I went back to my hometown of Austin for a few days last week, something I do twice a year to catch up with a few folks who haven’t moved, and also to eat BBQ and Tex-Mex (a decent fall-back if you’re in the area and short on time, but featuring one of the worst websites known to man: if you click on that, be prepared to hear uber-hack Pat Green singing “Have some tacos and beer and let ourselves go.” Tacos and beer! Sodom trembles.). Since I stopped buying CDs pretty much when I got to college, everything I have back home is an automatic nostalgia trip: I will never know any albums as well as I know these, though I’m not sure I want to reclaim the circumstances that made me learn them inside-out in the first place. Back when my income was, um, considerably more straitened, every used CD purchased (new albums? Ha! I was bankrupting the RIAA before it was cool) was a thoughtful investment, to be played something like 8 times each at a minimum. I’d spend hours trolling half.com, freakishly absorbing what the basic price for every CD was, then comparing it to whatever copies I found. This could quite satisfyingly fill up a lot of hours and, as a high school loser, I had a lot of hours to fill.
These albums still sound really good to me, although I feel kind of pathetic blasting Girls Can Tell or Lapalco whenever I pull into a parking lot, like I’m the cranky old man who won’t shut up about some Neil Young show he saw in ’73. “I know about Fleet Foxes!” I want to yell. Of course, no one cares; still, I feel weird about reverting to the old when, for the past few years, I’ve been racing through albums with such alarming speed (rare and exceptional is something that grabs me more than three times) that I can’t remember half of what I hear anymore. And then there’s David Bowie’s Hunky Dory, an album I always re-approach a little gingerly. I don’t write about everything I listen to; e.g., I’ve been blasting Low for quite a few months now, working myself into it, with remarkably little to say. At first, all it really did for me, oddly enough, was deepen my appreciation for what Gary Numan’s own peculiar synth project was all about, and how distinctive his version of synth songwriting was from Eno’s. Low is also—massive, undeniable influence apart—still a difficult album to write about or parse, equal parts impenetrable and stupidly obvious (until you embrace how dramatically the bass drops down and the vocal wails kick in, “Weeping Wall” can seem like an embarrassing exercise in Orientalist kitsch).
Seems to me that Hunky Dory is the last time Bowie was hanging back and outside of his “generation”; after that, the gloves were off and he’d dominate the zeitgeist with effortless eagerness ’til decade’s end. “Changes” is a great song (and an unlikely hit single), but Bowie can’t identify with anyone explicitly: “These children that you spit on,” he chides, “are immune to your consultations / They’re quite aware of what they’re going through.” The pronoun being “they,” and Bowie’s presumably somewhere else, positioning himself God knows where. “Changes” is somewhere between a much smarter version of some awful late ‘60s ballad about the new generation and/or, depending how you feel about these things, a blueprint for Bowie’s continuing persona shifts to come. I think it has more to do with the album proper than his much-insisted-upon chameleon qualities: Bowie’s persona shifts were internally consistent within each album, but Hunky Dory is a grab-bag of whatever’s around, and probably better for it.
Bowie’s always been a cover fiend, but there’s arguably four here: not just “Fill Your Heart” (an early example of how to rehabilitate a bad song and bring out the melodic goodness underneath: Bowie skips over the simplistic lyrics as if they were so much metrical dross, which—given, if nothing else, the excellence of songwriter Paul Williams’ Phantom Of The Paradise contributions—I’m willing to believe is a valid approach), but his twin tributes to Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan (more ambivalent than most would give them credit for), capped off with “Queen Bitch,” which outdoes Lou Reed (and sets the template for the glossy treatment Bowie would rehab Reed with on Transformer). Indeed, the second half of the album finds Bowie increasingly retreating into his influences. Then there’s “Quicksand,” the kind of song I only find myself listening to when I’m listening to the whole album start-to-finish, and that’s a damn shame. No matter what the spiritual allusion/Nietschze is supposed to be, it’s hard to find a whole lot of distance from a song which instructs “Don’t believe in yourself” and “Knowledge comes with death’s release.” (The Delgados start here, presumably.)
Mostly what I got from re-listening to Hunky Dory (and let’s not even get into “Life On Mars?” or “Oh You Pretty Things,” a song without which no liberal arts college party is complete, apparently… at one point, it seemed as mandatory as any given Belle & Sebastian track) is a renewed sense of the depth and complexity of Bowie’s catalogue. Whenever I get disgusted or burned out with keeping up with current musical trends, I half-jokingly threaten to quit everything for a year and spend a solid year investigating every nook and cranny of Bowie’s catalogue (except maybe that one stupid fucking album with Peter Frampton on guitar). Listening to Hunky makes me feel that reading a truly comprehensive Bowie bio (any suggestions?), and spending a year with Bowie, would be as rewarding and illuminating as finally reading the complete Orwell, my other goal. I’m glad there’s so much to look forward to.
Speaking of Austin: I was in a shitty high school band, just like everyone else there. The band wasn’t technically mine, but instead a co-production of one Eric Wilson (who, among other wonders, casually saved my social life from utter disaster senior year) and myself, backed by a motley but game crew of semi-competent drummers and one massively stoic, stoned bassist. Our name was unimportant (read: embarrassing, at least to me), our run a mercifully brief 6 months. It can safely be said that the project, uh, “never realized its full potential.” The one thing we did that made us seem like a real band was that we split up over “creative differences.” (Also, I couldn’t—and still can’t—fucking sing. Which was a problem, since I sometimes insisted on it.) Those differences, in brief: I wanted to write 3-minute pop songs. Eric wanted us to cover “Sister Ray.” The end was obviously nigh. Since then, Eric’s gone through a variety of incarnations that just weren’t for me. But the demon ghost of garage rock is lying a little more dormant these days, and The Spirit of Space is kicking ass.
A 2-hour runway wait at JFK (what the hell is going on over there?) put me on the ground to just catch the last half of their set: suffice it to say that it turns out there’s a way to cover “Psycho Killer” that isn’t actually boring, which was news to me. Eric and his trusty crew put on a show that’s tight, catchy and—most importantly—loud. So yes, I’m pimping my high school buddy’s band; deal with it. They’re quite good and if you’re in town, one of their shows (sometimes free!) should hit the spot, assuming you don’t mind being surrounded by much cooler kids my age. Eric’s also become quite an excellent engineer, and the band’s latest product—This Machine Kills Rhythm; 10 songs in a zippy 27 minutes—is pretty immaculate, though the show is better. Over at MySpace, I’d recommend listening to “Dream Girl,” a morose kind of doo-wop thing with a very neat chorus and “Outside,” which has a very cool minimalist guitar solo. (If you want to see what I was running away from, the undeceptively titled “Velvet Jam” is also on tap.)
While I was hanging out at Eric’s house, I also heard one of his roommate’s songs. Taft (also in the band) has what Eric described as “a genius pop song that’s going to take over the world,” and that’s hopefully not far off. Go here and marvel at the biggest chorus I’ve heard in a while (second version preferred, although for my money it’s reiterated one too many times). In a late-night moment, I described it as “Maroon 5 meets Orange Juice,” which kind of grossed out its creator. But I meant it in a good way.
And now we slay the beast that is The Dodos. I’ve been grappling with Visiter for a while—longer than I would under normal circumstances, but it was enthusiastically recommended by trustworthy colleagues, not just the usual Pitchfork dipshits. The fucking beast is an hour long, and what I’m supposed to do with that exactly I don’t know. The Dodos are two guys—Meric Long plays guitar and sings, Logan Kroeber avoids getting tied to a drum kit with all kinds of tricks (which include tambourines tied to shoes, a touch too cute for me). As two-man duos go, they’re preferable, I suppose, to the endless raft of so-called couple-rock ensembles making the world an even twee-er place than I can handle (e.g. Matt & Kim) or another shitty blue-rock band trying to get at that sweet White Stripes action. Ah, but I keep forgetting we live in a bold new age where all that’s passe (right?), and The Dodos represent (be still my beating heart), among other things, “campus-quad pop, art-punk, and communal, lo-fi folk” (aren’t these the same damn thing? Did the campus somehow get cut off from the art school?) and companions to “new-primitivist bands.” Which is, I guess, supposed to be descriptive rather than pejorative, but I’m not sure why we’re all supposed to be celebrating pseudo-childlike innocence (which generally annoys me) and the deliberate refusal of sophistication. These are the same people who find XTC too “clever,” I suppose, which is when music criticism starts seeming like some weird updating of old, ingrained 20th-century British prejudices against people who are “too clever.”
Chip on my shoulder showing yet? Anyway, I guess it’s no surprise that I’m not much of a lad for the long-form musical explorations, especially if there’s only two of you: there’s five songs here over six minutes, and only four under three. When The Dodos are short and concise, they’re right up my alley: for my money, their best moment is “Park Song”, which I predictably like because it’s melancholy and quiet. “Time to cut my hair and get it parted” leads, with faultless if unexplained logic, to “I think she thinks I’m retarded.” But the short rule certainly wouldn’t explain a rude blast like “It’s That Time Again,” a series of unpleasant trumpet blasts punctuated by banal sentiments like “Be my love again.” I’m not sure when the brass from Close Encounters’ mother-ship became the preferred sound of the moment; presumably Beirut has a lot to answer for. A lot of the longer songs lead, almost as a matter of course, from an interesting verse to moments where the song speeds up, Long starts abusing his slide-finger like an acoustic Jack White (or moments that just seem to owe an odd debt to John Lee Fahey), and/or everything degenerates into a tangle of percussion with little-to-no discernible order or method. Which may be very exciting live, but isn’t so much on record.
I’m not sure why bands like The Dodos annoy me so much: they’re preferable to most things, some of their songs are quite good, and they’re surely talented. I guess it’s that I’m really all about song structure, with the occasional exception, and The Dodos aren’t: they’re about a show, and talent, and the songs come not as an after-thought, but not as the main attraction either. Like most music writers (I suppose), I’ve always wanted to be able to sustain, if not the musical omnivorousness of the late John Peel, at least his ability to never get stranded in whatever tiny corner of the musical landscape I’ve marked off for myself. Bands like The Dodos always threaten to leave me behind, and no one wants to feel irrelevant, especially when I haven’t even hit 25.
Video round-up will probably not be a regular feature here, but a couple of things deserve your attention, one good, one reprehensible. Naturally, the reprehensible thing is more fun to talk about: Arcynta Ali Childs, a reporter with way bigger balls than mine, recently spent an afternoon following Thug Slaughter Force, a Brooklyn posse I sincerely hope to not run into on the street. Their thesis statement “No Tight Clothes” is entertaining if, at 5 minutes long, really pushing the novelty value further than it can stretch. The video pulls no punches: “Wearing tight clothes by men may result in feminine tendencies, homosexuality, possible yeast infection, severe hemorrhoids, permanent wedgies, and genetically inherited transsexual characteristics in your son.” TSF is just smart enough to hedge their bets (albeit way too transparently) during the interview: “It basically boils down to: You are in a homosexual attire, and you are claiming to be something else. … That’s what I have a problem with—not the homosexualism. You’re a front artist, and you’re promoting homosexuality with your actions and dress code, but you’re promoting gangster lifestyle with your lyrics. The two don’t match up.” Sure, sure. TSF don’t actually deserve that much shit: they’re just inept enough to not make them a real threat. (I adore Clipse, but there’s no doubt that when they rap out “You fucking faggot,” it stings that much more because they only use it once and they seem to really mean it: it’s reprehensible, duh, but they’re great rappers and if W.C. Fields survived despite revelations like “anyone he met whose eyes were not considered normal by American optical standards, he imagined to be a Nipponese spy,” I’ll chill.) What’s really scary is that they’re obviously tapping into something: e.g. an unnamed NYPD officer complaining “This movement of everyone wearing tight-fitting clothes—it’s not nice,” as if they were pissing on the street or punching old ladies.
More fun is the unlikely 11th-hour semi-resurrection of Weezer. I have no intention of listening to their latest album (judged a debacle all round, apparently): “Pork ’N Beans” is bitchin’, and I’m happy to leave it at that. But the Hootenanny tour they’ve embarked upon has yielded some neat videos (even though I’m unsure when Rivers started modeling himself on Jason Schwartzman in The Darjeeling Limited), most notably the band leading a small-high-school-marching-band’s worth of people in a very nice acoustic version of “Creep.” It’s very cute to watch near-contemporaries with comparatively little staying power cover their longer-lasting contemporaries’ only massive single, and I bet if you recorded this version with a decent mic it’d be revelatory. The song co-written with fans, however, is shit.
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
Review: Chastity Belt Creates a Space of Their Own On Their Self-Titled Fourth Album
The band learns how to navigate adulthood on their new self-titled effort, leaning on each other for strength and comfort.4
Chastity Belt’s music has become progressively self-reflexive over the years, the wry smile of their 2013 debut, No Regerts, giving way to a broader, deeper exploration of twentysomething anxiety on Time To Go Home and I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone. Julia Shapiro, Lydia Lund, Annie Truscott, and Gretchen Grimm are still learning how to navigate adulthood on their new self-titled effort, but where before they resisted change, here they begin to come to terms with it, and lean on each other for strength and comfort.
With production assistance from Jay Som, Chastity Belt presents a tangible thickening of the band’s sound, with the introduction of strings on “Effort,” “Rav-4,” and “Half-Hearted” and keyboards on “Split” adding texture to their characteristic fuzzed-out guitar arrangements. Each melody and every drum fill feels intentional, and the group’s shared vocals and light-as-air harmonies seem like a meaningful statement of where they are as a band—and as friends.
Nostalgia for times gone by winds its way through the album. The sparse opener “Ann’s Jam” pulls into focus an image of golden-hour driving while “singing along to scratched CDs,” as does the dreamy “Rav-4,” on which Shapiro reminisces about “going to the bar in her Rav-4.” The group basks in circuitous guitar melodies and the soft glow of memory, longing for something lost: On “Ann’s Jam,” the golden light of the drive fades (“Now there’s a thick fog/Around everything I’ve learned”), while “Rav-4” undermines that remembered bar as a place of possibility (“Lost my mind and much more, but who’s keeping score?”).
There’s a sense of a cycle, too, on “Elena,” whose title is a reference to Elena Ferrante, author of the four beloved Neapolitan novels that excavate a female friendship across multiple generations. The band has said that they read the books together, finding parts of themselves in Ferrante’s characters. Our stories are always the same, they seem to be saying, the cycle always repeats. It’s hard to move forward, whether it be from a relationship on “Apart” (“Can’t move beyond the should and should nots”) or with life and career on “Half-Hearted” (“Half-heartedly trying to get somewhere, but I feel I’m just catching dust”).
A simple resolution to the problem of growing up evades the band. The most optimistic sentiment on Chastity Belt comes from the mouth of someone else on “Pissed Pants”: “You said so casually, ‘Everything just works out/In time we’ll all be surrounded by what guides us.” Left to their own devices, Chastity Belt aren’t so sure: “Nothing ever turns out right,” Shapiro worries on “Elena.” Elsewhere, though, the atmosphere is more hopeful, as on “It Takes Time.” If all we need to come to terms with adulthood is time, then who better to spend it with than your best friends? Shapiro, Lund, Truscott, and Grimm work through their issues in a space they’ve created specially for themselves.
Label: Hardly Art Release Date: September 20, 2019 Buy: Amazon
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