2nd Grade Aaron Raitiere Al-Doms Alex Ferreira Alex G Alison Sudol Alvvays Amber Mark Animal Collective Anxious April March Arcade Fire Aurora Bad Bunny Band Of Horses Beabadoobee Beach Bunny Belle & Sebastian Beth Orton Beyoncé Big Thief Billy Woods (Aethiopes) Billy Woods (Church) Björk Black Country, New Road Bonobo Brian Eno Broken Bells Bruce Hornsby Bruce Springsteen Buster Shuffle Camila Cabello Caoilfhionn Rose Caracara Carla Morrison Carly Cosgrove Carly Rae Jepsen Cat Le Bon Charli XCX Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul Combo Chimbita Daniel Rossen Dayglow Death Cab For Cutie Denzel Curry Disq Drake Drake & 21 Savage Earl Sweatshirt Eddie Vedder Elucid Elvis Costello Envy Of None Erin Rae Ezra Furman Fantastic Negrito Father John Misty Fontaines D.C. Frontperson Gift Grace Ives Harry Styles Hey, Ily Homeboy Sandman Ingrid Andress Jana Horn Jenny Hval Jensen McRae Joey Bada$$ Jordana Joyce Manor Julia Jacklin Kanye West Kelley Stoltz Kelly Lee Owens Kendrick Lamar Kids On A Crime Spree King Hannah King Princess Kiwi Jr. KRS-ONE Lightning In A Twilight Hour Lights Lucius Lupe Fiasco Lykke Li Lyle Lovett Maren Morris Marillion Megan Thee Stallion Melody’s Echo Chamber Metric Metronomy Miranda Lambert Mitski Mom Jeans Muna Nas Natalia Lafourcade Nilüfer Yanya Office Culture Of Montreal Open Mike Eagle Oso Oso Pedro The Lion Pehuenche Peregrine Phife Dawg Pool Kids Poppy Porridge Radio Pusha T Rayland Baxter Red Hot Chili Peppers Richard Dawson Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever Rosalía Rubblebucket Rusty Saba Sebastián Yatra S.G. Goodman Sharon Van Etten Shearwater Shout Out Louds Silvana Estrada Sloan Soccer Mommy Somewhere South Of Here Spiritualized Spoon Stella Donnelly Steve Lacy Sudan Archives Taylor Swift Tears For Fears Tegan And Sara The 1975 The Beths The Black Keys The Fixx The Paranoid Style The Reds, Pinks & Purples The Tallest Man On Earth The Weather Station The Weeknd The Wonder Years Tim Bernardes Toro Y Moi Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin Vince Staples Wet Leg Widowspeak Will Sheff Ximena Sariñana Yard Act Years & Years YG
2nd Grade — Easy Listening Hit To Hit channeled the tenderness, innocence, and reflexive cynicism of sophomore year in high school. The new one is just the cynicism. Which is not bad, per se — it’s just a little tougher to suspend disbelief and see Peter Gill as the guileless fifteen year old he once was rather than the wiseass Philadelphian adult he is. Other than that, it’s more of the same: Pete Townshend chords spilling over the edges of narrow tape, occasional Monkees quotes welded to Game Theory hooks, metaphors drawn directly from the experience of playing in basement pop-rock bands with pals, kids having fun to the beat of the drum. But they’ve retrieved no koans from repeat trips to the practice room quite as sublime as “she’s not in the band/she’s not even in the band/there’s no one in the band.” Instead Peter stays in character to propose a final solution to teenage overpopulation — an end to all those raging hormone-havers buying stems and seeds at premium prices. He’s probably just kidding around. Then again, the serrated-edge guitar solo and shouted names of former pinups suggests to me that there’s a homicidal part of Peter that doesn’t want the competition. It has come to my attention that these guys will be doing some dates with Kiwi Jr. Sarcasm tour ’23. They gotta get Caroline Rose involved in that. Maybe Bob Newhart, too.
Aaron Raitiere — Single Wide Dreamer You’d figure that if Miranda Lambert produced your record, folks in Country Nation would be lining up to spin it. Aaron Raitiere, if you don’t know (and why would you) is the guy who wrote the silliest song on Miranda’s double album masterpiece: “For The Birds.” It makes a good deal more sense in the context of this cheeky slacker-country record — one penned by a guy who waves away his own trailer-park marginalization by reasoning that he won’t be lonely when he goes to hell. That’s a trip he clearly expects to be taking soon. Titles on Single Wide Dreamer tell the Prine-ish story: “Your Daddy Hates Me,” “Cold Soup,” “At Least We Didn’t Have Any Kids,” etcetera. “Dear Darlin’” sounds like it’d be the sweet one until it starts playing; then it reveals itself to be a Dear Jane letter cruel enough to make Lyle Lovett blanch. You can really see why this would appeal to Miranda’s sense of mischief. She’s brought BFF Natalie Hemby along to assist with the writing and contribute some backing vocals, and Natalie sounds more comfortable in this context than she has since she made the mistake of buttoning up and joining the Highwomen. Nashville demands niceness. Nevertheless, this is a town of songwriters, some of whom are actual evil rednecks. There might be better country albums released in 2022, but none are any more honest than this one. Given that this is a style based around the imperative to be forthright, I’m glad there’s at least one Tennessee jerkoff left who is crooked enough to give it to me straight. For every twenty machine-pressed, well-mannered Music City albums we’re asked to wade through, we fans of Rodney Crowell (and Roger Miller) deserve an album like this.
Al-Doms — Prescribed Overdose As your local Pusha T completist, I felt the need to pick up this Norfolk exercise in hard rhyme. There’s Pusha, shoring up his street credibility with a verse on “Haha” about… um, selling drugs. Not sure what I was expecting. Anyway, he gets in and out fast and turns the floor over to Al-Doms, who is surely grateful for the tacit co-sign. Most of this is delivered fast and hard over throwback soul samples and snare by a high-voiced guy with considerably more ambivalence about the crack game than his famous pal. “Craziest thing for me to do was show my heart to all these strangers/hoping they approve, pouring out all of this anguish.” You don’t have to sling rock to relate. Just do yourself a favor and resist the temptation to look at the album cover. That’s the nastiest image of the year.
Alex Ferreira — En Lo Que Llega La Primavera Tanda proved that Alex Ferreira is an adroit bandleader. Sometimes a bandleader must tell the band to pipe down. Tamara Linderman did just that on the new Weather Station, didn’t she?; stop making like Talk Talk, guys, and color in the corners while I play piano. They complied with her wishes. The last Alex project gave us frantic Caribbean percussion plus Latin folk arrangements plus ’70s lite radio; this one is mostly just the lite radio. It’s Julio sometime after the schoolyard episode, leaning against the monkey bars and catching his wind. The bandmates are still there, elbowing in every now and then, punctuating Alex’s lines, making good (and surely Alex-guided) decisions: brushed drums, a string arrangement, a Wurlitzer cascade or two, Hofner bass so transparent you won’t even know it’s there. There’s even some pedal steel guitar, there to impart a Gram Parsons lilt to “Un Cancion.” And though it’s all singer-songwriter style, and arranged to accommodate the clearance requirements of the Bridge on XM satellite radio, the Latin pulse never stops. So sensitive are the instrumentalists, and so nicely-turned are the melodies, and so effective are the instrumentalists, that this would communicate even if Alex wasn’t the world-class singer he is. But yeah, there’s that, too. He coos and purrs, he cajoles wayward kitties out of the bushes, he expresses tender love and incipient regret. For the second year in a row, he exhales sunshine. He gives you springtime. Then, just like springtime, it’s over too soon.
Alex G — God Save The Animals An odd duck, this is; a confused duck that keeps bumping its bill on the bottom of the pond. Some of these tracks are wordless, and on others, the vocals are treated so heavily that the songs might as well be instrumentals. Others are intelligible, sort of, even though the frontman (Alex G himself?) warbles in that strangled tone I associate with Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev. But this isn’t psych-pop or pop-psych — it’s just pop, hook-led and glossy, and concerned with the communicative force of pure sound. Then there are four songs here that are simply throwback A.M. gold, with standard folk-pop changes and a delivery that would not anger fans of Gordon Lightfoot. Sometimes Alex sounds like a gremlin, and sometimes he sounds like a junior high school gym teacher. To make matters more perplexing and unaccountable, there’s also excellent piano playing on this album, and serious thought given to how and where the piano might fit into a synth-dominated mix. It stands to reason that the album doesn’t entirely cohere. It’s entertaining nonetheless, particularly if you like to see mixed-up ducks smashing their faces against stuff.
Alison Sudol — Still Come The Night IMO the main “crime of Grindelwald” was keeping this woman out of the recording studio. Even if she’s the greatest actress in the world (she isn’t), her thespianism is still best expressed on tape. A Fine Frenzy was, fundamentally, young adult drama: big budget bedroom pop from the big budget bedroom in which adolescent Alison learned about twee things via Eulalie Banks illustrations and chapter headings in the Chronicles Of Narnia. Butterfly-shaped nightlight on, cribbing, one eye on the window in case some almost-lover or another felt like dropping by: this is my picture of the young Alison Sudol, and I am standing by it. The last Fine Frenzy record, you may remember, was written from the point of view of a pine tree that could magically move around. I believe there was an actual children’s book attached to the release, but as on Clockwork Angels, the artist inhabited the main character and scenario so thoroughly that novelization felt redundant. She was always a good bet to become “pals” with J. K. Rowling, whatever that means these days, and once she was wadded up, Katamari-style, into the Potterverse, I feared we’d never get a self-directed project from Alison again. The understated Still Come The Night feels like a tentative foray back into the musical part of showbiz, but hell, we’ll take whatever conciliatory gestures we can get. As this is an Alison Sudol album, there’s a story: this time around, she’s singing about the physical experience and numbing psychological effects of miscarriage and the way in which it fucks up the relationship with her boyfriend. Her black-eyed love beyond compare; that’s how she describes him; she’s still living in a fantasy novel. The listlessness of the cottagecore production is meant to illustrate the protagonist’s isolation and her emotional paralysis in the wake of trauma; still, she’s so good at dramatization that she (mostly) cuts through the murk. Her Lana Del Rey imitations are a stretch, but aren’t they all. I do wish for Alison Sudol a better fate than mushrock. But then none of my wishes for Alison have ever come true. All readers of childrens’ fiction know: the genie never gives you exactly what you want.
Alvvays — Blue Rev This seems like a good place to get something off of my chest. People: Loveless is not close to the best album of the Nineties. It isn’t even the best My Bloody Valentine album. Isn’t Anything has crisper songwriting, way more intelligible lyrics, and it’s far less reliant on sonic gimmickry. I am aware that crispness, intelligibility, and sharp sound is not what anybody was asking of My Bloody Valentine, but they’d already realized the blurry, sexed-out, surreal aesthetic they were going for in ’89. More importantly, they did it as a team. Unlike its successor, Isn’t Anything doesn’t sound like one egomaniac locked in a closet with a sound processor and a pile of coke, overdubbing himself to fuck and back. It sounds like an actual band of human beings, working in concert and achieving noteworthy aesthetic effects together. I bring this up because I notice some of y’all calling Blue Rev a step forward when all you really mean is that it’s louder and blurrier. For a tweepop outfit, Alvvays was already plenty noisy: check out “Plimsoll Punks” from Antisocialites. As long as Molly Rankin is in the group, they’re going to be good at minting neat melodies; “Velveteen” is the sweetest of the new ones, but “Pressed” and “Many Mirrors” are winners, too. Man, however, cannot live on tunesmithing alone; that’s why Eddie And The Cruisers put up with Tom Berenger. These days the guitar guy is really stepping all over Molly’s signal, mashing it in the name of sonic expression — queasy, whammy-bar jiggling expression. They’re using Molly’s voice “as an instrument” more than ever, which is always a bad sign for the future of an outfit and that outfit’s communicative capacity. What I reckon has happened here: Alvvays has not fully adjusted to the defection of Brian Murphy. Technically Abbey Blackwell is a much better bass player than Brian ever was, but Brian’s bass was a component of the initial balance between sound and song that made Alvvays a solid proposition. On Blue Rev, Alvvays feels less like a pop band and more like a rad sound generation and application concern — one where the vocalist has subordinated herself to the demands of a couple of assertive instrumentalists. Regardless of the sonic uniformity, Blue Rev smacks of conceptual dissension and trouble in the ranks. Fifty per cent chance it’s just a phase, and they’ll clean things up for the next album. Fifty per cent chance they go the way of My Bloody Valentine.
Amber Mark — Three Dimensions Deep Pop-R&B Singer Makes Swell Debut Album: my very favorite headline. It promises a fresh soul singer with whom to become ensouled. I am impressed by how many touchstones of the style Amber Mark evokes on her record, all at once: Teyana Taylor throwback delivery, SZA-ish tunesmithing amidst melisma, that Solange art school flavor and those Frank Ocean chord changes, a bit of Mary J. grit, lots of Alicia Keys’s classiness. Despite the foregrounded influences, Amber does manage to locate a likable, sensitive, brave college-girl personality of her own, and sometimes she even figures out how to project it. She’s still working on that, and Three Dimensions Deep is not aces all the way through. Yet the chorus hook on “Bubbles” makes it a keeper, the ‘00s bass bounce of “Foreign Things” is irresistible, the PM Dawn beats on ballads “Cosmic” and “Darkside” are beautiful, and then there’s “Competition,” a fist-pumping, super-smart love song directed to an ambitious partner who can’t quite figure out that his girlfriend is in his corner. A very very good sign: the numbers she wrote and produced by herself compare favorably to the song-doctored stuff. One to watch for sure.
Animal Collective — Time Skiffs The carousel can be fun. It’s pretty, and there’s some velocity, and you can lose yourself in the illusion that you’re getting someplace. But after awhile — a very short while — it becomes clear you aren’t. You’re just going around in circles. You don’t gain or lose velocity either. Also, those “horses” that you’re riding on aren’t really horses. They’re just molded porcelain lumps. You’re going up and down on the lumps, gently, while the loop goes on, and that continues until the moment the loop stops. That’s not a waste of a fairground ticket. It’s not an unworthy attraction. But once you’ve tasted a proper rollercoaster, with a genuine trajectory and a thunderous climax, and real, dangerous, clattering speed, you’re not likely to go back for another spin.
Anxious — Little Green House Connecticut emos in King Arthur’s court. Arthur “Ace” Enders, mind you, not the dude with the sword. Little Green House was produced by Chris Teti of The World Is A Beautiful Place, and he lets these post(?)-teens play things pretty rough. That means most of the album sounds loud and live, with occasional blarghle-screamed vox and butcher-shop beats, and blasts of overdriven guitar meant to shake the VFW hall to its foundations. There are also crisp vocal harmonies, hooks, and singalong choruses packed knapsack tight. Even when they really let it roar, as they do on “Speechless,” things remain commendably tuneful. They’ve made room for two winsome indie-standard ballads, one (“Wayne”) sung by the boy and the other (“You When You’re Gone”) by the girl. They’re good. Unless they’re trying to reorient the band away from their preternatural gifts, though, I wonder about their utility. Remember: this game turns on the anxious teenagers on the playing field, not the soccer mommies on the sidelines.
April March — In Cinerama Elinor Blake enters the quagmire. In Cinerama is an attempt to make a genuine ’60s sophistipop throwback that might elicit a nod of approval from Burt Bacharach: major sevens, sweeping strings, big, showy arrangements, backing vocals run through the plate reverbs, Motown-inspired (but never exactly Motown-like) bass bounce, those honey-in-the-sun horns, the good courtly manners of those pleased to see the King, and maybe even the Goffin. Many have tried this and few have lived to tell the tale. Flirtations with Mister Goldfinger do seem to require some Shirley Bassey brass from singers. That said, I admit that my favorite record of this kind remains Sarah Shannon’s self-titled solo set, and Sarah didn’t have a great big voice ether. Instead, she laid the songs absolutely flat for the listener and trusted in their composition. Elinor, by contrast, runs every stunt play she knows. She flirts, she wheedles, she purrs, she submerges herself in support singers and pops up like a kid horsing around in a swimming hole, she adorns her melodies with artful twists that never quite feel like melisma. She pretends she’s French — although there’s less of that this time around. Instead she squeezes everything she can out of the tube of toothpaste, sweats every detail, and commits herself completely to the project, even when it’s clear that she’s over her head. Guess that makes her a pretty good pop singer after all.
Arcade Fire — We The thing about the Arcade Fire We is that it’s not just for entertainment. It’’s for fitness, too. If you grab the controllers just — so — and hop up and down, it’s all going to track on the screen. It is motion sensitive. This encourages a more communal spirit than bad old single-player alternatives offer. The whole family can gather around the We. Reception, on the other hand, can be a bit dicy. Now, contrary to my rep as a rockin’ librarian, I can generally roll with bad lyrics; in many contexts I prefer them to good lyrics. But sometimes wind conditions mean that the stench from bad lyrics goes straight up your nose. Such is the case with this new Arcade Fire. Win Butler has struck upon this same dreadful combination of earnestness and well-meaning stupidity before, but never has he exposed the vacuity at the heart of a certain moneyed and pointless-cosmopolitan worldview as he does so consistently here. Win consistently undersells the resilience of the American imperial project. He directs accusations at social media and technology that are better applied to the human soul. He wallpapers over intractable sectarian problems with bland statements of unity and looks to the burning Acropolis, of all places, as a symbol of community imperiled. He constantly falls back on spiritual language, but habitually evacuates it of any religious specificity or significance; “Jesus was an only son” is the best he can do, and that’s not theologically or historically accurate. In short, he is the exact guy who Will Sheff complained about in “Singer Songwriter” — a man with ideas of order and progress and an aesthetic derived from his own place in a class hierarchy, but with no feel whatsoever for the sacred. My advice to Win, and to you, if you are a person like him, is: read the damned Bible. Not as a conduct manual or a magic spellbook or an example of divine revelation, but as a literary work that confronts the ugly reality of what human beings are, and, in that context, encourages you to get down to the hard business, blinkers off and shoulders squared, of building something lasting on a planet as inhospitable as earth. It’d help him. It might also help his wife Julian Assange, or whatever her name is, even as she continues to be the very worst singer in the galaxy.
Aurora — The Gods We Can Touch Mushrock connoisseurs know: the thickest mush is nordic mush. Yes, Scandinavia is mushrock Mordor, haunted by tireless mushrock ringwraiths wielding vocal effects processors and digital reverb units. If Kate Bush cannot clean up the mess she helped create, we will not hesitate to use all the means at our disposal — yes, including nuclear weapons — to put an end to these crimes against humanity. We have a red line, a line in the sand (is there sand in Scandinavia?) and Aurora Aksnes has oozed one of her pseudopods across it. This record is a miasmal slough of reverb, muffled drums recorded in some Hadron collider or another, synthesizer goop and tinkly piano, cutesy vocal inflections and ululations crushed underneath massive harmony stacks, undanceable dance music larded down with grotesque self-affirmative lyrics that, mercifully, you won’t be able to make out most of the time. The typical excuse for this is that ABBA used a lot of echo too. That is so. But Bjorn Bjornsson and Benni Bang Olufsson did it the old-fashioned way. They had to MIDI together several medieval cathedrals, which really bugged the hell out of the Midgard Serpent. They took risks. Today’s Scandi producers slather on the FX with a push of a button, like bomber pilots napalming the village from thirty thousand feet. I’ve got to think that the members of ABBA, what with their various divorces and Danish butter cookie scandals, were too emotionally close to the sound to generate it so dispassionately. Also those clowns gave us “Dancing Queen,” so as pop fans we’re obligated to ride their ski poles from now until eternity.
Bad Bunny — Un Verano Sin Ti This isn’t going to win the Grammy Award for Best Album. Yet I’ll wager quite a bit that it will go down as the year’s most consequential release. Un Verano Sin Ti marks the moment when the Latin American wave grew so big that it could no longer be ignored by anybody. Those foaming white-tops were visible all the way from Kansas. It finally dawned on xenophobic North Americans that there was nothing to do but surrender to inundation. Maybe splash around? Ooh, that Caribbean surf is warm. It’s like a bathtub. Un Verano Sin Ti shares several characteristics with a tsunami: it just keeps coming and coming and coming, and the water level keeps on rising, carrying debris along with it, maybe picking up your car and taking you somewhere you don’t expect, maybe doing us all a favor by scourging a landscape in need of refreshment, maybe drowning you and your chickens. This album sustains a high level of quality for such a long time that any resistance is simply overwhelmed by the tide. It’s animalistic grunts and hyped-up guest appearances and trap drums and Puerto Rico chants and the sort of puerile island nonsense that only the grotesquely provincial could resist. And though most of the reviews of this set have taken pains to highlight Bad Bunny’s departures from expectation — and there had damn well better be some on an album that pushes ninety minutes — the amazing thing about Un Verano is that it doesn’t miss a stitch. Reggaeton rhythms run steady through the whole thing. Twenty years after Daddy Yankee inserted his gasoline pump into North American consciousness, reggaeton is everywhere: the dembow beat whispers through tracks by artists of all models, and Caribbean emissaries keep shaking up the charts. Consider this a victory lap for the style, and a demonstration of widespread North American susceptibility to urbano and music performed in Spanish. The industry is unlikely to forget.
Band Of Horses — Things Are Great Hypercompetent mimicry from a group of discerning appraisers. Some of these numbers legitimately sound like The Shins, or at least Broken Bells, which is not so easy. It’s never as intricately wrought or compositionally acrobatic as The Shins, but I’m happy to have Band Of Horses do what they do while James Mercer is busy playing Minecraft or whatever the hell he is up to. I’m more interested in “Lights,” which might be the best late-period Jimmy Eat World fake I’ve ever heard, and look, people, I’ve been hooked on Jimmy Eat World since “Lucky Denver Mint,” and if you played me this song and told me it was an outtake from Integrity Blues, I would absolutely believe you. Ben Bridwell even gets his voice to bear the radical vulnerability and toddler-like curiosity that I thought was the provenance of Jim Adkins alone. Roughly a trillion emo bands have tried to do just this, and they’ve all come up short; leave it to a bunch of bearded superpros from Seattle to nail it. intentionally or not. But: probably intentionally.
Beabadoobee — Beatopia Is the world ready for bossa nova from Beabadoobee? Or, as I like to call it, bossadoobee? It’s only one song out of many on Beatopia, but it indicates that Bea Kristi wants more from life than a supporting role as a crowd pleaser and corporate rocker. She’s got more facets to flash than the few we saw on Fake It Flowers. So in addition to mushrock of the most monogeneric kind, Bea provides a little faded folk-rock, some waterlogged soundtrack music, some saliva-slick bubblegum pop, and even a bizarre stab at blech-orchestral Englebert Humperdinck sound in the style of her Dirty Hit bosses in The 1975. Many of these moves are faceplants at varying hilarious angles, but the fact she’s making them at all is promising. After a successful debut season in which Bea established herself as an effective popularizer of middle-of-the-road contemporary indie styles, rerunning the program would’ve been the logical thing to do. Most musicians in her position will do just that. They might goose up the sound and turkey-stuff the arrangements with more fixins, but they’re gonna serve the same Thanksgiving dinner as the year before. They’ll leave the departures from convention to the difficult third album, if they get there at all. Considering the extreme conservatism of Fake It Flowers, Beadoobee seemed a bad candidate to battle the formula. But here we are. Guess she’s more of a rebeldoobee than I thought.
Beach Bunny — Emotional Creature Lily Trifilio, on the other hand, is not much of a rebeldoobee. Beach Bunny #2 roars out of the gate with a pair of power pop aces and closes with a recapitulation of one of the record’s main lyrical themes: she wants to kiss you with everyone watching. In between exhibitionist fantasies, she’s thinking about album structure and storytelling pace. That’s good. Yet the slick throwaways and whomped-up placeholders in the middle of the album betray Lily’s weak hand. She doesn’t have enough tuneage in the spool to knit a beanie big enough to cover the bald spots. Her band has tightened, but they lack imagination, so she’s not getting any help from those dudes. Now, in the past, Beach Bunny has made raw little EPs and a brief encounter of a full-length, and these were over before you had any time to wonder if the band had a second gear. Emotional Creature attempts to blow Beach Bunny #1 up to an arena size, but in so doing, these Chicago sweethearts are exposed for what they are and what they’ll likely always be: an opening act.
Belle & Sebastian — A Bit Of Previous “Young And Stupid”: there’s the Stuart I know. The guy who put the “fuck” in twee as fuck. Vicious Garfunkel, the angel-voiced epistolary assassin, the not-so-saintly Sebastian who told his Belle he’d leave her flat if she didn’t stop stuffing her face with every different kind of cake. The guy who’d casually describe a woman — one he clearly wants — as having the knowledge to get her into college when she’s on her back. On the song after “Young And Stupid,” he tells us that if they’’re shooting at you, you must be doing something right. That’s not quite the same as the desire to go dancing somewhere he can cause offense just by the way he looks, but it does acknowledge the war that all us Lords and Ladies Anthony must fight. That’s a war he was once very present to, and there are bullet-holes all over that peerless songbook. But after “If They’re Shooting At You,” A Bit Of Previous returns to the softening of Belle & Sebastian’s belligerence that began on The Life Pursuit, and has continued, with much smoothing and straightening, rewiring, and occasional rewriting, ever since. I admit that I am reminded of Jon Bon Jovi, who is forever trying to reframe himself as a philanthropist and master of upliftment, rather than the hair-metal Turnpike screwbag he started as. Stuart is, um, just a slightly more spellbinding writer that Jon Bon is, so his enforcement of amnesia among his fanbase has been gentler, more deft, and more convincing. Still, it’s far from complete. I’ve got to think that those who have been asking B&S for a bit of previous aren’t just after well-minted melodies and callbacks to the heyday of Donovan. The balance of this set does do a swell job of evoking the candy-counter rush of the New Pornographers and similar groups for whom mere songwriting excellence is sufficient. If that’s all you’re after, you’ll be rewarded here. But you might find his recent up-with-people anthems lacking in narrative nuance, no matter how sweetly they may fall on the ears of those on the greenswards, in parks Central and otherwise, during Pride month. You may also note that the drift past Northern soul towards Motown cheese, so apparent on the Modern Problems EPs, has accelerated. Many white people pinch from African-American styles of the ’60s when they want to project sexiness (because blacks have powerful libidos?). For Stuart, Motown appears to signify one-world egalitarianism, brotherhood, and healing (because blacks are wise and work in healthcare?). I’m not sure that’s any more enlightened in its politics, but it’s an interesting racist sidestep. What else is new on the varsity? Sarah Martin continues to sing and write more, which is always welcome, but she hasn’t come up with a “Same Star” this time around. Stevie, on the other hand, contributes his best number — and best lead vocal — since “The Wrong Girl,” a Hazelwood-y elegy called “Deathbed Of My Dreams.” Also, on the (Carl) Newmanesque would-be hit single, he blows his harp without ceasing. See, he’s got his mind on those summer festivals. The twee kittens on the greenswards go wild for harmonica.
Beth Orton — Weather Alive I hate to do this to Beth, who has been very good to me over the years. But the gross mushrock production on the new one drove me to it, and now I am forced to help you philistines decode press releases, and record reviews that may as well be press releases, that indicate that the artists have conformed to the monostyle. What we’re looking for are buzzwords that spell danger. For instance: immersive. That’s become a real bad one. Immersive means that the midrange is saturated with fuzz, echo, and feedback soup. Pillowy means there’s been an overindulgence in ProTools audio suite nonsense. Shimmering used to be okay, but it’s become a code-word for treble-end effects processing. Glistening, well, glistening is just bad news. Things that glisten are generally coated in heavy reverb. Basically, any word that connotes moisture, even indirectly, suggest a liberal application of ’verb to the vocals, and maybe the instrumental tracks, too. Misty is trouble, gauzy is tremendous trouble, and dreamy gives the game away. Strangely, tender has become a warning sign too — it means that the voices have been EQ-ed in a manner that dissolves the consonants. Tender records are often unintelligible. Soothing is even worse; good luck making out thing one that a soothing vocalist is singing. Hushed: that should make you barf. Nobody hushed ought to be making pop records — not while kindergarden classrooms and pediatric clinics are understaffed. To each according to his ability, people. Records that spiral tend to be ones where the musicians haven’t bothered to construct their songs or develop their melodies with care and are instead rambling around and killing time. Atmospheric and ethereal mean something similar. A track that spirals might get over on repetition; atmospheric tracks use glacial pace and sound effects to distract you from the indifferent writing. Any time the drums are skittering, forget about dancing. Records that are woven are rhythmically inert, too. If the musicians are carefully threading together strands of sound, that means that they lack the pants-afire urgency that characterizes pop at its best. Any review that mentions tendrils (note how it sounds like tender) is also preparing you to snooze. Hypnotic: that’s a sad one, because it used to describe monomaniacal Krautrock records and the like, and now it just means that you’re going to get the same sleepy synthesizer pattern over and over. If you go to the Meadowlands Fair and you submit to the hypnotist, he’s going to tell you to pull down your pants or feel up your sister or something equally scandalous. Stakes are high, and I just wanna say that every time the term hypnotic is applied to a damp squib of a mushrock record, I am insulted on behalf of that guy. Anyway, there’s your lexicon. You’ve been forewarned. Stick to records that are cranky, acid, nasty, intense, full of outbursts, “emotional,” you know what that one means. Fucked up, too, Fucked up will never let you down.
Beyoncé — Renaissance Just like Lemonade did in ’16, this is setting the parameters of the AOTY discussion. As in: “oh, Beyoncé is great, but have you heard X?”, and sorry, Charlie, X will remain the unknown quantity because it is certainly not as good as Beyoncé. Given Knowles quality control, it’d be a bigger headline if this disc wasn’t supremo. Never fear. And yes, many of the lyrics do sound as if they’ve been cribbed from drag queens mid-sashay. But teaching the unwashed and un-fabulous to ascribe statesman-like qualities to queer dancefloor commanders — something that pop has been flirting with for years — is one of Beyoncé’s many egalitarian initiatives. Arguably Madonna tried, but not like this. You didn’t come for the words anyway: you’re here for the disco trap and its musical qualities when mobilized by Ms. Knowles, Terius Nash, Tricky Stewart, and a team of glitter-dusted studio rats who are one hundred per cent down with the program. Let’s just say that everybody else working this territory can just pack up their MPCs and go home. We could talk about the arson-starting beats, the pure beauty and caviar-like richness of the vocal harmonies, the passionate love bites from Donna Summer and Detroit house and “Everybody Everybody” and RuPaul even, and Beyoncé’s delirious joy to be inhabiting music that would be hers by birthright even if she didn’t also happen to be the best in the biz. As exuberant as Renaissance is, its real mark of distinction is clinical, and dare I say?, professorial. It’s in the arrangements, where riffs and rhythms are introduced that seem ancillary at first, but achieve harmonic significance as the song goes on. A little phrase will pop out of the mix, disappear, and re-emerge, enhanced and thickened by backing vocals and electric bass. A synth line will seem like pure texture, and then somebody will turn a knob, and it’ll brighten, and broaden, and provide traction for the entire mix. Elements that seem like clatter at the thirty second mark will, given more context, feel indispensable at the minute mark, and utterly exhilarating at a minute and a half. These are songs that teach you how to like them, in real time, as you’re listening to them, and you get to experience the same sort of excitement that you do in class led by a really good teacher who teases an idea out of the text, highlights it, and illuminates a cognitive pathway for you. There is a sociopolitical argument: Beyonce & Co. want you to understand just how much creativity there always was in forms of club music frequently dismissed by whitey, particularly straight whitey, and I agree, bleh on that guy. He simply will not release the wiggle. But the real message here is about pop music and how it works — how sonic events are sequenced together, how melodic ideas get yoked to a beat, and how nothing ever sits still. This is de facto repetitious music that does not repeat itself; instead, it works by accretion, with each new layer of sound and happenstance amplifying and deepening the meaning of the strata underneath while never violating the groove. You ever wonder how a three minute song can contain so much?, how an entire universe can fit between the first downbeat and the final hi-hat sizzle? This is how. It’s all right here.
Big Thief — Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You Given the self-imposed creative limitations of this patchouli-oiled gang, I figured Two Hands was the upper limit of what they could do. Boy was I was wrong. Big Thief has blasted through the ceiling by loosening up, rambling around, getting goofy and stoner-metaphysical, and, most importantly, deciding not to take themselves too seriously. Instead they lean on Adrianne Lenker’s songcraft, which is generally Shaker-furniture solid, and her guitar, which is borderline astounding. When the going gets rough, they can also count on her whimsy, which threatens to coalesce into a genuine sense of humor. I mean, here she is, comparing herself to a potato in a song about transcendence. Big Thief has also made the violin guy a part of the group, which adds mightily to the Upstate hippie jamboree vibe of the set. When Adrianne starts yowling with glee about her grandma in the middle of a song, you can almost smell the vegan jambalaya simmering. Some of the quieter numbers are dappled with enough splintered sunlight to summon memories of Richard Davies in his rustic phase. The main theme is acceptance of our impermanence, and appreciation of life as something that happens within time, inside out/outside in/you’ll see perpetual change, etc., which is indeed something that Robert Hunter and Jerry Garcia spent most of the Seventies pointing out. But it does bear repeating, especially at an Upstate hippie jamboree.
Billy Woods — Aethiopes So Billy sees generational wealth as a trap, huh? Guess that’s not too surprising: Billy sees everything as a trap. That’s why he spends his time down in that spider hole, only occasionally opening the hidden door for Elucid. More often, he’s booting Elucid the hell out so he can get down to his real business: the business of despair. I’m not complaining about it a bit; good as Armand Hammer is, the best Billy is a Billy so paranoid and alienated that you get the sense he had to bump off the producer at the end of the session. He knows too much. I don’t fault Billy for coming to the conclusion that individual initiative — that will, mind you, invariably be thwarted by the powers of our governors — is the only chance you’ve got. If he thinks that we’re doomed, and that any torch we endeavor to pass will inevitably be snuffed by the cruel winds of fate (not to mention all the hot air from our oppressors), that’s his artist’s vision, and he’s sure as hell true to it. I’m just pointing out that the conscious-constructive posse, from Shawn Carter to Mr. Michael Render to KRS, would vehemently disagree. But that’s Billy. He doesn’t want to see Nas with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall. I do think that when the beats fail to cauterize his verses, all of those free-associative aphorisms and non-sequitous prophecies can feel like a mind bleeding out. But the production here tends to be tight,and hip-hop needs its dissenters and outsiders, too. As long as Billy is around, there’ll be at least one rapping Jeremiah shouting at us from the bottom of the oubliette. The thing that people forget about Jeremiah is that he was 100% correct. That guy didn’t see much of a way forward either.
Billy Woods — Church One of these days I wanna hear Billy do his thing over giddy pop-rap beats. I think that would be a revelation. As it is, Billy has cornered the market on murk, which suits his mood and his subject matter, even as it’s starting to feel a wee bit predictable. He’s turning into an artist with a sound, like ZZ Top, or Yanni. Church matches Billy with Messiah Musik, who worked on the Moor Mother project and Armand Hammer, and who maaaaaay just be Billy himself. This is the gloomier of the two projects he’s put out this year, which also makes it feel a little bit like sonic territory we’ve covered before. Yet it’s also Billy Woods at his most linear and diaristic, which reminds us of two things. First there’s never been a rapper with a broader range of literary allusion, or a surer hand at tucking references from continental philosophy and paranoid online bulletin-board ravings into his verses. Second, he remains one of the best scene-setters in the business, sketching indelible verbal snapshots for his characters to inhabit. On “Frankie” he gives us a Morningside Heights corner apartment in (I presume) the 1990s with a creaky elevator and elderly proselytizers around the entrance, and a girlfriend with crooked teeth on a floor that smells like Nag Champa incense. By the end of the album, he’s drugged out and driving through the Carolinas to fuck a cokehead with an abusive boyfriend. Is he endangering her or himself? Outside the Chick-Fil-A he realizes he’s getting ghosted. He can’t quite pick between homicidal and suicidal ideation. He’d leave us on a cliffhanger but there’s no cliff in sight. Nothing but swamp as far as the eye can see.
Björk — Fossora If circumstances warrant a retraction, I am always willing to admit that I am wrong and the world, or just the part of the world best represented by the Museum Of Modern Art, is right. Why should mooks have all the fun?, shouldn’t the cultured get to rock a bit, too? Björk is, and always has been, a pop star for those who don’t really trust pop — an artist who appeals to those who believe that pop conventions ought to be transcended rather than modified. That’s not a hanging offense in itself; God knows that even a defender of the faith like me can swing with revolutionary activities if they’re done with grace and good humor. Björk has grace, and style, and intelligence, and puckish Icelandic wit. What she hasn’t had in years: any songs. It’s been eons since she’s bothered to mint a melody that’s memorable, let alone one worth celebrating. Fossora, like most of her 21st century work, is mainly a chronicle of gentle collisions: orchestral music bumping into electronic hijinx bumping into ambient soundscapes, like blown bubbles bouncing off each other. Nothing pops, and that’s part of the problem. If you’re the sort of post-Post sophisticate who finds juxtaposition and clever assemblage frightfully droll, you might just rate this. But there’s no way you’ll convince me that you’re actually playing it. That’s because it is, like all Björk’s recent work, an endurance test. I failed. You will, too.
Black Country, New Road — Ants From Up There For all of its herking and jerking and jumping around and dissonant sax-honking, the Black Country debut did get its sociopolitical point across. The narrator is a wayward middle-class kid consistently outclassed by upwardly-mobile girlfriends, sneered at by their families, and disgusted by the trappings of their nouveau riche lifestyle. But he still wants to, you know, fuck the chicks. Consumed by the sexual frustration that drives all good pop-rock, Isaac Wood does what any angry post-adolescent in his circumstances would do: he makes fun of the Nutribullets and Tory politics, the Cirque Du Soleil and the expensive portable speakers, matcha shots and antidepressants. It’s gruesome, but it’s lively, and that counts for a lot. Ants From Up There is much less haha, which would be okay if Isaac compensated by deepening his class critique. Instead this is a pure breakup album — one on which the narrator is dismissed as toast crumbs in his girlfriend’s bed. Rather than ripping on her choice of jam, he’s accepted the characterization. For The First Time was fighting words; Ants is just sad, and the furious boil that this band can reach is much better applied to scathing kiss-offs than it is to a sad-sack’s tales of despondency. Even the atonal sax guy is reduced to tonal color far more often than he ever should be. Word is that Isaac has wriggled free of the glue trap that was once his band, and he’s in rehab, or Parliament, or something; in any case, they’re left to carry on without him, and that’s probably for the best. They’re far too young, and too exuberant, to be this somber. As for the singer, I wish for him nothing more than a filthy rich girlfriend. He can rely on her old man’s money.
Bonobo — Fragments Accomplished sounds for the chillout tent. Slick, elegant dance music that you can’t really dance to: it’s either too brisk, or too stiff, or too emotionally remote. Some of these ringer singers are, no doubt, feeling something, but it’s mostly moody and moneyed repetition. Everything in this machine is so well oiled that perpetual motion is a given, and once you accept that, you realize something: perpetual motion is kind of a drag. That’s the point of this year’s Big Thief album, and that album and this album are absolute opposites.
Brian Eno — Foreverandevernomore Re-imagined and Enossified versions of tracks from Taylor Swift’s penultimate album. I really like it when he applies the Grand Parade Of Lifeless Packaging vocal filters to “Tis The Damn Season.” J/k, it’s the usual moans ’n’ groans for the home alone. The selling point here is that Brian is singing again, but “Baby’s On Fire” this is not: pop melody is a bit too much of an effort for Brian these days as he eeeezes his way into his leather chair and prepares for his TED talk. A few of these Koyanisqaatsi-soundtrack rejects do cohere into the general shape of songs. Others resolve to high-class background mush. Music for airports, you might call it.
Broken Bells — Into The Blue As leader of The Shins, James Mercer writes the sort of energetic, cleverly-written pop songs that I can throw on any time and enjoy. As leader (?) of Broken Bells, James Mercer writes the sort of pop songs I’d have switched off the radio in 1978 in search of “Disco Inferno” or “Who Are You.” This seems like happened by design: a deliberate turn toward the slow, sucky, and cinematic, just to show us he can put us through that. Have some snoozy A.M. gold, you suckers. It’s almost perverse. This is not James Mercer in cruise control, because the songs on Into The Blue have his compositional signature. They are indeed generative of nostalgia, but not for anything I really want to remember. For me, Broken Bells is like getting stuck in a station wagon, in a drizzle, as my friend’s mom (whose turn it is to drive for the carpool) picks up a box of Ritz crackers from the supermarket. For you, it might conjure images of Three Mile Island, or your cousin sticking a Cheeto up your nose while you tried to sleep. Don’t look at me; that never happened to me. I never put a seventeen year cicada on anybody’s head, either. The point is that dredging up un-specific memories is not a particularly nice thing to do, now, is it?, we have trauma that we’re busy repressing, and then James comes along with his treated piano and wistful major seventh chords and undoes all of our work. And I’m hard pressed to think of another artist with so much separation in replayability between their bands. Camper Van Beethoven had already ended, sorta, before David Lowery laid Cracker on us, and Cracker was actually halfway decent. The Divine Fits was such a brief encounter that I reckon most Spoon fans didn’t even realize it was happening. Desaparecidos had its moments. The only comparable drop in quality, I think, is Gorillaz, Damon Albarn’s much-loved but, IMO, consistenly dreadful intervention in contemporary hip-hop. Gorillaz, I notice, was a frequent collaboration with Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton, the other half of Broken Bells. Also, I gotta say that Cee-Lo was pretty great when he was in the Goodie M.O.B., and remained great until Danger Mouse dragged him into the wedding band business via Gnarls Barkley. Hm. Twenty two Grammy Awards aside, I think I may be on to something.
Bruce Hornsby — ‘Flicted There’s got to be a future, Neil Tennant told us, or the world will end today. Bruce Hornsby might agree. There will be days ahead/I’m pretty sure, goes the chorus of the new sad one. Bruce sings it in a voice that makes it clear he isn’t sure at all. It’s about the best we can do in ’22. Death comes suddenly on “Is This It,” a meteor crashing on a farmer’s head or a toxic chemical spill that ruins a dinner date. That’s the new happy one. On the rest of ‘Flicted, everybody is bleeding from a thousand cuts, beleaguered and overstimulated, too distractable to meet the moment with anything but monkey business. It’s the era of thick, thick skin — so thick that we might not even notice that Bruce, genteel elder statesman that he is, is singing about shitting his pants in the locker room. As he lately does, he’s gathered a crew of younger admirers around him; this time it’s Ezra from Vampire weekend, Danielle Haim, Blake Mills, and the yMusic pizzicato-pluckers. He continues to find places for those signature ringing piano intervals among the electronic clatter, extending an innovative streak that goes back as far as Absolute Zero. Life has pulled a fast one, this Tidewater Charles Ives tells us on “Simple Prayer.” It’s all so much less insane than the songs on Non-Secure Connection. That sanity just makes Bruce’s fatalism all the more painful.
Bruce Springsteen — Only The Strong Survive Is Bruce Springsteen soul raw and elemental, like Stax-Volt? Well, no, no it isn’t. Is it gospel-drenched and piano-pumping, in the style of Aretha? No, not that either. Well, then, maybe it’s string drenched and cinematic, like Philadelphia International? Warmer, but still no cigar. It turns out that soul according to Bruce Springsteen is soul that sounds like the arena-rock covers he’s been doing with the E Street Band from time immemorial — Sam and Dave huffed up with hot air, everybody twisting and shouting through a million minute encore until the Izod Center finally cries uncle and turns on the lights. Soul, he’s told us, was the bedrock of his baby days: soul was what you gotta play at the corner dive in Belmar or they’d start throwing mozzarella and bootleg Mafia movies at ya. The Only The Strong Survive sidestep, then, is best understood as more self-mythology: further sprinkling of the Essence of Springsteen from a guy who suddenly thinks his life story and personal preferences are a good deal more fascinating than they are. An autobiographical Broadway show can do that to a guy. Since that high-priced indulgence, Springsteen has been useless to us as a chronicler: his records have been technically accomplished but wildly uninformative, bricks in a handsome and well decorated wall that started going up around the time of Clarence Clemons’s death and that has only gotten more imposing since. We know that Brucie has been directing that storied noodle of his toward thoughts of mortality — his own and those of his former associates. “I’m aliiiiiiiive,” he assured us on the last one, and indeed he’s survived, which, I guess, makes him strong. But the young Springsteen knew that strength, and even survival, should never be confused with insight, and when he surveys the corpse-strewn landscape of Planet Earth in 2022, the best he’s got for us is a reanimation of the old Commodores fantasy of a pick-up band pulling a crowd in the clouds. Heaven turns out to be a celestial recapitulation of the E Street experience. And don’t tell me that’s all he knows: the whole point of Bruce Springsteen at his best was that he was constantly making up people and investing them with artificial life, and, in so doing, speaking straight to the collective unconscious like all good fiction does. I’ll say it again: the quickest way to ruin a storyteller is to ask him for his memoir.
Buster Shuffle — Go Steady! Adorable proletarian ska-pop. Movie palace Hammond organ, piano glissandos, Cockney accents, ringing snare, a little Tilbrook here, a little Difford there, heartfelt but nonconfrontational egalitarian politics, ambitions to “take the city,” which, as usual in music like this, just means they’re going to go out dancing and smooch. I approve. Also there’s “Puke In The Duke,” which might be the most sprightly song about vomiting you’ll ever hear. The farthest thing imaginable from a major statement, but an altogether agreeable way to spend a half hour of your life.
Camila Cabello — Familia It pains me to pan this Pan-Caribbean frying pan of an album, but I am afraid this isn’t good at all. Even as I applaud her aggressive turn back toward Havana-ooh-na-na, after spacing on her mark of distinction on the iffy, generic Romance album, I must admit Familia is a well-intentioned miss, nowhere near as homey as it promises to be. She’s a Latin pop star via market positioning if nothing else — they didn’t put her in that dress, or in that pose, on the cover of her debut so she could sing Wonder Bread ballads with Ed Sheeran. As it turns out though, Camila is far better at Disneyfied salsa and mambo than she is at mobilizing contemporary Latin American styles. Familia reveals her to be about as comfortable with reggaeton as Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). You are advised to steer clear of the one that resembles Katy Perry covering “Tom’s Diner” over beats from the “tropical” section of somebody’s MIDI editing suite, and the one that wastes a perfectly acceptable Maria Becerra performance on a melody and arrangement that might charitably be called insipid, and the one that shotgun-marries Camila and, you guessed it, Ed Sheeran. The star’s well-known consonant articulation problem worsens when she tries to sing in Spanish, which may be meant to signify Caribbean authenticity via markers of impending sunstroke. You got me. The best songs on Familia, alas, are the ones that don’t sound Latin American at all — the Carly Rae-like “Quiet” and the guitar ballad “Everyone At This Party,” which suggests, for the ten thousanth time, that she really wants to be Taylor Swift. Me too, Camila. Me too.
Caoilfhionn Rose — Awaken Caoilfhionn Rose makes Irish mush, which means mush plus oats and Kerrygold butter, and a good treading-on by a team of leprechauns. Just kidding, it’s about as standard a ’22 record as you can find, and thus has no nation, instead sailing forth under the flag of monocultural conformity. Every time I hope this is about to resolve to a nice Hazel English-like post-twee fantasia, Caoilfhionn strikes up those phony Billie Holliday inflections that still haven’t gone out of style. This is only for those who really want another Rose Elinor Dougall project but don’t know which Slurpee handle to pull.
Caracara — New Preoccupations Genre purity is a game best left to the marketers and those who maintain the emo council website. They’re sticklers over there. I get it, but I’ve always pitched a big emo tent. Are those high school juniors with lip piercings at Hot Topic emo enough for you? How about the members of My Chemical Romance? Well, sure, why the hell not? We’re all fellow travelers here, right?, united in pain by our deep not-okayness. Pop-punk and emo and emo-pop and post-hardcore were so thoroughly conflated during the salad days of the Warped Tour that it was inevitable that we’d get it all mixed up. The most reasonable reaction is to throw up your hands and call the whole discussion pedantic. But for those of us who appreciate emo on its own despondent terms, it may occasionally be necessary to point out that emo and pop-punk are actually quite different. On behalf of Hilary Jane Englert, who most certainly felt that difference, I’m going to take a moment or two to break it down. Though there’s been plenty of cross-pollination, pop-punk and emo have different ancestors, and distinct histories, and even different objectives and motivations, and it’s never salutary to judge one by the standards of the other. Pop-punk, critically, is pop. It’s music that uses the abrasive trappings and effrontery of punk to impress its existence on the eardrums of listeners, but which plays by the fundamental rules of mass-marketing. That means its authors arrive at the hook fast, and hard-sell it, and repeat it, all in an attempt to spread the message to as many people as possible, get rich and famous, etcetera. The roots of pop-punk can be traced to the mainstreaming of youth culture: bands like The Who and The Kinks who kept things succinct and blunt and worried about song construction and novelty and things that might impress and dazzle the audience, and successors like the Ramones, the Buzzcocks, the Attractions, and, sure, the Dead Milkmen, all of whom put wattage and attitude to the service of catchy pop melody. For a classic pop-punk band like Green Day or All Time Low, the key to the broad appeal they’re going for is expedience. Extra sections, intros and outros, excessive overdubs and effects, all of that goes out the window. Brevity attests to faith in the pop-rock project, anxiety about possibility of rejection, and, above all, urgency to get the hell out of the miserable existence that the musicians are inhabiting and into something, anything, else. So the drums hit hard. The bass throbs out eighth notes or sixteenth notes maniacally, contributing melodic passages here and there, but always remembering to reiterate the tonic at the start of the measure. The guitar chugs out chords in the midrange. Nothing is too tricky. Pop-punk is not confusing music. You’re supposed to commit the song to memory the first time you hear it; if you can’t sing the hook by the end of the runtime, they’ve messed up. Now, emo isn’t like this at all. Emo has its roots in the hardcore of the mid-’80s — its original practitioners were hardcore musicians trying a new thing — and its rejection of pop verities and the demand to play to the audience. The pop-punk musician frets that his song won’t connect, and the window will close, and he’ll never be heard; the emo musician starts from the premise that nobody cares. That hurts, but it means he’s at liberty to stretch out if he’d like to. He may or may not. It depends on how he’s feeling. Just as everything in the pop-punk song is oriented toward audience reception and hook manufacture, everything in the emo song is there to enhance the expression of the author’s turbulent emotional state. That means he might not get to the chorus or the hook for awhile. The lead guitar will scrawl out mathy patterns and quick-picked skeins of notes, and winding arpeggios that are often left unresolved. The rhythm guitar will rattle away in alternate tunings that make every chord feel like a suspension. There’ll be processing on the instruments, but it won’t be there for its own sake — it’s there to bestow an unbearably wistful twinkle on the high notes and a reminder of the bully’s gut-punch crunch on the low ones. The bass may nudge the guitar part toward harmonic resolution, like a dog trying to get a toddler to walk a straight line; the guitar might follow, or it might respond with open chords meant to signify passive noncompliance. The drummer may lay back or get ferocious, or he might throw little fills and flams in the middle of the verse, like an unruly heartbeat. Most importantly, the singer will allow himself dynamic latitude. He might begin in a whisper and end in a scream, or go the other way around. The song may have several climaxes, or no climaxes. Again, this is very different from pop-punk, where the singer is expected to establish and communicate a particular emotional tone from the very first line, and maintain that tone until the end of the track. Emo writers don’t expect that you’ll get it the first time through, or the seventh time through, or the seven hundredth. This is patient music motivated by personal considerations that might only tangentially correspond to the label’s commercial interests. It has much more in common with confessional singer-songwriter music than it does with mainstream pop. This year’s Caracara album is indisputably suggestive of Third Eye Blind, Goo Goo Dolls, The Gin Blossoms, and other ’90s radio favorites. Nonetheless, this set is one hundred per cent emo. New Preoccupations is driven by Will Lindsey’s deep ambivalence about the personal meaning of the substance abuse problems he’s trying to transcend. What does alcohol addiction say about the kind of person he is? What does his rejection of simplistic understandings of the nature of dependency mean for his relationships to other people? This sort of interrogation is what emo does better than any other form of music, and, I believe, any other form of art. Our emotions are always mixed; they’re never all one thing or another. A corresponding sound must be an expression of feelings as they shift, framed by drums that won’t settle into a groove, decorated by piano chords and guitar patterns that foreground fragility, even when they’re breaking up into fragments. Cracks in the bulletproof glass, wind in bare trees, the desperate desire to pour it all out, from the ventricles of a lone pumping heart.
Carla Morrison — El Renacimiento This is an absolute capitulation to American-Transatlantic mainstream pop made by a Mexican of considerable artistic ability, and I would be outraged on behalf of Pancho Villa, if not AMLO, if it wasn’t so damned listenable. Amor Supremo got her called a south of the border Lana Del Rey, even if she only sounded like Lana, and vaguely, on a couple of numbers; El Renacimiento is Adele-like all the way through. Nevermind she’ll find una persóna como tú. Not to say that Carla sings like Adele. She doesn’t: her voice seems to get thinner, like a oft-lit wick, with each release. But her winsome little tone is ideal for the sort of lovelorn piano pop she’s currently making — it’s never oversung, even when the arrangement calls for bombast. Mon Laferte tried something similar on 1940 Carmen, but her Gaga-ish showmanship did not allow for the same kind of intimacy that El Renacimiento has in spades. There are a couple of damp squibs here, but not too many, and when Carla connects, as she does on “Te Perdí” in particular, the doors of the town cathedral swing open and all of the light spills out on to the plaza. The result is the most consistent and coherent pop album made this year, if also one of the most straightforward and uncomplicated. Almost pathologically unsurprising, too; we’ll see what kind of staying power it has. She only loses me when she kicks a few lines in English, that accursed tongue. “I wanna get to know ya,” she tells us, signaling (as if the rest of the album didn’t!) how far she’s willing to go to accommodate the incurious Yankee listener. Carla, don’t you realize that humoring our exceptionalism is exactly how we got into this planetary mess? Next time insist that all negotiations be conducted in Mexican. That’s what your buddy Natalia Lafourcade would do.
Carly Cosgrove — See You In Chemistry Confusingly not a person. If the name sounds familiar, you may be a fan of ’00s tween television. Miranda Cosgrove played the title character in a Nickelodeon sitcom called iCarly. That’s the reference, and many of the titles on see you in chemistry are iCarly in-jokes too. We can’t help what we’re inspired by; to me, Gilligan’s Island is still sacred scripture. But I think the members of Carly Cosgrove might be doing themselves a disservice, because this band from Philly (where else?) plays some of the most authentic throwback Midwest emo since the heyday of Empire! Empire! and The Hotelier. They’re also talented musicians who’ve developed complementary styles: alternate tunings and long, mathy six-string scrawls, big, raw bass right in the pocket, and flams and drumrolls right in the middle of measures, and a singer reminiscent of Kenny Vasoli at his most scruffily endearing. There’s strategic use of trumpet and cello, but mostly, these arrangements are so smart and tight that they require no overdubs or effects. Instead it’s just rhythm guitar that slashes across your window like sheets of Pennsylvania rain, and snare beats like kicks on a locked front door. It’s your brother’s friend; he’s drunk and hungry. Some of these songs are lighthearted, and the record concludes with a narrator determined to find his footing. But when Lucas Naylor screams “I don’t wanna know my worth,” I sure as hell felt that. “Only when I am barely in control am I finally at peace,” he howls. That’s not just emo. That right there is rock and roll.
Carly Rae Jepsen — The Loneliest Time A mixed bag from Carly Rae this time around. There’s at least one CRJ classic on this collection: the sublime “Western Wind,” with its hummingbird-flutter melody, synthesizer tones that fall on the rest of the mix like light through beach glass, and chord substitutions as satisfying as a backscratch. That’s a Rostam production, and his other contribution — the lovely “Go Find Yourself Or Whatever” — convinces me that he ought to be retained to produce the next Carly Rae Jepsen album in its entirety. Imad Royal, whose fingers are still buttery from recent work with BTS, helps Carly Rae slot some new variables into an old formula on “Surrender My Heart.” “Beach House In Malibu” works because it gives the star a chance to crack jokes and ham it up like she’s in the high school musical, and she’s always been handy with schtick. But the other producers and co-writers here, sad to say, mostly let Carly Rae down. The Captain Cuts and Solomonophonic tracks are attempts to chase Dua Lipa into the disco, and once CRJ is there, she finds herself a step behind. These numbers also undercut the album’s putative theme: the impossibility of romance during quarantine. Carly Rae has a few heartrending things to say about the value of honesty, too. We all know she’s a Joni Mitchell fan. She’s overdue for the straightforward singer-songwriter record she’s always been itching to make. Until she does, I reckon she’s in a holding pattern.
Cat Le Bon — Pompeii If you asked a class of art students — ones who were quite good at painting or sculpting or multimedia or whatever, but who had no experience with composition or arrangement — to manufacture a version of Roxy Music circa Avalon or Flesh + Blood, this is what you’d get. They’d concentrate on texture and feel; they’d simulate the aspiration of the saxophone, and the particular airy qualities of the synthesizers, or they’d isolate each sonic element, enumerate them, and make sure they were present and accounted for. But they wouldn’t know how to get all of those elements to work together or cohere into the form of a memorable song. They wouldn’t know about developmental melody or harmony, or chord structure, and without those things, pop, an art form that unfolds over time, simply can’t happen. Roxy Music definitely understood pop. So those students might follow their models and make something quite beautiful, but it wouldn’t do the things that pop songs do. You may now see that aesthetic success is not enough. Aesthetic success does not rule out the possibility of musical failure. Because next to pop, art is a piece of cake. Pop, my friends, is the hardest road to travel.
Charli XCX — Crash Of all the contemporary pop singers, Charli XCX is the only one I dislike. I say that even as she’s made her belief in pop manifest to me through her albums. Usually that’s good enough for me. But I encounter in Charli’s songs a real buy-in to the bullshit line of reasoning that glamorizes the self-induced catastrophe, with no compensatory gestures made on behalf of lived reality — especially the lived reality of the young people who like music like this. No rejection in the bathroom sink mirror, no twenty stitches in the hospital room, not even any looming sense of what will happen after the Jamison’s sinks in on the freakin weekend. Maybe that’s what’s meant by hyperpop: music designed to score some kind of Grimes-like virtual autodrome where you can ram your car through your stack of Roblox without any repercussions beyond reloading. But pop, at its best, is in touch with much deeper and much more consequential stuff. Also, while she’s very good at crafting hooks and getting repetition and rhythm to work for her, the next interesting melody she mints will be her first.
Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul — Topical Dancer Well this is a fucking delight. Possibly the best thing to come from Belgium since Hergé. Think Vince Clarke + Alison Moyet, Mark Brydon + Róisín Murphy, Prinz + Horn, and sure, Xenia Rubinos + Mark Buccelli — those two-headed dance music operations where the vocalist and producer are in such perfect interpersonal synchronicity that they begin to feel like twin expressions of a single mischievous will. The producer underscores every line, and the singer rides every beat like a pigtailed champ on a pogo stick. But not even Moloko in Tight Sweater mode was as funny as Charlotte, sarcastic cuss that she is, who cracks wise for fifty minutes in a voice that flashes like a silver bracelet in the sun. As excited by the vocalist as I am, I don’t want to short Bolis, who is a genuine revelation. He cuts up his partner’s laughter in a manner that simultaneously reinforces her allure and her inaccessibility. He provides us with thunderous drum builds and thick, rubbery DFA bass, but never forgets that the purpose of the music is to create an environment where personality can thrive. Bolis even gives us the rare tribute to Stop Making Sense that remembers that Talking Heads was more than just a vehicle for David Byrne. Most importantly, he knows when to get out of the way of his partner, who I’d call a force of nature, but I’m afraid that’d be giving nature a bit too much credit. Like all unforgettable pop characters, Charlotte is self-fashioned, even if that fashioning was mostly done inadvertently (I doubt it was). Charlotte keeps a straight face when she raps about dumping nachos into her bra. She lacerates the biz with a facetious, four-minute thank you message that obviates the need for award-show acceptance speeches from now until doomsday. When she’s told by a chauvinist to go back to her country where she belongs, she turns to Siri for comfort and provocation. Though she sends up identity politics whenever she can (“oh you’re from China?/do you know my friend Hiro?”) she means it, deeply, when she tells us that she’s a world citizen who doesn’t believe in borders. So I won’t, either. Whatever nation she’s in, whatever world she’s from, I’m on her side.
Combo Chimbita — Iré Like a raft ride through the jungle on the Orinoco, this trip is blissed out and sun baked, and even though it’s turbulent, it takes forever to get anywhere. Also there are piranhas in the water. The first number goes oh yeah, over and over, for an hour, or at least it feels that way. I can see why fans of Lido Pimienta and other North American-educated Colombian expats would make apologies for this, and you could fault me for lacking the patience to overlook the operatic singer and get to the good stuff. But I’m a jerk, so I am not gonna blame me. I’m gonna blame them. Well, NPR, too. Somehow I feel like those clowns bear some responsibility.
Daniel Rossen — You Belong There NO MOM I do not wanna write about Daniel Rossen. It is “pastoral” and I am just not shepherd like that. Instead let me get something scurrilous, personal, political off my chest; bear with me here. Okay. You’ll recall that we were all encouraged to want to be the President when we grew up. That was not for me. I had no designs on the Chief’s chair. Instead I fantasized about the House Of Representatives. Standing up for Jersey, arriving at creative compromises with the gentleman from Kansas, playing footsie in the committee meeting with the gentlewoman from Texas: this was my aspiration. My poor showing in student council races soon gave me an indication of my electoral viability. I learned the hard way that popularity contests were not for me. Still my heart accelerates whenever I see the Capitol: the People’s House, a place of discourse, a marble dome under which we might settle our differences like civilized humans rather than brutes. If I’d ever been so lucky to be sent to that house by the people of the great state of New Jersey, I would not cede my position on the floor so easily. Oh, if I was voted out, I’d leave at once; that’s how electoral democracy goes. But no clown in a Viking hat would ever have budged me from my desk. I am no profile in courage; I don’t even like courage. I hate physical fighting, and not just because I am bad at it. But as sure as I know I love Carly Rae Jepsen, I also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would’ve gotten very scrappy on behalf of the United States Capitol. If a band of yahoos broke the windows and stormed into the chamber, I’d swing around a chair. If I didn’t have a chair, I would have fought with a fountain pen. If I didn’t have a fountain pen, I would have pushed back with my palms. And yes, I would have been trampled to death, martyred to the cause and vilified on Breitbart, but that’s not the point. Four hundred and thirty five elected representatives and one hundred senators had an opportunity to stand on that floor, Tianamen style, and face down the mob. Every one of them ran. Democrat and Republican, hanging judges and squad members, fighter pilots and tough guys with eye patches, they all failed my test. At the moment of truth they split. There wasn’t a hero among them. Yes, the Secret Service was telling them to evacuate. What sort of chickenshit takes an order from the cops in the middle of an obvious insurrection? If you care about Congress and what it represents — the best chance for a dialogic form of government yet conceived, a Republic, ladies and gentlemen, if we can keep it — you cannot let yourself get herded to a safe space when the temple is under assault. America, as we have all learned the hard way lately, is not a safe space. The Capitol cannot be defended by barbed wire and sentries alone. It must be defended by those who care enough about the institution that they’re ready to go down with the ship. Those who meet corrosive disrespect with whatever force they can muster; those who are too proud to turn tail. On January 6, 2021, no representative matched that description. Nobody cleared the bar. It turned out we’ve elected a house of cowards. A house of cowards will fall.
Dayglow — People In Motion Any time I hear somebody praising The 1975, I want to plunk that individual down right in front of Sloan Struble’s amplifier. Sloan, aka Dayglow, does everything The 1975 does, only he does it much better. Like The 1975, his music is an amalgam of Passion Pit, early Owl City (yes it is), and that New Radicals song that never seems to fall out of rotation. Dayglow harmonizes those influences with substantially more grace than The 1975 ever have. Sloan’s beats are more danceable, his sonic choices are more playful, his vocal performances are more endearing, and his melodies are crisper and tighter. Plus he’s American: a red-blooded Texas boy. What’s that got to do with anything, I hear you cry. A lot, you pinko bastards. The proof is in the patriotic pudding (ew). “Someone Else” is like The 1975 if they stood up to the heat at the anvil and forged a tune with discipline, “Second Nature” is like The 1975 if their producers ever made room for instrumental dynamism, and “Like She Does” is like The 1975 if Matty Healy had the vaguest approximation of an acceptable human temperament. If you prefer your synthpop with stealth alt-right trolling and complaints about cancel culture, I guess The 1975 are still your ticket. If you prefer pop songs about, you know, girls, here you go.
Death Cab For Cutie — Asphalt Meadows The teenaged star in a movie made in the late fifties wouldn’t even be all that old today. My understanding is that Paul Anka is pretty hale. Neil Sedaka remains with us, too. So if Ben Gibbard’s apprehension of vintage cinema is undercut by his fear of the reaper — and if he keeps falling in love with bones and ashes — that sounds like a Ben problem. It doesn’t have to be a you problem. I share his worry about the sociological cost of habitat destruction and ecological nihilism, but anybody who experiences conversation as a wave slapping his face is not exactly primed to party. So I believe him when he says that he misses strangers more than he misses his friends. No matter how much he seems to be craving connection, he’s not exactly feeling gregarious. Even Ben’s attempt to bro down with a tattooed buddy on a long, cold drive across Canada founders on deep experiential differences. Ben, childless, cannot sympathize with his friend’s fear of losing his daughter. Later, crashing through Wyoming, he concedes that the atlas is no guide either. All over this set, he’s estranged from the land, probing at it, trying to dig his fingers through its asphalt sheath, struggling to feel something. He’s bucked up by his band, who haven’t been this energized since Narrow Stairs. For alienated modern subjects, they rock pretty hard. Apparently they’ve got some faith left in the human capacity to withstand the bad news that is the soundtrack of our time, and react accordingly.
Denzel Curry — Melt My Eyez, See The Future Did it really take Kobe Bryant’s death to prompt Denzel to conclude that the world is a messed up place? Because I’d reckoned he’d already sussed that out. I’m not gonna call him a liar — not when he raps like this. Denzel comes at you like a man trying to break down a door with his shoulder. Soon it’s all wood splinters and blood, and you and Denzel with stupefied looks on your faces. The U.S.A. is a cold place, he tells us, like he’s just realized it, like it is the irreducible sum of all the conscious-rap verities about incarceration rates, injustice, and the hopelessness of the ghetto. On Zuu, Denzel gave us regional specificity and some tight storytelling; there’s not much of either here. But there is a deep connection to hip-hop history, and direct and implied references to De La Soul, Jay-Z, Drake, Kanye, and other rappers who have grappled with the escalating shittiness of North America. As usual, he’s come with fine music, some from the tireless Kenny Beats, some from Robert Glasper and other Native Tongues-loving jazzbos, and on “The Ills,” some of that throwback scratching, courtesy of A-Trak, that you thought was lost forever.
Disq — Desperately Imagining Someplace Quiet Now what kind of post-punk band craves silence? These Madisonians are too young for that; cranky they may be, but raising a ruckus is the job description. Collector, their debut, was chock full of clatter, and they certainly didn’t seem shy about making noise. The new one is clamorous, too, but the anemic melodies suggest that premature exhaustion has indeed set in. Take a nap, everybody. Soothe those battered eardrums; you’ll get ’em on the next one.
Drake — Honestly, Nevermind All things audible carry tonal information. Any time you make a sound, no matter how abrasive or percussive or downright awful, there’s a note in there somewhere. This is why producers make you tune your drums. If a song is in E, but your toms are ringing out an E flat, that is going to affect the listener’s perception of what she’s hearing. We don’t always think of rappers as contributors to the chord structure of rap songs, but of course they are — they’re giving you notes, even if it’s the same damn note over and over. What they do can be scribbled on the staff paper alongside the piccolo and the contrabassoon and the Fairlight EMS. All good rappers grasp this, even if they decide to work against it. Nobody has ever worked for it as successfully as Aubrey Drake Graham. (Well, Prince Be did, but that was an awfully long time ago.) If you plot the notes implied by Drake’s rap delivery alongside the notes that resonate from that muffled kick and whatever Noah Shebib’s smoke-curl synthesizer is doing in the background, you will find that it makes a consonant chord. You’ll further discover that Drake will work within that chord to find interesting notes and that Noah will subtly shift the tonality of the drums and the synthesizer to achieve the harmonic progression that all good pop has. It isn’t Bruce Springsteen scraping away on an acoustic guitar and visibly moving his fingers as he does, but it’s the same basic concept. This is why Drake slips so effortlessly between hip-hop and melodic R&B: the only difference is in the amount of sustain he gives his vocal signal. Drake and Noah changed the sound of twenty first century music by scientifically scooping out all of the vibrations that get in the way of the pure expression of whatever musical idea they were on; a nation of millions copied it. Fifteen years out from October’s Very Own, it’s been done to death, and I know you’re sick of it, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do it well. One of the persistent criticisms of Honestly, Nevermind is that it’s less than advertised: it’s supposed to be Drake singing over club beats, but it just sounds like another Drake album. Why isn’t it a sea change? Well, it’s because he’s doing the same stuff he’s always done. He’s more upfront about the intriguing melodies, harmonies, and rhythms that he’s been entertaning us with since Lil Wayne and Baby first recognized his astonishing talent, and the main reason why he’s lost some of his ability to surprise and delight is because he released seventy five new Drake projects since you went to bed last night. Seventy five thousand Drake imitators released albums last night too. None of that is exactly his fault. He wasn’t lying when he said that every modern song sounds like Drake featuring Drake. He discovered a way forward for pop as few in the history of pop have, and deserves to be treated as the epochal figure he is. Insofar as your pussy likes pop, your pussy is indeed calling his name. So stop playing games.
Drake & 21 Savage — Her Loss “I’m like a cupholder the way these dimes stick to me,” Drake tells us. This only a few bars after he asks if he’s in Baltimore because everyone is raven about the new album. Thank you, thank you, Drake will be here all night. Aubrey sure has brought the dad jokes and Borscht Belt schtick to his latest full-length collaboration/cash-in/attempt to rebuild his street credibility after a season spent crooning, which seems like an odd strategy, but then so was the Toosie Slide. This time the vict-, er, partner is 21 Savage, who sounds like he’s on the moon. Or maybe it’s Drake who is on the moon, a very high-class, expensive moon, and 21 is on terra firma; regardless, never have I encountered two ostensible co-stars with less interest in pretending they’re in the same room, or on the same continent, or that they even know who the other one is. This is a purely mercenary project for both principals. If you can get past that, there’s quite a lot of sharp-cornered rhyming over glossy Noah Shebib (or Noah-inspired) production. Expect amusing ribaldry, brand names, one-liners both goofy and stinging, plus a heck of a lot of mean-spiritedness about girls. Because that’s how true hardcore gentlemen behave. They’re mean to girls. Representative verse: 21 tells his chick that she needs to cook like she’s an Asian because he likes fried rice. Fry your own fucking rice, dude.
Earl Sweatshirt — Sick! Long before lockdown, Earl told us he doesn’t go outside. It said so right there on the package. You might think, hmm, here is a guy who might be having some onanistic fun in isolation. Then you remember the other half of the handle: Earl also told us that he doesn’t like shit. Given the grumbliness of his delivery, even when the flow is super tight, it’s hard not to take his word on that. He wins points for his topicality, even if I suspect that the reason he’s worried about the rent moratorium elapsing is because he doesn’t want his homies (what homies?) showing up at his door. Vince Staples gets better when his composure cracks and he lets you know he’s not the heartless thousand-yard ghetto starer he often likes to play; Earl is just a misanthropist through and through, so after awhile his grouchy and monotonous solipsism becomes a perverse kind of integrity. That was true on Some Rap Songs, and it’s true again here, even if this new set lacks the depth of some of his prior projects. When he retells the story of Odd Future’s dissolution, he deliberately avoids insight: it is what it is, wolf packs don’t hang together forever, and hey, quarantine was around the corner anyway. Like the cheese he stands alone. He even lets us know that he enjoys wearing his face covering because it makes him feel like a supervillain. Maybe he’s having a good time after all.
Eddie Vedder — Earthling It’s 2022 and I am writing about Eddie Vedder. Granted I have come to like Eddie, in theory. He’s like a gruff uncle who was vaguely scary to when you were a little kid, but you grew up a bit and realized, hey, he’s just a poor jilted dude who works in a barber shop. Maybe he likes brewski. This solo set is an exhibition of Eddie’s range as a songwriter, which is fairly broad if not particularly deep, and his talent as a vocalist, which was never in question, even when he mostly used that million-dollar throat of his to make goose noises. This compares favorably to Billy Corgan’s recent attempts to make his own eclectic middle-aged statement rock, but it’s nothing you really need to check out. Since I am in a relatively good mood this morning, and I haven’t had to contend with any phishing schemes, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to some of these rocking codgers and save the hammer for local politicians. It is, at this writing, November 28, and I trust it has been a tumultuous year for everybody. My best wishes for peace and contentment to you. Best wishes even to Eddie. Who, technically, still owes us a big one for saddling us with Jeremy From Spokane and all the rest of it.
Elucid — I Told Bessie A full-length set from the other guy in Armand Hammer. It feels like Billy Woods joins him pretty often here, but I just checked the tracklisting and he’s only on four songs. What can I say?; even as a guest, Billy makes more of an impression than his partner does. Elucid is a pretty good emcee but not a remarkable one, and proximity to Billy and his formidable specificity isn’t doing him any favors. It isn’t that Elucid doesn’t provide details. It’s that it’s never clear who he is addressing or why. The title of this album promises an epistolary experience — Bessie is the rapper’s grandmother — but these elliptical verses are best filed under notes to self. Occasionally he’s modestly impressed with his own abilities and says so, but mostly he spins his wheels with portentious language and body metaphors that seem badass until you stop to think about them. Even his pillow talk is weird: “she say when I hit her from the back/please fall back a bit.” Now what the heck does that mean? Such politeness during doggystyle is unaccountable and maybe unprecedented. So are the verbs. Fall back?, really? Mastery is a winding labyrinth, he assures us. He’s still got a way to go.
Elvis Costello — The Boy Named If Huh. So that’s what Elvis learned from doing Spanish Model: push the guitar in the mix. It only took him forty five years to make the move. He had one unplayed card left in his hand, and he played it. The casualty here is Steve Nieve, who has his least interesting Elvis album in millennia. It’s not that he plays poorly, it’s just that he isn’t contributing anything we haven’t heard from him many times before. It feels like he’s been relegated to a corner in punishment. But of course it isn’t punitive — it’s rock, rock in quotes, stuff reminiscent of Elvis’s late-life ravers such as “Monkey To Man” or “American Gangster Time,” plus lyrics with the density of the songs on National Ransom. The advertised return to brutality turns out to a bit of a cheat: the album is frontloaded with the raucous stuff, and the back half returns Elvis and company to that warmed-over Tom Waits mode that he falls into when he doesn’t know what to do but feels like getting jazzy. But before we get there, he’s got a few of his trademark stately-rambunctious rockers for us, including “What If I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and, better still, “My Most Beautiful Mistake,” another of Elvis’s great perils-of-showbiz numbers. I wish only that he’d served it up to Wendy James. She would’ve known just what to do with it.
Envy Of None — Envy Of None Alex Lifeson has earned the right to make mushrock if he wants to; as a major part of the story of progressive pop in the 1980s, you might say he gave us a distant early warning (sorry). I hear Alex’s guitar tone, and his Signals-era despairing attitude, all over contemporary art music. Alex, you might recall, was feeling a bit at sea then because Geddy’s synthesizers were stepping all over his space. But he’s fundamentally a team player, very Canadian as guitar heroes go, so it’s no surprise he’s pretending to be a regular palooka, a member of a band, just here to support a woman with a nice big voice and songwriting aspirations of her own. Unsurprisingly, fans are not rushing to support this retirement-business move, but when they do lean into modern mushrock, they acquit themselves quite professionally. It’s only when Alex gets souped up and prog-metal that this becomes the post-Evanescence project you feared it’d be, if you thought about it at all, which, let’s face it, you probably didn’t. A few choice tracks, yes. But mostly a curiosity.
Erin Rae — Lighten Up The arrangements are livelier, that’s for sure. The countrypolitan production gives this set some sonic focus missing from its mushy predecessor. But I gotta say: I am not sure these melodies are as neatly turned as those on the last set. She’s a wee bit overdressed for the East Nashville backyard party, too, there in a dress with a crisp-pressed collar while everybody around her is wearing dungarees. It said so right on the invitation: come as you are. Try not to, er, put on airs. Don’t let those Mary Janes squelch in the mud, Erin.
Ezra Furman — All Of Us Flames Around the time of Perpetual Motion People, I thought Ezra was really on to something singular. Modern Lovers delivery, doo-wop backing vox, skronky yakety-yak saxophone, prayers in Hebrew, wobbly, non-specific, utterly singular gender identity: nobody else had sounded like that, or even dreamed up a comparable approach. Ezra was getting at something that was both personal and fundamental, and he’d stumbled upon an idiosyncratic hybrid style that suited the non-binary sentiment. Since Perpetual Motion, Ezra has become transgender Melissa Etheridge. You will remember that Melissa applied hyperdramatic E Street sound to her storytelling, thereby investing it with gravity and significance then uncommon in lesbian lit. It was an act of genuine representational significance, and it deserved to be celebrated. Not necessarily emulated, though. These days, Ezra is taking so many cues from the Boss that he’s started yammering about trains. But the main metaphorical vehicle here is the getaway car, where Ezra and other allies of his queer girl gang race toward the horizon pursued by the fascists, ennobled and powered by those broad Roy Bittan piano chords and late-nite philosophical reflections and… hey, didn’t we just do this exact thing on Transangelic Exodus? Now, Melissa Etheridge was a much better songwriter than we remember, and as long as Ezra is at the steering wheel, the scenarios are gonna be crisply written and occasionally even gripping. If he feels like he’s on a political mission on behalf of his tribe — and it’s hard to hear the heartbreaking “Book Of Our Names” as anything other than an expression of total love and solidarity — I think we can all afford to show him a little patience. Horrid sound, however, seems to be a permanent feature of Ezra’s records. This one isn’t as rancid as Twelve Nudes, but Ezra still seems to believe that disruptive politics demands sonic abrasion. Glitches, too. And what the heck is up with the production on “Ally Sheedy In The Breakfast Club”? I’ve watched the movie a thousand times and I understand the metaphor, but did the mix have to be mangled so badly that it sounds like a Watergate tape? Also, if Allison Reynolds is the teenage girl Ezra never got to be, what do we make of the fact that Allison would have wanted to be anybody but herself?
Fantastic Negrito — White Jesus Black Problems The blues according to this Oakland raider: banks are killers who invest in for-profit prisons. Doctors are drug pushers. Technology is the tool of the subjugator. No lies detected, but then again, it’s all in how you look at things. Institutions are notoriously corrupt, but within those systems there are individuals who can be worked with. There have to be. Common humanity, not to mention sheer probability, suggests there are. The United States government is a notorious pain-bringer, but that isn’t all it is: it’s also a vast bureaucracy that contains multitudes, and within those multitudes there may be a vanguard, and within that vanguard may be a few men and women who’ve listened to Pink Floyd and internalized the critique. We may have miscalibrated our institutions so badly that there are no longer mechanisms in place to elevate the sensible and temperate to positions of consequence. Fantastic Negrito tells the story of his family’s slave history and sings of the uneven power distribution in mixed-race relationships; it’s American history retold at the most granular, personal level. Social-problem writers believed that a well-spun yarn might generate sympathetic identification for a beleaguered individual who, acting as a stand-in for an oppressed people, strums the heartstrings of a nation and lays a mighty guilt trip on the otherwise unengaged. Does it ever really work that way, Charles Dickens? Do the stories of Iceberg Slim spur us to take p.i.m.p. action on a municipal level, or is it all just voyeurism? Tough to say, and even harder to measure, but artists with consciences will keep on trying. Short of that we will keep ringing the alarm. It’s all we’ve got.
Father John Misty — Chloë And The Next 20th Century The Elton John imitation on God’s Favorite Customer was not half bad. But here, we’re back in choppy waters without a life jacket. The few keepers on Chloë include the last song, though mostly for the guitar solo, “Q4,” a tale of a literary rivalry, and “Mr. Blue,” in which the narrator uses a dead cat for relationship leverage. That’s about as FJM as it gets. Also maximum FJM: “Mr. Blue” is a blatant, embarrassing ripoff of “Everybody’s Talkin’”. Other songs are anachronistic and downright aimless, and even his golden throated vocal performances are noticeably less lustrous this time out. The approximation of jazz age music is professionally played by his hired guns, but because he’s still no good at writing melodies, the quasi-experimental kickoff track ends up sounding something the Hustle and something more like Michigan J. Frog. If Josh can’t manage to inject pathetic life into a song about an obsession with a comedienne, what, really, does he have left for us? Being mean to Robin Pecknold will only get you so far.
Fontaines D.C. — Skinty Fia As all doomed Irishmen must, Grian Chatten directs his doomed love song toward doomed Ireland, and though his relationship to Dublin City is more, ah, theoretical these days than it used to be, I do believe him. The Emerald Isle lays permanent claim to poetic hearts. Yet that recent estrangement from Ireland may be playing a bit of havoc with Grian’s lyricism, which used to be his calling card and the saving grace of a band that, however catchy, flirts outrageously with melodic impoverishment. Consider this couplet, which comes right at the climax of the album’s statement of purpose: “I love you like a penny loves the pocket of a priest/I love you ’til the grass around my gravestone is deceased.” That’s awkward, petty in its anti-clericalism, and it also makes no sense whatsoever. I know; long Irish tradition of all three of those things.
Frontperson — Parade Last year, Magdalena Bay pinched sounds and textures from prog albums and souped up their mushrock with what they’d borrowed. Frontperson does something similar. Yet Mercurial World was a party record. The Magdalena kids were just looking to have a hoot, and cribbing synth sounds from Tales From Topographic Oceans was part of the fun. Kathryn Calder is up to something else, though it’s hard to say what. Throughout her unique, inimitable, and often quite unmoored career, indirection has been her constant companion and her most effective tool: consider, for instance, her stealth takeover of the New Pornographers. Parade pulls in many directions at once, which keeps it intriguing even at its most incoherent. There are prog signifiers galore — sky saw guitar, Banksynths, a certain hovering marillionism — but they’re not there to heighten the intensity or to evoke howling existential anxiety or the strange pull of the void. They’re just… kinda nice? Then there are the moments, present on all of her projects going back to Immaculate Machine, that suggest Kathryn could be a first-rate emo singer if she wanted to be. Or if she had anything to get emo about. It’s not clear she does, because nothing about Kathryn Calder is ever clear. Then, like the condor, or a pretty crossdresser, or like the tones in Kathryn’s most elusive scales, those moments pass.
Gift — Momentary Presence Behold: the psych revival has found its Pains Of Being Pure At Heart. That suggests maturity, and maybe some healthy detachment from hyperbole, since the Pains were nothing if not professional, and psych-rock could benefit from a bit of strategic distance from its verities. TJ Freda of Gift displays his genuine love for My Bloody Valentine and Jesus And Mary Chain — and Tame Impala, and Wand — the way a good auto mechanic expresses his love for the Lambo. He’s gotten under the hood and figured out just how the carburetor connects to the accelerator and the ignitor. So thorough are his diagnostics that he’s been able to draw up some blueprints and fashion a prototype. That he’s done this in his own garage, with very little instruction or supervision from the masters marks him as a producer of undeniable technical skill if not genuine significance. But it also suggests that no matter how authentically he gets the organ to swish around and the bass to crash in on the false ending of “Gumball Garden,” or how faithfully he maintains his breathy psych tickle on “Here And Now,” he’d be just as happy manufacturing tight commercial pop for the movies. The high level of competence displayed on Momentary Presence suggests formidable discipline and a real scientific appreciation for quality control. In a genre that requires its magicians to sustain their spells over time, those things are vital. Psych bands come and go, and most dissipate in pot-haze and self-indulgence. Fifty per cent chance we never hear from these guys again, but a nonzero chance that TJ is running Interscope Records in ten years.
Grace Ives — Janky Star A brief, enjoyable ten-song encounter; a cut or two above the usual machine-made loop-pop. Grace Ives is a horny goat with a fancy digital audio suite and a delivery like a sassier Allison Crutchfield. She’s got a giddy sense of humor, and she appreciates waitresses at diners; I want to 1 2 3 4 5 her, she tells us of red-lipped Shelley, breathlessly, over her home fries. Unlike most of her peers, she cares if you dance, and she’s programmed her drums accordingly. More importantly, she understands how to use rhythmic variation and tight melodic gestures to separate compositional sections without necessarily having to effect a chord change. That’s economical. ’Course she could also effect a chord change. Maybe next time.
Harry Styles — Harry’s House A little soon for the suit and tie vibe, isn’t it, Harry? By the time Justin Timberlake reached the somnambulant stage of his journey through the high-rent districts of pop, he’d already had a trillion hits and starred in Gone With The Wind. He’d earned his working vacation. Now Harry is no spring chicken. But he’s very much a summer chicken, and his caretakers are expecting some golden eggs and a blue ribbon at the county fair. He should not be dozing in the coop. He oughta be out there bawk bawking for passersby. Some of the vox on Harry’s House are showy and pleasantly flamboyant in the manner of those on Fine Line; others could be mistaken for Adam Levine in gimme-my-check mode. There are times when this professional smoothie is uncharacteristically screechy, and I gotta think that’s a tactic: Harry jabbing himself in the leg with a sodium pentathol syringe in an effort to perk himself up. It doesn’t always the trick. He’s too good a crooner to get lost amidst the sonic backdrops, winsome and enveloping as they are. But Harry’s lack of urgency here is not merely unbecoming. It’s also dangerously antithetical to pop, and it threatens to erode his comparative advantages over less talented pop singers. This is exactly how JT talked himself out of the stardom that he was born to inhabit. He didn’t age out of the system. He just misplaced his hyperdrive. Harry’s determination to follow in Justin’s footsteps has been cute. At times. But here it’s a whisper of early onset irrelevance. It’s not too late for a course correction, Harry. See what you can do.
Hey, Ily — Psychokinetic Love Songs The fifth wave of any movement is probably gonna be weird. Anything with that many waves in it threatens to become a perm. The last coterie of emo bands made adherence to Midwest virtues an objective: it was all about reclaiming what got lost between the racks at the Hot Topic. This next crop is more expansive — more willing to play around with cold fusion. For instance there’s Asian Glow, a bedroom emo project spearheaded by an imaginative South Korean kid who douses his mixes in so much guitar fx that it’s hard to make out what he’s singing. Then there are the ones who are going at it so rough that they’re putting hardcore bands to shame. The Montanans in Hey, Ily are eclectic: they’re drawing from independent folk, the twee anthology, a little soundtrack and orchestral music, and the long left-of-the-dial tradition of screwing around with tape. They sound very young, which is not a problem, very energetic, which definitely isn’t, and very certain that their experiments and departures are brave, which might be. There’s a good deal of musical intelligence operating here, but it hasn’t been shaped yet. This is clearly a group to watch, but right now, they’re a pile of raw materials in search of an architect’s touch.
Homeboy Sandman — There In Spirit Angel Del Villar tells us, straight off, that he’s walking around without no mask. Well then. He always was the town freethinker. True to type, he can’t stop himself from psychologizing his adversaries, i.e., those who tell him he should be ashamed. To Boy Sand, these people are not worried about catching a disease that has a decent chance of causing them brain damage. No, they are angry because they have no swag. This is a very hip hop thing for him to say. It’s also another instantiation of the high intelligence/low wisdom problem that has dogged this guy for his entire hip-hop career.
Ingrid Andress — Good Person Utter capitulation to the demands of Nashville machine music by a singer who displayed some personality on her EP, even if that personality mostly consisted of pride in the bombastic power of her singing voice. On Good Person, she doesn’t even have that. She’s willing to subordinate her moneymaker to mushrock production, Sam Hunt, and other inhuman forces. Here’s the dead giveaway that she’s surrendered to the worst elements of Music City: the presence of the dreaded DJ Telemitry, the elision specialist dead set on fusing mainstream country and EDM on the submolecular level. Ingrid was not supposed to be a party to such dark alchemy. Anyway this did not sell. I doubt we’ll hear from Ingrid again. Let the record show: given an opportunity to project her great big voice on a national stage, she took the eraser to herself instead.
Jana Horn — Optimism Two telling images from an album that Cassandra Jenkins could have made the very day before disaster shattered her reserve. 1., On “Tonight,” Jana Horn tells us that although she’s blue, she daren’t act, because her cat is asleep on the couch and would be agitated. 2., On “A Good Thing,” she anthropomorphizes an orange, and imagines denuding it of its defenses through the act of peeling it. There is no end to the shame she will visit upon the orange, we’re warned — no end to the ways that unpreparedness leads to suffering. She’s made music that reflects this disposition: careful and cautious music, acoustic music, quietist stuff that augments the gentle but nagging theological questions that run through the tiny mesophyll conduits of this gentle birch leaf of an album. Calm and winsome with a very steady hand. but remember what Jackson Browne told us in ’83: whatever you think life is about/whatever life may hold in store/things will happen that you won’t be ready for. Cassandra found that out. My sad surmise is that Jana will too.
Jenny Hval — Classic Objects Question: is Jenny getting baked these days? “A dream is a remix of awake”: that’s the sort of thing you might overhear somebody say on the lawn at a Rusted Root concert. “I am following the bugs into the corners of the room”; well, you go on with your bad self. Classic Objects descends farther into the mush than she’s ever gone previously, and while she’s still pondering utopia, questioning the social dynamics of motherhood, and quoting Deleuze and Guattari just to say she did, her feminist urgency is consistently undercut by the gauzy, lush, static, and undeniably au courant (and I don’t mean that as a compliment) mushrock music. The truth is that your modern spinning Jenny has begun to sound as comfortable, and maybe even as institutional, as the patriarchs who give her such agita. Nevertheless, she’s still trying to convince us that sculpting marble or some analogous shit is better than sex. When she was a kid, I figured she was either protesting too much or just acting contrarian to refract the male gaze. Now that she is the prime minister of Sweden, she ought to know there’s no place for that in pop. Either accept the basic premises of the discipline or drop the class, Jenny. A fine arts student ought to know that.
Jensen McRae — Are You Happy Now It’s hard to believe nobody has told Jensen she has good legs before, or that anybody considers her too loud or not skinny enough. Janis Ian tried this schtick on “At Seventeen,” and I didn’t buy that either. Janis was, like Jensen, a genuinely beautiful young woman, in need of no enhancement via clown makeup or plastic surgical interventions or Instagram filters. After years of no such thing in pop, I’m glad that’s coming back; see also Rodrigo, O. And yes, I know it’s retrospective narration; maybe not as gracefully executed as her hero Taylor Swift’s flashbacks (Phoebe Bridgers is the obvious other model here), but still an illustrative glimpse at the writer’s boneriffic high school adventures. I just gotta wonder if the character Jensen McRae really holds together, or if she’s deliberately snowing us from time to time, belaboring matters in a way that Taylor, or Mitski, or Joan Armatrading wouldn’t. Does she really need to turn Maya Angelou against the callous white boy she’s crushing on, or is the whiff of sexual coercion and the residue of slavery sufficient to make her point? Would she really prefer machinelike emotional precision to drunk dancing with her stuffed lion? Over weepy cello, no less? Is Justin Vernon really the singer she turns to during a crisis? I call a wee bit of B.S., Jensen. Regardless, I am all in with this baby artist, who gives it all to us straight, dubious claims and true confessions, complaints and groaners and letters posted to Adam from his rib, without vocal stacks or musical bombast or guest appearances from Charli XCX or Amanda Gorman. Most of the arrangements here don’t involve much more than an electric guitar, distant strings, and Tracy Chapman rim shots Nothing gets in the way of the twig-snap of her voice: those little turns and pivots she does, without much melisma, when the song calls for her to heighten the emotional intensity. I praise Jensen for laying on the specifics, syllable for syllable, like each one matters, and of course they do. Each sad girl believes her suffering is unique, and if we tell her otherwise, that’s liable to make her sadder. So let’s not do that. Just shut up and listen. and when she gets to the climax of “Dead Girl Walking,” roll down the windows, raise your fist, and sing along.
Joey Bada$$ — 2000 The twenty first century begins in 2007. Two occurrences wipe the crumb-like remnants of the 1990s off of the table. They’re unrelated but intertwined. First, in September, Chicagoan Kanye West wins a sales shootout with 50 Cent of Queens. Kanye’s reluctance to battle makes his victory more consequential. The residual sound of the past decade — that grim, grey, asphyxiating NYC tone — is chased away by a hit album that reintroduced club synthesizers and classic rock song structure to rap music. KRS-ONE asks about “Flashing Lights”: is it hip-hop? Old heads are skeptical but fans say yes. Then in November, a fashion-conscious Midwestern oddball named Scott Mescudi posts a song on MySpace and flips the gravity of popular music. “Day ’N’ Nite” felt more spacious than hip-hop had since the early years. It was like a trap door had opened to the night sky, and before we knew it, we were upside down and falling into it. Let the record show that it was Kanye himself who first recognized what Kid Cudi had done. Kanye brought in Mescudi to work on 808s & Heartbreak alongside Plain Pat and Jeff Bhasker. The album came out two weeks after Obama’s election, and it was a pulsewave — tons of people hated it, and still do, but the artistic applications of heavy vocal processing had been demonstrated to producers in all genres. Kanye made the connection between tribal drumming and the percussion effects common in art-pop post-“In The Air Tonight”; Cudi brought glassy, smeared synthesizer sounds and an entirely new way of thinking of dimensionality in a pop song. Innovations from Houston, including chopped and screwed music, slowed-down tape, gulf-like harmonic separation between the low end and the vocal pitch, and Southern pop-rap like T-Pain and Rich Boi thickened the swamp. Somewhere in Toronto, Aubrey Graham and Noah Shebib were taking notes. Once they figured out how to amplify the moodiness of Kanye’s sound and apply it to a character who reflected the introspection, insecurity, and unashamedly materialistic aspirations of a new generation of young people, it was off to the races. So it was that New York City lost the initiative. In century 21, Gotham has been licking its wounds while the real action happens elsewhere. With very few exceptions, New York projects of the new millenium have been atavistic: studied, self-conscious reconstructions of music made during the days when the Empire had its mojo working. Joey Bada$$ is the quintessential modern NYC artist — a guy applying his considerable skills as a rapper and storyteller to an aesthetic rooted in the recent past. His cadences, his attitude, and his subject matter are all reminiscent of NYC in the ’90s, and he’s got just enough awareness of twenty-first century sound and style to land tracks on contemporary playlists. To his credit, he sweats all the details, and he rhymes, as all Empire State subjects must, about power and negotiation in romantic relationships, business dealings, rap crews. The smoothness he affects is not an anachronism: it’s there in the music of Pete Rock, and DJ Premier, Q-Tip and Havoc. That was one of New York’s many contributions to the hegemonic style of the late twentieth century — a peace firmer, more irreducible, and more badass than conflict. It held for awhile. It was a worthy contribution to a great art form that couldn’t have come from anywhere else. But it’s time for the city to come up with something new.
Jordana — Face The Wall Hanging out with TV Girl might have done the trick, or maybe Jordana Nye hit her twenties and tired of hiding behind studied smallness and bedroom-studio tricks. Anyway, she’s a star now, and good for her, and better for us. Face The Wall is a legit, glossy-ass power pop record like momma used to make, if our “momma” in this context can be imagined to be Susanna Hoffs, and why would we not. If it never approaches early Paramore levels of intensity and personality (but what does?), it’s at least roughly comparable to the lighter, moodier side of The Beths or Threads-era Now, Now. As is often the case on records like this, it’s better when Jordana rocks it up, like the glammy strut on “Play It Fair,” or the trawling Liz Phair-like ‘90s groove on “I Mean That,” or “Catch My Drift,” with its big, soppy, Avril-biting chorus. She also acquits herself gracefully over the Natalie Imbruglia white funk beats that show up all over the album; illusion never changed into something real, you know how it goes. Every set like this turns on its fuck-me number, and Jordana comes through with “To The Ground,” which is as flirty as sex-deprived, overmedicated, and endlessly quarantined modern Anglo kids allow themselves to be. She even gets the diction of those whose minds are scrambled by endless onanism down pat — “gotta get this head at ease/it’s not that I need your help or anything/but if you’d like to start me off/that would be pretty cool, please.” Not exactly “gonna give you every inch of my love.” But times have changed. Eng-a-land no longer swings like a pendulum do. New Yorkers no longer have the moxie to beat on the brat with a baseball bat. Los Angeles is no longer about David Lee Roth reaching down between his legs and eeeeezing the seat back; it’s Phoebe Bridgers unable to get her partner to play the drums. If all the cops in the donut shops can still occasionally say way-oh way-oh ay-oh way-oh for me, I’ll count that as a small victory over the erotic apathy that threatens to swallow what’s left of our culture.
Joyce Manor — 40 Oz. To Fresno Are they double parked? They must be double parked. Yes the Minutemen of emo are back and they’re more concise than ever. This whole thing clocks in around a quarter of an urgent hour, and that includes the group’s three minute Weezer-fied version of “Souvenir,” the best Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark song. Most of the rest of the set consists of thermite blasts; blink and you’ll miss ’em. Only you won’t, because Joyce Manor has pared away anything that doesn’t pertain to the hook. These messenger pigeons fly home directly through the storm. Not a single errant wing-flap. The theme here is encroaching irrelevance, which suits a group of musicians who’ve always behaved like time is short. “Don’t Try” wraps a confession of physical exhaustion inside a massive power pop arrangement worthy of early ’90s Matthew Sweet. “Did You Ever Know” admits to emotional negligence in a relationship and acknowledges that the damage is irreversible. On “Dance With Me,” in a metaphor that every working musician will feel, Barry Johnson worries that the room is emptying and he’s just pouring out his heart for the sound guy. The former amphetamine-fueled child star who isn’t famous anymore?: that’s somebody who Barry doesn’t respect. But soon enough, it could be Barry himself. To stave off that fate, they’ll keep it brief, and catchy, and scrutinize each footfall for signs of errancy. They’ll do it as they run, as fast as they can, pursued by the usual furies.
Julia Jacklin — Pre Pleasure Get a load of Julia, blaming the church for her bouts of anhedonia. Later she points a quivering finger at her emotionally distant mom. Lucy Dacus got away with this, sort of. No way are we accepting this from Julia, tho. We’ve heard her other records. This is the same woman who tried to convince us that you can love somebody without using your hands. Well sure you can, but where’s the fun in that? Regardless of the high prevalence of neurosis in pop, I dunno if any singer-songwriter has ever been as distrustful of her own impulse to enjoy herself. On Pre-Pleasure, she tries things: the occasional party, pornos, fighting with friends, actually physically bumping into people in the street. The reverie is always disrupted by the worry that the boundaries of her personality will dissolve if she surrenders to desire. “I quite like the person that I am!,” she protests on “I Was Neon,” not sounding too convinced. In order to do sex, she must treat it like a stage, a performance on behalf of an audience that will ultimately evaluate her on her ability to hit her marks. In the year’s grimmest string of metaphors, she likens her receptive body under the covers to a cave/a plastic bucket/a grave. She is, as usual, articulating the feelings of an awful lot of hung-up people here, all of whom will surely relate when she ends “Magic” with an unequivocal decision to give her partner blue balls. Julia Jacklin, ladies and gentlemen. Reality lyrics. The coldest.
Kanye West — Donda 2 Kanye famously compared himself to Barry Bonds. These days, he reminds me more of a different San Francisco Giant: Aubrey Huff. Aubrey could have been remembered and celebrated as a World Series hero forever. He preferred to run his yap. Aubrey alienated Giants fans with uneducated caveman views antithetical to those held in the city of San Francisco and in the civilized world in general. Instead of the toast of the town, Aubrey chose to be a talk radio crank. Go figure. It was pointed out on McCovey Chronicles and elsewhere that Aubrey’s political positions, if you even want to dignify them by calling them that, were likely not so different from those held elsewhere in the clubhouse. Ballplayers (and rappers) don’t tend to be the most egalitarian bunch, because their business involves demonstrations of their superiority to their competition. So a slugger’s heel turn is never entirely surprising. Kanye, too, has always flirted with the hip-hop version of objectivism: it’s part of his marketing that he considers himself a misunderstood genius pitted against the crowd. More to the point, Kanye is an old man now, and horrific takes go along with old age like hair dye and mortgage payments. Seeing a wealthy forty five year old on Newsmax, or hanging with Candace Owens, should never be a shock. What astounds me is Kanye’s willingness to torch his two most valuable assets — his audience and his critical support — on behalf of dumb contrarian opinions on subjects that aren’t very interesting in the first place. It’s not just shitty business sense. It demonstrates genuine contempt for his hardcore followers. His behavior has put him in a unique position relative to his listeners: the people who love his albums and can quote them chapter and verse have been rendered speechless by his public stupidity, and those who defend him don’t know the first thing about what it is that makes him special. Because, oh right!, he’s a musician. Remember? And a musician he remains. Even Donda 2, the most unfocused project he’s ever done, and one where he felt the need to outsource the finished versions of the songs to those who bought his stem player, is full of intriguing ideas. Yet he’s spent the years since Pablo making those ideas increasingly difficult to access, and these days, he mostly seems intent on proving the existence of cancel culture by getting himself cancelled. It’s hard not to suspect that there’s a self-destructive motivation operating: a core fear, like the fear that Aubrey had, that he’s unworthy of the attention and the love that his talent brought him. He’s going to break up with the fans before they break up with him. But now I am putting Kanye on the couch, and there’s been altogether too much of that. I don’t know the guy, and neither do any of his new friends in Republican media, or the millions of former fans he’s offended. All we can see is the public facade, and that continues to crack into a thousand jagged pieces. For all we know, he really has decided he’d rather be a TV pundit than a rap producer. If he has, God bless him. Thanks for all the great records. It’s his life. He can go live it. Preferably far from me.
Kelley Stoltz — The Stylist Kelly comes on like a sleazier, more depraved Todd Rundgren, complete with pumping piano and burbly analog synthesizer. He can’t really sing, but neither could Todd. I enjoy the roomy drums, which were probably recorded in Kelley’s kitchen, the intermittent screechy guitar solos, the Fagenesque intervals, mumbled discursis about dark things done with “the boys,” Lido shuffles, and the hovering air of scumbagginess that gathers about Kelley’s person. Mostly I like how it plays as a rejoinder to the San Francisco pop that portrays the city as a misty, lonely, despairing place. This feels like the San Francisco I know and love: a town of chance encounters with crabby customers behind slanted doors in crooked alleys. Home, for hopeful wackadoodles.
Kelly Lee Owens — LP.8 I admit I’m quite disappointed with this one. Inner Song was hella repetitious, but Kelly Lee Owens managed to tuck all sorts of synthesizer and sample hijinx amidst the crisp, pressed folds of the tracks. LP.8 is just blasts of static, percussion, muffled voices, nonmodulating synthesizer pads, and refrigerator-on-the-fritz noises. Nothing develops, and nothing even surprises all that much. I thought this woman was too intellectually restless — and, frankly, too good at her instruments — to wander too far down the ambient aisle of the record store. I guess I was wrong.
Kendrick Lamar — Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers We were always headed toward Kendrick Lamar: The Musical. Now that it’s here, I guess it isn’t quite as grisly as I feared it would be. He’s got his superb rapping to fall back on — that crystal-clear diction and quicksilver triplet flow — and Sounwave continues to set him up with the most creative beats Top Dawg can buy. When he tells us heartrending tales of his transgender aunt, or scripts a faux fight with his “girlfriend,” or grapples with his daddy issues, or probes the contours of his own non-molestation, or giftwraps that third act redemption for us, he reminds us that he’s a first-rate showrunner and middlebrow dramatist, and that nobody ladles on the Broadway cheese with such deft wrist action. The trouble is that the scene here is neither Compton nor the protest barricades nor Nelson Mandela’s prison cell. All of this takes place inside Kendrick’s mind — and a mind, while a terrible thing to waste, is also a dreadfully trite thing to explore. The poet K.L. Duckworth writes about his therapy with more skill and nuance than Alanis Morissette does, but the outcome is more or less the same; I mean, his mind isn’t even playing tricks on him. The result is, by far, the simplest album that Kendrick has ever made, and one that an average rap fan ought to be able to apprehend and digest after a couple of listens. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The author has given us plenty to spend the next fifty years picking apart, including the temporal narrative experiments, interlocking character sketches, street theology, and SoCali gangsta rap metacommentary on the immortal set that’s always going to be his masterpiece. Given its alignment with antihomophobia, antimisogyny, and a whole bunch of other stuff popular within the biz, Mr. Morale might even be the first Kendrick album to win him that Grammy. If it does, I’ll stand up and applaud. That said, I’m warning you now: the day he teams up with Lin Manuel Miranda, I am out the door with a root beer float.
Kids On A Crime Spree — Fall In Love Not In Line It took me about three listens to realize that the Kids On A Crime Spree were not the cheerful young women pictured on the album cover. It took me another to realize that they weren’t women at all. Indiepop: a safe haven for androgynes. Not that these guys are even trying to pass. It’s just that this style of music accommodates those of us who consider masculinity a curse. That’s what draws us to it in the first place. We put girls on the album cover because we wish we were those girls and for no other reason; you could ask the talented Mr. Murdoch all about that. Those of us in the scene recognize fellow dissenters and are happy to do our part by playing along. So rather than chat about this pleasant, predictable, unswervingly Slumberlandish release, I hope you’ll allow me a few words in defense of our country, and by that I most certainly mean Queer Nation. We’ve got flags. In Without Feathers, Woody Allen writes that bisexuality doubles your chances of getting a date on Saturday night. When I read that quip, the principle behind it seemed so crashingly obvious to me that it felt beyond dispute. For most of us — especially those of us who take refuge behind microphones and amplifiers — getting a date on Saturday night is no simple thing. Unless you are James Bond or something, prospective partners are not throwing themselves at you and begging to be kissed. If somebody does indicate interest, it helps quite a bit to be able to reciprocate. It makes for a nicer evening than sitting at home and holding your butt; “another TV ’I Love 1999’/one more box of cheapo wine,” as the aforementioned Mr. Murdoch put it in his typically pungent verse. Thus it behooves us all to broaden our range of sexual possibilities. Pop music helps with that: it manufactures objects of interest in categories that we might not have previously considered, and asks us to imagine romantic and sexual partnerships with members of different races, social classes, genders, body shapes, alien species, you name it. We look at Annie Lennox, or Fatimah Warner, or Little Richard, and feel a flicker of desire as we turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes. This is exactly why the censorious hate pop, and pop stars, and try to channel our energies into groin-deadening pursuits like doomscrolling, road rage, and tweeting at politicians. It pains me tremendously to say that after many years during which I truly believed that we of the Love Club were making progress toward a more fluid future, the buzzkills and saltpeter-feeders have regained the initiative. All you have to do is read Samuel Alito’s leaked opinion in Dobbs to see the awful blueprint. They’re not just coming after reproductive freedom. They want Griswold and Obergefell and a bunch of other decisions to fall, too. irth control, gay marriage, trans recognition: these are all in the crosshairs. This isn’t hyperbole. They’ve been quite explicit about all of it, and the reason for this could not be clearer. They’re old and dried up and they’re not getting any, and they don’t want you having any fun, either. They crave a society that’s as desiccated as their consciences. I am not going to tell you to fight back, because like Rodney Dangerfield in Back To School, we’re lovers, not fighters. But I do wish we would stop bickering amongst ourselves. It doesn’t matter what stripe of the rainbow you represent — in 2022, if you’re on there at all, that means you’re a target. Your rights are in jeopardy. While we split hairs and get cross with each other, they’re engaged in a focused and dedicated campaign to take it all away. They’re licking their chops, waiting for the Republican congress to be inaugurated in January, writing decisions that were impossible to imagine five years ago. Our best hope is solidarity and patience with each other — infinite patience. I promise it to you if you promise it to me. The real enemy could not be more obvious. Or more dangerous.
King Hannah — I’m Not Sorry, I Was Just Being Me Portishead without the samples and programming. Which is just the blues, right?, distraught vocalist, superfilthy guitar, slow tempos, plainspoken lyrics, the aura of an approaching optical migraine. Hannah Merrick plays a mean guitar, as they say, even if the object of that meanness is generally Hannah herself. At least she apologizes for her moods. She can’t figure out why she wet the bed when she was a child, and it’s still bugging her. The dog chews the handle off of her go-kart and she resigns herself to a lifetime of service in the gross bar (her words). She’d like to have a baby, but she figures that it’s unlikely she’d find a willing partner. Spinsterhood leaves her free to indulge in fantasy, and she does: she fantasizes about an ex choking on a dumpling. At least that would be mildly fun, she tells us. There’s not a lot of pleasure in this woman’s world. She’ll get the jollies she can.
King Princess — Hold On Baby Holy Toledo, how is Jack Antonoff not involved in this? Winsome emo-influenced pop girl in her early twenties, eighties-glam songwriting with fairground-ready refrains, gang vox, heavy helpings of Meatloaf for breakfast, Turnpike rides to the edge of glory, it’s all right in Jack’s wheelhouse. I must conclude that Mikaela Strauss is just not Illuminati enough to hang with Jack. Instead we get a certified Jack Antonoff fake, which (I checked) is not something the world is crying for. But Mikaela is all in on this, so I have to think that it was her decision to retire the R&B flirtations and alt-pop mystique of Cheap Queen in favor of music so ham-handed that a Taylor Hawkins drum performance just… sorta blends in with the rest of the sturm und drang. All I can think is that Mikaela believed she had some sure-fire hits on her hands, and given her knack for anthemic melody and succinct confessional choruses (loving me takes paaaaaatience!!) delivered at twenty thousand decibels, her confidence is not unjustified. All she’s got to do is turn back the clock about forty years. Lots of would-be pop stars are trying to do it. They haven’t managed it yet. All we’ve got are the deficits and the dayglo, and people laughing at Weird Al.
Kiwi Jr. — Chopper We’ll get the obvious thing out of the way first: yes, this would have been better if it hadn’t been manhandled by the dude from Wolf Parade. Kiwi plus mushrock synthesizers is a recipe for aesthetic confusion, or at least some sweaty work done at cross-purposes. They’re not getting on the lofi chill/sad chill/chilled cow playlists no matter what, so it’d serve them better to stick with the Nick “Basher” Lowe-style production and hope that times change. Fundamentals, though, are solid. Jeremy Gaudet remains a sarcastic cuss, and he continues to set acrid lyrics about showbiz (“deadlifting a Fender guitar and getting nowhere/showing your ass trying to dance to a circle of failure” always makes me giggle, and wince, and giggle, and wince) to snappy tunes. Pre-choruses still crash into choruses with the splashy thrill of a log flume ride. Smart use of Canadian place names, references to classic cinema and sporting events, and delight in incongruity; none of that’s changed. The body count is higher this time around as the entertainment industry, that heartless juggernaut, turns downright lethal. The remnants of a marching band are strewn across a beach, the film extra is excised and collapses, nervous fingers are lost to the chopper, the band (hilariously? frighteningly?) is trapped in a downtown storage facility, the (record) contract killers are in it for the fun. In the face of all this stochastic adversity, an exasperated Jeremy Gaudet cracks wise, but mostly admits to his feelings of powerlessness. Even the man with the multi-million dollar prosthetic just lets it mold over in the laboratory. I’d do anything for you, but I’m gonna have to do it running, Jeremy tells us. No need to say what’s pursuing him. You’ve been around. You know.
KRS-ONE — I M A M C R U 1 2 My God, the sound here is worse than the worst parts of Between Da Protests. Which, you’ll remember, sounded like it had been recorded inside a sweatsock. Kris’s utter disregard for production is hardcore in a way, but it puts an awful lot of pressure on him to compensate. He doesn’t know any other way to rap but to rap like the music isn’t there, and sometimes it barely is. On the new one, the subject matter is hip-hop and Kris’s place within it, which sounds like it’d lead to some crotchety get-off-my-lawn content from an elder statesman. Mercifully, it’s not that. But it does expose something we dedicated fans like to paper over: the distance between KRS’s conception of hip-hop and hip-hop as it is actually practiced by contemporary artists. The worst of this: a song on which floor commander Kris exhorts us all to do a series of dances that are decades out of date. His point is that dance history is a major part of the culture. Which is true, but maybe this is not the right messenger. e’s much better off when he’s rapping about Chuck Schumer, or delivering a verse about the fundamental innocence of black people in a justice department dominated by the descendants of oppressors. He may be thiiiiiis close to emeritus status, but he’s still the best professor in the department. The most demanding, too.
Lightning In A Twilight Hour — Overwintering Bobby sounds tired. Yes, he’s never exactly been the Energizer Bunny, but usually you can expect a little more pop-rock jangle alongside the slow and ponderous ones about frost in northern meadows. I’m not even making fun of him. He’s insulated himself from mockery by climbing so deep into the sad sack that he’s disappeared amidst its folds. Check out these unbelievably Wrattenized song titles: “Leaf Fall Is Over,” “Perfumed Meadows Of May Snow,” “In Sacred Groves Of Hawthorn,” “White Upon Your Grave.” The last of these is the most spirited number on the set, and kinda sounds like The Decemberists covering a lost track from Automatic For The People while overdosing on benzos. The others are long, gauzy, pseudoelectronic, and repetitious, and resemble Northern Picture Library more than The Field Mice or Trembling Blue Stars. Unless you’re a fanatic like me, you’d be well within your rights to call this redundant, and you might wonder aloud how many of these Robert Wratten needs to put out before his psychiatrist intervenes. Me, I like to see how long he can sustain the grey, somber, wrist-slitting tone while still remaining technically alive. Pretty damn long, as it turns out. Three and a half decades and counting.
Lights — Pep Though she’s bristled at the comparison (wouldn’t you?, for professional reasons alone?) Valerie Poxleitner is now and will always be the female version of Adam Young. Just like Owl City did, Lights anticipated both the sound and the vibe of mainstream pop: synthesized and eighties-fried, unashamedly new wave-y, coy but Christian-optimistic, loaded with machine-processed vox, hat tips to EDM, and authenticated allusions to hip-hop and R&B minus any recognizable hip-hop or R&B elements. Not knocking it for a sec; I love both artists. As strenuously as I will defend Adam Young, I’ll also concede that Poxleitner is the superior notes ‘n’ chords songwriter. I tend to forget about her because she’s a woman out of time — everybody started doing what she does five years after she set the template, which makes Lights sound more common than it is. She could talk to her countrywoman Emily Haines about that sad phenomenon. Pep is both an overcompensation for the narrative complexity of Skin + Earth and a blatant attempt to catch up to a bandwagon that she herself helped to kickstart. About half of the album is disposable, including the kickoff, which is the umpteenth pop rewrite of “State Of Grace,” and I really wish everybody would cut that out. But when Lights connects, as she does on “Jaws,” and “Money In The Bag,” and “Rent,” she reminds you why she’s the lone synthpop auteur who always releases an acoustic version of every album. She knows damn well the songs stand up, even if the rest of Pop Nation would prefer it if she stays in Siberia. And hey, here’s something else about Valerie Poxleitner that I bet you didn’t know, but you should: she covered the entire back half of Drake’s Scorpion and posted it to YouTube two weeks after the album came out. Her version of “Summer Games” is gorgeous. Trill recognize trill on the chilly streets of Toronto.
Lucius — Second Nature If I made it my mission to fuck up Lucius beyond recognition, and emphasize the parts of the group that were stiff, fussy, and sucky, and suppress the elements that make them endearing, like their sense of humor, I’d ship them off to Nashville to work with Dave Cobb. He’s proven he can drain the life force out of anybody in the name of the oaken traditionalism he fetishizes. I wish I could say that this was a terrible fit: that Lucius chafed against the varnish and the Daddy Van’s All Natural Unscented Floor Wax that he slathers all over these songs. But the truth is that it fits all too well. This, I am afraid, tells us something sad, and important, about Lucius.
Lupe Fiasco — Drill Music In Zion My browser tells me that Bitcoin is down another couple hundred today. Altcoins created to be hedges are getting hammered, too. We’ve all seen assets recover value after crashes, and cryptocurrency may yet rally, no matter what they say in the Atlantic. But fluctuation in the BTC price is such a textbook example of pump-and-dump that crypto is no longer merely an ethical test. It’s become an intelligence test, too. If you haven’t caught on by now — or if you think that the people manipulating this market are happy to have you along for the ride, and you can remain snug among the back pages of their ledger — you probably ought to be stashing your moolah under your mattress. If they see fit, the cats behind crypto will take your pants and your underpants and both buttcheeks. These are not corner bankers who are invested in the prosperity of their city. They’re digital pirates. Behind the screens and LED lights, they are playing three card monte. You might be able to fly under the radar for awhile and parlay proximity to their game into a windfall. But think about what you’re doing and who you are trusting. You’re exchanging your own Yankee dollars for an imaginary token backed by nothing at all. Bitcoin shouldn’t even be called a proper currency, because it can’t be exchanged in the general marketplace. The argument that crypto is generating wealth for the world that might be applied to constructive causes has just been blown out of the water by the coin’s performance on exchanges. Even if it recovers value, its inherent volatility makes it a problematic asset to hold. So there is no good justification (if there ever was) for burning through an embarrassing heap of electricity to perform transactions on a Proof Of Work chain. There’s no excuse for being involved in this, and any active participant in the crypto market permanently sacrifices any reputation for progressiveness or prudence he ever had. Lupe Fiasco is forgiven, a little, for floating a tranche of NFTs — he’s got a Discord and has always made tech-friendliness part of his brand. It fits. But I hope he realizes that that marks the end of his run as a public intellectual. I also cannot help but notice that Kanye and Tyler have both made their contempt for the NFT game clear. Those are a couple of compromised figures. Nevertheless, when the chips were down, they did the right thing. I will remember that other conscious hip-hop citizens did not.
Lykke Li — Eyeye In 2020 Lykke Li did what oh so many musicians did. At loose ends, with the world closed, she shut herself up in the home studio and made a record. This is not technically Lykke’s fault. It is the fault of an ugly ball loaded with spike proteins that may or may not have been designed by the little white honkies in gain-of-function laboratories. Lykke did not ask to be dissevered from pop nation. But she was, and her lockdown project is, in the style of lockdown projects, moody, morose, self-reflective, and above all else, introspective. What we have come to realize is that lockdown projects, as a genre, are pretty crummy. They’re incompatible with pop verities. Pop can be sad, but when it’s sad, it’s sad because Billie Jean is making an uncomfortable claim about the paternity of her baby, or because the little red Corvette is much too fast, or because when you take a good look at me now, there’s just an empty place and there’s nothing left here to remind me just a memory of your face. Great pop songs occur in the world. They’re directed outward. They’re generally overseen by a single artistic ideologue, but they’re made by groups of musicians in collaboration, each one listening to her partners and becoming better by their exchange of ideas. This is a team sport we’re playing here. For the umpteenth time, in the umpteenth context, just because Taylor Swift can get away with it doesn’t mean you can.
Lyle Lovett — 12th Of June When Lyle does wry, heartbroken country and western songs, he’s great. When he makes like a bandstand jazzbo, he’s hokey. “That’s Right You’re Not From Texas” is the exception that proves the rule, since that was essentially a Western/Lone Star swing number a la The Time Jumpers. If you’ve got a Large Band at your disposal, you’re gonna use it, especially if your voice is, as Lyle’s is, fried like a churro. Lyle doesn’t have the pipes anymore to pull off something like the title tune, or “The Mocking Ones,” even though those are far better written than the zoot suit riot shit he tries to get away with on the first half of this set. He hides behind the fat lady and the big brass battalion, catching his breath and winding up for the next line. And if Lyle and co. sound a bit like a wedding band on “Are We Dancing,” well, them’s the risks a lonesome cowboy runs when he leaves the range and gets caught between the moon and New York City. That said, how cool would it be to have Lyle Lovett play your wedding? That’s reason enough to get married.
Maren Morris — Humble Quest If you could sing like Maren Morris, would you concern yourself with humility? You would not, right? Because that would insult the manifest intentions of the God who blessed you with such a set of pipes. On the last set, Maren occasionally confused herself with Beyoncé, and actually got away with it — and if that sort of thing doesn’t give you delusions of grandeur, nothing will. She was cooking up her own flavor (she told us so), and if you didn’t like it, tough. the new one finds Maren openly fantasizing about her own obsolescence, fading into background music at the Applebee’s, transcending impermanence through the sticking power of wallpaper. That’s humble, I guess. She’s searching for the line between fulfilled and full of herself, which, again, is not the sort of equivocating minutia a born star ought to concern herself with. Rip up the dressing room and demand some green M&Ms, why don’t you. A rabid crowd is counting on you to make a few headlines. Moreover, after dabbling in feminism and rainbow-friendliness, Maren pivots hard back to heteronormativity, taking her Nashville-approved place on the shoulders of tall guys, whose main appeal, it seems, is that they can reach the whiskey on the top shelf. It’s tempting to blame this descent into scotch-mellowed normal-woman-ness on the death by brain tumor of former William Paterson jazz major Michael Busbee, who helped fashion the chrome-plated sound of her first two albums. But humble quester Greg Kurstin also did the best song on Girl: “The Bones,” the R&B number that Music City wouldn’t accept until it breached every levee on the Cumberland via popular demand. So I can’t blame this mushrock misfire on Mr. Kurstin. I think he was under orders to chase Kacey Musgraves’s Golden Hour, and, given the star’s total surrender to soft-rock sound and self-help sentiment, I’ve got to think those orders came from Maren herself. Too bad. Also, are there levees on the Cumberland? That might be one of those rivers that doesn’t flood. This would explain a lot.
Marillion — An Hour Before It’s Dark One of the very best if not the best instrumental solos of the year begins at around the nine minute mark of “Care,” the last track on the seven hundredth Marillion album, and the six hundred and ninety sixth with Hogarth at the helm. It’s our old buddy Steve Rothery, who again demonstrates that of all the guys who make a living in David Gilmour’s shadow, he’s the one with the most to add. He’s got that Floydian grandeur down pat, those moments that reach for the sky with the weary dignity of a half-buried man climbing out of the pit, but there’s also a sardonic undercurrent, a biting, corrosive, teeth-gritting tone that is Rothery’s own Rotherized intervention in the tradition. Just the trace of a sneer. The rest of the guys back him up as they always have: Ian Mosley and Pete Trewavas with great precision and deft hands with accents, and Mark Kelly with those broad, stately prog chords. it could be 1987, or 1977. So if you are looking for a data point in the argument that it’s the singer who makes the band, seek no further. With Fish, these guys felt like sci-fi heroes, players in a cosmic struggle to retrieve identity that a void-like world was constantly stripping away. Without Fish, they’re just excellent musicians. Hogarth is worried about climate change and the rape of Africa; Fish concerned himself with ministerial malfeasance and uzis on the streetcorner. The high-mindedness (and high-handedness) is still there. It’s just inhabited differently. One guy was a spellbinder, and the other is not. Quite often, it’s just as simple as that.
Megan Thee Stallion — Traumazine Well this is a disappointment. She’s still the best rapper around, melting down Dirty South delivery, hyphy flows, and UGK-like steely verses into a searing alloy. Yet she’s put the sex rhymes aside in order to talk about her personal struggles, and though she’s been hard-hitting before, she’s never been ponderous. Treat this pussy like an opp, she tells us in “Red Wine,” and them fighting words are about as alluring a come-on as she’s got for us this time around. Megan’s performances on Good News were so buoyant that the production was immaterial; here, unimaginative and frequently unmusical beats by second-raters like OG Parker and Taz Taylor drag the project, and the world-class rapper, into monotony. It’s her right to be angry, and she’s hardly the first rapper to waste verses flashing her jewelry in the faces of the haters. But when she reminds us that she has bad days too, and begs us to tell her it’ll all be okay, that’s a gruesome capitulation to ordinariness that could only have been salvaged by a musical visionary. Regardless of the quality of her rhymes or the steeliness of her self-confidence, it’s time she found one of those to work with. There’s less sand in that hourglass than it appears.
Melody’s Echo Chamber — Emotion Eternal I am tempted to say that Tame Impala has surpassed Haim for the title of most influential act in pop-rock, but really it’s just Kevin Parker’s bass tone folks are after. Copious compression, boosted mids, and a restrictive filter on the top end — that’s my homebrewed formula. Melody Gardot has better claim to the sound than many, seeing as she was actually Kevin’s girlfriend for awhile. Bet he owes her a solid. Melody’s Echo Chamber has made some ambitious records in the past; this one is more conventional, which is not to say it’s worse. Instead I’d call this a pleasant exercise in mushadelica, decorated in hippie beaded-curtain style with flute and fake harpsichord and that great big rubbery Hofner bass. You drug addicts could do worse. As for Melody’s singing voice, I don’t understand it either. But she’s from France. She was, alas, born to parlez-vous a mushlanguage.
Metric — Formentera Uh oh, the dreaded Good Place To Start. Trepidation aside, this does work as a very nice mid-career retrospective. You get some of the stadium dooftronica of Pagans In Vegas, the computer-age apocalyptic visions of Synthetica, and the hooks-first, lighters-lit classic rock muscle of Fantasies. Jimmy Shaw even gets to express himself with his guitar (a little) like he did on Art Of Doubt. Everything but the homespun, flickering nightlight feel of Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?, which is, I am afraid, rendered unreachable by the oceanic size of the band’s sonic ambitions. Can’t hate on that — the members of Metric have never forgotten for a second that they’re in a pop band and have pop responsibilities. Squaring that populism with the ideological nonconformity that is an important part of the Metric formula is Emily Haines’s main task, and her projects work to the extent that she gets these two incommensurate forces to kindasorta line up. Sometimes she’s just gauche about it, like on the arena rock number where she sings we will never settle!/it would crush our souls!, which is antiestablishment protest music on the level of Twisted Sister. All is forgiven by the ten minute “Doomscroller,” Metric’s multi-part overview of modern torment in which the garbled voices telling us not to give up are both everybody hurts-style consolation and a nagging entreaty to check the next tweet. “Ruling classes trickle piss from champagne glasses/that’s how the evening passes”: this is Emily’s description of smartphone behavior. You feel her on this; I know you do. Emily once wondered if her words on behalf of rock music and feminism ever helped anybody but herself. She even sounded like she meant it. She’s never been a destructive person, but you do get the sense that if she could demolish social media and salt the earth, she would, without hesitation. Well, right after the next splashy commercial chorus.
Metronomy — Small World Joe Mount is an experimentalist. For his latest experiment, he has, for the first time, made a Metronomy album that isn’t annoying. No sex emoji, no falsetto munchkin voices or post-Kraftwerk nuclear meltdowns, no r-a-d-i-o l-a-d-i-o or love songs for dogs, no, nothing but springlike synthpop and a few full-band strummers that might be reasonably called folk-rock. Could it be?, a Metronomy album that miiiiight be more than Joe overdubbing tracks in his bedroom in Cornwall? If the “group” did not play on Small World, shh, don’t tell me, I don’t wanna know. Things will be fine, Joe assures us, and it almost sounds like he means it. Do I miss all the sonic pestering? The mischief? The friendly will to perturb and the playful feather-tickles? Well, sure, but I am a big fan, and I also have a very high threshold for irritation. For everybody else, this Metronomy user interface will probably be received as an improvement, since it gives you the Joe Mount personality and suite of synthesizer songs in a package that you can play for your grandma without prompting her to chuck a casserole dish at you. It is indeed the same Joe we know, coming atcha with snaky chord progressions, pure-spun pop candy, and, succinct, wide-eyed, horned-up romantic couplets. Loooooove let-ters, you could even call them. “Her love is like a factory/and every day she’s making me,” he purrs to us, about a girl who “knows how to win a fight;” he sounds thrilled, and understandably eager to lose. The archetypical Joseph Mount scenario is here, too: there’s an overwhelmed boy wondering how to approach a beautiful girl, and the girl warning him of the perils of getting what you want. That girl is played to the hilt by Dana Margolin of Porridge Radio, who is completely with the Metronomy program. So kudos to Joe for making his intent and his boner visible to everybody. Tale as old as time/song as old as rhyme.
Miranda Lambert — Palomino Data point #4080 in the ongoing search for Miranda’s politics and priorities: she comes out in support of the nonbinary. Which she kinda sorta already did on “All Kinds Of Kinds.” But when a beloved cowgirl asks the people “if your daughters grow up to be cowboys/so what?,” in that irresistible red-state twang of hers, that, my friends, is a shot across the bow of the bigots. It doesn’t solve the puzzle of where Ran stands relative to the Ran Fans. It’s just interesting. And she’s been so interesting for such a long time that I’d almost rather that she resist giving the game away. She’s kept us guessing, even as she’s been forced by Music City circumstance to work within tight Nashville conventions of propriety and remain topically self-effacing. But I do think it says something that the very best numbers on Miranda nine (Miranda twelve if you count the Pistol Annies) are the ones we already know from the stripped-back, down-home, ridiculously raw Marfa Tapes. She would have had to get up pretty early on that Oklahoma ranch to beat “Waxahatchie,” which gives me the rock chills no matter how it’s orchestrated. But “In Your Arms and “G-g-g-geraldine” also smoke many of these mid-tempo roundups. I suspect this also reflects a slight but noticeable flabbiness in the writing of sidekick Natalie Hemby, who isn’t slathering on the tart, vinegar-based BBQ sauce as liberally as she once did. Maybe her bottle is running low. The songs that bear Miranda’s own unmistakable compositional signature, on the other hand, are as feisty as ever. As for the Dick-Eltringham rhythm section?, they could never live up to Glenn Worf and Matt Chamberlain, so it’s okay that they don’t really try. What’s important is that they’ve got enough gas in the tractor to get the field plowed. I must also say that the hoedown specialists in the B-52s acquit themselves pretty damned well here. That’s true even if Fred Schneider sounds more like Craig Finn in this context than a denizen of Planet Claire.
Mitski — Laurel Hell I have long suspected that Mitski Miyawaki’s narrator is the exact Asian woman who Rivers Cuomo’s narrator fetishizes on Pinkerton. Your Best American Girl and all that. I further suspect, and always have, that Mitski is more than a little obsessed with Pinkerton: not merely the subject matter, but also the album’s corrosive black-night sound and artfully demolished compositional craft. She only slips (and she doesn’t often) when she sidesteps the confessional bloodletting and attempts character-driven power pop instead. So call me the rare listener who kinda prefers this contractual obligation album to Be The Cowboy and its too-obvious investigations of suffocating suburban coupledom. The new one demolishes the doll’s house with a roar of the bulldozer’s motor and a few timely screams from the occupants, and if the de stijl new-wavey music isn’t quite as daring as it was on the past set, thematic focus compensates for that. We learn that Mitski would like her partner to cheat so she could quit feeling like the bad guy all the time. She’d much rather be morally compromised than stuck at the bay window, awaiting her lover’s return. That’s honest. We further learn that her anxiety makes her feel like an infant. She recoils at the squeak of the hinges on her lover’s open heart, which she likens to the gates of hell. Be tough and hard, mitski advises us. All of this is an internal pep talk. She’s steeling herself for what she really wants to do: quit the music industry. Which, c’mon, she’s not gonna. Rivers Cuomo tried that after Pinkerton, and look at how it’s gone for him since.
Mom Jeans — Sweet Tooth “I’m not quite as happy as I seem.” So Eric Butler assures us on the very very good “Tie Dye Acid Trip,” a contender for any 2022 single-track mix. I’m gonna take his word for that, because in his line of biz — emo revival — being happy is an occupational hazard. The truth is that Butler does seem happy, and so does his band, and it’s a bit of a problem: the anguish that usually pushes music like this over the top and gets it to resonate for a certain type of anxiety-ridden listener (read: moi) just isn’t there. All the particulars of the East Coast style are present, and the band is sharp and tight, if a little slick. If you like emo at all, you’re probably going to respond to this. Then again, you might also think, correctly, that this territory has been well-covered, and recently, by people who are actually heartbroken, including Joyce Manor, Jade Lilitri and Oso Oso, Modern Baseball, Future Teens, Sorority Noise, and especially The Front Bottoms, who are pillaged shamelessly here. “Luv L8r” is a reminder, if we needed another, that there are an awful lot of kids out there copying Brian Sella. Jersey makes, the world takes.
Muna — Muna It’s been a good long time since Taylor Swift felt twenty two-hoo. Beyoncé Knowles is forty one, Drake is thirty six, Kanye is forty five, Abel Tesfaye is thirty two. Lizzo is in her mid-thirties, Nicki Minaj is pushing forty, and Sia Furler, who keeps having chart hits, is about a hundred and forty. Even the Beebs is getting long in the tooth. This is supposed to be a kid’s game, but gerontocracy in North American pop is as entrenched as I’ve ever seen it. The regime of stars who changed the sound and tenor of contemporary music fifteen years ago are giving no indication that they’re ready to pass the baton. Last year, we had Olivia Rodrigo representing youth, sort of, but even she was getting over on borrowed bits from the last wave of game-changers. Beyond that, the cupboard is bare. Check out the roster of Grammy nominees for Best New Artist. They’re nearly all from overseas. Why aren’t American kids rocking? Well, the pandemic, no doubt, is a contributing factor: the cost of touring is prohibitive, and people aren’t going out as much as they used to. Then there’s asset price inflation, and the obstacles to property and equity acquisition that young people face. But there’s also real creative exhaustion in America, and cynicism about artistry and intellectual activity in general. Part of the reason that mushrock is the sound of the (extended) North American moment is because you don’t need to be a hyperkinetic kid to make it — it’s a sedentary mom and dad sound, ’rents dicking around with effects processors, singing sexlessly, and, when asked to dance, demurring. Muna is our current idea of fresh blood. Their music, nicely-wrought though it is, is old: thick, goopy cream of arena country, reverbed-out soft-rock and synthpop with monogeneric overtones, and the umpteenth reiteration of the sound Tegan and Sara hammered out on Heartthrob. There’s quality here, but no novelty whatsoever. This should not be surprising. Katie Gavin is about to turn thirty years old. By the time Paul McCartney turned thirty, the Beatles had been broken up for two years.
Nas — King’s Disease III Bowie had his Berlin period. That was many years and many costume-changes after Hunky Dory, his personal Illmatic. Dylanologists will tell you Bob hit a late-career stride around Time Out Of Mind, and Nas, with his commitment to verbal density and line-by-line poetry, is the only Next Dylan we ever needed. But the King’s Disease series reminds me most of Richard Thompson’s extended dalliance with Mitchell Froom in the late ’80s and early ’90s — a fruitful period for RT, even if you didn’t particularly care for the exotic flavor or rubbery texture of the fruit. Like Mitchell Froom, Chauncey Hollis is, to a fault, a hyperimaginative formalist: he’s an interior decorator looking to appoint every corner of the room with something that glitters. But no matter how can-clattering a Mitchell Froom production was, the bass was always in place. Chauncey is just as scrupulous about the bottom end. In the same way that Froommusic freed up Richard Thompson to concentrate on storytelling, exhibitions of virtuosity, and UK highway hooey about cars, motorcycle boys, and gypsy caravans, Chauncey’s firm anchor in the hip-hop verities allows Nasir Jones to casually shoot the works. This is also the best mood Nas has been able to sustain in a very long time, without a trace of the crankiness or paranoia that marred some of his recent albums. Instead, it’s New York City celebrations, block parties, delight in material possessions and material existence, marijuana memories, thick lit with lines bunched up like fabric about to be fed into the sewing machine. The profound realization this time around is that everybody from John F. Kennedy to the lowliest corner crackhead is vulnerable, out there on the firing line, so complaining about your station or the appreciation of others is really beside the point. The things that shaped me would have murked you, he tells us, in his most matter-of-fact voice. Pushing fifty with the swagger of a guy on a winning streak at a casino, comfortable with middle age; an “author on tracks,” hammering out audiobooks, finally confident enough to kid around about his supposed shortcomings: “you probably heard I pick bad beats/but I pick bad freaks.” Tee hee. He’s still clever when he wants to be, and these days, he definitely wants to be.
Natalia Lafourcade — De Todas Las Flores The road from “Mi Lugar Favorito” to “El Lugar Correcto” is longer and more sinuous that it looks. On the very great Hasta La Raiz, Natalia told us about her favorite place; on the new one, she’s looking for the right place. Natalia’s mid-period records were about self-elaboration and descriptions of signposts on a unique personal journey: her decisions, musical and otherwise, were governed by her unique tastes and highly literate worldview. since Hasta La Raiz, and her sharp turn toward folklorico, she’s been engaged in a populist campaign with a whiff of the incense at the Putumayo counter about it. The excellent, if cautious, Musas projects matched Natalia with million year old world-champion musicians whose presence alone signified allegiance to the venerable and traditional. She began to concern herself with getting things right: she was conforming to the world she knew, not asking that world to accept her own valuations. This culminated in the Canto Por Mexico albums — two sets filled with old Natalia songs, many from Hasta La Raiz, re-potted in Veracruz soil and re-imagined as ride shares for ranchera singers and Sinaloa rappers and various salt-of-the-Mesoamerican-earth folkies. Never mind that she knocked many of those performances out of the park. It still felt like a legitimacy crisis. Flores doesn’t exactly split the difference, but it does include certain measures that, I hope, will prevent Natalia from getting appointed to the U.N. peacekeeping team or something. First, she’s singing about her experiences again. She’s not as idiosyncratic as she once was, but she’s every bit as literary, and she’s pan-sexier than ever; check out the one where she essentially copulates with the ocean. Sure steamed up my glasses. More importantly, she’s enlisted some rootless cosmopolitans, including the always-ready Marc Ribot and Sebastian Steinberg, to contribute their own delightfully ahistorical version of bolero, and yoked everybody to the service of a twenty year old Mexican musical director and pianist who sizzles straight through the album. Finally, she’s decided to cut all of this live, which, given the infuriatingly comprehensive skill of this crew of showoffs, is something you might not even recognize until your tenth play. The result is poised and a bit conservatory-bound, but even the cocktail jazz simmers, and a few of these tracks are gemstone sparkles from beginning to end. At its least imaginative, Flores plays like a Spanish language version of the exact record that Norah Jones has been trying to make for the past two decades. At its best, well, it’s Natalia Lafourcade, ladies and gentlemen, the electrifying singer, inventive songwriter, poetic lyricist, and magnetizing bandleader and concept-master, peerless and pulchritudinous, regaining her place at the absolute forefront of contemporary popular musicians. Never in need of authentication or validation from anybody, in any tradition.
Nilüfer Yanya — Painless On her first album, which fell just shy of the Eilish Line, Nilüfer sang like she was trying to dislodge a peanut butter sandwich from the roof of her mouth. It seems that her efforts were not in vain. The obstruction is gone, although traces of masticated Wonder Bread and oily peanut residue are still evident in the mix. The more important development: Nilüfer has decided to rock, albeit in the mushtastic manner that her style demands. She hasn’t shaken the cobwebs off as vigorously as Jordana has, but she’s a good guitar player and she’s got some idears buried beneath the FX. With its mumbled verses and “Synchronicity II” riff, “Stabilize” is getting much of the attention here, and deservedly so, since Nilüfer does not always back up her formal experimentation with the excitement that is still coin of the realm in pop-rock. But I also dig “Belong With You,” which is just a big, dumb, grungy stomper in 6/8 time. Distortion and repetition: always a solid fallback for a young songwriter who is still feeling her way. I am comfortable calling her the UK answer to Japanese Breakfast. She’s got the same commitment to tunesmithing, same reach for abstruse concepts that do not exactly illuminate, same, er, challenging vocal tone, same mortal combat between rock and nonrock impulses, same reasonably high batting average. The same unmistakable signs of improvement, too.
Office Culture — Big Time Things What are we to make of a pop group that makes “stop, I feel nervous” into a chorus? Sign o’ the times, as Prince might put it. This is post-Prefab sophistipop, mind you, a sound that lends itself to equivocation and a certain upper-crusty squeamishness — tea-time piano and echoed backing vocals, hair-raising chord changes presented with the delicacy of a tray of petit fours, the pizzicato plinks of a chamber orchestra too polite to hit you with the Ring of the Nibelung. Office Culture sails a little closer to the Blue Nile and Turbulent Indigo than the Dutch Uncles did on O Shudder, but they’re extremely comparable projects, right down to the ambivalent white-collar protagonist who hopes he isn’t too cultured to get busy. Fingers crossed. Now, the Dutch Uncles frontman played it fey and feathery, which suited the group’s uptight funk; Office Culture just keeps it straight, like the guy from the next cubicle delivering a first-rate circular. Mild-mannered mastery for your middle manager.
Of Montreal — Freewave Lucifer F<ck F^ck F>ck It was gonna happen one day, and now that day is here. Kevin Barnes finally slipped over to the wrong side of the Eilish Line. Upon consideration, I will not be adding a physical copy of Freewave Lucifer to the overstuffed and multicolored Of Montreal shelf of my CD collection. To be totally honest, if my Innocence Reaches disc was destroyed in a tidal wave of glitter, I would not race to the store to replace it. I thought the hitting streak ended there. But Kevin bounced back with the excellent White Is Relic and the, er, enjoyable UR FUN, and I’ve learned never to count him out. The new one returns Of Montreal to the agglomerative logic of earlier records with stuck-together sections, melodic lines folded and stapled and rubber-cemented at oblique angles, Bowie impersonations and borderline racist caricatures of funk rock, and Kevin has, predictably, overcorrected from the lyrical simplicity of UR FUN by pouring some of his thickest verbiage ever into the funny-shaped vessels that are his songs. The diction isn’t the issue, though — if name-dropping and non sequiturs were a problem for me, I wouldn’t have been able to deal with Of Montreal in the first place. The trouble is that no musical through-lines emerge from all the compositional digressions that are interesting enough to make me want to riddle through the verse, and no storytelling happens that’s sufficiently compelling that it makes me want to replay the music. The overarching theme seems to be that Kevin likes sex, which was established back in the Stone Age, and that his pecker is satisfying no matter how it comes at you. He wrung all the sadman rock out of the divorce that he could, and I’m glad his irrealis mood has improved. Given lockdown protocols, he’s got way fewer collaborators he can vilify in song these days, which is probably for the best. He’s determined to keep things entertaining however he can, and I commend him for that. But I reckon we’re squelching around in the mud level at the bottom of the barrel, right before the well runs dry.
Open Mike Eagle — Component System With The Auto Reverse Question: does Mike really think we care about his professional trajectory? That we’d rather hear about his industry footwork and business disappointments than his feelings about other human beings? Component System is, as usual, smart and personality-driven, so I am glad Mike decided on a career in rap rather than opt for the executive suite at Comedy Central. That said, never has the irreducible problem with Michael Eagle been clearer than it is on this set. He views hip-hop as one of many equivalent content delivery mechanisms at his disposal; it’s the main one he’s chosen, yes, but now he’s worried he’s chosen poorly. Hence his half-serious conviction that he should have beefed more, as if beefing is nothing but a career move. And okay, yeah, sure, a career move it often is. But you can’t come out and say that. Have some respect for the magic, Michael. Don’t be the guy who calls up his friends and bangs on about his place within a corporate hierarchy. That’s unromantic, and hip-hop is a high Romantic art form designed for Byronic characters. I begin to understand: the Black Mirror episode had nothing to do with it.
Oso Oso — Sore Thumb A big fan of Basking In The Glow would be well within her rights to hate this new one. Instead of the letter-perfect restoration of Lon-gyland emo vibes from the ’00s, Jade Lilitri wrongfoots us with off-kilter beats and fragments, and songs that refuse to coalesce. In the past, we thought of Jade as a man compelled to sing; these days, it sounds like he’s making fun of singing, freighting many of his melodies with a nyah-nyah-you-can’t-catch-me delivery that undercuts the seriousness of the lyrics. Then there are the lyrics that just can’t be serious: “nothing says love like a Gatorade”? Is this an emo record or a Madison Avenue audition reel? You might reasonably conclude that the jokey sketch that concludes the set — “smokin’ weed ’til we can’t anymore,” Jade sings on behalf of the band — is a bit of a confession and a bit of an apology. It probably is. But this big fan of Basking In The Glow wonders if Jade has managed to outdo himself. All the shattered rhythms and glitches and fuck-ups seem intentional: statements of recalcitrance from a difficult person who does not always aim to please. Moreover, the monster hooks are still here. They’re just more judiciously dispersed. The sneering vox feel fundamentally self-critical, a rubdown in encaustic from a self-styled screw-up who has clearly not misplaced his deep belief in the expressive power of emo music. Many of the chances he takes are rewarded, and even those that aren’t are never less than interesting. And hey, maybe nothing does say love like a Gatorade. That’s as good a theory as any other I’ve heard from a pop singer lately. There’s got to be a reason why I’ve been guzzling the stuff all these years.
Pedro The Lion — Havasu Not half as interesting as Phoenix, but then Lake Havasu City is not half as interesting a place. David Bazan is taking this memoir-rock thing seriously, and that demands a musical experience to match the alienation and loneliness of the setting of this latest chapter — the plastic, impersonal town in nowhere Arizona where he spent some just-pubescent years. Memoir is a single-consciousness genre; that’s whole the trouble with it. Because it concerns itself with personal archaeology, everything in the external world gets mapped back onto the protagonist’s interiority. So, ironically, the memoir tends to be just as good as the things that don’t necessarily have to do with its subject. That’s why memoirs tend to take place in stark landscapes: cults, concentration camps, Lucy Dacus’s bedroom. This makes it easier for the writer to absorb the setting and reduce it to a reflection of his mental problems. Not a kind thing to do to setting, but memoir is not a kind genre. When Bazan opens Havasu by talking about the desert of the heart, that’s a pretty good indication that the actual desert isn’t going to be described with illuminating detail. As is always true with memoir, the main character’s psychosexual development is a major theme. Bazan’s conclusion here is a particularly disappointing one: he’s decided that his desperate need for a girlfriend/companion/valentine is a mere cover for the yawning personal emptiness he’s feeling. The family, naturally, is to blame, not least of all for moving Bazan to Lake Havasu City in the first place. For what it’s worth, I believe he would have formed Pedro The Lion even if his dad had not permitted him to trade his clarinet/for his first drumset. Maybe the band would have been less percussive. Who knows. I’m just glad he got out of town. But that, too, would’ve happened anyway.
Pehuenche —Vida Ventura Belle & Sebastian meets Mexican pop. Which maaaaybe makes it sound better than it is; I should rephrase, or refine, and say Belle & Sebastian meets Mexican pop in a great big reverb tank. Moreover, you may note that Belle & Sebastian already met Mexican pop, rather emphatically, on Hasta La Raiz, and they’ve since shacked up and raised a few bilingual houseplants. Pehuenche certainly knows his Natalia Lafourcade oeuvre, and a few of these numbers do sound like “I Want The World To Stop” run through the lawn sprinkler a few times. There’s even some swell Mick Cooke style trumpet on “La Flor En Tu Puerta.” Pehuenche himself has a high munchkin voice akin to Passenger in “Share Your Air” mode, which does not always conjure the mystical state that he is attempting to generate. It never gets quite as sopping wet as Daniel Quien, though, and Pehuenche’s command of folklorico, as Natalia might put it, tends to keep this album grounded on tierra Veracruzana. As Mexican mush goes, it’s pretty tasty, fresh and aromatic, straight out of the steaming cazuela of Mexico D.F. fusion music. As every traveler to parts unknown can tell you, Mexican mush is some of the tastiest mush on earth.
Peregrine — The Awful Things We’ve Done If you like emo music, you’ve probably spent the six years since Goodness wondering what the heck happened to The Hotelier. I can’t tell you that, and I am not going to go to Worcester to investigate. Brr. But it’s a big, stony Massachusetts they’ve got up there, and if The Hotelier isn’t going to excoriate your eardrums, some of their pals are happy to take up the scrub-brush and get to work. Christian Holden sings some backups on The Awful Things We’ve Done, and it feels less like a meeting of artfully damaged minds than a passing of the baton. Peregrine lacks the stealth pop smarts that made Home, Like Noplace Is There survivable despite its intensity. Bloodletting over riffage as intense as a brain-freeze, though — that they’ve got down pat. At least three times on The Awful Things We’ve Done, the group reaches those shuddering, world-warping climaxes that make this sort of music so valuable to those burdened by a heavy backpack stuffed with feelings. Scream along with your tormented New England pals, why don’t you. They’ve even gone and put a house on the album cover. I know, all emo bands put a house on the album cover. But where do you nonbelievers think the trauma comes from? Not from the little birdies, you can be sure of that.
Phife Dawg — Forever On his way out the door, the Five Foot Assassin namechecks Ali Shaheed Muhammed, Jarobi, and even Chris Lighty. I did not catch reference to a famous ear-cleaning product, or the man who took that product for his handle. On the final track, Phife calls tip “my boy”, and regrets all the fighting, which isn’t exactly an apology, but then the Madman Malik might feel quite rightly that he’s got nothing to apologize for. Far be it for me to adjudicate lingering frontman-sideman disputes, especially deep into the back third of a posthumous release. Especially when that back third, complete with an interminable spoken-word track from Phife’s mom (!), exists mainly to jerk tears. But the first two thirds of Forever are a hoot, for all the reasons you remember and not a single thing more. Here is the talented emcee who made a virtue of his inability to attain incandescence by hewing to a crowd-pleasing Queens everyman approach, and by cracking wise and looking alive, and remaining present to every line. He told us a long time ago that there was no shame in his game because he always comes the same, and since Phife never lies (another one of his virtues) we could have taken his word for it long ago. This is extremely comparable to One Of The Best Yet, the final Gang Starr album, released long after the death of Guru, and one way better than anybody had any reason to expect it could be. It’s disjointed and uneven, sure. But it’s hard to exercise quality control from beyond the grave.
Pool Kids — Pool Kids Hayley Williams called the Pool Kids the band that the original Paramore wished they were, and I guess I am starting to understand what she meant. Opportunistic and forthright as she is, she still missed her opportunity to make a chorus out of “you fucked it up again.” I bet she’d like another crack at that. “Arm’s Length” is a wonderfully whiny litany of 2022 complaints, encompassing zoom meetings, workplace harassment, crashes-to-desktop, and the social costs of imposed introspection. But… Fueled By Ramen wouldn’t have approved of any of this. They were after radio play and mainstream acceptance for their wards; they’d put a lot of money into Paramore and they weren’t taking any chances. Pool Kids emerged from the Florida grassroots emo racket, so they’re at liberty to sing what they want to sing and play what they want to play. Christine Goodwyne makes a bigger deal over her choruses and hooks than people who make this sort of music sometimes do, which suggests that she’s got her eye on a Paramore-sized audience, or maybe the Paramore audience itself. On at least half of these overdriven, pumped-up fritzouts, Christine approximates those great taffy-pull melismas that you’ll remember from early Paramore records; think “all I wanted was you-oooooooo-oooo,” etc. So that’s a young artist indebted to an older artist who wishes she could have been more like the younger artist. But wouldn’t that have affected the younger artist’s path? If the younger artist emulated the older artist who’d been more like the younger artist, would she not have been emulating herself? At least partially? Would the older artist have wanted to have been like the younger artist were the younger artist not already emulating the older artist? Is the older artist wishing to be more like herself?, or just the version of herself who wanted to be, um, herself? Thank you for listening to the Moebius Emo podcast; subscribe to our Patreon.
Poppy — Stagger Artists who, in 2017, I would have bet on to have a more consistent and prolific recording career than Moriah “Poppy” Pereira: XXXtentacion, Lil Xan, Screaming Lord Sutch, Animal from the Muppets, Orrin Hatch (R-UT), me, you. Joke’s on all of us, because Moriah has become one of the most reliable sources for high-grade, innovative guitar pop-rock around. Don’t look now, but this satirist and YouTube prankster has become (gasp) downright professional. She’s the sort of artist who puts out bridging EPs between her full-lengths not as a cash-in, but because she’s got more to say; this time it’s ten minutes of hellacious shrieks, post-Elastica riffs, and angry breakup lyrics, which indicates that the proposed hitching to Ghostmane is off. Sad. They made a great horror-movie couple. Then again, she’s always been guided by an unerring ability to distinguish between her public persona and her private choices. That’s been a major theme of the Poppy project from the days of the YouTube videos, even if it took us slowballs awhile to figure it out. The overdriven guitar, fuzz bass, diabolical stage whispers and death metal screaming are all back, and the title track legitimately reminds me of Snowpony. If you miss the paranoid, theatrical video clips, well, you know what they say: the Internet is forever.
Porridge Radio – Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder To The Sky Then there is Dana Margolin, Grian Chatten’s lost twin sister. Like Grian, she has an impeccable sense of rhythm and she’s aces at martialing sonic force and applying that wattage to the payoff sections of her songs. Also like Grian, she’s suspicious of a tune. There’s a lot of that going around the British Isles these days, I notice. The new Porridge Radio lacks a knockout number like “Lilac,” and that hurts, but Dana’s vocal delivery — something like Robert Smith on the verge of a hysterical dispersion — remains as pregnant with emotion as it’s ever been. Yet it does leave you waiting for a payoff that never comes, or at least an Arab to kill.
Pusha T — It’s Almost Dry When a grown man calling himself Pusha demonstrates a stubborn refusal to evolve, we should not be surprised. In 2011, he told us he still wanted to sell kilos, and a decade later… (checks), yep, same as it ever was. I didn’t believe him then: he’d rather freeze his ass off on a Virginia Beach streetcorner than hang out with Kanye? This guy? Heck, I don’t mind: we turn to Terrence Thornton for 100% bullshit coke rap, delivered with the drama that only a born entertainer can summon. If you’ve enjoyed his act in the past, you’ll have fun with this one, no doubt, especially since Pharrell has shown up with a Bugatti-ful of those skeletal beats that the Clipse brothers ride more stylishly than anybody can. But even the biggest Pusha T fan must contend with the deliberate narrowness of the rapper’s vision. Clever puns plus creative threats plus corruption of childhood signifiers (this time he’s “Cocaine’s Dr. Seuss”) plus descriptions of the quiet joys of drug manufacture plus conspicuous but oddly perfunctory consumption, and that’s about it. Everything don’t need to be addressed, he tells us, as if his skill as a redactor has ever been in question. But how many facets does this crack rock have, anyway? By now, even Pusha’s got to be feeling like he’s smoked the bowl empty.
Rayland Baxter — If I Were A Butterfly To assess the health of an art form, take a look at the way its gatekeepers treat liminal cases. Not iconoclasts: true believers whose work just happens to fall between categories. When things are going well, talented outliers are viewed as potential crossover acts; when they aren’t, anything that doesn’t fit squarely in a niche is seen as too risky to market. There’s nothing particularly strange about Rayland Baxter. He doesn’t throw off-putting stuff in his mixes or upend expectations, and his records always sound good. He plays by the rules. Nevertheless, nobody has the slightest clue what to do with him. His music is rather rootsy, but he’s not stuffed with enough sawdust for the Americana audience. He lives in Nashville, but his writing has an organic quality that resists Music City machine processing. He’s not raucous enough for the rockers, and he isn’t sufficiently bratty for the pop-punk audience. He funks out, but he doesn’t make dance music. Wide Awake, his 2018 set, was so effortlessly Beatlesque that I reckon the power pop people felt a little shown up. He could probably do a Mumford thing if he wanted to, but he’s insufficiently perverse. If I Were A Butterfly is Rayland at his weirdest and most uncooperative — and it’s still quite consonant. The first couple of tracks are slinks around the corner blooze bar; they let his frustrations (and his sheepishness) show. Steam blown off, Rayland returns to quality Wings-like pop-rock compositional architecture, everything sturdily built and well played, fine lyrics, memorable choruses, crafty melodies. That’s coin of the realm in these parts, industry folks, and you’ve got to recognize those tokens when you see them. You can’t mistake them for throat lozenges. Otherwise, you’re gonna go broke and your tonsils will hurt.
Red Hot Chili Peppers — Return Of The Dream Canteen I have been wondering about this a bunch: are there are currently any red hot chili peppers among us? By that I mean club bands on little stages who will, through extended bro power, eventually work their way, rung by rung, up the ladder and into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I have accessed my knowledge of scenes in Bushwick and Fishtown, Silver Lake and Sixth Street Austin, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there aren’t. No such chili peppers in the pantry. The Peppers career trajectory is not gonna be mimicked by anybody. Bro-ing your way toward anything is out of style and unlikely to come back. Mercifully, rockers cannot gain a mass audience by singing “drink my love young girl/chug-a-lug me” anymore. We enlightened ones celebrate this, but I think we ought to cultivate a wee bit of ambivalence about it. The tour circuit is dying out. These days, groups rarely make the leap from the corner bar to theaters and arenas. That’s down to the pandemic, lack of interest, and general North American anemia and despondency — none of which is good for rock and roll and music in general. We do need our big stoopid bands, if for no other reason than to be stalking horses for more interesting projects that provide nuanced takes on what the arena group is slinging out. It turns out a little chili pepper is not insalubrious. It’s that capsaicin. It wakes everything up.
Richard Dawson — The Ruby Cord In the future, there will be 41 minute songs. Unless, of course, you’re currently listening to the new Richard Dawson album. In that case the future is now. Compressing eras is one of Richard’s supertalents: this overgrown prog-folk harlequin is here to spread the not-so-encouraging word that the days of yore and the days to come are equally sucky, and for many of the same reasons. Don’t even get him started on the present moment; hoo boy, you don’t even want to know about that. Just pray the clock ticks. The Ruby Cord is set five hundred years in the future, but its desperate scenarios feel an awful lot like the medieval predicaments on Peasant. It’s a hard knock life for ordinary folks, whether they’re deserting from the feudal lord’s army or urinating in bottles at the Amazon fulfillment center. So what, specifically, is in store for those of us who pack the gear to live another five centuries, other than more crappy oppression? Well, Richard seems to believe that interpersonal atomization will be the defining characteristic of life, or what passes for life, in the year 2525 or thereabouts. Some of these songs suggest that something violent and apocalyptic has happened, but for the most part, alienation arrives via small choices that lead to gradual but perpetual deterioration in the ties that bind. There’s a museum at the end of human history, but nobody visits. The rambling birdwatcher gets an optical implant to better view his surroundings, and is struck by the observation that a robot and a servile knight-in-armor are essentially indistinguishable in the sweep of eternal dreary Englishness. Then there’s the most painful one: “The Tip Of An Arrow,” in which a d.i.y. fletcher attempts to pass down knowledge of the hunt to his child, only to realize that technology has rendered the relay of knowledge superfluous. How far from the end of pedagogy are we, really?, what with our Zoom classes and YouTube tutorials? Richard has, as usual, matched his doomsaying to strangely catchy music with hairpin-turn chord changes and melodies that defy expectation but are never less than intriguing. He mixes his handmade pigments right there on the canvas to maximize color and shading. And that 41 minute excursion?; it’s not nearly as daunting as it seems like it’d be. If you’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no escape from the endless torture wheel of time, you may as well ask for a lot of it.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever — Endless Rooms This group has a great sound, with lots of jangle and strum going at the same time, and often even in the same direction, and they’ve got about forty-nine different lead vocalists, each of whom insists on chucking his sawdusty carrots into the Rolling Blackouts stew. They’re all rowing hard in the same galley, unless they aren’t, and who can tell? The songwriting, never the band’s strong suit, has taken another step backward into further un-memorability, and as energetic as these Aussies can be, I find myself zoning out on them. I can’t disaggregate the songs, and they haven’t really given me a great incentive to pick them apart. It goes down smooth, though. Way too smooth.
Rosalía — Motomami Funniest thing about a highly Muppety album with many funny and Muppet-like things about it: the throwaway tracks blatantly written for TikTok aren’t the problem. Son estooopidos, of course, but that goes with the territory. Lots of smart artists rock our socks with dumb throwaways. “Chicken Teriyaki,” et. al., don’t have much to them, but they’re effective, and they establish what Rosalia would like to establish. Which, I believe, is that she’s as good a reggaetonera as anybody among her Latin American competition, and could wipe the field if she really wanted to. Point taken. It’s the more serious stuff that leaves me scratching my head. Some of the longer and more substantive numbers on Motomami just seem like versions of things she did on El Mal Querer, only blown up and supercharged, as if adding more voices, more beats and sound effects, and more gypsy wandering represented progression. This record is getting lauded for its synthesis of styles, but Rosalia was already pretty catholic in her tastes, and I’m not sure that aggressive M.I.A.-like pastiche plays to her strengths. Rosalia distinguished herself through the effortlessness with which she erased the lines between genres that shouldn’t have been able to co-exist. Eighteenth century Spanish flamenco players with wavetable synthesizers? — she made it seem weirdly possible. That’s what El Mal Querer was: a transmission from a world that never was, a whole impossible universe, summoned into being with a graceful wave of the star’s hand. I am reminded of the Pogues, who really did generate an unprecedented fusion of Irish traditional music, punk rock, and contemporary pop. Not through effort, but through the collective force of personality of the musicians. Once they’d accomplished that, though, they didn’t know where to go. On later records, they amped up their fusion, and made everything bigger and louder and more “punk,” whatever that meant in that context. Those weren’t bad records. They just came from a group that already made its statement. It occurs to me that this almost-major artist may have already made hers.
Rubblebucket — Earth Worship This one is less forceful than Sun Machine was, which is a bit of a problem for a group that has always gotten over on Spring Break immediacy. It’s built on smooth post-Weymouth bass grooves that were either played on a Hofner or digitally divested of growl and top end. The saxophone is uncharacteristically gentle, too; more of a Weather Station-like breeze through the treetops than the blaring claxon of yore. It all becomes you clear when you realize that Alex and Kalmia aren’t as interesting in saving, or worshiping, the earth as they are in presenting the world in bloom as a backdrop for springlike flirtation and verdant hedonism. It’s a warm day and you’re in the grass with someone kinda kute, and every leaf-flutter and twig snap testifies to the elemental nature of love and sex, and you don’t have to try to be part of it, because you know you already are. You can, as they suggest, kiss the bark at the root of the pear. In “Cherry Blossom,” Kalmia imagines her lover as a humble little house, and on that house is a window, and in that window is a plant, and on that plant the bugs are, you know, doing it. Kisses as soft as Neptune under blankets as thick as the moon, this is what these goofballs are after. It’ll be great, opines Kalmia, when everyone wants everyone else to cum. When you feel like shit, you can fertilize (get it?), answers Alex. I’d tease Rubblebucket about all this if it wasn’t my exact sociopolitical program. So yeah, maybe I’m a silly hippie too. Meet me in the park in an hour.
Rusty — The Resurrection Of Rust There’s completism, and then there’s this: old recordings of Elvis Costello with a teenage collaborator, gussied up for modern presentation. That’s one heck of a stony precinct of Memory Lane these guys are treading, and now their dress shoes are ruined. Only two of these tracks are originals; the others are versions of songs by Neil Young, et. al. Such was the style in 1972, and this is one funny-shaped piece of the puzzle, left under the rug for decades, somehow eluding the vaccum cleaner. Vaguely interesting, sometimes spirited, absolutely and defiantly un-assessable.
Saba — Few Good Things The giveaway here is the presence of Krayzie Bone, or Bizzy Bone, or one of the other bones. They were once the future. That future is now here, and it is filled with various Bone Thugz in some version of harmony. Smooth with the roughness. One of the many things Saba shares with Kendrick is a will to transcend the ugliness of his surroundings via urban mythmaking: their work is full of martyrs, inner city place-markers, and moments of desolate beauty, and a fair share of cheese, too. Beautiful cheese. Saba’s last full-length culminated in the tragedy of a pointless killing, and he gave it some brutal music to match; this is Saba on a happy day, and there’s a porch barbecue heathaze over this whole thing. That means you might zone out from time to time, but that’s okay: periodically, he’ll call you to attention with a schoolyard reminiscence, or a silly story, or an exhibition of skills. Your little cousin is popping wheelies in the street and standing on his handlebars. You’re sitting around a card table on the west side of Chicago. It was a hot day, but the sun is down now. this is a violent neighborhood, but there’s no sign of strife. You’re surrounded by friends; there’s no need for you to be anything other than what you are. You’re in the presence of a genial host. Oh, and as a rapper,? that host takes a back seat to nobody.
Sebastián Yatra — Dharma Okay, yes, he’s madly in love with his own voice. If you find amour propre vulgar, this might not be for you. It’s also not for reggaeton purists, whoever the fuck those people are, or those who do not like to get the peanut butter of transcontinental pop mixed up with the Colombian chocolate of Latin urbano. If, however, you do like crowd-pleasing gestures and over-the-top vocal performances, clever melodies and bullshit romance, and kissing in the kissing booth, have I got an album for you. More than J Balvin even, Sebastián represents the new face of Medellín (when he isn’t chilling stateside), the former murder capital, given up for dead at the height of the narcos era, revived and catapulted to new prominence via the grubby magic of international commerce. I’m not convinced Sebastián has a heart to sing out, but he sure gives you enough wind power to keep all the lights on with nary a flicker. Many of these tracks are duets, and on every one of them, Sebastián sounds thrillingly phony — he has no intention of actually fucking any of these specific chicks, but he’s excited to use them as a springboard for a virility that is constantly and tirelessly projected outward. That’s very pop and very showbiz. There’s a long tradition of that, from Neil Sedaka to R. Kelly to Phil Collins and Patrick Bailey singing “Easy Lover.” A couple of the ballads are staggeringly beautiful: sunny-weather symphonies designed to delight the Disney princess of your wildest, most unrealistic cartoon fantasies. The excursions into Colombian beatmaking are surprisingly authentic; rootless cosmopolitan he is for sure, but he can whip up a tasty ajiaco when he wants to. The Blink-182 knockoff “Las Dudas” is so glorious and so triumphant that it could drive Wellbutrin straight off the market. I don’t know what summer Dharma fell from; surely not this last one. But this, my beleaguered friends, this is the summer we deserve.
S.G. Goodman — Teeth Marks Oh Margo Timmins, what hath you wrought? You’ve got all the farm girls tilling the frozen soil of ice country. Is that mushrock, or is it the cold mist rising from the holler? S.G. Goodman is from Monkey’s Testicle, KY, or roundabouts, and sings two-chord tales of forlorn Appalachians, hardscrabble head-cases and patron saints of the dollar store, and hey, didn’t we already gerrymander the district of folk-rock in order to create a safe seat for Lori McKenna? I’m not really sure we need to create a Blue Dog voting bloc, people. That puts too much power in the hands of majority leader Brandi Carlile. The melodies are a bit threadbare, like grandma’s moth-eaten woolen blanket, and while it’s all comfortable and familiar, the only thing here that really catches fire here is the pure protest number “Work Til I Die.”
Shearwater — The Great Awakening I doubt there’s ever been any auteur in poetry-pop history who has had a tougher time with objective correlative than Jonathan Meiburg. He sings about the sanctum and the Archangel Gabriel and night circling the day and a whole lot of other moth-eaten metaphors. But since he delivers every syllable in the same pompous, self-important timbre, he can’t call attention to what’s significant about any of it. On Jet Plane And Oxbow, Jonathan used his arrangement smarts to match his gloomy lyrics about the parlous state of America to legit prog-rock. Even if his observations were, to be generous, half-assed, the music helped provide ballast. The Great Awakening doesn’t rock at all: instead, this is mostly warmed-over Talk Talk. With no motor, nothing comes through except Jonathan’s discontent and sense of betrayal (by who?) Our dude remains in a state of constant arrival at the obvious conclusion that there are selfish people running the show. His sociopolitical agenda seems to include lots of moping around, which is at least honest, and it aligns Jonathan with the other liberal come-latelies at performing arts centers straight across the upper crust. They’ve checked their Twitter feeds and they’re all aghast, aghast, I tell you. Attention: patrons at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Some lite opera company is missing its baritone.
Shout Out Louds — House The one the girl sings™ is very nice, even if it does sound a bit like an online learning commercial. Lots of activity is percolating on (virtual) campus. The rest of this is reminiscent of The Cure circa Head On The Door, which sure is nothing new for this crew. Give them this much: they don’t suffer from anxiety of influence. That’s psychologically healthy, even if it’s aesthetically problematic.
Silvana Estrada — Marchita The key thing to understand about Silvana Estrada: young though she is, she’s also 100% grownup. There will be no frivolous detours and no kidding around on a Silvana record. This is the serious business of songcraft and soundscaping, handled by a team of pros (not prostitutes). It also means she isn’t winging it. Grownups drill until they are prepared, and you will not hear a 2022 album that sounds as rigorously rehearsed as Marchita does. This time out she does not have Charlie Hunter around to throw a little gravel in the engine and give her a hand when she threatens to disappear inside her own mouth. Lo Sagrado was unrepeatable, so it’s probably for the best that she didn’t try to recreate its spookiness. Instead she goes for Mexican night at Lincoln Center, which, given her talent (and the credulity of the NYC audience), is entirely attainable for her. She still likes to surprise us with arrangement elements that we weren’t expecting: a string quartet breakout, cinema organ, some wailing from the abuelitas. Everything works, even Silvana’s voice, which, like hoja santa or chapulines, is a taste that not every gringo is going to be anxious to acquire. It’s a direction that Mexican alternative pop could easily have taken after Natalia Lafourcade’s Hu Hu Hu album, before Natalia herself made a hard right turn toward folklorico. Therefore I am glad that this album exists. It’s just hard not to want some additional script-flipping from an artist whose first public foray was sui generis. Van The Man’s fans must have had similar feelings in the years after Astral Weeks. He was never going back there, and neither is Silvana.
Sloan — Steady The problem with this moose pack of happy go lucky Canadians has always been the same. They’ve got forty vocalists and not one of them is any good. Like a sequoia that grows its rings thick around a structural flaw or an axe-head embedded in the trunk, they’ve done an awful lot to neutralize this deficiency. They’ve cultivated multi-part harmonies that are only antiseptic some of the time, and they’ve matched those to elaborate support vox arrangements that would not offend any living Beatle if you called them Beatlesque. They’ve learned to be tight, and springy, and immediate, like power pop bands often are; they sizzle, caper, brrring, and boing as well as any group of Badfinger/Big Star imitators in the lower forty eight could. They’ve always been good at minting melodies, and riffs, and they play their songs with the sort of exuberance that indicates that they’re excited about what they’re doing and you should be too. Once indifferent (bad), the lyrics became dunderheaded (better) and then vaguely meaningful (lateral move, but one I can applaud), at least to the members of Sloan. Steady follows a song about the quest for genuine recognition in the era of digital gossip with a number about being lost in the city that is not (necessarily) indebted to “Heart Of The Sunrise.” In not so many words, they indicate that even though they live in a country with a robust social safety net and affordable mental health care, they still fear the crippling ramifications of nobody giving a fuck about you. They could have saved themselves a bunch of headaches years ago by hiring a talented vocalist and putting it in cruise control, but one Phoenix is more than enough. It’s not right to say they’ve made a virtue out of a flaw, because it’s not like they want you to notice that the singing is mediocre. They’ve just stuck together like pals should, persisted, cultivated compensatory skills, and foregrounded what they do best. That’s so sane and so egalitarian-Canadian that I think I just joined the Mounties.
Soccer Mommy — Sometimes, Forever A mildly experimental album on which most of the experiments fail. Can’t knock Sophie Allison for trying, though. The case can be made that no recent pop singer has wrung more juice out of aching mid-tempo melodies than Sophie has. Her grasp of tuneage has been her core competency from the very beginning, and as central skills go, that’s a pretty sweet one to have. If Osama was about to nuke the 59th Street Bloomingdale’s unless somebody wrote him a killer bridge, the Pentagon could do a lot worse than giving Sophie a call. This time around, she’s hired the Oneohtrix Point Never guy to expand her basic mushrock sound, and as he always does, he turns up with a bag full of lousy ideas, empties them out enthusiastically, and commits to them fully. Like: hey Sophie, what if we made you sound like Portishead? What if, indeed. That goes about as well as you’d think it would. His decision to smother a few other numbers with My Bloody Valentine style guitar haze doesn’t play out quite as disappointingly as it does on the Alvvays set, because Molly Rankin presents herself as a consequential lyricist, and nobody really gives a fuck what Sophie is saying. It’s still annoying, though. Then there’s the one that inexplicably bites “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” That’s a dreadful misstep from an artist who relies mightily on compositional craft. When the producer gets out of the way and lets the star do her thing, she’s able to string her gleaming, bead-like notes into a few charming friendship bracelets. But it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. Though I am tempted to blame the Oneohtrix Point Never out of pure force of habit, I fear it has more to do with Sophie’s inelasticity. I know, she’s an artist; she doesn’t want to do the same thing over and over. Howsabout this?, lose the goop altogether and present the next batch of songs like a coffehouse strummer might. Pitchfork will hate it. But Sophie might acquire an entirely new audience consisting of supercilious types who work at NGOs. Think about it. That’s all I’m saying here.
Somewhere South Of Here — Leave Me For The Crows Enjoyably scruffy emo/pop-punk band from the Motor City. They hit, they miss, they hit, they miss and miss, they hit. Eventually all the flailing becomes part of the experience, and certainly part of the productive desperation. I particularly like the one where they answer Blink-182’s eternal question in the only way that an honest aging punk should: old enough to know they’re up to no good. Lots of alcohol imbibed, some missed chances, fantasies about relocation to Walden Pond, encouraging repudiation of a friend who speeds gleefully on the road to oblivion. Flickers of wisdom, like strange signals on the dashboard; a little bulb above the odometer that goes on and off. Maybe they should take it to the dealership. Maybe they should just keep driving.
Spiritualized — Everything Was Beautiful Jason Pierce completes his transformation from a jettisoned astronaut floating in the void to a concert crowd-pleaser and mister popularity (in certain circles). All of the sounds and vibes from his period of maximum alienation are present, but he’s yoked them all to terrestrial preoccupations. Not since Snoop Dogg made his appearance on Sesame Street and in various yogurt commercials did an entertainer make his renunciation of cosmic and existential forces any plainer. He’s Jason Spaceman no more. I’d call this one of the more fascinating transformations in arena-rock history, but I’ve got to admit: not every step on this journey was equally interesting. Everything Was Beautiful is one of the good ones, though. Pierce is very meticulous about the way in which he applies signature elements of the Spiritualized sound to Spiritualized present, and in so doing, he clears the way for Spiritualized future, which may or may not include beer commercials and definitely includes feel-good summer festivals. Truly detestable ones and otherwise. Therefore the best tracks on this fanservice set are the friendliest ones, especially “The Mainline Song,” which plays as a post-pandemic come-on, including some confinement-weary and tentative verb tenses. “I wanted to know if you wanted to go to the city tonight,” he asks some earth angel, after needing a few minutes of train noises and motorik beats to work up the nerve. Hey, we’re all a little rusty. The city is London or someplace quite like it, and he’s kind enough to take us there: not to some space station, but to a real town on a real planet we share. He calls her “sweet heart sweet light;” it’s another one of the album’s infinite callbacks to the interstellar glory days. But it’s a real earthling town he’s drawn to, and a real, flesh and blood human being he’s asking to accompany him. Does she respond to his overtures? I’ve got to think so. Flesh and blood has a tendency to do that. Much more than spaceships do.
Spoon — Lucifer On The Sofa I really do admire Britt Daniel. He’s a strong and characteristic rock singer, he’s usually an intriguing lyricist, and though he’s a smart guy, he’s not so hung up on his own intelligence that he can’t see the benefits of turning his camera on, funking out, and acting stoopid. He knows the two sides of Monsieur Valentine, whatever the fuck that means. His successful amalgam of Stonesy swagger and Billy Joel-style meticulousness is not something anybody else has ever really tried, and it guarantees him a paragraph or two in the Book Of Rock. (Indie appendix, mind you.) He’s put out quite a few interesting albums, each of which has its own sonic personality. Thing is, though, I’m never inclined to put any of those albums on. I do enjoy them when they’re spinning, and I can see their artistic merit, but once they’re over, they never trouble my mind or call to me. Spoon might be the good band that I think about the least. In order for me to voluntarily turn to Spoon, I have to be looking at the word Spoon and the name of a Spoon album, and even then, I’m more than likely to put it off and spin some Steely Dan instead. With the possible exception of “Fitted Shirt,” I have no personal relationship whatsoever to any of Britt’s songs, and that includes tracks with fantastic, mesmerizing arrangements like “Vittorio E.,” “Don’t You Evah,” “Do I Have To Talk You Into It,” etc. I can appreciate them in the same way I appreciate a piece of German-engineered machinery: it’s intriguing to learn how they tick, but that doesn’t answer the more important question of why they tick. Some of the marvelous fussiness that characterized Spoon at the band’s height has receded during the second and third decades of the twenty-first century, but as it turns out, a looser Spoon isn’t necessarily a friendlier Spoon. Heck, there’s even a Jack Antonoff co-write on the new one, and though it shoots for “Sympathy For The Devil,” it ends up grand and grotesque as The Verve. Other dispassionate/dramatic sonic highlights include the filthy-rubber lo-strings break on “Hardest Cut,” the slashing, Kinks-y rhythm guitar on “My Babe,” the burbling electric piano and harmony vox on “Astral Jacket,” the string pads hovering over “On The Radio.” There are glossy corner pieces and jagged, menacing puzzle parts, but when you put the jigsaw together, it’s pretty blank. Britt has managed to stay in his small-stakes game for an astonishing amount of time, keeping his cards close, shades on, cocking his head at a knowing angle, remaining parsimonious about his emotional wagers. It’s penny ante rock and it’s always been. But boy does he make those pennies gleam.
Stella Donnelly — Flood Moodier and dreamier than Beware Of The Dogs. Shiny, needle-thin vocals, piano with the sustain pedal perpetually depressed, quarantine tempos, hovering hopelessness, hanging major sevenths and noodly sax, lyrics about working relationships lubricated by online distance and face-to-face relationships ready to combust through overfamiliarity. Call it pandemic malaise. The boyfriend shouts at the TV and the roommates have nowhere to run, the lit and unattended candle threatens to burn down the house. As a reporter whose beat includes stories of domestic violence, cabin fever suits her. She doesn’t seem angry about it — just bruised and rueful. Elders grow frail, friends become cold, love bumps against the limits of the house, and since everybody is locked down together, every flaw is magnified and there’s no room to retreat. Take a Kate Miller-Heidke album and shear it of the opera bits and Keir Nuttall’s contributions, and you’d get something like this. Oh, and “How Was Your Day” is an Australian tweepop girl’s one-sided answer to “We Cry Together.” There’s not as much cussing, but it’s every bit as vicious.
Steve Lacy — Gemini Rights The Mac DeMarco of pop-R&B is back with another plate of oversauced noodles. The pasta is pretty toothsome, though, and it’s cut in some weird-ass shapes. Those curls and ridges really catch the condimento. Steve lucked into an online sensation when the TikTok army went crazy for “Bad Habit;” two Grammy nominations and one chart-topper later, he’s a sorta-star with an actual hit, which is a lot more than the average stoner can say. The sound hasn’t exactly crisped up in the oven, but Steve’s ongoing battles with vocal pitch appear to have ended in a tenuous truce, and he’s solved the problem of his awful guitar tone by smothering the top end with synthesizer instead. Lots of complex chords, warbly backing vocals, warped 78 rpm sound, painful confessions, endearing filth. “You was handsome with a heavy dick/a cannon, you do damage,” he tells a paramour. Guess that was a lot for Steve’s butthole to accommodate, because he ends the record chasing girls, or just chewing on his tongue as pretty ones drift by. “I wish I knew you wanted me,” sings Steve on the chorus. We don’t get those kinds of guarantees, Steve. You know what to do, G, bust a move.
Sudan Archives — Natural Brown Prom Queen This is dippy in all the right ways. Brittney Parks is an avant-R&B goofball from Cincinnati who taught herself to play violin in the Sudanese style. Or so she tells us; who’s gonna go to Khartoum to check her work? In practice she fiddles all over booty-rattlers reminiscent (and I mean this as a high compliment) of the home production on certain Kali Uchis mixtapes. Like Kali, or Janelle Monae, she’s a very good rapper when she wants to be, which isn’t often enough for my taste, and her singing cadences are deeply indebted to hip-hop. Sometimes she drags her violin lines across the track like a voyager pulling a canoe across the sand. Sometimes her search for textural contrast compels her to match her analog instrument to trap drums and bass synthesizer. Sometimes she just wigs out. I love the one where she deliberates aloud about her next hairstyle. When she tries to psych herself up into the belief that she’s gorgeous and arrogant, I’m here to cheer her on. I even believe her when she says she just wants to have her tittles out. I further believe that isn’t a sexual statement. Well, not entirely.
Taylor Swift — Midnights If Folklovermore was her character-driven and indisputably political Nebraska/Born In The U.S.A. period, that makes this one Tunnel Of Love. That was the album, you’ll remember, when Bruce pivoted from the political implications of the guy handcuffed to the bumper of the state trooper’s Ford and concentrated instead on the dark night of his own troubled romantic soul. He decided: me/hi/I’m the problem, it’s me. These days the Boss is happily partnered and doing grueling, questionable soul covers, and it’s Taylor’s turn to sing “when I look at myself I don’t see/the (wo)man I wanted to be.” Somewhere along the line she slipped off track… into total mushrock production courtesy of the dreaded Jack Antonoff. A lot of these tracks sound like they’ve been sitting around on a hard drive since 2015, in a very humid basement, and now they’re sopping wet and need to be vigorously wrung out; “Labryinth” in particular, but the goo is spread so liberally around this set that it’s inseparable from the content of the album. Yes, after years of flirting with mushrock, Taylor has stepped boldly over the mushline: mush is part of the point and demands to be taken as a psychosexual metaphor. If you missed that, the mush maestro Lana Del Rey is present on “Snow On The Beach,” here to signify allegiance to digital reverbs and electronic echoes and, in a criminal underutilization of a major talent, do little else. I’ve found it’s best to work with Taylor here and take Midnights as the mood piece it wants to be — an extended and prolix meditation on her own suitability for heterosexual monogamy. You’ll recall that Bruce ended Tunnel Of Love in a big lazy car on a Springsteenian-dark highway, inverting “Hungry Heart” by pledging allegiance to the hearth he knows damn well he’s putting in jeopardy. Taylor reconciles herself to her discontent, and her fears of loss of control, by insisting that she’s orchestrating everything; in one of the album’s clearer-headed moments, she leans on the concept of karma rather hard and discovers that it provides solid orthopedic support for her fast-aging self-righteousness. The Boss would end up dumping the chick he wrote the Tunnel Of Love album about — a breakup that was legibly written between the lines of every song. Two faces had Bruce, you know how it went. The lover’s fairy tale at the heart of Taylor’s worldview precludes such drastic action, but she still threatens her boyfriend with selective club-floor amnesia. She emphatically rejects the one-night stand/wife dichotomy and casts about for middle ground. She dresses for revenge. And on the album’s one truly great song, she re-tells her life story and determines that despite her pair-bond ambitions, she’s always been on her own, underappreciated, isolated, and therefore fundamentally unknowable. So is that Taylor, Swifties, or just a brilliant disguise?
Tears For Fears — The Tipping Point Let’s check in on how our eighties art-pop heroes are doing, shall we? Okay, the number one song in the world this summer was… oh. Wow. Well, then. That sure demonstrated good taste. It was inevitable, I suppose. I wrote last year that the entire mushrock era was nothing but a Kate Bush imitation contest. Some enterprising placement agent at a digital distributor was bound to pick up on that and sell a TV show on the genuine article. One of the year’s biggest tours was the Genesis reunion; ostensibly an opportunity to say goodbye to an ailing Phil, but also an opportunity for people to feel that invisible touch-ah one more time. Phil’s drum sound remains an inspiration to everybody producing pop. The shadow of Roxy Music continues to fall, artfully, over the shoulders of woodwind arrangers. Mark Hollis is no longer with us, but were he around, there’s little doubt the demand for new Talk Talk material would be clamorous. Nobody has heard a peep from The Blue Nile in awhile, but that’s no surprise: that project was designed to disappear. By contrast, Marillion keeps doing what they do, and by many measures, they’re more popular than ever. Then there is Tears For Fears. When we don’t hear from them for awhile, no fan frets: we just figure it’s taking Roland Orzabal a decade to get juuuust the right setting on a particular gain knob. Neurosis, if not outright crippling nervousness, has always been a big part of the art. The Tipping Point is not the fussiest thing that Tears For Fears has ever done, but there’s plenty of airlessness here, which, in the case of this project, isn’t really a complaint. It’s the held breath of a tightrope walker as he measures his motions and makes the footfall land just… so. Orzabal applies his trademark lushness to the rockers as well as the ballads; arguably, his demonstration that you can be meticulously decorative while you shout/shout/let it all out has been his biggest conceptual contribution to pop. Obvs, that is not always gonna work — sometimes a primal scream of a song requires a more ragged approach. Otherwise there’d be no emo music. But sometimes he lodges all the faders in the precise arrangement, as he does on “Rivers Of Mercy,” and he reminds you why Apollo, not Dionysus, is the real god of music.
Tegan And Sara — Crybaby Ever since Heartthrob, the Quins have behaved like swimmers who rode out too far. They’re thrashing around, not waving but drowning. But ooh, that mainstream sure is exciting. Every time they try to return to the strange and rocky shores they know, riptides drag them back to the depths. Crybaby is their latest diagonal swim against the current, and if it isn’t their most successful, it’s definitely their most strenuous. You know how it is out there. Desperation sets in. Pelicans start to look awfully hungry. The sisters’ herks and jerks are meant to signify resistance against the smooth and tyrannical animal that pop has become. The trouble is that they’ve capitulated once again to boilerplate chord progressions, repetitive hooks, and anthemic choruses; and oh God, they’ve been at it too long to quit, haven’t they. Ionic to the relative minor to the subdominant, just like their buddy Taylor Swift does. Legos all over the place; everything is awesome. No matter how much they scruff things up, these songs just sound like Heartthrob numbers with insufficient production values. Or, like “Fucking Up What Matters,” they play like stealth cries for help to Jack Antonoff. Jack’s not gonna throw you a life preserver; he’s got his hands full. They’re trapped between the luxury cruise ships and the algae-covered jetty. They might as well tread water and hope for a rogue wave.
The 1975 — Being Funny In A Foreign Language “QAnon created a legitimate scene/but it was just some bloke in the Philippines.” Thank you for that analysis, Matty! He sounds more than a little disappointed by this. Perhaps he would prefer his insurrections with more authenticity. But I’m sure your violent WWG1WGA uncle is tickled pink to have legitimacy conferred upon him by the world famous Matty. A few songs later, he takes us inside the mind of a gun-toting Kyle Rittenhouse type, who, we are assured, is just looking for somebody to love. This is irony. But is that irony itself ironic? “Irony” in scare quotes, in infinite regression, dudes being arch about their archness. One song later, in the year’s single worst lyric, he’s complaining about vaccinistas and communistas and baristas, who are, I guess, all the same to him. Oh, and I guess he doesn’t like tote bags. No word (yet) about avocado toast, which is a mild relief. He does, however, become the first major pop star to complain about getting cucked, which is a landmark of sorts; a landmark in grossness. This heel turn (from a guy who was, honestly, already kind of a heel) appears to have been prompted by generic online criticism of things he’s said and done, which makes Matty not so different from Elon Musk, or countless other whiny white guys who claim they’ve been driven into the arms of Pepe The Frog by the woke mob. Even his Christmas song contains a veiled attack on young people who use the holidays as an opportunity to dissuade their parents from joining paramilitary groups, or whatever the hell parents are getting up to these days. The alt-right content sails right over the head of Jack Antonoff, who blithely supplies Matty & Co. with the eighties fairground grease and middlebrow grandiosity he was hired to generate. Here’s further evidence that Taylor Swift is one hundred per cent in charge of their sessions. Before Jack pushes a single fader, you know Taylor makes sure he understands the implications of every single line she sings.
The Beths — Expert In A Dying Field If you’re a college rocker born under the rising sign of 120 Minutes, it’s an article of faith for you that a good lead guitarist mostly adds mood and texture (see Buck, P., Shields, K., et. al.) and only the gauche and big-haired step out and take flamboyant solos. I admit that I’m in that line myself: the strummers I’ve praised over the years always subordinate themselves to the singer/producer. But it occurs to me — mostly while listening to The Beths — that we may have overcorrected for a problem we no longer face. Jonathan Pearce gets busier and flashier with every Beths album, and he’s even willing to step into the spotlight multiple times in the same song, as if he’s in Cheap Trick or something. As long as he maintains that souped up Eyewitness News-break guitar tone, Beths songs will always sound more than a bit like sitcom themes. But it’s hard to argue with the conviction he’s putting on display here, or his nostril-clearing dive bombs, or his fleet-fingered passages way up the neck, and hey, when was the last time you heard somebody play like this on an indie pop record anyway? Elizabeth Stokes’s songs are already febrile; Pearce keeps popping them in the microwave and making those electrons jump. If he thinks he’s Richard Thompson, well, we’re all benefiting mightily from his delusion. Go on, pal, take a raging lead. Take three. Remind us all how it was done before the Puritans took over and we all became ashamed of our exuberance.
The Black Keys — Dropout Boogie After a revelatory tribute to the Mississippi Hill Country, it’s right back to the thing they’ve done to death. Billy F. Gibbons is on one of the songs. Guess that’s something.
The Fixx — Every Five Seconds Welp, they did not take as long to make their latest as Tears For Fears did. Maybe they should have. Certainly Cy Curnin’s vocal tracks could have used a little more polishing. Then again, this might be the best that the elderly Cy’s got in him. Time, the ravager of all things, even The Fixx. Perhaps sensing an opening, Jamie West-Oram angles his way to the microphone for the first time; he’s not much better than Cy is, but it’s a curiosity. Beautiful Friction, the last one, was really quite elegant — not exactly the sound that made the band famous during those red-sky nights, but a reasonable facsimile of it. Since The Fixx were a progressive rock band forced by early ’80s conventions of brevity to play new wave pop, they were always a good long-term bet. I reckon there’s at least one more chapter left in this story, even if Cy has to whisper his way through it.
The Paranoid Style — For Executive Meeting Though I’ve already written a bunch about this one, I don’t think I’ve emphasized this enough: it’s a band album. That’s not to say that the musicians didn’t show up to play on A Goddamn Impossible Way Of Life. The pace on that set, however, was dictated by Elizabeth Nelson, who came on like some brilliant dignitary who’d lost a few of her marbles on a long and turbulent overseas flight. She jumped between discussions of turpitude and chicken wings, Milton Friedman and the stampede at the Who show, and everybody else had to keep up. The riddle of her motivation was one of the set’s major motors, and I’d like to think that her bandmates were just as perplexed and delighted as her fans were. It sure sounded that way. For Executive Meeting isn’t a huge departure, but it’s more comprehensible. Major instrumental gestures are made on this album that don’t even have to do with sonically enhancing the lyrics. Nelson has come back to the pack a bit, other Paranoids have stepped into the breach, and that’s very much in keeping with the retro ideology and country-rock sound they’ve cultivated for this trip. It also firmly aligns The Paranoid Style with Timothy Bracy’s old band. For Executive Meeting doesn’t exactly sound like The Mendoza Line — it’s a little too fried for that. But you could imagine The Paranoid Style and The Mendoza Line sharing a bill without either band clearing the bar for the other one. Of course, The Mendoza Line was upset about how husbands and wives treat each other. The Paranoid Style is upset about the critical occlusion of Doug Yule and Barney Bubbles in a late capitalist system that cannot accommodate the recalcitrance of its most idiosyncratic participants. Hey, I’m glad somebody is.
The Reds, Pinks & Purples — Summer At Land’s End I’ve sometimes had hard words for this perfectly cromulent indiepop one-man band from the Richmond District of San Francisco. But the awful truth is that I’m just miffed he’s getting rewarded for doing the same thing that George The Monkey does, only not as well. Glenn Donaldson is good at minting ‘80s-pop and ‘60s-Archies throwback tunes, but they don’t have half the spring that George’s writing does. He’s got the requisite fey pop voice, but he doesn’t have a fraction of George’s vocal range or purity of tone. He gets off some clever one-liners, but he’s not the wit dispenser that George is. I can’t help feeling as if four, no!, three more months in the Bay would have set George up for indiepop acclaim. If he could have stood to choke down some more of that fog; if he hadn’t been so lost on a mission to Mars. But that, my friends, is history.
The Tallest Man On Earth — Too Late For Edelweiss Cottagecore covers set from a Scandinavian dude who tries to make a Dylan song out of everything. There are worse things to do with your life, but few of them involve music.
The Weather Station — How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars Tamara Lindeman takes it too far. On Ignorance she set aside the clipped, incisive, Joni-like folk-rock of her early career in order to foreground her earnest Tuck and Patti vox. She was saved from the consequences of her own plan by her band, which did a credible Roxy Music/’80s sophistipop imitation, and threw her a life preserver whenever she started solemnly intoning stuff like “loss is loss/is loss/is loss/is loss.” It’s a great album, really, but it took a village. That band is still employed, I think, though Tamara doesn’t give them much of a detail. Instead she is on some straight up Moaning Myrtle shit, with glacial numbers over ponderously-struck piano chords plus lyrics that could charitably be called elliptical, if I was in a very good mood. You’d probably have to be Emily Haines to get away with this, and Emily only got away with it once.
The Weeknd — Dawn FM Abel Tesfaye in the bardo. You’d expect him to encounter evidence of his R&B sins: that slick, manipulative ‘80s-throwback stuff, twisted around into demonic shapes by the metaphysical forces of his own funhouse-mirrored soul. Conflations of eros and murder, drug experiences and faux-enlightenment, artificial intelligence and algorithm-driven art, the horrors of aging with and without the loss of sexual potency. Spectres wafting from the blown speakers of a blaring fm radio, half-remembered from childhood, up there atop Abel’s mom’s refrigerator in the apartment where the star grew up. Sleek, impersonal new wave, speeding like a bullet to your ear. But of all the mysteries of purgatory aside, I doubt you expected him to encounter Jim Carrey there. The Seussian rhyme that Carrey recites at the end of Dawn FM does shatter the mystery a little — it‘s as if the Grinch suddenly showed up at the conclusion of Angel Heart. The rest of this album, including the interstitial bits, is the first truly scary music The Weeknd has made since the Trilogy. Throbbing sequencers, whispers of suicide, connections between sexual coercion and dancefloor compulsion, fear of the unknown, cardiac arrest and the creepy heartlessness of karaoke, synth pads black with antimatter, a terrifying kind of pop impersonality weaponized by a singer who has always dabbled in the dark arts. Abel finds the howling existential terror in old Michael Jackson lyrics, and the death drive that pounds that disco kick, he’s distilled it all, and he’s serving them up without a hint of ameliorating warmth. This is music that is designed to be untouchable and irresistible: music that does not need you at all. Megahits without listeners, love songs minus lovers, the snapping sound of the rustling veil.
The Wonder Years — The Hum Goes On Forever Cheap Kensington rents have something to do with it. The proximity of New York, Baltimore, and D.C. — not to mention the Jersey shore — does, too. But my theory is that the reason there’s so much great pop-punk and emo coming from Philadelphia is because of the presence of The Wonder Years. Leading as they do with their ferocious motivation, they set a really good example for bands who are determined to leave it all on the floor. On their albums, they’ve made Philadelphia feel like a place where big feelings happen: a grungy town of nonstop collisions, fierce loyalties, profound commitments to friends and to the landscape itself, snowed in deep in January, hot as hell in July, cramped, sweaty, sports-obsessed, humble, boastful, aggressively ordinary. The Paris Of Nowhere, Soupy calls it on the new album, but there he is, caring his heart out for every inch of cement, swinging from the lamplights, playing Valencia’s “Dancing With A Ghost.” The Wonder Years really do sound like Valencia now: they’re tight, drilled, and loud, and Soupy bellows his head off over the big, dumb-ass rhythm guitar. Wholesome family man that he is, Soupy worries about his children, and wonders whether he can protect them from school shooters, rising water levels and his own expansive antidepressant regime. Never so afraid to fail, he tells us. It’s corny, of course. But if you can’t get behind a guy who saves his own life by gardening tomatoes in the front yard, maybe emo music isn’t for you. Also, maybe you should steer clear of Philly.
Tim Bernardes — Mil Coisas Invisíveis Brazilian guy, hangs around with Robin Pecknold. He got himself a bit part on Shore. I can’t pick him out, but the liner notes suggest his tenor is tucked in that endlessly echoed chorus somewhere. He must have gleaned something worthwhile from the experience, because on his solo set, he’s found a perfect sweet spot between Fleet Foxes and mid-career Caetano Veloso. That means classic folk rock plus trace elements of tropicalia, samba, and bossa nova, with every leap between styles handled so gracefully that you won’t even notice there’s any cultural fusion going on. It’s an airy and sunny seaside church of an album, the temple flooded with illumination, a sonic channeling of brightest, longest, most hallucinatory days of June. Bernardes has an impeccable sense of melody, and his internal clock is so well calibrated that he’s as spellbinding over an acoustic guitar as he is when he’s leading a band plus string section. Everything on this album feels note-perfect and inevitable, but the home stretch — from “A Balada De Tim Bernardes” to the finish line — is just breathtaking, and no matter how many times I’ve played it (I’ve, er, played it a bunch), I’m always stopped in my tracks at the gleaming sundial, amazed this record has a twenty-first century copyright. The overwhelming sense of 1974-ness, to paraphrase Alisdair MacLean, that suffuses this record might be a bit much to somebody who finds the idea of a “lost classic” risible. But this is not something you need to be a bell-bottomed hippie to appreciate. You just need a taste for the verities. Eu acredito em Beatles, he confesses on “Mistificar:” I do believe in Beatles. Even if he hadn’t said it, you’d know it.
Toro Y Moi — Mahal Oh, Chaz Bundick. Always in this exact spot. Always likable and spinnable, always far too forgettable. Cute, I think is the word for it. We know I like cute things, and I do like Chaz, which is probably why I’ve spent so much time sifting for through-lines and motivations in his winsome but firmly inessential body of work. To his credit he’s tried his hand at a bunch of different chill-playlist styles: lo-energy dance music, ’80s sophistipop complete with cheese guitar, chillwave, whatever the heck that was. Mahal is one of those melty A.M. gold soundtracks that Dev Hynes or Juan Wauters likes to do, pretty, backgroundy, nostalgic as an aesthetic and maybe a way of life. I’ll keep playing it in the hope that something sticks, and I’m sure a few things will: a neatly stacked sequence of notes, a rhythmic break, a mantra-like line, some hot breath. But that’s all the loose change and corner store candy I’m going to get out of this old reliable vending machine. By now, I know better than to shake it too much. That bag of potato chips, hanging at the end of the coil?, that ain’t never gonna drop.
Vieux Farka Touré & Khruangbin — Ali This is the first Khruangbin project that sounds like something more than slick background music at an embassy party. That’s mostly because of Vieux Farka Touré, who drags his new American friends into a unmapped corner of the Maghreb, far from the reach of their masters in the FBIlluminati. No picturesque sand dunes around, but lots of scrub growth, pebbles, and corrugated-iron shacks. It’s beautiful in a way, and certainly balmy. A party could break out. Or you could get eaten by a hyena.
Vince Staples — Ramona Park Broke My Heart Some gangsta rappers write love songs to their guns. But what about a love song written by the gun and addressed to the gangsta rapper? Never mind that guns can’t write; don’t be a wiseass. You know what they say in the NRA: guns don’t kill Vince Staples, Vince Staples kills Vince Staples. Vince sure does gild the hell out of the lily here: in the second verse, the gangsta is in prison, and the gun is waiting (?) at home, lost, wondering melodramatically where its counterpart might be, and when they might see some action again. Then there’s the song where he’s haunted by the one who got away, meaning the rival gangster who evaded the scope of his high-powered rifle. Those flowers in Vince’s arms are going on a dead homie’s grave. They are not going to a girl. No way no how. Girls have cooties. Yet the preponderance of romantic metaphors and mash-note language on this set kinda betrays the author, who always likes to come across as a dead-eyed ghetto child. Vince’s first album wasn’t just great because of the stark, gorgeous No I.D. production. It was also candid about the narrator’s bewilderment and sexual confusion, and the brutal difficulties he’d encountered while trying to make interpersonal connections in a place as ruthless as Long Beach. Since then, Vince has strained to convince us (meaning himself) that he’s impervious to the feminine, even as we know damn well he’s too smart and too ambivalent to be a P.I.M.P. While his records are always strong, those thick castle walls he’d built around his consciousness were really getting in the way of his expressive latitude. Ramona Park is the sound of those defenses crumbling. Vince sounds all mixed up again, unsure of himself, uncertain about where the lethal weapon ends and where his body begins. Maybe the body is gone, eaten by the streets, replaced by cold metal. Maybe just maybe the weapon isn’t there at all, and never was.
Wet Leg — Wet Leg I’ve seen this called landfill sprechesang, and ouch. Maybe we have taken this Ian Dury/Parklife declamation business a bit too far. But we also can’t leave all of this territory to the Sleaford Mods, now, can we? There are only so many fooking tory coonts to skewer. Despite the vaguely gross band name, Wet Leg is getting received with more patience than Yard Act is, and rightfully so. I’d much rather hear a girl talk than a boy talk, and I reckon the boys in Yard Act feel the same way. Rhian Teasdale of Wet Leg also has a fairly neat way with a tune, which she trots out when she’s done with her recitation. She’s got some stuff to say about supermarkets, nocturnal emissions and the necessity of bubble baths, and she works the band into a pleasant froth on the nifty closer and the chorus this minor but thoroughly enjoyable landmark will be remembered for: all day long on the chaise lounge. Her insouciance and her Wire-lite riffs have gotten her compared to Justine Frischmann, but really it’s Sleeper all the way, right down to the TV sitcom guitar tone. Which suits: a whole lotta (wrong) people thought that Sleeper was landfill Britpop.
Widowspeak — The Jacket On Plum, Widowspeak found a way out of the mushrock conundrum via their bass player — a dude with a super-tight moon-bounce sound that made everything feel tight and elastic and resonant. Unfortch, that guy either got really high or fell in a manhole in Bushwick, because the rubber cement that held Plum together is absent on The Jacket. Instead, the guitarist noodles all over this set, and by no means are those noodles al dente. That’s nothing to serve poor Molly Hamilton. Margo Timmins would have sent it back to the kitchen.
Will Sheff — Nothing Special Will baits the critics with a humble, self-effacing title. This album is nothing special, and, it’s implied, its author is nothing special, too. Meanwhile, Will’s former bandmate Jonathan Meiburg opts for the most overblown title imaginable. His album, see, is The Great Awakening. Scales are falling, eyes are opening, the sleepers are being roused from their torpor by Jonathan’s magnificence. I can’t help but recall that at the very height of Okkervil River’s popularity, Will introduced Jonathan onstage at Castle Clinton as the principal of the “infinitely superior Shearwater.” Those were nice words for a dedicated collaborator. But it was in no way insincere, and I trace Will’s long, sustained altimeter drop from that moment. Will has spent years running hard from the things he did well, and attempting to adopt aesthetic characteristics associated with Shearwater: long songs with loose structures, impressionistic lyrics, an elliptical, mystical quality, something akin to the spirit of the great Van Morrison records of the mid-’70s. He decided that “there’s something buried in the ice in the deepest part of the wood” was more evocative than “the President’s dead.” Trouble is that will isn’t Van The Man. He’s got a weedy proletarian voice that’s at its best when he’s howling his head off, and a rhythm guitar style that works when he’s strangling the fretboard and scraping with all his might. He’s not a bit psychedelic and he isn’t looking for God. He’s a hardcore materialist and a believer in specificity with an eye for emotional consequence. His talent is for writing long, talky, marathon-chewy pieces about the My Lai massacre, poseurs who shoot reversal film at Angkor Wat, and the excruciating frustration that arises when he can’t fuck a chick who has been molested by her gross father. It’s soapy stuff, really, but it’s also pretty great. Will was so good at this that it looked for awhile like he was going to be a Hall Of Famer via accretion and perseverance. But the sharp turn toward indirection and mystery has knocked him way off course, and by 2015, on the still-very-good Away album, he was trying to get over with choruses like “you’re just a girl on a street.” He followed that up with the not-very-good-at-all In The Rainbow Rain, an exercise in forced positivity so transparent and ineffectual that it spelled the end of Okkervil River. Nothing Special is an uptick, but it absolutely had to be to justify the investment in time. Once again he’s leading a giant lite-rock ensemble, and he lets the six-strings soar and the drums patter, and the bass wander, and the melodies struggle upward from the humus like dandelions. The words concern the narrator’s feelings of encroaching obsolescence and the vocals are anguished cries over spilled milk, which makes these tunes for our times. It is absolutely worth a few spins, and it’s a grower, as all the Okkervil projects were. But when Will says that he considers the bleary, meandering “Holy Man” the best song he’s ever written, I am afraid I believe him that he does. I further believe — no, I know — that he is terribly, tragically wrong. That error has cost him plenty. Us, too.
Ximena Sariñana — Amor Adolescente A mixed bag for sure, but everything jumbled up in this overstuffed plastic Halloween pumpkin of an album sure is sugary. I see candy corn deluxe, fruit-flavored fizz, and a few goobers, too. We get a Taylor Swift knockoff en español, some frothy pop-reggaeton, indie rock that hearkens back to her stormy heyday, and a couple of quasi-burners reminiscent of her borderline ridiculous attempt to be a party starter. Not that you’d ever turn down a dancefloor solicitation from a library girl. For the first time, Ximena incorporates Mexican beats and harmonic progressions into her songwriting, and while she’s no more a ranchera than Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), I’m pleased to say she nails it all and should indulge in such cultural appropriation more often. She gets slinky on “Bailas,” joins forces with the mariachis in Flor De Toloache on the thrilling “Amor Mas Grande,” and bounces along on a Farfisa-driven Tex-Mex groove on “Mr. Carisma,” which is, for my pesos, the single most enjoyable track she’s ever cut. Her CDMX address gives her license to do stuff that a United States songwriter wouldn’t be allowed to do, but it’s boldly inauthentic nonetheless, and it’s that inauthenticity that brings the thrill. Because that bold inauthenticity, see?, that inauthenticity makes it pop.
Yard Act — The Overload From across the pond, all the sprechesang looks like an attempt to respond to the persistent challenge of American hip hop, which is something that British hip hop, in my considered opinion, fails to do. The Brits are a language culture — that’s what we like about them. They don’t know how to paint or cook or kick a field goal, but they’re handy with one-liners, scathing, Tracy Jacks character sketches and Condition Of England novels. It is in the context of hip hop that it is best to understand Yard Act: not a post-Brexit assessment, but a plan of transatlantic integration wherein an opinionated Brit with questionable personal confidence interrogates the role of swagger in society. Can UK people, with their stiff upper lips and all, accommodate bling bling, or upward social mobility? When it appears that they have become rich, as the narrator appears to have on “It Appears I Have Become Rich,” how absurd are their humblebrags? When they take on Stateside boastfulness, their beefeater faces nearly burst from the combination of culturally imposed restraint, seething resentment, and unfettered desire to lord it over their neighbors. That’s a lot to get in one song, but get it all they surely do. James Smith’s compassion for the doomed protagonist of “Tall Poppies” is real. We American achievers may criticize his provincialism, but there’s really very little for a medium sized fish to gain in a medium large sized pond. That’s a point that another undersung chronicler of Britishism might have made: Anthony George Banks, underheralded author of, among other great things, “Time Table” and much of Selling England By The Pound.
Years & Years — Night Call Pure pop from the soda pop fountain. It just keeps fizzing out. Get your Big Gulp cup ready. Surely this would sound great if you were on the carousel at a fairground, with the electric lights flashing off of the ceramic manes of the horses, and the boy you were after was on the pony beside you, looking and not looking at you. Grab that brass ring, Olly Alexander. These ten tracks are pitched midway between early Maroon 5 and Troye Sivan, which is certainly fertile territory for a sprightly young singer to work. Meaningful co-sign #1: Olly was one of the lead actors in the God Help The Girl movie that I still can’t bring myself to see. Co-sign #2: Olly featured on the most recent Pet Shop Boys album, where he supplied some flashy, innocent twink energy to counterbalance Neil Tennant’s wise and withered homosexual ruminations. Co-sign #3 might be Elton John’s enthusiasm for Olly, but honestly, Elton likes everybody. All of these tracks are good, shallow fun for good, shallow affairs, but the real winner is the amazing “Sweet Talker,” which compounds the cheese of an ultracomputerized drum build with a symphony’s worth of glorious nonsense strings. If all EDM sounded like this, you wouldn’t be able to get me off of the dance floor.
YG — I Got Issues So here we are. I swore to myself I’d never do another one of these, and now I just did. Albums came out that Hilary would have loved to have heard; Joyce Manor stands out, but there were others. She didn’t hear them. So I did. I didn’t have her to read aloud to, so maybe I read aloud to you. I didn’t have her to check my grammar, so maybe it just goes unchecked. There were no car rides on 78 with the windows down, no Olivia Rodrigo singalongs; still, I sang. I could have stopped slow dancing, I could have stopped rhapsodizing, I could have stopped kidding around. I might have ceased to write down everything I heard. I did not. The beat goes on. For now, so do I.