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Indie 500: David Bowie, The Spirit of Space/Taft, The Dodos, and Video Round-Up

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Indie 500: David Bowie, The Spirit of Space/Taft, The Dodos, and Video Round-Up

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.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Onion A.V. Club and Paste Magazine, among others.

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Review: On Jump Rope Gazers, the Beths Cloak Heartbreak in Bright Pop Hooks

Every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs can’t help but pop.

3.5

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The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers
Photo: Mason-Fairey

Though indie pop seems to be having a particularly dour year, with albums like Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory and Perfume Genius’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately focusing on heavier-hearted subjects and exploring denser, more brooding sonic palettes, the Beths’s sophomore effort, Jump Rope Gazers, relies mostly on upbeat pop-rock. That’s not to say that the New Zealand band is anxiety-free, but they’re so canny at cloaking heartbreak and dread in bright, warm hooks that their music never sounds too dire.

The album’s opening track, “I’m Not Getting Excited,” is a charged-up rocker that’s so spirited that it’s easy to miss the song’s passing references to death. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes eagerly bursts into a brilliant falsetto to deliver the song’s caffeinated chorus. Songs like “Dying to Believe” and “Out of Sight” keep this energy going, with drummer Tristan Deck and bassist Benjamin Sinclair maintaining a brisk rhythm section as Stokes and Jonathan Pearce’s guitars shimmer, groove, and ignite in equal measure.

But the Beths are, perhaps, at their best when they’re at their breeziest. The languid verses of the album’s midtempo title track are set against a backdrop of sun-soaked harmonies, as Stokes describes a crumbling relationship: “If I don’t see your face tonight, well, I guess I’ll be fine.” The song’s chorus is more melancholic, with Stokes delivering lines like “I think I love you/And I think I loved you the whole time” with a wistful nostalgia.

The album’s closer, “Just Shy of Sure,” is lush and mellow, tinged with more sadness than its laidback demeanor might suggest. Here, the Beths approach a relationship from a pained angle: “Love in memory is a plague that consumed me,” Stokes sings matter-of-factly. The song finds the singer grateful for the experience even if it didn’t end the way she might have hoped: “Hey, you can’t win without entering/Do you care to lose everything?” These songs display the Beths’s penchant and skill for making the bittersweet sound so good.

Jump Rope Gazers was written while the Beths toured the world in support of their 2018 debut, Future Me Hates Me, and songs like “You are a Beam of Light,” a bleary ode to a loved one, reflect the feeling of being far away from the people and the places you know best. Besides the band’s pitch-perfect songwriting, though, one of the things that makes the album so endlessly infectious is Pearce’s crisp and spacious production. From the acoustic and electric guitars that gently intertwine on “Do You Want Me Now” to each layer of the band’s crystalline harmonies on “Acrid,” every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs can’t help but pop.

Label: Carpark Release Date: July 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves, the patriarchy, systemic racism, and our connection to the planet.

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Dua Lipa
Photo: Hugo Comte

It’s been a very long year—and we’re only at the halfway mark. So it seemed like a good time to take stock of the human experiment circa 2020 with our first-ever mid-year albums list. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of the year so far—almost all of them created prior to the crisis—reflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arca’s kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Apple’s prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewels’s electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimes’s boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, or—in the case of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?—an escape. Sal Cinquemani



Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she’s made an album not unlike Walker’s The Drift—that is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker’s late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, it’s a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Apple’s legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Seth Wilson



Kick I

Arca, Kick I

Where Arca’s past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Charles Lyons-Burt



YHLQMDLG

Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG

With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral “Safaera” is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from today’s hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny’s rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz



Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like “Chinese Satellite” and “I See You” evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. “I’ve been running in circles trying to be myself,” she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisher’s closing track, “I Know the End,” is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgers’s voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Jordan Walsh



Melee

Dogleg, Melee

Dogleg’s Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, “Kawasaki Backflip,” bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit group’s loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. “Any moment now, I will disintegrate,” he frantically yells at the explosive climax of “Fox.” Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on “Cannonball” splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while “Ender” closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Walsh



Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin



Miss Anthropocene

Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the album’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world’s climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” On “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucher’s wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Anna Richmond



Women in Music Pt. III

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III

While there’s plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III—hip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance—HAIM has created an album that’s defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017’s Something to Tell You, this album’s scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It’s darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure—a summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIM’s instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd



Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt’s songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she’s singing about fucking up—which is pretty often. There’s an almost parasocial element to Hiatt’s songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who’s perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiatt’s fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015’s Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017’s harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, she’s emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiatt’s past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer “Scream,” she claims, “I swear to God I’m done with him,” it’s convincing this time. Winograd



Dedicated Side B

Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B

A defining feature of last year’s Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsen’s embrace of her sexuality—a topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime “Heartbeat” and the anthemic “Solo” were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. “I’m at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,” Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative “Comeback,” demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp

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Review: Arca’s Kick I Is a Kinetic Celebration of Self-Actualization

The album is a statement of exuberance from an artist who’s known to deal in gloom.

4

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Arca, Kick I
Photo: Hart Lëshkina

Pop music, it seems, has finally caught up with Arca, née Alejandra Ghersi. The Venezuelan artist has helped shape the sound of hip-hop, indie-pop, and R&B over the last decade, making sizable contributions to projects by Kanye West, Björk, and Kelela, while toiling away at her solo work in a separate, more challenging lane. After three albums of apocalyptic, ambient tone poems, Arca’s pop and avant-garde interests converge on Kick I. It’s an anti-pop pop album, a distillation of the producer-singer-arranger extraordinaire’s ambitions and a statement of exuberance from an artist who’s known to deal in gloom.

Where Arca’s past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. This mood is reportedly due to newfound romance and reaching a comfort with her hybrid identity as both non-binary and a trans woman, and Kick I feels buoyed and fueled by these personal landmarks. In the past, Arca opined about the discomforts of being who she is, but on the album’s opening track, “Nonbinary,” she practically gloats: “I’m special, you can’t tell me otherwise…What a treat/Is is to be/non-binary.” This confident swagger abounds across the album, and Arca’s spirit of self-affirmation is well-earned.

Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout Kick I, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition.

The album’s lyrics, sung in equal parts Spanish and English, toy with and complicate notions of gender and desire. On “La Chiqui” (which roughly translates to “babydoll”), fellow electro-industrial popsmith Sophie has anarchic fun with pronouns, knowingly upending binaries: “She is my boyfriend/Flowers of my love/He is my best friend/Roots blowing up…the schism it shifts, it rips…” “Machote” and “Mequetrefe” express Arca’s yearning for a hyper-masculine man who’s an accomplished lover and, of course, “knows how to shake it.” The latter song’s title is Venezuelan slang for a type of cocksure man, often used derogatorily, but for whom Arca makes no apologies for wanting, even delightfully asserting that she “deserves” him.

Arca’s always been amusing—after all, she once titled a song “Front Load”—but Kick I is a new high water-mark for her leftfield one-liners and absurd metaphors, all tied to her assurance and strength. “Rip the Slit” winds its way through a series of tongue-twisting phrases and fragments that speak frankly of anatomical mutation, delivered in lurching, pitched-up vocals. And on “Riquiquí,” she vividly, hilariously invokes both mangos and mayonnaise.

“Riquiquí” includes a repeated description of “a white metal rose,” whose paradoxical mix of materials perfectly encapsulates the joining of the natural and the mechanical across Arca’s music. Her beats move and operate based on collisions of one element crashing into another or the cacophony emitted by many noises firing off at once. And true to her habit of straddling binaries, the sonics on Kick I have a real dimensionality and tangibility—as in what sounds like wood splintering on “La Chiqui”—even though they also have a kind of wispy, cyber-weightlessness, as if they could self-destruct at any given moment.

On the off chance that the forces colliding are both bodies, Arca can be tender. She croons about the unity of becoming one with a lover on “No Queda Nada,” the album’s beautifully patient closing track. “Nothing left in me that you haven’t touched,” she lilts, “Not even a corner left/Into which your warmth hasn’t seeped.” The “you” could be a paramour, but it’s also possible Arca is talking about coming into her own. Thus, Kick I is a sometimes quite bawdy love letter, both to the self and a potential partner. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, the album is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another.

Label: XL Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure? Is a Transportive Disco Trip

An album that, just a few months ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure now feels like manna for the soul.

4

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Jessie Ware, What's Your Pleasure?
Photo: Carlijn Jacobs

The art and media released immediately following a crisis or disaster often exist in a strange sort of vacuum—paradoxically oblivious to the bleak realities of the world into which they’ve been dropped and inextricably bound to it. The digital age allows for a more immediate reaction to world events—Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now was created as a real-time response to the COVID-19 shutdown—but the vast majority of the albums released so far this year were recorded prior to the pandemic. They serve as relics preserved in time, reminders of the simple pleasures we took for granted just a few months ago.

Some, like Lady Gaga’s recent Chromatica and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?, were created specifically for clubs, most of which have been temporarily shuttered. To add irony to injury, both albums find their creators returning to their dance roots after years-long sabbaticals from the genre. Ware, in particular, has with each album moved further away from the experimental electronic music of her early collaborations with the likes of SBTRKT and Sampha, and 2017’s Glasshouse eschewed dance music altogether.

More than a dance album, though, the U.K. singer’s beat-driven What’s Your Pleasure? is a truly immersive experience, transporting listeners not just to pre-COVID days, but to a time and place much further back. The opening track, “Spotlight,” is a sultry, understated throwback to Four Seasons of Love-era Moroder and Bellotte, with Ware’s recollections of a fleeting romance floating atop a plush arrangement of disco strings, chirpy guitar licks, and wobbly bass. As the song climbs to its blissed-out climax, you can almost feel the polyester on your skin and smell the Paco Rabanne in the air.

Ware’s devotedly crafted escapism isn’t limited to one narrowly defined period or genre: The title track’s rollicking bass and squelchy synths nod to Italo disco, while the cheeky “Ooh La La” dips into expansive funk-pop, with Ware playing Teena Marie to producer James Ford’s Rick James. And that’s just the album’s opening stretch. Ford, one half of British electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco, is at the helm of most of What’s Your Pleasure?, striking a deft balance between vintage and modern, between organic and synthetic, on tracks like “Save a Kiss,” whose live orchestral swells wash over sleek programming and driving house beats.

The album doesn’t completely abandon the smooth R&B that Ware has honed over the last several years, and there’s plenty of downstairs music to groove to here. The slow-burning “In Your Eyes” glides along an oscillating bassline that allows Ware’s mesmerizing vocal to take center stage: “It feels like we’ve been dancing to this song all of our lives,” she sings, her voice mimicking the track’s sweeping strings and brass. “The Kill” is another smoldering slow jam, an undercurrent of orchestral and gospel flourishes bolstering its tenuous hook.

Lyrically, the songs stick to common, if not completely frivolous, tropes like love, lust, and longing. “Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you,” Ware implores on “Spotlight.” But these themes take on even deeper meaning in a time where physical connection and communal experiences are few and far between. Depending on your level of caution fatigue, the album’s explicit invitation to indulge might seem sadistic. The thought of bumping up against a stranger on a dance floor these days feels forbidden, even dangerous. But when Ware croons, “Last night we danced and I thought you were saving my life,” on the rapturous “Mirage (Don’t Stop),” it’s a reminder that music and dancing remain universal forms of salvation. What’s Your Pleasure? is an album that, just a few months ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure, but now feels like manna for the soul.

Label: Interscope Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Khruangbin’s Mordechai Confronts the Present with Open Arms

An effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the album’s foundation.

4

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Khruangbin, Mordechai
Photo: Tasmin Isaacs

A live act at heart, Khruangbin performs at the leisurely pace of experienced improvisational musicians, while their songs are judiciously pared down to playlist-friendly lengths ideal for your local Starbucks. But the Houston rock trio’s output can hardly be categorized as “easy listening.” Khruangbin’s homage to eclectic musical traditions from around the world demands close attention. The band’s third album, Mordechai, coalesces the balmy Southeast Asian-influenced rock of 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You and the baroque Iranian psychedelia of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo, injecting it all with a generous helping of funk. All the while, the ornamental, unhurried grooves maintain Khruangbin’s signature air of reverence and abundance, ensuring that each song unfolds organically.

The album’s opening track, “First Class,” launches the album into a dreamy stratosphere, as the band—whose name means “airplane” in Thai—details the opulence of a first-class flight over shimmering guitars. This euphoric yet playful tone permeates much of the rest of the album, which unlike the group’s past efforts, incorporates vocals into all but one of the tracks. Lead single “Time (You and I)” offers an Edenic proposition, smokily sung by bassist Laura Lee: “We can play like children play/We can say like children say.” She beckons us to shed the concerns and judgments of adulthood and rediscover the world through the eyes of a child.

Having gained renown primarily as an instrumental band, Khruangbin mastered the dimensions of their sonic blueprint early on. Propelled by drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson’s tumbling backbeats, Lee’s meandering bass often provided the heartbeat of each of the band’s songs, while Speer’s guitar, laden with brambly hammer-on passages that evoke Middle Eastern rock, served as a lush accent. This interplay spared little breathing room for vocals; the rare mantra-like chant would be a word or phrase sung by the trio and sustained, as if the vocal were itself another instrument adding to the mix.

By contrast, there’s only one true instrumental on Mordechai, the pensive “Father Bird, Mother Bird,” and half of the album’s tracks boast entire verses and choruses. What was once implied is now overtly articulated. Lee’s ruminations on memory surface on “Connaissais de Face,” a Thai surf-rock jam interspersed with a conversation between two old friends. One remarks to the other, “Time changes everything,” a truism that seems hackneyed until it’s put into relief with the friends’ struggle to reconcile the old and new versions of themselves.

On the tender “Dearest Alfred,” Lee gives thanks to a loved one after receiving a letter that transports her to their shared past: “Can you imagine the joy/When I received your wonderful letter?/Your letter is the best gift.” For Khruangbin, the act of recollection entails articulating past emotions. Language, be it a bittersweet heart-to-heart or the scribbled thoughts of a letter, enables us to historicize the past—the closest we can ever come to reliving it.

Armed with this special regard for memory, the band confronts the impetus of the present with open eyes and arms. The Spanish-language “Pelota” is a playful jaunt situated at the intersection of Iranian rock and Afro-Colombian cumbia. Lee compares herself to a ball of soot traversing life’s peaks and valleys, at once acknowledging her smallness and the immensity of the chaos surrounding her. Still, she adopts a stance of acceptance: “Pero quiero amar el desastre/El desastre que es mío” (“But I want to love the disaster/The disaster that is mine”).

This effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the album’s foundation. While past Khruangbin albums risked coming off merely as studied tributes to the microcosms of Thai and Iranian rock, Mordechai finds Khruangbin coming into their own, thanks to the band’s lyrical development and the honing of their fusion of intercontinental influences. As the adage goes, there’s nothing new under the sun, but Mordechai makes a case that maybe there just might be.

Label: Dead Oceans Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: HAIM’s Women in Music Pt. III Is Defined by a Strong Sense of Self

The album strikes a deft balance between experimental and commercial, moody and uplifting.

4

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HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III
Photo: Reto Schmid

HAIM’s third album, Women in Music Pt. III, opens with “Los Angeles,” an off-the-wall mishmash of jazzy horns, light funk guitars, and dub rhythms that attempts to transpose Vampire Weekend’s distinct sound to the West Coast. It is, perhaps, an unsurprising development given that the album was co-produced by VW cohort Ariel Rechtshaid and former member Rostam Batmanglij, and that Rechtshaid’s girlfriend, Danielle Haim, is featured prominently throughout the band’s 2019 album Father of the Bride.

But while there’s plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III—hip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance—Danielle and sisters Este and Alana have created an album that’s defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017’s Something to Tell You, on which both Rechtshaid and Batmanglij also served as producers, this album’s scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It’s darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure—a summer party record for a troubled summer.

The album’s title is tongue-in-cheek: Danielle, Este, and Alana aren’t known for singing about gender politics so much as hook-ups, breakups, and all of the points in between (“3 AM,” for one, finds Danielle contemplating her response to a wee-hours booty call). But the same could be said of a feminist icon like Joni Mitchell, whose influence looms large—perhaps too large—over back-to-back cuts “I’ve Been Down” and “Man from the Magazine.” A stripped-down acoustic missive, the latter recounts an experience Este had with a skeevy reporter who asked her if the exaggerated faces she makes on stage are the same ones she makes in bed. “What do really want me to say back?” Danielle scoffs. “Is this what you think making a pass is?”

HAIM’s brand of feminism is otherwise less explicit, manifesting in their unapologetically unfiltered, fiercely independent persona. “The Steps” is the album’s most cathartic moment: “I can’t understand why you don’t understand me,” sings Danielle, who isn’t one to mince words. “And every day I wake up and make money for myself/And though we share a bed you know that I don’t need your help,” she bellows. With its ecstatic octave-jumping hook and braying guitar licks, “The Steps” is a nearly perfect pop-rock song. So, for that matter, is the sleepily chugging “Up from a Dream,” while the infectious “Now I’m in It” and “Don’t Wanna” blend synths and guitars so deftly that the line between pop and rock remains blurred. (Anyone still skeptical of HAIM’s rock n’ roll bona fides is likely to be won over by Danielle and Alana shredding dueling acid-drenched guitar solos at the end of “FUBT”).

While only one of its songs exceeds four minutes, Women in Music Pt. III runs a bit long at 16 tracks, including a trio of singles that were released last year and are sequenced unceremoniously at the end of the album. While “Now I’m In It” meshes well with the rest of the material, the folksy “Hallelujah” and the generic groove track “Summer Girl”—which borrows heavily enough from “Walk on the Wild Side” that Lou Reed receives a writing credit—stick out on an album that otherwise flows sublimely. And with such thorough melding of influences to be found elsewhere, the more bald-faced genre exercises—hip-hop on “3 AM,” reggae on “Another Try”—come across as a bit lazy.

Yet, HAIM’s instincts to veer a little more left of the dial on Women in Music Pt. III result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding.

Label: Columbia Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Bob Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways Is Powerfully Prescient

The album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster during the most turbulent of ages.

4.5

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Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Photo: William Claxton

When, in March, Bob Dylan previewed “Murder Most Foul,” the closing track from his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, the timing was eerie. A haunting, 17-minute piano and violin duet that addresses the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the song paints an epic, Bosch-like portrait of a country ripped asunder by violence, confusion, and hatred, the president’s death marking the moment when “the soul of a nation [was] torn away.” Released two weeks after the U.S. government’s bumbling proclamation of a national emergency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not long before mass protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd, “Murder Most Foul” looks back to the mythical origin point of the era that fostered Dylan as a visionary of social conscience and artistic freedom and depicts America’s seemingly perpetual state of chaos and division.

Dylan’s first album of original material since 2012’s Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways operates in the same vein as its larger-than-life finale. Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, the album is also thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery.

Only superficially signaling a retreat from contemporary and topical concerns, Dylan’s last three albums—all composed of material from the Great American Songbook—gradually perfected the stark, elegiac sonic palette that Dylan has been refining since 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and Rough and Rowdy Ways applies that palette to the most poignant songcraft of his late career. This is evident on opening track “I Contain Multitudes,” which features a slowly strummed, drum-less arrangement that would have fit snugly on any of his three previous albums. But instead of comforting traditionalism, the song offers a statement of purpose that dares immodesty and tastelessness (“I’m just like Anne Frank and Indiana Jones”) only to somehow arrive at honest self-reflection and self-discipline (“I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind/I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind”).

“I Contain Multitudes” sets the tone for the rest of Rough and Rowdy Ways, which frequently meditates on mortality and mayhem with bemusement as well as dread, though not always in equal parts. Whereas the album’s opener posits that an unstable world can be rescued through expansive perspective and creativity, “My Own Version of You” turns this reassurance on its head and in the process becomes one of the most macabre songs of Dylan’s gargantuan catalog.

On the song, he casts himself as a grave robber digging up “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” in order to create a patchwork human a la Frankenstein’s monster. The dark, running joke here is that this human is “you”—a former lover Dylan wishes to perfect according to his perverse, insatiable desires, perhaps, but also any listener whose point of view has become fragmented and disoriented by a lyrical kaleidoscope referencing Richard III, Julius Caesar, The Godfather, Scarface, Leon Russell, Liberace, St. John the Baptist, the Crusades, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, and more. “My Own Version of You” suggests that the restoration of sense and meaning, as well as a shot at artistic immortality, through the reimagining of history and culture is yet one more desecration of an ungraspable grand design; the song’s creepy waltz-time shuffle, as pierced through by Donnie Herron’s ghostly steel guitar work, forms an unsettling backdrop for Dylan’s hypnotic, and hypnotized, despair.

Like much of the grittier material that Dylan has penned since turning to electric rock in the mid-‘60s, the album’s no-nonsense blues are also shot through with dire proclamations that at times get downright bloody. The second half of Rough and Rowdy Ways contains two such numbers, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Crossing the Rubicon.” The former is a deceptively upbeat tribute to sackcloth-and-ashes religiosity (“For thine is kingdom, the power, the glory/Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story/Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone/In the mystic hours when a person’s alone”), while the latter is a 12-bar slow-burner that speaks of final decisions and lasting regrets during a time of tribulation (“What are these dark days I see?/In this world so badly bent/I cannot redeem the time/The time so idly spent/How much longer can it last?/How long can it go on?”).

As others have pointed out, “False Prophet” pilfers (and without giving credit to) Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s smoky “If Lovin’ Is Believing.” Dylan has unabashedly stolen others’ music since at least “Masters of War,” but in almost every case he’s made other musicians’ work so uniquely his own in terms of lyrics and sensibility that he’s almost justified the practice. In “False Prophet,” he brilliantly replaces Emerson’s straightforward tale of romantic betrayal with a surreal, eschatological narrative that, as spun in Dylan’s gravelly croak, evokes the possible viewpoint of the Angel of Death: “You don’t know me darlin’/You never would guess/I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest/I ain’t no false prophet/I’m just said what I said/I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”

Rough and Rowdy Ways, though, doesn’t just hammer away at a few foreboding notes. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, the album keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, Rough and Rowdy Ways encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages.

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Review: With Shadow Offering, Braids Embraces a Clear-Eyed Directness

The album demonstrates the band’s versatility, locating something of a sweet spot.

3.5

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Braids, Shadow Offering
Photo: Melissa Gamache

Raphaelle Standell-Preston boasts one of the more versatile and distinct voices in modern rock. She’s able to emote with a breathy whisper or deliver a full-force belt, each imbued with singular intonations, but her sublime contributions to Braids’s music have often been buried beneath ornate sonic pile-ups. By contrast, Standell-Preston’s vocals on the Canadian trio’s fourth album, Shadow Offering, are clear, legible, and lead their sound rather than the other way around. Where her voice was once looped with multiple tracks on songs such as “December,” extending its dreamy power via reverb, Shadow Offering rarely employs those old psychedelic tricks, giving Standell-Preston’s voice a bracing directness.

The choice is emblematic of an album that gives forthright expression to its themes. Gone is the opaque poetry of 2013’s Flourish // Perish, replaced with more narrative shape and clear-eyed lyrics that address relationships and selfhood without romanticizing them. On “Young Buck,” Standell-Preston sings: “Maybe I’ll go get my sex on/Go drinking tonight with a nice-muscled guy/The numbing kind/Everyone needs a little numb once in a while.”

This stylistic shift, which began on 2015’s Deep in the Iris, is aided here by production from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who seemingly prompted Braids’s new emphasis on guitar and piano arrangements. Like Austin Tufts’s percussion, there’s a renewed confidence in Standell-Preston and Taylor Smith’s guitar work; it’s gliding and measured, and deferential to the singer’s introspective lyrics. A staple of their repertoire, Braids’s synths are downplayed, most notably on the opening track, “Here 4 U,” and the stunningly intense “Fear of Men.”

The latter song bravely unpacks paralyzing social and existential anxiety, and Shadow Offering as a whole throws into sharp relief the nagging self-doubt that often accompanies a faltering relationship. Standell-Preston’s vulnerable, piano-driven confessions at times recall those of Fiona Apple, while her brand of theatricality, as well as her strange, beguiling phrasing on songs like “Eclipse (Ashley),” is reminiscent of Kate Bush.

An examination of white privilege, the nine-minute “Snow Angel” is the kind of sprawling dive into what Standell-Preston once described as “my lake of a head,” but Shadow Offering comprises mostly more economical rockers like the cymbal-crashing closing track, “Note to Self.” Demonstrating their versatility throughout the album, Braids locate something of a sweet spot, embracing a restrained plainspokenness without completely veering from the outré flourishes and melancholic, midtempo jams that are their specialty.

Label: Secret City Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Baauer’s Planet’s Mad Relentlessly Evokes a Sense of Doom

The album buries what traces of melody there are beneath thundering drums and bass.

3

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Baauer, Planet's Mad
Photo: Teddy Fitzhugh

Best known for 2012’s meme-generating “Harlem Shake,” Baauer, né Harrison Rodrigues, delves deep into the low end on his second album, Planet’s Mad. Essentially finding 10 different ways to pummel the ear, the album is a relentless experience, burying what traces of melody there are beneath thundering drums and bass. It’s a soundtrack fit for a world in such disrepair that there’s no option but to throw one last raucous dance party.

Baauer’s 2016 debut, Aa, found the producer and DJ fruitfully playing with trap conventions—sirens, airhorns, 808s—while simultaneously showcasing his ease with subtler textures. By layering tracks with frantic rattling and sound effects, he achieved a sonic density so corporeal that one song was titled simply “Body.” That album has a structural simplicity, beginning with a series of interconnected instrumental tracks that segue midway into bona fide club bangers featuring the likes of M.I.A. and Future.

On Planet’s Mad, Baauer largely dispenses with the high-profile guests and mounts a loose sci-fi narrative about environmental destruction, hinted at in the album’s title. On “Magic,” he adds various elements one by one before removing them, evoking the gradual process of degradation. This motif can also be seen in the album’s artwork, which pictures the Earth split open, its core and layers drifting outward, but one would be hard-pressed to spot a clear through line in the music, as its concepts are conveyed almost entirely in the abstract.

Musically, Planet’s Mad takes its cues as much from British techno and footwork as it does from trap. Clearly influenced by Jlin and RP Boo, the percussion on tracks like “Aether” busily mutates and recalibrates itself, continually upping the ante in terms of speed. “Hot 44” recalls the bruising bass and ever-escalating pacing of Dog Blood’s “4 Mind” and “Turn Off the Lights,” with Baauer sculpting a percussive trajectory that sounds like it’s rippling over hard, staccato ridges. The artist’s range of tones and patterns are certainly a highlight; every time we hear a drum it sounds different than the last.

On “Pizzawala” and “Yehoo,” Baauer assembles a tangle of drums and samples of looped tribal chants. While white artists pilfering African sounds is nothing new in dance music, the way it’s appropriated and exoticized here feels mostly anonymous. This is especially notable when considering Baauer’s entire aesthetic, given his trap origins, is premised on black music. But while it’s culled from a mélange of styles and influences, Planet’s Mad still stands on its own for its sonic depth and detail. Even if the album’s themes aren’t fully articulated, Baauer’s use of bass, constantly elongating and amplifying, succeeds at evoking a sense of doom.

Label: LuckyMe Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Neil Young’s Homegrown Provides a Missing Link in the Artist’s Legacy

The album offers a homey, bittersweet charm largely unique to the troubadour’s legendary catalog.

4

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Neil Young, Homegrown
Photo: Warner Records

Originally slated for release in 1975, Neil Young’s Homegrown was shelved at the last minute in favor of the fractured masterpiece Tonight’s the Night, and an alternate history in which the swap never happened is inconceivable. Young describes the album as “the unheard bridge between [1972’s] Harvest and [1978’s] Comes a Time,” but those two releases don’t comport with the haunted, ragged, and much less commercial music that Young was making in the mid-‘70s. Friendlier and rootsier than the likes of Tonight’s the Night but more intimate than Harvest, Homegrown offers a homey, bittersweet charm largely unique to the troubadour’s legendary ‘70s catalog.

It’s unlikely that any song on Homegrown would have become a hit back in 1975; the only probable contender is “Try,” a woozy after-hours honky-tonk come-on. With its barroom chumminess and bright backing vocals courtesy of Emmylou Harris, the song probably could have found a home on the radio, if not an all-day one, as it’s a bit too wry and cavalier to appeal to the masses who lapped up Harvest’s treacly “Heart of Gold” a few years earlier.

Indeed, rather than recreate the polish that made Harvest such a sensation, Young scaled back the presence of his all-star ensemble—including members of the Band, alongside familiar sidemen like bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel stalwart Ben Keith—in favor of minimally arranged meditations. On pensive vignettes like the piano-based “Mexico” and the wispy “Little Wing” (previously released on 1980’s Hawks & Doves), Young’s patented brand of impressionistic memoir cuts deep.

Like much of his work from this period, the material on Homegrown sees Young intent on stripping away all pretense and ego and exposing the pain that laid beneath. Just as Tonight’s the Night found him preoccupied with the tragic deaths of friends Danny Whitten and Bill Berry, he’s dogged by the dissolution of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass throughout Homegrown. His inner turmoil is felt most keenly on the stunning “Kansas,” in which he awakes “from a bad dream” next to a woman whose name he doesn’t know. She’s lovely and kind, but he can’t take his mind off his difficult reality, surrounded as he is by the walls of “my bungalow of stucco that the glory and success bought.”

The album’s comparatively scant electric material is less consistent. The album’s stoner-anthem title track, a version of which later appeared on 1977’s American Stars ‘N Bars, is unquestionably one of the dumbest songs Young has ever written, while “We Don’t Smoke It No More” is a jokey white-boy blues vamp that serves only to indicate how profoundly stoned everyone performing it probably was. At the very least, these two songs poke holes in the perception that Young spent this entire period in a depressive, tequila-sodden haze.

Nonetheless, it’s hard to deny the raw emotion of tracks like “Vacancy,” a dark, rumbling rock song that could have easily fit on Tonight’s the Night. “Are you my friend/Are you my enemy?” Young sneers, sounding shaky and paranoid. But on Homegrown, it’s more of a passing thundercloud than an endless storm. “All your dreams and your lovers won’t protect you,” Young laments on “Star of Bethlehem,” deftly sequenced here as the album’s closer. “And yet,” he insists, “still a light is shining.” The album turns out to be missing link in Young’s catalog as much for Shakey’s emotional life as it is for his stylistic choices.

Label: Warner Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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