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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.3
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
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.3
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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