Past new music

Looking back at Pitchfork's old "Best'

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voice was a satellite spinning next to me” is a line that could land like a satellite crash-landing on earth, but it’s superseded by Adebimpe truly selling every single moment.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.

 

 

 

 

 

24. Grandaddy – Sumday — November 29, 2016

24. Grandaddy – Sumday

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.1

My rating: 7.5

If scores of reverb and feedback-laden shoegaze albums can be labeled as “dreamy” then there must also be room for albums to be described as “daydreamy”: works of artists grounded in reality against their will but who fill their headspace with enough fantasies and personal reflections to create new worlds. Sumday, the third album by indie rock/space rock outfit Grandaddy brings you gradually into frontman Jason Lytle’s mind without feeling like an endless diatribe.

Lytle’s vocal stylings are plain, but they’re not dull. Mostly, they’re something of a breathy whisper, but the inflections shift just enough between songs and verses and choruses  to keep things interesting. Much of the album is told in first-person, but he also narrates tales of technology warping perceptions of nature (“The Group Who Couldn’t Say”), relationships deteriorating (“Saddest Vacant Lot In All The World”), and people seemingly only a few miles apart either resenting their limitations or not caring about them. (“Stray Dog And The Chocolate Shake”) These are not the most sketched character portraits, detailing things in the loosest of terms (drunk spouse, office drones, teenage burnouts) and then not giving them much in the way of salvation or damnation. If Lytle is playing God here, then he’s doing it from a deist perspective: creating a world (or worlds) and letting things play out without any interference or need for resolution.

Despite not being the most intense of frontmen, Lytle is still an urgent, engaging presence. Opener “Now It’s On” is a great personal call-to-arms with Lytle not letting himself stop himself. Shifting into a higher register for the chorus, he sings “Bust the lock off the front door/Once your outside you won’t want to hide anymore. Light the light on the front porch/Once it’s on you’re never want to turn it off anymore.” Throw in the jubilance of the production, complete with horns, and it’s kind of like “Thunder Road”, written with the knowledge that the fantasy of blowing off your two-bit town is irresistible, but still a fantasy.

If you think Lytle might not possess any sense of humor, those fears should be dashed by the title of the second song:”I’m On Standby” and it’s opening line of “I’m rolling down a well-worn road.” He proceeds to elaborate by detailing himself as some sort of malfunctioned piece of machinery in a human suit. While the song (nor the rest of the album) doesn’t reach the heights of Travis Morrison’s 9-5 drudgery contemplations on Emergency & I, it’s still a well-crafted piece, complete with a bluesy guitar solo, that anyone with ennui can engage with without sinking into further existential crisis.

Hearing this album has actually been my first exposure to Grandaddy. From what I’ve gathered, their prior effort, 2000’s The Sophtware Slump was much more of a space rock album, but Sumday still has a celestial sensibility. It’s not like you’re in space, imagining being there, or just away from it all. On “Lost On Yer Merry Way”, Lytle’s sleepy (as in he sounds like he is tucking himself into bed) tone contrasts with his narrative that seems to place him in another galaxy: “All that I’m askin’ tonight/Is that I make it back home alive/No explosions, no crashes, no fights.” he sings at the end as surges of guitar streak across his own segment of the universe. We can only assume he makes it back safely.

Sumday contains precisely no bad songs, nor are there any moments or lyrics that threaten derailment. The production is on point, as is the sequencing. These are all hallmarks of a great album, yet Sumday simply has to settle for being quite good. I suppose it’s because of how everything stays the course without any fault, that it’s almost to a fault. Yet, I believe Lytle is presenting a work of utmost sincerity. On closing track “The Final Push to the Sum”, he confesses “I never know their names/but I smile just the same.” and “Most everything I see/becomes a blur to me.” Those might not be the most startling of admissions, but I don’t see it as Lytle being boring or non-descriptive. He’s someone who could be gazing up at the sky and then looking down the street. He doesn’t know what the constellation are called just like he doesn’t know who his next-door neighbors are, it’s  just all part of some strange cosmic configuration.

23. Single Frame – Wetheads Come Running — November 13, 2016

23. Single Frame – Wetheads Come Running

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.5

My rating: 7.0

Six years ago, I saw one of my first “cool” shows: Los Campesinos! and Cymbals Eat Guitars at the now-defunct Mad Hatter in Covington, KY. Both acts put on a good show, and I didn’t find anything jarring about following up Cymbals Eat Guitars’ nervy indie rock with Los Campesinos! brash and self-deprecating indie pop. Both bands were saying similar things, just in different ways.

Single Frame’s Wetheads Come Running replicates that experience in that, at times, it sounds like Cymbals Eat Guitars (which is to say it sounds like Modest Mouse and Built to Spill) and Los Campesinos! made a collaborative album. It, of course, precedes the formation of either band. Nonetheless, it’s a fun coincidence and Wetheads Come Running is a fun experience.

There’s definitely some padding to the tracklist. Wetheads Come Running has 20 tracks, almost half of which qualify as interludes plus an outro. A few of these work, like latecomer “Tired of Waking Up” with its metal scraping like a hangover being exacerbated. Others, like the nasal, awkward rap interlude “Taxidermy Heads” (complete with beatboxing and synths churning in the right channel) has all the hallmarks of something that was no doubt a blast amongst friends in the studio but just sounds awful on record.

The interludes don’t sink the album, though. It’s able to stay afloat on the virtue of keeping your attention, even if the songwriting rarely gets past the threshold of “decent.” The band is wise enough to know when to cut songs short and when to extend them. The opening combination of Floral Design in a Straight Line  and $7 Haircut, sound especially Campesinos-esque, with their cynical pep rally vocals and bitter refrains of “I always wanted to go, you never wanted to go” and bemoaning “a culture of bacteria” over synths that will either irritate or invigorate. The songs together run less than five minutes and, while imperfect, say just about everything they need to. The whole first half of the record only has one track which exceeds the three-minute mark. Comm. Jet. (Creepy Kid Remix) is one of the best cuts here and the first to contribute some sense of warmth to the proceedings. The verbose refrain of “we’re nothing without a keyboard, an alarm clock, a Cracker Jack box, maybe a trumpet, a distortion pedal.” is able to work in multiple instances. The ideal synth pad for a musical group therapy session is found and the slow-burning guitar distortion towards the middle is an addition that works with how cautiously it’s implemented.

There’s one instance where it sounds like the proto-Cymbals Eat Guitars/Los Campesinos! combination resulted in cross-contamination. “I’ve Been to a Party at This House” mixes raspy barks with liquid synths. Some aspects work in a vacuum, like the brief call-and-response and catchy guitar motif. Overall, though, it sounds like they either forget to finish writing the song or to excise it from the final tracklist. A good deal of the tracks here are disposable, not just including the interludes, but their short runtimes ensure they’re disposable in a way that’s more charming than grating.  “The Slip” could have collapsed on the virtue of the bad-Isaac Brock-impersonator-with-a-cold vocals and drum machine demo percussion. Yet, it still finds some justification for existing even if just through a brief synth passage reminiscent of an arcade game character dying.

The two longest tracks here come towards the very end and are also two of the very best. “Spacedust and Handcuffs” devotes a substantial amount of it’s runtime to intercom vocals reporting of outer space disaster that could double as a personal crisis. Meanwhile, “New Car Smell” begins with bass and guitar that sound like someone revving an engine while laying on the horn. The vocals run through two channels, overlapping melodic and aggressive. You blink and realize half the song is up; it keeps its trajectory and doesn’t waste your time, making a near-five minute song feel like a two-minute one. Wetheads Come Running isn’t always that inspired, but it never inspires yawns.

22. Fog – Ether Teeth — October 24, 2016

22. Fog – Ether Teeth

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 8.4

My rating: 4.0

It took a while, but I’ve finally come across an album for this blog that I’ve overwhelmingly disliked. Ether Teeth is like listening to someone who’s had Daniel Johnston’s music described them, and was then told recreate it in a hurry. It mistakes eclecticism for innovation and features one-liners so labored you’re cringing before the sentences have ended. The only thing that makes it bearable are occasional bits of pop inspiration.

At nearly an hour in length, Ether Teeth has plenty of opportunities to make an impression. Fog mastermind Andrew Broder makes full use of his time, but in the worst ways possible. It’s as though he’s someone at a party who talks to you and keeps switching through personalities during the conversation, some dull, others grating, but all-around unenjoyable.

The opener of “Plum Dumb”, with its ghostly samples of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” (“Which nobody can deny…”) echoing against crude guitar, piano, and strings, is fairly limp, but I immediately want to go back to it rather than hear followup. “What a Day Day”. It kicks off with Broder’s unemotive but irritating vocals with unbearably peppy piano. This would be hard enough to stomach without clumsy, overworked couplets  like “The ex-boyfriends are cowering inside the SA/when Hitler marches down Lyndale like the Champs-Elysses.”

A huge issue with “What a Day Day” and Ether Teeth as a whole is that these songs, most of which can’t sustain themselves for two minutes, run typically between 4-5 minutes, or in the case of penultimate track “Wall Paper Sink or Swim”, 11 minutes. “Wall Paper” at least finds some semblance of compositional strength when Broder realizes there’s a lower register on the piano. However, most of the tracks end simply because it was overdue. “See It? See It?” is one of better tracks, mainly because Broder’s melancholy delivery is a good antidote to whatever he was trying to do on “What a Day Day”. Then, it adds some lonesome horns which provide some brief intrigue but eventually just become something else to throw on the record. 

Given how dismally it starts, it’s a wonder that “The Girl From the Gum Commercial” isn’t the worst song here. It quite literally opens with someone chewing (presumably gum) as loudly as possible and then suspends that so Broder can use his best *sensitive* voice to declare “I love all your gaping, fucking mouths/I really, really do” as he strums lightly. Nonetheless, some life is found midway through with accordion bursting through. Of course, you then have to deal with first draft coffeehouse lyricism like “It’s easy to feel strange and lonely on these cold and drunken nights/but think of all these people as parts of a machine and you’ll be all right.” 

It’s such a shame that Ether Teeth is so lacking lyrically because some decent lyrics might’ve made the album worth revisiting. Instead, Broder traffics in using a lot of words to say nothing. “Fancy me a brand-new Newton sitting under an anvil tree waiting for an anvil to fall” he weeps on “Under a Anvil Tree” as if we need clarification as to why someone would be sitting under an anvil tree. Better yet, he later sings “One day, a dump truck will dump two tons of kittens on me”. It simultaneously reads half-assed and overworked.

The majority of Ether Teeth is mediocre and tedious, but track 7, “No Boys Allowed” is the one track where everything is unbearable. The first half sounds like a bad Animal Collective cover band being remixed to sound even worse, while the second half is slowly picked guitar against agonized horns. It’s two separate entities that are juxtaposed for no apparent reason to create a 4-minute track that feels three times as long.

Broder would’ve been wise to conclude with “I Call This Song Old Tyme Dudes” rather than the bird-sampling “Cardinal Heart” (Birds are a semi-reoccurring theme on this album that doesn’t add up to anything profound). “Old Tyme Dudes” opens with an agreeable guitar melody that actually seems developed, along with most of the rest of the song. Broder finally achieves some humanity, castigating himself as a “fuddy-duddy”. The light glockenspiel and accordion are nice flourishes. It just suffers from the same problem as most every other track here; it doesn’t know when to end. It does, however, treat us to a reprise of the “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” sample. If there’s one thing I can deny, it’s this being a good album.

 

 

21. M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts — October 5, 2016

21. M83 – Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.2

My rating: 8.3

Earnestness can be the lifeblood or the death of an artist. On some of the best albums, you can sense how seriously the creators take their work and how crucial that was to making something impactful not only for listeners but for themselves. On the other hand, being too self-serious can backfire and make for a real slog of a listen.

My appreciation for M83 has faltered with each successive release that’s come since 2005’s Before the Dawn Heals Us, primarily due to being so overwhelmed by music so earnest, it feels positively insincere. Even this year’s Junk, a seemingly looser album with McDonaldland-esque artwork felt like the work of people trying to act fun without actually being fun.

Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, M83’s second album, is earnest in numerous respects. The wordy title reeks of “importance”, as does the artwork, of youths in winter jackets and boots lying seemingly dead in a tundra, and though it barely features vocals on any tracks, the words that are spoken/sung are laden with supposed significance. The most significant part of brief opener “Birds”, is not the walls of distorted synths that founding members Anthony Gonzalez and Nicolas Fromageau create, nor is it the chirping birds that surround them, but the deadpan, computerized voice that repeats the mantra “Sun is shining, birds are singing, flowers are growing, clouds are looming and I am flying.” So unemotive and chilly this voice is, it sometimes sounds to me like “dying” instead of “flying”.

“Birds” sets a litmus test for the rest of the album right away. If you can’t handle the atmosphere Gonzalez and Fromageau conjure up for less than one minute, you’re not going to want to stick around for the rest. It sweeps me into the album the same way the opening scene swept me into the latest Star Wars movie: it might not be a flawless piece of art, but with a proper (re)introduction into its world, I am able to suppress nitpicks and immerse myself into the simulated environment.

Dead Cities wears several genres, from dream pop, to ambient to post-rock and shoegaze. Oftentimes, those sounds converge together on one track and it’s difficult to come up with one perfect tag. That’s just as well because one of the pleasures of the album is how incidental any genre classifying is to it. I don’t get a sense of Gonzalez and Fromageau trying to live up to the likes of My Bloody Valentine or Brian Eno on tracks like “Noise” and closer “Beauties Can Die”. Really, the only people they seem to be competing with is themselves, to see if they can outdo the frisson of each previous track and perhaps blow every last one of their distortion pedals.

Even with all the genre crossbreeding, the album has a sense of direction and seldom feels ponderous. Second track “Unrecorded” moves like it’s on a mission with zigzagging synth melodies and drum machine hi-hats. The all-around frostiness of the production is furthered with the outro of the drums being suspended and gargling vocoder vocals penetrating the rigor mortis-stricken synths until they’re brought back to life immediately afterward on “Run Into Flowers.” The most melodic and all-around best track on the album, “Run Into Flowers” closes an opening triumvirate that starts foreboding, becomes intense and ends euphorically. However, no matter how enchanting Gonzalez sounds as he repeats the mantra “Give me peace and chemicals. I wanna run into”, his phrasing isn’t that of somebody making a clean getaway. It’s a dreamy album that actually feels like a dream, with all the chaos that your subconscious can summon inside you. 

Maximalism is a trademark of M83 and this album is chockful of impassioned synths and drum machines, but it mostly feels grim and mysterious rather than triumphant. “America”, with its sampling of dialogue from Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now smeared all over and solemn splashes of water is a spiraling fever dream where images are built up only to be destroyed and rebuilt. “On a White Lake, Near a Green Mountain”, densely packs the synths and drums so tightly, they feel like they’re a star on the brink of becoming a supernova. It’s like dark ambient where the lights are so bright, it’s blinding.

When side B kicks off with “Noise” and its gentle octave-spanning synth motif, it feels as though things are in the cooldown phase. That applies to follow-up “Be Wild” with its simple celestial synth melody juxtaposed against sparkling synth drones. It isn’t until the end of “Cyborg” that things start to feel unhinged again. “0078h”, with its scrambled, computerized vocals feels odd wedged between “Cyborg” and the exercise in bleakness that is “Gone.” I wish things had come full circle with a brilliant closer, but “Beauties Can Die” feels more like a practice run for “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” which concludes their next album brilliantly. It’s pretty but doesn’t take any chances, outside of several minutes of silence.

Though I would be very satisfied with 4-5 more albums in the vein of Dead Cities, I can’t fault Gonzalez for taking M83 in the directions he has. I can sense on this album how ambitious he is, and while that ambition might not have swayed me on the last few albums, it definitely did here.

 

 

20. Prefuse 73 – One Word Extinguisher — September 23, 2016

20. Prefuse 73 – One Word Extinguisher

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Pitchfork review

Pitchfork rating: 9.1

My rating: 7.6

I’m not sure what’s stranger – that it has taken me this long to come across a “breakup album” for this blog, or that the first breakup album I review is not one that immediately jumps out as such. Indeed, One Word Extinguisher is not a Moon Shaped Pool, or a Hospice, or a Vulnicura, works that address the calamity of a relationship’s dissolution through sometimes bitter(sweet), but carefully chosen words and beautiful arrangements that can soothe grieving listeners. Producer Scott Herren, a.k.a. Prefuse 73 expresses his post-relationship sentiments not with an acoustic guitar and personal poetry, but with the likes of samplers, drum machines, and a few friends to help along the way.

Just a little over an hour in length, and with 21 tracks (not counting the bonus tracks), One Word Extinguisher is not the album to go for if you’ve just been struck by the Breakup Mobile and need some wisdom from an empathetic troubadour. Forget about the majority of the album being instrumental, one of the reasons it simultaneously works and doesn’t make the list of all-time great breakup albums for me is because of how personal it feels – to Herren. It’s deliberately messy and indulgent; you feel like you’re listening to a friend describe their own breakup, but they don’t quite know how to put their feelings into words. You understand the broad outline, but not the fine details.

Lyrics are introduced rather early, albeit some via sampling. On the brief, smooth and skittish “The End of Biters – International” Herren drops in a bit of aggression courtesy of Sparky D: “Like a baseball bat, I’ll bring you down to your knees.” Immediately afterwards, on “Plastic”, Diverse spits breathlessly on environmental issues and finds a way to deliver a line like “your landfill deposits rest idle, not biodegrade.” without completely face-planting. It helps too that Herren knows how to pace a glitchy beat such as this. It’s the work  of somebody who has too much to deal with, but they’re not going to lose their cool. 

For something that feels more like an artistic emotional purging than a traditionally-sequenced album, One Word Extinguisher  really hits a certain stride towards the end of the first half. It’s not that the tracks all flow together seamlessly, they’re just really really good. Collaborations with producers Dabyre and Daelus on “Uprock and Invigorate” and “Busy Signal (Make You Go Bombing Mix)” demonstrate how well Herren can play with others. “Uprock” is a definite album standout, with its woozy bass and synths that buzz like the soundtrack to a party someone summons in their mind to regain some semblance of sanity. “Busy Signal”, meanwhile, indeed summons up the sound of a phone call on hold, albeit arpeggiated to infinity and beyond with some glockenspiel, horns, and bursts of rapping like party favors being unwittingly dumped on you until it all seemingly simmers down with some sweeping strings. The one moment of seamless perfection on this album comes right as “Busy Signal” ends and the title track begins. When the strings are replaced with a nervy bassline and inscrutable vocal samples, it feels like witnessing somebody trying to go about their day, after having spent the previous evening unable to sleep due to the same thoughts racing through their head again and again.

The second half falters a bit, but certainly not for a lack of effort. It has more to do with the length/scope of the album than the quality of the songs because none of them are bad (though with three interludes, you can see where some trimming could have been done). “90% of My Mind is With You” utilizes celestial synths like a cat meowing and overall brittle production that sounds as though it’s trying to cover up an intimate conversation. “Female Demands”, possibly titled during a particularly resentful thought process, is the most relaxed song here, with a collaborator kicking things off with directions for Herren to “fuck with the beat [there].” The instrumental is quite elastic but focused, and you can sense where that tension could be compromised. 

Speaking of tension, “Choking You”, is the grimmest cut here and a perfect example of the power of loops to demonstrate one’s inner turmoil. Each repeated synth line, drum pattern, or vocal sample summons the feeling of being locked in one’s mind with absolutely no sense of freedom or wanting to be relieved of imprisonment. “Storm Returns”, another co-production, this time with Tommy Guerrero, is the immediate follow-up and it’s downright relieving, not just because it sounds so much less tortured, but because you can almost sense Herren’s mood shifting through collaborative effort. 

On the Jenny Vasquez-featuring “Why I Love You”, Herren eschews production flair to let Vasquez play the role of lost partner floating around in his mind. She’s capable and the piano samples well-placed, but it’s the first instance of the album feeling on-the-nose to the point of detriment, even with “90% of My Mind is With You” ending with someone saying “I wish we never broke up girl.” At least “Perverted Undertone”, with its boom bap drums offset by intriguing horn murmurs, comes soon after. 

Closer “Styles That Fade Away with a Collonade Reprise” has something of a vibe like a going away party for negativity. The punchy drums, hazy vocals, pliable bass, and bursts of impassioned rapping are all standard operating procedure for this album, but thrown altogether on the concluding track, you can’t help but wonder if Herren had some sense of relief, now matter how small, when he played it all through the first time.

On the very specifically-titled and brief “Huevos With Jef and Rani”, Mr. Lif declares “when you’re dancing with the inter-fabric of people’s lives expect there to be unsettled scores to equalize.” over a synth dirge. It’s an unwieldy sentiment that could double as a track title for this album and a summation of Herren’s thoughts while making it. It might not be the perfect breakup album, but it seems pretty perfect for his mind at those times.