Angel Olsen reportedly recorded two different versions of her fourth album, All Mirrors. One is raw and stripped down, more akin to her early releases, while the second is lusher, wilder, and layered with orchestrationâless a mirror image of the first than a reflection in rippled water. On an album that ultimately sees Olsen make a solemn commitment to accepting change as an implacable force, it only seems right that she chose to release the latter version, documenting the growth of her sound into uncharted territory.
For Olsen, accepting that change is a constant has required the acknowledgement that no two people experience change in identical directions. On All Mirrors, she lets go of those whoâve required her to privilege their desires over her own, finding peace in solitude. That this is, ironically, her loudest, densest album to date seems to speak to the liberation that came with that solitude. On the albumâs opening track, âLark,â strings gather like clouds, only to burst in time with Olsenâs voice as her delivery shifts from low and restrained to loud and confrontational. Thereâs a kind of ecstasy in the enormity of moments like this and othersâlike the tense, trilling strings on âImpasseâ and the ebb and flow of the synths on âAll Mirrorsââthat reflects the scope of the personal and professional place Olsen is seeking.
Of course, the route to freedom is circuitous. Olsenâs voice shapeshifts from song to song as she explores the behaviors that perpetuated her need for validation. âLarkâ and âAll Mirrorsâ follow a similar pattern, both of their melodies jumping octaves, oscillating between nostalgia for a different time and a relationship lost, and defiance in the face of everything that relationship cost her. Elsewhere, she seems resigned: âIâm beginning to wonder if anythingâs real/Guess weâre just at the mercy of the way that we feel,â she sings on âSpring.â Sheâs the breezy ingĂ©nue on âToo Easy,â surrendering to her loverâs will, but sheâs tougher, her vocals throaty and low, on âNew Low Cassetteâ: âGonna gather strength/Give you all my mind,â she sings, imaginingâor perhaps rememberingâherself in the role of the sacrificing partner.
But Olsen refuses to play that role anymore. âDream On,â she howls over and over on âLark,â the full force of her band and string section swelling, before she asks, âWhat about my dreams?â Olsenâs most intimate performance comes on âTonight,â on which she acknowledges that sheâs better off alone: âI like the air that I breathe/I like the thoughts that I think/I like the life that I lead/Without you.â Itâs a quiet, painful track, the strings keening over the words âwithout youâ as she repeats them, as if admitting it to herself for the first time.
All Mirrors is challenging and confrontational, and rewards close, present listening. âIâm leaving once again, making my own plans/Iâm not looking for the answer/Or anything that lasts,â Olsen sings on album closer âChance.â This is the sound of true independence, of an artist embracing her own forward motion without having to be concerned with someone elseâs, and protecting a space where she can be as loudâor as quietâas she likes.
Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon
The 10 Best Albums of 1980
We take a look back on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades.
In my introduction to Slantâs list of the 100 Best Albums of the 1980s, I noted that, while â80s pop culture is largely remembered for its frivolity, the social unrest that stirred beneath the decadeâs brightly colored gloss and greed resulted in not just the guilt-driven good intentions of enterprises like the star-studded USA for Africa, but a generation of artists whose music genuinely reflected the state of the world. From political violence across the pond and the struggles and dreams of the American working class, to race relations, sexuality, and gender, no topic was left unexcavated by the pop, rock, and hip-hop artists of the Reagan era. As we enter the 2020s, an entire generation removed from the â80s, it seems as good a time as any to once again look back and reflect on the music that defined one of the most definable of decades. Sal Cinquemani
Honorable Mention: The Jam, Sound Affects; Peter Gabriel, Peter Gabriel; Young Marble Gods, Colossal Youth; Grace Jones, Warm Leatherette; Emmylou Harris, Roses in the Snow; Stevie Wonder, Hotter Than July; Devo, Freedom of Choice; Dead Kennedys, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables; Public Image Ltd, Second Edition; Bruce Springsteen, The River
10. Diana Ross, diana
Diana Rossâs fifth (again, fifth) solo album to feature some part of her name in the title, this was the first one where the choice in nomenclature felt like an act of self-preservation. Because the albumâs signature is unmistakably someone elseâs, namely the Chic organization. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were brought aboard to help Miss Ross carry on the momentum she had at her back from the string disco hits including âLove Hangover,â âThe Boss,â and âNo One Gets the Prize.â What seemed like a cunning collaborative move quickly dimmed when disco became, almost overnight, passĂ©. A panicked Ross and Motown snatched the album and remixed it to push it back toward the realm of pop, but even a side-by-side listen with the since-released original version only proves that, lucky for us all, Chicâs DNA is impermeable. Stacked with peppy, irresistible post-disco hits like âIâm Coming Outâ and âUpside Down,â diana is without question the divaâs most satisfying LP. Eric Henderson
9. X, Los Angeles
A punk-rock power duo making strong use of their male/female dynamic, Exene Cervenka and John Doe fronted Xâs roaring songs with a vibrant vocal and lyrical approach, which helped make them the creative standard bearer of the nascent L.A. scene. Beefing up the usual punk attack with a sound hearkening back to several decades of rock, from Chuck Berry to Blondie, the band went beyond the usual three-chord dynamic, forming an album thatâs both a paean to a fading city and an excoriation of its faults, all burning trash, clumped hair and Hollywood Boulevard sleaze, perfectly summed up by the burning logo of the albumâs cover. Jesse Cataldo
8. The Clash, Sandinista!
The succulent fat that drips from this spit-skewered, bloated pig of an albumâ36 tracks spanning two-and-a-half hours!âis fuel for a distinctive genre bonfire. The flames reach brashly, soulfully, sarcastically beyond punk, rock, pop, dance, ska, rockabilly, dub, calypso, and gospel, and its themes, as diverse as its sound, are the concerns of the world: consumerism, working-class disaffection, political antipathy, immigration, warfare. And drugs, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, sometimes all at once. Heavy stuff, yes, but this is the Clash, who will provide us with an address of Cold War relations but so from the floor of Studio 54. These cheeky blokes operate as spies, disguising grave matters with high-spirited musicality, hoping the powers that be wonât notice. Truly an album without borders. Ed Gonzalez
7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Get Happy!!
In the saga of the punk-rock upstart who shocked critics by going all Lennon-McCartney on their asses, the blue-eyed soul of Elvis Costelloâs Get Happy!! is typically considered a genre detour, more like 1981âs country-themed Almost Blue than the classic pop triumvirate of Armed Forces, Trust, and Imperial Bedroom. But you need only compare it to Young Americans, Bowieâs misguided stab at R&B from five years earlier, to see how sincerely Costello inhabits the styleâs past and present. Costello may have set out to show how much he knew about soul, but what he actually proved was how much he loves it. Matthew Cole
6. Pretenders, Pretenders
The Pretendersâs debut is notable not only for the pitch-perfect execution of the bandâs glam-meets-punk style, but also its delivery of unconventional sex appeal. Like Debbie Harry before her, Chrissie Hynde represented a feminization of the punk aesthetic, a street-smart girl who could outdrink, outperform, and ultimately outsmart her male counterparts. Rock feminism never sounded as good as it does here, particularly on tracks like the spunky âBrass in Pocket,â where Hynde has the power to be playful, tough, and even self-deprecating without sacrificing any of her throaty vocal presence. At its core, rock nâ roll is about charisma, and as tracks like âStop Your Sobbingâ and âPrivate Lifeâ prove, the Pretenders not only had a cache of the stuff, but were well-versed in how to showcase it. Kevin Liedel
Review: Grimesâs Miss Anthropocene Feels Both Deeply Personal and Communal
The album is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society.4
Grimes, nĂ©e Claire Boucher, furrowed brows when she described the concept of Miss Anthropocene as being centered around her desire âto make climate change fun.â She has since somewhat clarified the statement, explaining that, in rendering climate change as a villainous, comic book-esque character, she might be able to make our environmental crisis âeasier to digest.â Not especially known for her easy digestibility as an artistânot least because, in many of her previous releases, Boucherâs vocals have been processed to the point of near-incomprehensibilityâit seemed like a tough, if noble, objective.
Indeed, if Boucherâs goal really was to make the conversation around climate change more accessible with her fifth album, she isnât particularly successful. Written, a press release says, âfrom the perspective of a pro-AI girl group propaganda machine who use song, dance, sex and fashion to promote goodwill towards artificial intelligence,â the deluxe editionâs âWe Appreciate Powerâ was (misguidedly) criticized as glorifying fascism. Thereâs been a similar reaction, perhaps more understandably, to the albumâs promotional billboards, which bear the words âGlobal Warming Is Good,â and instructions to deface them rendered in comparably tiny print. At best, the billboards are corny, and at worst, as evinced by the flurry of tweets like âbut is she wrong tho?â they prompted, theyâre a boon to those who, without knowledge of Boucherâs intention, simply see the ads as a vindication of their own beliefs.
Most confusingly, the marketing seems to be out of step with Miss Anthropoceneâs actual content, a lot of which doesnât discernibly reference the Earth or our climate. Boucher has said that the process of writing the album was an isolating experience, and that much of the material came from a dark, personal place. Even Miss Anthropoceneâs most apparently apocalyptic lyrics, like the reverb-drenched âThis is the sound of the end of the worldâ on âBefore the Fever,â seem to do more to elucidate the kind of headspace Boucher was in at the time of writing than any grand message about the worldâs climate woes. Elsewhere, âViolence,â about an abusive relationship, is only understood as being sung by the actual Earth to the very crisis of climate change because the singer has told us that it is.
But while this overarching concept might seem flimsy, Boucherâs broad-strokes approach to lyricism and confident, cinematic production allows her to explore concerns that feel at once both deeply personal and fundamentally communal. The latter in particular is bolstered by the way she dissolves the limits of genre, splicing together ethereal electronics with nĂŒ-metal guitars on âSo Heavy I Fell to the Earthâ and four-to-the-floor trance with a Madonna-esque vocal melody on âViolence.â Elsewhere, on âDarkseid,â deep bass and doom-laden beats grind beneath a brittle performance by Taiwanese rapper æœPAN, and a Bollywood sample butts up against drum nâ bass on â4ĂM.â But Boucherâs most surprising pivot, as well as her loveliest, comes on âDelete Forever,â a song about Americaâs devastating opioid crisis and on which her delicate vocals float over an acoustic guitar, joined later by a banjo.
On an album as sonically diverse as Miss Anthropocene, the most significant thread that holds it all together, more than the topic of climate change or its creatorâs personal relationships, is Boucherâs wild imagination and commitment to experimenting with her sound. At the very least, her dominant thematic angle has provided her with a means of inventing new characters to inhabit and new worlds to explore. And the result is a challenging exploration of the conflicting boundaries and boundlessness of personhood, technology, and society.
Label: 4AD Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Caribouâs Suddenly Is an Inviting Dive Into Familial Waters
The album takes family as its central theme with songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.4.5
The narrative arc of Dan Snaithâs career as Caribou (and Manitoba before it) has been one of increasing devotion to humanity. His earlier work was chilly enough that the Shakespeare-referencing title of 2005âs The Milk of Human Kindness could be read as tongue-in-cheek. But starting with 2007âs Andorra, Snaith began delving deeper into human emotions. Our Love, from 2014, was a tender examination of, well, love, while his latest, Suddenly, takes family as its central themeâthe title comes from his daughterâs obsession with the wordâwith songs that express the perspectives of a range of characters.
Snaith builds his songs with a cool, measured precision, as one might expect from someone who holds a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the fun games to play with this album is unpacking its myriad references and samples. âLime,â for instance, boasts the peppiness of a RĂ¶yksopp song filtered through the muzak setting on a Casio synthesizer. âNever Come Backâ possesses the propulsive beat of a â90s dance-floor filler. âLike I Love Youâ is built on the bones of what sounds like an early-aughts R&B track. The album rewards this type of reference-spotting, and itâs a treat to listen to the way such a masterful musician mines his own record collection for inspiration.
What makes the album so spectacular, though, is Snaithâs voice. This is the first Caribou effort on which he sings on every track, and his vocals are mixed higher than they have been in the past. Throughout, his mesmerizing vocals elevate songs that might otherwise scan as banal. âLike I Love Youâ trades in a fairly well-trod sentiment, with Snaith rhapsodizing about an ex-lover, but he wrings every last drop of emotional possibility out of lines like âDoes he love you like I used to do?/Do you ever miss me like I miss you?â Elsewhere, âMagpieâ finds Snaith employing his vocals to maximum impact. The first half of the song, which features a lovely, McCartney-esque melody, is buried under compression that makes it sound like itâs playing from the busted speakers of an old cathode-ray TV set. That distortion falls away halfway through, as Snaith sings, âAnd now the world is catching up to you,â and the song blossoms, capturing the feeling of being in the first flush of love. This shift is but one among many moments of striking revelation throughout the album.
The brief âSisterâ is a gentle, affecting lullaby about the responsibilities of love. Amid a whirl of rich, warm synth notes, Snaith sings softly, âSister, I promise you Iâm changing/Youâve had broken promises I know/If you want to change it you must break it/Rip it up and something new will grow.â At the end of the line, a burst of static introduces a sample taken from an old tape of Snaithâs mother singing his sister a lullaby. The political overtones of the lines are obvious, but the personal nature of the sample gives the song a weight that perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album. What he’s addressing isnât as important as how he does it.
Label: Merge Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon
The 25 Best Guided by Voices Songs
Weâve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in the band’s dauntingly huge catalogue.
Since reforming in 2012, Guided by Voices has seemed to be on a mission to record more long-players than they did during the entirety of their original run, a 17-year stretch that began with 1987âs charming, self-produced Devil Between My Toes and ended 15 albums later in 2004 with the muscular, mature Half Smiles of the Decomposed. Conventional wisdom says the band peaked with Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, the last album featuring the âclassicâ lineup featuring Tobin Sprout, Mitch Mitchell, and Kevin Fennell, but anyone who continued to pay attention after the band fell out of indie-snob favor knows that any permutation of the group only has one essential member: lead singer and world-class songwriter Robert Pollard. His mastery has never ceased for creating two-minute post-punk anthems that make singing along at maximum volume seem like the greatest pastime in the world.
Weâve collected a list of the 25 greatest songs in Guided by Voicesâs dauntingly huge catalogue. Itâs a list cut down from an initial group of 60, any one of which couldâve been included here. So if you donât see one of your personal favorites, know that I probably wrestled over whether to include it. With that caveat out of the way, here are the 25 tracks that most proudly represent a group thatâs not just one of the very best indie-rock bands, but on the short list of the greatest rock nâ roll bands in history.
25. âSpace Gunâ
The title track from Guided by Voicesâs 2018 album is, like the album itself, one of the true highlights of the bandâs reformation and resurgence in the last decade. With production pitched between the spiky compression of their 4-track beginnings and the cleaner big-rock noise of their post-Alien Lanes run in the 2000s, itâs a four-minute glam-prog stomper built around a glittering guitar line that sounds like âI Am a Treeâ took the brown acid. And with lyrics which name-check John Philip Sousa, it isnât difficult to imagine âSpace Gunâ as the future fight song for a gang of besotted galactic raiders.
24. âAn Unmarketed Productâ
At various times in the bandâs storied career, Robert Pollard has abandoned his normal lyrical template of beguiling cosmic Dadaism to provide meta commentary on the bandâs legacy as mischievous outsiders playing on the margins of the corporate rock game. The lyrics caution, âI can give you credit/Suitable and custom tailored/And if you have any luck/You’ll get ahead/Before you’re dead,â as this 69-second piss-take anthem mines sugary post-punk for a single-finger salute to the KROQ dreams that shouldâve been the bandâs birthright.
23. âMan Called Aerodynamicsâ
When Bee Thousand first conquered the â90s indie-rock landscape, rock criticismâs elder guard bemoaned the melodic ADD of their songs, with their manic rush to hooks and choruses an alleged affront to classic-rock formalism. What, then, would they have made of this roaring track from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars, seeming to begin midstream, at the very moment where its â60s and â70s forebears would already be at the minute mark? Sharing with âSpace Gunâ a sound that could be described as âPete Townsend destroying his Gibson in a wind tunnel,â âMan Called Aerodynamicsâ is as mammoth as anything lo-fi indie rock has ever produced.
22. âOver the Neptune/Mesh Gear Foxâ
âG-B-V! G-B-V! G-B-V!â chants the raucous crowd at the beginning of the nearly six-minute epic that kicks off the bandâs transitional 1992 album Propeller. As weâd discover later, the âcrowdâ was the band themselves using echo and a little striving wish fulfillment to imagine the kind of frenzied excitement that would greet the band a few years later. The track itself is like many of the groupâs forays into prog-rock: blazing mini-songs (technically two, if the title is to be trusted, though three by structure) strung together like a âStars on 45â for the British invasion (non-Beatles edition), starting restless and rough, turning bright and hopeful, and then concluding in a cascade of reverbing choral tranquility.
21. âGoldheart Mountaintop Queen Directoryâ
Because almost everything Bob and the boys do is like a bizarro-world inverse of the rest of rock nâ roll, when it comes to lighter-waving power ballads, their ne-plus-ultra entry stops right when everyone elseâs is just reaching the chorus. Built on a bed of keys from a piano that one imagines stained with tears, whiskey and spit, âGoldheart Mountaintop Queen Directoryâ is both melancholy and majesticâLeonard Cohen via âChampagne Supernovaââand the spectral production is so perfect that when And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead covered it years later with 10 times the budget, the dollars couldnât add a thing beyond surface shine.
Review: Soccer Mommyâs Color Theory Is Bound by a Sense of Maturity
The album explores darker, weightier subject matter than its predecessor.3.5
With 2018âs Clean, Soccer Mommyâs Sophie Allison emerged on the scene sounding a lot like a moody indie rock incarnation of Taylor Swift. That albumâs âYour Dogâ and âCoolâ are effortless anthems that possess the same instantly anthemic quality as many of Swiftâs mega-hits. But the main connection between the two is a pseudo-adolescent outlook wherein their dating lives and associated travails are elevated to matters of life and death. Just 20 at the time of Cleanâs release, Allison was consumed by thoughts like âSheâs so pretty/Even more than me.â
With Color Theory, Allison raises the stakes. Slicker than Clean, and beefed up by her touring band, the albumâs sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to, if not Swift, then familiar â90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allisonâs progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the albumâs darker, weightier subject matter: Continuing to draw on personal experience, she largely eschews songs about her love life, instead confronting her issues with mental health and abandonment.
Color Theory rarely progresses beyond the admittedly rich template established in its opening track, âBloodstream.â Here, Allison offers frank and poetic ruminations on her history of depression and self-harm as rhythm guitars thrum behind her. Her visceral lyricsââNow a river runs red from my knuckles into the sinkââare partially obscured by a deceptively cheery chord progression, just like she once âcovered up the wounds with my long sleeves.â
In its subject matter, chords, rhythm, and tempo, âCircle the Drainâ bears a strong resemblance to âBloodstream.â But the songâs most lasting impression is its hook, a sing-song âRound and aroundâ refrain thatâs deafening in its obviousnessânot because itâs uncreative, but because itâs a wonder no one else thought of it sooner. Indeed, Allisonâs best melodic hooksâlike the overlapping guitar lines on âCrawling in My Skinââare often simple but indelible.
Even as Allison delves deep into heavy subject matter, she usually sounds more angsty than haunted. Which is fine when she delivers that angst with such melodic verve (the albumâs dourest-sounding songs, especially the final two, are easily the weakest, as they lack melodies strong enough to buoy Allisonâs disaffected musings). Her still-youthful perspective means that the charmingly tongue-in-cheek âRoyal Screw Up,â on which she imagines herself as an emotionally damaged waifu (âMy dungeon of fire, Iâm the princess of screwing up/And you wear your armor and you save pretty girls like meâ), isnât totally out of place here.
Still, a sense of maturity binds the albumâs best moments. âYellow Is the Color of Her Eyesâ lazily unfolds over seven-plus minutes, but as with âBloodstream,â thereâs pain hidden beneath the pleasant vibes. Dogged by memories of her terminally ill mother, Allison laments that even her daydreams of happier times are tainted by the knowledge of whatâs to come: âLoving you isnât enough/Youâll still be deep in the ground when itâs done.â
Color Theoryâs lynchpin is âLucy,â which makes clear just how much Allison has grown as a songwriter since Clean. Allison is having trouble with a boy, and thereâs another girl involved whoâs complicating matters. But this time, the boy isnât just a mean boyfriend; heâs âthe root of all evil,â intent on dragging her to hell, perhaps literally so. And the other girl isnât a prettier or cooler rival; she seems to be a part of Allisonâs own psyche, constantly tormenting her. âOh Lucy please/Quit taunting me,â Allison pleads over and over, a refrain as menacing as it is catchy. Though some deeper and darker has taken root in this indie rock wunderkind, her melodic grip remains the backbone of her music.
Label: Loma Vista Release Date: February 28, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Justin Bieberâs Changes Represents a Marked Shift in the Singerâs Perspective
The album finds the singer trying to usher in a new era characterized in large part by asking for help.3
In 2017, after over 250 tour dates across six continents, Justin Bieber canceled what remained of his Purpose World Tour, citing extreme exhaustion. The decision is touched on in the first episode of his YouTube docu-series Justin Bieber: Seasons, a not totally uncynical and yet undeniably humanizing snapshot of a troubled performer whose youthful mistakes were augmented by incredible wealth, increasing isolation, and a public whose gaze has been made all the more searing by the rapid growth of social media.
Taken together, Seasons and Changes, the singerâs fifth album, find Bieber trying to usher in a new era in his life and career characterized in large part by asking for and receiving help. Along with medical professionals who are helping him to manage his recently diagnosed Lyme disease and Epstein Barr, in addition to his chronic anxiety, his new wife, Hailey Baldwin, seems also to have had a calming effect on his music. Where Bieberâs previous albums have often felt engineered almost exclusively for the purpose of stimulating audience response, Changes seems focused instead on the tenderness and comfort of his newlywed bubble.
Seasons makes much of his perfectionism, showing him cut vocal tracks line by line, singing on a loop until he hits each note just right. But itâs that attention to detail, along with the use of vocal effects that coat his voice in a plastic sheen, that holds Bieber at an unfortunate remove from us. In leaning into a more subdued palette of R&B, Changes creates a space for Bieberâs voice to take a central role. But for an album that focuses so strongly on human connection, thereâs a certain lack of emotion that might have come from a looser recording process. That distance is counteracted in large part by a certain lyrical openheartedness, and though Bieber often veers into clichĂ©ââWhen your battery gets low/Iâll be the one to charge you up,â he sings on âTake It Out on Meââthereâs a real charm to the songs that rest so deeply not just on love or sex, but trust and commitment.
Although the tonal fluidity of Changes errs, from time to time, toward homogeneity, thereâs a weightlessness to it that seems to signify the slipping of a long-held burden from Bieberâs shoulders. His most personal offering to date, the album feels like a reflection of actual experience as opposed to a projection of a fantasy. Putting aside the albumâs lead single, âYummy,â a Tik-Tok-baiting affront to both sex and music in equal measure, this is an album that feels very much like the documentation of a very specific moment in time in the singerâs life and an accompanying marked shift in his perspective.
Label: Def Jam Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Yacht Rock Revueâs Hot Dads in Tight Jeans Is More Parody Than Tribute
The album seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year.2
Yacht Rock Revueâs Hot Dads in Tight Jeans seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year. Itâs the work of an affable group of guys who travel the country playing the kind of â70s and â80s light rock that gives their band its name. Over the past decade, Yacht Rock Revue has built something of a soft-rock empire, playing in major venues across the country and hosting an annual festival in Atlanta where theyâre often joined on stage by the musicians theyâve made their bones covering. Now, having established themselves as the premier purveyors of yesteryearâs smoothest hits, the band is releasing their first album of original material. But while Yacht Rock Revue is a stellar live band, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans often fails to show what makes them special in the first place.
Having made music as a cover band for so long, Yacht Rock Revue seems tempted to play âspot the referenceâ with their original material rather than engaging with the songs on their own merits. Some of the tracks, of course, wear their influences on their sleeves: âHouse in the Cloudsâ is built around a Matthew Wilder/Thomas Dolby synth riff, while âChange of Sceneâ apes Stevie Wonder. The albumâs palette isnât exclusively limited to the â70sââYouâre Welcome Babyâ sounds uncannily like Kishi Bashiâs brand of indie-popâbut itâs easy to get distracted wondering who the band might be trying to sound like in any given song.
The albumâs larger issue is exemplified by opening track âThe Doobie Bounce,â the title of which is a winking reference to the jaunty rhythm perfected by the Doobie Brothers that JD Ryznar has held up as a hallmark of the genre on his podcast Yacht or Nyacht. The song itself is about the pleasures of getting stoned and listening to records, referencing the Doobie Brothers, Sade, and, perhaps surprisingly, OutKast, and it has one good laugh line: âI used to sleep on couches/Now I sleep on nicer couches.â Yacht rock has a reputation for skimming the surface of emotions, but that stereotype isnât totally fair: Daryl Hall is a clever songwriter, and Donald Fagen and Walter Becker are among the sharpest and most acidic satirists in rock. These songs, though, are disappointingly obvious. âHouse in the Cloudsâ is about living in a house above the clouds, and âAnother Song About Californiaâ is, well, Iâll let you guess.
The bandâs tendency toward obviousness comes to a head on âBad Tequila,â a party anthem that revises the old chesnut about turning lemons into lemonade into a joke about turning tequila into margaritas. Itâs certainly catchy, and pure escapism certainly has a proud tradition in pop, but itâs also, at five minutes long, frustratingly repetitive.
Say what you will about the genre, but most AOR bands were tight musicians, and Yacht Rock Revue has likewise honed their craft to a razorâs edge. The appeal of their live shows lies in the way they treat their music with utmost reverence, even as they perform dressed in costume to crows of people crushing daiquiris and wearing captainâs hats. From its jokey title and cover art to the somewhat undercooked songs, however, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans feels more like a parody than a tribute to the genre Yacht Rock Revue so clearly love.
Label: Please Rock Release Date: February 21, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guided by Voicesâs Surrender Your Poppy Field Serves Power Pop with a Twist
Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop.4
Nearly 40 years into his career, Robert Pollard is still coming up with new twists on his patented brand of anthemic power pop, like a magician forever pulling rabbits out of a hat. Ever since Pollard assembled a new Guided by Voices lineup for 2017âs August by Cake, the band has showcased a different facet of their sound with each outing, and that diversification continues on Surrender Your Poppy Field. The album weaves the unusual time signatures, song lengths, and baroque-prog structures of last yearâs Sweating the Plague with the tight melodicism thatâs made some of Pollardâs best solo albums so memorable.
In comparison to their longer counterparts on Sweating the Plague, almost every song here runs through several moods and styles rapidlyâbut without ever sounding rushed or contrived. âCul-de-Sac Kidsâ alternates between gentle acoustic strumming and brief full-band bashing before launching into an underdogs-win-the-day chorusââCul-de-sac kids throw the best parties!ââbolstered by the albumâs most driving riff. Itâs the most complex and exhilarating track on the album, all in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes.
The albumâs lead single, âVolcano,â is a Pixies-esque ballad buoyed by Mark Shueâs muted bass runs. What makes the song both uniquely strange and beautiful in the Guided by Voices catalog is the inclusion of atmospheric keyboard phrases that play over verses containing some of the prettiest lyrics Pollard has written: âTrue is the time when I see you/Blue from the blinds that I see through.â The explosion of the chorus into a wall of power chords provides Pollardâs life-affirming exhortationââOn the trail of lovers/Never failing with their loving eyes around you to prove your rage isnât trueââwith the perfect euphoric accompaniment.
The albumâs biggest surprise is that several tracksââArthur Has Business Elsewhere,â âSteely Dodgers,â and âAndre the Hawkââutilize waltz time to evoke the kind of carnival-esque stomps that comprised some of Guided By Voicesâs earliest recordings, including 1987âs Sandbox and 1989âs Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These songs offer a compelling contrast to more straightforward rock tracks like âStone Cold Moron,â which features a double electric guitar attack from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. thatâs pure arena-rock euphoria.
Indeed, waltzes aside, Surrender Your Poppy Field may be the most consistently hard-edged and rocking Guided by Voices effort since 2018âs Space Gun. âQueen Parking Lotâ and âMan Called Blunderâ waste no time as rousing, unfussy riffs barrel into verse-chorus-verse sing-alongs. It all leads to a stunning conclusion, as âNext Sea Levelâ transforms an eerie demo-quality recording of chime-like guitar strums into a majestic full-band and orchestra-accompanied crescendo. The songâs title and chants of ârisingâ suggest a climate change apocalypse, but since that would be far too on the nose, the ever-oblique Pollard ends with something mysteriously hopeful: âTo hear you/To touch you/To know you’re coming around/Still coming around.â Beyond the Tommy reference, âNext Sea Levelâ proves that Pollard can foster worlds of thought and feeling out of sparse yet strategic gestures.
âNext Sea Levelâ also represents the welcome maturity of the current incarnation of Guided by Voices, whose only Achillesâ heel is an exhausting deluge of content. Some have lamented Pollardâs prolific songwriting for diluting the quality of his output, but at this stage of his career Surrender Your Poppy Field proves heâs deepening rather than merely proliferating his music, continuing to grow up instead of growing old.
Label: GbV Release Date: February 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon
Billie Eilish Drops Lush James Bond Theme Song âNo Time to Dieâ
The lush, darkly cinematic track feature an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and guitar from Johnny Marr.
On the heels of her historic Grammy wins, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has unveiled âNo Time to Die,â the theme song from the upcoming James Bond film of the same name. The song was produced by her brother and frequent collaborator, Finneas, and veteran knob-twirler Stephen Lipson. The lush, darkly cinematic track falls in line with past 007 themes, with an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and Matt Dunkley, and featuring guitar from Johnny Marr of the Smiths.
The 18-year-old Eilish, the youngest person and first woman to win the four main Grammy categories in the same year, is now the youngest artist to both write and record a Bond theme. She will perform the song live for the first time at The Brit Awards on February 18.
No Time to Die hits U.S. theaters on April 10 through MGM/United Artists Releasing.
Review: The Menâs Mercy Finds a Mercurial Band Settling Into Their Sound
The album boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.3.5
The Men is a mercurial band, having moved with remarkable swiftness from the punishing noise-punk of their early albums to the more radio-friendly rock of their more recent output. The Brooklyn bandâs eighth album, Mercy, continues to challenge the boundaries of genre, with psych-folk sitting alongside twangy alt-country and rave-up hardcore. The albumâs variety displays a commendable commitment to sonic adventurousness, though the band isnât quite pushing boundaries like it once did.
Mercy is the Menâs third consecutive album with the same roster, and this relative stability has allowed them to settle into their sound. The album was recorded mostly live with minimal overdubbing, a testament to just how in sync the current lineup has become as a unit. The penultimate track, âBreeze,â is a fuzztone ripper with a throat-searing vocal that moves at a breakneck pace, while lead single âChildren All Over the Worldâ pairs serpentine guitar licks with singer Nick Chiericozziâs sinister whisper and a dark, delightfully â80s-inspired synth riff. The song builds to a blistering solo almost reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, rendering it simultaneously familiar but freshâat least for the Men.
The country-rock sound that the band began exploring on 2012âs Open Your Heart was a radical departure from their earlier style, and here these genre excursions prove to be some of the albumâs strongest. âCool Waterâ is a loose, Laurel Canyon-esque rocker, while the title track is a folky deathbed sigh, with Chiericozzi coolly pleading, âI need mercy at the hour of my death.â And though its title nods to Sleater-Kinney, âCall the Dr.â isnât a spiky punk song, but rather a chooglinâ country romp with a first-person murder narrative in the vein of Marty Robbinsâs âEl Paso.â The songâs narrator tells a story about getting gunned down after a heist, dying atop his ill-gotten goods. The lyrics display a powerful sense of economy, sketching out just enough details to make the story vivid without becoming overwrought. The finger-picked guitar fills and Chiericozziâs raspy vocals give the track a sort of dusty, western verisimilitude.
The albumâs centerpiece, âWading in Dirty Water,â is a 10-minute psychedelic jam with an unsettling but catchy synth hook; the guitar solo sounds like vintage Nels Cline, though it drags on for at least a couple of minutes too long. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the spare piano ballad âFallinâ Thruâ veers into crooner territory, with vocals that are mixed almost like an ASMR video. The song seems to be aiming for a quiet menace reminiscent of Tom Waits or Nick Cave, but the overall effect is somewhere between soporific and goofy.
Overall, Mercy doesnât quite measure up to the bandâs stellar triptych of albums released between 2012 and 2014, on which they stretched to expand their repertoire, challenging themselves to explore various sounds from throughout the history of rock while refining their chops and chasing wild hares. Mercy boasts a few moments of exploration but seems more staid in its ambitions.
Label: Sacred Bones Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon
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