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Indie 500: Fleet Foxes & Girl Talk

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Indie 500: Fleet Foxes & Girl Talk

Funny things happen on comment boards sometimes. Last week I weighed in on the new Dr. Dog over at the Onion A.V. Club, which is always fun: they have some of the most restless and inventive commenters around, and it’s always interesting to watch people spin out weird tangents I couldn’t have seen coming. Sometimes things are predictable: even before my Tapes ’N Tapes went up, it was a safe bet that the usual disgruntled fucktards would be up in arms at someone reviewing something “indie” and hence elitist, obscure, bloodless, etc. But something different happened with Dr. Dog—who, I want to make it absolutely clear, I quite like, despite some minor reservations about their latest. This is how I opened: “The market seems just about perfect for Dr. Dog’s fifth album: Fate is logical kin to Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky, Fleet Foxes, and other recent attempts to reboot slacker Americana for people who don’t know or care about The Band.” I meant this neutrally: you can listen to all this stuff and not really miss much if you don’t care about The Band. And I don’t; point in fact, they represent exactly the kind of plodding, humorless, strum-and-nod Americana bullshit I have no use for (at least if The Last Waltz is enough to go off of; probably isn’t, but let’s pretend it is). But that, apparently, isn’t how it read. Sample outraged responses: “don’t be calling me uneducated and shallow for listening to motherfucking Wilco.” “i didn’t know the av club shat on their readers.” So apparently what happened is my sentiments came back around in weird karmic form: there’s plenty of other people out there tired of being hectored about The Band who also like this stuff—i.e., the stuff without which you allegedly have no business listening to without a working knowledge of the Robbie Robertson back catalogue—and they thought I was doing it again.

Anyway. I have no idea why it’s suddenly cool for bands to stretch out all folk-like, set up shop in some godforsaken shack and pretend they like to watch birds all day or brew moonshine or ride freight trains or whatever the hell, as long as they’re inventive with it. Enter Fleet Foxes (and yes, I know this places me months behind; bite me), who may yet crack my top 10 on repeated spins. Then again, they may not, but I’d like to write about it now, because I want to blow through all the major summer releases I can in the next few columns before we enter the third quarter. (Hence, only two albums this week, but the same word count; sorry fans.) I was (and remain) underwhelmed by their Sun Giant EP, which struck me as fairly drab. Then I was sitting there, putting their full-length debut Ragged Wood through its initial spins, not really paying much attention. On the fifth track “Quiet Houses,” with a little over a minute to go, Fleet Foxes suddenly break down into this perfect Brian Wilson imitation (probably far better than the man himself can manage at this late date, the outstanding, late-breaking completion of Smile notwithstanding), with wordless vocals over an ascending piano line that initially seems too fragile to soar as high as it wants, then does it anyway. That blend of grandeur and fragility gets at the essence of the Wilson project, and it’s my favorite moment on the album.

When the album came out, Graeme Thomson put up a well-intentioned but fundamentally misguided blog post over at the Guardian: “what,” he asked his British readers, “are the hallmarks of great American music?” Thomson gets off to a good start, disemboweling the hackneyed “obvious lyrical signifiers of America” so dear to teenaged Kerouac fans and clueless romantics: “turnpikes; boardwalks; state troopers; the Kokomo and the levee; a poignant recollection of some joyous yet profoundly painful coupling involving Mary in the summer of 66; sundry incomprehensible technical details about cars.” Thomson then goes on to suggest—in a way that’s both basic and evasive—that American music is about “exploring a sense of national identity,” and that “intricate harmonies … suggest wide-open spaces, vast reserves of loneliness and freedom, the capacity and imperative to travel, disparate parts fleetingly coming together. Harmonies both embrace and try to reconcile the confusing enormity of the place.” Huh.

Part of me wants to propose an equally reductive history of British music, suggesting that there’s little more going on there than a fundamental urge to escape the drabness of British life, whether through regressions to music halls past, frantic appropriations of American rock cliches, or getting E’d up beyond belief while thumping away, and that the Britpop movement was a cruel parody of lapsed British nationalism, presented straight-faced to a gullible nation by extremely cynical art-school students (except for the Gallagher brothers, who unfortunately weren’t kidding). But that would be stupid and omit everything that contradicts my thesis, so let’s skip it. There’s a way to rework Thomson’s propositions slightly so that they start to make sense, which is if you presume that these ideas conform to certain sentimental notions about what “America” should “mean” in music—which is, in a certain sense, a cop-out. With rare exceptions, Fleet Foxes’ lyrics suggest that they’ve been living in the backwoods watching animals: this may be true, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Fleet Foxes have found a kind of lyrical Walden haven that gets them going, and the results are worth it. (I’d suggest that e.g. the curiously insistent passive-aggression of Pavement is equally “American,” but I’ll hold off on that for now.) I can’t tell if this album will grow on me or just remain kind of theoretically admirable: where Band acolytes think a certain head-nod solves all your problems, Fleet Foxes seem to think there’s nothing a good dose of wordless three-part harmony (preferably acoustic) won’t solve. I’m not sure this is true, but I like them well enough. More than the initial descriptions made me think I would anyway.

Speaking of The Band and the A.V. Club: last year Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis) did a Random Roles, a fascinating regular feature wherein musicians shuffle through their iPods and offer comments with varying levels of insight. When it came to “The Weight,” Gillis offered a surprisingly naïve appraisal: “I actually don’t know anything about this other than they’re kind of a ‘60s band.” Take that, greatest American band ever! (Sample commenter backlash: “I honestly hate to sound like a cunt, but not knowing who the Band were is like not knowing who JFK was.” They’re never happy, are they?) Girl Talk, of course, is the super-awesome master of ADD mash-ups, where something new pops up every 7 seconds or else. Feed The Animals is the follow-up to his breakthrough with 2006’s Night Ripper, and in many ways the formula’s the same: incongruous, surprisingly successful juxtapositions of decidedly non-rap, mostly populist musical samples backing mostly hip-hop and R&B vocal lines, in ways that defy any kind of synthesized meaning. When he layers Young Gunz’ decidedly vapid “Set If Off” over Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” I doubt he intends any kind of rote critique about the social relevance and critique of old-school hip-hop vs. modern lack of substance or something: he’s just taking one hook and putting it on another. Girl Talk’s basic project is to give you a head-rush in the least amount of time possible; more often than not, he gets it done.

He has no shame, which helps. On “What It’s All About,” there’s no particular reason to follow-up The Jackson 5’s soaring vocals for “ABC” over “Umbrella” ’s high-hat with the gooey rush of young MJ over “Bohemian Rhapsody” except that you can get all the best parts together in one place really fast. Sometimes he takes that principal literally: when Flo Rida goes over the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning,” suddenly the VU’s hazy little hangover ode is twice as fast and way lusher than I remember it being. That kind of putative high/low divide is grist to Gillis, whose ultimate message, if any, seems to be that all pop music serves the exact same function. This gets us close to one of those inane arguments about when a cover is condescending, which tends to break down in pretty predictable ways. Reading Jonah Weiner’s recent Slate piece, for example, it’s hard not to notice that Jay-Z sarcastically covering “Wonderwall” is good (because he’s a rapper and dealing with Noel Gallagher’s stupid, near-racist claims that he shouldn’t be headlining at Glastonbury) but bad when Pavement does it because it’s “snobbish.” In fact, it’s always snobbish when someone lower-profile covers someone higher-profile: fer chrissakes, Weiner even claims that Travis’ cover of “Hit Me One More Time” contains “a patronizing subtext,” wherein someone “scrub[s] away the deadening Top 40 luster, and exhume[s] the fine song hidden beneath.” The idea that Travis are patronizing about anything (given their own longstanding insecurity—they used to complain “’We got popular without the permission of cool people and we have never been forgiven”) is pretty hilarious. People who are extremely defensive about the critical status of one of the most successful musical forms in America today (for reasons that kind of elude me) tend to lose all sense of perspective; what’s great about Girl Talk is that he makes that debate irrelevant. Call it crass or thoughtless; he really doesn’t see the difference. It’s all party music.

When the inevitable oldies station for my generation comes along, we could all be saved the fuss and bother of listening to a lot of nostalgic but not all that great songs if they just played this stuff. That said, Feed The Animals isn’t quite as great as Night Ripper. Maybe it’s just the novelty factor wearing off, but Gillis has amped up the number of samples tremendously and there’s less breathing room than before: less drum breaks, more excitable rappers. (Gillis appears to have just discovered Lil’ Scrappy, god bless him. Btw: does it make me nervous that I know a few people who have no use for mainstream hip-hop but like this? A little, but I’ll chalk it up to good faith rather than an inadvertent minstrel effect.) There’s some stand-out moments, of course, where the songs become actual songs: the aforementioned Jackson 5 vs. Queen moment, for example, or the ending juxtaposition of “International Player’s Anthem” with Journey. There’s two ways to listen to it: you should listen to it blind the first time and marvel at what pops up, then cue up the Wikipedia track-listing and have the surprisingly academic experience of watching exactly how it all patches together. What I wonder—and this is something someone other than Gillis will have to figure out, given that his disks are basically prep for allegedly awesome live shows—is if there’s a way to take this hyper mash-up style and make it express more than one emotion. Someone step up.

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: I Made a Place Finds Bonnie “Prince” Billy at His Most Existential

The album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life.

4.5

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Mickie Winters
Photo: Mickie Winters/Drag City

“You need to knock this one out of the park,” Will Oldham sings on “New Memory Box,” the rollicking opening track of I Made a Place, his first album of original material in six years. If it sounds like he’s suffering from diminished confidence, don’t be fooled: Oldham’s albums as Bonnie “Prince” Billy always achieve a cohesiveness that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and I Made a Place is no exception.

The 13 songs here feature straightforward folk arrangements of guitar, drum, bass, fiddle, strings, horns, and the odd synth part. This is a song cycle with cosmic concerns in mind, and the simplicity of the music renders Oldham’s voice (and lyrics) that much clearer. “Look Backward on Your Future, Look Forward to Your Past” is made up of a gently strummed acoustic guitar and the singer’s indelible yowl. The lyrics tell a story about a man named Richard who undergoes a transfiguration as his materialistic worldview is reshaped both by quantum physics and spiritual renewal. It’s weighty stuff, but Oldham sings the song with the playful shimmy of a George Jones tune. His ability to be profound and uproarious at the same time is on full display: “Get your sense of self from a hydrogen blast.”

The word “apocalyptic” is frequently applied to Oldham’s work, and with good reason: His worldview has been haunted by some unnameable or just unnamed cataclysm, from the recent past or lurking over the horizon. I Made a Place finds his fascination with catastrophe and collapse alive and well, though the subject is addressed more elliptically than on past albums. Instead of a dystopian depiction of civilization’s collapse, though, the album is autumnal in its resignation to death as a necessary part of life. Oldham is, for all his oddity, a deeply human songwriter, and throughout I Made a Place his tone is alternately celebratory and comforting.

Images of darkness, shadow, and fire pervade—though it’s unclear whether that fire is a conflagration or merely the world’s sole remaining light source. Yet the tone is rather ruminative. “This Is Far from Over” finds Oldham contemplating “shorelines gone and maps destroyed, livelihoods dissolved and void,” but he reassures us that “new wild creatures will be born” because “the whole world’s far from over.” Oldham’s gentle warble is set to a softly plucked acoustic guitar, and a flute solo closes things on a hopeful note.

Throughout, Oldham serves as our Virgil, shepherding us through the shadowy worlds he builds. Sometimes he’s funny and sometimes he’s sad, but he’s always there to keep the listener safe. “Squid Eye” delights in some Seussian wordplay and features the album’s funniest lyrics—“I’ll drive right in as if I were Aquaman’s kid”—set to a Bob Wills-esque swinging bluegrass song, while “The Glow Pt. 3,” the title of which nods to Phil Elverum, wrestles with love, impermanence, and dread from the vantage of the bottom of a bottle.

Some artists seem to have an uncanny ability to gesture to the infinite, to wring out from their chosen medium a staggering amount of profundity. Oldham is one such artist, having created an archive of songs that conjure the entire spectrum of human experience: hilarity and terror, joy and desolation, birth and death, and everything in between. I Made a Place is an apt title, as Oldham has carved out a niche for himself that’s not quite like any of his contemporaries. He unpacks the darkest and brightest parts of life with an unblinking candor. On the title track, the singer speaks about creating a home in a world you didn’t ask for. His thesis is simple: “I don’t know why I was born, but I have made a place.” In that one, softly delivered lyric, Oldham resolves a philosophy seminar’s worth of existential crisis.

Label: Drag City Release Date: November 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York Remains a Timeless Musical Document

Much of the power of this set is in the band’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety.

4.5

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Nirvana
Upon its television debut in December of 1993, Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York session was already monumental—intensely intimate and unique among prior episodes of Unplugged, which usually operated as greatest-hits showcases. In the wake of Kurt Cobain’s suicide in 1994, however, the band’s performance assumed near-mythical status, airing around the clock in the weeks following the singer’s death and serving several roles for a shocked, grieving fanbase: a portent, memento, and elegy all at once.

Had they never appeared on Unplugged, it’s likely that Nirvana might be perceived in a significantly different light today. They were a ferocious and often unpredictable live act, capable of wreaking mayhem on their instruments and each other while delivering their searing yet melodic brand of punk. The release of MTV Unplugged in New York in November of 1994 provided a full window onto the kinder, gentler Nirvana only hinted at on the band’s three studio albums, and served as the high-water mark for ‘90s alternative music’s ascendance to Important Art just before its descent into self-parodic commerce.

Of course, commerce is alive and well in the 25th anniversary edition of MTV Unplugged in New York, which may be viewed with understandable suspicion by fans long inundated with special editions and live-show unearthings that have effectively wrung Nirvana’s catalog dry. (This year alone has already seen the release of Live at the Paramount and Live and Loud.) But considering MTV Unplugged in New York’s titanic place in rock history, this edition is revelatory for a simple reason: the inclusion of five songs from the rehearsal for the band’s performance that were previously only available on the show’s DVD release.

Over the years myths have grown around MTV Unplugged in New York, a major one claiming that the band was in shambles leading up to the taping of their performance at Sony Music Studios. While the new tracks don’t rewrite what we once knew about the performance, it nevertheless helps reinforce the skin-of-their-teeth story that’s largely been known only in anecdotal form. During the rehearsals, Dave Grohl’s heavy drumming undermined the acoustic sound, especially on rockers like “Come As You Are” and a cover of David Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World,” where his trashing instincts almost overwhelm the rest of the band. Thankfully, Grohl reined in his thundering style after he was offered quieter brush and Hot Rod sticks by Unplugged producer Alex Coletti just before the official performance.

While none of the five new tracks on this reissue are unlistenable, they’re expectedly unpolished and, as evidenced by occasional in-song directives and banter, unfocused and tense. Cobain’s vocals sound strained on “Come As You Are,” while on a cover of the Meat Puppets’s “Plateau,” several guitar licks and back-up vocals from Cris Kirkwood—who, along with brother and Meat Puppets co-member Curt Kirkwood, accompanied Nirvana on three of their own songs—are off-time and over-emphasized. In a sudden burst of inspiration during the televised performance of “Pennyroyal Tea,” Cobain performed the song on his own, and the result was more personal and harrowing than the electric version on 1993’s In Utero. In rehearsal, “Pennyroyal Tea” is undone by Pat Smear’s distracting backup vocals and a guitar played a turgid step lower than the one on the studio recording.

Beyond the fly-on-the-wall rehearsal tracks, the rest of MTV Unplugged in New York remains as it’s always been. The album hasn’t been remastered for this reissue, which is a bit of a shame, but perhaps augmentation works against its raison d’être. Much of the power of this set is in the rawness of Nirvana’s delivery, but especially Cobain’s. It’s also in the mesmerizing spell of the group’s intuitive ability to imbue their songs with new dimensions of subtlety and cast light on their own artistic worldview with several unusual yet impassioned covers, including their towering, chilling take on Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” MTV Unplugged in New York is simply a timeless performance, one all the more impressive for having come together through reserves of musical acumen and sheer guts.

Label: Geffen Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: FKA twigs’s Magdalene Is a Knotty Meditation on Self-Possession

A distinct feminine energy pulses through the singer-songwriter’s shimmering sophomore effort.

4.5

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FKA twigs
Photo: Matthew Stone

A distinct feminine energy pulses through FKA twigs’s shimmering sophomore effort, Magdalene. Coming off the back of a major public breakup with actor Robert Pattinson and a period of ill-health which left her creatively and physically depleted, twigs made it her mission—both in the writing of this follow-up to 2014’s LP1 and in the extraordinary wushu and pole training she undertook for her Magdalene tour—to embrace her pain.

Despite twigs’s vocal precision, there’s always been an element of unpredictability to her music, as the production on her albums is prone to spareness one moment and cacophony the next. And on Magdalene, she leans even further into that volatility, her crystalline, Kate Bush-esque falsetto shape-shifting into something richer and thicker on “Holy Terrain,” angrier and rueful on “Fallen Alien,” and sweeping on the transcendent “Sad Day.”

At times, twigs seems caught between personas. On “Home with You,” her raspy delivery of “The more you have the more that people want from you” gives way to a soaring melody in the chorus, in which she counters, “I didn’t know that you were lonely/If you’d have just told me I’d be home with you.” Anger and acceptance coexist here, one growing out of the other.

twigs has a knack for spinning mystical imagery out of everyday experience, and on the album she explores the shifting power dynamics at play in her life. The prying, judgmental gaze of the paparazzi can be easily imagined as a many-eyed monster in “Thousand Eyes.” Elsewhere, she calls upon religious references to subvert ideas of her own power. A lyric like “I lie naked and pure with intentions to cleanse you and take you” on “Sad Day” suggests both submission and dominance; the act of cleansing recalls Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’s feet, yet the phrase “take you” suggests that the object of her affections has no choice but to submit to her. Another often misrepresented biblical figure, Eve, comes to mind when twigs invites her lover to “taste the fruit of me” on the same song, but it’s not an act of temptation, it’s a plea.

For all the strength and self-possession twigs demands from herself and her lovers, she also provides space for the necessary grief that comes with saying goodbye to someone who wasn’t able to meet her there. And for all the spiritual power she’s filled with to “cleanse” and “heal” on “Sad Day,” she also acknowledges the periods when she can barely move on the cyclical “Daybed.” There’s little sense on Magdalene that twigs believes there’s an ideal way to be; all she can do is learn how to accept her own contradictions as a necessary part of growth. The album is a knotty meditation on the process of separating self-perception from public perception, and of twigs’s reclamation of her body and work as hers and hers alone.

Label: Young Turks Release Date: November 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard Lowers the Stakes to Diminishing Returns

The album lowers the emotional stakes but still manages to dole out plenty of country-rock bombast.

3

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Wildcard
Photo: Ellen Von Unwerth/Sony

In a recent New York Times profile, Miranda Lambert called her seventh album, Wildcard, “straight down the middle Miranda Lambert.” Indeed, the album is a decided shift away from the somber reflection of 2016’s 24-track The Weight of These Wings, which was largely informed by the singer’s split from fellow country superstar Blake Shelton.

In many ways, Wildcard follows in the musical footsteps of last year’s Interstate Gospel, the third effort from the Pistol Annies, Lambert’s supergroup with Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley. The first half of Wildcard tips its 10-gallon hat toward that group’s style, which is typified by its brazen humor. Opening track “White Trash” is a country-rock earworm that sets the album’s tone with a fuzzed-out beat and rollicking banjo riff as Lambert proudly declares that—despite her 401k, treasures in her closet, and fancy house—she just can’t keep her “white trash off the lawn.” It’s not a confession so much as a flag-waving anthem.

It’s this type of outlaw energy that catapulted Lambert to stardom on 2007’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and it’s still present in fits and starts on tracks like “Way Too Pretty for Prison” and “Locomotive.” The album’s lead single, “It All Comes Out in the Wash,” finds her rattling off an embarrassing laundry list of character flaws with a knowing wink. The song’s vignettes range from getting “frisky with your boss at the coffee machine” and “knocked up in a truck at the 7-Eleven” to pouring “a merlot to go,” all delivered with nonchalant coolness.

The album’s second half loses a bit of its impact when the tempo downshifts. Songs like “Bluebird” and “How Dare You Love” harken back to some of the shimmery pop of 2009’s Revolution, and Lambert lets the gloom in on the drinking ballads “Dark Bars” and “Tequila Does.” On the midtempo “Pretty Bitchin’,” she rotely employs various uses of the word “pretty” with diminishing returns, describing the pretty things she owns, how pretty she looks from the front and back, and a general feeling of her life being “pretty bitchin’,” all things considered.

And while the latter half of Wildcard constitutes a bit of a shuffled deck of genres, there’s enough of a kick to the album as a whole to warrant its title, and Lambert certainly has the chops to sell it. Though she lowers the emotional stakes (and tracklist count) here, she still manages to deal out plenty of country-rock bombast, even if she’s traversed these genre paths before. At the very least, it’s nice to see Lambert kicking up her heels and having fun again.

Label: RCA Nashville Release Date: November 1, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Kanye West’s Jesus Is King Is a Compelling But Veiled Act of Self-Worship

The album is impeccably produced but finds Kanye barely shifting his musical approach.

3

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Jesus Is King

Kanye West has all but solidified his position as popular music’s most innovative high-profile producer, with every shift in his aesthetic focus over the last 10-plus years serving to found a whole new subgenre or micro-culture within hip-hop. That is, when those shifts aren’t merely bringing already extant ones a greater level of attention. Kanye has also consistently come up with compelling ways of giving voice to the various narratives that he’s built his music around. That latter point is likely to be a bit more controversial than the first, but consider this: Even when listeners balked early on at the size of the ego on a Chi-town upstart who thought he could spit as well as he could produce beats for Jay-Z, or later when they took umbrage with the Kanye who spun unapologetic tales of dark, twisted celebrity demigods, or when they rebuked him only after his decadence started to fuel more explicitly autobiographical material, all of the resulting albums have been met with intense amounts of interest from both pro- and anti-Kanye camps alike.

With Jesus Is King, that reliable metric for gaging the success of a Kanye album suggests a less positive result. The music here is as impeccably produced as that of just about any Kanye release to date, but the shift toward gospel, while occasionally captivating and even convincing, more often proves that it’s more difficult for Kanye to apply his particular narrativizing gifts to faith than it is to the exploits of outsized celebrity caricatures, or the episodes of his own tabloid-baiting life. The big problem is how Kanye addresses the shift itself—in that Jesus Is King finds him barely shifting his musical approach.

The album’s prevailing mood is braggadocio, ever Ye’s true north, and the greatest basis for his boastfulness is, familiarly, the resilience with which he’s carried himself on the path to commercial and personal success: his defiance in the face of a press he sees as persecuting him, his resistance to the temptations of social media, his income figures overcoming his debt. The particulars of this message run counter to the ostensible thesis of Jesus Is King, the line—taken from this album’s “Closed on Sunday”—that resonates most with the message that a “born again” Kanye has stressed for most of this year: “My life is His, I’m no longer my own.”

Kanye’s own take on Kanye is still very much the focus here—and that becomes immensely frustrating when you consider “God Is,” the counter-example that the album provides. The track is Jesus Is King’s undeniable highlight, a fleeting glimpse of what a Kanye gospel album could sound like. His voice more cracked and vulnerable than he’s ever committed to record (no AutoTune, imperfections left undoctored), and over a looped sample of gospel godhead James Cleveland’s song of the same name, Kanye sings, or rather tunefully sermonizes, about his absolute dedication to his faith, and to this chapter of transformation in his life.

“God Is” is impactful, but more importantly, it shows the grace with which Kanye can deliver the sentiments of religious thought (“All the things He has in store/From the rich to the poor/All are welcomed through the door”) and the power of plainspoken prayer (“I know God is the force who lifted me up/I know Christ is the fountain that filled my cup”). The song, almost disarmingly, contains only one genuine brag—“Sunday service on a roll!”— and otherwise gives itself over entirely to “a mission, not a show.” Agnostics and believers alike may be moved by Kanye’s words, or, more specifically, by how he emotes through them: “God Is” comes up against the physical limits of Kanye’s voice at the same time that the artist arrives at an open-hearted acceptance of things beyond his control.

Contrast those sentiments with “Closed on Sunday,” which references Chick-fil-A in its chorus. There’s a schism that threatens the foundation of Jesus Is King, and it’s not one that should prevent Kanye from being both reverent and funny; it’s that his willingness toward blasphemy is so tempered to the point that it comes off as innocuous. “When I thought the book of Job was a job/The devil had my soul, I can’t lie,” Kanye raps leadenly on “On God,” a track that goes on to credit the Almighty with the production of the Yeezy Boost 350 sneakers but nebulously unloads blame elsewhere for the cut that the I.R.S. takes of their sales. Worse are the lyrics of “Hands On,” in particular the dopey outro, thanklessly sung by gospel lifer (and frequent Ye collaborator) Fred Hammond: “To praise His name, you ask what I’m smoking.”

Jesus Is King’s saving grace, then, is its predictably sharp production: from the Yeezy-less salvo of “Every Hour,” which features wall-of-sound vocals from the Sunday Service choir—who rip through an impassioned song that already sounds like a canonized gospel standard—to the triumphant, brassy fanfare of the much-too-short closer “Jesus Is Lord,” maybe Ye’s most baroque production since all of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The in-the-pocket production of songs like “Follow God” and “God Is” find him returning to one of his favorite formulas: A vintage soul sample first plays out relatively unabated, then is chopped and looped until it’s put in lockstep with a hard, galvanizing beat. “Follow God” takes as its foundation the Whole Truth’s “Can You Lose by Following God” and grinds a choice selection of bleating church organ and wailing vocal ad-libs against a pummeling bassline, providing the rhythmic bounce for Kanye’s elastic flow. The Sunday Service choir is again on hand to elevate “Selah,” essentially a rousing chant of “hallelujah” that’s augmented by dynamic leaps in octave and by Ye’s colossal bursts of percussive, scraping-metal sound effects.

There’s an issue here too, though, and it’s that some of the music on Jesus Is King may sound awfully familiar to Kanye devotees in the wake of what now probably amounts to the most significant leak of his career. Back in April, tracks from Yandhi, the album that Kanye was promoting until he indefinitely delayed it, made their way online, and included several songs that have been reshaped for Jesus Is King. Leaks can provide all sorts of complications when it comes to the experience of an artist’s finished product, even under normal circumstances, but it’s vexing that many of the Yandhi tracks have been carried over appear to have been tweaked specifically for the purpose of better aligning with Kanye’s embrace of his Christian faith. And the process of that revision has left many casualties, including the ingratiating “New Body” (and its snarling Nicki Minaj feature), which didn’t fit the God-fearing theme here but which also hasn’t been replaced by anything that’s nearly as tuneful or exciting.

The absence of quite a bit of material that would have otherwise been fit for release is especially glaring in light of Jesus Is King’s skimpy, 27-minute runtime. It also points to another problem, which is that Kanye doesn’t seem to have quite figured out how to translate his spiritual awakening to his music as confidently as he has nearly every other experience in his life on previous albums. All this amounts to Kanye’s least substantial album to date, which is certainly a blow to the faithful, who continue to walk the finest of lines, putting up with Kanye’s erratic career moves as a cost, with the reward being the reward of the music itself.

But Jesus Is King isn’t the work of a has-been either; there are flashes of genius throughout, moments that insinuate where Kanye could go next with his music. In a sense, the album’s modest pleasures play to its (intended) message, which is supposed to be one of human fallibility and the prospect of improving oneself. But Kanye is eventually going to have to confront the serious limitations that his faith is putting on the range of his art’s expression.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Brooke Candy’s Sexorcism Is Torpedoed by Humorless Innuendo

The rapper-singer’s long-awaited debut album proves to be disappointingly one-note.

2.5

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Brooke Candy
Photo: Rony Alwin

Following the visually arresting video for Brooke Candy’s 2014 single “Opulence,” RCA Records reportedly pushed the L.A. rapper-singer in a more mainstream direction, resulting in a series of watered-down pop songs that clashed wildly with her eccentric personality. With the possible exception of 2016’s “Happy Days,” Candy seemingly struggled to reconcile her avant-garde instincts with her desire to deliver a message—in this case about mental health and substance abuse—to a wider audience.

Since parting ways with RCA in 2017, Candy has been free to let her freak flag fly, but her long-awaited debut studio album, Sexorcism, is disappointingly one-note. The daughter of a former executive at Hustler magazine, Candy has always been outspoken about her sexuality, and she expounds on the power of “pussy” on nearly every song here. “When I ride the D, I make it wet…Cum so hard, I wet the bed,” she raps over a spare trap beat on “XXXTC,” which all but wastes a feature from pop doyenne Charli XCX.

Candy has cited Madonna’s Erotica as an influence on tracks like “Rim,” a campy, formless tribute to analingus featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Aquaria and Violet Chachki. But Candy seems to have a fundamental misunderstanding of the enduring power behind the queen of pop’s 1992 opus. Unlike Sexorcism, the majority of Erotica isn’t about the physical act of sex, and even at its most explicit, both the pop craft and lyrical content of Madonna’s album are smartly layered. Candy’s lyrics, on the other hand, boast a simplistic notion of BDSM: “Tell me where it hurts and I’ll make it hurt better,” she proclaims on “FMU.”

When the album does stray from the topic of sex, as it does on “Freak Like Me,” Candy peddles boilerplate declarations of nonconformity—“I’m not America’s sweetheart, I’m more like Jeffrey Dahm[er]/Rather be hated for what I am than what I’m not”—in a polished pop package that likely would have pleased RCA. Only rarely does Sexorcism strike a balance between Candy’s rival inclinations: With its talk-box hook, opening track “Nymph” is both weird and catchy, while “FMU” is propelled by an infectious sample from Lords of Acid’s “I Sit on Acid.”

Another ‘90s throwback, “Cum,” finds guest Iggy Azalea spitting deliciously stupid couplets like “Murder the pussy, then plead your case/Fuck me good, then feed me grapes.” Unfortunately, the rest of the album is bogged down by humorless assertions of sexual prowess set to repetitive, narcotic beats (the inclusion of last year’s “Oomph” would have provided a welcome change of pace). After nearly half a decade in record label purgatory, surely Candy has something more to say than “eat my ass.”

Label: NUXXE Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Guided by Voices’s Sweating the Plague Is Human-Scaled and Inventive

Many of the album’s best moments find the band in near-prog terrain.

4

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Guided by Voices
Photo: Tony Nelson

Composed of just 12 songs, none of which duck under the two-minute mark, Sweating the Plague is a different kind of Guided by Voices album. The band’s 29th effort is expansive rather than fragmentary, creating room for songs to breathe as opposed to smash up against one another. Where last April’s Warp and Woof spit out 24 lo-fi tracks in rapid-fire succession, and January’s double album Zeppelin Over China overwhelmed with a staggering 32 songs, Sweating the Plague gives the impression that frontman Robert Pollard is finally displaying a human-scaled canvas on which to present his work.

From 2012 to 2014, Pollard’s output leaned toward minimalist power-chord crunch in order to fit the endearing looseness of the reunited Guided by Voices lineup from the mid-‘90s; under the current lineup, however, Pollard often writes in a complexly anthemic yet no less shambolic vein, as if the Who’s Quadrophenia were reimagined by a beer-fueled garage band. More successful than similar efforts like those from the Doug Gillard era of the late ‘90s and early aughts (Universal Truths and Cycles and Earthquake Glue immediately come to mind), this spacious album provides a perfect format for this amalgamation.

Sweating the Plague also features several surprises. Opener “Downer” lays a post-punk foundation courtesy of Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr.’s brittle, palm-muted guitar work, while Kevin March’s upbeat-accenting drum hits emphasize Pollard’s suck-it-up denunciation of self-pity: “Oh, I don’t like to see you crying/It’s such a downer.” It’s a sonically combative starting point for a Guided by Voices album, but even when refusing the sing-along immediacy of a “Over the Neptune/Mesh Gear Fox” or “Space Gun,” “Downer” still charges forward with the requisite burst of momentum-building energy. Swaying ballad-as-battle-cry “Mother’s Milk Elementary,” meanwhile, begins with an uncommonly lengthy vocals-only section that spotlights the mileage on—and the melancholic mortality of—Pollard’s golden-crisp baritone.

Churning out roughly five albums a year, Pollard has frequently been accused of valuing quantity over quality in order to indulge his legendarily superhuman songwriting pace. Yet Sweating the Plague contains fleshed-out realizations of Guided by Voices’s sketches and drafts that have been kicking around for years. “Street Party” repurposes a chiming riff from “The Kissing Life,” an unreleased track dating back to 1998, to wonderful effect, while the Byrds-influenced “Your Cricket Is Rather Unique”—galloping and then soaring in 12/8 time—brings glorious hi-fi life to a demo at least five years old. March assumes vocal duties on the track, in a rare instance of Pollard letting someone else sing his lyrics, and the drummer’s fragile voice makes the cryptic imagery—”Now we’re all unknown/Finding what you’ve sown/Suddenly the eyelids recede”—somehow brim with both sorrow and hope.

Many of Sweating the Plague’s best moments find Guided by Voices in near-prog terrain. While much too power-pop to act as homages to the early Genesis and King Crimson suites Pollard so adores, “The Very Second” and “Tiger on Top” nonetheless contain multiple melodic and structural detours that reveal new dimensions to his craft. “Sons of the Beard,” an album highlight, is inventive and epic in ways Pollard has seldom explored outside of his solo and side-project work. A long, somber, spacey acoustic verse gives way to a rousing electric chorus embellished by fuzzed-out synth glissandos, and before returning to another chorus the band delivers a two-part bridge that climaxes with a towering Gillard solo. That’s an eon of vocal-less instrumentation in GbV-time, but it’s also one of the most astounding feats this latest incarnation of the band has accomplished, a master class in texture, dynamics, and mood.

Not everything rises to this level of greatness, especially “Immortals,” given its pedestrian main riff. And one can’t help but raise an eyebrow at lead single “Heavy Like the World,” which contains a jangly guitar line almost identical to that of “Wormhole” from 1998’s Do the Collapse. But it’s a wonderfully ascendant track, one served well by Travis Harrison’s stellar production and his penchant for bringing March and bassist Mark Shue’s densely pounding rhythm section to the fore. This sound works wonders for the bouncy, chugging “Ego Central High” by discovering a Sabbath-like low end to a riff that would make Cheap Trick proud.

Whether Sweating the Plague initiates a new stylistic phase for this deathless band remains to be seen. While welcome, a more ambitious sound may very well soon make way for another round of succinct instant-classics like the recent “Cohesive Scoops” and “The Rally Boys.” For now, it’s worth appreciating this exciting outlier and a Guided by Voices that can be led triumphantly into uncharted water by its intrepid captain.

Label: Guided by Voices Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Kesha Gets Her Swagger Back in Raucous “Raising Hell” Single and Video

The song reprises the driving dance beats and irreverent, IDGAF swagger of the singer’s early hits.

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Kesha
Photo: Dana Trippe

Clocking in at under three minutes and featuring lyrics like “I’m still here, still bringin’ it to ya,” Kesha’s new song, “Raising Hell,” feels more like an album intro than a proper lead single. But it’s a fitting re-introduction, reprising the driving dance beats and irreverent, IDGAF swagger of the singer’s early hits: “I’m all fucked up in my Sunday best/No walk of shame ‘cause I love this dress/Hungover, heart of gold, holy mess/Doin’ my best, bitch, I’m blessed.”

Though it’s not quite a return to form, “Raising Hell” is a gospel-tinged rave-up featuring Big Freedia that provides a bridge between Kesha’s breakout sound and 2017’s more introspective, roots-inspired Rainbow. Her forthcoming album, High Road, reportedly boasts a wide breadth of styles, from dance-rap bangers to dream-pop ballads, and guests Brian Wilson, Sturgill Simpson, and, yes, even a meta-appearance from “Ke$ha” on the track “Kinky.”

In the video for “Raising Hell,” Kesha plays a very-Aqua Netted televangelist who murders her abusive husband and goes on the lam. The clip, directed by Luke Gilford, sets up a narrative thread that, based on the album’s trailer, will ostensibly run through the entire project.

Watch below:

High Road is set to be released on January 10 on Kemosabe/RCA Records.

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Review: Neil Young Reconvenes Crazy Horse on the Uneven Colorado

The album’s direst moments are still refreshing because they find Young doing whatever the hell he wants to.

3

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Neil Young
Photo: dhlovelife/Warner Records

Unlike most of our oldest still-active bands, Crazy Horse have not only managed to avoid acrimony—despite the departure, by various means, of a rhythm guitarist or two—they’ve also continued to make vital music throughout their entire tenure. On 2012’s jam-happy Psychedelic Pill, the group’s greasy-joints chemistry was as palpable as ever. Their brand of gloriously ragged, plodding guitar rock has aged so well because it was never cool—and a few mild variations on the formula have made it work in every decade.

Perhaps the main reason Crazy Horse have managed to stay venerable is that Young has opted to put them on the backburner so often to chase his whims, typically reconvening them only when timing and inspiration aligned. So the band has been spared his various follies—the worst of which have mostly come in the years since Psychedelic Pill. Crazy Horse pulled ol’ Neil out of a slump in the ‘80s, so it would be reasonable to hope that their latest effort, Colorado, would turn out to be the perfect antidote to his latest fallow period.

Unfortunately, the album doesn’t offer a definitive conclusion on that front either way, as its highs—vintage Crazy Horse guitar workouts, a small handful of charmingly intimate ballads—are intermittently marred by the same sort of problems that have characterized Young’s recent solo work. This includes particularly tuneless vocals and a tendency toward clunky, Facebook uncle-level environmentalist and political ranting. An accompanying making-of fly-on-the-wall documentary, Mountaintop, is similarly schizophrenic, seemingly devoting about as much time to Crazy Horse effortlessly falling into their usual groove as it does to a cranky Young chewing out his engineers over a faulty monitor.

Colorado also isn’t your typical Crazy Horse album, and not only because the band features a new member: longtime Young collaborator and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. Indeed, with gentle piano taking up nearly as much space as heavy distorted guitars, Colorado’s closest analog in the Crazy Horse canon is its greatest anomaly: 1994’s murky Sleeps with Angels. Although it lacks that album’s lyrical gravitas and sharp melodicism, even Colorado’s direst moments are refreshing because they find Young doing whatever the hell he wants to, which may in fact be the one defining constant of his career. Besides, the non-electric songs here—the rollicking acoustic guitar and harmonica-based “Think of Me,” the gently cooing piano popper “Eternity,” and the hushed closer “I Do”—are among the album’s best anyway.

The latter of these is one of the more lyrically interesting songs that Young has written in years. As he admires the beauty of nature as it decays around him, he addresses either God or his fellow man, asking, “Why do I believe in you?” The moment is poignant, but it’s also the only time on the album where Young’s politically focused lyrics display any level of nuance or ambiguity. His heart is in the right place, and he’s always been extremely blunt when writing about the issues of the day, but the Neil Young of the ‘70s would have never stooped to something like “Rainbow of Colors,” which nicks the melody of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” to deliver a treacly celebration of diversity in “the old U.S.A.”

Fortunately, even Young’s most oatmeal-brained lyrics are at least somewhat tolerable thanks to bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina’s perfectly anti-metronomic grooves. On paper, the lyrics to “Shut It Down” read like an unedited blog post written by an aspiring Edward Snowden type after a few too many bong rips, but when set to Young frenetically pounding on the open strings of a dirty, distorted guitar, they take on an air of menace. And say what you will about a lyric like “I saw Mother Nature/Pushing Earth in a baby carriage,” from “She Showed Me Love,” but at least it’s technically a metaphor, even the most basic of which were apparently beyond Young’s capabilities on the painfully literal The Monsanto Years. It helps that the song is the kind of sloppy, bulldozer-paced extendo-guitar jam that Crazy Horse’s ineffable alchemy has been rendering utterly mesmerizing since 1969.

Label: Warner Records Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Swans’s Leaving Meaning Depicts a Grim and Unrelenting Hellscape

The album is a piece of blood-spattered Americana, a haunted-house version of the fabled American dream.

3

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Swans
Photo: Jennifer Gira

In their original incarnation, Swans were as ferocious as the heaviest of metal bands, and their live shows were notoriously punishing. They eventually expanded their palette to include industrial and goth elements, and after disbanding in 1999, frontman Michael Gira spent a decade fronting the folk band Angels of Light. When he reformed Swans in 2010, their music was considerably less abrasive. Leaving Meaning continues to incorporate the freak-folk influence and increased melodicism of Swans’s post-reunion efforts, but it’s also another example of the band’s central problem: They’re much easier to respect than like.

Gira reportedly approached the recording of Leaving Meaning differently than he did recent Swans efforts: Instead of having a set band, he recorded these songs with a collection of musicians picked to bring each to life as he envisioned it. But despite the shift in method, the album sounds much like the group’s last few outings. The songs fall somewhere between drone and folk, like standard ballads played by a band from hell. Rhythms plod and melodies buzz, affecting the listener physically like infrasound. In the band’s early days, Gira sang with a throat-shredding intensity that made him sound like an exploding demon, but here he’s adopted a different persona, singing without affect, like a grim archivist of the apocalypse.

An axiom about writing holds that a writer’s goal should be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But Gira’s guiding ethos seems to be to afflict everyone. His songs catalog human misery—violence, degradation, abusive sex, death—with an unflinching eye, descending once again into the gory sub-basement of our collective soul. Gira has always tried to provoke a sublime reaction, a physical response that transcends language. Of course, these songs have lyrics, though they concern bodies being bloodily rent apart, milk that’s black, and an entity called Sun Fucker that’s worshipped for its planet-annihilating possibilities.

The title track reveals a series of paradoxes (“I can see it but not see it/I can feel it but not keep it”) before its climax urges, “Somewhere/No place—let’s go! Nowhere/This place—let’s go!” Elsewhere, “Cathedrals of Heaven” portrays human connection as a way to summon some eldritch horror: “Please open my chest/Please curl in my nest/My tongue will turn black/From tasting your spit.” It’s grim and unrelenting. These songs traffic in snatched images, and the closer Gira gets to something straightforward, the clumsier his writing becomes: “The president’s mouth is a whore” is one particularly memorable clunker.

Overall, a good point of comparison is the 2003 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Alexandre Aja’s film filters genre elements of the western through a horror lens to critique America’s obsession with violence. Likewise, Leaving Meaning is a piece of blood-spattered Americana, a haunted-house version of the fabled American dream. But while Gira is a clever musician, that doesn’t make the world he’s created here a pleasant one to visit.

Label: Young God Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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