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Review: Keane, Night Train

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Keane, Night Train

After their debut, Hopes and Fears, and its ubiquitous single “Somewhere Only We Know” pigeonholed Keane into the same AOR niche occupied by the likes of Daniel Powter and the Fray, the U.K. trio has spent the better part of six years raging against type. Comparisons to Coldplay have rarely meant to be flattering, and Keane has made a concerted effort to shake those tags. Sometimes those efforts have been successful: With its squelchy fake guitars and “Is it any wonder I’m tired” refrain, “Is It Any Wonder?” remains a terrific standalone single. But more often than not, Keane’s attempts to bulk up their sound have resulted in strident, try-hard records like their new Night Train EP.

Lest anyone doubt that Night Train finds the trio at their most dead-serious about muscling up, “Looking Back” is built on a no-shit sample of the Rocky fight theme. Were there any signifiers to indicate that the sample was meant to be ironic, that would be one thing, but played straight, it’s just howlingly awful. With a humorless guest verse by Canadian rapper K’Naan tacked on to no greater end, the only way to approach “Looking Back” is as pure camp, and even then it’s not really an entertaining listen.

The remainder of the EP fares somewhat better. It’s a risk to draw heavily from the ‘80s synth-pop of Perfect Symmetry, a middling album that alienated a sizable chunk of their fanbase, but that’s the tack Keane takes for most of Night Train. Attempting to make that style seem less dated, the band incorporates elements of hip-hop and dance on songs like “Back in Time” and “Clear Skies,” but these explorations don’t always work. The canned drum-machine backbeat on “Stop for a Minute” actually recalls some of the Backstreet Boys’s laughable “urban” singles. K’Naan’s rap over the bridge on that track is far superior to his other verse on the album, but rhymes like “Baby, you’re beautiful/From your crown to your cuticles” still aren’t strong enough to make “Minute” into anything the least bit progressive or interesting.

The set’s disco number, a cover of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Ishin Denshin (You’ve Got to Help Yourself),” is easily the standout track. Featuring a delicately sung guest appearance by Japanese vocalist Tigarah, “Ishin” works because it puts the band’s keyboard-based sound into a fitting and at least somewhat contemporary context. If nothing else, the song is a welcome change of pace alongside deliberately retro tracks like “Your Love,” which sounds like the background music from literally every Brat Pack movie.

Stylistically, these heavy-handed production choices represent a clear, deliberate departure for Keane. While it’s admirable that an established act continues to challenge itself and its audience, Night Train derails due to a lack of the hooks and melodies that made anyone listen to Keane in the first place. The record comes across as less of a change in direction than a full-on identity crisis.

Label: Interscope Release Date: May 11, 2010 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Julianna Barwick’s Healing Is a Miracle Is Music as Spiritual Renewal

The album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures.

3.5

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Julianna Barwick, Healing Is a Miracle
Photo: Jen Medina

As a singer, composer, and producer, Julianna Barwick uses her vocals as a foundation, stacking multi-tracks of her voice with strings and piano, and blending it all beneath layers of reverb. Save for the occasional poetic repetitions and formed thoughts, she doesn’t sing actual words, fusing emotions and imagined spaces through a collage of vocables and human noise. Upon first listen, her songs can feel monotonous, but tiny modulations give them dynamism. They don’t drone so much as pleasantly sustain a pace and mood.

Barwick’s fourth album, Healing Is a Miracle, is a tale of spiritual renewal that’s both striking and, even at 34 minutes, patience-testing. As its title indicates, the album takes on the abstract subject of systems of regeneration, both natural and otherwise. The opening track, “Inspirit,” comes on like a wall of sound, Barwick’s ecstatic vocals giving the impression of finding wonder in the mundane, the vocal parts joined together in a powerful cluster, barely distinguishable as she sings, “Open your heart/It’s in your head.”

While Barwick’s style can be wondrous, it isn’t fanciful, acknowledging the ebb and flow of life and death. On “Flowers,” a harsh, buzzy synth nearly overwhelms the choral arrangement in a way that grounds Barwick’s breathy vocals, while the percussion on “In Light,” featuring guest vocals from Jónsi, galumphs steadily like a heartbeat before tapering off, evoking the fragility of human life. Healing Is a Miracle is well sequenced, and its songs’ emphasis on direction achieves a circuitousness that plays nicely with album’s chosen theme of life cycles.

A longing for connection to a higher power—a notion of singing to the heavens—is a thread that runs throughout Barwick’s work. While her vocals on Healing Is a Miracle are less celestial than those on her 2011 breakout, The Magic Place, these songs similarly show an interest in the directionality of sound. The trajectory of “Safe” is one of gradual elevation and an ever-approaching proximity, employing distancing techniques for something more terrestrial rather than otherworldly. Likewise, “Wishing Well” seems to find Barwick pining for earthly connection, the vocals reaching outward as opposed to heavenward.

Considered though it is, though, Healing Is a Miracle can sometimes be so delicate as to be weightless, and the music’s accumulation of details and small shifts in tone makes it more interesting in theory than practice. Even still, the album overcomes its slightness thanks to its willingness to dabble in different textures, from the electronic flourishes featured throughout to the influence of hip-hop beatsmith Nosaj Thing on the closing track, “Nod.” Healing Is a Miracle is music as balm, with the human voice a vehicle for rejuvenation.

Label: Ninja Tune Release Date: July 10, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Pop Smoke’s Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon Is a Half-Baked Epitaph

The album has the feel of a B-sides collection culled together as a cash-in on the rapper’s death.

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Pop Smoke, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon
Photo: Amzy Obr

Pop Smoke, born Bashar Jackson, emerged as part of a crop of young rappers who took the morbid bluntness of drill, a subgenre of trap music that originated in Chicago’s South Side in the early 2010s, and adapted it to the ethos of New York City street life. In the Brooklyn rapper’s case, the translation was shrewd, utilizing the help of East London producer 808Melo, who, along with Rico Beats, oversaw the entirety of Pop Smoke’s 2019 mixtape Meet the Woo, creating a sound that was lively, booming, and faithful to Jackson’s origins while cloaking his gang-life testimonials in a new stylistic mode.

When Jackson was shot and murdered in Los Angeles in a home invasion earlier this year, he’d just released his second mixtape, Meet the Woo 2, and was in the process of recording his studio debut, now posthumously released under the title Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon. Unfortunately, yet all too predictably, the album has the feel of a B-sides collection culled together as a cash-in on his death. It attempts to expand Pop Smoke’s sound and ambitions, but without him around to shape and hone the work, his collaborators struggle to assemble something more than a pale reflection of what might have been.

Where Pop Smoke’s mixtape raps were notable for their conviction of delivery and tightly wound compression, here he sounds fainter and less engaged. His verses on “Aim for the Moon” and “Creature” don’t have the same punchy impact. In his best moments, Pop Smoke was able to channel his untamed aggression into repetitive, elemental lyrics that were colored by his force of personality (such as “Dior,” which has been tacked on to all three of his releases, including this one). Though not as adept at complex wordplay, his appeal was akin to the tough-talking, chest-puffing brio of DaBaby, who’s featured on “For the Night.”

Along with a live-wire masculinity, the album also contains the ill-advised forays into R&B found on DaBaby’s Blame It on Baby. Ladled with plenty of Auto-Tune, neither rapper has a compelling singing voice, and yet multiple songs on this album attempt to position Pop Smoke as a softer-spoken purveyor of love songs. “Something Special” and “What You Know Bout Love” sample Fabolous and Tamia’s “Into You” and Ginuwine’s “Differences,” respectively, marking the farthest the rapper has strayed from his patented drill and trap origins, but they’re dreary and tepid rather than exciting sonic departures. When he ad-libs, “Oh, you ain’t know I could sing?,” at the beginning of “Mood Swings,” it comes across as empty boast.

Even the tracks that stick to Pop Smoke’s established drill mode don’t have the inventiveness and coiled energy of his mixtape highlights. Half of what makes a song like “Welcome to the Party” so enjoyable is its menacing yet gleeful production, all warped violin loops and careening, demented bass. Comparable tracks on Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, such as “Gangstas” and “West Coast Shit,” trade these inspired choices for a minimalist piano and snare combination. The production feels mournful rather than charged, which makes sense given the turn of events but doesn’t square with the late artist’s strengths.

A handful of moments here make good on Pop Smoke’s promise. “Got It on Me” and “44 BullDog” find him doggedly racing against their beats, and there are brief instances where the rapper’s glib sense of humor and confidence invest lines like “I need your number and that’s that” and “I ain’t with the talk or the chit chat” with a hoarse individuality. But on the whole, in broadening his music’s scope, those responsible for piecing together Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon have lost sight of the local specificity, quirky charisma, and energy that made a name for Pop Smoke in the first place.

Label: Republic Release Date: July 3, 2020 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’t 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’s Color Theory and Perfume Genius’s Set My Heart on Fire Immediately focusing on heavier-hearted subjects and exploring denser, more brooding sonic palettes, the Beths’s sophomore effort, Jump Rope Gazers, relies mostly on upbeat pop-rock. That’s not to say that the New Zealand band is anxiety-free, but they’re so canny at cloaking heartbreak and dread in bright, warm hooks that their music never sounds too dire.

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

But the Beths are, perhaps, at their best when they’re at their breeziest. The languid verses of the album’s midtempo title track are set against a backdrop of sun-soaked harmonies, as Stokes describes a crumbling relationship: “If I don’t see your face tonight, well, I guess I’ll be fine.” The song’s chorus is more melancholic, with Stokes delivering lines like “I think I love you/And I think I loved you the whole time” with a wistful nostalgia.

The album’s closer, “Just Shy of Sure,” is lush and mellow, tinged with more sadness than its laidback demeanor might suggest. Here, the Beths approach a relationship from a pained angle: “Love in memory is a plague that consumed me,” Stokes sings matter-of-factly. The song finds the singer grateful for the experience even if it didn’t end the way she might have hoped: “Hey, you can’t win without entering/Do you care to lose everything?” These songs display the Beths’s 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 “You are a Beam of Light,” 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’s pitch-perfect songwriting, though, one of the things that makes the album so endlessly infectious is Pearce’s crisp and spacious production. From the acoustic and electric guitars that gently intertwine on “Do You Want Me Now” to each layer of the band’s crystalline harmonies on “Acrid,” every element of the album is so richly defined that these songs can’t 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’s been a very long year—and we’re 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—almost all of them created prior to the crisis—reflect 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’s kinetic Kick I), the patriarchy (Fiona Apple’s prismatic Fetch the Bolt Cutters), systemic racism (Run the Jewels’s electrifying RTJ4), and our (dis)connection to the planet itself (Grimes’s 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—in the case of Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and Jessie Ware’s What’s Your Pleasure?—an 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’s made an album not unlike Walker’s The Drift—that is, unmistakably in the pop idiom but aggressively unconventional. But if Walker’s 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’s 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’s 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’s 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’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout the album, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve 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 “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition. By far the bounciest, most ecstatic song cycle of Arca’s career, Kick I is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s 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 “Safaera” 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’s hottest Latin-trap heavyweights and legendary reggaetoneros like Daddy Yankee, the album solidifies Bad Bunny’s 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 “Chinese Satellite” and “I See You” evoke the sensation of being frozen, exacerbated by the perpetual anticipation of doom. “I’ve been running in circles trying to be myself,” 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’s closing track, “I Know the End,” 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’s 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’s Melee is a bristling, relentlessly cathartic collection of pop-punk. From the moment that the opening track, “Kawasaki Backflip,” bursts into its full-band glory, the album never slows down or backs off from the Detroit group’s 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. “Any moment now, I will disintegrate,” he frantically yells at the explosive climax of “Fox.” Melee is the sound of a band pushing off self-destruction through sheer force of will. This isn’t to say that these songs aren’t complex, or that their loudness is a cover for a lack of imagination. The guitars on “Cannonball” splash loudly, creating violent ripples over the rest of the track, while “Ender” 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’s Rough and Rowdy Ways is thematically universal and powerfully prescient, in many ways acting as the culminating expression of the apocalyptic spirituality that’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s 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’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” 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’s most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched “This is the sound of the end of the world” on “Before the Fever,” 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’s climate woes. But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucher’s 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 nü-metal guitars on “So Heavy I Fell Through the Earth.” On “Darkseid,” deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper 潘PAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum n’ bass on “4ÆM.” On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together is Boucher’s 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’s plenty of genre-hopping on Women in Music Pt. III—hip-hop, reggae, folk, heartland rock, and dance—HAIM has created an album that’s defined not just by exploration, but by their strong sense of individuality. Unlike the sparkling, thoroughly modern production of 2017’s Something to Tell You, this album’s scratchy drums, murky vocals, and subtle blending of acoustic and electronic elements sound ripped straight from an old vinyl. It’s darker, heavier fare for HAIM, for sure—a summer party record for a troubled summer. HAIM’s 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’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but these songs are riskier, and ultimately that much more rewarding. Jeremy Winograd



Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt, Walking Proof

Lilly Hiatt’s songs are disarmingly personal and immensely endearing, even when she’s singing about fucking up—which is pretty often. There’s an almost parasocial element to Hiatt’s songwriting: Her voice is like that of an old friend who’s perpetually in various stages of getting her shit together. Hiatt’s fourth album, Walking Proof, forms something of a thematic trilogy with her last two albums: 2015’s Royal Blue, a portrait of a relationship in its death throes, and 2017’s 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’s 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’s past relationship problems. But when, in the hauntingly stark closer “Scream,” she claims, “I swear to God I’m done with him,” it’s convincing this time. Winograd



Dedicated Side B

Carly Rae Jepsen, Dedicated Side B

A defining feature of last year’s Dedicated was Carly Rae Jepsen’s embrace of her sexuality—a 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 “Heartbeat” and the anthemic “Solo” 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. “I’m at a war with myself/We go back to my place/Take my makeup off/Show you my best disguise,” Jepsen offers wistfully on the meditative “Comeback,” demonstrating the tangled multi-dimensionality of both her own psyche and the act of sex itself. Alexa Camp

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

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

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Arca, Kick I
Photo: Hart Lëshkina

Pop music, it seems, has finally caught up with Arca, née 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, Björk, and Kelela, while toiling away at her solo work in a separate, more challenging lane. After three albums of apocalyptic, ambient tone poems, Arca’s pop and avant-garde interests converge on Kick I. It’s an anti-pop pop album, a distillation of the producer-singer-arranger extraordinaire’s ambitions and a statement of exuberance from an artist who’s known to deal in gloom.

Where Arca’s 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’s opening track, “Nonbinary,” she practically gloats: “I’m special, you can’t tell me otherwise…What a treat/Is is to be/non-binary.” This confident swagger abounds across the album, and Arca’s spirit of self-affirmation is well-earned.

Arca’s gender identity is infused in the playfulness of her lyrics and compositions. Despite the addition of actual pop hooks throughout Kick I, Arca’s beats continue to emphasize destabilization and change. Her songs are all bridge—stretches of evolution from one idea or mindset to the next. Just when you’ve 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 “Riquiquí” segues into the graceful ballad “Calor”; strings and clanking percussion mix, squaring off in striking juxtaposition.

The album’s lyrics, sung in equal parts Spanish and English, toy with and complicate notions of gender and desire. On “La Chiqui” (which roughly translates to “babydoll”), fellow electro-industrial popsmith Sophie has anarchic fun with pronouns, knowingly upending binaries: “She is my boyfriend/Flowers of my love/He is my best friend/Roots blowing up…the schism it shifts, it rips…” “Machote” and “Mequetrefe” express Arca’s yearning for a hyper-masculine man who’s an accomplished lover and, of course, “knows how to shake it.” The latter song’s 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 “deserves” him.

Arca’s always been amusing—after all, she once titled a song “Front Load”—but Kick I is a new high water-mark for her leftfield one-liners and absurd metaphors, all tied to her assurance and strength. “Rip the Slit” 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 “Riquiquí,” she vividly, hilariously invokes both mangos and mayonnaise.

“Riquiquí” includes a repeated description of “a white metal rose,” whose paradoxical mix of materials perfectly encapsulates the joining of the natural and the mechanical across Arca’s 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—as in what sounds like wood splintering on “La Chiqui”—even 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 “No Queda Nada,” the album’s beautifully patient closing track. “Nothing left in me that you haven’t touched,” she lilts, “Not even a corner left/Into which your warmth hasn’t seeped.” The “you” could be a paramour, but it’s 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’s career, the album is a celebration of actualization, whether that’s 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’s What’s 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.

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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—paradoxically oblivious to the bleak realities of the world into which they’ve been dropped and inextricably bound to it. The digital age allows for a more immediate reaction to world events—Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now was created as a real-time response to the COVID-19 shutdown—but 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’s recent Chromatica and Jessie Ware’s What’s 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’s Glasshouse eschewed dance music altogether.

More than a dance album, though, the U.K. singer’s beat-driven What’s 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, “Spotlight,” is a sultry, understated throwback to Four Seasons of Love-era Moroder and Bellotte, with Ware’s 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’s devotedly crafted escapism isn’t limited to one narrowly defined period or genre: The title track’s rollicking bass and squelchy synths nod to Italo disco, while the cheeky “Ooh La La” dips into expansive funk-pop, with Ware playing Teena Marie to producer James Ford’s Rick James. And that’s just the album’s opening stretch. Ford, one half of British electronic duo Simian Mobile Disco, is at the helm of most of What’s Your Pleasure?, striking a deft balance between vintage and modern, between organic and synthetic, on tracks like “Save a Kiss,” whose live orchestral swells wash over sleek programming and driving house beats.

The album doesn’t completely abandon the smooth R&B that Ware has honed over the last several years, and there’s plenty of downstairs music to groove to here. The slow-burning “In Your Eyes” glides along an oscillating bassline that allows Ware’s mesmerizing vocal to take center stage: “It feels like we’ve been dancing to this song all of our lives,” she sings, her voice mimicking the track’s sweeping strings and brass. “The Kill” 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. “Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you,” Ware implores on “Spotlight.” 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’s 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, “Last night we danced and I thought you were saving my life,” on the rapturous “Mirage (Don’t Stop),” it’s a reminder that music and dancing remain universal forms of salvation. What’s 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’s 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’s 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’s output can hardly be categorized as “easy listening.” Khruangbin’s homage to eclectic musical traditions from around the world demands close attention. The band’s third album, Mordechai, coalesces the balmy Southeast Asian-influenced rock of 2015’s The Universe Smiles Upon You and the baroque Iranian psychedelia of 2018’s Con Todo El Mundo, injecting it all with a generous helping of funk. All the while, the ornamental, unhurried grooves maintain Khruangbin’s signature air of reverence and abundance, ensuring that each song unfolds organically.

The album’s opening track, “First Class,” launches the album into a dreamy stratosphere, as the band—whose name means “airplane” in Thai—details 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’s past efforts, incorporates vocals into all but one of the tracks. Lead single “Time (You and I)” offers an Edenic proposition, smokily sung by bassist Laura Lee: “We can play like children play/We can say like children say.” 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 “DJ” Johnson’s tumbling backbeats, Lee’s meandering bass often provided the heartbeat of each of the band’s songs, while Speer’s 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’s only one true instrumental on Mordechai, the pensive “Father Bird, Mother Bird,” and half of the album’s tracks boast entire verses and choruses. What was once implied is now overtly articulated. Lee’s ruminations on memory surface on “Connaissais de Face,” a Thai surf-rock jam interspersed with a conversation between two old friends. One remarks to the other, “Time changes everything,” a truism that seems hackneyed until it’s put into relief with the friends’ struggle to reconcile the old and new versions of themselves.

On the tender “Dearest Alfred,” Lee gives thanks to a loved one after receiving a letter that transports her to their shared past: “Can you imagine the joy/When I received your wonderful letter?/Your letter is the best gift.” 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—the 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 “Pelota” 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’s peaks and valleys, at once acknowledging her smallness and the immensity of the chaos surrounding her. Still, she adopts a stance of acceptance: “Pero quiero amar el desastre/El desastre que es mío” (“But I want to love the disaster/The disaster that is mine”).

This effort to appreciate the present before it slips away into the recesses of memory forms the album’s 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’s lyrical development and the honing of their fusion of intercontinental influences. As the adage goes, there’s 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’s 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.

4

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

HAIM’s third album, Women in Music Pt. III, opens with “Los Angeles,” an off-the-wall mishmash of jazzy horns, light funk guitars, and dub rhythms that attempts to transpose Vampire Weekend’s 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’s girlfriend, Danielle Haim, is featured prominently throughout the band’s 2019 album Father of the Bride.

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

The album’s title is tongue-in-cheek: Danielle, Este, and Alana aren’t known for singing about gender politics so much as hook-ups, breakups, and all of the points in between (“3 AM,” 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—perhaps too large—over back-to-back cuts “I’ve Been Down” and “Man from the Magazine.” 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. “What do really want me to say back?” Danielle scoffs. “Is this what you think making a pass is?”

HAIM’s brand of feminism is otherwise less explicit, manifesting in their unapologetically unfiltered, fiercely independent persona. “The Steps” is the album’s most cathartic moment: “I can’t understand why you don’t understand me,” sings Danielle, who isn’t one to mince words. “And every day I wake up and make money for myself/And though we share a bed you know that I don’t need your help,” she bellows. With its ecstatic octave-jumping hook and braying guitar licks, “The Steps” is a nearly perfect pop-rock song. So, for that matter, is the sleepily chugging “Up from a Dream,” while the infectious “Now I’m in It” and “Don’t Wanna” blend synths and guitars so deftly that the line between pop and rock remains blurred. (Anyone still skeptical of HAIM’s rock n’ roll bona fides is likely to be won over by Danielle and Alana shredding dueling acid-drenched guitar solos at the end of “FUBT”).

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 “Now I’m In It” meshes well with the rest of the material, the folksy “Hallelujah” and the generic groove track “Summer Girl”—which borrows heavily enough from “Walk on the Wild Side” that Lou Reed receives a writing credit—stick 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—hip-hop on “3 AM,” reggae on “Another Try”—come across as a bit lazy.

Yet, HAIM’s 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’re unlikely to hear these songs on Kroger’s in-store playlist—on which 2017’s “Little of Your Love” seems to have become a permanent staple alongside the likes of “Eye of the Tiger” and “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—but 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’s 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 “Murder Most Foul,” 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’s death marking the moment when “the soul of a nation [was] torn away.” Released two weeks after the U.S. government’s 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, “Murder Most Foul” 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’s seemingly perpetual state of chaos and division.

Dylan’s first album of original material since 2012’s 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’s preoccupied Dylan since his earliest recordings. It’s 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’s last three albums—all composed of material from the Great American Songbook—gradually perfected the stark, elegiac sonic palette that Dylan has been refining since 1997’s 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 “I Contain Multitudes,” 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 (“I’m just like Anne Frank and Indiana Jones”) only to somehow arrive at honest self-reflection and self-discipline (“I’ll keep the path open, the path in my mind/I’ll see to it that there’s no love left behind”).

“I Contain Multitudes” 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’s opener posits that an unstable world can be rescued through expansive perspective and creativity, “My Own Version of You” turns this reassurance on its head and in the process becomes one of the most macabre songs of Dylan’s gargantuan catalog.

On the song, he casts himself as a grave robber digging up “limbs and livers and brains and hearts” in order to create a patchwork human a la Frankenstein’s monster. The dark, running joke here is that this human is “you”—a 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. “My Own Version of You” 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’s creepy waltz-time shuffle, as pierced through by Donnie Herron’s ghostly steel guitar work, forms an unsettling backdrop for Dylan’s hypnotic, and hypnotized, despair.

Like much of the grittier material that Dylan has penned since turning to electric rock in the mid-‘60s, the album’s 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, “Goodbye Jimmy Reed” and “Crossing the Rubicon.” The former is a deceptively upbeat tribute to sackcloth-and-ashes religiosity (“For 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’s alone”), while the latter is a 12-bar slow-burner that speaks of final decisions and lasting regrets during a time of tribulation (“What 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?”).

As others have pointed out, “False Prophet” pilfers (and without giving credit to) Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s smoky “If Lovin’ Is Believing.” Dylan has unabashedly stolen others’ music since at least “Masters of War,” but in almost every case he’s made other musicians’ work so uniquely his own in terms of lyrics and sensibility that he’s almost justified the practice. In “False Prophet,” he brilliantly replaces Emerson’s straightforward tale of romantic betrayal with a surreal, eschatological narrative that, as spun in Dylan’s gravelly croak, evokes the possible viewpoint of the Angel of Death: “You don’t know me darlin’/You never would guess/I’m nothing like my ghostly appearance would suggest/I ain’t no false prophet/I’m just said what I said/I’m here to bring vengeance on somebody’s head.”

Rough and Rowdy Ways, though, doesn’t 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’s greatest recordings. True, many of these are grave, but the few hopeful spots—like “I’ve Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You” and “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)”—are well-earned and, quite simply, beautiful. Latter-day Dylan is the man behind “To Make You Feel My Love” as well as “Not Dark Yet,” 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’s 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’s able to emote with a breathy whisper or deliver a full-force belt, each imbued with singular intonations, but her sublime contributions to Braids’s music have often been buried beneath ornate sonic pile-ups. By contrast, Standell-Preston’s vocals on the Canadian trio’s 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 “December,” extending its dreamy power via reverb, Shadow Offering rarely employs those old psychedelic tricks, giving Standell-Preston’s 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’s Flourish // Perish, replaced with more narrative shape and clear-eyed lyrics that address relationships and selfhood without romanticizing them. On “Young Buck,” Standell-Preston sings: “Maybe I’ll 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.”

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

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’s 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 “Eclipse (Ashley),” is reminiscent of Kate Bush.

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

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

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