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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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Review: Titus Andronicus鈥檚 An Obelisk Is All Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing

On a superficial level, the ostensibly back-to-basics album could charitably be described as workmanlike.

2

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Titus Andronicus
Photo: Ray Concepcion/Merge Records

It takes balls to open your rock album by screaming about 鈥渁n inferior version of rock n鈥 roll,鈥 as Patrick Stickles does on 鈥淛ust Like Ringing a Bell,鈥 the opening track of Titus Andronicus鈥檚 An Obelisk. The band鈥檚 ostensibly back-to-basics sixth album could charitably be described as workmanlike. Stickles and longtime sideman Liam Betson鈥檚 guitar tones are fuzzy and chunky in all the right ways, and Stickles has his punk-rock growl down pat. But these are mere superficialities; loud guitars and screaming have hardly been the main focal point of the band鈥檚 sound. On An Obelisk, though, they鈥檙e just about all that Stickles and company have to offer. Forgive the clich茅, but they asked for it by naming themselves after a Shakespeare鈥檚 tragedy: The album is the very epitome of sound and fury signifying nothing.

An Obelisk arrives just 15 months after the expectation-subverting A Productive Cough, but it couldn鈥檛 be more different, despite the fact that Stickles wrote both albums around the same time, separating the material into the bangers found here and the prior album鈥檚 more complex and mellower epics. This may sound like a welcome news for fans who struggled to embrace A Productive Cough鈥檚 cavalcade of guest musicians and auxiliary percussion, horns, and other instrumentation. But anyone who鈥檚 been clamoring for Titus Andronicus to make a uniformly hard and fast punk album like this one hasn鈥檛 been paying attention to what the band is about.

One of Titus Andronicus鈥檚 greatest strengths has always been the dichotomies in their music鈥攖hose juxtapositions of the quiet and loud, the portentous and the irreverent. This is, after all, a band whose first album, The Airing of Grievances, borrowed its name from a Seinfeld episode, and whose breakthrough, The Monitor, was an epic concept album about the Civil War that they managed to somehow top five years later with a 90-minute rock opera about bipolar disorder. An Obelisk is loosely conceptual, but unlike The Monitor and The Most Lamentable Tragedy, there鈥檚 no discernable narrative or character to hang onto here. We do, though, get a narrator, known as Troubleman, who serves as little more than a thin veneer from behind which Stickles can excuse his under-baked ideas. After all, one wouldn鈥檛 expect the guy who wrote ambitious epics like 鈥淎 More Perfect Union鈥 and 鈥淣umber One (in New York)鈥 to be capable of penning the adolescent inanities that constitute the lazy three-chord blunders that are 鈥(I Blame) Society鈥 and 鈥淭umult Around the World.鈥 But he did.

From the generic stick-it-to-the-man platitudes of 鈥(I Blame) Society鈥 and the 68-second 鈥淥n the Street鈥 (鈥淭here鈥檚 too many police on the street/And they鈥檙e all after me!鈥), to the clearly unintentional parody of hardcore punk that is the 88-second 鈥淏eneath the Boot,鈥 it鈥檚 almost hard to believe how dumb these songs are. Stickles has successfully managed to confront his demons in increasingly creative and resonant ways, from inventing a doppelganger on The Most Lamentable Tragedy to turning those demons into a party on A Productive Cough鈥檚 鈥淎bove the Bodega (Local Business),鈥 but 鈥淢y Body and Me鈥 is insultingly glib: 鈥淢y body and me, we don鈥檛 always get along/He tells me it鈥檚 all right, I tell him he鈥檚 all wrong.鈥

Producer Bob Mould, apparently unable to transfer whatever is powering his late-career renaissance to other artists, does capture an organic live-in-the-studio sound that shows the band鈥檚 current lineup鈥擲tickles, Betson, and rhythm section R.J. Gordon and Chris Wilson鈥攄oesn鈥檛 lack for intensity. But with so many flat, unoriginal riffs and unmemorable choruses, there鈥檚 just not enough meat here to reward that approach, and despite its unrelenting volume, An Obelisk just feels empty without the wide-ranging dynamics and ambitious arrangements that have, until now, defined Titus Andronicus鈥檚 music.

Mercifully, most of the songs are over and done with quickly enough, though only a couple鈥攖he bright 鈥淛ust Like Ringing a Bell鈥 and the freewheeling 鈥淭roubleman Unlimited,鈥 the only tracks here that don鈥檛 sound like 鈥渁n inferior version of rock 鈥榥 roll鈥濃攕tick to the ribs at all. A few grind on unimaginatively for over five minutes, either to the point of boredom (鈥淲ithin the Gravitron鈥) or absurdity (鈥淗ey Ma,鈥 with its face-palm-inducing imitation-bagpipe guitar solo). Like all of Troubleman鈥檚 diatribes, they just feel like a lot of hot air.

Label: Merge Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Raconteurs鈥檚 Help Us Stranger Is a Robust Return to Form

The album proves that there鈥檚 still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.

4.5

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Help Us Stranger
Photo: David James Swanson/Big Hassle

The Raconteurs were initially billed as an outlet for Jack White to step outside of the self-imposed sandbox of the White Stripes. But coming after a period during which White鈥檚 work鈥攁s both a solo artist and with the Dead Weather鈥攈as become increasingly untethered from his original no-frills ethos, the Raconteurs鈥檚 first album in 11 years, Help Us Stranger, feels like a robust return to form for the musician.

But the Raconteurs shouldn鈥檛 just be viewed through a White-centric prism. There鈥檚 no better contemporary rock example of two halves of a songwriting duo, like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, uncannily counterbalancing the other鈥檚 strengths and weaknesses than White and singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. Benson鈥檚 irrepressible melodic instincts keep White鈥檚 focus on his songcraft, while White鈥檚 boundless energy coaxes new tiers of passion from Benson, a less expressive vocalist and more rudimentary lyricist than White.

As White and Benson trade vocals on the album鈥檚 savage opener, 鈥淏ored and Razed,鈥 with White鈥檚 spitfire verses building into Benson鈥檚 soaring choruses, their twin lead guitars batter away at each other like feral animals. Add Patrick Keeler鈥檚 thunderous drumming, and the band enters a dimension of pure rock power they鈥檝e only ever succeeded in accessing together. The Raconteurs may lack the unconventional optics and charming minimalism of the White Stripes or the relentless power-pop hooks of Benson鈥檚 solo work, but Help Us Stranger is another compelling exhibit in the band鈥檚 continuing quest to prove that there鈥檚 still more to be mined from the supposedly anachronistic guitar-rock template.

Almost every track here is another example of one that would never have reached the same heights without the contributions of each band member. The main guitar riff of 鈥淪unday Driver鈥 is far from White鈥檚 most indelible, but combined with Jack Lawrence鈥檚 revving bassline and White鈥檚 own swaggering vocals and squealing lead guitar鈥攃ontrasted with Benson鈥檚 laidback, psych-tinged, harmony-drenched bridge鈥攖he result is one of the most well-rounded and satisfying straight-up rock songs White has made since, well, the last Raconteurs album.

Likewise, with White鈥檚 frenzied guitar and Lawrence鈥檚 fat, greasy sonic low end, the Benson-led blue-eyed soul of 鈥淣ow That You鈥檙e Gone鈥 becomes a lighter-waving anthem. The band proves itself able to apply this effortless chemistry to any type of song, running the gamut from the groovy Detroit-style garage rock of 鈥淲hat鈥檚 Yours Is Mine鈥 to the yearning bluegrass ballad 鈥淭houghts and Prayers.鈥 With 鈥淗elp Me Stranger,鈥 the Raconteurs even uncover something fresh, with White and Benson鈥檚 Everly Brothers-style harmonizing and acoustic strumming getting a quirky, modern kick from the off-kilter rhythmic foundation provided by Keeler鈥檚 upside-down snare drum and Lawrence鈥檚 heavy bass-pedal work.

While the disparity in fame between the band members may forever doom the Raconteurs to being remembered as one of White鈥檚 鈥渟ide projects,鈥 such a view is ignorant of both the band鈥檚 overall chemistry and White and Benson鈥檚 virtually equal songwriting talents. In fact, it鈥檚 the Benson-heavy songs here that make the most lasting impression, and White was clearly responsible for the album鈥檚 only misfire, 鈥淒on鈥檛 Bother Me,鈥 a generic bar-band choogle over which White angrily sputters about his old nemeses, the 鈥渃licking and swiping鈥 generation.

Both the melancholy Beatlesque pop of 鈥淥nly Child鈥 and the swooning country-soul of 鈥淪omedays (I Don鈥檛 Feel Like Trying)鈥 rank among Benson鈥檚 very best work to date, with White鈥檚 multi-textured, ever-inventive guitar riffs and the rock solid rhythm section elevating Benson鈥檚 usual sad-sack routine toward true pathos. Help Us Stranger reaches its emotional apex during the latter鈥檚 honey-sweet outro: 鈥淚鈥檓 here right now, not dead yet,鈥 Benson repeats, leaping registers as the band slowly works up to a fevered pitch behind him. Corny as it sounds, he might as well be singing about rock n鈥 roll itself. Few other bands out there are such compelling proof of its enduring viability.

Label: Third Man Release Date: June 21, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Silversun Pickups鈥檚 Widow鈥檚 Weeds Is a Clear-Eyed and Intrepid Renewal

The album grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal.

4

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Silversun Pickups
Photo: Claire Marie Vogel

Ever since the success of 2006鈥檚 Carnavas, the Silversun Pickups have had a hard time leaving the safety of their comfort zone. Without slipping completely into self-parody, each of the Los Angeles-based rock band鈥檚 subsequent releases has seen them tempering their winning formula with only cautious variations on Brian Aubert鈥檚 breathy, quavering vocals and their thick Gaussian blur of sonic distortion and reverb. The group鈥檚 dalliance with Depeche Mode-style synth-pop on 2015鈥檚 Better Nature boasted tantalizing moments of sparkling elegance and pulse-racing throttle, but its dependence on booming yet generically applied electronics left the album feeling vacant, even lethargic.

Enter Butch Vig. For a band that can鈥檛 quite quit its love for 鈥90s alternative rock, their choice to enlist the production wizard behind Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Garbage, and the Foo Fighters seems only fitting. But their fifth album, Widow鈥檚 Weeds, is anything but a sentimental rehash of the good ol鈥 days. Instead, the album profits mightily from the veteran producer鈥檚 ability to transition established acts into more mature, self-assured iterations of themselves, without scrapping the essence of what made those bands great in the first place.

Widow鈥檚 Weeds thus grants us backstage access to the band at its most vulnerable and personal, but also its most clear-eyed and intrepid. After years of lackluster reviews and a string of personal struggles, the Silversun Pickups were perfectly poised for renewal and, as Aubert croons on 鈥淒on鈥檛 Know Yet,鈥 the band has worked hard to 鈥渞eboot the machine.鈥 Under Vig鈥檚 steady hand, they鈥檝e stripped away the stylistic accretions of their previous albums and come up with a much tighter, more identifiably rock sound. From its opening notes, the album presents a band brimming with reclaimed confidence and vitality, one that need no longer take refuge behind endless waves of feedback and sonic distractions.

Right out of the gate, 鈥淣eon Wound,鈥 as it chugs along to the metronomic precision of Christopher Guanlao鈥檚 drums, unrolls the perfectly pointed welcome mat for those familiar with the Silversun Pickups. 鈥淗ello, my friend,鈥 Aubert sings, almost winkingly, 鈥淚t鈥檚 nice to see you again/Now that we鈥檙e on the mend.鈥 The song鈥檚 taut spareness gradually drifts off into what sounds like little more than a listless B-side from Better Nature, but 鈥淚t Doesn鈥檛 Matter Why鈥 hurries in to take up the slack in full-charging tempo.

To be sure, Aubert and the gang have given up no ground in creating soundscapes of great power and intensity, sculpting with staccato rhythms and relentless builds the jumpy, nervous tension of a downed power line. Where on previous efforts that tension relied on muddy guitar riffs or Lester鈥檚 alchemic keyboard effects, this is an album driven by instrumentation and tightly crafted movements. Excesses of distortion have been peeled away to reveal the musical proficiency beneath, so that the finger-picked intro to 鈥淚t Doesn鈥檛 Matter Why,鈥 the sensuous chord bends of 鈥淪impatico,鈥 and the poppy electronics on 鈥淒on鈥檛 Know Yet鈥 receive their full technical due. And the timely flourishes of orchestral support across the album add interesting melodrama to the streamlined arrangements. What results is a sultry, if not still-too-hesitant, intimacy that allows songs to shimmer with moments of nuance and sophistication.

In keeping with this shift toward musical accessibility, Aubert鈥檚 lyrics have acquired a greater transparency. His customary blend of cerebral metaphors and visual imagery still prevails, but his language has become more plainly self-referential, lending unmitigated tenderness to the songs. And without having to compete any longer with the drone of sheer loudness, he鈥檚 able to showcase a range of peaks and valleys that ventures boldly outside of his typical monotone.

But for all of Aubert鈥檚 newfound reach, the punch of his vocal thrusts throughout Widow鈥檚 Weeds wouldn鈥檛 be possible without the harmonic parries of bassist Nikki Monninger. Her contributions on albums past have supplied softness and moderation to some of the group鈥檚 brawnier impulses (鈥淕un-Shy Sunshine,鈥 鈥淩agamuffin鈥), and while it seems she鈥檒l always be stuck at second mic, she鈥檚 no longer merely echoing Aubert鈥檚 lead. Her husky alto provides flawless melodic counterpoint on the ethereal 鈥淔reakazoid鈥 and the restless 鈥淪ongbirds,鈥 and she offsets Aubert鈥檚 gravelly baritone on 鈥淲idow鈥檚 Weeds鈥 with delicate grace.

The album also conjures the ghosts of exemplars past, sampling a whisper of Placebo鈥檚 鈥淧ure Morning,鈥 a hint of Radiohead鈥檚 鈥淧aranoid Android,鈥 and a whiff of the guitar crunches from Alice in Chains鈥檚 鈥淢an in the Box.鈥 Especially on 鈥淪traw Man鈥 and 鈥淪impatico,鈥 the sleek, cleaned-up sound does little to hide the band鈥檚 influences. But if the going recommendation is to steal like an artist, then Silversun Pickups have appropriated their indulgences happily and in good faith. 鈥淪ongbirds鈥 bursts out of the speakers like a post-pubertal 鈥淧anic Switch,鈥 still bristling with angsty vigor but far more composed and sure of itself. In contrast, 鈥淏ag of Bones,鈥 a meandering blunder, just shuffles along aimlessly and repetitiously.

Elsewhere, 鈥淪impatico鈥 spotlights the band鈥檚 calmer, quieter tendencies while offering some of the album鈥檚 most intricate guitar work. And the hardest-hitting yet most nostalgic track, 鈥淲e Are Chameleons,鈥 lives up to its title by mopping up virtually every color and texture of Carnavas and wringing it out into a frenzied sonic meltdown that defies the restraint and self-control that led up to it. Widow鈥檚 Weeds may lack the arena-sized atmospherics and anthemic party songs of past Silversun Pickups efforts, but with each additional listen the hooks sink in deeper and the melodies stay longer in your head. It鈥檚 catchy, heartfelt, and far less forgettable than鈥hat were those previous two albums named again?

Label: New Machine Release Date: June 7, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Madonna鈥檚 Madame X Is a Fearless, Eccentric Musical Memoir

The album is the work of an artist reawakened, and one who鈥檚 got something to say.

4

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Madonna
Photo: Interscope

Madonna鈥檚 2005 EDM opus Confessions on a Dance Floor is considered by many to be the 21st-century standard for both every new album the singer releases and contemporary dance-pop at large. Though glorious in its own right, it seemed, at the time, like the work of an artist in damage control. The damage was 2003鈥檚 American Life, a personal, politically strident, and humorless album that became Madonna鈥檚 first commercial failure in 20 years. It also happens to mark the last time the queen of pop appeared to make music purely on her own terms, without any consideration of the charts or what the public expected of her鈥攁 novel idea for an artist in the business of making, well, popular music.

Of course, Madonna has never been your average pop star. Though her music has deep roots in R&B and disco, she is, at heart, a rock auteur, with all of the inclinations toward upending the status quo and expressing a singular vision that designation implies. Her last album, 2015鈥檚 Rebel Heart, was designed by committee, while its predecessor, MDNA, was recorded during a period when she seemed more interested in directing movies and extending her brand than making music. So it makes sense that when she decided to forgo songwriting camps and aspirations of a late-career radio hit for her 14th album, Madame X, Madonna turned to French producer Mirwais, her primary collaborator on American Life.

In other words, Madame X sounds like the work of an artist reawakened, and one who鈥檚 got something to say. It鈥檚 a development reportedly inspired by her time in Lisbon, where she was surrounded by musicians and art in a way she hadn鈥檛 been since her pre-fame days in the East Village. The influence of Lisbon鈥檚 multicultural history can be heard on tracks like the fado-meets-Motown 鈥淐razy鈥濃攃o-produced by Mike Dean, the album鈥檚 other principal knob-twirler鈥攁nd the polyrhythmic 鈥淏atuka,鈥 featuring Afro-Portuguese group Orquestra de Batukadeiras.

Madame X plays like a musical memoir, sometimes literally: 鈥淚 came from the Midwest/Then I went to the Far East/I tried to discover my own identity,鈥 Madonna sings on the Eastern-inflected 鈥淓xtreme Occident,鈥 referencing her rise to fame and spiritual awakening, famously documented on her 1998 album Ray of Light. A multi-part suite that shifts abruptly from electro-pop dirge to classical ballet and back again, 鈥淒ark Ballet鈥 is a Kafkaesque treatise on faith and her lifelong crusade against the patriarchal forces of religion, gender, and celebrity鈥攁n existential battle echoed in the Jean-Paul Sartre-quoting closing track 鈥淚 Rise.鈥

The album鈥檚 autobiography is also conveyed sonically: It鈥檚 a thrill to hear Madonna singing over a 鈥90s house beat on the smoldering 鈥淚 Don鈥檛 Search I Find.鈥 But despite its ballroom strings, finger-snaps, and throaty spoken-word bridge, comparing it to 鈥淰ogue鈥 or 鈥淓rotica鈥 would be too easy. This isn鈥檛 a song so much as a mood. It鈥檚 downstairs music, the distant bassline rumbling beneath your feet as you slip into a bathroom stall for a quick bump or fuck.

Madonna has a reputation for being a trendsetter, but her true talent lies in bending those trends to her will, twisting them around until they鈥檙e barely recognizable, and creating something entirely new. The album鈥檚 pi猫ce de r茅sistance, at least in that regard, is the six-minute 鈥淕od Control,鈥 which begins with Madonna conjuring the spirit and disaffected monotone of Kurt Cobain鈥斺淚 think I understand why people get a gun/I think I understand why we all give up,鈥 she sings through clenched teeth鈥攂efore the whole thing implodes into a euphoric, densely layered samba-disco-gospel mash-up. Throughout the song, Madonna鈥檚 vocals alternate between Auto-Tuned belting, urgent whispers, and Tom Tom Club-style rapping as she takes on the gaslight industrial complex and so-called political reformers. On paper, it might sound like the ingredients for a musical Hindenburg, but鈥攕omewhere around the midpoint, when she declares, 鈥淚t鈥檚 a con, it鈥檚 a hustle, it鈥檚 a weird kind of energy!鈥濃攊t all coheres into the most exhilaratingly batshit thing she鈥檚 done in years.

If, metaphorically, Madame X represents Madonna鈥檚 rediscovery of her voice as an artist, then it also highlights the literal loss of it. Over the years, the soft edges of her voice have grown sharper, and the album鈥檚 pervasive vocal effects鈥攎ost gratuitous on the electro-ragga 鈥淔uture鈥 and, to a lesser degree, the haunting 鈥淟ooking for Mercy鈥濃攈ave a distancing effect. The heavy Auto-Tune on Music and American Life was deployed in service of larger conceptual themes like imperfection (鈥淣obody鈥檚 Perfect鈥) and anonymity (鈥淣obody Knows Me鈥), contrasted by the bare performances of more confessional songs like 鈥淓asy Ride.鈥 Here, filters are indiscriminately thrown on nearly every song, which only serves to obscure Madonna鈥檚 humanity. On 鈥淢ed茅llin,鈥 for example, her admission that 鈥淔or once, I didn鈥檛 have to hide myself鈥 is pointlessly cloaked in Auto-Tune, keeping us at a remove.

When Madonna isn鈥檛 singing with what sounds like a mouthful of gumballs on 鈥淐rave,鈥 the rawness of her voice amplifies the nakedness of her lyrics: 鈥淩an so far to try to find the thing I lacked/And there it was inside of me.鈥 Likewise, you can hear the grit and grief in her voice when, on 鈥淐razy,鈥 she sings, 鈥淚 bent my knees for you like a prayer/My God, look at me now.鈥 The track 鈥淜illers Who Are Partying鈥 has been flagged by some critics for its lyrics鈥攐stensibly inspired by scripture, the post-World War II poem 鈥淔irst they came鈥,鈥 or maybe both鈥攂ut the na茂vet茅 of Madonna鈥檚 words would be more cringe-inducing if her delivery wasn鈥檛 quite so bewitching. Mirwais鈥檚 arrangement, too, casts a spell: Old world meets new world as mournful fado guitar and accordion swirl beneath the track鈥檚 stuttering beats and warped synths.

Madame X is fearless, the sound of an artist unapologetically indulging all of her whims and quirks. The garish favela funk of 鈥淔az Gostoso鈥 and the racy reggaeton of 鈥淏itch I鈥檓 Loca鈥濃攆eaturing Anitta and Maluma, respectively鈥攆eel out of place amid the album鈥檚 otherwise refined sonic palette. But even when Madonna falters, at least you know you鈥檙e getting the real deal and not some version of a pop icon cooked up in a songwriting lab.

Label: Interscope Release Date: June 14, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Mykki Blanco Is a Trans Joan of Arc in Madonna鈥檚 鈥淒ark Ballet鈥 Video 鈥 Watch

The self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video from the queen of pop’s upcoming album Madame X.

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Mykki Blanco
Photo: YouTube

While presenting Madonna with GLAAD鈥檚 Advocate for Change award last month, Mykki Blanco hinted that a collaboration with the queen of pop might be imminent. Sure enough, the self-described transfeminine rapper stars in the video for 鈥淒ark Ballet,鈥 the final track to be released in the lead-up to Madonna鈥檚 new album, Madame X.

Directed by Dutch Ghanaian visual artist Emmanuel Adjei, 鈥淒ark Ballet鈥 echoes the themes of Madonna鈥檚 infamous 鈥淟ike a Prayer鈥 video, awash with Catholic iconography and a storyline revolving around a persecuted black person. But that鈥檚 where the similarities end. The singer only briefly appears in the clip, behind a black veil, and the burning crosses of her 1989 video are traded for a ceremonial burning at the stake.

The video is frenetic and non-linear, opening with Blanco held captive in a stonewalled room, wrapped in a dirty white robe. Wrists bound with rope, he鈥檚 led by clergymen to be executed for an undisclosed crime. He鈥檚 then seen dancing, first in a cathedral鈥攑leading with the men, who forsake him鈥攁nd then in the church鈥檚 sanctuary, dressed in a gold corset reminiscent of the iconic one designed by Jean Paul Gaultier for Madonna鈥檚 Blond Ambition Tour. Madonna is, in effect, all over the video, but her casting of a queer person of color as the oppressed, rather than herself, spotlights the disproportionate impact of the patriarchy on minorities.

Produced by Madonna and longtime collaborator Mirwais, the song itself is an ambitious electro suite featuring a heavily Auto-Tuned denouncement of gender, lies, and fame, before the track breaks into Tchaikovsky鈥檚 鈥淒ance of the Reed Pipes鈥 from The Nutcracker accompanied by a robot Joan of Arc proclaiming her faith. (There鈥檚 a brief, blink-and-you鈥檒l-miss-it shot from Carl Theodor Dreyer鈥檚 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc near the beginning of the video.) The song is a reminder of the wacky magic Madonna and Mirwais are capable of cooking up together.

Watch below:

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

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Review: Miley Cyrus鈥檚 She Is Coming Feels Like Empty Posturing

The singer finds her groove when she follows a less strident tack.

2.5

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Miley Cyrus
The only thing Miley Cyrus鈥檚 critics found more problematic than her appropriation of black culture on her 2013 album Bangerz was the singer鈥檚 utter abandonment of hip-hop on 2017鈥檚 Younger Now. That album was marked by a more mellow pop-rock sound, complemented by a newly squeaky-clean image that found her literally frolicking in a country meadow. The move was seen as confirmation that Cyrus鈥檚 interest in hip-hop is merely performative, and her recent renunciation of Younger Now and subsequent pivot back toward urban-influenced pop is unlikely to quash that impression.

She Is Coming, the first of three EPs that Cyrus plans to release throughout the year, is rife with references to her newfound toughness. Lead single 鈥淢other鈥檚 Daughter鈥 boasts an admirable feminist-adjacent message鈥斺淒on鈥檛 fuck with my freedom鈥濃攂ut Cyrus鈥檚 standoffish pose feels like so much empty posturing, making the bravado of Taylor Swift鈥檚 Reputation seem downright menacing. On the mercifully brief 鈥淯nholy,鈥 Cyrus tosses off glib vaunts like 鈥淚鈥檓 a little bit unholy/So what? So is everyone else,鈥 while an unintentionally comical quip about having sex next to takeout food may arouse little in listeners besides a sudden compulsion to sanitize their kitchen counter.

The EP鈥檚 dubious employment of hip-hop tropes and graphic sexual metaphors reaches its nadir on ballroom-inspired 鈥淐attitude,鈥 part boast track and part ode to Miley鈥檚 female prowess: 鈥淚 love my pussy, that means I got cattitude/If you don鈥檛 feel what I鈥檓 saying, I don鈥檛 fuck with you.鈥 RuPaul鈥檚 presence lends a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to the song, but given the straight-faced appropriation on display throughout the rest of She Is Coming, it鈥檚 impossible not to consider this one with as much seriousness鈥攖hat is, not much at all. When, at the end of the track, Cyrus awkwardly raps, 鈥淵ou鈥檙e just mad 鈥榗ause your hair is flat,鈥 it鈥檚 hard to tell if she鈥檚 taking the piss or deliberately provoking her critics.

Which is a shame, as Cyrus finds her groove when she doesn鈥檛 try so hard, as on 鈥淒.R.E.A.M.,鈥 a hazy confessional that, true to its title, is dreamy enough to forgive its puerile conflation of chemical and romantic euphoria. Even an initially jarring coda from Ghostface Killah feels of a piece with the impeccably produced track鈥檚 distorted guitars and slyly discomfiting beat. The ragga-inspired 鈥淧arty Up the Street鈥 likewise cushions its drug-induced reverie with pillowy keyboards and swoony orchestral flourishes. Unless the subsequent EPs in this series follow this less strident tack, Bangerz might start to seem like an act of cultural reverence.

Label: RCA Release Date: May 31, 2019

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Review: Katy Perry Proves It鈥檚 鈥淣ever Really Over鈥 with New Single and Video

The video takes place inside a gated compound where the singer enrolls in a retreat for the brokenhearted.

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Katy Perry
Photo: Capitol Records

Katy Perry鈥檚 first solo single in two years, 鈥淣ever Really Over,鈥 finds the pop singer struggling with residual ambivalence over a former flame. 鈥淭wo years and just like that, my head still takes me back,鈥 she belts in her signature bellow. Co-produced by Zedd, who previously collaborated with Perry on the DJ鈥檚 simmering electro-pop single 鈥365鈥 earlier this year, the infectious 鈥淣ever Really Over鈥 is a bright midtempo pop track that wouldn鈥檛 sound out of place on 2013鈥檚 Prism. And that鈥檚 probably by design.

Despite the strength of its lead single, 鈥淐hained to the Rhythm,鈥 Perry鈥檚 2017 album Witness fizzled on the charts, selling a fraction of its three multi-platinum predecessors. So it wouldn鈥檛 be a stretch to say that a lot is riding on 鈥淣ever Really Over,鈥 the title of which could鈥攄epending on how the song is received鈥攄ouble as a bold statement of purpose or tragic irony.

From the sound of a ticking clock to marching-band percussion, time is a clever recurring motif throughout 鈥淣ever Really Over.鈥 If Perry looked to the future on Witness, she mines the past for the music video for this track. But rather than revert to the retro, brunette bombshell look of her most commercially fertile eras, Perry opts for a long, wavy strawberry-blond coif and a 鈥70s-inspired boho-chic aesthetic here.

Shot in Malibu, the video takes place inside a gated compound where Perry enrolls in a cult-like retreat for the brokenhearted. She her fellow romance recoverees dance merrily in a sun-kissed field and partake in cupping, acupuncture, and other forms of alternative medicine鈥斺淚 guess I should try hypnotherapy/I鈥檝e got to rewire my brain,鈥 Perry sings鈥攃ulminating in a cheeky ayahuasca-style ceremony in which the participants drink their own tears.

Directed by Philippa Price, 鈥淣ever Really Lover鈥 is a playful and imaginative portrayal of love鈥檚 intoxicating spell and the absurd lengths some of us will go to exorcise ourselves of it. The clip is ripe for repeat viewings and filled with New Age symbolism, including the compound鈥檚 yin-yang-inspired logo and enough triangle imagery to keep illuminati conspiracy theorists occupied at least until Perry serves up her next visual feast.

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Premiere: Heather Nova Goes Back to Her Roots with 鈥淛ust Kids鈥 Music Video

We’ve got the exclusive premiere of the second single from the singer-songwriter’s 10th album, Pearl.

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Heather Nova

Released 25 years ago this fall, Heather Nova鈥檚 breakthrough album, Oyster, earned the singer-songwriter a faithful following, due in large part to her angelic soprano, memorable pop hooks, and, above all, her alternately thoughtful and visceral ruminations on love and healing. Singles like 鈥淟ondon Rain (Nothing Heals Me Like You Do)鈥 and 鈥淗eart and Shoulder,鈥 from 1998鈥檚 Siren, further solidified Nova as a cult pop figure at once capable of harnessing the grit of alt-rock, the candor of folk balladry, and the sleek accessibility of Top 40 music.

Following a series of more stripped-down fare, Nova鈥檚 10th album, Pearl, reprises the crisp, layered aesthetic of those early efforts, thanks in large part to the singer鈥檚 reunion with producer Youth (The Verve, Dido, Pink Floyd). Nova describes the album鈥檚 second single, 鈥淛ust Kids,鈥 as a celebration of the 鈥渃arefree sense of open possibilities鈥 that new love can conjure in us. 鈥淚t鈥檚 a song about how love can make you feel like a kid again,鈥 she says.

Shot in Bermuda, where Nova was born, the music video for 鈥淛ust Kids鈥 is a charmingly simple visual depiction of the song鈥檚 universal concept. Co-directed by Nova and photographer Vincent Lions, the black-and-white clip is largely composed of one long take that finds Nova lounging on the beach while Lions (Nova鈥檚 boyfriend) frolics playfully in the background in a valiant attempt to make her break.

Watch 鈥淛ust Kids鈥 below:

Pearl will be released on June 28 via Saltwater Records.

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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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