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Review: The Chemical Brothers, We Are the Night

2.5

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The Chemical Brothers, We Are the Night

Timetables are a bitch. When I found out that my high school friend had “accidentally” scheduled her wedding on the same weekend as our 10-year reunion, I was initially perturbed, if not especially pissed. While the perpetual virtual reunion hubs Facebook and MySpace have done much to chip away at both the anticipation and the dread of coming face to face with those whose lives have flopped harder or jetted light years beyond one’s own situation, I still wanted the opportunity to get drunk and make out like I never did with the class of ‘97. Still, something tells me that, had I been given the opportunity to, the sloppy fall down memory lane would probably not have rocked as hard as the Chemical Brothers’s Dig Your Own Hole did 10 long summers ago. More likely, the feigned enthusiasm would sound something like We Are the Night, an album for whom the spirit seems willing, the flesh seems weak, and the moves are instinctual at best.

It’s not exactly like the Chems haven’t had to buck inflated expectations before. When Dig Your Own Hole bore half the entire weight of an unnecessary media frenzy (the other half being held up by Prodigy and their The Fat of the Land, which actually justified some of the hype, at least in the business sense, when it landed at the top of the Billboard chart), they responded by shielding themselves from inane proclamations of “electronica is the new rock” and turning out a follow-up album (Surrender) that simply could not be listened to properly off the dance floor. In fact, their follow-up to the follow-up (Come with Us) took that tack to such an unapologetic extreme—packing almost the entire disc with single-minded floor-fillers—that mainstream media promptly took back their goodwill.

As someone who considers the best moments of both Surrender and Come with Us to be the apex of the Chemical Brothers’s talents, the almost 4/4-devoid Push the Button may have been a more irritating failure than the merely tepid We Are the Night (Push the Button’s stripped-down tunes didn’t so much suggest a new direction as they revealed a once-vanguard duo in retreat from Kish Kash’s sonic walpurgisnacht), but even I would have to admit that the further the two strayed from their psychedelic boho house roots, the more I could simply surrender and let the triathlon demographic train to “Galvanize.” Just as I don’t dance in Spandex, neither do I expect relay racers to hand off glow sticks to their running partners.

But We Are the Night doesn’t have any such excuse. Putting aside the sour patch bubblegum misfires “Do It Again” (bargain basement Jaxx) and “The Salmon Dance” (which OutKast would cast out), you can hear Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons straining to sound like their old selves throughout the LP. It’s almost as though someone had written a techniques book filled with scales and exercises all aiming to help budding techno producers sound like the Chemical Brothers, and this album is the disc you’d find attached to the last page. Really, how else to explain away the true horror of “Salmon” if not as the soundtrack to a Halloween cakewalk for elementary school music classes? (After listening to the track, you want to give the Chems a sticker so they can slap it on their foreheads.) Still, credit where credit is due: “Salmon” is likely the only song that you will still remember long after the rest of the album’s rehashes, even the good ones, have lapsed into mush.

The good ones, you say? “Saturate” is a bouncy prog-laced acid ditty with a buzzsaw bassline and rudimentary synthesizers that almost recall Hot Butter. “A Modern Midnight Conversation” couples peppy Lipps Inc. live drums with boogie riffs, though the result is somehow far more muted than the elements would suggest. “Das Spiegel” is so successfully generic that it passed through my ears pleasantly without having left a trace of its existence, enough to merit consideration as the album’s keynote track. Still more enduring, though, is the album’s title track, which uses a Riz Ortolani sample to attempt to build a head of steam a la “The Sunshine Underground.” That isn’t so bad in and of itself, since they steered clear of Mondo Cane’s “More.” But the other song the Chems sampled in an attempt to call to mind “The Sunshine Underground” was…“The Sunshine Underground,” which makes it all the more disconcerting that We Are the Night, like most high school reunions, fails to kick-start anything other than nostalgia.

Label: Astralwerks Release Date: July 16, 2007 Buy: Amazon

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Review: King Buzzo’s Gift of Sacrifice Brazenly Veers Off the Beaten Path

The album sacrifices conventionality for weirder, wider possibilities.

3.5

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King Buzzo, Gift of Sacrifice
Photo: Mackie Osborne

Despite its peculiar, even revolutionary approach to the acoustic singer-songwriter format, This Machine Kills Artists, the solo debut from the Melvins’s Buzz Osborne—a.k.a. King Buzzo—generated buzz (pun intended) almost exclusively among the band’s faithful. Now, as if to encourage a second look at his pursuit of heretofore unrealized sounds, Osborne has delivered Gift of Sacrifice, another album that veers off the beaten path.

On This Machine Kills Artists, Osborne plowed through 17 propulsive numbers that rarely broke the three-minute mark in the process of reimagining the acoustic guitar as a primarily rhythmic, at times almost percussive, instrument. In contrast, Gift of Sacrifice offers mostly lengthy atmospheric tracks that achieve a dark, pensive beauty, in large part due to the added presence of Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn, who’s featured throughout the album. “Delayed Clarity” begins with a series of brooding, heavily strummed acoustic chords to which Osborne eventually adds a gorgeously melancholic guitar lick. Two minutes into the song, Osborne begins to sing, and Dunn uses his standup bass to create—with the help of substantial delay effects—an eerie, swirling soundscape that submerges the track’s vocals in a psychedelic fog.

In the course of inventing their own brand of overpowering sludge metal, the Melvins have been often overlooked for their experimentation, but Gift of Sacrifice—with “Delayed Clarity” as its centerpiece—often spotlights Osborne’s masterful ability to explore strange worlds of sound by slowing down the pace and emphasizing texture over melody. “Housing, Luxury, Energy” reverses the structure of “Delayed Clarity,” with another set of brooding, heavily strummed chords accompanied by simultaneous tracks of Dunn’s arco patterns, including a scraping, atonal noise. Over more than six minutes, the song intensifies to the point where Osborne’s baying vocals and thunderous strumming produce an overwhelming maelstrom. The common thread of Osborne’s two solo albums is the transference of metal’s sonic density to the acoustic realm, and with this track and most of Gift of Sacrifice he’s especially succeeded, with Dunn providing thick foundational tones for extra heaviness.

Motifs of our oppressive, delusional, and arrogant ways seem to pervade Gift of Sacrifice. The surprisingly catchy “I’m Glad I Could Help Out” possesses a creepy, lurching rhythm aided by Dunn’s plucked bass notes as well as Osborne’s lyrical portrait of endurance through persecution: “They came to terrorize/The wisest of the wise/You have to survive/Before you can do anything.” While possessing only a rough intelligibility, the lyrical fragments on “Science in Modern America” appear to paint an all-too-relevant portrait of intellectual and moral decrepitude: “Forget everything and face nothing” is one such fragment, and it speaks volumes as to how Osborne views a world ruled by ignorance and cowardice.

The biggest surprise on Gift of Sacrifice is “Mock She,” perhaps the first “Hey, foxy mama” song that Osborne has ever written. It’s certainly the album’s breeziest offering, even as various elements undermine any straightforward sentiment it might express. After all, Osborne’s idea of a come-on is “Hey, baby, if you do what you’ve been told/My insulation’s gone, girl/You make me overload.” And as if to further suggest the breakdown of the authoritarian, mechanical narrator, his voice eventually disintegrates in a metallic gurgle while Dunn’s frantic bassline becomes increasingly atonal and arrhythmic.

Gift of Sacrifice flirts with such chaos, though sometimes in a compartmentalized manner: Three tracks, including the opener and closer, are short instrumentals that might have been elongated for further immersive and exploratory effect. Otherwise, the album is an off-kilter musical gift born of Osborne’s sacrifice of conventionality for weirder, wider possibilities.

Label: Ipecac Release Date: August 14, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Aminé’s Limbo Skillfully Melds Traditional and Modern Hip-Hop Modes

The album proves that the rapper can keep pace with his contemporaries while drawing on the history of hip-hop.

3.5

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Aminé, Limbo
Photo: Micaiah Carter

On the intro to his 2018 mixtape, Onepointfive, Aminé demonstrated his talent for verbose, declaratory scene-setting. The opening track of the Portland-based rapper’s second studio album, Limbo, likewise sets the stage with a chopped soul sample-driven beat and telling references to hip-hop’s past (Jay-Z) and future (Rico Nasty), while unfurling some of the moral concerns plaguing his thoughts. The album also contains new spins on the dormant practice of skits, and one such interlude pays tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, while others serve as outros for the tracks “Riri” and “Fetus.” These skits find Aminé conversationally musing to himself and his friends about growing older and his place in the world, and they’re a welcome, thoughtful nod to the rap opuses of yesteryear.

By the album’s halfway point, though, it’s clear that this isn’t just another throwback, as Aminé’s full-bodied beats, vintage soul samples, and clever rhymes set him up as a deserving carrier of Kanye West’s torch. “Roots” features R&B/funk icon Charlie Wilson, a favored collaborator of Kanye, while “Pressure in My Palms” includes a reference to the origin of the divisive rapper’s beef with Taylor Swift, as well as a brief but unmistakable interpolation of Kanye’s 2005 track “We Major.” On “Mama,” Aminé lovingly sings the praises of his mother and her herculean efforts to raise him, as if in homage to Kanye’s “Hey Mama”—though the song also links to 2Pac’s “Dear Mama.”

One of the album’s more complex lyrical moments, “Becky” is an examination of racial inequality in America that centers on Aminé’s suburban upbringing, repeatedly returning to the line “Mama said/don’t ever bring a white girl home to me.” The song fascinatingly looks at the contradictions between the behaviors of individuals and the trends of the masses, a kind of liminality hinted at in the album’s title. Aminé is also frequently caught between his swagger and his conscience, resulting in a moral ambiguity that’s further explored on “Fetus,” which, in another stroke of highly uncharacteristic attitudes in rap, ponders the potential harms of bringing a child into the world. The production of these songs, like much of the rest of the album, is unhurried, allowing Aminé to enunciate words fully, the percussion patiently churning and the guitar lines slowly strummed.

Aminé isn’t quite as good a singer as he is a rapper, and certain songs, like “Compensating” and “Riri,” feel encumbered by their repetitive hooks. But when he’s spitting verses, Aminé’s bars feel as painstakingly worked out as those of J. Cole, though his looser, more blasé demeanor saves him from the strident handwringing of the North Carolina MC. (Cole would not, for example, say “Get off my dick and my balls” with the gusto that Aminé manages here.)

In melding traditional hip-hop form with just the right amount of modern trap verve, Limbo makes the case for Aminé, if not as the next great rapper, then as a pop-rap workhorse. The album proves that he can keep pace with his contemporaries while drawing on the history of the genre in ways many of today’s innovators are unconcerned with engaging.

Label: Republic Release Date: August 7, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Glass Animals’s Dreamland Relies Too Heavily on the Mundanities of Reality

The album makes room for evocative, sensory lyrics and sonics that verge on the cinematic, but it also spends a lot of time on the mundane.

3

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Glass Animals, Dreamland
Photo: Elliott Arndt

Glass Animals’s Dreamland blurs the line between dreams and reality, winding its way through a diaristic tour of frontman Dave Bayley’s life. The album catalogues the singer-songwriter’s relationships, observations, and growing pains with a typically felt and colorful attention toward the senses. As such, it’s more personal than either of the band’s previous two efforts, but that also means that it sacrifices the kaleidoscopic alignment of feeling and imagination that helped make those albums so distinct. It’s a bit of a trade-off, then, as the change in subject matter allows Glass Animals to find new direction, but their previous mode of world-building was, in some ways, more satisfying.

The band’s 2014 debut, Zaba, was seemingly dispatched from another planet, with lyrics filled with oddball imagery that was accompanied by vaguely exotic, waterlogged instrumentals and distant birdcalls, while 2016’s How to Be a Human Being was a playfully literary collection of songs about a cast of fictional characters. Dreamland still makes room for evocative, sensory lyrics and sonics that verge on the cinematic, highlighting the sense of physical touch (the latter word is used several times throughout), but it also spends a lot of time on the mundane artifacts in Bayley’s personal memory bank—Grand Theft Auto, hotels with “pool paintings on the wall,” Scooby-Doo, The Price Is Right—to middling effect. And his expressions of lust for various lovers alternate between the pedestrian (“Sometimes all I think about is you/Late nights in the middle of June” is repeated ad nauseam on “Heat Wave”) and the nonsensical (“You taste like surfing videos,” from “Waterfalls Coming Out Your Mouth”).

Throughout Dreamland, Bayley remains fixated on the carnal escapes that make reality bearable, like sex and drugs, and the fleetingness of those pleasures, which Glass Animals explores with a knowing wisdom. The band’s songs toe the line between dissecting such coping mechanisms and offering an escape of their own: Their bouncy keys, irrepressible melodies, and Bayley’s malleable vocals are intoxicating in their own right, belying the fact that these songs are keenly aware of how temporary their pleasures are.

The standout “Your Love (Déjà Vu)” perfectly encapsulates this threading of the needle, pairing twirling flute and celebratory, horn-like synths with lyrics such as, “I know you want one more night/And I’m backsliding/Into this just one more time.” The relationship described on the song is a momentary fix whose dwindling potency is conveyed by Glass Animals in such a way that suggests time is running out and that they’re making the absolute most of it.

As Dreamland pivots from polished indie rock to electro-pop to hip-hop, it largely sidelines Drew MacFarlane’s guitar, which is only front and center on the self-professed B-side “Melon and the Coconut.” Thumping 808s and skittering hi-hats dominate songs like “Space Ghost Coast to Coast” and “Heat Wave,” replacing the shuffling drums, marimbas, and raw-material-inspired percussion of the band’s prior work, and it’s surprisingly refreshing. “Tangerine” incorporates a staccato beat that sounds almost identical to the one on Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” while Dr. Dre is name-checked on “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” a West Coast reference that Glass Animals doubles down on by having Top Dawg fixture Derek Ali mix the track.

Like How to Be a Human Being, Dreamland moves into more vulnerable terrain in the end, but the earlier album’s concluding run of emotive anthems, including “Poplar St” and “Agnes,” completed a well-rounded emotional arc. Here, songs like “It’s All So Incredibly Loud” and “Domestic Bliss”—which focus on a relationship’s breaking point and a woman experiencing domestic abuse, respectively—make dreary use of swelling string sections, undermining what should be the album’s tragic fulcrum. Instead, Dreamland’s best moments are propelled by slick drum machines and Bayley’s confidence as a frontman. His turn inward isn’t without humor and insight, but writing about other people on past albums provided a more enveloping experience, fleshing out imagined places and people with an intrigue that’s missing here.

Release Date: August 7, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Billie Eilish’s “My Future” Is an Unexpectedly Upbeat Tribute to Isolation

The singer’s new single is a deceptively hopeful tribute to personal independence.

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Billie Eilish, My Future

The world could use a pick-me-up right about now, but those hoping that pop singer Billie Eilish would follow up her multi-Grammy-winning debut with a “Bad Guy”-style banger will likely be disappointed by her new single, “My Future.” The track, produced by brother Finneas, is the 18-year-old’s first new release since February’s “No Time to Die,” the theme from the James Bond film of the same name, which was pushed to the end of the year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Like that song, “My Future” starts off as a dreary but gorgeous dirge, with Eilish’s soulful, layered vocals stacked on top of atmospheric keyboards. Halfway through, though, the track pivots to a spry midtempo shuffle, transforming into a deceptively hopeful tribute to personal independence: “I’m in love with my future/Can’t wait to meet her.” During a period in history when time itself seems to have come to a halt, and the future is uncertain, the song’s lyrics smack of irony: “I know supposedly I’m lonely now/Know I’m supposed to be unhappy without someone/But aren’t I someone?”

Eilish gets even more animated in the music video for “My Future.” The clip, directed by Australian artist Andrew Onorato, is bathed in cool blue tones before a rainstorm gives way to a more colorful palette, matching the song’s shift in mood and tempo. In her isolation, Eilish appears to find solace, communing with and eventually becoming one with nature.

Watch below:

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Review: With Folklore, Taylor Swift Mines Pathos from a Widening Worldview

The album anticipates questions surrounding the singer’s genre bona fides and leans into each contradiction.

4.5

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Taylor Swift, Folklore
Photo: Beth Garrabrant

Country and roots music are too often used as shorthand for “serious” artistry, a notion steeped in matters of race and rockist authenticity fetishes. The implication that pop music is an inherently lesser art form has been the focus of the discourse around albums by Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus in recent years. Taylor Swift’s Folklore has already been subject to similar—and perhaps similarly misguided—scrutiny. That Swift has enlisted Aaron Dessner of the highly regarded indie-rock band the National as both a songwriting and producing partner—in addition to her frequent pop collaborator Jack Antonoff—and has embraced a grayscale, rustic visual aesthetic for the project has led many to declare the album a credibility maneuver or act of rebranding.

What makes Folklore such a compelling album, then, are the countless ways in which Swift, the savviest and most acutely self-conscious artist of her generation, anticipates questions surrounding her genre bona fides and leans into each apparent contradiction. She invites this degree of “What does it mean?” discursive handwringing because, on some level, it frees her to make the music she wants to make at any given moment. Folklore is neither a culmination of Swift’s career to date nor a pivot in a new direction. She’s doing exactly what she’s always done: offering a collection of incisive, often provocative songs that incorporate authentic, first-person details and leaving others to argue over specific genre signifiers.

Song for song, Folklore finds Swift at a new peak in her command of language. While tracks like “Cardigan” and “Invisible Strings” hinge on protracted metaphors, “Mad Woman” and “Peace” are blunt and plainspoken. In every instance, what’s noteworthy is Swift’s precision in communicating her exact intent. “I can change everything about me to fit in,” she sighs on “Mirrorball,” a sentiment that’s emblematic of her ability to bait autobiographical readings while also actively subverting them. If she’s offering a comment on her own desire to keep up with next-gen pop stars like Billie Eilish, then the obvious follow-up question is why nothing on Folklore sounds like a viable Top 40 single. Swift’s answer comes in the song’s final stanza, a marvel of vulnerability: “I’m still trying everything/To keep you looking at me.”

In other words, Swift’s at a point in her career where she knows chart success is incidental to broad cultural impact, and she has the cachet to sacrifice the former for the sake of the latter. “All Too Well,” from 2012’s Red, has rightfully become one of her signature songs despite not ever having been released as a single, and that same fate seems likely for many of the tracks here. Every song on Folklore boasts at least one couplet or stanza that’s simply extraordinary for its command of language, narrative voice, empathy, or some combination thereof.

The standout “Seven” first presents itself as a wistful remembrance of childhood before revealing the complexities of what we lose as we age: “Picture me in the weeds/Before I learned civility/I used to scream ferociously/Whenever I wanted.” The song also presents a queer text within Swift’s songwriting for the first time, which broadens the narrative voices she’s employed over the course of her career. “Illicit Affairs” builds to what seems like it will be one of the singer’s trademark middle-eight tone shifts, only to end abruptly without resolving into another chorus, enhancing the sense of finality in her dressing-down of a former lover. Rather than pulling her punches by repeating a catchy refrain or hook, she lets some of her bitterest lines linger, and it’s one of the album’s most impactful moments. Later, she sings from the POV of the rejected party on “This Is Me Trying” to devastating effect: “You told me all of my cages were mental/So I got wasted like all my potential.” The track finds Swift giving credence to the other person’s view of her, making for an even more believable narrator.

Swift’s early albums were hamstrung by her insistence that hers was the only story to be told—that, essentially, she was the protagonist in everyone else’s autobiography, and not just in her own. Folklore’s shifting perspectives—an homage to heiress Rebekah Harkness on “The Last Great American Dynasty,” the queer through line in the love triangle of “Cardigan,” “August,” and “Betty”—highlight how Swift’s widening worldview has deepened her skills as a songwriter. And even if none of these tracks sound like a “hit,” “Invisible String” and “This Is Me Trying” still demonstrate Swift’s masterful grasp of song structure. Her use of repetition throughout the album is particularly effective: “The 1” invokes both “the greatest films of all time” and “the greatest loves of all time” as sources of regret, while each stanza on “Invisible String” begins with a line that uses passive voice to create a narrative remove.

That Swift employs her long-established songwriting tropes in novel ways is truly the most significant development on Folklore, rather than her choices of collaborators or whether the album scans as pop or alternative or electro-folk. She’s mined this type of melancholy tone before, but never for the full length of an album and certainly never with such a range of perspectives. It isn’t the weight of the subject matter alone that makes the album feel so vital—it’s the exemplary caliber of her writing. She may sing of wasted potential, but Folklore finds Swift living up to all of the praise she earned for her songwriting earlier in career.

Label: Republic Release Date: July 24, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Taylor Swift Drops Surprise Album Folklore and Self-Directed “Cardigan” Video

The special effects-heavy clip finds the singer climbing inside a dusty upright piano and into a moss-covered fantasy world.

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Taylor Swift, Cardigan
Photo: YouTube

Less than a year after the release of her seventh album, Lover, Taylor Swift has dropped the follow-up, Folklore, along with a music video for the track “Cardigan.” The singer announced the surprise release on social media early on Thursday, accompanied by a series of grayscale photos of the erstwhile country star in the woods that—though reminiscent of an A24 horror film or a metal album cover—reflects a return to a more stripped-down sound.

Reportedly shot according to CDC-recommended Covid-19 safety guidelines and overseen by a medical expert, the video for “Cardigan” was directed by Swift, who also reportedly did her own hair, makeup, and styling. The special effects-heavy clip finds the singer climbing inside a dusty upright piano and into a moss-covered fantasy world, tinkling the ivories of an overflowing grand piano at the edge of a CGI waterfall. Later, she clings to the instrument on a stormy sea before traveling back to reality.

Co-written and produced by the National’s Aaron Dessner, “Cardigan” is an unassuming piano ballad notable for its pointillistic percussion and Swift’s understated vocal performance. As for the titular sweater, it apparently serves as a metaphor for an artist whose love life bears the marks of more than a little wear and tear: “When I felt like I was an old cardigan under someone’s bed/You put me on and said I was your favorite.”

Watch the video below:

Folklore was written and recorded remotely with Dessner and features collaborations with Bon Iver, Jack Antonoff, and a mysterious songwriter billed as William Bowery (after all, it wouldn’t be a Taylor Swift album without a little sleuth-baiting).

Folklore is out now on Republic Records.

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Review: Ellie Goulding’s Brightest Blue Trades the Garish for the Merely Palatable

The album refines the singer’s sound, slowing tempos and removing sonic affectations to reveal a core of amorous pop anthems.

1.5

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Ellie Goulding, Brightest Blue
Photo: Nathan Jenkins

Ellie Goulding’s Brightest Blue begins with the aptly titled “Start,” a tasteful, piano-driven rumination about the impossibility of new beginnings and the difficulty of overcoming past regrets. The track showcases the British singer-songwriter’s knack for letting songs build and generate suspense, and her skill for creating tension with delayed yet catchy hooks. As the album wears on, though, it’s clear that this opening salvo is a fluke, as the rest of the soporific set tries in vain to refine Goulding’s sound, slowing tempos and removing sonic affectations to reveal a core of amorous, unmemorable pop anthems.

On past albums, Goulding used bombastic production and copious vocal processing to distract from her limited range as a singer. If not for her whimsical phrasing and over-articulation of words, her paper-thin vocals would feel virtually anonymous. She largely downplays the grandiosity on Brightest Blue, instead opting for more stripped-down ballads like “Flux” and “Woman,” wherein she struggles to bring the melodies she’s written to life. These tracks give the impression of an industry songwriter laying down a guide vocal for a more skilled vocalist—a notion furthered by the head-scratching decision to both interpolate Dua Lipa’s “Be the One” and name check Madonna’s “Material Girl” in the same breath on “Power.”

Several songs on Brightest Blue utilize backup choirs, a trick Goulding has employed to maximum effect on past hits such as “Love Me Like You Do,” in an attempt to raise the album’s insistently midtempo pulse. Though fewer and farther between than in the past, strange computerizations mangle the singer’s voice on “How Deep Is Too Deep” and “Brightest Blue,” the hooks of which are either partially or fully sung via Vocoder. That these tracks’ ostensible emotional pinnacles find Goulding harmonizing with a robot counterpart—her voice manipulated beyond recognition—dehumanizes her, eliciting a discomfiting irony that plays as unintentional. It might be fun if Goulding weren’t so straight-faced about it all.

Goulding has tended toward painting co-dependence and submissiveness as causes for celebration. After all, she once opined, “Why don’t you be the artist and make me out of clay/Why don’t you be the writer and decide the words I say?” with little-to-no self-awareness on 2010’s “The Writer.” Here, she gestures toward self-love on “New Heights”—“Love without someone else feels right/Love for myself in this new light,” she sings—and the not-so-subtly titled interlude “Ode to Myself.” Yet, these attempts at thematic course correction feel bland and repetitive, and the red-flag relationship dynamics persist, such as her desire to conform herself to her lover’s identity on “Tides,” blithely relinquishing her own agency.

At times, it seems as if Goulding is pushing back against controlling and abusive partners, but that would require a more self-possessed and attitude-laden POV, which is entirely absent here except, perhaps, on the single “Hate Me.” For the most part, she doesn’t have the chops or soul of contemporaries like Florence Welch, who sings of similar subject matter with a real torch, and who shares a collaborator in Joseph Kearns, who produced almost every song on Brightest Blue. At Kearns’s behest, the album takes a relatively new tack for Goulding, trading the garish for the palatable, but it’s no less grating as a result.

Label: Polydor Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Protomartyr’s Ultimate Success Today Is a Visceral Portrait of Discontent

The album fuses existentially oriented lyrics with ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety.

4

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Protomartyr, Ultimate Success Today
Photo: Trevor Naud

Protomartyr’s sound is forged from the bones of punk and the blood of indie rock. The Detroit four-piece delivers heady lyrics with an ironic detachment in the vein of Destroyer and the Mountain Goats, while the blistering noise and distorted intensity of their music brings to mind Sonic Youth and early Sleater-Kinney. Their fifth album, Ultimate Success Today, continues this stylistic balancing act, with existentially oriented lyrics accompanied by ferocious guitars and frantic percussion that sustain a sense of anxiety.

With their 2012 debut, No Passion All Technique, Protomartyr established an effectively brute-force post-punk approach, but by 2017’s Relatives in Descent, they’d mastered the ability to prevent both the literary brawn of their lyrics and the sophistication of their musical arrangements from getting lost in the wreckage. Tracks like “Modern Business Hymns” and “The Aphorist” are reminders of the band’s knack for whipping up a din and then immediately cutting through the chaos, as well as their mastery of the art of modulation—of when to let things simmer and when to let them boil over.

This approach renders the wailing and assaultive crescendos of their music that much more potent. There’s a form to the function, of course. References to philosophical concepts and pre-Enlightenment literature could be considered over-thought if Protomartyr’s sound didn’t possess such raw immediacy. The band’s emphasis on Greg Ahee’s dissonant guitar lines, and their play with different levels of loudness, results in songs that prize forward motion.

A dark vision of the individual’s role in society is given voice by frontman Joe Casey on “Bridge & Crown”: “Everybody knows/We’re holding on to little dreams/To drive our bodies down the line/Until there’s nothing left.” The band’s catalog is strewn with such musings about life as a fulfillment of a disappointing fate, and they’ve perfected that obsession here. Alex Leonard’s drums slam with guillotine-like efficiency, and songs often end with the spike of a minor-key chord, providing little comfort after all the tense buildup. The album externalizes the workings of a tortured mind, one whose only semblance of hope, as evoked on the final track, “Worm in Heaven,” is a basic acknowledgement of existence—of having been alive and leaving a trace of that presence.

Protomartyr’s despair is rooted in capitalism, whose enervating routines the band satirizes throughout Ultimate Success Today. Casey wields a stinging, well-observed disdain for the corporate world and its participants, as well as for the insidiousness of technology. The feral “Processed by the Boys” comes for the free-market patriarchy with teeth bared and guitars ablaze: “Fill out the form, download the app/Submit your face into the scanner/Everybody’s hunted with a smile/Being processed by the boys.” The singer’s cutting truths and humor are delivered in a mode that’s nearly spoken word—forceful, angry, and declarative. Elsewhere he sings with a slurred drawl that’s forlorn and observant. Wishful sentiments curdle into bitter mantras like “Dignity or toil/Syndicate or gang/Rose and thorn,” on “Michigan Hammers,” or the titular lyric, which appears on three different songs, teasing out his pessimistic worldview in loops of self-defeat wrought by systems of productivity and profit.

At times, Ultimate Success Today can be too self-aware. On “The Aphorist,” a title among several here that could double as descriptors for the band’s lyrical aesthetic, Casey muses, “We’re all mowing esoteric patterns in the grass.” And the album is almost too neat, given Protomartyr’s newfound use of saxophone, self-conscious touches like the chirping crickets at the beginning and end of a few tracks, and the seamless sequencing of songs. But the restless punk spirit and flippant, downtrodden ethos that prevail over the project render Protomartyr’s painstaking intellectualizations as fuel for a visceral winding up and release of discontent.

Label: Domino Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: The Chicks’s Gaslighter Is a Defiant Act of Rebranding

The band’s first album in 14 years is steeped in personal and political rage.

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The Chicks, Gaslighter
Photo: Columbia Records

There’s compelling data, generated largely by the work of Dr. Jada Watson of the University of Ottowa, that draws a clear correlation between the blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks from country radio and the immediate and striking downturn in airplay for all women on that format. The statistics are dire and indefensible. Though program directors and radio consultants will deny, deny, deny, there’s evidence that the industry made a purposeful choice to punish all female artists for the Dixie Chicks’s perceived crimes.

So, in 2020, country music really and truly needs a comeback from the Dixie Chicks, an album that will allow one of the genre’s all-time greatest acts to stage a triumphant return and redress the industry’s injustices over the last decade. But Gaslighter, the band’s first album in 14 years, isn’t it. Instead, it’s a defiant act of rebranding: The Dixie Chicks are now known simply as the Chicks—a not-insignificant change that speaks to both the social power of language and to the trio’s stated intent to “meet this moment” in our nation’s history.

Sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer figure even less prominently on Gaslighter than they did on the band’s last album, 2006’s Taking the Long Way, and that’s also a not-insignificant development. By teaming up with producer Jack Antonoff, the group has made a decisive transition into a pop act. It’s easy to mourn the sound that defined the band, but to reject the album out of hand for its pop aesthetics is to deny them their own agency as artists.

Gaslighter emerges as a fascinating, messy album that’s steeped in personal and political rage. Divorce is hardly unusual subject matter in pop and country music, but artists who record “divorce albums” often struggle with the notion that they should aspire to making their story universally accessible to listeners. Natalie Maines makes no such mistake in her songwriting here. What elevates Gaslighter above thematically similar albums is the specificity of her unflinching detail as she recounts her ongoing legal battles with ex-husband Adrian Pasdar.

On “Sleep at Night,” Maines retells the story of how Pasdar brought his mistress backstage at a concert to introduce her as a fan of the band. Maines is fully in control of her narrative voice when she sings on the track: “My husband’s girlfriend’s husband just called me/How messed up is that?/It’s so insane that I have to laugh/But then I think about our two boys trying to become men/There’s nothing funny about that.” Later, on “Set You Free,” the soaring ballad that closes Gaslighter, she pleads, “Decency would be to sign and release me,” referencing the still-festering terms of a contract dispute.

On the tracks that explicitly relate to her divorce, which is a full three-quarters of the album, Maines dispenses with the idea of a narrative remove. She sings in first person, and the details she’s chosen to share are autobiographical, albeit presenting only her perspective. At times, that makes standout songs like “Hope It’s Something Good” and “My Best Friend’s Wedding” feel, at the very least, like voyeurism. While it’s always a critical dead-end to assume that first-person narrators are stand-ins for a singer, Maines actually invites that reading: On “Gaslighter,” when she sings, “Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat,” it’s a marvel of bitterness. That the album later includes a song with the title “Tights on My Boat,” though, lessens the mystique or possibility for interpretation or engagement.

That would be more of an issue if the songs weren’t so well-constructed and engagingly performed. But that’s exactly what makes Gaslighter superior to its predecessor. As part of my clinical work, I’ve testified as a witness in some truly nasty divorce cases, and I’ve never once thought to set court transcripts to a percussive four-four stomp or some Lorde-style EDM, but damned if it doesn’t work for the Chicks here. “Gaslighter” and the extraordinary “March March” boast distinctive lyrical hooks, while “For Her” and “Julianna Calm Down” feature real dynamic ranges that give the tracks a sense of movement and depth. Antonoff’s production choices truly draw into sharp relief Rick Rubin’s conservativism at the helm of Taking the Long Way.

While the album sounds current for 2020, there are a handful of moments that suggest how much more strongly Antonoff could have leaned into the Chicks’s previous style. On “For Her,” Antonoff layers one of Strayer’s finger-plucked banjo figures into an arrangement that explodes into a sing-along gospel chorus, while Maguire’s fiddle adds a jarring, ominous tone to the instrumental outro of “March March.” When working with a vocalist as powerful as Maines, the impulse to foreground her performances makes sense—and it’s worth noting that “For Her,” “Julianna Calm Down,” and “Set Me Free” are among the finest performances of her career. But the album gives the impression that Antonoff wasn’t sure how to engage fully with Maguire and Strayer’s exemplary skills with traditional acoustic instruments.

By incorporating country signifiers into what is otherwise a terrific, of-the-moment pop album, Antonoff and the Chicks could have come up with a style that’s even more progressive, akin to the production on Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour. If nothing else, that highlights how the Chicks still have room to grow, either with or without Antonoff, as they move into this new phase of their career. Gaslighter may not have been the album that country music needed, but it’s clearly the one that the Chicks needed to make.

Label: Columbia Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Lianne La Havas’s Eponymous Third Album Embraces the Catharsis of Loss

On her third album, the British singer-songwriter settles into a sense of immediacy.

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Lianne La Havas
Photo: Hollie Fernando

British singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas is an adept storyteller, capable of both capturing who we are at our most alone and making us feel closer to one another. Her love songs conjure a striking intimacy, even when she’s backed by the sumptuous BBC Symphony Orchestra in the storied Barbican Hall, and take on a degree of universality, even when she’s singing directly to a video camera in her living room. But it’s the latter method, when her sound is at its most stripped down, that best conveys the evocative immediacy that caught the attention of Prince, who mentored La Havas in the years before his death.

On her third album, La Havas settles into that immediacy, positioning her guitar as the beating heart of the music. The eponymous album finds her again chronicling the course of a romance, but this time she quite intentionally does away with the glossy fuss of 2015’s blindingly polished Blood, subsisting throughout on her hard-earned wisdom. The album instantly feels more purposeful than its predecessor: Where Blood can feel labored over, perhaps too hungry for hits, Lianne La Havas isn’t seemingly beholden to such expectations.

As she recounts the fate of a relationship from its onset to its demise, La Havas often prioritizes the passion of the moment over the logic of hindsight bias. On “Read My Mind,” you can practically hear her smile as she sings, “The pure joy/When a girl meets a boy/Pure chemistry.” She never loses sight of her needs, however distressing they might be. She’s quick to provide counsel to herself and outright plead with her lover on “Paper Thin.” Her vocal floats, at times on the verge of cracking from emotion, atop harp-like fingerpicking: “Baby, you gotta run free/Please don’t forget about me.” La Havas leans into the heartrending grief of prematurely losing a relationship.

A cover of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” appears at the climax of Lianne La Havas as a fretful turning point in the album’s central relationship. La Havas’s version of the In Rainbows track is slower and earthier than Radiohead’s more cerebral original, yet it retains all of its fragility. Radiohead articulates the unspoken fears and doubts that occupy a night spent overthinking, and La Havas is seized by the same impulse to verbalize her grievances, gingerly handling the painful edges of rejection and abandonment, albeit with more self-compassion.

Sonically, the warbly synth of “Courage” and frantic drumming of “Seven Times” don’t feel too far removed from In Rainbows’s sonic palette. But La Havas’s style remains tricky to pin down, existing somewhere in the nexus of the soulful warmth of Corinne Bailey Rae, the confessional lyricism of Amy Winehouse, and the folky melodicism of Joni Mitchell. To call it soul music would be reductive; too many black artists have hastily been assigned the label just for the color of their skin, a restrictive tendency that La Havas herself has railed against. But without a doubt, La Havas makes soul music insofar as it originates from the soul.

The album’s twinkling denouement, “Sour Flower,” depicts the metamorphosis that can occur after overcoming a breakup. La Havas’s voice is rich and robust as she belts, “I’m not crying over you/When I cry/Now I’m free.” She attains catharsis by providing herself refuge and realizing that she can heal herself. She leaves us with an empowering moral: that we possess the ability to revive our spirits after loss, and that it may well be boundless.

Label: Nonesuch Release Date: July 17, 2020 Buy: Amazon

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