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Review: Madonna, American Life

As with most Madonna albums, it’s impossible to talk about the music without addressing the cultural and social context that produced it.

3.5

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Madonna, American Life

When Entertainment Weekly inexplicably placed Madonna’s debut LP at #5 on its list of modern classics last month, aptly calling the eight post-disco, post-punk dance songs that comprise the album (six of which could be described as hits, depending on your definition of the word) “scrappy,” it failed to acknowledge that Madonna (and Madonna) would likely have been forgotten along with jelly bracelets and headbands fashioned out of torn scarves had the album not been followed by at least a decade’s worth of some of the most captivating pop music ever recorded. Madonna herself even likened the album to music for aerobics classes and was eager to shack up with Chic’s Nile Rodgers and flex her creative muscle for her career-defining follow-up, Like a Virgin.

This summer, Madonna turns 25, but 2008 also marks the fifth anniversary of a wholly different Madonna album, one that couldn’t possibly be any further removed from that scrappy debut: American Life. You’d never even know the same artist made both records. Aside from “Holiday,” a song she didn’t write, Madonna seemed more interested in ruling the world than saving it back in 1983; two decades later, American Life found the pop singer at her most political, confrontational, and to many, abrasive. It was her first and, to date, only flop, scanning less than a million copies despite its platinum certification and sporting no hits besides the forward-thinking Bond theme “Die Another Day,” which cracked the Top 10 the previous fall and was—dubiously, at least it seemed at the time—tacked onto the track list in a move that ultimately insured that American Life wouldn’t be Madonna’s only hitless album.

As with almost every Madonna album, save for the first one, it’s nearly impossible to talk about the music without addressing the cultural and social context that produced it. Some have claimed that’s why the singer’s image and marketing has always been the focus of her career, at the cost of fairly assessing the actual music, but I think this fact only strengthens the case for Madonna as a true artist. Art without cultural context is like war without a political one. And this time around, politics and war itself played a pivotal role in the construction, marketing, and ultimate perception and consumption (or lack thereof) of American Life—despite there being very little in the way of political commentary throughout the album.

More so than any other artist who emerged in the video era, Madonna’s songs can’t (and shouldn’t) be divorced from the images she assigns to them, and American Life’s failure can be traced directly to the video for its title track (we’ll ignore, for a moment, the quality of the actual song). “American Life” may have been the first time in Madonna’s career where she voluntarily censored herself; moreover, it may have been the first time she made a creative choice out of fear. In the original unreleased version of the video, directed by Jonas Akerlund, Madonna and a band of unconventional beauties storm a fashion show that includes models dressed in military garb and gas masks, Middle Eastern children modestly strutting their stuff, video screens depicting scenes from war, and limbless soldiers trailing blood down the catwalk. Madonna and her fashion terrorists pummel the paparazzi with water from an industrial-size hose while the audience continues to hoot and holler at the spectacle:

The backlash Madonna likely would have suffered from an already-emboldened and not-so-far-anymore far right would have made the whipping she endured following Sex seem like harmless roleplay, but the video turned a trite, self-aggrandizing, and often awkward song about privilege into a startling comment on the obscenity of war and materialism—one that would have undoubtedly been looked back on as brave. Following up “American Life” with “Hollywood” was nearly as ballsy: “Music stations always play the same songs/I’m bored with the concept of right and wrong,” Madge sings during the bridge before declaring that “this bird has flown” and instructing her audience to “flip the station, change the channel.” Likewise, she rejects tabloid culture’s “social disease” on “Nobody Knows Me,” denouncing both TV and magazines. These weren’t the kinds of statements you expected to hear from the biggest pop star in the world—especially one whose most recent hits, “Music” and “Don’t Tell Me,” were being played ad nauseam on pop radio and MTV just 24 months earlier. (Incidentally, “Hollywood” became Madonna’s first single in 20 years not to crack the Billboard Hot 100.)

That “American Life” and “Hollywood” were made with a half-Afghan Frenchman probably only further aggravated American patriots. Most of American Life was co-written and produced by Mirwais Ahmadzaï, who lent the album an often ugly, lo-fi demo quality and, following his superior work on 2000’s Music, made Madonna’s ever-evolving sound seem suddenly stunted. Subsequent remixes highlighted (and in some cases, revealed) the strength of the songs on American Life: the dull “Love Profusion” was reinvented into a vibrant piece of guitar-driven pop-rock by Ray Carroll, while the title track and “Hollywood” were turned into entirely different songs by Felix da Housecat and Stuart Price, respectively. But the original album’s ugliness has been vastly misunderstood and unappreciated; its stripped down, deconstructed aesthetic perfectly complements Madonna’s subversive messages. Beats abruptly stop and start. Guitars stutter. Synths drop in and out. The late Michel Colombier’s gorgeous string arrangements are sliced and diced. Madonna’s voice is left bare and unaffected—that is, when it’s not twisted and deformed until it sounds unrecognizable, even inhuman, like a Stepford wife on the fritz.

Madonna couldn’t possibly have intended to make a pop album. American Life is a folk album in the purest definition of the term—and it’s reflected right in the title. Though it owes plenty to the protest folk of the 1960s, the album’s anti-capitalist bent presented a dichotomy that’s been endemic in Madonna’s work since she co-opted “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” and transformed it into an anthem for self-empowerment back in the ‘80s. “What I want is to work for it,” she sings nakedly on “Easy Ride,” “feel the blood and sweat on my fingertips.” It’s the complete antithesis of what it means to be a Material Girl. American Life is deeply personal (she writes candidly about her relationships with her husband, children and God), but only immediately relatable if you just so happen to be grappling with what it means to be one of the most famous people in the world. In other words, it’s profoundly truthful but its audience is limited by design.

On the hymnal folk ballad “X-Static Process,” Madonna sounds almost childlike when she begs: “Jesus Christ, won’t you look at me/I don’t know who I’m supposed to be.” Mortality is a key issue on American Life, an inevitable existential crisis for an artist who reached godlike levels of idolatry and fame and stayed there longer than anyone else in modern pop-culture history without self-destructing. Questions like “Why am I here?” and “What is the purpose of all of this?” were inescapable. Madonna’s vocals are reminiscent of her pre-fame days on the guitar-driven “I’m So Stupid,” a track with a decidedly punk-rock sensibility on which she reassesses the value of the material world: “Please don’t try to tempt me/It was just greed/And it won’t protect me,” a sentiment she reprises on the wall of a bathroom stall in the “American Life” video.

Rap music is, in a sense, an inner-city adaptation of the folk tradition, serving the same purpose in the 1980s and today as the political folk of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell in the 1960s, but it doesn’t make Madonna’s use of the form any less gawky or grating, nor does it make its cheekiness seem any less out of place on a track as dour and robotic as “American Life.” It does, however, work on the inventive, electro-folk/rap hybrid “Mother and Father,” in which Madonna employs a schoolyard-style chant to recount the isolation she felt as a child in the wake of her mother’s death. It’s a demon she’s famously attempted to exorcise before (and more successfully), but one that continues to haunt her into midlife, and it illuminates the motivation behind her abiding drive to remain relevant in a youth-obsessed industry.

In hindsight, American Life isn’t the masterpiece that Erotica so quickly revealed itself to be. It’s frequently self-indulgent, misguided, unpleasant, difficult to listen to, silly yet somehow humorless, but it’s also consistent, uncompromising, and unapologetic. The album is a testament to the artist’s willingness to take risks and her refusal to stay inside her comfort zone. In the grand scheme of things, the album might rank as one of the weakest in Madonna’s extensive catalog, and the ones that followed have been as good, if not better, but American Life stands as the last time Madonna seemed to make music without the primary objective of scoring a hit. It’s interesting to imagine what Madonna’s career would look like today had American Life been a success: For better or worse, that pink leotard and Justin duet might never have existed.

Label: Maverick Release Date: April 22, 2003 Buy: Amazon

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Madonna and Swae Lee’s “Crave” Music Video Delivers a Message – Watch

Alternating between color and black and white, the video’s concept is refreshingly simple.

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Crave
Photo: YouTube

Though Madonna’s 2015 album Rebel Heart was infamously plagued by leaks, the singer has kept a tight lid on the follow-up, Madame X. Until last week, that is. Details about the project were scarce leading up to the release of the first single, “Medellín,” but a rough cut of the music video for “Crave,” the album’s second single, leaked after director Nuno Xico inadvertently posted a “fully unfinished” clip to his Vimeo account.

The leak likely cranked up the heat on what already seemed like a rushed release. Madonna reportedly skipped this year’s Met Gala to shoot the video for “Crave,” which is far more radio-friendly than the bilingual “Medellín,” featuring reggaeton singer Maluma. The song is a midtempo trap ballad—yes, that’s a thing—that juxtaposes acoustic guitar and Madonna’s plaintive vocal with 808 snares and a guest verse from rapper-singer Swae Lee.

The video for “Crave,” officially out today, opens with the queen of pop releasing a messenger bird off the roof of a building in downtown New York, overlooking the Manhattan Bridge. One by one, Swae collects her messages, which include a reference to Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Madame X’s favorite novel.

Alternating between color and black and white, the video’s concept is refreshingly simple, even if the frenetic editing and Madonna’s jerky, hyper-sexualized dance moves clash with the track’s unorthodox but elegant arrangement. Thankfully, she ditches the wigs from “Medellín,” though she is seen donning that as-yet-unexplained “X” eye patch throughout.

Watch below:

Madame X will be released on June 14 via Interscope Records.

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Review: Jamila Woods’s LEGACY! LEGACY! Is a Chronicle of Black Trauma and Joy

The singer-songwriter imbues her sophomore effort with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her predecessors.

4

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Jamila Woods
Photo: Jagjaguwar

Jamila Woods imbues her sophomore effort, LEGACY! LEGACY!, with a multitude of intertextual meanings and nods to her artistic predecessors. With the exception of “FRIDA,” which is dedicated to famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, each track bears the name of a black artist, musician, or writer, assembling an illustrious creative lineage stretching from Muddy Waters’s southern blues to Sun Ra’s Afrofuturism. Being given this kind of insight into a cross-section of Woods’s influences is a small but mighty pleasure for all that it reveals about her creative process, but the musician takes it one step further, presenting the songs here as dialectical tribute, not merely homage.

A spoken-word poet and Pushcart Prize nominee, Woods proven herself an emotive wordsmith, and LEGACY! LEGACY!, like 2016’s Heavn before it, revels in the power of language. On the high-spirited “OCTAVIA,” she honors African-American slaves who illicitly taught themselves to read and write, framing that legacy of language within the accomplishments of science-fiction writer Octavia Butler and issuing a call to empowerment: “Don’t ever let a textbook scare you.” She delights in hyperbole on “GIOVANNI,” a tribute to her matrilineage inspired by Nikki Giovanni’s “Ego Tripping.” For Woods, words are both sword and shield in the way that they liberate one from adversity and honor the ego.

Although the album explores intergenerational black trauma and joy, Woods’s personal insight into such experience functions as the album’s anchor and serves as a more accessible entry point. Inspired by an interview in which Jean-Michel Basquiat refused to divulge the source of his rage, “BASQUIAT” attests to the power of a not allowing other people to regard your anger as a spectacle. Backed by the jagged textures of descending guitar passages and insistent percussion, Woods divulges how concealing the particulars of her own anger allows her to claim absolute dominion over it: “I smile in your face, but the oven’s on high.” On “BALDWIN,” Woods criticizes the “precious lethal fear” and “casual violence” of white people: “My friend James/Says I should love you anyway…But you’re making it hard for me.” Throughout the album, Woods utilizes the knowledge of her forebears as a diving-off point, advancing or contradicting their ideas to relay her own message.

Often, Woods plays with her vocal delivery, extending and contorting her pronunciation and intonation to imbue her songs with a childlike air. An ode to the necessity of preserving independence in a relationship, “FRIDA” alludes to the home Kahlo shared with Diego Rivera, a pair of twin houses united by a bridge. The repetition in the refrain—“If I run, run, would you, you, you see, see, see me?”—brings to mind the rhythms of a playground game, and this guileless atmosphere casts a gentle, carefree light on the tangle of expectations a relationship can conjure. “SONIA” unfolds like a fairy tale: “Once upon a time, little girl on the grind/Met a boy, he was nice at the time.” Woods affirms the pain of a toxic relationship to validate it and ensure it cannot be erased, stating simply in the chorus: “It was bad, it was bad.” She sings the word “bad” as an oscillation, fluidly moving up and down the scale like a nursery rhyme.

LEGACY! LEGACY! chronicles the adversity that women of color regularly face, but at the heart of Woods’s music is an urgent desire to heal and be healed. Throughout the album, from refusing to compromise her ideals (on “EARTHA”) to embracing her peculiarities (on “BETTY”), Woods stresses that the first step to healing is a regard for one’s own boundaries, values, and desires—or, to put it more simply, self-respect. That self-respect is emboldening and incendiary in the face of generations of devastating animosity, the rationale behind the battle cry on “ZORA”: “None of us are free, but some of us are brave.”

Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: May 10, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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

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

3.5

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Dedicated
Photo: Markus & Koala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Father of the Bride
Photo: Monika Mogi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

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Here Comes the Cowboy
Photo: Coley Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Electric Youth
Photo: YouTube

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5

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Hurts 2B Human
Photo: RCA Records

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Me!
Photo: YouTube

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

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

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

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

Watch below:

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