 19, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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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

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Thom Yorke, Anima
Photo: Alex Lake/Nasty Little Man

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

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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

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Photo: Steph Wilson/Capitol Music Group

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

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Decoding Madonna’s Disturbing “God Control” Video

The singer’s new video features a wealth of Easter eggs, hidden meanings, and cameos.

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God Control
Photo: YouTube

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.”

God Control

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:

God Control

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:

God Control

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:

God Control

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:

God Control

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:

God Control

God Control

Surveillance footage featured throughout the video is dated “16/05/12,” which some fans have speculated refers to a passage from the New Testament:

God Control

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:

God Control

While Madonna gets ready for a night on the town, a poster in the background reads “Straight White Men Rule Everything Around Me”:

God Control

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:

God Control

God Control

What do you think the video is about? Share your theories in the comments below!

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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

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Indigo
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

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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

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Jinx
Photo: Salim Garcia

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

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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.

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Calexico and Iron & Wine
Photo: Piper Ferguson

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.

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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.

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Taylor Swift
Photo: YouTube

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.

Watch below:

Swift’s album, Lover, is due August 23 via Republic Records.

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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

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Erotic Runs
Photo: Chad Moore/Shore Fire Media

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

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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

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Titus Andronicus
Photo: Ray Concepcion/Merge Records

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

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