Leon Bridges made his name as a young artist with an affinity for old music. His 2015 debut, Coming Home, was both praised and lightly criticized for its obsessively recreated retro-soul aesthetic, right down to the pleated trousers he wears on the albumâs cover. With his sophomore effort Good Thing, Bridges brings his classicist R&B chops into the current centuryâwith mixed results.
The album opens with “Bet Ainât Worth the Hand,” impeccably channeling Motownâs baroque period with a glistening string arrangement and Bridges gliding in and out of a Marvin Gaye-esque falsetto. But his chief aesthetic models here arenât classic soulsters like Gaye and Sam Cooke, but present-day heavy hitters like Sam Smith and Adeleâartists whoâve mapped “retro” sounds onto modern radio formats, achieving crossover success in the process.
For at least the first four of Good Thingâs 10 tracks, the experiment pays off. “Bad Bad News” pairs a cool jazz groove with a hip-hop-influenced vocal delivery; one can easily imagine Anderson .Paak doing something similar with the track. “Beyond,” meanwhile, effortlessly integrates the country-soul vibes Justin Timberlake recently spent a whole album clumsily chasing.
But the album falters when Bridges strays from his retro-soul wheelhouse. The fingerprints of producer Ricky Reed are too evident on “Forgive You,” a bland slice of adult-contemporary R&B that wouldnât sound out of place on the Maroon 5 album Reed recently helped produce. The sleek, â80s-style pop-funk of “If It Feels Good, Then It Must Be” fares better, but lacks the conviction of other recent forays in the style, such as Janelle Monáeâs “Make Me Feel.”
Bridges goes out on a high note with “Georgia to Texas,” a moving tribute to his mother that plays to the same stripped-down gospel strengths as his breakout song “River.” Itâs just him accompanied by drums, saxophone, piano, and stand-up bass; you can even hear the bass playerâs fingers scraping against the strings. And after the albumâs muddled middle section, the closing track feels like a reminder of what Bridges does best: not “retro” per se, but lived-in and genuine. Thatâs something Good Thingâand contemporary R&B more generallyâcould use a little more of.
Label: Columbia Release Date: May 4, 2018 Buy: Amazon
Review: Glass Animalsâs Dreamland Relies Too Heavily on the Mundanities of Reality
The album makes room for evocative, sensory lyrics and sonics that verge on the cinematic, but it also spends a lot of time on the mundane.3
Glass Animalsâs Dreamland blurs the line between dreams and reality, winding its way through a diaristic tour of frontman Dave Bayleyâs life. The album catalogues the singer-songwriterâs relationships, observations, and growing pains with a typically felt and colorful attention toward the senses. As such, itâs more personal than either of the bandâs previous two efforts, but that also means that it sacrifices the kaleidoscopic alignment of feeling and imagination that helped make those albums so distinct. Itâs a bit of a trade-off, then, as the change in subject matter allows Glass Animals to find new direction, but their previous mode of world-building was, in some ways, more satisfying.
The bandâs 2014 debut, Zaba, was seemingly dispatched from another planet, with lyrics filled with oddball imagery that was accompanied by vaguely exotic, waterlogged instrumentals and distant birdcalls, while 2016âs How to Be a Human Being was a playfully literary collection of songs about a cast of fictional characters. Dreamland still makes room for evocative, sensory lyrics and sonics that verge on the cinematic, highlighting the sense of physical touch (the latter word is used several times throughout), but it also spends a lot of time on the mundane artifacts in Bayleyâs personal memory bankâGrand Theft Auto, hotels with âpool paintings on the wall,â Scooby-Doo, The Price Is Rightâto middling effect. And his expressions of lust for various lovers alternate between the pedestrian (âSometimes all I think about is you/Late nights in the middle of Juneâ is repeated ad nauseam on âHeat Waveâ) and the nonsensical (âYou taste like surfing videos,â from âWaterfalls Coming Out Your Mouthâ).
Throughout Dreamland, Bayley remains fixated on the carnal escapes that make reality bearable, like sex and drugs, and the fleetingness of those pleasures, which Glass Animals explores with a knowing wisdom. The bandâs songs toe the line between dissecting such coping mechanisms and offering an escape of their own: Their bouncy keys, irrepressible melodies, and Bayleyâs malleable vocals are intoxicating in their own right, belying the fact that these songs are keenly aware of how temporary their pleasures are.
The standout âYour Love (DĂ©jĂ Vu)â perfectly encapsulates this threading of the needle, pairing twirling flute and celebratory, horn-like synths with lyrics such as, âI know you want one more night/And Iâm backsliding/Into this just one more time.â The relationship described on the song is a momentary fix whose dwindling potency is conveyed by Glass Animals in such a way that suggests time is running out and that theyâre making the absolute most of it.
As Dreamland pivots from polished indie rock to electro-pop to hip-hop, it largely sidelines Drew MacFarlaneâs guitar, which is only front and center on the self-professed B-side âMelon and the Coconut.â Thumping 808s and skittering hi-hats dominate songs like âSpace Ghost Coast to Coastâ and âHeat Wave,â replacing the shuffling drums, marimbas, and raw-material-inspired percussion of the bandâs prior work, and itâs surprisingly refreshing. âTangerineâ incorporates a staccato beat that sounds almost identical to the one on Drakeâs âHotline Bling,â while Dr. Dre is name-checked on âSpace Ghost Coast to Coast,â a West Coast reference that Glass Animals doubles down on by having Top Dawg fixture Derek Ali mix the track.
Like How to Be a Human Being, Dreamland moves into more vulnerable terrain in the end, but the earlier albumâs concluding run of emotive anthems, including âPoplar Stâ and âAgnes,â completed a well-rounded emotional arc. Here, songs like âItâs All So Incredibly Loudâ and âDomestic Blissââwhich focus on a relationshipâs breaking point and a woman experiencing domestic abuse, respectivelyâmake dreary use of swelling string sections, undermining what should be the albumâs tragic fulcrum. Instead, Dreamlandâs best moments are propelled by slick drum machines and Bayleyâs confidence as a frontman. His turn inward isnât without humor and insight, but writing about other people on past albums provided a more enveloping experience, fleshing out imagined places and people with an intrigue thatâs missing here.
Release Date: August 7, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Billie Eilishâs âMy Futureâ Is an Unexpectedly Upbeat Tribute to Isolation
The singer’s new single is a deceptively hopeful tribute to personal independence.
The world could use a pick-me-up right about now, but those hoping that pop singer Billie Eilish would follow up her multi-Grammy-winning debut with a âBad Guyâ-style banger will likely be disappointed by her new single, âMy Future.â The track, produced by brother Finneas, is the 18-year-oldâs first new release since Februaryâs âNo Time to Die,â the theme from the James Bond film of the same name, which was pushed to the end of the year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Like that song, âMy Futureâ starts off as a dreary but gorgeous dirge, with Eilishâs soulful, layered vocals stacked on top of atmospheric keyboards. Halfway through, though, the track pivots to a spry midtempo shuffle, transforming into a deceptively hopeful tribute to personal independence: âIâm in love with my future/Canât wait to meet her.â During a period in history when time itself seems to have come to a halt, and the future is uncertain, the songâs lyrics smack of irony: âI know supposedly Iâm lonely now/Know Iâm supposed to be unhappy without someone/But arenât I someone?â
Eilish gets even more animated in the music video for âMy Future.â The clip, directed by Australian artist Andrew Onorato, is bathed in cool blue tones before a rainstorm gives way to a more colorful palette, matching the songâs shift in mood and tempo. In her isolation, Eilish appears to find solace, communing with and eventually becoming one with nature.
Review: With Folklore, Taylor Swift Mines Pathos from a Widening Worldview
The album anticipates questions surrounding the singerâs genre bona fides and leans into each contradiction.4.5
Country and roots music are too often used as shorthand for âseriousâ artistry, a notion steeped in matters of race and rockist authenticity fetishes. The implication that pop music is an inherently lesser art form has been the focus of the discourse around albums by Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus in recent years. Taylor Swiftâs Folklore has already been subject to similarâand perhaps similarly misguidedâscrutiny. That Swift has enlisted Aaron Dessner of the highly regarded indie-rock band the National as both a songwriting and producing partnerâin addition to her frequent pop collaborator Jack Antonoffâand has embraced a grayscale, rustic visual aesthetic for the project has led many to declare the album a credibility maneuver or act of rebranding.
What makes Folklore such a compelling album, then, are the countless ways in which Swift, the savviest and most acutely self-conscious artist of her generation, anticipates questions surrounding her genre bona fides and leans into each apparent contradiction. She invites this degree of âWhat does it mean?â discursive handwringing because, on some level, it frees her to make the music she wants to make at any given moment. Folklore is neither a culmination of Swiftâs career to date nor a pivot in a new direction. Sheâs doing exactly what sheâs always done: offering a collection of incisive, often provocative songs that incorporate authentic, first-person details and leaving others to argue over specific genre signifiers.
Song for song, Folklore finds Swift at a new peak in her command of language. While tracks like âCardiganâ and âInvisible Stringsâ hinge on protracted metaphors, âMad Womanâ and âPeaceâ are blunt and plainspoken. In every instance, whatâs noteworthy is Swiftâs precision in communicating her exact intent. âI can change everything about me to fit in,â she sighs on âMirrorball,â a sentiment thatâs emblematic of her ability to bait autobiographical readings while also actively subverting them. If sheâs offering a comment on her own desire to keep up with next-gen pop stars like Billie Eilish, then the obvious follow-up question is why nothing on Folklore sounds like a viable Top 40 single. Swiftâs answer comes in the songâs final stanza, a marvel of vulnerability: âIâm still trying everything/To keep you looking at me.â
In other words, Swiftâs at a point in her career where she knows chart success is incidental to broad cultural impact, and she has the cachet to sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter. âAll Too Well,â from 2012âs Red, has rightfully become one of her signature songs despite not ever having been released as a single, and that same fate seems likely for many of the tracks here. Every song on Folklore boasts at least one couplet or stanza thatâs simply extraordinary for its command of language, narrative voice, empathy, or some combination thereof.
The standout âSevenâ first presents itself as a wistful remembrance of childhood before revealing the complexities of what we lose as we age: âPicture me in the weeds/Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Whenever I wanted.â The song also presents a queer text within Swiftâs songwriting for the first time, which broadens the narrative voices sheâs employed over the course of her career. âIllicit Affairsâ builds to what seems like it will be one of the singerâs trademark middle-eight tone shifts, only to end abruptly without resolving into another chorus, enhancing the sense of finality in her dressing-down of a former lover. Rather than pulling her punches by repeating a catchy refrain or hook, she lets some of her bitterest lines linger, and it’s one of the albumâs most impactful moments. Later, she sings from the POV of the rejected party on âThis Is Me Tryingâ to devastating effect: âYou told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential.â The track finds Swift giving credence to the other personâs view of her, making for an even more believable narrator.
Swiftâs early albums were hamstrung by her insistence that hers was the only story to be toldâthat, essentially, she was the protagonist in everyone elseâs autobiography, and not just in her own. Folkloreâs shifting perspectivesâan homage to heiress Rebekah Harkness on âThe Last Great American Dynasty,â the queer through line in the love triangle of âCardigan,â âAugust,â and âBettyââhighlight how Swiftâs widening worldview has deepened her skills as a songwriter. And even if none of these tracks sound like a âhit,â âInvisible Stringâ and âThis Is Me Tryingâ still demonstrate Swiftâs masterful grasp of song structure. Her use of repetition throughout the album is particularly effective: âThe 1â invokes both âthe greatest films of all timeâ and âthe greatest loves of all timeâ as sources of regret, while each stanza on âInvisible Stringâ begins with a line that uses passive voice to create a narrative remove.
That Swift employs her long-established songwriting tropes in novel ways is truly the most significant development on Folklore, rather than her choices of collaborators or whether the album scans as pop or alternative or electro-folk. She’s mined this type of melancholy tone before, but never for the full length of an album and certainly never with such a range of perspectives. It isn’t the weight of the subject matter alone that makes the album feel so vitalâit’s the exemplary caliber of her writing. She may sing of wasted potential, but Folklore finds Swift living up to all of the praise she earned for her songwriting earlier in career.
Label: Republic Release Date: July 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Taylor Swift Drops Surprise Album Folklore and Self-Directed âCardiganâ Video
The special effects-heavy clip finds the singer climbing inside a dusty upright piano and into a moss-covered fantasy world.
Less than a year after the release of her seventh album, Lover, Taylor Swift has dropped the follow-up, Folklore, along with a music video for the track âCardigan.â The singer announced the surprise release on social media early on Thursday, accompanied by a series of grayscale photos of the erstwhile country star in the woods thatâthough reminiscent of an A24 horror film or a metal album coverâreflects a return to a more stripped-down sound.
Reportedly shot according to CDC-recommended Covid-19 safety guidelines and overseen by a medical expert, the video for âCardiganâ was directed by Swift, who also reportedly did her own hair, makeup, and styling. The special effects-heavy clip finds the singer climbing inside a dusty upright piano and into a moss-covered fantasy world, tinkling the ivories of an overflowing grand piano at the edge of a CGI waterfall. Later, she clings to the instrument on a stormy sea before traveling back to reality.
Co-written and produced by the Nationalâs Aaron Dessner, âCardiganâ is an unassuming piano ballad notable for its pointillistic percussion and Swiftâs understated vocal performance. As for the titular sweater, it apparently serves as a metaphor for an artist whose love life bears the marks of more than a little wear and tear: âWhen I felt like I was an old cardigan under someoneâs bed/You put me on and said I was your favorite.â
Watch the video below:
Folklore was written and recorded remotely with Dessner and features collaborations with Bon Iver, Jack Antonoff, and a mysterious songwriter billed as William Bowery (after all, it wouldnât be a Taylor Swift album without a little sleuth-baiting).
Folklore is out now on Republic Records.
Review: Ellie Gouldingâs Brightest Blue Trades the Garish for the Merely Palatable
The album refines the singerâs sound, slowing tempos and removing sonic affectations to reveal a core of amorous pop anthems.1.5
Ellie Gouldingâs Brightest Blue begins with the aptly titled âStart,â a tasteful, piano-driven rumination about the impossibility of new beginnings and the difficulty of overcoming past regrets. The track showcases the British singer-songwriterâs knack for letting songs build and generate suspense, and her skill for creating tension with delayed yet catchy hooks. As the album wears on, though, itâs clear that this opening salvo is a fluke, as the rest of the soporific set tries in vain to refine Gouldingâs sound, slowing tempos and removing sonic affectations to reveal a core of amorous, unmemorable pop anthems.
On past albums, Goulding used bombastic production and copious vocal processing to distract from her limited range as a singer. If not for her whimsical phrasing and over-articulation of words, her paper-thin vocals would feel virtually anonymous. She largely downplays the grandiosity on Brightest Blue, instead opting for more stripped-down ballads like âFluxâ and âWoman,â wherein she struggles to bring the melodies sheâs written to life. These tracks give the impression of an industry songwriter laying down a guide vocal for a more skilled vocalistâa notion furthered by the head-scratching decision to both interpolate Dua Lipaâs âBe the Oneâ and name check Madonnaâs âMaterial Girlâ in the same breath on âPower.â
Several songs on Brightest Blue utilize backup choirs, a trick Goulding has employed to maximum effect on past hits such as âLove Me Like You Do,â in an attempt to raise the albumâs insistently midtempo pulse. Though fewer and farther between than in the past, strange computerizations mangle the singerâs voice on âHow Deep Is Too Deepâ and âBrightest Blue,â the hooks of which are either partially or fully sung via Vocoder. That these tracksâ ostensible emotional pinnacles find Goulding harmonizing with a robot counterpartâher voice manipulated beyond recognitionâdehumanizes her, eliciting a discomfiting irony that plays as unintentional. It might be fun if Goulding werenât so straight-faced about it all.
Goulding has tended toward painting co-dependence and submissiveness as causes for celebration. After all, she once opined, âWhy don’t you be the artist and make me out of clay/Why don’t you be the writer and decide the words I say?â with little-to-no self-awareness on 2010âs âThe Writer.â Here, she gestures toward self-love on âNew HeightsâââLove without someone else feels right/Love for myself in this new light,â she singsâand the not-so-subtly titled interlude âOde to Myself.â Yet, these attempts at thematic course correction feel bland and repetitive, and the red-flag relationship dynamics persist, such as her desire to conform herself to her loverâs identity on âTides,â blithely relinquishing her own agency.
At times, it seems as if Goulding is pushing back against controlling and abusive partners, but that would require a more self-possessed and attitude-laden POV, which is entirely absent here except, perhaps, on the single âHate Me.â For the most part, she doesnât have the chops or soul of contemporaries like Florence Welch, who sings of similar subject matter with a real torch, and who shares a collaborator in Joseph Kearns, who produced almost every song on Brightest Blue. At Kearnsâs behest, the album takes a relatively new tack for Goulding, trading the garish for the palatable, but itâs no less grating as a result.
Label: Polydor Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Protomartyrâs Ultimate Success Today Is a Visceral Portrait of Discontent
The album fuses existentially oriented lyrics with ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety.4
Protomartyrâs sound is forged from the bones of punk and the blood of indie rock. The Detroit four-piece delivers heady lyrics with an ironic detachment in the vein of Destroyer and the Mountain Goats, while the blistering noise and distorted intensity of their music brings to mind Sonic Youth and early Sleater-Kinney. Their fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, continues this stylistic balancing act, with existentially oriented lyrics accompanied by ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety.
With their 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, Protomartyr established an effectively brute-force post-punk approach, but by 2017âs Relatives in Descent, theyâd mastered the ability to prevent both the literary brawn of their lyrics and the sophistication of their musical arrangements from getting lost in the wreckage. Tracks like âModern Business Hymnsâ and âThe Aphoristâ are reminders of the bandâs knack for whipping up a din and then immediately cutting through the chaos, as well as their mastery of the art of modulationâof when to let things simmer and when to let them boil over.
This approach renders the wailing and assaultive crescendos of their music that much more potent. Thereâs a form to the function, of course. References to philosophical concepts and pre-Enlightenment literature could be considered over-thought if Protomartyrâs sound didnât possess such raw immediacy. The bandâs emphasis on Greg Aheeâs dissonant guitar lines, and their play with different levels of loudness, results in songs that prize forward motion.
A dark vision of the individualâs role in society is given voice by frontman Joe Casey on âBridge & Crownâ: âEverybody knows/Weâre holding on to little dreams/To drive our bodies down the line/Until thereâs nothing left.â The bandâs catalog is strewn with such musings about life as a fulfillment of a disappointing fate, and theyâve perfected that obsession here. Alex Leonardâs drums slam with guillotine-like efficiency, and songs often end with the spike of a minor-key chord, providing little comfort after all the tense buildup. The album externalizes the workings of a tortured mind, one whose only semblance of hope, as evoked on the final track, âWorm in Heaven,â is a basic acknowledgement of existenceâof having been alive and leaving a trace of that presence.
Protomartyrâs despair is rooted in capitalism, whose enervating routines the band satirizes throughout Ultimate Success Today. Casey wields a stinging, well-observed disdain for the corporate world and its participants, as well as for the insidiousness of technology. The feral âProcessed by the Boysâ comes for the free-market patriarchy with teeth bared and guitars ablaze: âFill out the form, download the app/Submit your face into the scanner/Everybodyâs hunted with a smile/Being processed by the boys.â The singerâs cutting truths and humor are delivered in a mode thatâs nearly spoken wordâforceful, angry, and declarative. Elsewhere he sings with a slurred drawl thatâs forlorn and observant. Wishful sentiments curdle into bitter mantras like âDignity or toil/Syndicate or gang/Rose and thorn,â on âMichigan Hammers,â or the titular lyric, which appears on three different songs, teasing out his pessimistic worldview in loops of self-defeat wrought by systems of productivity and profit.
At times, Ultimate Success Today can be too self-aware. On âThe Aphorist,â a title among several here that could double as descriptors for the bandâs lyrical aesthetic, Casey muses, âWeâre all mowing esoteric patterns in the grass.â And the album is almost too neat, given Protomartyrâs newfound use of saxophone, self-conscious touches like the chirping crickets at the beginning and end of a few tracks, and the seamless sequencing of songs. But the restless punk spirit and flippant, downtrodden ethos that prevail over the project render Protomartyrâs painstaking intellectualizations as fuel for a visceral winding up and release of discontent.
Label: Domino Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Chicksâs Gaslighter Is a Defiant Act of Rebranding
The bandâs first album in 14 years is steeped in personal and political rage.4
Thereâs compelling data, generated largely by the work of Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottowa, that draws a clear correlation between the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks from country radio and the immediate and striking downturn in airplay for all women on that format. The statistics are dire and indefensible. Though program directors and radio consultants will deny, deny, deny, thereâs evidence that the industry made a purposeful choice to punish all female artists for the Dixie Chicksâs perceived crimes.
So, in 2020, country music really and truly needs a comeback from the Dixie Chicks, an album that will allow one of the genreâs all-time greatest acts to stage a triumphant return and redress the industryâs injustices over the last decade. But Gaslighter, the bandâs first album in 14 years, isnât it. Instead, itâs a defiant act of rebranding: The Dixie Chicks are now known simply as the Chicksâa not-insignificant change that speaks to both the social power of language and to the trioâs stated intent to âmeet this momentâ in our nationâs history.
Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer figure even less prominently on Gaslighter than they did on the bandâs last album, 2006âs Taking the Long Way, and thatâs also a not-insignificant development. By teaming up with producer Jack Antonoff, the group has made a decisive transition into a pop act. Itâs easy to mourn the sound that defined the band, but to reject the album out of hand for its pop aesthetics is to deny them their own agency as artists.
Gaslighter emerges as a fascinating, messy album thatâs steeped in personal and political rage. Divorce is hardly unusual subject matter in pop and country music, but artists who record âdivorce albumsâ often struggle with the notion that they should aspire to making their story universally accessible to listeners. Natalie Maines makes no such mistake in her songwriting here. What elevates Gaslighter above thematically similar albums is the specificity of her unflinching detail as she recounts her ongoing legal battles with ex-husband Adrian Pasdar.
On âSleep at Night,â Maines retells the story of how Pasdar brought his mistress backstage at a concert to introduce her as a fan of the band. Maines is fully in control of her narrative voice when she sings on the track: âMy husbandâs girlfriendâs husband just called me/How messed up is that?/Itâs so insane that I have to laugh/But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/Thereâs nothing funny about that.â Later, on âSet You Free,â the soaring ballad that closes Gaslighter, she pleads, âDecency would be to sign and release me,â referencing the still-festering terms of a contract dispute.
On the tracks that explicitly relate to her divorce, which is a full three-quarters of the album, Maines dispenses with the idea of a narrative remove. She sings in first person, and the details sheâs chosen to share are autobiographical, albeit presenting only her perspective. At times, that makes standout songs like âHope Itâs Something Goodâ and âMy Best Friendâs Weddingâ feel, at the very least, like voyeurism. While itâs always a critical dead-end to assume that first-person narrators are stand-ins for a singer, Maines actually invites that reading: On âGaslighter,â when she sings, âBoy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,â itâs a marvel of bitterness. That the album later includes a song with the title âTights on My Boat,â though, lessens the mystique or possibility for interpretation or engagement.
That would be more of an issue if the songs werenât so well-constructed and engagingly performed. But thatâs exactly what makes Gaslighter superior to its predecessor. As part of my clinical work, Iâve testified as a witness in some truly nasty divorce cases, and Iâve never once thought to set court transcripts to a percussive four-four stomp or some Lorde-style EDM, but damned if it doesnât work for the Chicks here. âGaslighterâ and the extraordinary âMarch Marchâ boast distinctive lyrical hooks, while âFor Herâ and âJulianna Calm Downâ feature real dynamic ranges that give the tracks a sense of movement and depth. Antonoffâs production choices truly draw into sharp relief Rick Rubinâs conservativism at the helm of Taking the Long Way.
While the album sounds current for 2020, there are a handful of moments that suggest how much more strongly Antonoff could have leaned into the Chicksâs previous style. On âFor Her,â Antonoff layers one of Strayerâs finger-plucked banjo figures into an arrangement that explodes into a sing-along gospel chorus, while Maguireâs fiddle adds a jarring, ominous tone to the instrumental outro of âMarch March.â When working with a vocalist as powerful as Maines, the impulse to foreground her performances makes senseâand itâs worth noting that âFor Her,â âJulianna Calm Down,â and âSet Me Freeâ are among the finest performances of her career. But the album gives the impression that Antonoff wasnât sure how to engage fully with Maguire and Strayerâs exemplary skills with traditional acoustic instruments.
By incorporating country signifiers into what is otherwise a terrific, of-the-moment pop album, Antonoff and the Chicks could have come up with a style thatâs even more progressive, akin to the production on Kacey Musgravesâs Golden Hour. If nothing else, that highlights how the Chicks still have room to grow, either with or without Antonoff, as they move into this new phase of their career. Gaslighter may not have been the album that country music needed, but itâs clearly the one that the Chicks needed to make.
Label: Columbia Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Lianne La Havasâs Eponymous Third Album Embraces the Catharsis of Loss
On her third album, the British singer-songwriter settles into a sense of immediacy.4
British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas is an adept storyteller, capable of both capturing who we are at our most alone and making us feel closer to one another. Her love songs conjure a striking intimacy, even when sheâs backed by the sumptuous BBC Symphony Orchestra in the storied Barbican Hall, and take on a degree of universality, even when sheâs singing directly to a video camera in her living room. But itâs the latter method, when her sound is at its most stripped down, that best conveys the evocative immediacy that caught the attention of Prince, who mentored La Havas in the years before his death.
On her third album, La Havas settles into that immediacy, positioning her guitar as the beating heart of the music. The eponymous album finds her again chronicling the course of a romance, but this time she quite intentionally does away with the glossy fuss of 2015âs blindingly polished Blood, subsisting throughout on her hard-earned wisdom. The album instantly feels more purposeful than its predecessor: Where Blood can feel labored over, perhaps too hungry for hits, Lianne La Havas isnât seemingly beholden to such expectations.
As she recounts the fate of a relationship from its onset to its demise, La Havas often prioritizes the passion of the moment over the logic of hindsight bias. On âRead My Mind,â you can practically hear her smile as she sings, âThe pure joy/When a girl meets a boy/Pure chemistry.â She never loses sight of her needs, however distressing they might be. Sheâs quick to provide counsel to herself and outright plead with her lover on âPaper Thin.â Her vocal floats, at times on the verge of cracking from emotion, atop harp-like fingerpicking: âBaby, you gotta run free/Please donât forget about me.â La Havas leans into the heartrending grief of prematurely losing a relationship.
A cover of Radioheadâs âWeird Fishesâ appears at the climax of Lianne La Havas as a fretful turning point in the albumâs central relationship. La Havasâs version of the In Rainbows track is slower and earthier than Radioheadâs more cerebral original, yet it retains all of its fragility. Radiohead articulates the unspoken fears and doubts that occupy a night spent overthinking, and La Havas is seized by the same impulse to verbalize her grievances, gingerly handling the painful edges of rejection and abandonment, albeit with more self-compassion.
Sonically, the warbly synth of âCourageâ and frantic drumming of âSeven Timesâ donât feel too far removed from In Rainbowsâs sonic palette. But La Havasâs style remains tricky to pin down, existing somewhere in the nexus of the soulful warmth of Corinne Bailey Rae, the confessional lyricism of Amy Winehouse, and the folky melodicism of Joni Mitchell. To call it soul music would be reductive; too many black artists have hastily been assigned the label just for the color of their skin, a restrictive tendency that La Havas herself has railed against. But without a doubt, La Havas makes soul music insofar as it originates from the soul.
The albumâs twinkling denouement, âSour Flower,â depicts the metamorphosis that can occur after overcoming a breakup. La Havasâs voice is rich and robust as she belts, âIâm not crying over you/When I cry/Now Iâm free.â She attains catharsis by providing herself refuge and realizing that she can heal herself. She leaves us with an empowering moral: that we possess the ability to revive our spirits after loss, and that it may well be boundless.
Label: Nonesuch Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Julianna Barwickâs 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
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 doesnât 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 donât drone so much as pleasantly sustain a pace and mood.
Barwickâs fourth album, Healing Is a Miracle, is a tale of spiritual renewal thatâs 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, âInspirit,â comes on like a wall of sound, Barwickâs 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, âOpen your heart/Itâs in your head.â
While Barwickâs style can be wondrous, it isnât fanciful, acknowledging the ebb and flow of life and death. On âFlowers,â a harsh, buzzy synth nearly overwhelms the choral arrangement in a way that grounds Barwickâs breathy vocals, while the percussion on âIn Light,â featuring guest vocals from JĂłnsi, galumphs steadily like a heartbeat before tapering off, evoking the fragility of human life. Healing Is a Miracle is well sequenced, and its songsâ emphasis on direction achieves a circuitousness that plays nicely with albumâs chosen theme of life cycles.
A longing for connection to a higher powerâa notion of singing to the heavensâis a thread that runs throughout Barwickâs 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 âSafeâ is one of gradual elevation and an ever-approaching proximity, employing distancing techniques for something more terrestrial rather than otherworldly. Likewise, âWishing Wellâ 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 musicâs 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, âNod.â 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
Review: Pop Smokeâs 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.2
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 Chicagoâs South Side in the early 2010s, and adapted it to the ethos of New York City street life. In the Brooklyn rapperâs case, the translation was shrewd, utilizing the help of East London producer 808Melo, who, along with Rico Beats, oversaw the entirety of Pop Smokeâs 2019 mixtape Meet the Woo, creating a sound that was lively, booming, and faithful to Jacksonâs 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, heâd 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 Smokeâs 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 Smokeâs mixtape raps were notable for their conviction of delivery and tightly wound compression, here he sounds fainter and less engaged. His verses on âAim for the Moonâ and âCreatureâ donât 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 âDior,â 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, whoâs featured on âFor the Night.â
Along with a live-wire masculinity, the album also contains the ill-advised forays into R&B found on DaBabyâs 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. âSomething Specialâ and âWhat You Know Bout Loveâ sample Fabolous and Tamiaâs âInto Youâ and Ginuwineâs âDifferences,â respectively, marking the farthest the rapper has strayed from his patented drill and trap origins, but theyâre dreary and tepid rather than exciting sonic departures. When he ad-libs, âOh, you ainât know I could sing?,â at the beginning of âMood Swings,â it comes across as empty boast.
Even the tracks that stick to Pop Smokeâs established drill mode donât have the inventiveness and coiled energy of his mixtape highlights. Half of what makes a song like âWelcome to the Partyâ 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 âGangstasâ and âWest Coast Shit,â 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 doesnât square with the late artistâs strengths.
A handful of moments here make good on Pop Smokeâs promise. âGot It on Meâ and â44 BullDogâ find him doggedly racing against their beats, and there are brief instances where the rapperâs glib sense of humor and confidence invest lines like âI need your number and thatâs thatâ and âI ainât with the talk or the chit chatâ with a hoarse individuality. But on the whole, in broadening his musicâs 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
Review: Lucky McKeeâs The Woman on Arrow Video Blu-ray
Blu-ray Review: Tomu Uchidaâs The Mad Fox Joins the Arrow Academy
Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story
Review: SWERYâs Deadly Premonition 2 Is a Janky, Navel-Gazing Exercise
Review: Billie Eilishâs âMy Futureâ Is an Unexpectedly Upbeat Tribute to Isolation
Review: Sunless Shadows Is a Wrenching View of Patriarchal Power in Iran
Review: Song Without a Name Boldly Confronts a Legacy of Marginalization
Review: BeyoncĂ©âs Black Is King Is a Visual Love Letter to the Black Diaspora
Review: Waiting for the Barbarians Loses Its Apocalyptic Power on Screen
Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterteâs Tyranny
- Video5 days ago
Review: Lucky McKeeâs The Woman on Arrow Video Blu-ray
- Video6 days ago
Blu-ray Review: Tomu Uchidaâs The Mad Fox Joins the Arrow Academy
- TV5 days ago
Review: In My Skin Is a Bitingly Poignant, If Cluttered, Coming-of-Age Story
- Games5 days ago
Review: SWERYâs Deadly Premonition 2 Is a Janky, Navel-Gazing Exercise