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Top 15 Babyface Singles

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Top 15 Babyface Singles

It was recently announced that ‘80s and ‘90s hitmaker Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds and frequent collaborator Toni Braxton (star of the reality show Braxton Family Values and the recent Lifetime original movie Twist of Faith) have reunited to record a new duets album together, set for release this fall on Motown Records. Braxton, who fake-retired from recording music and announced her desire to play a lesbian in a movie earlier this year, has sold over 60 million albums worldwide, while Babyface has, according to Billboard, written or produced over 125 Top 10 R&B and pop hits, including 16 #1 pop songs. During a Wikipedia binge on all things late-20th-century R&B and new jack swing, we decided to take a look back at Babyface’s impressive list of hits and pick our 15 favorites, including two Braxton singles and one by the ’Face himself.

Editor’s Note: Listen to our Babyface playlist on Spotify.

15. After 7, “Heat of the Moment.”

Babyface had every reason to give some of his A-grade material to After 7. After all, two of its members were his own brothers. Their big hit was the stately “Can’t Stop,” but in retrospect the bouncy “Heat of the Moment” sounds a lot more like what today’s retro hunters want when they seek out new jack swing: spare, hollow synth hits, aggressive drum patterns, and, perhaps most of all, dudes who aren’t afraid to beg “Please, baby, let me ex-plain,” and then proceed to do so in full-out tenor. Eric Henderson

14. The Whispers, “Rock Steady.”

The title may as well be referring to the Whispers themselves, an L.A.-based R&B group who started their career with faux-Philly soul in the early ‘70s, jumped aboard the disco express just in time to score a few of boogie’s greatest moments (“And the Beat Goes On,” “It’s a Love Thing”), and, well into middle age, staged a remarkable, trend-bucking comeback with Babyface. Common sense says they should’ve ended up looking like this. The R&B history books will list them among the spiritual godfathers of new jack swing. Henderson

13. Boyz II Men, “End of the Road.”

In his quasi-Kurt Cobain biopic Last Days, Gus Van Sant positioned Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee” as the piss take of the sort of mid-‘90s schmaltz that truly took off with the group’s 1992 single “End of the Road,” then the longest running pop hit ever. The silly spoken bridge prevents the song from aging as well as some of Babyface’s other hits, but his timeless hook and the boyz’ cooleyhighharmonies created a template that countless R&B and pop artists would emulate for nearly a decade. Sal Cinquemani

12. En Vogue, “Whatever.”

By the time Babyface teamed up with multiplatinum girl group En Vogue, then down one member after Dawn Robinson’s departure, hip-hop had begun to overtake R&B and electronica was on the verge of becoming the next big (brief) thing. The result was a surprisingly understated, trip-hop-inflected midtempo number more reminiscent of the sleek title track from the group’s 1993 EP Runway Love than their smash swan song with Robinson, “Don’t Let Go (Love).” Cinquemani

11. Pebbles, “Girlfriend.”

If Babyface crowned Bobby Brown and Toni Braxton as his king and queen, then Pebbles, for at least a few brief years before her misguided sojourn into backstage management, was his Disney princess. Albeit, a jaded, boy-weary incarnation who just wants to let Ariel and Belle know their main things ain’t all that. Not one, not two, but at least three of her tracks stand among Babyface’s most urgent, paranoid anti-love bangers. The beautifully skeptical “Giving You the Benefit” puts Pebbles in the drivers’ seat, but she’s truly on her home turf with “Backyard” and the enduring underdog “Girlfriend,” in which her tough love is matched by tougher synthesizer hits. Henderson

10. TLC, “Baby-Baby-Baby.”

I’m partial to the other singles from TLC’s debut, particularly “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg,” but there’s a reason the midtempo “Baby-Baby-Baby” became the biggest hit from the album, not to mention one of the biggest singles of 1992: Babyface-Babyface-Babyface. Cinquemani

9. Toni Braxton, “You’re Makin’ Me High.”

The lead single from Toni Braxton’s sophomore effort, Secrets, was somewhat of a departure for the singer, whose past hits, all co-written and produced by Babyface, were largely G-rated. “You’re Makin’ Me High” found Braxton making reference to her “private parts” and adopting a sultrier, more sexual persona to go with ’Face’s thick beats and squelchy porn synths. Cinquemani

8. Babyface, “My Kinda Girl.”

“Whip Appeal” is the obvious classic from his arguable peak as a performer, but if Babyface’s ensuing solo career proved nothing else, it’s that the man is a big old softie. That alone makes the bright, sunshiny radio mix of “My Kinda Girl” a more appropriate selection from Tender Lover, but it’s not mere tokenism. To compare those rapturous synthesized washes of arpeggiated good vibes in the context of the nervy contemporary tracks he was giving Pebbles and Bobby Brown at the time is to rip away any pretense that new jack-era R&B was in any way monolithic. And when Babyface leaps to the top of his register on “When I needed love/You were always there for me,” try not to smile. Henderson

7. Madonna, “Take a Bow.”

Madonna once likened Babyface’s songs to Mercedes-Benzes. In short, durable and classic. And while “Forbidden Love” might be the superior Babyface collaboration on her 1994 album Bedtime Stories, “Take a Bow” certainly lives up to the Queen of Pop’s metaphor. The production, right down to the stately but decidedly flat drum programming, screams mid-‘90s pop radio, but there’s something timeless about Madge’s bittersweet hook and Craig Armstrong’s cinematic orchestral arrangement. Cinquemani

6. Tevin Campbell, “Can We Talk.”

Poor little Tevin Campbell spent the salad days of his career playing a precocious Mini Me to Prince and Quincy Jones. It wasn’t really until Babyface gave him “I’m Ready” and “Can We Talk” that he really came out of his custodial period…and with a big flourish. “I’m Ready” is sweet, but it’s “Can We Talk” that arrives with the gravitas of the early pangs of adulthood, especially in the descending chords of its pleading chorus, which turn Tevin’s “I just want to know your name” into a bittersweet directive the listener has to presume won’t actually result in dialogue. Henderson

5. Karyn White, “Secret Rendezvous.”

Babyface may have become a household name in the ‘90s thanks to his crossover ballads by Toni Braxton, Boyz II Men, and others, but his groove-driven dance-pop tracks, as evidenced by this list, are some of his most enduring. Atop a new jill swing beat and Middle Eastern-tinged synth strings, White sings, vamps, and, yes, raps about the imminent titular encounter, even squeezing in a reminder for her furtive beau to bring the wine. Cinquemani

4. Paula Abdul, “Knocked Out.”

On the album, it wins on points, but doesn’t quite land a “Love TKO.” But pair Babyface’s tangy R&B chorus with the post-production artistry of remixer Shep Pettibone, who elongated the juiciest bits, let the maladroit flourishes (those cheerleader chants! “Hi!” “Hello there!”) hang provocatively out to dry, and otherwise turns Paula Abdul inside out, and “Knocked Out” suddenly seems like Forever Your Girl’s sleeper MVP. Henderson

3. Bobby Brown, “On Our Own.”

Don’t Be Cruel was a masterpiece because it embodied every paradox of new jack swing. It was hard and urban, but also soft and pop, nasty and masculine, but also sweet and adolescent, safely dangerous. The title track and “My Prerogative” zigged to one end of the continuum, while “Roni” and “Every Little Step” (the song I will never not imagine Eddie Winslow rocking out to) skewed in the opposite direction. “On Our Own,” the song Babyface and Brown contributed to the soundtrack of Ghostbusters II (which easily eclipses Ray Parker Jr.’s title track from the original), wraps all those contradictions up in one state-of-the-art package, five minutes of soul singing, “too hot to handle, too cold to hold” playground flow, and smooth, house music-derived piano licks. Henderson

2. Toni Braxton, “Breathe Again.”

While Whitney, Mariah, and Celine were singing songs designed to flaunt the power of their pipes, Babyface was churning out less showy compositions like “Breathe Again,” the quintessential Babyface ballad. Toni Braxton became a star not for her impressive vocal range, but because of the texture and tone of her voice, for which “Breathe Again” was the perfect showcase. Cinquemani

1. Whitney Houston, “I’m Your Baby Tonight.”

It’s called new jack swing, not new jack shuffle. But, as though under orders to change up his game for the future “Queen of the Night,” Babyface made the latter happen with a tune simultaneously among his best and most incongruous, a Skinemax-tinged bump-n’-grinder that put Houston, whose persona back then was still about as Teflon as they came, into pretty incongruous territory herself. No longer concerned with whether or not the children are the future, no longer making “somebody who loves me” the prerequisite for filling her dance card, no longer sure whether her name is or is not Susan, “I’m Your Baby Tonight” gets Houston to lay all her cards on the table before sweeping them aside and pulling the guy she never laid eyes on until that night on top of her new jack sinuating body. Babyface might not have a reputation for it, but with “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” he gave Houston good love. Make that the best love. Henderson

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Review: Neil Young Reconvenes Crazy Horse on the Uneven Colorado

The album’s direst moments are still refreshing because they find Young doing whatever the hell he wants to.

3

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Neil Young
Photo: dhlovelife/Warner Records

Unlike most of our oldest still-active bands, Crazy Horse have not only managed to avoid acrimony—despite the departure, by various means, of a rhythm guitarist or two—they’ve also continued to make vital music throughout their entire tenure. On 2012’s jam-happy Psychedelic Pill, the group’s greasy-joints chemistry was as palpable as ever. Their brand of gloriously ragged, plodding guitar rock has aged so well because it was never cool—and a few mild variations on the formula have made it work in every decade.

Perhaps the main reason Crazy Horse have managed to stay venerable is that Young has opted to put them on the backburner so often to chase his whims, typically reconvening them only when timing and inspiration aligned. So the band has been spared his various follies—the worst of which have mostly come in the years since Psychedelic Pill. Crazy Horse pulled ol’ Neil out of a slump in the ‘80s, so it would be reasonable to hope that their latest effort, Colorado, would turn out to be the perfect antidote to his latest fallow period.

Unfortunately, the album doesn’t offer a definitive conclusion on that front either way, as its highs—vintage Crazy Horse guitar workouts, a small handful of charmingly intimate ballads—are intermittently marred by the same sort of problems that have characterized Young’s recent solo work. This includes particularly tuneless vocals and a tendency toward clunky, Facebook uncle-level environmentalist and political ranting. An accompanying making-of fly-on-the-wall documentary, Mountaintop, is similarly schizophrenic, seemingly devoting about as much time to Crazy Horse effortlessly falling into their usual groove as it does to a cranky Young chewing out his engineers over a faulty monitor.

Colorado also isn’t your typical Crazy Horse album, and not only because the band features a new member: longtime Young collaborator and E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren. Indeed, with gentle piano taking up nearly as much space as heavy distorted guitars, Colorado’s closest analog in the Crazy Horse canon is its greatest anomaly: 1994’s murky Sleeps with Angels. Although it lacks that album’s lyrical gravitas and sharp melodicism, even Colorado’s direst moments are refreshing because they find Young doing whatever the hell he wants to, which may in fact be the one defining constant of his career. Besides, the non-electric songs here—the rollicking acoustic guitar and harmonica-based “Think of Me,” the gently cooing piano popper “Eternity,” and the hushed closer “I Do”—are among the album’s best anyway.

The latter of these is one of the more lyrically interesting songs that Young has written in years. As he admires the beauty of nature as it decays around him, he addresses either God or his fellow man, asking, “Why do I believe in you?” The moment is poignant, but it’s also the only time on the album where Young’s politically focused lyrics display any level of nuance or ambiguity. His heart is in the right place, and he’s always been extremely blunt when writing about the issues of the day, but the Neil Young of the ‘70s would have never stooped to something like “Rainbow of Colors,” which nicks the melody of Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” to deliver a treacly celebration of diversity in “the old U.S.A.”

Fortunately, even Young’s most oatmeal-brained lyrics are at least somewhat tolerable thanks to bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina’s perfectly anti-metronomic grooves. On paper, the lyrics to “Shut It Down” read like an unedited blog post written by an aspiring Edward Snowden type after a few too many bong rips, but when set to Young frenetically pounding on the open strings of a dirty, distorted guitar, they take on an air of menace. And say what you will about a lyric like “I saw Mother Nature/Pushing Earth in a baby carriage,” from “She Showed Me Love,” but at least it’s technically a metaphor, even the most basic of which were apparently beyond Young’s capabilities on the painfully literal The Monsanto Years. It helps that the song is the kind of sloppy, bulldozer-paced extendo-guitar jam that Crazy Horse’s ineffable alchemy has been rendering utterly mesmerizing since 1969.

Label: Warner Records Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Swans’s Leaving Meaning Depicts a Grim and Unrelenting Hellscape

The album is a piece of blood-spattered Americana, a haunted-house version of the fabled American dream.

3

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Swans
Photo: Jennifer Gira

In their original incarnation, Swans were as ferocious as the heaviest of metal bands, and their live shows were notoriously punishing. They eventually expanded their palette to include industrial and goth elements, and after disbanding in 1999, frontman Michael Gira spent a decade fronting the folk band Angels of Light. When he reformed Swans in 2010, their music was considerably less abrasive. Leaving Meaning continues to incorporate the freak-folk influence and increased melodicism of Swans’s post-reunion efforts, but it’s also another example of the band’s central problem: They’re much easier to respect than like.

Gira reportedly approached the recording of Leaving Meaning differently than he did recent Swans efforts: Instead of having a set band, he recorded these songs with a collection of musicians picked to bring each to life as he envisioned it. But despite the shift in method, the album sounds much like the group’s last few outings. The songs fall somewhere between drone and folk, like standard ballads played by a band from hell. Rhythms plod and melodies buzz, affecting the listener physically like infrasound. In the band’s early days, Gira sang with a throat-shredding intensity that made him sound like an exploding demon, but here he’s adopted a different persona, singing without affect, like a grim archivist of the apocalypse.

An axiom about writing holds that a writer’s goal should be to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. But Gira’s guiding ethos seems to be to afflict everyone. His songs catalog human misery—violence, degradation, abusive sex, death—with an unflinching eye, descending once again into the gory sub-basement of our collective soul. Gira has always tried to provoke a sublime reaction, a physical response that transcends language. Of course, these songs have lyrics, though they concern bodies being bloodily rent apart, milk that’s black, and an entity called Sun Fucker that’s worshipped for its planet-annihilating possibilities.

The title track reveals a series of paradoxes (“I can see it but not see it/I can feel it but not keep it”) before its climax urges, “Somewhere/No place—let’s go! Nowhere/This place—let’s go!” Elsewhere, “Cathedrals of Heaven” portrays human connection as a way to summon some eldritch horror: “Please open my chest/Please curl in my nest/My tongue will turn black/From tasting your spit.” It’s grim and unrelenting. These songs traffic in snatched images, and the closer Gira gets to something straightforward, the clumsier his writing becomes: “The president’s mouth is a whore” is one particularly memorable clunker.

Overall, a good point of comparison is the 2003 remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Alexandre Aja’s film filters genre elements of the western through a horror lens to critique America’s obsession with violence. Likewise, Leaving Meaning is a piece of blood-spattered Americana, a haunted-house version of the fabled American dream. But while Gira is a clever musician, that doesn’t make the world he’s created here a pleasant one to visit.

Label: Young God Release Date: October 25, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Battles’s Juice B Crypts Is an All-Out Aural Assault on the Senses

The group’s fourth album occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of its overstuffed songs.

3.5

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Battles
Photo: Atiba Jefferson

In her book Our Aesthetic Categories, literary and cultural critic Sianne Ngai describes “zany” as a type of artistic quality that reflects the exhaustion engendered by late capitalism. By that token, Battles makes some of the zaniest music imaginable, drawing on jazz, art rock, avant-garde classical, and electronica for its maximalist, experimental soundscapes. On their fourth album, Juice B Crypts, Battles and a handful of guests launch an all-out assault to overload the listener’s brain, and with mixed results.

There are stretches of the bass-driven opening track, “Ambulance,” that suggest the soundtrack to a podcast about Theranos before shifting into a screechy, cyberpunkish second movement. Guitarist-keyboardist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier eventually blend those two sonic ideas together as the song builds to its climax. The track’s distinct parts represent a microcosm of the album’s ethos: Every song features a plethora of ideas that, when it works, the band manages to weave together into a unified whole, with no gesture wasted.

Prog-rock icon Jon Anderson and the Taiwanese psych band Prairie WWWW contribute to “Sugar Foot,” a mile-a-minute frenzy of a song. Though Anderson’s singing is a tad anonymous, his vocals are smartly processed and buried in the mix. It evokes Nikola Tesla’s ghost watching the assembly line at a Foxconn plant, with ethereal chants duking it out with the synths for supremacy. The final section matches a breakneck drum part by Stanier with some incantatory singing by Anderson, like the Koyaanisqatsi soundtrack played at triple speed. The track is one of the better examples of Williams and Stanier’s compositional skills, as they blend a range of disparate sounds together into something truly ethereal.

Taking a cue from Liquid Liquid frontman Sal Principato’s ecstatic guest vocal, “Titanium 2 Step” is a no-wave rave up with explosive percussion and synth parts that recreate the skronk-y, out-of-tune jazz horns that mark that band’s work. But the album’s pièce de résistance is “Izm,” which matches a skeletal, skittering drum part and playful electronic flourishes with an icy guest vocal from Shabazz Palaces. The song’s rap-tronica is a promising new direction for Battles, evidence that there are still creative registers they’re only just beginning to explore.

Juice B Crypts biggest drawback is that, with so much going on, some of these songs get lost in the album’s frenetic whiplash pacing. “A Loop So Nice…” is a fleeting piece of crystalline glitch-pop that suffers from its placement alongside its superior companion piece, “They Played It Twice,” which features a vocal part from Xenia Rubinos that attains almost religious levels of ecstasy. “Last Supper on Shasta, Pt. 1” gets some mileage from Merrill Garbus’s typically wild vocals, but “Pt. 2” buries her singing under a mountain of noise.

Juice B Crypts occasionally threatens to collapse beneath the weight of its overstuffed songs. But even when it’s too maximalist for its own good, Battles’s music is still compelling. That’s thanks in large part to Stainer’s mind-meltingly good drum work, which culls from an impressive array of influences, from breakneck-style jazz playing in the vein of Buddy Rich to polyrhythmic adventurism like that of Chris Frantz to post-punk thudding reminiscent of Stephen Morris. He remains Battles’s stabilizing force.

Label: Warp Release Date: October 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Big Thief’s Two Hands Crackles with the Intensity of a Live Album

The album is a portrait of the band’s skills as musicians, a document of a group hitting its stride.

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Big Thief
Photo: Dustin Condren

Big Thief’s U.F.O.F., released in May of this year, found the Brooklyn-based band fleshing out their sound and exorcising a bit of the darkness that pervaded their first two efforts. Five months later, the band has released that album’s evil-twin opposite. Where U.F.O.F. is ethereal and haunting, the earthier Two Hands boasts the kinetic energy of a live album. Big Thief’s latest isn’t quite the revelation its predecessor was, but it’s a portrait of the band’s skills as musicians, a document of a group hitting its stride.

The biggest difference between U.F.O.F. and Two Hands is that, while the former features copious layers of vocals and reverb, the latter was recorded largely in single takes with minimal overdubbing. As a result, Two Hands is like lightning in a bottle. Big Thief’s enthusiasm for playing together comes through clearly throughout the 10 songs here, many of which have long been featured prominently in the band’s live sets.

These songs wear their influences on their sleeves. Throughout, Big Thief filters 1960s and ‘70s folk and rock through the lens of shoegaze. Two Hands doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but the songs are delivered with enough enthusiasm and musical dexterity that they manage to feel fresh. “Shoulders” is a blooze-inflected barroom jam with the soul of a murder ballad: “The blood of the man who killed our mother with his hands/Is in me, it’s in me, in my veins,” howls singer-guitarist Adrianne Lenker. On “Not,” as its title implies, the band dabbles in nihilism with images of fire, drought, famine, and decay. The song concludes with a soaring guitar solo that would make Nels Cline proud. “Forgotten Eyes,” which rollicks and crashes in ways that recall mid-‘70s Crazy Horse, features Lenker’s most impassioned vocal performance: “Everybody needs a home and deserves protection,” she sings during the chorus.

The group’s playing is tight and sharp throughout, but Lenker is what makes Big Thief more than just a bar band. Her lyrics are spare and dark, with a poetic sensibility inspired by Anne Sexton and Raymond Carver. Her singing voice is as distinctive as her writing, with a tremulous warble that’s loaded with emotional resonance. Ranging from guttural yowling to barely contained explosiveness, Lenker’s voice is the perfect vehicle for Big Thief’s dark, pretty songs about personal and political wreckage.

Label: 4AD Release Date: October 11, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Anna Meredith’s FIBS Defies Boundaries, Shape, and Form

The album finds the singer-songwriter continuing to defy genre and break the rules.

3.5

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Anna Meredith
Photo: Gem Harris

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” British singer-composer Anna Meredith’s albums are wrought with ironclad technical precision, and yet, for all of her classical training, her compositional sensibilities are markedly genre-nonconforming. Just as her 2016 debut, Varmints, blended orchestral pomp and heart-pounding electronics with references to 8-bit video games and science-fiction soundtracks, FIBS finds Meredith continuing to dissolve boundaries, resulting in an album that’s both monumental and intimate.

Shape and form are key to the songs on FIBS. Meredith’s songwriting process reportedly often begins with a drawing—perhaps a sequence of interlocking polygons denoting build, attack, release, or a tornado-esque squiggle leading into a single line bisected by another—and it’s on the tracks that are most easily imagined visually that FIBS is at its most propulsive. From the disorienting clashes of tuba, electric guitar, and drums on “Bump” that eventually cohere into a single, clear resolution, to the thwarted romance of “moonmoons,” pizzicato strings bursting happily like little bubbles as bowed violins creep in, Meredith is a master of misdirection.

The songwriting on FIBS is just as experimental as the arrangements, at least on the album’s first two-thirds. The exhilarating “Inhale Exhale” is driven by a galloping synth line, with an unconventional vocal melody and refrain sung in the round leading to a cacophonous climax. Lyrical references to self-deception—“You say you’re dancing in the deep end, but to me it looks like drowning”—are juxtaposed by a triumphant synth on “Kill Joy,” and a fractured chorus is eventually joined by a disorienting guitar section reminiscent of mid-2000s math-rock. It’s a twisting, confounding song, as all of Meredith’s best are.

If there’s a dip in momentum, it starts at FIBS’s most conventional song, “Limpet,” which follows a more typical guitar-rock arrangement. Downtempo tracks like “Ribbons” and “Unfurl” also suffer in comparison to the album’s richer, bolder experiments. These songs’ lyrics can feel at times perfunctory, more in service to the melody than any actual meaning. The album’s purely instrumental songs—like “Paramour,” a hulking behemoth of a track—spark more of a visceral, emotional reaction. It’s on tracks like these that Meredith is at her most daring, building and refracting shards of sound into bewildering, kaleidoscopic patterns.

Label: Black Prince Fury Buy: Amazon

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Review: Chromatics’s Closer to Grey Resplendently Charts the Passage of Time

The album is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends mere nostalgia.

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Chromatics
Photo: Johnny Jewel

The Chromatics’s Closer to Grey begins with the sound of a ticking clock, gradually and ominously ramping up in intensity. That same sound closes the album on “Wishing Well,” a twinkling dream-pop ode to a “nowhere town.” Fans of the synth-pop band will know this clock sample well, a trope that dates back to “Tick of the Clock,” from 2007’s Night Drive. It’s been five years since Dear Tommy, the still-unreleased follow-up to the critically acclaimed Kill for Love, was first announced; the album was delayed and retooled multiple times by de facto frontman Johnny Jewel, and the sinister timepiece that bookends Closer to Grey is, perhaps, a coy acknowledgement of the years that have passed since Kill for Love.

The album is instantly enthralling, with that ticking clock drifting into a lush synth-rock cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” The Chromatics have a history of deftly covering other artists’ songs, dating back to eerie renditions of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” and Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” from Night Drive and Kill for Love, respectively. And the through line for many of these covers is time slipping away as dangerous outside forces mount an offensive, both themes that the band continues to explore here.

“The Sound of Silence” is complemented by a bright and fuzzed-out rendition of the Jesus and Mary Chain’s “On the Wall” later in the album. Singer Ruth Radelet stretches out the original track’s ambling post-punk rhythm into a more luminous and beguiling affair, replete with a tick-tock beat and a commanding vocal performance. She repeatedly sings of clocks perched on the wall throughout the titular refrain and, by the song’s end, the clockwork beat and fuzzy electric guitar are replaced by a synthetic flute. It unravels in three acts, a cinematic journey that’s reprised on the title track, originally released in 2014 on Jewel’s SoundCloud.

The Chromatics have always looked to the cinematic past through an apocalyptic lens. Jewel is deeply influenced by classic horror film scores by composers such as John Carpenter, Tim Krog, Charles Bernstein, and Angelo Badalamenti. The group’s nostalgia trips continue on Closer to Grey: The musical DNA from the soundtrack to Halloween can be heard in the slinking piano of “Whispers in the Hall,” while the textures of “Love Theme from Closer to Grey” similarly harken back to the grainy aesthetic of horror films from the 1970s and ‘80s.

The album, though, finds Jewel stretching beyond these familiar touchstones. “Move a Mountain” is run through with elements of elegiac folk, and “Touch Red” and “Through the Looking Glass” are two of the group’s most chilling and sparse tracks to date. The uptempo “Twist the Knife” is about a disappearance, but its portentous lyrics are complemented by an unexpectedly danceable synth groove. Jewel and company are more unabashed in their approach this time out, even right down to the album’s indiscriminating track sequencing, a welcome change for the typically fastidious band. Closer to Grey is another haunting synth-pop house of mirrors that transcends the nostalgia of the Chromatics’s prior work.

Label: Italians Do It Better Release Date: October 2, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen Is a Haunting Meditation on Grief

The album explores the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death.

4.5

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Ghosteen
Photo: Matthew Thorne/Nasty Little Man

In a message posted to Nick Cave’s online portal The Red Hand Files, a woman named Malina asked a hard, raw question: “My husband died some years ago but I feel him all around. How can this be?” Cave replied that, for those who’ve lost someone, “Sometimes these intuitions hold more truth than the rational world can ever hope to offer—when we are faced with a world that has long since stopped making sense and, indeed, lost its reason.” Released four years after the accidental death of the singer’s 15-year-old son Arthur, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’s Ghosteen explores those intuitions with immeasurable generosity, acknowledging the line that separates magical thinking and faith, and the contradiction between the individual pain of grief and the universality of death.

Sonically, Ghosteen is not unlike its predecessors, Push the Sky Away and Skeleton Tree, each propelled by Warren Ellis’s unearthly, pulsing synthesizers rather than a traditional rhythm section. Although most of Skeleton Tree was written before Arthur’s death, it’s often interpreted as being marked by a ghostly presence thanks to those weightless, searching synths. And while they’re still very much present here, Ellis and Cave create an ambient field where all of the ambiguities of grief and hope can exist at once.

Across much of Ghosteen, those synths expand and contract, seeming to leave Cave’s voice floating alone in the abyss. And yet, again and again, a choir rises out of the gloom to join him. “Peace will come,” they sing on “Spinning Song,” and it sounds like an assurance from those who’ve walked this path already, or a wish made by all the people left behind.

For Cave, communal grief seems often as beautiful as it is painful. He calls us all together to witness the “spiral of children climb up to the sun” on “Sun Forest,” and invites his “darling” to watch the vessels carrying the dead “circle around the morning sun” on “Galleon Ship.” Elsewhere, though, not even that bright light is enough to outshine the darkness: Sweeping strings give way to a stomach-dropping bass on “Hollywood” when “the kid drops his bucket and spade and climbs into the sun.” When he dreams that he’s holding Arthur’s hand on “Bright Horses,” or reassures a loved one—perhaps his son, perhaps his partner—that he’ll always be there on “Waiting for You,” Cave’s voice is shot through with pure emotion.

Those imagined “riders” of “Galleon Ship” gallop through Ghosteen like an omen. On “Night Raid,” Cave sees the same “bright horses” running through the streets on the night of the conception of Arthur and his twin brother, Earl, as a dampened bell tolls in the background, slow and funereal. They’re there again, “flaming” in the quasi-Eden of “Sun Forest” before Arthur is lost and he finds the trees burned, the horses screaming. He seems to try to find a pattern, a way of working the chaos of loss backwards to a single point in time, but “nothing can be predicted, and nothing can be planned,” he concedes on “Fireflies.”

In the end, it’s impossible to know what parts of these visions can be understood as an expression of grief and what’s simply beyond explanation. “Horses are just horses and their manes aren’t full of fire,” Cave concedes on “Bright Horses,” but that doesn’t mean he can’t believe that there’s more than what he can see, and by the end of the song he can “hear the horses prancing in the pastures of the Lord.” On Ghosteen, Cave doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s comfort to be found in keeping the questions open-ended.

Label: Ghosteen Ltd Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Vagabon’s Self-Titled Album Expands Her Musical and Lyrical Scope

The album flits between topics of love, feminism, and cultural identity with relative ease.

3.5

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Vagabon
Photo: Tonje Thilesen

Poet and author Nayyirah Waheed’s emotionally taut and minimalist writing has inspired tens of thousands of posts on Instagram, even including a Mother’s Day message from none other than the Duchess of Sussex. Brooklyn singer-songwriter Lætitia Tamko (a.k.a. Vagabon) is a kindred spirit of Waheed and other female artists in the burgeoning instapoetry scene. In fact, the original title for Vagabon’s self-titled sophomore effort was inspired by a meditative Waheed instapoem line: “All the Women in Me.”

Vagabon serves as an inflection point for Tamko, who expands her sonic palette beyond the indie-rock of her past releases. The album also sees the former computer engineer tinkering with the central marker of her craft: her wafting vapor trail of a voice. Where her seemingly fragile instrument was sometimes pushed to its natural limits on 2017’s Infinite Worlds, here it’s given necessary breathing room, nested within synths and drifting R&B production. “I want to make you a flood in my hands,” Tamko sings on “Flood,” her vocals sending shockwaves through a dark, ebbing morass of synths, while the pulsing “Waters Me Down” boasts a similarly strong vocal performance, laid over a jaunty synth-pop beat.

With its stirring strings and skittering production, opener “Full Moon in Gemini” judiciously lays out its melody and chronicles the beauty of self-destruction. Tamko likens the song’s central relationship to watching over an irrepressible garden: “So many months before I lay with you after I’m through/Tending to the garden that I only just started.” Notably, a reprise of the song closes the album from a male point of view, courtesy of guest artist Monako.)

Whereas electric guitar theatrics built up to some joyful releases on both Tamko’s 2014 EP Persian Garden and Infinite Worlds, Vagabon finds the singer retreating to the comfort of her computer’s Logic program to fashion a world almost entirely around her honeyed vocals. Although you won’t find many ‘90s-infused indie jams like “Minneapolis” or “The Embers” here, Tamko’s voice never sounds strained in ways it once did either.

The penultimate track, “Every Woman,” serves as Vagabon’s de facto closing bell. Its lyrics nod to the #MeToo movement, but its overall message is much broader. “We’re not afraid of the war we brought on,” Tamko sings in the final verse, “And we’re steady while holding you all.” Representing a new generation of women and people of color, Tamko democratizes art in her own way, and moments like these tie her music back to the instapoetry movement, flitting between topics of love, feminism, and cultural identity with relative ease.

Label: Nonesuch Release Date: October 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Wilco’s Ode to Joy Marches to a Comfortable but Monochromatic Beat

The band’s 11th album doesn’t break the mold, though its sound is a bit more pared down.

3.5

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Wilco
Photo: Annabel Mehran/Pitch Perfect PR

Wilco gets a lot of credit for being weirder than they actually are. Incorporating elements of genres ranging from krautrock to electronica, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born—two of the most indelible rock album of the aughts—suggested the band would continue to evolve beyond their alt-country origins. Since 2007’s Sky Blue Sky, though, they’ve pretty much been returning to the same well over and over again, blending together light electronic elements and straightforward rock structures, with guitar pyrotechnics thrown in to show off Nels Cline’s undeniable chops.

Wilco’s 11th album, Ode to Joy, doesn’t break out of that mold, though its sound is a bit more pared down. The project grew out of frontman Jeff Tweedy and drummer Glenn Kotche’s close collaboration, with the two forming the basic shape of the songs around the latter’s percussive ideas. The album’s primary sonic thrust is a driving, two-step march meant to evoke the rising tide of global authoritarianism, with current geopolitical climate influencing the album’s lyrical content as well. Tweedy insists that Ode to Joy’s title isn’t meant sardonically: Even in the midst of chaos, the album suggests, humans have a right to feel joy.

Wilco’s recent sonic stagnation has been an easy enough pill to swallow thanks to Tweedy’s lyrical gifts, and, indeed, his use of language is customarily suffused with a wonderfully poetic economy throughout Ode to Joy. The album is filled with small details that unpack the joy and the squalor of life in equal measure. “White Wooden Cross” is a gentle meditation on love and mortality, with Tweedy asking, “What would I do/If a white, wooden cross meant I’d lost you?” And on “Quiet Amplifier,” he sings, “I wish your will was mine,” a line that could just as easily apply to a personal crisis as it could to a political one.

Tweedy edges toward politics most clearly on “Before Us,” the central thesis of which is the repeated line “alone with the people who have come before,” which suggests that, while politics shape the future, we also have a responsibility to rectify the injustices of the past. Closing track “An Empty Corner” succinctly offers, “You’ve got family out there,” an outward-looking sentiment that shows Tweedy isn’t entirely without hope. As a vocalist, he’s often underrated, and the way his voice nearly cracks on high notes is deeply bathetic.

Some of the songs on Ode to Joy tap into the kind of sonic unease that the band hasn’t achieved since “Less Than You Think,” an 11-minute epic from A Ghost Is Born that captures the feeling of a panic attack. The beat of “Quiet Amplifier” sounds like jackboots goose-stepping across a town square, and the song’s production is compressed to the point of claustrophobia. It feels like a migraine—another of Wilco’s common musical motifs is trying to replicate the types of headaches that plagued Tweedy for years—until its last moments open to gentle, acoustic plucking, offering some relief. The percussion on opener “Bright Leaves” is high in the mix, giving it a Phil Spector-like monolithic sound, while “Before Us” is similarly percussion-forward, with a droning vocal take that approaches anhedonia.

Lead single “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)” is, perhaps, Wilco’s prettiest song in years, with some down-home finger-picking serving as a counterpoint to a swirling electric line. The lyrics find Tweedy threading a needle between optimism and defeatism: “Right now, love is everywhere,” he sings on the chorus, an odd sentiment given the state of the world. But darkness creeps in on the song’s bridge: “Right now, I’m frightened how love is here: beware.”

Ode to Joy can sometimes feel like a Tweedy solo effort. Cline is oddly penned in here; his guitar playing is unmistakable, but he never gets a chance to truly shine. Cline’s guitar parts on “Hold Me Anyway” and “We Were Lucky” are crunchy and powerful, with the energy of a coiled snake, but neither is as memorable as his solos on “Impossible Germany” or “Hell Is Chrome.” As a result, the album is a bit monochromatic, lacking the classic guitar heroism that has, in the past, allowed Wilco to buck the dad-rock label. Twelve years on from Sky Blue Sky, the band would benefit from opening up their sound again—and getting a little bit weird.

Label: dBpm Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: All Mirrors Finds Angel Olsen Embracing Her Own Forward Motion

The album is the sound of an artist carving out a space where she can be as loud—or as quiet—as she likes.

4.5

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Angel Olsen
Photo: Cameron McCool/Pitch Perfect PR

Angel Olsen reportedly recorded two different versions of her fourth album, All Mirrors. One is raw and stripped down, more akin to her early releases, while the second is lusher, wilder, and layered with orchestration—less a mirror image of the first than a reflection in rippled water. On an album that ultimately sees Olsen make a solemn commitment to accepting change as an implacable force, it only seems right that she chose to release the latter version, documenting the growth of her sound into uncharted territory.

For Olsen, accepting that change is a constant has required the acknowledgement that no two people experience change in identical directions. On All Mirrors, she lets go of those who’ve required her to privilege their desires over her own, finding peace in solitude. That this is, ironically, her loudest, densest album to date seems to speak to the liberation that came with that solitude. On the album’s opening track, “Lark,” strings gather like clouds, only to burst in time with Olsen’s voice as her delivery shifts from low and restrained to loud and confrontational. There’s a kind of ecstasy in the enormity of moments like this and others—like the tense, trilling strings on “Impasse” and the ebb and flow of the synths on “All Mirrors”—that reflects the scope of the personal and professional place Olsen is seeking.

Of course, the route to freedom is circuitous. Olsen’s voice shapeshifts from song to song as she explores the behaviors that perpetuated her need for validation. “Lark” and “All Mirrors” follow a similar pattern, both of their melodies jumping octaves, oscillating between nostalgia for a different time and a relationship lost, and defiance in the face of everything that relationship cost her. Elsewhere, she seems resigned: “I’m beginning to wonder if anything’s real/Guess we’re just at the mercy of the way that we feel,” she sings on “Spring.” She’s the breezy ingénue on “Too Easy,” surrendering to her lover’s will, but she’s tougher, her vocals throaty and low, on “New Low Cassette”: “Gonna gather strength/Give you all my mind,” she sings, imagining—or perhaps remembering—herself in the role of the sacrificing partner.

But Olsen refuses to play that role anymore. “Dream On,” she howls over and over on “Lark,” the full force of her band and string section swelling, before she asks, “What about my dreams?” Olsen’s most intimate performance comes on “Tonight,” on which she acknowledges that she’s better off alone: “I like the air that I breathe/I like the thoughts that I think/I like the life that I lead/Without you.” It’s a quiet, painful track, the strings keening over the words “without you” as she repeats them, as if admitting it to herself for the first time.

All Mirrors is challenging and confrontational, and rewards close, present listening. “I’m leaving once again, making my own plans/I’m not looking for the answer/Or anything that lasts,” Olsen sings on album closer “Chance.” This is the sound of true independence, of an artist embracing her own forward motion without having to be concerned with someone else’s, and protecting a space where she can be as loud—or as quiet—as she likes.

Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: October 4, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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