Past new music

Looking back at Pitchfork's old "Best'

34. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves — May 7, 2017

34. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.3

My rating: 7.9

Despite having spent my formative years in Kentucky, I never made an honest-to-God attempt to get into My Morning Jacket. It wasn’t a matter of taste, as I was a fan of plenty of bands who had undoubtedly taken cues from Jim James and company. It just wasn’t a priority for me and after leaving Kentucky, My Morning Jacket has mostly eluded my consciousness, until now.

It Still Moves is the band’s third album and an apparent catalyst for wider attention paid towards the band. It didn’t catapult them to overnight stardom, but subsequent releases saw significant gains in terms of Billboard chart positions. While I can’t speak for the rest of My Morning Jacket’s discography (which I understand branches into more psychedelic territory), I can say that It Still Moves succeeds through its focus: it doesn’t sound like the work of people trying to shortcut their way to the top of the charts.

Perhaps the biggest surprise listening to It Still Moves was how spacious it feels. I was expecting a country/southern rock album, and I more or less got one. However, It Still Moves distinguishes itself through its production, done by James, who has a tremendous ear for finding the clarity of each instrument and creating a listening environment that transports you to a barn renovated for revue performances. The twangy guitars and spritely piano and horns on “Dancefloors” are so energetic, they undercut the grimness of James’ proclamation that “For the past, I’m digging a grave so big it will swallow up the sea.” Remarkably, the song becomes more beautiful the busier it becomes.

Such momentum is kept up by showstoppers such as “One Big Holiday,” where James sings of false promises of musical fortune, and “Easy Morning Rebel” with vocals sounding like they’re soundtracking a hayride. It’s greatly apparent how influential James’ vocals have been on the indie rock landscape. On “Masterplan,” he sounds like the vocal prototype for both Josh Tillman and Chad VanGaalen. James is able to find a remarkable amount of range in this styling, seamlessly shifting from conversational to being thrown into an otherworldly realm, depending on where the band is leading him.

The spaciousness of It Still Moves doesn’t merely conjure high ceilings or unspoiled countryside. A sizable portion of the album feels heavenly, in ways subtle and immersive. The reverb on “Golden” gives redemptive power to a lonely bar number. On the nine-minute “I Will Sing You Songs,” the first third demonstrates the tense power of post-rock through build-up, while the rest gives us the payoff and the aftermath without feeling like any part was in desperate need of reduction. Noticing this quality made me appreciate the album more with further listens, particularly on opener, “Mahgeeta.” What seemed at first glance like a decent song about a trite topic (singing about your instrument, how profound), had gained new life as something of a modern devotional. Even if it’s not the seemingly-holiness of songs, James’ vocals appear to soar towards the ether before they come back down to Earth.

On the penultimate track “Steam Engine,” James confides, “I do believe none of this is physical,” a sentiment he repeats before asserting “To anyone who wondered/What old Jesus meant to me/Take him out to go diving/In Red Patoka Sea.” It’s here that the album finds the exact point of intersection between rootsy and holy in a beautifully unassuming interaction. It Still Moves finds power in leaving much unsaid. Lyrics are sparse and unspecific and songs avoid detours despite sizable lengths. Yet at no point does it feel like it’s running out of things to say. 

33. Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain — April 21, 2017

33. Viktor Vaughn – Vaudeville Villain

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.1

My rating: 8.5 

(MF) DOOM, King Geedorah, Viktor Vaughn, a few more monikers based on collaborations, if there was an “Underground Hip-Hop” category on Jeopardy!, the $200 answer would probably pertain to a Daniel Dumile-related project. Even though DOOM’s output has slowed considerably in recent years, (he released four projects between 2003 and 2004, not counting instrumental albums) today’s rap landscape wouldn’t be the same without him. He hasn’t caused the Billboard hip-hop charts to be filled with other mask-wearing MCs, but albums like Madvillainy were pivotal in changing countless listeners’ perceptions about rap, including my own.

For Vaudeville Villain, Dumile took on the moniker “Viktor Vaughn,” an approximation of villainous inspiration Doctor Victor Von Doom’s name. Months earlier, he released, to-date, his lone solo album as King Geedorah. It’s rather exhilarating how much mileage Dumile gets out of variants on Viktor, including “V,” “Vik” and “Vikmeister.” Though Dumile could’ve just pasted “MF DOOM” on the title of every release since Operation: Doomsday, I appreciate the devotion he puts into something as simple as a name change. Vaudeville Villain isn’t a quality album because Dumile goes by a different name; it’s a quality album because Dumile doesn’t allow for afterthoughts in his creative process.

Of all the Dumile projects I’ve heard, Vaudeville Villain is the most urgent-sounding and intense. While albums like Madvillainy, Operation: Doomsday, and Mm.. Food have relaxed vibes that could soundtrack a mellow summer’s day hanging out on a porch, Vaudeville Villain has more than a few tracks that unnerve in ways I wasn’t expecting. This includes tales of crime, like the coke errand gone awry in “Lactose and Lecithin,” set “somewhere out in cop killing Queens” and the treatise on stick-up procedures in “A Modern Day Mugging.” It helps that both these tracks are produced by Heat Sensor, who also contributes cinematic production throughout the album, like the eerie, crackling beat on “Raedawn” and the sci-fi-infused boom-bap  on “Never Dead.” While Heat Sensor has the consistently best beats on the album, it’s Max Bill whose  throbbing drums and bass, and somber synths and horns on “Popsnot” provide a wooziness only amplified by Dumile’s codeine reference.

Then there’s the tension released through Dumile’s flair for potent one-liners boasting his superiority/ On the volatile title track, he declares “We don’t give a flyin’ fuck who ain’t not feelin’ him.” He offers physical threats (“Either M.Y.O.B or B.Y.O. stretcher”) and cold dismissals of his competition (“I wouldn’t take their tape if they gave it free” and “Racist against rappers; they all look the same to me”). His focused, unshowy flow means Dumile can land potentially clunky similes such as “V brings the beef like a trucker to Fuddrucker” and “He only came to save the game like a memory card.” 

Vaudeville Villain takes a few turns, most notably with “Can I Watch?” King Honey’s sultry production underscores a fling between a teenage Vaughn and Apani B. (in the role of “Nikki.”) The love is lost and then some, with Apani offering an assessment harsher than any Dumile lays on other rappers: “I’d rather masturbate than fuck with Vik Vaughn.” Later youth narrative, “Never Dead,” is an exercise in absurdity escalation as a delinquent Vaughn and M. Sayid (in the role of “Curtis Strifer”) go from guns to dark arts over, of all things, a stolen Donkey Kong cartridge. Part of the fun of the album is how a single verse or line can turn a track on its head.

Based on Dumile’s inventory of pop culture references, you might estimate the majority of Vaudeville Villian to have been written between the late 70s and early 80s. To wit, he namedrops Mr. T, Welcome Back, Kotter’s Horshack, Rob Reiner, Saturday Night Live stars Dan Aykroyd and Joe Piscopo, and throws in a Honeymooners reference towards the end for good measure. There are slightly more contemporary references (like Deepak Chopra and Good Will Hunting) sprinkled in, but it’s amusing how many of Dumile’s references could’ve been mined from a few hours of watching Nick at Nite or TV Land. On “The Drop,” Dumile references Cardassians, and it took some light research for me to realize he was talking about Star Trek: The Next Generation characters and not Kim, Khloe and kompany.

On two occasions, Dumile throws in “Open Mic” tracks, seemingly live freestyle exercises showcasing other MCs, who cover subjects from racial unity (Ben Grymm) to love for marijuana (Hydro). While “Open Mic Nite, Pt. 1” is a bit spotty due to less than smooth transitions from rapper to rapper, “Pt. 2” is an album highlight, thanks to a great closing verse from Dumile and one by Creature, who contributes a top-notch threat: “I’ll make your heart chaperone your bones to the funeral home.”

Having not heard Vaudeville Villain before, I was thrilled by how it wasn’t only a great album, but also one that showed new sides of Dumile and his creative process. It’s a mean and greatly successful album. Or, I should say: it’s vicious and victorious.

32. The Rapture – Echoes — March 31, 2017

32. The Rapture – Echoes

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.0

My rating: 6.2

Though this blog is essentially reviewing albums that Pitchfork really really likes, I try to not pay any heed to their opinions when listening or writing. I don’t check their scores until it’s time for me to write my review, and I don’t read their reviews until after I’ve published mine.

Going into this particular review, however, I did have some raised expectations. I already knew that Pitchfork had named Echoes, the first full-length LP from New York City dance-punk/post-punk revival/whatever band The Rapture, Album of the Year in 2003. I wasn’t necessarily expecting Echoes to surpass The Magnolia Electric Co., Wonderful Rainbow or any other number of beloved albums from that year. Even if I didn’t outright love the album, I was hoping to at least understand why it provoked such a strong reaction from Pitchfork and other publications.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the album to kick off sounding like a Cure tribute. On “Olio,” lead singer Luke Jenner sounds dead-on like Robert Smith, both vocally and lyrically as he wails “I called you on the telephone ‘cuz I was lonely” while synths warble alongside a plaintive piano melody. It sounds like a great Cure song, but if I wanted to hear The Cure, I’d listen to The Cure. Thankfully, the band ditches this mimicry for the rest of the album (save for the more upbeat “I Need Your Love,” which briefly takes me back with Jenner again sounding like Smith’s in the chorus and his mention of “pictures in tabloids” reminding me of “Pictures of You.”) Still, it’s difficult to get excited about a band that sounds indebted to another band from the beginning.

The album springs to life with “Heaven,” one of several tracks showing off an uncouth attitude that I wish the band had embraced more. Multiple vocal tracks bray “1 2 3 4 5 6 7, I’m floating in a constant heaven” before crash cymbals are pulverized and Jenner lets his vocals take a beating, yelping, “If you focus very hard, the train will come for you at last” before oohing vocals, desperate screams and frantic horns destroy everything. It feels like it ends a minute too early, which can’t be said for the languidly-paced followup “Open Up Your Heart.” A disposable piano ballad, “Open Up Your Heart” especially falters because it stifles the momentum that the band was just starting to obtain.

That momentum is regained, and Echoes hits a high point in the midsection. “House of Jealous Lovers” goes from sounding like a completely haphazard mess to positively irresistible with the rattle of a cowbell and deep bass. Jenner’s vocals are delayed and he gives us no explanation about the titular house before throwing himself in the hook with a full-bodied “shakedoooooooown!” like he’s spiked a football at a rave. There’s seemingly nothing below the surface of “House of Jealous Lovers” and it lacks a sense of finality, but it’s gleefully kinetic and fluidly moves from section to section. Afterwards, on the title track, Jenner describes, “the city breathing, the people churning, the conversating” before becoming unhinged and asking “the price is WHAT?!” The focused instrumental is well contrasted by Jenner’s increasingly frantic performance, which finds him unnerved to the point of implosion as the track ends, only to be immediately reborn on the smoother and less involving “Killing.”

While there are other fairly energetic tracks on Echoes, they’re rather underwhelming.  Jenner’s pleas for you to “get yourself together” only emphasize the disjointed nature of “The Coming of Spring.” “Sister Saviour” has the makings of a slow-building epic and contains the most intriguing lyrics of the entire album, with Jenner describing dancehall muses, absurd dreams involved strawberries and cream and men clad in suits of armors. Then, it just ends. Songs on Echoes fizzle out so abruptly, I find myself wanting them to try to overstay their welcome for a change. The album itself doesn’t end abruptly as much as rather inexplicitly. There’s a creeping tension to closing track “Infatuation,” with its hushed vocals, slow guitar strums and Jenner’s cry of “you don’t know by now to take me down,” (if nothing else, this album has convinced me of Jenner’s impressive vocal range) but it has seemingly no connection to the cheesy sentimentality of preceding track “Love Is All” or much of the rest of the album. I’m not expecting or wanting completely uniformity across an entire album, but at least some semblance of tonal consistency would be nice.

Ultimately, Echoes is neither a modern classic or a disaster. It’s mostly just there. Nowhere near the best album of 2003, I also wouldn’t bet my life on it being the best dance album of that year. It’s varied and at times infectious, but there’s nothing particular transcendent about the whole experience. I don’t doubt The Rapture made exactly the album they wanted to, and even if it’s not exactly my cup of tea, I can understand the appeal. They must’ve been doing something right.

 

 

 

31. The Decemberists – Her Majesty The Decemberists — March 19, 2017

31. The Decemberists – Her Majesty The Decemberists

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.2

My rating: 8.0

Towards the end of the Decemberists’ sophomore album, Colin Meloy sounds almost ready to wrap things up. With “I Was Meant For the Stage,” Meloy is succinctly (or as succinct as you can be in seven minutes), summing up his flair for theatricality, both in terms of dramatic performances as well as taking on other personas. An actor playing an actor, you get the sense of Meloy looking to elongate and savor his verses as much as possible, not to mention the salutatory horns that lead towards the end of the song.

Out of context and years removed from listening to the Decemberists regularly, “Stage” sounds indulgent and ostentatious, particularly with lines like “And as I take my final bow, was there ever any doubt?”  Yet upon revisiting Her Majesty The Decemberists, I find myself cherishing the mood of the darker narratives Meloy crafts and not minding when he lets his drama club tendencies run free. Unlike later albums where most everything feels calculated to the point of seeming made through an algorithm, Her Majesty has a vulnerability and tension that I forgot the Decemberists could exhibit.

While Castaways and Cutouts had its share of moody numbers, they all sort of bled together on side B, interrupted by an upbeat track like “The Legionnaire’s Lament” if only because Meloy deemed it necessary. Comparatively, Her Majesty‘s tracks, both dark and light, are much more intriguing and versatile. A song could start with somber fingerpicking or splashy cymbals and still have your attention either way.

On opener “Shanty for the Arethusa,” Meloy is in no hurry to offer explanations or even to start talking. Creaking violins, scream samples and muted guitar strums lead into his recounting of “We set to sail on a packet full of spice, rum and tea leaves.” It’s unclear how much time has passed between the narrator’s tale and his telling of it, but the warning of “Tell your daughters do not walk the streets alone tonight.” through Meloy’s front and center vocals indicate that their environment is still treacherous, seemingly due in part to him and his company. My only wish for this otherwise excellent opener is that Meloy would be a bit more direct about his narrator’s intentions and persona. With phrasing like “the Jewess and the Mandarin Chinese boy” and describing South Australian Aborigines as “dark and nubile,” Meloy sounds like a B-movie producer in the 1930s.

If the Decemberists were ever at all self-conscious about seeming too much like a “dress-up” band, Her Majesty seems to be their moment to try and prove their range, both thematically and instrumentally. “The Gymnast, High Above the Ground,” with it’s subject matter and subdued folk nature (at least in parts) reminds me of “Acrobat,” the opener on Angel Olsen’s Half Way Home nearly a decade later. Even when the song seemingly becomes energized with drums and strings, it stills possesses a timeless melancholy. Much less melancholy is “Song for Myla Goldberg,” named for the Bee Season author and acquaintance of the band. It’s a track that feels freeing to listen to and for the band to write and perform. It brings together a modern subject, riffs on a classic elocution exercise (“I know you need unique New York”) and brings in synths in a way that’s positively wondrous.

Synths are something of a secret weapon on Her Majesty. While this is by no means the Decemberists bid at a new wave album, their strength with a synthesizer here helps it stand out in their catalogue. On the reflective “Red Right Ankle,” the band briefly fills space between a comforting guitar progression and stories of gypsy uncles and “boys who loved you,” with a simple but fulfilling melody. The best showcase for the synths as well as a high point for the album and the band’s career is “Los Angeles, I’m Yours.” An ode to the City of Angels not unlike the controversial New Orleans song from the Simpsons’ fourth season, “Los Angeles, I’m Yours” has some of Meloy’s best phrasing and vocal performance of kiss-off descriptors like “An ocean’s garbled vomit on the shore.” They’re also able to introduce strings and horns without going overboard with ironic glee.

When the brief barroom ballad “As I Rise” closes things out like a coda after “I Was Meant For the Stage,” it’s satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. The stories and subject matters on Her Majesty The Decemberists are disparate, shifting moods and possibly spanning centuries. However, it feels cohesive and most importantly, it’s a lot of fun to listen to.

 

 

30. Polysics – Neu — March 11, 2017

30. Polysics – Neu

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.3

My rating: 6.5

I once heard the live-action Speed Racer film (unseen by me) described as “a Skittles-induced stroke.” The assessment was mostly positive, but that quote made it clear that it wasn’t for everyone. To go as far as possible to stimulate the senses of your audience is ambitious, but if it fails, you end up with an audience both bewildered and bored.

Neu, the third album by Japanese new wave band Polysics is stimulating before anything else. This is a kitchen sink album that thrives on kinetic energy to the point that even rolling back the momentum a few notches (like midway through “XCT”) can feel like an ambient lull. It’s a chaotic and colorful affair, with plenty of great moments, but sometimes it feels like Polysics aren’t cutting as loose as they could be.

The laser synths and thundering kick drums that introduce opening track “Go Ahead Now!” certainly start things off well. With the ragged, thundering cry of “ONE TWO THREE FOUR,” Polysics throw you into the gauntlet with full force. With the synth motifs that sound like a bird chirping and the rallying cry vocals mixed in, it sounds like Lightning Bolt in some sort of even stranger amalgamation. It’s engaging, but the conclusion feels abrupt and unsatisfactory. Instead of going all out and ending the track with a bang, Polysics get stuck on the same synth and drum pattern.

The first several songs on Neu form a triptych of the maximum energy the band decides to channel. After “Go Ahead Now!” “MS-17” is volatile to the point of feeling violent in the most well-meaning of ways. The cumulative effect of hoedown riffs and calamitous drums brings to mind the image of someone with their arms full trying desperately to keep a bookshelf from toppling over. Meanwhile, “XCT” is a high point of the album, with another impassioned count-in, delightful squeal to the synths and perfect implementation of vocoder. The eventual detour it takes is unfortunate, as the more prominent bassline is uninspired and the dial-up-type sound that comes in takes up space rather than build momentum.

It’s nice that Polysics do let some of their songs build up, however gradually. The isolated drums on “Making Sense” join together with smudgy synths and a well-rendered bass until everything’s sort of dancing in a nice configuration. When it comes time for the sassier vocal delivery to enter the fray, it feels rewarding. Similarly, on “What,” the isolated, steady drums are met with synths sounding like a robot making mouth noises and vocoder and bass juxtaposed like yin and yang. Eventually, the vocoder sounds like it’s melting before ceasing entirely, and the song combusts into a new chapter, sounding like Refused played through a funhouse mirror. Best of all, they make it to an actual finish even when they probably could’ve gotten away with just ending whenever.

The madly spiraling progression of “Urge On!! – Velocity 2” with vocals sounding like they’re being delivered through a gag made of sugar and the pristine new wave beauty of closer “Black Out Fall Out” with its bright female vocals further demonstrate how much exuberance and song-structuring ability Polysics have. It’s just unfortunate that a good portion of the songs here fizzle out prematurely or never really get anywhere in the first place, like “Plaster Caster,” with synths that just sound like getting an item box on Mario Kart over and over again. There’s definitely more good than bad here, but it’s hard not to long for the greatness that could’ve been. Neu is a dense album, but it doesn’t fully satisfy your hunger.

 

29. TV on the Radio – Young Liars EP — February 8, 2017

29. TV on the Radio – Young Liars EP

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.9

My rating: 8.7

I forgot how good TV on the Radio were, or are. I haven’t actively listened to them in at least five years probably and didn’t even listen to their latest album, Seeds. (Not out of deliberate avoidance, I just didn’t have the urge to hear it for whatever reason) Re-listening to their debut EP, Young Liars, was invigorating not only in how uniformly strong everything was but also how much ground is successfully covered in five songs (including one cover).

The opener, “Satellite,” with its harsh bass and drum machine programming marks Young Liars as not being as immediately accessible as TVOTR full-lengths such as Return to Cookie Mountain or Dear Science. Tunde Adebimpe’s vocals soften the density some, but even their introduction has an air of unease to them, with Adebimpe’s falsetto “oohing” sounding something like a siren. The sense of urgency in Adebimpe’s tone carries the song a long way. “Your voice was a satellite spinning next to me” is a line that could land like a satellite crash-landing on earth, but it’s superseded by Adebimpe truly selling every single moment. He never lets any of the dramatic flair of his performance devolve the song into self-parody either. I can’t think of too many bands that could juxtapose “la la” vocals with flute and make it sound this delightfully unsettling.

While Young Liars put TV on the Radio on the map, arguably one particular song can be given the bulk of the credit. “Staring at the Sun” might not have the bombast of later singles such as “Wolf Like Me” or the sheen of “Halfway Home,” but it’s the perfect TV on the Radio litmus test. It even takes a good amount of time before kicking into gear, treating us to more falsetto sighs from Adebimpe alongside Spanish audio samples. Once the guitar kicks into gear and Adebimpe opens his diaphragm as wide as possible to deliver his command: “Cross the street from your storefront cemetery/hear me hailing from inside and realize,” you realize you’re witnessing a song become better and better at every turn. Then, Adebimpe shifts into falsetto then back into a lower tone while furious drums tick like an analog stopwatch on the fritz. Even once you have your bearings, the syllabic crescendos of passages such as “Note the trees because the dirt is temporary” and the darkwave vibe of the whole affair that you don’t realize was subtly present the entire time should stun you a bit more. I may have just given a play-by-play of my reaction to this song, but doing so did nothing to take away from the magic of the whole affair.

Young Liars is full of romantic longing and no song sums that up better than “Blind.” The longest track by far at seven minutes, “Blind” makes use of every second. The ghostly synths and drum machine stomp have nothing in terms of dread on Adebimpe’s voyeuristic musings: “I seen a girl, with a guy/her hair like yours, from what I remember.” Even more unsettling than “Satellite,” “Blind” locks you into a world unsavory emotions and obsessive thinking. Even the hi-hats and relative redemption of concluding passage “Save yourself, I’ll save you all the time.” can only do so much to alleviate the disturbance created.

With a centerpiece such as “Blind,” it’s a relief to have Young Liars wind things down on an up note, or rather, a sense that all that has gone wrong is not forever. On the title track, Adebimpe sings “My mast ain’t so sturdy/my head is in half/I’m searching the clouds for the storm” against gentler drums and warm synths. In the chorus, he gives tribute to the titular young liars, without giving any hints as to what exactly they have done for him or what makes them any better than their dishonest elders. He does manage to offer romantic perspective that could have lessened some of the anguish of his previous narrators: “Fucking for fear of not wanting to fear again” which proceeds to send him on a trail of being struck by lyrical lightning, wherein every phrasing and syllabic emphasis fits with each drum hit like musical Tetris.

As strong of an ending that is, Young Liars keeps going, ending with a cover of “Mr. Grieves” by Pixies. Only this one is almost entirely a capella save for handclaps and faint bass. It’s an effective cover for a variety of reasons. One: it isn’t a faceless retread of a classic song. Two: it sounds fantastic with all the overlapping vocal tones. Three: after a series of songs full of uncertainty, it’s refreshing to hear Adebimpe have vocalized faith in somethingYoung Liars is a 5-song introduction to a band that seemed to be ready for anything from the very beginning.

28. Sufjan Stevens – Michigan — January 26, 2017

28. Sufjan Stevens – Michigan

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.5

My rating: 8.3

I’m something of a “sporadic completist” with music, and the older I get, the worse this habit becomes. There are plenty of artists with albums I love or at least greatly admire, but instead of listening to every studio album (and more) they’ve ever released as soon as humanly possible, I just tell myself I’ll get around to them eventually.

Sufjan Stevens is like that for me. I love Illinois and Carrie & Lowell and recall enjoying The Age of Adz (though I’d have to re-listen to give any sort of assessment).The rest are gaps I need to fill. Michigan was one of them.

What was thought to be the first in an album project that would cover all 50 states of the U.S. (before Stevens admitted his intent to do so was not serious), Michigan is interesting to hear after being accustomed to Illinois. This isn’t just due to the “states album” connection, but also how tempered it is in comparison. Illinois has more than its share of solemn moments but also more involved arrangments and a wider range of emotions provoked. I must clarify that I mean no ill will towards Michigan. If this feels like a prototype of Illinois, then it’s about the best prototype you could hope for.

The solemnity of the album is established right away from the first few seconds and title of “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid).” Somber piano is only made sadder by the weight of Stevens’ words with the lyrical reprise of “even if I died alone.” The chance for things to be alleviated even slightly through a beautiful horn passage is collapsed by the revelation of Stevens’ narrator’s unemployment and homelessness. You also, of course, have to contend with the continued relevance of the song’s title and subject matter.

A track such as “Flint” could only be followed with one that either furthers its misery or tries to offer some semblance of coping. “All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!” features comparatively peppy piano as well as Stevens’ signature banjo and gorgeous backing vocals. It’s all held together by his tender vocalizing of couplets such as “All good thoughts in spite of righteousness/Is not the kind of thoughts in spite of greatness” and “Entertain ideas of great communion/Shelter not materials in union.”

It says a lot about Stevens’ strengths as a performer/lyricist that he can juggle seemingly lyrical word salads such as those and stick the landing with full poignancy intact. He can also take simple rhyme scenes and repeated phrases and make them devastating. On “For the Widows in Paradise, For the Fatherless in Ypsilanti,” led by banjo at its most rustic, Stevens and his backup vocalists offer the promise of “I’ll do anything for you.” As it stands, it’s completely emotionally gripping, but once the heartbreaking horns enter and the mantra changes to “I did everything for you,” it’s a musical gut punch that you weren’t anticipating.  After further listens, you feel it resonating even more in the moments right before.

A major aspect that distinguishes Michigan from Illinois is how Stevens deals with each particular state. Illinois‘s most heart-wrenching tracks are not indictments on the state itself. On tracks such as “Flint,” the lively “Oh Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!),” with its enthusiastic drums and repeated motif which all concludes with a smoldering synth drone and the “Upper Peninsula,” with its references to Payless Shoe Source and Kmart that again ends in joblessness plus an unexpected electric guitar riff, you feel the full burden of a state and cities in economic disrepair. Even songs that don’t deal directly with the state, like the brief love story on the slow-picked “Holland” feel like the intimacy of romance is being jettisoned by a surrounding sense of despair.

Considering he is from Detroit, I cannot entertain the notion that Stevens thinks ill of Michigan. You can love something or someone with full acknowledgment of its shortcomings. On the beautiful and ecstatic “Say Yes! to M!ch!gan!,” he offers his thesis on his emotional devotion to his home. His assurance of “Still I often think of going back” and the horn outro doesn’t wipe away every tear (there’s more sad songs to come). However, it does offer a sense that while some things are bound to go wrong at any given time, not everything will.

The absolute saddest song here is one that could fit easily on Carrie & Lowell. “Romulus,” a song about Stevens’ schizophrenic mother (whose death was the subject of the aforementioned album), is the perfect example of how deep Stevens’ committment to lyrical honesty can cut. He establishes his mother as estranged and emotionally distant and furthers it with the confession of “I was ashamed of her.” No clear age is given for Stevens during the incidences described, but one gets the sense that it’s much too young to have such feelings, especially about one’s own mother.

Stevens’ lyrics are rife with Christian themes and imagery, and Michigan is no exception. On “Sleeping Bear, Sault Ste. Marie,” he gives several odes, including one to the Lamb of God. The particularly desperate “Oh God Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? Mackinaw?),” features perhaps the saddest piano in all the world. It sounds like Stevens is speaking from the point of view of the state itself as he sings “the devil is hard on my face again/the world is a hundred to one again” and asks “Would the righteous still remain?/would my body stay the same?” On the dirge closing track, “Vito’s Ordination Song,” Stevens effectively becomes God to lay grace upon one man which we can only hope ripples out to the surrounding area and the rest of the world. The refrain and final words of the album: “There’s a design to what I did and said” allows Stevens to deliver a sentiment similar to “everything happens for a reason” without the unintentionally cruel curtness of such a saying.

Even if he never had any serious intent to finish the 50 states project, I would still like to see Stevens release a few more installments in the series. Michigan benefits largely from his existing emotional investment, but I don’t doubt he would be able to jump into any other state like he did with Illinois and unearth the richness and power of it all. Furthermore, I believe Stevens could write an album about just about anything and find the previously unknown power buried within.

 

27. Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner — January 13, 2017

27. Dizzee Rascal – Boy in da Corner

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.4

My rating: 8.8

I generally roll my eyes at album reviews that make a big deal out of the age of the album’s creator(s) (“This rock ‘n’ roll band is all teenagers!!!), but listening to Boy in da Corner, I’m amazed that Dizzee Rascal was only 18 years old at the time of its release. The album deals with a wide variety of topics in a nuanced manner, Dizzee’s production, flow and storytelling is all on point and each moment matters. It’s a wonderful piece of art that never feels compromised by second-guessing.

The lurching keys and bass pulse of “Sittin’ Here” are the perfect introduction to the mindset of Dizzee and the world of the album. True to the name of the song/album, he’s stationary, haunted by memories and worries: “I think too deep and I think too long/Plus I think I’m getting weak ’cause my thoughts are too strong.” Matters aren’t helped by recalling the good times, “It was only yesterday we was playing football in the streets/It was only yesterday none of us could come to harm.” This isn’t a matter of misplaced nostalgia, but of the unsettling realization that what you assumed will be around forever won’t be.

Dizzee might start in the corner, but he doesn’t stay there. The power tool production that opens “Stop Dat” is subsequently outdone by low-end synth notes and Dizzee’s flow like an aerobics instructor in a haunted house. It feels simultaneously introspective and jacked up and a testimony to how good he is at shifting atmospheres in the space of a single song.  “Fix Up, Look Sharp” samples Billy Squier’s “The Big Beat” and its, well, big beat as Dizzee makes his thoughts on fame clear: “Being a celebrity don’t mean shit to me.”

The production works so well because Dizzee knows when to subtract as well as when to add. On “Cut ‘Em Off” the hollowness of the beat with minimal percussion creates tension that would otherwise be compromised by too much busyness and gives the vocal hook of “I socialize and negotiate (review the situation)” an air of mysteriousness and dread in album that seemingly never runs of ways to unnerve. The comparatively brisker beat of “Round We Go” works properly with Dizzee’s rather choked up delivery as he gives a treatise on his view of contemporary relationships being completely shallow while copping to his own promiscuity in the second verse.

A teenager when he made this album, Dizzee makes it clear that he understands intimacy as a concept, but is not yet mature enough to fully comprehend it or embrace it, even if sex has occurred. The statutory rape/pregnancy narrative “I Luv You” is a jarring “looking for an undo button” that further emphasizes Dizzee’s realizing of his decisions, no matter how seemingly small, haunting and unnerving him. His views on women don’t seem all that more enlightened on a track titled “Jezebel” in which the titular high school dropout “juiced every boy in the ends,” but Dizzee is sympathetic as he breaks down what happens to “Jezzy” in a cycle that is bound to continue with her offspring. On another line from “Sittin’ Here,” he raps “I’m vexed at humanity/vexed at the Earth” and you feel his pain at being unable to keep things in order on a grand scale, let alone in his own life.

Boy in da Corner is an album that’s constantly shifting while maintaining the same theme: Dizzee Rascal can’t take it anymore but he’s going to make to try nonetheless. “Brand New Day” encapsulates this best, with the trite but true message of Dizzee and his friends not being “kids no more” against a splashy synth melody. “We used to fight with kids from other estates/Now eight millimetres settle debates,” he raps. Dizzee isn’t the most nuanced or subtle of lyricists (in an album that deals largely with class divide in London, he namechecks Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth in ways that feel almost obligatory), but he never sounds like he’s agonizing over his words and editing them until they become “acceptable.” The beats themselves are even able to summon the feeling of being trapped in your situation and desperately wanting out, like how the kick drums on “Seems 2 Be” sound like a ramrod barreling down against a wall that refuses to budge. 

He’s also eager and willing to cut loose when the mood strikes. The deliriously enjoyable “Jus’ a Rascal” kicks off with an operatic vocal hook and holds a muted guitar at the base of its beat. “Gritty shitty life ain’t been too pretty, far from buff/so I’m off to the elegant stuff.” he opines and insists while hinting fairly strongly that his rascal sensibility will never leave him. 

Album closer “Do It!” might not qualify as a happy ending, but it’s as satisfying as a conclusion as you can get for an album like this. It sounds like a clear inspiration on other cathartic as hell closers like Danny Brown’s “30” as Dizzee has his best lyrical performance on the album where you want to hold onto every single line like a rope for dear life. For Dizzee and anyone else struggling, he throws a rope: “Pray that you see it, strong you gotta be it/If you wanna get through it stretch your mind to the limit/You can do it.” He might be drawn to the corner, but he knows it’s ultimately a dead end.

 

 

26. WHY? – Oaklandazulasylum — December 21, 2016

26. WHY? – Oaklandazulasylum

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.1

My rating: 5.5 

I’ll never forget sitting at the family computer at age 15, having a budding interest in music but overwhelmed by all the options and rather flummoxed about where to start and coming across a song called “Good Friday” from a band called WHY? A mournfully lackadaisical bassline and the lines “if you grew up with white boys who only look at black and Puerto Rican porno cuz they want something that their dad don’t got, then you know where you’re at” set the stage for a series of sorta-rapped verses about someone committing random acts of debauchery to achieve a semblance of feeling. It was weird, uncomfortable, hilarious and catchy.

“Good Friday” and the rest of that album, 2008’s Alopecia, plus WHY?’s prior album, Elephant Eyelash became very formative works in my music-listening experience and thus ensured I’ll always hold WHY? close to my heart. Even when their albums don’t entirely succeed (like in the case of 2012’s Mumps, Etc.) I still prefer listening to them over bands that sound pleasant but take no risks with song structure or lyricism. I look forward to WHY?’s upcoming album Moh Lhean and seeing them for the fifth time in Cincinnati this March.

Somehow I hadn’t heard Oaklandazulasylum up until now. It could be due to a variety of factors, from having it as just one album in a never-ending sea of “I’ll get to that later” to being reluctant to listen to early material, when WHY? was a solo endeavor from Yoni Wolf. Though Wolf is still unmistakably the mastermind of the project and his lyrics are the biggest draw, seeing the entire four-piece live multiple times makes one appreciate the group effort that helps gives his newer material life.

Oaklandazulasylum is unmistakably a WHY? album in two regards: Wolf’s voice and his lyrics. Though he switches between unrefined rapping and singing, his nasal tone is never obscured. That continues to be a main aspect of WHY?, but the improved compositions and creativity of subsequent releases have made Wolf’s lack of vocal polish an idiosyncratic benefit, rather than a drawback. Also, the lyrics are knotty sentences and musings that sound like they’ve been cross-contaminated in the thought process and fell out of Wolf’s mouth lest the whole enterprise of his brain implodes.

That’s long been my favorite part of Wolf’s lyrics and WHY? in general: how he takes so many detours with his words until what starts off sounding like a collage of non-sequiturs morphs into confessionalism that’s specific to him but still feeling like it was written for anyone who’s ever felt (or continues to feel) like he does.

Oaklandazulasylum doesn’t accomplish that. The songs are patchy and five of the fourteen tracks here run under two minutes, typically just ending rather than actually concluding. Instrumentation varies, from glockenspiel to piano to perfunctory guitar melodies plus a good deal of synths and drums, but Wolf attempts to carry the album on the virtue of his voice and words.

The lyrics are either more convoluted at this point or Wolf just doesn’t know how to deliver them quite yet. One of those short tracks, “Afterschool America” opens with “I’ll never write a movie with a father character who speaks like an animatronic in an afterschool America.” It’s a mouthful delivered in what you can only imagine was the best take possible. Wolf still manages to redeem himself soon after, when the percussion drops in and he opines “Don’t want to hold another black pocket comb, ’cause that’s just not me.” Compared to later albums, it sounds a bit like WHY? in beta mode but it’s still easier to appreciate in how it gives Wolf a point-of-view that’s more or less discernable. Much better than say, “Do your pets prefer electric light? Do they lay awake at night contemplating Thomas Edison or listening to AM radio?” on “Dirty Glass.” 

Wolf certainly  has a lot of unique imagery and phrasing here, but it’s mainly that, “unique.” On opening track “Ferriswheel” he states that “there are very few microwaves in the Third World” before going on a tangent about kazoo playing dogs and hair-savvy apes. He does cram in one clear, concise statement: “Against a blue sky, almost anything looks cinematic” which doesn’t necessarily qualify as an inspired piece of lyricism but is nonetheless a welcome respite from the refrigerator magnet poetry of the rest of the song.

The lyrics to WHY? songs have a tendency to be awkward, but the fun comes from witnessing Wolf figure out how to perfectly deliver them. Here, he sounds likes he’s winging it with each take so he can move on to the next track. On the mostly enjoyable “A Little Titanic” Wolf pairs well with a stock club beat sound but halfway through, the beat switches gears and so does Wolf, with a harsh spoken word intonation, the only part of that which sticks is “I fucked your girlfriend and I’ll probably do it again” but mainly as a line that sounds like a first draft lyric from one of Alopecia‘s more misanthropic cuts (such as “Good Friday”). It’s an immature sentiment delivered in an immature manner, without any of the creative phrasing that gave similar sentiments on later albums poignancy. That also goes for “Women, Eye No” which opens with “I just found out for sure, the girl I have a crush on is a lesbian” and throws in goofy synths and percussion like a steel trash can.

Despite how many tracks on Oaklandazulasylum miss the mark, it’s not a frustrating listen. There’s variance from track to track, a good indicator of Wolf’s creativity that carried over to later albums, and tracks such as “Seventeen” with its bumps-in-the-night drum sounds, noise outro and answering machine vocals of lines like “kissing me is a waste of your saliva” feel as though they best fit as part of a solo lo-fi alternative hip hop project and not a four-piece touring indie rock act.

It’s also encouraging how the longer songs tend to be, the better they are. “Early Whitney” finds life and passion from Wolf when percussion enters the fray about halfway through its four-minute runtime. Finally, album closer “Ape in Cage With Wire Cutters” has Wolf repeat the mantra “I’m gonna die young,” musing about it being via “trash compactor or giant egg slicer” before snares that sound like they are blocking his way as he tries to move towards the light and horns that signify Heaven.

I’m not entirely sure if I would judge Oaklandazulasylum more or less harshly if it was the first thing I’d ever heard from WHY? Certainly, it’s a different beast than their full-band efforts and much less accomplished. But I still might be compelled by the potential I hear and decide to move forward with WHY? or just decide it’s an interesting record with a few high points but one that doesn’t warrant much revisitation, or I might just outright hate it  and shut it off halfway through. It’s a purely hypothetical scenario, so the best thing I can do is just be glad that Yoni Wolf eventually figured out how to express what was on his mind.

25. Clearlake – Cedars — December 9, 2016

25. Clearlake – Cedars

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.1

My rating: 3.9

As much as I disliked Ether Teeth, I can at least acknowledge that various moments have stuck with me. Cedars, by Brighton band Clearlake, resembles Fog’s album with its array of confessional lyricism that ties itself in knots without the occasional benefit of interesting production or melodies.

From the moment “Almost the Same” kicks things off with chirpy guitar and snares that are mixed way too loudly, Cedars marks itself as an album without much to say that doesn’t know how to let up or be subtle. The opening lines of “Fine, I admit, I may have been wrong.”are delivered by frontman Jason Pegg in a tone that sounds afraid to decide if it’s contemptuous or apologetic. Even when the songwriting intent becomes  clearer with awkward couplets like “But I never thought you and I would be friends/It only goes to show to tell you can’t how it ends” it’s like Pegg is reading his own lyrics for the first time.

Cedars is rife with theatrical flair, such as strings and stately piano on “The Mind Is Evil” and Pegg sounding like he’s auditioning for a space rock opera on “I’d Like to Hurt You”, which reminds me of Built to Spill’s great “I Would Hurt A Fly” if Doug Marstch didn’t know what he was doing. The album feels like a bad version of a potentially great concept album – one that renders day-to-day anxieties through stage show extravagance. But if this is a performance, it’s one that you want to leave before intermission.

It doesn’t need to be this bad. Lines like “Sometimes it’s all too much.” and “Look around, you can see that maybe things that could be better.” could have a lean-your-head-on-my-shoulder quality but Pegg’s delivery is so belabored that you want him to stop before he finishes his sentiment.

Sometimes Cedars feels like it changes scenery and costumes without warning, like an avant-garde play that doesn’t mean to be. On “Wonder If the Snow Will Fall”, Pegg sounds like Paul McCartney fronting Fleet Foxes, a combination that could be theoretically good but doesn’t work at all here. “Come into Darkness” has hypnotic distorted guitar noodling and Pegg saying “Don’t try to tell me you’ve never been cruel.” in a voice that sounds like it’s supposed to be intense. “Treat Yourself With Kindness” has a breakdown that should feel cathartic but just inspires thoughts of an amalgamation of 90s alternative rock being fed through a machine. The lowest of points, though, comes from “Just Off the Coast”. With its irritating melody and samples of waves washing ashore, it sounds like the tossed-off product of a self-hating beach bum.

The taste of “Just Off the Coast” is alleviated, slightly, by the less-bad “Keep Smiling”, with its to-the-point lyricism of “Keep smiling, it’ll make things that much easier.” To get through Cedars, it’s just about all I can do.