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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: On Jump Rope Gazers, the Beths Cloak Heartbreak in Bright Pop Hooks

Every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs can鈥檛 help but pop.

3.5

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The Beths, Jump Rope Gazers
Photo: Mason-Fairey

Though indie pop seems to be having a particularly dour year, with albums like Soccer Mommy鈥檚 Color Theory and Perfume Genius鈥檚 Set My Heart on Fire Immediately focusing on heavier-hearted subjects and exploring denser, more brooding sonic palettes, the Beths鈥檚 sophomore effort, Jump Rope Gazers, relies mostly on upbeat pop-rock. That鈥檚 not to say that the New Zealand band is anxiety-free, but they鈥檙e so canny at cloaking heartbreak and dread in bright, warm hooks that their music never sounds too dire.

The album鈥檚 opening track, 鈥淚鈥檓 Not Getting Excited,鈥 is a charged-up rocker that鈥檚 so spirited that it鈥檚 easy to miss the song鈥檚 passing references to death. Lead singer Elizabeth Stokes eagerly bursts into a brilliant falsetto to deliver the song鈥檚 caffeinated chorus. Songs like 鈥淒ying to Believe鈥 and 鈥淥ut of Sight鈥 keep this energy going, with drummer Tristan Deck and bassist Benjamin Sinclair maintaining a brisk rhythm section as Stokes and Jonathan Pearce鈥檚 guitars shimmer, groove, and ignite in equal measure.

But the Beths are, perhaps, at their best when they鈥檙e at their breeziest. The languid verses of the album鈥檚 midtempo title track are set against a backdrop of sun-soaked harmonies, as Stokes describes a crumbling relationship: 鈥淚f I don鈥檛 see your face tonight, well, I guess I鈥檒l be fine.鈥 The song鈥檚 chorus is more melancholic, with Stokes delivering lines like 鈥淚 think I love you/And I think I loved you the whole time鈥 with a wistful nostalgia.

The album鈥檚 closer, 鈥淛ust Shy of Sure,鈥 is lush and mellow, tinged with more sadness than its laidback demeanor might suggest. Here, the Beths approach a relationship from a pained angle: 鈥淟ove in memory is a plague that consumed me,鈥 Stokes sings matter-of-factly. The song finds the singer grateful for the experience even if it didn鈥檛 end the way she might have hoped: 鈥淗ey, you can鈥檛 win without entering/Do you care to lose everything?鈥 These songs display the Beths鈥檚 penchant and skill for making the bittersweet sound so good.

Jump Rope Gazers was written while the Beths toured the world in support of their 2018 debut, Future Me Hates Me, and songs like 鈥淵ou are a Beam of Light,鈥 a bleary ode to a loved one, reflect the feeling of being far away from the people and the places you know best. Besides the band鈥檚 pitch-perfect songwriting, though, one of the things that makes the album so endlessly infectious is Pearce鈥檚 crisp and spacious production. From the acoustic and electric guitars that gently intertwine on 鈥淒o You Want Me Now鈥 to each layer of the band鈥檚 crystalline harmonies on 鈥淎crid,鈥 every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs can鈥檛 help but pop.

Label: Carpark Release Date: July 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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The Best Albums of 2020 (So Far)

These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves, the patriarchy, systemic racism, and our connection to the planet.

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Dua Lipa
Photo: Hugo Comte

It鈥檚 been a very long year鈥攁nd we鈥檙e only at the halfway mark. So it seemed like a good time to take stock of the human experiment circa 2020 with our first-ever mid-year albums list. Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed who we are at our cores, both good and bad, the best albums of the year so far鈥攁lmost all of them created prior to the crisis鈥攔eflect the simmering tensions that have been roiling beneath the surface of American life for years, if not decades. These 20 albums reflect a reckoning with ourselves (Arca鈥檚 kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Apple鈥檚 prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewels鈥檚 electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimes鈥檚 boundless Miss Anthropocene). As we grapple with what it means to shut down and rise up, music can give us an outlet, a voice, or鈥攊n the case of Dua Lipa鈥檚 Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware鈥檚 What鈥檚 Your Pleasure?鈥攁n escape. Sal Cinquemani



Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fiona Apple, Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Like fellow singer-songwriter Scott Walker, Fiona Apple achieved fame at a young age by making music that was more sophisticated and adventurous than that of her peers. Now, with Fetch the Bolt Cutters, she鈥檚 made an album not unlike Walker鈥檚 The Drift鈥攖hat is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker鈥檚 late-career music was alienating and difficult, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is compulsively listenable, full of catchy melodic hooks and turns of phrase that linger with you long after the album is over. Released in the midst of a global economic and health crisis that could have been largely prevented if not for the disastrous mismanagement of a ruling class for whom mediocrity is an unattainable level of functionality, the album is prismatic for all that it reflects. On a purely musical level, it鈥檚 a bold experiment in pop craft, a collection of songs on which Apple stretches her talents in adventurous new directions. It can be read biographically, as a self-conscious act of narrative-building that continues to define Apple鈥檚 legacy as an artist. Most importantly, Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a vituperative catalog of the failures and pointless cruelties of a society propped up by fragile, nihilistic, patriarchal ideology. Seth Wilson



Kick I

Arca, Kick I

Where Arca鈥檚 past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. Arca鈥檚 gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca鈥檚 beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge鈥攕tretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you鈥檝e grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive 鈥淩iquiqu铆鈥 segues into the graceful ballad 鈥淐alor鈥; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca鈥檚 career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that鈥檚 spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another. Charles Lyons-Burt



YHLQMDLG

Bad Bunny, YHLQMDLG

With his inclination for pairing heartbroken lyrics with fiery dembow beats, Bad Bunny has finetuned the art of crying in the club. On his second solo album, YHLQMDLG, the Puerto Rican reggaeton star offers dance floor-ready sentimentality that feels familiar, but he breaks out of his reliable formula with the most blistering production of his career to date, courtesy of Tainy and Subelo NEO. The viral 鈥淪afaera鈥 is the best example of this audacious streak: Over an episodic five minutes, the track pivots between eight exhilarating beat changes, simulating the head-spinning pyrotechnics of a DJ club mix. With collaborations from today鈥檚 hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny鈥檚 rightful place in the Urbano canon. Sophia Ordaz



Punisher

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher

Throughout her sophomore effort, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers is often transfixed by a feeling of stasis. Songs like 鈥淐hinese Satellite鈥 and 鈥淚 See You鈥 evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. 鈥淚鈥檝e been running in circles trying to be myself,鈥 she sings on the former. Again and again over the course of the album, the singer-songwriter laments her inability to find solid ground, her voice low but certain. These songs simmer beautifully and quietly, eventually boiling over in intermittent moments of sonic boisterousness, and the results are often stunning. Punisher鈥檚 closing track, 鈥淚 Know the End,鈥 is a travelogue at the end of the world, explicitly illustrating the cloud of uneasiness that hangs over the album. It ends with blood-curdling screams, until all the sound fades out and Bridgers鈥檚 voice is hoarse. The end of the world is a central detail on Punisher, an influence over the uncertainty that falls over these dark but gorgeous songs. Jordan Walsh



Melee

Dogleg, Melee

Dogleg鈥檚 Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, 鈥淜awasaki Backflip,鈥 bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit group鈥檚 loud, crunchy, anthemic style. Lead singer Alex Stoitsiadis shouts every word with dire conviction, his voice shredding and straining to deliver some of the best shout-along hooks of the year so far. 鈥淎ny moment now, I will disintegrate,鈥 he frantically yells at the explosive climax of 鈥淔ox.鈥 Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isn鈥檛 to say that these songs aren鈥檛 complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on 鈥淐annonball鈥 splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while 鈥淓nder鈥 closes the album in a six-minute punk odyssey wherein Dogleg ups the stakes at every turn. Melee is exhausting in the best possible way, a cleansing release of tension in a howling, desperate rage. Walsh



Rough and Rowdy Ways

Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways

Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, Bob Dylan鈥檚 Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that鈥檚 preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It鈥檚 also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan鈥檚 greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots鈥攍ike 鈥淚鈥檝e Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You鈥 and 鈥淜ey West (Pirate Philosopher)鈥濃攁re well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind 鈥淭o Make You Feel My Love鈥 as well as 鈥淣ot Dark Yet,鈥 and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, Rough and Rowdy Ways keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, the album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages. Michael Joshua Rowin



Miss Anthropocene

Grimes, Miss Anthropocene

Claire Boucher has said that the process of writing Miss Anthropocene was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even the album鈥檚 most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched 鈥淭his is the sound of the end of the world鈥 on 鈥淏efore the Fever,鈥 seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the world鈥檚 climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher鈥檚 broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with n眉-metal guitars on 鈥淪o Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.鈥 On 鈥淒arkseid,鈥 deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 娼楶AN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n鈥 bass on 鈥4脝M.鈥 On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucher鈥檚 wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society. Anna Richmond



Women in Music Pt. III

HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III

While there鈥檚 plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III鈥攈ip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance鈥擧AIM has created an album that鈥檚 defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017鈥檚 Something to Tell You, this album鈥檚 scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It鈥檚 darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure鈥攁 summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIM鈥檚 instincts to veer a little more left of the dial result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You鈥檙e unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger鈥檚 in-store playlist鈥攐n which 2017鈥檚 鈥淟ittle of Your Love鈥 seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of 鈥淓ye of the Tiger鈥 and 鈥淚 Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)鈥濃攂ut these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd



Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt鈥檚 songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she鈥檚 singing about fucking up鈥攚hich is pretty often. There鈥檚 an almost parasocial element to Hiatt鈥檚 songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who鈥檚 perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiatt鈥檚 fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015鈥檚 Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017鈥檚 harder, darker Trinity Lane, which depicted its immediate aftermath. Hiatt spent both albums seeking solace and guidance for her troubles everywhere she could, from family to her favorite records. On Walking Proof, she鈥檚 emerged wiser and more confident, ready even to dispense advice of her own. She also finds herself in full command of her broad stylistic palette, melding influences as disparate as backwoods country and garage punk into a cohesive signature sound. There are a couple of lingering references to Hiatt鈥檚 past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer 鈥淪cream,鈥 she claims, 鈥淚 swear to God I鈥檓 done with him,鈥 it鈥檚 convincing this time. Winograd



Dedicated Side B

Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B

A defining feature of last year鈥檚 Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsen鈥檚 embrace of her sexuality鈥攁 topic the singer had, for the most part, previously sidestepped in favor of more chaste subject matter. The dozen songs that comprise Dedicated Side B, all leftovers from the original recording sessions, double down on pillow talk, lending the album a uniformity that its predecessor lacked. That songs as strong as the sublime 鈥淗eartbeat鈥 and the anthemic 鈥淪olo鈥 were left off Dedicated speaks to not just the wealth of treasures she had to choose from, but her ability to craft a cohesive narrative. 鈥淚鈥檓 at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,鈥 Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative 鈥淐omeback,鈥 demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp

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Review: Arca鈥檚 Kick I Is a Kinetic Celebration of Self-Actualization

The album is a statement of exuberance from an artist who鈥檚 known to deal in gloom.

4

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Arca, Kick I
Photo: Hart L毛shkina

Pop music, it seems, has finally caught up with Arca, n茅e Alejandra Ghersi. The Venezuelan artist has helped shape the sound of hip-hop, indie-pop, and R&B over the last decade, making sizable contributions to projects by Kanye West, Bj枚rk, and Kelela, while toiling away at her solo work in a separate, more challenging lane. After three albums of apocalyptic, ambient tone poems, Arca鈥檚 pop and avant-garde interests converge on Kick I. It鈥檚 an anti-pop pop album, a distillation of the producer-singer-arranger extraordinaire鈥檚 ambitions and a statement of exuberance from an artist who鈥檚 known to deal in gloom.

Where Arca鈥檚 past efforts sought to express states of dissociation, rendering a consciousness flitting in and out of reality, the songs on Kick I are noticeably present and tuned-in. This mood is reportedly due to newfound romance and reaching a comfort with her hybrid identity as both non-binary and a trans woman, and Kick I feels buoyed and fueled by these personal landmarks. In the past, Arca opined about the discomforts of being who she is, but on the album鈥檚 opening track, 鈥淣onbinary,鈥 she practically gloats: 鈥淚鈥檓 special, you can鈥檛 tell me otherwise鈥hat a treat/Is is to be/non-binary.鈥 This confident swagger abounds across the album, and Arca鈥檚 spirit of self-affirmation is well-earned.

Arca鈥檚 gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout Kick I, Arca鈥檚 beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge鈥攕tretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you鈥檝e grown accustomed to a sound or riff, the floor drops out, shifting to another mode and vibe altogether. The production oscillates wildly between harsh and smooth, as in the way the kinetic, abrasive 鈥淩iquiqu铆鈥 segues into the graceful ballad 鈥淐alor鈥; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition.

The album鈥檚 lyrics, sung in equal parts Spanish and English, toy with and complicate notions of gender and desire. On 鈥淟a Chiqui鈥 (which roughly translates to 鈥渂abydoll鈥), fellow electro-industrial popsmith Sophie has anarchic fun with pronouns, knowingly upending binaries: 鈥淪he is my boyfriend/Flowers of my love/He is my best friend/Roots blowing up鈥he schism it shifts, it rips鈥︹ 鈥淢achote鈥 and 鈥淢equetrefe鈥 express Arca鈥檚 yearning for a hyper-masculine man who鈥檚 an accomplished lover and, of course, 鈥渒nows how to shake it.鈥 The latter song鈥檚 title is Venezuelan slang for a type of cocksure man, often used derogatorily, but for whom Arca makes no apologies for wanting, even delightfully asserting that she 鈥渄eserves鈥 him.

Arca鈥檚 always been amusing鈥攁fter all, she once titled a song 鈥淔ront Load鈥濃攂ut Kick I is a new high water-mark for her leftfield one-liners and absurd metaphors, all tied to her assurance and strength. 鈥淩ip the Slit鈥 winds its way through a series of tongue-twisting phrases and fragments that speak frankly of anatomical mutation, delivered in lurching, pitched-up vocals. And on 鈥淩iquiqu铆,鈥 she vividly, hilariously invokes both mangos and mayonnaise.

鈥淩iquiqu铆鈥 includes a repeated description of 鈥渁 white metal rose,鈥 whose paradoxical mix of materials perfectly encapsulates the joining of the natural and the mechanical across Arca鈥檚 music. Her beats move and operate based on collisions of one element crashing into another or the cacophony emitted by many noises firing off at once. And true to her habit of straddling binaries, the sonics on Kick I have a real dimensionality and tangibility鈥攁s in what sounds like wood splintering on 鈥淟a Chiqui鈥濃攅ven though they also have a kind of wispy, cyber-weightlessness, as if they could self-destruct at any given moment.

On the off chance that the forces colliding are both bodies, Arca can be tender. She croons about the unity of becoming one with a lover on 鈥淣o Queda Nada,鈥 the album鈥檚 beautifully patient closing track. 鈥淣othing left in me that you haven鈥檛 touched,鈥 she lilts, 鈥淣ot even a corner left/Into which your warmth hasn鈥檛 seeped.鈥 The 鈥測ou鈥 could be a paramour, but it鈥檚 also possible Arca is talking about coming into her own. Thus, Kick I is a sometimes quite bawdy love letter, both to the self and a potential partner. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca鈥檚 career, the album is a celebration of actualization, whether that鈥檚 spurned by finding harmony internally or in communion with another.

Label: XL Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Jessie Ware鈥檚 What鈥檚 Your Pleasure? Is a Transportive Disco Trip

An album that, just a few months ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure now feels like manna for the soul.

4

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Jessie Ware, What's Your Pleasure?
Photo: Carlijn Jacobs

The art and media released immediately following a crisis or disaster often exist in a strange sort of vacuum鈥攑aradoxically oblivious to the bleak realities of the world into which they鈥檝e been dropped and inextricably bound to it. The digital age allows for a more immediate reaction to world events鈥擟harli XCX鈥檚 How I鈥檓 Feeling Now was created as a real-time response to the COVID-19 shutdown鈥攂ut the vast majority of the albums released so far this year were recorded prior to the pandemic. They serve as relics preserved in time, reminders of the simple pleasures we took for granted just a few months ago.

Some, like Lady Gaga鈥檚 recent Chromatica and Jessie Ware鈥檚 What鈥檚 Your Pleasure?, were created specifically for clubs, most of which have been temporarily shuttered. To add irony to injury, both albums find their creators returning to their dance roots after years-long sabbaticals from the genre. Ware, in particular, has with each album moved further away from the experimental electronic music of her early collaborations with the likes of SBTRKT and Sampha, and 2017鈥檚 Glasshouse eschewed dance music altogether.

More than a dance album, though, the U.K. singer鈥檚 beat-driven What鈥檚 Your Pleasure? is a truly immersive experience, transporting listeners not just to pre-COVID days, but to a time and place much further back. The opening track, 鈥淪potlight,鈥 is a sultry, understated throwback to Four Seasons of Love-era Moroder and Bellotte, with Ware鈥檚 recollections of a fleeting romance floating atop a plush arrangement of disco strings, chirpy guitar licks, and wobbly bass. As the song climbs to its blissed-out climax, you can almost feel the polyester on your skin and smell the Paco Rabanne in the air.

Ware鈥檚 devotedly crafted escapism isn鈥檛 limited to one narrowly defined period or genre: The title track鈥檚 rollicking bass and squelchy synths nod to Italo disco, while the cheeky 鈥淥oh La La鈥 dips into expansive funk-pop, with Ware playing Teena Marie to producer James Ford鈥檚 Rick James. And that鈥檚 just the album鈥檚 opening stretch. Ford, one half of British electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco, is at the helm of most of What鈥檚 Your Pleasure?, striking a deft balance between vintage and modern, between organic and synthetic, on tracks like 鈥淪ave a Kiss,鈥 whose live orchestral swells wash over sleek programming and driving house beats.

The album doesn鈥檛 completely abandon the smooth R&B that Ware has honed over the last several years, and there鈥檚 plenty of downstairs music to groove to here. The slow-burning 鈥淚n Your Eyes鈥 glides along an oscillating bassline that allows Ware鈥檚 mesmerizing vocal to take center stage: 鈥淚t feels like we鈥檝e been dancing to this song all of our lives,鈥 she sings, her voice mimicking the track鈥檚 sweeping strings and brass. 鈥淭he Kill鈥 is another smoldering slow jam, an undercurrent of orchestral and gospel flourishes bolstering its tenuous hook.

Lyrically, the songs stick to common, if not completely frivolous, tropes like love, lust, and longing. 鈥淭ell me when I鈥檒l get more than a dream of you,鈥 Ware implores on 鈥淪potlight.鈥 But these themes take on even deeper meaning in a time where physical connection and communal experiences are few and far between. Depending on your level of caution fatigue, the album鈥檚 explicit invitation to indulge might seem sadistic. The thought of bumping up against a stranger on a dance floor these days feels forbidden, even dangerous. But when Ware croons, 鈥淟ast night we danced and I thought you were saving my life,鈥 on the rapturous 鈥淢irage (Don鈥檛 Stop),鈥 it鈥檚 a reminder that music and dancing remain universal forms of salvation. What鈥檚 Your Pleasure? is an album that, just a few months ago, might have felt like a nostalgia trip or a guilty pleasure, but now feels like manna for the soul.

Label: Interscope Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Khruangbin鈥檚 Mordechai Confronts the Present with Open Arms

An effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the album鈥檚 foundation.

4

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Khruangbin, Mordechai
Photo: Tasmin Isaacs

A live act at heart, Khruangbin performs at the leisurely pace of experienced improvisational musicians, while their songs are judiciously pared down to playlist-friendly lengths ideal for your local Starbucks. But the Houston rock trio鈥檚 output can hardly be categorized as 鈥渆asy listening.鈥 Khruangbin鈥檚 homage to eclectic musical traditions from around the world demands close attention. The band鈥檚 third album, Mordechai, coalesces the balmy Southeast Asian-influenced rock of 2015鈥檚 The Universe Smiles Upon You and the baroque Iranian psychedelia of 2018鈥檚 Con Todo El Mundo, injecting it all with a generous helping of funk. All the while, the ornamental, unhurried grooves maintain Khruangbin鈥檚 signature air of reverence and abundance, ensuring that each song unfolds organically.

The album鈥檚 opening track, 鈥淔irst Class,鈥 launches the album into a dreamy stratosphere, as the band鈥攚hose name means 鈥渁irplane鈥 in Thai鈥攄etails the opulence of a first-class flight over shimmering guitars. This euphoric yet playful tone permeates much of the rest of the album, which unlike the group鈥檚 past efforts, incorporates vocals into all but one of the tracks. Lead single 鈥淭ime (You and I)鈥 offers an Edenic proposition, smokily sung by bassist Laura Lee: 鈥淲e can play like children play/We can say like children say.鈥 She beckons us to shed the concerns and judgments of adulthood and rediscover the world through the eyes of a child.

Having gained renown primarily as an instrumental band, Khruangbin mastered the dimensions of their sonic blueprint early on. Propelled by drummer Donald 鈥淒J鈥 Johnson鈥檚 tumbling backbeats, Lee鈥檚 meandering bass often provided the heartbeat of each of the band鈥檚 songs, while Speer鈥檚 guitar, laden with brambly hammer-on passages that evoke Middle Eastern rock, served as a lush accent. This interplay spared little breathing room for vocals; the rare mantra-like chant would be a word or phrase sung by the trio and sustained, as if the vocal were itself another instrument adding to the mix.

By contrast, there鈥檚 only one true instrumental on Mordechai, the pensive 鈥淔ather Bird, Mother Bird,鈥 and half of the album鈥檚 tracks boast entire verses and choruses. What was once implied is now overtly articulated. Lee鈥檚 ruminations on memory surface on 鈥淐onnaissais de Face,鈥 a Thai surf-rock jam interspersed with a conversation between two old friends. One remarks to the other, 鈥淭ime changes everything,鈥 a truism that seems hackneyed until it鈥檚 put into relief with the friends鈥 struggle to reconcile the old and new versions of themselves.

On the tender 鈥淒earest Alfred,鈥 Lee gives thanks to a loved one after receiving a letter that transports her to their shared past: 鈥淐an you imagine the joy/When I received your wonderful letter?/Your letter is the best gift.鈥 For Khruangbin, the act of recollection entails articulating past emotions. Language, be it a bittersweet heart-to-heart or the scribbled thoughts of a letter, enables us to historicize the past鈥攖he closest we can ever come to reliving it.

Armed with this special regard for memory, the band confronts the impetus of the present with open eyes and arms. The Spanish-language 鈥淧elota鈥 is a playful jaunt situated at the intersection of Iranian rock and Afro-Colombian cumbia. Lee compares herself to a ball of soot traversing life鈥檚 peaks and valleys, at once acknowledging her smallness and the immensity of the chaos surrounding her. Still, she adopts a stance of acceptance: 鈥淧ero quiero amar el desastre/El desastre que es m铆o鈥 (鈥淏ut I want to love the disaster/The disaster that is mine鈥).

This effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the album鈥檚 foundation. While past Khruangbin albums risked coming off merely as studied tributes to the microcosms of Thai and Iranian rock, Mordechai finds Khruangbin coming into their own, thanks to the band鈥檚 lyrical development and the honing of their fusion of intercontinental influences. As the adage goes, there鈥檚 nothing new under the sun, but Mordechai makes a case that maybe there just might be.

Label: Dead Oceans Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: HAIM鈥檚 Women in Music Pt. III Is Defined by a Strong Sense of Self

The album strikes a deft balance between experimental and commercial, moody and uplifting.

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HAIM, Women in Music Pt. III
Photo: Reto Schmid

HAIM鈥檚 third album, Women in Music Pt. III, opens with 鈥淟os Angeles,鈥 an off-the-wall mishmash of jazzy horns, light funk guitars, and dub rhythms that attempts to transpose Vampire Weekend鈥檚 distinct sound to the West Coast. It is, perhaps, an unsurprising development given that the album was co-produced by VW cohort Ariel Rechtshaid and former member Rostam Batmanglij, and that Rechtshaid鈥檚 girlfriend, Danielle Haim, is featured prominently throughout the band鈥檚 2019 album Father of the Bride.

But while there鈥檚 plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III鈥攈ip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance鈥擠anielle and sisters Este and Alana have created an album that鈥檚 defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017鈥檚 Something to Tell You, on which both Rechtshaid and Batmanglij also served as producers, this album鈥檚 scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It鈥檚 darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure鈥攁 summer party record for a troubled summer.

The album鈥檚 title is tongue-in-cheek: Danielle, Este, and Alana aren鈥檛 known for singing about gender politics so much as hook-ups, breakups, and all of the points in between (鈥3 AM,鈥 for one, finds Danielle contemplating her response to a wee-hours booty call). But the same could be said of a feminist icon like Joni Mitchell, whose influence looms large鈥攑erhaps too large鈥攐ver back-to-back cuts 鈥淚鈥檝e Been Down鈥 and 鈥淢an from the Magazine.鈥 A stripped-down acoustic missive, the latter recounts an experience Este had with a skeevy reporter who asked her if the exaggerated faces she makes on stage are the same ones she makes in bed. 鈥淲hat do really want me to say back?鈥 Danielle scoffs. 鈥淚s this what you think making a pass is?鈥

HAIM鈥檚 brand of feminism is otherwise less explicit, manifesting in their unapologetically unfiltered, fiercely independent persona. 鈥淭he Steps鈥 is the album鈥檚 most cathartic moment: 鈥淚 can鈥檛 understand why you don鈥檛 understand me,鈥 sings Danielle, who isn鈥檛 one to mince words. 鈥淎nd every day I wake up and make money for myself/And though we share a bed you know that I don鈥檛 need your help,鈥 she bellows. With its ecstatic octave-jumping hook and braying guitar licks, 鈥淭he Steps鈥 is a nearly perfect pop-rock song. So, for that matter, is the sleepily chugging 鈥淯p from a Dream,鈥 while the infectious 鈥淣ow I鈥檓 in It鈥 and 鈥淒on鈥檛 Wanna鈥 blend synths and guitars so deftly that the line between pop and rock remains blurred. (Anyone still skeptical of HAIM鈥檚 rock n鈥 roll bona fides is likely to be won over by Danielle and Alana shredding dueling acid-drenched guitar solos at the end of 鈥淔UBT鈥).

While only one of its songs exceeds four minutes, Women in Music Pt. III runs a bit long at 16 tracks, including a trio of singles that were released last year and are sequenced unceremoniously at the end of the album. While 鈥淣ow I鈥檓 In It鈥 meshes well with the rest of the material, the folksy 鈥淗allelujah鈥 and the generic groove track 鈥淪ummer Girl鈥濃攚hich borrows heavily enough from 鈥淲alk on the Wild Side鈥 that Lou Reed receives a writing credit鈥攕tick out on an album that otherwise flows sublimely. And with such thorough melding of influences to be found elsewhere, the more bald-faced genre exercises鈥攈ip-hop on 鈥3 AM,鈥 reggae on 鈥淎nother Try鈥濃攃ome across as a bit lazy.

Yet, HAIM鈥檚 instincts to veer a little more left of the dial on Women in Music Pt. III result in an album that strikes a deft balance between the experimental and the commercial, the moody and the uplifting. You鈥檙e unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger鈥檚 in-store playlist鈥攐n which 2017鈥檚 鈥淟ittle of Your Love鈥 seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of 鈥淓ye of the Tiger鈥 and 鈥淚 Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)鈥濃攂ut these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding.

Label: Columbia Release Date: June 26, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Bob Dylan鈥檚 Rough and Rowdy Ways Is Powerfully Prescient

The album encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster during the most turbulent of ages.

4.5

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Bob Dylan, Rough and Rowdy Ways
Photo: William Claxton

When, in March, Bob Dylan previewed 鈥淢urder Most Foul,鈥 the closing track from his 39th album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, the timing was eerie. A haunting, 17-minute piano and violin duet that addresses the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the song paints an epic, Bosch-like portrait of a country ripped asunder by violence, confusion, and hatred, the president鈥檚 death marking the moment when 鈥渢he soul of a nation [was] torn away.鈥 Released two weeks after the U.S. government鈥檚 bumbling proclamation of a national emergency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and not long before mass protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd, 鈥淢urder Most Foul鈥 looks back to the mythical origin point of the era that fostered Dylan as a visionary of social conscience and artistic freedom and depicts America鈥檚 seemingly perpetual state of chaos and division.

Dylan鈥檚 first album of original material since 2012鈥檚 Tempest, Rough and Rowdy Ways operates in the same vein as its larger-than-life finale. Sharp and precise in its references, descriptions, and personal confessions, the album is also thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that鈥檚 preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It鈥檚 also a masterpiece of mood as much as lyrical poetry, and as stunningly and surprisingly atmospheric as many of the major musical achievements in a career more associated with monumental songwriting than sonic mastery.

Only superficially signaling a retreat from contemporary and topical concerns, Dylan鈥檚 last three albums鈥攁ll composed of material from the Great American Songbook鈥攇radually perfected the stark, elegiac sonic palette that Dylan has been refining since 1997鈥檚 Time Out of Mind, and Rough and Rowdy Ways applies that palette to the most poignant songcraft of his late career. This is evident on opening track 鈥淚 Contain Multitudes,鈥 which features a slowly strummed, drum-less arrangement that would have fit snugly on any of his three previous albums. But instead of comforting traditionalism, the song offers a statement of purpose that dares immodesty and tastelessness (鈥淚鈥檓 just like Anne Frank and Indiana Jones鈥) only to somehow arrive at honest self-reflection and self-discipline (鈥淚鈥檒l keep the path open, the path in my mind/I鈥檒l see to it that there鈥檚 no love left behind鈥).

鈥淚 Contain Multitudes鈥 sets the tone for the rest of Rough and Rowdy Ways, which frequently meditates on mortality and mayhem with bemusement as well as dread, though not always in equal parts. Whereas the album鈥檚 opener posits that an unstable world can be rescued through expansive perspective and creativity, 鈥淢y Own Version of You鈥 turns this reassurance on its head and in the process becomes one of the most macabre songs of Dylan鈥檚 gargantuan catalog.

On the song, he casts himself as a grave robber digging up 鈥渓imbs and livers and brains and hearts鈥 in order to create a patchwork human a la Frankenstein鈥檚 monster. The dark, running joke here is that this human is 鈥測ou鈥濃攁 former lover Dylan wishes to perfect according to his perverse, insatiable desires, perhaps, but also any listener whose point of view has become fragmented and disoriented by a lyrical kaleidoscope referencing Richard III, Julius Caesar, The Godfather, Scarface, Leon Russell, Liberace, St. John the Baptist, the Crusades, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx, and more. 鈥淢y Own Version of You鈥 suggests that the restoration of sense and meaning, as well as a shot at artistic immortality, through the reimagining of history and culture is yet one more desecration of an ungraspable grand design; the song鈥檚 creepy waltz-time shuffle, as pierced through by Donnie Herron鈥檚 ghostly steel guitar work, forms an unsettling backdrop for Dylan鈥檚 hypnotic, and hypnotized, despair.

Like much of the grittier material that Dylan has penned since turning to electric rock in the mid-鈥60s, the album鈥檚 no-nonsense blues are also shot through with dire proclamations that at times get downright bloody. The second half of Rough and Rowdy Ways contains two such numbers, 鈥淕oodbye Jimmy Reed鈥 and 鈥淐rossing the Rubicon.鈥 The former is a deceptively upbeat tribute to sackcloth-and-ashes religiosity (鈥淔or thine is kingdom, the power, the glory/Go tell it on the mountain, go tell the real story/Tell it in that straightforward, puritanical tone/In the mystic hours when a person鈥檚 alone鈥), while the latter is a 12-bar slow-burner that speaks of final decisions and lasting regrets during a time of tribulation (鈥淲hat are these dark days I see?/In this world so badly bent/I cannot redeem the time/The time so idly spent/How much longer can it last?/How long can it go on?鈥).

As others have pointed out, 鈥淔alse Prophet鈥 pilfers (and without giving credit to) Billy 鈥淭he Kid鈥 Emerson鈥檚 smoky 鈥淚f Lovin鈥 Is Believing.鈥 Dylan has unabashedly stolen others鈥 music since at least 鈥淢asters of War,鈥 but in almost every case he鈥檚 made other musicians鈥 work so uniquely his own in terms of lyrics and sensibility that he鈥檚 almost justified the practice. In 鈥淔alse Prophet,鈥 he brilliantly replaces Emerson鈥檚 straightforward tale of romantic betrayal with a surreal, eschatological narrative that, as spun in Dylan鈥檚 gravelly croak, evokes the possible viewpoint of the Angel of Death: 鈥淵ou don鈥檛 know me darlin鈥/You never would guess/I鈥檓 nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest/I ain鈥檛 no false prophet/I鈥檓 just said what I said/I鈥檓 here to bring vengeance on somebody鈥檚 head.鈥

Rough and Rowdy Ways, though, doesn鈥檛 just hammer away at a few foreboding notes. This is an album that showcases a similar comprehensive spectrum of ideas, attitudes, citations, perspectives, stories, and jokes as Dylan鈥檚 greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots鈥攍ike 鈥淚鈥檝e Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You鈥 and 鈥淜ey West (Pirate Philosopher)鈥濃攁re well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind 鈥淭o Make You Feel My Love鈥 as well as 鈥淣ot Dark Yet,鈥 and along with dispensing fire and brimstone, the album keeps romantic and spiritual faith alive, through both the fervor of unshaken convictions concerning the high stakes of the soul as well a basic yearning for love, companionship, and peace. As with his best work, Rough and Rowdy Ways encompasses the infinite potential for grace and disaster that can be clearly discerned but rarely summarized in the most turbulent of ages.

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Review: With Shadow Offering, Braids Embraces a Clear-Eyed Directness

The album demonstrates the band鈥檚 versatility, locating something of a sweet spot.

3.5

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Braids, Shadow Offering
Photo: Melissa Gamache

Raphaelle Standell-Preston boasts one of the more versatile and distinct voices in modern rock. She鈥檚 able to emote with a breathy whisper or deliver a full-force belt, each imbued with singular intonations, but her sublime contributions to Braids鈥檚 music have often been buried beneath ornate sonic pile-ups. By contrast, Standell-Preston鈥檚 vocals on the Canadian trio鈥檚 fourth album, Shadow Offering, are clear, legible, and lead their sound rather than the other way around. Where her voice was once looped with multiple tracks on songs such as 鈥淒ecember,鈥 extending its dreamy power via reverb, Shadow Offering rarely employs those old psychedelic tricks, giving Standell-Preston鈥檚 voice a bracing directness.

The choice is emblematic of an album that gives forthright expression to its themes. Gone is the opaque poetry of 2013鈥檚 Flourish // Perish, replaced with more narrative shape and clear-eyed lyrics that address relationships and selfhood without romanticizing them. On 鈥淵oung Buck,鈥 Standell-Preston sings: 鈥淢aybe I鈥檒l go get my sex on/Go drinking tonight with a nice-muscled guy/The numbing kind/Everyone needs a little numb once in a while.鈥

This stylistic shift, which began on 2015鈥檚 Deep in the Iris, is aided here by production from Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla, who seemingly prompted Braids鈥檚 new emphasis on guitar and piano arrangements. Like Austin Tufts鈥檚 percussion, there鈥檚 a renewed confidence in Standell-Preston and Taylor Smith鈥檚 guitar work; it鈥檚 gliding and measured, and deferential to the singer鈥檚 introspective lyrics. A staple of their repertoire, Braids鈥檚 synths are downplayed, most notably on the opening track, 鈥淗ere 4 U,鈥 and the stunningly intense 鈥淔ear of Men.鈥

The latter song bravely unpacks paralyzing social and existential anxiety, and Shadow Offering as a whole throws into sharp relief the nagging self-doubt that often accompanies a faltering relationship. Standell-Preston鈥檚 vulnerable, piano-driven confessions at times recall those of Fiona Apple, while her brand of theatricality, as well as her strange, beguiling phrasing on songs like 鈥淓clipse (Ashley),鈥 is reminiscent of Kate Bush.

An examination of white privilege, the nine-minute 鈥淪now Angel鈥 is the kind of sprawling dive into what Standell-Preston once described as 鈥渕y lake of a head,鈥 but Shadow Offering comprises mostly more economical rockers like the cymbal-crashing closing track, 鈥淣ote to Self.鈥 Demonstrating their versatility throughout the album, Braids locate something of a sweet spot, embracing a restrained plainspokenness without completely veering from the outr茅 flourishes and melancholic, midtempo jams that are their specialty.

Label: Secret City Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Baauer鈥檚 Planet鈥檚 Mad Relentlessly Evokes a Sense of Doom

The album buries what traces of melody there are beneath thundering drums and bass.

3

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Baauer, Planet's Mad
Photo: Teddy Fitzhugh

Best known for 2012鈥檚 meme-generating 鈥淗arlem Shake,鈥 Baauer, n茅 Harrison Rodrigues, delves deep into the low end on his second album, Planet鈥檚 Mad. Essentially finding 10 different ways to pummel the ear, the album is a relentless experience, burying what traces of melody there are beneath thundering drums and bass. It鈥檚 a soundtrack fit for a world in such disrepair that there鈥檚 no option but to throw one last raucous dance party.

Baauer鈥檚 2016 debut, Aa, found the producer and DJ fruitfully playing with trap conventions鈥攕irens, airhorns, 808s鈥攚hile simultaneously showcasing his ease with subtler textures. By layering tracks with frantic rattling and sound effects, he achieved a sonic density so corporeal that one song was titled simply 鈥淏ody.鈥 That album has a structural simplicity, beginning with a series of interconnected instrumental tracks that segue midway into bona fide club bangers featuring the likes of M.I.A. and Future.

On Planet鈥檚 Mad, Baauer largely dispenses with the high-profile guests and mounts a loose sci-fi narrative about environmental destruction, hinted at in the album鈥檚 title. On 鈥淢agic,鈥 he adds various elements one by one before removing them, evoking the gradual process of degradation. This motif can also be seen in the album鈥檚 artwork, which pictures the Earth split open, its core and layers drifting outward, but one would be hard-pressed to spot a clear through line in the music, as its concepts are conveyed almost entirely in the abstract.

Musically, Planet鈥檚 Mad takes its cues as much from British techno and footwork as it does from trap. Clearly influenced by Jlin and RP Boo, the percussion on tracks like 鈥淎ether鈥 busily mutates and recalibrates itself, continually upping the ante in terms of speed. 鈥淗ot 44鈥 recalls the bruising bass and ever-escalating pacing of Dog Blood鈥檚 鈥4 Mind鈥 and 鈥淭urn Off the Lights,鈥 with Baauer sculpting a percussive trajectory that sounds like it鈥檚 rippling over hard, staccato ridges. The artist鈥檚 range of tones and patterns are certainly a highlight; every time we hear a drum it sounds different than the last.

On 鈥淧izzawala鈥 and 鈥淵ehoo,鈥 Baauer assembles a tangle of drums and samples of looped tribal chants. While white artists pilfering African sounds is nothing new in dance music, the way it鈥檚 appropriated and exoticized here feels mostly anonymous. This is especially notable when considering Baauer鈥檚 entire aesthetic, given his trap origins, is premised on black music. But while it鈥檚 culled from a m茅lange of styles and influences, Planet鈥檚 Mad still stands on its own for its sonic depth and detail. Even if the album鈥檚 themes aren鈥檛 fully articulated, Baauer鈥檚 use of bass, constantly elongating and amplifying, succeeds at evoking a sense of doom.

Label: LuckyMe Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Neil Young鈥檚 Homegrown Provides a Missing Link in the Artist鈥檚 Legacy

The album offers a homey, bittersweet charm largely unique to the troubadour鈥檚 legendary catalog.

4

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Neil Young, Homegrown
Photo: Warner Records

Originally slated for release in 1975, Neil Young鈥檚 Homegrown was shelved at the last minute in favor of the fractured masterpiece Tonight鈥檚 the Night, and an alternate history in which the swap never happened is inconceivable. Young describes the album as 鈥渢he unheard bridge between [1972鈥檚] Harvest and [1978鈥檚] Comes a Time,鈥 but those two releases don鈥檛 comport with the haunted, ragged, and much less commercial music that Young was making in the mid-鈥70s. Friendlier and rootsier than the likes of Tonight鈥檚 the Night but more intimate than Harvest, Homegrown offers a homey, bittersweet charm largely unique to the troubadour鈥檚 legendary 鈥70s catalog.

It鈥檚 unlikely that any song on Homegrown would have become a hit back in 1975; the only probable contender is 鈥淭ry,鈥 a woozy after-hours honky-tonk come-on. With its barroom chumminess and bright backing vocals courtesy of Emmylou Harris, the song probably could have found a home on the radio, if not an all-day one, as it鈥檚 a bit too wry and cavalier to appeal to the masses who lapped up Harvest鈥檚 treacly 鈥淗eart of Gold鈥 a few years earlier.

Indeed, rather than recreate the polish that made Harvest such a sensation, Young scaled back the presence of his all-star ensemble鈥攊ncluding members of the Band, alongside familiar sidemen like bassist Tim Drummond and pedal steel stalwart Ben Keith鈥攊n favor of minimally arranged meditations. On pensive vignettes like the piano-based 鈥淢exico鈥 and the wispy 鈥淟ittle Wing鈥 (previously released on 1980鈥檚 Hawks & Doves), Young鈥檚 patented brand of impressionistic memoir cuts deep.

Like much of his work from this period, the material on Homegrown sees Young intent on stripping away all pretense and ego and exposing the pain that laid beneath. Just as Tonight鈥檚 the Night found him preoccupied with the tragic deaths of friends Danny Whitten and Bill Berry, he鈥檚 dogged by the dissolution of his relationship with actress Carrie Snodgrass throughout Homegrown. His inner turmoil is felt most keenly on the stunning 鈥淜ansas,鈥 in which he awakes 鈥渇rom a bad dream鈥 next to a woman whose name he doesn鈥檛 know. She鈥檚 lovely and kind, but he can鈥檛 take his mind off his difficult reality, surrounded as he is by the walls of 鈥渕y bungalow of stucco that the glory and success bought.鈥

The album鈥檚 comparatively scant electric material is less consistent. The album鈥檚 stoner-anthem title track, a version of which later appeared on 1977鈥檚 American Stars 鈥楴 Bars, is unquestionably one of the dumbest songs Young has ever written, while 鈥淲e Don鈥檛 Smoke It No More鈥 is a jokey white-boy blues vamp that serves only to indicate how profoundly stoned everyone performing it probably was. At the very least, these two songs poke holes in the perception that Young spent this entire period in a depressive, tequila-sodden haze.

Nonetheless, it鈥檚 hard to deny the raw emotion of tracks like 鈥淰acancy,鈥 a dark, rumbling rock song that could have easily fit on Tonight鈥檚 the Night. 鈥淎re you my friend/Are you my enemy?鈥 Young sneers, sounding shaky and paranoid. But on Homegrown, it鈥檚 more of a passing thundercloud than an endless storm. 鈥淎ll your dreams and your lovers won’t protect you,鈥 Young laments on 鈥淪tar of Bethlehem,鈥 deftly sequenced here as the album鈥檚 closer. 鈥淎nd yet,鈥 he insists, 鈥渟till a light is shining.鈥 The album turns out to be missing link in Young鈥檚 catalog as much for Shakey鈥檚 emotional life as it is for his stylistic choices.

Label: Warner Release Date: June 19, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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