Rock guitar has become an anachronism in todayâs musical landscape. St. Vincentâs music continues to get increasingly more electronic, and even Jack White toned down his histrionic fretwork in favor of more computerized sounds on his latest album, Boarding House Reach. Jenn Wasner, who earned acclaim for her guitar work on Wye Oakâs early albums, also seems to be positioning herself as more of a synth-pop chanteuseâa trend she and Wye Oakâs other half, drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack, solidify on their sixth album, The Louder I Call, The Faster It Runs.
Thereâs actually plenty of guitar throughout the album. The jagged opening riff on âThe Instrumentâ contrasts boldly with the trackâs warmly gurgling synth pattern, while the squealing licks on the stormy âSymmetryâ hit like lightning. But for the most part, Wasnerâs guitar work is a blended textural element among several at the groupâs disposal, from an array of synths to orchestral sounds. The Louder I Call is an album built mostly on jousting instrumental dynamics and sonic manipulation, set up by the opening 30-second instrumental, â(tuning),â in which a plinking piano butts up against robotic noises as it wavers between stately dryness and unearthly reverb.
This isnât the first time the duo has dabbled in electronica: Shriek, from 2014, was their first departure from traditional rock instrumentation, and Wasnerâs 2016 solo album as Flock of Dimes, If You See Me, Say Yes, followed in a similar vein. But in contrast to Flock of Dimesâs nostalgic dalliance in â80s pop styles, The Louder I Callâs electronic focus scans as distinctly modern. It isnât as sleek or hooky as If You See Me, but by design itâs a more atmospheric effort.
The album gets plenty noisy in places: on the propulsive title track, for one, and especially on âSymmetry,â with its pounding, skipping-CD chorus. But even with all the hyperactive synths and occasional moments of crunching heaviness, The Louder I Call plays like a dreamscapeâjust one set to danceable pop beats. Most of Wasnerâs vocals are cloaked in a wavery underwater effect, as if her voice is emerging straight from the cerebrospinal fluid. This is fitting for lyrics concerned with self-examination. On âIt Was Not Natural,â Wasner manages to wring an entire song out of taking a walk in the woods and finding a strange object on the ground, while on the jaunty âLifer,â she carefully ponders lifeâs entire arc: âI am not old but Iâve become/Afraid of things I never was/And stumbling on without a pause/Can only go so long.â
Ultimately, itâs the balance between the ethereal and the immediate that defines The Louder I Call. A fully formed, radio-ready slice of dramatic piano-pop like âIt Was Not Naturalâ coexists seamlessly with dreamy reveries like the fully orchestrated vignette âMy Signalâ and the folky, Paul Simon-esque âJoin.â It all manages to hang together thanks to the fact that, after some trial and error, Wasner and Stack have hit on a sound all their own.
Label: Merge Release Date: April 6, 2018 Buy: Amazon
Review: Charli XCX Charts Her Own Path Forward with Charli
The album is full of contradictions, and theyâre very much a part of the ride.4
The music Charli XCX has released since 2014âs Sucker forms a remarkable archive of a young woman figuring out who she is and what kind of artist she wants to beâone whoâs unafraid to show her work. Early in her career, Charliâs prodigal skill at crafting hits like Icona Popâs âI Love It,â Iggy Azaleaâs âFancy,â and her own âBoom Clapâ made her an ideal cog in the pop-music machine, a songwriter who could churn out potential smashes not just for herself, but other artists. But, from lyrics about independence on Suckerâs âBreak the Rulesâ and a sneering reference to winning Dr. Lukeâs validation on the albumâs title track, to her decision to cancel part of her U.S. tour so that she could get back into the studio, the singer has always seemed determined to carve her own path forward.
Charliâs initial post-Sucker experiments seemed pretty discrete: The bone-jangling, Sophie-produced âVroom Vroomâ is nothing like the popping-bottles bounce of âAfter the Afterparty,â in turn bearing little resemblance to the smoky swagger of â5 in the Morning.â But where her 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 felt like works in progress, the sound on the artistâs long-awaited third album, Charli, feels more resolutely hers. Charliâs ear for melody is rendered all the more sharp by primary producer A.G. Cookâs bold, refractive electronic soundscapes, and featured artists like Sky Ferreira and HAIM seem to be part of a more cohesive, shared vision than Charliâs past collaborations.
Thatâs not to say that she has it all figured out. If thereâs anything that binds Charliâs songs thematically, itâs the singerâs candidness about how much she still has to work through. The car imagery of which sheâs so fond is used as a metaphor on tracks like âWhite Mercedes,â âNext Level Charliâ (âI go speeding on the highway/Burn rubber, no crashâ), and âFebruary 2017,â on which she examines the consequences of some of her worst behavior.
Charli undermines the party-girl persona sheâs been cultivating over the past few years on the muscular âGone,â which could be as much about coping with social anxiety as it is about navigating an industry that wants artists to be something they arenât: âI feel so unstable, fucking hate these people/How theyâre making me feel lately.â The isolation she craves, of course, also prompts anxiety of its own: âDid I lose it all? Did I fuck up?/Are my friends really friends now?â she worries on the aptly titled âThoughts.â
The result is a collection of sad bops masquerading as bangers, just as perfect for the club as for a solo bedroom dance party. Like much of pop music, Charliâs lyrics favor broad strokes over more specific narratives, leaving her songs open to interpretation. One thingâs for sure though: The world of Charli is full of contradictionsâof rolling up to the party only to immediately bounce, of never looking back only to yearn for a time past, of going faster and then too fastâand those contradictions are very much a part of the ride. The album might not be the end destination, but the road is Charliâs, and sheâll drive down it as fast as she likes.
Label: Atlantic Release Date: September 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Pixiesâs Beneath the Eyrie Too Often Sounds Like Other Artists
The third album by Pixies 2.0 doesnât do much to burnish the bandâs legacy.3
There wouldnât be any reason for aspiring musicians to plug in a Gibson SG and noodle around at a Guitar Center if measuring up to Surfer Rosa or Doolittle were the standard by which we judged new rock albums. In the span of less than four years, the Pixies cranked out four albums that more or less defined the sound of American rock. And even though it doesnât do much to burnish the bandâs legacy, the third album by Pixies 2.0, Beneath the Eyrie, is the first one to even come close to approximating the thrills of their best work.
The Pixies have only grown more technically proficient as the years have gone by. Joey Santiagoâs guitars alternately jangle and roar here, flipping between chilly spy-film riffs and all-out rock shredding, with nods to Ennio Morricone-esque spaghetti-westerns on some tracks. Years of growling seem to have seasoned Francisâs voice like a cast-iron skillet. During the Pixiesâs heyday, the interplay between Francisâs brutal grunting and Kim Dealâs sweeter poppiness was a major source of the bandâs dynamism, and Dealâs replacement, Paz Lenchantin, an excellent musician whose vocals and bass playing are uncannily close to her predecessorâs, allows the group to recapture some of that magic.
At its best, Beneath the Eyrie sounds a lot like the Pixies you remember. The albumâs lead single and most memorable song, âCatfish Kate,â features a swelling power-pop chorus where Francisâs voice reaches uncharacteristic heights of pathos as he spins a characteristically surreal tale about a woman becoming a fish. âReady for Loveâ has a similarly charming demeanor, with Francis âcalling your bluffâ to announce that he is, in fact, ready for love. âBird of Preyâ gets at a bit of the lyrical menace that Francis sometimes liked to play with in the past. In the song, the singer is a revenant come back from the grave who âsets [his] broken bone with a twist and a crack.â Itâs a good tune buoyed by some bopping guitars, but Francisâs vocal take is heavily indebted to Nick Cave, tapping into a similar type of dread grotesquerie.
In this way, though, âBird of Preyâ is also emblematic of the albumâs primary flaw. âThis Is My Fateâ sees Francis doing a spot-on Tom Waits impression, but apart from some tin-can percussion, the song doesnât offer much to hook the listener. The banal âSilver Bulletâ sounds like the Pixies covering the Smashing Pumpkins, an exercise that seems to have the relationship between those two groups totally backward. Too often, Beneath the Eyrie sounds like other artists, which is especially disappointing for a group like the Pixies, who have always been more trendsetters than followers.
Label: BMG Release Date: September 13, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Lower Densâs The Competition Paints a Bleak Picture of Capitalism
The album questions the notion that competition is essential to human progress.4
At its most reductive, the ongoing political debate about the rising socialist tide and socialismâs relationship to capitalism can be boiled down to this question: Are people made stronger when they compete or when they cooperate? On Lower Densâs fourth album, The Competition, the bandâs lead singer and songwriter, Jana Hunter, questions the notion that competition is essential to human progress. The world Hunter conjures is bleak, a picture of the wages of fully capitalized human relationships.
For Hunter, the problem is that âthe competitionâ is rigged. In the face of a fixed game, the albums suggests, the oppressed have to strike back. âEmpire Sundown,â which confronts income inequality, aims for retribution, not equity: âLook them in the eyes when they push you/Off the raft and make them watch you drown.â The chance to fix things has come and gone, and Hunter doesnât want solace, but revenge. The pointedly titled âYoung Republicansâ finds Hunter taking on the mindset of the opposition. The song isnât a call for empathy though; the titular figures cynically usurp the language of the oppressed, protesting that âwe never asked to be this way.â Hunter pulls no punches, having them celebrate a type of anti-humanity, gloating that they were âborn without souls or blood or skin.â
Hunterâs lyrics are spare but ghastly, and human carnage is a major motif throughout The Competition. On âBuster Keaton,â which takes its name from the great stone face of silent film, a young lover is forced to confess his feelings in the middle of sewing his mouth shut, spitting blood on his beloved. âIn Your Houseâ imagines a snake infiltrating a home and devouring the inhabitants, a metaphor for the costs of capitalism, while âGalapagosâ concerns a volcano rising from the ocean, the planet threatened by âfire from the earth below.â
The world of The Competition is one driven by scarcity and overrun by the Hobbesian war of all against all. Thereâs no call for reconciliation or understanding, just a dark picture of a world in perpetual conflict. Lovers, families, and bodies are all rent asunder, all victims of our valorization of competition as the highest form of human organization.
Despite the forceful and overtly political nature of the songs, Lower Dens isnât working in a traditional protest-song style. Rather than fist-pumping anthems or confessional folk songs, The Competition is full of tracks with glittering synth-pop arrangements that draw heavily on new wave. Lower Dens began as a post-rock influenced band, and theyâve embraced a bigger pop sound with each of their albums. Indeed, the style here is lush and orchestral, giving a rich accompaniment to Hunterâs powerful voice, which can move from sing-songy hiccupping to dark-night-of-the-soul keening within a single line.
The albumâs sonic influences are also part of its political strategy. The intense polarization of our current moment was arguably born out of the 1980s, and the album draws on forebears like Depeche Mode and OMD. Where those bands were more interested in romance and personal drama, though, Lower Dens has larger geopolitical issues on their mind. The Competition uses the aesthetics of the â80s dance floor to try to understand the rising tide of global nationalism. That makes it an easy listen despite its divisive subject matter.
Label: Ribbon Music Release Date: September 6, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Highwomenâs Debut Subverts Tradition to Deliver Its Feminist Message
At its best, the country supergroupâs debut employs personal stories to engage larger societal themes.3.5
Country music has always had a misogynistic streak (think of the proliferation of murder ballads and she-done-me-wrong songs), and the Highwomenâa supergroup consisting of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shiresâwas born out of a desire to combat the genreâs lack of gender diversity. Shires has said that the âhighâ in the groupâs name should be taken to mean exalted or honored, but itâs also a nod to the outlaw country supergroup the Highwaymen. The Highwomen serves as a fitting thesis statement for the project, using the aesthetics of neotrad-country to unpack the groupâs feminist concerns.
The albumâs opening track, âHighwomen,â is a powerful and succinct recalibration of Jimmy Webbâs âThe Highwayman.â Where Webbâs version explored supposed great men sailing the seas, building dams, and exploring space, âHighwomenâ is centered around a more distinctly female experience. The song tells the stories of women who meet tragic ends as the result of sacrifice: a mother who dies helping her family escape war-torn Honduras, a healer mistaken for a witch, a freedom rider killed in Mississippi. Webbâs men are undone by hubris, but the Highwomen present characters crushed by an indifferent world that attempts to erase their voices. In the songâs final verse, the group pointedly harmonizes, âWe are the Highwomen/Singing stories still untold/We carry the sons you can only hold.â
Other songs on The Highwomen give voice to womenâs struggles in a more lighthearted manner, and with mixed results. Lead single âRedesigning Womenâ outlines the responsibilities that accompany balancing motherhood, a career, a social life, and relationships. The song boasts a laidback porch-jam feel, but for every clever line (âA critical reason thereâs a population/Raising eyebrows and a new generationâ), thereâs a groaner that feels like it was yanked from a â90s standup routine (âChanging our minds like we change our hair colorâ and âIf the shoe fits, weâll buy 11â are especially clunky).
Much fresher is âMy Name Canât Be Mama,â which addresses the difficulty women face in maintaining an identity outside of motherhood. Over a quick-moving two-step, Carlile wakes up to find her âceiling still a-spinning from a night that went too lateâ and children in need of attention. On the second verse, Morris talks about the toll touring takes on a family, but argues her career is essential to her emotional well-being. The bouncy rhythm and down-home instrumentation belie the weightiness of the issues being addressed in the song, but the strong hooks mean the Highwomenâs ideas remain lodged in your brain.
Other tracks provide interesting twists on old country tropes. âIf She Ever Leaves Meâ is a slick countrypolitan number in which Shires plays with gender expectations, warning a cowboy eyeing her (female) date that âif she ever leaves me, it wonât be for you.â âHeaven Is a Honky Tonkâ imagines the afterlife as a barroom with an endless jukebox, while âCocktail and a Songâ details a dying fatherâs wish that he be remembered fondly. The albumâs closer, âWheels of Laredo,â is a high-lonesome song about wishing to be heading back to a loverâs arms. While the track isnât overtly political, lines like âI was watching the jungle fires a-burninââ and a reference to Mexico as a ânot-so-distant landâ broaden its emotional stakes. Like the standout âCrowded Table,â in which the group wishes for a âhouse with a crowded table,â it illustrates the Highwomenâs ability to employ personal stories to engage larger societal themes.
Label: Elektra Release Date: September 6, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Lana Del Reyâs Norman Fucking Rockwell Eulogizes the American Dream
The album doesnât so much subvert an idealistic notion of the American dream as perform a postmortem of it.4
Released just seven days apart, Lana Del Reyâs Norman Fucking Rockwell and Taylor Swiftâs Lover share a primary collaboratorâsongwriter and producer Jack Antonoffâas well as oblique references to Kanye West, with whom both women have had messy public feuds. Each album likewise represents a course correction in the trajectory of its creatorâs career, but if Swiftâs album is a sharp turn back to more listener-friendly pop fare, Del Rey seems as disinterested as ever in courting contemporary trends.
After two albums that found Del Rey doubling back to the hip-hop-inflected baroque pop of her 2012 breakthrough, Born to Die, Norman Fucking Rockwell picks up where 2014âs sludgy, more roots-oriented Ultraviolence left off. The singer has aptly described the new album as a âmood record,â a heady collection of psych-rock and piano dirges that pour into each other and rarely shift tempo from track to track. âMariners Apartment Complex,â âCinnamon Girl,â and âVenice Bitchâ amble along to hazy, psychedelic grooves, closer in spirit, if not style, to Del Reyâs breakout hit âVideo Gamesâ than the hooky singles that have followed.
Norman Rockwellâs vision of America defined much of the 20th century, with illustrations that often depicted a sentimentalâsome might say naĂŻveâinterpretation of American life. Despite its parodic title, though, Del Reyâs latest doesnât so much subvert an idealistic notion of the American dream as perform a postmortem of it. On âVenice Bitch,â which is rife with references to quintessential American icons like Robert Frost, Del Rey pines for a world that had already coughed its last gasp by the time she was born. And she wistfully delivers a eulogy for both pop culture and the planet itself on the apocalyptic âThe Greatestâ: âThe culture is lit and if this is it, I had a ball,â she laments with a shrug.
Doom and gloom permeate almost every aspect of Del Reyâs depiction of modern life. âIf you hold me without hurting me, youâll be the first who ever did,â she sings on âCinnamon Girl,â a shattering admission eclipsed only by her disaffected portrayal of love in the age of geosocial networking on âHappiness Is a Butterflyâ: âIf heâs a serial killer then whatâs the worst that could happen to a girl whoâs already hurt?â Norman Fucking Rockwell closes with the stunning, pointedly titled âHope Is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman Like Me to Have â But I Have It,â in which Del Rey invokes the final sleepless nights of Sylvia Plath and answers critiques of millennial ennui with the soft bigotry of low expectations: âDonât ask if Iâm happy/You know that Iâm not/But at best I can say Iâm not sad.â
Enlisting one of popâs premier producers for what is easily Del Reyâs least commercial album to date might seem ironic. But Antonoff has proven capable of pushing other female artists into the darkest corners of their respective pop worlds, and he allows Del Rey to explore her most indulgent inclinations here. She disappears for long stretches at a time throughout the nine-and-a-half-minute âVenice Bitch,â leaving room for Antonoffâs trippy guitar feedback and liquid psychedelic effects to ooze and distort like a fading memory before the whole thing evaporates in a puff of nostalgia. The albumâs most viable single, âFuck It I Love You,â is peppered with expletives, building to a frothy head of cerebral lust that begs comparisons to Ani DiFrancoâs similarly paradoxical âUntouchable Face.â
Though it isnât quite as long as 2017âs Lust for Life, the 68-minute Norman Fucking Rockwell can have a soporific effect. Many of the albumâs songs are stripped down to little more than piano and vocal, eschewing the towering hooks and ornamental flourishes of Antonoffâs work with Lorde and Swift. Even a lush cover of Sublimeâs âDoinâ Timeââwhich, sonically, might have fit better on Born to Die or 2015âs Honeymoonâis faithful to both the albumâs downbeat, sadcore-meets-surf-rock aesthetic and the SoCal bandâs own musical legacy, to which Del Reyâs sound is at least partly indebted.
Distilled to their barest elements, the songs on this album reveal themselves not to be hollow vessels for vapid self-absorption, but frank assessments of the psychic effects of a world spiraling into chaos. Del Rey has long cemented her status as a cult icon in the vein of a Tori Amos or Fiona Apple, whose influence on the title track is unmistakable, and she inspires the kind of fanaticism that often leaves her detractors perplexed. With Norman Fucking Rockwell, however, sheâs made an album with the unfettered focus and scope worthy of her lofty repute.
Label: Interscope Release Date: August 30, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Taylor Swiftâs Lover Course Corrects in Multiple Directions
The album attempts to be something to everyone, the surest tell that itâs as much reaction as it is creation.3.5
There comes a time in nearly every pop superstarâs career when sheâand, yes, itâs usually a sheâis forced to repent for an album that went too far, pushed too hard, or simply suffered from a case of bad timing. The result is often a follow-up that plays it safe or tries to recapture past triumphs, which is then either exalted by critics as a return to form or ridiculed as an attempt at damage control. Itâs a rite of passage that, with her seventh album, Lover, Taylor Swift seems keenly aware of yet uninterested in subverting.
Swift launched the latest era of her career with the cloying âME!,â a veritable piss take on the bright and shiny pop of her 2014 hit âShake It Off,â accompanied by a social media campaign self-consciously drenched in creamy pastel tones, jewel-encrusted hearts, and fluffy-faced kittens. Itâs a decidedly stark contrast to 2017âs Reputation, which was defined by its combative tone and hard, hip-hop-influenced beats, and which earned the distinction of becoming Swiftâs lowest selling album to date.
Swift has built an empire, in part, on her ability to harness often self-inflicted personal dramaârevolving around former lovers, disloyal friends, and the mediaâinto songs that display equal parts rage, cheeky self-deprecation, and heartfelt sincerity. The prickly Reputation leaned heavily on the former, and like so many pop reboots before it, Lover is an obvious course correction. Swift, however, seems ambivalent about her current station: âI say I donât want [combat], but what if I do?â she muses on âThe Archerâ before proceeding to carpet-bomb listeners with the kind of pithy confessionalsââAll of my heroes die all alone,â âAll of enemies started out friendsââfit more for a therapy session than your average pop song.
That ambivalence runs through Lover. At times the album seems unsure of whether it wants to be a callback to 1989 and Red, or forge completely new ground for Swift. Opening Lover with a bit of seemingly arbitrary misdirection, âI Forgot That You Existedâ is the kind of catty diss trackâpossibly aimed at Kanye West and/or Calvin Harrisâthat cemented the very reputation Swift laments in the lyrics. But it feels like a caricature of a Taylor Swift song, a defanged version of more satisfying clapbacks like âBad Bloodâ and âThis Is Why We Canât Have Nice Things.â
Lover lacks a unified sonic aesthetic, ostensibly from trying to be something to everyoneâthe surest tell that itâs as much reaction as it is creation. The title track, whose lilting rhythm and reverb-soaked drums and vocals are reminiscent of Mazzy Starâs â90s gem âFade Into You,â and the acoustic âSoon Youâll Get Better,â a tribute to Swiftâs mother featuring the Dixie Chicks, hark back to Swiftâs pre-pop days, while âI Think He Knowsâ and âFalse Godâ evoke Carly Rae Jepsenâs brand of â80s R&B-inflected electro-pop. A full-throated embrace of the latter direction might have made Lover feel less like a capitulation. When it comes to things other than boys, though, Swift has always preferred to dip her toes in rather than get soaking wet; her transformation from country teen to pop queen was, after all, a decade in the making.
Less gradual was Swiftâs shift from political agnostic to liberal advocate. In the span of less than a year, the singer went from being the Aryan goddess of the alt-right to being called out as an agent of sodomy. They say you canât put a genie back in the bottle, and Swiftâs once apolitical music is now peppered with references to Americaâs current state of affairs, both thinly veiled (âDeath by a Thousand Cutsâ) and more overt (âYou Need to Calm Downâ). âIâm so sick of running as fast as I can/Wondering if Iâd get there quicker if I was a man,â she sings on âThe Man,â a track that makes sly reference to those who doubted her #MeToo moment.
âAmerican stories burning before me/Iâm feeling helpless, the damsels are depressed/Boys will be boys, then where are the wise men?â Swift ponders on âMiss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince.â Of course, in this case politics is a metaphor for heartbreak. The track is her stock in trade, a richly painted narrative punctuated by cool synth washes and pep-rally chants. âItâs Nice to Have a Friendâ is a similarly evocative portrait of young love whose spare arrangementâchoral voices, steel drums, church bells, stately trumpet soloâis a stark counterpoint to the pointillist âDeath by a Thousand Cuts,â a Pet Sounds-esque aural feast of swirling keyboards and quivering synths. âThe Archerâ is quintessential Swift: wistful, minimalist dream pop that displays her willingness to acknowledge and dismantle her flaws, triggers, and neuroses.
Some pop stars may be too big too fail. Swiftâs songwriting suffers from occasional bromides, and Lover can feel both overthought and, at a lengthy 18 tracks, under-edited. But Swiftâs well-earned reputation for over-sharing, reflective of the generation for which sheâs become a spiritual envoy, coupled with her newfound egalitarianism makes her not just a compelling pop figure, but an essential one.
Label: Republic Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Jay Somâs Anak Ko Embodies Bedroom Pop As an Emotional Travelogue
The singer-songwriter balances the musical warmth of her bedroom-pop influences with some heavy emotional stakes.3.5
Even if youâve never heard Melina Duterteâs music before, the singer-songwriterâs third album as Jay Som might still sound instantly familiar. Musically, Anak Koâwhich means âmy childâ in Tagalogâtakes inspiration from â90s dream pop, marked by jangly guitars, big, reverb-soaked drums, and mildly distorted vocals. Duterte mines similar sonic terrain as Yo La Tengo, and âSuperbike,â with its swirling guitars and warm vocals, would feel right at home on the bandâs 1995 album Electr-o-Pura. The songâs lyrics are spare but powerful, infused with a sense of wanderlust shot through with melancholy: âSaid you wanted something elseâŚGonna breathe until youâre gone.â Duterte balances the musical warmth of her bedroom-pop influences with some heavy emotional stakes.
Though it lacks the immediacy of 2017âs Everybody Works, Anak Ko compensates with a more mature lyrical depth, prompted by Duterteâs recent move from her hometown in the Bay Area to Los Angeles, where she reportedly found love and quit drinking. Her vocals here are buried in the mix a bit, conveying the hushed intimacy of a late-night conversation. âDid you fall at first glance? Do you think youâll take a chance?â Duterte asks on the standout âTenderness.â
A longing for the freedom of the road pervades the album. Leisurely drums set the tone on âNighttime Drive,â suggesting a meandering trip down familiar backroads with no particular destination in mind. Duterteâs voice falls somewhere between a sigh and a whisper as she sings, âWeâll be all right.â Traveling becomes a metaphor on the track, as she illustrates a tension between freedom and safety. Leaving a place you know opens the world up for adventure, but it means you might also lose some of the things you previously valued.
Anak Ko can feel homogenous, coasting along to the same relaxed midtempo rhythm. Duterteâs layered guitar sound and submerged vocals ensure that her songs whir along like background music. The closing track, âGet Well,â is the only song that deviates from her dream-pop formula, venturing into country territory thanks to the use of pedal steel guitar. But while it might lack a rave-up pop number like Everybody Worksâs infectious â1 Billion Dogs,â Anak Ko offers plenty of reasons to follow Duterte down whatever road may lay ahead.
Label: Polyvinyl Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Bon Iverâs i, i Battles Back Against the Dark
The album finds Justin Vernon creeping into an autumnal melancholy and turning his gaze back toward winter.4
Justin Vernonâs debut as Bon Iver, For Emma, Forever Ago, attained mythic status both for its content and the circumstances of its creation: a batch of heartrending koans poured out in the solitude of a wooded Wisconsin winter. The singer-songwriter initially came off like Kozelek-come-lately, with a bunch of sadsack songs backed by gently strummed guitars, but heâs proven himself to be a remarkably mercurial artist. And on i, i, he draws on rock, folk, electronica, hip-hop, and gospel, enlisting a broad range of collaborators to help build on the emotional directness of his early work without repeating the same musical gestures.
Perhaps the best analogue for i, i is the Byrdsâs Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which Gram Parsons envisioned as an album-length treatise on the history of American popular music. Though the two albums donât sound alike, Vernonâs big-tent group of collaborators allows him to grant himself a similar kind of scope. Vernon has a knack for blending disparate elements with impressive cohesion. On âU (Man Like),â Bruce Hornsbyâs piano is immediately recognizable, but as Hornsby, Moses Sumney, the Brooklyn Youth Choir, and Jenn Wasner all sing alongside Vernon, their myriad styles effortlessly blend under Bon Iverâs singular aesthetic.
Vernon has described i, i as the end of a season cycle. If his 2007 debut represents dead winter, 2011âs Bon Iver, Bon Iver the thaw of spring, and 2016âs 22, A Million a joyous reverie of summer, then i, i finds Vernon creeping into an autumnal melancholy and turning his gaze back toward winter. This time, Vernon isnât contemplating the bitter disappointments of a failed romance, but the end of all humanity itself. The imagery is sharp and often ghastly: a gas mask hanging on an arm, rising seas and temperatures, and allusions to Bertolt Brechtâs The Threepenny Opera. Throughout, Vernon presents himself as an observer surveying a world on the brink, close to becoming just ruined earth and poisoned sea.
These songs arenât straightforward political diatribes though. Rather, theyâre small puzzles that exemplify Vernonâs peculiar use of language. The tracklist looks like an assortment of Scrabble tiles: âYi,â âiMi,â âU (Man Like).â The songs themselves are filled with obscure slang and outright neologisms. Once you start to unravel the threads, however, the lyrics begin to unfold more clearly. âJelmoreâ takes its title from the way Vernon sings the first line of the song: âan(gel mor)ning.â The songâs Metroid-esque synth parts introduce a stark commentary on income inequality and planetary ruin. On the hook, Vernon sings, âWeâll all be gone by the fall/Weâll all be gone by the falling light,â which doesnât evince much hope. When he declares, âI wonât lead no Calvary,â the clever wordplay almost balances the sense of defeatism.
The albumâs penultimate track, the grim, thinly veiled âShâDiahââshort for âshittiest day in American historyââfeatures the loneliest sax solo since âBaker Street,â a plaintive strain that perfectly captures the feeling of wandering the streets of a familiar place thatâs suddenly stopped feeling like home. Itâs followed by âRABi,â which examines the psychological toll of trying not to be miserable in chaotic times. The song is built around a meandering guitar and Vernonâs multi-tracked vocals, the spare arrangement putting the focus on his words, âI could rob I,â which, pronoun case error aside, is an economical unpacking of self-deception. As the track ends, he sings, âWell, itâs all fine and weâre all fine anyway,â at full voice before whispering, âBut if you wait, it wonât be undone.â That dichotomy lies at the heart of the album: Time is running out, but what can one person do?
Vernon began his career by staring down the dark, and i, i is an album made for a time when that darkness has grown larger than he ever imagined. Sometimes heâs too indulgent: When his delivery leans into rap, he sounds like somebody doing an impression of Frank Ocean at karaoke night. His falsetto occasionally outstays its welcome, and decoding all of his Lewis Carroll-esque private language gestures can be tiring business. But the album seems to suggest that Bon Iver is transitioning from a band in the traditional sense of the word into a looser collective. Despite the albumâs intense pessimism and anxiety, Bon Iverâs organization speaks to the power of forging a community to battle back against darkness.
Label: Jagjaguwar Release Date: August 9, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Sleater-Kinneyâs The Center Wonât Hold Represents a Band in Flux
The albumâs pop and synth elements mark a radical departure for the seminal rock band.3
By the height of their popularity in the mid-aughts, culminating with 2005âs The Woods, Sleater-Kinney had morphed from a scrappy punk band into a rock behemoth capable of spinning out sprawling, almost proggy opuses. Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker built complex, blistering guitar parts that intertwined, bounced around, and frequently exploded into full-on Guitar Hero-style pyrotechnics. And all the while, drummer Janet Weiss laid down beats that were equal parts chest-crushingly powerful and playfully inventive.
The pleasure of listening to Sleater-Kinney has always come from hearing these three stellar musicians, each with their own distinct styles, mesh into a cohesive whole. Thereâs never a wasted beat, chord, or lyric in a Sleater-Kinney song. The Center Wonât Hold, however, represents a radical departure for the seminal rock band. Under the influence of producer Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent), Sleater-Kinneyâs ninth studio album incorporates both poppier elements and dark, new-wave-indebted synths into their signature sound, a ânew directionâ that prompted Weiss to announce that sheâll be exiting the group.
The result of this broadening of their sound varies throughout. The title track is the biggest departure on the albumâand also its weakest. For the first two-thirds of the song, Brownstein yelps menacingly over a beat that sounds like itâs played on found items in a junkyard. âI need something pretty/To help me ease my pain/And I need something ugly/To put me in my place,â she growls. The track doesnât take any kind of shape until itâs almost over, when Weissâs drums come thrashing in. Tucker howls the songâs title repeatedly, but coming from a band thatâs always been unabashedly progressive, the sentiment lacks teeth.
Other tracks are more musically sophisticated, even if they lack the power of the bandâs best work. âRestlessâ is a swooning, midtempo rumination on middle age and relationships in which Brownstein wrestles with the difficulty of asking someone to accept the very things that you donât like about yourself. âCan I Go Onâ is a straight-up pop song, or at least as close to one as Sleater-Kinney is likely to whip up. Itâs warm and funny, with a big earworm of a chorus, but the lyrical rhymes range from basic (âtiredâ/âwiredâ) to groan-inducing (âhappyâ/ânappingâ). Elsewhere, Brownstein implores the listener to âcall the doctor, dig me out of this messâ over the skittering electronic beat and staccato synths of âLove.â
The albumâs highlights are a pair of Tucker-led songs that achieve the best blend of the bandâs newfound synth influences and their more punk bona fides. âReach Outâ is built around a synth figure in the verses before building to a guitar-shredding climax, with a shipwreck serving as a metaphor for bodily autonomy. The lyrics are more sophisticated than those of the albumâs title track, displaying the type of political acumen that Sleater-Kinney has always been known for. âNever have I felt so goddamn lost,â Tucker belts on âThe Future Is Here.â She and Brownstein could just as easily be talking about their band as the larger world when harmonize about how âthe futureâs here, and we canât go back.â
The Center Wonât Hold clocks in at just over a 30 minutes and lacks a certain sparkâa song with the barn-burning intensity of âEntertainâ or the heartrending emotion of âOne More Hour.â In many places, these songs feel derivative in a way that the bandâs music never has before. The guitar tone throughout âRestlessâ is more like Real Estate than Brownstein and Tuckerâs signature sound, while âBad Danceâ is mostly notable for how much the title nods to a much-maligned Prince song. Which makes the moments when the band locks in and delivers the adrenaline-pumping thrills that have been their trademark feel all the more effective.
Label: Mom + Pop Release Date: August 16, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: The Hold Steadyâs Thrashing Thru the Passion Is a Satisfying Head-Scratcher
While the album may lack instant anthems, itâs still a highly consistent and satisfying rock album.3.5
The Hold Steady was hailed by Rolling Stone as âAmericaâs greatest bar bandâ over a decade ago, but only in the last few years have its members begun to treat the outfit like an actual bar bandâan outlet for a few booze-fueled weekend hangouts a year between old friendsârather than the prolific touring and recording workhorse it used to be. They havenât mounted a full-length tour since 2014, and since 2012, frontman Craig Finn has released four solo albums to the Hold Steadyâs one. The arrival of the bandâs seventh album, Thrashing Thru the Passion, is thus both long overdue and a bit of head-scratcher. As it collects five new songs alongside five of the nine singles the band has intermittently released since 2017, the album has more of the feel of a well-curated B-sides collection.
While it may lack the exhilarating anthems of previous Hold Steady efforts, Thrashing Thru the Passion is still a highly consistent and satisfying rock album. Finnâs garrulous wordplay, honed through the complex character sketches of his recent solo work, is as sharp as ever, while the return of keyboardist Franz Nicolay for the first time since 2008âs Stay Positive throws into relief how much his contributions have been missed in the interim. Though Nicolay shies away from the arch E Street Band-style breaks he favored during his first stint with the band, from 2005 to 2010, his piano and organ on the woozy ballad âBlackout Samâ and the soulful, swaying-in-the-pews outro to âT-Shirt Tuxâ access intimate musical textures that havenât been heard from the Hold Steady in years.
Despite the bandâs growing ranks, Thrashing Thru the Passion is their least grandiose album since their 2004 debut. During the peak of their popularity in the mid-2000s, the Hold Steady was nothing if not ostentatious, with heavily guitar-forward mixes, Nicolayâs showy piano and Vaudevillian fashion sense, and Finnâs manic stage presence. Here they no longer sound like theyâre playing to the arena rafters, in terms of both sonics and songwriting. This allows room for the energetic yet melodic warmth of âEpauletsâ and âStar 18,â two concise tracks that might have been left off of previous albums in favor of more bombastic offerings.
Still, itâs hard not to miss the massive guitar riffs of the Hold Steadyâs heyday. One might have expected the 2010 addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge to bolster the bandâs already huge guitar focus and result in more of the Thin Lizzy-style dueling leads that founding guitarist Tad Kubler had been overdubbing in the studio. Instead, virtually the opposite has occurred. Kubler and Selvidge are too similar stylistically to create any real back and forth, but itâs not like they attempt much high-octane riffage anyway, instead employing mostly jangly arpeggios and chordal pounding (the basic, grinding power chords on âEntitlement Crewâ might be the laziest guitar part in the Hold Steadyâs catalog). The only proper guitar solo on Thrashing Thru the Passion, on âThe Stove & the Toaster,â is thin and trebly, pushed back in the mix behind Finnâs vocals and the brass section that appears throughout the album. Only on âT-Shirt Tuxâ do Kubler and Selvidge wrap their fingers around the kind of big, thick riff that might have wound up on a Hold Steady album from the 2000s.
Even if the bandâs guitar work isnât what it used to be, Finnâs storytelling prowess certainly is, and along with his usual barrage of smartest-guy-at-the-dive-bar one-liners, an appropriate shift in his perspective as a lyricist is evident. If any of these songs were written with Holly, Charlemagne, the Cityscape Skins, or any his other old characters in mind, itâs clear that the glory days are far behind them. One gets the feeling that the subjects of these songs are closer to Finnâs ageâ47âthan the kids he used to sing about. They can all get together again for a weekend of boozing and reminiscing (âEntitlement Crewâ), but eventually living in the past can just get sad (on âBlackout Sam,â Finn warns of âLocal legends with the far away eyesâ). The drugs and parties donât seem so romantic anymore; now everythingâs just seedy and tense, like in the deals-gone-wrong tales âYou Did Good Kidâ and âThe Stove & the Toaster.â
In short, the albumâs lyrics feature exactly the kind of logical thematic progression one could have only hoped for from Finn 15 years after the Hold Steady debuted and he started turning stories about pimps and drugged-out bartenders into religious allegory. Like Charlemagne, Finn is still caught up in some complicated thingsâand after a period of uncertainty, itâs a joy that the rest of the band remains willing to go along for the ride with him.
Label: Frenchkiss Release Date: August 16, 2019 Buy: Amazon
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