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Indie 500: Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, & Saturday Looks Good to Me

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Indie 500: Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, & Saturday Looks Good to Me

Radiohead is my favorite band I almost never listen to. Like clove cigarettes and emo hoodies, some things just go better with teen angst. The Bends was a benchmark album for me, like a lot of kids my age; Radiohead is my generation’s The Smiths, except way more popular in the US and even more inscrutable. At the peak of my obsession, Hail To The Thief leaked months in advance in unmastered form; burned copies flooded my high school. I lay down on the ground during lunch, threw on my headphones, and kept them on for the next few months. When the mastered album came out, I actually went to Best Buy and repeated the process; I felt guilty about having all those free albums.

As a band, Radiohead are pretty impeccable, so good that even contrarians come around after a while: Sasha Frere-Jones went from derisively comparing them to Coldplay (“Add a whine here, subtract a major chord here, and nobody would know”) to “Reassessing Radiohead.” But Hail To The Thief was a letdown. It started and ended with two of their strongest tracks, and there wasn’t anything particularly wrong in the middle I could put my finger on. Still, at 56 minutes, with more than half of the tracks running over 4:00, they seemed to be sprawling out for no good reason. Stereotypically flighty, Radiohead had gone from style to style on each album, but their much-hyped “return to rock” seemed to take their songwriting logic to its extreme, regardless of instrumentation. Ever since Kid A, Radiohead’s structures are based on repetition and elaboration: listen to “How To Disappear Completely” and notice how virtually the entire song is underpinned by the same eight bass notes over and over. Strings and vocals swell out and amplify the song. Much of Hail lacked such developments; it was strong, but not strong enough. I stopped thinking about the band.

At a zippy 42 minutes, In Rainbows has a brevity and lightness that’s, until now, been consciously exiled from Radiohead’s work. Opener “15 Step” makes like Amnesiac rebooted, with tinny glitch programming and Thom Yorke’s swaying voice seeming to threaten to piss off the rockists again. But then the guitars and real drums kick in, and it sounds like nothing so much as Talk Talk after they alienated the mainstream: jazzy guitar, swaying rhythms, on-the-go and energized. Until now, Radiohead has seemed to know only the extremes of crushingly heavy and ponderous rockers (all of The Bends and most of OK Computer), enervated balladry (“Motion Picture Soundtrack,” most of Amnesiac), and the occasional excursion into frantic paranoia (“2+2=5,” “Electioneering”).

The ballads are lighter too. “Nude” is a gorgeous fan favorite that’s been kicking around for a while. It’s done here without trading energy for melancholy, as Radiohead frequently do: instead, a light intro of backwards-looped guitar notes swell into a silence puncutated only by a single bass note. The song eventually fills up, but it’s never as full and dense as it might have been if recorded in time for, say, OK Computer. The best song is also the shortest: at 2:10, “Faust Arp” is little more than guitars, strings and voice that gets the melody out and then shuts up.

I’m not sure if In Rainbows as a whole is the stuff of classic status: the back half seems to be loaded with grinding jams (“Reckoner,” “House of Cards”) that, per Thief, go nowhere in particular very intelligently. Somewhere along the way they’ve forgotten how to sequence albums. Kid A is so perfectly assembled that Chuck Klosterman could synopsize it as a 9/11 Nostradamus-type parable without seeming completely absurd; In Rainbows tells no such stories, entertaining or not: it’s a strong front half and a noodlier back one. But it got me to think about Radiohead as something besides a band which peaked my sophomore year of high school, and that’s something at least.

~

How to write about the simply adorable Vampire Weekend? Columbia brats of the highest order, they’re quite possibly the best thing to happen to trust-fund rock since the Strokes. (For all I know they’re scholarship kids, but whatever.) What I have is the Blue CD-R, a demo-disk with nearly the same tracks (+2/-1) as their forthcoming January debut on XL. “Most of the songs have been tinkered with,” the band wrote in to confirm. There are parts that have been re-mixed and re-recorded.” But for a mere teaser, it’s certainly prominent enough that I feel like a major dumbass for not having heard it earlier; when a blogger like Good Weather for Airstrikes can boast of having seen VW “like ten times now,” it’s like there’s nothing left to say. They’re both officially unreleased and overexposed, depending on your demographic. (It’s almost like a replay of my high school Hail To The Thief conundrum; obsessive listening will happen in two segments again.)

Anyway, Vampire Weekend deserve pretty much all of their hype: they’re the best up-and-comers I’ve heard in the fey-but-muscular vein since Voxtrot, even if their tactics are different. Voxtrot fill up every possible corner with guitars, strings, brass, etc. VW have their band instruments and little else: spaces are filled up with pleasing keyboard simulations (a raft of fake clarinets on opener “Mansard Roof”) or, in particularly expansive moments, an actual cello (“Walcott”) that gangs up with a thudding house beat. There’s a lot of empty space, and no bass drum where you’d expect: if anything, they’re more prone to giving the snare drum some nasty raps. “Mansard Roof” opens tentatively, with Ezra Koenig’s voice floating out over Mellotron-ish sounds and four vicious snare hits: shortly thereafter, a frantic chug begins slowly increasing in tempo. “Oxford Comma” pulls the same slow tempo-increase trick.

None of this description helps; it gives the impression of a band interested in clever technicalities. What Vampire Weekend really are are a band who split the difference between their Afropop influence—noted in every single piece ever written about them—and the straight paradigm of stripped-down indie pop verse-chorus-verse songs. I hesitate to bring up the Afropop simply because it doesn’t seem necessary to have any outside context to enjoy these songs, or have queasy issues about appropriation/theft issues: Vampire Weekend sound like an innovative band with novel songwriting structures recording around a budget. A token nod to a “genre” which really means the entire musical product of a continent seems kind of unnecessary, and possibly condescending.

“Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk” are a pretty unbeatable combination: the latter a slow, deliberate meditation on an unnecessary punctuation mark, the former an excitable combination of Ramones back-up vocals, Clash guitars, and general neutered-punk awesomeness. Throughout the album/demo/whatever, VW make with clever but not showy lyrics and hooks a-plenty. Sometimes they may verge a bit too precious—depending on how you feel about liberal arts majors, a line like “Campus”’s “then I see you/you’re walkIng cross the campus/cruel professor/studyIng romances ” [UPDATED: some of the lyrics are hard to sound out, and VW sent in corrections which I’ve posted here] is either dead-on or insufferable. Only about half of this album is essential, but VW wisely front- and back-ends it, leaving relative (but perfectly pleasant) filler of a more generic sort in the middle; they get from relative diffidence to snarky anthemics (the big closer is the nicely titled “The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance”) in half-an-hour. If the hype is correct, VW is about to become the closest thing twee-pop offers to famous; they certainly deserve it.

~

Fill Up the Room is a fine new album by the underrated Saturday Looks Good To Me that I have a little trouble getting 100% behind. Coming off 2004’s Every Night, the Fred Thomas-led band has abandoned its retro-pastiche approach in favor of something closer to the present day: if every track on Every Night seemed not just in a different songwriting style but to have been mic’d and engineered with perverse specificity to approximate a different pop sub-genre’s sound (‘50s girl group, Belle & Sebastian rip-off, thin live recording, etc.), Fill Up the Room is all of one piece. One long piece. Formerly devoted to brevity, SLGTM have, paradoxically, started to sound more like their contemporaries; the less devoted they sound to their past influences, the less original they sound. Opener “Apple” goes for narcotized doo-wop; two tracks later, “When I Lose My Eyes” nearly hits seven minutes, inevitably making me think of the Decemberists. I know, I know: it’s a shallow comparison. Thinly recorded real instruments (that is, when Barnes isn’t indulging his thick-reverb fetish) are about the only trait they share in common, but I miss the band that pumped out compact homages without guilt. They wear the length without getting proggy, but what was great about their retro-fetishism was how good they were at approximating the sound: it was far more precise than most genre exercises, and the tension between the frequently antiquated-sounding melodies and sharp, contemporary lyrics was what made it work.

Far be it from me to complain about progress, though: Barnes has retained his wit (“posing his problems, pretending they’re poems,” he sketches out a whiny artist on “Come With Your Arms”) and gained an almost problem-solving approach to certain songs (closer “Whitey Hands” builds itself around an unusual marimba-sounding loop). A first half with lengthier songs ends up pandering to me in the second half: Betty Marie Barnes, flat-intonation vocalist extraodinaire, pops in on “Hands In The Snow” to announce that “By the time you read these words I will be gone,” which gets us back to the endearingly, self-consciously maudlin girl-group tone of “Since You Stole My Heart,” the song that got me hooked in the first place. Fill Up the Room is a perfectly fine album that, for once, makes me feel like one of those whiny fans who complain that the old stuff was better. Well, but it was.

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

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Watch: FKA twigs Drops Trippy “Cellophane” Music Video

The singer-songwriter returns today with “Cellophane,” her first single in over three years.

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Cellophane

Singer-songwriter FKA twigs returns today with “Cellophane,” her first single in over three years. Written and produced by FKA twigs, Jeff Kleinman, and Michael Uzowuru, the track is the first taste of her as-yet-untitled sophomore effort, the follow-up to her Mercury Prize-nominated LP1. “Cellophane” is a delicate, piano-driven ballad that finds FKA twigs more vulnerable than ever before: “Didn’t I do it for you?/Why don’t I do it for you?” she begs at the very top of her vocal range.

The trippy music video for “Cellophane” was directed by Andrew Thomas Huang, best known for his work with Björk. The striking clip juxtaposes the song’s emotional lyrics with images of FKA twigs pole dancing in nothing more than platform heels and a bikini. She encounters a CGI winged creature at the top of the pole, sending her plummeting into a pit, where she’s bathed in red mud by several masked women. Watch below:

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Review: Lizzo’s Cuz I Love You Is a Vessel for Pure Exuberance

The singer-rapper’s third album wastes no time going for the pop jugular.

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Cuz I Love You
Photo: Atlantic Records

Several times throughout her third album, Cuz I Love You, singer-rapper Lizzo can be heard breaking into laughter, as if the joy she’s taking in a well-delivered punchline, or simply in the act of music-making itself, has become momentarily impossible to repress. It’s a hard trick to pull off without sounding self-infatuated or contrived. But Lizzo gets away with it, delivering in Cuz I Love You a vessel for pure exuberance.

Coming on the heels of last year’s buzz-building singles “Fitness” and “Boys,” Cuz I Love You wastes no time going for the pop jugular. With its infectious, wordless hook, lead single “Juice” is a 1980s-inspired confection so on point it could turn Bruno Mars green with envy. Both “Like a Girl” and “Soulmate” boast precision-engineered hooks and perky, pop-feminist missives: “Woke up feelin’ like I just might run for president,” Lizzo crows on the former, “Even if there ain’t no precedent…I’m about to add a little estrogen.”

The album saves its most lasting pleasures for its second half—notably “Crybaby,” an oozing Minneapolis funk-rock groove that channels Prince’s “Darling Nikki” while Lizzo lays on the big diva vocals. Indeed, it’s her voice that’s Cuz I Love You’s biggest revelation. She was a rapper first and foremost on 2013’s Lizzobangers and 2015’s Big Grrrl Small World, but here she lets her singing come to the fore, belting out the opening title track so hard it threatens to come apart at the seams, and turning “Jerome,” the mid-album kiss-off to an unworthy man, into a retro-R&B tour de force. Even on the songs that most resemble her earlier work, like the trunk-rattling “Tempo,” she raps with an ear for vocal timbre over lyrical flow, letting her Houstonian accent spread languidly over the words, “I’m a thick bitch, I need tempo.”

Expertly sequenced in a concise, 33-minute package, Cuz I Love You moves from strength to strength. Even its more minor tracks feature standout moments, like Gucci Mane’s typically energetic verse on “Exactly How I Feel” and the soaring trap-gospel coda (complete with flute solo) to “Heaven Help Me.” Lizzo’s talent has always been evident, but this album’s material, her strongest to date, allows her put it on full display. By the languorous, seductive neo-soul of closing track “Lingerie,” her enthusiasm is as contagious as it is well-earned.

Label: Atlantic Release Date: April 19, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Anderson .Paak’s Ventura Fuses the New School and Old School

The album serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.

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Ventura
At the heart of Anderson .Paak’s music has always been an emotional unburdening of exuberant proportions. It’s present in the shades of intensity his voice carries between croon and rasp, the luxurious kinetics of his funk-laden instrumentals, and his starry-eyed joie de vivre. On his fourth album, Ventura, Paak alters this blueprint by mastering the equilibrium between exactitude and ease, between vintage soul and new-school fusion.

The salt and sand of the California beach towns where Paak grew up comprise the lifeblood of his albums. Whereas last year’s insular Oxnard paid tribute to the city of his birth, Ventura is more expansive. Dr. Dre, Paak’s longtime mentor, served as executive producer on Oxnard, lending that album its heavy-hitting funk-rap skylarks, but on Ventura, Dre allows his protégé to take the reins. Paak certainly doesn’t shy away from the challenge, as the album is awash in golden timbres and spacious, full-blooded textures. It’s lush yet artfully edited, unforced yet deliberate—a far cry from the overwrought architecture that got the best of Oxnard.

In many ways, Ventura represents a return to form for Paak, as he channels the neo-soul of 2016’s Malibu, which was sorely absent from Oxnard. But while Paak was comfortable residing in the clearly defined contours of traditional verse-bridge-verse song structures on Malibu, he allows those boundaries to blur and shift here. The cinematic opener “Come Home,” which boasts a particularly nimble and clever verse from André 3000, unfolds like an overture, anchored by a choir of angelic voices and hair-raising drumrolls. Staccato trumpets puncture the disco glitz of “Reachin’ 2 Much” before, in one of the most fabulous transitions of the album, giving way to a chilled-down groove equally fit for a backyard BBQ and a dance floor.

Too many tracks on Oxnard felt as if they were carried by noteworthy features like Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, and Q-Tip, leaving Paak as a supporting character at best. By contrast, Paak is never overshadowed on Ventura, working off a tight and balanced chemistry with his guest artists, and he embraces an endearing transparency when he treats topics as disparate as dealing with a nosy girlfriend (“You stay here too much, baby/You know it’s not your place”), reigniting a dormant love (“When you take somebody for your own/It can’t survive on history alone”), and uplifting community in the face of racism and poverty (“The people that you came with? You’re coming with me”). Throughout it all, Paak maintains an optimism that, though some might deem naïve, is undeniably infectious.

The foundations of Paak’s sound—disco, funk, ‘70s soul, California G-funk—cast an air of nostalgia over his music. But he’s shrewd enough in the design and construction of his music to prevent the amalgamation of these influences from slipping into pastiche or kitsch. Although Ventura is replete with anachronisms—theatrical strings fit for Earth, Wind & Fire (“Reachin’ 2 Much”), nightclub-ready slap bass (“Jet Black”), quiet storm (“Make It Better”)—Paak fuses the old school and new school seamlessly, producing a sonic palette that hasn’t quite been replicated by any of his contemporaries. Ventura serves as a reminder of the magic that can result from looking to the past to inform the future.

Label: Aftermath Release Date: April 12, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Madonna and Maluma Drop Sultry New Single “Medellín,” from Madame X

The lead single from Madonna’s 14th album is driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm.

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Medellin
Photo: Interscope Records

Last month, Page Six of the New York Post published an article titled “How Madonna is using younger stars to cling to relevancy.” The infamous tabloid swiftly revised its headline to the marginally softer “How Madonna is using younger stars in hopes to stay relevant” after receiving blowback for what some perceived to be a double standard. But as the gulf between the 60-year-old pop queen’s age and that of the average radio star has continued to widen, it’s true that she’s increasingly leaned on collaborations with younger artists like Justin Timberlake and Nicki Minaj.

You’d be forgiven, then, for assuming that “Medellín,” the first single from Madonna’s upcoming 14th album, Madame X, is an attempt to cash in on the ever-growing popularity of reggaton. While the 25-year-old Maluma is a huge star in Latin America, however, he’s yet to cross over beyond the Latin-pop market in the U.S., so the partnership appears to be a mutually beneficial one. And Madonna has lovingly appropriated Latin culture in her work for decades, as far back as 1986’s “La Isla Bonita,” and as recently as her torero-inspired music video for 2015’s “Living for Love.” In fact, one could argue it’s the single most consistent musical theme of her career outside of, say, dance music more broadly.

Co-produced by Mirwais, who was previously at the helm of Madonna’s Music and American Life albums, “Medellín”—named after the city where Maluma was born—is a sultry midtempo track driven by a decidedly unhurried tropical rhythm and Madonna’s catchy refrain of “one-two cha-cha-cha.” The singer’s inexplicably Auto-Tune-drenched verses are nostalgic and wistful, nodding to the breezy escapism of “La Isla Bonita”: “I took a sip and had a dream/And I woke up in Medellín.”

Vocally, Maluma does most of the heavy-lifting on the bilingual track, with inuendo-filled verses that reference both Colombia and Madonna’s hometown of Detroit. But Madonna’s sugary harmonies, particularly during the song’s rousing hook, balance out Maluma’s gigolo routine with a dreamy sweetness.

Listen here:

The music video for “Medellín” will premiere on April 24. Madame X is out June 14 on Interscope Records.

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Review: The Chemical Brothers’s No Geography Resembles Loving Fan Fiction

The album displays elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retains the same playful inspiration found in their best work.

3.5

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No Geography
Photo: Hamish Brown/Astralwerks

To call the Chemical Brothers’s No Geography a kind of impeccable fan service is to suggest a criticism entirely unintended. If the U.K. duo’s ninth album resembles loving speculative fiction, it’s of an urgent, exciting sort that the electronic pioneers have more than earned over their relatively consistent 25-year career. In fact, save for the wonky sequencing choice of front-loading the two most negligible songs—the boilerplate big-beat intro of “Eve of Destruction” and ”Bango”—No Geography could easily pass for a collection of epic B-sides to some of Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons’s signature classics.

“MAH” (short for “Mad As Hell”) is a dopamine-surging mash of familiar sounds, its frenzied, vaguely tribal beats and grinding noise reminiscent of “It Began in Afrika” and “Chemical Beats,” respectively. “Gravity Drops” gives the 808s-on-Salvia drum thunder of “Come with Us” a modern production spit-shine, with some additional sprinkling of Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love” and Aphex Twin’s “Windowlicker.” “We’ve Got to Try” similarly resurrects the hip-hop-based car-stereo thump of the Chemical Brothers’ first two albums, and even raises a glass to two of the stronger tracks (“High Roller” and ”Busy Child”) by their early American counterpart the Crystal Method.

Fans of the Chemical Brothers tend to have their own favorites among the many genre styles the pair use to generate their panoramic sonic palette. If you love the group’s bouncing, THC-fried detours into crisp, disco-infused pop, singles like “Got to Keep On” and “Free Yourself” are made to order. For this listener, it’s the moody dance-floor psychedelia, and in this vein, No Geography thrills as well: “The Universe Sent Me” gives “Star Guitar” a darker, more meditative spin with its humming baseline, ethereal Liz Frazier-esque vocals, and fire-damaged guitars, and “Catch Me I’m Falling” winds down the BPMs while turning up the intergalactic lovesickness. These songs, like the album as a whole, display elements of all stages of the duo’s career yet retain the same playful inspiration found in their best work.

Label: Astralwerks Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Watch: Madonna Unveils Teaser Trailer for New Concept Album Madame X

The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks.

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Madonna
Photo: Instagram

Certain discrete corners of the internet lost their collective minds earlier this month when Madonna’s Instagram page, alternately littered with posts featuring the singer’s adopted twin daughters or snapshots of her recent photo and video shoots, was taken over by nine indivudal images comprising a large red “X.” The typically prolific celebrity ‘grammer remained relatively quiet over the next two weeks, intermittently posting images of the letter X in her stories, and slowly revealing the manifesto for Madame X, her first album in four years:

Madame X is a secret agent
Traveling around the world
Changing identities
Fighting for freedom
Bringing light to dark places
She is a cha cha instructor
A professor
A head of state
A housekeeper
An esquestiran
A prisoner
A student
A teacher
A nun
A cabaret singer
A saint
A prostitute

The album’s lead single, which could be out as soon as this week, is rumored to be a duet with Colombian reggaeton singer Maluma, but details are scarce. The secretiveness surrounding the project isn’t surprising given that Madonna has been the victim of rampant leaks since at least the turn of the century. The studio recordings for her last album, 2015’s Rebel Heart, leaked like a sieve, resulting in the arrest of an Israeli hacker.

This time out, the queen of pop has successfully kept things under wraps, but it seems that Madame X—a character perhaps inspired by the 1966 film of the same name starring Lana Turner—is ready for her close-up. Watch the teaser for the new album, directed by Steven Klein, below:

Madonna will reportedly perform new material from Madame X at the Eurovision Song Contest on May 14.

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Review: Craig Finn’s I Need a New War Soars When It Rises Above the Mire

If there’s one thing that squarely separates the album from the Hold Steady singer’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness.

3.5

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I Need a New War
Shervin Lainez/Big Hassle

The artistic growth Craig Finn has displayed over the course of his four solo albums is comparable—in terms developing a lyrical and production style—to his progression as a songwriter across the Hold Steady’s first four albums. The difference is that rather than sketching out narrative party epics set to huge power-and-glory guitar riffs, Finn is now mostly writing tightly focused character studies to go with his largely understated indie rock songs—music, in other words, that’s harder to latch onto and easier to overlook.

Despite its title’s connotations, I Need a New War—the third in a retconned trilogy of albums—finds Finn further entrenching himself in the stylistic hallmarks of 2015’s Faith in the Future and 2017’s We All Want the Same Things. The album’s ties to its two predecessors are, however, largely implicit rather than explicit. Counter to past Hold Steady albums, there are few, if any, recurring characters, and unlike Holly, Charlemagne, and the whole crew of divinely inspired party hounds who Finn sings about with that band, his subjects here are mostly just regular folks doing their best to muddle through their day-to-day lives. It takes one hell of a good writer to turn that kind of subject matter into compelling rock n’ roll, and Finn—practically in his own category as a lyricist—is up to the task.

Produced by Josh Kaufman, who also helmed Faith in the Future and We All Want the Same Things, I Need a New War retains many of those albums’ sonic traits: watery guitars, pillowy keyboards, and a stuffed-nose Finn singing in a lower, relaxed register. But it’s also a departure, introducing new wrinkles like silky backing vocals by Annie Nero and Cassandra Jenkins and a liberally employed brass section that gets downright jazzy on the lounge-y “Her with the Blues.” Several songs, particularly “Magic Marker” and “Indications,” unexpectedly adopt a ‘50s doo-wop sound, continuing Finn’s penchant for introducing new stylistic approaches on each of his solo albums that we haven’t heard from him before.

If there’s one thing that squarely separates I Need a New War from Finn’s previous work, it’s the consistent mellowness. With its dreamy atmosphere and loitering tempos, the album is more reliant than ever on Finn’s wordplay. This is rarely an issue for a lyricist of Finn’s caliber, as his eye for detail can turn seemingly mundane scenarios—a simple favor that becomes hard to repay (“A Bathtub in the Kitchen”), an office drone who daydreams of driving away from a dead-end relationship (“Carmen Isn’t Coming in Today”)—into resonant vignettes.

At the same time, Finn can get too bogged down in minutiae, such as devoting an entire verse of “Holyoke” to binge-watching TV shows. But even then, the aside serves the song’s larger purpose of illustrating the anxiety-ridden narrator’s vain attempts to distract himself from the omnipresence of death: “Massachusetts, man, you’ve got a lot more graveyards than we’re used to/I swear to god they’re every other mile.”

I Need a New War soars when Finn dares to rise above the mire. This includes “Something to Hope For,” whose optimistic title is mirrored in its peppy, infectious hooks. And lead single “Blankets” is Finn’s most rousing solo effort to date, an account of a desperate search for an old flame that’s as sweeping and powerful as the “thunder in the canyon” that the musician sings about on the chorus. The song’s concluding thought—“You live your whole life/Just to travel to the place you’re gonna die”—is as bleak and resigned as anything else on the album. But like almost everything that Finn sings, it’s also invigorating.

Label: Partisan Release Date: April 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The 25 Best Chemical Brothers Songs

To celebrate the release of the duo’s ninth album, No Geography, we ranked their 25 best songs.

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The Chemical Brothers
Photo: Hamish Brown

This week, the Chemical Brothers will release their ninth studio album, No Geography, a notable feat for a group that was first propelled into the mainstream via electronica’s so-called big bang in the late 1990s. Here’s how consistently rich the duo’s vast catalogue has been throughout their near-25-year career: Given the task of choosing our individual favorite tracks, we came up with over 50 contenders worthy of inclusion. As you read—and better yet, listen—to this list, you’ll discover some unexpected omissions (pour one out for one of their biggest crossover hits, “Blocking Rockin’ Beats,” which didn’t make the cut), but also some equally surprising additions that more casual fans may find unfamiliar. Regardless of your level of immersion, though, what you’ll find here are 25 of the most explosive, head-bobbing, ass-shaking anthems in electronic music history. Blue Sullivan

Editor’s Note: Listen to the entire playlist on Spotify.

25. “Saturate”

The Chemical Brothers’s 2007 album We Are the Night is rightly maligned for containing a few of the duo’s rare missteps (here’s looking at you, “Salmon Dance”), but it also contains one of their most propulsive house bangers. Built on ping-ponging keys and a bassline so deep and dirty it almost qualifies as subliminal, “Saturate” builds to a surge of hammering snares that sound like crashing waves. A frequent late-set addition to the duo’s live show over the last decade, the track is just as deserving of its inclusion here as any of their early classics. Sullivan

24. “Life Is Sweet”

But is it? Structured as a call and response, “Life Is Sweet” first finds the Chemical Brothers radiating in an unambiguously optimistic vibe, to the point you can almost feel UV rays emanating from the speakers. And then, suddenly, everything clouds over and you find yourself dancing in a haze of primal doubt that winds up in a denouement of existentialist angst. Eric Henderson

23. “Loops of Fury”

Best video game soundtrack of all time? WipeOut XL, without a doubt. And the Chemical Brothers’s “Loops of Fury” was but one of the crown jewels of a compilation that also included Underworld’s “Tin There,” the Prodigy’s “Firestarter,” Photek’s “The Third Sequence,” and Fluke’s “Atom Bomb.” Even in that company, the relentless “Loops of Fury” comes about as close as any of them to feeling what it would be like to barrel down an anti-gravity race track at more than 200 kilometers per hour. Henderson

22. “Three Little Birdies Down Beats”

There is perhaps no other song on the Chemical Brothers’s 1995 debut, Exit Planet Dust, that defined the duo’s developing sound more efficiently than the unrelenting “Three Little Birdies Down Beats.” The track is a torrent of increasingly complex layers: breakbeats, soul samples, and an onslaught of screeching guitars and distorted vocals that would become the group’s signature over the course of the next decade. Sal Cinquemani

21. “My Elastic Eye”

Based around a sample of electronic composer Bernard Estardy’s 1973 piece “Tic Tac Nocturne,” “My Elastic Eye” sounds at once cinematic and classical, fusing prog-rock and jazz influences, and boldly employing the filtered basslines of French techno and electroclash, which was peaking in popularity around the time of the song’s release. The result is a mélange of styles that cohere into a spooky musical score that wouldn’t sound out of a place in an Argento giallo. Cinquemani

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Review: Khalid’s Free Spirit Embraces Self-Inquiry to Hackneyed Effect

The album feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.

3

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Free Spirit
Photo: Grace Pickering

With his butter-smooth two-octave vocal range, megawatt smile, and candid, sincere commitment to portraying millennial love—replete with boozy Uber rides and text-message mind games—Khalid has swiftly become a pop fixture, carving out a seemingly permanent place on the Billboard charts. But there’s a sense of guardedness, an almost antiseptic quality, to the 21-year-old singer’s produced-to-perfection R&B. And on his sophomore effort, Free Spirit, he can’t seem to shake that predilection for playing it safe, despite the album’s calls to lose our inhibitions and be free.

Whereas his 2016 debut, American Teen, played like the soundtrack to teenage romance and misadventure, Free Spirit sees Khalid embracing more mature self-inquiry, albeit to hackneyed effect, as he does on “Self”: “I’ve ran away for miles, it’s gettin’ hard for me to breathe/‘Cause the man that I’ve been runnin’ from is inside of me.” And no less inspired are lyrics like “So if you’re gonna love me/You gotta love all of me” (from “Bad Luck”) and “Life is never easy when you need it to be/Try to knock me down, but I get back on my feet” (from “Hundred”).

Free Spirit brims with potential radio hits, like the broody, laidback “My Bad.” The Disclosure-produced lead single, “Talk,” is bright and electric, with a galaxy of heavily textured synths underpinning the track’s buoyant chorus, in which Khalid shows off his seemingly effortless falsetto. A spacey guitar solo from guest John Mayer elevates the grounded groove of “Outta My Head” into something a little more out of this world. Multiple tracks, however, feature the same reverb-drenched guitar and airy synths, sucked dry of vitality by too-pristine production. For a burgeoning artist still establishing his signature style, Khalid settles into a surprising complacency here, failing to experiment with the template of his debut.

A fleet of 1970s-era vans emblazoned with the Free Spirit logo were deployed to colleges across the U.S. to promote the album’s release, and a band of disillusioned teens taking a weed-stoked road trip are the subject of a short film that accompanies the album. The title track grapples with the tantalizing and distressing prospects of freedom, but Khalid never seems to reconcile the depths of that freedom throughout Free Spirit. Perhaps it’s because, at 21, his journey is just beginning. But with all of the lyrical platitudes that abound on the album, the cover art of which depicts the artist overlooking a desert from the top of a dusty van, Khalid’s coming-of-age odyssey feels more like an American Eagle ad than a documentation of an authentic transformational experience.

Label: RCA Release Date: April 5, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Music

Review: The Flaming Lips’s King’s Mouth Brings the Hooks but Lacks Heft

The album’s heartwarming melodies set to hit-and-miss lyrics represents at least a partial return to form.

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King's Mouth
Photo: George Salisbury/Warner Bros.

Given that Wayne Coyne has spent the last decade mired in increasingly bleak stonerism and aimless neo-psych jamming—not to mention the Instagramming and hawking of absurd novelty merchandise—it’s reasonable to wonder if he’ll ever return to the starry-eyed philosophizing of The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that made him an indie-rock icon. Or, for that matter, if Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd will ever go back to writing the sweet pop melodies that made those albums so indelible.

With King’s Mouth, initially being released on vinyl as a Record Store Day exclusive with a full release to follow, Coyne’s voice is freed of the alienating reverb of the band’s recent work, returning to its clear, humanly quavering state in the center of the mix. Unfortunately, the album only contains about an EP’s worth of solid material, with the rest of the running time devoted to a tedious children’s fairytale featuring narration by the Clash’s Mick Jones.

Jones delivers, in intermittent spoken segments, a predictably offbeat yarn about a beloved king whose severed, steel-coated head becomes a totem of inspiration to the children of the kingdom (itself an extension of an art installation by Coyne). Conceptually, this is no less loopy than Yoshimi or any one of dozens of Lips songs that could have originally been conceived in a crayon drawing. But much of the narrative-focused sections of King’s Mouth lack compositional heft: They’re mostly sub-two-minute, largely instrumental toss-offs that Jones’s flat, disinterested narration does little to energize.

Still, as slight as they are, even vignettes like “Feedaloodum Beedle Dot” and “Funeral Parade” contain snatches of melody more distinct than nearly anything else the band has done this decade. This renewed melodic emphasis, though, is more appreciable on the album’s more deliberately composed songs. With their strummed acoustic guitars, pervasive but unfussy electronic embellishments, and Coyne’s existential musings, these songs sound like the basis of a proper follow-up to Yoshimi even more than the zany At War with the Mystics, did.

Of course, 17 years and numerous musical evolutions and public Coyne episodes later, this does feel a bit like backtracking, especially lyrically. The Coyne of “Waitin’ for a Superman,” “Fight Test,” and “Do You Realize??” was pseudo-childlike in disposition but also knowing and world-weary, and it was in that synthesis that he achieved genuine profundity. On King’s Mouth, Coyne too often defaults to just the “childlike” part of that equation, especially on “Giant Baby,” on which silly refrains of “You’re the biggest baby/You’re a giant little boy” render the eventual payoff line—“And it made me understand/That life sometimes is sad”—miles less impactful than, say, “Everyone you know someday will die.” Album closer “How Can a Head” also sounds a bit like a mash-up of things Coyne has said before in less frivolous contexts: “How can a head hold so many things/All our life, all our love/All the songs it sings.”

The heartwarming melodies that Coyne and Drozd set these hit-and-miss lyrics to represent at least a partial return to form for songwriters who, in recent years, seemed to have forgotten that melody is what they do best. Songs like “The Sparrow,” “All for the Life of the City,” and “Mouth of the King” boast sugary yet wistful melodies in the same vein of some of the Lips’s greatest work, and hearing Coyne sing them is like reuniting with an old friend.

Label: Warner Bros. Release Date: April 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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