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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: The 1975’s Sprawling Notes on a Conditional Form Is a Sincere Ode to Rock

The album solidifies the band as the boldest purveyors of something resembling what we used to call rock.

3.5

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The 1975, Notes on a Conditional Form
Photo: Interscope Records

The 1975 has always defied easy categorization as a “rock” band, even while dominating the rock charts. Singer, lyricist, and expert provocateur Matty Healy—frequently seen with tongue planted not firmly in cheek, but literally jutting out at his audience—is wholly unconcerned with genre distinctions. The band’s fourth album, the 22-track, 80-minute opus Notes on a Conditional Form, is sprawling in every sense, jarringly and unapologetically moving from activist monologue to orchestral swells to jittery dubstep to emo to ‘80s soft-rock pastiche and back again—which is its own rock-star fuck-you flex.

That the album works at all is a kind of miracle. While Healy has tended to hide behind an ironic postmodernist guise, he now lets his ambition and sincerity openly roam, sitting uncomfortably alongside more familiar sides of his personality. The customary self-titled opening track, which on previous albums has incorporated the same lyrics riffing on a blowjob, is here a platform for teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, a kindred spirit for Healy, if one with much more serious aims. It would be annoyingly didactic if her argument that mankind’s survival truly is a black-or-white question weren’t put in such forcible and moving terms, and if the band members didn’t wisely step away with only muted backing instruments.

The opener is followed by the whopping noise of “People,” a punk piss-take in which Healy can’t help cracking wise with his own state-of-the-world one-liner: “Well, my generation wanna fuck Barack Obama/Living in a sauna with legal marijuana,” which is both absurd and, at least if you’ve spent time around certain regulars at a sleek Los Angeles weed dispensary, not an untrue characterization of his peers. That kind of half-winking, half-serious satire is both what puts off some listeners and is vital to understanding what makes Healy so refreshing in a musical environment that has calcified into self-seriousness. Along with his sonic omnivorousness, it begs for comparisons to Damon Albarn, Healy’s clearest predecessor.

For all his antics, Healy can be disarmingly blunt, even sobering. “The Birthday Party” sees him amusingly coping with his ongoing addiction issues at a lame gathering where a group of girls suggest taking Adderall because it supposedly won’t lead to him cheating. On the brazenly titled “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” he duets with openly bisexual emo-folk singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers in a poignant exploration of closeted love. Elsewhere, the album’s stripped-down closer, “Guys,” is a sweet ode to his affection for his bandmates.

A quintessential 1975 song, “If You’re Too Shy (Let Me Know)” packs all of Healy’s contradictory lyrical tics into a shimmering melodic powerhouse, suggesting a rewrite of a Hall & Oates song for the FaceTime generation. “I see you online…all the time,” Healy moans to a female crush before stripping off his clothes at the girl’s suggestion. (The vocals get an assist from FKA twigs, Healy’s rumored real-life girlfriend, for added self-awareness.) Is Healy parodying sax solo-spewing rock of the past or honoring it? Is he mocking his own romantic trials, or genuinely seeking a uniquely 21st-century love? The answer is a bit of everything—a maximalism that the 1975 pulls off like almost no one else.

Even a prankster like Albarn in his most aggressively divergent later work wouldn’t stuff a double album with as many interludes and sketches as this one. Its wide-open freedom is also its biggest weakness: The album’s first stretch is slowed down by pretty but redundant instrumentals. For one, “Yeah I Know” is a nonsensical electronic studio experiment (“Pick a card…hit that shit” are among its few words) that never really takes off.

More successful curveballs include the gospel-rap anthem “Nothing Revealed/Everything Denied” and the admirably off-kilter, if a bit confounding, “Shiny Collarbone,” which features dancehall artist Cutty Ranks. It might not live up to its lofty goals, but the sheer amount of daring on Notes on a Conditional Form solidifies the four guitar-wielding dudes of the 1975 as the biggest, boldest, and brashest purveyors of something resembling what we used to call rock n’ roll, which, as Healy knows well, was always at least as much a pose as a sound. He wears it well.

Label: Interscope Release Date: May 22, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande Drop “Rain on Me” Single and Video

The house-inflected dance-pop tune finds the two overzealous vocalists duking it out to see who can outsing the other.

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Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande, Rain on Me
Photo: YouTube

Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande’s “Rain on Me” is arguably the most anticipated pop partnership since, well, Grande’s duet with Justin Bieber, “Stuck with U,” dropped last week. The second single from Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album, Chromatica, “Rain on Me” is a slick, French house-indebted dance song that finds the two overzealous vocalists duking it out to see who can out-sing the other over the course of the track’s three chart-maximizing minutes.

Despite a sizeable promo push, Chromatica’s lead single, “Stupid Love,” received a relatively lukewarm response from both fans and the general public, but Grande’s presence on “Rain on Me” is sure to have an amplifying effect. The song is reportedly about the singers’ shared public trauma, and while it’s unclear which of Gaga’s myriad traumas the track references, it ostensibly addresses the PTSD Grande is said to have suffered following the terror attack at her Manchester concert in 2017.

Gaga has called “Rain on Me” a “celebration of all the tears,” and claims in a new Apple Music interview that rain doubles as a metaphor for all the alcohol she’s consumed to numb her pain. “I’d rather be dry, but at least I’m alive,” she sings throughout the song. Water, of course, is considered a source of purification and rebirth, but the metaphor is muddled here: “It’s coming down on me, water like misery.”

Created by a virtual army of seven songwriters and four producers, “Rain on Me” builds slowly from a stripped-down opening verse, followed by filter house bass and thundering percussion, while the hook—which, like the rest of the track, seems to be aiming for mid-‘90s house-pop—is composed almost entirely of a pitched-down vocal loop. It’s an improvement over “Stupid Love,” at least until a spoken bridge in which Gaga adopts a robotic affect a la 2013’s “Venus”: “Hands up to the sky/I’ll be your galaxy/I’m about to fly/Rain on me, tsunami.” As for that vocal battle, Gaga’s foghorn largely overpowers Grande’s signature warble, but they sound dissimilar enough that you can at least distinguish between the two.

Helmed by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who directed Gaga in 2013’s Machete Kills, the music video for “Rain on Me” finds the two pop stars serving as mirror reflections of each other in a rain-soaked urban landscape, with Gaga even donning Grande’s signature high pony tail. The clip evokes an apocalyptic rave, with the singers and their armies of dancers sporting some very-‘90s club gear, like platform boots and lots of PVC, that complement the track’s vintage aesthetic.

Watch below:

Chromatica will be released on May 29 on Interscope Records.

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Review: With How I’m Feeling Now, Charli XCX Taps Into Our Collective Nostalgia

The album speaks to our current circumstances without being exclusively tethered to them.

4

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Charli XCX, How I'm Feeling Now
Photo: Atlantic Records

Written and recorded in the midst of the global coronavirus pandemic, Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now was shaped by the limited tools the singer-songwriter had access to at home. And Charli’s self-isolation imbues her fourth album, perhaps inevitably, with the confessional immediacy of bedroom-pop, even as the tracks reach for her signature brand of sonic maximalism. The result is a collection of songs that speaks to our current circumstances without being exclusively tethered to them.

The defining tension of How I’m Feeling Now is between the songs’ highly specific personal narratives and their big, sweeping backdrops. The sprightly verses of “Forever” eagerly build to a huge, swooning chorus as Charli fixates on a rare happy moment in a relationship that’s unlikely to ever work out. Whether she’s remembering the relationship or experiencing it in real time, the song’s lyrics—“I will always love you/I’ll love you forever”—bring into stark relief the gulf between her present joy and the promise of future heartache. Elsewhere, “Party 4 U” is lyrically slight, but the incessant repetition of the phrase “party on you” seems intentional, as both the line and a rapidly pulsing synth figure mirror the obsessiveness of checking one’s phone for a text message that never arrives.

Though she recorded the album in a home studio, Charli didn’t limit her ambition and, as a result, manages to surprise both musically and lyrically throughout. “Detonate” is the catchiest song here, though its poppy contours belie its lyrical darkness. The track opens with a glittery synth part before morphing into a complex glitch-pop song that, for Charli, feels surprising in its minimalism. The chorus is full of sharp wordplay and quick turns of phrase as she tries to warn a potential romantic partner that he should keep his distance, though the song makes clear she’s only interested in protecting herself from heartbreak.

On “Anthems,” Charli explicitly confronts her quarantine: “I’m so bored,” she sings atop a skittering synth, cataloguing a routine of now-familiar activities—sleeping in, trying to exercise and failing, watching TV, and so on. She succinctly sums up the mood of the moment (“Sometimes I feel okay, some days I’m so frightened”) before the song’s megawatt chorus explodes, her voice soaring plaintively: “I want anthems.”

Writing a club banger about how nobody can go to the club right now is a clever trick, but there’s more to it than simple wishcasting. One of the more surprising aspects of our lockdown life has been our collective nostalgia for mundane or outright unpleasant things. Charli captures this feeling when, after lamenting how hours alone make her “existential and so strange,” she sings about wanting to feel the rush of heat from being packed in a sea of bodies. “Anthems” is philosophical introspection delivered at a breakneck pace, an apocalyptic dance song in search of a party to crash, appealing to anyone who would do anything to elbow their way through a crowd in order to shell out eight bucks for a domestic beer right now.

Even that song’s hyper-immediate relevance doesn’t have to be read in terms of the unmitigated awfulness of our current state though. Someday the virus will likely be just another manageable inconvenience, but there will still be people who find themselves trapped and isolated from their friends and lives by other forces. Heartbreak and despondency will always have a place in pop music, whether inflicted by a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic or the day-to-day vicissitudes of emotion. Though How I’m Feeling Now was born out of the former, it finds something interesting to say about the latter.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: May 15, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Every Mariah Carey Album Ranked

We’ve ranked all of the singer’s albums, from Mariah Carey to Caution.

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Mariah Carey
Photo: Sarah McColgan

On May 15, 1990, Mariah Carey quietly released her debut single, “Vision of Love,” a contemporary R&B ballad marked by its retro swing and, of course, that voice. Though it gave birth to a thousand singing competition contestants caterwauling their way to instant fame, the song is more restrained than you might remember. Yes, “Vision of Love” introduced the world to that famous whistle register like a stripper popping out of a cake, and Mariah seems to express an entire song’s worth of emotion in one final vocal run, but it also boasts an economy of language, both musical and otherwise, that she’s recaptured rarely over the years.

“Vision of Love” took its time to reach its sweet destiny—four weeks at #1 on the pop chart—setting the stage for a career with very long legs. If Mariah’s handlers—her then-husband, Sony Music president Tommy Mottola, among them—wanted her to be a crossover queen in the key of Whitney, the singer evidently had other ideas. By the end of the ‘90s, both Mariah’s wardrobe and voice—not to mention her album sales—began to shrink. But she’d become a far more interesting artist, savvily incorporating hip-hop elements into her work, which surely extended her commercial viability even as it limited her audience, and developing a singular, idiosyncratic voice as a lyricist.

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Vision of Love,” and her self-titled debut—released in June of 1990—we’ve ranked all 13 of her non-holiday studio albums.



Charmbracelet

13. Charmbracelet (2002)

The sense that Charmbracelet was rushed out to try and control the damage left in Glitter’s wake is inextricably tied in with the album’s DNA. At the time, we admit to feeling admiration that she was at least giving off the impression of dusting it off and stepping back up to the plate…or the hoop, given that the most enduring takeaway from the whole project remains her momentary penchant for basketball jersey scootchie dresses. But in hindsight, the album’s place at the bottom of her discography is incontestable. Throughout, the sense that her genre interpolations reflect a piece of her campy-kitschy persona consistently takes a back seat to the realization that now was not the time to lean into idiosyncrasies, with the one possible semi-exception being the incongruously chipper G-funk detour “Irresistible (West Side Connection).” I mean, on what other Mariah album would a track entitled “Clown” sound like the zero-calorie AC version of Timbaland this one does? Eric Henderson



Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel

12. Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel (2009)

Having then-It producers The-Dream and Tricky Stewart on the boards for all 17 tracks of 2009’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel makes the album one of Mariah’s most sonically consistent, but it also sounds cheap and same-y, lacking the fullness of her best work. Mariah is in fine voice throughout, and there are several standout tracks, including the hard-edged “Standing O,” the simmering “H.A.T.E.U.,” and “Up Out My Face,” on which she achieves a whole new level of lyrical ridiculousness involving Legos and an allusion to Humpty Dumpty. Lyrically, Mariah dips into her back catalog to depths unheard since 2002’s Charmbracelet, and the album’s final stretch devolves into a mess of rehashes: “Languishing” is a lazy rewrite of—take your pick—“Petals,” “Twister,” or “Sunflowers for Alfred Roy,” while the requisite ‘80s cover song, of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” climaxes prematurely with a cacophony of screaming and gratuitous whistle notes. Cinquemani



Music Box

11. Music Box (1993)

Notable almost exclusively for its hit singles, Music Box is the album that, following the slightly less chart-domineering Emotions, made Mariah a bona fide superstar. One of those singles, “Hero,” was, tellingly, written for another artist before Tommy Mottola insisted she keep it for herself. One of Mariah’s signature ballads, the song trades in generic, often nonsensical platitudes and is surprisingly short on the kind of vocal histrionics that might overly stimulate listeners—the perfect combination for infinite rotation on multiple radio formats. By this point in her career, however, Mariah had devised a strategy to keep her label happy while stealing whatever bits of creative freedom she could. With its drum loop lifted from the Emotions by way of Big Daddy Kane, “Dreamlover” was her first foray into hip-hop (sorry, “Fantasy”), but it was David Morales’s dark, sultry house mix, along with David Cole and Robert Clivilles’s remix for another single, the gospel-infused “Anytime You Need a Friend,” that truly broke new ground for the singer. The album itself, though, is unchallenging and easy to swallow—everything Sony wanted Mariah to be. And 10 million people ate it up like Ovaltine. Cinquemani



E=MC2

10. E=MC² (2008)

The problem with having a winning formula is that, eventually, it’s going to boil down to just that: a formula. The irresistibly titled E=MC² stands shoulder to shoulder, at least according to my TI-85, with The Emancipation of Mimi in that I honestly prefer Mariah in the loopier, more freewheeling territory of Rainbow and Glitter, but I can’t deny the dogged efficiency in action. Even if I wasn’t exactly sure what the “E” was supposed to mean in the album’s title at first (emotion? Ear-splitting melisma? Surely not energy…oh, it stands for “emancipation,” duh), there’s little doubt that “MC” stands for our own master of ceremonies, and she even threw in a little nod to her own public schizophrenia for good measure. But those who were hoping for reinvention would, in addition to being radically unfamiliar with Mariah’s career trajectory, be dismayed that the “2” also stands for “Mimi, Part 2.” E=MC² doesn’t dawdle long enough for you to ever discern just how overly deliberate it is: It’s an album composed entirely of radio edits. There’s a big mathematical difference between pop instincts and pop manufacturing, and most of E=MC² demonstrates the latter. Henderson



Glitter

9. Glitter (2001)

Especially in light of a #JusticeForGlitter Twitter campaign that shot the soundtrack to the top of the iTunes chart 17 years after its release on September 11, 2001, it’s tempting to look back fondly at Glitter as an overlooked gem that simply suffered from a case of bad timing. Indeed, the album is dotted with authentically ‘80s-inspired treasures—the sensual Rick James-penned “All My Life,” the squelchy Eric Benet duet “Want You,” and a beat-for-beat recreation of Cherelle’s “Didn’t Mean to Turn You On” among them. But Glitter is also marred by a series of misguided hip-hop excursions, in which Mariah serves as a mere hook girl, and a bunch of middle-of-the-road ballads that make Music Box’s adult contemporary slush sound radical by comparison. The real injustice of Glitter’s failure is the effective erasure from the singer’s canon of the camp-tastic “Loverboy”—the final piss take in Mariah’s series of sample-driven uptempo singles. Cinquemani



Rainbow

8. Rainbow (1999)

It’s funny to think that, chronologically, only two studio albums separate Mariah’s most lyrically and musically chaste effort, Music Box, with this, her most unbridled album to date. Butterfly gets all the credit for the singer’s personal and sexual liberation, but you won’t find Mariah dog-whistling herself to orgasm for nearly six minutes on that album as she does on “Bliss,” which suggests a cross between “Love to Love You Baby” and Janet Jackson’s “Any Time, Any Place” as sung by Minnie Riperton. There’s a series of inferior rewrites here, including “Heartbreaker,” “After Tonight,” and “Can’t Take That Away (Mariah’s Theme).” But the album also explores new adventures in frivolity, like the trend-chasing “X-Girlfriend” and the catty hip-hop nursery rhyme “Did I Do That?” But it’s “Crybaby,” featuring a tour-de-force vocal performance that finds Mariah exploiting the rough edges of her newly worn voice for the first time, that stands out amid all the slick commercial pop. On an album filled with artifice (just take a look at that cover), she never sounded so real as when she allowed herself to get ugly. Cinquemani

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Review: Katy Perry Bares All in “Daisies” Single and Music Video

The singles aims for euphoric, “Teenage Dream”-style heights but doesn’t quite reach them.

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Katy Perry, Daisies
Photo: Liza Voloshin

Following a series of standalone singles, including last year’s moderately successful “Never Really Over,” Katy Perry has finally dropped the lead single from her long-awaited fifth studio album, the follow-up to 2017’s Witness. Produced by the Monsters & Strangerz, “Daisies” is an atmospheric ballad that pairs acoustic guitars with textured synth programming and finds the pop singer reflecting on her rise to fame: “I guess you’re out of your mind until it actually happens.”

The track, which clocks in at under three minutes, aims for euphoric, “Teenage Dream”-style heights but doesn’t quite reach them, while its themes of self-empowerment and perseverance are juxtaposed by macabre undertones: “They tell me I’m crazy, but I’ll never let them change me/’Til they cover me in daisies.” Interestingly, “Daises” will be serviced to adult contemporary radio next week before going for mainstream pop adds in June, a sign that Perry—who, at 35, is pregnant with her first child—is shifting her focus to a more mature audience.

Directed by New York-based filmmaker Liza Voloshin, who previously worked with Perry on the vertical video for “Never Really Over,” the music video for “Daises” boasts a grainy, lo-fi aesthetic that matches the song’s dreamy vibe. The concept is simple—reportedly shot at a safe “social distance”—and features Perry frolicking in the woods before stripping off her white dress and bathing naked in a creek.

Watch below:

Perry’s as-yet-untitled fifth album is due August 14th on Capitol Records.

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Review: The Magnetic Fields’s Quickies Is a Deft Collection of Mini-Character Studies

The songs on the album may be brief, but they more than make up for it with depth.

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The Magnetic Fields, Quickies
Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic

In college, my best friend and I were trapped in my crummy dorm room one night while a roommate tried to impress a date in our common area. The Magnetic Fields’s 69 Love Songs played in the background as we drank cheap beer and played WarioWare. At some point, we started to argue over whether “Come Back from San Francisco” was an original or a semi-updated version of a cut from the Great American Songbook. From there, the debate escalated into a 10-dollar bet that eventually morphed into a full-on shouting match and ruined my roommate’s date. The loser of that bet still hasn’t paid up.

I bring this story up because it’s illustrative of what makes Stephin Merritt so singular. The term “standard” is a fitting label for Merritt’s music: His songs are so catchy and contain such precise lyrics that you only need to hear them once before they get stuck in your head. That’s not to say that Merritt writes songs whose interest is exhausted after one spin; they’re often well-crafted character studies, full of clever wordplay and moments of both side-splitting comedy and emotional devastation. It’s not surprising, then, that he’s worked so extensively in the theater, as his music is truly dramatic, in the most literal sense of the word.

The Magnetic Fields’s albums are often structured around some sort of organizing principle, whether it’s sonic similarities (as on 2008’s Distortion) or songs that begin with the same letter (2004’s i). The band’s 12th album, Quickies, is populated entirely by short songs—the longest is just over two and a half minutes, and the shortest is 17 seconds—and Merritt once again proves himself capable not just of conducting gimmicky experiments, but truly flourishing under the constraints he sets for himself.

The album’s shortest song, “Death Pact (Let’s Make A),” sketches out a comically codependent relationship in just four succinct lines, while “You’ve Got a Friend in Beelzebub” is a hilariously blasphemous anti-hymn on which a roster of demons get name-checked as pals and possible romantic partners. Of course, as the wink-wink, nudge-nudge title implies, Quickies is chockfull of songs about sex. “Bathroom Quickie,” featuring Shirley Simms on lead vocals, is an ode to public sex powered by some predictable but rewarding rhymes: quickie, hickey, sticky. A jangly Kinks-inspired rock song that tells the story of an ornithologist, “The Biggest Tits in History” is superficially more chaste than its title suggests, making some naughty hay out of the alternate meaning of the word “tit.”

Many of the album’s best songs are evocative characters sketches. The narrator of “The Best Cup of Coffee in Tennessee” has grand plans to marry a waitress—though it’s less clear if she’s aware of those plans—and “When the Brat Upstairs Got a Drum Kit” tells a tender story about a couple whose rapturous love insulates them from their neighbor’s new drumming hobby, even when their roof gives out. The title character of the album’s closing track, “I Wish I Were a Prostitute Again,” reminisces about all the degrading things a former client used to demand, paradoxically finding life before he inherited 10 million dollars from said client more fulfilling. Merritt’s dolorous deep voice and the song’s dirge-like pace evoke the character’s misery, even as he sings absurdities like “He paid me for my urine/He paid me for my poop.”

The album’s songs offer funny and poignant portraits of their subjects, but on a deeper level, they address broader philosophical questions: What makes someone attractive to us when others find them loathsome? Why does domestic life feel so confining, while danger excites us? Why do we look back on the darkest moments of our life so fondly? Merritt’s ability to blend comedy and heartache through finely observed character studies is one of his greatest strengths, and that skill in fine form throughout Quickies.

Label: Nonesuch Release Date: May 15, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Greatest Neil Young Songs

These songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock and mastery of poetic memoir.

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Neil Young
Photo: Gary Burden

For the last five-plus decades, Neil Young has been, along with Bob Dylan, one of North America’s most towering, influential rock figures. He’s that rare musical threat: a multifaceted songwriter, penning universally resonant acoustic ballads, crunchy electric stompers, and cryptic long-form epics; a virtuoso musician, pioneering novel proto-grunge and noise-rock textures and instrumental interplay; and an eternal maverick continually experimenting with sound and defying industry expectations, even at the expense of chart success.

Given the enormous shadow he casts on popular culture as well as a daunting discography (next month’s Homegrown, originally slated for a 1975 release, will be his 40th album), it’s difficult to know where to begin when exploring Young’s musical legacy. After leaving Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the man nicknamed “Shakey” has forged a solo career not only long and winding but also—as in 1982’s Krautrock- and new wave-inspired Trans and 1991’s live noise collage Arc—thorny and more than a little unusual.

Just as there is no definitive Neil Young album—not even 1972’s Harvest, his most successful solo effort—there is no definitive core of Neil Young songs, and any best-of list is bound to leave many dimensions of his musical personality unaccounted for. That said, these 25 songs comprise a guide for the singer-songwriter’s signature brand of rock (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Rockin’ in the Free World”), his mastery of poetic memoir (“Thrasher,” “Ambulance Blues”), and his adventures in bursting structural and stylistic boundaries (“Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind”). Michael Joshua Rowin


25. “Change Your Mind”

“Change Your Mind” is one of Young and Crazy Horse’s most epic compositions. Like “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” “Change Your Mind” possesses a basic verse-chorus framework broken up by extended jams, but this time Young’s solos are reflective and dreamy rather than propulsive and tense. That’s because “Change Your Mind” is about the redemptive power of love, and without being overly sentimental or naive. Indeed, the simple language Young uses to describe this power is often surprising, revelatory, and realistic: Love’s “magic touch” isn’t only “revealing,” “soothing,” and “restoring,” but also “destroying,” “distracting,” and “controlling,” proving it must be properly cared for and harnessed in order to truly, constructively “change your mind.” Rowin


24. “L.A.”

In 1972, on Harvest’s “Out on the Weekend,” Young was sweetly crooning about Los Angeles—his first home in the U.S.—as an idyllic locale where one could hope to “start a brand new day.” But just like the countless dreamers who have tried to “make it” there to no avail, it doesn’t take long for cynicism to set in. Just a year later, over a stinging blues-rock riff, Young was sneering about a “city in the smog” where “the freeways are crammed” and imagining the whole place collapsing into the ground. A standout cut from the once long out-of-print but captivatingly shambolic Time Fades Away, “L.A.” proves that Young at his nastiest was also often at his best. Jeremy Winograd


23. “Harvest”

The subtle title track of 1972’s Harvest has been undeservedly overshadowed by that album’s megahits: “Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Strumming a lulling, melancholic rhythm on his acoustic guitar, Young spins a mysterious tale concerning himself, a woman, and her mother. Just as Young asks a series of questions to the woman, so do listeners come away from the song asking their own: Why is the mother “screamin’ in the rain”? Who might be the “black face” the woman understands? What is the “change of plan” referenced in the chorus? Even if he refuses firm answers, Young offers several possibilities for his relationship: “Will I see you give more than I can take?/Will I only harvest some?/As the days fly past, will we lose our grasp?/Or fuse it in the sun?” For all its obscure scenarios, the low-key drama of “Harvest” ultimately hinges on the narrator’s full acceptance of and gratitude for love. Rowin


22. “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long)”

Only a heart of stone will remain unmoved by Young’s plea for emotional vulnerability in “Round & Round (It Won’t Be Long),” one of two ballads on 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere that examine the isolating cost of hardened egoism. Built on achingly strummed acoustic guitar chords and a beautifully harmonized vocal by Young and Robin Lane, “Round & Round” shows that repeated failures to recognize and express one’s pain “weave a wall to hem us in” from true companionship. In the final verse, Young hints at a solution: “And you see your best friend/Looking over the end/And you turn to see why/And he looks in your eyes and he cries.” Whether you confront your pain or not, you’re going to experience grief, but in confronting yourself you can empathize and connect with the pain of others rather than suffering in solitude. Rowin


21. “Borrowed Tune”

If Young’s famous mid-‘70s “ditch trilogy” was a literal ditch, “Borrowed Tune” would be its very lowest point. Hunched alone over a piano, his voice sleepy and threadbare, and his “head in the clouds,” Young sounds so drunk and worn out that he’s not even able to conjure up an original melody to get his thoughts out (by his own admission, he’s singing a tune lifted from the Rolling Stones’s “Lady Jane”). The level of intimacy Young allows in such a dark moment is as uncomfortable as it is spellbinding. Winograd

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Review: Hayley Williams’s Petals for Armor Is a Quietly Confident Triumph

The album is a confident solo debut that suggests the singer has valences she’s just beginning to explore.

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Hayley Williams, Petals for Armor
Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

“Rage” is the first word that Hayley Williams sings on her solo debut, Petals for Armor, calling it “a quiet thing.” The line is direct and economical, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams’s writing. And the song in question, “Simmer,” asks a pointed question that’s both timely and eternal: “How to draw the line between wrath and mercy?” Musically, the track feels more like a David Longstreth composition than anything Williams has done with her band, Paramore, her vocals layered so she sounds like an electric choir amid all the pulsing atmospherics. The song practically seethes, underscoring the visceral emotions excavated in the lyrics.

The overarching question facing many an artist with a well-established identity as the driving force behind a successful rock band is whether or not their solo work should resist comparison to the group’s output. You may wonder: What did Mick Jagger really feel he was free to do on She’s the Boss that he couldn’t accomplish under the banner of the Rolling Stones—besides avoid Keith Richards? This question is particularly pronounced for Williams, as Paramore has been followed by no small amount of personnel-related drama in which departing band members have charged that the project is merely a vehicle for Williams.

While their recent work draws more heavily on new wave and power-pop, Paramore remains a guitar band at heart. On Petals for Armor, though, Williams largely eschews guitar pop in favor of intricate songcraft influenced by artists as varied as Björk, Wilco, Dirty Projectors, even Phil Elverum. Though the album at times threatens to veer into banal adult contemporary, the highlights are among Williams’s most memorable and innovative work to date.

Paramore’s widescreen sonic palette and shout-along choruses have often obscured Williams’s lyrical sharpness, but Petals for Armor’s more subdued sound allows her words to take center stage. A finely observed examination of grief, “Leave It Alone” is carried by a snaky bassline and shuffling drums, with Williams’s voice, mixed to sound close and conversational, doing most of the storytelling. The song grapples with the difficulty of entering adulthood as the extreme emotions of youth give way to the realization that life is mostly made up of moments of loss: “If you know love/You best prepare to grieve/Let it enter your open heart/And then prepare to let it leave.” The line “Now that I finally wanna live/The ones I love are dyin’” feels especially prescient on a song that spins something universal out of small details.

“Sudden Desire,” a seductive R&B-inflected song about trying to suppress feelings of lust, works in a similar mode. The verses quietly recall a possibly illicit, or at least ill-advised, liaison—“We keep our distance now/I wanna feel his hands go down”—before the soaring chorus breaks through with Williams belting the titular line. She twice allows the word “desire” to catch in her throat and break off before completing it, as if she’s hoping her intellect can override her emotions. She repeats the line “I wanna feel his hands go down” throughout the song, always snapping it off like a thought she’s trying to force away. The track’s clever structure mirrors the way memory works, the hook blasting through the verses like a pleasurable but unwelcome recollection interrupting one’s train of thought.

“Dead Horse” is a new wave-inspired song that sounds the most like Williams’s previous output, while “Cinnamon” is a slow burner that seems meant to soundtrack the purchase of an expensive scone. By the time the song resolves into something propulsive, it’s almost over. But these hiccups are small compared to the moments of triumph throughout the album. Williams reaches into a deep bag of tricks to explore new musical textures and largely succeeds at setting the album apart from the straightforward pop-rock that Paramore has honed over the years. Though it might not have a karaoke jam like “Misery Business,” Petals for Armor is a confident solo debut that suggests Williams has valences she’s just beginning to explore.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: May 8, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Car Seat Headrest’s Making a Door Less Open Is Dizzyingly Uncategorizable

Overflowing with adventurous new ideas, the album opens up infinite new paths for the group to follow going forward.

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Car Seat Headrest, Making a Door Less Open
Photo: Carlos Cruz

Will Toledo may now be in his late 20s, but his smart-alecky deadpan ensures that he continues to sound like an adolescent. And like the precocious teenager he was when he first started releasing music under the Car Seat Headrest moniker, he’s maintained a voracious appetite for new influences, new experiences, and new aspects of himself—and for stuffing as many of those discoveries as he can into his music. Musically and lyrically, Making a Door Less Open, the band’s first album of entirely new material since 2016’s Teens of Denial, belies Toledo’s perpetual state of transformation and exploration, resulting in a set of dizzyingly creative and often uncategorizable songs.

The most obvious shift is the album’s clear debt to EDM and hip-hop music. Toledo has toyed with electronic elements in the past, but after signing with Matador Records in 2015, he’s employed a more guitar-heavy sound. In an artist statement released by the label, he explains the left turn as being influenced by 1 Trait Danger, a collaborative side project between Car Seat Headrest drummer Andrew Katz and Toledo’s new gas mask-clad alter ego, Trait.

The search for new identities runs throughout Making a Door Less Open, starting with the opening track, “Weightlifters.” “I woke up and felt like shit when I saw my ordinary face,” Toledo opines, necessitating a change: “I believe my thoughts can change my body.” It helps his case that Car Seat Headrest sounds completely transformed: “Weightlifters” is furiously grooving dance-rock, stylistically far afield from the band’s previous work but as adrenaline-inducing as anything they’ve ever done. The song epitomizes and justifies Toldeo’s unorthodox approach to recording the album, wherein the music is interpreted both electronically and more traditionally by the full band—including Toledo, Katz, guitarist Ethan Ives, and bassist Seth Dalby—before then being combined. Most of the time, it’s not possible to distinguish where the electronica ends and the rock n’ roll begins—which is as it was intended.

Toledo spends the rest of the album chasing new beginnings as he runs from demons of one kind or another, from performance anxiety to toxic relationships to self-doubt. On “Can’t Cool Me Down,” he chants a desperate, primal chorus that could have come from an old blues song, if not for all the samples and synths. He insists he’s “only made one mistake in my life,” pleading for redemption. He finds it On “Martin,” in a lover who inspires him to change his life: “Just when I think I’m gone/You change the track I’m on.”

“Change your mind/Night to night,” Toledo intones at the end of closing track “Famous,” perhaps the most euphoric song ever written about isolation and depression. And he seems to have taken his own advice, as he compiled three different versions of Making a Door Less Open for vinyl, CD, and digital platforms, all featuring slightly juggled tracklists and alternate versions of several songs. The experimental bent of some of these alternate versions can be jarring, but as Toledo puts it on “Life Worth Missing”: “Every path/Is a path worth following.”

Inspiration can apparently come from anywhere, even early-aughts rap-rock and Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy.” But not all of Toledo’s experiments are successful: The vinyl version of “Hymn,” which toys with modal harmonies over a distorted church organ drone, is a bold and sophisticated piece of music whose subtleties are completely erased on the electronic remix that appears on the digital version of the album. (The vinyl also features the best of three versions of “Deadlines”—a happy medium between the bland rock-oriented version and the overcooked EDM version, which both appear on the digital edition).

But the sheer amount of surprises on Making a Door Less Open makes up for a misstep or two. Even the most—and really only—prototypical slice of guitar pop on the album, “Martin,” boasts a busy arrangement that ping-pongs between acoustic and electric, topped off with pitch-shifted vocals and an unexpected Latin-inspired trumpet line. Overflowing with adventurous new ideas, the album has opened up seemingly infinite new paths for Toledo to follow going forward.

Label: Matador Release Date: May 1, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The 10 Best Albums of 1989

We take a look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.

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The Cure
Photo: Rhino Records

In my introduction to Slant’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while ‘80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decade’s brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the ‘80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani

Honorable Mention: Lou Reed, New York; New Order, Technique; Soul II Soul, Club Classics Vol. One; Nirvana, Bleach; Neneh Cherry, Raw Like Sushi; The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing; Laurie Anderson, Strange Angels; Bonnie Raitt, Nick of Time; Queen Latifah, All Hail the Queen; Original Soundtrack, Batman



The Sensual World

10. Kate Bush, The Sensual World

It’s hard to pin down what makes Kate Bush’s music so completely infectious, but it probably has something to do with the reckless abandon with which she tackles what could otherwise be preposterous material. The topics on The Sensual World, ranging from a musical rendering of the epilogue of Ulysses to a love song directed at a computer program, are often wholeheartedly silly, and yet these songs never come off as anything less than totally and achingly believable. Blessed with one of music’s most wildly expressive voices, Bush takes each song further than she has to, resulting in an album that forms its own unique world. Jesse Cataldo



90

9. 808 State, 90

If 90 was “Pacific 202” and 30 minutes of tape noise, it’d still be a stone-cold classic. But 808 State’s signature song (here a truncated six minutes of sax, synth, and roiling, rubbery bass), is just the most successful condensation of the diverse sonic tendencies explored on 90. Paced like an excellent DJ set from guys who’d spent enough time in the club to know, 90 doesn’t build so much as it ebbs and flows between the assertively groovy and the totally blissed out. A thrilling expansion of the possibilities for acid house and arguably the best LP ever produced in the style, 90 shows that even a transient fad can be an impetus for world-making. Matthew Cole



Pretty Hate Machine

8. Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine

Ever look back at your old junior high school yearbooks and see, with a shock, the last picture the kid voted “Most Likely to Shoot the Rest of Us Dead at Graduation” took before encasing himself inside that filthy, black trench coat? The last one he took with his natural hair color? The last one in which his eyes that would later reflect only cataracts of the soul still glinted with the hint of something obscene? That’s what it’s like to listen now to Trent Reznor scowl, “I’d rather die than give you control!” in “Head Like a Hole.” Before attempting suicide in The Downward Spiral and living with the wrist scars in The Fragile, Pretty Hate Machine sent out sleek, danceable warning shots. Eric Henderson



Rhythm Nation

7. Janet Jackson, Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814

“Don’t get me in here acting all silly now.” Nice try, Janet, but with Rhythm Nation, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis got you in here acting all sober now. At least for three or four songs, anyway. The follow-up to Control‘s redux debut is in equal measure self-enlightened, self-defining, and self-pleasuring. The title track and “The Knowledge” lean heavy on new-jack beats, while “Alright” and “Escapade” radiate the Minneapolis sound at its warmest (she must’ve recorded them the one week it didn’t snow there). And with seven hits (the final of which reached number one almost a year and a half after the album was released), it was one of the decade’s biggest chartbusting juggernauts. Get the point? Good. Henderson



Doolittle

6. Pixies, Doolittle

The Pixies are rightfully credited as the progenitors of grunge, and to that end, Doolittle is their manifesto for ‘90s alt rock: dark, offbeat, slow-churning, humorously grim, and peppered with the kind of loud-soft dynamics that exemplify both the Pixies’ sound and the countless bands that followed in their wake. Arriving in 1989, Doolittle served as vanguard for modern rock both sonically and tonally, as evidenced by the descriptive, almost metaphysical nature of the band’s lyrics. When Black Francis screams, “God is seven!,” on “Monkey Gone to Heaven,” there’s little doubt about the gravity of the message—or where Billy Corgan found his inspiration. Kevin Liedel

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