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Review: Madonna, MDNA

Madonna pilfers the title of one of her earliest rivals’ songs during the hook of “Girl Gone Wild,” only to defang it of its feminist bent.

3.5

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Madonna, MDNA

In 1993, when asked by a Mexican journalist what she feared most, Madonna admitted plainly, “Dying.” Looking at her body of work, it’s embarrassingly obvious now, and it’s funny to think she’s best known as the queen of sex and not, in fact, the queen of death. Beating the clock, moving fast, accomplishing things because time is scarce and life is short are themes that have permeated almost every aspect of Madonna’s life and career. Her mother, also named Madonna, died at the age of 30, and her namesake spent the next 25 years believing she would meet the same fate. When Madonna became famous at the height of the AIDS crisis, her friends began succumbing to the disease one after the other, which turned the singer into an activist, but also ostensibly became an impetus behind her near-pathological drive to leave her mark on the world.

In the past three years, two of the three biggest pop superstars of the ‘80s have died tragically. But unlike Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Madonna wasn’t thrust into the spotlight by way of an enterprising family or the kind of prodigious talent that, with or without its owner’s consent, begs to be hoisted up and exalted by the masses. That Madonna was forced to compensate for her perceived lack of natural “talent” with, in addition to unbridled creativity, supreme self-control and focus is probably what’s helped keep her from succumbing to the demons that have plagued many of her contemporaries. It’s also, perhaps, the thing that makes her a somewhat unsympathetic character, an attractive target for ridicule among even those who claim to love her.

Everyone is afraid of death. But how that fear manifests itself when you’re one of the most famous women on the planet and how it’s compounded when you reach middle age in an industry that increasingly values youth and beauty were revealed, respectively, in Madonna’s largely graceful quest for answers to life’s most universal questions on Ray of Light and her often awkward, misguided attempts to reconcile those lessons with a habitual desire to preserve her status in the years that have followed. Social, cultural, and political impact aside, Madonna’s career has been a demonstration of endurance.

To that end, while Madonna was accused of running out of ideas long before she actually did, her recent propensity to rehash her own canon seems deliberate—not to mention cynical. Last month, she told The Advocate that while she “never left” her gay audience, she’s “back.” (Back from where is unclear, though her estranged brother’s claim that ex-hubby Guy Ritchie is a homophobe offers a clue.) The video for “Girl Gone Wild,” the second single from her first album in four years, MDNA, is like “Human Nature” redux, seemingly tailor-made to snatch the title of Most Played Video Artist at Gay Bars from Lady Gaga.

But while “Human Nature” was an intentional sendup of Madonna’s Erotica period, the seemingly straight-faced Catholic Girl Gone Bad shtick of “Girl Gone Wild” is just—you guessed it—reductive. Even though Madonna’s dressed up like her, the feisty pop singer who went on Nightline in 1990 and clumsily but zealously called out the media for its hypocrisy and sexism is missing here. Madonna pilfers the title of one of her earliest rivals’ songs during the hook of “Girl Gone Wild,” only to defang it of its feminist bent: Just like Madonna’s own “Material Girl” was meant to be ironic, the point of Cyndi Lauper’s signature anthem is that girls want to have fun, but that’s not all they want to do.

The song’s intro, during which Madonna recites an act of contrition over canned disco strings, is just a ruse; the rest of MDNA is reminiscent of neither Like a Prayer nor Confessions on a Dance Floor. It’s unclear what Madonna’s motivations were for reuniting with William Orbit after more than a decade; a smarter move would have been to call on longtime collaborator Patrick Leonard to help her excavate and examine the remains of her second marriage. But while the album is no Ray of Light either, MDNA is surprisingly cohesive despite its seven-plus producers (most notably, Martin Solveig, the man behind the regrettable lead single “Give Me All Your Luvin’”), and it’s obvious Madge and Billy Bubbles can still create magic together. “I’m a Sinner” harks back to the pair’s most ecstatically joyous work—not just sonically, but vocally. Something about recording with Orbit again has inspired Madonna to abandon her recent insistence on singing like she’s wearing a clothespin on her nose.

Likewise, her performance on “Love Spent” is confident enough to transcend Orbit’s superfluous vocal effects. It’s not just the most melodically sophisticated song on the album, it’s also the most revealing, rather poignantly alluding to the tens of millions Ritchie received in the couple’s divorce settlement: “I want you to take me like you took your money,” she longs. What makes the lyrical faux pas of songs like “Girl Gone Wild” and “Superstar” so frustrating is the pop mastery of tracks like this and the Italo-disco “I’m Addicted,” a meditation on the power of language that’s both profound (“All of the letters push to the front of my mouth/And saying your name is somewhere between a prayer and a shout”) and tongue-in-cheek (“I’m a dick-, I’m a dick-, I’m addicted to your love”). When she’s not rapping about child custody and prenups on “I Don’t Give A,” she admits: “I tried to be a good girl/I tried to be your wife/Diminished myself/And I swallowed my light.”

But in case the title of that song didn’t tip you off, the Madonna of MDNA is more defiant than heartbroken. Ritchie’s impact on the singer’s personal life is obvious, but his influence on her work is just as apparent: He bought her a guitar when they met, changing her approach to songwriting, and he was responsible for the introduction of violence, often seemingly gratuitous, into her videos and stage performances, starting with his clip for her 2001 single “What It Feels Like for a Girl.” So, in that sense, it’s disappointing to see guns and violence continue to play such a prominent role here. But the twisted “Gang Bang,” a standout cut in which Madonna quite convincingly portrays a jilted bride turned femme fatale in the vein of Beatrix Kiddo, plays more like a piss take of Ritchie’s gangster fetish than a glorification of it.

Madonna’s Super Bowl performance last month—spectacular but lacking spontaneity—was indicative of her overall approach to her career these days: meticulously orchestrated down to every dance move, every mimed syllable. The non-controversy of M.I.A. flipping the bird was notable only because it served as a reminder of just how “safe” the rest of the performance was. But songs like “Gang Bang” serve as reminders that what separates Madonna from most other mainstream pop stars is her willingness to try new things. Fear—of failure, of looking uncool, of death—can either paralyze or propel you. MDNA finds Madonna continuing to defy the laws of nature by doing both.

Label: Interscope Release Date: March 26, 2012 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Taylor Swift’s Lover Course Corrects in Multiple Directions

The album attempts to be something to everyone, the surest tell that it’s as much reaction as it is creation.

3.5

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Lover
Photo: Valheria Rocha/Republic Records

There comes a time in nearly every pop superstar’s career when she—and, yes, it’s usually a she—is forced to repent for an album that went too far, pushed too hard, or simply suffered from a case of bad timing. The result is often a follow-up that plays it safe or tries to recapture past triumphs, which is then either exalted by critics as a return to form or ridiculed as an attempt at damage control. It’s a rite of passage that, with her seventh album, Lover, Taylor Swift seems keenly aware of yet uninterested in subverting.

Swift launched the latest era of her career with the cloying “ME!,” a veritable piss take on the bright and shiny pop of her 2014 hit “Shake It Off,” accompanied by a social media campaign self-consciously drenched in creamy pastel tones, jewel-encrusted hearts, and fluffy-faced kittens. It’s a decidedly stark contrast to 2017’s Reputation, which was defined by its combative tone and hard, hip-hop-influenced beats, and which earned the distinction of becoming Swift’s lowest selling album to date.

Swift has built an empire, in part, on her ability to harness often self-inflicted personal drama—revolving around former lovers, disloyal friends, and the media—into songs that display equal parts rage, cheeky self-deprecation, and heartfelt sincerity. The prickly Reputation leaned heavily on the former, and like so many pop reboots before it, Lover is an obvious course correction. Swift, however, seems ambivalent about her current station: “I say I don’t want [combat], but what if I do?” she muses on “The Archer” before proceeding to carpet-bomb listeners with the kind of pithy confessionals—“All of my heroes die all alone,” “All of enemies started out friends”—fit more for a therapy session than your average pop song.

That ambivalence runs through Lover. At times the album seems unsure of whether it wants to be a callback to 1989 and Red, or forge completely new ground for Swift. Opening Lover with a bit of seemingly arbitrary misdirection, “I Forgot That You Existed” is the kind of catty diss track—possibly aimed at Kanye West and/or Calvin Harris—that cemented the very reputation Swift laments in the lyrics. But it feels like a caricature of a Taylor Swift song, a defanged version of more satisfying clapbacks like “Bad Blood” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.”

Lover lacks a unified sonic aesthetic, ostensibly from trying to be something to everyone—the surest tell that it’s as much reaction as it is creation. The title track, whose lilting rhythm and reverb-soaked drums and vocals are reminiscent of Mazzy Star’s ‘90s gem “Fade Into You,” and the acoustic “Soon You’ll Get Better,” a tribute to Swift’s mother featuring the Dixie Chicks, hark back to Swift’s pre-pop days, while “I Think He Knows” and “False God” evoke Carly Rae Jepsen’s brand of ‘80s R&B-inflected electro-pop. A full-throated embrace of the latter direction might have made Lover feel less like a capitulation. When it comes to things other than boys, though, Swift has always preferred to dip her toes in rather than get soaking wet; her transformation from country teen to pop queen was, after all, a decade in the making.

Less gradual was Swift’s shift from political agnostic to liberal advocate. In the span of less than a year, the singer went from being the Aryan goddess of the alt-right to being called out as an agent of sodomy. They say you can’t put a genie back in the bottle, and Swift’s once apolitical music is now peppered with references to America’s current state of affairs, both thinly veiled (“Death by a Thousand Cuts”) and more overt (“You Need to Calm Down”). “I’m so sick of running as fast as I can/Wondering if I’d get there quicker if I was a man,” she sings on “The Man,” a track that makes sly reference to those who doubted her #MeToo moment.

“American stories burning before me/I’m feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed/Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?” Swift ponders on “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince.” Of course, in this case politics is a metaphor for heartbreak. The track is her stock in trade, a richly painted narrative punctuated by cool synth washes and pep-rally chants. “It’s Nice to Have a Friend” is a similarly evocative portrait of young love whose spare arrangement—choral voices, steel drums, church bells, stately trumpet solo—is a stark counterpoint to the pointillist “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” a Pet Sounds-esque aural feast of swirling keyboards and quivering synths. “The Archer” is quintessential Swift: wistful, minimalist dream pop that displays her willingness to acknowledge and dismantle her flaws, triggers, and neuroses.

Some pop stars may be too big too fail. Swift’s songwriting suffers from occasional bromides, and Lover can feel both overthought and, at a lengthy 18 tracks, under-edited. But Swift’s well-earned reputation for over-sharing, reflective of the generation for which she’s become a spiritual envoy, coupled with her newfound egalitarianism makes her not just a compelling pop figure, but an essential one.

Label: Republic Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Jay Som’s Anak Ko Embodies Bedroom Pop As an Emotional Travelogue

The singer-songwriter balances the musical warmth of her bedroom-pop influences with some heavy emotional stakes.

3.5

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Anak Ko
Photo: Lindsey Byrnes

Even if you’ve never heard Melina Duterte’s music before, the singer-songwriter’s third album as Jay Som might still sound instantly familiar. Musically, Anak Ko—which means “my child” in Tagalog—takes inspiration from ‘90s dream pop, marked by jangly guitars, big, reverb-soaked drums, and mildly distorted vocals. Duterte mines similar sonic terrain as Yo La Tengo, and “Superbike,” with its swirling guitars and warm vocals, would feel right at home on the band’s 1995 album Electr-o-Pura. The song’s lyrics are spare but powerful, infused with a sense of wanderlust shot through with melancholy: “Said you wanted something else…Gonna breathe until you’re gone.” Duterte balances the musical warmth of her bedroom-pop influences with some heavy emotional stakes.

Though it lacks the immediacy of 2017’s Everybody Works, Anak Ko compensates with a more mature lyrical depth, prompted by Duterte’s recent move from her hometown in the Bay Area to Los Angeles, where she reportedly found love and quit drinking. Her vocals here are buried in the mix a bit, conveying the hushed intimacy of a late-night conversation. “Did you fall at first glance? Do you think you’ll take a chance?” Duterte asks on the standout “Tenderness.”

A longing for the freedom of the road pervades the album. Leisurely drums set the tone on “Nighttime Drive,” suggesting a meandering trip down familiar backroads with no particular destination in mind. Duterte’s voice falls somewhere between a sigh and a whisper as she sings, “We’ll be all right.” Traveling becomes a metaphor on the track, as she illustrates a tension between freedom and safety. Leaving a place you know opens the world up for adventure, but it means you might also lose some of the things you previously valued.

Anak Ko can feel homogenous, coasting along to the same relaxed midtempo rhythm. Duterte’s layered guitar sound and submerged vocals ensure that her songs whir along like background music. The closing track, “Get Well,” is the only song that deviates from her dream-pop formula, venturing into country territory thanks to the use of pedal steel guitar. But while it might lack a rave-up pop number like Everybody Works’s infectious “1 Billion Dogs,” Anak Ko offers plenty of reasons to follow Duterte down whatever road may lay ahead.

Label: Polyvinyl Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Bon Iver’s i, i Battles Back Against the Dark

The album finds Justin Vernon creeping into an autumnal melancholy and turning his gaze back toward winter.

4

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i, i
Photo: Graham Tolbert & Crystal Quinn

Justin Vernon’s debut as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, attained mythic status both for its content and the circumstances of its creation: a batch of heartrending koans poured out in the solitude of a wooded Wisconsin winter. The singer-songwriter initially came off like Kozelek-come-lately, with a bunch of sadsack songs backed by gently strummed guitars, but he’s proven himself to be a remarkably mercurial artist. And on i, i, he draws on rock, folk, electronica, hip-hop, and gospel, enlisting a broad range of collaborators to help build on the emotional directness of his early work without repeating the same musical gestures.

Perhaps the best analogue for i, i is the Byrds’s Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which Gram Parsons envisioned as an album-length treatise on the history of American popular music. Though the two albums don’t sound alike, Vernon’s big-tent group of collaborators allows him to grant himself a similar kind of scope. Vernon has a knack for blending disparate elements with impressive cohesion. On “U (Man Like),” Bruce Hornsby’s piano is immediately recognizable, but as Hornsby, Moses Sumney, the Brooklyn Youth Choir, and Jenn Wasner all sing alongside Vernon, their myriad styles effortlessly blend under Bon Iver’s singular aesthetic.

Vernon has described i, i as the end of a season cycle. If his 2007 debut represents dead winter, 2011’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver the thaw of spring, and 2016’s 22, A Million a joyous reverie of summer, then i, i finds Vernon creeping into an autumnal melancholy and turning his gaze back toward winter. This time, Vernon isn’t contemplating the bitter disappointments of a failed romance, but the end of all humanity itself. The imagery is sharp and often ghastly: a gas mask hanging on an arm, rising seas and temperatures, and allusions to Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. Throughout, Vernon presents himself as an observer surveying a world on the brink, close to becoming just ruined earth and poisoned sea.

These songs aren’t straightforward political diatribes though. Rather, they’re small puzzles that exemplify Vernon’s peculiar use of language. The tracklist looks like an assortment of Scrabble tiles: “Yi,” “iMi,” “U (Man Like).” The songs themselves are filled with obscure slang and outright neologisms. Once you start to unravel the threads, however, the lyrics begin to unfold more clearly. “Jelmore” takes its title from the way Vernon sings the first line of the song: “an(gel mor)ning.” The song’s Metroid-esque synth parts introduce a stark commentary on income inequality and planetary ruin. On the hook, Vernon sings, “We’ll all be gone by the fall/We’ll all be gone by the falling light,” which doesn’t evince much hope. When he declares, “I won’t lead no Calvary,” the clever wordplay almost balances the sense of defeatism.

The album’s penultimate track, the grim, thinly veiled “Sh’Diah”—short for “shittiest day in American history”—features the loneliest sax solo since “Baker Street,” a plaintive strain that perfectly captures the feeling of wandering the streets of a familiar place that’s suddenly stopped feeling like home. It’s followed by “RABi,” which examines the psychological toll of trying not to be miserable in chaotic times. The song is built around a meandering guitar and Vernon’s multi-tracked vocals, the spare arrangement putting the focus on his words, “I could rob I,” which, pronoun case error aside, is an economical unpacking of self-deception. As the track ends, he sings, “Well, it’s all fine and we’re all fine anyway,” at full voice before whispering, “But if you wait, it won’t be undone.” That dichotomy lies at the heart of the album: Time is running out, but what can one person do?

Vernon began his career by staring down the dark, and i, i is an album made for a time when that darkness has grown larger than he ever imagined. Sometimes he’s too indulgent: When his delivery leans into rap, he sounds like somebody doing an impression of Frank Ocean at karaoke night. His falsetto occasionally outstays its welcome, and decoding all of his Lewis Carroll-esque private language gestures can be tiring business. But the album seems to suggest that Bon Iver is transitioning from a band in the traditional sense of the word into a looser collective. Despite the album’s intense pessimism and anxiety, Bon Iver’s organization speaks to the power of forging a community to battle back against darkness.

Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: August 9, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Sleater-Kinney’s The Center Won’t Hold Represents a Band in Flux

The album’s pop and synth elements mark a radical departure for the seminal rock band.

3

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The Center Won't Hold
Photo: Nikko LaMere

By the height of their popularity in the mid-aughts, culminating with 2005’s The Woods, Sleater-Kinney had morphed from a scrappy punk band into a rock behemoth capable of spinning out sprawling, almost proggy opuses. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker built complex, blistering guitar parts that intertwined, bounced around, and frequently exploded into full-on Guitar Hero-style pyrotechnics. And all the while, drummer Janet Weiss laid down beats that were equal parts chest-crushingly powerful and playfully inventive.

The pleasure of listening to Sleater-Kinney has always come from hearing these three stellar musicians, each with their own distinct styles, mesh into a cohesive whole. There’s never a wasted beat, chord, or lyric in a Sleater-Kinney song. The Center Won’t Hold, however, represents a radical departure for the seminal rock band. Under the influence of producer Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), Sleater-Kinney’s ninth studio album incorporates both poppier elements and dark, new-wave-indebted synths into their signature sound, a “new direction” that prompted Weiss to announce that she’ll be exiting the group.

The result of this broadening of their sound varies throughout. The title track is the biggest departure on the album—and also its weakest. For the first two-thirds of the song, Brownstein yelps menacingly over a beat that sounds like it’s played on found items in a junkyard. “I need something pretty/To help me ease my pain/And I need something ugly/To put me in my place,” she growls. The track doesn’t take any kind of shape until it’s almost over, when Weiss’s drums come thrashing in. Tucker howls the song’s title repeatedly, but coming from a band that’s always been unabashedly progressive, the sentiment lacks teeth.

Other tracks are more musically sophisticated, even if they lack the power of the band’s best work. “Restless” is a swooning, midtempo rumination on middle age and relationships in which Brownstein wrestles with the difficulty of asking someone to accept the very things that you don’t like about yourself. “Can I Go On” is a straight-up pop song, or at least as close to one as Sleater-Kinney is likely to whip up. It’s warm and funny, with a big earworm of a chorus, but the lyrical rhymes range from basic (“tired”/“wired”) to groan-inducing (“happy”/“napping”). Elsewhere, Brownstein implores the listener to “call the doctor, dig me out of this mess” over the skittering electronic beat and staccato synths of “Love.”

The album’s highlights are a pair of Tucker-led songs that achieve the best blend of the band’s newfound synth influences and their more punk bona fides. “Reach Out” is built around a synth figure in the verses before building to a guitar-shredding climax, with a shipwreck serving as a metaphor for bodily autonomy. The lyrics are more sophisticated than those of the album’s title track, displaying the type of political acumen that Sleater-Kinney has always been known for. “Never have I felt so goddamn lost,” Tucker belts on “The Future Is Here.” She and Brownstein could just as easily be talking about their band as the larger world when harmonize about how “the future’s here, and we can’t go back.”

The Center Won’t Hold clocks in at just over a 30 minutes and lacks a certain spark—a song with the barn-burning intensity of “Entertain” or the heartrending emotion of “One More Hour.” In many places, these songs feel derivative in a way that the band’s music never has before. The guitar tone throughout “Restless” is more like Real Estate than Brownstein and Tucker’s signature sound, while “Bad Dance” is mostly notable for how much the title nods to a much-maligned Prince song. Which makes the moments when the band locks in and delivers the adrenaline-pumping thrills that have been their trademark feel all the more effective.

Label: Mom + Pop Release Date: August 16, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Hold Steady’s Thrashing Thru the Passion Is a Satisfying Head-Scratcher

While the album may lack instant anthems, it’s still a highly consistent and satisfying rock album.

3.5

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The Hold Steady
Photo: D James Goodwin/Big Hassle

The Hold Steady was hailed by Rolling Stone as “America’s greatest bar band” over a decade ago, but only in the last few years have its members begun to treat the outfit like an actual bar band—an outlet for a few booze-fueled weekend hangouts a year between old friends—rather than the prolific touring and recording workhorse it used to be. They haven’t mounted a full-length tour since 2014, and since 2012, frontman Craig Finn has released four solo albums to the Hold Steady’s one. The arrival of the band’s seventh album, Thrashing Thru the Passion, is thus both long overdue and a bit of head-scratcher. As it collects five new songs alongside five of the nine singles the band has intermittently released since 2017, the album has more of the feel of a well-curated B-sides collection.

While it may lack the exhilarating anthems of previous Hold Steady efforts, Thrashing Thru the Passion is still a highly consistent and satisfying rock album. Finn’s garrulous wordplay, honed through the complex character sketches of his recent solo work, is as sharp as ever, while the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay for the first time since 2008’s Stay Positive throws into relief how much his contributions have been missed in the interim. Though Nicolay shies away from the arch E Street Band-style breaks he favored during his first stint with the band, from 2005 to 2010, his piano and organ on the woozy ballad “Blackout Sam” and the soulful, swaying-in-the-pews outro to “T-Shirt Tux” access intimate musical textures that haven’t been heard from the Hold Steady in years.

Despite the band’s growing ranks, Thrashing Thru the Passion is their least grandiose album since their 2004 debut. During the peak of their popularity in the mid-2000s, the Hold Steady was nothing if not ostentatious, with heavily guitar-forward mixes, Nicolay’s showy piano and Vaudevillian fashion sense, and Finn’s manic stage presence. Here they no longer sound like they’re playing to the arena rafters, in terms of both sonics and songwriting. This allows room for the energetic yet melodic warmth of “Epaulets” and “Star 18,” two concise tracks that might have been left off of previous albums in favor of more bombastic offerings.

Still, it’s hard not to miss the massive guitar riffs of the Hold Steady’s heyday. One might have expected the 2010 addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge to bolster the band’s already huge guitar focus and result in more of the Thin Lizzy-style dueling leads that founding guitarist Tad Kubler had been overdubbing in the studio. Instead, virtually the opposite has occurred. Kubler and Selvidge are too similar stylistically to create any real back and forth, but it’s not like they attempt much high-octane riffage anyway, instead employing mostly jangly arpeggios and chordal pounding (the basic, grinding power chords on “Entitlement Crew” might be the laziest guitar part in the Hold Steady’s catalog). The only proper guitar solo on Thrashing Thru the Passion, on “The Stove & the Toaster,” is thin and trebly, pushed back in the mix behind Finn’s vocals and the brass section that appears throughout the album. Only on “T-Shirt Tux” do Kubler and Selvidge wrap their fingers around the kind of big, thick riff that might have wound up on a Hold Steady album from the 2000s.

Even if the band’s guitar work isn’t what it used to be, Finn’s storytelling prowess certainly is, and along with his usual barrage of smartest-guy-at-the-dive-bar one-liners, an appropriate shift in his perspective as a lyricist is evident. If any of these songs were written with Holly, Charlemagne, the Cityscape Skins, or any his other old characters in mind, it’s clear that the glory days are far behind them. One gets the feeling that the subjects of these songs are closer to Finn’s age—47—than the kids he used to sing about. They can all get together again for a weekend of boozing and reminiscing (“Entitlement Crew”), but eventually living in the past can just get sad (on “Blackout Sam,” Finn warns of “Local legends with the far away eyes”). The drugs and parties don’t seem so romantic anymore; now everything’s just seedy and tense, like in the deals-gone-wrong tales “You Did Good Kid” and “The Stove & the Toaster.”

In short, the album’s lyrics feature exactly the kind of logical thematic progression one could have only hoped for from Finn 15 years after the Hold Steady debuted and he started turning stories about pimps and drugged-out bartenders into religious allegory. Like Charlemagne, Finn is still caught up in some complicated things—and after a period of uncertainty, it’s a joy that the rest of the band remains willing to go along for the ride with him.

Label: Frenchkiss Release Date: August 16, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Clairo’s Immunity Is a Starkly Vulnerable and Inviting Debut

The album is steeped in warm acoustics juxtaposed by austere observations about life and love.

4

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Clairo
Photo: Jimmy Bui

The bedroom-pop songs that Clairo, née Claire Cottrill, has released since her 2017 breakout, “Pretty Girl,” have often seemed like they’ve been transmitted from behind a glass wall. Mining the pain of adolescence, her vaguely generalized lyrics can have a distancing effect, and the influence of PC music casts a slick veneer over it all. So, it’s surprising when the 20-year-old opens her debut album, Immunity, by starkly revisiting the night a friend prevented her from committing suicide: “I lay in my room/Wondering why I’ve got this life.” The rest of the album is just as raw and covered in open wounds.

Produced by former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij, Immunity is steeped in warm acoustics, a sharp pivot from the synth palette that Clairo has previously favored. Disparate elements—muted guitar strumming, watery piano, harpsichord—are integrated harmoniously throughout the album. Although they employ a variety of timbres, the songs’ meticulous arrangements shy away from polyphony, permitting only one instrument to take the lead at the time. The effect is impressionistic, paradoxically austere and lush. Up close, each texture is isolated and distinctly separate from the next, but take a couple steps back and everything coalesces into a seamless, highly chromatic composition.

At the center of it all, though, is Cottrill herself. Her characteristically impassive vocal strikes a poignant contrast with her lyrics. She may be keeping her head cool, but her heart is ablaze. On “White Flag,” her voice icily glides over curlicues of reedy guitar and synth as she laments, “I was 15 when I first felt loneliness.” Dense synths often drowned out the vocals on her earlier work, but Batmanglij foregrounds Cottrill’s voice here, amplifying it through doubling or distorting it with Auto-Tune. Her vocal style eschews genre¬-fication, hinting at R&B on “Sinking,” where her voice takes on a honeyed tone and tackles gentle runs, and redolent of trip-hop on “Closer to You,” where vocal effects crystalize her belts over sputtering hi-hats.

Cottrill’s ability to work outside the mold of indie rock and close-to–the-bone commentary puts her in the same camp as contemporaries Mitski and Snail Mail, but there’s something about her aloofness and measured control that feels profoundly unique. Cottrill, who came out as bisexual last year with a tongue-in-cheek tweet, embraces her sexuality for the first time in a way that’s pensive and unreserved, with songwriting that feels lifted out of the pages of a diary. “Sofia” conjures a sweet vision of young queer love over a chugging, anthemic guitar: “I think we could do it if we tried/Sofia, know that you and I shouldn’t feel like a crime.”

Even more moving is Cottrill’s articulation of the insecure hesitation of budding same-sex relationships. On “Bags,” she navigates the line between friend and lover with a crush who could be straight. Her approach pinpoints ephemeral moments with a wide-eyed recollection: the sensation of fingertips on her back, a mane of hair blowing in the wind of an open car window, a love interest standing in a doorway. You get the feeling that the experiences Cottrill recounts are firsts for her, so vivid and formative are her memories. Throughout the album, a choir of children regularly picks up Cottrill’s vocal melody, emphasizing how naïveté renders every experience that much more transformative.

In spite of its title, the central theme of Immunity is fragility. Time and time again, Cottrill reveals how susceptible she is to unshakable loneliness (“White Flag”), the inevitable growing apart of young lovers (“Impossible”), the physical limitations caused by her rheumatoid arthritis (“I Wouldn’t Ask You”). But it’s evident that Cottrill is done feigning immunity. On “Impossible,” she confesses that seeing the face of an ex still shakes her up years after their falling out, but she’s resolute when she sings, “But I know, know that it’s right/To listen to my breathing and start believing myself.” Life, Cottrill tells us, is full of loose ends, lingering emotions, and unfinished business. When reconciling these liminal states proves difficult, if not impossible, Cottrill turns inward to find a sense of certainty to hold fast to.

Label: Fader Release Date: August 2, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Regrettes’s How Do You Love? Sublimely Ponders the Messiness of Love

The album harnesses the band’s infectious enthusiasm for their material to make the familiar sound new again.

4.5

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How Do You Love
Photo: Clarie Marie Vogel/Warner Records

Despite the challenges of finding something original to say about romance, How Do You Love? harnesses the Regrettes’s infectious enthusiasm for their material to make the familiar sound new again. Though it’s not driven by a cohesive narrative per se, the album is conceptually orientated around the birth, growth, and collapse of a relationship, charting a romance as it moves from the first stirrings of love to its painful dissolution.

The album opens with a minute-long spoken-word piece in which singer/guitarist Lydia Night asks the titular question, which is less rhetorical than a direct challenge: How do you love? And in an attempt to answer that question, the band launches into “California Friends,” a coiled snake of a song that starts with Night inviting us to “come a little closer.” Night’s bandmates serve as her internal monologue, shouting “No way!,” “Just stay!,” and “Okay!” as she weighs the pros and cons of her potential partner. In a moment of self-referentiality and a wink to the time-honored pastime of making a potential partner a mixtape, Night sings about “a band from California” before she offers to “make you a playlist of their songs.”

Elsewhere, the lyrics of lead single “I Dare You” detail an illicit young romance: “My mom tries to catch me/But I know all the back streets” is both a clever slant rhyme and a brilliant, specific image that immediately sets the scene. The song paints a picture of a relationship marked by the tension between being supportive and egging each other on: “You’re gonna fall, but I’ll catch you…C’mon and jump/Well, I dare you!” It’s a sublime three minutes, perfectly capturing the heady rush of young love, as the band sing-shouts the last line back and hits the chorus while guitarist Genessa Gariano picks out an angular lead part.

The back half of How Do You Love? traces the part of a relationship that follows the initial headrush, when you realize that maybe the person you fell for isn’t “the one.” “Go Love You” is a clever exploration of the connection between sex and love, with Night’s acid delivery making it clear that “love” is standing in for a different four-letter word. “Pumpkin” draws on pop-cultural touchstones including Romeo and Juliet and The Notebook for its metaphorical unpacking of the moment when you realize a relationship is doomed. The hook has an almost doo-wop feel as Night sighs, “Pumpkin, pumpkin, you’re gonna kill me.”

By the closing title track, a rave-up with a shout-along chorus, Night has been through the darkness and come out the other side. When she asks, “How do you love?,” her voice hitting a melismatic series of high notes on the word “love,” the album’s emotional arc comes full circle. What began as a direct question, asked of the listener, is now almost—but not quite—out of the singer’s reach. The message seems to be that love is difficult, but not impossible, and the rewards are sublime. Throughout, these songs depict human connection in all its messy glory, making the case that the glory is worth the mess.

Label: Warner Release Date: August 9, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Ty Segall’s First Taste Is a Blissed-Out Sonic Smorgasbord

The album expands the singer’s sound while holding onto the maximalist streak that makes his work so compelling.

4

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Ty Segall
Photo: Denée Segall

Ty Segall’s First Taste is a logical extension of his already-impressive body of work, though the album represents an interesting sonic step forward for the singer-songwriter, as it doesn’t feature any guitar. Instead, the album derives its power from a massive synthesizer sound and rhythm section. Segall plays all the drums that appear on the left stereo channel of the mix, while longtime collaborator Charles Moothart plays the right-channel percussion. The instrumentation also features such seldom-heard fare as bouzouki, electric omnichord, and koto. The result is an album that finds Segall expanding his sound while holding onto the blissed-out maximalist streak that has defined his work to date.

As Segall has matured from a West Coast garage rocker into one of indie rock’s most reliably protean lifers, it’s encouraging to hear that he’s still finding new territory to mine. His voice, impassioned and vividly expressive, suggests an instrument itself throughout First Taste, a key element of its overall musical texture, with the music and lyrics achieving a powerful synergy. The lyrical conceits, then, don’t come immediately to the forefront, but as you spend more time with these songs, Segall’s ideas begin to unfold themselves. The album’s first single, “Ice Plant,” gently evokes a powerful sense of belonging and home. Segall sings like he’s conjuring a memory from the ether as his voice intertwines with that of guest Shannon Lay: “To the oranges that used to be my driveway/And the ice plants that live on the hills.”

That’s not to say First Taste is entirely bathed in the glow of nostalgia. Opener “Taste” finds Segall shrieking, “Our salivating makes it all taste worse,” a grim depiction of the relationship between desire and fulfillment. “I Worship the Dog” is about a rabbit who does exactly that, feeling a kinship with its destroyer, while on “Self Esteem,” Segall explicitly tarnishes the warmth he conjured on “Ice Plant”: “My memories age/My memories change.” Wherever there’s warmth on First Taste, darkness lurks just around the corner.

Though Segall’s vocals are a key part of the album’s sonic architecture, the instrumental “When I Met My Parents (Part 1)”—which pairs a skittering Gang of Four-style bassline with a head-spinning polyrhythmic meter—shows off his brio and inventiveness as a multi-instrumentalist. “Lone Cowboys,” which closes First Taste, throws everything at the wall—a smorgasbord of wacky instrumentation that coalesces into a widescreen pop sound reminiscent of the Elephant 6 bands—as Segall shouts, “We can live on our own/We can breathe on our own!” The overall effect, like the album as a whole, invites the listener to turn what they’ve heard over and over again in their mind.

Label: Drag City Release Date: August 2, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Cuco’s Para Mi Is an Unguarded but Under-Developed Self-Portrait

The singer-songwriter’s guileless musings serve as a reminder of what young, unjaded love can feel like.

3

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Cuco
Photo: Interscope Records

Since Omar Banos first broke out in 2016, the Chicano musician’s foremost appeal has always been his ordinariness. Fresh-faced and bespectacled, the 21-year-old—who performs under the moniker Cuco—cuts an unassuming, almost nerdy figure, and his music, driven by his trademark self-deprecation and endless encounters with heartbreak, is ever so relatable. Although his early mixtapes drifted into garden-variety indie-pop territory, Cuco harnesses his potential on Para Mi, an unguarded self-portrait that, from its unabashed confessionalism to its Spanglish lyrics, is inextricably tied to his identity.

The album exhibits Cuco’s fondness for melding the contemporary with the vintage. Like that of bedroom-pop cohorts Joji and Clairo, his music bears the influence of vaporwave. Thick walls of synth fill the album, and the cover art is awash in the garish colors that characterize the microgenre. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Cuco’s music without the sway of 1960s pop: His lyrics are bathed in the love-struck stylings of acts like the Beach Boys and Tijuana’s Los Moonlights, and the result is a lovesick concoction that’s both forlorn and tripped-out. With lyrics like “I wish you would say/‘Baby, I love you ‘til I die” on “Hydrocodone,” he risks drowning in melodrama, but his earnestness ultimately manages to strike a resounding chord. Sure, he equates heartbreak to the end of the world, but in spite of their hyperbole, Cuco’s guileless musings serve as a reminder of what young, unjaded love can feel like.

Throughout Para Mi, Cuco dives headfirst into psychedelia, using it as a prompt to try on more experimental sounds, as well as a lens through which to observe his personal feelings. The dazzling “Perihelion (Interlude)” takes a page out of Neon Indian’s Vega Intl. Night School, and the blissful “Love Tripper” owes a great deal to chillwave. “I’ve been tripping off the tabs in my room/I don’t know why, baby, but I’m feeling blue,” he half-raps over zany music box-like synths on “Keeping Tabs.” On “Feelings,” Cuco embraces feeling lost: “I gotta find my way back home,” he croons over a silky blanket of horn, synth, and funk bass. Whereas the album’s love songs hit on the same thematic beats over and over, these more introspective tracks buzz with intrigue. It’s a pity, then, that there aren’t that many of them.

Self-deprecation is undoubtedly Cuco’s most distinctive artistic trait. (His Twitter handle is @Icryduringsex.) Songs like “Hydrocodone,” with such lyrics as “There’s always someone better/I hope you find that guy/To make you happy,” evoke a naked sincerity. Instead of coming off as pouty or thin-skinned, however, Cuco’s confessions succeed for the same reason that sad online culture thrives. Airing out the skeletons in one’s closet serves a purpose: There’s something palliative about sharing pain publically and feeling like you’re not the only one, be it through a tweet, a “same” comment, or, well, a crowd chanting “I’m sitting in my room/I’m all alone now missing you” at a Cuco concert.

Though the better part of Para Mi was ostensibly written with romantic interests in mind, the songs, so anchored to fixed experiences, have come to represent universal lessons learned. They’re still rough around the edges—many lack dynamism, fading in and out of monochrome synth passages—but the impression that Cuco put all of himself into the music remains.

Label: Interscope Release Date: July 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Of Monsters and Men’s Fever Dream Veers Into Bland Pop Terrain

The album streamlines the band’s roughhewn sound into a waxy, bland pop.

2

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Fever Dream
Photo: Meredith Truax

Of Monsters and Men’s sophomore effort, Beneath the Skin, felt like a qualitative extension of the band’s 2012 debut, My Head Is an Animal, hewing closely to that album’s densely layered, acoustic-driven instrumentation and the distinctive vocal harmonies of Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir and Ragnar Thorhallsson. With Fever Dream, however, the Icelandic quintet emerges from a four-year break with a sound that veers radically from the flannel-textured indie-folk they established on those first two releases.

From Hilmarsdóttir’s opening “Hey!,” “Alligator” lunges into a full-bodied romp that invokes the feisty vigor of early Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Throughout, bright electric guitar wails glide over chunky bass riffs and tympanic drumming as she belts out, “Wake me up, I’m fever dreaming!” The arena-ready punchiness of “Alligator” makes the track a promising first impression that, inexplicably, the rest of the album seems determined to walk back.

“You think you know me, but do you really?” Thorhallsson croons on “Ahay,” and for listeners surprised by the song’s plaintive piano tones, finger snaps, and electronic pops, his question is a fair one. Very little on Fever Dream tethers Of Monsters and Men to their prior work, as the band has streamlined its roughhewn sound into a waxy, bland pop that would feel more at home playing in an H&M store than in the Icelandic backcountry. Gone are the mythological themes that infused their previous songs, and glossed over is the elemental imagery that, in the past, conjured lush sylvan mountainsides and vaulted skies. The fireside warmth that made songs like “Dirty Paws” and “Human” feel so intimate has dissipated in favor of squeaky-clean production, leaving the album feeling generic and non-specific.

“Ahay” is admittedly infectious, and Hilmarsdóttir and Thorhallsson’s melodic duet on “Sleepwalker” exudes a sweet, hand-drifting-out-the-window dreaminess. But with little more than beefy basslines to supply them any personality, tracks like “Vulture, Vulture” and “Wars” feel like lackluster impersonations of Depeche Mode-esque pop, with an over-dependence on run-of-the-mill ‘80s synths. The tremulous vocals of Fever Dream’s first single, “Wild Roses,” try to mimic the haunting delicacy of the band’s 2015 single “I of the Storm” from Beneath the Skin, but a chorus saturated by heavy drums and clubby dance beats smothers the track’s airy quiet. Bass-drum thumps and electronic flourishes similarly attempt to give a pulse to the penultimate track, “Under a Dome,” but by the time it fuzzes out into Thorhallsson’s heavily Auto-Tuned vocals, even the song seems bored with itself.

Despite its bombast and awkward inconsistencies, though, the album displays a keen attention to vocal nuances. Never before has Hilmarsdóttir taken such full possession of her range, and she shows no hesitation in swinging between throaty growls and anthemic screams. On songs like “Róróró” and “Waiting for the Snow,” she fleshes out the peeled-back instrumentation with near-whisper fragility and heartbreaking tenderness. In a rare moment for the album, the combination of subtle electronic beeps and slight touches of Auto-Tune on the latter track evoke a strikingly visceral scene of self-reflection and the chill ache of regret.

Thorhallsson, too, tests the limits of his husky lower register, stoking the slow burn of “Stuck in Gravity” into a soaring, soothing ballad. But for all his insistence in the song’s outro that his “head is still an animal,” it’ll take more than a contrived allusion to the past to recover a sense of the cohesion and depth that Of Monsters and Men has jettisoned on Fever Dream. For a group whose songs typically brim with rustic intimacy and traverse the wild, sprawling landscapes of both the head and heart, their latest feels like it sold off those land rights and opted for the lurid electric shimmer of the city.

Label: Republic Release Date: July 26, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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