NYFF kept me away from “Indie 500” again; sad. Sadder still to report that—although suddenly there’s a plethora of great albums being released (or, more accurately, that I’m finally catching up with)—what’s rocked my world most of late is Jellyfish’s 1993 album Spilt Milk, which sounds like the punchline to some kind of prototypical record-snob joke about obscure bands with horrible names. I’ve been looking out for this for a while; Jellyfish’s rotating cast included Jon Brion on this album when Jason Falkner stepped out. Brion’s since become one of the only film-score names anyone knows, but Falkner is almost as talented, one of those behind-the-scenes movers and shakers whose multi-instrumental talents means he’s one of the rare guys who can play every part on his albums. In his spare time, he’s a session/touring musician for people like Beck, Aimee Mann and Glen Campbell (!). All involved were part of the Pop Underground scene, a term which still makes me gag a little when typing, but basically involves a more melodically complex approach to ‘70s power-pop à la Big Star. Unfortunately, college radio preferred the Elephant 6 collective for their pop needs, which means I’ll have to keep insisting In The Aeroplane Over The Sea isn’t nearly as good as everyone thinks until my dying day.
Anyway, I love this stuff and Spilt Milk is some kind of genius missing link. This is an album that truly lives up to the inevitable reference points to triangulate by; in this case, hysterical multi-tracked vocals and vicious guitar solos straight from Queen alternate with dreamy harmonies and harpsichords from Brian Wilson’s vintage playbook. “Hush” opens things in the latter mode before crashing into “Joining A Fan Club,” the kind of massive song that’s either overbearing or exhilarating, depending on where you’re sitting. “Sebrina, Paste and Plato” has a kids’ choir and a Fountains of Wayne-bouncy chorus. Amazingly, Jellyfish appear to have landed on MTV in the middle of the grunge era (no, they did not prosper), as the appropriately trippy video for “New Mistake” indicates.
About that grunge thing: obviously Jellyfish broke at the wrong moment (though it continues to amaze me that this supremely accessible genre continually meets with complete indifference from the American public). But vocalist/drummer Andy Sturmer seems to have been acutely aware of the situation, which feeds into the surprisingly above-average lyrics. Check out the fierce “The Ghost At Number One,” with its titular ghost “shooting up his poison.” Cobain also makes a lyrical cameo on the last track, the 6-minute-plus barn-burner “Brighter Day,” which absolutely nails its bid for “A Day In The Life” status. Key lines here: “Can’t you see that you can come as you are, as you were / If you prefer you can change.” (Sturmer sings the same vocal line in the same key no less.) Sly rebuke or tribute? Who knows.
Despite his CSNY appearance, Sturmer is blessed with the kind of clear, bright voice that nowadays would probably have him conscripted into some horrid emopunk band before he’d landed the first snare hit. On the gorgeous “Bye Bye Bye” (you should watch this video to revel in the band’s retro-tastic appearance), Jellyfish create one of those gorgeous songs that’s too acute to be truly sappy. The chorus might be a simple reconciliation—“singing bye bye bye bye bye bye bye, cuz I’ve come to take you home”—but it’s earned with the bittersweet line “they both think back to long ago, when thoughts of them both growing old had given them the gray hairs they deserve,” which is worth any half-a-dozen New Yorker stories. (Either that, or out-of-context lyrics will read really maudlin when, uh, out of context.) Grab it all from this lovely blog, which appears to be sadly defunct.
Enough retro-frippery. The Walkmen have returned with You & Me, which is correctly being hailed as their best album. I’ve always found The Walkmen impressive but intimidating in the past. Like TV On the Radio, The Walkmen are studio pack rats who need their own studio to produce their sound, making it clear that how they record is just as (if not more) important to them as song structure. Their obsessive fascination with guitar tones in particular is kind of fascinating: they really want to hollow out the space around their obsessive mic-ing, letting you hear the exact texture of what they’re doing. Then they add on organs and/or horns, and sometimes the full band, but you’re always aware of the space around the instruments. Some people, of course, will never forgive them for never following up on the full-on assault of “The Rat,” which is fair (it’s their most immediate song) but also pointless. Another deal-breaker has tended to be Hamilton Leikhauser’s vocals, which practically define “Dylan-esque.” Which frankly doesn’t bother me: maybe he really can’t sing any other way, or maybe it’s his equivalent of what the Walkmen do to their guitars, but it’s a constant. He’s certainly not stealing Dylan’s lines, which is all I really ask.
The fuzz has folded from murk to mystery: opener “Dónde está la Playa” has a nice counterpoint going between low, tympani-like toms and the spare guitar chords above them, the gap between the two creating not just space but a sense of scope. The Walkmen are now building drama through something other than playing their guitars furiously, and it suits them. As usual, I have a hard time telling the songs apart from memory, but isolated passages stick in my head: e.g. the upwards organ swells leading the bridge in “In The New Year.” But the absolute highlight is “Long Time Ahead Of Us,” an unabashedly gorgeous (and yes, I suppose sappy) ballad. The Walkmen add a new trick to their increasing sonic arsenal of warmth: horns, yes, but also piano strings being swiped in a way that makes them sound like a harp stolen from The Flaming Lips. The Lips and the Walkmen in the same sentence! Will wonders never cease? The Walkmen are still a little abstract and intimidating, but they’re increasingly moving towards the inevitable movement where they make a straight pop album (they’re Nilsson fans, c’mon) and lose everyone’s interest. I’m psyched.
Things I don’t understand but would like to, as it would make me much cooler: Crystal Castles. Their self-titled debut was, I’m informed, all the rage at parties I didn’t go to earlier this summer. Things kick off with “Untrust Us,” an extremely pleasant dose of electronica mysterioso. [NB: this video is actually kind of cool as a mashup of Ratcatcher’s aesthetic with Requiem For A Dream editing. Either that or I’m getting senile.] I’ll actually concur with Pitchfork just this once: “the thing’s called ’Untrust Us’ (natch) and by the next one, they’re making good on that claim.” It would’ve been too simple for Crystal Castles to just please me.
Instead, what they do is this whole other thing wherein, a lot of the time, vocalist Alice Glass screams in a vaguely sexual/Karen O-ish fashion that I am quite frankly very tired of. Right now, for example, I’m making one last token cycle through the album, and I find that a song called “Love And Caring,” of course, has Alice screaming her little heart out in a treble register through a muffled mic that makes her sound like a frustrated Strokes imitator. I presume that her yelping and frequent breathing is supposed to register aggression, sexual power, or something more or less confrontational that should be adrenalizing. The music mostly consists of little glitches and drum pounds that sound, to my admittedly untrained ears, like the most generic indie dance-rock ever. I have no idea, for example, why “1991” is called that, because it doesn’t really connote the year to me; “Courtship Date” sounds vaguely warm and Justice-y, but the title still seems like an unhelpful placeholder. I guess I’ve heard too much of this crap at parties or whatever to really be able to tell what makes Crystal Castles stand out. It makes me feel old, but I wish they would calm the fuck down and not worry about being so “confrontational.” They sound like 13-year-olds trashing open night at a sloppy art gallery.
There is much more to spit out opinions on, but I fear it’ll have to wait til next week. This may be weekly for a while as I catch up. Stay tuned.
Review: Battles’s Juice B Crypts Is an All-Out Aural Assault on the Senses
The group’s fourth album occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of its overstuffed songs.3.5
In her book Our Aesthetic Categories, literary and cultural critic Sianne Ngai describes “zany” as a type of artistic quality that reflects the exhaustion engendered by late capitalism. By that token, Battles makes some of the zaniest music imaginable, drawing on jazz, art rock, avant-garde classical, and electronica for its maximalist, experimental soundscapes. On their fourth album, Juice B Crypts, Battles and a handful of guests launch an all-out assault to overload the listener’s brain, and with mixed results.
There are stretches of the bass-driven opening track, “Ambulance,” that suggest the soundtrack to a podcast about Theranos before shifting into a screechy, cyberpunkish second movement. Guitarist-keyboardist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier eventually blend those two sonic ideas together as the song builds to its climax. The track’s distinct parts represent a microcosm of the album’s ethos: Every song features a plethora of ideas that, when it works, the band manages to weave together into a unified whole, with no gesture wasted.
Prog-rock icon Jon Anderson and the Taiwanese psych band Prairie WWWW contribute to “Sugar Foot,” a mile-a-minute frenzy of a song. Though Anderson’s singing is a tad anonymous, his vocals are smartly processed and buried in the mix. It evokes Nikola Tesla’s ghost watching the assembly line at a Foxconn plant, with ethereal chants duking it out with the synths for supremacy. The final section matches a breakneck drum part by Stanier with some incantatory singing by Anderson, like the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack played at triple speed. The track is one of the better examples of Williams and Stanier’s compositional skills, as they blend a range of disparate sounds together into something truly ethereal.
Taking a cue from Liquid Liquid frontman Sal Principato’s ecstatic guest vocal, “Titanium 2 Step” is a no-wave rave up with explosive percussion and synth parts that recreate the skronk-y, out-of-tune jazz horns that mark that band’s work. But the album’s pièce de résistance is “Izm,” which matches a skeletal, skittering drum part and playful electronic flourishes with an icy guest vocal from Shabazz Palaces. The song’s rap-tronica is a promising new direction for Battles, evidence that there are still creative registers they’re only just beginning to explore.
Juice B Crypts biggest drawback is that, with so much going on, some of these songs get lost in the album’s frenetic whiplash pacing. “A Loop So Nice…” is a fleeting piece of crystalline glitch-pop that suffers from its placement alongside its superior companion piece, “They Played It Twice,” which features a vocal part from Xenia Rubinos that attains almost religious levels of ecstasy. “Last Supper on Shasta, Pt. 1” gets some mileage from Merrill Garbus’s typically wild vocals, but “Pt. 2” buries her singing under a mountain of noise.
Juice B Crypts occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of its overstuffed songs. But even when it’s too maximalist for its own good, Battles’s music is still compelling. That’s thanks in large part to Stainer’s mind-meltingly good drum work, which culls from an impressive array of influences, from breakneck-style jazz playing in the vein of Buddy Rich to polyrhythmic adventurism like that of Chris Frantz to post-punk thudding reminiscent of Stephen Morris. He remains Battles’s stabilizing force.
Label: Warp Release Date: October 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Big Thief’s Two Hands Crackles with the Intensity of a Live Album
The album is a portrait of the band’s skills as musicians, a document of a group hitting its stride.4
Big Thief’s U.F.O.F., released in May of this year, found the Brooklyn-based band fleshing out their sound and exorcising a bit of the darkness that pervaded their first two efforts. Five months later, the band has released that album’s evil-twin opposite. Where U.F.O.F. is ethereal and haunting, the earthier Two Hands boasts the kinetic energy of a live album. Big Thief’s latest isn’t quite the revelation its predecessor was, but it’s a portrait of the band’s skills as musicians, a document of a group hitting its stride.
The biggest difference between U.F.O.F. and Two Hands is that, while the former features copious layers of vocals and reverb, the latter was recorded largely in single takes with minimal overdubbing. As a result, Two Hands is like lightning in a bottle. Big Thief’s enthusiasm for playing together comes through clearly throughout the 10 songs here, many of which have long been featured prominently in the band’s live sets.
These songs wear their influences on their sleeves. Throughout, Big Thief filters 1960s and ‘70s folk and rock through the lens of shoegaze. Two Hands doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but the songs are delivered with enough enthusiasm and musical dexterity that they manage to feel fresh. “Shoulders” is a blooze-inflected barroom jam with the soul of a murder ballad: “The blood of the man who killed our mother with his hands/Is in me, it’s in me, in my veins,” howls singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker. On “Not,” as its title implies, the band dabbles in nihilism with images of fire, drought, famine, and decay. The song concludes with a soaring guitar solo that would make Nels Cline proud. “Forgotten Eyes,” which rollicks and crashes in ways that recall mid-‘70s Crazy Horse, features Lenker’s most impassioned vocal performance: “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection,” she sings during the chorus.
The group’s playing is tight and sharp throughout, but Lenker is what makes Big Thief more than just a bar band. Her lyrics are spare and dark, with a poetic sensibility inspired by Anne Sexton and Raymond Carver. Her singing voice is as distinctive as her writing, with a tremulous warble that’s loaded with emotional resonance. Ranging from guttural yowling to barely contained explosiveness, Lenker’s voice is the perfect vehicle for Big Thief’s dark, pretty songs about personal and political wreckage.
Label: 4AD Release Date: October 11, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Anna Meredith’s FIBS Defies Boundaries, Shape, and Form
The album finds the singer-songwriter continuing to defy genre and break the rules.3.5
Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” British singer-composer Anna Meredith’s albums are wrought with ironclad technical precision, and yet, for all of her classical training, her compositional sensibilities are markedly genre-nonconforming. Just as her 2016 debut, Varmints, blended orchestral pomp and heart-pounding electronics with references to 8-bit video games and science-fiction soundtracks, FIBS finds Meredith continuing to dissolve boundaries, resulting in an album that’s both monumental and intimate.
Shape and form are key to the songs on FIBS. Meredith’s songwriting process reportedly often begins with a drawing—perhaps a sequence of interlocking polygons denoting build, attack, release, or a tornado-esque squiggle leading into a single line bisected by another—and it’s on the tracks that are most easily imagined visually that FIBS is at its most propulsive. From the disorienting clashes of tuba, electric guitar, and drums on “Bump” that eventually cohere into a single, clear resolution, to the thwarted romance of “moonmoons,” pizzicato strings bursting happily like little bubbles as bowed violins creep in, Meredith is a master of misdirection.
The songwriting on FIBS is just as experimental as the arrangements, at least on the album’s first two-thirds. The exhilarating “Inhale Exhale” is driven by a galloping synth line, with an unconventional vocal melody and refrain sung in the round leading to a cacophonous climax. Lyrical references to self-deception—“You say you’re dancing in the deep end, but to me it looks like drowning”—are juxtaposed by a triumphant synth on “Kill Joy,” and a fractured chorus is eventually joined by a disorienting guitar section reminiscent of mid-2000s math-rock. It’s a twisting, confounding song, as all of Meredith’s best are.
If there’s a dip in momentum, it starts at FIBS’s most conventional song, “Limpet,” which follows a more typical guitar-rock arrangement. Downtempo tracks like “Ribbons” and “Unfurl” also suffer in comparison to the album’s richer, bolder experiments. These songs’ lyrics can feel at times perfunctory, more in service to the melody than any actual meaning. The album’s purely instrumental songs—like “Paramour,” a hulking behemoth of a track—spark more of a visceral, emotional reaction. It’s on tracks like these that Meredith is at her most daring, building and refracting shards of sound into bewildering, kaleidoscopic patterns.
Label: Black Prince Fury Buy: Amazon
Review: Chromatics’s Closer to Grey Resplendently Charts the Passage of Time
The album is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends mere nostalgia.4
The Chromatics’s Closer to Grey begins with the sound of a ticking clock, gradually and ominously ramping up in intensity. That same sound closes the album on “Wishing Well,” a twinkling dream-pop ode to a “nowhere town.” Fans of the synth-pop band will know this clock sample well, a trope that dates back to “Tick of the Clock,” from 2007’s Night Drive. It’s been five years since Dear Tommy, the still-unreleased follow-up to the critically acclaimed Kill for Love, was first announced; the album was delayed and retooled multiple times by de facto frontman Johnny Jewel, and the sinister timepiece that bookends Closer to Grey is, perhaps, a coy acknowledgement of the years that have passed since Kill for Love.
The album is instantly enthralling, with that ticking clock drifting into a lush synth-rock cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” The Chromatics have a history of deftly covering other artists’ songs, dating back to eerie renditions of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” from Night Drive and Kill for Love, respectively. And the through line for many of these covers is time slipping away as dangerous outside forces mount an offensive, both themes that the band continues to explore here.
“The Sound of Silence” is complemented by a bright and fuzzed-out rendition of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “On the Wall” later in the album. Singer Ruth Radelet stretches out the original track’s ambling post-punk rhythm into a more luminous and beguiling affair, replete with a tick-tock beat and a commanding vocal performance. She repeatedly sings of clocks perched on the wall throughout the titular refrain and, by the song’s end, the clockwork beat and fuzzy electric guitar are replaced by a synthetic flute. It unravels in three acts, a cinematic journey that’s reprised on the title track, originally released in 2014 on Jewel’s SoundCloud.
The Chromatics have always looked to the cinematic past through an apocalyptic lens. Jewel is deeply influenced by classic horror film scores by composers such as John Carpenter, Tim Krog, Charles Bernstein, and Angelo Badalamenti. The group’s nostalgia trips continue on Closer to Grey: The musical DNA from the soundtrack to Halloween can be heard in the slinking piano of “Whispers in the Hall,” while the textures of “Love Theme from Closer to Grey” similarly harken back to the grainy aesthetic of horror films from the 1970s and ‘80s.
The album, though, finds Jewel stretching beyond these familiar touchstones. “Move a Mountain” is run through with elements of elegiac folk, and “Touch Red” and “Through the Looking Glass” are two of the group’s most chilling and sparse tracks to date. The uptempo “Twist the Knife” is about a disappearance, but its portentous lyrics are complemented by an unexpectedly danceable synth groove. Jewel and company are more unabashed in their approach this time out, even right down to the album’s indiscriminating track sequencing, a welcome change for the typically fastidious band. Closer to Grey is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends the nostalgia of the Chromatics’s prior work.
Label: Italians Do It Better Release Date: October 2, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen Is a Haunting Meditation on Grief
The album explores the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death.4.5
In a message posted to Nick Cave’s online portal The Red Hand Files, a woman named Malina asked a hard, raw question: “My husband died some years ago but I feel him all around. How can this be?” Cave replied that, for those who’ve lost someone, “Sometimes these intuitions hold more truth than the rational world can ever hope to offer—when we are faced with a world that has long since stopped making sense and, indeed, lost its reason.” Released four years after the accidental death of the singer’s 15-year-old son Arthur, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen explores those intuitions with immeasurable generosity, acknowledging the line that separates magical thinking and faith, and the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death.
Sonically, Ghosteen is not unlike its predecessors, Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, each propelled by Warren Ellis’s unearthly, pulsing synthesizers rather than a traditional rhythm section. Although most of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death, it’s often interpreted as being marked by a ghostly presence thanks to those weightless, searching synths. And while they’re still very much present here, Ellis and Cave create an ambient field where all of the ambiguities of grief and hope can exist at once.
Across much of Ghosteen, those synths expand and contract, seeming to leave Cave’s voice floating alone in the abyss. And yet, again and again, a choir rises out of the gloom to join him. “Peace will come,” they sing on “Spinning Song,” and it sounds like an assurance from those who’ve walked this path already, or a wish made by all the people left behind.
For Cave, communal grief seems often as beautiful as it is painful. He calls us all together to witness the “spiral of children climb up to the sun” on “Sun Forest,” and invites his “darling” to watch the vessels carrying the dead “circle around the morning sun” on “Galleon Ship.” Elsewhere, though, not even that bright light is enough to outshine the darkness: Sweeping strings give way to a stomach-dropping bass on “Hollywood” when “the kid drops his bucket and spade and climbs into the sun.” When he dreams that he’s holding Arthur’s hand on “Bright Horses,” or reassures a loved one—perhaps his son, perhaps his partner—that he’ll always be there on “Waiting for You,” Cave’s voice is shot through with pure emotion.
Those imagined “riders” of “Galleon Ship” gallop through Ghosteen like an omen. On “Night Raid,” Cave sees the same “bright horses” running through the streets on the night of the conception of Arthur and his twin brother, Earl, as a dampened bell tolls in the background, slow and funereal. They’re there again, “flaming” in the quasi-Eden of “Sun Forest” before Arthur is lost and he finds the trees burned, the horses screaming. He seems to try to find a pattern, a way of working the chaos of loss backwards to a single point in time, but “nothing can be predicted, and nothing can be planned,” he concedes on “Fireflies.”
In the end, it’s impossible to know what parts of these visions can be understood as an expression of grief and what’s simply beyond explanation. “Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire,” Cave concedes on “Bright Horses,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t believe that there’s more than what he can see, and by the end of the song he can “hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord.” On Ghosteen, Cave doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s comfort to be found in keeping the questions open-ended.
Label: Ghosteen Ltd Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Vagabon’s Self-Titled Album Expands Her Musical and Lyrical Scope
The album flits between topics of love, feminism, and cultural identity with relative ease.3.5
Poet and author Nayyirah Waheed’s emotionally taut and minimalist writing has inspired tens of thousands of posts on Instagram, even including a Mother’s Day message from none other than the Duchess of Sussex. Brooklyn singer-songwriter Lætitia Tamko (a.k.a. Vagabon) is a kindred spirit of Waheed and other female artists in the burgeoning instapoetry scene. In fact, the original title for Vagabon’s self-titled sophomore effort was inspired by a meditative Waheed instapoem line: “All the Women in Me.”
Vagabon serves as an inflection point for Tamko, who expands her sonic palette beyond the indie-rock of her past releases. The album also sees the former computer engineer tinkering with the central marker of her craft: her wafting vapor trail of a voice. Where her seemingly fragile instrument was sometimes pushed to its natural limits on 2017’s Infinite Worlds, here it’s given necessary breathing room, nested within synths and drifting R&B production. “I want to make you a flood in my hands,” Tamko sings on “Flood,” her vocals sending shockwaves through a dark, ebbing morass of synths, while the pulsing “Waters Me Down” boasts a similarly strong vocal performance, laid over a jaunty synth-pop beat.
With its stirring strings and skittering production, opener “Full Moon in Gemini” judiciously lays out its melody and chronicles the beauty of self-destruction. Tamko likens the song’s central relationship to watching over an irrepressible garden: “So many months before I lay with you after I’m through/Tending to the garden that I only just started.” Notably, a reprise of the song closes the album from a male point of view, courtesy of guest artist Monako.)
Whereas electric guitar theatrics built up to some joyful releases on both Tamko’s 2014 EP Persian Garden and Infinite Worlds, Vagabon finds the singer retreating to the comfort of her computer’s Logic program to fashion a world almost entirely around her honeyed vocals. Although you won’t find many ‘90s-infused indie jams like “Minneapolis” or “The Embers” here, Tamko’s voice never sounds strained in ways it once did either.
The penultimate track, “Every Woman,” serves as Vagabon’s de facto closing bell. Its lyrics nod to the #MeToo movement, but its overall message is much broader. “We’re not afraid of the war we brought on,” Tamko sings in the final verse, “And we’re steady while holding you all.” Representing a new generation of women and people of color, Tamko democratizes art in her own way, and moments like these tie her music back to the instapoetry movement, flitting between topics of love, feminism, and cultural identity with relative ease.
Label: Nonesuch Release Date: October 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Wilco’s Ode to Joy Marches to a Comfortable but Monochromatic Beat
The band’s 11th album doesn’t break the mold, though its sound is a bit more pared down.3.5
Wilco gets a lot of credit for being weirder than they actually are. Incorporating elements of genres ranging from krautrock to electronica, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born—two of the most indelible rock album of the aughts—suggested the band would continue to evolve beyond their alt-country origins. Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, though, they’ve pretty much been returning to the same well over and over again, blending together light electronic elements and straightforward rock structures, with guitar pyrotechnics thrown in to show off Nels Cline’s undeniable chops.
Wilco’s 11th album, Ode to Joy, doesn’t break out of that mold, though its sound is a bit more pared down. The project grew out of frontman Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche’s close collaboration, with the two forming the basic shape of the songs around the latter’s percussive ideas. The album’s primary sonic thrust is a driving, two-step march meant to evoke the rising tide of global authoritarianism, with current geopolitical climate influencing the album’s lyrical content as well. Tweedy insists that Ode to Joy’s title isn’t meant sardonically: Even in the midst of chaos, the album suggests, humans have a right to feel joy.
Wilco’s recent sonic stagnation has been an easy enough pill to swallow thanks to Tweedy’s lyrical gifts, and, indeed, his use of language is customarily suffused with a wonderfully poetic economy throughout Ode to Joy. The album is filled with small details that unpack the joy and the squalor of life in equal measure. “White Wooden Cross” is a gentle meditation on love and mortality, with Tweedy asking, “What would I do/If a white, wooden cross meant I’d lost you?” And on “Quiet Amplifier,” he sings, “I wish your will was mine,” a line that could just as easily apply to a personal crisis as it could to a political one.
Tweedy edges toward politics most clearly on “Before Us,” the central thesis of which is the repeated line “alone with the people who have come before,” which suggests that, while politics shape the future, we also have a responsibility to rectify the injustices of the past. Closing track “An Empty Corner” succinctly offers, “You’ve got family out there,” an outward-looking sentiment that shows Tweedy isn’t entirely without hope. As a vocalist, he’s often underrated, and the way his voice nearly cracks on high notes is deeply bathetic.
Some of the songs on Ode to Joy tap into the kind of sonic unease that the band hasn’t achieved since “Less Than You Think,” an 11-minute epic from A Ghost Is Born that captures the feeling of a panic attack. The beat of “Quiet Amplifier” sounds like jackboots goose-stepping across a town square, and the song’s production is compressed to the point of claustrophobia. It feels like a migraine—another of Wilco’s common musical motifs is trying to replicate the types of headaches that plagued Tweedy for years—until its last moments open to gentle, acoustic plucking, offering some relief. The percussion on opener “Bright Leaves” is high in the mix, giving it a Phil Spector-like monolithic sound, while “Before Us” is similarly percussion-forward, with a droning vocal take that approaches anhedonia.
Lead single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” is, perhaps, Wilco’s prettiest song in years, with some down-home finger-picking serving as a counterpoint to a swirling electric line. The lyrics find Tweedy threading a needle between optimism and defeatism: “Right now, love is everywhere,” he sings on the chorus, an odd sentiment given the state of the world. But darkness creeps in on the song’s bridge: “Right now, I’m frightened how love is here: beware.”
Ode to Joy can sometimes feel like a Tweedy solo effort. Cline is oddly penned in here; his guitar playing is unmistakable, but he never gets a chance to truly shine. Cline’s guitar parts on “Hold Me Anyway” and “We Were Lucky” are crunchy and powerful, with the energy of a coiled snake, but neither is as memorable as his solos on “Impossible Germany” or “Hell Is Chrome.” As a result, the album is a bit monochromatic, lacking the classic guitar heroism that has, in the past, allowed Wilco to buck the dad-rock label. Twelve years on from Sky Blue Sky, the band would benefit from opening up their sound again—and getting a little bit weird.
Label: dBpm Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: All Mirrors Finds Angel Olsen Embracing Her Own Forward Motion
The album is the sound of an artist carving out a space where she can be as loud—or as quiet—as she likes.4.5
Angel Olsen reportedly recorded two different versions of her fourth album, All Mirrors. One is raw and stripped down, more akin to her early releases, while the second is lusher, wilder, and layered with orchestration—less a mirror image of the first than a reflection in rippled water. On an album that ultimately sees Olsen make a solemn commitment to accepting change as an implacable force, it only seems right that she chose to release the latter version, documenting the growth of her sound into uncharted territory.
For Olsen, accepting that change is a constant has required the acknowledgement that no two people experience change in identical directions. On All Mirrors, she lets go of those who’ve required her to privilege their desires over her own, finding peace in solitude. That this is, ironically, her loudest, densest album to date seems to speak to the liberation that came with that solitude. On the album’s opening track, “Lark,” strings gather like clouds, only to burst in time with Olsen’s voice as her delivery shifts from low and restrained to loud and confrontational. There’s a kind of ecstasy in the enormity of moments like this and others—like the tense, trilling strings on “Impasse” and the ebb and flow of the synths on “All Mirrors”—that reflects the scope of the personal and professional place Olsen is seeking.
Of course, the route to freedom is circuitous. Olsen’s voice shapeshifts from song to song as she explores the behaviors that perpetuated her need for validation. “Lark” and “All Mirrors” follow a similar pattern, both of their melodies jumping octaves, oscillating between nostalgia for a different time and a relationship lost, and defiance in the face of everything that relationship cost her. Elsewhere, she seems resigned: “I’m beginning to wonder if anything’s real/Guess we’re just at the mercy of the way that we feel,” she sings on “Spring.” She’s the breezy ingénue on “Too Easy,” surrendering to her lover’s will, but she’s tougher, her vocals throaty and low, on “New Low Cassette”: “Gonna gather strength/Give you all my mind,” she sings, imagining—or perhaps remembering—herself in the role of the sacrificing partner.
But Olsen refuses to play that role anymore. “Dream On,” she howls over and over on “Lark,” the full force of her band and string section swelling, before she asks, “What about my dreams?” Olsen’s most intimate performance comes on “Tonight,” on which she acknowledges that she’s better off alone: “I like the air that I breathe/I like the thoughts that I think/I like the life that I lead/Without you.” It’s a quiet, painful track, the strings keening over the words “without you” as she repeats them, as if admitting it to herself for the first time.
All Mirrors is challenging and confrontational, and rewards close, present listening. “I’m leaving once again, making my own plans/I’m not looking for the answer/Or anything that lasts,” Olsen sings on album closer “Chance.” This is the sound of true independence, of an artist embracing her own forward motion without having to be concerned with someone else’s, and protecting a space where she can be as loud—or as quiet—as she likes.
Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: M83’s DSVII Traffics in Nostalgia But Not Much Else
The album embraces nostalgia, even if it sometimes feels like that’s all it does.3
Running bare-chested through an alien-infested landscape, blasting at invaders with a massive laser gun, the bandana tied around your head flapping in the wind. Climbing the steps to a crypt that houses the vampire stalking your village, your fingers nervously drumming the pommel of your whip. Battling an army of psychotic turtles to rescue a princess from their king. If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you likely spent much time in front of the family TV playing video games in the 1980s. M83’s eighth album, DSVII, draws its inspiration as much from that classic era of video gaming as it does from Brian Eno, resulting in an album that traffics in nostalgia, even if it sometimes feels like that’s all it does.
A sequel to 2007’s Digital Shades Vol. 1, DSVII is a step away from Anthony Gonzalez’s more pop-inflected work. The album’s lodestar is the work of Koji Kondo, the Japanese composer famous for his iconic contributions to the Mario and The Legend of Zelda series. Opener “Hell Riders” comes on slowly, climaxing with an arrangement of choir, honky 8-bit synths, and finger-picked guitar that will make you feel like you’re collecting power-ups ahead of a boss fight. The song sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which features small pleasures like “Hell Riders” and “Lune de fiel” that conjure the sounds of the Reagan-Bush years. The hammy piano riff on the interlude “A Word of Wisdom” even sounds like it was plucked from the credit sequence of some lost ‘80s-era family sitcom.
Gonzalez has a way with language, like the portrait of childhood innocence he drew on “Kim and Jessie” or the incredibly evocative poetry of “Graveyard Girl,” that sets him apart from any number of shoegaze/electro also-rans. But the most memorable part of M83’s most popular track, “Midnight City,” was its synth hook, proving that Gonzalez doesn’t need lyrics to create bona-fide earworms. Still, the instrumental songs here—many of which began as drafts for earlier M83 projects—lack the attention to detail of his best work.
Nostalgia has always been part of Gonzalez’s shtick—he did release an album called Saturdays=Youth after all—and DSVII is an undeniably florid soundscape of ‘80s pop culture touchstones. But hearing Gonzalez flesh these castoffs out into full songs through the lens of video game music feels like little more than an amusing experiment.
Label: Mute Buy: Amazon
Review: Tool’s Prog-Rock Tendencies Reach Their Zenith on Fear Inoculum
If nothing else, the band deserves credit for releasing an album as challenging and incrementally rewarding as this.3
Tool may have come of age in the early 1990s as a riff-driven alt-metal band, but they were always navel-gazing art-rockers at heart, owing as much to King Crimson as to Zeppelin or Sabbath. It’s fitting, then, that Fear Inoculum , the band’s fifth full-length album and first in 13 years, opens not with a bang, but a relative whimper.
The title track starts as a muted industrial soundscape, with Adam Jones’s guitar drones merely adding to the atmosphere. Soft Eastern-inflected rhythms skitter by, eventually merging with Justin Chancellor’s sinewy yet supple bassline. Frontman Maynard James Keenan’s contributions are similarly unassuming, at least at first. He croons and chants his way through the main verses, but when the hard-won chorus finally arrives, his voice rises to a crescendo, and we’re reminded of the sheer power of his instrument.
Ever since 1996’s Ænima, Tool has been expanding their sonic palette to include extended instrumental passages, odd time signatures, and lyrics that touch on concepts like Zen Buddhism and Jungian psychology. And these progressive tendencies have reached their zenith on Fear Inoculum; all of its tracks with vocals exceed the 10-minute mark and largely eschew traditional “rock” songwriting for more downbeat arrangements and exotic, laidback grooves. Drummer Danny Carey is arguably the album’s MVP, coloring the proceedings with complex polyrhythms and a diverse array of percussion.
Keenan, meanwhile, continues to outgrow the anger and cynicism of his youth, opting for more reflective lyrics that match the mood of the music. “Long in tooth and soul/Longing for another win,” he sings in “Invincible,” before describing himself as a “warrior struggling to remain relevant, consequential.” On the trippy, psychedelic “Pneuma,” he yearns for transcendence beyond a life “bound to this flesh.”
Sadly, there’s nothing on Fear Inoculum as immediately accessible or anthemic as past Tool glories like “Sober” or “The Pot,” but what is here will reward repeated spins, even if listeners initially find themselves waiting for those mammoth riffs to show up, a la “7empest,” or for Maynard to finally kick into high gear, as in the rousing refrain of “Descending.” Sure, the quasi-ballad “Culling Voices” feels plodding and overlong, and the album’s brief instrumental interludes (“Litanie Contre la Peur,” “Legion Inoculant”) and musique concrète pieces (“Chocolate Chip Trip,” “Mockingbeat”) offer little more than inscrutability for inscrutability’s sake. But if nothing else, Tool deserves some credit for releasing an album as challenging and incrementally rewarding as Fear Inoculum .
Label: RCA Release Date: August 30, 2019 Buy: Amazon
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