Past new music

Looking back at Pitchfork's old "Best'

37. The Wrens – The Meadowlands — September 1, 2017

37. The Wrens – The Meadowlands

f3d05a45

Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.5

My rating: 7.6

It’s one thing to listen to a canonized album for the first time. It’s quite another thing to listen to an album canonized for how emotionally resonant it is. You don’t want to go into an album with too many preconceived notions, but if it has a reputation for tear-jerking and is a fixture on “Most Depressing Albums of All-Time” lists, it’s hard not to have high expectations of feeling low.

The Meadowlands, the third album by New Jersey output is one of those emotionally canonized albums. Arriving seven years after their sophomore effort, Secaucus, it’s my first exposure to the band. It also seems to be the most acclaimed of their three albums, which is impressive, considering I don’t typically expect emo-leaning bands to release their crowning achievements more than a decade into the career. (I did greatly enjoy the latest Brand New album, however).

Just a glance at the album’s sepia artwork of a house in an unkempt yard is enough to bring you down, to say nothing of its tracklisting, featuring the likes of “The House That Guilt Built,” “Hopeless,” “Ex-Girl Collection” and “Happy,” which of course does nothing to conjure up Pharrell Williams. It’s a breakup album that focuses not just on the pain of losing someone but also how their absence can feel like a crater in your life as well as in your heart. On opener, “The House That Guilt Built,” crickets and passing-by cars accompany steady acoustic guitar and Charles Bissell’s tender falsetto. This prelude ends with a perfect thesis for the album: “I can’t believe what life’s done to me.”

Bissell alternates vocals duties with brothers Kevin and Greg Whelan. On “Happy,” you can feel Kevin’s vocals gradually shift from composed to wretched. He begins with “You’re the one I want. You’re a chance to take. You’re a hard break” over drummer Jerry MacDonald’s steady tom beat. He becomes increasingly tormented and his voice rips apart with the embittered self-realization, “I was wrong.” He still feels the urge to cast aspersions on the other person, asking “Are you happy now?” in the most cutting tone possible.

The Meadowlands is riddled with spite. On “Hopeless,” a jaunty guitar melody is contrasted by Kevin’s raspy delivery: “And now you’re sorry for the things to you did to me” before Bissell comes in with a full-on emo wail in the chorus as he tells them, “Go thank yourself for nothing. It’s really all you’re good for.” Even though it never gets that bitter again, it’s permeated with resentment.  Much of the anger is pointed inwards, focusing on the narrator’s inability to move on and better himself. “Thirteen Grand” has a heavenly arrangement of piano, strings and ethereal vocals as Greg seems to be coming to terms with his selfish behavior: “I lived my life waiting for tomorrow, but I guess it’s your turn now.” That song has potential to end the album on a hopeful and (relatively) uplifting note. However, the Wrens take an admirable chance by putting it in the middle and making it clear there won’t be any clean emotional getaways on this album.

Following that, the piano chords and Kevin’s raspy vocals on “Boys, You Won’t” sound like Spoon if Britt Daniel desperately wanted his ex to know he was “fine” without her. “Ex-Girl Collection” is a catalog of past relationship and all the stress they caused.  On penultimate, near-seven minute track “13 Months in Six Minutes,” Bissell sounds wistful and absolutely defeated as he reflects on the progression of his relationship, from courtship to dissolution and confesses “Wish we could just make out.” The title of the crudely recorded piano-lead closer, “This Is Not What You Had Planned” more or less sums up the preceding eleven tracks, as Kevin reaches his harshest wail before becoming tender to close things out.

As much as I enjoyed this album, it’s unlikely to become a melancholy favorite. I enjoyed every track to some degree and admired how much warmth it has at times, like on the bandmates-referencing “This Boy Is Exhausted” and the fuzzy energy of back-to-back tracks “Per Second Second” and “Everyone Chooses Sides.” On a whole, I found it easier to admire than to become fully invested in. While all three are captivating vocalists, the lyrics tend to be too surface level to really sink in.

Whether I find The Meadowlands to be The Wrens’ crowning achievement depends on when I get around to listening to their other two albums. I found it to be a well-crafted album with plenty of memorable moments, mainly courtesy of the vocals. If I was at all disappointed, it’s because its reputation preceded it. Even if something doesn’t hit all the emotional bullseyes, it doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

 

 

Advertisements
36. Need New Body – UFO — July 7, 2017

36. Need New Body – UFO

b6ef9fd5

Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.4

My rating: 7.4

I recently finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister, a dystopian novel filled with sentences that can run to near-paragraphic lengths and abrupt shifts from third-person to first-person perspective. At its core, it’s a story of a father’s determination and all of Nabokov’s linguistic flourishes don’t totally undermine his storytelling abilities. I bring that up, because reading Bend Sinister might have helped me better understand and enjoy UFO, the sophomore effort by Philadelphia experimental outfit Need New Body and example of how you can try out seemingly every musical style or audio idea that enters your head and not seem like you’re trying too hard to please everyone.

UFO contains 23 tracks over the course of 41 minutes. It doesn’t take simple math, but rather basic logical thinking to realize how much of the runtime is devoted to particularly short songs. From my count, seven of those tracks clock in at less than a minute, and another seven are between one and two minutes. Yet, it doesn’t feel like Need New Body wrote fourteen throwaways and nine “legitimate” songs. Length is as much of an afterthought as the six-second-long piano number “Coffee Shop Girl II.” There are 23 tracks, yes, but that number could be altered without losing any of the content. A relatively longer number like “Hot Shot,” which sounds like a show tune played through a blender and is rife with percussive calamity and buried, grainy vocals could be split into two tracks. Or, it could be combined with immediate follow-up, “Moondear” a brief rustic folk song which it transitions into inexplicably but also surprisingly smoothly.

Hardly any two tracks sound alike (with the exception of late album cut “Pen” cribbing too noticeably from the nerviness of mid-album highlight “Beach”), but it always feels like the same band and the same album. You could theoretically shuffle the songs in any order and have it make just as much sense, but the tracklisting here is as sensical as nonsense can possibly be. Opening track “Giggle Bush meets CompUSA” mixes the song titling wackiness of Out Hud with the synth squeals of Polysics and had me fearing an album that would just result in a retread of previous reviews. “Giggle Bush” is actually a decent (albeit, short) song, particularly the bloated bass and plinking piano. Nonetheless, they seem to have wisely realized that it’s not a sustainable sound for even 15 minutes, let alone 41.

That the album is varied is not a praise or criticism, but rather, an observation. What it isn’t, is boring. A tour of sounds and styles, ranging from relaxed banjo numbers (“Magic Finger”), to boom-bap (“Dr. Spliffin’s Food Drive”) to dark ambient (“Manglor”) and obnoxious mouth sounds (“Turken Hogan”) could be absolutely interminable or forgettable. However, there’s creative energy flowing through this album which allows me to forgive some of the missteps. I wish there weren’t tracks titled “Tittie Pop  (In Japan)” and “Make Gay Love Not War” or that it could end with some creativity (if not finality) rather than the clock-running-out wankery of “Apple Snake” and “Turn Pillars Into Trees.” Still, there are songs like the haunting “Red As a Bone” where falsetto vocals bring wisdom through frailty (“I was prepared for nothing, when every nothing happened/I was there and ready’), the robot exercise vibes of “Pow Pow” and visceral screams of “Shark Attack,” all of which start and end in different directions but feel like misfits who found common ground.

Speaking of common ground, there’s not much to be found between UFO and Bend Sinister. Nabokov’s novel deals with a dystopian society not unlike the one in 1984. UFO is seemingly unconcerned with the state of any one society, instead creating worlds in miniature and then vanquishing them before you realize it. Yet, my thought process while reading that novel and listening to this album were strikingly similar, and I was reminded of an invaluable lesson: Sometimes, finding your bearings with a piece of art means abandoning all notions of what you are and aren’t used to.

 

35. The Deadly Snakes – Ode to Joy — June 4, 2017

35. The Deadly Snakes – Ode to Joy

homepage_large-accc06a6

Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.5

My rating: 7.9

Garage rock as a genre is easily enjoyed but not appreciated at the level it should be. While a few bands have harnessed the power of endearing looseness to massive success (White Stripes, Black Keys), plenty others are either just given a few platitudes at the time of release or snubbed completely. Sure, a good portion of garage rock albums are uninspired and disposable, but the ones that present a unique craft shouldn’t be forgotten.

Toronto’s Deadly Snakes, active from 1996 to 2006 crafted garage rock that felt meticulous and spontaneous all at once. Prior to Ode to Joy, I had only heard their follow-up, fourth and final album, Porcella. On tracks like “Gore Veil” and “A Bird in the Hand is Worthless,” The Deadly Snakes showcased a wistfulness that could only really come from at least a few years of figuring things out, both musically and personally.

Ode to Joy is less refined than Porcella, but it’s no less personal. A glance at the tracklisting immediately notifies you that the Deadly Snakes have some demons to purge. “I Can’t Sleep at Night” and “I Want to Die” aren’t just sardonic goofs. On the former, vocalist Max “Age of Danger” McCabe-Lokos legitimately sounds like he’s dealing with insomnia-induced madness, and the deadpan backing vocals plus exuberant horns and “hey hey hey” chants of the chorus are like aural hallucinations. On the latter, he has his first moment of vocal calm as he confesses, “I can’t remember the last time I cried.”

Though Age of Danger takes the lead on several of Ode to Joy‘s songs, he’s not the primary vocalist. That honor goes to Andre Ethier, who not only displays versatility in vocal delivery (compare the grit he displays on the stomping “Oh My Bride” to the relative solemnity of “Playboys.” Garage rock lyrics are rarely more than perfunctory, but Ethier not only has a strong sense for penning a cutting one-liner (“You can’t kick out a chair nailed so firmly to the ground” he opines on “Sink Like Stones”). The shifting of vocal duties also gives the album additional nuance. Both Age of Danger and Ethier have their ragers, but they also each display naked emotions, like on “I’m Leaving You” in which Age of Danger vow to a soon-to-be-former lover, “Next time I lay my sorry head it won’t be upon your spoiled bed.” 

The instrumental variation makes each track unique and exciting. While there’s nothing completely revolutionary here, the organ on “Burn Down the Valley” and madcap closer ‘Mutiny & Lonesome Blues,” Wurlitzer and horn arrangements performed by the aptly-named the Hired Guns are all presented in a way that adds to the heartsick/mindsick, etc. feelings of the Deadly Snakes. If these songs were recorded to an 8-track with a cheap mic and guitar, they would still be invigorating.

Ode to Joy is not fussy and as a result, it’s brazenly imperfect. But any flaws can be overlooked by how much care and passion appears to have gone into it. Critiquing it is like scrutinizing a painting that catches your eye. There might be some parts that don’t fully work for you, but when viewed on a whole, you see the total beauty. With this galvanizing album, the Deadly Snakes gave us a true ode to joy.

 

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

34. My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves

homepage_large-51becc57

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

homepage_large-90593473

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

homepage_large-0b808232

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

homepage_large-c4186920

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

homepage_large-fbab2cff

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

homepage_large-f086eb25

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

homepage_large-0b2b62a0

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.