Synth-pop is a tired beast. A genre that reached its apogee in the eighties demands serious innovation on the part of the artist in order to remain relevant—and riveting—in the internet age. Scandinavia seems to have a monopoly on synth-pop to this day, so no one bats an eye when some new upstart emerges with a catchy track. The secret to success is consistent originality.
Enter MØ. Her debut single, “Maiden,” meshed well with contemporary trends, while displaying some eccentric spark, but was to remain a curious footnote on the long history of synth-pop. However, Karen Marie Ørsted harbored much greater ambitions. In the following year, the hits kept on coming. By the autumn of the same year, the Danish synth maven dropped her Bikini Daze EP, a smash that cemented her status as an ascendant talent and turned No Mythologies To Follow, her debut record, into one of the most anticipated of the new year.
Ørsted’s debut LP wears its history heavily, composed of equal parts previously released and new material. It is a risk for an artist as dependent on earworm shock value as Ørsted, but a deliberate one that yield dividends at the end of the day. She intertwines the two timelines deftly, allowing the old guard to bear the weight at significant junctures that call for a tried-and-true hit (“XXX 88,” “Waste of Time”), while allowing the freshmen class plentiful opportunities to prove its mettle. The oldest cuts, “Pilgrim” and the aforementioned “Maiden,” contrast against the lush production of the more recent work, providing breathing room between sweeping synth epics at the slight expense of continuity, while “Never Wanna Know” remains the irrepressible torch song it always was.
Lead single, “Don’t Wanna Dance,” while an undeniable jam, is uncharacteristic of the album as a whole. It is the sole extant species of a genus underrepresented on No Mythologies To Follow: the mindless pop song.This is Ørsted at her most carefree: high BPM, easily accessible chorus, and Top 40 structures in place; and atypical, something she addressed in a recent interview, explaining that “Don’t Wanna Dance’ is one of the only songs, maybe the only one, which is looking on the bright side of being young, confused and lost in society.”
Elsewhere on No Mythologies To Follow, unease and disorientation lurk, eloquently camouflaged amidst the neon soundscape by clinging to the lyrics. “What am I to do in the city if I can’t have it all and I just want to feel pretty?” asks Ørsted on otherwise-upbeat opener “Fire Rides.” Meanwhile, “Red in the Grey” cites the existential remembrance that “every night was cold,” and references a “house of horrors,” before closing with a caterwaul that declares a desire to “go back to you someday.” Yet, Ørsted refrains from exposing herself entirely, instead opting to cloak these vulnerabilities in riotous cavalcades of synthesizers, strings, and siren songs.
The tempo only slows for “Dust Is Gone,” a mid-album ballad that demonstrates Ørsted’s vocal prowess at the expense of instrumentation. It essentially functions as “Never Wanna Know” 2.0, with heavier strokes of heartbreak, and a greater focus on lyrics such as “Salvation will come and break our hearts,” and “I would’ve liked this to work / But life had other plans.”
Album closer “Glass,” a crash course in stuttering synths, towering crescendos, and concise lyrics, wrapped in equal parts whimsy and weltschmerz, serves as the best introduction to MØ for the uninitiated. Complex and euphoric, it sums up the psychology of No Mythologies To Follow in one fell swoop. “Why do everyone have to grow old?” wails Ørsted over a twinkling array, sounding manic and galvanic at the same time, infusing the question with a desperate, transfixing energy. The turbulence of your mid-twenties never seemed so tantalizing. B+
At the recent NME Awards in Austin, five-piece Leeds rock outfit Eagulls took home the award for Best Music Video for “Nerve Endings”, the lead track from their self-titled debut full-length. Besting the visual muscle of Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, HAIM, Lily Allen and Pharell is no small feat, but this small video from this “small” band is dedicated to simplicity. In fact, it’s about as simple as videos get in this over-the-top era – a brain lying on the ground while a fuzzy overlay of the band rocks out in shadows and mystery.
It’s a fitting first take on the raw, pissed-at-the-world yet simple sound the Eagulls have perfected. Front man George Mitchel shout-sings a chorus of “My nerve endings, my nerve endings won’t die. Come find my head” as propulsive guitar riffs collide with manic drums. For a band that notoriously taunted “all of the beach bands sucking each others’ dicks”, it’s a defiant walk-the-walk statement that is carried throughout the album’s 10 hardcore tracks.
Eagulls comes four years after their debut EP, Songs of Prey, arrived in cassette form, a clever nod to the fact that everything about them sounds out of time. The sweat-inducing, head-bangable “Amber Veins” and “Yellow Eyes” are an arresting mix of 80s synth and pure punk. “Tough Luck” – the most melodic tune on the album – comes off like a less-brooding, angrier stepchild of The Smiths “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out”. Influences are many and obvious, as threads of early U2, The Cure, The Clash and even The Pixies are threaded throughout the album. With such a powerful arsenal of influences, the band sounds extraordinarily confident and never aims too far from its strengths. Eagulls are a polished yet messy power quartet, rocking fast and furiously, and every song feels like a house on fire, growing in intensity, that is hell-bent on burning down the entire block.
As the album wears on, Eagulls begins to feel a little self-serious, and the inability to fully make out what exactly is pissing off Mitchel creates a slight distance between evangelist and disciple. Some non-punk listeners might have trouble connecting beyond track five as a result (but seriously, stick with it). Had the tone of the songs been a bit more varied, perhaps the most aggressive tracks would have packed even more in-your-face power – when everything comes across as an urgent, balls-to-the-wall call to arms, the overall impact is diminished. In fact, when Eagulls let you in closer, as on the sparkling “Possessed”, slowing the tempo down a half-notch and swathing the song in a spiraling, catchy guitar lick, the song feels fun-angry and, ultimately more relatable. A simple shift in tone ups the ante for it’s immediate successor, the eerie “Footsteps”, emboldening it with even more power than it holds on its own merit.
Imperfect as it might be, the album’s relentlessness is also it’s chief allure. In reality, Eagulls sounds more innovative than it probably is due to the world in which it arrives. For those who feel like too much music today is overproduced pop or shoegaze-y Bon Iver variations, this torrid breath of fresh air will beg to be listened to on repeat. Along with their contemporaries Metz and Parquet Courts, Eagulls have made angry a very happy thing indeed. It’s the perfect antidote for when you just can’t stomach Pharell’s “Happy” one more damn time. B
It’s somewhat ironic that the more Wild Beasts pare down their sound, the smaller their circle of contemporaries seems to become. This thinning of the herd has been prompted by an eccentricity that compels you to judge Wild Beasts only against Wild Beasts. While Present Tense, their fourth LP, certainly has its forebears – Spirit of Eden, Pygmalion, Ocean Rain – there is no mistaking the quartet from Kendal at this point.
Chalk that up to four years of intense recording and touring, resulting in a dedicated fanbase, heaps of critical goodwill, and a quality of songwriting that has snowballed over three albums, 2008’s Limbo Panto, 2009’s Two Dancers and 2011’s Smother. Then they stopped touring and took a break. It could have proved disastrous; being Wild Beasts is pretty much all that guitarist Ben Little, drummer Chris Talbot and co-frontmen Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming have been doing for their entire adult lives. In shakier hands, all of this extra gestation could have produced an overcooked, overthought effort. Instead, the Reichian Present Tense is uncluttered and exquisitely detailed.
With this increasing austerity, Wild Beasts are showing a strengthened conviction that every idea they offer is capable of standing on its own. This blossoming confidence is helped along by new producer Leo Abrahams and producer-cum-mixer Alex “Lexxx” Droomgoole, promoted to further progress the band’s shift away from guitars. True to form, Present Tense tiptoes towards all out electronica with exactitude, each rudiment held up to the light, scrutinized, and then lain into place.
The streamlining gives even more breathing room to the lyrics, whether sung in Fleming’s yawning baritone or Thorpe’s malleable falsetto. Earlier in their career, While Beasts were charmingly naïve, conjuring up perfect universes where entire days could be consumed plotting dramatic, heroic gestures to get the girl and then spending the subsequent weeks in bed. Not entirely unplugged from the histrionics, Thorpe brings a lived-in romanticism throughout, but particularly on the flawless closer “Palace”: “In detail you are/Even more beautiful than from afar/I could learn you like the blinded would do/Feeling our way through the dark.” Such a melodramatic quatrain could wither on the vine, but Thorpe throws himself into the song, as committed to his performance as he is to the figure he is describing.
But the majority of Present Tense lives in a reality that is messier, harsher, and teaches hard lessons. A world like this is bound to breed cynicism, described quite plainly on lead track and single “Wanderlust”: “Don’t confuse me for someone who gives a fuck.” The darker vibe is smeared throughout the majority of Present Tense’s 11 tracks. Fleming takes over on “Daughters”, a hyperbolic depiction of a child’s tantrum with an acidic industrial synth that dominates the otherwise hushed production. The voyeuristic “Nature Boy” borrows the dubby, droning keyboards of James Blake, but it’s a portentous track in its own right: “Your only joy, only bliss/Your lady wife around his hips”.
Despite the change in outlook this album represents for Wild Beasts, it represents a bigger step forward on the production front. The synths are clean and dialed up higher in the mix than anything played with two hands, and the rhythmic precision has become even finer, not unlike that of Liars’ WIXIW or the xx’s debut. On “Sweet Spot”, the dampened 4/4 beat serves, quite literally, as the songs heartbeat, anchoring Thorpe’s imbricated choral hook and guitars that ring out like knife sharpeners. “Pregnant Pause” and “Past Perfect” are striking in their starkness, while “New Life” crescendos beautifully but doesn’t possess the memorability of the peaks like “Daughters” or “Palace”.
But even with its less exceptional tracks, Present Tense marks a potent descent to Earth for Wild Beasts. As they shed their idealism they continue to adopt new shades of complexity, and are all the better for it. Present Tense may be a less accessible offering from Wild Beasts, but it’s their most human – a mesmeric bundle of contradictions, indignities and pleasures. A sobering look at the world we all share, but willing to laugh, cry and gasp along with us. B+
“Broken Bells” – it’s a curious moniker, evoking the image of dusty cracked instruments, abandoned in a hidden basement to silent centuries of stony sleep, unable to fulfil the duty for which they were created – to make music. It’s a smart satirical name for a group comprising musicians famed for their unbridled creativity and zealous work rate: James Mercer, the creative mastermind behind indie darlings The Shins; and uber-producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), a man boasting a golden touch that packs more potency than Phrygia’s King Midas.
First things first then: it’s a more accomplished LP than their debut – the melodies are dreamier and more inventive, Mercer’s delivery more emotive, and the instrumentation more fertile than the lukewarm neo-psych that pervaded their first album, Broken Bells. While hooks and melodies abound, Burton – a self-confessed musical “auteur” – is rarely so obtuse to prioritise melody over mood and ambience… The onus is on a cinematic projection of widescreen melancholia, though one bolstered by a counter-redeeming edge of optimism, lest the album become the aural equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman movie.
Opener “Perfect World” is a majestic meld of punchy percussion, lightning bolt synths, and sombre fretwork, though Mercer’s inimitable vocal is given ample space to shine. The excellent title track is driven along by funk-fuelled bass before Mercer’s falsetto bursts like a handful of confetti at the chorus. Lead single “Holding On For Life” commences with a cartoon-esque “Scooby-Doo” intro before another fantastic moody bass-line edges the song along to the Bee Gees homage of a chorus.
Sadly, the album doesn’t maintain the pace and quality established by the opening trio of songs, though that’s more a testament to the strength of those tracks than to any resonant issues with others. “The Changing Lights” and “Control” are other highlights, both sparkling pop gems undercut by a thin vein of melancloly. The only flawed moments are on “Leave It Alone” and “Angel and The Fool” – the former comes across as a Black Keys pastiche whilst the latter devolves into a slice of tepid mediocre balladry.
Thematically, After The Disco is a break-up album, and one that could expertly soundtrack a thousand doomed relationships. The album name and title track is a thinly veiled allegory to the coming-down-to-earth period after the heady rush of the early stage of a romance. “The Changing Lights” echoes the sentiment of hopeless and unrequited love – with Mercer using the backdrop of shifting lights as a metaphor for a relationship in constant flux.
There’s a sense of displacement that runs through the album too, of impermanence and not belonging – the characters that populate these soundscapes exist in a self-imposed exile. The down-trodden lady of the night who saunters weary-boned through “Holding On For Life” belongs to another epoch entirely; the man who walks unheeded through “Leave It Alone” has travelled the globe but cannot find anywhere he truly belongs. Mercer’s consolation and After The Disco‘s chief admission is that we shouldn’t be looking for other people to define us: “I’ve been turned around, I was upside down, I thought love would always find a way/ But I know better now, I’ve got it figured it – it’s a perfect world all the same…”
So why does the album seem less than the sum of its parts? Taken as part of the collective canon of both artists After The Disco is underwhelming. Individually, Burton and Mercer are prodigious talents – the former listed by Esquire as one of the magazine’s seventy-five most influential people of the 21st century; the latter, revered in musical circles as possessing messianic qualities oft-reserved for indie-rock luminaries such as Morrissey and Robert Smith. This LP falls short of their best efforts outside of Broken Bells: Mercer’s magnum-opus 2003′s Chutes Too Narrow, and Burton’s dazzling production wizardry on 2006′s St. Elsewhere. But taken solely as part of the Broken Bells discography it’s their best effort yet: a textured, kaleidoscopic pop record that crackles with imagination, and hints at the sign of something brilliant to come. B
Force-of-nature soul singer Sharon Jones and the Daptone Records backing band, the Dap-Kings, had to delay their new album, Give the People What They Want, for several months when Jones was diagnosed with cancer. After successful surgery and recovery, the album and tour is now moving ahead.
To say that SJDK are soul revivalists is not accurate. Clearly, based on the genuine warmth and propulsive energy of Daptone Records, soul and funk never left. On their sixth studio album, the band embodies the hallmarks of American music from Motown to Stax; however, producer and bandleader Gabriel Roth (Bosco Mann) makes sure that the music is not a simulation of the past, but rather a celebration and continuation of a timeless tradition.
While the Motown influence is particularly strong on “Stranger to My Happiness,” it’s Jones’ defiant, yet mournful voice that takes center stage. The ageless track could’ve been recorded 40 years ago—and that’s part of the point. Bosco Mann takes careful precision to make sure that everything sounds exactly as intended. The Daptone sound is as recognizable as any in today’s music.
Most of the songs on Give the People What They Want clock in at a brisk three minutes, and album standout, “Now I See,” is no exception. The song is introduced with Memphis-style horns and a wickedly sly blues-based riff that slowly snakes along just long enough for Jones’ bruised lyrics to convert the track from lamentation to personal transformation. When Jones sings, “Now I see what you want to be / You Want to Take it All Away From Me,” her realization is buoyed by the band’s driving rhythm. She continues, “Once a friend, now an enemy,” in an act of declaration.
The songs on the album, like most of the band’s output, are laced with joyous triumphs and melancholy heartbreak—the foundation of soul music. On “Get Up and Get Out,” Jones floats above a gorgeous melody as the band exudes incongruous warmth. It’s part of the charm of the album and SJDK in general: The sweet mixed with the sour. As Jones proclaims, “No one can know that you are here / For you I shed so many tears,” she’s in the in-between that make up so many classic soul songs; however, she makes sure to continue, “Get up and get out.”
As always, the triumphant soul diva Jones exudes an intimacy and indisputable swagger seldom found in any genre. This could explain why indie-rock worshipping millennials are among the band’s most fervent fans. For the band, authenticity is always the goal, heartbreak and exaltation just happens to be the result. With their latest album SJDK give the people what they want, even if they didn’t know how much they wanted it. [A-]
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+]