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Review: Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway.

5.0

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Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

“I fantasized about this back in Chicago” is the first thing that Kanye West says on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and it’s the only thing close to a context for the 13 tracks of delirious hip-hop decadence that follow. For the remainder of “Dark Fantasy,” he’s freely mixing the materialistic (“Mercy, mercy me, that Murcielago”) and the existential (“Hey teacher, teacher/Tell me how do you respond to the students?/And refresh the page and restart the memory?/And re-spark the soul and rebuild the energy?”). The track might not answer a lot of questions, but it’s a dynamite beginning to an audaciously complex rap masterpiece, on-point thematically and, even more so, musically, with Kanye mashing up G-funk and baroque pop while huge, anonymous voices pop in to ask, “Can we get much higher?” like a stoned soul take on a Greek chorus.

The effort to canonize My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as one of hip-hop’s all-time high points is already underway, and I’m confident that Kanye’s new album can weather the backlash that all potential classics must confront. That said, insisting, on whatever grounds, that Kanye has released one of rap’s great milestone’s doesn’t do the album justice, at least insofar as doing so invites impossible challenges (is it really better than Fear of a Black Planet or Illmatic? Who could definitively say?) without drawing due attention to the strengths on which the album might meet them. So let me offer the following, slightly less generous superlative: No rap album I’ve heard can boast better production than this one. The music is exhilarating, often abrasive, never predictable, at times stunningly gorgeous. These are the finest tracks that any group of rappers has yet to rhyme over, and if the album doesn’t make Kanye any more of a contender for the title of Greatest MC than he was two years ago, it handily confirms that he’s rap’s greatest producer.

Even when Kanye was working as an in-house beatsmith for Roc-a-Fella, he showed a savant-like knack for sample-based hip-hop. It turns out that was only the earliest manifestation of a much more encompassing talent. For Kanye, the internal logic of pop music must be nearly transparent: He doesn’t seem to get what makes every genre work, nor does he get all of them as well, but he has an intuitive sense of how to construct more kinds of songs than any other producer working today. He looks good in grimy hard rock on “Hell of a Life,” pulls off arena-sized pop pomp on “All of the Lights,” and still finds time, with the posse cuts “Monster” and “So Appalled,” to kick out the two hardest rap tracks of his career.

Even when Kanye looks back, the results can be stunning. On “Devil in a New Dress,” he perfects the sampling style he invented, manipulating the pitch and tempo of Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” until it crawls luxuriantly out of the speakers like wine poured in slow motion. It’s a gorgeous slow burner that turns tragic in its third act, as Kanye’s rhymes swap lust for heartache before distorted guitar lines and a muscular verse from Rick Ross close it out (that’s Kanye acting tough, but it’s clear he’s really hurting).

Wisely chosen as the album’s centerpiece, there’s no question that the following track, “Runaway,” is Kanye’s most arresting showcase as a songwriter. The self-lacerating lyrics, including a filthy first verse (“She find pictures in my email/I sent this bitch a picture of my dick”), are far too off-putting to count as anti-hero posturing, much less as self-pity. The sense of uncomfortable proximity, that maybe Kanye isn’t aware of just how much he’s oversharing here, is reinforced by his unpolished and sometimes tuneless singing. After three verses plus a chilling interlude from Clipse’s Pusha T, apparently as ruthless a boyfriend as he is a coke dealer, Kanye sounds drained.

The “Runaway” single ends there, but the album version undergoes a remarkable transformation, as the lonely piano figure that introduced the song is joined first by menacing cello and then, surprisingly, by an utterly weightless violin section. When Kanye returns, he’s singing through a vocoder, and where his voice strained and cracked before, it now becomes a purely melodic instrument capable of making its own joyous contribution to the track. Kanye sounds disembodied, as though “Run away from me, baby” wasn’t a directive to a mistreated lover, but the cry of a man trying to exit the black hole of his own implacable ego. The coda to “Runaway” is a fantasy of escape through pure catharsis, with the vocoder literalizing Kanye’s ability to transform his personal shortcomings into art.

Nearly as accomplished—and equally as obsessed with the vocoder—is “Lost in the World,” Kaney’s much-anticipated reworking of Bon Iver’s “Woods.” It’s astounding how he takes the strangest sample on the album and crafts it into a defiantly giddy dance number, complete with tribal drumming in the verses and group choruses that sound massive. It’s a mad stroke of brilliance to take Justin Vernon’s solitary ode to alienation and use it as the centerpiece of a catchy, communal reverie. It’s experimental, to be sure, but it’s also the closest the album comes to pure pop indulgence. All the more surprising, then, that the song is interrupted by a seething political missive from Gil Scott-Heron, his “Comment #1,” the sample of which eventually derails “Lost in the World” entirely and runs headlong into the album’s closing track.

By this point, Kanye has pimped on Mt. Olympus, married a porn star, and made love to the Angel of Death, and instead of wrapping up the album with its most joyous track, he tears back the curtain and leaves us staring at a grim and recognizable present. Heron’s words: “All I want is a good home and a wife and a children and some food to feed them every night…Who will survive in America?” The pop-star decadence is shown to conceal the familiar country of predatory lending, teen pregnancy, mandatory minimum sentencing, blighted inner cities, racial profiling—and the confounding question is what power fantasies like Kanye’s have to do with it. Perhaps they sustain the men and women who fight for survival even as they prop up the system that forces us to combat one another on its terms. And where this question applies to all forms of escapism, it seems especially appropriate for rap to confront, as it has aspired to give black America a voice, a soundtrack, a language, and an escape.

The truth is, like Jay-Z recently told Jon Stewart, rap is an art form. And I think that, like Stewart suggested in response, there are plenty of people who already recognize it as such. But vindicating rap—or, for that matter, comic books, video games, or music videos—as belonging to the ever-expanding family of acknowledged “art” is less important than rap’s defenders realize. On the other hand, it’s absolutely crucial that rappers and producers are actively exploiting whatever artistic potential rap does have. It matters that artists like Kanye are finding new frontiers in rap precisely because there are so many people interested in policing rap’s borders, making sure it doesn’t get too violent, or too queer, or too smart. And as long as they’re winning, it doesn’t matter if rap is blasted out of playground stereos or dissected in college English classes: Rap’s status as art is a matter of demonstration, not definition.

So as to avoid sounding conspiratorial, let me be clear about who is handicapping rap in the year 2010. It’s the easy-target A&R guys, sure. But it’s also, more powerfully and more frequently, the fans. It’s especially those fans who believe that realness is definitive of good rap and refuse to accept anything less than a one-to-one correspondence between life and lyrics. For the twentysomething black male to whom rap is most often marketed and by whom rap is most often performed, realness is as much a matter of asserting ownership as it is of relating to the music. Though, ironically, some of the people most invested in keeping rap tied to realness are middle-class white folks who like rap precisely because they don’t relate in any literal sense to its message, but rather because it provides the edgiest musical escapism on the market. Keep those groups in mind and you start to realize the subversive genius of Lil Wayne’s choice of protégés in Nicki Minaj and Drake: The first group finds nothing more threatening than a female rapper (except, as Nicki has pointed out herself, a gay rapper) and the second is just as threatened by a rapper who is unabashedly educated and privileged. Rap critics of many colors and income brackets also deserve some blame, for soft-pedaling paternalism when they praise rappers for “channeling raw experience” or for “unflinching realism,” which can amount to saying that the best rap is either autobiographical or journalistic, but never idiosyncratic, poetic, or performative. For 20 years, rap’s aesthetic has been monopolized by authenticity, and it’s high time it got a bit of competition from fantasy.

From that perspective, I see Kanye as nothing short of a hero, and I see virtually no danger of critics praising My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy too much. Kanye spent the last decade or so pushing himself and his fans to come to terms with a vision of hip-hop so wildly expansive that it could annex whole genres, swing to any mood, freely mix piety and pitch-black humor with snarkiness and swag. His unfailing ear for beats meant that, for three albums in a row, we were all too busy nodding our heads to see how powerfully the game was changing: It wasn’t until 808s & Heartbreak that anyone noticed, and only then because Kanye’s ego finally got the better of his musical talents (this was, after all, the record that introduced “solipsism” to the vocabulary of rap criticism). With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy complete, even that misstep finally looks purposive, as though Kanye first recorded an album as sonically and emotionally distant from his previous work as possible in anticipation of later finding a place for its instrumental digressions and painful candor.

But where 808s & Heartbreak’s stunted emotional arc expressed little more than an egomaniac’s bile for his ex-girl, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy allows Kanye a thematic palette broad enough to confront his pride and anguish. The album dwells on the surreal (“Dark Fantasy” imagines a shopping-mall séance and a sky eclipsed by herons) and the religious (next to Kanye himself, it’s Satan who gets the most name-drops here). It’s all in the service of an exhausting contest between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, Kanye embracing his singular pop-star/super-villain persona while struggling to connect with the creative potential that made him worth our attention to begin with. This much he confesses on “Power”: “I just needed time alone with my own thoughts/Got treasure in my mind, but couldn’t open up my own vault.” With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there’s no question that he’s found the key.

Label: Roc-a-Fella Release Date: November 22, 2010 Buy: Amazon

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

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

3.5

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Dedicated
Photo: Markus & Koala

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

Carly Rae Jepsen, of course, isn’t your typical radio star. Aside from her breakthrough hit “Call Me Maybe,” her success has been largely fomented by gushing critical praise and word of mouth. But success in the age of Spotify and social media is, like radio, predicated on giving people what they want, when they want it. And Jepsen’s fourth album, Dedicated, is a carefully calibrated attempt at brand extension, reprising the effervescent pop of her last two albums while at the same time acknowledging that the 33-year-old is now a full-grown woman.

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

“This” being the various love affairs—consummated or otherwise—that comprise the album’s loose narrative. Dedicated opens with “Julien,” a recollection of a fleeting romance—“I’m forever haunted by our time,” Jepsen sings wistfully—followed by over a dozen songs that luxuriate in love or fret over the loss of it. She ponders its meaning on the euphoric “Real Love,” her voice filled with knowing abandon (“I go everyday without it/All I want is real, real love…I don’t know a thing about it/All I want is real, real love”), and shakes off an affirmation that’s too little to late on “Right Words Wrong Time,” the album’s sole ballad.

Dedicated is, well, dedicated to its theme, revisiting topics Jepsen studiously explored on Emotion. One notable development is the singer’s newly and boldly expressed sexuality. “I wanna do bad things to you,” she declares on “Want You in My Room,” before coyly asking, “Baby, don’t you want me to?” She similarly plays the coquette on “I’ll Be Your Girl,” beckoning her object of desire to “come to bed,” and promises “sweat disco all night” on the squelchy “Everything He Needs,” channeling “Physical”-era Olivia Newton-John.

The album also doubles down on its predecessor’s fixation on ‘80s pop-rock tropes. “Want You in My Room” is awash in Vocoder effects, shimmering new-wave guitars, and a grinding bassline straight out of Cameo’s “Candy”—all within less than three minutes, and topped off with sax solo for good measure. The kitschy “Everything He Needs” is the sonic equivalent of a velvet painting, based on a pitched-up vocal sample of Shelley Duvall’s “He Needs Me” from Robert Altman’s Popeye. Producer John Hill lends several tracks a distinct reggae groove, like the simmering “Too Much” and the ska-infused “I’ll Be Your Girl,” while “For Sure” dizzyingly pairs tribal rhythms with swirling synths and chants.

These tweaks to Jepsen’s formula feel less significant when placed alongside more boilerplate fare like the single “No Drug Like Me” and the cloying “Feels Right,” both of which could be leftovers from Emotion. But Jepsen deserves credit for committing to a pure pop sound when it might be shrewder to venture into more hip-hop-influenced terrain. There’s something to be said for the virtues of familiarity—even if it means you won’t get played on Top 40 radio.

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

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

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

4

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

In early 2013, I was interning at a recording studio in upstate New York where the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner were working on overdubs for the band’s sixth album, Trouble Will Find Me, which was released later that year. As playback of the lovely “I Need My Girl” filled the control room, one of the brothers remarked, somewhat shockingly, that the National’s frontman, Matt Berninger, isn’t a great singer.

Berninger’s thick, apollonian baritone is one of the most distinctive voices in indie rock, and he wields it like a weapon, lending immense gravitas to everything he sings. He doesn’t have much range as a vocalist—in terms of both emotion and literal notes—endowing a certain level of sameness to the Dessners’ compositions. But he and the rest of the band have managed to parlay that limitation into a consistent, often brilliant 20-year career. Nonetheless, it’s reason enough to approach their eighth album, I Am Easy to Find, with skepticism that 16 tracks and over an hour of running time might be a bit too much Berninger for one sitting.

The first half of the album’s opening track, “You Had Your Soul with You,” boasts the same type of deconstructed post-guitar rock that the National has been making for a while now, with glitchy electronics, a lurching drum pattern, and Berninger intoning about loss and failure. But after the building instrumentation fades away into lush piano and strings, the first voice we hear isn’t Berninger’s, but that of Gail Ann Dorsey, longtime bassist and vocalist for the late David Bowie. When she sings, “You have no idea how hard I died when you left,” her steely but buoyant delivery offers an emotional shade to this brooding line that Berninger never could have achieved. It’s this moment that defines the rest of I Am Easy to Find, as Dorsey is one of various women who share the mic with Berninger over the course the album. The result is the National’s widest-ranging and most surprising effort to date.

Dorsey, Sharon Van Etten, This Is the Kit’s Kate Stables, among others, aren’t just some form of affirmative action for a band that’s sometimes derided as the epitome of self-absorbed straight-white-guy rock. The main impetus for their presence on I Am Easy to Find was, in fact, a short film of the same name directed by Mike Mills, and the band’s desire to more directly reflect the film’s female protagonist, played by Alicia Vikander. Besides, Berninger has often collaborated with his wife, writer and former New Yorker fiction editor Carin Besser, on lyrics for the National, so having female voices sing those lyrics is just a more explicit acknowledgement of how Besser’s perspective has shaped the band’s lyrical identity.

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

The preponderance of other voices on I Am Easy to Find is such that Berninger is at times reduced to little more than a bit player in his own band, as on the swirling, blustery “Where Is Her Head” and the slow-building “So Far, So Fast,” a showcase for Irish singer Lisa Hannigan. On the occasions when he does wrest the spotlight entirely for himself, even the greatest indulgence he can muster—“Not in Kansas,” a seven-minute ballad composed of stream-of-consciousness musings—utterly charms and never becomes overbearing.

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

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

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

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

There’s still darkness flitting around Ezra Koenig’s consciousness, but it’s more of the “middle-aged malaise” variety.

3.5

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Father of the Bride
Photo: Monika Mogi

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

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

There’s still darkness flitting around Koenig’s consciousness, but it’s more of the “middle-aged malaise” variety than the crisis of faith he teased out last time around, and even then the music is so relentlessly sunny that Koenig rarely sounds anything less than content. (It’s telling that the album’s most arresting, confrontational line—“I don’t wanna live like this/But I don’t wanna die” from “Harmony Hall”—is recycled from 2013’s “Finger Back”.) On “This Life,” even as he asks, “Oh Christ, am I good for nothing?” he sounds like a millennial Jimmy Buffet, pondering the question from the comfort of a sonic hammock composed of beachy guitars and effortlessly breezy harmonies. There’s nothing wrong with Koenig achieving this state of mind, of course—in fact, it’s comforting—but if he were a character on a TV show, it would feel as though we missed a few crucial stages of character development.

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

In the near-total absence of Batmanglij—he’s listed as the co-writer and producer of one song and the co-producer of another—Koenig turns to HAIM’s Danielle Haim to find a new foil. She’s game, singing with Koenig and playing three very different kinds of paramours on “Hold You Now,” “Married in a Gold Rush,” and “We Belong Together.” The latter of these has the melodic construction of a beginner fiddle tune and the rhyme scheme of a children’s song and yet remains maddeningly infectious. But she can’t fill one role that seems to have slipped beyond the band’s grasp: editor. At 18 tracks and 58 minutes, Father of the Bride is by far the longest release by a band whose brevity was once one of their best characteristics. This results in a not-insignificant amount of bloat, including at least one or two songs—like the lounge jazz disaster “My Mistake”—that should have been left in the outtakes pile.

But Koenig is clearly in no mood for compromise. He’s not shy about putting all this new material out there, or about confronting his critics in the process. Lyrics like “I’ve been cheating my way through this life/And all its suffering” (on “This Life”) and “One rich man in ten has a satisfied mind/And I’m the one” (on “Rich Man”)—not to mention the title, if not the content, of “Unbearably White”—seem designed to provoke the authors of the slate of circa-2010 think pieces about Vampire Weekend, appropriation, and white privilege. He doesn’t much seem to care if his words piss you off, as he seems to be feeling pretty good regardless.

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

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

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

3.5

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Here Comes the Cowboy
Photo: Coley Brown

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

DeMarco has a knack for composing simple yet alluring melodies that feel simultaneously weighty and timeless. But while his previous work suggested a flair for embellishment and drama—like the lavish “Chamber of Reflection” and otherworldly “Moonlight on the River”—Here Comes the Cowboy is decidedly more reined in. The forlorn “Heart to Heart” simmers with tension, its restrained use of synths entwining carefully around DeMarco’s plaintive vocal: “To all the days we were together/To all the time we were apart.”

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

For all its reflections on regrets and love lost, Here Comes the Cowboy also exhibits DeMarco’s eccentric sense of humor, which has been sorely absent in his recent work. On the closing track, “Baby Bye Bye,” his playful falsetto is accompanied by a zany slide guitar before bursting into crazed laughter and a funk breakdown that recalls the spirit of David Bowie’s “Fame.” In spite of the album’s earlier solemnity, DeMarco bids a tongue-in-cheek farewell as if to assure us that he hasn’t lost touch with the slacker rock goofball of his “Ode to Viceroy” days.

A handful of tracks scan as underdeveloped or incomplete. The three-minute title track plods along sedately—the only lyrics being its four-word title—with DeMarco’s deadpan delivery scanning as more vapid than charming. On “Choo Choo,” he’s lithe and energetic, but without a breakdown, the numbing funk groove peters out. Although elsewhere the album benefits from his light-handed instrumentation, the structural one-dimensionalities of these tracks harbor too many empty, open spaces, yielding songs that flatline. Like 2017’s This Old Dog and 2015’s Another One, the album doesn’t represent a progression so much as a broadening of what DeMarco has already proven himself to be capable of as a songwriter.

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

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The Nation of “Electric Youth”: Debbie Gibson’s Bonkers Teen-Pop Hit Turns 30

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

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Electric Youth
Photo: YouTube

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

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

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

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

Halfway through, the video inexplicably cuts to shots of Gibson performing in concert, old men in Kangol hats dancing near a wooded area, and a pedestrian signal (recklessly!) urging Debbie to “RUN.” During the track’s instrumental break, the band is seen floating across the screen before the clip cuts to both a shot of Gibson giddily crumbling a piece of paper—her former manager’s contract, perhaps?—and a random photo of Michael Jordan. And just when you think it couldn’t get any damn weirder, a fortuneteller summons Deb’s face in a crystal ball, portending that the future is “electric.”

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Hurts 2B Human
Photo: RCA Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me!
Photo: YouTube

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

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

Produced by Joel Little, best known for his work with Lorde and Broods, the song plays like a piss take on the bright and shiny pop of hits like “Shake It Off,” with marching-band drums, stadium foot-stomping, stately brass, and a cartoonishly ebullient hook: “Hee-hee-hee, hoo-hoo-hoo!” Swift may be one of the most self-aware pop stars alive, so it’s impossible not to view everything about “ME!” as a calculated response to her last album, right down to the song’s effusive title (Reputation precedes “ME!”—get it?). Even her signature self-deprecation—“I know I went psycho on the phone/I never leave well enough alone”—is given a self-reflexive twist: “I promise that you’ll never find another like me.”

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

Watch below:

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Madonna Unveils Carnivalesque “Medellín” Music Video Featuring Maluma

The video for Madonna’s new single is steeped in Portuguese and Latin-American influences.

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Medellin
Photo: Interscope Records

Today MTV took a break from its around-the-clock programming of mind-numbing reality TV to air the exclusive world premiere of Madonna’s new music video, “Medellín,” like it’s 1995 all over again. In the video, Madonna dons a white wedding dress reminiscent of her iconic look in the clip for “Like a Virgin” and the VMA performance of the song that helped make her a household name nearly 35 years ago. And like “Like a Virgin,” which was shot in Venice, Italy, the new video is also an international production, filmed in Portugal, where the queen of pop has lived on and off for the past two years.

But that’s essentially where the similarities end, both in terms of Madonna’s less-than-virginal mien—the wedding dress is accessorized with a cowboy hat, a red leather glove, and a safety-pin-covered eye patch—as well as the video itself. The nearly seven-minute “Medellín” is the official introduction to Madame X, the persona Madonna has adopted for her 14th album of the same name, out on June 14, and features the singer in various guises, including a cha-cha instructor and a bride to Colombian reggaeton star Maluma.

An extended intro finds Madame X delivering her manfesto via prayer:

“Dear God, how can I trust anyone after years of disappointment and betrayal? How could I not want to run away again and again, escape? I will never be what society expects me to be. I have seen too much. I cannot turn back.”

Reportedly shot at the Quinta Nova de Assunção palace near Lisbon, and co-directed by Diana Kunst, who was raised in Spain and has helmed videos for A$AP Rocky and Rosalía, “Medellín” is steeped in Portuguese and Latin-American influences that culminate in a carnivalesque wedding reception. Watch below:

Madonna and Maluma will perform “Medellín” for the first time at the 2019 Billboard Music Awards on May 1.

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Watch: FKA twigs Drops Trippy “Cellophane” Music Video

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

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Cellophane

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

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

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