I know I keep coming up with constant excuses for this column’s (to put it politely) somewhat irregular publishing schedule, but this one I need to make. Briefly: The Onion A.V. Club is in the thick of its year-end process, which meant I just couldn’t pass up the chance to make a year-end top 10. I just couldn’t; it’s an addiction. So maybe my A.V. Club list and my list here will be markedly different; perhaps not (it’s been a weak year and I don’t imagine many more surprises cropping up). In any case, I’ve been cramming like a guilty high-school student on 2008 releases; notes below represent things I was thinking about intensely a month/month-and-a-half ago. Please accept the mental distance; soon enough I’ll be catching up on everything that ostensibly matters musically about 2008.
Here’s the thing about The Broken West: they’re one of the most derivative bands working today. They have no ideas of their own. They never met a Big Star track they didn’t like, except for maybe “Holocaust.” Am I being clear enough in explaining why I like them? Their 2007 debut I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On was a huge guilty pleasure for me, ridiculous titular Beckett allusion and all. Back then, I shamefacedly wrote out my qualifications with more conviction than I felt, and they’re all still true: “sneering lead singers who assert themselves like American Gallagher brothers … no breathing room except for ballads … don’t have a whole lot on their mind besides, you know, girls and place-holder lyrics … consciously anti-intellectual…They’re not clever, but they’re satisfying.” This was an oblique (OK, trying to avoid chastisement for my taste) way of saying that I listened to their album way too many times, and I’m not real sure why. There’s a lot of filler there: looking on the track-listing a little over a year later, I can’t remember what half of it sounds like, and re-visiting tracks like “You Can Build An Island” or “Brass Ring” isn’t really helping.
The reason I’m revisiting them: they were the only great thing I saw at CMJ. Granted, I didn’t get out a whole hell of a lot (other bands seen: The Browns, The Muslims, Wye Oke, Portastatic). Still, I was in a really bad mental headspace, which was compounded by the fact that I find most shows to be more trouble than they’re worth. The Broken West’s performances of “On The Bubble” and “Down In The Valley” gave me six minutes of visceral, head-thrashing, non-thinking joy, and if I’m doing better now, I owe them at least a little debt of thanks. (This despite the fact that The Broken West apparently read the same guide to being an LA band everyone else did and wear the same stupid neck-length hair and pseudo-rock-star button-down shirts as every other goddamn LA buzz band. They can still play.)
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I don’t really want to pan their new album Now Or Heaven. The press kit announces that the band felt the need to tear it up and start over from rhythms rather than guitars; this basically means the album is all treble and no bass. For a band wanting to bring the retro-hooks, this is not a particularly satisfying approach. There’s a lot of skittery machines and pseudo-electronics that provide tentative rhythms, which isn’t particularly satisfying; the songs play better live, with the drums giving enough muscle to melodies that aren’t as ridiculously big as before but still get the job done. Lyrics are cursory; the best song is probably “Ambuscade,” which announces “these are ruthless people,” which probably means this is yet another song about how awful the music industry is, which is about as meaty a topic as The Broken West can touch without lapsing into cliche. The rest is inoffensive and unmemorable. Props to The Broken West for not resting on their laurels, but what a way to go about it: ditching all your assets for experimentation that isn’t even that experimental. Next time, guys; still love the show.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about Prodigy’s album H.N.I.C. Part 2. Like last year’s Return Of The Mac, it’s good for three spins and little more aside from a few stand-out tracks. Last year, the stand-out tracks were mostly courtesy of Alchemist’s production, and while he and associate Sid Roams still do a good job running things (Roams gets first single “ABC,” which has a bunch of little kids singing the alphabet, leading to an oddly Boards Of Canada-type effect), that’s not really the point.
H.N.I.C. Part 2 comes down to three tracks. The record’s most anomalous is “Veterans Memorial Part 2,” which induced a Pavlovian response in me from its opening chipmunk vocals and soul strings; Prodigy drops the kill-you-for-no-reason bullshit for a second and tells a predictable litany of street reprisals, jail terms and unnecessary deaths with poignancy and original details: there’s a killer out there, sure, but at one point a man kills people for no reason (he can give and take it—he gets shot in the head, goes home and takes the bullet out himself), goes to jail, “came home Muslim,” and two months later is at it again. That version I hadn’t heard before. Prodigy also unsentimentally remembers his dad teaching him how to rob a jewelry store—who knows if it’s true, but he’s a convincing narrator anyway.
But the really compelling and fucked-up stuff comes on two conspiracy-track numbers. The album kicks off with “Real Power Is People”; it starts with the usual kill-protect-get rich nonsense, in convincingly threatening but slightly dull fashion. Then suddenly Prodigy has some unusual images to drop: “Pedophiles rape little kids for energy / Satanic rituals, WTC (RIP) / They lit the Pentagon on fire / That’s lighting the pentagram on fire.” The first time I heard this, I sat bolt upright and started paying extra-close attention. “Wow,” I wondered, “has Prodigy just found a completely irresponsible but effective persona to grab my attention with? Or does he really believe this, in which case he’s gone completely insane?”
Let’s be clear: even when Prodigy was deep in Mobb Deep’s heyday, he never seemed like our most responsible citizen; when he got arrested for possession of a weapon (for the third time) and sent to jail for three and a half years, it sort of made sense. Prodigy’s lawyers may well be on firm ground when they claim he’s being shaken down by the NYPD hip-hop squad, but I still only half-believe everything Prodigy says. But this is a whole new level of crazy. On “Illuminati,” he merely claims that one of the conspiracy theorists’ favorite is out for him: “Illuminati want my mind, soul and body.” Up until now, I didn’t know that Prodigy and my conspiracy-theory-minded dad had anything in common; I’m sure it would be a nasty shock to them both.
As Prodigy’s infamous prison blogs confirm, he’s not joking. Check out installment #3, the bluntly titled” RITUALISTIC MURDER”. Prodigy begins nice and easy with a few reasoned words about 9/11 (“THERE WERE BOMBS GOING OFF ON JUST ABOUT EVERY FLOOR AND THAT’S THE ONLY THING THAT CAUSED THE TOWERS TO COLLAPSE SO PERFECTLY IN DEMOLITION FORMATION.”) Then he gets to the Pentagon: “THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IS THE FACT THAT THE PENTAGON WAS SET ON FIRE, THEY’VE ACTUALLY SET A PENTAGRAM ON FIRE. ONLY SATANIC WORSHIPPERS SET PENTAGRAMS ON FIRE, WHEN THEY PRACTICE THEIR RITUALS.”
After some more talk of energy lines, the investigative work of Alex Jones (if you don’t know, don’t ask) and so on, he finally gets around to telling where all the missing children are going: “PEOPLE I’M SORRY TO SAY BUT 95% OF THESE MILLIONS OF MISSING CHILDREN ARE BEING USED AS A PART OF THESE ELITE SOCIETIES DEMONIC AND SATANIC RITUALS. THEY ARE BEING SEXUALLY MOLESTED BECAUSE IN THESE IN THESE SATANIC RITUALS WHEN THEY MOLEST A CHILD THEY’RE CONJURING UP A NEGATIVE ENERGY. … NOT ONLY ARE THESE MISSING CHILDREN BEING USED AS SEXUAL TOOLS IN SATAN WORSHIP, BUT THEY’RE ALSO BEING EATEN AS A PART OF THESE VERY SAME RITUALS.” He also cites Hannibal. You get the idea. Every track has been “researched”; this is no longer just an album.
Where Prodigy is going with this (I won’t take you any more of the long way) is a very freaky version of black nationalism where white people invent power structures to oppress the Muslim nation or whatever. And while all this is pretty absurd from where I sit, it’s good to hear it. I’m sort of thinking like this: I like to read The New York Times and Dirty Harry’s Place back to back, so that I can read what seems like a reasonable perspective on the world, only to have my brain cleansed with a right-wing lunacy so strident I know it represents a perspective I’d never encounter otherwise in a few sharp, short blasts. (I also enjoy the site because, when not waxing political, Dirty Harry wants to do things like pay tribute to Dana Andrews; ain’t nothing wrong with that.) Listening to Prodigy as opposed to pretty much any other rapper with mainstream recognition—even the devout Lupe Fiasco—is a quick clue to certain avenues of life I will never be invited into, because I’m probably the enemy. Condoning it is beside the point; I’m just intrigued it exists. Besides, like Prodigy really gives a fuck what I think. I wonder what he thinks of Obama.
Like The Walkmen, TV On the Radio are a wildly-acclaimed band every bit as obsessed as what they should sound like as how their songs are constructed. And, like The Walkmen, they’ve just had their breakthrough moment. Not to get all “I was there,” but the brief year that I subscribed to Magnet Magazine, I was briefly insanely dedicated to trying to download sample MP3s of every single band they featured in any capacity, whether in one of their excellent features, the (mostly overwritten) album capsule reviews, and especially the full-page glossy buzz artists who’d get a color photo and a brief write-up. Most fell into the ether, but TV On the Radio had their shot at the moment they were passing through Austin on what I presume was one of their first national touring-laps. At a small in-store at the now sadly defunct 33 Degree Records they were pretty thrilling, running through erratic sound conditions in a way that was improvisatory and engaged, making up plausible songs on the spot. Their trademark empty spaces and drones weren’t in place.
I was mostly annoyed by their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes: now they had a sound, but that sound seemed calculated to resist every pop pleasure that didn’t involve going a capella. No harmonies or complexities, just reverb and lots of droning; not droning in the sense that some bands embrace full-on, just straight lines that reveled in a sound rather than song. 2006’s Return To Cookie Mountain was a step up—producer Dave Sitek came into his own, and the album did more in its first thirty seconds to harmonically stun than the entirety of its predecessor—but the last half degenerated into 8-minute jams going nowhere in particular besides the mixing board.
So, of course, I waited forever to get into this year’s Dear Science, because all I was told was that they’d gone pop, which is what everyone said about their last album, which was only relatively true. Within thirty seconds, they’ve hit clarity: “Halfway Home” opens with one chord being hammered at by the full band, but then suddenly Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals go for a perfect ba-ba-ba equidistant from The Beach Boys and The Ramones. This means two things: that TV On the Radio, having gotten their sound down perfectly, feel free to reference other bands now, and also that they’re comfortable giving you a pop song without feeling all guilty about it. “Dancing Choose” kind of sounds like Barenaked Ladies, I swear to god, but a lot of the album is accessible relative. Kyp Malone’s tracks tend to be a little tricksier, imagining (I know this is a really hackneyed reference point, but I honestly feel it’s justifiable) a world in which the Talking Heads didn’t drop the polyrhythmic experiments but went even further, instructing pizzicato violins to join in. All of which is admirable and interesting to listen to, but the standout track for me is also, typically, the least overtly ambitious. “Family Tree” is 5 1/2 minutes built upon a few simple elements amplified to infinity: a string quartet, a piano whose simple depressed chords echo over and over, and various production frills that use almost ineffable moments to swell everything up. It’s hard to tell exactly what it’s all about, but there’s a general sense of a pathologically damaged family (“in the shadow of the gallows of your family tree”), something I can always get behind.
TV On the Radio are now meeting me 75% of the way there, in that they’ve given me one gorgeous (but not overly sentimental) song for late nights and a bunch of intellectually interesting songs that kind of get my blood pumped and kind of are just cerebrally intriguing without collapsing into drones. I’ll take it.
Grand Archives is as fun a band to listen to as they are boring to write about. Their self-titled debut was respectfully received and promptly forgotten, but this Band of Horses defection deserves at least as much attention as their last album. Seemingly misremembering Howard Hawks, Grand Archives offer up three great songs and no bad ones. Opener “Torn Foam Blue Couch” offers up their vision of unostentious maximalism. Where Band of Horses aim to be an old-school rock band, using only the core instruments at maximum reverbed volume, Grand Archives summon up a slow-building storm from, at first, nothing more than a tambourine, a harp and a boy-girl duo. By the end, the whole band’s in, the drums are pounding, horns have shown up somewhere along the way, and—in time-honored rock fashion—someone’s hitting the same piano octave over and over again.
None of the songs go anywhere surprising, but they get there with confidence, deliberation and consistent skill. The three knock-outs: “A Setting Sun,” a twangy stretch with a surprisingly bouncy chorus. The epic “Sleepdriving” (at 5:20, easily the longest track), the only track that seeks intensity. (NB: there’s something wrong with the version in this video.) Beginning with an urgent guitar-picking riff, “Sleepdriving” settles into a grim but pretty verse (it sounds like one of Elliott Smith’s angrier moments) before an unexpected string bridge comparable to The Shins’ similar one in “Saint Simon,” whose arrangement crawls over the rest of the song. “The Crime Window” sounds kinda like a wussier bar band, which is cool too. (Preferable really.) Predictable but very well-crafted, Grand Archives is my guilty pleasure of the year for the sheer margin between actual merit and number of times played (it’s one of my ten most played bands for the last three months). Not exactly slept-on, but undervalued all the same.
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
Review: Chastity Belt Creates a Space of Their Own On Their Self-Titled Fourth Album
The band learns how to navigate adulthood on their new self-titled effort, leaning on each other for strength and comfort.4
Chastity Belt’s music has become progressively self-reflexive over the years, the wry smile of their 2013 debut, No Regerts, giving way to a broader, deeper exploration of twentysomething anxiety on Time To Go Home and I Used To Spend So Much Time Alone. Julia Shapiro, Lydia Lund, Annie Truscott, and Gretchen Grimm are still learning how to navigate adulthood on their new self-titled effort, but where before they resisted change, here they begin to come to terms with it, and lean on each other for strength and comfort.
With production assistance from Jay Som, Chastity Belt presents a tangible thickening of the band’s sound, with the introduction of strings on “Effort,” “Rav-4,” and “Half-Hearted” and keyboards on “Split” adding texture to their characteristic fuzzed-out guitar arrangements. Each melody and every drum fill feels intentional, and the group’s shared vocals and light-as-air harmonies seem like a meaningful statement of where they are as a band—and as friends.
Nostalgia for times gone by winds its way through the album. The sparse opener “Ann’s Jam” pulls into focus an image of golden-hour driving while “singing along to scratched CDs,” as does the dreamy “Rav-4,” on which Shapiro reminisces about “going to the bar in her Rav-4.” The group basks in circuitous guitar melodies and the soft glow of memory, longing for something lost: On “Ann’s Jam,” the golden light of the drive fades (“Now there’s a thick fog/Around everything I’ve learned”), while “Rav-4” undermines that remembered bar as a place of possibility (“Lost my mind and much more, but who’s keeping score?”).
There’s a sense of a cycle, too, on “Elena,” whose title is a reference to Elena Ferrante, author of the four beloved Neapolitan novels that excavate a female friendship across multiple generations. The band has said that they read the books together, finding parts of themselves in Ferrante’s characters. Our stories are always the same, they seem to be saying, the cycle always repeats. It’s hard to move forward, whether it be from a relationship on “Apart” (“Can’t move beyond the should and should nots”) or with life and career on “Half-Hearted” (“Half-heartedly trying to get somewhere, but I feel I’m just catching dust”).
A simple resolution to the problem of growing up evades the band. The most optimistic sentiment on Chastity Belt comes from the mouth of someone else on “Pissed Pants”: “You said so casually, ‘Everything just works out/In time we’ll all be surrounded by what guides us.” Left to their own devices, Chastity Belt aren’t so sure: “Nothing ever turns out right,” Shapiro worries on “Elena.” Elsewhere, though, the atmosphere is more hopeful, as on “It Takes Time.” If all we need to come to terms with adulthood is time, then who better to spend it with than your best friends? Shapiro, Lund, Truscott, and Grimm work through their issues in a space they’ve created specially for themselves.
Label: Hardly Art Release Date: September 20, 2019 Buy: Amazon
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