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Summer Singles

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Summer Singles

With so many new big-name singles dropping this summer, I thought it was time to christen a new blog series devoted to capsule reviews. It won’t be limited to singles and videos though; as Slant’s music section continues to grow and reviews are delegated to different writers, I don’t always have the opportunity to comment about full-length releases, so I may post short reviews of current albums as well as older, recently discovered ones from time to time. For now, though, here are a few summer singles that are creating buzz:

Justin Timberlake, “SexyBack”: As expected, the beat is twerkin’ and Timbaland feels the need to make his presence known (though his hype-man routine here is better than his attempt at singing on Nelly Furtado’s ubiquitous summer jam “Promiscuous”). What’s unexpected is JT’s vocals, all affected (and effected) but never erupting into his familiar falsetto, exposing the track for what it really is: a tease. And you’ll eat it up until the second single drops this fall.

Cassie, “Me & U”: While Janet’s limp new single “Call On Me” continues to underwhelm (her label reps are scratching their heads as I type, wondering if they should have gone the retro ‘80s route as originally planned), Bad Boy newcomer Cassie grabs the baton with her slinky debut single “Me & U.” The video, which wisely focuses on Cassie and her dance moves, even finds the singer striking a “Pleasure Principle” pose. Imagine, Diddy doing something right!

Fergie, “London Bridge”: What can one say about the Fergie’s debut solo single? From its “me love you long time” lyrics to its lack of a discernable hook (judging by the slow-burning success of Kelis’s “Bossy,” apparently atonal is in), “London Bridge” is absolutely revolting on every level. I’m still looking forward to Fergie’s album, but I was hoping that without her fellow success-hungry Black Eyed Peas to muddle the mix, the female voice of the group would focus on just that: her voice. Live performances aside, Fergie seems to have the pipes to go with all those platinum plaques, but “London Bridge” is bogged down with bells and whistles—literally. Lucky radio and press peeps got four mixes to choose from: with or without the siren and two alternatives to the irksome “oh shit” male chant, “oh shh” and “oh snap.” After careful consideration, though, I think “shit” is the most accurate.

The Killers, “When You Were Young”: Brandon Flowers with a beard? A more “American” sound? Screams identity crisis to me, but if the lead single from their fall album Sam’s Town is any indication, The Killers are poised to be anointed The Biggest Band in the World. Flowers’s vocals are a little overwrought (I’m going to ignore Rolling Stone’s Meatloaf observation, since, well, I don’t want to think about it) but the hook is present and accounted for (“He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus/But he talks like a gentleman” is some good shit) and, produced by Flood and Alan Moulder, it’s the kind of record tailor-made for rock arenas. At least we can’t accuse the boys of becoming complacent.

Jessica Simpson, “A Public Affair”: Amidst all the brouhaha surrounding Jessica Simpson’s new single “A Public Affair” and its similarities to Madonna’s early hits “Holiday” and “Lucky Star,” no one seems to be talking about the song’s other obvious influence: Janet Jackson. The track’s lightweight, nauseatingly cheery dance-pop vibe—not to mention those breathy vocals and that mid-song giggle—is reminiscent of Janet’s “Runaway” and “All For You,” among others. It’s a surprising move for Simpson, who originally started out showcasing her voice (she has a good one but just doesn’t know how to use it) and hinted that the new album would have a more urban edge. What’s more surprising is the public’s warm reception of the song. As for the cutesy Brett Ratner-directed video, it features cameos from a laundry-list of celebs including Eva Longoria, Christina Applegate, Christina Milian (?), Andy Dick (!), and Maria Menounos (?!), and takes the Xanadu influence of Madonna’s “Sorry” clip (yes, Jess has apparently been attending Madonna 101) even further. “A Public Affair” is mindless summer fun, but we much prefer Paris’s “Stars Are Blind” (that’s right, I said it) and the Passengerz remix of Nick Lachey’s “What’s Left Of Me.”

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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Review: Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory Is Bound by a Sense of Maturity

The album explores darker, weightier subject matter than its predecessor.

3.5

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Soccer Mommy, Color Theory
Photo: Brian Ziff

With 2018’s Clean, Soccer Mommy’s Sophie Allison emerged on the scene sounding a lot like a moody indie rock incarnation of Taylor Swift. That album’s “Your Dog” and “Cool” are effortless anthems that possess the same instantly anthemic quality as many of Swift’s 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 Clean’s release, Allison was consumed by thoughts like “She’s so pretty/Even more than me.”

With Color Theory, Allison raises the stakes. Slicker than Clean, and beefed up by her touring band, the album’s sparkling guitars and restrained studio sheen bring her sound closer to, if not Swift, then familiar ‘90s alt-rock touchstones like Built to Spill and Sebadoh. Allison’s progression as a songwriter is more acutely evident in the album’s 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, “Bloodstream.” Here, Allison offers frank and poetic ruminations on her history of depression and self-harm as rhythm guitars thrum behind her. Her visceral lyrics—“Now a river runs red from my knuckles into the sink”—are partially obscured by a deceptively cheery chord progression, just like she once “covered up the wounds with my long sleeves.”

In its subject matter, chords, rhythm, and tempo, “Circle the Drain” bears a strong resemblance to “Bloodstream.” But the song’s most lasting impression is its hook, a sing-song “Round and around” refrain that’s deafening in its obviousness—not because it’s uncreative, but because it’s a wonder no one else thought of it sooner. Indeed, Allison’s best melodic hooks—like the overlapping guitar lines on “Crawling in My Skin”—are 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 album’s dourest-sounding songs, especially the final two, are easily the weakest, as they lack melodies strong enough to buoy Allison’s disaffected musings). Her still-youthful perspective means that the charmingly tongue-in-cheek “Royal Screw Up,” on which she imagines herself as an emotionally damaged waifu (“My dungeon of fire, I’m the princess of screwing up/And you wear your armor and you save pretty girls like me”), isn’t totally out of place here.

Still, a sense of maturity binds the album’s best moments. “Yellow Is the Color of Her Eyes” lazily unfolds over seven-plus minutes, but as with “Bloodstream,” there’s 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 what’s to come: “Loving you isn’t enough/You’ll still be deep in the ground when it’s done.”

Color Theory’s lynchpin is “Lucy,” which makes clear just how much Allison has grown as a songwriter since Clean. Allison is having trouble with a boy, and there’s another girl involved who’s complicating matters. But this time, the boy isn’t just a mean boyfriend; he’s “the root of all evil,” intent on dragging her to hell, perhaps literally so. And the other girl isn’t a prettier or cooler rival; she seems to be a part of Allison’s own psyche, constantly tormenting her. “Oh Lucy please/Quit taunting me,” 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

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Review: Justin Bieber’s Changes Represents a Marked Shift in the Singer’s Perspective

The album finds the singer trying to usher in a new era characterized in large part by asking for help.

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Justin Bieber, Changes
Photo: Outside Organisation

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 singer’s 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 Bieber’s 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 it’s 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 Bieber’s voice to take a central role. But for an album that focuses so strongly on human connection, there’s 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 cliché—“When your battery gets low/I’ll be the one to charge you up,” he sings on “Take It Out on Me”—there’s 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, there’s a weightlessness to it that seems to signify the slipping of a long-held burden from Bieber’s 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 album’s lead single, “Yummy,” 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 singer’s life and an accompanying marked shift in his perspective.

Label: Def Jam Release Date: February 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yacht Rock Revue’s 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.

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Yacht Rock Revue, Hot Dads in Tight Jeans
Photo: Please Rock

Yacht Rock Revue’s Hot Dads in Tight Jeans seems destined to be, if nothing else, the weirdest debut of the year. It’s the work of an affable group of guys who travel the country playing the kind of ‘70s and ‘80s 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 they’re often joined on stage by the musicians they’ve made their bones covering. Now, having established themselves as the premier purveyors of yesteryear’s 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 “spot the reference” 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: “House in the Clouds” is built around a Matthew Wilder/Thomas Dolby synth riff, while “Change of Scene” apes Stevie Wonder. The album’s palette isn’t exclusively limited to the ‘70s—“You’re Welcome Baby” sounds uncannily like Kishi Bashi’s brand of indie-pop—but it’s easy to get distracted wondering who the band might be trying to sound like in any given song.

The album’s larger issue is exemplified by opening track “The Doobie Bounce,” 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: “I used to sleep on couches/Now I sleep on nicer couches.” Yacht rock has a reputation for skimming the surface of emotions, but that stereotype isn’t 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. “House in the Clouds” is about living in a house above the clouds, and “Another Song About California” is, well, I’ll let you guess.

The band’s tendency toward obviousness comes to a head on “Bad Tequila,” a party anthem that revises the old chesnut about turning lemons into lemonade into a joke about turning tequila into margaritas. It’s certainly catchy, and pure escapism certainly has a proud tradition in pop, but it’s 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 razor’s 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 captain’s 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

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Review: Guided by Voices’s 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.

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Guided by Voices, Surrender Your Poppy Field
Photo: Tony Nelson

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 2017’s 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 year’s Sweating the Plague with the tight melodicism that’s made some of Pollard’s 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 rapidly—but without ever sounding rushed or contrived. “Cul-de-Sac Kids” alternates between gentle acoustic strumming and brief full-band bashing before launching into an underdogs-win-the-day chorus—“Cul-de-sac kids throw the best parties!”—bolstered by the album’s most driving riff. It’s the most complex and exhilarating track on the album, all in just a little over two-and-a-half minutes.

The album’s lead single, “Volcano,” is a Pixies-esque ballad buoyed by Mark Shue’s 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: “True is the time when I see you/Blue from the blinds that I see through.” The explosion of the chorus into a wall of power chords provides Pollard’s life-affirming exhortation—“On the trail of lovers/Never failing with their loving eyes around you to prove your rage isn’t true”—with the perfect euphoric accompaniment.

The album’s biggest surprise is that several tracks—“Arthur Has Business Elsewhere,” “Steely Dodgers,” and “Andre the Hawk”—utilize waltz time to evoke the kind of carnival-esque stomps that comprised some of Guided By Voices’s earliest recordings, including 1987’s Sandbox and 1989’s Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia. These songs offer a compelling contrast to more straightforward rock tracks like “Stone Cold Moron,” which features a double electric guitar attack from Doug Gillard and Bobby Bare Jr. that’s 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 2018’s Space Gun. “Queen Parking Lot” and “Man Called Blunder” waste no time as rousing, unfussy riffs barrel into verse-chorus-verse sing-alongs. It all leads to a stunning conclusion, as “Next Sea Level” transforms an eerie demo-quality recording of chime-like guitar strums into a majestic full-band and orchestra-accompanied crescendo. The song’s title and chants of “rising” suggest a climate change apocalypse, but since that would be far too on the nose, the ever-oblique Pollard ends with something mysteriously hopeful: “To hear you/To touch you/To know you’re coming around/Still coming around.” Beyond the Tommy reference, “Next Sea Level” proves that Pollard can foster worlds of thought and feeling out of sparse yet strategic gestures.

“Next Sea Level” also represents the welcome maturity of the current incarnation of Guided by Voices, whose only Achilles’ heel is an exhausting deluge of content. Some have lamented Pollard’s prolific songwriting for diluting the quality of his output, but at this stage of his career Surrender Your Poppy Field proves he’s deepening rather than merely proliferating his music, continuing to grow up instead of growing old.

Label: GbV Release Date: February 20, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Billie Eilish Drops Lush James Bond Theme Song “No Time to Die”

The lush, darkly cinematic track feature an orchestral arrangement courtesy of Hans Zimmer and guitar from Johnny Marr.

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Billie Eilish, No Time to Die
Photo: Interscope Records

On the heels of her historic Grammy wins, singer-songwriter Billie Eilish has unveiled “No Time to Die,” 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.

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Review: The Men’s 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

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The Men
Photo: Sacred Bones

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 band’s eighth album, Mercy, continues to challenge the boundaries of genre, with psych-folk sitting alongside twangy alt-country and rave-up hardcore. The album’s variety displays a commendable commitment to sonic adventurousness, though the band isn’t quite pushing boundaries like it once did.

Mercy is the Men’s 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, “Breeze,” is a fuzztone ripper with a throat-searing vocal that moves at a breakneck pace, while lead single “Children All Over the World” pairs serpentine guitar licks with singer Nick Chiericozzi’s sinister whisper and a dark, delightfully ‘80s-inspired synth riff. The song builds to a blistering solo almost reminiscent of Eddie Van Halen, rendering it simultaneously familiar but fresh—at least for the Men.

The country-rock sound that the band began exploring on 2012’s Open Your Heart was a radical departure from their earlier style, and here these genre excursions prove to be some of the album’s strongest. “Cool Water” is a loose, Laurel Canyon-esque rocker, while the title track is a folky deathbed sigh, with Chiericozzi coolly pleading, “I need mercy at the hour of my death.” And though its title nods to Sleater-Kinney, “Call the Dr.” isn’t a spiky punk song, but rather a chooglin’ country romp with a first-person murder narrative in the vein of Marty Robbins’s “El Paso.” The song’s 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 Chiericozzi’s raspy vocals give the track a sort of dusty, western verisimilitude.

The album’s centerpiece, “Wading in Dirty Water,” 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 “Fallin’ Thru” 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 doesn’t quite measure up to the band’s 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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Review: Pet Shop Boys’s Hotspot Points to Potential Joy Amid a Backdrop of Dread

If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.

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Pet Shop Boys
Photo: Phil Fisk

Reportedly the last in a trilogy of collaborations with producer Stuart Price, Hotspot is stuffed with instantly infectious melodies and lyrics that flaunt the Pet Shop Boys’s fierce intellect. Eternally sly postmodernists Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe are at their funniest here, embedding bouncy synths with barbs directed at failing political institutions across the globe (their own kind of hotspot), social hypocrisies, and even themselves.

The bleeping synth hook of the opening track, “Will-o-the-Wisp,” is the sonic equivalent of mainlining sucrose, and only Tennant would think to use the song’s chorus as an occasion to reference the Vienna U-Bahn metro system. But he’s after something less esoteric and much knottier. A kind of sequel to 1993’s groundbreaking “Can You Forgive Her?,” a song about repressed homosexuality, “Will-o-the-Wisp” finds the narrator running into an old flame on a train and wondering what’s become of him and whether the two will even acknowledge each other. “But maybe you’ve gone respectable/With a wife and job and all that,” Tennant deadpans in a tone of hilarious disdain that suggests no fate could be more horrifying, before delivering the come-on: “Give me a smile for old time’s sake/Before you run away.”

Hotspot consistently points to potential joy amid a backdrop of dread. Over the euphoric house keyboards of “Happy People,” Tennant’s nimble rapped verses (lest we forget that this is the group that launched their career with “West End Girls”) allude to “The sense of so much missing/When the world gets in the way.” Lead single “Dreamland”—featuring Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, whose own work is indebted to the Pet Shop Boys—might scan at first as romantic four-on-the-floor club filler, but the famously progressive and unflinching Tennant employs the title’s fantastical metaphor to eviscerate the very real leaders who’ve abdicated their countries’ responsibility to take in refugees. “You don’t need a visa,” he sings of an imagined destination. “You can come and go and still be here.”

Not all is (quite) so grim. “You Are the One,” with its sweet yearnings and sticky percussion, ranks among the Pet Shop Boys’s most straightforward love songs, and they’ve rarely sounded more convincing. While they’ve long knocked rock music (Tennant recently joked that the acoustic guitar “should be banned”), “Burning the Heather” adopts the rock textures of 2002’s Release with, um, an acoustic guitar. Autobiographical lyrics describe a fading troubadour who sits in a bar alone insisting that he’s fine before, finally, reaching out for company.

Tennant’s satire can, however, sometimes tend toward glibness, as on “Monkey Business,” in which he vaguely targets a traveler who just wants to get wasted on margaritas and wine. But the track is saved by the irresistible disco production and the darker implications of the unchecked hedonist at its center looking for “a party where we all cross the line.” If the world is burning, the album asserts, you might as well enjoy the bonfire.

The Pet Shop Boys are pranksters to the end, in this case literally. Non-fans would be forgiven for finding closer “Wedding in Berlin” confusing or just grating. But its tragicomic vision of marriage represents a statement of defiance. Church organs interrupt the aggressive EDM beat more like a nightmare than a reprieve. Tennant clearly takes vows less than seriously, reducing them to an act of bourgeois convenience: “A lot of people do it/Don’t matter if they’re straight or gay.” It’s a happily stinging finish to an album that proves no one is safe in the hands of Tennant and Lowe, and that pop can be anything but pedestrian.

Label: x2 Release Date: January 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Drive-By Truckers’s The Unraveling Is a Bleak Reflection of the Times

The band’s 12th album is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.

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Drive-By Truckers
Photo: ATO Records

Drive-By Truckers’s American Band was released a month before the 2016 presidential election—seemingly an eternity ago both in terms of the political landscape and the time between albums for the typically prolific band. American Band was supposed to be their final word on all that, but according to Patterson Hood’s notes for their 12th studio effort, The Unraveling, “writing silly love songs just seemed the height of privilege.”

This is a dark, uncompromising album about such topics as gun violence, white nationalism, the opioid crisis, and putting children in cages. But despite similar subject matter, it isn’t a sequel to American Band. Never mind that there are no individual tracks quite as immediate as “Surrender Under Protest” or “Guns of Umpqua.” But whereas the previous album was composed largely of the narrative history lessons that have been the Truckers’s stock in trade for over 20 years, The Unraveling is constructed on the premise that the personal is political.

Hood frames multiple songs around either trying to explain daily horrors to his two young kids, or hoping they will one day make things better. “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain/It hurts me that I have to look away,” he sings on “Thoughts and Prayers,” a plainspoken accounting of the onslaught of gun violence in America. He repeats the sentiment on the pointedly titled “Babies in Cages”: “I’m sorry to my children/I’m sorry what they see/I’m sorry for the world that they’ll inherit from me.” All Hood can do in “21st Century USA” is “hope and pray that they can conjure up a better day.”

This is heavy stuff, with only the wishful catharsis of the soaring “Thoughts and Prayers” offering much respite. Other flashes of optimism are fleeting: Lead single “Armageddon’s Back in Town” is an uptempo travelogue with a blazoning classic rock riff, but Hood sings about broken-down buses, standing in the rain, and his “responsibility for the darkness and the pain.” It’s not until the song’s frenzied instrumental coda—a thrilling showcase for the band’s usually unassuming drummer, Brad Morgan—that the adrenaline really kicks in.

Mike Cooley, a sort of redneck Confucius who seems to never run out of sardonic one-liners, only wrote two songs here, and one of them, “Grievance Merchants”—a trenchant breakdown of the alt-right pipeline—is one of the most lyrically serious-minded, musically dramatic songs he’s ever written. Delivered in Cooley’s uniquely conversational style, it’s an arresting effort; hearing him sound so scared out of his wits that he can’t even muster a single quip is genuinely chilling. His other contribution, “Slow Ride Argument,” is much more fun, with its overlapping vocal hooks and cheeky advice for cooling down after a heated debate, political or otherwise by, basically, going for a drive, possibly after downing a couple of tall boy beers (“not one, not three,” Cooley advises). A driving, minor-key rocker that stylistically lands somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and early R.E.M., it’s yet more evidence that Drive-By Truckers transcend the Southern rock label they inexplicably still get pigeonholed into.

Where The Unraveling really distances itself from its predecessor, and all of the band’s prior work, is its sonic complexity. Former Sugar bassist David Barbe has produced every Drive-by Truckers album since 2001, and to his credit, not one of them sounds alike. But armed with the vintage analog toys at his disposal, and accompanied by engineer Matt Ross-Spang, Barbe has helped the band craft its first true piece of sonic art. A wisp of a song like “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun” is transformed into something captivating by the sheer depth of the mix: the subtle tremolo guitar accents, the snaky violin/viola accompaniment, the delicate mingling of Hood’s vocal and the natural reverb off the piano. From reliable tricks (old school slapback on Cooley’s vocals) to new ones (running a washboard through a guitar amp, wah pedal, and delay to add an otherworldly effect to “Babies in Cages”), there’s no shortage of ear candy here.

The album ends with the eight-minute-plus “Awaiting Resurrection,” which, with its unrelenting bleakness and all the air between Morgan’s minimalist drums and Hood and Cooley’s cobweb-like guitars, is the closest the band has ever come to post-rock. “I hold my family close/Trying to find the balance/Between the bad shit going down/And the beauty that this life can keep injecting,” Hood intones in a ghostly growl, returning once again to the same theme of many of the preceding songs. Hood and Cooley dwell more on the bad shit than the beauty throughout The Unraveling. It’s perhaps their most confrontational, challenging effort to date, an intricate work that’s more a reflection of than an antidote to the darkness.

Label: ATO Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: With High Road, Kesha Finds a Comfortable Middle Ground

The album sets out to prove that people are complicated creatures, capable of being more than one thing.

3.5

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Kesha
Photo: Shore Fire Media

The opening track of Kesha’s fourth album, High Road, begins with a piano melody in the key of Cheers, followed by a life-affirming refrain about “the best night of our lives.” But, then, “Tonight” abruptly pivots to a flurry of 808s and Kesha’s half-rapped, half-slurred admission that she can’t find her phone. If that sounds awfully familiar, that’s precisely the point. “Woke up this morning, feeling myself/Hungover as hell like 2012,” she quips on the following track, “My Own Dance,” an obvious nod to her breakout hit “Tik Tok.”

If 2017’s Rainbow proved that Kesha didn’t need producer-cum-svengali Dr. Luke to create compelling pop music, High Road is an attempt to show those who lamented her shift away from party anthems that people are messy, complicated creatures, capable of being more than one thing at the same time. The album’s first single, “Raising Hell,” is a gospel-tinged rave-up that provides a bridge between Kesha’s breakout sound and the more reflective, roots-inspired Rainbow. It’s admittedly hard not to long for Dr. Luke’s euphoric EDM hooks, but the album’s ferocious opening salvo makes clear that even when she wasn’t the one navigating, Kesha has always been in the driver’s seat.

By the album’s midpoint, she returns to the heart-on-her-sleeve introspection of songs like “Praying,” even making melodic reference to that momentous single during the coda of the midtempo “Shadow.” The next track, “Cowboy Blues,” is a meditative acoustic ballad that finds the singer examining the ways in which loneliness can cloud one’s instincts (“They say you’ll know when you know/What do you do when you don’t?”), while the country-inflected “Resentment” transcends the genre’s typical narrative of a woman scorned (“I don’t hate you, babe, it’s worse than that”).

From Brian Wilson to Sturgill Simpson to Big Freedia, the guest artists featured throughout High Road are as disparate as the songs themselves. “The Potato Song (Cuz I Want To)” is a silly, vaudevillian rejection of grown-up things, while “Birthday Suit” is pure retro pop, complete with glitchy sound effects inspired by Super Mario Bros. And despite “Ke$ha” receiving a guest credit on “Kinky,” the track is more of a throwback to early ‘90s R&B than to the Auto-Tuned electro-pop of the early 2010s.

Those mottled sounds make High Road Kesha’s least consistent album to date, at least sonically. But there’s a clear emotional through line from the joyous, unapologetic bombast of the album’s first third to the naked vulnerability of “Father Daughter Dance,” in which Kesha deliberates on the absence of a formative relationship in her life (“The worst part of this is I’m not even sad/How do I miss something I never had?”), and the rapture of the gospel-infused closing track, “Chasing Thunder.” With High Road, Kesha has found a way to double back and carve out a comfortable, if not happy, middle ground.

Label: RCA Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Destroyer’s Have We Met Is As Strangely Vexing As It Is Familiar

The album both calls attention to its artifice and proves it can still hold a broad emotional range.

4

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Destroyer
Photo: Ted Bois

Dan Bejar insists there’s no deeper meaning to the name Destroyer. In 2016, he told NPR he chose it because “It’s got three syllables, which is good, but it’s still one word, that’s also cool.” And yet, Destroyer figuratively destroys itself every few years: abandoning guitars for electronics, or veering from big-band dramatics to adventures in solitude.

Bejar began Destroyer as a solo project, tracking songs by himself on a basic four-track cassette recorder. His touring band has grown its ranks since then—peaking with the current eight-piece art-rock orchestra—but in the studio, Bejar has occasionally opted to return to the DIY spirit of his earliest work, as he did on 2004’s Your Blues, which was performed almost entirely on MIDI instruments. Destroyer’s 13th album, Have We Met, was constructed similarly, with electronic elements layered on top of Bejar’s basic demos. Not unlike his lyrics—which are the most layered and entertaining they’ve been in years, both dark and funny—the resulting music is as vexing and strange as it is comforting and familiar.

Unlike Your Blues, though, Have We Met features real electric bass and guitar, and the synths are slicker and fuller, landing very far from the chintzy, fake-sounding tones Bejar employed on that album. And the drums on Have We Met are heavier and funkier than on any previous Destroyer album. On “Kinda Dark” and “Cue Synthesizer,” they lock into a dirty stutter, crossing over into hip-hop-like territory and cleverly contrasting Bejar’s relaxed delivery.

Have We Met is perhaps closer in timbre to 2011’s Kaputt, with its angular guitar work, dreamy synthscapes, and Bejar’s detached, lackadaisical vocals. But while the synths on Kaputt are cold and dreary, and distinctly retro, here they’re warm, inviting, and modern, establishing an entirely distinct emotional tone. Swaying reveries like “University Hill” and “foolssong,” which Bejar first played live in 2009, are much sweeter-sounding than any other recent Destroyer songs. “It Just Doesn’t Happen” plays up a similar late-night, neon-lit atmosphere as Kaputt, but the synths here are more evocative of a video game arcade than a discotheque. Even as Bejar calls attention to the artifice of his musical surroundings on “Cue Synthesizer”—“Did you realize it was hollow?” he asks before listing off the culprits of this “idiot dissonant roar”—he proves that artifice can still hold a broad emotional range.

Credit for this should go largely to longtime producer and bassist John Collins, who mostly pieced together the final tracks himself on top of Bejar’s home demos. (The only personnel on Have We Met are Collins, Bejar, and guitarist Nic Bragg, whose distinctively wobbly playing has been perhaps the sole consistent element in Destroyer’s ever-shifting sound since he joined the band in 2002.) To Collins’s credit, the album certainly sounds more like the work of a full band than that of someone seated alone at a keyboard, iPad in hand. Still, the arrangements are inevitably more utilitarian and less focused on band dynamics than any of Destroyer’s post-Kaputt efforts. This is vital, because for the first time in too long, those arrangements sound like they’re built to follow Bejar’s voice and lyrics rather than the other way around.

Bejar the enigmatic, drunken poet has for several Destroyer albums now taken a back seat to Bejar the singer and bandleader. And while the singing on Have We Met remains tastefully restrained, lyrically there are glimpses of the younger, brasher Bejar here. He makes himself known a verse into opener “Crimson Tide,” the sort of rambling stream-of-consciousness epic that used to constitute almost the entirety of Destroyer albums. It’s a quintessential Bejar track, largely for its liberal use of comfortingly well-worn lyrical tropes: the direct juxtaposition of the poetic with the flippant and coarse; conscious contradictions like “I was like the laziest river/A vulture predisposed to eating off floors/No wait, I take that back”; direct references to other songs, both those of others and his own, including allusions to, of all things, “The Gambler,” as well as at least two other Destroyer tracks.

The rush of catharsis “Crimson Tide” provides is rivaled a few songs later by “The Raven,” which opens with its own slippery couplet—“Just look at the world around you/Actually no, don’t look”—and proceeds to careen through delightfully idiosyncratic territory, from a “city of dying the embers” to a “petite terror train” and “the Grand Ole Opry of Death.” Despite the apocalyptic imagery, the tone is invigorating. “It feels so good to be drunk on the field again,” Bejar intones, his voice quivering with the kind of ardor that he rarely draws for his singing anymore. Like most of his lyrics, if there’s a literal meaning to the line, it’s impossible to parse, but the implication is clear enough: Bejar is feeling the groove again.

Label: Merge Release Date: January 31, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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