Aaron Frazer ABBA Aboukir Ada Lea Adele Alex Ferreira Andy Shauf Anna Fox Rochinski Arlo Parks Ashley Monroe Awon & Phoniks Azure Ray Bad Bad Hats Baio Benny The Butcher Billie Eilish Billy F Gibbons Black Country, New Road Bleachers Bomba Estéreo Bruiser Wolf Buck Meek Calavera Camila Moreno Caroline Kingsbury Cassandra Jenkins Chad Van Gaalen Chvrches Cimafunk Citizen Clairo Cloud Nothings Cool Ghouls Cory Hanson Corvair Courtney Barnett Crowded House C Tangana Cult Of Luna Damon Albarn Daniel Quien Diamante Electrico Disq Doja Cat Dori Freeman Drake Dry Cleaning Ducks Ltd. Elbow Elizabeth & The Catapult Elvis Costello Espanto Faye Webster Flamingosis Foo Fighters Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders And The London Symphony Orchestra Foxing Girlfriends And Boyfriends Girl In Red Glass Animals Halsey Hand Habits Have Near Hayley Williams Hiatus Kaiyote Home Is Where Illuminati Hotties Indigo De Souza Injury Reserve Isaiah Rashad Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & John Randall Jackson Browne Japanese Breakfast Javiera Mena J. Cole Jim Lauderdale João Selva Juan Wauters Julien Baker Ka Kacey Musgraves Kanye West Katy Kirby Kings Of Leon Kiwi Jr. KRS-ONE La Femme La Lá Lana Del Rey (Chemtrails Over The Country Club) Lana Del Rey (Blue Banisters) Laura Stevenson Leah Blevins Lightning Bug Lil Nas X Lingua Ignota Liz Phair L’Orange & Namir Blade Lorde Lost Girls Low Lucy Dacus Lump Madison Beer Magdalena Bay Marina Marina Sena Mark Fredson Matthew Sweet Mdou Moctar Megan Thee Stallion Men I Trust Mexican Institute Of Sound Mica Levi Midnight Sister Mon Laferte (Seis) Mon Laferte (1940 Carmen) Morgan Wallen Nas Natalia Lafourcade Natalie Hemby Nation Of Language Olivia Rodrigo Ora Gartland Ovlov Pahua Palberta Pale Waves Parcels Paul McCartney Pearl Charles Pink Siifu Pom Pom Squad Poppy Pridjevi Really From Richard Dawson & Circle Rodney Crowell Rodrigo Amarante Rostam Rhye Saint Etienne Sarah Mary Chadwick Sault Selena Gomez Shame Silk Sonic Singapore Kane Slayyyter Sleaford Mods Snail Mail Snow Ellet Sofia Kourtesis Spirit Of The Beehive Squirrel Flower Steven Wilson Sturgill Simpson St. Lenox St. Vincent Sunny Jain Taylor Swift The Anchoress The Antlers The Black Keys The Hold Steady The Killers The Notwist The Orange Peels The Reds, Pinks & Purples The Umbrellas The War On Drugs The Weather Station The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die Tibetan Miracle Seeds Tinashe Tirzah Toby Keith Tori Amos Turnstile TV Girl And Jordana Tyler, The Creator Vanishing Twin Van Morrison Vince Staples Watchhouse Weezer (OK Human) Weezer (Van Weezer) Widowspeak Wild Pink Wolf Alice Xenia Rubinos Yes Young Thug Zayn Zac Brown Band
Aaron Frazer — Introducing… I guess if we put up with Cee Lo doing “Crazy” — not to mention all the goofy Sam Cooke impersonations from Bruno Mars — we can find a place in our music libraries for Aaron Frazer. This is a straightforward early-‘70s summertime soul throwback produced with great fidelity to the source material by Dan Auerbach, and Aaron possesses a fluid falsetto that would not have gotten him kicked out of the Spinners. He’s not adding anything to the formula, but he’s not trying to; I mean, I’m unconvinced that he’s really torn up about the departure of “Lover Girl,” but then again, I always thought Philippé Wynne was bullshitting a little, too.
ABBA — Voyage Oh why the fuck not? ABBA’s music is as enduring as that of any other European band from the ‘70s, so forty years later?, sure, welcome back to the United Nations of pop. For decades I’ve been told that they’re underrated, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a music fan who wouldn’t succumb to their weird power. This album is a fair bit too bombastic and consonant for my scruffy Jersey-boy tastes, but I recall feeling the same way about “Chiquitita,” and I never switched off the radio in the middle of that frosty Nordic earworm. Their songs still sound like martial Eastern Bloc national anthems to me, and yes I do mean that as a compliment. It’s that way-too-cheerful, snowblind, ski chalet vibe that Anni-Frid and Agnetha summon when they raise their voices in unison. That was always part of their mystique. It was always equally plausible that they’d start singing “Dona Nobis Pacem” as it was that they’d break into “Deutscheland Über Alles.” It could go either way, right? Just like Europe.
Aboukir — Digital Introversion This presents as a standard psychedelic mushrock album, drenched in reverb and pot-haze sleepy, and it does indeed maintain that vibe a good eighty per cent of the time. But then there are the sharp left turns that make this project worthwhile, and suggest that Aboukir misses the classic rock era more than most of his dreamy-dreamy peers: the hard funk outro of “Cosmic Discomfort,” the Gilmouresque space-rock solo that closes “St. People,” the Lennon-like downstream float of “A Year From Now. The result is the rare exercise in dream-pop and dream-rock that actually achieves the quality of a reverie. This is mutable music, where radical changes to scene happen seamlessly, until you’re like, hey, holy cow, I thought I was doing sex on Betty Rubble and now I am addressing the World Bank. How the heck did that happen?, and where are my pants.
Ada Lea — One Hand On The Steering Wheel The Other Sewing A Garden The physical version of this set comes with a map of Montreal, and I do always dig contextualizing moves like that. But who buys mushrock physicals anymore? It seems a cartographic waste. Also, the lyrics are short on the sort of grounding specifics that make projects like Tales Of Great Neck Glory such a hoot. Ada’s romantic narrative — one in which she insists her love is real (I believe her) — could be set in any old college town. As for the sound… well, I hate to keep harping on this, but this is yet another project where I can’t feel anything through all the layers, no matter how much I grope. I suspect that’s a known issue in icy Quebec.
Adele — 30 Adele, notes and anecdotes. The scene: Gospelfest 2015 at the Prudential Center in Newark. Before the stars start to testify, there are hours of amateur performances: kids, mostly, moved by the spirit to sing. These are volunteer performers, mostly nonwhite, all church-supported, belting out secular numbers from Adele 21 — album tracks, too, copying Adele’s delivery, phrasing, and articulation in near-liturgical fashion. The crowd loves it. If anybody is astounded by how easily this assimilates to Mahalia Jackson and “Go Tell It On The Mountain” — how seamlessly we all move from the Adele catalog to the hymnal and back to the Adele catalog and back to the hymnal — they sure don’t show it. Cut to 2021 and pumpkin-picking season in the Hunterdon hills. We’re in the dirt parking lot of Melick’s Town Farm, right next to a car-ful of glee club kids. They’ve got Adele 21 on the stereo. The Toyota Corolla stops, but they don’t: they keep on turning tables, with great attention to the vocal nuances of the source material, and the crackle and roar of Adele in full emotional breakdown. They’re feeling it. The point is not that Adele is making classic music even though she thinks she is. It’s that Adele makes singer’s music, pure and unadulterated, designed for the windows-down shouters, the school bus harmonizers, the desperate late-night phone-weepers. This is absolutely a tradition worth upholding — coal heaped into the ovens of the ambitions of people determined to be heard over the white noise and howling static of an indifferent world. And yes, that does include glee club kids, and sincere Christians, and muppets of various shapes and colors. Adele is something of a muppet herself, both in her constant appeals to Statler and Waldorf, and her tendency to fling herself at the song just as Kermit uncoils his froggy limbs and spins when he has something to declaim. It’s meaningful to say that she’s singing better than she did on the last record, and also necessary to point out that the performance improvement is papering over some iffy material, like the Max Martin co-write that comes complete with a few revolting moves like Jagger. Some of the Motown resurrections are absurdly stylized, right down to the too-busy bass guitar and cliched soul-sister backing vocals. Then Adele sits down at the piano and gives it to you straight, with those big, sonorous vowels, those precise, effulgent articulations, and that shredded upper-register whine, and she reminds you of why the choir has adopted her as their spirit animal. Her lack of imagination suddenly becomes an asset. Because you don’t want to think too hard. You don’t want to think at all. You want to find the place where it hurts, and turn that pain inside out.
Alex Ferreira — Tanda In its tone, its spirit, and its commitment to fragile sanity in a world not so sane, this is closer to those wandering early ‘70s James Taylor albums — say One Man Dog — than the reggaeton and dembow you might expect to get from a still-young Dominican. Alex is down by the schoolyard with Julio, in other words, and he’s not budging until the recess bell. Scourers of liner notes en español will recognize Alex as an associate of Natalia Lafourcade and Ximena Sariñana (not to mention Silvana Estrada, who apperars on this set) and these women do demand genteel behavior and respect for folklorico. But neither James Taylor nor Paul Simon nor Ximena Sariñana nor Natalia Lafourcade have ever worked with a percussionist quite as fearsome as Otoniel Nicolas, whose presence on Tanda ensures that even at its prettiest, it’s never too precious. Tanda always simmers. Otoniel is a singular player within the Afro-Antillean tradition — a big fat dude with his own bag — and even as he empties it all over “El Titubeo” and the astounding outro of “Playa Madama,” it never feels ostentatious. Everything fits, like a crisp, loose linen shirt on a warm, hazy day in the tropics. Then there are those radiant backing vox, warm and dispersed as sunlight through a slatted window, on “Como Viene Se Va,” and the interlocking horns and shimmying guitar on “La Vida Es Un Chin,” and, hey, there’s Alex’s mom, dropping by the studio to deliver a recipe for some home cooking of a different kind. The result is something as friendly as Gepe’s best work, or intelli-lively like Caetano Veloso’s Livro: happily pan-Latin but not too pointed about it, beautifully sung and mixed with great sensitivity, softly luminous, embraceable, an amble through the sunny jungle.
Andy Shauf — Wilds Seems we learn something new about Judy every day. Worldbuilding in the extended Andy Shauf universe is not a thing anybody asked for, especially Judy herself, who wants to steer clear of the narrator for very good reasons. But I’m willing to accept that there were empty spaces in the Neon Skyline that might benefit from architectural enhancement. Wilds suggests that the acerbic quality of Judy’s personality on Skyline was least partially an attempt at provoking a drunk milquetoast into dramatic action. This collection of musical footnotes opens with a lottery ticket and closes at a wedding, and in between, Andy’s protagonist watches sitcoms, slathers on bug spray and proves himself incapable of the sort of romantic gesture that could seal an entirely sealable deal. The very prospect of a proposal is risible to him, and when Judy asks him to dance, he’s too stoned to do anything but step on her feet. “I wished it could be permanent” is about as good as he can do. Even on holiday, he’s already living his life in past perfect tense, as guys like this often are. That’s no place for an action girl to tarry.
Anna Fox Rochinski — Cherry Call off the dogs, the fox (Rochinski) hunt is over. Five years after Quilt’s Plaza, Anna Fox Rochinski comes over the hill with a new batch of songs that attempt to reconcile spooky ‘70s psych-leaning folk with contemporary trends in mushrock. Unfortunately, Quilt was that reconciliation, and the electrofunk departures on Cherry pull her away from the shimmer and swell she generated so effortlessly with her old outfit. Because a groovemaster Anna is not. This album contains what may be the most undanceable dance music made during the mushrock era, and she’s had some stiff competition there. I’ve got to applaud her exploratory bone and her embrace of blippy synthetic textures and clattering percussion, and I don’t even mind the scratchy guitar figures over post-Polachek two-chord vamps, underwritten though they are. But the truth is that Cherry works to the extent that it sounds like Quilt (“Party Lines,” “No One Love,” “Overture”). There’s no guarantee, mind you, that she’d have done any better if she’d unearthed Shane Butler from the mossy log where he’s stashed himself and reconvened the group. As students of the music of the Seventies, they know: the release of separate spotty solo projects is the surest sign that a group is a spent force, and the chances of a return to the glory period are slim. Time’s arrow and all that.
Arlo Parks — Collapsed In Sunbeams This has gotten a lot of acclaim in the UK, where they also think that a deep fried Mars Bar is a vegetable. But it struck these ugly American ears as brunchcore of the worst kind: mealy-mouthed delivery, limp beats, social-problem lyrics, indifferent song construction built around the sort of starter beats you might find in a Garageband folder. Maybe some limey will break this down for me and explain what’s smashing about it.
Ashley Monroe — Rosegold Far be it for me to call Monroe Suede a copycat: I reckon she was the main compositional force behind that last Pistol Annies record, which was probably the smartest album made in a strong year (2018) for smart records. When she wants to tell you about what momma did or didn’t do with the milkman, she’s beyond excellent: she’s a reminder of the continuity of human malfeasance, and the best argument going for the practical value of traditionalism. But I’ve looked at this one from as many angles as i can, and I gotta say — it seems like a transparent attempt to style-bite Kacey Musgraves’s celebrated crossover record. They’ve even gone and put the word “gold” in the title. the star has blissed herself out, and blurred her signal, and matched her vox to a fair amount of ‘verbed-out mush music, which, while not a first for her, feels like a waste of a perfectly good Ashley Monroe. Even the song titles are anodyne: “Gold,” “Drive,” “See,” “Silk,” etcetera. It’s all a far cry from the writer who sang with particularity about shaking up whipped cream and posing for nude Polaroids, on “Weed Instead Of Roses.” This is being sold as a deliberate turn from Nashville country to modern pop, but that’s not exactly so — in the first place, plenty of mushrock sluices out of modern Nashville, and in the second, her collaborators here are all Music City lifers who’ve previously dabbled in crossover projects to pay the bills. Niko Moon, for instance, makes his clattering, loop-driven presence felt, as does Nathan Chapman, who Ashley has retrieved from the lost and found and rinsed off. this is exactly how Kacey got over, and it hurts me a little to see Hippie Annie riding those coattails.
Awon & Phoniks — Nothing Less Awon makes many KRS points: people in power are underhanded and must be replaced, mental liberation is the precondition for a fierce, hypermasculine, hard-hitting sort of peace, there can be no communication between minds closed by hate, Jesus was black, etcetera. But while KRS grabs the bullhorn and screams straight in your ear, Awon murmurs and cajoles like Guru, and Phoniks, his deejay, matches his rhymes to Primo-style snare side-clicks and elegant soul scratching. They’ve rounded up some other upstanding rap gentlemen: Anti Lilly, Blu, Dephlow, Kid Abstrakt, jazzy characters with tight skills and the temerity to appear on songs about responsible fatherhood (they’re for it). The greatest gifts come from teaching, says Awon. I don’t question his sincerity. These are the kind of guys who talk a lot about “real” hip-hop, and I do know what they mean by that. But in real hip-hop as I understand it, what the artist believes is never half as important as who the artist is. That’s as true for KRS-ONE as it is for Awon, whose personality remains inscrutable to me, even as I enjoy his well-wrought rhymes.
Azure Ray — Remedy It’s hard to blame Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor for getting the old combo back together. I’m sure it pains them to recognize that they were doing ’21 sound in ’01. But that was a different time: more belligerent and WTC-collapsy. The reverb might have reminded people of the smoke at Ground Zero, or the hot air emanating from Dick Cheney’s face. Perhaps Azure Ray has regrets for missing the mushboat. Remedy is so consistent with the modern style that it’s camouflaged in the atmospheric, steamy, dreamy forest of mush, and it’s impressive that they’ve come back after fifteen years or so with a record that feels like it was made by talented young trend-riders. I don’t know what that tells you about Orenda and Maria, though. Maybe they were ahead of the times, or maybe we’ve all devolved.
Bad Bad Hats — Walkman The Allman Brothers? Derek & The Dominoes, Slash and Izzy, Tipton and Downing, you can keep ‘em. For me, this Minnesota cupcake trio is the exemplary electric guitar band. Though Kerry Alexander and Chris Hoge are indiepop kids, they aren’t particularly twee: their recordings are always packed with lean sinew, tight, muscular six-string parts and whip-smart licks that interlock with the bass to form a firm, unyielding lattice on which the melody can hang. Neither Alexander nor Hoge bother to solo very much, and they don’t even like to call attention to what they’re doing. It’s just there, like the steel girders you don’t think about but are nonetheless holding up the building you’re in. When you do concentrate on what Kerry is playing, it’s always a delight — well thought-out, emotionally resonant, shrewdly integrated into the mix. They’re never going to top the playing on “Say Nothing,” which ought to come with the starter pack that Sam Ash gives student guitar players. Here, children, let me show you how a six-string can be used to heighten the drama of a pop-rock arrangement. But Bad Bad Hats have thawed out after a long float through polar regions on the synthesizer ice cap, and they’re back to more analog pleasures. On Walkman, they’re strumming again: “heavy metal/rock and roll,” Kerry sings on the title track, as if to let you know where their heads are at, if not exactly where the knobs on their amplifiers are. While I have often slighted this band for their modest ambitions, I probably should commend them for their grasp of the basics instead. Kerry understands the verities and writes about love and sex, and the implications thereof, in a manner that’s wry and subtly provocative and very pop. That’s true when she’s howlingly horny in the candy aisle at three A.M., and it’s true when she’s getting in her sotto voce digs at the unappreciative. Like on “Gloria Love,” when she asks, as all aspiring stars must: “why’s everybody sitting on the fence/when they could fall for me?” Darn good question. Answer the woman, indiepop nation.
Baio — Dead Hand Control Honestly, a nice try. You can see exactly where this came from. Chris Baio is surrounded by so many no-voice producer-rappers, to borrow a helpful term from hip-hop, that he was bound to try his hand at a little audience banditry himself. If Jack Antonoff can get away with those Bleachers ‘80s-style seven inch singles, why not attempt to simulate the twelve inch singles of the same era? But Chris is such a bad vocalist that extended versions of his songs mostly just means that you’re subjected to unwanted Baio. That’s five additional inches that your hole simply does not have the capacity to accommodate. Your ear hole, I mean. Quit looking at me. Anyway, the point, which I will reiterate often today, is that not everybody is a lead singer, and I really do wish these guys would quit making me say that out loud. It hurts me more than it hurts them.
Benny The Butcher — Pyrex Picasso “In interviews they ask me questions/and I answer truthfully.” That’s Benny The Butcher on his media relations style. He’s going to be frank about his finances and the details of his court cases, in case you’re wondering about either, and yeah, I bet you aren’t. But the Pyrex Picasso EP is as good a place as any to start with the Griselda family of rappers: a team of roughnecks from Buffalo with nothing much of interest to say, but a forceful, pleasing way of saying that nothing. Benny does manage to rhyme “trunk of the Camry” with “stand tall in New York like Marcus Camby,” which did bring back some frustrating post-Ewing memories to this Knickerbocker watcher.
Billie Eilish — Happier Than Ever Behold the mushpocalypse. It is upon us. Beyond this point all things resolve to mush. Seriously, get a load of this spit-slick gobstopper. All sweetness leached away by all the moisture, and all the sucking, and served up to us ABC-style by an industry that purports to be a candy shop!, I mean, really. There are probably more interesting musical ideas on Happier Than Ever than there were on the (over)celebrated debut, and the outlines of a decent album are vaguely discernible in the mist. Unfortunately, Billie has decided that she’s some sort of Zoloft-era jazz chanteuse, and Finneas has matched her throwback fantasies to music that continuously resolves to costume-drama cinematic slop. Run a few more synthesizers through computer fans, water down the guitar solos, muffle those drums until they sound like the limp protestations of an elderly catburglar kicking at the walls of a padded cell. Worst of all, he’s sanded all of the edges of Billie’s vocal signal until it is as smooth and flat as a phlegm-coated tongue-depressor. Ick.
Billy F Gibbons — Hardware I love him, too, but let’s be fair. He’s spent the last fifty years doing exactly what you think he’s going to do. No curveballs coming from this oxidized old pitching machine.
Black Country, New Road — For The First Time This is the rare modern rock project that I wouldn’t be afraid to recommend to a superfan of King Crimson. It’s not that they sound like Crimson, although sometimes they do, or that they’re even trying to imitate Crimson, which I doubt they are. They may have arrived at their demonic jauntiness through engagement with klezmer instead. It’s more about the spirit, and the approach to stacking near-dissonant harmonies, and their ideas about how to integrate woodwinds into abrasive rock songs, and their ability to conjure red nightmares of plane crashes and such. The main drawback is the frontman, who is less a Twenty First Century Schizoid Man or a Thela Hun Jingeet than a refugee from an actor’s colony for gifted and talented youth. His recitations are always overwrought and delivered on the verge of tears, which could be part of the point. He sounds so convinced of his own cleverness that I fear he might indeed have a future in Edward Albee repertory. He does have a decent sense of rhythm, and he knows when to yell and when to grumble and just how to ride the dragon that is his band, and he’s so deeply integrated into the songs that there’s probably no Black Country, New Road without him. So I am taking the foofy with the fierce here, and I recommend you do likewise. You wouldn’t want to miss out on those saxophone squalls.
Bleachers — Take The Sadness Out Of Saturday Night The relationship between Trader Jack and mushrock is an interesting one, and demands close study — closer than Pitchfork was willing to give it. Their suggestion, for instance, that Jack was a guiding hand behind Lana Del Rey’s sound struck me as absurd. LDR is the undisputed queen of mushrock and arguably the most important artist in the mushrock era (Drake and Bon Iver are her main mush competitors), and she established her aesthetic long before Jack came to Lana town. Jack just augmented the naturalist pop-rock elements of her sound and helped push them through the fog. I do give him credit for foregrounding the classic songwriting elements on Norman Fucking Rockwell, but I doubt Jack added much mush to the overwhelming mush that is Lana’s artistic signature. You could just as soon blame Emile Haynie or Dan Auerbach. But really you can’t blame any of them, because mush is what Elizabeth Grant demands from all of her collaborators. Mush is her vision, and she is the great mush auteur. Taylor Swift loves Lana Del Rey and has been pinching from her since “Wildest Dreams” at least. There are major mush elements to Folklore and Evermore, and Jack was in on some of the mushiest and best songs: “My Tears Ricochet,” “Ivy,” “This Is Me Trying.” But the main sonic/arrangement collaborator on those albums is Aaron Dessner, with Jack in the second banana role that he often plays. Jack plus Taylor on prior sets, such as 1989, was not total mushrock, though it’s true that “The Archer” is quintessential mushrock, and Jack produced that one. St. Vincent is not, has never been, and probably never could be mushrock. The mush elements on Daddy’s Home seem almost accidental to me — like they were an after-effect of some other thing they were chasing. The Clairo album is one hundred per cent mush, and almost unlistenable as a consequence, but I think that’s her own doing. You could fault Jack for never throwing her a life preserver. The Lorde albums are, in my opinion, the only out and out disasters in Jack’s catalog, but a lot of people love them for some odd reason. Anyway, mush is not the problem with those sets. The problem with them is the writing. Funnily enough, though, Bleachers is basically mushrock. Bleachers is 35% Springsteen and 65% modern mush production elements. And if we look back, we see that Jack has been applying that template to a lot of the artists he works with: “Thunder Road” plus modern mush. That’s what “August” was, and even “Paper Rings.” “Comeback” and “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” his Carly Rae productions, were Springsteen plus mush, or Madonna’s “Borderline” plus mush, which is another template of his. Basically, Jack is drunk at a fairground in New Jersey in 1984, and all of the music is blaring and blurred-out as he rides the tilt-a-whirl. That’s his game, sonically. It’s not exactly the same as what the mushrock producers do, and he tends to work with singers who are so good that their storytelling never gets lost in the mush. So I’d say he’s a contributor to the world of mush, but he’s got his own personal Turnpike-grease and popcorn-butter flavor of mush to add to the mush slurpee that is modern music. This concludes my contribution to Antonoff Studies, which is a major preoccupation of music critics lately, I notice.
Bomba Estéreo — Deja When she’s dancing through thorny syllabic thickets, sneering at you in Español, trilling around like a songbird hidden high in a jungle canopy, and jamming all your frequencies with sound and signification, you might just believe for a moment that Li Saumet is the best rapper in the world. Would you be right? Probably not. But she is, as Mike Francesa used to say, in da convahsation. Like Janelle Monae, Li sings to make sense of the rapping and raps to fire up the singing, unless it’s the other way around? Who can tell. I’m dizzy from all the sonic ayahuasca. Deja is not as elemental as Elegancia Tropical, which was, in retrospect, one of the finest albums of 2012, and it doesn’t slam as hard as Amanecer. But it’s probably the most poised and mature album these electrofolk (don’t call it digital cumbia) alchemists have yet made, graced as it is by guest appearances from Lido Pimienta, Leonel Garcia, an army of tree frogs, and other like-minded artists. In other words, it’s a good place for us gringos to start. As she always does, Li Saumet bounces around these beats like a pinball springing off of the bumpers, and Simon Mejia keeps feeding her blips and blorps and inspired bangs on the virtual guacharaca. This is what globetrotting EDM promises, but never delivers: a world party with exciting hosts who take you by the collar and get you shaking it on a beach under the stars. In your mind, I mean. There’s a tropical beach in your mind. And it really shouldn’t matter at all that this is one of the more coherent ecofeminist statements you’ll ever hear, because you didn’t put this on because you were concerned about the pillage of the planet. That’s just righteous gravy: a fist made in solidarity with the earth and raised to let you know you’re among friends. Friends of the beat, the beach, the tree frogs, and you. In that exact order.
Bruiser Wolf — Dope Game Stupid Surprisingly violent rhymes from a guy who sounds more than a little like a magician at a kids’ birthday party. A little wide-eyed prestidigitation, a little helium, a little hurry up and let’s get the hell out of here. Funny voices plus forceful verses: that is the Bruiser Brigade formula. It worked for Danny Brown, who does his fraternal duty here with a guest stanza, and it works for Wolf, who is entertaining throughout, even if he leans a little hard on incongruity of tone and subject matter. Sometimes a unique flow from a talented rapper is enough to keep you listening — that, and a jaunty whistle past an overstocked graveyard. Jokes, threats, silly boasts, complaints about momma (a dope fiend), periodic local color and black humor from a place as desperate and beautiful as Detroit.
Buck Meek — Two Saviors I feel like I’m writing too cautiously. Where is the scabrous, scatological, irresponsible bruiser of yesteryear? Has all the visual art criticism dragged me upmarket? It is time to upshift and pedal downhill willy nilly, without (I hope) stopping to review anything by Willy Nile. May the quick and desultory pace of my criticism become scurrilous and downright reckless. Pedestrians beware. Truth is that some acclaimed records don’t merit a heck of a lot of discussion. For instance, consider this: the Young Buck/Meek Mill collab you didn’t know you needed. J/k, it’s a threadbare solo outing from the dude in Big Thief. There, in his born role as a sympathetic sideman, he acquits himself very nicely. That twin six-string attack with Adrianne Lenker is pretty swell, I hope we can all agree. Here it’s just the sound of one guitar clapping, and the only Zen riddle I see is how Buck thought he could get away with those weedy vocals. He doesn’t even bathe them in b-vox: he just steps to the microphone and starts mumbling away about buffalos and other yokel shit. Didn’t this guy go to Berklee? Doesn’t he live in Brooklyn? Spare us from wannabe hayseeds. The real ones are already a handful.
Calavera — Espejismos Fight me on this, if you must. The best rock is pop-rock. The best punk is pop-punk. The best prog is pop-prog. The best R&B is pop-R&B. The best rocks are pop rocks. The best pop is not Pop Pop by Rickie Lee Jones (bleh) but the best psych is definitely pop-psych. Get out of the space capsule, space cadets. There are many airlocks and egresses. The Zaragoza kids in Calavera (which means skull, by the way) headed right through the one opened by Kevin Parker. Some of this does sound like Currents-era Tame Impala flipped in Spanish, and even though they don’t possess Parker’s concept-mastery or lyrical focus, they know how to plant a seedling melody in the loamy soil of pop-rock arrangement. Mildly trippy, unobtrusive, unobjectionable, a pleasant way to spend a half an hour. I’m even tempted to use the c-word.
Camila Moreno — Rey Camila Moreno started out as a winsome but unexceptional Chilean folkie. With each release, she’s gotten more electronic, more lesbonic, more bionic, and quite a bit more insane. Rey is the apotheosis of this trajectory: a set of sound experiments, some Lolita Nation-fragmentary, chopped up voices and squealing synthesizer, industrial abrasion, and a narrative framework containing cyborgs, some Mad Max shit, and a violent feminine-separatist movement bent on toppling the state. there’s Dhalgren-like indugence in the verities of urban decay, and Ximena Sariñana and Lido Pimienta swing by to help her mix up some Molotov cocktails. Now, some of this politicized experimentalism is thrilling, and some of it just seems kinda bobo; for instance, we all got a lifetime supply of dubstep drops in 2011, and there’s no way that a record so devoted to futurism should contain anything as dated as those. But it’s hard to fault her ambition, or her dedication to what can best be described as terrorism; I mean, there’s a city here (Santiago?) and most of the time it’s on fire. As for the lesbianism, that appears to be a pivotal piece of the revolutionary puzzle: paganismo y erotismo salvaje, or paganism and wild eroticism, that’s the prescription. No word on where Ximena stands on that, or how deep into the urban jungle she’s been led, but that’s why the good lord gave us imaginations to fertilize.
Caroline Kingsbury — Heaven’s Just A Flight Haim ripoffs: everybody’s doing ‘em. Everybody who is a girl, I mean. But everybody who is anybody is a girl, so I think the coast is clear for me to make some sweeping generalizations about Women In Music, pt. infinity. The cool (?) thing about Caroline is that she seems to believe that she can disguise her blatant lifts by cranking her mushrock reverb unit all the way to the Grand Canyon setting. The Grand Canyon is big!, nobody’s gonna notice Caroline down there in the gully, all echoed and muffled, furtively cribbing melodic and rhythmic passages from her favorite Haim records. To be fair, some of this is stolen from Sky Ferreira, too, and a few songs are half-hearted attempts to rewrite “We Belong” and/or “Holding Out For A Hero” and/or “Edge Of Seventeen.” Dang, now I bet you want to go listen to this. It may cool your ardor to know that the through-story here is about a queer girl in a disapproving fundie family who must reconcile herself to her own filial attachments when her brother croaks. Dang, now I’ve convinced myself to go listen to this. I give up. Pour it on, Caroline. Never look back/never give up.
Cassandra Jenkins — An Overview On Phenomenal Nature Cassandra Jenkins’s record is a little less immediate than some comparable sonic anthologies: Katy Kirby’s album, for instance. It took me a few listens to get it. But once it clicks into place, a through-story is revealed. It’s about a woman whose close friend (David Berman?) has committed suicide, and who is now drifting through an unearthly period of grief, shock, and painfully slow psychological reconstruction. I am impressed by Cassandra’s inerrant ear for the mad shit that people say to you when you’ve received a wicked blow from the hand of fate. A testament to Cassandra’s sequencing skills: Phenomenal Nature is the rare album on which the lengthy fade-to-white instrumental piece at the end of the album actually completes the narrative arc. There’s also a huge shout-out to Eleanor Friedberger in the middle of the spoken word piece. It sure made me smile.
Chad Van Gaalen — World’s Most Stressed Out Gardener There’s a really good one on this set: it’s called “Samurai Sword” (he left it leaning by the outhouse door). As is also true for Colin Meloy’s immortal stolen bicycle number, I think it is most productive to take this literally. It’s best appreciated as a story about a guy who lost a samurai sword with dog stickers on the hilt rather than as a metaphor for Chad’s dong. But I’ll admit it works fine as an expression of castration anxiety too. The rest of the album approaches the same zonked irreverence-slash-paranoia from time to time. But, mostly, it is a reminder that Chad has a dangerously low batting average.
Chvrches — Screen Violence “I don’t need to be desired,” huh? K, whatever you say, Mayberry. To be fair, she’s pushed this line before, but I don’t think she’s ever been quite so blunt about it. I’m not gonna say ungrateful, but I miiiiight just think it. Just as a wealthy person is free to allocate her resources however she sees fit, it is a beautiful woman’s prerogative to shine where and when she wants to shine. I don’t begrudge her that. I do think it’s a funny thing to hear from the frontwoman of an arena rock band. Screen Violence is less brotronic than the last one, which is good, but it continues the march toward big, blown-out, imposing productions with cold surfaces made of skyscraper glass and burnished steel. The two synthesists/security guards in Chvrches have built this fortress of sound around Lauren Mayberry, who has decided that she is the heroine of a slasher film — the “last girl” holding out against the predatory demands of a bloodthirsty male viewership. Safer inside the screen, she tells us on “Lullabyes,” and tired of trying to be adored. I suppose this is a reasonable reaction to the digital gladiatorial arena we’ve constructed — more survivable than Lady Gaga’s constant hunger for love, attention, and retweets, and truer to the pop project than Lorde’s decision to chuck it. But we don’t ask pop stars to be reasonable, do we?
Cimafunk — El Alimento Young Cuban spaz does funk. Rubber kickball bass, comically explosive snare, scratchy guitar, goofball rapping and gang backing vox, the funky trombone, cameos from Lupe, Cee Lo, and George Clinton (!) alongside Los Papines and Chucho Valdés. Assorted ooga chakas connoting the motherland, lots of funny voices at odd angles, not exactly conversational, not exactly informative, no matter the tongue. Mostly they are entreaties to (wait for it) get funky. They’re carrying on tradition, and one of the main traditions in music like this is to keep the shindig bopping at all costs. The result evokes Bruno Mars at his most elastic, the loopier parts of the Digital Underground metaverse, crime-caper soundtracks, latter-period Santana, Wyclef with passport in hand, and that African-inflected party rap made mildly popular by artists like Daye Jack. It’s all fun, and frenetic, even if it signifies the enjoyment of others more than it engenders enjoyment for you. It’s a party going on next door, in other words; sounds of revelry coming through an open window on hot night. Neighbors you sorta like are getting down. You could probably go over and dance if you wanted to. But do you really want to?
Citizen — Life In Your Glass World It was probably inevitable that Citizen would make some kind of stylistic alteration after the diminishing returns of their last two albums. But I was not expecting them to turn into Bloc Party all of a sudden. They’re tight enough to make it stick, and for the first couple of songs, it works well: “Death Dance Approximately” comes roaring out of the chute as smooth and compact and directed as a pinball shot from a plunger. For a good ten minutes, it’s all noise and velocity. They’re hitting bumpers and racking up points. But by the middle of the album, let’s just say they’re shaking the machine pretty hard to achieve a diminished effect. Tilt.
Clairo — Sling Clairo’s album, which makes Happier Than Ever sound like the fucking Buzzcocks by comparison, ventures even further into the oozing mucus membrane of modern pop. Mumbled music of considerable listlessness, with roople-doople-tracked vocals that serve to thicken Clairo’s namby-pamby voice in the exact way that MSG thickens moo goo gai pan. Jack Antonoff saddles Clairo with a naturalist approach that serves to highlight all of her faults: her lack of vocal power, her inability to lead or direct a band, her studied refusal to craft a hook, her diary-jotting lyrics, her struggles with pitch, her unpop sexlessness. Surely he thinks it’s honest, and god help him, he’s right about that. If he played that wet noodle guitar or arranged those queasy strings, or hit that snare three years behind the beat, I rather think Clairo, or Clairo’s oligarch dad, should sue him for malpractice.
Cloud Nothings — The Shadow I Remember Though I don’t listen to them very often, I like this band a bunch. They’re reliably loose, raw and unassuming, and they evoke wet weather like a rainbow in an oil slick. Like Cymbals Eat Guitars, there’s something forgettable about them, and they do blend into the mise en scene, but throw them on and they’ll rock your windsock. Any given Cloud Nothings album will have two or three songs that are far too aggro for Mister Flower over here, but then there are the ones with the ragged pop-rock hooks, and those work just fine. The singalong monster here goes “I need to make time for me/for me,” and if that’s all you concentrated on, you might think that Dylan Baldi was in an uncharacteristically self-entitled mood. The truth is most of this set consists of true-love songs — some Streisand sentiment for the kids in the pit — and they’re plainspoken and sincere. See?: sweaty scuzzballs need smooches too. That’s why they rock in the first place.
Cool Ghouls — At George’s Zoo Nothing too chill about the Cool Ghouls, who, despite the name, tend to keep things warm and nerdy. There are a few ballads on At George’s Zoo, but they’re rendered like Phil Ochs might have done them while glancing over his shoulder in anticipation of the FBI goon squad. Most of the rest of the time these are limb-flailing charges toward the finish line, done in the style of the hyper pop (not hyperpop) acts of the mid-sixties: The Zombies, Jan And Dean, Moby Grape, The Left Banke in guitar mode, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and especially The Association, who are lovingly and shamelessly mimicked here. Cool Ghouls have at least three different singers in the band, and I suspect there’s a bit of friendly competition going on here, with each of the songwriters pushing the others to capture some vintage Bay Area fog-filtered sunshine. Sometimes it’s borderline Dukes Of Stratosphear-parodic, like the one where the dudes are cruising on their surf-boooards, especially since it’s too damn cold to surf in San Francisco. Sometimes their throwback ambitions are betrayed by their voices, which aren’t always up to the task of classic S.F. revivalism. But “Smoke And Fire” is a klieg light on the Golden Gate Bridge at nightfall, “How Free” is a faded photograph of a Haight-Ashbury love-in, and “Helpless Ccircumstance” gets everything so right — from the plate reverbs to the attitude to the intervals of the harmonies the Ghouls sing — that you’ll swear that they sold their souls to the ghost of Bill Graham. Aand the one about the trip to Mexico is so letter-perfect and acid-plaintive that I think they just summoned the Winterland Ballroom back into existence. I’ll call this my favorite ‘60s psych-pop fake since Lost In Beaucaire by Woody Murder Mystery.
Cory Hanson — Pale Horse Rider The Wand guy throws a changeup. Only not really. There’s been a Crazy Horse vibe to lots of the band’s best material: “Wonder” from Laughing Matter, “Driving” from Plum, etc. He’s always tucked some spectral Americana in the spaces between the towering psych workouts. This is just the spectral stuff, with the towers mostly out of sight, with fewer landmarks, and not so many stakes driven into the plain. As the title indicates, his sense of looming apocalypse hasn’t betrayed him. But even the doomsaying feels less urgent than usual: “sooner or later, the Devil’s going to come,” goes a representative chorus, and heck, Cory, any old dispensational millenarian could tell you that. Will Cory recognize the Devil when he arrives, though? So he thinks he can tell/heaven from hell/blue skies from pain? He still hasn’t convinced me that he’s got the requisite discernment. Consider that it takes Cory a half hour to get around to the guitar solo that justifies this entire project. When he does, it just sounds like Wand minus Sofia Arreguin’s synths and the fills from that fabulous drummer. Sometimes a six (string) shooter has got to get out of Dodge and run some scales on the lonesome range, I guess. Plug into that cactus and shred, Cory.
Corvair — Corvair This is an old-fashioned college rock album made by a married couple in Portland who sound rather purty in close harmony and kinda flatfooted when they tackle these melodies on their own. There’s distorted rhythm guitar, drums hitting a little too hard, and a Greg Hawkes-style squarewave synth playing lead lines over the tops of the mixes. The story concerns lovelorn lovers by the ocean, and some sort of nautical hooey; I admit I haven’t really pieced it together and they haven’t quiiiiiite given me the incentive to connect all the dots. There used to be a lot of bands like this: Wygals-type bands, pop-rock groups who believed that the prime requisite was to mint a melody, and then support that melody with a muscular arrangement and all the oohs and aahs and power chords they could dredge up from the rock and roll swamp. Frequently we’d catch them at Maxwell’s. What makes Corvair work as well as it does is the attention to quality control and the stormy tone of the album, which the two musicians manage to sustain from beginning to end. There are also neat little touches that tickle me, like the portamento swoop that happens after Heather Larimer sings that the home for wayward girls was always hers. It sounds like resignation: acquiescence, a turn inward, a swan-dive into a half-private story that you’re invited to observe at a distance. It’s a reminder that obscurantism was part of the point of college rock, and maybe part of the point of college. That’s how the mystery was generated. These days, they’d just use a reverb plug in. Not saying that’s better or worse necessarily. Just sayin’.
Courtney Barnett — Things Take Time, Take Time The long subtraction continues. The first Courtney Barnett singles heralded the arrival of a Jonathan Richman-like rocker, prolix and energetic in a post-collegiate way, star-like, central, generous with the wisecracks, ecopolitical, nerdily sexy, one steady eye on the pantheon and the other on her electric guitar. The first album was more of the same, but perhaps a tiptoe back from the brink of urgency, and a whiff of resignation to the indie bins, too. It also introduced a genuine depressive streak into Courtney’s songwriting that’s only visible on the early records in retrospect. The Kurt Vile collaboration suggested that she might be willing to share the spotlight with a lesser talent (yes he is) which, while morally commendable, isn’t something that a marquee-topper consents to. The second album stripped away the overt wit and crowd-pleasing wordplay and turned up the rock; on the new one, even the rock is (mostly) missing. What’s funny is that there hasn’t been much attenuation in quality — Courtney is as entertaining and engaging as she’s ever been. It’s the same basic personality. It’s just situated differently. I find these songs quite catchy and memorable, even if they’ve started to add up to a portrait of a shambling sad sack. It’s not that she doesn’t want to write about gardening and elevator operators and origami anymore. It’s that time has revealed that the hyperspecificity and gaming were always a cover for her real subject: the difficulties of living a small, honorable, and introspective life in a world that’s crazy with waste and pointless aggression. No wonder she’s pared back the noise. She’s found a sound that matches her existential time crisis. Nothing manic, nothing wildly imbalanced, just the slow application of bicycle brakes to a speeding globe. Also, and related: nobody has ever nailed the experience of separation anxiety with any more accuracy than Courtney does. That, friends, has been true since the very beginning.
Crowded House — Dreamers Are Waiting Down there at the enz of the earth, they keep minting fresh Finns. Bust out the potato chips, hang the streamers, and slice up the kiwi fruit for the Finn family reunion. Crowded House is crowded with budding Finns now, with Liam on guitar and Elroy Finn on drums. I am not sure this compares to the crack pop band that levitated the Sydney Opera House after Together Alone, but it’s close enough to coax a smile out of me. Even Uncle Tim swings by the studio to contribute a co-write. For all that, the keepers here on this tuneful but subdued Finn project are the ones that Neil put together himself. That means the Stones-y “Sweet Tooth,” and “Whatever You Want,” a broadside against demagoguery. True Finns don’t humor stuff like that. They’ve stashed themselves away on the underside of a burning globe for a reason.
C Tangana — El Madrileño If El Madrileño sounds like boy Rosalia to you, there’s a reason for that: C Tangana is, or was, Rosalia’s boyfriend and one of the main architects of the sonic aesthetic of El Mal Querer. Flamenco plus gypsy handclaps plus trap beats, Caribbean whispers, pitch-altered Kanye-style samples and cosmopolitan R&B vox: I’d never heard anything like it before, and I haven’t heard anything like it since. Until this. C Tangana’s own re-habitation and rehydration of this sound is simultaneously more expansive (this is a much longer album and covers more thematic and geographic territory) and more obvious, I mean, he’s gone and put the Gipsy Kings on this thing. He’s also an, er, wispy vocalist, which means he can’t really generate those same warm tradewinds that swirl around Rosalia’s person. But when this catches fire — and it often does — it more than justifies C Tangana’s will to situate his unprecedented sound in pan-Latin tradition. Put it this way: he raps on a song that features Jose Feliciano, and incredibly, it does not degenerate into a post-Santana mess. It’s actually pretty hot. Talk about defying cultural gravity. Smashing salsa (“Muriendo De Envidia”), fuzz-bass corridos (“Cambia!”), and bleary Drake-like smoke music (“Cuando Olvidaré”) sit side by side by side, and the star harmonizes all of it. That’s more than just jet-setting: that’s diplomacy, man. There’s a sweet spot where a sample spat out of an MPC is a kissing cousin to a septuagenarian dude calling out background encouragement to a nylon-string gypsy guitarist, and C Tangana has found that spot. Those loose band participation choruses are some of my favorite moments in Latin pop: like when the old dudes start chanting “café con pan” behind Natalia Lafourcade in “Tierra Veracruzana.” Notably, though, this is not Latin American music. It is, as Rosalia was, an exercise in global futurism rooted in tradition and folklore, summoned by a university kid from Madrid. That’s a plus for the university, and something to talk about during orientation.
Cult Of Luna — The Raging River This is the latest project from one of my very favorite metal bands. Which just goes to show you that despite my appreciation for the technical mastery of the players, and the sonic adventurousness of the soundscapers, and the literary ambition of the conceptualists, and the formidable musical intelligence that goes into music like this, I just don’t like metal all that much. Twelve measure bursts in the middle of Poppy songs are about what I can handle, and I am ever so grateful to Poppy for keeping those irruptions manageable.
Damon Albarn — The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows So much for holidays/somewhere in the sun. Damon has instead moved to Iceland, which stands to reason: he always did seem like the sort of guy who wants to do sex on elves. Believe me, I identify. There may be other reasons to move to Iceland, but they mostly have to do with walruses and bank fraud, and I cannot imagine Damon is compelled by either one. The natural beauty of Iceland engenders saxophones, I gather, and Damon has immersed himself in the plants and birds and rocks and things and emerged with this clutch of tone poems. Misty, floating on the breeze, wan as a morning on the ice floe, about as far from “woo hoo/I feel heavy metal” as it’s possible to get. Like every Damon solo project, this one is a grower, and the way it grows is like cold moss, or mycelium — lichen on a big black rock, so your willingness to make yourself a solitary standing stone in a cold Icelandic stream will determine how much you get out of the experience. He’s not trying to put one over on you; he’s gone and depicted the lonely stone on the album cover. There just aren’t that many girls who want boys who like boys to be elves. Alas.
Daniel Quien — Aroma A Nostalgia ¡Bienvenidos a Mush City, Mexico! This style oughta be familiar enough for alt-Americans: long, slow songs, buckets of reverb, delicately plinked acoustic guitar, what-is-its filling space in the background, sighing oohs and aahs, copious languor. Daniel Quien is a good singer with a delicate way of traipsing from vowel to vowel, and when he gets dramatic, which happens pretty often, it’s possible to hear that Morrissey influence on Mexican music I’ve been told so much about. The title track is a big, sopping slow dance number that’s perfect for rupturing hearts at your next Mexican prom. But eventually the lethargy is too much to overcome. When Daniel backs up the nine-minute “Luces De Ti” with the eleven-minute “Dime Que Siempre Vamos A Estar Juntos,” he pushes this spacecraft over the event horizon into a universe where time has no meaning. Just infinite strums, yearning unending, little boys lost forever down a digital well, sustain without release.
Diamante Electrico — Mira Lo Que Me Hiciste Hacer That’s Spanish for “look what you made me do.” Alas, this set does not contain a cover of Taylor Swift’s wooliest hit, but it does contain plenty of the breezy party boy self-absolution that the title implies. For instance, the very first number blames Bogotá for the narrator’s obsessive hedonism, and look, mister, I have watched several YouTube clips about Bogotá. It is a very nice place and I am virtually enchanted by it. Maybe the problem is you. Diamante Electrico does indeed seem to be running hard from LATAM rhythms and toward rootless, geographically indeterminate Maroon 5-style electrofunk, and I am insulted on behalf of my imaginary Colombian friends that anybody would do such a thing. They are very beautiful. My imaginary friends, I mean; not Diamante Electrico. They just look like standard sunglasses bros. When they slip a little digital cumbia into the algorithm, as they do on “A Veces,” it’s amazing how quickly things start to cook. I admit I like the blissed-out rock-en-Español cover of “Todo El Mundo Quiere El Mundo” (that’s “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” to you Yankees). Nevertheless, the group you are looking for is Bomba Estéreo.
Disq — Collector Good kids, with a good chunky guitar sound, good astringent pop-rock singing, neat melodies, enough slacker insouciance to remind you of the nineties without necessarily bathing you in big muff pi and swaddling you in flannel. “Loneliness” has a swell chord progression, and tight vocal harmonies, and it more than earns its climactic shriek. That said, if the most earnest love song you’re singing is the one you’re directing toward your microphone (a D-19, which is, to be fair, a very handsome looking mic), you may want to accrue a little more life experience before you make your next record.
Doja Cat — Planet Her Squirrel Flower sets the coordinates to Planet (i). Doja Cat rockets us off to Planet Her. It’s the same solipsism with a slight but significance difference. Where Ella Williams is meant to be precisely coterminous with her narrator, Doja Cat is ever so slightly estranged from the character she’s playing; there’s some daylight between the Doja we get on record (her) and the author. And who can blame her?, I mean, Doja Cat is kind of a dick. No matter how stylish she is or how well she raps, I wouldn’t want to be that person either. Take away basic fairness, regional pride, girl power, social perspective, and love of hip-hop history from Megan Thee Stallion, and you’d still have someone a hundred times more sympathetic than Doja, governed by her own myopia and self-absorption as she is. The gaseous atmosphere on Planet Her is made breathable by the star’s attitudinous effervescence, mostly, which waxes and wanes according to its interaction with other celestial bodies: Ariana Grande, for instance, provides some friendly gravitational pull, which The Weeknd, as he’s wont to do, just darkens an already cloud-choked sky. Mostly this is a slow and deliberate float through quadrants of the galaxy usually inhabited by native space creatures such as Tinashe. It’s cold, distantly lit, and there’s dark matter around. Then, out of nowhere, a shooting star: “Kiss Me More,” a genuine pop party-starter assisted by SZA, with deft verses over a big splashy beat, and you’ll be left wondering what in the wide and expanding universe prevents her from doing more of that. Pure interstellar perversity, I reckon.
Dori Freeman — Ten Thousand Roses I’ve always suspected that if you’re a songwriter with a narrow margin for error, the worst thing you can do is go for a lush sound. That’s as true in heavy metal and noise rock as it is in alternative country. Dori Freeman is a winsome but limited Cantrellish singer, and the sort of lyricist who rhymes “movie star” with “driving in my car.” In order for her traditionalist numbers to work, the melodies need to be impeccably and succinctly developed. The albums she made with Teddy Thompson at the helm were nothing but skin and bones — pure exhibitions of songwriting and little else — but they foregrounded her knack for turning a tune. Ten Thousand Roses is her first attempt to get over on sound as well as compositional substance, and in practice that means a much bigger kick and snare, and ‘verbed-out guitar sections and the gossamer caress of b-vox mush. The long and short of it is that this is sounds a heck of a lot more like a modern record than anything Dori has done previously. But it’s also her worst album by quite a bit. Dori simply isn’t an artist who can afford to take many liberties. She needs to devote all of her artistic resources to clarity. Sometimes she still reminds you why she’s worth following. All the gooey tremoloed six-string in the Galax-y can’t take the crisp copper shine off of the freshly minted penny that is “I Wanted To.” But too many of the edges of her new songs dissolve in the Blue Ridge mist. And when she sings about “they” who are keeping Appalachian people down, she has a moral responsibility as well as an aesthetic one to blow off the smoke and give it to us straight.
Drake — Certified Lover Boy In 2021, what oversight board could possibly have the authority to grant or deny certification to Aubrey Drake Graham? Don’t say Cash Money Young Money; that hasn’t been true in a long time. Also, leave Kanye out of this. As the number one chart dominator on the planet, Drake has neither overseers nor peers. Therefore it follows that if he’s flashing you documentation, he created those forms on his PC and printed them out at home. Now, “certified” is also a synonym for “insane”. So maybe he means something other than what we first thought he meant. Some of his recent pick-up lines do smell of the short bus: “you say you’re a lesbian, girl, me too” has been singled out by critics for ridicule, but how about “we used to do pornos when you came over/but now you got morals and shit”? What about “how much I gotta spend before you pipe down?”; that’s the sort of thing a certified frat dude might say. These are not the sentiments of a confident love man, and the author of “Marvins Room” and “Days In The East” ought to know that better than anybody. Even the one persuasive bit of complex romantic storytelling turns out to be a housebound lament in which Drake’s girl ditches him and gets borracho. Certified Lover Boy contains some of Drake’s best music in a long time, including a mid-to-late-album stretch — roughly “Yebba’s Heartbreak” through “Get Along Better” — which evoke the Tuscan leather feel of those masterful productions of the early part of the last decade. He’s rarely rapped better than he does on “7AM On Bridle Path,” and “Race My Mind” is velvety enough to erase the memory of the choppier stretches of Scorpion. This is a good Drake project, and anybody who tells you otherwise is simply sick of Drake; understandable by now, but poor criticism. Nevertheless, Aubrey’s world hegemony is based on his appeal to the ladies. It pains me to report that his game has deteriorated to that of a horny fourteen year old boy. He wouldn’t be the first on-the-go businessman to use certification to mask a regression of his skills, but he’s lost so much lover boy velocity that I’ve got to think that even the strippers are noticing. Too much time in the low light conditions of the cluuuuub may have rendered him rusty. You know what Chris Rock says: no sex in the champagne room.
Dry Cleaning — New Long Leg Florence Shaw of Dry Cleaning does a respectable job of approximating significance: her sprechesang (which is heavy on the sprech) is delivered in a deadpan suggestive of suppressed irritation, and, perhaps, scathing dismissal of you the listener. Like Bob Dylan or early Beck, she excels at making you believe that there’s a referent to her rambling, and if you don’t get it, that’s your fault, not hers. She’s funny, which is a plus, and individual observations and declarative shine through the post-punk murk. “I spent seventeen pounds on mushrooms for you/because I’m silly,” she tells us; on the next song, she asks “are there llama plushies in here?/in this shop?,” before wondering about the grease-producing effect of the uneaten sausages in the grill pan. Insults and sideswipes, astrology, budgetary worries, concerns about whether there’ll be a hairdryer in her stateroom, complaints about the pacing of the Antiques Roadshow, and lots and lots of interest in various food items. It isn’t storytelling in the slightest, and it doesn’t exactly cohere into a character portrait, either, or even a disposition. It isn’t accurate to call it snatches of overheard conversation, either, because nobody talks like this; it’s more an attempt to express and discipline a scattered procession of private thoughts. Thought-bubble rock — a stream of consciousness divided and dammed, and choked from upstream litter, cast into the water by careless passersby.
Ducks Ltd. — Modern Fiction This might be the exact jangle pop band that Kiwi Jr. ordered us to strangle. It isn’t that they deserve to be choked. They just fit the stereotype so squarely. If you’re a fan of, say, the Chills, you’re going to find a lot to dig here: that frantic sixteenth-beat strumming, that half-angelic, half-bored delivery, those machine beats, those melodic hooks doubled by the bass, warbly cheapo organ pads, everything up on the neck, everything brittle, and despair creeping in around the edges of the mixes like an embarrassed lodger skipping out on the rent. They’ve added a string section to a few of these, and, in a move that feels very much like a co-sign, the Beths swing by to add harmonies to a few tracks. While Ducks Ltd isn’t exactly a lyrics-first project, they’ve paid enough attention to the words that the Go-Betweens comparison they’re shooting for isn’t totally sacrilegious to bring up. “Under The Rolling Moon,” in particular, is a nice portrait of social anxiety among the young, pretty, and painfully self-conscious. Jangle-pop fans, in other words; out there courting a strangling, as they so often do.
Elbow — Flying Dream 1 They’ve got impeccable taste, you can give them that, even if you can’t stand ‘em. John Martyn, Robert Wyatt, Talk Talk, Paul Buchanan and the Blue Nile, Hogarth-era Marillion, Peter Gabriel ballads, Sting ballads; you just know they’re big Joni fans, too. Nevertheless, this is the first Elbow album where the influences guide the aesthetic choices — an album that chases the sound of one of Guy Garvey’s BBC 6 radio playlists, rather than the weary gravitas that usually motivates this elderly, dignified rock band. As Tom Snow put it so precisely and eloquently a few years ago, the problem with Garvey is that he presents every syllable of every lyric as if it were a Fabergé egg. Prior albums balanced Garvey’s absurd non-rock pussyfooting with anthemic tracks that aimed for the cultural reverberation of Britpop (esp. “One Day Like This,” which will always be this band’s calling-card). On Little Fictions, Craig Potter matched programmed bossa nova with live pop drumming, unless it was the other way around, and that was both something new under the sun and a pleasantly transatlantic setting for Garvey to inhabit. Flying Dream pulls the beats way back, and lets Guy Garvey be as Manilow as he wants to be, which, as it turns out, is pretty darn Manilow. Yes it is winsome, and winsomosity is nice. But in pop, prettiness alone won’t cut it. John Martyn and Robert Wyatt knew that. And Joni sure as hell did.
Elizabeth & The Catapult — Sincerely, E I understand why many simply cannot swing with this woman. She is a huge showoff, her songs often become skills exhibitions and showcases for her technical/instrumental/compositional talents, she sings everything in a inebriated “jazz” voice that always feels one hundred per cent put on, and no matter what ill befalls her, she remains convinced of her own deep specialness. In hip-hop, all of those things would be considered virtues. Why is the swag expected of your neighborhood emcee considered gauche when adopted by an educated white woman who pounds out quasi-showtunes at Rockwood Music Hall? Wait, don’t answer that, I know why. But the simple truth is that I respond to high-strung high achievers like this; you know I would have made all kinds of excuses for Paris Geller if I’d been in Stars Hollow in real life. My heart goes out to them. I want to see them ace the test. I even liked Elizabeth Ziman before I liked her music, I mean, Taller Children was insufferable, the epitome of hand-clappin’, hopscotchin’, precious post-Regina Spektor tweepop, and that’s true even if it preceded Regina Spektor. Don’t make me check. But would I ever sell it back? Never would I sell it back. Elizabeth eventually acquired some legitimate scuff marks on her heart, slowed down a bit, and began applying her native intelligence to her writing in a more instinctive manner, and I’ll be damned if she didn’t get the buds to bloom. Sincerely, E isn’t the keepsake that, er, Keepsake was, but that’s mostly because it’s Elizabeth locked in a closet during a plague year, the showoff operating with no show business or funny business permissible. She plays her piano frantically and somewhat masturbationally (not a problem), reflects on the psychic price of isolation, and walks her dog, apparently. Now and then she catches the feel, if not the measure, of the Big Apple in repose. Her virus songs aren’t just metaphors; there’s some actual fear in there. I don’t really believe she’s going to throw her computer in the Hudson River. But I like the one where the girl at the deli asks Elizabeth out and she worries that the mask makes her expression inscrutable and therefore insufficiently appreciative. I like the horniness-in-solitude ones, which are most of them. I especially like “Love Always Wins,” where she finds some chords that most pop musicians could never hunt out of a scale, let alone integrate into a four-minute song. See, that’s a neat application of that music education. It’s a minor miracle that Elizabeth has resisted the temptation to write a musical: the album, bless her, is still her chosen medium and the vehicle for her ideas. That suggests a real love for pop, even though pop won’t love her back. So I will instead.
Elvis Costello — Spanish Model Okay, now he’s just rubbing it in. Even with a foreign tongue, he still licks the competition. This is not a covers set, because Elvis and Sebastian Krys are using the original tracks from the This Year’s Model sessions. So this is the Attractions from winter ‘77 plus shiny new vocals from various contemporary Latin American singers, and I won’t say that it’s a reminder that nobody plays like this anymore, because nobody played like that then, either. Elvis mentioned that subtracting his voice meant that the band comes through clearer; his bad attitude no longer takes up so much space, he assures us. I know just what he means, but it turns out that the main beneficiary is Elvis himself. His guitar playing, which occasionally got lost behind the adenoidal and high-treble diatribes on the original, is astounding here — easily the equal of the world-class performances by the other instrumentalists. The other major revelation, which really isn’t so much a surprise as it is a third-party ratification, is how painfully sad these songs are. Reinterpreted by note-perfect Latin pop singers accustomed to selling heartbreak, This Year’s Model becomes less of a cantankerous incel complaint and more of a chronicle of disappointment from a rueful romantic. These characters are bummed out by love’s impermanence, and crushed by the casual indignities of those who’ve gotten power over their partners. Jesse & Joy’s devastated version of “Living In Paradise” (“Viviendo En El Paraiso”), a song I never thought about very much, is the wan protest against the slow fade of love, as Jenny Lewis might put it, than it never could have been with Elvis on the mic. Cami does Wendy James one better by fully inhabiting “This Year’s Girl,” Sebastian Yátra softens “Big Tears” just enough to get it to seep into the cracks of your consciousness, Francisca Valenzuela makes the resignation to emotional violence in “Hand In Hand” feel like the cosmic betrayal of the lover’s contract that it is. The lyric changes prompted by the translations all feel reasonable to me, and motivated by desire to stay true to the spirit of the songs, and I think it is highly meaningful that the younger artists here do better than the older ones do. That confirms the eternal relevance of This Year’s Model, and Elvis himself, to the international pop-punk project. I’m looking forward to El Rey De America and especially Sangre Y Chocolate.
Espanto — Cemento Espanto (which means terror, btw) is from a college town in Spain: Logroño on the Ebro. There they make low-impact synthpop in the style of Saint Etienne, or Dubstar at their most casual. Languorous melodies, pitter-patter machine beats, analog drone and digital buzz, post-Sarah Records sadness, hints of Tropicalia, tooting on the flute and heavy duty cuteness from frontwoman Teresa. I do not have the capacity to resist such stuff, even if I wanted to, which I never would. When she says “baila!,” it’s not even an order from a dancefloor commander. It’s a friendly recommendation from cupcake planet — an incantation with its enchantment underpinned by the power of adorableness. Now, would it be just as irresistible to me if it was in English? Por supuesto que no, mis amigos. Naturalmente.
Faye Webster — I Know I’m Funny Haha The Eilish Line marks the pivot point between albums I buy and albums I won’t. This one has been squatting on the Eilish Line for quite some time. I still think it could break either way. Faye will likely put you in mind of Natalie Prass when she isn’t reminding you of Julia Jacklin, and you might think that’d put her album straight on my Christmas list. Butshe hasn’t exactly channeled the very best of either one. Like Prass, she has a tiny pin-light of a voice, and she mostly uses it to sound forlorn and fix the narrow scope of the lives her characters are leading. Like Julia, she takes drives through the emotional hay plains: slow, laconic meditations on relationships going nowhere set to glacial alternative country music. Regardless of her knowledge of self, she’s not exactly funny ha ha — she’s the kind of funny that elicits a tight smile and a nod of sympathy. She’s worried about intellectual property theft and the proper course to rock stardom, but she also doesn’t want to leave the house. Inertia is a problem: Faye’s characters are constantly stuck at home, crying over the plights of strangers, missing and not missing their partners, going to bed with the lights on to pretend they’re not alone. Much of the non-action action on I Know I’m Funny happens with the protagonist asleep: in one telling stanza, she apologizes to a boyfriend who suffers from nightmares for nodding off before he does. These characters aren’t using that mattress for anything other than zzzzzs; the relationships are comfortable, over-familiar, unexciting, and hey, where is there to go, anyway? The boyfriend could leave Faye for someone who looks just like her, and be right back in the same spot in a different too-tight apartment. If we’re lucky, this album is going to remind a whole heck of a lot of young people of the experience of quarantine. If we aren’t, we may not be able to bear to listen to this at all.
Flamingosis — Daymaker This is a fun, sample-drenched beat tape from a Jersey guy with a deep record collection and a qualified sense of hedonism similar to that possessed by the pair of French puritans who stripped and rinsed ethnic American music on those celebrated Daft Punk albums. Not complaining; I like things stripped and rinsed sometimes, too. It’s a situational play. As with Daft Punk, the emphasis on beat enhancement is sometimes an obstruction to the sense of looseness that the creator is trying to communicate. I’m not sure how much of Daymaker was pinched directly from its sources and how much Flamingosis performed himself, and it hardly matters at all, but the originalist in me (he’s in there somewhere) hopes that the artist added something more than pro EQ. Something tells me that he’s responsible for the urbane guitar, since urbane guitaring is a complementary talent for guys who make beat tapes. But maybe he just pushed some buttons on an MPC and boogied. As mood music goes, I’d call this commendably sprightly. Who knows, maybe one day he’ll deign to write us a song.
Foo Fighters — Medicine At Midnight Funky Dave Grohl makes his disco move. This was inevitable given Dave’s cheekiness and cool-dad embrace of pop culture, but that does not mean it isn’t as gruesome as you’d think it would be. It isn’t that Dave lacks the mettle to smith himself a tune, because he’s always had a Mentos-fresh fruity pop streak, and as long as he’s got Taylor Hawkins on drums, he can make the dancefloor jump. It’s that the ham-handed manner with which he approaches performance is utterly incompatible with dance music, which requires a certain lightness of spirit, even when it’s coated in American cheese. You’d think that Greg Kurstin would tell him that and spare him the elephant-in-a-tutu routine. Maybe he’s playing a practical joke on behalf of the memory of Kurt Cobain.
Floating Points, Pharaoh Sanders, And The London Symphony Orchestra — Promises The year of the saxophone blows on. More moodily than merrily, but it’s not a particularly merry time on earth, is it. This critically acclaimed something-or-other matches the legendary jazz player Pharaoh Sanders with electrosnooze artist Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra, who, I guess, are responsible for the background stuff that sounds like an ARP preset. The result is akin to a forty-five minute loop of the part in “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” where Pink Floyd sets the mood before the band kicks in. The Floating Points guy repeats the main lick so many times that just listening to this gave me carpal tunnel syndrome. Hilary, right now: “Is this Disney? It sounds like Disney. It’s not Disney?”
Foxing — Draw Down The Moon Old emos going commercial, chapter 4080. Foxing’s knack for crafting albums with satisfying trajectories remains intact, though. This one apportions its steam efficiently enough to keep the engine going until they reach the wire. In the past, they would’ve emoed their way across the finish line, with screams and spittle and guitar screech, but as you’ve probably heard, that’s not how they’re rolling this season. The Foxing army went bananas on Twitter after Pitchfork, in one of its few accurate assessments this year, called this a big dumb arena rock record. Well, not in so many words, but that was the gist. Fans wanted to know why staff emo Ian Cohen hadn’t been assigned the review; I reckon that he would have written the same thing, and he decided to pass that hot potato off to some other schmuck, much in the manner of certain squeamish Democratic senators who are forever letting Joe Manchin take the bullet for them. Let Joe do it. He likes the heat. Anyway, the funny thing about Draw Down The Moon is that the more it sounds like Queen Feat. Adam Lambert, the better it works — I mean “Lightning Strikes Twice,” mostly, but also goofy, synthy “Bialystok” and “If I Believed In Love.” There’s really no shame in reaching for the mid-eighties MTV crown: somebody’s got to wear that thing, and Conor Murphy, dramatic and intensely mustached as he is, has always been a good candidate for the role. They also win points from me for providing Yoni Wolf a place to hide. He’s credited on the last track, but for the life of me, I can’t tell what he’s doing. Maybe he’s over in the corner, glaring at them for sticking him on a big dumb arena rock record.
Girlfriends And Boyfriends — Fallacy Of Fairness There are those who look at pop-rock music-making as a craft, akin to rug weaving, or glassblowing, or casting gilded toilet bowl seats. They will defend this by pointing out that for many centuries and in many cultures, originality simply wasn’t valued. If you tried to pass off some unprecedented form of horseshoe on your client, you’d get a dirty look from your client and maybe a kick in the pants from the horse. You made your screen painting precisely as your Chinese master made it, and never mind your will to inscribe your personal story among the pagodas. The problem is that pop-rock is a pretty big undertaking, and demands emotional and political agility, not to mention physical stamina, of the maker. Master craftsmen do not tend to be peripatetic. Annlaw Clay-Shaper fires his pottery and stays at his wheel while Taran hauls it to the next town over. The rocker can’t do that. The studio game is but a small fraction of the work he must do. He’s also got to travel far and wide, dragging large black boxes and a snakepit of wires wherever he goes, kissing industry ass whenever it’s possible, plying his trade in the absence of any kind of directorial guidance. I sometimes think that the reason originality is mandatory in pop-rock is because of the degree of difficulty involved. If you’re going to put yourself through this shit, you’d better have a strong personal stake. Otherwise, you might as well devote your time to online gaming. I’ve thought about this a bunch in the wake of the latest post-punk revival, which, as far as I can tell, is driven in its entirely by technicians. A record like Fallacy Of Fairness is as precisely and carefully manufactured as a Wedgwood plate. The particulars are all inherited: they’ve borrowed this sound from The Cure, and Echo & The Bunnymen, and New Order, and Duran Duran, and The Smiths, and if you like those bands (you do), there’s nothing about Girlfriends And Boyfriends that you won’t also enjoy. But I’ve turned this record upside down and I’ve shaken it as hard as I can. I can locate nothing in excess of impeccable craftsmanship. They’ve scrupulously avoided adding anything to the formula. It’s like they’re worried about reverse attorneys who’d sue them for anti-theft. This makes me scratch my head. They’ve put a lot of work into this, and practiced very hard, and to what end? It cannot be fameandfortune; if that’s all these talented imitators were after, they’d choose to ride along in the slipstream of more popular music. I’m forced to conclude that Girlfriends And Boyfriends just adore commercial post-punk of the early MTV era — so much so that they’re willing to sublimate their own expressive desires and cosplay it professionally. Maybe they’re like anime fans who love the story so much that they feel they have no choice but to pretend they’re part of a fictional universe. I get that. But Comicon is four days. After the party, the guy in the Naruto costume puts it back in his closet and goes back to the rest of his life. Girlfriends And Boyfriends have to tour behind this set, and stay in character as they do, and sweat and push and struggle for months at a time in order to extend other people’s ideas, and other people’s aesthetics, formed decades ago during the crest of the new wave. It’s a big lift. I wish them luck, and a firm hold on their sanity.
Girl In Red — If I Could Make It Go Quiet The redundopop. I guess some might say that all pop is superfluous, but who am I to argue with the airtight logic of moranmoranmore? This is stuff earmarked for the day when you’ve had enough of the Olivia Rodrigo album, which could come at aaaaaany point. Aaaany day. Hasn’t yet, though. Girl In Red is a young Norwegian, but you wouldn’t know it from the international monostyle she’s already pretty good at: blurred synthesizer, effected guitar, hard-sold hooks and a rocker or two, strategic profanity, numbers about mental health, anxiety, same-sex horniness, a song called “Serotonin” (co-produced by Finneas, and it sure sounds that way) about uncooperative brain chemistry. All the cool kids have it. It’s all competently discharged, all boxes checked off in bubblegum scented magic marker. But I have to ask: if Girl In Red is really a tormented nonconformist, should her music display a little productive disorder?
Glass Animals — Heat Waves Expansion Pack I can see it from the NFT artist’s perspective and sympathize. A little. He has been told over and over that he will never make a living. Uncle Melvin the actuary called him fiscally irresponsible in front of the entire Thanksgiving table. Get thee to the accounts receivable department and start numbering them beans. The artist learns the hard way: Mama I Want To Sing simply will not fly in most contexts. This individual is a sitting duck for a dealmaker who offers him more money than Melvin has ever crammed into his ledger. In your face, Uncle Melvin!, who needs to justify his existence now? The catch is that the dealmaker is… Satan. Ain’t that always the way. Satan is playing on the same shit he has played on since Cain slew Abel and Seth knew not why: pride, competitiveness, insane self-regard, the desire to set oneself apart from the ignorant masses who do not know crypto from the project nympho. All you have to do is participate in this unjustifiable thing, and rationalize it away in public, thereby increasing the probability that others will make the same capitulation that you did. Oh — the blockchain is going to run anyway no matter what we do, so we may as well grab a seat on the gravy train. Oh — Ethereum is about to switch to a carbon neutral system, and this will be implemented any day now, and I know this because a billionaire institutional investor told me so. Those guys are extremely trustworthy. Oh — but cryptocurrency is the future, and you don’t want to be part of the past, now, do you? Herman’s Hermits are back there, and reruns of F Troop and The Little Rascals. Generally these rationalizations carry the day. John Cornyn is re-elected, the historic building is torn down to make way for a Whole Foods parking lot, the Amazon rainforest is felled for disposable chopsticks, etcetera. Yet this time may be different. Modern artists have grown accustomed to signaling their virtue: it’s part of the rollout plan. Dude in PWR BTTM cannot even grab some transgender ass without getting un-personed. Are these kids really going to be complicit in a massive waste-tokenization scheme? I mean, obviously Grimes will, but she decided she was going to be a supervillain the moment she hitched her wagon to Elon Musk’s Tesla. Remember that the first round of NFT sales happened in the dark. Not only didn’t fans know the environmental costs of running a Proof Of Work chain, they couldn’t tell you the difference between a Bitcoin and a Dogecoin and a Cardano and an Ethereum and a Jonbonjovium (I just made that last one up. I hope). But people are learning. When Glass Animals attempted to release an NFT, a substantial part of the fanbase revolted as surely as they would have if the frontman called Ray Charles a polack. The band was forced to retract the NFT sale and issue a trading card instead. Good for them for caving, since 95% of morality is caving. Their music is still crummy, though.
Halsey — If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power On paper, this is a bad idea: Trent Reznor plus movie scoring pal Atticus Ross plus a pop star who, whatever her strengths, has never been distinguished by her flexibility. “Head Like A Hole” was thirty years ago, and Trent hasn’t exactly been pouring forth the pop hooks since. You might guess that this would feel gimmicky and dated, like visiting a funhouse decorated by a horror movie director whose tricks were exhausted in the ‘80s. That guess would be right. But the amazing thing about If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power is that it doesn’t matter at all. Fans of Halsey learned something that Poppy followers figured out in ’20: a dark swirl of sinister sound stirred into the pop milkshake can be awfully tasty. Even when those departures from harmonic and textural expectation are more Social Network soundtrack than vintage Nine Inch Nails, they’re still effective. To her credit, Halsey is fully attuned to these productions, and rescues them from their occasional throbby, blippy, evil-robot silliness by inhabiting them with the nuance and personality she never showed when she was singing with The Chainsmokers. This is the exact music this Jersey girl wants to be making, and she gets major points from me for saying the hell with hit singles, and creating a coherent album instead, just like T. Swift and E. Grant and even O. Rodrigo do. I even forgive her the grungy stomp of “The Lighthouse” and the silly-ass diabolical whispers on “Whispers,” and the goofy willed ascension on “I Am Not A Woman, I’m A God.” And when she dispenses with the synthesizers and busts out the acoustic guitar on “Darling,” she shows exactly how intimate and direct she can get. In other words, she was up above it/now she’s down in it. Feels pretty pop. Just like Nine Inch Nails used to.
Hand Habits — Fun House In 2021, the single most influential rock group in the world is Haim. This should not be a controversial statement, but I can feel you resisting it. Hell, I can feel me resisting it. Part of the problem is that we still don’t fully accept Haim as a bedrock rock group, even though they play rock songs with rock arrangements on rock instruments. Dunno exactly why: some sexism, surely, but also antisemitism and resentment about the sisters’ class status. But I believe that Haim, for all their flaws, figured out a way forward for rock, and we who love the rock ought to be more grateful for that than we are. Haim developed a sound and approach that was essentially post-temporal: it alluded to radio hits of the past five (!) decades without deliberately imitating any particular production style. Just as hip-hop omnivorously eats and digests all other genres, Haim returned the compliment, and showed that rock music could be just as agglomerative as rap music. That certain Haimish positional relationship between the singers and the rhythm section and the lyrics scrapbooked from radio hits — that’s been copied by thousands of artists now. Haim showed other groups how to suggest Fleetwood Mac while steering clear of anything too actionable. In consequence, fake Haim songs have been cropping up all over the rock landscape like mushrooms after a summer shower. Even rockers working starker, stonier territory indulge in Haimitation. Look at Meg Duffy. Her entire new album is an attempt to pinch from Big Thief, which is an entirely reasonable strategy for a folk-rocker who can play guitar pretty well. But even she can’t resist the temptation to work out her own Haim variations, because nobody can. It’s the same with Indigo De Souza, whose album is certainly rock, rock with teeth, and then she chucks a Haim-style dancefloor burner right in the middle of it. I’m reminded of the period at the turn of the millennium during which every album had to have a Radiohead overreach on it. Influence becomes a kind of convention of its own. Very few bands have reached that level. In 2012, I wouldn’t have bet on the Haim sisters to get there, but there they are, and that demands respect.
Have Near — Have Near One of the sparklier grains among the recent sugar-sprinkling of emo EPs. You could call them briefs, boxer briefs, because they’re made for boys, they’re short, they’re a little square, and there’s some cock (rock) inside. Maybe they smell funny. Have Near is a Texas combo that has borrowed everything from Oso Oso except the pop hooks. The melancholy, autumnal feel, the twinkling guitar and tastefully decorative electronics, the moments of wrist-slitting abandon, the endearing quality of the singer — all of that is present, though. Because the melodies are mostly designed as a vehicle for the frontman’s anguish, this works best when it roars. It builds to a climax on “Self Care,” coasts home on “It’s Too Late,” and just like that, the ride is over.
Hayley Williams — Flowers For Vases/Descansos Hayley Williams is on the record that her own private exercise in ever-and-evermore was inspired by Taylor’s cottagecore move. Here is a pandemic project of her own: Hayley stripped down and strategically overdubbed, with misguided ghosts flittering all around the tape machine. Seems only fair to me, since Taylor spent the ‘08-‘09 period explicitly (“Better Than Revenge”) or tacitly (“Story Of Us”) borrowing from Paramore. It’s like they’re passing notes. This is all unmistakably Hayley’s songwriting architecture, though — much more than Petals For Armor, where personality was often sacrificed to the demands of the groove. If you liked Hayley’s guitar-and-voice Instagram renderings of the Petals songs better than the studio versions, you’re probably the target audience here. The sense I get is that Hayley herself is among that audience, and I especially get that sense when she’s hammering away at the drums with those big who-needs-friends fills. Her last few albums have made no secret of her misanthropy. Shorn of club gloss and Paramore stomp, Hayley’s lyrics have never been presented so starkly, and it’s notable how Bamboozle-ish they are: an emphasis on the material and corporeal, lots of body parts conflated with machines and natural phenomena, liberalization of heartbreak, all the things you remember from the Hot Topic era. If it does nothing else, Flowers For Vases ought to settle the question once and for all about whether she’s emo (course she is, ya dummy.) Then again, it’s Taylor whose eyes leak acid rain on the pillow where you used to lay your head. All of this stuff is part of the vernacular now, which means it’s been assimilated to the algorithm. I’m glad we made some sturdy aesthetic building blocks out of all that teenage misery. I was afraid it was never going to coalesce into anything more than a miasmal swamp out behind the high school.
Hiatus Kaiyote — Mood Valiant It’s hard not to appreciate these guys on an athletic level, if not always on an aesthetic one. They’re very good at their instruments, they’re ambitious and risk-taking, and the singer, who goes by the inelegant name of Nai Palm, has a great voice and goes for “it”, where “it” can be defined as the kind of space-shredding signal that astronomers project into the sky in the hope that aliens near Alpha Centauri will hear. She’s loud. The band shoves jazz and hip-hop and r&b and funk and soul into the nutribullet and squishes it all down with a spatula, and then sets the blender on the highest setting, and look, now there is jazz juice spattered all over the wall, and some kind of stringy residual shit from the funk is gumming up the blades. Possibly fad laces. The mix gets pretty hot, and the band certainly knows how to cook, but what they do doesn’t always cohere into memorable songs, or even unmemorable songs, to be honest — and even when it does, I’m not sure what the heck they’re banging on about. The exception here is “Stone Or Lavender,” a fantastic throwback soul number (nothing neo- about it), which belongs on year-end mixes for the string arrangement alone. It suggests what these loony Aussies could do if they ever put it together.
Home Is Where — I Became Birds Home Is Where’s emo EP goes from a whisper to a scream in the rough style of The Hotelier. The quieter parts do demonstrate an understanding of nuance, even if they aren’t exactly pretty. The roughneck material, though, is way too aggressive for me. This fifth wave sure is cresting with a head of foam, and it means to wipe out surfers like me with daintier boards. Maybe the sixth wave will carry some girls ashore?, or maybe Phoebe Bridgers really is the sixth wave.
Illuminati Hotties — Let Me Do One More In theory I should be all over this. At a distance you might mistake its whizz and squeal for Charly Bliss. Sarah Tudzin, the individual behind this non-band, is a female producer and engineer, and if I could wave my magic wand and have one wish for pop come true, I’d wish for more of those. Sarah also has a good sensahuma, which is an indispensable commodity for a snotty pop-punker. But her thoroughly El Lay showbiz sensibility renders her observational critique decorative at best. Sarah may tease the health goth who is “on a juice cleanse/and doesn’t need friends,” but her own Kanye-like disinclination to go to the grocery store underdressed — in a song about capitalism! — demonstrates a thoroughly co-opted consciousness. Because even when she’s kidding, she’s not kidding, which is an El Lay thing, too. Her favorite friends, we learn, have catchphrases, just like sitcom characters do. At her worst, she pushes her songs toward scrupulously plotted freakouts that suggest a punk rock episode of the Rugratz. Voiceovers, too. ll this suggests a coming move into filmed entertainment, which Sarah, Californian that she is, probably considers lateral. We on the reasonable coast know better. We see that for what it is: the drop into the bottomless pit. Amusing band name she’s adopted, though. Maybe a touch too clever, and in that way, a touch too indicative.
Indigo De Souza — Any Shape You Take This is a hard recommendation to justify — harder than Morgan Wallen, even. For starters, this is yet another mushrock album, or at least mush-adjacent, and Indigo tries her hand at a few played-out mushstyles, including the fake Haim that is all the rage in mush circles. Indigo is perky even in the midst of her despondency, and sings such grody shit as “fuck me until my brains start dripping down to the second floor of our home.” There’s a bridge — a washed-out bridge after a toxic flood — in a song called “Real Pain” that’s just people screaming in agony; I blame Phoebe Bridgers for setting this unwelcome precedent and I bet you will, too. Other representative song titles include “Die/Cry,” “Darker Than Death,” “Bad Dream,” “Kill Me.” You get the picture. This is morbid without ever being Goth-stylish about it or industrial-scary, depressed but not deep, and a confessional bloodletting that isn’t particularly illuminating and never exactly tries to be. And yet. The Haim rip is an outlier here: much of the mush is of that emo-adjacent Saddle Creek/Land Of Talk/Hop Along variety where the raw electric six-string signal that represents the narrator’s discontent is spared from saturation reverb and signal stacking. Any Shape You Take doesn’t rock from top to bottom, but it’s livelier and more muscular than records like this generally are. Indigo herself is a soulful, versatile singer with a clear and precise delivery, and even when she screams, which she really doesn’t do a lot, it sorta sounds like she’s doing it with a smile. Far be it for me to downplay anybody’s suicidal ideation, but I’ve got to think she’s playing some of this for… well, not for laughs, exactly, but it does seem like she’s present to a few ironies. For instance, the last line on the album supplies her would-be murderer the following excuse: “tell them that I wasn’t having much fun.” She gets a gleeful chorus to shout this along with her. I’ve got to think that a person who can whistle this jauntily past the graveyard is not a hopeless case. The formal invention she’s applied to “Way Out” reinforces that suspicion. Because the suicidal do not tend to tarry on outros and tag-lines and pre-choruses. They’ve got somewhere to go. They cut to the chase.
Injury Reserve — By The Time I Get To Phoenix Welp here we are in the small sliver of the venn diagram where Death Grips, Billy Woods w/Kenny Segal, and J. Beez Wit Da Remedy overlap. Throw in a little Earl Sweatshirt and Divine Styler too if you wanna. If that sounds murky to you, hoo boy, you have no idea. This is a pounding migraine headache of an album, and I don’t even mean that in a bad way — I mean the sort of throb in the temples that reduces the world outside to a slurry, and the space between your ears into a screaming riot. Though the late emcee Stepa J. Groggs does appear briefly on this set, By The Time I Get To Phoenix is best understood as an elegy of sorts, or maybe a strangled roar of protest against an uncaring universe. His partner Ritchie With A T tosses life preservers, groans in pain, shakes his fist, throws tantrums, dissolves into sobs. The music is the squeal and scrape of the rubber tires on the hot macadam of reality as Injury Reserve slams on the brakes. Demotivational verse from Ritchie: “ain’t no saving me/ain’t no saving me or you.” He’s hanging in there for now. As for Groggs, he’s reduced to algorithmic residue: recommendations from Amazon and Netflix for a pop culture fan lost somewhere in the haze of the pandemic. So what does Ritchie do? He sits down and watches, of course, lost to the narcotizing blue light of the screen, and the smoke that won’t clear.
Isaiah Rashad — The House Is Burning Even better is Chattanooga’s own Isaiah Rashad, who was missing in action after delivering The Sun’s Tirade on Top Dawg Entertainment in 2016. That was an astounding year in hip-hop, what with everybody in the city of Chicago releasing ambitious projects, and a Kendrick-lite production from Tennessee was never going to be able to compete for attention. I listened to it a few times, liked it, and promptly forgot all about it. But he’s back, and this time, he’s making thick chalk marks on the pavement of your consciousness. A lot of The House Is Burning is whistling treble steam and bass boom, gruff-voiced chanting, licentious comments about various girls and crushed up pills in a champagne glass. But Isaiah tells you he’s been dead for five years, and it occurs to you: that mumble of his does indeed sound as if it’s coming from six feet under. Was it drug addiction or gun violence or just cruel chance that took him out? He’s not clear on that, or on anything else. What’s important is that he’s managed to apply the tonal coherence characteristic of Top Dawg releases to the netherworldly vibe and elastic feel of Dungeon Family music (check “Claymore,” his collaboration with Smino, and you’ll see what I mean). It occurs to me just now that Top Dawg is data point #4080 in my ongoing argument about the centrality of the album format. Complete albums are all Top Dawg does, and people storm the record shop every time the label drops a new project. From Good Kid mA.A.d City to Dark Side and The Court Of The Crimson King to Sinatra’s saloon albums to Schubert getting all his lieder in a line, listeners respond to songs in sequence. And they always will, because the album is still the best delivery system for the best form of art that the world has ever known. It’s mankind’s crown, and the saving grace of these addled centuries.
Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, & John Randall — The Marfa Tapes One Annie zigs, another zags. It’s like Kanye says: it’s harder to catch rebels who don’t all stand in one place. Ashley Monroe added extra gloss to the sheen she applied to the varnish on her new songs; Miranda, apparently, opened a brewski on the front porch, pressed the chunky plastic “record” button on a cassette player, and commenced tipsy strumming with a coupla pals. The Marfa Tapes is heavy with the sort of ambient noise that you never ever hear on pro records anymore, plus copious fuck-ups and asides and mistakes and laughing. Put it this way: if somebody told you this was an unauthorized recording of a backyard party made by a paparazzi snoop hidden in a tree, and Miranda Lambert Inc. is suing for damages, you would not be surprised. You wouldn’t even think less of Miranda. Yet there is some outstanding songwriting here, and you don’t even have to fight the non-production too hard to get to it: gorgeous “Waxahatchie,” the shouter “Geraldene,” the super-trad “Two-Step Down To Texas,” and the non-Miranda-sung tunes “Amazing Grace (West Texas)” and “Am I Right Or Amarillo.” These are straightforward, memorable, heart-broke country songs, songs as easy as the swing of a wooden farmhouse door, and the feeling is so live and outdoors-ish that you can almost hear the fireflies blinking on and off. Then there’s a track called “Homegrown Tomatoes,” which is pure down-home stupidity of the best kind, with super-loose harmonies and famous voices nearly swallowed by the lo-fi. You wouldn’t want Miranda to record like this all the time, or even some of the time. But she’s paid her dues in the boardrooms of Music City, and we know enough about her to realize that’s not where her heart is. She’s the keeper of the flame, and this is a glimpse of the place where the flame is kept.
Jackson Browne — Downhill From Everwhere Some well-meaning liberal coots are still at it, and they’ve still got lots of well-meaning opinions. Perhaps they need podcasts? Jackson, for instance, is concerned about the ocean. Apparently there has been some pollution. All teasing aside, I do think that Jackson is at his least convincing when he gets political, but I swung just fine with Standing In The Breach; in fact I continue to think that’s one of his very best albums. On Breach, Jackson’s sanctimony was so pure and single-minded that it achieved a trancelike quality. Downhill is nowhere near as focused: in between the entreaties to fight for social justice are dopey love lyrics to Barcelona, some random inexplicable shit about his Cleveland heart (?), some grumbling about the traffic on the Los Angeles freeways. These are metaphors, I believe. Maybe not. The point is that as one ages and various glands deteriorate, it becomes harder to sustain an argument in the absence of the TED Talk framework upon which all modern man-dialogue depends. Make your argumentative points while you’re young, I say. Old age is for card games, and sailing around the world on David Crosby’s boat.
Japanese Breakfast — Jubilee Some musicians, God bless them, still want to be mirrorballs. They’ve never been naturals, they just try, try, try. Contained within that act of trying is the essence of pop. Look at me, motherfuckers. Don’t watch that, watch this. Certain shy and retiring sorts with megaphones and multimillion dollar budgets have recently derided the noble act of attention whoring, conflating it with social-media addiction and an unsavory acceptance of the male gaze. So good on Michelle Zauner for carrying on tradition: I’m a woman with needs, she insists. She wonders what it would be like to stand up in the height of her powers and captivate every heart. (It’s a rush!, Michelle decides). She tells a wayward lover to make it up to her by kissing her like he means it, summons a long-distance flame back to town immediately, demands some cybersex, calls herself soft as a dune, poses for this and that, flirts with everybody. She is out there looking cute, dammit, or trying to anyway, and she would appreciate some acknowledgment of her efforts toward a time-honored end. I am sure you remember when this was part of the job description. Even the gender-reversal song turns out to be more of a sex fantasy than a social statement. Yes, the patriarchy is a drag. But more importantly, some lucky dude may get pegged up the butt. Michelle is red-cheeked and horned up, in other words, and would not mind it one bit it if you snapped a picture. And that’s the way you do it. You play the geetar on the MTV. In keeping with the tone of the lyrics, she’s gone full-on pop for Jubilee, expunging every trace of the alt-whatever that made her prior records a bit of a chore. Sequencers and John Hughes movie synths, backing vox out the wazoo, strings, a TV-theme horn eruption in the middle of “Slide Tackle,” guitars jizzing all over the track at the climax of “Posing For Cars.” Does she have the voice to carry any of this? Not really. But she compensates by minting a few melodies worthy of her aspirations (“Paprika,” mmmm) and faking the rest, and in this tune-poor era, that’s an exchange I’ll happily take. A neat effort from one of the ablest lieutenants in the mushrock armada.
Javiera Mena — Entusiasmo I do go on about the centrality of Julieta Venegas to the story of Mexican alternative pop, and I’m sure I’ll continue mansplaining that to the studio audience until I am cancelled (murdered). Here’s another name you oughta know: Javiera Mena. Javiera isn’t Mexican — she’s Chilean. But so, you may have noticed, are many of the leading lights of Mesoamerican music. Mon Laferte is originally from Valparaiso. Francisca Valenzuela was born in the United States and moved to Chile as a teenager. Enrique Lafourcade, uncle of Natalia, is considered a canonical writer in Chile. There’s a secret subway between the Distrito Federal and Santiago, and at some point during the release cycle of Esquemas Juveniles — youth schemes — Javiera rode that train. Thereafter, Esquemas became a template for Mexican alt-pop songwriters: quite twee, very feminine, gently confessional, decorated with electronics but not necessarily beat-driven, deeply rooted in the soil of south-of-the-border rhythms, but with a connection to the personality of the individual and idiosyncratic girl songwriter that goes far deeper than any tradition. It was also — and this is important — queer as a fella feeling butts at a Cher concert. Javiera was a lesbian pop star before it was cool, and certainly before it was cool in Chile. The public acceptance of Esquemas Juveniles went a long way toward extending and legitimizing the group-grope aesthetic of a certain type of Latin alternative music, and for this, I am oh so grateful. Javiera followed up the debut with Mena, an effective but fairly conventional synthpop album, and her recordings have become increasingly slick since then, never faceless, but always machine pressed. Entusiasmo, an EP, has borderline brotronic moments, and seems designed to float along with the froth from the latest EDM wave. I ain’t even mad. She’s got herself one heck of a sturdy laurel to lie on.
J. Cole — The Off-Season I made the mistake of playing this back to back with the very great 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Blame YouTube for that — I may have been folding my wizard robe into an elaborate shape, and the next thing I knew, the album started, and I didn’t have it in me to switch over to boardgame reviews. No!, not when “Fire Squad” is right around the corner and I can annoy the neighbors by rapping along. We all kings; you know how it goes. Cole’s technical skills haven’t slipped any: he can still rap circles around the competition, and he still kicks flows that are so sharp and diagonal that they slice through expectation like so many cheese knives through a big block of gouda. He never misplaces his feel for the beat, and his production remains post-Kanye moody without indulging in post-Kanye grandiosity. That’s what’s good. Alas, Cole’s main marks of distinction — his focus, command, and ability to develop a story over the course of a full-length — are not visible here. These twelve songs contain reiterations of timeworn Cole themes, and he’s animated all of them more fully on prior tracks. For instance, there’s an abridgement of the 4 Your Eyez Only narrative: the doppleganger who took the wrong path while Cole took the wholesome one. Then there are the ones in which young Cole must front like he is tough so he can survive the Fayetteville block, gathering about him a mass of negative masculinist energy that is dissipated in other worthless pursuits. There’s the usual yammering on about the importance of family, the ones given up to God, the whine of the EMT sirens and the cries of worried mommas, plus the protests-too-much about the ultimate insignificance of material wealth, all while the rapper is rubbing the noses of his detractors in his bankroll. Even the basketball metaphors had more bounce on prior projects. At unguarded moments, he concedes that indiscipline is becoming a problem: he admits he doesn’t have the patience to study the Koran, and swerves into a rumination on his own wealth and a confession that he got punched out by Puff Daddy. He’s even in a private plane while he’s telling the tale. If he’s out of storytelling ideas and he’s going to start doing loop-the-loops instead, the least he can do is get out of Drake’s airspace.
Jim Lauderdale — Hope Jim Lauderdale outflanks fellow geriatric good-guys Jackson Browne and Rodney Crowell with the absurdly benevolent Hope album. This is one angelic oldster we’ve got here, or maybe he’s just playing one for the cameras, but I’ll believe what I want to believe, thank you. For instance, on “The Opportunity To Help Someone Through It,” he wants an opportunity to help someone through it. He marvels at the mushrooms growing after the rain and sees them as a fungal figuration for human persistence. What makes these elderly hippies such sweethearts? A life of music, probably. and geography, too; I mean, they’re not from Florida. That’s where senior citizens go to get radicalized. Keep grandma and grandpa far away.
João Selva — Navegar The title track of the new set from this Ipanema airhead and party boy is Caetano-light. “Tudo Vai Dar Pé” is Caetano ultra-light. To me, that’s still guava juice worth imbibing. João learned his feathery vocal inflections from the master, and even if he can’t generate that Bahian radiance, he’s an attentive student of the classics. A few other tracks here hint at Tropicalía at its cheeriest, which was, to be honest, rarely Tropicalía at its best. But Bolsonaro is basically a fascist bullyboy. He doesn’t have the muscle to exile anybody or throw Lygia Pape or her modern equivalents in jail, but he’s sure deforesting the hell out of the rainforest on behalf of his rancher friends. Everything old is new again. I can’t knock young artists for taking comfort in the resistance lit of the past, even when they’d rather be breezing along and banging their bongo on the jam band circuit.
Juan Wauters — Real Life Situations After the last album, I wrote that “Juan Wauters” was Spanish for Mac Demarco, and holy smokes, there’s Mac Demarco on track number eight. I’ll be damned if I can tell the difference between them. Inhale enough doobage and all accents resolve to the same drawl. Early on this set, Juan tells us that this isn’t music, art, or poetry, but an expression of sentiment, and if you ran for the hills right there, I wouldn’t blame you. Juan does, indeed, have every inclination to be a good-time weedhead, an international camaraderie peddler, but sometimes the gravity of events presses on hippies and activists alike. His reflections on the pandemic, and social injustice, aren’t like those made by pro topical singers. They’re not well-wrought; they’re barely wrought at all. That instinctiveness makes them poignant. When Juan wonders aloud when he’ll get to play music again, you can hear the bewilderment in his voice: no blame, no bitterness, just powerlessness. He rubs together some post-tango and post-rap, mild psych and zonked folk-rock in an effort to conjure his usual vision of humanity united in pot haze, but he keeps stumbling over the inconvenient truth of a world that couldn’t be less unified. The conclusion points the finger at those who abandoned New York City and ran for the hills at the moment of crisis – to them, the city was only a commodity. This comes after Juan concedes that he’s purchased a one-way ticket back to Uruguay. No contradiction, just exhaustion in the face of America’s greatest failure — a fuck-up so profound that even the stoners noticed.
Julien Baker — Little Oblivions Frank songs from a young woman with a ferocious drinking problem. As a musical album, this strikes me as an improvement over Turn Out The Lights, though I can’t say I find it all that much easier to listen to. I hope that the woman to whom these apologies are directed receives them with an open heart. Most of all, I hope Julien lays off the sauce.
Ka — A Martyr’s Reward Ka is about as New York City as you can get: there’s only a stone’s throw from his delivery and the bass rumble of the G train pulling into Bedford-Nostrand. “It’s a pity we lodge in the City of Dodge/but I am not dodging,” he tells us. That’s how a two-fisted Gothamite opens a song about his right by birth to an African-American culture swiped by slavemasters new and old. No threats are made, and no gun-barrels are leveled. Ka still believes that a passionate entreaty delivered by a heartbroken individual — because Ka always sounds heartbroken — can force the levers of change. His disregard for the usual hip-hop materialism sure does sound sincere: “having nothing/gave him everything,” but that’s not exactly accurate. He’s always had his convictions, and it’s those convictions, he tells us, that prevented him from getting rich. Beats are chilly, hearts around him are cold, luck is rotten, but he’s still grumbling away in the tunnels, clawing back his street-sooty terrain, inch by inch. Even if poor men on the mic aren’t your thing, I bet you’ll be moved.
Kacey Musgraves — Star-Crossed Submitted to the MLA for approval: my unpublished monograph The Role Of Kacey Musgraves In The Emergence Of Mush. We explore mush through the lens of Nashville positionality. Sorta looks like oatmeal. Momma says come and git it. ‘Course Kacey hasn’t been country in a while now: this new one is a mild-mannered synthpop record like so many others of the species, and I wouldn’t blame you at all if you decided this was a good place to begin culling the herd. The tracks, professionally played, punctual, and risk-averse, aren’t noteworthy. Neither are the melodies, which reach their destinations in Downtown Dreamland without detour. But Kacey turns out to be sharper when she’s singing about pain than she ever was when she was blissed out and groping toward pleasure. Star-Crossed chronicles a divorce, but this isn’t really a story about romantic heartbreak: the dude here is no more present than Olivia Rodrigo’s spectral ex-boyfriend is. Mostly, she’s upset with herself for her inability to be the things she believes she ought to be — a good wife, an angel, easygoing, trusting, emotionally engaged. But she can’t. Even though she lets herself wriggle off the hook by the end of the set, and crowns the whole thing with a triumphant Violeta Parra cover, she works herself over so thoroughly in the middle of the album that it’s clear that her insecurities are eating her alive. Kacey has examined the diffuse quality of her affections, and suspects that she might not have what it takes to sustain fascination with another person. She can hang the velvet Elvis on the wall, but she knows she’s going to get sick of it soon enough. As she puts it on the frankest, and therefore best, song on this set: “it ain’t easy to love someone/I’ve been trying, and I found out/it’s easier said than done.” In the right mood, I’ll take that as an apology for some of those blithe, pot-hazy platitudes on Golden Hour.
Kanye West — Donda By now, everybody on the planet has a bone to pick with Yeezy. Soon as they like you/make them unlike you; he said it in ’13, and boy has he been true to that. Releasing an album in an environment like that was always bound to be a vexed proposition. Releasing a two-hour extravaganza with features from Carti, Da Baby, Marilyn Manson, his dead mom, Captain Kangaroo, Attila The Hun, Zeus, etc., well, that’s just handing the press a big wooden paddle, pulling down the pants, and assuming the position. Indeed this is overlong, driven, painfully, by Kanye’s persecution complex, and sure would have benefited from some editorial guidance. But it’s not hard to see what he was shooting for here: a fusion of the gospel organ and piano from Jesus Is King with the industrial clatter of Yeezus, and storytelling that applies the lessons of his religious period to the very real personal problems he’s isolated on his last few discs. When it works, as it does on “Junya,” “Come To Life,” “Pure Souls,” and especially “Jesus Lord,” it makes for some of the most arresting productions of a very innovative year. Given the name on the album, this should surprise no one. Even at his advanced age, Kanye makes music that sounds like nothing and no one but Kanye. I reckon that the unpolished quality of Donda rather helps, since it opens up the tracks and provides the listener all sorts of ragged trailheads to explore. Remember that Yeezus was, its a dark twisted way, a happy story: the hypersexualized African-American monster slips the chains of slavery and the prison-industrial complex in order to bind himself to a romantic partner instead. The monster falls in love. They make it to Christmas. But they didn’t make it to 2021, apparently, and as Yeezus’s Olympian world crashes down around him, the outlines of coercion and imprisonment have started to become clear to him again. I find that he addresses these themes pretty squarely, and maybe even with bravery — coercion, incarceration, and the power to detain and limit activity come up over and over, like a bad dream he can’t shake out of. He wonders who is going to jail tonight. He consorts with criminals. He invites the son of Larry Hoover to make an entreaty on behalf on his dad that is, in this context, quite moving. Oh, and there’s Donda herself, who, I am glad to say, turns out to be just as pompous, and just as imperious, as her totally insufferable, totally indispensable kid. Hey, he had to get it from somewhere.
Katy Kirby — Cool Dry Place A brief (~30 min) encounter saved from the widening Faux-be Bridgers file by the personality and perspective of the principal narrator. Katy Kirby is a strong electric guitar player with a fine sense of time and tension, and a minter of main-line melodies that twist and lilt and tickle you under the chin. In defiance of the age of compression, she’s also cultivated a good feel for dynamics — most of the time she’s sweet as a buttered roll, but she can punch through the mix when she wants to. I also like how playful and expansive her arrangement ideas are: horn charts and clattering percussion on “Peppermint,” surprise Autotune and a choral intervention on “Traffic!,” omnichord on “Tap Twice,” and quite a few people (including Katy herself) credited with “ambience.” So, yes, a firm and friendly handshake and hello.
Kings Of Leon — When You See Yourself There is no reason why a market for digital collectibles should need to exist on a cryptocurrency blockchain. If artists want to sell watermarked files and make like those are originals (?), that can be accomplished on the same old World Wide Web that grandma and grandpa use to keep up with their favorite fascist politicians. The Internet handles thousands upon thousands of complex financial transactions every day. Allow me to call B.S. by pointing out what ought to be the obvious: NFTs are the phoniest innovation since the pet rock. Techbros have come up with confounding new acronyms for boring shit like spreadsheets and trading cards, and cooped-up people are losing their minds and throwing their dollar bills in the air. Normally I would not mind!, at least once a year I root for Professor Harold Hill, too. Obviously the outcome of this con game is not as good as getting to fuck Marian The Librarian, but at least something pretend-exciting is happening in the Iowan one horse town we call American culture. The problem, as I hope we have all internalized by now, is that any crypto firm with a Proof Of Work chain is blowing through an unconscionable amount of electricity — and this is by design, since a mined cryptocoin is a deliberate tokenization of waste. Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever the fuck that is, built artificial scarcity into a system backed by nothing but the billionaire fever-dreams of various Peter Thiels. Like any other pyramid scheme, the cryptocurrencies need to keep driving people into the marketplace or the whole shebang will collapse. This is why Varg Vikernes, or whatever the Ethereum dude is called, would gladly pay the environment on Tuesday for a habitat-obliterating hamburger today. He’s trying to snow you. Artists and artists representatives with dollar bills for eyes are going for it because streaming revenue is a farce, and Birdman and Lil Wayne told them to go get that money, and, um, they were picked on as children and deserve a break. But mostly they’re going for it because it stings to see Paul getting dollars that should rightfully accrue to Peter (they are Peter). I am not mad at those who play this game. God created us as flawed beings, and boy howdy have those flaws been shining through. If our favorite pop musicians want to release digital maps of their skivvies as NFTs, I am still going to buy their ordinary albums and sing along. However. I will not tolerate a single word of wokeness from them ever again. I will not hear about positionality and social justice, or female empowerment or global self-actualization, or how wicked the Republicans are, or how bad they feel about American this and that. Because they went and did something that is ten thousand times more corrosive to the well-being of the planet than Van Morrison grumbling about mask mandates. When it came down to it, they were as greedy as any other Gekko. They had their moral test, and it was an easy one to ace. They blew it. Now they can shut up about politics and global economics. Preferably forever.
Kiwi Jr. — Cooler Returns Just as there were those who argued that Jump Rope Gazers was a disappointment after Future Me Hates Me, certain misguided individuals are calling a slight step down. They’re overvaluing vibe and mood and attitude, and ignoring the reasons most of us would bother to listen to the Beths, or Kiwi Jr., in the first place: tight song construction, melodic development, intricate arrangements, wiseassery, the sheer velocity of ideas as they whiz by your earholes. Joe Jackson things, in other words, and the Joejacksonosity of the first one has only been amplified here. Football Money begins like a house afire and hits the wall on the back half. Cooler Returns sustains a high level of inventiveness throughout its thirty-six minute run (this is no marathon) and improves on its predecessor in virtually every way that’s meaningful to pop-rock spazzes like me. It’s funnier, the tunes are crisper, the implicit class politics are smarter, the main character is in sharper focus and the instrumentalists are better distinguished, and the ringer pianist overplays in the exact way that a buzzed pub rocker should. Fans of time-tested stuff like bridges, pre-choruses, vampires, the CN Tower, and insurance fraud will smile. The singer sounds pleasantly bemused and wonderfully doomed throughout, and the song where he ruins the rich girl’s wedding — in a fantasy, most likely — is an “Alison” for our time. He’s not gonna get too sentimental like those other sticky valentines.
KRS-ONE — Between Da Protests “I don’t battle young rappers/that’s child abuse.” Tee hee. I suppose there’s no point in being an elder statesman if you can’t crack such (grand) dad jokes. It’s kinda like how Reagan teased Mondale about his youth and inexperience. Make a virtue out of those graying dreads, Kris. The fearsome elocution continues to slip, and the punchlines sting less than they did, but nobody slices up Gordian knots with such distinctive lyrical Ginsu-work as The Teacher. Decrying the commodification of #BLM, pointing the finger at the white monopoly in the court system, giving it up for George Floyd, calling for community representation in policing, scoffing at those who’d tell him how to protest, identifying with pelicans: this is KRS embattled, which means he’s right in his comfort zone. Between Da Protests isn’t quite as good as Street Light was, and there’s nothing that bangs the mind wide open with the same moral force as “Invader” did, but every song contains at least one hip-hop quotable. His self-possession and sense of outrage, I am happy to say, is very much intact. What other autodidact would rhyme his book list with such a sense of mission? After everything that has happened, he still believes in the liberatory power of literacy. As long as he keeps insisting on it, I’ll keep hoping he’s right.
La Femme — Paradigmes Alexis De Tocqueville, Baudrillard, George Duhamel, Pepe The Frog: French people cannot visit America without writing a damned social treatise. Like we asked. They’re always wrong, but what do you expect? They’re French. These people thought that Louis XIV was the sun. The delightfully froggy girls and boys in La Femme are actually huge leftfield pop stars in Paris, and we’ve never heard of them, because American tradition dictates that we don’t give a fuck about France one way or another. France, what is that?, part of China? Some of their reflections on their experiences touring the states are sung, or grumbled, in English, and they’ll give you the gist. For the rest, Google Translate is your buddy. It seems like they find these shores a high-spirited place of Cotton Eyed Joes and superficial interactions, and lots of kinetic energy and schtick, which is pretty rich coming from these ya-ya throwback characters (some in berets!) but it beats poststructuralist complaints about imperialism and Hershey bars. The back half of this not-short album mistakes the stamp of passports for a backbeat, and puts me in mind of some of Cornershop’s more aimless globetrots. Nevertheless I cannot resist the sunny café idyll of “Pasadena,” and “Foutre Le Bourdel,” which plays as an electrified version of the Gallic impertinence of Les Negresses Vertes, and especially “Nouvelle-Orleans,” which is just Yaz’s “Don’t Go” softened and rendered in French. It is sung by a stylish Parisienne named Clémence Quéllenec with a fetching deadpan delivery and utter faith in her pinched melody and synthesized surroundings, and I hope I am never such an ugly American that I could fail to appreciate such things.
La Lá — Mito North of that cursed border, Latin music continues to exist in a dialogic Atacama. There’s been very little press pickup for Rodrigo Amarante’s very accomplished album, for instance, which kinda blows my mind, because it’s out on Polyvinyl, and I thought that label had a hotline to the Illuminati. I don’t think I’ve seen a single review anywhere, in any language, of Mito, and for the life of me, I can’t remember how I picked up on it. I doubt it was an algorithm push. My best guess is that I followed a stray comment on a Latin Alternative message board to the Peruvian doorstep of Giovanna Nuñez, who performs as La Lá. Giovanna opened the door, and the rest is history. My Internet browsing history, I mean: I’d love to get a physical of this thing, but I rather think I’d have to go to Lima to do it. Mito falls into the wider South American category of the “gentle experimental”: she takes significant chances with rhythm and melody and keeps explosive cross-cultural secrets, but if you had this playing in the background, you might just think you were at a day spa in the Distrito Federal. Tom Zé would understand; Lygia Pape, too. Melodies take left turns in the mountains, the beats break down and turn around in revelatory spots, the arrangements bloom in unexpected pastels, and it’s all done with a smile and an open hand from a thoughtful woman who knows exactly where she is going and why. Giovanna is a gorgeous singer straight from the Tracyanne Campbell school of understated, winsome indiepop performance. Maybe she handles material about grieving with uncommon grace, and maybe I just prefer my condolences en Español. Peruvian folk, bachata, bossa nova, some cumbia, some Gal Costa-style post-Tropicalía, a little Latin jazz, some ritmos of Giovanna’s own invention — she zips around the continent with astounding fuel efficiency and no sweat evident. She sure does put her percussionists through the paces, though. It takes a lot of beating on the bongo to sound this relaxed. Sexy, though?, that’s a given.
Lana Del Rey — Chemtrails Over The Country Club Eighty miles north of Los Angeles is Santa Barbara and Ojai. An eighty mile trip south doesn’t even get you to San Diego. I mention this only because she does — these are the escape-room parameters she’s given us, and it strikes me that if she really wants to shake free of Los Angeles and its hegemony, she’s gonna have to try a little harder. LDR has spent a lot of time lately staring at the map, and since she’s a good deal more generous with specifics than you’d assume a mushrock queen would be, I’m inclined to take her itinerary seriously. She’s also demonstrated more sensitivity to place than most modern cosmopolitans are willing to allow themselves: a quick trip down the San Francisco Peninsula to Woodside is enough to turn her from the vintage Los Angelena warbler that she’s been for the past five years into a dirty hippie. For a few measures, I mean — then it’s right back to Laurel Canyon. When last we left Lana, she was wondering whether she’d stick it out in a fantasyland that was falling apart around her, or chase the spirit of the country back into the interior as she continued her endless quest for that distinctive All-American hooey. You’ll recall she closed her spoken word set by wondering if she should go to Mount Rushmore, and I took that seriously, because if there were ever a rock star designed to make good on that assignment and obtain something worthwhile from a close encounter with heavyweight national kitsch, Lana Del Rey is that star. Therefore I hope she makes the trip. From the very beginning, the “dream” in her particular version of dream pop was the American Dream itself, which is why her personal brand of BS always has emotional ballast. She alone has found something thematically relevant to do with the mush that is modern pop-rock sound. I call her application of écriture feminine to the glossy American mythmaking exclusively done by the boys a stealthily radical gesture. So let her love you like a woman — whatever the fuck that means. What’s the worst that could happen?, you could get a little lost among the curves.
Lana Del Rey — Blue Banisters After a spring set sung by the archetypical character we’ve come to know well, Blue Banisters returns to the humanization project that began on “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing.” This is supposed to be the “real” Lana, strange as that may sound, and this we know because instead of references to the Kennedys and early ‘60s cinema, she’s singing about Black Lives Matter rallies and crypto bros and her mean old mom. She lapses into caterwauling mode from time to time, especially on “Dealer,” and this, too, is meant to provide a hidden-camera glimpse into the dressing room where the beleaguered star is throwing a temper tantrum. Yet this, too, is a Southern California archetype — one that’s been in heavy rotation since the dawn of Hollywood, and mobilized by everybody from Barbra Streisand to Miss Piggy. My suspicion is that this pivot to confessional authenticity is a smoke-and-mirrors move employed by the ever-crafty Elizabeth Woolridge Grant to distract you from the fact that Blue Banisters is an odds-and-sods set. Some of these tracks are leftovers, some are quasi-collaborations that were already available to superfans, some are centerpieces to imaginary projects minus her usual contextualizing ballast, and some were apparently dashed off on a glove compartment napkin by the author on the way back from her latest flying lesson. No manicuring from Jack Antonoff, no tiptoes through the tulips in dappled sunlight; instead, the sound here is a throwback to the raw, elliptical, computer-reverbed late-nite vibe of the early mush era that Lana did so much to inaugurate. As this is a LDR project, the notes-‘n-chords writing is excellent, and many of the arrangement ideas, from the sudden emergence of horns to the piano filigrees to the occasional Ultraviolence echoed what-is-its, are very smart and quite dramatic, as intended. It’s also slow as heck, even by her snail-pop standard, and certainly more dedicated to the project of elaborating the character than it is to speeding your pulse. In other words, this is Lana Del Rey’s answer to Drake’s Care Package: a dip back into the vaults done to restore some of the murk and mystery to a magician who has spent a few too many seasons in the spotlight. Deliberately uneven, but never uninteresting. Not for a second.
Laura Stevenson — Laura Stevenson I admit this woman’s music doesn’t always stick for me. I must have listened to The Big Freeze twenty-five times in 2019, and I can’t sing any of it back, or even call any of the tunes to mind. Other things were going on in my life, sure, but still. I’m more than willing to say this is my own damn fault, as Laura is usually good about melodic development, she’s a decent singer who gets admirably dramatic from time to time, and she spikes her lyrics with odd words and phrases and funny adverbs that go clang and bang on the ear and therefore ought to be memorable to a clang and bang collector like me. Our recent penetrations of the Hudson Valley (where Laura lives, with a barefoot child and a large dog, I presume) are helping me sort through this latest one, which still seems more admirable than enjoyable, even within the wider context of the mushrock universe she inhabits. For instance, there’s the one where she sings about getting bug bites as the creek rises, and the other one where she’s out in the dark, watching the meteors fall. She stops to atone at a roadside statue of the Virgin Mary, and that feels very Ulster County to me. She gets cigarettes and a Diet Coke from a crummy convenience store, and, yeah, I think we recently escaped that place, too. But I still can’t make heads or tails of the interpersonal dynamics she’s describing — whether she wants these people she’s addressing to stay or to go, think of her or forget her, and what the significance would be if any of that happened. There’s a pivot back to the self-flagellation of the Cocksure album, and an overwhelming feeling of guilt and responsibility hovers over the whole record. I just couldn’t tell you why. Perhaps that feeling of regret is all she wants to communicate, and she’s polite enough not to contrive ways to make it linger after the disc is done spinning. If so, mission accomplished, I guess.
Leah Blevins — First Time Feeling Leah Blevins seems like a good egg, so I wanted to contrive something to say about her country album. But as soon as I finished playing it, I plumb forgot everything about it. I am left with an impression of Ashley Monroe with the fringe of her suede cowboy vest caught in the swinging saloon doors. She can’t make it to the stage. Instead she tries to sing from where she’s stuck, but she’s got a big wood panel in her face, and I think she just kicked over a spittoon. The gunfighters can’t even get in. Showdown postponed to some alternate high noon down the road.
Lightning Bug — A Color Of The Sky Lightning Bug is the 3 Doors Down of the current age. Their acquiescence to a popular modern style — in their case, shoegaze revival production tropes — is so total and granular in its realization that you’d never even know they were there. It’s just the sound of the pages of the daily planner as it flips. Reflecting back the mood and disposition of the era in which they work is indeed one of the responsibilities of the artist. But I, personally, have had all the somber, introspective, sleepless ’20-’21 I need. I can’t be the only one.
Lil Nas X – Montero The weirdest thing about this set is that they tried so hard. They didn’t have to. Millions of people were going to listen to Lil Nas X no matter how much effort he put into his full length, and effort isn’t something those fans are demanding from him anyway. A pop-rapper is absolutely allowed to mythologize his personal story — look at Kanye, whose early music is the model for this project, and who contributes production to a track. But color me surprised that nobody in the Lil Nas X camp has tried to recapture the breezy, small-scale, skitlike vibe that made his TikTok hit such a spectacular phenomenon. “Old Town Road” worked because of its offhandedness: it’s an ultra-casual, extremely knowing send-up of country music, hip-hop, and the questions of racial and sexual identity that reside at the intersection of the two. Lil Nas X could afford to be blithe about the whole thing; he’s got the horses in the back, he’s winking at you, and nothing more needs to be said. Not only is there no satire on Montero, there’s barely any figurative language at all. What we get instead is flatfooted storytelling about the difficulties of growing up gay in suburban Atlanta, the rapper’s pained relationship with his drug-addicted mother, his desire for a boyfriend who’ll treat him right, and, most of all, his worry that he’s going to be defined forever by “Old Town Road.” All of that is reasonable, and believable, to a point, and I do understand why he felt that a reach for significance was the best way out of the conundrum that his social-media success had put him in. Who wants to be defined by likes and shares, anyway?, that’s no way to live. But I think that the ecstatic reviews of Montero — some of which seem downright insane, to be honest — are doing the artist no favors. A generational voice he is not. His decision to trade provocation and cultural critique for memoirish reflections feels regrettable to me, and awfully avoidable, too. Furthermore, his decision to surround himself with authenticators (Miley Cyrus!, Megan Thee Stallion! Doja Cat! Elton John!) also feels like a self-conscious, needlessly defensive move from a guy who shook the world with a simple loop and a Yeehaw Challenge. I cannot help but be reminded of Somethin’ ‘Bout Kreay, which was another major-label misrecognition of the strengths of an artist who came to fame by recording trenchant singles (go back and listen to “Rich Whore”) outside of the star system. Kreayshawn was a white woman whose crew used the N-word and who foolishly beefed with Rick Ross for no good reason. The press was always going to turn on her, and when the backlash happened, she never recovered. Lil Nas X is a much more sympathetic figure: queer, black, and funny, and positioned to piss off all the right people. If you aren’t rooting for him, the problem is you. His album is much better than Kreayshawn’s was. But by inflating his productions to a size that only the ascended can inhabit, he’s made the same mistake that Kreay did. He’s had to puff himself up to the size of his surroundings, and the slyness and subversion that initially distinguished him have gotten lost. We don’t need him to be a demigod. Honestly, we’ve got plenty of those already. He was doing just fine as an imp on the Internet.
Lingua Ignota — Sinner Get Ready Here it is: Steven Matrick’s worst nightmare. Bombastic singer, howling about sexual repression in fundamentalist communities, near-atonal music, banging on the low keys of the piano, shrieks and moans and gilded drones, Appalachian desolation, rusted-out industrial metal. Song titles such as “Repent Now Confess now,” opera shit, flown-in sermons from hardshell preachers. This record has accrued quite a bit of positive press notice, and it all makes much of Lingua Ignota’s classical training. You know what?, I believe it. Only a melodic master like Billy Joel could have written something as corrosively monotonous as “We Didn’t Start The Fire,” and only somebody who understood the rudiments of harmony could have demolished them as thoroughly as Lingua Ignota has here. This is, in its way, an accomplishment, and I do respect it, even as I hope that poor Steven never has to listen to it. Yet Sinner Get Ready is ultimately capsized by the unbearable self-importance that always accompanies deliberately heretical art. Lingua Ignota really believes that she is on a mission to expunge the residue of abuse, and worthy as that cause is, it does tend to elevate the writer high above her object of study. That’s no way to make a pop record. I trust that the artist behind this project is presently living in a big ole city, and while i don’t want to listen to her album, I’m glad she made it there. Maybe the wisest thing for all of us to do is to leave the fundies alone.
Liz Phair — Soberish It turns out the awful album cover is indicative of the contents after all. It illustrates what’s happening on this long-deferred comeback project quite nicely. For starters, these really are city stories, and Downtown NYC stories in particular: all the action takes place in bars and hotel rooms and on rain-washed Guys-And-Dolls-y streets. There’s Liz herself, with a weary but not forbidding expression on her face, reclining atop the Washington Square Park triumphal archway that represents her triumphal genitalia. In the background are skyscrapers symbolizing the priapic ambitions of the men in her life. What’s notable is that they do not overshadow the arch. Nor are they crushed by it. The narrator’s pussy is not a misbehaving cat, as the one really bad song here pretends it is, but it is open for traffic if it’s approached properly. “I don’t have the guts to tell you/that I feel safe,” she tells a boyfriend in the midst of a more characteristic sexdown. Letters and sodas, that’s still what she’s after. Me too, Liz, me too. Equality in romantic relationships used to be an ideal for some of us recalcitrant Gen-X kids, brought up on Free To Be You And Me and that little asshole who wants a doll. “You’re not the boss of me,” she tells some soul-sucker on “Soul Sucker,” and left unsaid, but heavily implied, is that she’s not the boss of him, either. Aspirations for a post-boss world have always been a distinguishing characteristic of Liz Phair albums. Another distinguishing characteristic: really good melodic and harmonic development. We do get that here from time to time, particularly on “In There” and “Good Side,” and the title track, which is a quintessential Liz Phair story, right down to her insistence that she’ll be wearing white. Then there are the wonderfully plainspoken lyrics; I mean, who else could render the line “why do we keep dicking around?” with so much petulance and frustration? Unfortunately, old pal Brad Wood has kinda let her down, soft-pedaling and submerging the storytelling in goofy powder-puff effects and vocal samples that throw back to nowhere in particular. It kinda makes you miss the generic guitar crunch of Somebody’s Miracle. At least those vagina monologues had some dentata to them.
L’Orange & Namir Blade — Imaginary Everything Indie rap continues to be the best place to go if you’re interested in new adventures in melody and harmony. Namir Blade is not a particularly sonorous vocalist, but his rapping will remind you that the human voice always carries tonality no matter how roughly it’s used. He varies pitch more than most pop singers do, and he finds a nest for himself in the stacked and tangled chords presented to him by the soulful L’Orange. The productions don’t quite have the density that we’ve been getting lately from Billy Woods or Open Mike Eagle, but L’Orange still saturates the frequency spectrum with noise, clatter, old warped records, ear candy, and, on “Murphy’s Law,” something that sounds like a faucet meeting a steaming skillet at full blast. Because they understand that every assortment of sounds carries tonal information, and every simultaneous ringing of notes comprises a chord of some kind, they find themselves in a neat position to play around with harmonic development in a low-stakes way. Nobody is expecting them to vocalize like Beyoncé, you know? Hip-hop: it really is a liberation movement.
Lorde — Solar Power At least Sling felt intentional. Clairo and Jack Antonoff had an idea — a bad idea, mind you, but a concept nonetheless — and they followed through on it. I have no clue what Lorde is doing anymore, and mostly I just want it to stop. Solar Power epitomizes mushrock at its unmotivated worst: massive vocal stacks for no reason, ugly digital reverb slathered on everything, mealy-mouthed performances undercut by oohs and aahs in every corner of the mix, flaccid-pillow sound, crappy self-actualization lyrics combined with idiotic ruminations on celebrity, predictability, undanceability, warm and sloshy cheapthrillity. Yawning through the vox, no motor in the motorboat, a woman from Down Under with the nerve to run down California with one side of her mouth while rehearsing new age platitudes with the other. If you told me she bought these non-beats and non-lyrics from a software company because she was absorbed in her book club and couldn’t be assed to make a real record, I’d be tempted to give her a point or two for audacity. But the least you can expect from these people is to show up for work. It’s a good job, you know?, many people think so. Solar Power is professional negligence of the highest order — a not-even-half-assed phone-it-in from a woman who, plainly, doesn’t want to be part of show business anymore. It’d be less embarrassing for everybody if we just let her slip away and go water gardens or herd sheep or save the glaciers. Anything would be better than more of this: the year’s saddest album, a high-priced, uninhabited mansion on a road to nowhere.
Lost Girls — Menneskekollektivet Jenny Hval has done a bunch of thinking and writing about the universal female predicament, which is about all you can do in Norway; women and ice are about all they’ve got up there, and ice is covered by the penguins. So you might think that the Lost Girls’s spoken-word ramble over electro beats, would be an occasion for a feminist TED Talk. Instead, it’s more of a rambling interior monologue — unbound thoughts about creativity and the divided storytelling subject and some shit about cucumbers that I could not get. At one point, Jehovah’s Witnesses ring the doorbell, and Jenny makes them regret it. Those people are not looking for a theological debate. I must wonder whether records like this one would even exist were it not for the ascendency of ASMR, and the proven popularity of recordings of hypercompressed voices, mostly women’s, just saying bugger-all, with rounded vowels and crisp, chirping consonants. It’s supposed to make one feel all tingly: a neurobiological thrill from a trigger designed by millennia of evolution to elicit a pleasant response. I did listen to all twelve minutes of the title track without getting (too) bored, so my autonomic nervous system must dig it, even if I was not compelled to, you know, boogie. Thank you, Jenny, for singling out specific parts of my brain to rock. Specific parts of my ass will follow, I presume.
Low — Hey What If you came for the neatly manicured white noise, the blasts of digital steam and electronic fartation, the last, stuttering gasps of broken-down robots and the rubber on rubber grinding sounds, these frozen Minnesotans with their yard sale’s worth of antique power tools have got you covered. Chances are, though, you came for the harmonies, which, with each album, further resemble Paul Kantner and Grace Slick stuck in a blender, attempting to keep their Germanic composure as they’re buffeted by the paddles and splattered with cake mixture. Some of the writing here is as cool as the band’s brave experiments with alternating current, some of it is a dull buzz in a poorly insulated wire, and some of it is a finger in a wet socket. That’s about par for the course for Low. If you’re looking for a more indirect, more uneven, more secular, way more American answer to Spiritualized, here you go.
Lucy Dacus — Home Video The best memoir-rock album ever recorded is Land Of Dreams*. This is not simply because Randy Newman is such a good storyteller. It’s also because Randy links his upbringing to an actual thing: the development of Southern California and the then-modern (and probably still-modern) consciousness of the Los Angeleno. Most memoirs don’t go that way. They’re more about the emergence of the narrator’s peculiar psychosexual profile, formed by childhood or adolescent events than happen down down that deep river. That’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes it’s just trauma with no sex attached. Those are particularly heinous. Home Video, a quintessential memoir-rock album, suggests that the gentle, permissive bisexuality of Lucy’s present is grounded in the febrile but restrictive Bible camps of Lucy’s past. Lucy’s transcendence of this patriarchal world is incomplete: the male figures are either molesters who deserve their eyes gouged out, or condescending movie buffs, or sunset-watchers on the cusp of losing their innocence and becoming typical barstool bullies. When the narrator takes the triple dog dare and opts for passage on the lesbian separatist boat, we’re meant to understand that this is a fantasy of release that is not actually available to Lucy’s characters. The trouble with all of this is that way too much of it is memoirist cliché, especially the stuff about growing up in what amounts to a religious cult, and wriggling free through the force of your own enlightenment. Likely it’s unintentional cliché — she’s probably just telling it like it is, or was. But people’s lives, and pasts, tend to be repetitive and uninteresting. The author of “Strange Torpedo” ought to know that already. Also, for somebody who is determined to have you hear her words, and who has mixed her album accordingly, she relies on way too many easy end-rhymes. I feel the need to concede that my one and only autobiographical number is 100% memoir-rock of the worst kind — a salacious and wholly problematic story in which I link my preference for a certain type of tight-lipped, no-secret-telling preppie chick to the malfeasance of my sex offender music teacher. I’ve often called “You’re Dead After School” one of my best songs. What can I say?, overrating your own memoir is practically part of the genre.
*I know what you are thinking, and the answer is no. The Nightfly is not memoir rock. Donald Fagen is animating the fantasies of a kid who came of age in the early sixties, not his reality. He does not want you to believe that he escaped the Cuban Missile Crisis or fought Chinese gangsters over a girl. It’s about real things, but it’s not an autobiographical album. It’s fundamentally a work of imagination, which makes it more interesting than any memoir could ever be.
Lump — Animal I had to flag that first Lump EP for illegal use of Laura Marling. Ten yards or half the distance to the goal line. Toplining is not Laura’s thing — she may be one of the best singers around, but there’s nothing ethereal, or spiritual, or even partial about her. Laura Marling means superorganic, story-driven songs cut from whole cloth from her tapestry-like mind. Animal is more like it: her compositional signature is scrawled all over these electropop songs, brittle and glitchy though they are. Via attitude alone, Laura drags much of this project from the computer to the castle. I’d even say that some of this is closer to the weirder parts of the British folk-rock tradition than the North Americanized Song For Our Daughter was. While a few of these tracks are digitally waterlogged leaves floating on the digital lake, there are a couple here — the new-wavey “Climb Every Wall” and the spooky “We Cannot Resist” — that might be hit singles if there were any justice in pop. Which, mind you, I am very very glad there isn’t. I’ll wager Laura is glad about that, too.
Madison Beer — Life Support Talk about your guilty pleasures. Everything about this pure pop record has been lifted: some Ariana, some Dua, some Gaga, a bit of Rina, a few attempts at Billie Eilish-style spider-munching chill, and a forklift full of purloined sound from Lana Del Rey. The one called “Blue” is downright actionable. It’s also pretty good. Hopefully Lana will recognize quality forgery when she hears it, and call off the leg-breaking goons. Madison Beer is some kind of algorithm specialist and YouTube influencer, and her experiences in the digital trenches have made her such a judicious thief and creative reassembler that it almost passes for a personality. Just kidding, I don’t know the first thing about this woman, even after playing her album to pieces. What I do know is that the musical part of the craft exhibited here is very nice: lots of sturdy melodies and cleverly-turned chord progressions, nicely-wrought choruses with memorable phrases and cool sonic phenomena, and if we can hang with the facelessness of Haim for three album cycles, I feel like we owe this digital ditz and computer cypher at least one. My bold pessimistic prediction, tho, is that despite all the calculation, this won’t sell, and, ironically, I think that’s down to those scales that Madison uses so nicely. They exist in that specific pop songwriting habitat carved out by the worldwide success of Beyoncé — those III major chords after the subdominant with the third note of the triad in the bass that resolves to the root of the dominant. I could show you what I mean on the piano. Suffice to say that this technique allows for very dramatic melodies — theatrical R&B showgirls melodies, complete with lots of opportunities for melisma and showboating. After the emergence of Phoebe Bridgers as a legit pop player — not to mention the Folklorvermore monster — that’s a little out of style. My guess is that most of this was written and recorded in ’17 and ’18 in strict accordance with the rules as they existed then, and has been sitting on the shelf and getting a bit moldy while the world holds its breath. The worst thing you can be in pop is reminiscent of three years ago. Pandemics: bad for business.
Magdalena Bay — Mercurial World I’m pleasantly surprised by this. Early Magdalena Bay recordings were so streambaitish, and the act’s online persona so annoying, that I’d kinda written these two off as mere content providers. I’m still not sure I believe they were ever prog-rockers — they seem a touch au courant for that. But Mercurial World displays meticulous attention to craft that is, strictly speaking, not necessary in the world of dance-leaning, post-Madonna mushrock they inhabit. Their instinct to decorate and interest in harmony and layering suggests true musical ambition, and their synthesizer filigrees and arpeggiations proves that at least one of these two goofballs has a commendable show-off streak. Sonic references to the Buggles and Olivia Newton-John circa the Xanadu soundtrack display a nice grounding in bouncy pop history that prior singles did not betray. The cumulative effect falls somewhere between Chairlift and Kimbra’s Golden Echo: projects as busy as Mighty Like A Rose, but modern and stylish at the same time. That’s a tough trick to turn. You’ve got to know where all the bangle-hanging hooks in the corners are, and you’ve got to find the right bangles, and hang them at the proper elevation to make everything gleam in the candlelight. Otherwise, you’re just lost in the Pier 1. At times — okay, maybe just on “Chaeri” and “Hysterical Us” — Mercurial World sounds like a direction Chvrches could have taken if Lauren Mayberry hadn’t decided she was a Sandinista. “Dreamcatcher” and “The Beginning” (this is the kind of album album, complete with seamless transitions, that ends with a song called “The Beginning” and begins with a song called “The End”) close out the set with some top-drawer roller rink music. Grab a partner, hold hands, and go as fast as you can.
Marina — Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land. One of my great shortcomings as a person: I have a soft spot for limousine liberals. I am not cutting any slack for those who claim wokeness and turn around and trade crypto and NFTs, and you shouldn’t, either. But if you’re just out there running your mouth about feminism and equality and whatnot, more power to your elbow, as the leprechauns say. Talk is cheap and so am I. Go on and bat-signal your virtue if you want; I’m not going to Zerohedge you. Write whatever you like on your dress. I could give a fuck. I do think it becomes a wee bit dicy when stars turn Twitter slogans into pop choruses, but that’s mostly because slogans rarely scan as pop. Consider the latest album from Marina, who started as a Kate Bush imitator, went ahead and surrendered to the starmaker machinery that Kate disdains, and has now decided to reinvent herself as a singing op-ed writer. So I’d like to take a moment to Politifact-check nine of the statements on this record, because that’s a good bit more interesting than writing about the crummy music (hyperactive but bland, straight out of a can). Okay, let’s go. #1. We are now living in a seminal age/the walls are being broken and we’re ready for change. I’m giving that an amber-light HALF TRUE. All ages are seminal, as long as people have semen stuffed somewhere up their genitals, so she’s right about that. Not sure too many walls are getting broken, though — even metaphorical ones. People do seem ready for change, but I doubt the change they’re ready for will please Marina very much. #2. I never quite fit in to that Hollywood thing/I didn’t play the game for money or fame. Okay, that one gets a bright red PANTS AFIRE. Fucking pop stars, man. Who do they think they’re kidding? #3. Mother nature’s dying/nobody’s keeping score. Signs point to MOSTLY TRUE, I’m afraid. See Courtney Barnett’s early oeuvre for further detail, and the collected works of Yes for some actual music directed towards the problem. #4. God forgive America for every single war. This one is complicated, because Marina is implying that the U.S. requires absolution for the liberal interventionist policies that dominated the various Bush administrations and the Clinton and Obama administrations, and, I guess, the Trump administration, too, although I don’t like to dignify those bozos by pretending they had a policy. Coming off of twenty years and two trillion dollars blown in Afghanistan, I reckon a lot of American decisionmaking motherfuckers have some splaining to do. But I wonder how Marina, and those like her, would feel if the United States were to abdicate responsibility for military control of the oceanic commons. She seems like the sort of person who likes to buy shit in stores. I imagine if her favorite consumer items were repeatedly stolen by pirates and the shelves at the Ralph’s in Beverly Hills were bare, she might break down and send a gunboat. Or maybe not. Maybe she’s willing to live in a land of diminished commercial possibilities in exchange for Gandhi-like moral clarity. I’ll give her MOSTLY TRUE and leave it at that. Hey, check it out, she’s already doing better than Rachel Maddow. #5. Harvey Weinstein gone to jail/#MeToo went on to unveil/truth in all its glory/the ending of a story. Was that the purpose of #MeToo, though, Marina? Locking up some fat bearded fuck who grabbed a bunch of starlet ass on the casting couch? Because this strikes me as an awfully Tinseltown-centric view of the movement. I guess it is the ending of a story — one story, at least, because Harvey is probably going to die in the hoosegow, and it wouldn’t surprise me if those he sleazed on took some private satisfaction in that. But calling any of it glorious is a little much for me, even if it’s MOSTLY TRUE. #6. I want a world where I can see the feminine/we only make up a quarter of the government. This varies a bunch. In Asian and African countries, in the aggregate, it’s a lot less than that. By global standards, America isn’t half bad: 27% of U.S. representatives are chix, as are 31% of state legislators, and 100% of the new governors of New York. Some of these women are awfully Boeberty, so their presence alone isn’t helping anything too much. The spike in representation has yet to translate into feminist political action, and given the sort of women who electorates dig, it may never. But Marina is just giving us a head count here, and I’m going to take her word for it that it works out to 25%. Green light TRUE, I guess. Sounds about right. Don’t make me poke around the Internet all night. #7. Fucked with the food chain/fucked with the farming, too/now our food don’t taste/like it’s meant to do. Expats confirm. One thing they’re consistent about is that everything is yummier overseas. Factory farming appears to have nuked the flavor out of American food via crossbreeding for bulk sales, which is why my mind is blown anew every time I go to an independent Jersey farmstand. Soooo much better. So MOSTLY TRUE, but I cannot help but notice that many of Marina’s beefs seem to come from the perspective of a dissatisfied consumer at the global megamart. #8. They’ve got blood on their hands/cause they stole all the land. She means America and American history. Check. SADLY VERY TRUE. #9. Capitalism made us poor. I’m gonna let the “us” in this statement slide, even though Marina has told us elsewhere of the set that she is a millionaire, and has done rather well by this particular mode of production. By “us” she means humanity; she’s echoing the basic anticapitalist line that our system of wealth generation has impoverished rather than enriched its subjects. I don’t like capitalism very much either. But you don’t have to be Economist editor Zanny Minton Beddoes to cock an eye sideways at this claim. You just have to get your head out of Hollywood for a moment. Take Singapore, which is a pure creation of international capitalism: capitalism embodied and expressed as a cosmopolitan city. In 1960, GDP per capita there was around ten thousand dollars. Sixty years and one business-friendly Lee Kuan Yew later, it’s six times that, and roughly equivalent to the GDP per capita of the United States. At the same time, Singapore’s after-tax Gini coefficient — that’s the number that measures wealth disparity within a society — has fallen over the last ten years. More wealth did not necessarily lead to more inequality. The point is not that we ought to emulate Singapore; God forbid. It’s that the problem might have more to do with the way in which Americans are working the system than with the system itself. It might well follow that replacing the system might not be quite as consequential as replacing those particular Americans would be. Furthermore, while I admire the writing of pinko thinkers from Marx to Gramsci to Jackson Browne, they’re all working on the assumption that it’s the economic structure that makes people do what they do: that that structure is the kinetic energy in the muscle of the man who pulls the lever on the machine of oppression, and if you could just switch out that mode of production for something nobler, the man would be changed, and the machine would grind to a halt. I… just don’t think it works that way. I think the problem goes deeper than that, and I think that world history and current events tend to ratify the more pessimistic Christian view of things. Man is pretty bad, no matter how you dress him up. So however you want to skew the statistics, I believe there’s ample evidence to hang a MOSTLY FALSE on this one. There are many more claims advanced on Ancient Dreams In A Modern Land than these, including a weird one I don’t understand about the owner of Marilyn Monroe’s hotel killing gays (?), but those nine are representative. The coastal skew of her opinions is evident, but you could say the same about The New York Times, which, I hope we can all agree, Marina outpaces on the accuracy scale. This sets her up well to be a pundit. Not exactly a lateral move for a pop star to make, but they’re no accounting for career trajectories; I mean, Aubrey Huff decided he’d rather be an Internet crank than a beloved athlete. It’s the land of opportunity we’re living in, and of course I mean the opportunity to make yourself a laughing stock on social media. Universal ridicule is now attainable for celebrities, no matter how minor — and with it the sort of infamy that leads straight to elected office.
Marina Sena — La Primeira On paper, Portuguese looks like Spanish, more or less; Spanish with more Os and a few unfamiliar diacritical marks. In performance, Portuguese sounds to me like Transylvanian mixed with Swahili mixed with boing boing robot voices. I cannot make heads or tails out of conversational Portuguese, and this has been the primary impediment to Caetano Veloso’s ascension to the tippy top tier of my personal list of greatest artists. Sometimes I forget that Brazil isn’t exactly part of Latin America: they’ve got their own deep history, their own language, their own slang, and their own skewed, neo-concretist way of seeing the world down there. There are ways in which Mexico City feels far closer to Paris and Berlin (and certainly Santiago) than it does to São Paulo. So it is with some apprehension that I draw an analogy between Marina Sena of Belo Horizonte pop band Rosa Neon and Paulina Sotomayor of Pahua and Sotomayor, who is as Mexican as a Tlaloc statue covered with corn husks. But — Marina and Paulina rhyme, so I am going to go ahead and make the comparison. Just as Sotomayor harmonizes Afro-Caribbean styles with contemporary Mexican electropop, Rosa Neon and Marina Sena rounds up Brazilian rhythms and throws them into a sampladelic centrifuge. De Primeira is catchy tropical pop with a samba shimmy: she raps, sometimes, she sings, generally, she cajoles, constantly, she goofs around whenever possible. The emphasis is on entertainment and ease of use, and there’s nothing so experimental or alien that it’d throw a casual visitor for a second. Marina is an excellent vocalist, everything here is super-tasty, and it foregrounds its danceability, too, just like American musicians used to do back when we were still capable of motion and activity. I mean, these days, we’re even too lazy to dump cool-sounding foreign verse into Google Translate.
Mark Fredson — Nothing But Night In spirit, this is not unlike Alex Cameron. If you, like me, found Alex Cameron’s schtick — tales of an aging, unsympathetic lounge lizard set to seedy early-‘80s soft rock production — a little wearisome, you might want to steer clear of this, too. Or maybe not. Mark Fredson is a much more flexible vocalist than Cameron is, which is helpful if you’re inhabiting a predatory character; you’ve got to sound convincingly seductive and tremendously unsavory at the same time, and that’s a hard needle to thread. Fredson is also legitimately funny, and his in-character observations will ring true to anybody who has ever seen the underside of a pop scene. That holds true whether he’s sleazing on a transplant from Indiana (“a little corporate but she keeps it real/and that’s fine by me”) to pondering whether to live rent-free by squatting on somebody’s terrace. I like the one where he drops a sorry-not-sorry on poor Johnny for stealing his girlfriend (“for future reference/people ain’t possessions”) and the one where he sheepishly confesses that he’s out on one of many last hurrahs. But mostly I like this guy’s sense of melody. Parodic or not, he’s got a great feel for classic shitty piano pop. That’s the trick that the Webb Brothers knew on their not-dissimilar Maroon album: give ‘em an irresistible chorus, and they’ll believe in your persona, and maybe even your sincerity. Well, almost.
Matthew Sweet — Catspaw The loudest show I ever attended was Matthew Sweet on the 100% Fun tour. It was the height of grunge crossover, everything on the radio had been run through the Big Muff Pi distortion pedal, and the star felt the need to keep up lest he be called light in his loafers. My pulverized eardrums suggested to me that he may have overcompensated a wee bit. I mention this because it occurs to me that Matthew Sweet, while no one’s idea of a badass, has never exactly taken pains to ensure the listener’s comfort. This makes him an outlier in a very smoooooth era, and much as I would like to applaud his iconoclasm, I would also appreciate a little padding as I put myself through the gristmill that is his present output. Catspaw, for instance, is best approached with helmet and shoulder pads. He’s done all the guitar himself and he solos inexpertly on every track, he’s sung it all in his middle-aged goose call of a voice, and, to better apprehend the scratchy texture of his personality, he’s applied no moisturizer to anything. Again: brave, and out of step, as he always has been. I suppose that a true power pop supremacist might say that none of that matters as long as the song construction is sturdy. On the compositional level, he still hits more often than he misses: “Challenge The Gods,” that’s prime Raspberries throwback nonsense, and prime Matthew Sweet atheist nonsense to boot. But let’s be candid here — even if the power pop supremacist isn’t an extinct species, few are spotted on the open range. Undaunted, Matthew will keep on singing and writing for that guy. He didn’t put a dinosaur on the cover of Altered Beast for nothing.
Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime More guitar burnination from the Nigerien six-string master and perennial stealth contender for the title of best lead player on the planet. This one isn’t quite the exercise in transcultural dot-connection that Ilana (The Creator) was — all acoustic numbers aside, it’s more of an excuse to solo without ceasing. He compensates by kicking up his most intense sandstorms yet, including a few where the guitars and percussion fuse in the desert heat into one great disorienting whirl. There’s more anger here, more pain, more abrasion, more nagging questions opened by the guitar that are productively exacerbated by the percussion. and while Mdou Moctar is not about words, necessarily, you’ll certainly get the one that asks why the rest of the globe has to perpetually shit on Africa. He’s talking to you, pal.
Megan Thee Stallion — Something For Thee Hotties: From Thee Archives I see Megan Pete as Puig to Miranda Lambert’s Bumgarner. They oughta start throwing pitches at each other, just to underscore their hotheaded Southern similarities. They’re impeccable vocalists, masters of various popular styles but traditionalists and true believers at heart, wits as quick and effervescent as bubbles rising to the surface of your carbonated beverage, rhythmic monsters, and proud Texans no matter what. They’re also participant-observers in the real violence that underpins the battle of the sexes, and proponents of girl power applied in places where it isn’t normally welcomed. And it ain’t their fault/when they’re walking (or talking) jaws drop. This year, Miranda dispensed with Music City frippery and gave us a set of campfire singalongs; Megan counters by raiding the vault for straight hard-rhyme and YouTube freestyles, most of them shorn of pop pretensions and presented in two minute bursts of fire. Bless them both. Keepers of the flame, they are. I pray for the day we wake up and realize it’s the same damn flame.
Men I Trust — Untourable Album Shorter than the oceanic, nauseating Oncle Jazz, but no less quease-inducing. It’s bleary mush, like lukewarm pancake batter dripping onto your eardrums. I’m not sure why these guys consider this set any more untourable than the others they’ve made: this isn’t exactly headbanging music, and you sure can’t dance to it. Maybe they’re just getting into the quarantine spirit.
Mexican Institute Of Sound — Distrito Federal Electrified folklorico was a way forward for rock when Dylan jammed with Judas at Newport, and it remains a viable option for progressive musicians in the playlist era. Find some Inca drumming on a potato, record it and run it through a sampler, cut it up and call it digital unga bunga. I’m not knocking the hustle one bit. Pop is a hungry beast that eats all rhythms and all traditions, and burps them back out in the garlicky gaseous cloud we call global culture. This is a game that Latin Americans can, and do, play as well as the Norteño ethnopirate, and lately Mexico City has become the international center for appropriative activity. They’re not so squeamish there. The Mexican Institute Of Sound calls the new set Distrito Federal, and you can hear why: here is the capital city as a supercollider, with sounds and rhythms from all over the hemisphere tossed into the turbine. Graham Coxon, who always stands ready with invective directed toward the United States, drops by to deliver a vocal on “Your America Is Not My America.” Point taken. But some of these recontextualizations don’t seem quite so motivated: they’re driven by novelty, or maybe just impishness, and they remind us that while folklorico plus electronica plus political agenda equals agitprop, folklorico plus electronica plus nothing in particular often equals beer commercials. A world party for stylish inebriates from across the hemisphere is not much of an improvement over your basic frathouse rager. Mas cervesa para todos, in both cases.
Mica Levi — Blue Alibi I’m loath even to mention this, since I can’t figure out what the heck it is or why Mica would bother to foist it on anybody. Is this an industrial sound effects tape that was left on the dashboard too long? Is it something you play for plants to accelerate their growth? Is it a butt dial? Because I notice it has many of the qualities of a butt dial: inscrutable, asstastic qualities. Now, it may be that this is simply over my head, and there’s an internal aesthetic logic that I lack the capacity to comprehend. Mica’s many accolades might lead one to form this conclusion. But I suspect that this particular empress has been running around unclothed since the days of Micachu And The Shapes, and she’s simply too low-profile for anybody to bother pointing it out. It takes a jerk like me, apparently.
Midnight Sister — Painting The Roses Some Los Angeles characters attempt the old Elephant 6 trick of stuffing an entire pop orchestra into a four track. Or maybe they cut this in a state of the art studio that they don’t exactly know how to use?, I mean, what could be more L.A. than that. I can’t knock the ambition: some of these are post-Skylarking baroque pop numbers adorned with boings and blurps and various intriguing armpit fart noises, and some are lysergic funkouts layered to fuck and back and squashed like the cake in the gym at the sweet sixteen dance. Teenage symphonies to God they aren’t, though, because Midnight Sister don’t seem particularly devotional, and I’d wager it’s been awhile since any of them were teenagers. Some of the string arrangements have a silent movie grandeur to them, and the synth treatments and effects sound peachy in the cans. but in pop — even art-pop — synths and strings and effects are decorative elements. Projects rise and fall on the strength of the vox and drums, and I’m afraid that Midnight Sister lacks a vocalist with the command necessary to steer these arrangements home to a destination. When the singers are washed overboard by the roiling wave of sound they’ve generated, a listless rhythm section has no life preservers to throw. A like-minded producer such as Kevin Barnes could help, but he’d probably end up replacing all of the instruments, and re-cutting the vocals, and substantially rewriting the songs. Especially the last few. Those are the quiet ones, and they’re so listless that they’ll have you craving an expeditious return of the armpit farts.
Mon Laferte — Seis Sometimes Monserrat hurls the melody at you like it is so much crockery, and she’s married to you, and she has just found out that you kissed her sister. Sometimes it is like she has been cooking all day with every pepper in the pantry, and she is proud to serve it to you with hands on hips and a big smile. Either way this is the woman you’d be lucky to come home to. Apasionada, as they’d say in Santiago. The tracks on Norma felt like throwbacks to a more flamboyant, Ricky Ricardo-ish version of pan-Latin music, but they did make their peace with modern trends. Seis, by contrasts, is straight-up folklórico: some of this is just vintage-sounding ranchera, which might sound a little funny coming from a transplanted Chilean, but boy howdy does she own it. What she shares with Natalia Lafourcade is the knack for writing songs that sound like they must have been around for a century and enshrined in some South Of The Border hall of fame, but there they are with a 2021 copyright and her name on the lead sheet. As a singer, I continue to hear her as a Spanish-language Gaga — a sound-wave generator capable of blasting the chrome straight off of a vintage microphone. Unashamed, painterly and picante, utterly unmoved by fashion, loud and proud and insanely talented, overshadowed only by the presence of Ms. Lafourcade lurking nearby.
Mon Laferte — 1940 Carmen Grease-soundtrack sounding songs like these aren’t outliers in her catalog. Most of her albums have curtain-closing pop-rock ballads on them. Norma didn’t, but Norma was a nigh-unbelievable exercise in focus and sustained creativity. La Trenza, by contrast, is stopped cold by a hokey show tune called “No Te Fumes Mi Mariguana,” which I don’t believe I need to translate for you hippies. What’s different here: 1940 Carmen is wall-to-wall soppy, blissed-out Sandy loves Danny pop-rock. Some of it is even in English. Yuck, I know, the same grody language that Amy Sedaris speaks. That very one. Anyway, this is all winsome and well-sung, tastefully arranged and impeccably produced, but none of these songs does much that you wouldn’t expect it to do. As far as I’m concerned, surprising you straight out of your socks is the whole point of a Mon Laferte. Sometimes she does that by singing so forcefully that all of the filaments in the lightbulbs in your brain shatter with a delightful sizzle, and sometimes she does it by developing her melodies so nicely that it’s like she’s taken you by the wrist, spun you around, and flung you dizzily through the song and on to a nice cushioned surface. After shooting the works on Seis, I can’t begrudge Monserrat her headlong plunge into sentimentality and compositional predictability, and I’m also not going to pretend that I won’t be playing this rather often. Because I know I will. I’m just going to consider it a pocket project of hers, and in that pocket is a handkerchief, soft and cottony, fraying at the edges, with a cranberry lipstick stain fading on its surface. Maybe Mon blew her nose in it a few times.
Morgan Wallen — Dangerous: The Double Album I wrote a whole essay about this record and the various controversies and collisions it has engendered, and I posted them to the site. I doubt very much that I brought anyone around. Irrespective of my position, I know some of you were always going to respond well to Dangerous, as I know you have warm feelings toward the cancelled. Elvis Costello fans bristled, no doubt, at the comparison I made: Elvis is a raconteur for the ages, and Morgan is a shit-kicker who thinks “one beer two beer three beer four” is an acceptable chorus. I get it. If you are a listener who cannot abide Music City cliché, I absolutely understand that this is not for you. If you are a recovering alcoholic who does not want to hear a drunk doofus rhapsodize about a bar, if you are a person of color or conscience who does not forgive Morgan his bigotry and stupidity, if you’re a concerned citizen who recognizes the ferocious red-state resentment that Dangerous radiates, you have every reason to put this one down and pick up any number of excellent alternatives instead. But if you are a rock critic and you are damning Morgan with faint praise or ignoring Dangerous altogether, then I say: you’re a spineless jellyfish and you are not doing your job. This is the album that will define 2021 for thousands upon thousands of listeners. Yes, many of those thousands would like to see the head of the Jew on a pike. But that is beside the point. Purely as music, Dangerous kicks ass, and sustains that ass-kicking tone over a remarkable thirty tracks. The guitar playing is delicious and a thing to behold (“I Need A Boat,” c’mon, doubters), the drum fills are Smoky Mountain thunder (the one that introduces the last chorus of “What You Think Of Country Now” lands like an avalanche in the gully), the arrangements are first-rate (check everything about “Seven Summers”), the lyrics are memorable even when they’re stupid (and even if you have no country-ass friends) and the main character is absolutely indelible. Of course his recalcitrance is dangerous — that’s the name of the damned album. He knows it, and he knows you know it, too. And I recall that I warned you all in ’14, in a Sunday section of a family paper, no less, that if you were not willing to hear the bad news about the deteriorating national disposition from M. Lambert, A. Presley, L. McKenna, et. al., you were absolutely going to start getting it from more unpleasant messengers. Song after song on Dangerous, Morgan’s narrator bristles at those who cock an eyebrow at him, who have their own opinions — mostly bad — about how redneck he is, and what that means, and who won’t let him in the club. For good reason; I mean, I, myself, am a damn Yankee from New Jersey who would have cheered the results of the Battle of Gettysburg, including all the dead Confederates. But in 2021, if you could identify with Morgan’s feelings of rejection and internal exile at all, I’d wager you’re either an investment banker or an Illuminati puppet. If that describes you, you really shouldn’t be having anything to say about popular art, since you’ve got no relationship to, or sympathy for, the fears of the incorrigible people whose experience this album is designed to represent. Ordinary shitty Americans, in other words.
Nas — Kings Disease II What a misnomer. Hit-Boy is back behind the boards, but that’s about where the similarities to King’s Disease number one stop. None of the inattention or listlessness that has marred some of his latter-day sets is present here, no, this is Nas plugged in and going hard, taking no bars off, flinging poetry everywhere like Johnny Appleseed with his hand in a seed bag of verse. He’s reminding the nonbelievers and newcomers how to structure a verse — when to accelerate the detail, when to lay the imagery on thick, and when to pare the language back to the bone. On Disease I, a main theme was the slipperiness of womankind, rendered in the specific misogynist voice of the successful man who fears he’s about to be blindsided by a big old #MeToo. That nastiness has been stashed away, thankfully, and in its place, Nasir has returned to some of his most fruitful subjects: the application of black wealth in a society designed to leech money and opportunities from blacks, and the history of hip-hop, with its many beefs to revisit, heroes to celebrate, and rumors to squash. All of these stories are told with the offhand quality of an expert eyewitness. There are lots of gangsta-dad jokes (“peeked through the blinds/you knew it was curtains,” buh), but he’s a gangsta-dad, so what do you want? Even the features here are good, and don’t distract too much from the star. We have Eminem in total nerdcore mode, which is jarring but fun, and YG, reminding us all why we found him endearing in the first place. Also, holy smokes, if that isn’t a full, legit, hard-hitting, wonderfully irascible verse from Ms. Lauryn Hill herself. Who on earth but Nas could have coaxed that out of her? I’m glad to see he is still willing to leverage his legendary status for the sake of art. I’d kinda feared he was done with that. Maybe not just that.
Natalia Lafourcade — Un Canto Por Mexico, Vol 2 It’s borderline unfair that on top of everything else, she’s become the ablest general manager and lineup-card filler-outer in the business. She said she always wanted to sing with Caetano Veloso, and holy cow, there’s Caetano on the new one, pinch hitting in a big spot. It almost doesn’t matter that Caetano’s voice and Natalia’s voice don’t match much, because he’s a damn legend, and she’s a damn legend, and the mere thought of the two of them super-friendsing their way through “Soy Lo Prohibido” is worth whatever discretionary pesos you’ve got to shell out. But, yeah, it does matter a little, at least to me. Volume One of this extravaganza featured a clutch of new and indispensable Natalia originals amidst the baroque-orchestrated and star-studded re-dos of spare tracks from her back catalog; Volume Two is just the re-dos. Some of them are worthy of the dramatic Mexican-cinema blowouts; for instance, there’s no way to get enough of “Soledad Y El Mar,” which might be the quintessential Lafourcade composition in a discography loaded with integrity. “Recuérdame,” from the dumb Coco movie shows up, too, and it gets a definitive recording shorn of its Hollywood hairiness. I’m grateful for that, and for the fireball iteration of “Nada Es Verdad,” which she first cut in ’17 with Los Cojolites. Natalia also hits us with yet another version (this time acoustic) of “Para Qué Sufrir” that’s well shy of the unbeatable original, and I can’t begin to tell you how Ruben Blades, let alone a random rapper, ended up in the middle of “Tú Sí Sabes Quererme.” There are also two more “La Llorona”s on this damn thing: a seven-minute acoustic kickoff, and a trio recording with Ely Guerra and Silvana Estrada, and, ay, amigas?, I love you all, but could you please cut it out with “La Llorona” already? It’s like they’re trying to actualize the metaphor of the woman who can’t stop singing. Speaking of tireless characters, Mon Laferte stops by to blow through two of her old songs as Natalia relegates herself to a ringmaster on her own album. I get what she’s trying to say and do here: these Laferte and Lafourcade numbers are worthy of inclusion in the canon of Mexican folk classics, and they can stand next to Consuelo Velázquez and Agustin Lara material with no dissonance whatsoever. But Natalia proved that point years ago, and now it kinda feels like she’s stalling for time. She may indeed intend to retire her pen and instead spend the rest of her career re-recording “Nunca Es Suficiente,” et. al., in various regional styles, and if she does, I won’t even grouse. There are far worse ways to lay on your laurels than this: surrounded by heroes and emulators, singing and strumming at the very highest level, winning Latin Grammys, splashing around in a deep repertoire like it’s the warm Caribbean water off the coast of Veracruz. I’m greedy, though. Gotta hold out hope that there are a few more stunners hidden somewhere beneath that floral fascinator.
Natalie Hemby — Pins And Needles It’s not that Natalie isn’t an okay singer. She’s at least as good as your corporate frenemy who does some mean karaoke after a long day at accounts receivable. The problem is that she’s grown so accustomed to setting them up for the very best frontwomen in Nashville that she’s lost any sense of how to write for a less than earth-shaking vocalist. One such as Natalie herself, I mean. Her strategy on Puxico involved muting the instruments and turning her observational skills toward ghost towns and tiny villages in the Missouri boondocks. This meant that she didn’t, you know, sell any records, but it’s not like I minded one bit. In the Highwomen, Natalie bent to Brandi Carlile’s bluster, and that guaranteed her a bigger live audience than she’d ever had, even as she slipped around on all the slick surfaces. With performances suggestive of Sheryl Crow singing indifferently in the shower, Pins And Needles tries to split the difference. When pretty Puxico-like ones like “Lake Air” and “Radio Silence” get manhandled by the production, Natalie lacks the lung power to alert the cops. Sometimes the blooze rock swallows the storytelling, too: I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that “The Hardest Part About Business” is Lambertly funny and incisive, but I can’t make out what Natalie is saying through all the quadruple-tracking, so I’m withholding my wry chuckle until further notice. Yet from time to time the clouds do part, especially on the last two songs. There she reminds you of exactly who she is. Not a pop star. Not a charismatic frontwoman. Not a honky-tonk belter. Nothing but the best hired gun in a river town built on the sort of foursquare songwriting she mastered long ago, and one with a compositional signature visible clear across the Cumberland. She’s still a virtuoso of the common touch — the most valuable commodity in Music City, even if that’s not always immediately discernible in the mix.
Nation Of Language — A Way Forward This Westfield fellow used to play in a jagged, post-Strokes pop-rock group called The Static Jacks. That was good. This is better. Nation Of Language is the rare break to synthpop that doesn’t feel opportunistic or craven in the slightest. Instead it seems motivated by a desire to recapture some of that bleary, fearful futurism of Orchestral Manouevres In The Dark’s Dazzle Ships and certain sequenced New Order album cuts. He’s done his homework, in other words. Richard Devaney stays true to the spirit of his sources by imbuing his synthesizer patterns with equal portions of dread and drive. He’s also very handy with a big singalong chorus, even as he makes sure never to tip into arena-rock sonic excess. All those ostinato bass synthesizer patterns and plinky, Vince Clarke-style staccato parts and cascading analog synth arpeggios and echoed drum machine clicks are tastefully curated and carefully arranged to capture Molly Ringwald’s attention. Definitely worth a spin or two if you like the style, or maybe if you just like Molly.
Olivia Rodrigo — Sour Regardless of Olivia’s appreciation for Taylor Swift, this feels more like the Lorde album I expected to get after Pure Heroine: authentic obsessive youth storytelling, appealing awkwardness, strategically managed bombast, slow tempos, synth portamentos meant to evoke cars rolling by on the road and/or the inflating of balloons for the school dance, piano waltzes, references to Billy Joel both implied and actual, the sound of wounded pride. At just over a half hour, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, which is a good thing, because Olivia’s shattered relationship does not reward close scrutiny or elaborate illustration. Sour comes freighted with big hits, which is good and bad — the instant gratification of “Déjà Vu” and “Good For U” is real, but this album isn’t going to insinuate its way into the pop consciousness against our will, introduce new ideas, and change our frame of reference the way Born To Die or Fearless (or Isolation) did. Instead, Sour announces the arrival of a new star who rides in on a wave of inevitability and who might fit in a little too well. It’s an album that doesn’t need to convince anybody of anything, because all of the aesthetic arguments it participates in are already settled. That extends to the storytelling, too, because, what?, you’re going to sympathize with the schmuck who broke Olivia’s heart? Fat chance. She’s not allowing any space for that, even if she does still fuck-ing love him. I do deeply appreciate the implication that first love is the only love that matters, and everything else is just a tired retread. That’s teenage supremacy at its boldest, and brattiest, and pop can always use more of that.
Ora Gartland — Woman On The Internet Irish lassie Ora Gartland comes off as discombobulated from time to time, and that’s to her reckless credit, sorta. The album title is a bit of a confession: Ora gained some quasi-notoriety by doing covers on YouTube, and she’s acutely aware of her own propensity to crib. Like Olivia Rodrigo, she thinks she thinks too much about kids who don’t know her/jealousy jealousy, etc. But she still does as they do. She’s a copycat, basically. Unlike the pro mimics, though, her voice has an undisguisable abrasive quality, complete with an upper register reminiscent of a stuck wheel on a grocery store cart. Ora applies those pipes to material that’s usually neatly written and sometimes stormier than you’d think it would be, even if the tempest never upends any apple carts. In this way and a few others, she reminds me of Liza Anne, another talented melodist who has flailed more than a bit in search of an identity, but who also has the good sense to be bugged by it. Safe plays and ditto moves do not make for a fortuitous career launch. Then again, a few years ago I would have said the same thing about Halsey. So the only thing you know is youneverknow.
Ovlov — Buds Three Connecticut brothers and a buddy play brief, blown-out (yet tuneful!) scuzz-rock. They’ve got an interesting backstory too: their dad, who does not seem to be in the picture, was a successful Christian pop songwriter. My sense is that there’s no spiritual upliftment buried beneath the fuzz, but they sure do seem to be true believers in developmental melody and six-string overdrive. Buds is never screamy, and there are nice harmonies to be unearthed here and there. I hear traces of Dinosaur Jr., MBV, and Hüsker Dü, but also Oso Oso and maybe Saves The Day. You tell me. A good two-thirds of the time, the tunes are buoyant enough to bubble to the surface of the ooze they create. On the other third, you may as well be listening to a hand blender. There is at least one (1) sax solo. It’s a pretty nifty one, too.
Pahua — Ofrenda Mexico City provocateur Paulina Sotomayor mints ethno-pirated party pop, but it’s never gauche — for one thing, her songs project a wide-eyed excitability that is by no means incompatible with sobriety. Most of the time, she makes her mischief with Sotomayor, her dizzy, hemisphere-trotting combo with her brother. Pahua is her solo project, and if she’s not shaking up the bottle quite as vigorously as she did on Sotomayor’s Origenes, she’s still pouring out rivers of percussion, some of it electronic, some of it semi-acoustic, and some of it, ostensibly, slapped on the bongos by Paulina herself. Does it matter anymore if the drummer is hitting a traditional instrument or hammering her fingers on a digital workstation? It’s all the same act of constructive aggression, or deconstructive nervousness. I can never tell the difference. Much like her songs with Sotomayor, these five jams strike me as the work of a smart but slightly jumpy tourist who has really studied and internalized the guidebook. I believe Paulina has thought hard about the relationship between African music and folklorico, and I further believe that the tastefulness of her redeployment of the signifiers she’s swiped is a sign of the utmost respect. But mostly I believe that she is an avocado. Because that’s what “pahua” means — it’s Mexican slang for la fuente de guacamole — and she does seem like a personification of its virtues. Creamy, green and gold, wholesome, high in healthy oils.
Palberta — Palberta5000 It has been asked (by you) why I am paying so much attention to frogs and krauts and ruskies and various Africans and what have you. It has even been implied (by the CIA) that I may be some sort of pinko commie rat. Well, Mr. CIA, and “Brad”, if that truly is your name, this right here is your reason. This is what America has been serving up for the dedicated music listener: pop-rock made by artists who simply cannot sing or play. Then there is the American alternative music press, which is now just a PR company trying to convince me that Palberta resemble Can. No, they do not resemble Can; Can was a band of virtuosos whose departures from expectations and trips into the void came after they’d mastered their musical instruments. Palberta sounds like what they are. They are enthusiastic kids screwing around in a practice space with good ideas but no dependable means of musical execution at their disposal. If you live in a place like New York or Los Angeles, you might even convince yourself that this is the way of things: that Palberta is where it’s at, and that their incapacities are punk rock, democratizing and empowering in all the right ways, a crooked middle finger to a system that expects perfection from the imperfect. Then you spin a record from Colombia, or the Dominican Republic, or Nigeria, and you’re like… Oh. Right. Talented people who have practiced. That’s the point of this. That’s what the stage, and the lights, and the make-up, and the cheering is for. That’s why we are gathered here today. In our pursuit of dubious ideological ends, we have forgotten the basics. Ain’t that America, version 2021.
Pale Waves — Who Am I? Dirty Hit’s idea of a throwback power pop/mallpunk band. I suppose Matty Healy has been flirting with this style himself, but to his dismay, he is not a girl, so there’s a limit to how much Hayley Williams heat he can generate. Also, he doesn’t possess half of Hayley’s intelligence. That’s something about Paramore that people miss. The main mover here is a Manchester woman named Heather Baron-Gracie, who expresses relationship insecurity in a fizzy queer context (“sexuality isn’t a choice”). She dresses goth, but the sonic sensibility is pure early-‘00s Hot Topic. That means Avril in Matrix mode, some Michelle Branch, some Natalie Imbruglia doing “Torn.” As with The Aces, an overwhelming thinness poisons the party from time to time. Plus there’s a creeping feeling that you’re looking at the result of somebody’s business plan — the result of an algorithm that has caused the song doctors to determine a soft spot in the market to exploit. I’d protest, but I am afraid I embody that soft spot. Just as the human lungs had no defenses against the novel coronavirus, I lack the antibodies to resist such fast-spreading invasive species as “Run To” and “Tomorrow.” Results came back from the lab and my susceptibility to the spike proteins of ridiculous power pop has been scientifically confirmed. This is not going to replace anybody’s Eisley records, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t remember it by late ‘22. But it was good enough to score at least one glorious sunset drive in ’21.
Parcels — Day/Night Here’s a peculiar one. Day/Night is an interminable double album from a Berlin-based dance-rock quintet formed somewhere on the sunny beaches of Brisbane. At least a couple of these guys are honest to god male models, and they make the sort of music that you might expect to hear if the button-down boys in the J. Crew catalog suddenly began singing. Harmonies are from the Beach Boys school, which sure ain’t suffering from declining enrollment and probably never will. The beats allude to the Bee Gees in a smiling, noncommittal way, and there are a few numbers that sound as if Parcels had been tasked with re-creating the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack with nothing but Daft Punk recordings for context clues. They’ve padded this business out with mood pieces and cake slices from foofy classical symphonies of their own invention, and I suppose it all does give Day/Night a pleasantly upper-crusty feel. But you don’t want to spend all day drinking at the yacht club. Eventually Biff the deck hand gets resentful and shanks you.
Paul McCartney — McCartney III Imagined I am sure that Sir Paul, cherub that he is, enjoys the heck out of these interpretations. Dude is always game. But as a fan of Sir Paul, I wish I’d never encountered this desecration, and I’d like to expunge it from my memory. Annie Clark, Damon Albarn, Anderson.Paak, Devonte Hynes: they all line up to miss the point and dilute the strengths of Paul’s quarantine set, and impose their loopy logic on songs that required no modernizing. Even the Phoebe Bridgers number is kinda beat. The Fireman project shows that Paul is by no means allergic to loop nonsense. He likes loops and samples for the same reason he likes singing about Lavatory Lil and doing it in the road: it’s fun, a hell of a lot more fun than golfing with Alice Cooper or whatever else his peers are up to. But he’s also the guy who showed the world that you could do silly love songs without sacrificing harmonic or melodic development. His compositions always unfold over time — they exist within time, and follow trajectories inerrantly, step by step. Beatle composition is linear, even when that line is recursive. If you want to approach Paul, that’s where you start.
Pearl Charles — Magic Mirror I reckon that a resumption of the old divide between the singer and the songwriter would do wonders for college rock, and could help steer it out of the mushy mushy morass it’s currently mired in. Because these auteurs keep writing checks that their voices cannot cash. As oh so many do, Pearl Charles wants to make a ‘70s style folk-rock classic, complete with pedal steel and banjo and electric piano and period percussion and soul-sister b-vox. That’s the easy part. The hard part is the singing and bandleading, and Pearl does not pack the gear. If you drop the digital needle on Magic Mirror, you might, momentarily, convince yourself otherwise. Pearl can imitate the specific timbre of those Laurel Canyon voices with the skillful mimicry you might expect from a Los Angelena. But she lacks the flexibility and command — and, most importantly, the charisma — to navigate her compositions as they unfold across measures and bars. She is in good company there!, very few singers can guide listeners through an epic pop song. You’ve got to be able to project personality and tell a story while holding pitch and keeping time. That’s a tall order. Pop singing is not the same as acting, or opera soprano-ing, or celebrity impersonation. It requires a very peculiar combination of skills, all held in place via preternatural mental balance: part insurgent, part dictator, part evangelist, part hypnotist, part schoolteacher, part bard, part saleswoman, part sex fantasy. Part magic mirror. Pearl gets it, that much is clear. Desperately, she wants to be it. So do we all, Pearl. So do we all.
Pink Siifu — Gumbo’! Marijuana masterworks for the jokers/smokers/midnight tokers. Often I’ve had harsh words for tripped-out, head-first hip-hop, fragmentary and story-shattered as it is. But I am enough of an outcast to concede that having a smoke out in the dungeon with the Mary Jane is not always the worst oblique strategy in the deck. The individual who is, for some reason, calling himself Pink Siifu makes his appreciation for the Dungeon Family manifest, but he never copies OutKast or Goodie Mob straight out. Instead, it’s more about the southern barbecue spirit of the thing, and those curls of thick smoke rising over the park. He oscillates between high-speed nightrides, a/c busted and windows down, shouting at the sleeping city, and molasses-slow lawn-chair slump anthems. In both cases he acquits himself well. He’s an imaginative producer with sonic ideas to burn, and an exacto knife of a rapper, even when he’s swamped by his own beats. Even when he’s got nothing much to say, which, I have to admit, is rather often.
Pom Pom Squad — Death Of A Cheerleader Hilary is mad at me. She thinks that I didn’t mention the crucial qualities of the Olivia Rodrigo album: its thematic coherence, its examination of female homosociality, the dynamics of modern jealousy, constant c-c-comparison to pretty young analogues. But now we’re skirting dangerously close to the plagiarism controversies that i didn’t want to write about, and… oh, we’re up to Pom Pom Squad? Hooookay. Guess we’ve got no choice. The world will never know if supporters of Pom Pom Squad launched the press campaign accusing Olivia of intellectual theft or if Pop Pom Squad frontwoman Mia Berrin initiated the whispering campaign herself. Either way, Mia (and Courtney Love!) acted proprietary about the “dark” cheerleader paradigm, which is funny, because since the eighties, there have only been about nine hundred Lifetime Channel movies called Dark Cheerleader, My Mother’s Sister’s Dark Cheerleader, Mother May I Sleep With Dark Cheerleader, etc. Every high school drama ever made has dark cheerleaders in it. Deep association with a cinematic cliché is, I believe, a wholly attainable goal for Mia, but wouldn’t she rather be known for her solid pop-rock songwriting and her sweet cover of “Crimson And Clover”? I guess there’s telling what “punks” will do, including non-punk punks who, like this snickerdoodle of a human being, is about as punk as Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Now it could well be that Olivia Rodrigo, or Olivia’s stylists, sat around with copious Pom Pom Club videos, cribbing away. But if so, so what? As a quasi-underground artist, that’s exactly what Mia Berrin is there for. She’s supposed to generate ideas that are then borrowed, and bowdlerized, by pop stars with the capacity to reach millions. Mia is a good singer in the abrasive style she’s chosen: she throws her elbows around, gets feisty, holds pitch, maintains her sense of time, and douses her queer storytelling in the bracing, palate-clearing vinegar of tangy queer experience. She’s got talent. But never in a million years could she cut a vocal like “Driver’s License.” Olivia’s line reading on “you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me” — that wonderful petulance, that furious handshake with pure outrage, that moment of complete connection with the shattering betrayal that all jilted lovers feel — that’s completely beyond her. Which is fine: it’s beyond all but a tiny handful of artists. That’s why Olivia is courted by the White House to help out with the national vaccination campaign, and Mia is slugging it out at the Ottobar. We need independents to workshop metaphors and alchemize sonic styles, and we need pop stars to catalyze the absorption of those experiments into the cultural aether. The system doesn’t work unless everybody plays ball. I have to hope that the protestations coming from the Pom Pom squad camp were just a performance of bad attitude from a group of showbiz kids who wear badass kit for purely professional reasons. Because it it’s real resentment, it’s utterly misplaced. A turtle in the mud might as well resent a bird for its wings.
Poppy — Flux After spending a long season as a YouTube demythologizer, and then a pseudo-pop provocateur, and an occupant of a Pee-Wee’s Playhouse for a Satanic age, and a psyop and brain-scrambler, and a post-modern reinterpreter of progressive metal a la Mr. Bungle, Poppy decides that, for her next trick, she’ll just be the frontwoman of a first-rate rock band. Nice work if you can get it, and keep it, which it turns out she can. Flux isn’t the revelation that I Disagree was, but it isn’t designed to be: it’s meant to signal that Moriah Pereira is, and always was, about the music, and in this for the long haul. Some of the hellacious deathcore screaming remains (this is out on Sumerian Records, after all), but for the most part, this sounds like Metric; Metric in rock mode with a little Siberia-era Lights-style pop-punk thrown in for good measure. As I Disagree did, Flux saves the best for last: a one-two punch of the zonked and fuzzed “As Strange As It Seems,” and ferocious “Never Find My Place,” which, in a Metric/Paramore-less year, might be the year’s best straight-up female-fronted rock number. But the whole thing is good; squared away Jimmy Eat World-style with excellent quality control from Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who, I must add, has also worked with JEW and Metric (and Paramore). He’s also the foremost scientologist in rock, so if Poppy really wanted to leave her cult reputation behind, he’s a funny guy to tap for the producer’s chair. Always messing with our heads, Moriah. Even when you’re not.
Pridjevi — Drugi Korijen Back when we were pedantic children and not yet the noble and broadminded senior citizens we have become, I recall we all got a bang out of the concept of world music. Ha ha — “world”, like where else is music supposed to come from, ya dummies. Then we learned that Latin music and world music were separate categories, which was even funnier: Spanish-speaking artists, with their jumping beans and hats made entirely of fruit, weren’t even part of the world. We had no compassion for marketing people at Luaka Bop, struggling to stick a track or two on those dumb Putumayo compilations that were just proto-Spotify playlists. But world music is a distinctive style with specific conventions, and even then, we should have recognized this. If you are fitting instrument sounds and rhythms from African or Eastern European or Aboriginal Australian traditions into beats of your own manufacture and letting that juxtaposition carry the weight of the track’s significance, you are doing world music. Your latitude and longitude don’t matter. Wherever you are, world music requires casual ethnopiracy, even if you are pirating from your own ancestors. Now, Benetton is basically out of business and Ben & Jerry’s doesn’t make Rainforest Crunch anymore, but the world music style hasn’t gone anywhere. World techniques have infiltrated styles that weren’t particularly worldly: Nordic metal, Goa trance, Indonesian funk and psych, didjeridoo rock, love you long time rap, stomping Riverdance nonsense, you name it. The key thing is the fetishization of the exotic. You are spotlighting the instrument, or sample, or voice, that connotes foreignness. That moment of transcultural signification functions as the hook. That also tells you what the hook isn’t: it’s not a lyric, or a melodic phrase, or even a rhythm. It’s the cymbal clash of an unexpected cultural collision. That can be impressive, and sometimes even illuminating, but it’s often more of a literary or political phenomenon than it is a musical one. ‘Course there is another definition of world music, and that is music made by the hefty. Because the world is round and so is Cee-Lo. But I prefer to think of those people as the global elite.
Really From — Really From I cannot understand why these young Bostonians resist the American Football comparisons. There is clean guitar in mathy patterns, some of the vox are Midwestern emo in execution and intention, there’s dreamy after school jazz-class electric piano, and then there’s all that mournful trumpet. In their case, it might be a flugelhorn?, but like Q-Tip says, brass is brass. Ninety nine out of a hundred emo kids will hear this and think of American Football immediately, and the other one blacked out from too much crying. They just don’t understand him. Perhaps Really From would rather be on Jazz at Lincoln Center bills than bash it out in gross Allston basement shows with The Saddest Landscape, etc., and… yes, I guess I can see why that might be. Still, thousands upon thousands of musicians have tried on this suit. These are some of the first to make a few smart alterations. It probably helps that they’ve come at it from a jazz background rather than stormy, ham-fisted post-hardcore: they’re free to maintain a light touch, emphasize the brass and foreground the vocals, and slip some topical lyrics about cultural and racial identity into their numbers. Even after the recuperation of the fourth wave, there are still many who just don’t want to be called emo. But there’s no shame in getting likened to the album that is to the genre as Astral Weeks is to classic folk-rock.
Richard Dawson & Circle — Henki British folkie collaborates with Finnish heavy metal band! That’s the elevator pitch, anyway, and I can see how it would appeal to fans of uncanny juxtaposition. As it turns out, these guys aren’t such strange bedfellows: Circle has been around forever, and metal is only one of the many styles they’ve played. Dawson is only a folk artist in the same way that the first three minutes of “Dancing With The Moonlit Knght” is folk — there’s a certain brutal Medieval quality to his melodies, which suits a writer who set an entire album during brutal Medieval times. Henki doesn’t sound all that different from that album, or its more modern cousin 2020: there’s a bit more Sabbath riffing and Devil’s intervals, and a little more soloing, but the emphasis remains on Dawson’s peculiar storytelling voice. This time out, he’s applied his associative mind to horticulture, of all things, and it fits like a floppy hat on a garden gnome. Like a rocking taxonomist, Dawson has named each of the songs on the set after a different plant, and he’s singing about the relationship between those plants (some endangered) and human beings. He tends to to see homo sapiens as a particularly oafish invasive species, definitely morally compromised in comparison to his chlorophyllic neighbors, blundering around and committing herbicide even in the name of science. Sometimes this gets obvious in a way that neither Peasant nor 2020 ever were — for instance, the one where the biologist chops down the tree in order to determine how old it is is a little on the nose. But heavy metal and heavy handedness are a natural match, I suppose, and in a year where everybody from The Weather Station to Bomba Estéreo has made ecological interventions through their artwork, Dawson is the man with the specifics. Downright tuneful, and ingratiating, as exercises in tree-hugging go.
Rodney Crowell — Triage Rodney Crowell is almost as old as Jackson Browne. Like Jackson, his lyrical and conceptual focus has lately begun to slip, which is unsurprising, even as his essential personality remains wholly intact. He’s decided to sidestep the problem of his own waning discernment through church-sanctioned indiscriminate affection. He loves Benedict Arnold and Jessica Biel/he’d even love the Devil if he thought it was real. In subsequent verses, Rodney backs this up with scripture: Luke 12:39, and a couple of psalms to boot. Far be it for me to cast stones at his Texas-woolly version of Christianity and universal salvation, but I do suspect that the blanket amnesty of the Triage album is a bit convenient. Because, you see, he extends it to himself.
Rodrigo Amarante — Drama I feel like I write this every year. Eventually the American music fanatic is going to wake up and shake hands with the world outside the Anglosphere. There’s too way much good stuff waiting at the border. Of your consciousness. The border of your consciousness, I mean. No one in his right mind wants to get into the United States anymore. Rodrigo Amarante seems like a solid place to begin: he’s a star in his native Brazil, but he’s based in Los Angeles, and four of these eleven tracks (including the one called “Tango”) are sung in English. He’s worked with Fab from the Strokes and Adam Green, and he wrote and performed the theme song for the TV program Narcos. There are lots of access points, in other words. Me, I know Rodrigo from “Azul,” his duet with Natalia Lafourcade on Mujer Divina, which was, even by the standards of that very sexy album, very very sexy. Drama is a comparably sultry experience, but I don’t think Rodrigo is trying to seduce anybody; instead, this thing just bubbles and steams on a low and steady flame. Lots of acoustic guitar and ukulele, muted horns and sax, jazz chords, Brazilian percussion, samba rhythms sneaking in everywhere, the ghost of bossa nova dropping by for a quick spook and a rattling of chains. Rodrigo himself is a bit of a mumbler, laid-back to the point of insularity, and some of his lyrics are pretty vague. But he snaps into focus when he sings about the tao (an empty cup with liquid poured and never filled), and when the whole combo starts to groove, those palm fronds start whipping around in the wind. At times, he suggests a Lusophone version of Damon Albarn — an internationally sad ballad man, adrift on the tradewinds, a familiar face in a dense crowd, a doer of riddles without solutions.
Rostam — Changephobia Hm. Since flying the Vampire Weekend coop to become a megaproducer, Rostam has worked on some very good albums: Women In Music, Farewell Starlite, Blonde, etc. Nevertheless, his nosedive into the mush has been one of the sadder stories of contemporary pop, and suggests strongly to me that he needs Ezra after all. Vampire Weekend remains annoying as a bag of bugs, but they’re anything but a mushrock outfit: Ezra’s vox and lyrics are right there on top, and the two Chrises do their jumpy township jive “you and my cousin/me and my cousin” thing behind him. Rostam, however, was the one with the real superpower. He could drop intricate, note-discrete, classically-inspired piano and organ parts — parts that sounded like Amadeus harpsichords, sometimes — into pop-rock productions and make them work. Listen to what he does on “Step,” for instance. If anybody else tried that, they’d sound like a total idiot, and yes I do speak from experience. I don’t know how Rostam pulled that off, but I do know that it’s essential to the band’s renegade preppy personality and its juxtaposition between musical styles associated with the first world oppressor and those associated with the third world oppressed. Vampire Weekend is all Whit Stillman playacting, and that’s exactly what makes it good. Ezra is a wiseass Jewish kid from the Jersey suburbs, and Rostam is some sort of gay Iranian swashbuckler. They’re not ruling-class anything; they’ve got nothing to defend and even less to regret. But somewhere along the line, Rostam must have made a deliberate decision to break from the thing he did best, which is sort of like Wonder Woman sticking the lasso in the bottom drawer and spacing on it. There are lots of synths on Rostam’s solo records, but they’re mushsynths: gooey washes of sound meant to dissolve into the equally mushy vocal effects, with everything running together like the taxi oil and bus exhaust and hot-dog vendor steam and condensation on the bodega windows on a wet New York City night. I get why he does this. He’s got no confidence in his voice, so he decides to pretty everything up until it’s all gleaming as a Christmas tree ornament, and about as situational a play. But Rostam did once know a vocalist who he had absolute confidence in. That vocalist really could have used his help on that last album. He might have counterbalanced those strange stabs at cowboy music, the no-show showtunes, and that excessive amount of Danielle Haim. I don’t get a sense that this is a Morrissey-Marr situation, or even Gerard Way and the rest of My Chemical Romance. They’ve proven, rather definitively, that they’re better together than they are apart. Time for this wanderer to dry out and come home.
Rhye — Home His was the most obvious #MeToo-ing in #MeToo history, as this man’s music is liquified date rape, and his sound seems tailored to prise the pants off of underage sophisticates and wannabe Lolitas. I think his punishment should involve Sade Adu beating the living shit out of him. You know she wants to.
Saint Etienne — I’ve Been Trying To Tell You What would actual dream music be like? Not the strict conventions of dream pop or shoegaze, but something that attempted to capture the quality of dreams as the actually happen? There’d be detours, and a feeling of defamiliarization. Sands would be shifting. No sooner would you take a step on strange terrain than your tracks would be covered behind you. You’d think you knew where you were heading, and suddenly you’d be in a different place, and you wouldn’t experience that as a break in continuity, but the logic would nag at your brain. You’d drift between layers of awareness: sometimes you’d be conscious of what was going on, and sometimes you’d be unmoored from your own surroundings. Street signs would point in contradictory directions. There would be voices in the mist. Shadows would be on the move. A woman’s face — Sarah Cracknell’s face? — drift in and out of focus. Her lips are moving. Sound is coming from somewhere; maybe it’s her, maybe it isn’t. She’s trying to tell you something. But the harder you listen, the closer it would come to total incomprehensibility. Application of reason does not clarify matters. You are lost in the infinite recesses of your own mind — a place you hardly know.
Sarah Mary Chadwick — Me And Ennui Are Friends, Baby The author of “My Mouth My Cunt” and “When Will My Death Come” apparently feels that those numbers were insufficiently raw. Thus she has stripped the band away and given us nothing but post-Fiona yowls from the piano bench and a glimpse of her pubies on the album cover. Not that anybody asked. In Plastic Ono tradition, she bellows about her parents, and her suicide attempts, and her disinclination to call her parents during those suicide attempts, and the shortcomings of those she did call. She’s certainly not the first musician to mix up the studio and the therapist’s couch, or to believe there’s something ennobling about discomfort; and as a fidgety character myself, I’m inclined to agree with her there. There’s even a song here called “I Was Better At Being Young Than You Are,” which is something that every crotchety oldster in a rocking chair thinks, but few are shameless enough to come out and say. Kudos for her bravery, I guess. Mushrock this ain’t.
Sault — Nine Superficially, this resembles Jamila Woods’s HEAVN album. That, too, was an examination of the meaning of growing up black in an inner city — Chicago for Jamila, East London for Sault — and sets the scene with children’s clapping rhymes and retrospective narration from street survivors. But Jamila is a genuine poet who also had access to some of the best musicians on the South Side, all of whom were, in 2016, at the tops of their games. Sault is just another trip-hop group with beat files and a sample bank. The underrated Little Simz contributes a deft verse; I do dig her, and her song is the best thing here, but Saba Pivot she is not. Sault can communicate emotional devastation in a few quick musical strokes: I believe them when they tell me that the pain is real. But because they’re discursively impoverished and they never bother to introduce and develop a character, their metropolitan exploration feels like an establishing shot before the action begins. It’s a moody establishing shot we’re stuck in for forty minutes, mind you. Not even Wim Wenders would try to get away with shit like that.
Selena Gomez — Revelación By no means is it a reggaeton song. Nevertheless, “Willow” rides along on reggaeton beat. Yes: that noted Caribbean artist Taylor la Rápida sticks the dembow right in the middle of her latest love story. Baby just say sí. This is, as the college kids say, cultural appropriation. I promise not to tell the J-board if you don’t. You might think Taylor’s buddy Selena Gomez is better entitled to the dembow, considering she’s got dark hair and her surname ends with the letter z. Truth is, she’s as American as a cube steak: she was born in Grand Prairie, Texas, and elevated to stardom via the Disney mill. Her tropical adventures are no more authentic than Taylor Swift’s are, and, most likely, they’re every bit as mercenary. Yet she’s done her homework, and hired some of the best help around: Jota Rosa, Kat Dahlia, Lex Borrero and Tainy of Neon16. Her take on reggaeton is downright elegant, the electronic interventions are tasteful, her nonregional but appealing accent befits a screen actress, and, most importantly, the songs are swell. This is the most grownup she has ever sounded on record, and the sexiest, too, and the impeccable Spanish adds a couple of points of I.Q. to an artist who, to be frank, could use them. Dump the lyrics into Google Translate, and you’ll see she isn’t saying anything special. As a mood piece, though, this’ll do just fine. As a reminder that music does not belong to anybody by birthright, and that its use is earned by the musician through dedication and the application of talent and nothing but, it’ll do even better.
Shame — Drunk Tank Pink To understand the post-punk revival better, and the near-religious fealty its practitioners show towards its sources, it may be helpful to examine Shame, a quartet from South London. They’re just as derivative as Girlfriends And Boyfriends, and they’re just as accomplished — they hit all of their marks, too, they’re airtight, and they play with a ferocity that would justify the existence of the group were it not for the hovering sense that you’ve heard this particular protest before. Like, a few days before. But Shame is part of a gang of UK groups working this same territory, and it’s not hard to imagine these guys on a bill with, say, Idles, at a theatre, riling up a crowd of dudes with few daytime outlets for their angular aggression. That might explain it. Post-punk is gratifying to play. It’s rewarding to match sharp edges with your friends. This is very physical music. It involves the externalization of certain scratchy, neurotic mental rhythms, and that expression, done in tandem with others who might share your affliction, is bound to provide a little tension release. It’s just enough dissonance to register your discontent, and just enough precision and joint action to imply that your little band of brothers can stand against the forces of entropy. Or fall, of course. But if they fall, they fall together. Limited rewards, for a limited time.
Silk Sonic — An Evening With Silk Sonic Oh, Bruno. All surface, lots of imitative understanding, lots of shrewdly applied talent, lots of snapping rubber-band energy, everything crisp and shallow, everything delivered with a wink and a crooked, complicit smile. The other guy here is Anderson.Paak, who is nowhere near as arch, or playful, but demonstrates a similar commitment for revivalism for its own sake. Silk Sonic sets the pair on a scavenger hunt, collecting and reanimating signifiers that suggest Philly soul, post-Parliament pop-funk, a little New Jack Swing, another wand-sprinkling of that 24 carat magic. Bootsy Collins even stops by to contribute something or other. Why do these guys want to escape into the past so urgently? Are they Commodores superfans? Or is it just a game to them; are they just trial attorneys who enjoy playing devil’s advocate, addicted to the thrill of arguing a contrarian case well? My cynical suspicion is that their inability to write female characters — pretty well established by now — compels them to retreat to a beachhead in history inaccessible to marauding feminists. If you’re imitating the ‘70s, that means you’re also imitating ‘70s love-man techniques, and the quest for scrupulous historical accuracy gets you off the hook for general grossness, and sleaze, and casual misogyny. Hey, it was the era, or so we’re always told. One that their fans don’t know anything about. They’re kinda counting on that.
Singapore Kane — The Don Manifesto Singapore Kane has gone Awon & Phoniks one better: he’s persuaded DJ Premier to give him a beat. Surprisingly, it isn’t even the best thing on this murky, pounding, swaggadocious rap album, full of veiled mafioso threats and doggystyle grinding, pleasantly absurd and cartoonish in the east coast tradition. That’s “Badmon Lavishness,” on which Singapore tells us that if he “can’t live the lavish life/he’s rather live the savage life/middle finger average life/when he gets his cabbage right.” Not groundbreaking or poetic, but it’s succinct, and the rest of the storytelling spins out for there. His voice is something of a blunt instrument, and his approach to the curves is just to floor it and run over anything that gets in his way, but again, that’ll probably just remind you of G-Unit. As long as his pockets are fat, the rest of the planet is safe, he assures us. That’s exactly the sort of entertaining wide-angle blackmail that 50 Cent made a career out of. It’s that real grimy NYC shit you’ve been missing. Wait, this guy is from Boston? Huh. I guess they do have some hard-hitting oysters and crabs up there.
Slayyyter — Troubled Paradise Internet microgenres are so dumb that they should consider running for Congress. Like, what the fuck is hyperpop?, something to do with PC Music and nostalgia for the early Internet? Music made by people who liked Sophie? I have listened to enough of the hyperpop that I can say, definitively, that we used to call this electroclash back in the olden days. Electroclash was itself a stupid Internet genre. In the antediluvian era, it was all just new wave. Not only does this edge not cut, it isn’t even an edge: it’s just one of the many concentric rings on the flourishing tree of pop music. You take some pop, you exaggerate the synthetic elements, you make it queerer than it was (though if it’s pop, it’s probably already queerer than you think it is), you apply some plastic textures and repetitive synthesizer riffs. The advance of computer technology has increased the precision of glitch-generation, and that means that ’21 hyperpop does sound a bit different from Ke$ha, or Berlin. But it’s not too too different. We remember Ke$ha and Berlin because of their songwriting, not because of their adherence to the aesthetic principles of a movement driven by marketers and recognized by blogs that specialize in press-release regurgitation. Spare me the BS and the labels. If I had any patience for genre fragmentation, I’d be a metalhead.
Sleaford Mods — Spare Ribs Sleaford Mods is a UK rap act, sort of, and a brutally minimalist one to boot: one that proceeds with the kind of starkness that has been out of favor in America ever since the Bomb Squad discovered airhorn overdubs. Almost all of the melodic information in their songs comes from the bass wobble and Jason Williamson’s pub-brawler inflections. Brand consistency requires them to rip, disgustingly, on Tory politicians, and the jizz-stained Dominic Cummings takedown is every bit as gross as they intended it to be. But Spare Ribs is more of a storytelling album about lockdown-related mania than a political broadside. Williamson even allows himself some childhood reveries, including touching memories of making his Mork and Mindy dolls fuck. It’s heartwarming. I dig the girl they’ve introduced, too: a working class hothead named Billy Nomates. She might yet be the Yo-Yo to Williamson’s Ice Cube.
Snail Mail — Valentine My gut tells me that this is an improvement over the first album. But my gut is also full of bacteria and oatcakes, so who wants to listen to that fucking thing? The petulance that has always distinguished Lindsey Davenport, or whatever the heck her name is, from the soccer mommies of the soft-rock sphere is here in spades, but it’s less channeled, which makes it a little more palatable. The words push and pull and pull and push, as Lindsey goes back and forth between obsessive desire for some broad and declarations of autonomy. Naturally, those declarations happen when Lindsey and her girlfriend are together, and the desire only congeals when they’re apart. Women: can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em, or so I am told. The music matches the amorphous quality of the singer’s unbounded emotions, serious one moment, noncommittal and standoffish the next. Fickle and changeable, semper femina and all that.
Snow Ellet — Suburban Indie Rock Star Snow Ellet is the exact opposite of Have Near — these are snappy, appealing Oso Oso-style tunes with none of the band-generated trappings. Instead we get rickety-chair drum machine and overdubbed distorted six-string ringing out those classic emo suspensions. Eric Reyes sneers his words and seems like a bit of a smartass, which is okay by me: “some say I’m genius like I always knew” goes the refrain of the best one here, and not only do I believe that he believes it, I believe he believes in the ultimate worthlessness of genius, too. Be bratty while you’re young, I always say.
Sofia Kourtesis — Fresia Magdalena Likeable techno/house record from a Peruvian chica now stationed on the cold, cold autobahns of Berlin. She even sings about one of them — a harmonically and rhythmically straightforward highway number called “La Perla” — and I keep thinking she’s about to break into “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” That’d probably upset her to hear, as I imagine she’s going for something akin to Kelly Lee Owens. But I get the sense that Sofia is more of an anthemic crowd-pleaser at heart. When in Zooropa, do as the Zooropans do.
Spirit Of The Beehive — Entertainment, Death I warmed up to vaporwave once I stopped comparing it to hip-hop. I’ve heard enough Vektroid now to see Macintosh Plus, et. al., for what it is: a form of electronic music that borrows techniques from hip-hop (sample stitching/pastiche, beat stretching, chopped & screwed) but its attitude from anticommercial, near-journalistic college rock like Bongwater and Negativland. I think it’s a mistake to call vaporwave nostalgic and leave it at that. This is a form of music that wants to trace a specific kind of nauseating modern horribleness to its roots in late twentieth century consumer culture. It’s not a celebration at all. Spirit Of The Beehive isn’t vaporwave, but I think of them as the rock band that’s most closely aligned with the vaporwave critique. They, too, melt down commercials and computer messages and old-sounding beats and let it all bleed and ooze and mush together. A lot of rock tries to be badass; this is rock that actually sounds gross, queasy, deliberately warped and slowed down and sped up in as vomitocious a manner as these motion-sick musicians can manage. There’s also that same dead mall vibe to the instrumental sections that I associate with vaporwave: wandering through a near deserted shopping center with too-bright fluorescent lights and distorted Muzak bouncing off the clouded glass doors of closed shops. Maybe you gotta pee. The lyrics, when they aren’t blurred beyond comprehension, are tough to piece together, but I make out the references to Ativan, and blood, and paralysis, and motion sickness. There’s a number called “The Server Is Immersed” and another called “I Suck The Devil’s Cock,” and the back third of the set is mostly sound effects and drugged-out filmy blear. As I do not shoot up narcotics, I doubt I am the target audience here. But insofar as this album is an expression of disgust, paranoia, and revulsion at the wreck of modern life, I, uh, I think I got the message.
Squirrel Flower — Planet (i) I could call this an improvement on the first one, but all I’d really mean is that it rocks more. Which is not to say this is upbeat: it’s rusty-string hollow-body through old tube amps stashed in the barn, performed at the ruminative pace of a cow munching grass before the rains come. Some of these compositions attain the ragged grandeur Ella Williams is shooting for, and the album is worth engaging with for those tracks alone: “Hurt A Fly,” “To Be Forgotten,” the fetchingly titled “Roadkill.” At other times those car wheels just spin on the gravel road, if you catch my drift. Now, mushrock is heavy with themes of introspection, because the sonic mush is meant to signify ambivalent thought, psychic echoes, the vast, wide-open spaces of Ella’s interior, groggy intoxicated states, Robitussin overdose, etc. Genre conventions aside, it takes a real egomaniac to name an album Planet I, and then live up to the title with every line she sings. I mean, imagine a planet with nothing on it but Ella Williams. Even Ella might feel lost in space.
Steven Wilson — The Future Bites Volume #4080 of Steven Wilson: The Economic And Philosophical Writings. To be fair, he’s sharper this time around than he was on To The Bone, when he was ankle deep in the shallows, wringing his hands over cellphones and whatnot. Steven’s ’21 position is that radical individualism has mainly served to hollow out our sense of self, and this vacuum has left us dangerously exposed to demagogues who have the knack for repackaging themselves as consumer products. He ain’t naming names, but he doesn’t have to, now, does he. Steven does a pretty nice job of spinning out this argument whilst never exactly sounding like the crotchety old man he is. His conviction that the labor of constant self-definition has whittled our cores down to slender reeds might strike you as pretty rich coming from a show-off prog-rocker. But he’s backed up his portfolio by putting the prog-rock aside altogether, and instead serving up the limpest music he’s had for us since the waning days of Porcupine Tree. Some high couture mushrock, some way-beneath-him industrial blues, some “modern” rock that sounds like the filler on the GTR album. All of it reinforces the theme, I suppose, but that doesn’t make it pleasant. I’m reminded of the critical defense of the prose of Vineland: Pynchon, some Stans said, pounded his language flat to match the plastic feel of the 1980s. For Steven, the ’80s — and for me and you, I reckon — were glory days. It’s been four more decades of steady pounding. I’m surprised there’s anything left on the anvil.
Sturgill Simpson — The Ballad Of Dood And Juanita Wags will say that Sturgill takes way more time characterizing the dog than he ever spends on the girl. Well of course he does — Sam the hound is Dood’s best friend, one whose death in a bramble patch is played for maximum Appalachian pathos. Juanita is just a Macguffin. There’s nothing on the wild frontier more traditional than that. The Bechdel Test simply does not apply to guys like Sturgill, who sings in a man’s man’s man’s voice about a man’s man’s man’s man’s world — one in which cowboys shoot each other and strain to rein in their wayward asses. Whoa boy whoa. A good rummage through these narrative saddlebags reveals that there’s more to this goofy tall tale than it initially seems like there is. For instance, the story is set at the height of the Civil War, and Dood, deadly as he is, isn’t serving on either side. He’s also wriggled free from the need to take to the mines to pay for his sustenance. Sturgill never says so outright, but it’s implied that his Shawnee blood has ransomed him from both obligations. Notably, he’s saved by the Cherokee — and a blind chief who mystically intuits his kinship and independence from the U.S. oppressor — and set on the path to split the skull of his full-blooded American adversary. He does it with a tomahawk, no less. Shamrock the indestructible mule is, like the Dood, a hardy half-breed; Juanita’s ethnicity is left ambiguous, but it’s hinted that her mountain momma might have been getting it on with a foreigner. So make of that what you will, Music City. Mostly, though, this is all an excuse for Sturgill and company to shred and extend their bluegrass, newgrass, and very very oldgrass fixations. They do it so effortlessly, and so enthusiastically, that they’ve even convinced Willie Nelson to contribute a guitar solo. I’m sure he appreciated all the callbacks to Red-Headed Stranger. Willie seems like a guy who is wide open to flattery, and I do mean that as a compliment. The life he loves/is making music with his friends, or so I’ve heard.
St. Lenox — Ten Songs Of Worship And Praise For Our Tumultuous Times I’m not eager to prompt St. Lenox to punch me out, as he seems like a nice guy, but I’ve got to say it: this album reminds me of Donda. There’s the same meticulously-detailed grapple with spiritual issues from fundamentally material narrators, the same wordy, nerdy, discursive quality to the verse, the same propulsive yet undanceable R&B, the same shotgun marriage of church organ/piano and funk/hip-hop beats, the same undeniable but possibly misdirected intelligence, the same commendable urgency to communicate, the same twin saving graces of passion and nicely-wrought melody. Like Kanye, Andrew Choi has less to say about religion than he does about his ongoing struggle to be a good person; also, like Kanye, he wants to be a family man, but worries he’s not up to the task. Andrew is gay, Kanye is… well, I sure wouldn’t call him straight, would you? There’s a lovely reminiscence here of the childhood experience of attending a Lutheran church in Bethesda, even if the experience clearly cannot hold a candle to a night run to a Kroger’s, where everything in the grocery store is invested with a holy glow. This story also feels very Kanye-like to me, even if Kanye’s epiphany would take place in a higher-rent district. I admit I’m not always crazy about Andrew’s singing: its constant and wearisome application of melisma to music with very little relationship to ‘80s soul. But the good lord knows I don’t always like Kanye’s vocals, and I keep listening to that guy, too.
St. Vincent — Daddy’s Home You may be scratching your head about the muffled AM gold sound, or the vintage soul-sister backing vocals, or the horns, or the sudden, uncharacteristic self-excoriation by a star who once seemed to live in a world without mirrors, or the bizarre, semi-parodic (?) rewrite of “My Baby Takes The Morning Train.” It all becomes clear the moment you realize that Annie Clark = Kevin Barnes. Which, for me, didn’t happen until just now!, so good on Annie for keeping the mystique in place for so long. Just like Of Montreal, St. Vincent began as a slightly stilted art-rock project fronted by a detached virtuoso with no interest in foregrounding psychological interiority or instability. With each subsequent release, the confessional content of the songs increased — and the more personal/pansexual the lyrics got, the more ‘70s-funky the music became. This is a matter best explored by the artists’ social workers and political science professors, but perhaps we the listeners can just put it down to their weird but (mostly) harmless ideas about race. Kevin Barnes has been mining Bowie for ideas from time immemorial; “Pay Your Way In Pain” is just “Fame” if it had been part of the soundtrack to a goofy Off-Broadway musical. Beyond that, Annie Clark might just be a rare case where biographical criticism is both warranted and helpful. It turns out that Annie’s dad is some kind of white collar criminal, and the title track of “Daddy’s Home” tells the story of his release day — from Annie’s point of view, of course, but it’s probably for the best that she didn’t try to inhabit her father’s perspective. Knowing what we now know about Annie Clark’s life story helps open up some of the elliptical storytelling on Strange Mercy: that stuff about dirty policemen and suitcases full of cash?, those might not have been abstruse metaphors after all. The increase in compositional and thematic complexity on Daddy’s Home is only the second-best piece of news for those of us who felt that Masseduction constituted a dumbing down of the St. Vincent project. The best thing about this set is that Annie is playing guitar again, and the solo on “Live In The Dream” is just screamingly wonderful. She even tries her hand at a little feminist rock history: St. Joni/ain’t no phony, she tells us, brave Tori/told her story, proud Nina/got subpoenaed. I can’t imagine Kevin Barnes disagreeing with any of that.
Sunny Jain — Phoenix Rise Sunny pounds the dhol, which is one of those big-ass Indian barrel drums that you’re supposed to sling around your neck and beat with a stick. In Red Baraat, he uses it to call the kids to the reception (“baraat” means wedding), and if the party never exactly gets out of hand, let’s just say he’s reluctant to blow the curfew whistle. His quarantine solo album isn’t all that much more sedate, but there’s a sense of one-world gravity and Putumayo-esque unity here that he doesn’t bother with in his regular gig. The fourteen million guests on phoenix rising come from the jazzy edge of the international jam circuit: Joe Russo, Vijay Iyer, Marc Carey, Lauren Sevian, you know, the sort of high-minded folks you might run into at bam. It’s the Kennedy Center rock, in other words; there’s even a song denouncing gun violence, cut with the dude from the Black Pumas on guitar. It’s a testament to the charisma of the ringmaster that he keeps the guests from running away with the show and giving TED Talks in musical form. Nevertheless, this plays like an upmarket version of one of those Pitbull Globalization projects where the kaleidoscopic array of faces and voices serves as a distraction from uneven songwriting and unimaginative lyrics.
Taylor Swift — Fearless (Taylor’s Version) Taylor’s version, she tells us! As if those world historical originals from 2008 were coerced at knifepoint by an evil doppelgänger. Oh, these directors and their cuts. Far be it from me to begrudge Taylor any of her money moves, given that I’ve benefited plenty from them over the years. I have to think, though, that Trader Jack and National Guy blanched a little when they got their latest marching orders from Swift Corporate HQ: remake Fearless, just as it was, right down to the last drumstroke. I know — they’re just here to help the ballclub. This, I’m afraid, is the kind of task that you can only fuck up. Either it sounds just like the original, and you’ll wonder why they even bothered (hint: $$$$) or it’s shy of the original, and then you’ll really wonder why they bothered (hint: still $$$$). It’s reassuring, at least to me, that Taylor can still sound like a horny teenager when she wants to. That speaks well of a woman for whom beaucoup well is already spoken. But if you can listen to this all the way through without feeling at least a little bit bad for former producer Nathan Chapman, the man expunged, I think you might be burdened with some revenge fantasies of your own. Those tears just keep ricocheting all over the place.
The Anchoress — The Art Of Losing I’m just going to put this here because it’s the most logical place for it, and sometimes I gotta get something off my chest. Until Kate Bush is inducted, I will not take the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame seriously. I cannot even imagine the criteria that would justify Kate’s exclusion. At least three of her albums and several singles are certified classics. She was a prog-rocker at a time when girls were not allowed to prog out, and continued to make progressive music when the giants of the genre had turned to soo soo sudio and I eat at chez nous. She’ll sing about hand grenades, drowning in the middle of the ocean after a plane crash, washing machines, the Brontë sisters, fucking a snowman — nobody in the history of pop-rock has shown more storytelling range, or had a firmer hand with fantasy idiom, or maintained a better tether to the literary. From Lana Del Rey to Steven Wilson to the tyros of YouTube nation, every conceptualist art-pop star owes Kate a monumental debt of gratitude. Sometimes I think that the entire mushrock era has been nothing more than a Kate Bush imitation contest, with everybody running up that hill with maximum reverb. Artists like The Anchoress approach the incline with a head of steam, but mostly what they do is demonstrate how tough it is to touch the hem of Kate’s garment. As for her commercial profile, I note only that Kate Bush has sold a shitload of records while doing exactly what she wanted to do, and nothing more or less. Far be it for me to demand some more (girl) brothers on the wall, but I do think that the only explanation for this treatment is unreconstructed sexism. I think it pisses off these Jann Wenner types that Kate found a way forward for rock music that didn’t involve wanking it out on an electric guitar. I mean, imagine inducting Joan Jett and denying entry to Kate Bush. And I love Joan Jett. But come the fuck on.
The Antlers — Green To Gold Here we have a proto-mushrocker whose melodic and arrangement instincts are so dull that he had to torture and kill his female lead on his one good album in order to hold your interest. I guess there were a few okay numbers on Burst Apart too. The point remains: there is a certain kind of musician whose compositional toolshed is so barren that he requires melodrama or extreme motivation to compensate for his lack of musical imagination. When that musician moves up to Saugerties or wherever and enters the Neil Young on the front porch in a rocking chair stage, he’s going to have zippo for you. This record is certainly pastoral, but it isn’t particularly pretty. Some pastures are just brown rolling scrub hills and mud puddles where even the cows won’t go. The shepherd is yawning and falling asleep on his crook. The Antlers do capture the blandness of certain Upstate New York backdrops in their background music, so points for a brutal kind of verisimilitude, I reckon.
The Black Keys — Delta Kream Some records make points, some records win you over gradually, and some records are just pure fun. But it’s the rare record that is an education. I was always vaguely aware of the distinction between delta blues, which became the dominant strain in classic rock and roll, and hill country or hypnotic blues, which was weirder and more polyrhythmic, and maybe more belligerent, too. Sometimes a demonstration from a master really clarifies things. Delta Kream is a modest collection of covers of songs by Junior Kimbrough, R.L. Burnside, and other hill country bluesmen, but my golly does it make a point about the distinctive qualities of this music. This is blues that does not behave: blues that won’t conform to a bar structure or a time signature, and reserves for itself the element of surprise, even as it grinds you into a paste via the repetition of the same menacing six-string patterns. Because Dan Auerbach has a permanent get-out-of-jail-free card from me for his production on Ultraviolence, I sometimes space on what a loose, lean, purposeful guitar player he is — one as dedicated to modern applications of folklorico as Natalia Lafourcade or Laura Marling is. He plays this stuff like he’s lost in it, like the groove is one endless, turbulent river, and he’s going to keep rowing along with the currents until the dinghy capsizes. All of that I could have guessed. What I did not expect was just how much the hill country blues would remind me of desert blues: modern North African dream-makers like Tinariwen and Mdou Moctar, and maybe even hallucinatory song-spinners like Fatoumata Diawara. There’s the same heathaze quality — that shimmer of mirages in the distance — the same spirit-summoning, the same externalization of an unknowable, mysterious inner state, drenched in pain and desire. The Black Keys say they recorded Delta Kream in one unbroken ten hour session, sans practice, animated only by the love of the blues and the excitement engendered by the connections they were making. Not only do I believe that, I’d rule out any alternate explanation. It’s the only diagnosis that fits the fever. These are the roots of rhythm/and the roots of rhythm remain.
The Hold Steady — Open Door Policy Call it emcee envy, or late-period parklife, or podcast residue, or manandwomansplaining and the universal desire to give a TED Talk. From Cassandra Jenkins to Dry Cleaning to Black Country rants, sprechesang has rarely had a bigger year. You might think that would put Craig Finn in a nice position, since he’s been blabbing through his verses from time immemorial. But the reason this is an improvement over the last few Hold Steady albums is because of its superior incorporation of melody — and Craig, who is finding growth-stunted chorus tunes and memorable hook-like snatches with much better assurance these days, is part of that. Let me also be the latest to say that the return of Franz Nicolay has helped the outfit out a bunch, even as he continues to pinch his entire bag from the Professor. Steal from the best, right? This is his finest performance ever, especially those big chords at the end of “Unpleasant Breakfast” (gosh what a Craig Finn title), and he gets everybody roused and fighting fit. Especially the drummer.
The Killers — Pressure Machine Let’s say you are a well-known pop-rock artist who is also a big fan of Bruce Springsteen. Not so hard to imagine, right?, lots of our favorites are. It would be downright dishonest of you not to inscribe your passion for the Boss in the music you make. But how do you do it? Are you a lyricist of Springsteen’s caliber; are you effortlessly poetic yet also epigrammatic and emotionally direct? Are you a master of working-class character studies? Likely you are not. What about your singing? Do your performances walk a narrow line between gruff, manly authority and sensitive, masculine self-doubt? They don’t, do they. Perhaps your band can compensate. Maybe you’re backed by world-class artists — huge personalities who are stars in their own right for very good reasons. Yeah, fat chance, buddy. Perhaps, then, the approach is to mimic Springsteen’s arrangements and try to replicate the sonic environment of his most famous records. Some pretty famous producers have tried this, and it never exactly works out as intended. The ugly fact is you are not the Boss, and as a superfan, nobody knows that better than you. You’re probably going to fall on your face. Your best chance to dodge embarrassment is to approach the literary values that Springsteen has always championed: intertexual storytelling, sensitivity to place and time, moral ambiguity, the search for essential American-ness. You don’t have to be an ace writer to do these things. It helps, but it’s not mandatory. Brandon Flowers of The Killers is not known as a wordsmith: this is the same guy who tried to get away with “are we human/or are we dancer.” He is not winning the Man Booker Prize for poetry for the lyrics on Pressure Machine either. Much of his writing is clumsy, some of it is redundant, and some of it is, to be blunt, a little dim. But in a strange way, the pedestrian verse actually helps his Springsteenian ambitions along. This is an album about the place where he is from: Nephi, Utah, a “quiet town” that is no haven for language artists. More pro lyricists would have messed this up — they’d have spun elegant verse that counterposed the easy natural beauty of the surroundings with the tormented psychologies of the Nephi people. Brandon knows better. He recognizes that those psychologies are not that deep, and the lives of those who possess them are irreducibly inelegant. While he has quite a bit to say about the wildflowers in the hills, he knows they have no real relationship to the opioid overdoses, train accidents, suicides, and needless estrangements that make life in Nephi — and places like it — tougher than it should be. When it works, Pressure Machine does indeed hint at a peculiar darkness at the edge of American consciousness: a widespread failure of imagination that leads good Christian people to do prosaically awful things because they lack the intellectual flexibility to come up with creative options for themselves. That prevailing suspicion of poetry comes at a high cost. The cop sees nothing else to do but murder the abusive husband. Mistreated wives drift into affairs because it’s the most visible channel for relief. The lost kid in his room is about to do a terrible thing, and even in his blind fear, he’s unswerving about it. These characters are not taking paths of least resistance. They are willfully traveling a broad and rocky road to hell, missing the turnabouts and side-alleys that might bring them back to better versions of themselves. In a way, they’re not unlike Springsteen’s version of Charlie Starkweather on Nebraska (and Nebraska is the major touchstone here), in the grip of the meanest inertia, careening toward bloody disaster. Bruce was spinning folk-rock koans about human cruelty and the Reagan-era abandonment of our obligations to each other. Brandon’s characters are not that complex. They sure are believable, though. I trust that his affection for them is real. I’m grateful for something else, too: his recognition that he could never live up to his hero did not stop him from attempting to imitate the things about his hero that are worthy of emulation. Even if the whole world sees him come up short, he did it anyway. I wish other pop stars would be so brave.
The Notwist — Vertigo Days Ghostly percussion, strained blurbs and blorbs, guitars that kinda sound like muted horns, moody samples, deadpan German-accented vocals, shuttered dime-store electronics, everything a little bleared and smeared like it’s been apprehended through a cloudy windshield of a car stuck in traffic. This is a very evocative record, and it ends as it starts: with a synth riff that seems to be breaking apart and decaying into rust and powder. Meanwhile, the main dude bets you know how much it hurts. These songs struggle upward like spring shoots breaking through the permafrost. At times, The Notwist’s music acquires drive, but not so much of it that you’d ever think they were jolly. Sometimes the guitar sounds vaguely emo, but the emotion is complicated and European. Even the industrial sequences evoke white-collar sadness rather than fume-belching factories. The inexorable dullness of pencils, the poet Theodore Roethke once put it. The Notwist has been around for decades, but I’d never picked up on them until now. It looks like I’d better go raid the archives.
The Orange Peels — Celebrate The Moments Of Your Life Always be a little suspicious of sunshine pop from San Francisco. Sunshine City that place ain’t. I know it’s hotter and presumably friendlier elsewhere in the bay, but Allen Clapp already lodged a persuasive complaint about Redwood City: you make it haaaaaard living here, you may remember how it goes. to his credit, Allen can sound awfully bitter, or maybe just snide, while he’s sunshine-harmonizing away, and his most recent set with The Orange Peels is an ambitious attempt to bang his way out of the jangle pop box. Celebrate The Moments Of Your Life is a seventeen track double album with menacing near-metal like “Larkitecture,” Billy Joel piano gorgeousness on “Thank You,” a stab at show-tuneage on “The Ghost Of You,” and a twenty minute set-closing symphonic suite. But at its root, it’s the same old Orange Peels: same ringing major sevenths, same fantastic room-miked drum sounds, the same cool sound-gating effects and proto-mushrock reverb, and more lead vocals that sound like Brian Wilson if he’d been a supercilious jerk. I can’t fault the ambition here. But if you’ve heard other Orange Peels albums, you’ve probably got the best of this covered.
The Reds, Pinks & Purples — Uncommon Weather Some incels shoot up synagogues. Others retreat to the home recording studio to lay down an impression of loneliness, as Joni Mitchell might put it. Which approach, I ask you, is more of a threat to the warp and woof of the threadbare fabric of society? My understanding is that the Unabomber Manifesto is quite influential in certain circles motivated by blueballs-induced rage. But so is indiepop! On his last set as The Reds, Pinks & Purples, distressed San Franciscan Glenn Donaldson tried to convince himself that love and hate were the same mistake. This time around, he likens life to a kick in the face, showers contempt on a girl chasing another boy, hopes he’ll never fall in love and insists he won’t die for anyone. He steels his heart against its own apparent vulnerabilities, in other words. Glenn intends to conjure the depressive thrills and rainy cinematic sweep of post-C86 bedroom electropop, and again mostly succeeds. That said, I’ve got a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the Sarah Records catalog, and I don’t remember ever encountering anybody so thoroughly blackpilled. It hardly matters how hushed his voice is, or how ravished he sounds, or how winsome those melodies are that he’s reclaimed from the college rock thrift shop. This is one disillusioned dude, miles removed from Bobby Wratten’s absurd yet sympathetic faith in the ennobling power of heartbreak. My feeling is that such guys always end up like Morrissey, and I don’t mean they become singers in world-famous pop-rock bands. I mean the version of Morrissey whose compassion was ultimately overwhelmed by a ferocious sense of interpersonal entitlement. There’s a lot of that going around. There’s no need to contribute more.
The Umbrellas — The Umbrellas Like The Reds, Pinks & Purples, these guys are from San Francisco proper. This is not something I thought was possible anymore unless you are a tech billionaire or Hunter/Lexi Pence. The Umbrellas do the jangle-pop thing with the requisite zip, and kickoff track “Lonely” is sweet enough for an ice cream smooch-off. On the downside, they are not exactly Jack Casady on their instruments, the vocals are often shy of the mark, and their ring around the rosy act gets pretty dizzy after awhile. Moreover, I’m not sure they’ve got anything to add to a style so well-worn that even the patches need patches. If you’re going to do flatfooted formula fiction, you should at least stick a Baby Yoda in it.
The War On Drugs — I Don’t Live Here Anymore Noooooo please no. MOM please oh please don’t make me listen to this record. I will end up making a joke about “beer commercial rock,” and I will be forced to the grim conclusion that I am morally indistinguishable from Mark Kozelek. I do not care to taste the flames of hell. Instead, let’s talk a bit about The Mandalorian. As long as you promise not to send this to your Star Wars friends, I mean; they love this thing, and I don’t want to be a galactic downer in their presence. Just as every Jersey Shore town can be assessed by the quality of its ice cream parlor, the tone and tenor of each new battle in the neverending Star Wars saga tells us much about the era in which it was made. While nostalgia is a big part of this show, I have come to realize that the antecedents of The Mandalorian — Lone Wolf And Cub, mostly, but also various spaghetti Westerns — aren’t what’s noteworthy about it. That’s because you will never see a Western where the lone desperado comes to town in impenetrable plate mail, and proceeds to lay waste to scores of adversaries. If he can get one shot off at Gary Cooper at high noon, that’s plenty. No, The Mandalorian is an expression of a particularly modern male fantasy, one in which an invincible gunman opens fire on many opponents at once and kills them all. This happens over and over in the show, just as it happens with the “spells” in the film versions of the Harry Potter books, and, you may have noticed, it has been happening with increasing frequency in real life. That the opponents are themselves armored and faceless (most of the time) does not disguise the murderous motivations of the filmmakers, who ask us to identify with a contract killer whose total body count is already in the thousands, and we aren’t even up to the third season. Now, there have been many RPG shooters made in which the player at the controls destroys everything in sight, but the drama of the RPG shooter is that you might not be successful, and you’ll have to reload. No such worries about The Mandalorian, who will always blast everything and who will take minimal damage himself. That is why the representative character of the series is not the one-joke Baby Yoda, but instead the droid IG-11, who baptizes the show with a blaster-bath straight out of the modern American assault-weapon fantasy/nightmare. Impassive as a sociopath, the robot rolls into a crowd, and, through superior firepower and advanced weaponry, leaves nobody breathing. When the original Star Wars was made, gun violence was conducted with small arms like Barettas and Walther PPKs, and there are only so many people you can take out with a service revolver. Moreover, there was always a chance that Maxwell Smart would do the thing where he’d grab the top of the gun and twist it out of your hand. No such luck if you’re facing a guy with an AR-15 and a mind bent on carnage. You’d never get within ten yards of him before he’d wipe you out. It would be, in fact, very much like the gunfights in The Mandalorian, where the ostensible good guys act like fanatical but determined shooters clearing out a crowded shopping mall. I am prompted to recall a point that Jared Diamond made in The Third Chimpanzee: chimps do not kill each other with much frequency in the jungle because, he explains, killing another chimpanzee is not an easy thing to do. Once armed with rudimentary weapons, the rate of intra-chimpanzee murder spikes significantly. The chimps get ideas. Bloody ones. The acceleration of weapons tech has enabled us to conceive of scenes that were unimaginable forty years ago: demonstrations of mechanized death that suggest a deep longing to use the arsenal we’ve amassed. There are, as you probably know, close to four hundred million guns in the United States; by contrast, there are three hundred and twenty-six million people. You’d figure that a nation so thrillingly encumbered with lethal firepower would soon see that state of affairs reflected in the art its people made. It might even come up with a television program where the main character is himself a walking weapon. Contrast with Luke Skywalker, who is never armored, always vulnerable, not a particularly sure shot with a blaster, and only as weapons-resourceful as he needs to be. but Luke (in the first movie at least) was an embodiment of a totally different literary fantasy. He’s there to rescue the princess from the castle, and in those pre-backstory days, he even got a smooch out of it before he swung over the space-station chasm. This fantasy, I am sad to say, is fading for Americans, as more and more of our stories revolve around our obsession with weaponry, and the ease with which we could eliminate our enemies if and when we chose to open fire. Neil Tennant said it in ’93, in his most powerful and prescient song: there are no lovers left alive/and that’s why love has died.
The Weather Station — Ignorance Big men leave big footprints. Few saplings grew in the rock and roll forest in the place where Clarence Clemons fell: the best we’ve gotten are some game approximations, mostly cut by his nephew. Once you’ve heard “Jungleland,” how are you going to blow that horn without getting red in the face with embarrassment? People just didn’t try. But it’s been ten years, and the reverberations are fading — and musicians are rediscovering uses for woodwinds that do not involve stepping into the spotlight and yakety-yaking over Billy Joel beats (not that that isn’t a worthy thing to do, Richie Cannata). The number one trend in pop-rock music 2021 is saxophone, and if you think otherwise, buddy, you’re just not paying attention to the good stuff. There is suddenly sax all over the place — sax in tight and dusty corners, sax poured like honey on the otherwise stale and doughy biscuit that is modern rock. Woodwinds are plentiful in Latin music, and the tropical wave may indeed have opened North American ears to the expressive possibilities of reed instruments. But it’s in the art-rock sector where sax usage has really spiked. It’s as if everybody, all of a sudden, remembered how saxes were used by King Crimson, and the Soft Machine, and Chris Wood in Traffic, and Van the Man’s late Seventies bands, and, most of all, Andy Mackay of Roxy Music, whose approach to shading and coloring, as heard on Avalon, is suddenly back in vogue. Woodwinds save the Weather Station album: they rescue the songs on Ignorance from Tamara Lindeman’s shaky sidestep into high-minded ‘80s-style adult contemporary music. Brodie West’s breathy and querulous saxophone signal is nearly a second voice, and it says many of the things that Lindeman’s tongue-tied lyrics only mean to (“Loss is loss/is loss,” c’mon, Tamara. Compare, for starters, to Cassandra Jenkins). Brodie never solos: he just uses his horn to dig out little channels in the mixes into which the melodies and harmonies of other musicians can flow. he imparts some fluidity and vitality, and air, to a project that could have gone straight to the conservatory and turned to stone. Maybe we can send a shout, while we’re at it, to Andy Shauf, whose incorporation of clarinet into his own delicate folk-rock numbers may have taught artists, and listeners, not to be afraid of those untamed square and sawtooth waves. A dude named Drew Jurecka handles clarinet duties on Ignorance (he plays violin really well, too), and he breathes into these songs like he’s slowly inflating a balloon. The result is big-arrangement music that maintains a human scale, and maybe even underscores some of Tamara’s points about sustainability, colonization, and grief. Do they manage to draw connections between the three? Well, that would be five-star territory, now wouldn’t it. I don’t know if they’ve gotten there. I’ll keep listening. Oh, and the one called “Subdivisions”?, that’s not a Rush cover. You’d think a woman from Toronto would know better than to tease us like that.
The World Is A Beautiful Place And I Am No Longer Afraid To Die — Illusory Walls “The world is a beautiful place/but we have to make it that way.” Mission statement from these Connecticut kids-who-are-no-longer-kids, and it does remind me of the position taken in the wake of the Holocaust by the reform rabbi in The Chosen. Life, he tells young Reuben, has no inherent meaning. We (the Jewish people, emo nation, etc.) must create meaning. Sounds reasonable, and maybe pretty prog rock, too. Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space. We are operating in an icy void that can only be warmed up through strenuous gestures of humanity. It is (was?) for this reason that fourthwave emo foregrounds effort. There’s a vacuum out there to abhor. Whether that extends to fifteen minute epics is mostly a matter of personal taste. I reckon TWIABP has heard “Goodbye Sky Harbor” a few times, and the only thing more emo, or prog, or emo-prog, or post-rock, or rock, than that is two Sky Harbors. Illusory Walls is already plenty long by the time it gets to its final numbers; then, these guys hit you with a pair of songs that exceed the running time of many EPs. Do you have the time or the patience for this? Before you decline to press play, it’s worth considering that everything that made prior albums commendable is here in spades: nicely-matching boy-girl vox, alternately twinkly and metallic six-string textures, squiggly sine-wave Katie Dvorak synthesizer leads, time signature hijinx, lyrical callbacks to prior songs, anti-establishmentarianism, straining for answers to the big questions, absurd earnestness. The grand finale rumbles and roars and stops at several hundred false endings before marching home triumphant, and before they get there, they fight the battle of rock and roll with all pennants whipping in the wind and tremendous esprit de corps. While I have always appreciated this band and their evident ambition, I admit I didn’t think they had it in them to sound as cohesive as this. Compassionate?, naturally.
Tibetan Miracle Seeds — Inca Missiles This is a dense, smeared, bleary-eyed guitar-psych album, and ought to fit the bill when you’re in the mood for such things but don’t necessarily want your brain smashed in by the six-string signal. If I had to wager, I would say that the number of songs on Inca Missiles that contain electric sitar is zero. but every track sounds as if it would accommodate a sitar just fine. While the touchstone is Brian Jonestown Massacre, there’s also a hefty britpop influence here. I hear lots of Kula Shaker in mantra mode, plenty of Primal Scream, and one song that’s just oasis’s “Up In The Sky” with different lyrics. I mean, I assume the lyrics are different. With mixes like these, who can tell? Entertaining, intermittently inspired, inessential.
Tinashe — 333 Tinashe remains a mushmusic hyper-specialist. Mush is her métier. Tonally resonant 808 kick drum, breathy vox, quick-dissipating synthesizer, robot choirs, meandering winsome melodies, a bunch of blissed BS about paradise, she’s good at all that shit. She doesn’t let the ball play her, as the Little League coaches say; she uses the mush adroitly in order to reinforce her major themes, which are, um, being zonked out of her mind, getting fucked, getting fucked while being zonked out of her mind, etc. Of course I dig. I continue to hold that Tinashe could have been counted among the mushqueens if she’d ever wanted to assume the Nickelodeon-slime mushcrown and have a seat in the mushthrone (ew). If she gave a flying fuck about quality control, I mean. 333 is her umpteenth set that merely tantalizes — because tantalization, thy name is Tinashe. Sometimes the fog lifts, and reveals some first-rate pop-soul hallucinations: “Undo,” “The Chase,” “Bouncin,” “Bouncin Part 2”. But most of the time she’s drifting groggily downstream, grasping at threads of melody, only to have them wash through her fingers. My sense is that this is better than the last one. But I think I’ve ceased to be able to differentiate between Tinashe projects. Mind you, I’m a fan. Even I just sleepwalk over to the Tinashe machine, press the Tinashe button, and extract an undefined and largely unexamined quantity of Tinashe for my inattentive consumption. I imagine non-fans don’t even know who the heck she is. Just another voice on a chill playlist, a mushlady like oh so many others. It could have been different. I’m just saying.
Tirzah — Colourgrade Some shit that I simply do not understand. No hot beats to speak of, no memorable tunes, not a lot of drive or energy exhibited, mumbled vocals, arrangements that gather slowly like condensation on kitchen windows on dreary days. Cheap radio shack synthesizer presets, echoed crying-baby sounds, uninteresting machine noises. It’s hard to call this trip-hop, because there’s no hop to it, and trips imply motion. Nevertheless, this is all the rage in England, I have learned, and in certain Europhilic precincts of the Internet. All I can think is that people are feeling some nostalgia for the murkier parts of Tricky’s discography. There can’t be any nostalgia for FX processor demonstrations at the Guitar Center. Those are ongoing.
Toby Keith — Peso In My Pocket “All the broken down cities/by the left’s design/and the right can’t get it right/most of the time.” Well then. Seems like everybody is letting Toby down. May God grant us a government satisfactory to the lofty standards of Toby Keith. I presume that the author of “Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue” would get more excited if the Air Force was carpet bombing some dirt-poor Asian or African country, but look, Toby, you can’t have everything. While I never underestimate the difficulty of eluding the icky tendrils of the quagmire, I kinda think that World Police: Afghanistan Edition has finally ended. Toby might want a big explosion, and the members of the national-security apparatus and their mouthpieces on the cable news shows might want a big explosion, but I just don’t think they’re gonna get their big explosions anymore. At least not in Kabul. Mission (whatever the hell it was) un-accomplished, and it only cost the United States two trillion dollars. Modern Republican outrage always seems at least a bit convenient to me, but on this issue, boy is it a bunch of phony baloney. These people don’t want to waste their ammo on a bunch of Himalayan cave dwellers. They want to empty those magazines right here at home. If there’s one thing we should have learned about our so-called neighbors over the past ten years, that’s it. As I type, Republicans in Texas are doing everything they can to drive a wedge between people who live in the state’s metropolitan areas and those with homes on the range. They’ll push and push and push, like a bully in gym class, in the hope that their noncombative target will finally snap and strike back, thereby precipitating an open brawl. The poli-sci term for this is accelerationism, but I don’t like to ennoble it with a socio-critical term. Really it’s just picking a fight. And why? Is it because the 5G towers have cooked their brains and made them aggressive? Do they feel their privileges under attack; do they hate our freedoms? Or are they just old coots? Because I am sure you’ve noticed that this is how angry old coots behave. They’re censorious, they’re bigoted, they’re moralizing, they talk out of their asses, they do whatever they can to draw you into a battle over the Thanksgiving table. The older and cootier they get, the worse they become. Concerned people will tell you that the abortion ban/crazy-ass bounty hunter thing is about control: control over women, and nonwhites, and poor people coming over the border and making babies, and of course it is. But that’s not all it is. It’s also about something much simpler. These are elderly cranks with cobwebs growing between their legs. They do not want to see people doing sex, and they are eager to pass any and all regulations that they believe will have a chilling effect on the genitals of the young and juicy. They want there to be terrible consequences for poking your pals. I think it is high time for us to recognize the battle lines as they have been drawn — not by those of us who have a life, but by those who don’t. On one side are the incels, the grumps, those who have mistaken their rifles for their peckers, those who got turned down for a date when they were thirteen and are still steamed about it, those who have “reached a certain age,” those who cluck and wag fingers and complain bitterly about how the “WAP” video represents the decline of Western civilization, those who talk about Western civilization, period. On the other are the tail shakers, the smoochers, the love-note passers, the ice-cream sharers, the foul-mouth rappers and the cock-out rock and rollers, the marrying kind and the club twirkers, the queers and the queens and the what-the-hell-are-theys. And what I have been saying for the past fifty thousand words is that we of the rainbow team need to do a better job of standing up for ourselves. We need to stick together, recognize the threat, and act accordingly, or our adversaries will take it all away. So do a little dance. Make a little love. Get down tonight. That’s still the only political program you need.
Tori Amos — Ocean To Ocean I’m still shaking hands with this one. Something that I came to accept long ago: because of the febrile quality of the epidermis, scratching the surface of a new Tori set takes a while, and can be a little painful. Let your doctor know immediately if a rash develops. I can tell Tori is crushed by the death of her mom, and feels indirectly responsible, but can’t put her finger on what she did wrong. Her thrashing about for a cosmic explanation is aesthetically rewarding in a way that her complaints about the fossil fuel indooostry never were. But Tori Amos has always been worried about betraying the essential feminine in a way that her model and predecessor Kate Bush simply never is. That may have to do with the difference between small-town Methodist North Carolina and the posh Tory hills of England. I’m comfortable declaring this one marginally better than Native Invader, which was marginally better than Unrepentant Geraldines, which was a little better than Night Of Hunters, which was certainly better than Abnormally Attracted To Sin, the only dismal entry in her world-class discography. That got me thinking: has anybody else ever done this? Has any other artist sustained an upward trajectory over five straight albums? That’s hard. Elvis Costello never did it. Neither did Van the Man. The Unforgettable Fire was a dip after War and October. A case could be made for Camper Van Beethoven, but I think most fans prefer Telephone Free Landslide Victory to the two albums that came after of it. I can’t count The Beatles, because as fantastic as it is, Sgt. Pepper is not superior to Revolver. I guess it’s arguable that For The Roses > Blue and Ladies Of The Canyon > Clouds, but I wouldn’t make either case. Besides, Joni and Camper had those ascendant runs at the beginnings of their catalogs. Tori was in mid-career free-fall — something we’ve seen from many great artists — and then the parachute exploded out of the backpack, arrested her descent, and she’s been rising on a gentle updraft ever since. I believe this is unprecedented. It’s yet another peculiar development from a true pioneer, and one of the singular figures in the history of American popular music.
Turnstile — Glow On Here’s one I don’t get, and as with Arlo Parks, I’m sure the problem is me. Turnstile is advertised as the future of hardcore, or hard rock, or at least something different, and they do have more gears than the typical loud guitar band. In practice, though, a lot of their breakthrough album just sounds like Rage Against The Machine — so much like Rage, honestly, that it’s an issue. As antecedents go, that’s not a terrible one. But RATM had several distinctive instrumentalists in the group, and a frontman who hit you over the head with his worldview. It was instantly legible. The guys in Turnstile might have unique qualities, too; in fact, they probably do, and if I spent more time with this record, I’m sure I’d be able to tease out the particulars. But there’s only so much hollering I can subject myself to before I want to change the channel. If this was a girl pop group, I am sure I’d have endless patience. As the Cubs fan said to the Mets fan, you think you’re so impartial, but you, too, Javier Baez.
TV Girl And Jordana — Summer’s Over Sounds like a Mary Tyler Moore spinoff project, no? Alas, TV Girl isn’t a girl at all. They’re a pop group from San Diego fronted by a sardonic character named Brad Petering. In 2014, they put out a pleasantly sampladelic pop record called French Exit that has acquired a cult-classic status that is likely to widen over the next few years. To the extent that French Exit was written about, the emphasis was on the hip-hop beats, even though it was hip-hop a la “Lucas With The Lid Off,” or maybe “Steal My Sunshine,” rather than hip-hop as it is practiced by anybody involved in the subculture. Jordana Nye actually is a girl, which is to her credit, and she puts that girliness to good use here, softening the wiseassery and tempering TV Girl’s surfside schtick. I find the samples more intelligible than the lead vocals, which, while not unusual for music like this, is still somewhat irritating. On the plus side, Jordana’s budding knack for wan, lovelorn melody interacts nicely enough with Petering’s loping, nu-hula production style. If you ever wondered what Vacationer would sound like if Kenny Vasoli turned the microphone over to a shy, sun-poisoned sister, largely concealed under a parasol, here you go.
Tyler, The Creator — Call Me If You Get Lost So this is what it has come to, Mr. Okonma. From “kill people/burn shit/fuck school” to “everyone I have ever loved/had to be loved in the shadows” in less than a decade. Maybe this is the fate of all provocateurs: one day you’re riling up the Moral Majority for lulz, and the next, you’re on your knees in front of some fetching lass, telling her you don’t even need to fuck/because her presence is enough. Yes, Tyler has become rap’s great romantic storyteller, and anybody who didn’t see this coming doesn’t know diddly about the history of romance, or about the rakes who write it. Take Baudelaire, for instance, whose name Tyler borrows for this set: he was a hellraiser and globetrotter halted and humbled by his own emotions. It takes one to know one. On Call Me If You Get Lost, Tyler is so profoundly butthurt by love that he needs to hire DJ Drama to sportscast his life. And there’s Drama, yammering on about yachts and opulence and sitting barefoot on beaches, pep-talking nonstop, testifying to Tyler’s supremacy. Meanwhile, the narrator bops around the globe, accruing passport stamps and alluding to the very thing that’s eating him alive. Finally, the dam breaks on “Wilshire,” and we’re treated to eight and a half minutes of sustained, masterful rhyme about the friend’s girlfriend who Tyler fell for, courted, and ultimately could not get with. Was he squeamish about betraying a pal? Does he blame her? Is he a bad person? How does he feel about becoming the rap Robert Wratten? He can’t decide, and that indecision is part of the art. As the story coalesces, like all great practitioners of the romance genre, Tyler makes you feel the iron inside the velvet: romance as a titanic force he can’t control, one that upends all presumptions and dissevers all ties, and sweeps up men and women like driftwood before a wave. Something bigger than a boat, and more powerful than hip-hop greatness. Something worth more than all the money in the world. Way more.
Vanishing Twin — Ookii Gekkou I really do like this group. They’ve got their own sound — somewhere between Broadcast and Sun Ra, emanating from a funny coordinate in a dusty corner of the galaxy. Cathy Lucas’s dispassionate psychiatrist act is a pretty cute move for an art-rock bandleader, Phil Man From Uranus uses his arpeggiator to get some weird celestial harmonies into rough syzygy, and then there’s the drummer, Valentina Magaletti, whose pitter-patter and can-clashing clatter is hers and hers alone. Tunesmiths, though, they are not. Spectroscopy on the first album revealed some melodies tucked away between the spacewaves. These days we’re just getting the waves. Generally the plan to compensate for that involves long, drawn out grooves, and as a wannabe astral traveler myself, I’m not necessarily down on that. But when they try to get funky, I’m afraid I’m straight out the airlock.
Van Morrison — Latest Record Project Vol. 1 There are precious few ways that an older dude with a deep discography can make an impression on the music-purchasing public. Rreleasing a two-hour lyrical minefield studded with alt-right sentiment — and calling it Volume 1! — will do the trick, though. For one Release Friday, Van the Man was once again the center of the critical conversation. Almost all of that attention was catastrophically negative, but our dude is such an Old Man Grumpus that I find it hard to believe it mattered to him one way or another. He’s already convinced that they’re all out to get him. And of course they are. Van is a yam-shaped gremlin, a famously miserable human being whose marginal position in showbiz is sustained by his immense talent and nothing but. He’s got a funny face and a stupid hat, and he literally had to write Astral Weeks and “Into The Mystic” to get anybody to put up with him. He’s been coasting on rep for an obscenely long time, revisiting past glories, taking up oxygen that could otherwise be devoted to younger artists with fresher things to say. There is no crime in wishing Van would go away, just as nobody would blame you if you gave this megalith a pass. But the amazing thing about Latest Record Project is just how little it differs from the last twenty-five (!) years of Van’s catalog. We get the same crusty blues strolls and geriatric R&B grooves, the same impeccable musicianship and intermittently inspired soul vocals, the same flashes of dwindling brilliance, the same unpleasant perspective, the same paranoia, the same petulance and ferocious sense of entitlement. How could anybody who has had any experience of Van Morrison — let alone those of us who’ve kept up with his output — have been shocked by his gripes about the media and cancel culture? How could anybody have been surprised by the bitter songs about his latest divorce? Van is, and has always been, exactly the sort of person who’d take a lockdown as a personal affront, and refuse to see the public response to a worldwide disaster as anything other than a threat to the free expression of his genius. His incapacity to get around the roadblock of his own irritation makes him worthless as a social commentator, and his refusal to get a handle on his monstrous ego leads to things like this: a reiterative, snide, egomaniacal, interminable monument to his own worst traits. Van really does assume that you’ve got nothing better to do than listen to him whine for hours about the deeper cultural meaning of his ex-wife’s profligacy. In a sick way, he really does speak for hundreds of thousands of old people who genuinely believe that they’ve got a constitutional right to hold forth and bore you insensate, and who will cry censorship the minute you yawn. So maybe this album is a landmark after all. It’s the best encapsulation yet of the way an entire rotten generation is behaving on the way out the door: refusing to yield, refusing to be allies, demanding ever more attention, squatting in the limelight, unbudgeable, incorrigible, undoing whatever goodwill they built up back when they were young, and relevant, and had something to give.
Vince Staples — Vince Staples There’s hyperregional hip-hop, and then there’s Vince, who rhymes about a four block region in the Ramona Park neighborhood of Long Beach, California. Parameters are circumscribed on the last track of this short but intense rap album, which is not not a territorial pissing. Lest you worry that success has broadened his horizons, Vince spends the balance of his self-titled set explaining why he will never leave, no way, under no circumstances. Hood 4 life. He doesn’t like the women from Los Angeles (too materialistic), will not relocate to Malibu (too plastic), cannot countenance his showbiz peers (too soft), and can’t run the risk of interacting with fans, any of whom could be working their own dangerous angles. When he runs the risk of getting too wild, it’s the nearby presence of the graves of his dead homies that knocks some salutary humility into him. The violence of North Long Beach is an authenticating mark for Vince: every gunshot and every beatdown represents a reckoning with the world as it is, rather than the world as it surely is not. Vince believes there is only one choice before you. You can either die broke or brokenhearted. Either make a humiliating compromise with Whitey, take the payout, and kiss your autonomy goodbye, or resign yourself to a desperate life on the fringes. His determination to stick it out in Ramona Park is meant to establish his refusal to be tamed. Yet I’ve noticed that this unruly and indominable character is as devoted to meticulous framing as any other aesthete. This time around, that means seamless production in toto from Kenny Beats, who matches Vince’s street tales with moody music meant to underscore the narrator’s paranoia — music that feels like footsteps in the shadows. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the first album on which I don’t always trust that Vince staples is giving it to me straight. I do not, for instance, think that he’s riding in the backseat during a drive-by; he might be callous and street-hardened, but he’s no trigger man. More importantly, I don’t believe for a second that he doesn’t know what he did to make his girl cry. His exasperation with her sadness betrays a sense of entitlement that wasn’t present at all on Summertime 06. Back then, he knew exactly how he was wounding the people around him, and his willingness to lay his desolation bare was what distinguished him from his many peers who thought their swagger absolved them of all responsibility. As Vince has gotten surer of himself — more certain that the logic underpinning his grim worldview is airtight — he might just be listening less. That’s a dynamic and disposition you will find among male humans in all hoods, black or white, rich or poor.
Watchhouse — Watchhouse/Andrew Marlin — Witching Hour/Andrew Marlin — Fable & Fire Some tasty mandolinnage from a mandolin-playing individual (Andrew Marlin) who does not seem to want to be associated with the mandolin. Otherwise, why would he have changed the name of his band from the explanatory and evocative Mandolin Orange to the bland Watchhouse? It’s not like the music has changed much. It’s all moody, meditative Appalachian folk-rock and newgrass saved from the mushpile by the mandolin itself. That unbudgeable, unsmudgeable signal. Clear and flinty as them thar hills. While his mandolinstrumentals are technically impeccable, and there’s nothing wrong with his weedy tenor, this project, like so many others, is really at its best when he clams up and lets the woman in the group sing. Also, I gotta fault him for failing to call the renamed band the Mandolorians. That would have gotten Disney’s attention, and possibly Weird Al’s, too. Guess he’ll have to settle for the Americana people. who are much, much worse than the Village People.
Weezer — OK Human Don’t call it a lockdown album — he’s been a hermit crab for years. While Rivers’s antisocial tendencies have been a major subtheme of prior Weezer albums, I don’t think he’s ever centered them quite as furiously as he does on this set. Insofar as this is an orchestral fantasy, it’s made possible by the pandemic, not committed to wax in spite of it. So let’s cut out those Pet Sounds comparisons: if Brian Wilson wonders what good living alone would do him, Rivers sounds positively unblocked. The real reason that the rain is going to wash all of his troubles away is because lousy weather (metaphorical or otherwise) gives him an airtight excuse to stay indoors and “rock his Audible,” i.e., listen to books on tape and bang on his piano. It is no coincidence that Rivers hasn’t sounded so cheerful in… well, ever, and we have a pretty long emotional-archaeological record in which to situate his mood. In the g’rage/he feels safe/no one cares about his ways. We all know that there are people who spread the quarantine hours on the wounds caused by their social anxiety like a salve. I believe we call them “introverts,” and according to the Myers-Briggs type analysis, they constitute half of the population of the planet. For reasons intrinsic to showbiz, they don’t have many rock stars speaking their language, but Rivers has always been one, and I think it’s important that this perspective get some representation. We cannot all be party animals. Some of us would rather hide under a big umbrella and fantasize that we look like the Morton’s girl. Alas, self-delusions such as that do not survive exposure to daylight. I promise I won’t break the bad news to Rivers if you agree never to shatter my cherished belief that I resemble Mary Poppins.
Weezer — Van Weezer Even when he is plotting his radical withdrawal from sociability, Rivers Cuomo doesn’t have all that much truck with trauma, which is a good thing. Not only is he reluctant to plumb deep, it’s pretty clear he’s suspicious of the notion that there’s much human depth to plumb. His Marshall-stacked memoir turns out to be a further examination of his cross-identification with the feminine, spurred here by the sight of tough denim chicks and older sisters ready to hit the town. This weenie sympathizes. Weezer calls this a metal album, which means it sounds like The Cars plus preamp distortion, plus harmony solos and quotes from Van Halen, Ozzy, Billy Joel, Amadeus, Liberace, and others who Rivers thinks are badass. Consequently, some of these hatchback throwback numbers are stooopid with at least three os, but it’s hard to hold it against him when he’s in such an uncharacteristically good mood. Weezer-bashing has become an uncommonly widespread pastime among music fans, but I am not sure I want to meet the grouch who is immune to this album’s charms.
Widowspeak — Honeychurch Molly Hamilton cleans out her deepest dresser drawer. In it: a narcotized version of “Money Doesn’t Grow On Trees” with the Widowspeak rhythm section AWOL, two wispy new numbers that fell out of Margo Timmins’s bag while she was riding her bike, a Molly-fied cover of “The One I Love,” and a surprise application of the band sound to “Romeo And Juliet” by Dire Straits. Woodblock mushrock plus Mark Knopfler is indeed something new under the sun, so I can’t knock Molly for her vision, I suppose. Give her some money for nothing and some chicks for free.
Wild Pink — A Billion Little Lights The dull Americana, which figures: America isn’t a very interesting country right now. Was it ever? Maybe in the 1820s? I had my reasons for engaging with this: Wild Pink has a nice cover artist on the payroll, and A Billion Little Lights is a good title. Maybe it’s not too far removed from ten thousand fireflies, but it’s still pointalistically provocative. Then again, you may have noticed by now: many boring things have cool names, and the very best things have dumb names. The Beatles, Peanuts, Star Wars, Whistler’s Mother, The Dukes Of Hazzard, The Bible, etc.
Wolf Alice — Blue Weekend This is a big gooey corporate record made by a big gooey corporate rock band. It’s very pro, very polished, and very forgettable. Echoed crash cymbals, minor keys, frequency spectrum saturated by guitar gook, and dramatic yet oddly impersonal lead vocals from Ellie Rowsell. In the tradition of arena sports, if not always arena rock, Wolf Alice manages to communicate a feeling of grandiosity and a sense of import without ever saying or doing anything unexpected or interesting. They’re just running plays for max yardage. The occasional pseudopunk spazz-outs of the first album are gone, with some imposing bubblegum-grunge in its place, including at least one song that keeps threatening to break into “Shine” by Collective Soul. “Would you believe I’m in Los Angeles?” Yes, Wolf Alice, there is nothing on earth easier to believe than that.
Xenia Rubinos — Una Rosa The return the most frustrating artist in the hemisphere. Xenia Rubinos is enormously talented: not only is she good at singing and rapping and trackbuilding, she generates a crackling amalgam of mainstream American R&B, Latin pop, zany fringe-fest showtunes, and the grotesque remnants of what used to be called indie music. When she gets everything nicely lubricated and sliding in the same direction, as she does on “Sacude,” it’s a fast monorail ride to the funhouse. But far too often, Xenia mistakes improvisation for innovation and goes chasing after spontaneity for its own sake, which really has nothing at all to do with pop, or R&B, or Latin music, or even the Fringe Fest. I hear some of that stuff is quite tightly scripted. Una Rosa is looser, less tuneful, and more unorganized and grabastic than Black Terry Cat, even, and that was not exactly a sunset sail with Captain Hook. I also suspect that Xenia has been rummaging around in Rosalia’s bag. Not unexpected, but still a strange move from an artist who is otherwise sui generis. She’s still capable of some of the most stinging social-justice warrior poetry this side of Amanda Gorman, like the following stanza on “Don’t Put Me In Red”: “Ask me where I’m going, don’t ask me where I’m from/I speak in three languages, you barely speak in one/kids you put in cages look like they could be my sons/you forget that we were here when the west was won.” Slick, right? Only she obscures it with an anemic melody, and tucks it into a limp, forgettable mix. Una Rosa is potholed with unforced errors like that, and it occurs to me that there’s nobody who’d benefit from a strong-willed producer more than Xenia would. Someone go check Natalia Lafourcade’s availability.
Yes — The Quest Jon Davison’s latest impression of Jon Anderson ain’t half bad. Billy Sherwood’s impression of Chris Squire: not half bad. Steve Howe’s impression of Steve Howe, back when every six-string squiggle and squeak was quicksilver squirming around in the cultured petri dish of his own rigorous experimentation: not half bad. Meanwhile Alan White is the same exuberant tom-thumper he’s always been, and Geoffrey Downes can still buggle it up on the analog modeling synths when he’s so inclined. So sure, it’s a real Yes album, one with a genuine-ass Roger Dean cover, plus the requisite bombast and beauty, and the noble but vain chase after global healing, harmonic convergence, hippie powers. Celestial this and that, grand designs, you know the deal. Howe produced this himself, which means there’s been a marked sonic improvement over the lackluster Heaven And Earth, and, more importantly, louder guitar in the mix. He’s salt-and-peppered the tracks with Hungarian orchestral music, which seems to me like something he really should have let Jon Anderson in on, and dares Downes to keep up with his fleet-fingered, Relayeresque solos. Meanwhile, the new Jon handles the big questions and the dire warnings about the fragile post-human world we’ve made: do we trust/full-immersion virtual reality? Well, do we? I don’t know what he’s so concerned about, to be honest. Gotta think Yes is poised to weather alternate universes better than the rest of us earthbound schmucks.
Young Thug — Punk Come on now.
Zayn — Nobody Is Listening In pop, expressions of frustration will always play as ingratitude. I think we all know Zayn ought to be grateful for the two minutes or so when people were listening, because ninety nine point nine nine nine per cent of humanity does not get those two minutes. But now that you mention it, Zayn, it does feel like the switchover from a culture of reception to a culture of projection is a bit of a personal insult to the music-industrial proletariat. One moment the kids are looking up at you from the front row with that wild worship in their eyes, and the next, they are uploading home-choreographed clips to TikTok and eclipsing your views. Popular influencers just tend to be cute people with ingratiating manners, using their bod-ays/to sell things/on the Internet, as Lupe put it just last year. These were the very people who once were superfans. As I see it, though, this gives Zayn a built-in excuse for his own underperformance. Boy/girl bands were not designed to produce more than one breakout star. Once there’s a Beyoncé, dassit, as Mariano Duncan might put it: the rest of the group is on borrowed time. I reckon this has a lot to do with the way music is marketed, and the thinness of the atmosphere of showbiz at the highest level. Zayn and Harry and Louis and Liam and the other guy: they all know the same people in the industry. They’re not going to put out music head to head — that would be an insane thing to do. So they’ll stagger their drops, until it becomes clear that the One Direction audience is coalescing around the One Direction figure (Harry) best positioned to carry the ideals and aesthetics of the band into adulthood. The others wither on the vine. This is not a new phenomenon, and it is not one driven by technology or shortened attention spans. Nobody wanted those Jermaine Jackson solo albums, either. Sometimes there’s a Donnie and a Marie, but only if they hang together tight, and flirt in an incestful way. Now that will always keep them tuned in.
Zac Brown Band — The Comeback My patriotism was built not on the bomb but on the rock song. Music was the best thing that humans did, and nobody was better at music than Americans. USA #1, with a bullet, straight to the top of the charts of my heart. We had the wide open roads, the mean streets for the Springsteens and the alleys for sneaking Sally through, and Carole King up on the roof; what more could a country want? Turns out there were a few things. American exceptionalism has taken on some unintended meanings over the last two years. We’ve learned some ugly things about ourselves — our recalcitrance, our arrogance, our fissiparousness and readiness to turn on each other, and our unwillingness to learn lessons from other societies. Because who are those other guys from far-flung lands?, a bunch of dirt-eating wannabes. Can’t tell us nothing: about social safety-nets, about congeniality, about personal munitions, about masks. Cultural tone-deafness, I have noticed, has a way of turning into actual tone-deafness, and it’s no surprise to me that American pop is getting outpaced by pop from other shores. It hurts my flag-waving pride, but the first step is admitting it. Maybe if we concede this, it might open our minds to a few other comparative deficiencies, too. As I child I was taught that I’d won a geographic lottery, and I was incredibly lucky to be born in a land of plenty, rather than Lesotho, or Lima, or London, or any other distant coordinate where Kentucky Fried Chicken was but a rumor. Though I read the world history books and took the anthropology classes, I still clung to this belief. It took a global health crisis and a refusal to square up to the consequences of worldwide habitat destruction to put a dent in my deep and disgusting jingoism. We faced a test, and we flunked, spectacularly. It is an understatement to say our commitment to democracy is wavering. Free expression has been taking a beating, too. So in 2022, what in the world have we got to be so boastful about? We used to be able to point emphatically to the art, and to some degree we still can, but as regional scenes continue to be obliterated by the monoculture, we’re losing our marks of distinction there, too. Meanwhile, musicians from Mexico City, and Medellin, and Singapore, and Seoul, and Tel Aviv, and the Sahara Desert, are picking up the baton we’ve dropped and trouncing us at our own game. We’ve reacted to this like Americans do: a noxious combination of denial, subject-changing, and defensiveness about homegrown crummy stuff that’s been puffed up by expensive public relations agencies. It’s arguable (and some weenies do make the argument) that the success of non-American pop projects has only been made possible by the marketing muscle of international entertainment conglomerates, all of whom maintain offices in the U.S.A. God forbid we become the sort of people who cultivate a rooting interest in corporations and moguls rather than artists and storytellers. My heroes will always be the people with the courage to make music, good, bad, boring, mushy or crisp, metal or mellow, and who leave the wheeling and dealing to the guys in lousy suits. There are still thousands upon thousands of people like that in the fifty states, I trust. If you’re one of them, I’m rooting for you. Reconstruction of the national ego — presently in a shambles for good and thoroughly justified reasons — depends on you.