Connect with us

Music

Indie 500: David Byrne, Elliott Smith, Daft Punk, & Andrew Bird

Published

on

Indie 500: David Byrne, Elliott Smith, Daft Punk, & Andrew Bird

I’m probably the only person for whom David Byrne’s 2001 album Look Into The Eyeball was a formative experience, which is kind of a shame. Poised at the odd crossover moment between embracing pop/rock/whatever whole-heartedly and firmly pushing away the classical music I was raised with, Byrne’s with-strings experiment made perfect sense, even if we were seemingly going in opposite directions. (In retrospect, Byrne was obviously preparing me for Andrew Bird; more on this below.)

It was a transitional moment for Byrne too: ignoring the wretched run he’d had in the ‘90s (the nadir culminating in 1994’s self-titled monstrosity, as ugly as its cover), he threw away Talking Heads once and for all. Eyeball was warm, direct, and surprisingly well-crafted. Its follow-up—2004’s Grown Backwards—isn’t half bad either, a considerably more sedate jog through increasingly beefed-up string arrangements: Eyeball is a bit of a chamber music piece, while Backwards is ambitious enough to find Byrne tackling not one but two operatic staples, one a duet with Rufus Wainwright no less.

If all of that’s a tough sell—and most people had trouble with the idea of a newly vital Byrne, as with most solo artists abandoning what made them famous—Live From Austin, Texas might be a good place to start. 13 tracks gives you 6 from the Heads-era catalogue (if you count “What A Day That Was”—technically a solo song, but popularized by its slot in Stop Making Sense), 2 covers, and 4 highlights from Byrne’s solo work. It all hangs together beautifully, integrating Byrne’s new aesthetic into refreshing covers of earlier work, so you can just skip to the back half and hear songs you already like if you’re suspicious of where this is going. Before the strings come in, Byrne works through a few staples, allowing some of the more dated aspects of late-80s production to be sloughed off. Beginning with the first verse of “Nothing But Flowers” solo on guitar, Byrne seems to mean it this time around when he sings “Years ago, I was an angry young man.” Serenity rather than irony’s the new tone of the seemingly satirical post-apocalyptic song (“This was a Pizza Hut/Now it’s all covered with daisies”), which makes a lot of sense: Byrne was the man who moved to shit-tastic New York in the mid-‘70s and promptly advised all his art-school friends to do the same. Ironic about squalor and conflict though he may be, he loves that big-city stuff, and “Nothing But Flowers” seems quite genuine in asserting that he’ll take a parking lot over nature any day, now that nuclear apocalypse is seemingly not quite as relevant.

Sung directly, without production gloss, “And She Was” sounds better than ever; “Once In A Lifetime,” instead of a dutiful slog through an overheard song, is a joyous flashback. It’s Byrne’s one chance the whole night to break out the freaky, silly voices that initially made him the world’s most instantly compelling frontman. The song works well, even without the shock of stream-of-consciousness in the top 40 and the treated Brian Eno production. But things really kick up a notch when the Tosca strings finally show up: their 1:20 intro to The Great Intoxication” has no vocals and hardly any percussion. When Byrne kicks in, it’s just him, percussion without a traditional drum kit and Tosca in a serene acoustic landscape. Much of what’s striking about the back half is how little amps are used: Rei Momo highlight “Marching Through The Wilderness” only has an electric bass, with the extensive percussion filling in everything and the strings providing the melody. Never listen to electric guitar if he can help it.

If you’re still not willing to take a chance on Byrne’s recent solo material (and you weren’t one of the many people who heard “Like Humans Do” involuntarily while starting up Windows Media Player on Windows XP—the savviest marketing move imaginable), check out some of the excellent back half remakes: “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” swipes out ‘80s keyboard for an excellent string arrangement, while “Life During Wartime” gets a Motown gloss. If you’re just looking for the novelty-cover-that-transcends novelty, skip to Byrne’s version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which is joyous and soaring and is one of the best kinds of covers, where the original structure is preserved with all the crap peeled away so that a song you grudgingly appreciate when it gets stuck in your head becomes what it should’ve been. (Cf. Clem Snide’s version of “Beautiful.”) With ‘80s-crap-gets-peeled-away, replaced strings and thoughtful percussion, it’s the near-disco classic it always wanted to be. It kind of gives me chills, especially if, like me, technically great but soulless vocalists like Houston—who never miss the big belt and never seem to care what the melody is—scare you. Byrne’s thin, endearing voice is never better than when it’s straining extra hard to go high and hold a note.

On the other side of happy and intricately arranged: “I’ve got nothing that I want to do/more than another sonic fuck you” sings Elliott Smith on “Looking Over My Shoulder,” one of 24 near uniformly impeccable songs from New Moon, the anthology recorded in the period encompassing 1995’s self-titled and 1997’s either/or—i.e., the transitional period between the sparse second album that most non-fans despise (unofficially sometimes referred to as “The Heroin Album” and possibly his darkest album in general), and the prettier, more user-friendly acoustic album that followed and let Elliott pump out something suitable for the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. Personally, I love it all, but I thought I’d sated myself on the collected discography in high school—the proper time, really, to listen to the 90’s most talented incarnation of the eternal teenager. For all his musical talent—and the big surprise to me was how exacting these songs are, many of them more melodically fleshed out and complicated than anything on the first 2 albums—Smith’s lyrics alternated between the smart, funny-sad and outright self-loathing, a mixture only to be taken seriously when your hormones are going crazy. To be blunt, it’s got the stigmata of high school all over it. (At least it’s more respectable than my other high school angst staples, Placebo and Travis. Oh well.)

There’s nothing hard to take seriously, though, about the melodic twists and overall excellence on display here. Heavy on the sturm-und-drang of the first three acoustic albums, New Moon’s biggest contribution is letting some of the sunnier acoustic moments out of the vault. Aside from either/or’s “Say Yes,” there’s virtually no upbeat moments before the studio-enabled lift of XO and Figure 8; now, there’s a lot more to prove that Smith didn’t need to rely on his producers to sound upbeat. “Whatever (Folk Song In C)” is anything but the Bright Eyes its title suggests; C Major and endearingly shy, it’s as close to a sunny day song as he ever got. “All Cleaned Out” is practically martial in its grandeur—as huge as the twin-drum kit of “Coast To Coast” in its own way, which is all the more impressive considering it’s just two guitars and Elliott’s characteristic double-tracked vocals, as close as he got to belting it out.

Even more impressive is how full all these songs sound. The common, misinformed rap on Smith is that his first three albums are “poorly recorded,” because they’re full of analog tape-hiss and dead air hanging heavy; on Roman Candle, recorded in privacy on a 4-track, it’s common for the end of a song to be signaled by the cutting off of one layer after another. I can’t help but think it’s deliberate: the studio recordings are as clean as can be, and he could be a notorious perfectionist about tone etc. Personally, I’m pretty sure it’s a brilliant strategy for saving Smith from the death of the boring singer-songwriter, where cleanly recorded guitar and vocals are all you have to occupy you for the album’s length. The sound creates texture, and New Moon confirms how much can be done with, at most, guitar (a very vigorous guitar, with plenty of lower bass lines for bass and complicated melodies and none of the lazy, rote chord-strumming that gives SS’s a bad name), vocals, one bass, half a drum kit, and maybe an organ. Maybe. (This is also why his live bootlegs sound better than most: that audience chatter is almost integral.) Mixed exceedingly well, it’s got the full range of sound from high to low the best bands strive for. I hate to say it, but I think I’m starting to fall back in love with Elliott Smith, even if I don’t think externalized self-loathing is a positive character trait anymore. Here’s hoping the estate keeps the unreleased material coming: I have enough B-sides and live recordings stocked away to know that until, say, “I Figured You Out” is available legally, everyone’s missing out.

Things I’m falling out of love with: Daft Punk, thanks to the inexplicably acclaimed Alive 2007. It sure looks like an awesome party I would’ve loved to been able to afford. I’ll keep it simple: aside from the fact that my computer freezes every time I play it—which I suppose Daft Punk can’t reasonably be held responsible for—this is a pretty lousy live album. Sound-quality wise, it’s only slightly above a bootleg, which I can live with. But it’s a damn long album, and without the in-concert quality of “OH SHIT THEY’RE MASHING UP THAT SONG WITH THAT ONE,” all I really learned is that a lot of Daft Punk songs have pretty similar backbeats, so it’s pretty easy to put them together. I guess sugar rush + sugar rush should = EXTRA SUPER AWESOME SUGAR RUSH, but it doesn’t, not really. Discovery is one of the most perfect albums I know for making me giddy in record time, partly because the songs are so ridiculously excessive and gaudy, and partly because they’re songs. I don’t need to skip to the good parts; they’re all good already. And when you ask me to accept that one of the songs will get better if you isolate a riff and throw in a stupid raspy steam voice rasping “STEAAAAAM MACHIIIIIIIINE”…well, no. Sporadic highlights stick out—I dig the way “Face To Face”’s vocals are put on top of “Faster Harder Stronger Better,” both slowed down, and then sped up until they’re in sync and racing together, so you can hear the BPM increasing bit by bit—but it’s mostly a slog. Buy me a concert ticket already; I will try to repress my sneaking suspicion that all the positive reviews are from happy critics having acid flashbacks.

And one thing I’m glad I did spend the money on: Andrew Bird, for which I will offer a few token notes. Live reviews aren’t really my bag—I hadn’t been to a show since Pitchfork Music Festival this summer—but keeping up with everyone’s favorite Squirrel Nut Zippers-assistant turned only violinist that matters in the pop music scheme seems worth it. A few general notes, seeing as there’s little to be gained from a detailed appraisal of a nearly 2-week old performance:

1. The Beacon Theater has excellent sound and a cool light show, but really uncomfortable seats if you’re gonna be leaning forward for two hours. Seated shows suck in general. Pass next time.

2. Dude knows how to put on a show. By the time he “spontaneously” kicked off his shoes and settled in for the long haul, he had everyone who wasn’t a girl dreamily mooning over his undeniable good looks eating out of his hand.

3. Bird is an interesting violinist: he’s not interested in “good technique” per se—although he’s a very good violinist indeed—and I doubt he could pass the traditional classical music trial-by-fire of, say, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. He hits his notes cleanly and clearly and in tune (although weird fact that you’ll only be able to pinpoint if, like me, you have the fairly useless attribute of perfect pitch: he doesn’t whistle in tune with his violin, which makes things sound subtly off sometimes).

4. Nonetheless—despite the fact that his violin, and its relative novelty in the pop context, have definitely helped make him pretty famous pretty fast—Bird seems kind of minimally interested in playing it. Sometimes he’s got his guitar slung over his back, ready to put down the violin in a second and start strumming. When playing a song like “Heretics,” with no violin, he seemed peppiest: while everyone was wishing they could play a non-traditional instrument and the death of the traditional rock band prayed for by Brian Eno and other progressives, Bird seemingly wishes he could be a guitar star. Weird.

5. The songs from Armchair Apocrypha sound a lot better live; on record, a lot of them seem to be missing the X factor that would make them cohere. But Bird live is a lot different from the meticulous, near-fussy recordings; he has the unnerving habit of rushing through entire lines (generally, the lyrics I’m most fond of), pausing, and then catching back up to the verse by the chorus. The performances are wilder, more intense, occasionally on the border of histrionic before rescuing themselves.

6. Martin Dosh is the most stoic drummer I’ve ever seen in my life. Traditionally the drummer in bands generally resembles Animal from The Muppets; Dosh resembles an unusually talented accountant with perfect posture. He’s awesome.

Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.

Advertisement
Comments

Music

Review: Yeasayer’s Erotic Reruns Is a Collection of Benign Love Songs

The album aims for an enthralling vision of infatuation, but the band’s message rings hollow.

2

Published

on

Erotic Runs
Photo: Chad Moore/Shore Fire Media

Yeasayer’s decade-plus-spanning discography is eclectic, purveying everything from world music (All Hour Cymbals) to austere electro (Fragrant World) to outlandish psych rock (Amen & Goodbye). As a relic of the bygone age of neo-hippie pantheism marshaled by the likes of Animal Collective and MGMT, the experimental rock outfit faces the quandary of evolving their sound for today’s indie landscape, which favors the low-key over the baroque. On Erotic Reruns, the band dives headfirst into flowery pop-rock, accomplishing yet another stylistic about-face and pruning away their most esoteric tendencies.

Throughout their fifth studio album, Yeasayer aims to transmit an enthralling vision of infatuation, but their message rings hollow. With its truncated verses and refrain, opener “People I Loved” seems hastily assembled, and its “na-na-na” hook quickly grows tiring. The band’s lyrics are often half-baked, making the rapture of falling in love on the plodding piano-driven “I’ll Kiss You Tonight” feel like a rather banal occurrence.

Even when Yeasayer is primed toward eliciting the longing and lust of infatuation, their sound is fettered by exaggeration. “Let Me Listen in on You” is chock-full of sweet nothings like “I can make your dreams come true,” and its florid strings give the chorus a sense of overdone theatricality. Elsewhere, a high-pitched vocal and carnival synth grant “Ecstatic Baby” a whimsy so overblown that one imagines the track would be deemed too cheesy for an Apple commercial. When Yeasayar does accomplish to tap into love’s exhilaration, they relay it with a heavy hand, making already sentimental concepts feel saccharine.

Erotic Reruns is a collection of ultimately benign love songs, as the eroticism proposed by the album’s title is glaringly absent across 29 scant minutes. Yeasayer are amiable, starry-eyed musicians whose sound, at its best, is inviting even as it overreaches. But while a concern for authenticity may not be pop music’s primary enterprise, among its virtues is its capacity to consistently excite and enchant. Try as they might, Yeasayer fail to attain either.

Label: Yeasayer Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk Is All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

On a superficial level, the ostensibly back-to-basics album could charitably be described as workmanlike.

2

Published

on

Titus Andronicus
Photo: Ray Concepcion/Merge Records

It takes balls to open your rock album by screaming about “an inferior version of rock n’ roll,” as Patrick Stickles does on “Just Like Ringing a Bell,” the opening track of Titus Andronicus’s An Obelisk. The band’s ostensibly back-to-basics sixth album could charitably be described as workmanlike. Stickles and longtime sideman Liam Betson’s guitar tones are fuzzy and chunky in all the right ways, and Stickles has his punk-rock growl down pat. But these are mere superficialities; loud guitars and screaming have hardly been the main focal point of the band’s sound. On An Obelisk, though, they’re just about all that Stickles and company have to offer. Forgive the cliché, but they asked for it by naming themselves after a Shakespeare’s tragedy: The album is the very epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing.

An Obelisk arrives just 15 months after the expectation-subverting A Productive Cough, but it couldn’t be more different, despite the fact that Stickles wrote both albums around the same time, separating the material into the bangers found here and the prior album’s more complex and mellower epics. This may sound like a welcome news for fans who struggled to embrace A Productive Cough’s cavalcade of guest musicians and auxiliary percussion, horns, and other instrumentation. But anyone who’s been clamoring for Titus Andronicus to make a uniformly hard and fast punk album like this one hasn’t been paying attention to what the band is about.

One of Titus Andronicus’s greatest strengths has always been the dichotomies in their music—those juxtapositions of the quiet and loud, the portentous and the irreverent. This is, after all, a band whose first album, The Airing of Grievances, borrowed its name from a Seinfeld episode, and whose breakthrough, The Monitor, was an epic concept album about the Civil War that they managed to somehow top five years later with a 90-minute rock opera about bipolar disorder. An Obelisk is loosely conceptual, but unlike The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy, there’s no discernable narrative or character to hang onto here. We do, though, get a narrator, known as Troubleman, who serves as little more than a thin veneer from behind which Stickles can excuse his under-baked ideas. After all, one wouldn’t expect the guy who wrote ambitious epics like “A More Perfect Union” and “Number One (in New York)” to be capable of penning the adolescent inanities that constitute the lazy three-chord blunders that are “(I Blame) Society” and “Tumult Around the World.” But he did.

From the generic stick-it-to-the-man platitudes of “(I Blame) Society” and the 68-second “On the Street” (“There’s too many police on the street/And they’re all after me!”), to the clearly unintentional parody of hardcore punk that is the 88-second “Beneath the Boot,” it’s almost hard to believe how dumb these songs are. Stickles has successfully managed to confront his demons in increasingly creative and resonant ways, from inventing a doppelganger on The Most Lamentable Tragedy to turning those demons into a party on A Productive Cough’s “Above the Bodega (Local Business),” but “My Body and Me” is insultingly glib: “My body and me, we don’t always get along/He tells me it’s all right, I tell him he’s all wrong.”

Producer Bob Mould, apparently unable to transfer whatever is powering his late-career renaissance to other artists, does capture an organic live-in-the-studio sound that shows the band’s current lineup—Stickles, Betson, and rhythm section R.J. Gordon and Chris Wilson—doesn’t lack for intensity. But with so many flat, unoriginal riffs and unmemorable choruses, there’s just not enough meat here to reward that approach, and despite its unrelenting volume, An Obelisk just feels empty without the wide-ranging dynamics and ambitious arrangements that have, until now, defined Titus Andronicus’s music.

Mercifully, most of the songs are over and done with quickly enough, though only a couple—the bright “Just Like Ringing a Bell” and the freewheeling “Troubleman Unlimited,” the only tracks here that don’t sound like “an inferior version of rock ‘n roll”—stick to the ribs at all. A few grind on unimaginatively for over five minutes, either to the point of boredom (“Within the Gravitron”) or absurdity (“Hey Ma,” with its face-palm-inducing imitation-bagpipe guitar solo). Like all of Troubleman’s diatribes, they just feel like a lot of hot air.

Label: Merge Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: The Raconteurs’s Help Us Stranger Is a Robust Return to Form

The album proves that there’s still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.

4.5

Published

on

Help Us Stranger
Photo: David James Swanson/Big Hassle

The Raconteurs were initially billed as an outlet for Jack White to step outside of the self-imposed sandbox of the White Stripes. But coming after a period during which White’s work—as both a solo artist and with the Dead Weather—has become increasingly untethered from his original no-frills ethos, the Raconteurs’s first album in 11 years, Help Us Stranger, feels like a robust return to form for the musician.

But the Raconteurs shouldn’t just be viewed through a White-centric prism. There’s no better contemporary rock example of two halves of a songwriting duo, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, uncannily counterbalancing the other’s strengths and weaknesses than White and singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. Benson’s irrepressible melodic instincts keep White’s focus on his songcraft, while White’s boundless energy coaxes new tiers of passion from Benson, a less expressive vocalist and more rudimentary lyricist than White.

As White and Benson trade vocals on the album’s savage opener, “Bored and Razed,” with White’s spitfire verses building into Benson’s soaring choruses, their twin lead guitars batter away at each other like feral animals. Add Patrick Keeler’s thunderous drumming, and the band enters a dimension of pure rock power they’ve only ever succeeded in accessing together. The Raconteurs may lack the unconventional optics and charming minimalism of the White Stripes or the relentless power-pop hooks of Benson’s solo work, but Help Us Stranger is another compelling exhibit in the band’s continuing quest to prove that there’s still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.

Almost every track here is another example of one that would never have reached the same heights without the contributions of each band member. The main guitar riff of “Sunday Driver” is far from White’s most indelible, but combined with Jack Lawrence’s revving bassline and White’s own swaggering vocals and squealing lead guitar—contrasted with Benson’s laidback, psych-tinged, harmony-drenched bridge—the result is one of the most well-rounded and satisfying straight-up rock songs White has made since, well, the last Raconteurs album.

Likewise, with White’s frenzied guitar and Lawrence’s fat, greasy sonic low end, the Benson-led blue-eyed soul of “Now That You’re Gone” becomes a lighter-waving anthem. The band proves itself able to apply this effortless chemistry to any type of song, running the gamut from the groovy Detroit-style garage rock of “What’s Yours Is Mine” to the yearning bluegrass ballad “Thoughts and Prayers.” With “Help Me Stranger,” the Raconteurs even uncover something fresh, with White and Benson’s Everly Brothers-style harmonizing and acoustic strumming getting a quirky, modern kick from the off-kilter rhythmic foundation provided by Keeler’s upside-down snare drum and Lawrence’s heavy bass-pedal work.

While the disparity in fame between the band members may forever doom the Raconteurs to being remembered as one of White’s “side projects,” such a view is ignorant of both the band’s overall chemistry and White and Benson’s virtually equal songwriting talents. In fact, it’s the Benson-heavy songs here that make the most lasting impression, and White was clearly responsible for the album’s only misfire, “Don’t Bother Me,” a generic bar-band choogle over which White angrily sputters about his old nemeses, the “clicking and swiping” generation.

Both the melancholy Beatlesque pop of “Only Child” and the swooning country-soul of “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying)” rank among Benson’s very best work to date, with White’s multi-textured, ever-inventive guitar riffs and the rock solid rhythm section elevating Benson’s usual sad-sack routine toward true pathos. Help Us Stranger reaches its emotional apex during the latter’s honey-sweet outro: “I’m here right now, not dead yet,” Benson repeats, leaping registers as the band slowly works up to a fevered pitch behind him. Corny as it sounds, he might as well be singing about rock n’ roll itself. Few other bands out there are such compelling proof of its enduring viability.

Label: Third Man Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Silversun Pickups’s Widow’s Weeds Is a Clear-Eyed and Intrepid Renewal

The album grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal.

4

Published

on

Silversun Pickups
Photo: Claire Marie Vogel

Ever since the success of 2006’s Carnavas, the Silversun Pickups have had a hard time leaving the safety of their comfort zone. Without slipping completely into self-parody, each of the Los Angeles-based rock band’s subsequent releases has seen them tempering their winning formula with only cautious variations on Brian Aubert’s breathy, quavering vocals and their thick Gaussian blur of sonic distortion and reverb. The group’s dalliance with Depeche Mode-style synth-pop on 2015’s Better Nature boasted tantalizing moments of sparkling elegance and pulse-racing throttle, but its dependence on booming yet generically applied electronics left the album feeling vacant, even lethargic.

Enter Butch Vig. For a band that can’t quite quit its love for ‘90s alternative rock, their choice to enlist the production wizard behind Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and the Foo Fighters seems only fitting. But their fifth album, Widow’s Weeds, is anything but a sentimental rehash of the good ol’ days. Instead, the album profits mightily from the veteran producer’s ability to transition established acts into more mature, self-assured iterations of themselves, without scrapping the essence of what made those bands great in the first place.

Widow’s Weeds thus grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal, but also its most clear-eyed and intrepid. After years of lackluster reviews and a string of personal struggles, the Silversun Pickups were perfectly poised for renewal and, as Aubert croons on “Don’t Know Yet,” the band has worked hard to “reboot the machine.” Under Vig’s steady hand, they’ve stripped away the stylistic accretions of their previous albums and come up with a much tighter, more identifiably rock sound. From its opening notes, the album presents a band brimming with reclaimed confidence and vitality, one that need no longer take refuge behind endless waves of feedback and sonic distractions.

Right out of the gate, “Neon Wound,” as it chugs along to the metronomic precision of Christopher Guanlao’s drums, unrolls the perfectly pointed welcome mat for those familiar with the Silversun Pickups. “Hello, my friend,” Aubert sings, almost winkingly, “It’s nice to see you again/Now that we’re on the mend.” The song’s taut spareness gradually drifts off into what sounds like little more than a listless B-side from Better Nature, but “It Doesn’t Matter Why” hurries in to take up the slack in full-charging tempo.

To be sure, Aubert and the gang have given up no ground in creating soundscapes of great power and intensity, sculpting with staccato rhythms and relentless builds the jumpy, nervous tension of a downed power line. Where on previous efforts that tension relied on muddy guitar riffs or Lester’s alchemic keyboard effects, this is an album driven by instrumentation and tightly crafted movements. Excesses of distortion have been peeled away to reveal the musical proficiency beneath, so that the finger-picked intro to “It Doesn’t Matter Why,” the sensuous chord bends of “Simpatico,” and the poppy electronics on “Don’t Know Yet” receive their full technical due. And the timely flourishes of orchestral support across the album add interesting melodrama to the streamlined arrangements. What results is a sultry, if not still-too-hesitant, intimacy that allows songs to shimmer with moments of nuance and sophistication.

In keeping with this shift toward musical accessibility, Aubert’s lyrics have acquired a greater transparency. His customary blend of cerebral metaphors and visual imagery still prevails, but his language has become more plainly self-referential, lending unmitigated tenderness to the songs. And without having to compete any longer with the drone of sheer loudness, he’s able to showcase a range of peaks and valleys that ventures boldly outside of his typical monotone.

But for all of Aubert’s newfound reach, the punch of his vocal thrusts throughout Widow’s Weeds wouldn’t be possible without the harmonic parries of bassist Nikki Monninger. Her contributions on albums past have supplied softness and moderation to some of the group’s brawnier impulses (“Gun-Shy Sunshine,” “Ragamuffin”), and while it seems she’ll always be stuck at second mic, she’s no longer merely echoing Aubert’s lead. Her husky alto provides flawless melodic counterpoint on the ethereal “Freakazoid” and the restless “Songbirds,” and she offsets Aubert’s gravelly baritone on “Widow’s Weeds” with delicate grace.

The album also conjures the ghosts of exemplars past, sampling a whisper of Placebo’s “Pure Morning,” a hint of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” and a whiff of the guitar crunches from Alice in Chains’s “Man in the Box.” Especially on “Straw Man” and “Simpatico,” the sleek, cleaned-up sound does little to hide the band’s influences. But if the going recommendation is to steal like an artist, then Silversun Pickups have appropriated their indulgences happily and in good faith. “Songbirds” bursts out of the speakers like a post-pubertal “Panic Switch,” still bristling with angsty vigor but far more composed and sure of itself. In contrast, “Bag of Bones,” a meandering blunder, just shuffles along aimlessly and repetitiously.

Elsewhere, “Simpatico” spotlights the band’s calmer, quieter tendencies while offering some of the album’s most intricate guitar work. And the hardest-hitting yet most nostalgic track, “We Are Chameleons,” lives up to its title by mopping up virtually every color and texture of Carnavas and wringing it out into a frenzied sonic meltdown that defies the restraint and self-control that led up to it. Widow’s Weeds may lack the arena-sized atmospherics and anthemic party songs of past Silversun Pickups efforts, but with each additional listen the hooks sink in deeper and the melodies stay longer in your head. It’s catchy, heartfelt, and far less forgettable than…what were those previous two albums named again?

Label: New Machine Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Madonna’s Madame X Is a Fearless, Eccentric Musical Memoir

The album is the work of an artist reawakened, and one who’s got something to say.

4

Published

on

Madonna
Photo: Interscope

Madonna’s 2005 EDM opus Confessions on a Dance Floor is considered by many to be the 21st-century standard for both every new album the singer releases and contemporary dance-pop at large. Though glorious in its own right, it seemed, at the time, like the work of an artist in damage control. The damage was 2003’s American Life, a personal, politically strident, and humorless album that became Madonna’s first commercial failure in 20 years. It also happens to mark the last time the queen of pop appeared to make music purely on her own terms, without any consideration of the charts or what the public expected of her—a novel idea for an artist in the business of making, well, popular music.

Of course, Madonna has never been your average pop star. Though her music has deep roots in R&B and disco, she is, at heart, a rock auteur, with all of the inclinations toward upending the status quo and expressing a singular vision that designation implies. Her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, was designed by committee, while its predecessor, MDNA, was recorded during a period when she seemed more interested in directing movies and extending her brand than making music. So it makes sense that when she decided to forgo songwriting camps and aspirations of a late-career radio hit for her 14th album, Madame X, Madonna turned to French producer Mirwais, her primary collaborator on American Life.

In other words, Madame X sounds like the work of an artist reawakened, and one who’s got something to say. It’s a development reportedly inspired by her time in Lisbon, where she was surrounded by musicians and art in a way she hadn’t been since her pre-fame days in the East Village. The influence of Lisbon’s multicultural history can be heard on tracks like the fado-meets-Motown “Crazy”—co-produced by Mike Dean, the album’s other principal knob-twirler—and the polyrhythmic “Batuka,” featuring Afro-Portuguese group Orquestra de Batukadeiras.

Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: “I came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,” Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected “Extreme Occident,” referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, “Dark Ballet” is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity—an existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track “I Rise.”

The album’s autobiography is also conveyed sonically: It’s a thrill to hear Madonna singing over a ‘90s house beat on the smoldering “I Don’t Search I Find.” But despite its ballroom strings, finger-snaps, and throaty spoken-word bridge, comparing it to “Vogue” or “Erotica” would be too easy. This isn’t a song so much as a mood. It’s downstairs music, the distant bassline rumbling beneath your feet as you slip into a bathroom stall for a quick bump or fuck.

Madonna has a reputation for being a trendsetter, but her true talent lies in bending those trends to her will, twisting them around until they’re barely recognizable, and creating something entirely new. The album’s pièce de résistance, at least in that regard, is the six-minute “God Control,” which begins with Madonna conjuring the spirit and disaffected monotone of Kurt Cobain—“I think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up,” she sings through clenched teeth—before the whole thing implodes into a euphoric, densely layered samba-disco-gospel mash-up. Throughout the song, Madonna’s vocals alternate between Auto-Tuned belting, urgent whispers, and Tom Tom Club-style rapping as she takes on the gaslight industrial complex and so-called political reformers. On paper, it might sound like the ingredients for a musical Hindenburg, but—somewhere around the midpoint, when she declares, “It’s a con, it’s a hustle, it’s a weird kind of energy!”—it all coheres into the most exhilaratingly batshit thing she’s done in years.

If, metaphorically, Madame X represents Madonna’s rediscovery of her voice as an artist, then it also highlights the literal loss of it. Over the years, the soft edges of her voice have grown sharper, and the album’s pervasive vocal effects—most gratuitous on the electro-ragga “Future” and, to a lesser degree, the haunting “Looking for Mercy”—have a distancing effect. The heavy Auto-Tune on Music and American Life was deployed in service of larger conceptual themes like imperfection (“Nobody’s Perfect”) and anonymity (“Nobody Knows Me”), contrasted by the bare performances of more confessional songs like “Easy Ride.” Here, filters are indiscriminately thrown on nearly every song, which only serves to obscure Madonna’s humanity. On “Medéllin,” for example, her admission that “For once, I didn’t have to hide myself” is pointlessly cloaked in Auto-Tune, keeping us at a remove.

When Madonna isn’t singing with what sounds like a mouthful of gumballs on “Crave,” the rawness of her voice amplifies the nakedness of her lyrics: “Ran so far to try to find the thing I lacked/And there it was inside of me.” Likewise, you can hear the grit and grief in her voice when, on “Crazy,” she sings, “I bent my knees for you like a prayer/My God, look at me now.” The track “Killers Who Are Partying” has been flagged by some critics for its lyrics—ostensibly inspired by scripture, the post-World War II poem “First they came…,” or maybe both—but the naïveté of Madonna’s words would be more cringe-inducing if her delivery wasn’t quite so bewitching. Mirwais’s arrangement, too, casts a spell: Old world meets new world as mournful fado guitar and accordion swirl beneath the track’s stuttering beats and warped synths.

Madame X is fearless, the sound of an artist unapologetically indulging all of her whims and quirks. The garish favela funk of “Faz Gostoso” and the racy reggaeton of “Bitch I’m Loca”—featuring Anitta and Maluma, respectively—feel out of place amid the album’s otherwise refined sonic palette. But even when Madonna falters, at least you know you’re getting the real deal and not some version of a pop icon cooked up in a songwriting lab.

Label: Interscope Release Date: June 14, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Mykki Blanco Is a Trans Joan of Arc in Madonna’s “Dark Ballet” Video – Watch

The self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video from the queen of pop’s upcoming album Madame X.

Published

on

Mykki Blanco
Photo: YouTube

While presenting Madonna with GLAAD’s Advocate for Change award last month, Mykki Blanco hinted that a collaboration with the queen of pop might be imminent. Sure enough, the self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video for “Dark Ballet,” the final track to be released in the lead-up to Madonna’s new album, Madame X.

Directed by Dutch Ghanaian visual artist Emmanuel Adjei, “Dark Ballet” echoes the themes of Madonna’s infamous “Like a Prayer” video, awash with Catholic iconography and a storyline revolving around a persecuted black person. But that’s where the similarities end. The singer only briefly appears in the clip, behind a black veil, and the burning crosses of her 1989 video are traded for a ceremonial burning at the stake.

The video is frenetic and non-linear, opening with Blanco held captive in a stonewalled room, wrapped in a dirty white robe. Wrists bound with rope, he’s led by clergymen to be executed for an undisclosed crime. He’s then seen dancing, first in a cathedral—pleading with the men, who forsake him—and then in the church’s sanctuary, dressed in a gold corset reminiscent of the iconic one designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour. Madonna is, in effect, all over the video, but her casting of a queer person of color as the oppressed, rather than herself, spotlights the disproportionate impact of the patriarchy on minorities.

Produced by Madonna and longtime collaborator Mirwais, the song itself is an ambitious electro suite featuring a heavily Auto-Tuned denouncement of gender, lies, and fame, before the track breaks into Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Reed Pipes” from The Nutcracker accompanied by a robot Joan of Arc proclaiming her faith. (There’s a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc near the beginning of the video.) The song is a reminder of the wacky magic Madonna and Mirwais are capable of cooking up together.

Watch below:

Madame X will be released on June 14 via Interscope Records.

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Miley Cyrus’s She Is Coming Feels Like Empty Posturing

The singer finds her groove when she follows a less strident tack.

2.5

Published

on

Miley Cyrus
The only thing Miley Cyrus’s critics found more problematic than her appropriation of black culture on her 2013 album Bangerz was the singer’s utter abandonment of hip-hop on 2017’s Younger Now. That album was marked by a more mellow pop-rock sound, complemented by a newly squeaky-clean image that found her literally frolicking in a country meadow. The move was seen as confirmation that Cyrus’s interest in hip-hop is merely performative, and her recent renunciation of Younger Now and subsequent pivot back toward urban-influenced pop is unlikely to quash that impression.

She Is Coming, the first of three EPs that Cyrus plans to release throughout the year, is rife with references to her newfound toughness. Lead single “Mother’s Daughter” boasts an admirable feminist-adjacent message—“Don’t fuck with my freedom”—but Cyrus’s standoffish pose feels like so much empty posturing, making the bravado of Taylor Swift’s Reputation seem downright menacing. On the mercifully brief “Unholy,” Cyrus tosses off glib vaunts like “I’m a little bit unholy/So what? So is everyone else,” while an unintentionally comical quip about having sex next to takeout food may arouse little in listeners besides a sudden compulsion to sanitize their kitchen counter.

The EP’s dubious employment of hip-hop tropes and graphic sexual metaphors reaches its nadir on ballroom-inspired “Cattitude,” part boast track and part ode to Miley’s female prowess: “I love my pussy, that means I got cattitude/If you don’t feel what I’m saying, I don’t fuck with you.” RuPaul’s presence lends a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to the song, but given the straight-faced appropriation on display throughout the rest of She Is Coming, it’s impossible not to consider this one with as much seriousness—that is, not much at all. When, at the end of the track, Cyrus awkwardly raps, “You’re just mad ‘cause your hair is flat,” it’s hard to tell if she’s taking the piss or deliberately provoking her critics.

Which is a shame, as Cyrus finds her groove when she doesn’t try so hard, as on “D.R.E.A.M.,” a hazy confessional that, true to its title, is dreamy enough to forgive its puerile conflation of chemical and romantic euphoria. Even an initially jarring coda from Ghostface Killah feels of a piece with the impeccably produced track’s distorted guitars and slyly discomfiting beat. The ragga-inspired “Party Up the Street” likewise cushions its drug-induced reverie with pillowy keyboards and swoony orchestral flourishes. Unless the subsequent EPs in this series follow this less strident tack, Bangerz might start to seem like an act of cultural reverence.

Label: RCA Release Date: May 31, 2019

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Katy Perry Proves It’s “Never Really Over” with New Single and Video

The video takes place inside a gated compound where the singer enrolls in a retreat for the brokenhearted.

Published

on

Katy Perry
Photo: Capitol Records

Katy Perry’s first solo single in two years, “Never Really Over,” finds the pop singer struggling with residual ambivalence over a former flame. “Two years and just like that, my head still takes me back,” she belts in her signature bellow. Co-produced by Zedd, who previously collaborated with Perry on the DJ’s simmering electro-pop single “365” earlier this year, the infectious “Never Really Over” is a bright midtempo pop track that wouldn’t sound out of place on 2013’s Prism. And that’s probably by design.

Despite the strength of its lead single, “Chained to the Rhythm,” Perry’s 2017 album Witness fizzled on the charts, selling a fraction of its three multi-platinum predecessors. So it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that a lot is riding on “Never Really Over,” the title of which could—depending on how the song is received—double as a bold statement of purpose or tragic irony.

From the sound of a ticking clock to marching-band percussion, time is a clever recurring motif throughout “Never Really Over.” If Perry looked to the future on Witness, she mines the past for the music video for this track. But rather than revert to the retro, brunette bombshell look of her most commercially fertile eras, Perry opts for a long, wavy strawberry-blond coif and a ‘70s-inspired boho-chic aesthetic here.

Shot in Malibu, the video takes place inside a gated compound where Perry enrolls in a cult-like retreat for the brokenhearted. She her fellow romance recoverees dance merrily in a sun-kissed field and partake in cupping, acupuncture, and other forms of alternative medicine—“I guess I should try hypnotherapy/I’ve got to rewire my brain,” Perry sings—culminating in a cheeky ayahuasca-style ceremony in which the participants drink their own tears.

Directed by Philippa Price, “Never Really Lover” is a playful and imaginative portrayal of love’s intoxicating spell and the absurd lengths some of us will go to exorcise ourselves of it. The clip is ripe for repeat viewings and filled with New Age symbolism, including the compound’s yin-yang-inspired logo and enough triangle imagery to keep illuminati conspiracy theorists occupied at least until Perry serves up her next visual feast.

Continue Reading

Music

Premiere: Heather Nova Goes Back to Her Roots with “Just Kids” Music Video

We’ve got the exclusive premiere of the second single from the singer-songwriter’s 10th album, Pearl.

Published

on

Heather Nova

Released 25 years ago this fall, Heather Nova’s breakthrough album, Oyster, earned the singer-songwriter a faithful following, due in large part to her angelic soprano, memorable pop hooks, and, above all, her alternately thoughtful and visceral ruminations on love and healing. Singles like “London Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)” and “Heart and Shoulder,” from 1998’s Siren, further solidified Nova as a cult pop figure at once capable of harnessing the grit of alt-rock, the candor of folk balladry, and the sleek accessibility of Top 40 music.

Following a series of more stripped-down fare, Nova’s 10th album, Pearl, reprises the crisp, layered aesthetic of those early efforts, thanks in large part to the singer’s reunion with producer Youth (The Verve, Dido, Pink Floyd). Nova describes the album’s second single, “Just Kids,” as a celebration of the “carefree sense of open possibilities” that new love can conjure in us. “It’s a song about how love can make you feel like a kid again,” she says.

Shot in Bermuda, where Nova was born, the music video for “Just Kids” is a charmingly simple visual depiction of the song’s universal concept. Co-directed by Nova and photographer Vincent Lions, the black-and-white clip is largely composed of one long take that finds Nova lounging on the beach while Lions (Nova’s boyfriend) frolics playfully in the background in a valiant attempt to make her break.

Watch “Just Kids” below:

Pearl will be released on June 28 via Saltwater Records.

Continue Reading

Music

Madonna and Swae Lee’s “Crave” Music Video Delivers a Message – Watch

Alternating between color and black and white, the video’s concept is refreshingly simple.

Published

on

Crave
Photo: YouTube

Though Madonna’s 2015 album Rebel Heart was infamously plagued by leaks, the singer has kept a tight lid on the follow-up, Madame X. Until last week, that is. Details about the project were scarce leading up to the release of the first single, “Medellín,” but a rough cut of the music video for “Crave,” the album’s second single, leaked after director Nuno Xico inadvertently posted a “fully unfinished” clip to his Vimeo account.

The leak likely cranked up the heat on what already seemed like a rushed release. Madonna reportedly skipped this year’s Met Gala to shoot the video for “Crave,” which is far more radio-friendly than the bilingual “Medellín,” featuring reggaeton singer Maluma. The song is a midtempo trap ballad—yes, that’s a thing—that juxtaposes acoustic guitar and Madonna’s plaintive vocal with 808 snares and a guest verse from rapper-singer Swae Lee.

The video for “Crave,” officially out today, opens with the queen of pop releasing a messenger bird off the roof of a building in downtown New York, overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. One by one, Swae collects her messages, which include a reference to Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Madame X’s favorite novel.

Alternating between color and black and white, the video’s concept is refreshingly simple, even if the frenetic editing and Madonna’s jerky, hyper-sexualized dance moves clash with the track’s unorthodox but elegant arrangement. Thankfully, she ditches the wigs from “Medellín,” though she is seen donning that as-yet-unexplained “X” eye patch throughout.

Watch below:

Madame X will be released on June 14 via Interscope Records.

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending