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Review: Laura Marling, Semper Femina

Semper Femina is distinctly modern in its mixture of stringent self-analysis and inquisitive open-mindedness.

3.5

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Laura Marling, Semper Femina

For most of its existence, folk music has functioned less as a popular performance style than as a means of preserving cultural heritage and clarifying social relations—the voice of the people passed down through communally developed songs played out on easily obtainable instruments. As the circumstances which fostered these insular conditions have changed, and as the transfer of oral traditions have shifted to other, newer musical forms, modern folk has shifted from a source of populist expression to a conduit for artists hoping to cloak their music in an air of classical authenticity.

This often results, especially in an era dominated by the sheen of mainstream pop, in reactionary, faux-homespun music that’s often hopelessly affected. Yet for all the hordes of guitar-toting, po-faced dullards seeking to bury solipsistic mediocrity beneath a banner of artisanal craftsmanship, there’s a handful of breakout artists who manage to genuinely tap into the original spirit of folk. In this sense, Laura Marling stands out as the contemporary equivalent to someone like Joni Mitchell, a figure who subverts traditional folk strictures in order to create her own highly stylized take on the genre.

On Semper Femina, Marling offers a perspective that’s distinctly modern in its mixture of stringent self-analysis and inquisitive open-mindedness. The singer’s mellifluous voice cycles skillfully from an intimate spoken-word delivery to a warbling croon, a variety of modes that assure that her archly constructed narratives also feel fleet-footed and expressive. The album’s lyrics provide a few wry insights into fears, passions, and frustrations of everyday life as a woman, maintaining a dispassionate, analytical approach that marries poetic wordplay with observational detail.

The album’s title originates in a line from Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid: “varium et mutabile semper femina,” which translates to “woman is ever fickle and changeable.” Here, such mutability is embraced by Marling as an aptitude for adaptation rather than mere capriciousness. The phrase pops up repeatedly in “Nouel,” a sprightly, mysterious character study that’s profiling either an older woman, a painting, or a cat, and which manages to work in deeper questions of mortality and the male gaze into its series of spry metaphors. Songs like “The Valley” and “Always This Way” operate in similar fashion, standing as ruminative appreciations of the beauty and complexity of other women, delivered from a definitive observational remove that’s always aware of the acute burden of representation.

The result is an album that seeks to push folk’s innate naturalism into an even more progressive space, eschewing any trace of outmoded roles and stereotypes. In doing so, Semper Femina never feels strained or disingenuous, the effortless antithesis to the studied, conservative posing of so much modern folk, which has become crystallized in the work of an artist like Father John Misty, who uses his music to evince snide, sardonic distance instead of offering empathy or insight to the stunted characters he depicts. Marling’s music, on the other hand, represents a real connection to the genre’s roots, offering a scrupulous reckoning with the realities of self matched by an expansive respect for the sanctity of other lives, poised at the contemporary forefront of a historically compassionate songwriting tradition.

Label: Kobalt Release Date: March 10, 2017 Buy: Amazon

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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Review: Lambchop’s This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) Doesn’t Say Much

Modern trappings do little to obscure the fact that frontman Kurt Wagner feels more out of time than ever.

3

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Lambchop
Photo: Merge/Steve Gullick

After more than two decades of dealing in musical anachronisms, one might assume that Lambchop’s recent forays into electronics mean that frontman Kurt Wagner has finally gotten with the times. Defined by synths, vocoders, and drum machines, 2016’s FLOTUS and now This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) are daring departures from Wagner’s previous attempts to mine outmoded styles of the past for new truths. But these modern trappings are just misdirection, doing little to obscure the fact that he seems to be feeling more out of time than ever.

Perhaps inevitably, This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) isn’t as sprawling or stylistically immersive as FLOTUS. When you put out an album whose lead single is an 18-minute synth dirge, it’s probably a good idea to take a bit of a step back for the follow-up. This album lacks the stitched-together quality of FLOTUS, that certain emphasis on atmosphere, texture, and the unexpected, rather than structure and melody, that makes that album alternately impenetrable and transcendent. This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You) is 20 minutes shorter, and far less formless. Even its more abstract passages, like the nearly five minutes of roaming piano and wispy horns that close the title track, feel more familiar within Lambchop’s pre-established paradigm of reimaging old genres—in this case, lounge jazz—and as new again than the alien soundscapes of FLOTUS did. The Wagner who spent much of the 2000s trying to turn himself into the world’s strangest, crustiest Vegas lounge singer is recognizable here as well. He’s just singing through a vocoder now.

No one could credibly accuse Lambchop of making conventional pop music, but new collaborator Matt McCaughan, who co-wrote over half the album with Wagner and is responsible for much of its electronic instrumentation, at least steers the band in a less abstract direction. The whining synth motif that pops up in the middle of “The December-ish You” is a sneakily good earworm, and if it weren’t for Wagner’s creaking old-young voice, “Everything for You” might sound like something you would hear at Sephora.

That’s not to say Wagner sounds anything but disaffected by modernity. Just as FLOTUS’s title falsely promised political musings in an election year, the fact that all but one of this album’s eight song titles are written in second person is just a canard—as if anyone wouldn’t notice that the only person Wagner is singing about is himself. A song title like “The New Isn’t So You Anymore” seems to promise a withering indictment of some behind-the-times character, but in reality, it’s just about Wagner sitting in a car and trying to reconcile his own place in the dizzying 2019 cultural landscape. Political references abound throughout This (Is What I Wanted to Tell You), but they’re mostly just context-free phrases: “Be it so un-presidential,” “The news was fake, the drugs were real,” “Fell asleep during Vietnam,” and so on.

Rather than grapple with politics, Wagner sounds like he’d much rather revel in daily mundanities: “I’m in a Mexican restaurant bar/Watching surfing and it’s amazing,” he sings on “The Air Is Heavy and I Should Be Listening to You.” In so doing, Wagner culminates a retreat into himself. Whereas Lambchop once boasted a grand, 12-plus-piece lineup, the band is now smaller and more insular than ever before. But Lambchop has always been whatever Wagner wants it to be, and if he wants “you” to mean “me” this time around, it simply does. “I see your reflection,” he sings at the very end of the gentle, acoustic-based closer “Flowers,” as Nashville legend Charlie McCoy’s honey-sweet harmonica billows behind him, “and I say hello.”

Label: Merge Release Date: March 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Meat Puppets Remain Resilient on the Mellow Dusty Notes

The album marks the band’s first reunion that feels truly consequential.

3.5

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Dusty Notes

The Meat Puppets have gone on hiatus and subsequently reunited at least four times now, rivaling any cash-grabbing classic-rock dinosaurs still out there in their ability to put boomer butts in arena seats. With the possible exception of guitarist Curt Kirkwood’s short-lived, Y2K-era solo project, it’s not as though the post-prime iterations of the Meat Puppets have been especially unwelcome. But their 15th studio album, Dusty Notes, marks the first such reunion that feels truly consequential, thanks to original drummer Derrick Bostrom returning to the fold for the first time since 1995’s No Joke!

Anyone who might want to trace a direct lineage between the new album and alt-rock classics like Meat Puppets II, and who hasn’t kept up with the band since they broke up for the first time, will of course notice the audible effects of the intervening 35 years: Curt and brother Cris’s low, calm voices; the slower tempos; the preponderance of acoustic guitars, often in place of fuzzy electric ones. One might also wonder if the band took the wrong lessons from Meat Puppets II’s acclaim. The idea of three former hardcore punks with acid-blasted brains playing a twisted psychedelic version of country and Americana music was novel and fascinating in 1984 and remained so 10 years later when Kurt Cobain invited them on stage to play during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged. Remove the acid and hardcore, however, and you just get middle-aged Arizonians playing straightforward country music, like Dusty Notes’s pointlessly faithful cover of the Don Gibson standard “Sea of Heartbreak.”

Fortunately, though an old-school country aesthetic defines the album—the banjo picking on “Nine Pins,” the sweet hillbilly harmonies on “Outflow”—Curt’s irrepressible songwriting quirks make the rest of Dusty Notes anything but formulaic. The post-Bostrom Meat Puppets have often veered much closer to modern alt-country than the hardcore of their early days, and Dusty Notes is no exception; in fact, it might be the mellowest of their albums to date.

With key assistance from keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, Curt turns what are at first blush prototypical country strummers into weird, melodic concoctions. Stabinsky’s contributions—circus organ on “Nine Pins,” Mariachi-like synths on the title track—often leap out immediately from the mix. But it’s Curt’s songwriting that makes those same songs stick in the brain, from the demented polka groove of “Warranty” to the sunny Tex-Mex hooks and characteristic stoner turns of phrase on the title track.

If anything is missing from Dusty Notes, it’s certainly not hard-rock dalliances. Besides, with both Stabinsky and second guitarist Elmo Kirkwood—Curt’s son—abetting the original trio, the album features a fuller, richer sonic character than any of the band’s early albums ever managed. Rather, there’s not enough of Curt’s guitar playing. His inimitable jangle riffs from the ‘80s and fuzzed-out, spacey heroics from later years are both in short supply, which does render Dusty Notes more conventional-sounding than most Meat Puppets albums.

It’s unlikely anyone predicted that a 2019 Meat Puppets album would feature a return to the blown-out arena-metal of 1989’s Monster, but that’s exactly what we get with “Vampyr’s Winged Fantasy,” complete with Dungeon Master-friendly verses like “Your chariot of protons/Slices through the gloom/Drawn by a pharaoh/Risen from the tomb.” It’s fun, but once the novelty and nostalgia wear off, it doesn’t leave as much of an impression as the songs here that don’t quite sound like anything the band has done before, like “Unfrozen Memory,” a dramatic slow-burner that melds distorted guitar with Stabinsky’s expert, baroque-style harpsichord, or “The Great Awakening,” on which silky, entrancing acoustic arpeggios drift into a tough, bluesy chorus and come back again like you’re falling in and out of a dream.

These particular songs exemplify what the Meat Puppets, at their best, have always been about. Not their singing or their playing or their lyrics, which were all often utterly incoherent even at the band’s peak. It’s their ability to evoke emotional states—some precious feeling half-remembered from childhood, or perhaps a really good acid trip—that has allowed their music to remain so resilient for almost 40 years.

Label: Megaforce Release Date: March 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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