Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong don’t share the musical kinship of two artists you’d throw into the same playlist, and even in this mono-genre world in which we listen, you’d be hard pressed to find a festival that would put them on the same stage performing back-to-back sets. So the fact that the most popular indie jazz/pop musician maybe ever and the lead singer of Green Day recorded an album together – a country one at that – it is an anomaly of epic proportions. Stir in the mix that their music of choice is a straight-up cover album of one of your grandpa’s favorite bands and you’ve got a lot of nonsense going on here.
In the case of the beautiful if slightly monotonous Foreverly, a collection of songs reinterpreting The Everly Brothers’ 1958 album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, Jones and Armstrong prove that nonsense can be the recipe for quasi-successful musical harmony. To that point, angelic harmonies were the calling card of The Everly Brothers, best known for up-tempo pop classics like “Wake Up Little Susie” and “Bye Bye Love” – neither of which you’ll find here. This is a concentrated dose of down-tempo despair that focuses on country standards gloomily hinged on poverty, heartbreak and even murder.
The album came to be after the two met while performing with Stevie Wonder. According to an interview with Stereogum, Armstrong was obsessed Songs Our Daddy Taught Us and, upon deciding to re-record it, his wife suggested he do so with Jones.
Foreverly kicks off with “Roving Gambler”, a rockabilly two-step that’s about as raucous as the album gets. It’s a simple, subversively innocent song that is a rarity in modern music, and while it’s distinctly out of time it’s also fresh on the ears. Once you get past the initial shock of hearing Billie Joe channel his inner Hank Williams, it’s an entirely pleasant affair as Jones and Armstrong stay true to the classic Everly simplicity. “Long Time Gone” is a twang-filled breakup song that clearly influenced the sound of Dwight Yoakam. “Down In The Willow Garden” is a straight-out-of-the-saloon track about a man who murders his true love at the behest of his father. Beauty abounds, but it’s mostly in the sound of the music, and that slow, beautiful sound starts to get dull just past the album’s midway point. Listeners that dig deeper into the lyrics will find a lot of darkness behind the façade, but it does require patience and several repeat listens.
Everything here suits Norah Jones’ style perfectly – her warmth and breathy delivery sound immersed in the pain, always embodying the stories at hand. Armstrong, whose thin voice is far less distinctive in this genre than in the Alt-Rock style, holds his own but doesn’t infuse the material with its original affection. Armstrong’s harmonies never completely meld with Jones’ honey pipes and, unfortunately is voice is almost always the lead and weightier in the mix. Given that perfect harmony is the key to The Everly Brothers catalogue, bringing Norah Jones to the forefront would have made the experience a far sweeter listen.
Foreverly offers many pleasures but would have been easier to swallow as a 6-song EP. Since restraint wasn’t part of the gameplan, listeners would be advised to split the album into two halves to truly enjoy this gorgeous, slow album without losing patience – or falling asleep. [B]
The delicacy of Grizzly Bear’s music likens them more to sculptors than musicians. They craft their albums with the kind of care and patience that is easy to under-appreciate. Intent on outdoing themselves, the Brooklynite quartet put on a compositional clinic on their fourth album, last year’s Shields. It was a record assembled with a watchmaker’s precision, with all of the shivering translucency of an ice sculpture. To the surprise of no one, Shields: B-Sides is no different. An assortment of outtakes, demos and remixes from multiple studio sessions, B-Sides offers further evidence for Grizzly Bear’s reputation as quality control freaks. While it contains neither the polish nor richness usually found the band’s usual full-lengths, it’s an eminently solid addition to their catalogue.
On the opening moments of B-Sides, singer/guitarist Daniel Rossen implies the collection’s entire reason for being. “Clear out your mind and I’ll clear out mine,” he sings in his signature glassy tone on lead-off track “Smothering Green”. It’s both an emphatic “wait, there’s more!” moment and a palate-cleanser of sorts. Songs of this quality would be album standouts for a lot of bands; from Grizzly Bear’s perspective, not good enough for primetime. While the remixes are relatively disposable, each is worth a listen. Conversely, the B-sides and demos range are all decent or better, and it’s interesting to mull over the permutations and combinations that could have been possible on Shields proper.
But if Grizzly Bear were really that hard on themselves, so dead set on leaving everything but the cream of a bumper crop on the cutting room floor, these tracks never would have surfaced. So why all the extra goodies? I’d surmise that Grizzly Bear were intent on clearing house before allowing themselves—as they no doubt will— to start from scratch. Crucially, for a release of this kind, B-Sides never feels like a desperate move or a cash grab. If you already own Shields, the expansion is available as standalone vinyl or download; if you don’t (for shame), it comes wholesale as well.
The five original songs found here are mostly dark, decorous and raw, embodying the frustration that likely pervaded the earlier attempts at making what would become Sheilds. The general negativity of the preliminary Marfa sessions (not one song recorded in this span made the cut for Shields) is reflected at the chorus of the aqueous “Taken Down”: “You’re a little late/I’m a little tired…Totally agree/Everything is worse.” The melodic somersaults wouldn’t sound out of place on Shields less visceral first half, but it plays out more as an intra-band conversation than an examination of their usual imagery and motifs.
Occasionally, the songs reveal a majestic sweep found much more frequently within their more attractive cousins. On “Will Calls”, the most compelling track of the bunch, vocalist Ed Droste is almost operatic, while rhythm players Chris Taylor and Christopher Bear keep their work to a jazzy minimum before exploding at the chorus. Elsewhere (“Listen and Wait”, “Everyone I Know”), things are solid and steady, if unexciting. Of the remixes, Nicolas Jaar’s reworking of the clamoring “Sleeping Ute” is by far the best. He doesn’t so much remix the track as peel each of its pieces apart and lay them bare before his drizzly production work.
So, five tracks, two very good, three just good, and three remixes, one worth your while, and two that don’t fight to be heard by anyone other than fans of the band. If you walk in expecting less than the world, this glimpse into the busy minds of an uncommonly thorough group of artists is never less than enjoyable, if not totally essential. [B-]
Whether we realize it or not, we’ve been listening to the music of certified triple threat Devonte Hynes for a long time – as a producer, a songwriter for the likes of Florence Welch and the Chemical Brothers, as one member of third-string dance-punk act Test Icicles and only member of third-string folk-rock act Lightspeed Champion. 2012, however, was undeniably his champagne year, when we reached a Devonte Hynes critical mass with Solange’s True and Sky Ferreira’s “Everything Is Embarrassing,” both co-written and produced by Hynes. Neither Solange nor Ferreira stormed the scene with Hynes’s songs; rather, they tip-toed in politely and then proceeded to work toward popular ubiquity. These songs were sleeper hits, but it seems Hynes doesn’t write any other kind. His aesthetic may have been one of last year’s most recognizable, but this is in part due to its radical modesty: a Hynes song, perpetually hazy without ever really risking obscurity, might possess a dynamite hook (“Everything Is Embarrassing,” “Lovers In The Parking Lot”), but often it’s hard to distinguish from the rest of the melody upon first listen. Once you learn the contours of the song, though, you can’t go back: the chorus that seemed slack and uninspired the first time around gradually assumes widescreen proportions and ultimately becomes undeniable. In this sense, Hynes’s songs are quintessential examples of “growers,” tracks that don’t make their ambitions plain and scan as harmless, but which, given a little time, subtly increase in power until suddenly they punch the listener in the gut without having seemed to change at all. It’s no wonder Ferreira didn’t re-team with Hynes for her blunt, brash debut LP Night Time, My Time; their pop M.O.s right now are diametrically opposed.
The first time we got a taste of Blood Orange, Hynes’s youngest solo project, was 2011’s Coastal Grooves. That record was a monochromatic collection of would-be growers that never grew, but 2011 also saw the release of the single “Dinner,” still probably Blood Orange’s best work to date, a hushed yet scathing and insanely catchy shock of a breakup song dressed up in specious pastel synth tones. If Coastal Grooves was a whole album of skeletal elevator music and missed opportunities, “Dinner” was the ideal next step, a fully seized opportunity that explored the exciting tension of pairing fraught emotional content with pleasantly mesmerizing music. It was both these general principles and the sonic specifics of “Dinner” which Hynes applied to his work for Solange and Ferreira, and it’s these sounds and principles which have since gone on to define the music released as Blood Orange. In its combination of trendy influences and this decades habitual nostalgias, it couldn’t be any more current – it’s a potent cocktail of classic R&B and hip-hop, cool jazz and ‘80s easy-listening, indie pop, scrappy DFA funk, and whatever’s in the water up in Toronto (a la Drake and the Weeknd), all run through a Washed Out Instagram filter – but Hynes’s great virtue is that he pits these sounds against each other in ways that are highly stylish, yes, but also tense and interesting, and in the process he writes songs that don’t closely resemble anyone else’s. Considering that the Blood Orange project’s overall vibe is so unassuming, it’s remarkable that its sonic identity is so rock-solid and unique.
One inadvertent negative consequence of this is that there’s a kind of default Blood Orange song, first and best represented on his second LP Cupid Deluxe by single “You’re Not Good Enough,” and we heard it eight times already last year when Solange and Ferreira brought considerably more vocal energy to the table than Hynes does. The worst stretches of Cupid Deluxe are those in which Hynes is content to simply reproduce that one song, causing the record to sink into monotony and tedium. But at his best, the guy’s got a gift for teasing out the latent flexibility of a seemingly rigid aesthetic, and this doesn’t just apply to the record’s wise variations in pace (True, by contrast, rarely budged from its standard midtempo stroll). He knows that, mixed just right, sharp post-punk guitar squiggles will breathe life into what could have been just more of the same Blood Orange fare (“It Is What Is” and “No Right Thing”), and that the deft employment of stately piano figures will lend grace and sparkle to the harsh beats, overwhelming reverb, and emotional anguish of closer “Time Will Tell.” When he deviates from the basic model, he takes only well-calculated risks, and they usually pay off, whether it’s the anthemic choir of jazzy mid-album highlight “Chosen,” the more straightforward hip-hop of “Clipped On” and “High Street,” and the strutting guitars and dark, warped woodwinds of the funky “Uncle ACE,” definitely Cupid Deluxe’s weirdest track and also probably its most fun. And these production tics always serve the best interests of Hynes’s expertly crafted melodies, subtle but ultimately indomitable hooks that leave far deeper impressions than they seem to be doing.
Thematically, Blood Orange is more conservative. Cupid Deluxe presents over and over again the same basic story as True and “Everything Is Embarrassing,” one of torturous miscommunications between people who want to be in love but aren’t much good at it. The atmosphere of doubt and longing is palpable, but well before the album’s end it comes to seem less like an honest exploration of ambiguity and more like a troubling reluctance to commit to any clear opinion or emotional risk. The parade of guests vocalists – Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, Adam Bainbridge of Kindness, Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek, rapper Skepta, and Samantha Urbani of Friends, who appears throughout the album – distracts somewhat from this problem, but it’s an unsustainable tactic since only Longstreth and Polachek bring any more conviction to the material than does Hynes, himself only a capable singer at best. Listening to Cupid Deluxe, I longed for “Dinner”’s hard left into savage, unequivocal articulations of toxic spite and for Ferreira’s heartbreakingly ragged take on “Everything Is Embarrassing.” Instead, there’s indecision for miles but little sense of the tension and pressure that would make that stasis compelling enough for even one pop song, let along a whole album.
It’s when Hynes hauls himself out of this stupor and matches thrilling songwriting and production with sharper lyricism and emotional conviction that Cupid Deluxe most fully realizes the potential of Blood Orange. Stunning opener “Chamakay” finds Hynes and the endlessly charismatic Polachek trading suspicious glances over a moody backing of saxophone and kalimba, while closer “Time Will Tell” revisits one of the blander tracks here, “It Is What It Is,” only to plunge it into reverb and give it a sickly minor-key twist. These bookending tracks are the moments that document not the malaise of ambiguity but the drama of ambivalence. Rather than avoiding taking a firm position on the troubled and probably doomed relationships at the songs’ centers, “Chamakay” and “Time Will Tell” take several firm but contradictory positions each – resignation and optimism, suspicion and trust, urgency and procrastination, the tenderness of affection and the undertow of dependence – and then struggle to reconcile them. While most of the lyrics here come off like uncertain placeholders devoid of real meaning, Hynes’s pleas of “come into my bedroom” on “Time Will Tell” sound like they mean almost too much for the words or their singer to bear. The effect is powerful, and Hynes would do well to take his own cue on future material. For now, though, Cupid Deluxe is, much like many of his narrators, flawed but fundamentally decent. Blood Orange’s sound is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing and important in pop today, and this sophomore effort is a promising progression for an artist who deserves more of the spotlight, but probably won’t ever demand it. [B]
This isn’t a collection meant for anyone trying to “get into” the Killers, or discover anything new about the band. However, seeing as they’ve only ever released singles and filler, the Killers’ limited discography is perfect for the compilation format. As Direct Hits suggests, it’s just a quick way to get to what’s relevant about them, an I.V. drip of catchy tunes from a time when your emotions were still raw and tender. Now we can all stop pretending that anyone has ever heard Sam’s Town B-Sides like “Why Do I Keep Counting?”—Is that even a real Killers song? Who knows!?—and get down to business: indulging in shamelessly masturbatory sentimentality.
Like Blink 182 or Uncle Kracker, the Killers is now primarily relevant as a nostalgia-fueled machine for my middle school memories: confusedly discussing the wonderfully gender-bendy chorus to “Somebody Told Me” while eating Funyuns before P.E. or falling in love with my best friend’s girlfriend as she played “When You Were Young” on Rockband.
As the Killers aged, however, their music has grown more sterile—something this compilation unfortunately highlights. They’ve slowly fallen into the quicksand genre of Indie-lite; if you mention them at a party you’ll probably get the response, “The Killers? Do you even read Pitchfork?” In particular, the tracks off Battle Born—their most recent LP—are little more than shallow synthy zeitgeist-aimed fluff. Even their better post-2006 songs don’t match up to the raw, unapologetic energy of their earliest releases. I like “Human,” but riding around in my Volvo hatchback as a senior in high school, all I focused was the ludicrously earnest imploration: “Are we human, or are we dancer?” (apparently a reference to Hunter S. Thompson, a figure so oppositely counter-culture to the Killers’ mom-sanctioned rock that its almost difficult to imagine a universe that contains both of them).
That’s the thing about contemporary Killers, they just try so hard. There’s basically nothing to remind us of Hot Fuss-era Brandon Flowers, back when he was an alt-rock badass and earning NME “Sexiest Man” statuettes. Now, when they make new albums, I think oh cute, and then request “All These Things That I’ve Done” so I can scream the gospel breakdown, deliberately ignoring the artificial darkening of one of the whitest bands in the history of a white genre.
Regrettably, though, there is new material on Direct Hits that must be addressed. “Just Another Girl,” is largely uneventful, and emblematic of the Killers’ poor tendencies on Battle Born. “Shot at the Night,” isn’t so bad, but anything that I once loved about the Killers is covered up by producer Anthony Gonzales (of the wonderful French electronic band M83). It’s a solid song, but I didn’t start listening to the Killers for this grandiose U2-worshipping stadium rock. Other people do it better, like Gonzales himself.
As for the deluxe edition bonus tracks, they probably just shouldn’t exist. The Mr. Brightside original demo tape is relevant only to diehard Killers fanboys. The “When We Were Young” remix has some kitsch value, but “Be Still” has absolutely no business being a bonus track when it’s a forgotten song from a mediocre album released one year ago. GET ME BACK TO THE OLDIES!
Perhaps this review is a little too specific to my generation, but after all, that’s the target. It’s a little tug at our jackets as we walk away, because after we’re gone, who else is going to remember them? This album just isn’t really relevant for anyone who never went to an awkward middle school dance that featured “Mr. Brightside” as you stood in the corner, wondering how sex worked.
All that withstanding, if you can ignore the songs after “Spaceman,” Direct Hits would make a great tongue-in-cheek stocking stuffer for a high school reunion Christmas party. After all, how bad could it be to take a couple of weeks to stop meticulously trying to stay ahead of the indie curve and relive when you first fell in love with this type of music, probably about halfway through puberty, in a friend’s basement watching That 70s Show, and playing ping-pong back before you had any idea what it meant to be cool. [C+]
The Killers – Direct Hits Tracklist: 01 Mr. Brightside 02 Somebody Told Me 03 Smile Like You Mean It 04 All These Things That I’ve Done 05 When You Were Young 06 Read My Mind 07 For Reasons Unknown 08 Human 09 Spaceman 10 A Dustland Fairytale 11 Runaways 12 Miss Atomic Bomb 13 The Way It Was 14 Shot At the Night 15 Just Another Girl 16 Mr. Brightside (Original Demo) 17 When You Were Young (Calvin Harris Remix) 18 Be Still
“M.I.A. coming back with power power” – that’s the central lyric of “Bamboo Banga,” the opening track of the Sri Lanka-via-London pop star’s most successful album, 2007’s Kala. But back then, did anyone expect Maya Arulpragasam to return any other way? The line didn’t mean much, but it was effective and successful; it made M.I.A sound cool as fuck.
Indisputable, unflappable coolness has been M.I.A.’s most evident and appealing quality since her name-making 2004 mixtape with Diplo, Piracy Funds Terrorism. Her magnetic charisma sucked dub reggae, dancehall, U.K. bass music, hip-hop, electro, Bollywood samples, and punk rock into its orbit and spat it all back out again as a decidedly internet-era, pan-global pop blast. Unfortunately, M.I.A. was also happy to pilfer third-world musical traditions to give her own work a hip edge, while chastising us about the horrors of capitalist imperialism; according to her best-known lyrics, all she wanted to do was shoot people and take their money, but she also wanted us to wake up to the entrenched violence and poverty of the global hustle. Where was the line between talk and walk, between making political statements to do good and making them because doing good is “cool”? M.I.A.’s music put a ton of pressure on sensitive issues of privilege – appropriation, colonization, white guilt, interventionism, hypocrisy – but the millionaire herself refused to address or take responsibility for them, telling us in between handfuls of truffle fries that we were the problem, not her. In 2010, Lynn Hirschberg spoke up for helpless hipsters everywhere and wrote a New York Times Magazine profile of the musician so devastating, it sank the critical reception of that year’s LP /\/\/\Y/\ and came close to reducing M.I.A.’s career to a punchline.
So when that line from “Bamboo Banga” reappears here during the outro to the best song on her fourth album, MATANGI, it communicates a lot more than just, “I’m cool as fuck.” After 2010’s P.R. disasters, /\/\/\Y/\’s critical and commercial failure, scandalously flipping the bird at the Superbowl, a divorce, lawsuits, Twitter rants, a repeatedly delayed release date, and endless struggles with her label, many of us wondered if M.I.A. would ever manage to come back at all, let alone with “power power.” Yet here’s MATANGI at last, and here’s M.I.A. once again, miraculously, awesomely, “coming back with power power.” In fact, that may be a huge understatement.
The opening salvo from MATANGI was last year’s single “Bad Girls,” a great track accompanied by an immortally badass video courtesy of Romain Gavras. If that video were released in 2009, I’d have had to write a long-winded blog post taking M.I.A. and Gavras to task for taking the lived oppression of Saudi women and turning it into an image of cool in order to promote a major-label pop song. But it was 2012, and I didn’t write that post because I didn’t have the energy anymore, and the music world didn’t care anymore. M.I.A.’s public shaming in 2010 was so brutal that it no longer felt necessary or worthwhile to call her out. Her appropriation of global issues to which she had no legitimate claim in the name of her own image was just “M.I.A. being M.I.A.” – still problematic, but less so than if she’d passionately insisted the video was intended to raise awareness. “Bad Girls” still sparked a minor liberal-blogosphere meltdown, but for most listeners, it just didn’t matter anymore. If you got the subtext of the video, you got it, and if you got angry about it, fine, but if neither of those things happened, then you just pretended you were surfing on a sports car popping a 90-degree wheelie in the desert like the rest of us. All of MATANGI is like that. You can listen to the lyrics of “Come Walk With Me” – “You ain’t gotta throw your hands up in the air, ‘cause tonight we ain’t acting like we don’t care” – or you can listen to the music, which will almost certainly make you want to put them in the air like you don’t care. As ever, M.I.A. contradicts herself, and eight years after she first graffiti-tagged our hearts with Arular, we should know better than to expect anything different. Bullshit continues to abound when she opens her mouth, but magic happens when she enters the studio. What’s more important? The choice is yours. I recommend the latter, because MATANGI is a total blast, one catchy, tough, clever, airtight, hyper-current track after another for a solid hour of off-the-hook fun that synthesizes everything that worked about Arular, Kala, and /\/\/\Y/\ while discarding those ideas that didn’t. Co-written and co-produced by M.I.A. and a team of peers led by longtime collaborator Switch, MATANGI is wild, chaotic, bustling, and a little unhinged, but it’s also creative, innovative, and eminently accessible. It’s instantly listenable, danceable, quotable, and loveable.
As a performer, M.I.A.’s as incredibly cool as ever, fierce and intelligent and charismatic, and the motivating force of her personality alone sees some of the more rickety compositions here through to success. Her so-so singing voice is still annoyingly slathered in AutoTune, but her melodies are irresistible, and when she hits a good flow, her rapping – which hops between disparate topics like WikiLeaks and #YOLO without missing a beat – is unstoppable (see: “Bring The Noize”). There’s some effort made to update her aesthetic for the times, most obviously in the near-omnipresent rumbles of searing post-dubstep bass that’s become hip-hop’s technique du jour and in the dark, bleary synth tones popularized by acts like the Weeknd (who is sampled on two tracks here, including the lovely, monolithic “Exodus”). But there’s also a strong sense that M.I.A. doesn’t really need such assistance, since, after all, her own records are key stepping stones leading to pop’s present – something that’s bluntly asserted when she samples and then self-deprecatingly distorts recognizable fragments of Kala (the title track here, for instance, is a sinister rework of “Boyz”).
It’s hard to pick highlights from a record so consistently excellent and so perfectly sequenced. There’s not a dud to be found; even the skit, “Boom,” is worth hearing out every time, which is not something one usually writes about rap skits. MATANGI hits the ground running and only pauses for one water break (“Lights”) over the course of its fifteen tracks. “Bad Girls” is still a showstopper, but most of the songs here could easily give it a run for its money on the dancefloor or on the car stereo (notably “Y.A.L.A.” and “Warriors”). The obvious pick for another hit is MATANGI’s magnificent pinnacle, “Come Walk With Me.” I imagine this is what Interscope execs were referring to when they criticized the record as “too positive.” I also imagine M.I.A. simply misinterpreted a compliment, because this song’s an absolute triumph, an obscenely catchy shapeshifter of a lighter-waving anthem that self-destructs into a dancehall freakout, then picks up the pieces and rebuilds itself so that it’s even more beautiful and more incandescent than before. Genuinely moving on an album full of pokerfaced bangers, it’s the only moment that readily presents itself as an occasion to reflect on the person who’s the source of all this music and all this controversy, someone who’s been through the ringer and let us all watch it happen – celebrity, pariah, mother, daughter, divorcee, Londoner, Sri Lankan, third-world, first-world, globetrotter, provocateur, activist, artist. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” she sings, echoing a cliché previously embraced by another contentious 21st-century pop star, Mr. Kanye West. That line carries weight because there’s been so much that hasn’t quite killed M.I.A.’s career, and not for want of trying.
Contradiction, confusion, and complexity are the forces that make popular culture compelling, and it’s long been clear M.I.A. has more of that kind of ammunition up her sleeve than most. The “Bad Girls” video and its reception may be an effective illustration of our volatile relationship to this challenging musician, but “Come Walk With Me” is the best representation of what makes her special. Because it’s an arena ballad whose beating heart is the not-so-tender lyric, “I’m gonna still fuck with you.” Naturally. This is M.I.A. – would we really settle for anything less? [B+]
1988. IT boffins and astrophysicists will remember it as a year of significant firsts – the year of the first major computer virus, the “1988 Internet worm”, and the discovery of the very first extrasolar planet, Gamma Cephei Ab. Seasoned ravers and technophiles remember it for a very different significant “second” however – the second “Summer Of Love”… the explosion of Acid House in Europe ushered in via a cloudburst of MDMA and the clamour from a thousand Roland TB-303 synthesizers screeching in unison.
I was too young to experience the music of the Acid House movement first-hand, but a certain member of my family – part of that scene, and gripped by its seemingly voracious thirst for merriment – would regale me on a weekly basis with the latest stories from her late night soirées: information on illegal raves spreading by word-of-mouth, illegal parties in hidden caverns, raspberry ice pops being passed out to combat the dehydrating effects of mammoth marathon dancing sessions. It made a lasting impression on me, and – obsessed – I began to absorb the music of the time like a sapling scrabbling for water: Phuture, Armando, A Guy Called Gerald – and then later more popular acts like 808 State, Experience-era Prodigy, and K-Klass.
Listening to Cut Copy’s fourth LP Free Your Mind it’s obvious that multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dan Whitford has a similar passion for the music of that era – the album is heavily indebted to the acid-house sounds of the late eighties and early nineties. It’s characterised by ubiquitous 4/4 beats, Roland-esque bass squelches and euphoria inducing reverb-laden ascending piano lines, and is cut from a cloth as psychedelic and fluorescent as the album artwork.
Vocally Whitford veers towards the dance-rock frontmen from the era who made it their business to revitalise a UK music scene licking its wounds after the acrimonious departure of The Smiths: Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder, The Stone Roses’ Ian Brown, Primal Scream’s Bobby Gilespie. His voice is more uniquely accented than on previous albums too, though his vocals still posseses that feathery wraith-like quality.
Lyrically and thematically the tracks are simple and basic – but it would be unwise to expect to find the meaning of life at the bottom of an Acid House lyric. The electro-glitch disco of the title track urges you to “free your mind”, a mantra very much attached to the first Summer Of Love in 1967 (which also clearly inspires the psychedelic leanings of the LP), and clichéd lyrical phrases such as this abound: “Don’t need no gravity to hold our love in place” on “Let Me Show You Love”, and “We are explorers when the beat goes on/ We’re on a journey to the morning sun…” on “We are Explorers”.
It’s all about the music though; the trippy, corny-but-fun lyrics are secondary. “Meet Me In The House Of Love” melds glorious sax to pulsating bass, and elsewhere there’s plenty of punchy percussion, fuzzy hyperactive rhythms, and soaring synths swilring around stabbing piano motifs to keep you consistently engaged. “We Are Explorers” recalls classic Pet Shop Boys in terms of production, and “Take Me Higher” surges and builds like a kaleidoscopic maelstrom.
Free Your Mind is an album that’s sure to make early Acid House DJ pioneers such as Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold, and Nicky Holloway smile as they reminisce about that 1987 summer in Ibiza, back when they had their epiphany about the style of music they wanted to forge back home. The LP is revisionary as opposed to revolutionary, owing much in style and substance to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, but it’s successful because Cut Copy reflect past sounds via the prism of modern pop, refining and rechanneling their influences in the process.
The only issue is that some tracks are slightly overlong, and the trio of short interludes feel unnecessary – threatening to pull you out of the moment and stifle the gradually escalating sense of euphoria. This is a small complaint, however, given the consistently infectious hooks and melodies, and the manner in which it brilliantly and wistfully evokes rose-tinted memories of the lost Golden Age of dance. [B]
When Widowspeak released their second full-length album, Almanac, in early 2013, the band looked up from their shoegazing past – a home-recording, low-fi origin story – to gaze toward a structured, cleaner horizon that more closely aligned their sound with Cowboy Junkies and Mazzy Star. The streamlining was due in part to the losses of founding drummer Michael Stasiak and bassist Pamela Garabano-Coolbaugh and in part to the keen production ear of Kevin McMahon (Swans, Real Estate), who kept the core in tact while rightly emphasizing the 70s folksiness and Fleetwood Mac undercurrents.
Almanac certainly lived up to its name – it was a living, breathing, optimistic forecast for the year ahead. As evidenced by The Swamps, the band’s new blues-ier, countrified 6-song EP, Widowspeak is forecasting a steamier, southern-gothic tinged future.
Lead singer Molly Hamilton and guitarist Robert Earl Thomas have referred to the EP as a bridge between their past and a new album slated for release in 2014, and the duo waste no time dimming the lights and turning the dial to melancholia . Leadoff track “Theme From The Swamps” is a delicate, echo-y song layered with acoustic strum, loose drumming and a Peter Buck style mandolin that radiates sultry heat. Hamilton wordlessly vocalizes and the ambient noise builds to climax only to drop off without warning, leading right into “Smoke and Mirrors”, a barebones, mid-tempo rocker with another wordless chorus that relies heavily on melody – a lovely one at that – this time accentuated by driving hand percussion.
“Calico” feels straight out of the Tarantino universe, a spaghetti western soundtrack to a decaying relationship that captures the swampy, spooky feeling of losing the one you love and the home you’ve built. The whole affair is a bit haunting, but remains lively. “Brass Bed” begins as a She & Him style two-stepper, but when paired with Hamilton’s wry delivery and the cutting lyric, (“Baby can we play dead, laying in our brass bed”) the results eschew cutesy in favor of dark and mysterious. “True Believer” is a pretty albeit half-finished song that goes nowhere, and keeps going there for nearly five minutes.
Overall, the songs’ structures could use some tightening up. Not every cut needs a grand chorus, but every now and then these songs feel like taking a walk without a destination and, by the end, they don’t stand apart from the whole. Lyrically the album lags a bit, and too many vocalizations in place of actual sung words begins to feel like perhaps Hamilton wasn’t sure what to say.
What truly works is the band’s commitment to the skeletal framework of their music, Thomas’ authoritative picking coupled with Hamilton’s lilting voice, a sultry whisper that conveys desolation and wistfulness, both of which play major roles in many of these songs. Foundational elements of the music feel out-of-time, but they never feel forced and never become a trite 70s and 90s pastiche because Widowspeak continue to abide by the addition-by-subtraction rule: they’ve added new styles to their sound without layering on more sounds. If Widowspeak were a stylish outfit, every album and EP in their catalogue has been an accessory that enhances their overall look without changing what’s working. It’s not hard to imagine that come 2014, their style won’t need any more flourishes. [B]
Listening to Corsicana Lemonade reminds me of buying a couch. There are a lot of couches out there, they’re all pretty similar, and you probably don’t need two. But, if you don’t have one and need somewhere comfortable to sit your tuchus, it’s as good as any.
It’s White Denim’s ill fortune to play in a market oversaturated with decent white-boy rock. At their best, they remind me of similar bands I like more (Thickfreakness-era Black Keys, the long-lost Morning Benders, Tame Impala, and even White Denim’s own incarnation on D, Corsicana’s much more impressive predecessor). It’s a warning sign when the album’s strongest calling card is a resemblance to things I’ve enjoyed in the past.
Internet darling “Pretty Green” exemplifies the problem. It’s probably the best of the standard rock jams, but it stops there. An inoffensive blues progression, little guitar tricks filling the gaps between the mostly ignorable lyrics. They sound like they’re fiddling around in a pop-rock workshop, mixing and recycling their favorite tropes and loops. When Petralli wails about “carbon copy portraits in a box that [he] was shuffling through,” all I can think of is Corsicana Lemonade itself, all replications and emulations.
Don’t get me wrong, I like the song. I like it the way I value a decent neighborhood restaurant with a lunch special that’s cheap and filling. I’ll eat there if it’s close to work, but I’m not going to bring my friends from out of town. Inoffensive to a fault.
Perhaps, I’d be more satisfied if I just listened to Petralli’s advice: “If it feels good, let it feel good to you.” How applicable to their music. Enjoy Petralli’s pre-chorus laugh, and smile with them. Indeed, on “Let It Feel Good” they come close to hitting their elusive niche, a happy, intensely listenable combination of psych, pop, and blues. Petralli makes good use of his delicate voice: a fragile vibrato that sounds pleasantly out of step with the hard wooly blues.
It’s pleasant. Should that be enough?
That attitude reminds me of a college friend who went to a lot of shows. If she knew the band, but the music bored her, she would meet them after the show and say, “Oh, it looked like you were having such a good time!”
And I could have a good time listening to this music too. It would be great for a bar, or a hook up. It’s vaguely good. It would never distract you. But I can’t shake the feeling that it’s a record made by someone who’s read about rock, but never listened to it. Technically, it’s well executed. There’s just nothing extra. People say don’t reinvent the wheel, but this isn’t a goddam wheel. It’s rock ‘n’ roll. Its existence is predicated on revolution.
Every once in a while, a bright spot will shine through. About a minute out from the end of “Cheer Up/Blues Ending”, the song drips into the all too common let’s make some noise ending, screeching with drum and guitar nonsense. Quickly, though, they update it with a nice, tinkling guitar line that fades into a soft psych synth. For “New Blue Feeling” they employ a wobbly guitar reminiscent of the standouts from D, and stumble, fortuitously, into a pleasant high-pitched breakdown to end the chorus. It’s interesting enough that it makes you wish they’d spent more time changing it up.
At the very least, the album ends on a high note. Titled, “A Place to Start,” it’s also a good message for the band. Work from this. Slow down, back up, and look at what makes this quiet, psych-inspired jam unique. True, not every album needs to make a statement; sometimes it’s just nice to have music to listen to with your eyes closed and your brain off. But they can do better.
Of course, while an album this middle of the road may not be destined for obsessive private listening, it has its place. Next time that special someone comes over, try throwing this bad boy on the speakers. It’ll sound great when you two are on your brand new couch, and no one’s going to interrupt you to ask who’s playing. [C+]
There exists an alternate universe not so different from ours in which Spencer Krug spends his days on a street soapbox believing he’s Jesus. Not in the fun, ridiculous, egocentric manner of Kanye, but the sad, painful, egocentric manner of a man suffering to bring us art. Or, maybe Krug’s already there; titling the second track “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark” puts the gaze on God, and “I’m a lamb! I’m a lamb! I’m a lamb!” really leaves nothing to the imagination. Hell, even the album art makes him look like he’s about to die for our sins.
Of course, Krug, under the guise of Moonface, has plenty of his own sins to account for, crowning himself a “barbarian” right on the album’s opener. It’s a strong beginning — perhaps the best song on the album — but bleak, pulsing with a bare piano that sounds halfway between a movie soundtrack and some sort of cerebral game show theme. Unfortunately, it spirals down from there, both musically and emotionally, until halfway through the album Krug’s spending all night “doing blow, playing chess by [himself].”
The music itself isn’t bad. There aren’t a ton of albums out there like this. If someone’s going acoustic, they’ll usually pick up a guitar and plagiarize their more interesting, electronic selves. Alone with the piano, Krug feels more raw and immediate than other ivory-stroking singer-songwriters. Parts of this album make me feel as if I just opened the door to Krug’s bedroom and found him naked and masturbating. That’s what this album is: indulgent, but human. When his voice cracks yelling that “everyone is Noah,” I think he really believes it and wants to communicate something important. But, for the life of me, I have no idea what it is.
Note the particularly frustrating “Barbarian II,” on which Krug — completely ignoring lemmings — refers to himself as “one of the few animals that’s self destructive.” Beyond the lyrics’ own inherent hollowness, it points towards a different and more severe problem: Krug loves metaphors. On Julia With The Blue Jeans On he wears enough zoological hats to supply a king’s menagerie: alternatively there’s the “frog licking the inside of [his] chest,” the “crow that keeps banging against the glass,” and did I mention the Lamb! Lamb! Lamb!? Krug may contain multitudes, but at some point he can’t be all these things at once.
This penchant for analogy and grand statements lead to a lot of uneven songs. While the beginning of “Noah” deserves it’s own personal cleansing flood, the end is beautiful, strong, clear, and devoid of distracting lyrical contortions, finally allowing the piano and his distinct off-kilter voice to shine. “Love the house you’re in” starts strong, but halfway through falls into Krug’s typical melancholic, allegorical babble. Without exception, the albums best moments come when he eschews figurative language for regular, old-fashioned honesty. Take the end of “November 2011” where he sings: “Baby we both know we are both crazy/ and you can stay as long as you would like to stay.” And, it is with this Krug that I want to stay. Unfortunately, I have to move on to “Dreamy Summer” where he dirties a nice song with “all seeing deities” and “turning water into wine.”
I’m reminded of a crying baby, and I mean that in as positive a way as that can come across. There’s a lot of noise and emotion and potential; I’m just not sure what it means. It’s purposefully grandiose and obtuse, like Duchamp-esque word-art, in which Krug turns lyrical urinals upside down, calls them a song, and waits for us all to figure it out.
The thing is, it’s not even that I want Krug to do something so different. This isn’t an album that makes me want to tell him to go back to Wolf Parade or Sunset Rubdown or Frog Eyes — all places where he made good music. No, I’m interested in this Moonface iteration of Spencer: alone and vulnerable. I just think he needs another take. He’s pared down the music, now lets see if he can pare down the metaphor. There are moments on Julia where he succeeds in creating the important and honest music he wants to make. Of course, when you’re using a shotgun, you’re bound to hit something. [B-]
Everything and nothing is surprising about Sky Ferreira’s career. Courted by a major label via MySpace in her teens, demos left to languish on execs’ hard drives: it’s a story we’ve all heard before. Ferreira fought valiantly to get her music heard despite the Man’s disapproval, but this development, too, is just another tired one in a stale narrative. Ferreira’s go-to interview move is to discuss how her first record was shelved because she “wasn’t going to be what they wanted me to be,” and how she still struggles to be taken seriously, but come on. Who really believes Capitol could be strong-armed into releasing a record they couldn’t sell for profit?
And boy, have they sold it. Ferreira’s constant return in interviews to the theme of marketplace politics, albeit in the guise of disdain for marketplace politics, makes it difficult to approach her much-delayed, oft-retitled debut LP Night Time, My Time from a perspective that isn’t preoccupied with questions of who this music has been made for and how it’s reaching them. Is she dating Zachary Cole Smith from DIIV because she’s cool like that, or is she cool because she’s dating a guy on Captured Tracks who vaguely resembles Kurt Cobain? Yeah, it blows (no pun) that she got arrested for heroin possession and that it earned her so much negative press, but she also won’t stop talking about how frustrated she is by the publicity surrounding the arrest, which is the same as contributing to the publicity surrounding the arrest. “The timing couldn’t have been worse,” she recently told Pitchfork, but of course, the timing really couldn’t have been more perfect. The #NSFW album artwork was shot in a Parisian hotel bathroom by controversy-baiting French film director Gaspar Noe, which has been touted as rebelliousness squared, but the takeaway for me is that Ferreira swims in circles that include Noe – circles that don’t come cheap. The bad girl with a heart of indie rock? The teen prodigy who stood up to corporate bigwigs to follow her dreams? The long-suppressed artist finally getting her due? I mean, really, of all drugs it had to be heroin? (R.I.P. Lou Reed.) This is a character we’ve paid to believe in a hundred times before, blog buzz honed in a hundred hype cycles. So that we might consider Night Time, My Time the way it deserves to be considered, let’s all make a pact to cut the crap. This is medium-budget, major-label pop music from a performer subject to all the economically motivated image-manipulation as other major-label pop singers and shouldn’t be treated as anything else. That which is a novelty on certain niche tastemaking sites is, in the context of the grander 2013 mainstream pop constellation, nothing inherently special. Yeah, Ferreira writes all her own songs. You know who else does that? Taylor Swift. Ferreira recently attacked the sexist notion of the male-steered female pop ingénue in an interview, which is absolutely valid. I’m not contending that Ferreira’s not in a position of relative creative control here, or that she had any less of a hand than co-writers/co-producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen in Night Time, My Time. I’m just saying that the hand she did have in its creation must necessarily have been one that the people upstairs gave the go-ahead to, and therefore we the public should be warier than we have been thus far of attaching much importance to the fingerprints.
So the angle this time around is the rebellious ‘90s girl spiking the punch at the chart-pop party (the press release from the label namedrops Britney Spears, Madonna, and Courtney Love in a single breath), and the title of the record has that possessive emphasis, which suggests a creative team aware of and learning from its weaknesses. 2012’s Ghost EP was scattershot, sounding exactly how you’d expect an EP to sound when each of its five tracks gives its producer slot to another, far more established artist (Rechtshaid, Cass McCombs, Blake Mills, Jon Brion, Shirley Manson, and Dev Hynes all contributed). There’s Sky Does Country, Sky Does Fiona Apple, Sky Does Garbage, and Sky Does Robyn, but very little Sky Does Sky. Even the EP’s addictively catchy sleeper hit “Everything Is Embarrassing” sounds awkwardly like Sky Does Solange. On Night Time, finally, Ferreira sounds like one person with multiple dimensions rather than five people with one dimension each, and honestly this synthesis leads to a consistency that’s refreshing in a way the particulars of the schtick aren’t.
Because it’s still first and foremost patische: Sky Ferreira circa 2013 sounds an awful lot like Reign Of Terror, MS MR’s “Hurricane,” Lana Del Rey, and above all else Ferreira’s evil British twin model Charl XCX – all of which themselves are best described as “sounds like X+Y+Z” whether they have all the creative control (XCX) or none of it (Del Rey). Ferreira’s music sounds strikingly of her time, which is to say that she sounds so strikingly of a bunch of other times, all at once. Night Time, My Time sounds like a deliberate and even laboratory-engineered cross-pollination of sounds: say, ‘80s bubblegum and new wave via ‘90s alt-rock and girl-groups via late-‘00s Jesus And Mary Chain worship via Robyn via Icona Pop’s XCX-penned smash “I Love It.” The story behind this music isn’t as new as it’s been made out to be, and neither is the music itself, but at least it’s consistent in the sources it chooses to echo.
There is one surprise here, though, and it’s that “Everything Is Embarrassing” hasn’t been taken as the model for Ferreira’s sound. Indeed, it’s Ghost tracks “Lost In My Bedroom” and “Red Lips,” the Shirley Manson collaboration, that have the longest afterlife on Night Time, My Time. In fact, though the new album catches Ferreira doing shower-singing imitations of various predecessors (Cat Power on the title track and Suicide on “Omanko,” two of the worst songs here), there’s no one she resembles so much as Manson. Ferreira has the same femme fatale vibe, the husky drawl that segues into a haunting wail, the same psychologically tortured persona, the same faux-provocative urge, and more than anything else, the same fervent, ingenuous desire to wed the leather-jacket attitude of alternative rock to the conventional pleasures of danceable pop. Like Ferreira, Garbage also made dark, pastiche pop that had the taint of “inauthenticity,” and Night Time, My Time sounds also sounds a lot like a prime-era Garbage record in the sense that while it’s hardly original, when it works, it works damn well.
Ferreira proves an astute student of rock, and the best decision she, Rechtshaid, and Raisen have made is to imbue even the fluffiest, most effervescent songs here with a dark, fuzzy, booming low-end that blesses them all with some serious ass-kicking wallop. Opener “Boys” kicks in the door with a stomping beat, a shoegaze band’s worth of feedback squall, throttling treble guitars, and simple, lovelorn sing-song lyrics. It’s got more than just shades of “Rill Rill,” “Hollaback Girl,” and most Brooklyn bands in 2008, but that’s the sort of critical quibble that bothers you only when the song’s not playing. Not all of Night Time, My Time is as good as “Boys,” but it’s a good template for much of what follows. The opening five-song run, through the album’s vaguely Spice Girls-esque pinnacle “I Blame Myself,” is the record’s best stretch, sounding like five variations on a single airtight pop song with the rock influence turned up or down to different degrees. It’d make a killer EP.
Unfortunately, Night Time, My Time goes awry at “Omanko,” a grave misstep that verges on parody. From there on out, the record’s spotty: single “You’re Not The One” plays like a poor man’s “Dancing On My Own,” but it’s got a wonderful, seemingly endless hook on the refrain that never fails to induce a bit of vertigo; “Kristine” is not very good but it is, at least, supremely weird; “I Will” is a guitar-laced anthem that’d fit right in on the much stronger Side A. The rest of the second half, though, is tedious, overly solemn, and sometimes just plain silly, and it only serves to underscore Ferreira’s posturing. Ferreira is a big-time pop singer in indie rock’s clothing, and she’s the most entertaining when she stops trying to make that costume convincing. When she finally realizes this, I bet she’ll make one hell of a pop record – I hope it gets released. [C+]