Connect with us

Music

Review: Panda Bear’s Buoys Takes Listeners on a Kaleidoscopic Psych-Pop Odyssey

Noah Lennox’s latest is at once disarmingly offbeat and decidedly of the moment.

4

Published

on

Buoys
Photo: Fernanda Pereira/Domino

Noah Lennox’s music has always walked the line between the otherworldly and the familiar. The Animal Collective co-founder’s songs incorporate strange, unsettling noises—mechanistic rumblings, semi-humanoid grunts, alien-like murmurs—yet he sings with a studied, choirboy croon, one that exudes approachability and art-school sophistication. It’s this aesthetic that has endeared him to casual listeners and avant-rock diehards alike, and attracted marquee collaborators like Daft Punk, Dean Blunt, and Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox. On Buoys, his sixth album as Panda Bear, Lennox still fuses surf-pop with discordant sonic surrealism, but he’s also added hip-hop production to his repertoire, arriving at a sound that’s at once disarmingly offbeat and decidedly of the moment.

The album’s opening track, “Dolphin,” is a swirling psych-pop fantasia that bridges the gap between Brian Wilson and Aphex Twin with a medley of found sounds: an arcade game motif, droplets of water, a wave crashing onto sand. Then Lennox begins to sing, his lilting, reverb-soaked voice dwarfing everything around it. The melody, patient and foreboding, stops and starts in dramatic fashion; the final note of each phrase drifts away like a cloud passing over a barren landscape. The whole track has a kind of half-speed quality, as if Lennox has deliberately slowed it down in order to savor the anguish of his words. “I would always be/There when you need it,” he sings, offering comfort to a lover who left long ago.

Buoys also marks a stark shift away from the digital-first ethos of Lennox’s 2015 album, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Though present, synthesizers take a back seat to the musician’s angelic wail and churning, acoustic guitar chords. Songs like “Cranked,” “I Know I Don’t Know,” and “Home Free” sound like stripped-down singer-songwriter jams that have been reworked after a few acid trips. Sonic bric-a-brac whirls around each track here: ray gun blasts on “Cranked,” distorted whistling on “I Know I Don’t Know,” a pitched-down whale call on “Home Free.” Yet, compositionally, they all have an understated simplicity. For all his experimental tendencies, Lennox is at his core an expert pop craftsman, someone who understands the power of melody and a well-placed turn of phrase.

Co-produced by Rusty Santos, who previously worked with Lennox on 2007’s Person Pitch, Buoys also takes a few pages from the contemporary hip-hop playbook, adding subwoofer-ready bass and boom-bap percussion to Lennox’s cerebral songscapes. Even Auto-Tune, hip-hop’s favorite plaything, is used to add texture to individual syllables, which, in turn, transforms Lennox’s complex melodies into vast, moving labyrinths. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Panda Bear album without enormous quantities of reverb. Almost every single word on “Crescendo” seems to bounce around an isolated underground bunker. Meanwhile, on “Token,” Lennox’s voice grows so large and abstract that it melds into the track’s background: a morass of ambient textures, chiming guitars, and microscopic drum patters.

Buoys may not mark a major departure in Panda Bear’s sound, but it bristles with the creative energy of an artist confronting his deepest, most destructive demons. “Done complaining/Wanna sort out a life,” Lennox confesses on “Master,” a midtempo ballad steeped in regret and longing. “Why did I fly so high?,” he repeats on “Cranked,” as if looking back on his life from above and hating what he sees. It’s a lyric that could fit seamlessly into every song on the album. Throughout, Lennox seems to be trapped in a daydream of his own making—a distant corner of his imagination where creativity abounds but pain is omnipresent.

Label: Domino Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Advertisement
Comments

Music

Review: Chaka Khan’s Hello Happiness Runs on Good Vibes

As its titles suggests, the R&B singer’s first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

3.5

Published

on

Chaka Khan
Photo: Island Records

“I’m tired of hearing bad news,” Chaka Khan sings on the title track of her 13th solo album, Hello Happiness. The last time the singer was in the news, in 2016, she was entering rehab to treat an addiction to fentanyl, the same drug that killed Prince. Given the general sense of ennui that’s endemic to life in the 21st century, you’d be forgiven for expecting a more morose Chaka Khan in 2019. But as its title suggests, her first album in 12 years radiates positivity.

Hello Happiness’s breezy sensibility is intrinsic to its design. The 27-minute-long album’s opening track begins with a kind of mantra: “Music makes me sing/Goodbye sadness/Hello happiness.” The ebullient “Like a Lady” is punctuated with serotonin-spiking disco string stabs, while the chorus—“Ooh, you make me feel like a lady, baby/Ooh, I think I’m falling in love”—feels timeless and nostalgic. If it isn’t enough to put a smile on your face the first time around, Khan repackages the whole song again on the closing track “Ladylike,” pairing the same verses and chorus with a more up-front melody and a sparkling acoustic guitar hook.

Much of the credit for Hello Happiness’s relentlessly good vibes goes to co-producers Switch (formerly of Major Lazer) and singer-songwriter Sarah Ruba Taylor, who plunder the sounds of Khan’s 1970s and ‘80s output for a mélange of styles and textures, from the fat Bernie Worrell-like synthesizers and fuzz-laced guitars of “Don’t Cha Know” to the echoing dub effects of “Isn’t That Enough.” Sometimes the production steals the spotlight a little too much: With its infectious Fatback Band-interpolating bassline, lead single “Like Sugar” barely needs Khan’s vocals to make you groove. Her placement in the tracks, often deep in the mix and drenched in reverb, can give the impression that she’s a guest on another artist’s remix.

Yet, it’s worth applauding Khan, who turns 66 next month, for continuing to make an album as vital and contemporary-sounding as Hello Happiness. Few artists still releasing new music as they approach their fifth decade in the business are producing work like this, with an ear to dance floors rather than the Grammys and NPR. One need only hear the sizzling man-eater’s blues of “Too Hot” to know that Khan is still in fine voice. On Hello Happiness, she pairs those ageless pipes with some of the most danceable music in her career.

Label: Island Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule

The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

3.5

Published

on

Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.

It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.

If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.

While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.

Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading

Music

Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead

The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.

3.5

Published

on

Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.

Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.

“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.

Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.

At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.

Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Donate

Slant is reaching more readers than ever, but as online advertising continues to evolve, independently operated publications like ours have struggled to adapt. We're committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, please consider becoming a Slant patron:

Patreon

You can also make a donation via PayPal.

Giveaways

Advertisement

Newsletter

Advertisement

Preview

Trending