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Review: J贸nsi, Go

Go鈥檚 biggest surprise鈥攖hat shouldn鈥檛 really be a surprise鈥攊s J贸nsi鈥檚 remarkable vocal performances.

4.5

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J贸nsi, Go

The amount of angst I felt as I cued up J贸nsi鈥檚 Go for the first time was, in retrospect, totally inappropriate. But I imagine I鈥檓 not the only Sigur R贸s fan to approach the album with anxiety, maybe even a little resentment. Wasn鈥檛 it good enough for J贸nsi to front one of the most beloved and bizarrely successful rock acts of the last decade? Has 鈥渋ndefinite hiatus鈥 ever meant anything other than a slow-motion breakup? Had Iceland鈥檚 art-rock champions somehow been Yoko-Ono鈥檇 by J贸nsi鈥檚 boyfriend/collaborator, Alex Somers?

All conspiratorial bitterness aside, it feels important to acknowledge the high likelihood that, with Go, the mighty Sigur R贸s has been laid to rest for good. But J贸nsi has given us something better than a consolation prize. Go is a splendid, vibrant, and ultimately necessary record鈥攏ecessary because it gives J贸nsi the chance to channel Sigur R贸s鈥檚 strengths (shifting layers of diverse instruments, dynamic composition, and a meticulous appreciation for detail) in blissful new directions. While it鈥檚 not difficult to draw a line from the poppier numbers on Me冒 Su冒 铆 Eyrum Vi冒 Spilum Endalaust (鈥淕obbledigook鈥 and 鈥淚nn铆 m茅r syngur vitleysingur鈥 are this album鈥檚 closest predicates), Go is simply too bright a record to have ever belonged in the Sigur R贸s discography; the rushing strings and woodwinds on 鈥淎round Us鈥 and 鈥淎nimal Arithmetic鈥 are so radiant that they would have melted the band鈥檚 glacial soundscapes on contact. Where Sigur R贸s鈥檚 albums often glowered, Go simply glows.

For me, it was only two minutes in, when J贸nsi melts into the breathtaking chorus of 鈥淕o Do,鈥 that any residual bitterness over the Sigur R贸s bust-up was completely dissolved. But there鈥檚 plenty here for the less easily converted, and besides, longtime fans who can stomach J贸nsi鈥檚 newly sugary demeanor will find that he hasn鈥檛 left them wholly stranded; Go may eschew the cinematic heft of vintage Sigur R贸s, but that doesn鈥檛 mean it鈥檚 all Saturday morning cartoons either. 鈥淭ornado鈥 and 鈥淪inking Friendships鈥 slowly swell toward their climaxes like and Takk鈥-era ballads rendered in miniature, and atmospheric cuts like 鈥淜olni冒ur鈥 and 鈥淕row Til Tall鈥 add welcome sonic and emotional complexity. Nine tracks of unabashed gushing would have been hard to take, and J贸nsi鈥檚 Technicolor sunshine sounds better when it has some dark clouds to break through.

That said, the record does end on a disappointingly dour note. 鈥淗engil谩s鈥 is a spare and moody sendoff that feels wrong for such an ebullient album. And in its uncanny resemblance to 脕g忙tis Byrjun鈥檚 closer, 鈥淎valon,鈥 it鈥檚 the only track that seems like a calculated pander to Sigur R贸s diehards.

But Go鈥檚 biggest surprise鈥攖hat shouldn鈥檛 really be a surprise鈥攊s J贸nsi鈥檚 remarkable vocal performances. Capable of holding it鈥檚 own against 脕g忙tis Byrjun鈥檚 dense guitar drone and Takk鈥鈥檚 lush orchestral movements, his evocative falsetto proved time and again to be Sigur R贸s鈥檚 most compelling instrument. But something very nearly revelatory about hearing that voice leap nimbly from hook to hook on 鈥淏oy Lilikoi鈥 or layered against itself on 鈥淎nimal Arithmetic.鈥 J贸nsi rarely resorts to the howls and held notes that used to be his calling card; across the album, he sounds energized as he races Nico Muhly鈥檚 lively arrangements and his own brisk, percussive backdrops. For a talented artist striking out in a new direction, energized is exactly the right way to sound. Even if the era of Sigur R贸s is indeed over, J贸nsi鈥檚 solo career contains all the exhilarating promise that a new beginning should.

Label: XL Release Date: April 6, 2010 Buy: Amazon

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Madonna and Swae Lee鈥檚 鈥淐rave鈥 Music Video Delivers a Message 鈥 Watch

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

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Crave
Photo: YouTube

Though Madonna鈥檚 2015 album Rebel Heart was infamously plagued by leaks, the singer has kept a tight lid on the follow-up, Madame X. Until last week, that is. Details about the project were scarce leading up to the release of the first single, 鈥淢edell铆n,鈥 but a rough cut of the music video for 鈥淐rave,鈥 the album鈥檚 second single, leaked after director Nuno Xico inadvertently posted a 鈥渇ully unfinished鈥 clip to his Vimeo account.

The leak likely cranked up the heat on what already seemed like a rushed release. Madonna reportedly skipped this year鈥檚 Met Gala to shoot the video for 鈥淐rave,鈥 which is far more radio-friendly than the bilingual 鈥淢edell铆n,鈥 featuring reggaeton singer Maluma. The song is a midtempo trap ballad鈥攜es, that鈥檚 a thing鈥攖hat juxtaposes acoustic guitar and Madonna鈥檚 plaintive vocal with 808 snares and a guest verse from rapper-singer Swae Lee.

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

Alternating between color and black and white, the video鈥檚 concept is refreshingly simple, even if the frenetic editing and Madonna鈥檚 jerky, hyper-sexualized dance moves clash with the track鈥檚 unorthodox but elegant arrangement. Thankfully, she ditches the wigs from 鈥淢edell铆n,鈥 though she is seen donning that as-yet-unexplained 鈥淴鈥 eye patch throughout.

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

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Review: Jamila Woods鈥檚 LEGACY! LEGACY! Is a Chronicle of Black Trauma and Joy

The singer-songwriter imbues her sophomore effort with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her predecessors.

4

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Jamila Woods
Photo: Jagjaguwar

Jamila Woods imbues her sophomore effort, LEGACY! LEGACY!, with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her artistic predecessors. With the exception of 鈥淔RIDA,鈥 which is dedicated to famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, each track bears the name of a black artist, musician, or writer, assembling an illustrious creative lineage stretching from Muddy Waters鈥檚 southern blues to Sun Ra鈥檚 Afrofuturism. Being given this kind of insight into a cross-section of Woods鈥檚 influences is a small but mighty pleasure for all that it reveals about her creative process, but the musician takes it one step further, presenting the songs here as dialectical tribute, not merely homage.

A spoken-word poet and Pushcart Prize nominee, Woods proven herself an emotive wordsmith, and LEGACY! LEGACY!, like 2016鈥檚 Heavn before it, revels in the power of language. On the high-spirited 鈥淥CTAVIA,鈥 she honors African-American slaves who illicitly taught themselves to read and write, framing that legacy of language within the accomplishments of science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and issuing a call to empowerment: 鈥淒on鈥檛 ever let a textbook scare you.鈥 She delights in hyperbole on 鈥淕IOVANNI,鈥 a tribute to her matrilineage inspired by Nikki Giovanni鈥檚 鈥淓go Tripping.鈥 For Woods, words are both sword and shield in the way that they liberate one from adversity and honor the ego.

Although the album explores intergenerational black trauma and joy, Woods鈥檚 personal insight into such experience functions as the album鈥檚 anchor and serves as a more accessible entry point. Inspired by an interview in which Jean-Michel Basquiat refused to divulge the source of his rage, 鈥淏ASQUIAT鈥 attests to the power of a not allowing other people to regard your anger as a spectacle. Backed by the jagged textures of descending guitar passages and insistent percussion, Woods divulges how concealing the particulars of her own anger allows her to claim absolute dominion over it: 鈥淚 smile in your face, but the oven鈥檚 on high.鈥 On 鈥淏ALDWIN,鈥 Woods criticizes the 鈥減recious lethal fear鈥 and 鈥渃asual violence鈥 of white people: 鈥淢y friend James/Says I should love you anyway鈥ut you鈥檙e making it hard for me.鈥 Throughout the album, Woods utilizes the knowledge of her forebears as a diving-off point, advancing or contradicting their ideas to relay her own message.

Often, Woods plays with her vocal delivery, extending and contorting her pronunciation and intonation to imbue her songs with a childlike air. An ode to the necessity of preserving independence in a relationship, 鈥淔RIDA鈥 alludes to the home Kahlo shared with Diego Rivera, a pair of twin houses united by a bridge. The repetition in the refrain鈥斺淚f I run, run, would you, you, you see, see, see me?鈥濃攂rings to mind the rhythms of a playground game, and this guileless atmosphere casts a gentle, carefree light on the tangle of expectations a relationship can conjure. 鈥淪ONIA鈥 unfolds like a fairy tale: 鈥淥nce upon a time, little girl on the grind/Met a boy, he was nice at the time.鈥 Woods affirms the pain of a toxic relationship to validate it and ensure it cannot be erased, stating simply in the chorus: 鈥淚t was bad, it was bad.鈥 She sings the word 鈥渂ad鈥 as an oscillation, fluidly moving up and down the scale like a nursery rhyme.

LEGACY! LEGACY! chronicles the adversity that women of color regularly face, but at the heart of Woods鈥檚 music is an urgent desire to heal and be healed. Throughout the album, from refusing to compromise her ideals (on 鈥淓ARTHA鈥) to embracing her peculiarities (on 鈥淏ETTY鈥), Woods stresses that the first step to healing is a regard for one鈥檚 own boundaries, values, and desires鈥攐r, to put it more simply, self-respect. That self-respect is emboldening and incendiary in the face of generations of devastating animosity, the rationale behind the battle cry on 鈥淶ORA鈥: 鈥淣one of us are free, but some of us are brave.鈥

Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Carly Rae Jepsen鈥檚 Dedicated Is a Single-Minded Declaration of Love

The album doubles down on the singer鈥檚 devotion to all things love and 鈥80s pop-rock.

3.5

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Dedicated
Photo: Markus & Koala

In a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, music can provide reliable solace and stability. A vital component of callout research鈥攖he process Top 40 radio stations use to test the favorability of songs鈥攊s 鈥渇amiliarity.鈥 A song that鈥檚 recognizable is more likely to receive a high score from listeners, but it also perpetuates a feedback loop where artists are de-incentivized from substantively tinkering with their established sounds.

Carly Rae Jepsen, of course, isn鈥檛 your typical radio star. Aside from her breakthrough hit 鈥淐all Me Maybe,鈥 her success has been largely fomented by gushing critical praise and word of mouth. But success in the age of Spotify and social media is, like radio, predicated on giving people what they want, when they want it. And Jepsen鈥檚 fourth album, Dedicated, is a carefully calibrated attempt at brand extension, reprising the effervescent pop of her last two albums while at the same time acknowledging that the 33-year-old is now a full-grown woman.

For the most part, Jepsen succeeds at threading that needle. The album鈥檚 lead single, 鈥淧arty for One,鈥 initially felt like a retread, its opening strains nodding to 鈥淐all Me Maybe鈥 and its whirling strings and bouncy keyboards acting as if not a day has gone by since her last album, 2015鈥檚 Emotion. As the closing track of Dedicated, however, the song clicks perfectly into place, a declaration of independence that bookends an album鈥檚 worth of frustrated desire: 鈥淚鈥檓 not over this, but I鈥檓 trying,鈥 Jepsen humbly proclaims.

鈥淭his鈥 being the various love affairs鈥攃onsummated or otherwise鈥攖hat comprise the album鈥檚 loose narrative. Dedicated opens with 鈥淛ulien,鈥 a recollection of a fleeting romance鈥斺淚鈥檓 forever haunted by our time,鈥 Jepsen sings wistfully鈥攆ollowed by over a dozen songs that luxuriate in love or fret over the loss of it. She ponders its meaning on the euphoric 鈥淩eal Love,鈥 her voice filled with knowing abandon (鈥淚 go everyday without it/All I want is real, real love鈥 don鈥檛 know a thing about it/All I want is real, real love鈥), and shakes off an affirmation that鈥檚 too little to late on 鈥淩ight Words Wrong Time,鈥 the album鈥檚 sole ballad.

Dedicated is, well, dedicated to its theme, revisiting topics Jepsen studiously explored on Emotion. One notable development is the singer鈥檚 newly and boldly expressed sexuality. 鈥淚 wanna do bad things to you,鈥 she declares on 鈥淲ant You in My Room,鈥 before coyly asking, 鈥淏aby, don鈥檛 you want me to?鈥 She similarly plays the coquette on 鈥淚鈥檒l Be Your Girl,鈥 beckoning her object of desire to 鈥渃ome to bed,鈥 and promises 鈥渟weat disco all night鈥 on the squelchy 鈥淓verything He Needs,鈥 channeling 鈥淧hysical鈥-era Olivia Newton-John.

The album also doubles down on its predecessor鈥檚 fixation on 鈥80s pop-rock tropes. 鈥淲ant You in My Room鈥 is awash in Vocoder effects, shimmering new-wave guitars, and a grinding bassline straight out of Cameo鈥檚 鈥淐andy鈥濃攁ll within less than three minutes, and topped off with sax solo for good measure. The kitschy 鈥淓verything He Needs鈥 is the sonic equivalent of a velvet painting, based on a pitched-up vocal sample of Shelley Duvall鈥檚 鈥淗e Needs Me鈥 from Robert Altman鈥檚 Popeye. Producer John Hill lends several tracks a distinct reggae groove, like the simmering 鈥淭oo Much鈥 and the ska-infused 鈥淚鈥檒l Be Your Girl,鈥 while 鈥淔or Sure鈥 dizzyingly pairs tribal rhythms with swirling synths and chants.

These tweaks to Jepsen鈥檚 formula feel less significant when placed alongside more boilerplate fare like the single 鈥淣o Drug Like Me鈥 and the cloying 鈥淔eels Right,鈥 both of which could be leftovers from Emotion. But Jepsen deserves credit for committing to a pure pop sound when it might be shrewder to venture into more hip-hop-influenced terrain. There鈥檚 something to be said for the virtues of familiarity鈥攅ven if it means you won鈥檛 get played on Top 40 radio.

Label: Interscope Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The National鈥檚 Sprawling I Am Easy to Find Is Surprising and Ambitious

The album is the band鈥檚 widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.

4

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I Am Easy to Find
Photo: Graham MacIndoe/4AD

In early 2013, I was interning at a recording studio in upstate New York where the National鈥檚 Aaron and Bryce Dessner were working on overdubs for the band鈥檚 sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, which was released later that year. As playback of the lovely 鈥淚 Need My Girl鈥 filled the control room, one of the brothers remarked, somewhat shockingly, that the National鈥檚 frontman, Matt Berninger, isn鈥檛 a great singer.

Berninger鈥檚 thick, apollonian baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in indie rock, and he wields it like a weapon, lending immense gravitas to everything he sings. He doesn鈥檛 have much range as a vocalist鈥攊n terms of both emotion and literal notes鈥攅ndowing a certain level of sameness to the Dessners鈥 compositions. But he and the rest of the band have managed to parlay that limitation into a consistent, often brilliant 20-year career. Nonetheless, it鈥檚 reason enough to approach their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, with skepticism that 16 tracks and over an hour of running time might be a bit too much Berninger for one sitting.

The first half of the album鈥檚 opening track, 鈥淵ou Had Your Soul with You,鈥 boasts the same type of deconstructed post-guitar rock that the National has been making for a while now, with glitchy electronics, a lurching drum pattern, and Berninger intoning about loss and failure. But after the building instrumentation fades away into lush piano and strings, the first voice we hear isn鈥檛 Berninger鈥檚, but that of Gail Ann Dorsey, longtime bassist and vocalist for the late David Bowie. When she sings, 鈥淵ou have no idea how hard I died when you left,鈥 her steely but buoyant delivery offers an emotional shade to this brooding line that Berninger never could have achieved. It鈥檚 this moment that defines the rest of I Am Easy to Find, as Dorsey is one of various women who share the mic with Berninger over the course the album. The result is the National鈥檚 widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.

Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, This Is the Kit鈥檚 Kate Stables, among others, aren鈥檛 just some form of affirmative action for a band that鈥檚 sometimes derided as the epitome of self-absorbed straight-white-guy rock. The main impetus for their presence on I Am Easy to Find was, in fact, a short film of the same name directed by Mike Mills, and the band鈥檚 desire to more directly reflect the film鈥檚 female protagonist, played by Alicia Vikander. Besides, Berninger has often collaborated with his wife, writer and former New Yorker fiction editor Carin Besser, on lyrics for the National, so having female voices sing those lyrics is just a more explicit acknowledgement of how Besser鈥檚 perspective has shaped the band鈥檚 lyrical identity.

Still, the effect of those voices spotlights the nuances of the Dessners鈥 compositional craft. From the stately piano balladry of 鈥淩oman Holiday鈥 and 鈥淟ight Years鈥 to the more propulsive 鈥淩ylan鈥 and 鈥淭he Pull of You,鈥 even seemingly standard-issue National songs are made rewarding by the guest singers鈥 eye-opening interpretations. Best of all, they occasionally empower the band to do something completely new, most notably on the stunningly beautiful title track, with its male-female harmonizing and atypically delicate vocal cadences. It鈥檚 one of the most uncharacteristic, and finest, songs the National has recorded to date.

The preponderance of other voices on I Am Easy to Find is such that Berninger is at times reduced to little more than a bit player in his own band, as on the swirling, blustery 鈥淲here Is Her Head鈥 and the slow-building 鈥淪o Far, So Fast,鈥 a showcase for Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. On the occasions when he does wrest the spotlight entirely for himself, even the greatest indulgence he can muster鈥斺淣ot in Kansas,鈥 a seven-minute ballad composed of stream-of-consciousness musings鈥攗tterly charms and never becomes overbearing.

Of the many singers featured on I Am Easy to Find, the ones who leave the greatest impression are the members of the Brooklyn Youth Choir, who make multiple appearances throughout the album. Their presence, including on the wordless interludes 鈥淗er Father in the Pool鈥 and 鈥淯nderwater,鈥 is ethereal and indelible, miles away from the band鈥檚 usual, insular timbre.

Considering how many of the songs on I Am Easy to Find are leftovers鈥攎ostly from the sessions for 2017鈥檚 Sleep Well Beast, though 鈥淩ylan鈥 dates back as far as 2010鈥攊t鈥檚 remarkable how much of a piece it feels. That said, one does eventually feel the album鈥檚 length, with the stretch of songs in between 鈥淵ou Left Your Soul with You鈥 and 鈥淚 Am Easy to Find鈥 feeling comparatively pedestrian鈥攖he sounds of a band treading more familiar ground before really staring to take chances. But once they do, the sprawl quickly begins to justify itself, revealing some of the most ambitious music the National has ever made.

Label: 4AD Release Date: May 17, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Vampire Weekend鈥檚 Father of the Bride Is Generous with Its Rewards

There鈥檚 still darkness flitting around Ezra Koenig鈥檚 consciousness, but it鈥檚 more of the 鈥渕iddle-aged malaise鈥 variety.

3.5

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Father of the Bride
Photo: Monika Mogi

A lot has changed in the world of Vampire Weekend since the band released their last album, Modern Vampires of the City, in 2013. Most significantly, frontman Ezra Koenig鈥檚 main songwriting partner, Rostam Batmanglij, announced in 2016 that he was leaving the band. Approaching the release of their fourth album, Father of the Bride, with apprehension, then, would be a reasonable stance. Fortunately, it鈥檚 unfounded, as Father of the Bride is overstuffed with the pristine production, sickly sweet melodies, and audaciously off-the-wall genre-bending that鈥檚 sustained the band long enough to remain arguably the most commercially relevant of the popular 2000s indie bands that are still standing.

Modern Vampires of the City was nothing short of a quantum leap for Vampire Weekend, possessing a seriousness of purpose and lived-in musicality that made everything the band had done prior sound trite by comparison. Six long years later, one hardly expects Koenig to still be grappling with the same existential dilemmas he did on that album. But absorbed back to back with Modern Vampires of the City, the shift in tone on Father of the Bride is jarring.

There鈥檚 still darkness flitting around Koenig鈥檚 consciousness, but it鈥檚 more of the 鈥渕iddle-aged malaise鈥 variety than the crisis of faith he teased out last time around, and even then the music is so relentlessly sunny that Koenig rarely sounds anything less than content. (It鈥檚 telling that the album鈥檚 most arresting, confrontational line鈥斺淚 don鈥檛 wanna live like this/But I don鈥檛 wanna die鈥 from 鈥淗armony Hall鈥濃攊s recycled from 2013鈥檚 鈥淔inger Back鈥.) On 鈥淭his Life,鈥 even as he asks, 鈥淥h Christ, am I good for nothing?鈥 he sounds like a millennial Jimmy Buffet, pondering the question from the comfort of a sonic hammock composed of beachy guitars and effortlessly breezy harmonies. There鈥檚 nothing wrong with Koenig achieving this state of mind, of course鈥攊n fact, it鈥檚 comforting鈥攂ut if he were a character on a TV show, it would feel as though we missed a few crucial stages of character development.

Taken on its own terms, however, Father of the Bride is generous with its rewards. The resplendent 鈥淗armony Hall鈥 is Vampire Weekend firing on all cylinders; its sparkling guitar arpeggios, sun-drenched chorus, and baroque piano break are all entirely familiar elements within the band鈥檚 oeuvre, but they鈥檝e never coalesced so irresistibly before. And while a certain sense of over-familiarity does pervade some of the album鈥檚 lesser tracks (like the white-bred funk trappings and use of Auto-Tune on 鈥淗ow Long?鈥), others are as inventively irreverent with genre conventions as any of the band鈥檚 past work, such as the bluesy finger-picking married to Disney-like orchestral lines on 鈥淩ich Man,鈥 or the early-1970s Cali-rock vibes interspersed with jazzy scatting on 鈥淪unflower.鈥 In this anything-goes context, even the appearance of country and folk elements on tracks like 鈥淗old You Now鈥 and 鈥淏ig Blue鈥 that otherwise might be considered conventional feel quietly bold.

In the near-total absence of Batmanglij鈥攈e鈥檚 listed as the co-writer and producer of one song and the co-producer of another鈥擪oenig turns to HAIM鈥檚 Danielle Haim to find a new foil. She鈥檚 game, singing with Koenig and playing three very different kinds of paramours on 鈥淗old You Now,鈥 鈥淢arried in a Gold Rush,鈥 and 鈥淲e Belong Together.鈥 The latter of these has the melodic construction of a beginner fiddle tune and the rhyme scheme of a children鈥檚 song and yet remains maddeningly infectious. But she can鈥檛 fill one role that seems to have slipped beyond the band鈥檚 grasp: editor. At 18 tracks and 58 minutes, Father of the Bride is by far the longest release by a band whose brevity was once one of their best characteristics. This results in a not-insignificant amount of bloat, including at least one or two songs鈥攍ike the lounge jazz disaster 鈥淢y Mistake鈥濃攖hat should have been left in the outtakes pile.

But Koenig is clearly in no mood for compromise. He鈥檚 not shy about putting all this new material out there, or about confronting his critics in the process. Lyrics like 鈥淚鈥檝e been cheating my way through this life/And all its suffering鈥 (on 鈥淭his Life鈥) and 鈥淥ne rich man in ten has a satisfied mind/And I鈥檓 the one鈥 (on 鈥淩ich Man鈥)鈥攏ot to mention the title, if not the content, of 鈥淯nbearably White鈥濃攕eem designed to provoke the authors of the slate of circa-2010 think pieces about Vampire Weekend, appropriation, and white privilege. He doesn鈥檛 much seem to care if his words piss you off, as he seems to be feeling pretty good regardless.

Label: Columbia Release Date: May 3, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Mac DeMarco鈥檚 Here Comes the Cowboy Is Weighty and Understated

DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel weighty and timeless.

3.5

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Here Comes the Cowboy
Photo: Coley Brown

Over the course of his seven-year career, Mac DeMarco has proven his songwriting prowess to be both transportive and alchemic. With his fourth album, Here Comes the Cowboy, he once again invites us into his idiosyncratic, hazy world but grounds the album with concrete ruminations on longing and remorse that are sonically stripped down and understated. DeMarco embodies the solitary and resilient figure of the cowboy throughout, divulging moments of clarity and vulnerability alike with an unshakeable stoicism.

DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel simultaneously weighty and timeless. But while his previous work suggested a flair for embellishment and drama鈥攍ike the lavish 鈥淐hamber of Reflection鈥 and otherworldly 鈥淢oonlight on the River鈥濃Here Comes the Cowboy is decidedly more reined in. The forlorn 鈥淗eart to Heart鈥 simmers with tension, its restrained use of synths entwining carefully around DeMarco鈥檚 plaintive vocal: 鈥淭o all the days we were together/To all the time we were apart.鈥

Throughout the album, spare arrangements foreground DeMarco鈥檚 lyrics and vocals. On 鈥淜,鈥 his voice鈥檚 proximity to the listener is as palpable as the crystalline plucking of his acoustic guitar. At several points, DeMarco relinquishes control over his voice, sacrificing pitch precision for ardent expression, like when he lets out an animalistic howl on 鈥淔inally Alone.鈥

For all its reflections on regrets and love lost, Here Comes the Cowboy also exhibits DeMarco鈥檚 eccentric sense of humor, which has been sorely absent in his recent work. On the closing track, 鈥淏aby Bye Bye,鈥 his playful falsetto is accompanied by a zany slide guitar before bursting into crazed laughter and a funk breakdown that recalls the spirit of David Bowie鈥檚 鈥淔ame.鈥 In spite of the album鈥檚 earlier solemnity, DeMarco bids a tongue-in-cheek farewell as if to assure us that he hasn鈥檛 lost touch with the slacker rock goofball of his 鈥淥de to Viceroy鈥 days.

A handful of tracks scan as underdeveloped or incomplete. The three-minute title track plods along sedately鈥攖he only lyrics being its four-word title鈥攚ith DeMarco鈥檚 deadpan delivery scanning as more vapid than charming. On 鈥淐hoo Choo,鈥 he鈥檚 lithe and energetic, but without a breakdown, the numbing funk groove peters out. Although elsewhere the album benefits from his light-handed instrumentation, the structural one-dimensionalities of these tracks harbor too many empty, open spaces, yielding songs that flatline. Like 2017鈥檚 This Old Dog and 2015鈥檚 Another One, the album doesn鈥檛 represent a progression so much as a broadening of what DeMarco has already proven himself to be capable of as a songwriter.

Label: Royal Mountain Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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The Nation of 鈥淓lectric Youth鈥: Debbie Gibson鈥檚 Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30

Looking back at the song 30 years later, what stands out most is its bonkers musical arrangement and video.

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Electric Youth
Photo: YouTube

In 1991, when Debbie Gibson鈥檚 underrated third album, Anything Is Possible, stalled at #41 on the charts, the New York Times printed a full-page obituary for her relatively brief career titled 鈥淭he Perils and Perishability of a Teen Idol.鈥 In just a few short years, Gibson had gone from America鈥檚 sweetheart鈥攁nointed the youngest artist to write, produce, and perform a #1 hit鈥攖o being declared a pop casualty by the nation鈥檚 newspaper of record.

Only two years earlier, the Long Island teen had scored her biggest hit, 鈥淟ost in Your Eyes,鈥 the lead single from her sophomore effort, Electric Youth. The album was arguably the weakest of Gibson鈥檚 four Atlantic releases, largely eschewing the sleek dance-pop and of-the-moment freestyle and hi-NRG stylings of 1987鈥檚 Out of the Blue in favor of ostensibly more mature piano ballads and Motown-lite, which zapped her music of the exuberance that made her debut so charming.

The sole exception was the title track, a peppy call to arms for 鈥渢he next generation,鈥 released as Electric Youth鈥檚 second single in the summer of 1989. Before Beck鈥檚 鈥淟oser鈥 and Ben Stiller鈥檚 Reality Bites defined Generation X as a bunch of disaffected slackers, 鈥淓lectric Youth鈥 dispatched a completely un-cynical, preemptive defense of America鈥檚 now-neglected 鈥渕iddle child.鈥 Looking back at the song 30 years later, though, what stands out most is producer Fred Zarr鈥檚 bonkers musical arrangement鈥攁 frenetic mix of faux horns, 鈥淧lanet Rock鈥-inspired lasers, spooky sci-fi synths, and squealing electric guitars鈥攁nd its even more batshit-crazy music video.

The clip, co-directed by Gibson (seen awkwardly wielding a giant prop camera throughout), finds the singer leading a troupe of young dancers dressed in floral prints, acid-washed denim, and vests鈥攍ots and lots of vests. The group assembles in front of what appears to be Castle Grayskull and proceeds to blow through the entire canon of 鈥80s dance moves, from the cabbage patch to the running man to what can only be described as an early fusion of the Macarena and voguing.

Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to 鈥淩UN.鈥 During the track鈥檚 instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper鈥攈er former manager鈥檚 contract, perhaps?鈥攁nd a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn鈥檛 get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb鈥檚 face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is 鈥渆lectric.鈥

Despite the video鈥檚 copious blue laser beams and unnecessary foliage, 鈥淓lectric Youth鈥 was nominated for Best Art Direction at the MTV Video Music Awards, sensibly losing out to Madonna鈥檚 iconic 鈥淓xpress Yourself,鈥 which was directed by David Fincher. (Notably, a few shots of Gibson striking a pose in silhouette recall similar set pieces from Fincher鈥檚 distinctive videos for Paula Abdul and Jody Watley from earlier that year.)

鈥淓lectric Youth鈥 spawned a perfume of the same name, hawked to mallrats across the country, but the single just missed the Top 10 and would be Gibson鈥檚 last major hit. Since then, the boomers have poisoned both the planet and politics, millennials have self-medicated on social media and 鈥80s nostalgia, and Gen-Xers are sitting on the front porch, popping CBD gummies, and quietly watching it all burn. Electric, indeed.

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Review: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard鈥檚 Fishing for Fishies Lacks for the Oddball

The album fails to yield anything truly novel within the scope of blues-rock.

3

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Fishing for Fishies
There鈥檚 something gleefully bizarre about King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard鈥檚 pairing of lyrics about environmental doom with spirited blues rock on Fishing for Fishies. Purveyors of sludge-heavy psych-rock and tongue-in-cheek wordplay, the Australian seven-piece is prone to trying different genres, like surf rock, stoner metal, and jazz, before then pulling them apart at the seams. But whereas the band鈥檚 most successful forays into genre-bending benefited from their delight in warping styles out of shape, Fishing for Fishies suffers from by-the-book derivations and a shortage of their usual oddball instincts.

As the album鈥檚 cover of a cartoon robot fishing in a hellish lake of fire suggests, King Gizzard鈥檚 main concern is environmental and social degradation in the digital age. The band amplifies the perils of our world, envisaging an apocalyptic landscape marked by plastic-choked oceans, wildlife extinction, and millennials deprived of meaningful human interaction. They underpin this subject matter with muddy blues guitar, intensifying the sense of doom by emulating the jeremiads of the blues traditions, and with shuffle boogie rhythms. The 鈥渂oogie鈥 motif that threads through the album juxtaposes the celebration and dance of boogie music with sobering lyrics. 鈥淒eath will come from plastic/Death will come from people,鈥 singer Stu Mackenzie chants on 鈥淧lastic Boogie鈥 as a crowd claps and cheers over a blazing guitar lick.

For all of its attempts at unconventionality, though, Fishing for Fishies fails to yield anything truly novel within the scope of blues-rock. 鈥淧lastic Boogie鈥 and 鈥淭he Cruel Millennial鈥 sound like discarded B-sides from ZZ Top and Ten Years After, respectively. This derivative treatment of blues-rock makes the album one of the band鈥檚 most accessible to date, but devoid of their trademark absurdities (eerie soliloquys, road burn-inducing walls of sound, and jigsaw-like song structures), what鈥檚 left is arid and unmemorable.

With the introduction of electronic elements and musings about a dystopian, cyborg-dominated future, the tail-end of the album recaptures some of its initial vigor and intrigue. 鈥淭his Thing鈥 opens with another ZZ Top-influenced guitar lick, but in this case, the track transitions into a strange psychedelic brew of flute, harmonica, and synth drones. The use of microtonal tuning on 鈥淎carine鈥 lends it a disorienting feeling that鈥檚 supplanted by a moody house outro. The closing track, 鈥淐yboogie,鈥 returns to boogie rhythms but features zany Auto-Tuned vocals and a cyborg as its protagonist. Certainly, the shift from the humanity and warmth of blues-rock to the synthetic robotics of electronic music is intentional, but the album ends too abruptly for one to clearly discern the full extent of its significance.

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

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Review: Pink鈥檚 Hurts 2B Human Peddles Boilerplate Angst and Introspection

The album settles into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.

2.5

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Hurts 2B Human
Photo: RCA Records

Pink鈥檚 eighth album, Hurts 2B Human, finds the singer peddling the same boilerplate pop-rock songs about self-empowerment and existential angst that have defined her career for almost 20 years. The album opens with two decidedly upbeat numbers鈥攖he brassy 鈥淗ustle,鈥 featuring Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons, and the Auto-Tune-heavy 鈥(Hey Why) Miss You Sometime,鈥 produced by Max Martin and Shellback鈥攂efore quickly settling into a torpor of self-examination that never rises above 120 beats per minute.

The album鈥檚 expectedly earnest lead single, 鈥淲alk Me Home,鈥 reunites Pink with co-writer Nate Ruess, who lends the song his signature brand of rousing, if nondescript, pop pathos. Co-penned by Sia, 鈥淐ourage鈥 is another power ballad in a bizarrely enduring genre seemingly based entirely on Pat Benatar鈥檚 鈥淲e Belong.鈥 The understated 鈥淢y Attic鈥 is marred by an on-the-nose metaphor, while tracks like 鈥淐ircle Game鈥 and 鈥淗appy鈥 drown in self-help platitudes that attempt to mask self-pity: 鈥淚 had a hard day, and I need to find a hiding place/Can you give me just a second to make it through these growing pains?鈥 Pink pleads on the former.

From Khalid鈥檚 socially conscious ruminations on the schmaltzy title track to Chris Stapleton鈥檚 raspy bellyaching on the 鈥80s-indebted 鈥淟ove Me Anyway,鈥 the contributions of a litany of guest artists largely fail to add much more than mere texture to the proceedings. The sole exception is singer-songwriter Wrabel鈥檚 Vocoder-enhanced harmonies, which, in a nod to Imogen Heap鈥檚 鈥淗ide and Seek,鈥 give the minimalist 鈥90 Days鈥 a stirring, otherworldly quality. The album鈥檚 closing track, 鈥淭he Last Song of Your Life,鈥 is a similarly poignant acoustic ballad with reverb-soaked vocals reminiscent of early-鈥90s folk and a contemplative performance from Pink that transcends the rest of the album鈥檚 turgid introspection.

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

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Review: Taylor Swift’s “ME!” Is an Ebullient, Eye-Popping Fantasia

The pop singer drops her new single and music video, featuring Panic! At the Disco’s Brendon Urie.

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Me!
Photo: YouTube

Earlier this month, Taylor Swift posted an Instagram story with a countdown to the launch of her next musical era. Swift鈥檚 2017 album Reputation and subsequent stadium tour were both sonically and aesthetically darker than anything she鈥檇 done before, and the reception was mixed at best, resulting in the lowest-selling album of her career. So it was, perhaps, inevitable that the singer would move away from the combative tone and hard, hip-hop-influenced beats of singles like 鈥淟ook What You Made Me Do鈥 and 鈥溾eady for It?鈥

Swift first hinted that a shift in tone was imminent via鈥攚here else?鈥攈er Instagram account, which, over the last several weeks, has been populated with decidedly softer imagery than usual for the singer, including sequins, butterflies, jewel-encrusted hearts, and fluffy-faced kittens鈥攁ll bathed in creamy pastel tones. You鈥檇 be forgiven for thinking she was preparing to launch a tween apparel line and not the next phase of her global pop domination. But if Reputation taught us anything, it鈥檚 that Swift is nothing if not committed, and her new single, 鈥淢E!鈥濃攚hich features Brendon Urie of Panic! At the Disco鈥攊s a full-tilt 180.

Produced by Joel Little, best known for his work with Lorde and Broods, the song plays like a piss take on the bright and shiny pop of hits like 鈥淪hake It Off,鈥 with marching-band drums, stadium foot-stomping, stately brass, and a cartoonishly ebullient hook: 鈥淗ee-hee-hee, hoo-hoo-hoo!鈥 Swift may be one of the most self-aware pop stars alive, so it鈥檚 impossible not to view everything about 鈥淢E!鈥 as a calculated response to her last album, right down to the song鈥檚 effusive title (Reputation precedes 鈥淢E!鈥濃攇et it?). Even her signature self-deprecation鈥斺淚 know I went psycho on the phone/I never leave well enough alone鈥濃攊s given a self-reflexive twist: 鈥淚 promise that you鈥檒l never find another like me.鈥

The music video, co-directed by Dave Meyers and Swift, begins with a shot of a pink snake鈥攁 nod to the singer鈥檚 supposed reputation鈥攕lithering across rainbow-colored cobblestones before bursting into a kaleidoscope of butterflies, pointedly marking the end of an era. She and Urie are seen arguing in charmingly stilted French accents, setting the stage for an eye-popping, effects-laden fantasia of a make-up session that includes antagonistic clouds, Easter egg-colored pantsuits, liquid dresses, and a 1960s-style variety show.

Watch below:

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