070 Shake 2nd Grade AC/DC Adrianne Lenker Alex Izenberg Andy Shauf Angela Aguilar Anna Burch Armand Hammer Ashley Ray Aubrie Sellers Bartees Strange Basia Bulat Beabadoobee Beach Bunny Becca Stevens Bestia Bebé Bill Fay Blake Mills Blu & Exile Bob Dylan Bonny Light Horseman Boy Pablo Bright Eyes Brooke Bentham Bruce Hornsby Bruce Springsteen Bumper Buscabulla Butch Walker Caribou Carly Rae Jepsen Caroline Rose Car Seat Headrest Chicano Batman Cornershop Devon Williams Dogleg Drake Dua Lipa Elizabeth Cook Elvis Costello Elzhi Felivand Fiona Applesauce Fleet Foxes Fontaines D.C. Four Tet Frances Quinlan Francisca Valenzuela Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist Future Islands Gabriel Garzón-Montano Gia Margaret Gone West Grimes Gus Dapperton Haim Hayley Williams Hazel English Helena Deland Homeboy Sandman Hot Country Knights Hugo Kant Ill Conscious & Aloeight Ingrid Andress Isobel Campbell Jarv Is Jason Isbell Jay Electronica J Balvin Jenny O. Jordana Julieta Venegas Ka Kacy Hill Kali Uchis Kamaiyah Katie Von Schleicher Katy Perry Katy Pruitt Kelly Lee Owens Khruangbin Kiwi Jr Lady Gaga Lana Del Rey Land Of Talk Larkin Poe Laura Marling Lawn Leonard Simpson Duo Leslie Mendelson Lido Pimienta Lil Uzi Vert Little Big Town Liza Anne Locate S,1 Luedje Luna Luka Kuplowsky Lupe Fiasco & Kaelin Ellis Madeline Kenney Mandy Moore Margaret Glaspy Maria McKee Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl Matt Rollings Megan Thee Stallion Mike Dean Morrissey Mildlife Moses Sumney Nas Natalia Lafourcade Nicolas Godin Norah Jones Of Montreal Open Mike Eagle Orville Peck Oscar Cash Osees Owen Pacha Massive Paul McCartney Peel Dream Magazine Perfume Genius Peter Oren Pet Shop Boys Phoebe Bridgers Poolside Poppy Porridge Radio Prettyboy D-O Real Estate Rick Wakeman Róisín Murphy Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Run The Jewels Samia Sarah Harmer Sarah Walk Serengeti (Ajai) Serengeti (The Gentle Fall) Sevdaliza Sexores Skinshape Skyler Gudasz Silvana Estrada Slypon Smoke DZA Soccer Mommy Sotomayor Squirrel Flower Sufjan Stevens Sunflowers Tame Impala Taylor Swift (Folklore) Taylor Swift (Evermore) Tennis (but really Peanuts) Teyana Taylor The 1975 The Aces The Beths The Buttertones The Front Bottoms The Japanese House The Proper Ornaments The Reds, Pinks & Purples The Rentals The Secret Sisters The Streets The Strokes The Weeknd Tom Misch & Yusuf Dayes Tops Touché Amoré Tkay Maidza Tricky Troye Sivan Tyson Motsenbocker Vanessa Carlton Washed Out Widowspeak Wild Nothing Willie The Kid Yacht Rock Revue Yves Tumor
O70 Shake – Modus Vivendi Well, I guess we’ll always have Glitter. To be honest, this is growing on me. Some of these tracks are fairly neat: I can dig the throwback synths in “Microdosing,” “Under The Moon” has a trippy lilt to it, and the shudder and shake of “Daydreaming” feels like a reasonable woman’s response to playlist R&B. Also, the Francis And The Lights co-write isn’t the mismatch I thought it would be; it’s corny, but it’s nicely built. But nothing comes close to matching the cold fire of the EP, and that’s because that set was straight-up, timeless electronic blues, like Muddy Waters with an MPC, and this is just a contemporary “dark” pop project like countless others. Rather than working with the sound that made Danielle Balbuena – I guess she’s called Dani Moon now – unique, they’re trying to jam this cookie into the greasy mold of the moment, and failing, and getting crumbs all over the place. The whole point of 070 Shake was that she sounded like she had no idea that a world existed outside of her drafty apartment on North Bergen. That’s what gave her stories of alienation traction; that and her searing performances, which are also missing here. Part of the blame goes to Mike Dean, who has really been out to lunch lately. But the main troublemaker is Dave Hamelin, late of The Stills (remember them?), who co-wrote and co-produced most of these songs and seems to believe that Balbuena’s vision requires more dramatic illustration than it does. If he was from Jersey, rather than the fantasyland that is contemporary Quebec, he’d have realized that expressions of pathos, desperation, and rejection/isolation are totally undermined by sweeping cinematic treatments. And when he makes her sing over standard-issue pop chord progressions?, yeccchhhh
2nd Grade – Hit To Hit This is a late ‘80s college-rock throwback cleverly disguised as emo-lite, far more Camper than Weezer, in other words. If 120 Minutes was still on the air, we’d all be unearthing vinyl copies from the racks at the back of Pier Platters. As it is, there’s Bandcamp, which is more direct, if a hell of a lot less fun. Hit To Hit revives the tradition of tiny pop-rock songs that are casually but solidly constructed – ones which make good musical points and get out fast. If you don’t like one, don’t worry, it’ll be over in a flash, and they’ll pull something else out of the grab bag. Much of this is narrated from the perspective of a wide-eyed, somewhat addled high school sophomore, super-sweet and only accidentally male, dedicated to his friends and a firm believer in the infinite promise of summer vacation. Representative verse, delivered over a descending chord pattern and sung with no acrimony whatsoever: “when I’m on my bike/everyone can just take a hike!” I feel him. Then there are the bits that are even tinier, like a track that consists of a baby saying “truck” (his first word!) over the record’s biggest riff, and a stomper that goes “the Jazz Chorus is back”. Carefree kids singing paeans to their amplifiers; hard to beat. My very favorite presents this stoner zen koan for you to chew on: “she’s not in the band/he’s not even in the band/there’s no one in the band”. So yes, very little chance I wasn’t going to like this, as I am a like-minded goofbag, even at my advanced age. They’re more than welcome to “Backstage At The Hungry Bum” and/or “Ghetto Goose”. They can pay me in Skittles, Slurpees, whatever they can scrounge up at the convenience store.
AC/DC – Power Up How could it be that there hasn’t already been an AC/DC album called Power Up? Powering up is their whole thing. Way back when, they named the band after electric current, and they’ve been far more reliable than PSE&G. With Malcolm Young gone, they’ve simply plugged a nephew into the lineup in the rhythm guitar position and rocked on. How does the kid acquit himself? When Angus sounds as good as he does here, who the hell cares? That SG crunch remains one of the most unmistakable aural signatures in show business, and he’s applied it to his best batch of boogie riffs since the 1980s – “Demon Fire” in particular. Although they’re committed to singing about stoopid stuff (it’s part of the brand) they remain no-nonsense lyricists and adept conjurers of the collective id. A few statements of purpose I agree with rather strongly: a shot in the dark beats a walk in the park, the moment you realize/those moments just pass you by, rotten apples by the barrel ain’t a delicacy, the money shot is best taken when hot. The band shocks all of this sentiment to life, and no matter how many times you’ve seen the movie, it’s great fun to watch the monster lurch around. I guess the best way to put it is this: there are a precious few bands who make records that are all killer no filler. Then there are the records that are all filler no killer, and the records that are occasional killer and copious filler. But there is only group that makes records that are all killer all filler, and you’re looking at that group. It all shakes and shudders and cooks, and aims directly at the tailbone, just as it always has. No matter how rough they play it and how hard they go, they remain what they’ve always been: one of the greatest pop bands in history. Pop as in populist, pop as in popcorn, pop as in poppa oom mow mow.
Adrianne Lenker – Songs/Instrumentals I thought Adrianne was really on to something with the tight band arrangements on Two Hands, especially the one where she sang the word starrrrrrrrrss in an gravelly low voice, as if she was a ferret stuck in a thicket, warding off a hungry predator. It was nice to hear her rock a little, even if it was only to demonstrate that she could do it. Joke’s on me, because here she is, less than a year later, dumping another Abysskiss on us. I am sure there’s been some kind of artistic progression since then, but fuck if I can suss it out. Take the two albums, shuffle the tracks, and I reckon Adrianne herself wouldn’t even know what goes where. As much as these songs could benefit from a band treatment, only “Zombie Girl” is up to the compositional standard of recent Big Thief, so maybe it’s best she kept them to herself. She continues to play like Nick Drake chastened by an angry knock on the wall after waking the neighbors, and her singing has reverted to that warbly mumble that is meant to sound fragile, but mostly connotes inattention and passive aggression. She’s still handy with ominous metaphors – one refrain goes “the house is white/and the lawn is dead”, which is grim, and emo, and perhaps journalistically accurate, and ought to give you a pretty good indication of Adrianne’s current mood. But too often, the words and vocal melodies wither under the nonstop guitar assault. Much like Yngwie Malmsteen.
Alex Izenberg – Caravan Château. Some weird-ass shit: multi-tracked mumbled vocals, some of them downright tuneless, poured like clotted gravy over mashed-potato accompaniment. Sometimes guitars noodle, sometimes there are super-8 art-film string settings, the drums come in and punctuate run-on sentences at the end of rambling clauses, never with a good old-fashioned period, but with commas, ellipses, and the occasional muddy colon. Nauseous harmonies quiver like vanilla pudding, muted bass pulses and flatulates, a feeling of midday alcoholic stupor prevails. It’s original, I’ll give it that. Unusual, difficult, unpleasant, not really something I want to put you through. Maybe save it for a rainy day when you’re feeling quite contrary.
Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline Like many of the best albums of 2019 did, this one is a linear narrative: it unfolds in real time during a single night, works in several recurring characters, and resolves after a relatively tidy arc. But before I get my Aaron West Underoos in a twist, I must add that the scope of this particular story is very narrow. Andy’s narrator meets a friend at a dive bar and learns that an ex-girlfriend is back in town, the ex shows up, the narrator tries to get with her, she brushes him off, they go to another bar and say bye-bye. That’s it. There are flashbacks to consequential moments in the lost relationship, and snippets of believably inebriated barstool conversation, a little pop wisdom, and a hovering sense of small-town social-group claustrophobia. Andy mumbles all of this in a voice that recalls Paul Simon at his most mealy-mouthed, and attempts to get over on miniaturism, which requires a steadier hand than he has, but I’m not sure anybody else would make the effort. Also, there’s more clarinet here than i’ve ever heard on a folk-pop record, which adds to the album’s idiosyncrasy, and maybe its peculiar charm, too. This is the polar opposite of that Maria McKee album that was another one of the year’s notable and idiosyncratic releases. La Vita Nuova is about grand homosexual success, Neon Skyline is about pathetic heterosexual failure. Maria tackles every note like a linebacker squashing a running back, Andy wheedles and hedges like a freeloader sheepishly asking you for a dollar. Maria is committed to the high Romantic poetry, Andy is wedded to the low twenty-first century confessional prose. La Vita Nuova spans the globe and goes on forever, Neon Skyline is rooted to a bar booth and is over before you know you’ve put it on. Try ’em back to back.
Ángela Aguilar – Baila Esta Cumbia & Que No Se Apague La Musica What kind of sixteen year old sings a song called “Fruta Prohibida” with her older brother? Should she really be doing that? I have listened and determined that the answer is yes, not because incest is best, but because Ángela Aguilar is sensational, and sweet sensations justify the shattering of every sweetest taboo. Check out the Youtube videos in which she makes tamales if you need more proof; watch her perkily grind the corn and bounce around the kitchen like a molecule exposed to heat. Ángela, if you don’t know, is the daughter of Pepe Aguilar, who has been making regional Mexican music since god knows when, and has so many Latin Grammys on his shelf that I think his house just collapsed. The brother is Leonardo, who is a strong singer in his own right. But it’s Ángela who possesses the prodigious talent, and who appears to have sprung, fully formed, from the skull of the Corn Goddess. What she does with that gift is an open question – right now, she’s just wading into the water, splashing around and enjoying herself, and goofing about on some oddly shaped flotation devices. Que No Se Apague La Musica consists of middle-of-the-road Mexican pop, an English language cover of “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” (way better than you’d think it would be), and some traditional material, including a version of “Amor, Amor De Mis Amores” with an arrangement so close to the one on Mujer Divina that I think Natalia Lafourcade is owed an apology. Then there’s Baila Esta Cumbia, a seven-track mini-set of Selena covers. Her take on Selena’s catalogue is… i think effervescent is the best word for it. I’m not getting the masochism and vulnerability that the originals radiated, but to be honest, those were the things about Selena I did not care for. With the ugly business bracketed, we’re left with the superpop, and and Ángela, superpop specialist that she is, lets these songs come into her wheelhouse and thwacks them all over the fence. This is just batting practice for her: a spectacular warmup before the real game starts. But it reminds me again just how good Selena was when she was good, and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom” puts me right on Bergenline Avenue, on a hot day, watching Sabado Especial on the television screens at La Quisqueya laundromat while my shirts go round and round in the suds. Latin culture is life, people. It’s the only thing refreshing this moribund hemisphere.
Anna Burch – If You’re Dreaming/Kat Edmonson – Like Dreamers Do/a whole lot of other stuff with “dream” in its title I understand the impulse to shut your eyes and pretend that none of this is happening. Wake me up when September ends, and all that. I know why the caged dream-poppers dream, and I understand why they duck behind signal processing and digital effects. There’s a lot out there to hide from. It’s not the courageous thing to do. The hat won’t be sorting any of these mushrockers into Gryffindor, now, will it. And although escapism is no sin, I think it’s due time for people to open their eyes a little wider than they’ve been. Perhaps we would not have had to watch a worldwide ascendancy of populists and nationalists if citizens had behaved with a bit more alacrity. As a wise man once said, take the pillow from your head and put a book in it. Alarm’s going off; shake out of the dream. For the good of a beleaguered planet, Dr. Rock prescribes a sharp turn toward awake-pop in. Wash your hands, don’t cough in public places, and ease off that machine reverb. The world is counting on you.
Armand Hammer – Shrines Billy Woods raps like he’s being buried alive. His narrators claw their way out of the dirt and hurl their words at their oppressors. They’ve been beaten around, they’ve lost the fight and they know it, but they keep spitting rhymes, because rhymes are all they’ve got. Billy has a knack for making every utterance sound like an unanswerable accusation – he could rap about taking his clothes out the dryer, and he’d phrase it and intone it in such a way that it positively lacerates The Man. Just kidding, The Man has no idea who Billy Woods is, and wouldn’t listen to Armand Hammer anyway. But I do, and I appreciate the defiance of a fellow dead-ender. Oh, and the other guy?, Elucid?, just mark him present.
Ashley Ray – Pauline Ashley Ray is a young artist, but her Music City institutional bona fides are solid: she toured in support of Miranda Lambert and co-wrote “The Daughters” for Little Big Town. Also, she sings about washing machines, which is a prerequisite for honorary membership in the Pistol Annies. The video for “Dirty Work” reveals her to be quite possibly the worst dancer in show business, worse than Taylor Swift, even, and her vocal tone resembles the noise a squeeze toy makes when a dog bites into it. That’s “Appalachian”, right? Rustic, like a squeaky gate? Pauline is as uneven as they come, but you can see why Nashville hitmakers are inclined to strip-mine this woman for material. She seems deeply acquainted with the grease trap at the Shoney’s on Truck Route 59. And when she sends one out to Lawrence, Kansas with love and longing, she warms my regionalist heart.
Aubrie Sellers – Far From Home Aubrie Sellers is the daughter of Lee Ann Womack and step-daughter of Miranda Lambert producer Frank Liddell, and these familial connections have prompted me to try pretty hard with Far From Home. Alas, the production on this set is not so hot. Liddell saddles Aubrie Sellers with heavily ‘verbed-out guitorchestral arrangements reminiscent of those on The Weight Of These Wings; they’re probably calling them psychedelic in her press materials, bless their hearts. When Miranda Lambert sings, everything around her resolves to the status of scenery. Without that kind of transformative power, Sellers just sinks down into the murk and wallows there. As Nashville heads toward its own messy rapprochement with the dream-pop movement and mushrock in general, I’m hearing more records like this one: music awash in feedback, goop, steam treatments, echoed sludge, Daniel Lanois’s cloudy bathwater, you name it. That’s not what I come to country for. I come to the country for corn, and cheese, hooey and a wholesome lassoing, and doin’ a-what comes naturally.
Bartees Strange – Live Forever You’ve probably heard about this emo refugee granted a temp work visa in indie rock nation via association with The National. I guess you could say something not-dissimilar about your modern Taylor Swift, so he’s in decent company there. Live Forever is supposed to be a fusion of indie and folk and hip-hop and r&b and electronica and Surinamese rope dancing and what have you, and Bartees is getting points for his broadmindedness, even as he makes the airtight argument that it’s all just black music. Then you throw it on and it’s just a mushrock record, like so many other recent mushrock records, albeit one made by a commanding singer who (mostly) cuts through the murk. He even quotes Hospice by the antlers – a legendary album in mushrock circles. Elsewhere, he talks about his Versace dreams and dipping the ziggy in the ac, but that hardly distinguishes him in these days of hip-hop vernacular in the boardroom. As is so often the case with fusion attempts, it works best when it just rocks, especially when it blues-rocks, and double-especially when that blues-rock extends to some howling about the Devil. Bartees ought to do more of that.
Basia Bulat – Are You In Love? Like Vanessa Carlton, Basia Bulat caught and rode the first ripples of the dream-pop/mushrock wave. Basia was initially built to be a Newsomesque zither-toting freak-folker, and Vanessa was designed to rake in dough for her green-eyed major label overseers. But by the time they both hit album number three, their feet were heavy on the damper pedals and they were drowning everything in reverb. They were ahead of the mushy, mushy curve; not that they’ve been able to capitalize on it. They arrived at the modern style – acoustic instruments plus synth plus digital reverb plus a vigorous appreciation for Tango In The Night-era Fleetwood Mac – by different paths through the woods. Are You In Love? retains some of the marvelous analog synth beds from Good Advice, but they’re not quite as naked and shimmery here, given Basia Bulat’s recent will to present herself as some sort of Cher-style blowsy soul chanteuse. She has a unique vocal delivery: a third of the time her pitch is sharper than Natalie Merchant covered in grated pecorino, a third of the time she howls like someone slammed her pinky finger in the car door, and a third of the time she’s pleasant as a tray of vanilla cupcakes. I acquiesced a long time ago; I imagine you might, too.
Beabadoobee – Fake It Flowers Anything pushed on us this hard really ought to come in a dimebag, don’t you think? Smoke smoke sess sess. Eventually one does give in to peer pressure and the promise of an ephemeral high. Yet this is mainly an exercise in pure salesmanship – never a dealbreaker in pop, but not exactly revelatory, either. Beabadoobee (gosh don’t you hate that name) and her producers have started with the Soccer Mommy framework that’s all the rage among indie copycats, polished it up until its bicycle-wheel shimmer is replaced by the bumper gleam of a mass-market automobile, and added a hailstorm of FX-pedaled guitar meant to evoke My Bloody Valentine and the Smashing Pumpkins. There’s one called emo song that’s… fairly named, and another about the empowerment potential of certain cosmetic products, another that namechecks Charlie Brown for no reason, and a half-there fantasy about getting her hair braided on the beach in France. It’s all slick and micromanaged, catchy and corporate as anything by Foreigner, meant to evoke nostalgia for a time period that no one in their right mind would ever want to relive – certainly not Beabadoobee herself, who wasn’t even a zygote at that point. So yeah, call this good dumb fun, with a heavy, heavy emphasis on the dumb.
Beach Bunny – Honeymoon I won’t go berserk and drop a Charly Bliss or Courtney Barnett comparison, because the compositional architecture isn’t nearly so inspired, and the bunny at the helm of Beach Bunny is not interested in language games. But if you responded well to stuff like Lemuria, or Laura Stevenson, or Petal’s Magic Gone — underdog music from wan young things used to getting overlooked and overruled — it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll find something here to appreciate. Good melodies, good, chunky guitar arrangements from a sharp pop band that aspires to rock, bell-clear and mercifully dry vox from an accelerated class kid named Lili Trifilio, verses about various unfulfilled romantic aspirations: all of these are verities that have largely been mislaid here in the land of dreamy dreams. At nine songs, several of which clock in at two minutes or thereabouts, this is a brief encounter, and you may suspect that Trifilio has emptied a low-capacity tank by the time this crosses the wire. Personally, I don’t mind: music like this ought to never overstay. Punch in, make your point, hit the chorus, pour some sugar on me. That’s the play, and these Chicago kids know how to run it. Where they go from here is a legitimate question, but they’ve got the bases covered, and they’re young enough to make their mistakes and bounce back. This one goes on the watch list for sure.
Becca Stevens – Wonderbloom Grown-ass woman in effect. This should not be as unusual is it is, but it is, and we’re duty-bound as members of the #metoo movement to cheer this feisty grandma on. Wait, Becca Stevens is 35? Huh. She must have gotten that AARP card on an honorary basis as a member of David Crosby’s Lighthouse band. Her prior records were slightly gruesome jazz in the lovable-disgusting Joe’s Pub style, and there are definitely traces of NPR-core here. But mostly Wonderbloom is a throwback to the overstuffed, musicianly sophistifunk that was popular among adults in the late ‘80s and very early ‘90s: dance music, per se, but not danceable in the slightest. Becca wins points for her devotion to sonic saturation, her fearless resurrection of synth sounds declared anathema decades ago, her fussy arrangements and lily-gilding, her baldface ripoff of oh you nasty boys and her Teddy Pendergast fantasies, and her absurd earnestness, which eventually becomes an artistic statement in itself. There’s even a musical dramatization of Heather Heyer’s letters to her mother – titled “Heather’s Letters To Her Mother” – which is so heartrending and exploitative that it might as well be pop.
Bestia Bebé – Gracias Por Nada Bestia Bebé is an Argentinian side that plays pure rock en Espanol: this is foursquare, Jimmy Eat World-style arena music with a pinch of emo and loads of muscle. A couple of tracks are keepers: “El Podio De TC”, “El Descontrol”, these are very well-built rock songs, firmly riveted together and capable of flight in any conditions. But the absence of imagination here is a problem. Every time I try to manage my expectations about South Americans, my absurd positive prejudices get in the way. Turns out they’re not all daring, and hot-blooded, and ready to peel a Chiquita banana in a suggestive manner. Caetano Veloso ruined me. Shakira finished the job.
Bill Fay – Countless Branches We lost John Prine. We lost Adam Schlesinger. Scarface is still hanging in there, although it sounds like he’s going to need a kidney transplant. Jackson Browne tested positive. This thing is really picking on lyricists; Ray Davies and Randy Newman had better be in bubble wrap somewhere. We don’t know what music is going to look like when this crisis lifts, or what segments of the industry will still be left standing. Those hazarding guesses will probably be wrong. It is possible that 2020 was the end of a long and fruitful era: the final flash of a great lightning storm that began in the middle of the 20th century when Chuck Berry plugged into that Fender Pro, and has since illuminated the lives of millions. Even before the lockdown, there were warning signs flashing about the concert biz and the record biz – the ascendancy of Spotify and streaming services, the weakening of intellectual property, fans transferring allegiance and attention to comedians and other professional wags, the deterioration of standards, the weakening of criticism and discourse, the strangling of the national libido, the passings of giants who’ve left behind shoes too big to fill. I believe that Danny And The Juniors were right to say that rock and roll is here to stay: as long as there are horny teenagers, and cars, and urgency, and worries about growing up, people will continue to respond to the backbeat. But the way we receive popular music may be changing forever. Life may be less mobile. We may become more isolated. Artists may continue to look backward, and commemorate, rather than accelerate. 2019, you’ll recall was a fantastic year in music, but think about how the very best records felt like chapters closing. Eva Hendricks predicted that it would break her heart to see it blown to bits. Lana Del Rey’s elegiac set turned on the line “if this is it, I’ve had a ball.” Jenny Lewis had fucking Ringo on drums. Mike Posner said farewell to his dad and all he represented. Don’t even get me started on Billy Woods. Fast forward to this year. Bill Fay, who is 77 years old, put out one of the last widely acclaimed albums before the world went sideways. He’s a troubadour from the early Seventies, unearthed by record collectors and celebrated by Will Sheff and Adam Granduciel and other hoary old fellows. And this is a nice story in a way (it would be nicer if the Bill Fay record was any fun, which it isn’t), but in another way, it’s not nice at all. It’s not the sort of thing that happens in a healthy medium. A healthy medium has too many kids banging on the doors for anybody to hear the scratch of old fingernails. There’s no room for resurrections. Births take up all the oxygen. The future has never looked quite as uncertain as it does right now: survival feels like a monumental task, and leadership, at all levels, is asleep at the wheel. Like the hippies say, tomorrow is a mystery, maaaan. Only these days, it’s not just the hippies. Regardless, I’m glad we were alive when pop was alive. It’s been one hell of a show, has it not.
Blake Mills – Mutable Set Laura Marling keeps calling Blake a brilliant artist, and I kindasorta know what she means: he approaches his quasi-pop composition with the sense of balance and mathematic precision that I associate with modern classical musicians. The mood is pensive, the methods are hypnotic, and, look, if a guy is going to swing a pendulum in my face and tell me that I’m getting sleepy, I’d like to be sure I’m not going to be quacking like a duck when he snaps his fingers or drops in the finger-snap sample. Given his British reserve and his genteel dismay about the onerous state of modern life, he’d probably just turn me into a paperweight and leave me to mold over.
Blu & Exile – Miles: From An Interlude Called Life This is a set of twenty long rap songs, some of which push the eight minute mark, containing copious production tricks and guest verses out the giggy from various indie emcees, including Aceyalone. It is not an insubstantial fraction of your day, if not your life, that these people are asking for. What are they giving you in return? They’re shooting for a vintage Gangstarr experience – something like Moment Of Truth, only less wary. But while producer Exile does a credible Primo impersonation on the turntables, Blu’s obsessions and penchant for audio listicles pushes the album closer to the Jazzmatazz projects that Guru did in the early nineties. About a third of the tracks on Miles are deep, copiously detailed dives into the bottomless crates of Blu’s record collection, and quick one-liners about artists and arts-advocating people meaningful to him, especially when he was a kid. Others are life-logging, logorrheic confessionals where the rapper overshares, and then overshares some more, and keeps on and on, until you get the impression that he’s rhyming with a red face, embarrassed, unable to stop. Then there are songs where he does both: where a throwaway line about a record will prompt a meditation on something his momma once told him, or about his own intense frustrations about the dead-end quality of his career. I have heard lots of tales of woe on hip-hop records in my life; arguably, that’s what hip-hop is for. But I have never heard an emcee speak quite as frankly, or emotionally, as Blu does here about his own art’s inadequacy as a bill-paying mechanism. The rapper doesn’t just want you to know that he’s broke. He wants you to understand that he can’t afford to take care of his daughter. He wants you to feel the resentment he felt when other kids got better Christmas presents than he did. He met his heroes, and not only won’t they help him, they don’t even like him. In other words, this is a chronicle of a very specific artistic struggle, one with a powerful material component, articulated by a guy who desperately wants to do it for the love, but can’t, because he’s worried about where his next meal is coming from. The filters are down, and he’s just selling it all out, because he’s checked the hourglass, and – surprise, surprise – the sands are almost gone. No, it’s not swagadocious. But there’s got to be room in hip-hop for stories like this one, too.
Bob Dylan – Rough And Rowdy Ways Van Morrison has always been proud to stand behind his stupidity in whatever form it happens to take. God bless him for it. I just hope he doesn’t breathe on my loved ones. Morrissey, for better and for worse, doesn’t sugar-coat his opprobrium – he puts his odious business right out there, and he dares you to take it or leave it. I can respect that, even if I’ve got to shake my head at it. But Bob D. wants plausible deniability for his flirtation with QAnon, and this I cannot dig on any level. Now, Bob has always tried to be all things to all people, and he has often succeeded – which is ironic, since many of his biggest fans accuse mainstream pop artists of the same ideological flimsiness that he’s regularly exhibited. He’s been able to disguise his profoundly opportunistic politics by cultivating his nod-and-wink skills, and by getting his audience to think they’re in on the joke, whatever the joke might happen to be. It takes a smart guy to do that, an adept juggler of cultural signifiers, and Bob Dylan is nothing if he isn’t intelligent. For instance, he’s cagey enough to understand the commercial consequences of the political divide: he can murmur to 8chan conspiracy theorists in a tone that he knows damn well that his normcore fanbase won’t even recognize. But, Bob, I am a little different. I am fluent in both normish and wacko. It’s one of the beautiful things about me, as Lana Del Rey might put it. My native tongue is that of the paranoiac. So I know exactly what he’s doing on “Murder Most Foul”, and I am here to tell you this song is a disturbingly adept exercise in button-pushing – a slice of American pie warmed over for old cranks. Normies may not know the centrality of the Kennedy assassination to the QAnon mythology, but Bob, who pointedly calls it a human sacrifice, certainly does. He writes about the shooting exactly as Q diehards do: as an American version of original sin and exile from the Garden, and with strong intimations (“the altar of the rising sun” before “that old devil moon”) of Satanic rites. There’s a cabal, a “they”, not a single shooter, but a party on the grassy knoll, and a strong implication that Lyndon Johnson and, by extension, the Democratic establishment were in on it. Repeat visitors to the rabbit hole will also realize that the Wolfman isn’t just Jack – that was also the codename for Kennedy’s bodyguard. Even the title of the song is a dog whistle: “Murder Most Foul”, a key title in conspiracy literature, and the homebrewed work of a frantic dot-connector who who lacked only an Internet calibrated to amplify his apophenia. The track is seventeen minutes long; Q is the seventeenth letter of the alphabet. If you think I’m just grasping at straws here, understand that QAnon believers agree with me. The song hadn’t even cooled off of the digital presses before it had spawned a hundred Internet threads with people picking it apart as if it was a Podesta email, claiming Dylan as a fellow follower of the white rabbit. Just as accelerationists always recognized the not-so-secret secret messages tucked into Trump’s speeches by Stephen Miller, et. al., QAnon adherents lapped all of these verses up as if they were written specifically for them. And if you think they weren’t, how do you explain lines like this, in an election year, at a time of civil unrest?: “Don’t worry, Mr. President, help is on the way/your brothers are coming, there’ll be hell to pay/brothers, what brothers?, what’s this about hell?/tell them we’re waiting, keep coming/we’ll get them as well.” The Boogaloo Boys could not have put it any more threateningly. Now, if you cornered Bob and asked him for an explanation for any of this shit – not that that’s possible, given his monarchical refusal to do interviews – he’d probably worm away with some cryptic words. Those are his stock in trade. And it’s possible that Bob is just playing with fire for aesthetic reasons, which is certainly something he’s done before. He’ll keep dropping hints, and moving clauses around, and striking historical signifier against signifier until they spark like flint. But if you want a good song about the Kennedy assassination, stick with “That Was The President”. Yeah, I know, Bob called Phil Ochs “nothing but a journalist”. At least journalists believe in something.
Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman Steven said he was worried about what I’d say about this one, given my vigilant guardianship of the British folk-rock canon and disinclination to make any room for syrupy characters from Vermont. He might also remember me slagging a prior careful, tasteful, high-minded record by Anaïs Mitchell on the grounds that it was reminiscent of a careful, tasteful grant application. Surprise!, I don’t mind this at all, even if I’m hard-pressed to identify anything it adds to the centuries-long conversation. Bonny Light Horseman have taste enough to do “Blackwaterside”, and courtesy enough to switch it up in order to avoid a chain-rattling visitation from the ghost of Sandy Denny. Once again, Justin Vernon and the National butt in, but that appears to be the price you pay for making an album in 2020. Quite a protection racket these conservatory gangsters are running. Besides that, there’s not much drama here. If you think the Offa Rex album would have been better if Colin Meloy had shut up and strummed, here you go.
Boy Pablo – Wachito Rico That’s South American for “handsome boy”, which he certainly is not. He’s got a sense of irony tucked away somewhere. It isn’t all sunny summer days in the fjords. Boy Pablo, aka twenty-year-old Chilean-Norwegian mushrock auteur Nicolas Muñoz, got a big boost from Youtube’s algorithm a few years ago, and he’s been blithely surfing the wave every since. Most artists who tread that path to notoriety do not make it to the album stage. To make matters more challenging for Pablo, critics seem to have it in for him for reasons I don’t understand. He has a pretty good idea of how to develop a melody across chords, and he possesses enough personality to rise, cork-like, to the surfaces of his soupy mixes. His constant winking at his audience never negates his romantic streak – when he says he’s excited about a girl, I believe him. There’s not a trace of rock and roll depravity or pain, sweat, and blues in his delivery, but that’s par for the course for Northern Europeans. They do not exist within a culture of consequence, and it always shows. What saves him from going down with the Love Boat is his enthusiasm, his purity, and his understanding of pop song architecture, which isn’t close to total, but gets him by for now. At times, he reminds me of one of the most overlooked songwriters of the Bamboozle era: Forrest Kline of Hellogoodbye, another classicist with a taste for frothy young adult drama. He just needs to acquire a few scuffs on those shiny shoes. With its usual brutal efficiency, I’m sure the world will deliver some soon enough.
Bright Eyes – Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was After achieving unexpected centrality via the Better Oblivion project last year, Conor Oberst resumes his ghostlike floatation around the periphery of popular music. This is better by degree than the Ruminations and Salutations projects, and the folk-orchestra grandeur feels less obligatory than it recently has. He’s hanging tinselly ornaments all over these songs, and the stepladder wobbles here and there as he does, but he’s eggnog free and in a proper holiday spirit. The result reminds me a whole hell of a lot of The Silver Gymnasium – of “All The Time Every Day” in particular – but without the child sex abuse to feel triumphant about. Lots of major-to-minor changes, slow-building waltzes with strings and piano octaves and dramatic drum builds, references to Tiananmen Square for vague reasons, things that went flyinnnnnn’, etc. Unfortch, Conor’s singing continues to deteriorate. He’s never exactly been Mr. Pitch, but some of his departures from the melodic line combine with the flat timbre of his voice to pull me out of the experience of the songs entirely. It’s like a camp counselor with a good yarn for you, but he keeps chucking trash into the fire. There’s only so far that a fragile tremble in the voicebox can get a guy. That said, I acknowledge that it’s gotten him pretty far.
Brooke Bentham – Everyday Nothing Some young artists do resist the tug toward the monocultural style that I call mushrock. See the Helena Deland entry if you need a more elaborate description, but… I bet you don’t. Should you put Brooke Bentham on right after, say, Squirrel Flower, you will immediately receive some snail mail from your soccer mommy. Why do the girls copy so much? When we menfolk so bravely go our own ways into the dry gulch? I think it is because they are, like, soooooo insecure. Brooke is a bruised-feelings Brit with a strong voice who attempts with intermittent success to belt her way out of the corner that her generic mushrock production has painted her into. Her other strategy for piercing the fog involves jarring lyrical flourishes, like the one where she keeps telling us she’s got a mouthful of blood (ew). Other than that, you could preserve this one in amber, label it music of 2020, and send it to the Smithsonian. Future researchers will thank you.
Bruce Hornsby – Non-Secure Connection So. Is Bruce Hornsby insane? In all these years of listening to the mandolin rain, I admit that’s something I’ve never considered. But it would explain a lot: not just his close personal relationship with Jerry Garcia, his basketball obsession, and his behavior at concerts, but also his unshakable determination to bewilder his audience. I don’t know if there’s a listener for this album, and I don’t know if Bruce cares. What I’ve come to understand, though, is that for Bruce – and maybe only Bruce – it doesn’t matter one bit. He’s going to make the record he’s going to make, and go as far out as he’d like, and your role as a facilitator and appreciator of his artistic journey is entirely up to you to establish. Even those who hung with him on Absolute Zero are likely to be thrown by Non-Secure Connection, which is spiked with weird intervals and harmonies that would be strange for jazz, let alone the grown-up piano pop-rock that is still bruce’s business. Then there are the meandering song structures, and sonic experiments, and guests (James Mercer! Jamila Woods! Leon Russell from beyond the veil!), and character and perspective studies that are not, as the kids say, relatable. There’s one about drones, and one about a two-bit salesman who calls himself the Rat King and might be a proxy for the President, and another narrated by a porn hound who whacks off as his wife buys tube socks, and another sung from the perspective of a lone computer hacker mystified by his own motivations, and the craziest one, which is helpfully titled “Shit’s Crazy Out Here”. That’s the only help Bruce is going to give you. In its curious coldness, its avant-classical overtones, and its faith in the clarifying power of strange mathematics, Non-Secure Connection reminds me of another tech-obsessed album made with absolutely no consideration for the marketplace: Vienna Teng’s Aims. That ride peaked with a song sung, through a heavy, robotic filter, from the perspective of a data mining firm. And it occurs to me that if you’re really going to make pop songs about the tech present – if you’re going to stare the black mirror in the face – you probably have to evacuate the warmth from your music. Otherwise you’re just going to be another left-behind complaining about phones in the name of “humanity” and “connection” and other concepts we as a species have long since jettisoned. To slip inside the mainframe, you’ve got to suppress your instinct for compassion. You can’t crowd-please: you’ve just got to your own peculiar algorithm. Only the truly, fully anti-social can sing with authority about social media.
Bruce Springsteen – Letter To You You have been told that this is a return to form – much better than Western Stars or Wrecking Ball. Unless you’ve been told by a contrarian that this is a pile of rusty car parts, and not nearly as good as Western Stars or Wrecking Ball; this perspective is out there, too. As a contra-contrarian, I am here to tell you that under the hood this is actually very similar to Western Stars/Wrecking Ball, and once the initial thrill of the throwback sound wears off, your feelings about this new one probably won’t be too much different from your opinion of those two new-ish oldies. For starters, Ron Aniello asks us again to scale a forbidding sonic wall: midrange-everything, all instruments going at once and competing for the same frequencies, leaving very little oxygen for the listener. Then there’s the Boss himself, whose elderly-era interests haven’t budged a bit – he’s still hung up on his own personal vitality (one chorus goes “I’m aliiiiiiiive”, in case you were wondering), constantly taking his temperature, yammering on about trains. There’s still no detectable sense of humor, and when the Boss turns his attention to politics and contemporary culture, he says exactly what you think he’s going to say. At least he’s not banging on about the banksters anymore. The big change is that he’s given you the band, in the raw, unfettered by studio fussing, which was a smart move. This really does sound like the recent E Street live experience, which neither Wrecking Ball nor High Hopes did. The best moments belong to the guys, especially the Professor, who puts his many imitators to shame, and Mighty Max, whose fills and builds are powerful enough to pummel you all the way back to 1978. Hence this LP has been received as an insta-classic by the people who pay several trillion dollars to stand and punch the air in the general admission area of Springsteen shows. Honestly, I am happy for them, because this is exactly what they’ve been asking for: a record that chases down the vintage E Street sound with the tenacity of a hunting dog, with no detours into gospel or rap or Pete Seeger banjo plucking. They wanted a record that pretends that the last forty years didn’t happen, and boy howdy did they get it. Bruce even revives a trio of songs from the early ‘70s, which mostly serve to remind me of the difference between Springsteen at his best, who created amazing characters and told stories about a wild and innocent world of his own invention, and Springsteen at his not-so-great, who mostly just sings about Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen the narrator remains trapped in the same scrapbook that gave structure to his Broadway musical, and as he keeps flipping the pages, his reconstructions of a colorful past get blander and vaguer. Mainly, he’s fixated on the faces of old compadres who are no longer with us. When he growls out his tributes, he slips into a mode that fans have grown accustomed to: one where he’s desperate to convince himself of something, probably about mortality, possibly about his current position in the flow of time, certainly cushioning the blow of impermanence, definitely frightened, definitely more than a bit dishonest. It’s hard to hear Springsteen solipsistically guaranteeing a dead friend a continued existence in his dreams, “Heart Will Go On”-style, in the same year when Phoebe Bridgers hit us with “Chinese Satellite”. Writers are fabulists, and Springsteen has always been great at artfully ducking questions and making stuff up. As a fan, I’m grateful for that. But I do demand a little more bravery from him than he’s been showing lately. So while i’m definitely buying this one – out of brand loyalty, and appreciation for the performances of some of my favorite musicians – I can also acknowledge this for what it is: the most unnecessary Springsteen project since that live boxed set he put out after Born In The U.S.A.
Bumper – Pop Songs 2020 Bumper, we’re told, is Michelle Zauner’s pop project, since Japanese Breakfast was, I guess, free jazz or doom metal or something. The four songs on the Bumper EP are a little more straightforward than the ones on Soft Sounds From Another Planet, and there’s plinky Cyndi Lauper synth where she might have once used a guitar, but this is mostly an Eightiesfied continuation of her prior stuff. Zauner does not have the vocal command for real commercial pop, and she sings like she knows it, so I’m not sure what the heck she’s doing here. Maybe she’s feeling nostalgic for the Go-Gos; specifically the moments when Jane Wiedlin took the lead. I mean, I know I am.
Buscabulla – Regresa This promises a hybrid of Latin alternative pop and au courant Spotify-style streambait. For one track – the very good “Vámano” – they deliver, matching Carnaval percussion with a note-bending synthesizer riff and that half-distracted vocal tone that playlist-makers at upmarket boutiques cannot resist. The rest of Regresa is upmarket hotel check-in music, so cop the single and skip the album. Or you could just listen to Lido Pimienta again.
Butch Walker – American Love Story Well what do you know, a virtual mash-up of “Brimful Of Asha” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. You might ask yourself: is there a rhyme or reason here, or is this more pud pulling from a known pud puller? Things become clearer when you realize that instead of “ooh-wee-mo-weh”, he’s singing “freedom dumb my way”. Yes, indeed, this is Butch Walker’s concept album about the partisan divide. You knew he’d make one. He loves Georgia too much to give up on the South, and he’s too decent a person to countenance the bigoted shit he’s been hearing from his neighbors. American Love Story follows Bo, a homophobic good ole boy who is saved from a car wreck from the very same individual he once gay bashed. Then he sires a queer son and must learn to love and accept him – over a funk party track, no less. So this is corny with a capital C, in other words, a not-so-crafty tearjerker and a mid-Eighties after-school special of an album. But even if the plotline is a little, um, out of touch with the current tone of the nation, he’s got a few observations worth making. For instance, Butch seems to believe that white people are unable to apprehend culture, even when it’s presented to them, and I think he’s got a point that applies equally well on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. He also wonders whether the liberty to make the lives of others miserable is really liberty at all, or if it’s just some weird compulsion driven by spite. Butch notes that those who claim to be motivated by their thirst for freedom are the ones acting automatically, and he wonders whether they could be jolted out of their bad dream if they could only recognize this contradiction. These are good-hearted reflections from a good-hearted guy, one who believes that a clumsy, endearing rapprochement with his redneck relatives remains possible, and hugs and beers and rap-country hybrids all around. He still believes in the happy ending for America. He may be the only one left. Well, Butch and Brad Paisley.
Caribou – Suddenly/Four Tet – Sixteen Oceans I stick these two together because while they’re stylistically different, they bug me in the exact same way. Technically these records are unimpeachable: they’re glossy as spitballs, and the state-of-the-art software makes sure that every beat and every downstroke land in the optimal spots. Never will you be taken out of the experience by an errant note or a dropped stitch, or a lyric that makes you think too hard. But since this is music without the gravitational pull of personality, how far into the experience you go is entirely up to you. I have to wonder why anybody would bother to make the journey. This music isn’t sexy. You can’t dance to it. It doesn’t rock; there’s nothing to prompt emotional release or even aggressive fratboy catharsis. The vocal and instrumental performances are too restrained to give musos a visceral thrill. It’s experimental in a sense, but not terribly cerebral – there’s never the sense of scary-wide horizons and looming danger that I associate with prog-rock. I think these are albums meant to be appreciated like objets d’art: shiny things in a curio cabinet, meant to be glanced at but not played with. And that’s just not enough. If a mood was all I wanted, I would have busted out my Penfield Mood Organ.
Carly Rae Jepsen – Dedicated Side B Ooh yeah, it’s the B-side queen, back with more spare change for the kitchen drawer. Sling it in there and listen to it jingle. There’s nothing about this collection that the original version of Dedicated didn’t imply or cover outright, but Carly Rae is so good at minting pop numbers that there’s no harm in letting her repeat herself. I like “Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out” which is a flat and shiny silver dollar, “Felt This Way”, which is a creamy butterscotch you’d forgotten you’d put in there, “This Is What They Say”, an mash note from the ’80s in bubblegum-scented ink that’s too delicious to chuck, and “Now I Don’t Hate California After All”, a joy buzzer that proves, again, that CRJ is pretty funny when she wants to be. But watch out for that dust-covered, half-sucked gobstopper in the corner. That one is, naturally, a Jack Antonoff production, and I’ll stop ripping on this guy the minute he stops foisting his one melody and two chord progressions on me. He even sings on “Comeback”, wasting precious measures that rightfully belong to Carly Rae. Jack!, stop baiting me.
Caroline Rose – Superstar A spiky and, dare I say, Costello-ish character surrenders to the modern synthpop. Into the molasses swamp with her. Caroline Rose was never exactly Steve Nieve on the organ, but the sound of the combo gave Loner an aural signature to match the abrasive storytelling. Intriguing musical ideas still poke through the thick synthesizer backwash on Superstar, but you’ve got to fight to find them, and it’s all a far cry from the days when she was right up in your face with her demand that you put on a little bikini and d-d-d-dance. That song was a showbiz critique as well as a character study, and in a way, Superstar continues the narrative. But the satirical single-minded focus on the shallowness of the popularity chase doesn’t exactly give the principal much room to groom, or even crack wise. Do we really need Caroline Rose to tell us that Internet-era stardom is a poisoned chalice? Given her evident smarts, I would’ve thought she’d be on to richer subjects by now.
Car Seat Headrest – Making A Door Less Open As for Will Toledo, his Eighties synthpop move (plus his basement club yelp) pushes him straight into Remain In Light territory, and you figure he’d be pretty comfortable there. Yet when he drives himself into the cul-de-sac of his own lite-philosophical reflections – when he indulges in repetition and sound-over-substance hijinx, as he does on “Hymn (Remix)” and elsewhere – he desperately needs his band to punch him free. They’re prohibited from doing so by the genre restrictions he’s adopted. Only when he torches Hollywood does he recapture some of that killer whale bite that used to be his comparative advantage. The terrible truth is that some people were born to rock – to rock and do nothing but, rock with drums and guitars and distortion and all the rest of it. Their voices and attitudes go with the style, and that’s why they were selected by audiences in the first place. Will Toledo is one of those people. Hayley Williams is another, and we’ll get to her soon enough; I mean, we’re only on C.
Chicano Batman – Invisible People Los Angeles outdoor-party nonsense: corporate festival music, inebriated vibe, terribly sung, unimaginatively played. Their love for Tropicalia is apparent, but when they try to chase down the spirit of those Gilberto records, they mostly just get lost in the jungle. The concrete jungle, mind you – the parking lot for Coachella specifically. This is supposed to foreground cultural collisions, and that it does. Cultural collisions minus good taste and moral responsibility equals whiskey commercial music. I imagine Captain Morgan is a big fan.
Cornershop – England Is A Garden Tjinder Singh is baaaack, and you know what he’s packed for you: rudimentary two-chord stomp, total WTF lyrics, some indefinable Midlands mysticism, and enough subcontinental signifiers to excite the few remaining globalists among us. Yet his firm grounding in cultural history – not to mention his adherence to the hippy-hippy shake – marks him as a Britpopper to the core. England, not Asia, has always been his subject, even as he’s perpetually aware that his skin color marks him as an unlikely Britpopper, and an increasingly uncomfortable Brit. He’s still singing about wogs (his favorite word): this time, Preeti is getting followed around by the police, and probably a mob of rotten-tooth UKIP types. She’s as blithe as a Bollywood backing track – that’s her riposte to the National Front, and it’s a damned good one. England is a garden, and gardens are pretty, and well-tended, probably by a wog who is under strict orders to keep things tidy for visiting royals. Remember always that it was Tjinder who grabbed headlines waaay back in 1992 by burning pictures of Morrissey in a protest of the creeping racism in his lyrics. He was well ahead of the curve there, but what, really, did that courage and trenchancy get him? A bosom for a pillow, I suppose. Glad he’s still got it. He’s going to need it.
Devon Williams – A Tear In The Fabric Winner of the annual Not Actually The Clientele sweepstakes, beating Real Estate by a country mile. In truth, A Tear In The Fabric owes more to ’80s college rock acts like The Church and Robyn Hitchcock than it does to ’60s pop. Devon possesses a hushed, echoed deadpan and a will to arpeggiate on his six string, and more curiosity about chorus effects than distortion. There are decent lyrics, some of which are topical, nicely structured songs with winsome melodies, pre-choruses that build appropriate tension before spilling into the choruses, and a sustained mood of melancholy that seeps into dread from time to time. It all makes for a fine twilight soundtrack. Twilight the astronomical phenomenon, mind you, not Twilight the movie. That would be a very different kind of album.
Dogleg – Melee On any local emo council, you will run into a pedant who is there to remind everybody that emo was, in the distant age of heroes, short for emotional hardcore. I missed out on Jawbreaker and Rites Of Spring, and I’ll admit I don’t have much desire to pick up that particular spare. Some of the foundational stuff is abrasive as fuck, and you can hear echoes of that in the cornerstone bands of the Midwestern style: Chamberlain, Braid, Mineral, even early Jimmy Eat World. Dogleg’s revival of Midwestern emo has been justly celebrated – they’ve got the guitar attack down pat, plus the caged-rage frustration and the mosh-pit energy. They’re pretty handy with hooks, too, when you can make them out underneath all of the screaming. But there’s a segment of the genre that’s just too darn aggressive for me, and this is firmly within that segment. I’ll just be over here with my Straylight Run records; don’t mind me.
Drake – Dark Lane Demo Tapes If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was a mixtape, More Life was a playlist, this is… well, these are demo tapes. Says so right on the wrapper. Your cousin Drake does have a way of managing expectations. He’s set them pretty darn low, has he not, and you might argue that any collection with the likes of the Toosie Slide on it isn’t exactly shooting for the moon. Me, I’ll accept the Toosie Slide for what it is – a tight little mood piece that, upon close examination, turns out to be something of a threat, a sleek weapon concealed beneath a puffy winter coat, with a silencer on it, naturally. Elsewhere on this held-breath quarantine soundtrack, Drake does what he does: he pulls up outside your house and waits, never beeping the horn or texting you, confident that you’ve seen the car and you recognize that the next move is yours. He refuses to engage in reply-guy tactics. He interrogates the motives and desires of women two or three cities in his rear view mirror, and sees if he can still provoke them. He experiments with different lengths and thicknesses of psychic chain. But, mostly, he writes coruscating letters to friends and family. He’s like a heroine in a Victorian novel, confined by circumstances to the stately manor, engaging in frantic epistolary activity in order to sublimate his obsessions with sex, violence, and control. Those characters tend to marry badly and/or meet an unpleasant end. Rap is a little different, though. At least it pretends to be. Guess we’ll see, sooner or later.
Dua Lipa – Future Nostalgia We were all bummed about the quarantine. But if there’s anybody who’d be forgiven for kicking a hole in the wall in frustration, it’s Dua Lipa, who was all set to rule the summer that never really happened. She gave us eleven tracks of hot-weather pop for highway drives, boardwalk nookie cruising, rides on the tilt-a-whirl, toe-sucking by starlight, etc.; music to exchange bodily fluids to. Instead we stayed home, hoarding disinfectant and heeding Sanjay Gupta. It’s not what she expected. And I rather think that, for Dua Lipa’s sake, we need to contrive an artificial summer, right now, just for the benefit of these productions. The bass performances alone demand a beach bonfire. Maybe we could use a phony Zoom background. It’s the least we can do given the work these people put in; I think you’ll know what I mean when I say that pop albums do not have to be this good to be great. My beef with Dua, if that is her name, is that this sort of music is best made by sympathetic characters – like Carly Rae Jepsen, for instance – and this particular dance commander strikes me as something of a corner-cutter and ruthless operator. Also, she’s in the lane that rightfully belongs to Katy B, if Katy B would ever come back from Siberian exile and claim it.
Elizabeth Cook – Aftermath Miranda Lambert fakes straight from the Miranda Lambert fake factory. Which I didn’t even think was open during the quarantine period!, what with the deadly virus of bro country whistling through the streets of Music City. Elizabeth Cook is a radio deejay with a fishing show on the Cornpone Network, or some such channel. She’s fifty-plus and feisty (representative lyric from a song about a hefty Georgian: “She’s gonna lock the door/take off her bra/and call up her sister in Arkansas”), which makes her a natural match for Butch Walker, whose production here is maybe a tad restrained? By his own standard? Perhaps he felt the ghastly gaze of Dave Cobb looking over his shoulder. Elizabeth Cook cannot sing like Miranda Lambert, because nobody can, so instead she approximates Ashley Monroe and does a not-half-bad job of it. I’m partial to the spoken word piece – a reimagining of a poem by John Prine – in which the Virgin Mary is reimagined as a weary, woozy Southern broad watching daytime TV and wondering where her son is. Is that what Elizabeth’s radio show is like? Trailer park fantasies from a writer who probably hasn’t seen a trailer in several decades? Someone tune in and see.
Elvis Costello – Hey Clockface Artists of all kinds recognize laurels-resting as a trap. They know that a creator needs to keep moving. In interviews, they will say so. Musicians also talk about being real: refusing to disguise their trauma, and giving it to audiences straight. They all talk that talk. But nobody has ever walked that walk like Elvis Costello has. If you’re looking for reasons why he’s the G.O.A.T., you start there.
Elzhi – Seven Times Down Eight Times Up Elzhi has never pretended to be a businessman or a business, man: he’s one of the worst self-promoters in contemporary rap, and his career has been a series of misfortunes worthy of Lemony Snicket. Also, his extreme vocal resemblance to Nas – one he’s never exactly run from – has gotten him pegged as a copycat. Bar for bar, though, he’s one of the best and most fluid rappers in the world, precise without being rigid, and possessing astonishing breath control and tonal command. Though I’ve liked all of his prior releases and even own a few of them, I’d given up on the possibility of a top-drawer Elzhi album, figuring that he’s a words-first/flow-first emcee who isn’t exactly interested in crafting a forty-five minute sonic experience. It looks like I was wrong there, because producer Jr Swiftz has matched him with lavish, velvety, bass-heavy beats, beats that wrap around you like the heated leather on the Cadillac seats. These are beats that rumble like the traffic on Detroit’s grandest avenues; beats that remind me of the great Black Milk. Elzhi has responded with some of his most sentimental rhymes ever (okay with me), plus dense verses about his hard work and perseverance that achieve the breathless, triumphant, expectant quality of a Rocky movie training montage. He’s got the goods, so he’ll win the fight eventually, right? Seven Times Down also contains one of the year’s great love songs: “Ferndale”, a reminiscence of an girlfriend who, “if the world went her way/every day would be sorbet/Shel Silverstein books/Tiger’s Eye and foreplay.” Quite a character sketch in eight words. This very good rap record is marred only by intermittent commentary by a roughneck Detroit comedian named Foolish, whose boilerplate misogynist jokes are funny but obvious. I guess they felt the need to impart a little levity to the proceedings. Humor is not what Elzhi does best.
Felivand – Nerve Felivand’s EP project is an uneven one – some of her songs barely get out the gate before faceplanting. But when she gets it together, she offers a nice hybrid of husky Mikaela Strauss-ish vocals and sophistipop arrangements vaguely reminiscent of The Future And The Past. This, to me, marks her as one to watch; as does the clip for “Trajectory”, which is one of the year’s best music videos. I even feel a tacit appreciation for Róisín Murphy emanating from these grooves. I thought it was pretty cool, by the way, that Dua Lipa called Moloko one of her major influences. And no, I don’t hear it either. But as Bun B might put it, trill recognize trill.
Fiona Applesauce – Fetch The Bolt Cutters Funny thing about the two-eyed Fiona: her records always look alien at first, but as you grow accustomed to her face, you begin to see that she’s a traditionalist to the core. Idler Wheel was just a ‘70s-style confessional piano-pop record, albeit one with Tom Waits-style junkyard percussion and more bloodcurdling shrieks than you’d get out of, say, Phoebe Snow. Likewise, the new one feels Broadway-derived: a little Fantastiks, a little Sondheim Company meets neck-slitting Sweeney Todd, and quite a bit more Grease than its rather fanatic supporters would probably want to admit. “Good morning/you raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”: I mean, that’s practically Irving Berlin, isn’t it?, or Lorenz Hart. Lorenz would have put it differently – but not thaaaat differently. He was a depressed homosexual in the 1930s; he was painfully acquainted with the demands of the horny man. Fiona, god love her, is a showbiz kid, too, and a reliably hilarious one. All of this stuff is in her bloodstream, and I think that helps explain why her work resonates so strongly with this very Pizzagate-y, Hollywood death cult-y moment. Her work implicitly satirizes the platitudes of the entertainment industry and turns them inside out. She spits the Southern California sunshine back out in its most poisoned, damaged versions — all the exploitation, and coercion, and scratch marks on the leather of the casting couch. I’m also struck by the deep fatalism of the Bolt Cutters songs, and their post-feminist, or just exhausted-feminist, implication that we are doomed to have Harvey Weinstein lurching at our orifices for the rest of time. She’s not afraid of the bullies/and that makes all the bullies worse. Evil is a relay sport and the one who is burned will turn to pass the torch. She’s going to keep speaking out, and she’ll keep getting kicked under the table. This is Fiona, so it’s all very witty; she got that from the Broadway masters, too. But it’s still just the cycle of abuse, is it not? Cut the bolts if you want, but apparently it’s the same shit on the other side of the door. I remain a fairly big fan. But I gotta say: anybody who hangs a flawless ten out of ten on this tasty but sour gumball has been in quarantine too long.
Fleet Foxes – Shore Robin Pecknold tells us he’s not the season he’s in. You know what?, I believe him. Not because he’s an old soul, or a precocious infant, or even the earth angel he often plays on record; no, it’s because there are hidden benefits to sexlessness. The main reason that monks cut their peckers off is because they’re trying to get outside the round of birth, screwing and death. They’re looking to attain a little timelessness thereby. I consider this a crude solution and not too rock and roll, but who am I to stand against the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, the Bobdylanites? (I just made that last one up). Fleet Foxes are about as monastic as a bunch can get while still enjoying pop careers – they “fear fun”, as Father John Misty implied – and the challenge for Pecknold has always been to locate some alternative drive other than the hot sex/speeding cars/shooting people in the head that is the general failsafe in the line of work he’s chosen. Crack-Up wasn’t a hard listen because it was abstruse and uptight. It failed as pop because the writing was untethered to any motivation we might reasonably call human. That includes bad motivations; those are nasty, but they always work well in a pop context. So on the new one, he’s altered his eye level and chosen to focus on the piece of territory where the earth angels hang out: the shore, or borderline between life and death. A lot of this record consists of dedications to musicians passed, the slain rappers and the fallen rappers, as Q-Tip once put it. They are, with few exceptions, white guy singer-strummers like Elliott Smith, Richard Swift, John Prine, etcetera. It’s obvious that he identifies with these people, and for good reason – he, too, is a wan, intelligent alt-rocker with a knack for melody. There he is on the shore, watching the last ripples in the sails of the funeral boats as they vanish over the horizon. There but for fortune, he’s thinking. And this suggests to me that Robin Pecknold wants to be alive, which, to be honest, is something I was never 100% clear on. I’d considered the possibility that he’d prefer to be a cog in a machine, or a Christmas card. Just like Jamila’s LEGACY! LEGACY! album did, Shore broadcasts the author’s intention to carry on in the name of his heroes, which would be insufferable if he hadn’t cultivated a wry sensahuma about it all. Examine, for instance, “Young Man’s Game”, which is thematically similar to Tame Impala’s withering “It Might Be Time To Face It”. But while Kevin Parker excoriates himself for the gracelessness of his pretend cool, Robin stands off to the side and pokes fun at the whole Peter Pan thing in a manner that might actually be called well-adjusted. Now, in order to get down to brass tacks and make Shore all it could be, Robin required the intervention of a pandemic. This isolated him from the rest of the group and allowed him, Port Of Morrow-style, to reimagine what a Fleet Foxes album could be in the absence of the other Foxes. Turns out Robin can suspend a chord and rock a Gregorian chant all by his lonesome. Well, Robin with a little help from recording engineer Beatriz Artola. He ain’t an island, no matter how it looks from the outside.
Fontaines D.C. – A Hero’s Death Moodier, less immediate than the debut album. Dogrel, the first Fontaines set foregrounded so many hooks that it sometimes felt like they’d forgotten to embed them in songs; this time out, it’s like they’re deliberately withholding them. Why? Beats me, but I do get the sense that Grian Chatten isn’t enjoying the rock star grind as much as he thought he would. He’s not the first. On Hero’s Death, he mostly seems busy with heartfelt assertions of self-possession – I was not born into this world to do another man’s bidding, I don’t belong to anyone, even when you don’t know/you feel, etc. – and I only hope he realizes that this does not distinguish him very much from, say, Katy Perry and other fight-song individualists. What is it about showbiz that compels so many of its youngest youngsters to loudly declare their independence? Wait, don’t answer that, I think we know.
Frances Quinlan – Likewise This is a very hard album to evaluate, or even understand. Once again, Frances Q. supplies us with short stories filled with intriguing turns of phrase (“I only managed to stay small by making giants out of strangers” sure has the ring of truth), but they’re more fragmentary than her poems for Hop Along. There’s been a breakup prompted by communication problems, and it’s been accompanied by a series of romantic reversals that, it’s implied, mainly exist in the narrator’s head. But Frances also throws in several references to anti-Nazi literature – including Bohumil Hrabal and Lara Vapnyar’s There Are Jews In My House – and a running sub-theme about environmental destruction. It’s unclear how the threads are related, even as she jumps back and forth between them. is she likening her ex to a global malefactor? Or is she just trying to situate the breakup in a world unraveling? If it’s the latter, I’ve got to admit that’s kind of lame. It makes the drama feel unearned in a way that Hop Along never is. The album turns on the song “Went To L.A.”, and the line “heaven is a second chance,” which is the only thing on this largely acoustic set that Frances splashes out with her usual vinegar. But I admit I don’t really get the force of that either: who needs a second chance? The boyfriend? The globe? Frances herself? As usual, she’s opened the stable doors and populated these stories with animals, including dogs and horses, and she’s also brought in a fragile houseplant as a figure for everything that’s falling apart. All of the elements are in place, but Likewise still begs for a clarifying stroke that never comes. Who knows, maybe that’s her point.
Francisca Valenzuela – La Fortaleza Brothers and sisters, we are gathered here today to speak of Francisca Valenzuela, an artist best understood as Chile’s answer to Sara Bareilles. She’s a stringbean-shaped piano pounder who feints toward significance but mainly believes in the power of a big, showy chorus. Her attempt at expressing a grown-up sort of sexuality mostly fall flat but are endearing nonetheless, and, judging by her music videos, she has an affectionate interest in poofsters. All that is true of Sara, too. Bareilles was one of the first pop stars to retain the services of Jack Antonoff; Francisca does her one better by realizing the arena-pop sound that Jack & Co. have been chasing ever since fun. fell apart. “Tomame”, for instance; that is, I believe, Spanish for “Jack wishes he made this beat”. Of course this is en Español, which is probably a bridge too far for most Sara Bareilles fans. Then again, you don’t need to be Victor Jara to hear the title track for the self-actualization anthem it is, or catch the sizzle in “Boca”, or acknowledge the ache in “Ya No Se Trata De Ti”. First-rate pop record here, people. a lot like Lover, only with no Brendon Urie performance to cringe through.
Future Islands – As Long As You Are As they’ve aged, the intensity has slipped. The artistic contradictions inherent in the pairing of a band that sounds like Ultravox with a singer who behaves like Ethel Merman have come to the fore. Sam Herring’s cheap-seat-reaching theatrics are now consistently undermined by the band’s commitment to antiseptic sleekness. These days there just isn’t much wild wind to reap. Also, David Letterman isn’t on the air anymore.
Freddie Gibbs & The Alchemist – Alfredo As Freddie’s music smooooooooths out, his videos get more and more violent. How about the one where he’s a black landowner abusing his white, er… slaves? Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. Then there’s the one where he shoots a cop, and goes on the run until Rick Ross contrives an overseas escape plan for him. These are indications that while Freddie is certainly a nice rapper, he’s probably not a very nice guy. Another indication: every single thing he says. Strangely poignant line of the year from a man who is usually neither strange nor poignant: “I say my prayers/but I’m rusty as fuck with Arabic”.
Gabriel Garzón-Montano – Agüita This is the weirdest duck in the digital record store: three vicious, dagger-jab reggaeton numbers, a couple of acoustic ballads crooned in Spanish, and some art-pop that raps with brass knuckles on the door of the conservatory. Although he never lets the weight of the chip on his shoulder affect his stride, he’s in a terrible mood throughout the set, and makes for pretty rough company. His musical ideas are consistently interesting, at least on paper – in the context of a pop record, though, they’re deliberately off-putting, and suggest restlessness with the form. Which I get, sort of: not everybody is a pop guy at heart, and Gabriel is under no obligation to harmonize his influences or edit himself for the sake of an audience demanding coherence. If he wants to flirt with atonality from time to time, that’s his prerogative as a writer. I just think that his experiments would be more rewarding to follow if it seemed like he was having fun. Even in hip-hop, grimness is best taken with a heaping side order of cheese.
Gabrielle Aplin – Dear Happy Gabrielle Aplin was, upon her 2013 debut, compared to Laura Marling by people who are, IMO, dumb as a rock. She favored quasi-acoustic arrangement back then, and some mistake that for folk music, especially when the girl singer does not present as a sex bomb. These days, it’s all synths and samplers and straight-up pop, and it’s a better environment for her anyway; maybe she’s more of a sex bomb than she used to be, too. Since I’m not in the U.K., I couldn’t say. Her self-actualization anthems are strictly pro forma and delivered in a way that makes it clear that she couldn’t actualize her self if she had a fucking start button on her forehead; there’s even a song called “Kintsugi”, and boy does Gabrielle belabor that exhausted metaphor. Most of Dear Happy is mid-tempo, square, and soppy like that, but it’s pleasant, predictable, and finger-snappy enough. There’s a certain satisfaction that a pop supremacist like me gets from hearing another pop supremacist hit the marks and not even dream about exceeding expectations or throwing anybody a single curveball. It’s like watching a very fastidious girl do a coloring book: nothing scribbled, nothing uneven, everything exactly and neurotically within the lines. Here’s your blue ribbon for following the rules, kid.
Gia Margaret – Mia Gargaret In 2018, Gia put out a record called There’s Always Glimmer, which is sort of grammatical?, I will defer to the English teacher in the family. Anyway, these were De La Slooooow songs, submerged in ‘verb and sogged out with reverbed synthesizer to add to the feeling of despondency that permeated the tracks. The record was such a stone bummer that I eventually stopped listening to it, opting instead for Bobby McFerrin and John Philip Souza and other uplifting individuals. Anyway, Mia Gargaret, which is definitely not grammatical, subtracts the songs and leaves nothing but the ‘verb and soggy synths. Ambient music, I think they call this, when they don’t call it a mood. And I’m sure Gia Margaret put effort into these recordings, but to me, they sounds like the sort of thing that you could do if you putzed around with a MIDI suite on a rainy afternoon. This seems better understood as a computer phenomenon than a pop album – closer to a McAfee virus checker or apple cloud software than Chuck Berry and Carole King. Call it automatic update rock. You know you hate those.
Gone West – Canyons Blatant Little Big Town knockoff with Colbie Caillat in the role of Karen Fairchild. The twist is that one of the dudes is from Hawaii, so there’s an eensy-weensy bit of hula hula nonsense amidst the pristine pop-country harmonies. It all resolves to the same woozy-boozy soundtrack at the transcontinental and transcultural tiki bar that is the American understanding of the tropics – including tropics that are actually part of America.
Grimes – Miss Anthropocene I’ve come to the conclusion that this gremlin’s prominence is the surest proof of the existence of the Illuminati that any vigilant citizen could want. She’s a one-woman Bohemian Grove, and I don’t need a burning statue of Moloch or a tall cool glass of adrenochrome to smell a rat here. Claire Boucher is a pop singer who cannot sing her way out of a paper bag, she’s a would-be experimentalist whose experiments were all done by Madonna decades ago, she’s a freethinker whose sociopolitical ideas would get her laughed out of a freshman economics class; she’s a feminist who thinks Elon Musk is groovy. None of it makes a bit of sense. Art Angels surrounded a few good songs with revolting digital hijinx; this time out, it’s just the hijinx. I’m sure Claire thinks that’s futuristic, and I’m right with her there. I’m sure the future is going to be plenty nauseating.
Gus Dapperton – Orca Well, this is an improvement. He’s screaming less, which is good, since his scream is evocative of a ferret trying to dislodge a hairball. He’s also given up on his soul-man pretensions, perhaps figuring (correctly) that his songs are better presented from the perspective of a distraught and semi-soulless half-person, a youth damaged and diminished by a world with ceilings too low to permit growing up. It’s in vogue. Ergo, Orca presents Gus as a stateside answer to Matty Healy, minus the tedious obsession with technology, and poses as a comedian in his music videos. Like Matty, and Harry Styles, and Phoebe Bridgers, too, he makes his debt to ‘00s emo-pop and mallpunk pretty evident, and tracks like “Bluebird” really do linger outside the Hot Topic and dip in to shoplift some eyeliner. I’m pleased to see that he’s not too addled to ignore the seductive possibilities of palm-reading. I know they’re all strung out on prescription meds, but I think we still need to expect our budding pop stars to be able to bust a move. I only wish I knew why Gus felt the need to make a mushrock duet out of Yankee Doodle Dandy. I suppose he was high as hell.
Haim – Women In Music Pt. III They’re following the Vampire Weekend playbook to a T. The first album has the super-limited palette and the tight, undeniable pop songs — it’s smart, featherweight, blatantly derivative. It sits there and dares you to call it a knock-off, and when you do, it asks you: so? The second album doubles down on everything that detractors found irritating about the first, almost as if it’s a response to a dare. It’s harder to like, but it consolidates the brand. It also dispenses with any lingering notion that this is an “indie” project, whatever that means. These people are wealthy and well-connected, and, yes, wealthy, well-connected kids deserve to have their stories heard, too. Whit Stillman would understand. Then comes Modern Women In The City/Vampires Of Music Part Whatever, which broadens the emotional and stylistic range, and provides some shading and nuance to the characters in a way that invites the listener to think, hmm, maybe I misjudged those first two albums. Maybe there’s more depth there than I thought. Like Ezra Koenig, Danielle Haim isn’t exactly likable. Her accounts of depression, romantic failure, and struggle for self-definition in modern Cali are undercut by the superciliousness and sense of entitlement that her writing always radiates, even when she’s stringing together pop platitudes like popcorn on a garland. But also like Ezra, she sure knows how to bait a hook. This time, when she’s got you wriggling there, she’s going to give you more than a snappy melody to sing in the shower.
Hayley Williams – Petals For Armor Never any worries about the creative autonomy of Hayley Williams, who has always blazed her own neon trail across the pop firmament, discarding old clothes the moment she wears them out. If she wants to be Lene Lovich for a season, well, that strikes me as a weird choice, but who am I to deny her anything? After all she has done for me? The theme here is femininity as shield/source of vulnerability, and what that experience means to Hayley, who is always very smart even when she’s angry. Especially when she’s angry, which she isn’t often this time around. These days, she pleads embarrassment about some of the firmly gendered teenage rage she expressed on Riot!, et. al., and it’s true that your modern Hayley is too woke for “Misery Business”. Me, I liked “Misery Business” not because I enjoy a catfight, but because I went to high school, and I can confirm that she was right on the money there. Grown-up Hayley proceeds with more sophistication and calculated reserve, and maybe a little more artful detachment, too, which makes some of these dancefloor moves feel less embodied than anything she’s previously done. See: “Sugar On The Rim”, which is fun and deliberately inessental and a sharp break from Hayley’s prior sense of ass-afire urgency. If there’s a future, we want it now-ow-ow-ow-ow, and all that. But what’s really peculiar about Petals For Armor — at least to me — is how frequently it reminds me of Stacy DuPree circa Currents. It’s the same rueful tone, the same elliptical poetry from the pen of a woman vaguely scorned, the same new wave ambitions, the same sidestep into dream-pop. This may intrigue those who recall the Warped Tour soap opera, and may prompt some psychologizing from those who were actual principals in the various parking lot love quadrangles and quintangles, but will mainly be spaced on by the thousands of dedicated Paramore fans who’ve already forgotten Eisley.
Hazel English – Wake Up! The sense I get from these many new-wave and shoegazy moves by former rockers is that their aiders and abetters believe that it is not enough to have songs: one also must develop a sound, and that sound must be striking and stylish and chill-playlist ready. Gotta have a gimmick, no?Which brings us to Hazel English. Her version of mushrock is unified by Sixties psychedelic schtick, which is a different thing from Sixties psychedelia, although I do see the family resemblance. Carnaby Street pastels and Mary Quant dresses, “trippy” West Coast flowers-in-your-hair b.s., hints of Manson family mindwipe messages in the lyrics, endlessly echoed knocks on the doors of perception and a misremembered, mind-expanded innocence: it’s all part of the project, and it’s not so different in intent from Lana Del Rey’s strategically reassembled archaeology of the Kennedy era, or, say, Laverne & Shirley. Now, nobody old enough to remember the Sixties is going to bother to spin Hazel’s record, and Hazel herself still has eggshell on her beak, so it’s not even accurate to call this nostalgia. It’s just the past as thematic anchor, and perhaps something cool to aspire to during a very uncool period for white people. What matters, to me at least, is that Hazel’s songwriting is uniformly strong at the notes ‘n’ chords level – although it must be said that “Waiting For The Bell”, which is the best thing here, is such a brazen rewrite of “Number One Son” that I hope Tracyanne Campbell is getting a royalty. The producer is Ben H. Allen, he of Girls In Peacetime fame, and I can see why a Belle & Sebastian appreciator might want to work with Hazel. She’s obviously trying to write “Legal Man”. Funny that Isobel Campbell’s 2020 album effortlessly captures the exact throwback effect that Hazel is sweating so hard to achieve. That’s not a knock, necessarily. Sweat is an essential part of rock. Even mushrock.
Helena Deland – Someone New Why do I keep talking about mushrock? Brad and Steven think I’m just being mean. Funny, because “mushrock” is my substitution for a much harsher term: streambait. When we call a record streambait, what we’re saying is that major aesthetic decisions were tailored to the demands of the programmers at Spotify and other streaming services. They jump to the tune of the algorithm. As humanists, we recoil from this: we don’t want to farm out the A&R function or the program-manager function to a Swedish mainframe. We can make our own decisions, damn you, robot overlords. By calling it mushrock, I’m reclaiming the prerogative for artists, which is not to say that I think those artists possess good taste or wisdom, or long-term thinking skills. But I do believe that mushrock sounds as it does because of the proclivities of modern listeners and music-makers, and not because a digital readout told Justin Vernon to get another effects processor. I will cling to my belief in the author’s prerogative, even as waves of technology erode the rest of the bedrock of human creativity. Many good things are mushy, after all: Sno-Cones, sentiments, certain kisses. But baby food also tends to be mush, and the reason we mush up food before we feed it to infants is because if we don’t, they’re likely to choke on a bone. Mushrock is, above all other things, digestible. Palatability is its main characteristic. This is a sensitive time, and we have sensitive brains, and nobody wants to be roughed up; we’ve got Proud Boys out there for that.
Mushrockers employ four strategies for maximum comfort administration. 1.) Mushrock producers throw reverb on every signal – tons of it. Guitars are wet, drums are wet, and the voices are slippery as a slimeball. Because most mushrock is made by indie producers working inside the box on audio suites of various kinds, the reverb they slather on their mixes tends to be the digital variety. Protools plug-ins don’t tend to generate the kind of warmth and depth that vintage plate reverbs did, but they sure do create the foggy, soggy conditions that the modern mushrock audience demands. 2.) On mushrock records, the voice is EQ-ed to minimize the sound of consonants and glottal stops. This is why so many mushrock vocal tracks are an undifferentiated slurry of vowel sounds, vowels sluicing out of the mix in a continuous glop, like Carvel oozing from the aperture of a soft-serv machine. Producers encourage their singers to maximize the length and depth vowels and throw away the rest of the letters, and the hard sounds that do make it are watered down with ‘verb and sanded away with additional processing. Garbage enunciation means that even when mushrock lyrics are good, they’re tough to make out. If you’ve heard it ten times and you still can’t sing along, it’s probably mushrock. 3.) Mushrock productions tend to be saturated with vocal stacks – enough harmonies for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, even if it’s just the frontman zillion-tuple tracked. All of these backing vocals will, natch, be doused in reverb. Think of a crowd-pleasing Southern cook applying thick barbecue sauce to everything with a paintbrush. The main vox will be doubled, or tripled, or more-pled, and run through various clouding effects. To make matters more unintelligible, there will often be wordless or near-wordless support vocals oohing and uuhnging, and these will be pushed toward the forefront of the mix to highlight their dreamy, misty, urinary quality. 4.) Mushrock bands don’t necessarily drag, but they do stay, religiously, behind the beat to maximize that sense of longing that mushrock strains to evoke. Space is often filled by pillowy, pad-like organ and queasy, warbling synthesizer. if a guitar is used, it’s tortured, and fed through so many pedals that it might as well be a synth. The envelope of every signal is monkeyed with: notes never release abruptly, instead, they’re sustained toward the horizon, or at least into the next bar. Everything runs together like a crayon melt.
Thanks to Spotify and the tyranny of chill, mushrock is so widespread and so pervasive that it’s squirted out into various subgenres, which we’ll now investigate.
Mushadelica. Most modern psych bands are actually mushrock. This goes for nearly everything called shoegaze or dream pop; if the word “dream” is in the handle, it’s into the mush with ye. Mushrock producers will often import sounds and approaches from classic psychedelic records of the ‘60s and C86-era post-punk: gently plucked Hofner bass, slow tremolo washes, zonked six-string noodling, extended outros, you name it. But mushrock is not “head” music, and is not meant to be mind-expanding, because mind-expansion is inherently destabilizing, and mushrock must go down smooth. Psychedelia is valued by mushrockers because of its blurriness, and the effect of that blurriness is to create an ez-listening experience for playlist streamers. It is not to score an Exploding Plastic Inevitable. That mushrock sounds good while high on marijuana is actually immaterial. All music sounds good while high on marijuana.
Fleetwood Mush. Though they might go unrecognized by practitioners, mushrock has many guiding lights. Sade is one of them. Enya, unbelievably, is another. Kate Bush gave a nice push toward the mush. But the true godparents of mushrock are the men and women of Fleetwood Mac. Now, I love the Mac, and Christine McVie is a hero of mine. But if you’d told me in 1990 that “Tell Me Lies Tell Me Sweet Little Lies” was the future of alternative pop, I would have barfed. And when I stopped barfing, I would have guessed – correctly – that a major corporate colonization of the left side of the dial had taken place. These days, the superwashed sound of Mirage and Tango In The Night is the sonic Holy Grail. It’s notable that these bands never attempt the audacious gender balance of Fleetwood Mac – male and female singers in dialogue, addressing the audience as equals – or the thunderous intensity of Mick Fleetwood in Incredible Hulk mode, or Lindsey’s coked-up fretboard freakouts. Basically they’ve scooped out the mortal combat at the heart of the Mac and preserved the lite-radio elements and the will to be taken by the wind. This misremembered Mac isn’t flattering anybody, especially Mick, who might take a moment out from chugging cranberry juice to examine what mushrockers are doing in his name.
Mushtronica. Crucially, mushrock is rock: demented and sad but social rock, to paraphrase Judd Nelson, but still rock. Even when there isn’t a drummer on a session, the feeling of the rock backbeat is always present. The band might proceed at a glacial pace, but the emphasis will still fall on the two and the four. Sometimes that job is assigned to a machine, which, incredibly, is always programmed to play like a lethargic rock drummer. Mushtronica drums may nod toward hip-hop, but they never incorporate any of the rhythmic innovations that are now customary in electronic music with crisper contours. This tends to be undanceable music, even as the producers purloin and re-appropriate club signifiers. Another mushtronic cliché: the washed-out synthesizer line that shadows the main melody, note for note, further blurring the soundscape and garbling the words. This is the kind of thing that used to get the synth player slugged by the singer, even in an electronic outfit, but since mushrock is a studio phenomenon, there’s nobody to punch but the digital marketing manager.
Mush-adjacent records/rock with mush characteristics. So successful have mushrock producers been at placing songs on playlists that it’s only natural that firmer musicians would express an interest in slathering some of that goop on their own mixes. Many have leaned tentatively into the mush; many more have cannonballed into the deep end of the mushpool. Helena Deland is from Montreal – a mushrock capital – and she comes with a neat approach on the guitar, a nice understated voice, and a will to pursue her melodic ideas down tangled alleyways. Her lyrics, too, are pretty well thought out, though they’re difficult to access because of all the reasons I mentioned above. If Helena had dropped her album a decade ago, I don’t reckon it would sound like Something New at all: I think the drums would have been pushed forward and the vocals clarified and e-nun-ci-ated, and I bet the guitar would have been more forceful, the sighing b-vox pruned to a reasonable density, the tempos grabbier and speedier, the tone less like Meredith Godreau nodding off in a sensory deprivation tank.
Would that make it a better record? It’s hard to say: mush, I’ll concede, does have its uses, and if producers are unsure about the quality of the musicians or the songs, it’s probably wisest to let the image fall out of focus. My sense, though, is that Helena is a strong musician. I just resent having to fight through the fog to find her elusive compositions. Pop music, I have always believed, is an art form for brave people – people who drop their trousers and wag their middle fingers at the camera and let their feelings show. It’s about driving that Maserati down a dead end street, and pointing to your genitals and howling, having no particular place to go but heading there with purpose. I don’t know if I really expect them to understand that in Sweden, what with its many lakes and its socialized medicine and natural social distancing. But I do wish that more North Americans would stand up for our indigenous forms of art, and the values enshrined therein: fast, and proud, and clear, and loud, sometimes difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable, always a little recalcitrant, always a little depraved. Not for workplace consumption, necessarily. Not for brunch. Not for parents. And not for your stinking chill playlist.
Homeboy Sandman – Don’t Feed The Monster Warning: alt-rappers are in distress this year. Homeboy Sandman’s kickoff track is called “Trauma”; Open Mike Eagle sticks the trauma smack in the middle of his title, right between the cartoons with which he overidentifies and the event that appears to have unraveled him; Serengeti is… well, we’ll get that guy. Buckle up. For Sandman, gone is the pleasant mood of Dusty. Gone, too, apparently, is the woman he was so excited about in “Picture On The Wall”: now he’s alone again, and candid enough to admit that he isn’t the man he hoped he’d be. Don’t Feed The Monster is probably the most anti-social and unpleasant he’s ever been on record, and that’s saying something – here, he’s throwing elbows, moralizing, complaining about phone-users and camp-followers, and wishing slow, painful death to biters in a way that makes me think it’s not just hyperbole. This is a rap album on which the star shares descriptions of eczema patches in a song that’s ostensibly about sex; that’s the sort of mood-killing mood he’s in. So why did he break up with the girl who made him visit the fridge/because there’s a picture of her on the fridge, anyway? Why torpedo a disposition that was already close to the borderline? Excuses abound: she wouldn’t apologize, he felt too stressed, she spent too much time in front of the mirror, he was molested by his father’s girlfriend. Nevertheless, an undercurrent of bewilderment remains. He might want to consult with Wyomissing pop-rock singer-songwriter T. Swift, who may have something to say about inattentive, navel-gazing boyfriends.
Hot Country Knights – The K Is Silent Dierks Bentley did not start out as a Bono wannabe. Before he was up on the ridge, facing existential questions head on, grappling with his bro-related pathos, his character was something of a cad. Free and easy down the road he went, until he didn’t. Ever since he made the moody Riser – an underrated album, in my opinion – he’s become increasingly grave, and increasingly anthemic, and probably less country than he wants to be. The Mountain was super-serious and big-hearted, with all of its considerable craft directed toward upliftment of the downtrodden and less fortunate, and really, Dierks, is this a honky tonk or a hostage negotiation? So to me, the Hot Country Knights feels like a logical sidestep – a splash into a puddle of pure silliness – made by an artist who, for all his high-mindedness, still considers Bo Duke his role model. The K Is Silent finds Dierks in the role of Douglas “Doug” Douglasson, a mullet-headed ‘90s commercial country stereotype. Doug cannot pass up a penis-related double entendre, and no cornpone country pun is too low for him, and seems obsessed with his own pants, and… yeah, I don’t think that Music City is really getting the joke. Part of the problem is that Dierks has re-trained his audience to expect something more sophisticated from him than butt humor. But it goes beyond that. Because it’s strategically stoopid, least-common-denominator country music is very hard to satirize. Brad Paisley learned that the hard way on Moonshine In The Trunk: when you try to out-dumb the bros, they just cheer, hand you a beer, and enthusiastically welcome you to the parking lot party. Meanwhile, to a certain kind of country listener, the blatantly risqué stuff – not that’s it’s very – probably just feels like Wheeler Walker-style excess. Now, Dierks is twenty times the songwriter and a hundred times the singer than Wheeler Walker, so it’s sort of a shame that folks are missing the boat. For starters, some of the actual country performances on this set are goofily first-rate: “Pick Her Up In A Pick-up Truck” is the most immediately appealing ride, but the fiddles, steel guitars, and close harmonies on hairstyle anthem “Mull It Over” are straight backwoods fire. Much like The Upper Crust – the project that Hot Country Knights reminds me of the most – the quality of the music is getting lost behind the makeup and costumes. Then there’s the stuff on the set that’s actually very funny, and not just dumb-funny: sly comments on country clichés, and a portentious Garth Brooks send-up (chorus lyric: “it rained/oh it rained/it stopped for a little while/and then it rained”). The good-natured tone is maintained right up until “The USA Begins With Us”, a venomous spoof of the jingoistic segment of every mainstream country concert you’ll ever see, and here, finally, Dierks tips his hand and lets some of his frustration show. I can’t even blame him for the cracks in his composure: he’s been slugging it out on the amphitheater circuit for years, and he’s surely had enough of the Confederate battle flags and USA chants for one lifetime. Even if he’s blowing off a little steam, he’s earned it. Give your old pal Dierks a pat on the back. Laugh, you ingrates.
Hugo Kant – Far From Home Hugo Kant leans toward the globetrotting side of progressive electronic music. At times, Far From Home resembles Entroducing, at others, it’s more like Thievery Corporation. He distinguishes himself as an arranger with a deep awareness of the frequency spectrum: he strikes a nifty balance between woodwinds, hip-hop drums, gamelan plinks and plonks, wobbly synthesizer, and samples from the world music bank of the digital audio suite. He’s got a knack for generating drama, and an ear for unusual harmonies. But since so much of this is wordless, it resolves far too often to stylish mood music. Beautiful slides of the Mekong Delta projected on the walls of the museum, hypnotic, but ultimately transparent.
Ill Conscious & Aloeight – The Epic Of Gilgamesh No ambiguity about Baltimore rapper Ill Conscious, who lays some standard, er… conscious stuff on us. As a fan of Sumerian literature, I’m sad to say that there’s not a heck of a lot of overlap between this Epic Of Gilgamesh and that other slightly more enduring one. But the beats – done by a California kid named Aloeight – sure are purty.
Ingrid Andress – Lady Like Big-nosed and bushy-browed belter with a knack for emotional manipulation. Not to dis; manipulation of any kind in pop is fair play, especially pop-country, and it’s been awhile since a new singer-songwriter backed up chain-yanking lyrics with first-rate performances that broadcast total commitment to emotional illustration. It makes a complete picture, I tell you, a corny picture on the placemats of the Cracker Barrel, but still weirdly compelling. Lady Like starts out like a house afire with three bombastic numbers that she sings the balls off of – the fake-countrypolitan “Gettin’ Good At Takin’ Bad Advice” is the best of them, but the other two tickle me plenty. After that, so-so material drags Ingrid into the middle of the road, where she is hit, over and over, by the schmaltz truck. Now there is schmaltz all over the street, and all over Ingrid, and how is she going to walk the red carpet at the Grammys in a greasy dress? To her credit, it’s amazing how many Music City touchstones she manages to evoke here – not just young Taylor Swift, who is ripped off with you-can’t-stop-me glee, but Kacey Musgraves, a little Miranda, some Cassadee, some Brandi, some Ballerini, and a whole heck of a lot of Maren Morris – and the ease with which she nestles into a middle ground between her many influences. But I doubt teen Taylor would ever have tried to guilt trip a boyfriend into sticking around by threatening him with parental disapproval (her parents, not his). Nashville Taylor generated a moral universe where good and bad were entirely defined by the effects of your actions on Taylor Swift. More impressively still, she got you to accept that system of valuation. That’s star quality that can’t be approximated by just anybody, no matter how well that anybody sings.
Isobel Campbell – There Is No Other…. Grab a toy xylophone, ring your bicycle bell, adorn a pink cupcake with sprinkles, play ring-around-the-rosie with an otter; try whatever you may, there is simply no way to out-twee Isobel. Many have tried and come up short of the magic carousel, including a few members of Belle & Sebastian. That outfit still bears her name – or a cunningly disguised version of it, anyway – even though she hasn’t sung with the Glasgow varsity since the turn of the millennia. I am grateful to Isobel for proving that advanced age is no impediment to twee-ness, because if Stuart Murdoch is on the far side of fifty, she must be, what, forty-four? forty-five? Still sounding like a wingéd faerie alighted on Winnie-The-Pooh’s shoulder, as I trust she always will. As is true for every Isobel Campbell solo project, some of the songs on this set are just wisps that instantly dissipate; perhaps leaving behind some pleasant residue, like a puff of Glade room deodorant, and perhaps not. Others are translucent as rice paper. Written on that paper is all the stuff that makes tweepop such a rich proposition for those smart enough to refrain from dismissing it as arrested-kid’s stuff: romantic longing, stasis in the face of danger, courage, the quiet perceptiveness of the girl in the corner. Do something pretty while you can, Stuart advised us, and here’s sheer prettiness, decorated with psych motifs and Nick Drake-isms, but still an elaboration of a peculiar personality that has, because of its persistence, proved its toughness many times over. And that, my friends, is twee as fuck. If Luna Lovegood could make an album, it would sound like this.
Jarv Is – Beyond The Pale This has been compared to Leonard Cohen, and I understand why. It’s more than just the half-whispered delivery and vocal range of about one and a half notes. But Jarvis, who has the benefit of being British, is funnier than Leonard Cohen ever was, and he’s got a better sense of class politics, too. He remains a sarcastic cuss, and he’s turned into the sort of frontman whose rhetorical questions are answered by dispassionate backing vocalists. He’s also always a step away from the nightclub, even when he’s philosophizing and cracking wise. I’m just glad that he keeps finding reasons to leave the house; mostly girls, but it’s not like that isn’t the best reason going. I don’t even mind his reminiscences of the days of VHS/and casual sex – he was a pretty reliable reporter at the time, I recall. “Some fell by the wayside/some moved up to Teeside/some still scoring cocaine/some laid up with back pain”. As a summary of the state of the Britpop movement a quarter-century after the release of “Common People”, you can’t get much punchier, or truer, than that.
Jason Isbell – Reunions Jason Isbell has a Mister Consistency rep: writing consistent songs about consistently regular guys muddling through an inconsistent world with a consistent, down-home set of ethics and aesthetics. Nevertheless, his accidental (?) rebranding as an Internet pundit has only partially disguised his decline into mediocrity. It’s all been sharply downhill since Southeastern, which did not depend on treacle for palatability. Reunions actually has some straight-up lousy writing on it, which is a departure for Jason, and further evidence that he’s lost a lot of intellectual altitude since his days in the Drive-By Truckers quality control department. Even the good ones feel shopworn. There’s the number about the doppleganger who dies of an Oxy overdose that makes the narrator reflect on his own life, the one about how it’s hard to stay sober/when you ain’t coming over, the one about how the river is his savior running to the sea, and the one about how annoying it is when your wife takes a friend’s suicide harder than you do and you kinda wish she’d put a sock in it. Okay, that one is a keeper. It’s not very nice, but it’s human. The rest of them are just common, and they reflect Jason’s deterioration into an guitar-slingin’ good guy, sub-Dierks by quite a bit (Dierks can really sing) and a dime a dozen in Nashville. I mean, if you’re going to rhyme hand with understand, and then with sand, and then with witness stand (!!), you’ve more than earned your reprimand.
Jay Electronica – A Written Testimony Yeah, I gave up on him, too. Last year, if you asked me to name a hundred New York City rappers off the top of my head, I doubt I would have mentioned his name. But an eon after he was drafted, here’s his rookie season, and it’s a best-case scenario we’ve got on our hands. Mostly that’s due to the beats, which are twinkly and radiant and vibraphone-spiked, and the constant presence and oversight of co-star Jay-Z, who loves a tag team as much as anybody since Rowdy Roddy Piper. Most of the best lyrical moments on the album, to be honest, belong to Jay-Z; Jay Electronica’s spiel is a bit too wedded to crude Nation Of Islam ideology for my taste. By now we know that Hov adapts to his partner. When he’s with Kanye, he’s swagadocious and big brotherly, when he’s with Beyoncé, he’s Cosbyshowadocious and big husbandly, when he’s with Justin Timberlake, God knows what the fuck he is, and let’s just hope he doesn’t do that again. With Jay Electronica, he’s a fellow penitent kneeling at the mosque. This is the most humble he’s been since… well, since he got beat down in that elevator by Solange, probably. I’m also happy to report he’s no longer doing that dumbass thing where he’s pretending he’s struggling for breath. This is not the time.
J Balvin – Colores Then there’s this – a wide and glittering gate to the neverending fair that is reggaeton. All ages welcome, no tickets necessary, ride the rides all night long. Not content with his status as Colombia’s biggest rap star, he’s also poised to be reggaeton’s biggest popularizer. The concept here is so simple even a toddler can get it: each of the songs represents a different color of the rainbow, and each is matched with an appropriately-shaded and totally gonzo music video. For the grownups, he’s made sure everything is smooth and spreadable as guava butter. In the time-honored tradition of ambassadors everywhere, J Balvin himself is something of a genial cornball. My guess is that that part will be lost in translation. The rest should slip through the slats of the border fences without tripping a single alarm.
Jenny O. – New Truth Mushrock plus songwriting is still mushrock. On the other hand, it’s also still songwriting, so maybe we should forgive all the reverb and concentrate on the compositional architecture. Jenny O. makes it easy to accentuate the positive, sort of, when she feels like putting in the work, which is not always, and now look at me, accentuating the negative. Sorry. Mushrock puts me in an iffy mood. Jenny Ognibene only bothers to develop half of the melodies on New Truth, and because she favors De La Slooooow music, it often takes her way too long to get to the payoffs of songs that are essentially guitar pop numbers. But whenever she extends her melodic passages and drives those sturdy chords into the soil of the songs like so many tent pegs, it’s pretty clear she knows what she’s doing. As is often the case on records that lead with artful languor, the best numbers are the punchy ones, like the Byrdsy “Even If I Tried”, the power ballad “Old Habits”, and “God Knows Why”, which provides a little Alka-Seltzer fizz to an album that is otherwise a glass of room temperature water.
Jordana – Classical Notions Of Happiness Teenage vocalist, muted drum box, reverbed plinks and plonks, delicately echoed what-is-it. Everything sounds a ukulele whether it is one or not, including the singing. This makes Frankie Cosmos seem like Black Sabbath by comparison. Soft pass.
Julieta Venegas – La Enamorada If you don’t know Julieta, you should: she’s the Tijuana terror who, as far as I’m concerned, invented this whole Latin Alternative thing with her punk band in the early Nineties. She demonstrated that there was no incompatibility between leftfield international pop and Mexican party music; she showed you could be a participant in the global monoculture while planted as deep in rich south-of-the-border soil as any jumping bean. Arguably Lila Downs did the same thing a little earlier, but there’s something so member-supported PBS slash Brooklyn Academy of Music about her project. Julieta seems like the sort of performer we might have seen tear through a set at Maxwell’s. Anyway, there’d be no Ximena Sariñana or Natalia Lafourcade or Silvana Estrada or Denise “Lo Blondo” Gutierrez without Julieta Venegas, and they’d all happily tell you just that. La Enamorada is a little more trad-careful and stiff than her other records, but there’s a reason for that: it’s the soundtrack to a show she put together for a theater in Buenos Aires, which makes it not unlike that score to that Carson McCullers extravaganza that Suzanne Vega did. People approach 50 and they get tired of bombing around Guadalajara in a bus. They don’t mind if it’s incidental to the discography; they want to go upmarket and do a tight theater piece. Disappointing, but understandable.
Ka – Descendants Of Cain Ka doesn’t rap as much as he grumbles. That his grumble has impeccable flow and fine cadence is almost immaterial to the effect of his music – what distinguishes it is the sense of crushing weight that it communicates. These characters are just barely able to stand, and it isn’t their fault. They’ve got the world on their backs like ghetto Atlases. You might just call it the blues, brother, were it not for the boom-bap.
Kacy Hill – Is It Selfish If We Talk About Me Again This is probably the closest thing to a Francis And The Lights album we’re going to get for awhile, so depending on your appetite for Francis, your drive toward Francis completism, you might want to check this out. The fine folks at the Francis Fulfillment Center stand by to help. J/k, it’s up on YouTube, along with everything else. You may remember Kacy Hill from the one album that she put out via G.O.O.D. Music, which was… well, it was pretty G.O.O.D. It positioned her as one of a million post-genre chanteuses with frosty Scandinavian reserve (Kacy is from Arizona, for what it’s worth, sez so right on her hand tattoo), vague avant-disco leanings and an eye on the chill playlists. Dark pop, whatever the heck that means. But it’s actually more likely you’ll recognize her freckled mug from the American Apparel ads she did, some of which were pulled after her thong raised the ire of the Moral Majority. It was a story. Kacy, plainly, does not want it to be her story: that was just to pay the rent, she’s an auteur and a musician at heart, and she’s hired Francis to prove it. He’s executive-produced this whole set and added his voice to a few of the tracks, one of which is a straight-up duet. Synth pads, digital effects in odd corners, funny filters on the vocal choruses, tick-tick-tick second hand hi-hat, muffled OVOXO kick drums and a certain tribal touch on the toms, you know how it goes. Now, you might think that pillowy Francis-style production plus a wan, winsome, and wispy singer equals mushrock, and, yeah, you’d be correct about that. This is indeed a mushrock set. You might detect a note of despair and pained isolation in Kacy’s singing anyway, and maybe even in her admittedly underdeveloped storytelling. A woman fights for the right to be kind in a world that isn’t. And wins? Maybe. Ghosts drift in and out. percussion skitters. synths caress. A feeling of homesickness prevails. Kacy’s voice is a more expressive instrument that it first appears – it’s something like a stripped down, normcore, three-speed version of Róisín Murphy. Imagine the Róisín Machine with a gear box that doesn’t shift. That’d be worthless on the inclines, but good enough for getting around town.
Kali Uchis – Sin Miedo (Del Amor Y Otros Demonios) If you know the Drunken Babble mixtape, you also know that Kali can rap. When I heard she was doing an album in Spanish, I admit I hoped it would contain some hard rhyme. Or even soft rhyme; I would’ve been fine with that, too. Alas, this is not the reggaeton fireball I hoped it would be, which makes it tough for me to judge it fairly. Most of Sin Miedo is watery R&B balladry akin to Tinashe’s late-nite smoke-dream sets, and although it’s all well-sung and played, the personality that came through so fiercely on Isolation is largely in abeyance. It’s easy to point the finger at the north of the border producers who don’t match Kali’s performances with any heat, but Marco “Tainy” Masis and Ecuadorian songwriter Cristina Chiluiza don’t fare much better. It’s all beach bar malaise on a hazy day in the tropics when the sun keeps threatening to come out, but never quite breaks through that bank of grey clouds. I still love her, and I’m going to keep working with this. But for now, I’m filing it under missed opportunities.
Kamaiyah – Got It Made This is to A Good Night In The Ghetto as Big Fish Theory is to Summertime ’06. There’s been no abandoment of any aesthetic principles or signature sound, no reneging on any thematic obsessions, and no real dip in rhyming or production quality. The difference is a radical narrowing of scope. Instead of creating scenarios, milieus, characters, and perspectives to frame the artist’s big ideas, here we just get the big ideas. Rather than an Oakland street tale meant to illustrate how and why Kamaiyah is horny, it’s just 1-800-I’m-Horny. For those who value straightforwardness, and who dislike beating around the bush, this might play as an improvement. I, an old croquet player, have never encountered a bush that didn’t reward a good beat-around. One never knows what one will discover in the adjacent weeds: bunnies, lost balls, Easter eggs, etc. I do find it peculiar that a writer as good as Kamaiyah (or as good as Vince Staples) doesn’t seem to care that, by necessity, presenting the big idea sans context alters its meaning, and usually for the worse. They’ve probably been advised that directness sells. You do hear that a lot in the biz. I see no real-world evidence of that, though, especially in California. From Good Kid mAAd City to The Chronic to American Beauty and After Bathing At Baxter‘s, the Golden State likes it widescreen. Heavily subplotted and multi-threaded, too.
Katie Von Schleicher – Consummation Katie Von Schleicher is more formally experimental than other mushrock auteurs, which means that she doesn’t mind if she has a lower batting average than, say, Jenny O. (she does). Many cues on Consummation are taken from The Sensual World, which was, as you’ll recall, Kate Bush’s mushrock album, and a damn good mushrock album to boot. Katie stacks chords in crooked piles and challenges you to climb upward without losing your balance. The best songs here – “Hammer”, “Wheel” – are carried along by this intrigue. But just like Jenny, she swamps everything in canned echo, muddies up the mixes with washes of bent-note guitar and blocky, motionless organ chords, and ladles on the backing vocal split pea soup so liberally that it’s hard to find any meat in there. Or vegetables. Fish around for the vegetables: they’re nutritious.
Katy Perry – Smile We’ve been at this for awhile, and I know you’ve got stuff to do. But while I’ve got your attention, I want to take a moment and talk about two classic Eighties-style singer-songwriters who work exclusively in the modern pop idiom. One of those singer-songwriters is a hero of mine. The other one isn’t. The second of these singers – the one who, much as I’ve defended her in the press and elsewhere over the years, is no site of admiration for me – is Katheryn Hudson, aka Katy Perry, internationally recognized sex symbol. The first is the Canadian import Carly Rae Jepsen, who, despite the sweater, isn’t a sex symbol at all. This is more than just a matter of poor taste. It’s a fundamental misrecognition of sex appeal, and a misplacement of our responsibilities as sexual beings. A switch has been toggled to the off position for the culture industry in general. This has very bad implications for society and humanity, ones that go way beyond the very real questions about our future generative capacity. Allow me to elaborate. In her songs, Carly Rae is the active partner in a specifically sexual and romantic quest. Her target may be active too, or he might be passively waiting for Carly Rae’s narrators to act. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the internal combustion that’s occurring in Carly Rae’s mind. She is going to overcome her initial reservations and take solicitous action. I mean, she just met you – and this is crazy! Now, in order to get to this stage, Carly Rae Jepsen (and, by implication, you) have to go through an essential human process that tethers the booty to the brain. First, she has to locate an object of desire and recognize the stirring in her loins. Then she needs to embrace that feeling. She needs to be good with it. From there, her task is to find her footing and bust a move. This act of establishing a connection is sex – it’s as much sex as cock in the pussy and all the rest of the raunchy stuff that Cardi B concerns herself with. It’s what the literature is about. It is the greatest story ever told. It’s probably the only story that ever needs to be told; everything else is either amplification or digression. What ought to be troubling all of us is that this story is starting to vanish from pop discourse. Getting laid, alas, is getting overlaid. The new narrative has to do with self-acceptance and externalization sans interpersonal sexual motivation. It appears active, but because it is driven by a desire to be seen and registered, it’s actually weirdly passive. The foremost articulator of this message – the one with the eye of the tiger, dancing through the fire, the champion, etcetera – is Katy Perry. Katy’s hit songs of love and desire are always triangulations: there’s the narrator, there’s the intended object, and then there’s an outside observer who doubles as an assessor. The intended only exists as a plot point – a flagpole the narrator can shimmy up in order to be better viewed. She kisses a girl and she likes it, which is a step in the right direction, but then there’s the boyfriend, who stands in for the audience: Katy worries how her gesture will be received, and whether it will have the intended effect of amplifying the mystique she is gathering about her like a kabuki kimono. California girls, too, are principally there to be apprehended. They’ll melt the (male) viewer’s popsicle, but never mind what they want. From this perspective, Katy’s pivot to self-actualization anthems (which is all she does these days) is all too logical, because to Katy’s narrators, the love object is always a vehicle. How much more convenient for her to erase him altogether, and concentrate on the struggle for visibility that she’s been singing about from the very outset! Compare this to Carly Rae Jepsen, who doesn’t care about external recognition in the slightest. She don’t wanna miss this kiss — that’s the motivation. She’ll leave society, that nosy neighbor, out of this completely. Now you might say, and you’d be right to say it, that these accomplished writers have successfully articulated their positions and found music to match their narratives. Stand up and clap for the auteurs; encore encore. The problem is that Katy Perry, and others like her, are now roaring so loudly that we can barely hear Carly Rae’s racing heartbeats. Which are way more exciting, if you ask me, but then I’ve always been in that line. The other line is far longer, and it consists of those who insist on reading Katy’s songs as declarations of sexual autonomy. But a song like “Roar” isn’t autonomous in the slightest: you’re going to hear me roar, right? It’s about the forced imposition of Katy’s interiority on a society that hasn’t allowed it proper expression. Without the Daddy figure behind the scenes, the narrative doesn’t work. Maybe he’ll give Katy a seat at the table, and maybe he’ll just let her roar herself blue, and the fact that he’s gonna “hear” her doesn’t alter the power dynamic at all. This is an impossible position from which to begin a fruitful sexual relationship, and I really hope that we put aside the 50 shades of gray and wake up to this, because a lot depends on it. The reason that Carly Rae Jepsen never feels a need to turn to self-actualization anthems is because she doesn’t want to be a damned firework. She doesn’t care about the folks in the bleachers: she doesn’t care if they go ah ah ah as she lights up the sky. That’s not what this is about. She wants you in her room. Period. And when she gets you there, she’s going to close the door.
Katy Pruitt – Expectations Serious question for the floor: is lesbianism no fun? Because it seems to me like it’d be a blast. But then what do I know?; I’m not even a woman. Like Ezra Furman says, what I’m working with is less than ideal. Out on the grit plains where Katy Pruitt is from, lesbianism is sung of by its practitioners as if it was a grim but noble duty, like phlebotomy, or recycling. First come the grueling tales of ostracism and alienation from a society that disapproves of girl smooching. Then there is the unrequited longing, and the deep and solemn connections between women, and pained secrets, and an overblown, ponderous expression of the cosmic implications of the lesbian’s personal journey homeward toward the boobies. All of this derives, I think, from Brandi Carlile, who, whatever her strengths, has become country-pop’s number one dispenser of sententiousness. Brandi learned that at the feet of the Indigo Girls, who probably caught that self-serious mood from somebody else. But I don’t want to put too fine a historical point on it. I highly doubt that Sappho would have tolerated such gloomy-ass conditions on the Isle of Lesbos. She’d probably have flung this discus straight into the Aegean.
Kelly Lee Owens – Inner Song Synth player, producer, occasional singer, space cadet. This engaging but rather masturbatory album is mainly bloops and blorps and jammed copier-machine beats, but sometimes KLO does get around to hammering her sound effects into the shape of songs. When she does, they’re usually fairly winsome. John Cale mutters his way through one of them. I imagine he recognized a fellow creative obscurantist and signed on with enthusiasm.
Khruangbin – Mordechai Here’s a disquieting truth about modern music, and one that, if you needed more proof, demonstrates that there’s nothing post- about the era of postcolonialism. Whether you’re in Bushwick or Bamako or down in the mines of Cochabamba, you are shooting for inclusion on the same playlist, curated by Scandinavians with an algorithm that you don’t understand, but which you’re a slave to anyway. Chuck D said it in ’88: the one who makes the money is white, not black/you might not believe it but it is like that. The internationalization of chill has led to a sharp uptick in United Colors Of Benetton rock: that cosmopolitan sound of global traditions smoothed out and processed, rolled flat and edges snipped for better inclusion in the quilt of harmonious nations that is modern pop’s biggest lie. Khruangbin (pronounced crung-bin) is one of the foremost practitioners of this style. On paper, it sounds very interesting: conversations between Middle Eastern and North African and Latin music with a little Subcontinental spice thrown in, too. And it is true that for these musicians, the signifiers of foreignness are not merely decorative – these guys get into their overseas grooves with enthusiasm and a fair bit of understanding and cultural sensitivity. Unfortch, that’s where it stops. Unlike, say, 3 Mustaphas 3, whose faux-internationalism was part of a larger point about the connected globe – and made music that radiated the tensions that those interconnections imply – Khruangbin is just a stylish party, with beautiful people of many hues, superficially exchanging bon mots and inconsequentially mingling. Maybe they’re passing around the coronavirus. Just kidding, these folks would definitely be masked and applying sanitizer liberally. I will give Khruangbin this: they’ve got a heckuva bass player; one good enough to provide this blithe globe-trot with a solid GPS. I’ve heard these guys are great in concert, and I believe it. Now, Khruangbin is a bunch of Texans, which is no hanging offense and should not elicit cries of cultural appropriation. Given the worldwide reliance on petroleum, Houston has become one of the nexuses of international commerce. You’d expect to get resourceful stuff from a capital of resource capture. But the fierceness with which Mordechai has been pushed by various algorithms makes me wonder if these first-worlders have an in at Spotify/Google that Amadou in the townships of Senegal will never get. It isn’t for reasons of authenticity alone that I ask whether you’d rather get your Afrobeats from actual Africans.
Kiwi Jr – Football Money Well-written guitar pop, pants-afire performances, good-natured guy on the mic with a talky delivery, echoes of the Modern Lovers and Joe Jackson and Hot Hot Heat. The front half comes at me fast and keeps me smiling. On the back half they spaz themselves out, but they’d sort of disappoint me if they didn’t. I dig the sports references and occasional forays into puerile nonsense, and although they’re probably not trying too hard, they do manage to pack a considerable amount of arrangement variation and different guitar textures into a tight package. Never taxing, thoroughly likable, albeit ostentatiously inessential. But that’s not going to stop me from playing this. A lot.
Lady Gaga – Chromatica Cat Stevens once told me that there were a million ways to be/you know that there are. And I believed him!, until he sold “If You Want To Sing Out Sing Out” to T-Mobile. If you want to be free/ be free to use your rollover minutes. As an extreme INFP and flower child, I’ve always been fired and inspired by the idea that we could be more than what we are: we could discover an extra gear, and surprise ourselves and our admirers with fresh talents, and life could be a process of constant growth and discovery. I guess Stefani Germanotta entertains similar notions, because she keeps jamming extracurriculars on her transcript like she’s applying to Princeton with a 2.5 grade point average. She did stadium rock with Clarence Clemons, and that was eeeeh. She attempted genteel Triple-A country music, which was predictably, um, genteel and Triple-A. She made “artpop”, whatever the fuck that was, acted in movies, wore meat dresses, oozed her way through standards with Tony Bennett, interviewed Julian Assange. Gaga has shifted gears so much and tried on so many different hats that I can’t blame you if you forgot that she came to fame as a disco singer. A damn good one, too; one caught in a bad romance with Alejandro’s poker face. One who gave us a piece of solid life advice that works transhistorically: just dance. I suppose she’s finally taken her own recommendation, because Chromatica is a straight up disco record: no trap beats, no guest rappers, no piano ballads, no Bradley Cooper, just four on the floor and mirror balls and drag boots and all the rest of it. Night fever night fever, you know how to show it. She’s even gotten Elton John to sing on a track. Instead of harmonizing, Elton, god bless him, sings unison an octave down, and keeps at it until it’s not clear whether he’s the inner Gaga or Gaga is the outer him. And this is all sooooo much better than the three million other recent Gaga projects that it’s actually a little depressing. Chromatica becomes data point number one for those who argue that artists ought to stay in their lane. In its clarity of design and the vigor of its execution, it couldn’t be more out of step with the studied listlessness of current pop, pop born under the rising sign of Drake, but she’s stuck to her guns anyway: she’s just too good a vocalist to drown her signal in computer reverb. This is the context where her confetti-cannon of a voice works – where it neither overwhelms the orchestration nor pushes a deliberately undramatic style toward echt-Broadway. Give her a throb and a hi-hat and a stuttering synthesizer pulse, and she’ll boogie under the strobe until the vice cops come a-raiding. She even rips off Madonna for old time’s sake. Chromatica has drawbacks typical of disco albums: it’s, er, shallow, and it runs out of ideas well before it runs out of time. In the summer of Dua Lipa and the fall of Róisín Machine, it’s somewhat outgunned. But you’d have to hang in Silicon Valley for a long time before you encountered a more convincing return to a core competency. This makes me consider, and not for the first time, that Cat Stevens was dead wrong. Maybe there’s nine hundred thousand nine hundred ninety nine ways you could be, but only one way you’re really meant to be – and it’s on you to figure out what that way is. Well, you and your vocational guidance counselor.
Lana Del Rey – Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass I admit I was scared to death of this at first. Then I dropped the needle and heard: “I tried to save you but the German Shepherd seemed more important.” I laughed, and knew that it was all going to be okay. Later, I listened through and discovered that she was talking to a treehouse. This is an important detail, because it’s simultaneously SoCali mystical-ethereal, and risible, and also tied very firmly to current events – just like Lana Del Rey herself. She refers to these spoken-word pieces as “my poetry”, but that’s misleading: this is best understood as a cycle of short stories narrated by a character that we’ve come to know very well. If you followed the character on such pieces as “Ultraviolence” and “High By The Beach” (you did) and if you dig the voice (you do), there’s really no reason why you wouldn’t enjoy spending a half an hour beside her campfire at least once. The main theme is the threat posed to artistic autonomy by romantic obsession, and romance in general (“the struggle for higher achievement/and the search for love that don’t seem to cease”, as Joni once put it), and if that was all there was to it, you’d be right to say, hey, Lana Del Rey has never exactly had a problem expressing herself, now, has she? Luckily for us, she’s doused her complaints in the indelible dye of local color: not just mediums and witches and wax drippings and other post-hippie shit but also pastel thumbtacks pushed into a wall-map of Los Angeles. She name-checks intersections, bodies of water, islands off the coast, supermarkets, nightclubs, vegetation, architecture, and, in the recurring image that defines the set, the wildfires that scorched Southern California and exposed the region’s vulnerability. She even names the fire: the Woolsey, which wrecked a hundred thousand acres of America’s second-largest metro and undisputed capital of its dream industry. So no matter how airy the narrator is, this is a real thing that Lana Del Rey is writing about – a conflagration in the fantasy factory, a threat to the national imagination, and ecological collapse in a city that the artist adores for the best reasons. It’s enough to make me forgive the literal love letter to Los Angeles. Really, it’s good. And the one about the flying lesson is an absolute delight.
Land Of Talk – Indistinct Conversations Boy, this is long already. I’ll try to keep the next few entries brief. A mushrock macro would help. Elizabeth Powell is a very good guitar player, handy with her strum patterns and her echoed, plaintive, little-boy-lost-down-a-well licks, and that creativity extends to her composition, which often flows into eddies and crosscurrents in the marsh grass by the side of the river. That’s the good part. She’s upfront about the rough part: she’s calling her new set Indistinct Conversations, and midway through the first song, you’ll know why. Everything caresses and coos, nothing grabs. With uncharacteristic petulance, Elizabeth asks us why we won’t go deep — but when we do, we find that her indie-rock reflections on love as addiction, infatuation as intoxication, and the frustration of missed connections aren’t that different from what you’d get from your average mainstream pop star. If I’m going to humor this particular complaint, i’d much rather it be accompanied by a Beyoncé ass dance. Those tend to drive the point home in a more direct and satisfying manner.
Larkin Poe – Self Made Man Some ladies still sing the blues — blues-rock, anyway. Larkin Poe is a sister act: the blonde one plays slide guitar, and the brunette sticks to Strat but mostly belts ‘em out. Elvis Costello thinks enough of them to have taken them on tour with him several times, and they’ve returned the compliment in the best way I can imagine: they’ve said in the press that they consider “I Want You” his best song ever. So is Self Made Man raw like that? Well, no, but it’s certainly entertaining – a thumping amalgam of old-fashioned boozy blooze and ‘80s arena rock, saved from Bon Jovi territory by the (relatively) stripped down arrangements and the Lovell siblings’ harmonies. Well worth a few highway spins, especially if you’re speeding.
Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter Laura Marling tries new stuff. For instance, this is the first of her albums that contains music reminiscent of the Spin Doctors. Now you think I’ve turned on my idol and musical hero, but really I’ve done nothing of the sort: the Baronetess can comport with the peasants, or with peasant music, if she cares to. Anything she touches she damn well elevates, and that includes grubby fairground folk-pop. The surreal, hyperstylized quality of Semper Femina is mostly gone, replaced by some of the most direct, humble, and intelligible writing in a catalog that now crushes those of her immediate models. Like, Beth Orton who?, who even is that anymore. The métier here is epistolary: these are letters written by hypothetical mothers to hypothetical children, and while they lead with incisive and wholly earned wisdom, they mostly serve to remind the listener that the songwriter’s imagination continues to stretch out in all directions to far narrative horizons. Even uncharacteristically sentimental ones: “For You” is a bouquet of daisies from a woman who usually leads with the scalpel. Of course she also says “young girl, please/don’t bullshit me”, which is more of what we’ve come to expect from Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong. So if you/want to Laura Marrr-ling/just go ahead now.
Lawn – Johnny Sharp edged, noncommercial, mildly abrasive guitar rock; beat-up touring van rock. Yes, the kids still make it – a few of them, anyway. Lawn, a New Orleans outfit, writes tough, punchy songs with nothing oversold, songs with nicely-written main melodies deftly woven into six-string patterns. They’ve got good instincts about how to staple together chords and riffs and also how hard to slap the stapler. I count two singers, one with a pleasant indie rock voice and another with a Mark E. Smith drawl, but of it turns out that they’re the same guy doing some college-rock code-switching, I wouldn’t be shocked. At times Lawn suggests a stateside version of Dick Diver. This is a strong choice for those who feel a little let down by the second Fontaines D.C. album.
Leonard Simpson Duo – LSD If hip-hop rewards tall tales, what the heck is a peddler of quotidian truths like Guilty Simpson doing with a microphone, anyway? Is it because he reps Detroit, the city where people are too damn cold to tolerate embellishment? Or is it because he’s, you know, really good at rapping? There are times when he slips into a flow and he takes you straight down the river with him, from the source to the rapids and right out into the sea. Two reasons he’s never been that well known outside of rap cognoscenti circles: 1.) he looks like an ailing postman, and 2.) he’s always gotten the sort of beats that producers give to rappers who look like ailing postmen. The LSD project changes half of that (the other half can’t be helped, I’m afraid), as Leonard Charles serves up samples from obscure New Zealand psychedelic funk records of the ’70s for Simpson to rhyme over. This is wigged-out and whammy-barred head music for a rapper so grounded his feet are basically encased in Detroit cement. It’s a major mismatch, but it’s an interesting one, and the friction provided by the square peg as it grinds against the round hole does manage to create some productive heat. It keeps the coffee percolating, as Walt Clyde Frazier might put it. Then there’s the storytelling, and…, look, as you know, hard realness doesn’t mean much to me. I’d usually prefer a fable. But the tales of members of Simpson’s family, and friends he’s jettisoned, and at least one ex who he ought to have treated better, do add up to a compelling character portrait. Poignancy is a tone that’s underutilized in hip-hop. That’s a shame. Much respect due/when they reminisce over you/for real.
Leslie Mendelson – If You Can’t Say Anything Nice… Leslie Mendelson opened for The Who a few times, but I don’t get the sense that Pete Townshend is quite as interested in avuncular mentorship of young women as certain classic rockers are. She’s currently operating without a co-sign, which is a dangerous place for a generator of unfashionable sounds to be. The cathartic model here is Plastic Ono Band, right down to the drum sound and vocal effects, and the tone is one of old-fashioned protest. Things that make Leslie anxious: guns, prescription medications, overexposure to the news, getting lied to by people in power, and having no recourse available. This a not-atypical lib tired of getting owned, in other words, and she hollers and bangs on the piano accordingly. Can suburban women countenance this sort of thing, or do they find it “shrill”? Guess it all depends on the swing state you’re in.
Lido Pimienta – Miss Colombia If it seems like I’m more hung up on the words than I usually am — more, perhaps, than some of these words merit – there’s a reason for that. Lately I’ve become concerned about the sheer volume of ideological material that we passively receive. I don’t even mean stuff designed to penetrate the unconscious, although there’s plenty of that. I mean straightforward, non-subtextual, easily comprehensible messages, sitting right out there plain as day in the open, written into the lines of pop songs that we only half-hear, written into the scripts of tv shows that play in the background, inscribed in the articles we skim, contained in the speeches of leaders we do our best to tune out. Do we even know what the world is telling us, or has it all resolved to a slurry of signifiers? It may go in one ear and out the other, but I suspect it’s having lengthy layovers in the dustier parts of our brains before we’re rid of it. So I’ve made a resolution: if somebody is pointing words in my direction, i’m going to try to be present to them. I’m going to listen to them all, in the order that they arrive, and do my best to figure out why the speaker or writer is using words in the first place. One of the benefits of listening to music in a foreign language is that it forces you to stop and translate the verses. Otherwise, you become too aware that you’re having the half-experience that constitutes the engagement of so many shoegazy college rock listeners. Might as well be stoned, amirite? Some Latin alternative pop is pretty basic and easy enough to follow: if you can’t get what Mon Laferte is telling you on Norma, the international language of horniness is lost on you. But then there are other writers like Natalia Lafourcade who take a lot of time to perfect their Lorca lines (often some shit about the moon, tbh), and who send me to Google Translate with a big smile. Even when spoken by brutes, Español is a sonorous tongue. It sings. You can really see why F. Murray Abraham warned Mozart off of English: all that clinking and clanking of mismatched consonants. I don’t have a full read on Lido Pimienta’s second album and perhaps I never will, but I certainly catch the part where she talks about el dolor adentro, and implies that carrying pain is the essence of womanhood. I get all the stuff about skin color as currency, and the cruel stratification of Colombian society along indefensible lines. If you knew Lido from her last record, this won’t come as a surprise to you. La Papessa was something of a dry run for last year’s Y La Bamba album – an attempt to apply the destabilizing effects of looped and layered psychedelia to subversive traditional music from south of the Rio Grande. That was pretty good, truth be told, but there’s something deeply unsatisfying about tail-chasing obscurantism as a political program. So this time out, she’s blown off all of the Amazonian mist, and she’s giving it to you straight. The first half of Miss Colombia is reminiscent of Rosalía in that it’s a seamless integration of modern electronics and traditional folk styles. On the second half, she plunges you right into the middle of the jungle as if it was 1974 and her name was Caetano Veloso. The singing is never less than marvelous, the textures are totally unique yet somehow unmistakably South American, and the fightin’ words are right up in your face. Everything about this record is crazy brave. If this doesn’t make her an indie star on both sides of the President’s dumbass wall, either the border patrol is scrambling our brains, or we really are hopelessly asleep.
Lil Uzi Vert – Eternal Atake “Put it in her mouth, make her jaw lock”. I mean, what the fuck, man. That just sounds painful for everybody involved. Do any of these cloud rappers know how sex works, or are they just shoving their peckers in slots and hoping a toy surprise falls out? Elsewhere he boasts in a desultory manner, rehearses lists of tony brand names at mind-numbing length, conflates guns and Chinese food, and basically makes an ass of U and me. Lil Uzi Vert’s defenders – and they are legion – praise his vocal tone and his easy way with a hook, and remind us that his version of hip-hop isn’t lyrics-based. You don’t say. But hey, he’s not an interpretive dancer or a macaroni sculpture-maker. He’s a rapper. Words are the job. This is the profession you have chosen, Lil Uzi Vert. Be true to it. This sidewalk-splatter of technicolor vomit is saved from the garbage barge via the evident skill of the producers, and the genuine vocal talent of the principal. It’s misapplied, but it’s there. I can acknowledge that much. But please, don’t ever make me listen to this again.
Little Big Town – Nightfall There is no group working in any genre that keeps their songs on the ironing board any longer than Little Big Town does. Boy do these tracks come out starched and crisp-cornered and ready to wear to any corporate function. The hand on the hot iron belongs to Karen Fairchild, who has assumed the mantle of lead singer; these days her frenemy Kimberly Schlapfman is basically a ProTools plug-in. I guess the two dudes do raise their voices here and there, but you don’t care about that, and neither does country radio. For the two Nashville-feminist singles, Fairchild gets her Ibsen’s Dolls House on, and pokes at the fundies a little by demanding a God for the daughters. Elsewhere she wants you to know that she likes to get shloshed. That’s Music City standard, but it’s a little gauche coming from a pirate who has already had a good hard look at 50.
Liza Anne – Bad Vacation Oh, the Eighties. Will they ever leave us be, or will it be day-glo and deficit spending forever? Seems like nobody wants to make a guitar pop record anymore: we’re all Madonna wannabes now. Take the (not so) curious case of Liza Anne. Two years ago she strapped on the six-string for a swing through Paramore-style power pop with a little “Mandinka”-era Sinead thrown in. And that was good!, well, pretty good, anyway. It seemed to suit her voice, which resembles Kerry Alexander from Bad Bad Hats with a little more ballast, and her themes, which were anxious and lovelorn when not actually arsenic-swilling. All of that was insufficiently effervescent for most modern playlists, so she’s made the new wave reversal that has ginned up the commercial prospects of oh so many of her peers. These days, she’s mimicking… um, Paramore, only the Paramore that made peace with the Eighties on After Laughter. Liza Anne has even hired Paramore (and Metric) accomplice Justin Meldal-Johnson to realize a distinctively Eighties sound, which seems like it’s mostly a matter of tight microphone positioning on the snare and staccato bass. That’s the easy part. But you get one side of the Rubik’s Cube right only to scramble the other five. The sound of the new wave matched the content: extreme sexual frustration, fear of alienation, the sneaking sense that technological advancement has served to deaden the loins of all intended targets. Liza Anne’s vacation is bad for purely millennial reasons – she’s bugged by the sense of too-closeness and always-on-ness that those born too late to experience the new wave are always complaining about. This does not match the She Boppish, hands-in-the-pants mood of the music, and it reinforces my suspicion that Liza Anne, while talented, is a woman with no coherent ideas of her own.
Locate S,1 – Personalia This may remind you of Kevin Barnes. There are very three good reasons for that. First, Christina Schneider, the main character and prime mover here, is Kevin Barnes’s girlfriend, subject of the rapturous songs on the last two Of Montreal albums and cover model for UR FUN. Second, Christina Schneider behaves as you might expect a woman selected for protracted smooching by Kevin Barnes would act. She bings and boings and runs a dirty mouth, in other words. There’s a song called “Hot Wife” about genderqueering the hotwife subculture, and another one called “Community Porn” that’s… well, honestly, I don’t know what the hell that one is about. Third, and most importantly, Kevin Barnes produced this, co-wrote at least one of the songs (a quasi-feminist statement number, naturally), played the bass, some of the guitar, most of the synth, and programmed the drums. So yes, you can look at this as a companion piece to UR FUN – one that, in its unmitigated restlessness and herky-jerkiness, sounds more like Of Montreal than the latest Of Montreal does. I figure you’ll play this eventually. I know you’re curious. All together now: biiii-curious.
Luedje Luna – Bom Mesmo E Estar Debaixo D’agua The flight time from Salvador in Bahia to Freetown is only four hours. It would take you longer to get from LaGuardia to Austin, especially if United lost your luggage. Brazilian proximity to Africa is something Caetano Veloso played up on such albums as Bicho and Araçá Azul; Caetano was a transculturalist from Salvador, and he sure loved those tribal drums. Luedje Luna is from Bahia, too, and the first track on her new album makes me think she’s got similar ambitions. Then she slides into jazzy sophistipop mode, and stays there for the better part of an hour, occasionally hinting at something more explosive, smiling coyly at tropicalia, but mostly just dissolving gorgeously into the beach mist. Her Sade ambitions are commendable: her band hits all the marks, and she certainly can sing. But a real smooth operator wouldn’t be such a tease
Luka Kuplowsky – Stardust “There is evidence/that man is as cruel as he ever was”. Luka, you don’t say. This is an odd project: Luka can’t really sing, and his muttered verses are larded down with awkward, borderline-gross statements like “here comes the tidal wave of loving you”. But he gets points for his ambition; that and his appreciation for the classics. brushed drums, woodwind solos, analog synth wobbles and whirs, repetitive, trancelike passages that chase that mid-‘70s Van The man vibe, nods to jazz-period Joni Mitchell, Nick Drake and Judee Sill: Luka has a fine record collection. Occasionally the rambling folk orchestra he’s assembled does strike… well, gold is too strong. let’s say a copper vein, with some strong ornamental and industrial applications. “Sayonara Blue” and “Skyline” sure are pretty. But mainly Luka seems like the kind of sharp-eyed appraiser who recognizes the characteristics of a great record, but does not pack the gear to make great records himself. I know: never has the pot called the kettle so black.
Lupe Fiasco & Kaelin Ellis – House It’s worth taking a moment to look this one over, as it’s one of the year’s most interesting projects, and it comes from a singular figure in showbiz. Which is not necessarily to say that it’s great, but c’mon, if it’s Lupe, it’s usually at least pretty good. His cardinal sin is his tendency to go too long and belabor his points, and that’s not a problem here: House is just five Chilled Cow-style lo-fi chill beats to relax/study to that he got from some kid on the Internet. Moreover, he shares more time that you’d reckon with a guest speaker – Virgil Abloh, an African-American shoe designer who is more than ready for his Ted Talk. Virgil wants to situate his sneakers within art history, and add emotion to inanimate objects (his stated motivation), and the absurd seriousness with which he treats running shoes makes it impossible not to compare this mini-album with Ajai. For Serengeti, obsession with sneaker drops and the status accrued to those verified to get exclusive products is warping the psyches of the characters caught up in the game. Just as surely as the Black Mirror episode ruins Mike Eagle’s marriage, and Homeboy Sandman (who also complains about sneaker drops on his set) is stranded, and left single, by his own will to assert his intellectual autonomy, Ajai loses his wife because of his fashion-addled myopia. But Lupe is a different sort of cat altogether. He is more prepared than some of his grouchier backpack peers to see hip-hop as a specifically capitalist form of artistic production – an unruly but fruitful colony – and he’s less ready to bristle at commodification. From the days of “Kick Push”, he’s always been interested in the way that subcultures talk to the mainstream, and carve out places of safety within hegemony for those who don’t fit in; it’s an uncommonly optimistic and inclusive vision, even within an art form as relentlessly upwardly mobile as hip-hop. So for Lupe, the sneaker line is a place of solidarity and identity-formation. It’s a place to participate in a niche activity that only commerce can make possible. The white kid is even moved to give up his place at the front of the queue to his black peer. They’re all just excited to be copping the new Virgil Ablohs – eager to be part of something, even if it’s just somebody else’s expression. I think you can probably guess my feelings about this. But Lupe’s storytelling is so deft, and colorful, and embodied that I’m willing to ride awhile with him. Even more extraordinary than the sneaker-drop song is the unbelievable track in which Lupe attempts to convince a young woman to consider modeling. The tone is wholly avuncular and not even slightly predatory: Lupe runs down the list of all of the ways one can model, including wholesome, desexualized halal options. He even brings Mrs. Butterworth into it. You’d be quick to connect the dots between the modeling career he’s imagining for his young friend and his own rapprochement with the corporate rap industry if he didn’t come right out and do it for you. Lupe: never exactly afraid to be on the nose. Now, there is a chance that all of this is satire, and Lupe is making a critical statement about materialism and exploitation. But Abloh’s presence on the album and Lupe’s good-natured disposition convince me that it isn’t, and I’d like to give him points for walking a hard argumentative line to sustain on record. Until the chorus where the backing singers go “model-innng/using your bod-ayyyy/to sell things on the Internet”. I mean, that can’t be one hundred per cent sincere. Can it?
Madeline Kenney – Sucker’s Lunch Billowy, pillowy, dreamy, etc. For production assistance, this former guitar rocker has turned to Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak, who has really added the quiver and queasiness to these six-string signals. This sucker’s lunch turns out to be Jell-O, mainly, translucent and jiggly and sans savory component, tasty for a few bites, but nothing to plan your meal around.
Mandy Moore – Silver Landings Mandy Moore seems like she must be a million years old, but, she’s barely made it to the second half of her fourth decade. When last we heard from her, she was covering XTC and Joan Armatrading, playing against type, and pledging her allegiance to classic records with classic sounds. I’m pleased to say she’s kept that up for Silver Landings, hiring Jason Boesel of Rilo Kiley/Jenny Lewis quasi-fame to punch up some of these midtempo numbers. She’s even got a song called “Fifteen” about being fifteen, which is definitely not not something another country-pop singer did not so long ago. Maybe Mandy thinks we’ve got short memories. Much of the record concerns the professional struggles and career trajectory of Mandy Moore, which is surely a topic of great interest to her agent and her attorney, but I’ll admit it doesn’t really hold me spellbound. That said, there are some legitimate winners here: “Easy Target”, which is a California sun-mirage, the A.M. gold “When I Wasn’t Watching”, and “Trying My Best Los Angeles”, a statement of total submission to the showbiz machine. Just the kind of thing the Illuminati loves to hear.
Margaret Glaspy – Devotion Another capitulation to the synthpop and the misty Sound of Now. Initially you might guess that Margaret Glaspy had further to fall than, say Liza Anne or Caroline Rose, since she began as a guitar-first troubadour whose debut EP was scrupulously analog. Yet at that point she was so crippled by her hyper-stylized vocal delivery that nothing she sang felt hers. It was all ill-fitting Billie Holliday dresses from the thrift shop. Only through her six-string did she express artistic autonomy. So even though she’s given back some of her instrumental peculiarity, her development as a singer has compensated for it somewhat. I also like the way she’s managed to transfer some of her peculiar songwriting logic from the guitar to the synth, even if her new compositions are less wasp-tailed and more round, harmless, and ladybuggish. In effect, she’s made an Elizabeth And The Catapult album – post-collegiate and mannered but varied in mood and style, ridiculously hitless but catchy nevertheless, and unified only by the star’s evident confidence in her musical skill. It’s not unearned.
Maria McKee – La Vita Nuova Maria McKee has no time for mushrock indulgences, consumed as she is with her own personal trip, her close reading of Dante, and her pathological need to bellow at you nonstop. With Maria, you always know what you’re going to get: performances so bombastic they’d make Bruce Dickinson blush, every verse as Byronic and ballistic as possible, every note a life-or-death struggle. I didn’t think she could up the ante from High Dive; silly me. Maria trench-strafes the listener from the very first syllable, and then spends the next forty-five minutes circling back for more salvos. Yet underneath the sturm-und-drang, the songwriting is absolutely superb: full of muscular progressions and skyscraper melodies, codas and breakdowns and shrewd left turns. Were you to take Maria away and substitute Joanna Newsom, a few of these tracks could fit right in on Have One On Me. Other songs recall other heroes: Joni, of course, but also solo Sandy Denny, Elvis Costello, Judy Collins on In My Life, and Tori Amos in rifle-toting revenge mode. You know I don’t throw around names like these lightly. In order to get to the good stuff, you’ll have to survive Maria’s frontal assault, and I’ll let you decide if you think the risk is worth the reward. It may help or hurt to realize that La Vita Nuova is an advanced-age coming-out story. Yes, after many grueling decades on the dick, Maria has switched teams with gusto. I applaud this: the sexualities of older women demand much more artistic representation than they get. If I were in her shoes, I might get operatic about it too.
Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl – Artlessly Falling Mary Halvorson is a visionary jazz guitarist with a unique note-bending tone: something like a loose electrified squiggle, with notes like beads on a string that has been severed, and the beads are falling to a cold stone floor and bouncing. Her accompanists do a similar thing – horns blasting out skeins of notes in all directions, and percussionists pattering away on upturned beer cans. You can see why this would appeal to Robert Wyatt, who drops in from the clouds to croon angelically on three of the eight tracks. And yet: unlike Robert, I am not a jazzbo. I admit that Code Girl, arresting and Frippertronic as it is, mainly deepens my appreciation for the collected works of composers such as C.R. Jepsen, J. Monae, E.W. Grant, et. al. – pop artists whose medium disallows meandering, and requires them to find novel variations within tightly formalized compositional templates. This strikes me as brutally hard to do, much harder than overturning a bag of jazz cats and letting them run every which way. It requires a kind of intellectual diligence from its practitioners that those who pledge allegiance to other art forms never seem to want to recognize. But I’ve tried those other forms, and I’m comfortable saying, once again, that pop music is the very best thing that human beings do. It’s our saving grace as a species, maybe. We chopped down the forest and dumped radioactive goo in the ocean and ate all the aminals, but damn did we ever come up with some snappy tunes. Maybe creation was worthwhile. Maybe I shouldn’t join the Voluntary Human Extinction movement after all.
Matt Rollings – Matt Rollings Mosaic With Tori and Kate cooling their heels and Bruce H. on some bizarro shit, this is the best piano playing you’re going to hear all year, and it’s worth spinning Mosaic just to bask in the glory of the triplets and trills. Matt Rollings was always the man who connected Lyle Lovett to the gospel tradition: that left hand of his is the rumble in the preacher’s voice, and his right hand is the rattling collection plate. Though he’s played with thousands, he’s most closely connected to Lyle and the Big Band, and the repertoire on Mosaic is a strange footnote to the Lovett discography. For instance, it ends with a demoed version of “Pontiac” played over the phone. Lyle stops in to do a version of “Ac-cen-tu-ate The Positive”, and Matt gifts “If I Had A Boat” to a ninety year old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – and Ramblin’ Jack, sad to say, sounds every one of those ninety years. Most of the guests here are older than dirt dusted off of dinosaur bones: Willie Nelson, the Blind Boys Of Alabama, Buddy Miller, etc., and those who aren’t, like Charlie Greene, possess a certain wizened-prune quality nevertheless. Charlie contributes the De La Slooooooow jazz version of “Spirits In The Material World” which you didn’t know you needed because, um, you didn’t need it. Anyway, that isn’t even the problem. The problem is Matt’s originals, which are treacle straight from the treacle tap, sonic greeting cards posted to Save The Children, by Enya, maybe. They are wind beneath my wings: the wings of the assisted living facility. A place where it is never fun to hang out, no matter how lively the pinochle games get.
Mike Dean – 4:20 It’s not inaccurate to call Mike Dean a legend two times over – first as one of the architects of the sound of Southern hip-hop, and then as instrumentalist and producer on some of Kanye’s best albums and tours. A solo mixtape seemed like a promising prospect. Instead he’s given us a landslide of analog modeling synthstrumentals – the sort of thing you might expect from a salesman at Sam Ash. Shoppers, allow me to demonstrate the processor capabilities of the Viper Three Thousand. Sidemen are essential to pop; you couldn’t have records without them. But it’s the presence of the concept-master that gives them their direction and reason for being. That’s something to remember the next time you hear a wag knock Kanye because he lacks the fingering skills to play a fugue.
Megan Thee Stallion – Good News Here’s a big blowback against the prevailing winds: a straightforward rap record that isn’t moody at all, with nothing artfully muffled and no detours into the mist, and a vocalist who delivers her foul-mouthed verses with the illustrative crispness of an anchorwoman on the Booty News Network. The paltriness of some of the musical production on this set is actually a good sign: it’s reminiscent of the old days when the deejay had so much confidence in the charisma of the emcee that he knew that all he needed to bring was the boom-bap. Filthy sex raps are Megan’s stock in trade, and there is likely a limit to the amount of discussion of her vag that you can take. Yet you might find, as I did, that most of the raunch on good news is strictly formal: it’s there to fulfill requirements and meet expectations established by the character. More than anything else, Megan comes off as a student of rap history and a carrier of tradition. We get callbacks to N.W.A and Golden Age NYC along with a classic H-town delivery and a few flows that feel almost hyphy, bright-line connections drawn between Cardi/Nicki and Salt N Pepa/MC Lyte, and a couple of deft verses that honestly remind me of Big Boi. So full is this talent/personality exhibition that a Beyoncé appearance barely registers. There were better albums released in 2020, but I’m not sure any were a better show – and this is, after all, showbiz. So invest in this pussy, boy/support black business.
Morrissey – I Am Not A Dog On A Chain Key verse from the title tune: “I see no point in being nice”. I believe him. I mean, I couldn’t agree less, but I believe that he believes it. On the new one, Moz completes his vigorous lean-in to his new personality, one animated by cold castigation and little else. I suppose this comes as a great disappointment for those who considered him a queer role model (why?) or a frustrated romantic (why? squared) or just a wry sybarite, but those who’ve been paying attention know that he’s always been a miserable sod motivated by provocation and rage. I’ve been paying attention, and I can tell you that I’m throwing my arms around the modern Morrissey without reservations or squeamishness. Truther ideology has filled him from toes to crown with harsh UV light, and it’s pouring out of his motormouth in the form of stunning, searing, magnificently self-righteous vocal performances – performances the strength of which only the politically-motivated could deny. No, he doesn’t get my vote. But then he never would have, would he? I wouldn’t have voted for Merle Haggard, either, but I’m not going to sit here and pretend his records aren’t good.
Mildlife – Automatic Prog, recalibrated for the chill era. It’s hard to overstate how good the Aussies in Mildlife are at their instruments, particularly Moog titan Kevin McDowell, but also guitarist Adam Halliwell, who generates noises that might as well be coming from a synthesizer. Not a lame new wavey synth either, but an analog piece straight from the Moraz collection. While the two point-scorers upfront are progging out, the bassist and the drummer lock into vacuum-tight, thoroughly danceable grooves. Not since the heyday of Air has a band better reconciled the exploratory tendencies of ‘70s jazz-rock with the disciplinary demands of funk. Mildlife has padded out the sound since their very good Phase album, adding a supplemental percussionist and incorporating some outrageous, Tull-ish flute soloing into the mix, too. What’s missing is the psychotic urgency and expressions of anxiety that were always the motivating forces behind the progressive rock records that are still pillars of my brittle and beleaguered consciousness. I recognize that freakouts do not exactly play in today’s laaaaid-back musical environment, and I ought to be happy to get Mildlife at all. But I admit to some frustration with this band. The ingredients are there to create a latter-day prog classic, but they’re never going to get there as long as they sound as comfortable as they do.
Moses Sumney – Græ I don’t really like to knock this guy, because he’s talented, and talent is king, and queen, and jack, and certainly ace. All of the face cards, basically. Moses has got a noble post-gender struggle going on, and I can dig that. He’s got ideas, he’s got fashion sense, and he’s got an expansive imagination. What he don’t got: any songs. This would be a problem on a fifteen minute EP. Over the course of a double album – one mostly produced in the aimless post-vaporwave style by the Oneohtrix Point Never guy – it’s murder. Kids, it does not matter how butter-smooth your falsetto is, or how much the backing tracks shimmer. If you don’t impose some sort of developmental trajectory on your compositions, you’re going to get lost in the clouds. I get why this has been acclaimed: it’s ambitious, and well played, Moses seems like an interesting guy, and on his album cover, he’s afforded us all a glimpse of his cavernous buttcrack. But not for a second do I think that any of his admirers are spinning this regularly. Because this is the year’s most arduous endurance test, and nothing is particularly close.
Nas – King’s Disease Gout: that’s the illness he’s talking about. He recommends cherries and lemongrass. I’d like to think he’s speaking metaphorically and not from personal experience, but Nas has never been one to spin poetry from topics unfamiliar. Given his close association with such political power-players as Kanye West and 50 Cent, not to mention that song he once did called “Black Republican”, I’m just happy he didn’t become a… well, you know. It’s catching. His lousy attitude toward women hasn’t improved: he’s angrily calling out female celebrities i’ve never heard of, and judging himself blameless for the painful dissolution of prior relationships. By now you are sensing a theme in hip-hop 2020, are you not. Now, Nasir was dangerously scattershot, and this isn’t. Hit-Boy, he of “Niggas In Paris” and “Clique” fame, is behind the board for the entire set, and he’s split the difference between the cheesy pomp of some of Nas’s ‘00s sets and the sleekness and directness of modern confessional hip-hop. (Don’t worry, it doesn’t sound like Drake.) So even though Nas is in the late Rizzuto stage of his broadcast career, taking innings off and occasionally marking “wasn’t watching” on his scorecard, when he bothers to show up, he makes his presence felt. Here he is on “Car #85”: “Survived with stick-up kids/was droppin’ shit/the rotten apple’s the tabernacle/that’s N-Y/White Castles at midnight/fish sandwiches, 40 ounces, and fistfights”. That, my friends, is lyricism.
Natalia Lafourcade – Un Canto Por Mexico, Vol. 1 Volume one, she tells us!, threatening us with a good time. This very very long concert and celebration of essential Mexicanness is only at its intermission point! The tireless Sra. Natalia will be right back after this. Let her catch her breath and powder her nose after singing her face off. But as the lights come up in the theatre, we must ask: did we really need a new version of “Nunca Es Suficiente,” or was the recorded on Hasta La Raiz more than…. er, suficiente? Did we need yet another “Derecho De Nacimiento”, this time with a rapper? And the answer is no. No we did not. The originals were dandy, and tough to improve on. Even the new songs, irresistible as they are, seem like anthems pitched toward the cheap seats. She’s got one life to live, music is her religion, c’mon, tell us something we don’t know, Natalia. You don’t need Google Translate to realize that this is all a far cry from the Neruda-isms of “Soledad Y La Mar”, not to mention “Siempre Prisa”. Elsewhere Natalia puts on the sombrero and goes into ranchera mode, and demonstrates, as if we really needed the proof, that she can stand next to Los Angeles Azules and do this style at least as well as your neighborhood narcotraficante. It’s all fun, and marvelously inhabited, and “in concert” in its feel, even if this isn’t a concert at all, but an attempt to replicate the vibe of a concert in a studio setting. But to this superfan of the artist and Mexican alternapop in general, Natalia’s brilliance has always rested on her singularity and her scrupulousness. Hasta La Raiz is the hybrid of Latin music and twee-leaning indiepop that I’d been daydreaming of for years, but which required the greatest artist in the world (yes, she is) to pull off. So it does not shock me that her attempts to drag these songs deeper into the Sierra Madres doesn’t work nearly as well as the artsy folklorico she achieved on the two Musas collections. Because she’s not just-folks. She isn’t a woman of the people any more than Joanna Newsom or Laura Marling are. She’s a supertalent, sheer artistic royalty: daughter of concert pianists and the niece of one of the doyens of Chilean literature. Ironically, that makes Un Canto Por Mexico the first Natalia Lafourcade project with a whiff of the patrician about it. That’s not to say that she ever condescends to her guests. It’s just that her zeal to align herself and her catalog with the salt of the Mexican earth is overt in a way that it never has been before. I fear we’re edging ever so slightly close to that Putumayo territory in which the wealthy and well-meaning defender of regional culture puts on a high-minded, and therefore accidentally caricatured, show of certain signifiers for the genteel and reasonable world to see. Only ours it’s not a genteel or reasonable world. Rap listener that I am, I admit I find Gerardo Ortiz songs about shooting Sinaloans in the head a fair bit more convincing, and maybe more inspiring too.
Nicolas Godin – Concrete And Glass In the early ‘00s, I would have bet that the Air guys would age well. Moon Safari thru Talkie Walkie demonstrated that they didn’t need to rock hard in order to make interesting music. What I should have done was refer back to my Bill James. In the Abstracts, Bill James writes about young players with old players’ skills: power, plate discipline, clubhouse leadership, situational hitting, etcetera. General managers used to think that guys like this were good bets for long term deals, because they’d already gotten where so many other players never manage to go. But often, they lacked young players’ skills: aggressiveness, explosiveness, athleticism, improvisation, etcetera. A player whose speed was already marginal could not afford to lose a step as he aged. Bill James argued that a young player with young players’ skills was always a better long-term investment than a young player with old players’ skills, and the Boston Red Sox reaped dividends from this realization. Air, I now see, were a couple of young players with old players’ skills. In the ‘90s, their urgency was already marginal. no matter how assured their music sounded, they were always living on the edge. They couldn’t afford to give up a single ounce of intensity. They did, and then some.
Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off The Floor Well, what the heck are you doing on the floor, Norah? It’s filthy down there. Get up at once and dust your blouse off, young lady. This picks up right where Begin Again left off – she’s still hitting the piano awfully hard, echoing her vocal melodies with her springy right hand while she dredges up some Memphis mud with her left. The one with the big climax goes “find a way out/find a way out”, over and over, and Norah sings it exactly as she would if she was in the middle of the maze, hungry and cold, as the sun sets over the top of the giant privet hedges. Her friends are gone to the ferris wheel without her. Some kind of friends they turned out to be. Dissolution of identity and indecision continue to be her preoccupations, as they have been for the last few album cycles; on the third track, she says it never hurts to be alone, until she says it hurts to be alone. Who the hell can tell what she means? She sure can’t. Her personality keeps falling apart on her. I keep thinking she’s about to make the album where she finally snaps, and all of the stale traditions and assorted pieces that she’s been stuffing into her persona are going to come flying out in all directions, like so much ejecta from a thermal vent. This isn’t that album. But I can hear the rumbling.
Of Montreal – UR FUN I don’t generally identify with the character Kevin Barnes, but I do understand his possessiveness and skewed sense of romance. Although he’s floated, for ten albums or so, through a demimonde where everybody is diddling everybody, that’s not actually what he’s after: he wants a wife, or a girlfriend, or at least a boyfriend (but c’mon, probably not a boyfriend.) He needs a lover with soul power/and you ain’t got no soul power. On Aureate Gloom and Innocence Reaches, he was positively torn up by the loss of his spouse to some square who does not spend all day fine-tuning his bass sound. He threw stones at her portrait with the sort of venom that only a believer in the sanctity of the pair bond could. On UR FUN, he falls for a girl who is into polyamory, because those are the circles he runs in. But he lets it be known that doesn’t want to be the quarry/in her sex safari, and he spends the whole disc dragging her to… well, not to the altar, necessarily, but definitely to the his ‘n’ hers section of the Bed, Bath & Beyond. By the time he reaches side two, he’s secure enough in their monogamous coupledom that he can relax and lash out some usual targets: a former bandmate, Bergman characters, the United States Of America. What’s really striking here is how he’s matched this fidelity quest to some of the most straightforward pop songwriting he’s ever done. It’s almost like he believes that a commitment to romantic convention requires a parallel capitulation to compositional predictability. By Barnes standards, I mean; these songs are still as weird and stretchy-polyester as the items in David Bowie’s sock drawer. Regardless, it’s nice to experience a rare let-up in Barnes’s ongoing anxiety attack – a breather, of sorts, from a guy whose music never seems to take a breath. I’m sure it’s nothing permanent.
Open Mike Eagle – Anime, Trauma, And Divorce Meanwhile, Michael Eagle knows why he’s alone: a Black Mirror episode ruined his marriage. and this he tells us, more worked up than I’ve ever heard him, howling like he stepped on a Lego in the night, on a song called “The Black Mirror Episode Ruined My Marriage”. Is he kidding? In a way. But Mike takes popular culture very seriously. On Anime, Trauma And Divorce, it’s about the only thing propping him up as his life falls apart around him. On one song, he imagines a race-bent version of a popular anime set in South Central Los Angeles and casts himself as one of the characters. Although he believes that this is a socially progressive move – a transvaluation of the superhero story and an application of its dynamics to the black struggle – it’s also pretty clear that this fantasy is designed to distract him from his bulging waistline and dad bod. More quotidian versions of self-care (“it’s like lllllotion,” “it’s like visiting wiiineries”) are summarily and hilariously rejected. Much as I enjoyed the anthropomorphized housing project stories on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, I think the whacked out, self-doubting Mike – a Mike comfortable calling himself a headass – is a more trenchant guide to the human experience. Mike’s present state of mind in a nutshell: he chastises himself for making a cheap midget joke about Peter Dinklage. He says he’s not going to do it, but there he is, doing it, and with more than a bit of resentment as he explains that there’s no chance that Dinklage will ever hear it. “Why am I like this?”, he asks. Maybe because he’s untethered, floating through space, attempting to grab hold of phantoms, and cursing as they slip through his fingers.
Orville Peck – Show Pony I hate to make a molehill out of a brokeback mountain, but I have to say that I’ve never found anything transgressive or even interesting about homosexual cowboys. That seems to me like a natural consequence of the problem of scarcity on the range. It gets lonesome in the dry gully. May as well suck some balls. As the author of a few queer Western tales of my own, I suppose I do understand the incongruity and the big king cactus appeal. There was a cowboy in the Village People, after all. But Orville Peck, the masked country singer now all the rage in certain precincts of the Internet, is not that cowboy. The trouble here isn’t the songwriting, necessarily, even though most of this is soapy stuff more reminiscent of Ke$ha’s move on Nashville than Ned Sublette. Nor is it the gender-switched cover of Bobbie Gentry’s prostitution anthem “Fancy”, which will mostly appeal to people who’ve never heard of Bobbie Gentry (or Reba McEntire). No, the problem here is that Orville Peck is a poor vocalist. He slides around and misses notes, he doesn’t throw his punchlines squarely, his shakes and shudders possess the pantomime quality of an Elvis imitator at a Vegas lounge. His basso is simply not profundo. So forget about Johnny Cash or even Colter Wall. A music city hack like Chris Young could sing circles around Orville. If you’ve got any familiarity with mainstream country, you already know this. If Show Pony does not play in Tennessee – if its audience is limited to gay enclaves such as the Castro District and Europe – that’s discernment at work, not intolerance.
Oscar Cash – Oscar Cash Forever Oscar, if you don’t know (and why would you), is the silent partner in Metronomy. He’s been there from the beginning, and he sticks it out, even when Joe Mount locks the door to the recording studio and handles everything himself. Consequently, it’s never been too clear what he does in the band — in the “Love Letters” video, he shakes a tambourine and prances — or to assess his centrality to Joe’s various cybercrimes. This set consists of folded, spindled, and mutilated tracks from Metronomy Forever, most of which are done with the characteristic Metronomy smirk, which, come to think of it, might be his contribution to the group. Fun as it is to sift through the digital wreckage for traces and snatches of a really good Metronomy album, like most meta-commentary, it’ll mostly just leave you with a desire for the real thing.
Osees – Protean Threat Here it is: John Dwyer’s thirty-ninth full length since June. I guess I could write about how this particular collection of fuzz blasts is marginally better than Boolean Slip but not quite up to the standard set by Stop Motion Underpants. But we’ve reached the point where Dwyer – and everybody else who records for Castle Face, honestly – are basically daring us to unearth distinctions between their projects. To be fair, he made a few in a row that leaned toward progressive metal. This one doesn’t. It’s closer to the live-garage sound of the old cassettes, which is to say that it’s at least fifty per cent amplifier distortion and vigorous effects-pedal stomps. Dwyer’s will toward nonstop chaos has ossified into a perverse sort of predictability. I recall that when Elton John told Billy Joel that he should release more albums, Billy replied that Elton should release less albums. Yes, this was Billy being a Nassau County asshole, but at the same time, you know what he means. Billy stopped after album number twelve. It’s still possible to hold all of those sets in your head and navigate their developmental trajectory. Elton just kept on grinding them out, and the result is that there are stretches of his discography that are an undifferentiated sluice of music. This has been an impediment to our apprehension of Elton’s work: we tend to think first of his heavy-rotation singles, rather than his excellent albums, which are fading a bit because there are so many of them. Obvs, it is pretty rich of me, Elvis Costello fanatic that I am, to ever suggest that an artist put on the brakes. But even the greatest only have a limited number of ideas. They really ought to be able to cover them in six albums or so. Most of us – even the best of us – will arrive at the reiteration phase long before that.
Owen – The Avalanche Mike Kinsella is an emo hero for very good reasons: that first American Football album is a laurel he can lay on, swing on and hammock out in, jounce around on, poop the bed in, wake up screaming from nightmares of obsolescence in, you name it. Subsequent American Football LPs, good as they are, have never been able to coax the lightning back into the bottle. I gather that it was mostly a matter of happenstance, and the peculiar alchemy of the Midwestern suburban summer, as the sun casts its last rays of the day through the branches of the elms and lights up the roofs of the cul-de-sac. Owen is American Football with all the lights on: it’s mainly Kinsella plus acoustic guitar, singing what would otherwise be American Football songs, sans tricky rhythms and trumpets and that six string mesh that falls over the unwary like a magic net. It’s the sound of a broken spell: a plain plastic tray, dropped and clattering on the coffeeshop floor.
Pacha Massive – Normal The prevalence of chill tropical playlists may indeed have increased North American susceptibility to Caribbean sounds. As an ice person myself, I accept this mixed blessing, especially if strains of Natalia and Ximena and Monserrat are audible on the tradewinds. But like certain coronaviruses, chill Latin has always been with us. For years we’ve checked into hotels, and shopped, and eaten to the consumer-confidence-boosting sounds of trite Latin electro; hell, even Ina Garten used toothless Latin jazz as the incidental music on her bougie cooking show set, however imaginatively, in the Hamptons. Not all of this stuff is fit to be folded into a tamale and served to your esteemed guests. Many artists from the southern side of horse latitudes make recordings that are every bit as inane and imagination-free as the elevator-music pushers of the frozen North. In other words, Mexicans do mushrock, too. This something for all of us to remember, particularly me. I’ll keep it in mind the next time a Latina tells me to jump off a bridge, in that accent I find oh so difficult to resist.
Paul McCartney – McCartney III Write a bazillion good songs, and a few of them are bound to get lost in the shuffle. I’d completely forgotten about “Temporary Secretary”, his hilarious-annoying stab at new wave at its catchiest and most idiotic, until I played it again this summer and fell right off of my chair in puerile delight. That one was on McCartney II, which came out a decade after McCartney I, and forty (!) years before this latest chapter in a trilogy of insular home recordings. Since Paul is a master dollhouse-maker and peerless constructor of tiny little worlds for the curious and shy to inhabit, he tends to be at his best when he seals the studio off from the outside world, plants himself in the soil of his own imagination, and blooms into the full McCartney: “it’s still all right to be nice”, he tells us on “Seize The Day”, which is, for pleasant Paul, absolutely a protest lyric. He’s also particularly well suited for quarantine, since nobody in the history of pop has ever been so plainly able to amuse himself. So how does he do? Well, at 80, Paul’s voice is shot, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten how to sing. Now that he’s been ground down into Beatle paste by the passage of time, he can summon a ghostly quality that was unavailable to him while he was making up shit about the lady suffragette. Thus the more spectral pieces here are the better ones, including the mantra-like “Deep Deep Feeling”, which is his version of a Harrison-ish prayer, and “Pretty Boys”, which turns an offhand observation about male models into a gentle-but-provocative statement about exploitation the use-value of being seen. III won’t dislodge Chaos And Creation In The Backyard – another one-man show – from its position atop the heap of latter-period Paul projects, but it’s far too accomplished in its indulgences to be dismissed, as McCartney albums sometimes are, as whimsical. Not all whims are created equal, and not all of them are worth following, and you can always trust Paul to take whim-appraisement seriously, even when he’s cutting up and doin’ it in the road. I mean, should an elderly legend really be singing numbers called “Lavatory Lil”? Well, of course. We should all be so lucky.
Peel Dream Magazine – Agitprop Alterna People forget: My Bloody Valentine circa Isn’t Anything wasn’t drug music. It was sex music. You had a boy and a girl, and they were murmuring and mumbling and acting blissed out, and the whole world melted like a beeswax candle around them, and this was about as precise an evocation of the copulation phenomenon as anybody has ever committed to tape. Okay, yes, maybe the boy and the girl were also on drugs. But maybe they weren’t. “They” say that having a nice time with a pretty woman is worth ten heroin injections, and by “they”, I of course mean that I just made it up. But I’m sticking with it. I’m also sticking with my assessment of Peel Dream Magazine and many bands just like them: technically accurate in their capture of the My Bloody Valentine sound, but completely bereft of the My Bloody Valentine spirit, dispossessed of it by their own chilly sexlessness. Next time they should just stick to Joy Division rewrites. That guy wouldn’t have known a pecker from a can of Pringles. No wonder love tore him apart.
Perfume Genius – Set My Heart On Fire Immediately Immediately, he tells us! Mike Hadreas wants it now! He then goes on to undercut his claim to urgency by writing a bunch of pop songs that take for-fucking-ever to get to the payoff. Mike, God bless him, probably thinks this adds to the mystique, but it’s hard to be too intrigued by a guy who makes a pop chorus out of “all that I meant to love is gone to the ground”. Tie a ribbon around your finger next time, pal, and get out there quicker. Look alive, people. Put some more mozzarella on that mofucka. Then there are the attempts to evoke Springsteen and Roy Orbison, which mainly convince me that Mike is bad at celebrity impressions. As Frank Ocean’s momma says, be yourself, and know that that is good enough. When Perfume Genius does get down to business, sometimes it works fine: I dig the homosexual scenario numbers, especially the one where the repressed straight guy cries as he feels Mike up. Seems awfully believable to me.
Peter Oren – The Greener Pasture This slice of agitprop uses factory farming as a metaphor for social media addiction, except for the songs that are just about factory farming. Roger Waters would approve of the method, if not the message. Though maybe he would?, I don’t know whether Roger’s views on meat-eating have evolved since tacitly applauding its sizzle during “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast”. Peter Oren is a depressive country-folk guy with a doleful baritone, and everything he sings seems to be burped from the downturned esophagus of a sad cow in a crowded stall. This is particularly true when he’s actually singing from a cow’s perspective, but the tone extends to the other songs, too, some of which make extensive use of the concept of “feed”. Clever, at times, but also a little obvious to those of us who’ve taken a few spins about the information superhighway. Though I guess those arguments aren’t obvious enough to convince anybody to cancel their Facebook/Twitter accounts or even curtail their usage. Maybe Peter is right to put such a fine point on it. That’s what Roger would do.
Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot Any word from the Pet Shop Boys is, in my opinion, a good word. I’m glad to have them for as long as they feel like sticking around. A return to mid-nineties form like “Will-O-The-Wisp” is just gravy; we really don’t deserve it, but when have we ever been worthy of Tennant or Lowe, let alone Tennant-Lowe? The scenario is pure Neil magic: the narrator runs into an aged party boy turned family man, and must confront his own amalgam of hostility, desire, societal estrangement, and nostalgia. All of that short-storytelling is packed into a four-minute pop song by the centrifugal force of layered synthesizers, and machine beats that throb and purr and arrive as punctually as bullet trains. And that, my friends, is pure Chris magic. You’d figure they’ll never sustain the momentum, and of course they can’t: most of the rest of this record is electro-pleasantries, laurels-laying, and monkey business, including a slight but fun number called “Monkey Business”. I do admit I dig the one that drops a carillon of wedding bells right smack in the middle of a jacktastic techno groove. Gay marriage is still jarring to many, including a couple of buzz-killing Supreme Court justices. Regardless, I stand ready to celebrate.
Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher I forgot to knock Hayley Williams and associates for throwing away a Boygenius appearance, but I really can’t, because Phoebe herself does the very same thing on solo set too. Imagine convening this ace girl group only to use them as a glorified sound effect. No Pistol Annie would ever allow it. Reports of Phoebe’s turn toward electronics are accurate as a direction, but mostly this is just more spectral Phoebe Bridgers music, which means the treble instruments simply conspire to create a cottony, pillowy atmosphere for the singer to whisper her deathbed confessions in her best Elliott Smith voice. Most of the effects here sound like they were imported from online learning or pharmaceutical commercials. None of that matters, though, because Rappin’ Phoebe B. has so thoroughly outpaced her peers as a lyricist that it often feels like she’s running in an entirely different race. Not a trace here of the identity/self-actualization concerns that consume the rest of the field — instead, she’s tackling anxiety and mortality head on at a time of global catastrophe. Punisher is the sound of a woman realizing (as we all have, maybe) that a cool, rational, and informed outlook is inadequate to the crisis of 2020. She’s sharp enough to be heartbroken by her own secularism: listen to the shudder in her voice as she sings “but that’s impossible” about the psychic connection she wishes she could have with her friend. One that extends beyond the grave — a grave that is so close to these narrators, young though they are, that you can practically smell the upturned dirt. The album peaks with this punch, so satisfyingly landed, on “I See You” (ICU, get it?): “I used to light you up/now I can’t even get you to play the drums.” She’s not talking about band practice. She means everything that drums signify: drive, motivation, punctuation, those gavel-smashes that accompany a decisive judgment, everything lost to us as we slide further into inertia. So what we’ve got here is something like a millennial version of Jackson Browne — a soft-rock diagnostician whose close examination of generational malaise is given an apocalyptic edge by the writer’s encounter with dreadful current events. Her L.A. address, too. City of (no) tomorrow, for thousands upon thousands of days, and counting.
Poolside – Low Season/Washed Out – Purple Noon It’s nine in the morning in Miami Beach, and you’re sunburnt from the day before. You’d like to find an umbrella on the deck, but all of them are taken, so you just deposit yourself in a shady corner. Then the sun gets brighter and hotter. Maybe you had a waffle for breakfast, and it’s not sitting well with you. Maybe you have to pee. You’re uncomfortable in paradise. Then a deejay starts spinning. from the speakers behind the potted plants comes beat music, light and offensively inoffensive, bright and breezy and so thoroughly unsuited to your present disposition that it achieves the character of mockery. Do you know where you are? You’re poolside. Do you know how you feel? Washed out.
Poppy – I Disagree When I plummeted into the Poppy rabbit hole in 2016, I thought that her musical career might develop in unexpected ways. I did not think that one of her possible futures involved turning into Mr. Bungle. Yet here we are, and it’s pretty glorious – a realization of the progressive metal experiments on Choke and Am I A Girl?, and a marked improvement on the pseudo-pastiche of Poppy.Computer. The first track toggles between deathcore, Queen-style glam rock, straight-up pop, a Beach Boys homage, and stadium emo, and the finale cruises along in an electro groove before suddenly turning into Rush circa Permanent Waves. In between, Poppy throws techno, goth, chugging sludge, throwback industrial music a la Ministry, dreampop minus the gauze, and a dozen other styles into the supercollider, and rides around on all of them without ever exhibiting symptoms of whiplash. Whee. This wouldn’t work if Moriah Pereira was still the limited singer that she was five years ago, but touring has improved her projection and flexibility, and she acquits herself well, even when things get heavy. Now, many of these moves are cut straight from the cloth of Babymetal and sewn straight into the patchwork without much alteration or cross-stitching. I can see a fan of the old YouTube clips demanding something more from Poppy than postmodernism. Me, I’m just happy that Moriah’s craft has finally caught up to her formidable provocation skills. Given her pretend (?) connection to the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission/franchise owners of Burger King, it’s a little creepy to hear how many of the lyrics on I disagree anticipate the coronavirus. For instance, the last song, which was recorded in 2019, goes: “now is not the time to go outside/lock the door and find a place to hide/the TV says you’re out of time/everything will be okay, okay?”, before careening into a “let it all burn down/burn it to the ground” refrain. I’m not sure anybody else has stuffed the year into such a tidily apocalyptic nutshell. Not even the true metallers. Not even Phoebe Bridgers.
Porridge Radio – Every Bad My theory is that Grian whatshisname has a long-lost fraternal twin, and she’s formed a spikier, somewhat sloppier group. Everything about Porridge Radio reminds me of Fontaines D.C. – the use of repetition and guitar squall in lieu of developmental songcraft, the frantic grabbing at the lowest-hanging and juiciest fruit of the post-punk ‘80s and ‘90s, the frontperson’s endearing conviction that pedestrian observations are top-drawer stuff, the exasperated leftish politics, the overwhelming Europeanness. Like Grian, Dana Margolin seems to think that irony involves singing the opposite of what she means, and in a crude sort of way, they’re both right about that. The winner here is “Lilac”: that’s the track where the buildup ends in genuine catharsis. Others just linger until they dissipate, like certain people I know.
Prettyboy D-O – Wildfire In theory, equatorial nations ought to have a built-in advantage in the playlist race, given that tropical chill is always in demand among serentity-seeking Sweetgreen eaters in the cold commercial cities of the north. But it doesn’t always work like that. West Africa is home to many musical traditions that aren’t chill in the slightest: highlife, for instance. Practitioners who do not wish to be outpaced by the poachers have been forced to adapt. Given the size of the population, it’s astounding to me that we’re still waiting for an Nigerian pop star to shake up the global order, and no, I’m not betting on Burna Boy, whose dancehall-rap hybrid strikes me as warmed-over Wyclef. My late-round draft pick is Prettyboy D-O, whose jetlagged, mushmouthed, Mase-like flow is pretty much exactly what Goldlink was going for on last year’s globetrotting Diaspora set. Wildfire is the sound of the artist casting around, and not without an undercurrent of futility, for a point of entry to the international streaming market. There’s some cold-breeze Drake-like Canadian sound here, UK drill numbers like “Odeshi”, and some upmarket poolside bullshit like “Reality”, too. Yet there a few times on Wildfire where he hits upon a groove and delivery that feels truly transnational, and paradoxically, reminds us that all of this stuff came from Africa. If there really is a monoculture/post-genre, it’s got to be grounded in that realization.
Real Estate – The Main Thing This is a very boring album. That feels a little odd to say, given that Real Estate has never exactly been a barrel of monkeys. It’s also paradoxical, because the band is finally trying stuff. Albums like Days and Atlas were total flat lines; this one is… well, it’s not exactly a mountain range, but they’ve tied strings around their fingers and remembered to vary the arrangements. Unfortch, the additions to the formula have the stale taste of already-been-chewed gum: the fake Feelies-isms of “November”, say, or the “Femme D’Argent”-biting bass line of “Friday”, or the listless, and therefore borderline slanderous, Jerry Garcia imitation on “You”. Martin Courtney has also turned his attention from the spectral quality of the Jersey suburbs to the emerging consciousness of his infant child. He’s taken his psychedelic reflections all the way indoors, in other words; we’re invited into his living room to share his lazy embrace of domesticity, but I admit I much preferred the open air of the Ridgewood streets. The new adornments also distract from the band’s strengths – interplay between the guitar parts, and Courtney’s relaxed, comfy, vinyl-upholstered diner booth melodies. Given their track record, it’s completely reasonable for a dedicated fan to expect a bounceback on the next album. I also wouldn’t be shocked if this was the beginning of the end. Maybe they miss Matt Mondanile more than we thought they would.
Rick Wakeman – The Red Planet Hey look, it’s the fat man with the cape. Jolly as ever; like an acerbic Father Christmas with a big bag stuffed with low-frequency oscillators. Of all the gargantuan figures of the prog movement, Rick was the one with the healthiest disposition – which, as we covered in the Mildlife entry, doesn’t necessarily lead to good prog. Rick was never hounded by the furies like so many of his peers were: he just wanted to swoop around, strut his stuff, and pose, Merlin-like, at his Moog. It worked in Yes because of Jon Anderson’s affirmative ideology, but even there, he was surrounded by head-cases and control freaks. It was never going to last, and last it never did, no matter how many times he joined and re-joined. On his own, Rick’s records often devolved into circus-like skills exhibitions and pure exercises in showmanship, which are commodities he’s always had in spades. Annoying though they could be, they were never less than a hoot, and this new one sure is fun, too. He promised he’d be busting out the analog synthesizers, and he’s as good as his word, recreating those thick, slow-melting note bends you remember from Tales From Topographic Oceans, the cathedral-shaking pipe organ blasts of Going For The One, and the powdered-wig pomp of “Cannes And Brahms”. Better still, he’s turned up a rare bass player whose Chris Squire imitation doesn’t immediately descend into parody. The theme is the mountains of Mars, and as usual, it’s got no apparent relationship to what Rick and company are doing. but hey, if he’s inspired by the Ascraeus Mons, that’s cool with me. From the Boss to Lady Gaga to Jarvis Cocker, Nas and Angus Young, the fallback to a core competency has been a major theme this year. But The Red Planet isn’t as dispiriting as, say, Letter To You, because showing off is all Rick has ever wanted to do. It’s pretty cool that he can still do it. Most of the competition has been lost to arthritis or worse.
Róisín Murphy – Roisin Machine One strange thing about trip-hop: like emo, nobody ever seems to want to admit that they’re doing it. No one ever says, yeah, we’re a trip-hop band, even when they’re tripping and hopping like they’ve just won a one-way ticket to Bristol. Unlike emo, there’s never been any stigma attached to trip-hop, as far as I can tell. I remember the little sticker affixed to my 1995 first-edition copy of Do You Like My Tight Sweater that called it a “glittering, post-trip-hop masterpiece.” I was like, “post?”, this fucking genre is in its crib, shaking its rattle and demanding its mommy. The truth is that they were probably just making excuses for the frontwoman, who was, and is, too much of a spaz to trip or hop. Róisín may be too gonzo for proper disco, even. I suspect that a big part of the reason why her producers have often fitted her with trip-hop production is because they’re hoping to cool the steaming engine down somehow. Give her the sophisticated Hairless Toys treatment?, maybe she won’t saw our heads off with her consonants. Anyway, Róisín Machine isn’t that: this is Róisín in the raw, busting loose over high-BPM disco and house and electro-whatisit, making music for critical collisions on the dancefloor. You can take it from Róisín herself. “I’ve come to know the form of my true desires!”, she tells us over a rapidly intensifying, ever-repeating three-note synth riff, on a song decrying the work grind and predictability in general. Then there’s the dance track about the gnawing pit of hunger, and the pure stomper sung from the perspective of an ice queen, “incapable of love”, and the club hit (on Pluto, maybe) that goes “we got together!” over and over. And you know what? She’s right: we did. Róisín, an Ireland-based extraterrestrial who, pushing fifty, performs an absurdly sincere and sincerely absurd version of glamour, and me, an all-grown-up indiepop kid from post-industrial New Jersey, sitting here in rumpled corduroys, in bad need of a haircut. She’s conjured some shifting, glittering ground where we both can stand. Albums that exude as much personality as Róisín Machine tend to have minimal interference from the musical accompanists – they’ll just be guitar and piano and voice, and that’s it. Róisín’s producers have appointed these tracks with all the digital tricks that a wallet full of Euros can buy, and somehow they’ve managed to enhance her bravado, her gleeful power-bottoming, her unquenchable thirst, and her bizarre and terrifying idea of fun. So if you like Róisín, prepare for a caramelized reduction of her essence, poured all over your plate until it drips off the edges. If you don’t like Róisín, my advice is: run.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Sideways To New Italy Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever has been doing the same thing since The French Press: lo-fat pop-rock, played fast, over stacks o’ strummed guitar. I’m not sure why, but with each new release, the songs have felt less distinct to me. For instance, there are allegedly three singers and writers in this group, but I’ll be buggered if I can figure out who is who. By now, Rolling Blackouts should have, at the very least, engendered the desire in me to sort that out. But no, it’s all the same pleasant, forgettable, un-parse-able jangle and shout. At least Grian Chatten has his brogue and his uncanny vocal resemblance to Liam Gallagher to fall back on.
Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 4 Entertaining, as usual, well rapped by two rappers with access to a deep well of well-wrought rap. But it’s time to just say it: this project has become straight-up comfort food for a certain type of woke listener. Neither Jamie nor Mike have had anything new to say about themselves, or America, or the culture or their increasingly secure places in it, for many moons/album cycles. 2 Chainz has more surprises for you in his brief verse than the RTJ guys do on the rest of the set. For what it’s worth, I agree with them about mostly everything, especially their point about the Jesus story, even if I continue to find Mike’s politics surprisingly reductive for an emcee. These days, most of his peers engage in deeper thinking than RTJ ever accommodates. In episode four, the cartoonishness takes over the character-building completely: Jamie and Mike are Yankee and The Brave (get it?), a couple of freedom fighters slash roughnecks, Paul Reveres low-riding through the city with their guns out, rallying the protesters. Behind this fantasy is a mounting fear, palpable on this set, that the two rappers are getting a bit long in the tooth for all of this. Also, Mike, is the problem with Twitter that it encourages apathy? or could it be more complicated than that? Do we really all serve the same masters, or is it possible that there exist many masters with conflicting agendas, and we’ve got more to say about the way we serve them, or refuse to serve them, than certain bumper stickers say we do?
Samia – The Baby Samia is young. This you can tell by the mushy wash of amniotic fluid that is this album’s most distinguishing sonic feature. Ultrasound suggests that gestation is coming along well: I see melodic development, full-throated if undistinguished singing, faith in the formal features of alternapop, commendable affection for her stuffed pig. I wager she’ll have something to contribute once she plops out the uterus. “Big Wheel” is, IMO, the hands-down winner in the not-quite-King-Princess sweepstakes, and there were lots of entrants in that contest this year. I could do without the Julien Baker ripoff, though. One Julien at a time, people.
Sarah Harmer – Are You Gone Canada is the quarantine of countries. It’s safe, and dull, quietly irritating, and surfaces require frequent disinfection. When you’re there, you feel as though you’re very far away from anything meaningful, but there are consequential things happening right over the border/out your window. You want to participate in them, but you can’t, because you’re in Canada. Silly goose. From quarantine, I am told, Isaac Newton invented gravity, and Mozart invented symphony, and Adam invented his apple. The greats got shit done, in other words, and perhaps Sarah Harmer, talented short-story writer that she is, is not not one of the greats. But who can tell?, given that she spends her days hidden under a log in the tundra. Seriously, Sarah is about as good at self-promotion as Mister Goofy over here, and if her concerns are any indication, it’s probably for the same reason – that rich inner life, gah. Are You Gone doesn’t break any compositional ground that wasn’t covered on her other albums or by the long-lost and lamented Weeping Tile, but the tone is different. Though she’s always been frosty, she’s really brought the lakeside chill to this one. These songs come from a well-appointed but drafty old cabin, and there’s Sarah, down on the hardwood floor with a cup of very strong tea, considering whether or not to garden, worrying about the frost, counting the potatoes left in the big barrel of sawdust, and missing somebody. Perfect for self-isolation, in other words. Strange how well it fit the hibernatory moment, given that nobody would ever accuse Sarah Harmer of being timely.
Sarah Walk – Another Me A theory: every blockbuster album has a few shadow sets that go virtually unrecognized but cover much of the same thematic and sonic territory. Joshua Tree, for instance, had several college-rock shadows. Adele 21 had a hundred shadows. The shadow set for Folklore is Another Me by Sarah Walk, an artist with one millionth of Taylor Swift’s popularity. but similar concerns. She, too, worries about the way men skate for bad behavior, and chafes at the expectation that she’s there to clean up the mess. She also makes the case that no one likes a mad woman/you made her like that, more or less in those very words. Now, these are common observations made in Women’s and Gender Studies 101, not to mention Planet Earth, so it probably won’t strike you as too odd that Taylor and Sarah are kicking back at the same annoying patriarchy with the same pointed boot. But how about all the acoustic piano in ringing-bell fifths, paired with electronic percussion? What about the haunted, meditative tone, and the contrast between fine-line folktronic instruments and broad-stroke, gesso-like guitar and distant mushrock synthesizers? What about the stately mid-tempo pace, signifying wounded dignity and seething restraint? Sarah Walk’s perspective is obviously tormented-lesbian; Taylor finds her heterosexuality inconvenient, but reconciles herself to it, while warning her boyfriend that there are emotional rapids ahead. Neither woman sounds defeated, but there’s very little mirth in either set: they summon a misty mountain chill meant to match their current dispositions. Taylor can build her fortress in the forest out of her stacks o’ millions. Sarah can take comfort in her Bandcamp plays, most of which came from me.
Serengeti – Ajai The back half of this logorrheic and utterly crazed rap album is a chapter of the continuing story of a washed-up emcee and Cubs fan hiding out from himself in Minnesota. Kenny Dennis – the character – had a leftfield hit in 2012 defending Steve Bartman (“Blame Assenmacher/Blame Damon Berryhill”!) and has degenerated ever since. When we catch him, he’s consumed with his obsession with “collabs”, verification, self-presentation via name brands, and a one-sided feud with Shaquille O’Neal. Serengeti raps this all, quite well, in a roughneck accent reminiscent of House Of Pain, and matches it all to beats by the versatile Kenny Segal, fresh off of his successful, um, collab with Billy Woods. All of this is entertaining, if more than a little cartoonish. The front half, though, is a different matter altogether. This narrative follows Ajai, an Indian immigrant fascinated by the sneaker industry and exclusive drops, married to a high-achieving academic embarrassed by his rapacity and triviality. There’s a scene where Ajai tries to interest an epidemiologist in a shoe deal, and another in an airport, where he spends twenty minutes adjusting his attire in the bathroom while his wife, worried about missing the plane, weeps on the far side of the door. Ajai is the sound of a society going over the edge in a landslide of minutia, apophenia, low-stakes social climbing, and pure heartbreak – a bewildering, dazzling, occasionally disgusting drop down the kaleidoscope. This may be the most 2020 story I’ve heard since Richard Dawson’s 2020, and it ends, as all good 2020 stories should, on a cliffhanger.
Serengeti – The Gentle Fall Lana Del Rey is never on her own on Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass – Jack Antonoff noodles away in the background as she reads. It’s nothing visionary, but it does set a mood. Serengeti tries something similar on The Gentle Fall, which is a set of impressionistic narrative sketches grumbled over acoustic guitar. And the acoustic guitar is actually very good: lonesome, spare, and melancholy, and absolutely consistent with the vaguely spaghetti-western vibe of the storytelling. Unlike the writing on Ajai, some of this doesn’t exactly cohere, but when it comes together – like the one that imagines former pro wrestler Jim “Hacksaw” Duggan as a bar owner in Birmingham – it’s vivid and distraught in the exact way that this guy’s rap records are. Maybe the popularity of podcasts has created a lane for musicians to read their flash fiction. There have been a lot of good ones this year: LDR, Elizabeth Cook, Elvis Costello, etc. Seems like Jamila Woods should get in on it.
Sevdaliza – Shabrang Sometimes people, and by “people” I of course mean marketing people, will refer to post-genre music. Nine times out of ten, the music they’re talking about is just trip-hop. Trip-hop is a genre, or a subgenre, anyway. It’s is associated with the ‘90s, but it never went anywhere: Kanye, Drake, and Abel Tesfaye have all folded it into their sounds, and enlisted actual trip-hop refugees to impart some of that drugged James Bond feel you remember from old Portishead records. It’s probably because those specific trip-hop innovations were so thoroughly absorbed into other styles that we never talk about trip-hop anymore. Then someone comes along and bonks you so hard with the trip-hop stick that it raises a trip-hop-shaped welt on your consciousness, and that someone is Sevdaliza, a Dutch-Iranian songwriter and producer who trips and hops her way through an hour’s worth of ultra-cool, ultra-sleek, sonically spacious, frequently depressing songs. In fact I would call this album a massive attack on the idea that trip-hop is no longer a rewarding sub-style of popular music. You see what I did there! The version of Massive Attack with Elisabeth Fraser in front of it, I mean; I don’t think anybody cares about the other stuff. I doubt you would need to smoke morcheeba to appreciate the vocal production tricks and languorous beats on this set. Thank you thank you, slap me across the face any old time. I’ll stop. Why am I like this?, as Open Mike Eagle might ask. Anyway, these songs range from good to very good and even when the beats are pulled away, they don’t tend to bog down. Like Susanne Sundfør on Music For People In Trouble (and Rosalia, too, for that matter), she generates intrigue by flashing a little exotic heritage at you from time to time. But she doesn’t overdo it. Mostly, she sticks to the time tested trip-hop technique of mesmerizing you with a groove before savagely up-ending the track at the three or four minute mark with a big drum fill or a synthesizer break or an Iranian nuclear deal or something. It’s a method that Phil Collins employed in 1980 when he invented trip-hop on “In The Air Tonight”. We owe some thanks to Phil, and Sevdaliza, for demonstrating that human beings really do have attention spans. As long as they’re hypnotized, of course.
Sexores – Salamanca El mushrocko.
Skinshape – Umoja Some people justify homicide. Others have a taste for larceny. Still others defend Top Chef. We all make apologies for one heinous crime or another. Me, I love cultural appropriation. Honest to God, I think it’s great, and I am tired of pretending it’s a bad thing. Identity theft is a core rock and roll principle. Pop belongs to the populace, and if you believe in it, and you’re willing to do it with all your heart, you’re going to adopt a phony persona closer to the salt of the earth, the deep woods with the horses in the back, the jungle drums and the death by unga bunga. You will steal with both hands, eagerly, and never feel a single qualm. Mild mannered schoolteacher Gordon Sumner tortures his proper English vowels and becomes a reggae mon with a prostitute girlfriend. The wealthy daughter of Pennsylvania bankers travels to Nashville, puts on an Al Gore accent and sings about that stupid ole pickup truck, and then drops it all like a hot potato once it’s worn out its creative utility. High school student O’Shea Jackson makes up a pimp name and gives voice to the dopeman on the corner, strikes a world-shattering blow on behalf of radical self-expression, and ends up voting Republican, apparently. Conservatory kid Rosalia Tobella poses as a gypsy, Paul Simon… well, we all know about what Paul Simon did. It’s all in bounds. Those who blow the whistle are, I must conclude, not musicians, because musicians are constantly pinching and borrowing and appropriating everything they can. If it works in the track, if it deepens the excitement, it doesn’t matter whether it’s sacred to the Bantus, or holy to the Eskimos, or if it’s the intellectual property of the Jawas on Tattooine. It’s going in the song. A songwriter who borrows is essentially humbling herself — she’s conceding that there are practical limits to her original genius, which is a hard pill for any egomaniac to swallow. Should a creator ever hesitate to pay an indigenous culture the immense compliment of pillaging it blind, I’ll wager she’s an activist, not an artist. Now, activists are valuable: were it not for these people, we would have no pink pussy hats. But it is my belief that all the activists put together do not measure up to a single bassoonist in a single crappy folk orchestra. And if you object to that, you should fight back by making those checks payable to Jamie Harrison. Time is running out. Tris, I need you. Mitch McConnell is gaining ground. Anyway, Skinshape is a project from a musician named Will Dorey, who lives in Swanage, which is right in the middle of Dorset, which was, as you know, right in the middle of the English slave trade. For a few years, Skinshape made psychedelic music with enthusiastic overtures toward African sounds; Will must have gotten tired of that, because he’s dispensed with the psych altogether and belly-flopped right in the middle of a Sahara sand dune. Rather than emulate the music of Africa, he’s gone and acquired some actual Africans. Foremost among them is Idd Aziz, a Kenyan percussionist and singer whose contributions to Umoja are dazzling, especially “Afande”, which grooves awfully hard for a track that’s light as an ibis feather and just as aerodynamically designed (swell organ ride, too). There’s also some manner of Afro-Portuguese woman who turns up from time to time to, um, smooth out the operation, if you know what I mean, and it deepens the atmosphere of intrigue at the souk. Of course I don’t understand a word these people are saying, which, for me, is an impediment to enjoyment. I don’t want to oversell this, because parts of Umoja are as noodly and boring as standard bong music from Bushwick. But I have to give Dorey his props for his lack of squeamishness: he’s basically done what Peter Gabriel did when he put Youssou N’Dour to work on the prog-rock plantation. I didn’t think that white European man, cowed as he presently is by the threat of cancellation, was willing to run such risks anymore. Of course it’s respectfully done; if you didn’t respect what you were pinching, you wouldn’t bother with it in the first place. And I’m sure there were no hard feelings at all: it sounds like everybody is having a lovely time, trading licks, locking in, mixing flavors, doing that thing that musicians have done from time immemorial, and will continue to do until the day that music itself is canceled. It’s coming. So keep on appropriating, everybody. Stock up for the long winter ahead.
Skyler Gudasz – Cinema I want to be careful not to smack this tart little cherry of a folk-pop record too hard, because there’s a decent chance I’ll revise my opinion upward as I get to know it better. But the main obstacle to my appreciation is Skyler herself, and that’s ironic, because her singing is supposed to be the selling point here. Indeed she has a firmer, clearer voice than many of her peers working this territory, and though she bends notes like so much elbow macaroni, she never gets so bloozy or jazzy that I feel like vomiting all over a stack of Folkways records. That’s rare in her field. But like many modern singers, she’s so intent on generating a lush and winsome signal that she forgets to e-nun-ci-ate. Here, for instance, is my transcription of the first line of “Short Staying”: may ah aoolie tu chuchoonai/ be a nady noooo. This would not be permissible even if she were Hawaiian, or Buckwheat. Consonant aversion is a widespread problem in pop, and this woman gives too much damn vowel. Our aesthetic demands, especially for female singers, are infantilizing – we don’t like to hear teeth. The trouble with a record like Skyler’s is that the pieces are already meandering and meditative. She needs to take us by the elbow and guide us through, and the best way to do that is still via direct address. Singers: don’t throw away your words. You wrote ‘em; stand behind ‘em. Also, I’ve got to knock her for failing to name her new album Gudasz New. This is show business, people. Don’t blow the layup.
Silvana Estrada – Lo Sagrado I already told you about Ángela Aguilar. The other undeniable new Mexican singer is the Veracruzana Silvana Estrada, who comes at the tradition from the opposite end: as far as I can tell, she doesn’t try to write hits, or hooks, or even choruses. Instead, the strategy is to be as artfully abstruse and elliptical as possible, mix traditional music and folklorico with jazz and god knows what else, and hope Natalia Lafourcade notices and co-signs. And dios mio, it worked! Yes, Natalia Lafourcade is a fan, and what greater reward could Planet Earth offer its passengers on this trip through the vast void? Lo Sagrado is a collaboration with the guitarist Charlie Hunter, who played on Channel Orange and Blonde, and who matches his own skronky six-string to Silvana’s gently plucked cuatro. Then there’s standing bass that reminds me of nothing so much as the first Pentangle album, some leftfield horn arrangements pulled from no tradition I know, and vox that ebb and flow through the mixes like ripples in a mangrove. The result is a singular set that’s resolutely trad-Latin without sounding anything like any other trad-Latin project I’ve ever heard, including those from Natalia herself, who is more of a spiritual guide than a direct influence. They made this thing in 2016, and it’s been mouldering on the shelf ever since. Silvana could not get a visa to travel to the U.S., sign a record contract, and tour with Charlie Hunter. Because do you not know that keeping Silvana Estrada out of this country is of the utmost national importance? After waiting patiently for pathetic America to come to its senses, she’s chucked it and put the album up digitally. If you needed another reason to despise this sorry-ass excuse for an administration, or the sorry-ass people who enable the awful, soul-killing things they do, there you go. They’re even messing with the Critics Poll.
Slypon – Slypon Live At Fitzroy Street In their omnivorous appetites, jam bands have been pushing toward an international sound since forever. It’s part of the hippie/Bob Marley ideology we associate with groups such as Poi Dog Pondering: here, smoke this and peace out. Anybody remember Frank Orrall onstage at Wetlands, blowing the soul out of his his world-shaped harmonica? I digress. The pandemic has been hell on all musicians, but it’s been particularly bad for the jam circuit, which relies on people congregating in fields and space dancing and passing doobage and whatnot. What do jammers do at home? Stuff like Slypon Live At Fitzroy Street, a torrent of jazz and post-Dead folk-rock and south-of-the-border nonsense and overseas what-do-you-got, all stuffed into a suitcase and smushed down with great force by frustrated people who know damn well they’re not going anywhere. Quarantine has been a golden opportunity for skills exhibitors, but I think it’s also shown us all the limits of skills exhibitions. this is entertaining, but it also epitomizes time-on-your-hands rock. Which, to a Jerry Lee Lewis fan, might mean no rock at all.
Smoke DZA – Homegrown Smoke DZA is a Harlem guy with a nice flow and a fairly welcoming demeanor, and he can be clever, even as he’s saying stuff about drugs and drug dealing that a thousand and one other emcees have also said. Like most modern NYC rap records, this can get a little grey from time to time. Notably, it’s the out-of-towners who liven it up and splash some color in the corners – Curren$y and Wiz on “Santos Party House”, Baltimore’s Jayy Grams on “100s In The Duffel”, and especially Jack Harlow of “What’s Poppin” fame, who steals the show with his bent vowels and zonked delivery on “Boatloads”.
Soccer Mommy – Color Theory Just like Kendrick does, Sophie Allison refers to Lucifer as “Lucy”. Unless she means Lucy Van Pelt? I don’t reckon she does: she lacks the impudence required to pull the football away, or battle Beethoven for Schroeder’s affection, or dispense psychiatric advice to anybody but herself. What do we learn about Sophie’s mental and spiritual state on this, the souped-up extension of the Soccer Mommy full-length debut? Well, she’s circling the drain, she’s a match that’s burned down, she’s crawling the walls, she’s crawling in her skin, she’s stained like the sheets, she’s sinking like a stone. Also, she is the captain of a sinking ship. Mostly, she is heading downward, and not in a, you know, oral sexy kind of way. In the cracks between the shopworn phrases, she does manage to project some personality, and that’s mostly because she retains her knack for turning an expressive melody. That’s not nothing. But tired imagery has a way of undermining an artist’s claim to emotional urgency. She spends most of the set trying to convince me that she’s torn up over the loss of some lover or another. I don’t believe her. If she was, I reckon she’d have gifted her beau, and her audience, with a bouquet of fresh metaphors.
Sotomayor – Origenes Brother-sister act from Mexico D.F. Maybe they’re related to the U.S> Supreme Court justice, and maybe Sotomayor is Spanish for a bag of bees. Anyway, this is a fine and ambitious integration of different Latin musical forms with dumbass el thumpo dance beats, and as is often the case with music like this, the more repetitive and annoying the songs are – see “Menéate Pa’ Mí” in particular – the better they work. Like Mon Laferte, these people are aggressively pan-Latin, which means they’re borrowing from geographically disparate traditions and adding various fluttering styles to their butterfly collection. See!, Mexicans do cultural appropriation, too. None of this is exactly catchy in the Gaga sense, and a bit too much of it asks to be admired rather than moved to, but when they put it together, they head up the Scoville scale in a hurry. Never all the way to habanero, but well past the poblanos to chile arbol territory. Go ask Alex (Stupak), I think he’ll know. Ultimately, the band’s weakness is the sister, who does not quite pack the gear or the vocal dexterity to erase the distinctions between jerky disco and merengue, cumbia, champeta, etc. But what is the brother supposed to do – trade her in for a sleeker model? How would that go over when the family gathers for Nochebuena?
Squirrel Flower – I Was Born Swimming Squirrel Flower sounds a lot like Mitski – so much so that it might be a problem for Original You. A few of these copycat numbers are pretty decent, and even the ones that aren’t do maintain the stormy mood. She’s certainly not the storyteller that Mitski is, there’s a fair bit too much languor here, and it all ends with a whimper. She does better (as most do) when she just lets the band rock: “Red Shoulder” and “Streetlight Blues” in particular.
Sufjan Stevens – The Ascension Huckster Christian, now your time has come!, to make a streambait album. You knew he was going to try. We can always count on Sufjan to supply us with a timid version of the sound in vogue among upper-crusty lifestyle vloggers who aren’t, like, paying 100% attention. In this case, that means straight-up wusstronica, and more than eighty minutes of hushed, chilled-out digital flatlining. Let it be known that the words – always a sticking point with this guy – are particularly noncommittal and gross this time around. Sufjan continues to kneel and pray, with substantial entitlement!, to a God who is less the ground of being as he is a warm iron applied to the field of human endeavor – a great smoother-out, way-straightener, and pacifier. Somebody very much like Sufjan Stevens, in other words. No wonder his fear of God is conspicuously absent. And when he says he won’t play the social media/popularity game, that has got to be the phoniest shit I’ve heard all year. He remains what he’s always been: the Lindsey Graham of indie rock.
Sunflowers – Endless Voyage The Sunflowers are a different beast altogether: they bonk you over the head with an abrasive sound and an overweening sci-fi concept about some dystopia, or singularity, or dystopian singularity, or singular dystopia. Who can really tell, since they insist on singing everything through Dr. Who vocal effects. That’s nice if you want to simulate intergalactic radio waves, but not so nice if you care about intelligibility. I can’t knock them for their ambition, and they do compensate for their instrumental shortcomings by playing everything like they’ve got rockets in their pockets. But endless voyage ultimately gives the impression that many psychedelic records do – a bunch of guys in a basement, no editor in sight, zaniness feeding on itself. men motivated by nothing more than their desire to horse around and pursue their whims. And hey, self-indulgence is always a-ok with me – I’m all about it, personally. But when you put a record like this next to something purpose-driven, it sure does start to look and sound inessential, no matter how big a ruckus they raise, no matter how much Bradbury they’ve read.
Tame Impala – The Slow Rush Though he gives the impression it’s been accidental, Kevin Parker has developed into an excellent lyricist – one capable of sustaining themes and concepts across the course of a full-length at least as well as your dad’s favorite dusty Americana auteur. Shh, don’t mention it too loud, they’ll kick him out of the zonked psych-rock fraternity. The new one is a concept set about an aging stoner who measures all things by the standard of a drug rush, including and especially his marriage, until he realizes that that’s a really shitty way to treat his wife. It’s not unusual, what he’s describing – we demand that our partners blow our minds, right up until the day when we realize that they’re human beings, not walking blotters of LSD. At that moment we face a crisis of desire and identity, and Parker renders that crisis in the most stinging manner possible: a song called “It Might Be Time”, which demonstrates that there are few things quite as psychedelic and states-altering as growing up, all at once.
Taylor Swift – Folklore One hundred per cent rock star makes a one hundred per cent rock star move: the mid-career pivot to the quieter, more meditative auteur set, the one that isn’t necessarily singles-driven, but doesn’t exactly mark a radical departure from commercial expectation, either. The mature one, in other words: adult themes, parental guidance suggested, no spelling lessons with Brendon Urie. Ever conscious of timing, her cabin-in-the-woods album (complete with Justin Vernon!) coincided with a period of global lockdown, but if a pandemic can’t be put to the service of Taylor Swift, what good is it, really? The honest truth is not all that much has changed. New collaborator Bryce Dessner, or Aaron Dessner, or Mark Messier or whoever has introduced a few new chords to her vocabulary, which she hammers straight into the cast-iron frames of typical T. Swift progressions, and the Swift-Antonoff productions just sound like prior Swift-Antonoff numbers, only further away. The good news is that the swing back to linear storytelling is continued here: not just the first-rate young adult fiction of the “Betty/Cardigan/August” trilogy, but also some semi-bullshit childhood reveries, too. They’re good because she can handle them; don’t try this at home. All across the set, she exhibits a near Costello-ish obsession with the dynamics of infidelity, and she delivers these excellent lyrics with the wide-eyed, conflicted, guilty excitement of a woman who has just discovered a strange and intriguing hand down her pants. This is theater, people. Theater. I also dig the one about the history of her beach house in Rhode Island, even if her overidentification with its unruly prior inhabitant feels like something of a stretcheroo. Beach mansion, mind you. She concedes that it’s a little gauche. But where else would you expect a one hundred per cent rock star to live?
Taylor Swift – Evermore The inability to stop writing is a psychological condition called hypergraphia, but it’s better known by its lay name: J.K.Rowlingitis. You start out with tight, muscular mystery stories about a junior wizard at boarding school, and the next thing you know, you’re penning entire chapters about Voldemort’s underpants. Most of the afflicted suffer in ink-stained oblivion, audience free, a few get exploited by editors with click quotas to meet, and a small handful get to scribble digressions all over the walls of mass consciousness. I believe this is called “worldbuilding”, and it has ruined many a franchise. But I cannot front: we got our copy of Order Of The Phoenix on the day it dropped, and the moment I saw the tweet about Evermore, I directed my browser straight to the online retailers, digital dollars in hand. Quarantine conditions suit Taylor better than the tour grind, it turns out – liberated from the requirement to deliver showstoppers, she’s free to stretch out and follow her imagination. Astute Swifties will recall that she pioneered this year’s atmospheric doom-metal approach with “Safe And Sound”, a collaboration with The Civil Wars. I thought it was a good direction for her, and eight years later, she’s taken it back up with some ferocity. This collection lacks the fearsome intertextuality that makes Folklore such a smart and tightly-knit scarf of a record, but there’s plenty here to keep you warm, including a murder-revenge number straight outta Lambertville, the second consecutive Justin Vernon collaboration that avoids disaster (how does she do that?), and a couple of moody tracks that might reasonably be called holiday music. The prevailing perspective is that of an action girl weathering a perilous period of repose; there’s less long-term damage than there was on Folklore, but more immediate danger. This slope is treacherous/and I, I, I/I, I, I, you know how it goes. Jack Antonoff does pop up here and there, but these are mainly Swift-Dessner numbers, which means more ghostly piano figures and lonesome, banjo-like guitar, and no arena-pop choruses in sight. Nevertheless, Evermore is currently #1 on the Billboard 200, which proves beyond reasonable doubt that the conventional wisdom is wrong. For years we’ve been told that in order to make an impression, you’ve got to be brief: flash fiction and 280 characters, quick-hit YouTube clips and hard-sold hooks, and singles instead of full-length sets. But Taylor is the biggest star of them all, and she makes albums, man; long albums with old-school classic rock trajectories, all corners carefully appointed and pacing judiciously considered, albums loaded with Easter eggs and internal references, ones that demand engagement from the still-young and allegedly inattentive generation that constitutes most of her fanbase. The dedication with which fans of Folklore connected the many dots on the set and pieced together the through-story – close reading, Frank Kermode would call it – should give hope to anybody trying to reach any audience of any size. Turns out the kids will sit still if you give them something worth paying attention to. There exist millions of people who want nothing more than to be wrapped up in an artwork like a big fuzzy blanket. Editors will prune and producers will frame, and the bean counters will tell you what the suits can afford. None of that ought to be the writer’s concern. The writer has one job and one job only: let it rip. Ever more, until the day you can’t any more.
Tennis – Swimmer Since Beabadoobee brought it up, and since ‘tis the season and I’ve got nowhere else to put it, I’m just going to leave it here in lieu of a blurb about a standard, acclaimed mushrock band that you don’t care about and I don’t want to write about. No American storyteller has ever been in closer touch with real human pain than Charles Schulz was. So many of his jokes took the reader right to the lip of a howling abyss of anxiety and insecurity. Even innocuous running gags tend, on closer inspection, to be scabs over deep wounds. Consider, for instance, Peppermint Patty’s famous, unbroken streak of D minuses. Superficially, this reinforces our understanding of Patty as an action girl – someone who feels a little caged in the classroom, and just wants to get out on the pitcher’s mound and strike out Charlie Brown. We laugh at her academic struggles because we recognize and applaud the character; we know she’s a physical person and she’s not going to live a life defined by scholarship. She’s got other priorities, ones that suit her temperament better, and we can get behind those priorities for her sake if not for our own. Wet the grade is significant. A D minus means that Patty hasn’t failed: she’s not disregarding her schoolwork altogether. She’s not a nihilist. She’s putting in the effort she can muster. If you follow the strip, you know that the main reason Patty isn’t doing well in school is because she can’t stay awake in class – and the reason she can’t stay awake in class is because she’s home alone and frightened while her single father works nights. (Frightened enough, you might remember, to hire Snoopy to be a guard dog, which went about as well as you might expect it to go). We know that Peppermint Patty is a brave person, one consistently willing to put her emotions on the line on behalf of her friends, and to be open and honest in her dealings with peers and authority figures alike, even when it subjects her to ridicule. But she’s still a kid, and she’s still scared of the dark. We’re never told why Patty is alone with her dad, or where her mother went, but the implication is clear: this small family is hurting. The Van Pelts wear tightly-laced middle-class saddle shoes – Patty, by contrast, is always drawn in the flip-flops that were given to her by her father. In what she says and the way she acts, it’s clear that Patty loves her dad ferociously, is present to his pain, and may be taking the full force of it. His pet name for her – he calls her “a rare gem” – hurts to read because it doesn’t fit; Patty isn’t feminine at all, and rarity and refinement aren’t important to her. It also hurts because she’s so proud of it, and that pride suggests a willingness to see herself through the eyes of a man desperate to recover something of what he’s lost. Without ever putting too fine a point on it, Schulz gives us a portrait of two struggling people, lonely and insecure, fighting through their own “good grief” with courage that can only be seen as heroic, and maybe even sanctified. He doesn’t show the grown-up because he doesn’t have to. His predicament is entirely present in the character of the child. He shows us the child because the child has a future, and, therefore, hope. Showing us the grown-up would be unbearable.
Teyana Taylor – The Album Gosh, guess she really felt hemmed in by Kanye. Instead of eight pointed, tightly-crafted tracks about working that pussy, she’s given us a sprawling, seventy-seven minute R&B rambler, divided like a Tori Amos set into five gardens of content, about… well, to be fair, the subject matter hasn’t evolved very much. But she also wants us to know that she’s a family woman who loves her baby daddy, and motherhood, and she is willing to give birth in odd places to prove it. There are generative consequences to all this heterosex, and she’s good with them. As this is structured like a catch-all, Drake-style playlist, Teyana cedes time to Rick Ross, Big Sean, Quavo (who is really good in this context, IMO, and should consider chucking Migos and concentrating on boudoir numbers), Puff Daddy’s Mase-soundalike manchild, and her husband, who is a pro point guard or the prime minister of Nicaragua or something. Copious quotes from Erykah Badu, and Jill Scott, Missy, and Lauryn, etc. She even gets Ms. Hill to deliver some trademark sanctimony on the final track. All of this is an attempt to situate Teyana in a tradition of ambitious, elemental neo-soul, meditative soul that boldly stands outside of time and trends, and you know what?, I’m allllllmost willing to go with it. I continue to find her the exemplary pop-soul singer of the moment, better than SZA or Solange or Ari Lennox or whoever else you’ve got, one capable of feather-light melisma and deep, vibrant, emotionally resonant melodic runs, and choruses that generate that trembling in the loins that fans of Maxwell may associate with the Urban Hang Suite. But if she really wants to be a high concept artist, she’s going to have to give some thought to her concepts.
The 1975 – Notes On A Conditional Form Can’t call them ungenerous. Pull the lever on the Matty Healy machine and it will just keep spinning and spinning, showcasing funny pictures and flashing lights, teasing you with sevens and strategically flashed fruit sets. Coins are spit out here and there. Mostly, Matty dares you to keep playing. There are rewards to be had on the casino floor – skirts to chase and chips to stack. But before you even get to them, you’ve got to sit through a jeremiad from Greta Thunberg, a hard rock spazz number that means to impress with its ferocity but mostly kills time, and some orchestral silliness redolent of TV test patterns. Then you check the the clock. Fifteen minutes have gone by, and the goddamn album hasn’t even gotten started yet. Once it does, you might be surprised on how often Matty & co. attempt to get over on sheer prettiness, extending the 8-track Englebert Humperdinck feel of the back half of Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships. That’s as true on the gook-covered numbers that lean toward pop-punk as it is on the glossy electro. When they try to sweep you up and rush you down the emotional rapids, they succeed as often as they don’t. The problem is that the perspective has softened, too: Online Relationships often implicated young info-slurpers in the dynamics of their own alienation and addiction, while Conditional Form mostly wants to say that the kids are alright. This mostly tells me that it’s been a long minute since Matty was a kid. He’s become a bit of an untrustworthy newsman, comfortable in front of the camera and estranged from the bad news on the street, where nobody has been alright for quite a while. If the 1975 is best understood as a British mushrock version of My Chemical Romance, then this is their Danger Days – the album that romanticizes youth in a way that can only be done by someone who’s left the demographic category well behind. Could Matty have anything relevant to say to senior citizens? Well, sure. Those schmucks can’t put their phones down, either.
The Aces – Under My Influence Given that this Utah quartet actually put their business plan in the liner notes of their last album, I suppose I shouldn’t be disappointed by the mercenary quality of Under My Influence. Pop artists are salespeople, and Cristal Ramirez happens to wear her name tag in a more prominent place on her uniform than many of her peers do. I should give her points for candor, and maybe an Employee Of The Month award. When My Heart Felt Volcanic matched the aces with certain energetic pop-rock producers who (Butch Walker in particular) aided and abetted their evil plan to outflank the very acts they were ripping off. Oh Haim is at home having dinner? While they’re digesting, we bring you: hyper-Haim! Haim but even more Haimish! Sorry not sorry. Under My Influence is no more original, but a lot less actionable – and that turns out to be an artistic misstep, and maybe a commercial one, too. Cristal’s retreat into boilerplate electropop and cheez-funk production robs The Aces of the manic sense of competitiveness that provided this otherwise generic pop project its only apparent motivation. I’m sure that copious market research went into every decision made here, and these fourteen numbers are indeed pleasant. But not one of them steals the spotlight from its evident source. Coming from a nest of professional magpies, that’s a problem.
The Beths – Jump Rope Gazers I’ve been resisting the temptation to compare this to Young Enough, mainly because there’s a slight mushrock element to this project that Charly Bliss, with all their sharp corners and serrated edges, would never allow. Eva Hendricks had her political agenda; the plaintive-voiced Elizabeth Stokes is mostly just lovelorn. But that’s the luxury of an Auckland address. If the Hendricks siblings were New Zealanders rather than New Yorkers… well, they’d probably be just as discontent. But at least they’d be able to go to a diner, right? Fathom the concept: rather than trying to kill them, people in power would be looking out for them. Yes, in the rainforests of Aotearoa, manna and government money falls out of the sky. That kind of thing cheers artists up, particularly those who are, like The Beths, grant recipients. They’ve spent their bread further empowering a power pop sound that was already plenty fizzy, all while nodding suggestively enough toward mood music to guarantee the band a spot on a few backgroundy playlists. If you let it, some of this will float by like a daydream. Nevertheless, this is music that rewards close engagement, and it’s so damn winsome that there’s no reason not to come a little closer, pull up a chair, and concentrate on Elizabeth as she unspools her yarn and knits it into something snug. As is the case with Charly Bliss, all four musicians are involved in every measure, even when they’re resting – everybody’s brain is on, and they’re all thinking about how they can appoint these verses and choruses in a manner that’s not merely decorative. There is an overwhelming sense of presence here: not urgency, exactly, but attentiveness to the moment, and an urge to hold and know each clock-tick before it passes. The title track is the undisputed champ of the set – an indiepop power ballad song with a sweep as rapturous as “We Come From The Same Place” by Allo Darlin’ – but they’ve taken pains to ensure an unusually high level of compositional and arrangement consistency for a record pitched toward a notoriously indiscriminate audience. Do these kids need to be as good as they are? Technically, no. The melodies alone would have carried this album. But it sure is nice that they’ve put in the effort.
The Buttertones – Jazzhound Uneven, but it works when it works. And it works best when it echoes the zippier side of ‘80s post-punk: a little Echo & The Bunnymen here, some Chameleons UK over there, Marr-isms on the guitar, and maybe even a pinch of The Polecats doing “Make A Circuit With Me”. Expect occasional blasts of Madness-style saxophone, artificially low lounge lizard vocals mostly distinguished by their affectation, rat’s nests of wiry guitar, ten cent words dropped conspicuously, Peter Banks-style, in the midst of otherwise undistinguished lyrics. The best number is the Smithsiest: “Dirty Apartment”, which strikes me as what “This Charming Man” might have sounded like if it had been written and recorded by Baby Dayliner. Hilary, just now: is this Gene? Um. Basically yes.
The Japanese House – Chewing Cotton Wool There’s mushrock, and then there’s thin gruel. Even Oliver Twist wouldn’t ask for more of this: a billowy, overly fluffy, cold and greasy blanket of an EP, shapeless and interminable even at its modest length. Of course Justin Vernon is present – I am sure he couldn’t suppress the urge to blargle all over these freeform tracks with those robot vomit vox of his. Those are a mushrock must-have. Oh, and while we’re on the subject, I was thinking about “Exile”, and it occurred to me (and surely not just to me) that more of the numbers might be narrated from Betty’s perspective than merely “Cardigan”. Like, could it be Betty in “Exile”?, and is Justin’s character an echo of James? This would be betty five years out of high school, but “Cardigan” is retrospective narration, too, so that wouldn’t be misaligned with the rest of the story. I recall that more than a few Swift fanatics initially argued that “Betty” was a missed opportunity: that naming James foreclosed a queer reading of the high school love triangle that could have generated some productive ambiguity. I know where that’s coming from. But the more I listen to the story, the more I’m driven to the conclusion that James needs to be a boy, and that he is named and gendered accordingly, and for a very good reason. because Folklore, like certain Richard and Linda Thompson albums, turns out to be a set about a particular male-female dynamic – a bad one that starts early and leaves residue, and keeps haunting these characters in their later lives. James’s initial betrayal is prompted by the sight of Betty with another boy at a dance he didn’t want to attend. Instead of acknowledging his neglect, he spins the story in a self-justifying way: he doesn’t like crowds. He’s privileging his own comfort, see, and when that comes back to bite him, he drifts, rudderless, into an affair to soothe his ego. He wants to claim Betty, but he doesn’t want to put the emotional work in. Justin Vernon’s character is, I think, a deliberate personification of that same sense of entitlement and complacency, and another expression of the arrogance that wounded pride engenders in dudes. Upon reflection I see it all as further castigation of male laziness and intellectual frailty. That was a major theme on the four Big Machine albums, but it got lost in the weeds during the Reputation era. This is not to say that Betty gets off the hook completely. But we know where the author’s sympathies are, and that’s as it should be. What does she say on “Mad Woman”? “Women like hunting witches too/doing your dirtiest work for you/wanting me dead has really brought you together?” That’s so Taylor Swift that it’s kinda ridiculous, and maybe a little superfluous. But it’s also real as Pennsylvania.
The Proper Ornaments – Mission Bells Contrary to my rep as the singing mailman who digs things according to their resemblance to Elvis Costello, I do like a few psychedelic rock records. Sometimes I, too, wanna get faaaaaar oooooout, and do so without taking any puffs of your filthy pot-o-juana. Usually I’m good for one psych album per year, like Lost In Beaucaire by Woody Murder Mystery, or Laughing Matter by Wand, or Plum by, er, Wand. Okay, mostly I like Wand. The Proper Ornaments is closer to the Woody school in that the songs are muted and low key, slightly creepy, dreamy in the fashion of a morning reverie rather than a black-night howler, and turn on a single compositional or performance phenomenon: a repeated phrase, a centrally-placed sonic effect, a surprising change, or an odd phrase. The song sometimes feels like a vehicle designed to deliver the listener to that psychedelic payoff, and once you’re there, the Ornaments don’t really care what happens to the Uber. Junk it sell it for parts, repurpose it, call and ride it again if you like where it takes you. I’ve heard this album a lot because the sound is pleasant and unobtrusive and usually as intriguing as it needs to be, but I can’t say any of the songs have really stuck. Maybe the breakthrough is right around the corner. Maybe it will never come.
The Reds, Pinks & Purples – You Might Be Happy Someday Sarah Records, the C86, Trembling Blue Stars, Johnny Marr guitar, the indiepop list, lo-fi murk, hints of The Blue Nile: this dude is throwing back so hard that I believe he just tore his rotator cuff. He’s in the right place to realize the style: Richmond, the foggiest, most isolated and otherworldly neighborhood in San Francisco. For what it’s worth, I believe him when he says he’s heartbroken and sees no way forward, even if he’ll never convince me that love and hate are the same mistake – no matter how gorgeously his six-string chimes. Anyway, check out “Desperate Parties” and hear the exact artist who George Overlord would have been if he’d stuck it out in the Bay. College-poppy in the most morose way possible, depressed and smothered by the marine layer, but in contention for the Critics Poll!
The Rentals – Q36 There are those who still trace the artistic downfall of Weezer to the departure of Matt Sharp. This is not quite like saying that Buffy could not survive the loss of Oz, but it’s close. Doubtless Matt contributed a certain nerdy joie de vivre to Blue Album and Pinkerton, but those are Rivers Cuomo’s melodies, and obsessions, and goofball vox. The Rentals became an outlet for Matt Sharp’s perspective, and his concepts, and his songs, and besides “Friends Of P”, you probably can’t remember any of them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good!, or that he doesn’t share his former leader’s deep appreciation of pop-rock history. Q36, which is the first rentals record since God knows when, is a double album of songs about astronauts, and it demonstrates a deep awareness of the significant place the astronaut holds in the canon. Not only do you get nods to Bowie and Elton John and Peter Schilling, but there’s also stuff reminiscent of Blur, and even Spacehog. Especially Spacehog. There’s also a conspiracy theory number with a video similar to the one we made for our own. The Streets have a conspiracy theory song, too. I’m happy to ride along with the zeitgeist for once, as long as we admit that the reason we’re all taking that ride ain’t too pretty.
The Secret Sisters – Saturn Return It was inevitable that the Secret Sisters would fall into Brandi Carlile’s meaty clutches, given 1.) they’re good singers, 2.) they’re absolute traditionalists, 3.) they don’t seem to care about selling records, 4.) they’re probably big fans of Brandi Carlile, and 5.) they require protection and mentoring in an industry that valorizes sexual presentation. And here is Brandi, paladin of the plain, sword in hand and ready to escort the Sisters to an audience of sawdusty old Americana dudes who consider Delbert McClinton a major artist. They’ll nod slowly in approval. I remember when the Secret Sisters used to do Sinatra numbers and bounce around like the pink rubber balls they resemble. Brandi’s oaken production has leeched all of the elasticity out of these two; pale and drawn, they can be soaked in sepia dye and set into grandma’s brooch. Now, it may in fact be Brandi’s long-term intention to become a girl version of Dave Cobb, and records like this one may be a means to that end. I do believe that outcome is in reach for Brandi, and maybe salutary for the rest of us. Just like Cobb, she can remind us all why absolute traditionalism is the deadest of all dead ends.
The Streets – None Of Us Are Getting Out Of This Life Alive Mike Skinner once implied that if he ever recorded as The Streets again, we’d know he needed money. Maybe he does: times are hard in showbiz. But there’s nothing particularly desperate about this comeback set, and he’s even slow-playing it a little, lowering expectations, calling it a mixtape as if his name was Aubrey. He’s invited every rhymer in Britain to guest on the project, too, and while these guys and girls are technically far better on the mic than he is, they don’t exhibit one iota of his timing or sense of composition, or his skill at turning phrases. No, you’re here to hear Mike do what he does, and if you’re familiar with his bag (of course you are), you’ll find that it’s still intact: maybe a little moth-eaten and smelly from the years, but more than capable of lugging his lager bottles around. The working-class frankness and peculiar rap rhythms of Computers And Blues are present (yay), as is the self-impressed cod-philosophy of Everything Is Borrowed (boo). But mostly what Mike wants to do is gripe about women, which makes him peculiarly unsuited for these times – a mid-twentieth-century chauvinist unthawed and set loose in the woke era. He registers the obligatory complains about girls scrolling through Instagram, critiques makeup choices, cracks wise about those materialistic hos, and generally behaves like a man oblivious to the last twenty years of cultural criticism. This is not a Jezebel reader, boys and girls. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Because it’s Mike Skinner, some of this bellyaching is witty: “She talks about her ex so much/even I miss him”, that’s kinda Shavian in a way. Sometimes he’s downright petulant: “I only want one thing from her, personality/which is good because she certainly has three”, c’mon, Mike, that doesn’t even scan very well. Sometimes it’s just grade-school groaners, like when he says “If you’re feeling down, I can always feel you up”. Every now and then, though, he speaks with the sort of epigrammatic force that made him one of the most memorable writers of the ‘00s. “People never change, they’re just exposed”, he tells an abused woman about her boyfriend, and that is a neat, six-word encapsulation of a worldview that has held true, for Mike, at least, for quite some time. Then there’s the punchline to “Phone Is Always In My Hand”: “Don’t try to understand ladies, brother/ladies understand ladies and they hate each other”. And… yeah, I guess I know what he’s getting at there. But even if you think you’re scoring a clever point, it’s a little rude to rub it in. Unless Kanye has a surprise drop for us in the next few days, this’ll go down as the year’s most ungentlemanly album.
The Strokes – The New Abnormal Oh my gosh, they’ve turned into Phoenix. Or maybe they were always Phoenix-like, and I just didn’t realize it. Was their sonic resemblance to Mr. Mister and Cutting Crew always obscured by the dazzle lights of the Tiswas nights at Don Hill’s? I’ll admit that I am not what you’d call a Strokes completist. I’m not even what you’d call a Strokes incompletist: I think I heard Is This It all the way through at least once, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it. The problem was that so many of the people then in my life had beef with the Strokes – some of which was personal! – that it was hard to form a detached opinion. I didn’t want to be a contrarian about it, lest I get hit over the head with a bass guitar by a bandmate. But I also didn’t want to pile on. Twenty years later, can I access this former flashpoint properly? Can I hear them as just another rock and roll band with a professional obligation to entertain? Or will they always conjure memories of class resentment and cocaine abuse in the bathrooms of Lower Manhattan bars? I suppose every commercially successful band is the soundtrack to somebody’s debauchery, even if it’s just Belle & Sebastian scoring the ice-cream-and-smooches indulgences I favor. I can appreciate “Brooklyn Bridge To Chorus” for the White Reaper-ish power pop number it is, and “The Adults Are Talking” for its aspirations toward new wave precision, and “Bad Decisions” for sounding like… well, like the Strokes as I remember them. Back when everybody was complaining about them; back when we were all certain they were an industry plant in a scene we liked and wanted to defend. Maybe they were. But the mere fact that they’re still at this two decades later ought to tell us now what I suspected then. It doesn’t matter how or why they got there. All that ever matters is the songs.
The Weeknd – After Hours When this guy generates aural peach fuzz like “I Feel It Coming”, he undermines his evil cred. When he wallows in the sinister, echoed, atmospheric sound that he helped make world-famous, he risks throwing away his comparative advantage over the other R&B mooks: his real vocal resemblance to late-‘80s Michael Jackson. This is the Chinese finger prison that Abel Tesfaye has been caught in for a few album cycles now, and his flailing, shouting, whining attempts to wriggle free from the trap have been the story of the last ten years of his lucrative but oddly awkward career. Abel has compounded his own troubles by mixing up horror music, which he used to be very good at making, with horror movies, which nobody is very good at makings. Horror flicks have colonized and streamlined his imagination, even as it’s twisted it all up, and After Hours rides along on the rail of a cinematic through-story. The main issue is that it’s the exact narrative you’d expect to get from The Weeknd, without a single diversion from the script he wrote on House Of Balloons, and has been re-writing, with an increasing emphasis on broad-stroke caricature, ever since. The monster is a bad boy who falls in love, but the love doesn’t redeem him; he treats his girlfriend shabbily; he realizes he’s incapable of good behavior, so he wallows in the trough of drug addiction and cheap sex; he finds this unfulfilling, and in desperation he tries to win back his girlfriend, only to discover she’s moved on; big finish where the monster wills his own self-annihilation via despondency/cocaine. Like all horror movies, there’s a bit of Frankenstein to it, even as the monster, what with his gargantuan appetites and relentless death drive, also lays grubby claim to modern Hollywood antihero status. Scoring this blockbuster was always going to be a tricky proposition. Rather than committing to a single approach, Tesfaye resolves to throw everything he’s got at it, and that includes fishing Illangelo out of mothballs, ponying up for more Max Martin beats, and even dragging poor Metro Boomin into the bog. Reasonably, you might wonder whether a guy who proved, years ago, that he could give you a credible “Dirty Diana” shouldn’t just dispense with the scenery, blow off some of the fog, and sing. He’s not going to do that. Something about Abel tugs him toward disjunction. It’s an expression of his soul: his real one. Not the cartoon ghost he plays on records, but the tormented artist whose unquenchable desire to wrongfoot and destabilize his listeners has made for some of the most frustrating mainstream pop of the 21st Century.
Tom Misch & Yussuf Dayes – What Kinda Music Yussuf Dayes is a celebrated percussionist in the London experimental jazz underground, and cutting a full-length with the blandest vocalist i’ve heard outside the context of EDM is indeed an experiment. Not the kind they give you accolades for in Downbeat, though. I give him this: if snare crispness is the current measure of sound quality in this pre-post-hip-hop world of ours, then you’d have to call him an exemplary modern drummer.
Tops – I Feel Alive There are things to like about this chill, chill Montreal mushrock outfit. For starters, the frontwoman is called Jane Penny, which might be the single best name a person can have. On at least a third of these songs, she bothers to mint nifty melodies. That said, she opens the album by rhyming together with all kinds of weather, and the laziness just intensifies from there. He wants to spend the night and she knows it isn’t right. There’s a hand on her shoulder and the world is getting colder. You’ve been talking just a little and you’re stuck in the middle. Ooey gooey rich and chewy diarrhea. I recognize that pop is not a poetry contest; arguably, it shouldn’t be poetic at all. But inattentiveness in one songwriting area, I have noticed, inevitably bleeds into others. For instance, where was the guardian at the gate when Jane and her producers poured sonic goop all over these mixes? Dreaming, I reckon.
Touché Amoré – Lament The latest every emo fan’s favorite hardcore band. They’d call it post-hardcore, and that’s okay by me; I don’t think I’m quite punk enough to split that hair. My trouble with these guys is always the same: their extreme seriousness makes them hard for me to access the anguish they’re intent to broadcast. It’s paralyzing because it doesn’t feel quite human – its austerity is so complete that this music may as well be coming from a stone. While certainly (post)-hardcore, that’s not actually very emo. There are times when the pain is so bad that all you want to do is scream your head off. But I don’t believe this is the best position from which to write a rock song – and I am indeed speaking from personal experience here. You probably just want to know how the Julien Baker cameo sounds. She’s mainly lost in the thunder, I’m afraid.
Tkay Maidza – Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 Poppy has gone pomo. Tkay Maidza is more of an old-style copycat. Normally I wouldn’t have much time for that, but Tkay is so good at mimicry and so tasteful about what she lifts that my resistance crumbles away and i’m left with nothing but perverse gratitude. Because who else is up to the task of giving us an Under Construction-era Missy soundalike, complete with peezer-in-my-skeezer nonsense? Certainly not missy herself. How about a functional, non-fascist Azealia Banks, wouldn’t you sign for one of those? What about a far less paranoid M.I.A.? Tkay is the sort of artist who invites the women she’s pinching from to appear on her tracks, which speaks well of her guts and her political smarts, if not her originality. Her personal story is an interesting one: she’s a Zimbabwean-Australian, and the daughter of African metallurgists, and she’s gone through the industry mill a few times already, trying on several different styles before settling on the expedient of having no style at all. She’s ridiculously adorable, and she sure can rap. All the ingredients for stardom are there. Of course I said the same thing about Tinashe. 25% chance she blows up worldwide, 45% she settles into “best new music”/cognoscenti favorite status, 30% chance we never hear from her again.
Tricky – Fall To Pieces A quarter-century ago, Tricky made a trip-hop classic: Maxinquaye, an album I resisted at first, until Jesse Fuchs broke it down in a five page review in a homemade zine. Gosh I miss those days of runaway writing. It was a passionate time; America could still get excited in print. We had opinions: we stomped our feet and hammered them out for nobody in particular. Not like the current era – Uncle Sam as an angry old man with no motion in his pants, shaking his fist and whining, but basically stuck in that bathtub in the Cialis commercial, inert and shitty. Anyway, I’ve plowed my way through each subsequent Tricky album since Maxinquaye, in the hope that he’ll recapture some of that magic. He never can. But he does remind us that 1995 was a long time ago.
Troye Sivan – In A Dream The title of Troye’s new EP worried me. “Dream” and “dreamy” in 2020 usually equals mushrock. The production on In A Dream is indeed mush-adjacent, but Troye is too much of a classicist to allow the definition of his vox to be compromised by goopy FX. The result is one of the better pop projects of the year – one that sounds current without swamping the star with trend-signifiers and evokes a mildly narcotized state without ever slipping into listlessness. I like the groovy synth breakdown at the end of “Take Yourself Home”, and the echoed, processed whoops and the Howard Jones-style synth ride on “Easy”, and power ballad “Rager Teenager”, which struts around on a big beat filthier than the floor of the Cock. Oh, and on that subject: if you were worried that Troye’s interest in the receptive capacity of his butthole was beginning to flag, “Hey Stud” ought to demonstrate that his motivations for singing haven’t changed since Bloom. I’m glad at least somebody out there has his priorities straight.
Tyson Motsenbocker – Someday I’ll Make It All Up To You I made fun of this guy’s name until I decided I liked his album. Now, I… well, I still make fun of his name. I’m very juvenile; see prior entry. Based on his handle, you might reasonably conclude that he is either a matzoh-munching classical composer or a popcorn magnate. He is nothing of the sort: he writes in a gentle, layered folk-rock style that will be immediately familiar to anybody who has dabbled in the dark arts of chill playlist construction. Unlike his chill peers, he does get worked up from time to time. Sometimes that passion manifests as a punchy, vigorously sung chorus, and sometimes it’s expressed through the arrangements, which thicken and intensify as the song goes on. In either case, it suggests an awareness of development, and the song as an artwork that exists in time, rather than the flat line that is now in vogue. Amazing how much difference a trajectory can make. Even a minor one.
Vanessa Carlton – Love Is An Art Vanessa Carlton is always resolutely herself, and her methods never change. For every set, she’ll write three or four conventional pop songs, a few others that sound like they were excised from an Off-Broadway musical, and surround them with experiments that are mostly steam, echo, and vocal phasing. She’ll hit the piano with force, rock just enough to keep you awake, and once or twice and album, she’ll let the band blare, everybody all at once, all alarms going off. She’ll preserve a few clams and wrong notes; she’ll keep it organic. Rabbits On The Run epitomized this approach, and I doubt she’ll ever scale those heights again. But it’s always nice to see her try.
Widowspeak – Plum With Anna Fox Rochinski still lost on the battlefield and Shane Butler busy with Olden Yolk, this is as close to a Quilt album as we’re going to get. And it isn’t all that close: Molly Hamilton is an awkward lyricist willing to make choruses out of “money doesn’t grow on trees” and “you can’t take it with you” and the like. Yet I give this group their propers for generating 2020 pop-psychedelic effects without necessarily relying on 2020 pop-psychedelic techniques. For starters, they’ve got a good bass player with an elastic, zero-gravity, moon-bounce tone. The next time I feel the urge to jump on the bed, i’m just going to put on “The Good Ones” instead. It’s the same feeling minus the potential skull fractures. Widowspeak maintains eerie calm via judicious use of instruments: spotlight on one thing at a time, nothing pushing, nothing abrasive, everything curiously still, everything suffused in soft and angled light, like a cornfield right before a thunderstorm.
Wild Nothing – Laughing Gas I didn’t think they were minting them anymore, but I guess they are, because this year I encountered a new vicious critical term: landfill indie. Throwaway, unmotivated, largely interchangeable guitar bands of the ‘00s, recorded cheaply, circulated widely if indifferently, and quickly forgotten, music that nodded toward permanence, but without a smidge of staying power. I disliked this stuff at the time, because I saw those records as an expression of the cynicism of a collapsing music industry. If the Strokes could bash out a crummy-sounding bestseller in a drunken weekend, surely the kids had lost all sense of discernment and could be served poop on a platter indefinitely. The infrastructure that supported the original landfill is gone now, and most indie bands – whatever that means – take fidelity seriously. Young musicians have put the distortion pedals away and fired up the echoplexes and softsynths. Yet as I have come to realize, the landfill approach to independent music-making hasn’t gone anywhere: it’s just changed tone. Dream pop is the new landfill, and Wild Nothing may be the geographical center of the midden. I can’t they’re foremost among them, because the landfill style precludes rank and placement. It’s all one continuous mess. 100% mushrock: that dreamy, creamy, streamy, streambaity sound; a mighty river of digital backwash rolling through the pop underground, drowning nascent melodies (?) in their cradles. One nation under mush, with cheap machine reverb slathered on everything, singers who will not enunciate, and drummers who do not care if you dance. What is the point of this music, you may ask? Well, what was the point of all that stuff in the landfill? It was taken, it was used, it was disposed, it was forgotten. Ephemerality is often a virtue in pop, and a consumer society does like to stuff its face with fresh meat. But you’re supposed to be brilliant and burn out and leave phosphorus trails on the backs of people’s eyelids. You’re not supposed to chug along like a photocopier, grinding out black and white replicas of the same dull treatise until the day you run out of toner. There’s no place for that in pop. Leave that nonsense to the grown-ups.
Willie The Kid – Capital Gains The hard rhyme circa ’20: hip-hop sans hooks and pop choruses. This puts a lot of pressure on the emcee to keep things interesting. An album like Capital Gains is always bound to be busy with features, but Willie The Kid is so focused and self-confident that guests are relegated to sideshow status no matter how well they rap. The pile-up of clauses and quick, frog-like leaps from idea to idea reminds me quite a bit of Billy Woods. The motivation couldn’t be more different, though: Willie is a true capitalist in a way that most rappers, upwardly mobile though they are, only pretend to be. He wants you to know that he’s the only black business owner in his hometown – Grand Rapids, Michigan – and although he will mess you up if you get out of line, he’s proudest of his fiscal responsibility. The Black Economic Alliance would surely approve. Mr. Michael Render would too, no doubt.
Yacht Rock Revue – Hot Dads In Tight Jeans An icky concept through and through, “yacht rock” is meta-nostalgia of the worst sort: I lived through the late Seventies and early Eighties and never heard anybody mention it. The term comes from a bullshit video series launched in the mid-‘00s, and was a strained attempt to graft a goofy signifier on to a period in pop where it wasn’t prevalent. Nobody in Steely Dan or Supertramp or the Hall and Oates band wore a Captain Stubing hat, or sang about yachts, or adopted the blithe attitude we associate with the boating subculture. That period in American history was about cultural instability and legitimacy crises post-Watergate, blackouts, Sons of Sam, and the descent into the me-first Reaganite mindset, and that’s all pretty well reflected in the popular music. Maybe yachts and champagne sound more hip, but I’d much prefer to get the history right. Misremembering important things has become a mammoth problem in this country. Anyway, Yacht Rock Revue is the latest bunch of opportunists to hop on this rickety bandwagon. They started out by doing cheeky covers of late ‘70s, and they’ve lately turned to their own dreadful originals inspired by the yacht rock era. These people need a hobby. Music isn’t it.
Yves Tumor – Heaven To A Tortured Mind I’ll leave you with one of the year’s strangest albums: a record that demands serious engagement, but don’t exactly provide much in entertainment value in exchange. Yves Tumor plays aggressive funk rock; he uses unusual intervals and funny harmonies, and sometimes evokes (at least for me) the harsher side of glam-era Brian Eno. The songs are consistently intriguing, but the density of sound and Yves’s reluctance or inability to write proper rock refrains makes this set a taxing listen. Musicians had an impossible needle to thread in 2020: if they played it upbeat, they looked oblivious and insensitive, and if they attempted to reflect the ugly tenor of the times, they ended up making a sound incompatible with pop. To make matters worse, the entire country was (reasonably) obsessed with the outcome of the election – and that included the music press. Any attempt at aesthetic valuation was drowned out by chatter about an artwork’s saliency to the political crisis. Even if we can’t stop checking our feeds and our minds are warped by the death-metal rhythms of the news cycle, I hope we’re able see that this is psychologically unsustainable. Beyoncé should not have to compete with Mitch McConnell and Bill Barr for your attention. One of these people is dazzling and beautiful and worthy of the adulation she gets. The other two are just gross. We ought to be thinking about Harry Styles, not which two-bit huckster gets a pardon and which one heads to jail. Never in my lifetime have our national priorities been any more scrambled than they are right now. and it isn’t even entirely our fault. As they always do, musicians came to the rescue. Like doughboys on the beach at Normandy, they arrived in waves. They took fire; they flailed around; they tried their hardest. Many of them didn’t achieve what they aimed for, and many more couldn’t even figure out what their aims were, but that’s nothing new. What’s remarkable is how many writers did manage to connect, and how many insta-classics were recorded in spite of it all. This year didn’t quite reach the highs of 2019, let alone that ridiculous 2015-2016 period when the Chicago after-school programs were serving up magnificent records as casually as a fry cook at a diner. But the obstacles to success were greater. These poor schmucks couldn’t even tour. If you managed to make music in 2020, no matter how clumsy or halting your attempts were, my hat is off to you. Thank you, all of you. Even the mushrockers. You know I love you. I only tease you because I like you. I’m from Jersey; it’s our way.