Friday, August 15, 2014

FKA twigs - "LP1"

Listen to FKA twigs' album "LP1" at the bottom of this post.
The internet bought in to the hype surrounding Gloucestershire, England singer Tahliah Barnett last year due to her generally brilliant "EP2." Featuring generally brilliant production from Arca, the project took risks and about-faced more than most full-length albums. This all turned out brilliant, generally. On top of that, her eclectic visual presence, especially the vaguely pornographic and generally brilliant video to "Papi Pacify," convinced most internet music nerds that FKA twigs was generally brilliant and something they had never seen before. The music drew comparisons to Björk and Aaliyah.

Barnett's debut full-length came out this week to general acclaim. Critics usually froth at the mouth after a record this hyped comes out, but the universal praise for "LP1" is perplexing.

What is perhaps the record's biggest problem comes at its beginning. The only redeeming quality of "Prelude" is a brief, slick hip-hop breakdown in the middle, but it does little to showcase Barnett's talent. The only reason it appears to be there is to push the album's run time over 40 minutes so people can better justify spending 10 bucks on it. It's clear filler.

That's a shame, because the opener proper, "Lights On," might be the best of the album's four good songs—yes, four; you read that correctly. The honking synth, acoustic bass, and panflute bring to mind jazz and world music, not too far from the eclectic (and admittedly goofy) sounds of Pat Metheny. The chords in the chorus switch from minor to major in a manner similar to "Spain."

From there the record goes in to sinister, brooding lead single "Two Weeks." While the excellent video for the track is less sexual than that of "Papi Pacify," the lyrics are not. "You know I'd quench that thirst," "I can fuck you better than her," "My thighs are apart for when you're ready to breathe in," etc. Barnett delivers these bristly lyrics in her deadpan way, slinking in and out of the accompaniment and moving with the song like a wisp of smoke. Her voice tensely pushes higher and higher, nearing its limit as it explodes in a cathartic release in the bridge, which is one of the best musical moments on record so far in 2014.

But with the brilliant tandem of the album's opening two songs, it's already peaked. The album never reaches the musical or lyrical intensity after those two songs, going into the boring "Hours." The song feels like it wasn't finished. Its verse is disappointingly undeveloped. The song leans on the crutch of its lackluster hook and becomes redundant in the process.


Barnett previously found work as a backup dancer for pop videos, including Jessie J's "Do It Like A Dude." That's the thematic material for "Video Girl." The song feels forced and whiny. Why should anyone care that Barnett gets annoyed by people asking her if she's "the girl from the video?"

The second half of the record is mostly disposable. The production on "Numbers" is quirky and catchy in the way that Björk's album "Debut" is, but again, the songwriting leaves much to be desired. "Closer" and "Give Up" are both lethargic, their hooks too generic and poppy.

Closer "Kicks," however, has the same glitchy minimalism that trip-hop acts like Portishead explored a decade ago. As the longest track on the album, "Kicks" fills all of its five minutes and 25 seconds meaningfully, swirling through various sounds and structures. The closer is Barnett's best vocal performance of the album. Barnett dives in to her Knowles-esque lower register on the song in addition to stabbing the melody with her piercing falsetto.

The deliberate ballad "Pendulum" builds ever so slowly. Palm-muted guitar and echoing keyboard evoke post-punk. A clicking sound in the beat sounds like a knock on a door as Barnett tentatively delivers the song's longing lyrics: "So lonely trying to be yours."

The album has some great moments and Barnett has loads of potential. But most of it is mediocre. It gets boring quickly, and then gets even more boring. It's a short album by comparison, with only ten tracks, but most of the songs end up sounding twice as long as they actually are. "EP2" sounded consistent because Barnett stuck with one producer. On her debut LP, she uses a slew of hip-hop, pop, and avant-garde producers and it sounds disjointed. Barnett isn't a good enough songwriter yet to cook up a good album out of the diverse and challenging ingredients she has here from the producers.

"LP1" has loads more personality than other recent efforts by British R&B singers. That being said, it doesn't deserve to be put in a category with the best albums of the year. It has very little lasting power besides those few choice singles. And it's light-years away from work that the genre greats to whom she's drawing comparisons have done. Barnett has a lot of work to do if she wants to avoid being forgotten in a year.

Grade: C



NEXT WEEK: Cymbals Eat Guitars' defiant rocker "LOSE."

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Spoon - "They Want My Soul"

Listen to Spoon's new album "They Want My Soul" at the bottom of this post.
Back in late May, Spoon used the cryptic abbreviation “R.I.P.” to tease their new project. It was the first sign of new music from the Austin, Texas band since “Transference” in 2010.
The internet wondered. Britt Daniel and Jim Eno formed the band in 1993. Were they calling it quits after 21 years? It was a morbid sign from a band that has become almost universally loved over its tenure.
Thankfully, the letters stood for the title of the brazen lead single “Rent I Pay” from their eighth LP, “They Want My Soul.” Eno’s drums come thumping in and seize control of the song. Daniel sings cynical lyrics. He asks for peace that he “ought to be owed,” but realizes that’s what he signed up for two decades ago when he decided to start a rock and roll band.

Along with the commanding stop-and-start bassline and the fuzzy guitars, the opening track previews what the rest of the album will sound like. The rock-solid rhythm section trucks through the record while Daniel sneers.
The spacey “Inside Out” reflects the mystical orb of the cover. Daniel’s lyrics contradict themselves as keyboard, guitar, and harp create a sound without edges—much like the cover’s shapeless entity of light.
“Rainy Taxi” shows the same quiet reserve Spoon’s fellow rockers Wilco deployed on an entire album. Like much of “A Ghost Is Born,” the song uses tremolo-guitar sparingly to make way for a light groove from the piano, bass, and drums. But the song explodes in its brilliant bridge as the bassline pushes and Daniel laments, “I may run with you / I’ve got nothin’ else / I’ve got nowhere else.”
Standout “Do You” is a classic Spoon tune. Daniel’s sing-song “doot-doos” bend around a jazzy major-7 chord as the rhythm section (once again) chugs along. Daniel’s lyrics address a lover he’s calling to action: “Do you wanna get understood? / Do you run when it’s just getting good? / Do you, do you do you?”
“They Want My Soul” gets dark in its midsection. In the ominous "Knock Knock Knock," Daniel alludes to a recurring visitor in the chorus who might be dealing with addiction:  

"Every day I hear ‘knock knock knock'
Then I see you, and you’re shaking
And you’re breaking, and you tell me I’m you’re only friend
Then it starts all over again."

He’s fed up with someone or something for this entire album.

The ghoulish funk of the drums and tentative bassline call to mind “Animals”-era Pink Floyd and make it one of the record’s most intriguing moments. Daniel even puts his voice through a Floyd-like filter towards the end.
“Outlier” segues right in with a faster, urgent drum beat and an organ chord that echoes itself. Daniel is vaguely judgmental in the lyrics, especially in the “Garden State” line that many have noticed. The post-punk and new wave influences on the album are becoming more obvious.

Despite its foreboding title, the title track is one of the album’s poppiest songs. Daniel’s lyrics point out everyone who wants to get at him, but he seems to have accepted it and moved on. It’s Rob Pope’s leapfrogging bassline that completes the song as Daniel yells the chorus over the top of the band.
“I Just Don’t Understand” follows in the footsteps of “Don’t You Evah” by being better than the original, though it could be more fun by getting rowdier towards the end. “Let Me Be Mine” is another poppy song; a fun deep cut that fits well in the album’s second half.
“New York Kiss” closes out the album with brilliance from the band. The eclectic instrumentation—with vintage keyboard sounds, vibraphone, and extra percussion—augments Daniel’s understated vocal. The bassline, calling to mind Radiohead’s “Airbag,” dips in and out of the second verse before storming in with a purely post-punk rhythm in the chorus. The album even has a built-in encore as the band comes back in with another chorus after the stop-time bridge. It’s one of the band’s best songs ever and it couldn’t be much better as a closer.

With “They Want My Soul,” Spoon gives us the poppiness of “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga,” the Pixies-induced angst of “A Series of Sneaks,” the non-conventional sound fans fell in love with on “Kill The Moonlight,” and a little extra polish and finesse we haven’t heard before from the band.

Daniel sings with the confidence and cockiness that only a 20-year veteran of the business could have. He might be jaded, but he’s not washed-up. Once again, he proves he's one of the best songwriters of the 21st century here.

It might not have as much personality or be as much fun as those three other Spoon albums, but “They Want My Soul” is solid as hell. Rock-production gods Joe Chiccarelli and Dave Fridmann make it sleek and cool with near-flawless production.

It’s not new wave enough to be post punk, but it’s not innocent or light enough to be indie rock. At the risk of coining a new dumb music category, I might call it post-indie? In an era where more and more kids are throwing out their guitars and buying turntables, bands like Spoon need to exist so that the legacy of the guitar will continue.

Others have pointed out that “They Want My Soul” seems like it will be the last Spoon album. Listening to Daniel’s lyrics and looking at the title, you get the sense that his return to music is a somewhat reluctant one.

But what a swan song this would be. Spoon have heard everything about how rock music is dying, and they came back to show everyone that, dammit, they can still make a fucking good rock album.

Far from what that teaser seemed to suggest, Spoon is nowhere near dead.

Friday, December 27, 2013

2013 Music Roundup

Hey folks, here's my annual list of my favorite music things of the year. You'll find my top ten favorite albums of the year, along with a slew of honorable mentions, as well as a few of my favorite songs. Enjoy!

Albums

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order by artist):

LongLiveA$AP - A$AP Rocky
Old - Danny Brown
Nothing Was The Same - Drake
Days Are Gone - Haim
Excavation - The Haxan Cloak
Immunity - Jon Hopkins
Matangi - M.I.A.
mbv - My Bloody Valentine
My Name Is My Name - Pusha T
Major Arcana - Speedy Ortiz
The 20/20 Experience - Justin Timberlake
Anything In Return - Toro Y Moi
Is Survived By - Touché Amoré
1017 Thug - Young Thug

1) Sunbather - Deafheaven

The music on both of these top two albums is excellent and thoroughly captivating. But Sunbather deserves this year’s crown because it will be much more important to the genre of metal than Yeezus will be to the genre of hip-hop. Metal has long been associated with darkness and ugliness, but Sunbather is the exact opposite. Its bright pink cover is an accurate representation of the bright and shining music within. The booming, dominant guitars cascade through the dramatic, epic chord progressions. The blastbeats and frantic basslines in the rhythm section drive the point home emphatically on every song. And George Clarke’s screamed vocals are an acquired taste, but they’re never overbearing and they contribute necessary emotion to the songs. Sunbather is a record that immediately blossoms to great heights and then pushes itself further and further. It’s a gorgeous, monumental, brilliant composition that’s arrived at a time when rock and roll music has hit a brick wall. Sunbather bridges the gap between rock fan and metal fan and raises the stakes for both genres. The music world needed a record like this, and it’s a miracle that the music on it turned out to be so wonderful.

2) Yeezus - Kanye West

Probably everything Kanye West does from here on out is going to be wildly divisive, and in that respect this album is a perfect representation of The Era of the Angry Yeezy. Within the first five seconds of “On Sight,” people decided they hated everything about this album. The mangy, visceral beats, the seemingly inappropriate sampling, the disgusting sexual lyrics. But those people also failed to realize that the music on Yeezus is undeniably brilliant; the work of a modern-day musical genius. Kanye deliberately throws everyone off course with this album as he conjures convoluted songs from a crazy conglomeration of genres. He’s not afraid to take risks, but somehow he pulls them all off. When the Jamaican dancehall vocals at the end of “Send It Up” segue abruptly into the throwback soul of “Bound 2,” it feels effortless. It made me think “how can he come up with stuff like this?” There’s very few musical minds more mesmerizing than Kanye’s at the moment, and with Yeezus he’s once again proved his astounding brilliance.

3) Modern Vampires of the City - Vampire Weekend

Vampire Weekend’s third LP is their first great album. We loved the whimsical fun of their first two releases, but here they share with us something much deeper and fully formed. The lyrical depth and musical polish of MVOTC is far advanced from anything on Contra. Bob Boilen of NPR’s “All Songs Considered” seems to think MVOTC joins the ranks of the all time great third albums. I wrote about why Boilen’s comparison of this album to Born To Run makes a lot of sense, and you can read that here.





4) Wheel - Laura Stevenson

The third LP by Long Island singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson is one that many music websites (i.e. Pitchfork) unfairly slept on this year. Stevenson’s deft and melancholy lyricism climbs to a poetic level higher than most others. She also brought in a new producer, who helped give the new record a heavier rock sound. The album boasts one of the strongest second halves of any album this year, and it’s one you won’t want to miss. I got the chance to interview Stevenson earlier this year, and you can read that here.



5) Cupid Deluxe - Blood Orange

Every album on this list features exquisite production, but if there’s one record where the production really stands out, it’s Cupid Deluxe. Dev Hynes captures the eclectic nuances of r&b like Prince before him. But it’s not just that the record sounds good. Hynes has also put together an excellent collection of songs, with catchy hooks, jazzy chord progressions, and heartbreaking lyrics. On closer “Time Will Tell,” Hynes puts it all together. A thumping synth bass joins a crunchy jazz piano riff as Hynes sings the poppy hook: “Time will tell if you can figure this and work it out / No one’s waiting for you anyway so don’t be stressed now / Even if it’s something that you’ve had your eye on, it is what it is.” He’s paired post-2000 anxiety with pre-1990 production to create a great pop record.

6) BEYONCÉ - Beyoncé

When Beyoncé Knowles dropped her fifth studio album without warning in the early hours of December 13, she shocked everyone. But should we really have been that surprised that she had been concocting one of the best albums of the year? Yoncé already seriously upped her game with 2011’s 4, where she proved that pop can be experimental, too. Her self-titled effort, though less worldly, is just as experimental, and once again expands the boundaries of pop. She enlisted a who’s-who of the pop/R&B world, including top-notch producers like Timbaland, Hit-Boy, and Pharrell Williams, as well as talented songwriters like Miguel, Frank Ocean, and Justin Timberlake. With so many great music makers working on the album, BEYONCÉ is one of the most diverse albums of any genre this year. But Beyoncé has co-writing and producing credits on every song, and the album is consistent and fully realized. Katy, Gaga, Miley, and Britney all released new albums this year, but Beyoncé blasts her competition into another universe with this album. Her message to her contemporaries is loud and clear: “bow down, bitches.”

7) Acid Rap - Chance The Rapper

Chance The Rapper is just so much fun. The 20-year-old Chicagoan burst onto the scene with a mixtape that was better than most real hip-hop albums this year (looking at you, Magna Carta). He found a way to pair the new Chicago sounds of juke and footwork with the soul-inspired beats we’ve come to associate with the Chi thanks to people like Kanye and Common. The horn- and piano-laden tape is fresh and bouncy, but also contains conscious lyrics. “Down here it’s easier to find a gun than it is a fuckin’ parking spot” he raps on “Pusha Man.” At such a young age, Chance has already demonstrated that he knows how to make a really good hip-hop album. This kid’s going places.



8) Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels

On the other side of the coin from Acid Rap is Run The Jewels. Killer Mike and El-P are two veteran rappers who get together to spit in the face of the rap game on Run The Jewels. It’s a fast-paced and brief whirlwind of lavish lyrics, fierce flows, and brazen beats. The songs go by so fast that on your tenth listen you’ll still discover new things. Mike and El have been around too long to let slip something on a record that they don’t have complete confidence in. There’s never an insincere moment here. Run The Jewels will blow you away.






9) Woman - Rhye

It’s hard to make a sexy record that doesn’t sound pornographic. Rhye don’t keep anything to themselves on Woman. “I’m a fool for that shake in your thighs” Mike Milosh croons on the album’s first line (just think about it for a second…). But Woman avoids sleaziness with its sleek, minimal production. Milosh’s androgynous voice keeps the album cryptic, as well. Explicit lyrics aside, the songs are cool, groovy, and unconventional. Most of the songs feature a string quartet, which gives a welcome retro air to the otherwise futuristic music. Rhye’s music evokes images of dimly lit, hip nightclubs. They even perform all their shows in the shadows, allowing only candlelight into venues. Listening to this record will make you feel hip, like you’re in on something that most people don’t understand.

10) The Electric Lady - Janelle Monaé

Janelle Monaé’s sophomore effort is just as diverse, theatrical, and captivating as her debut. The two halves of the record are very different, as they follow the high concept of fugitive android Cindi Mayweather. But even with Monaé’s dedication to the concept, the music is great. She employs a slew of collaborators, including the alchemist Miguel on “Primetime,” who turns everything he works on into gold. Monaé has one of the best pure singing voices in all of pop today. We’re lucky that she does, or else the ambitious feats she attempts wouldn’t succeed the way they have for her first two albums. She will continue exploring on her future releases.

Songs

1) "Play By Play" - Autre Ne Veut
2) "Hold On, We're Going Home" - Drake ft. Majid Jordan
3) "Sunbather" - Deafheaven
4) "Shabba (Remix)" - A$AP Ferg ft. Shabba Ranks, Busta Rhymes, and Migos
5) "Mine" - Beyoncé ft. Drake
6) "Body Party" - Ciara
7) "Time Will Tell" - Blood Orange
8) "Diane Young" - Vampire Weekend
9) "Blood On The Leaves" - Kanye West
10) "Retrograde" - James Blake

I could have put together some Spotify playlists, but you can listen to these songs and albums somewhere on the internet probably. They shouldn't be very hard to find. Anyway, thanks for reading!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Built to Spill and the present state of rock and roll




This past Tuesday, I had the pleasure of seeing Built to Spill in concert.  The Idaho rockers had a hand in the creation of alternative rock back in the 1990s along with Pavement, Nirvana, and Sonic Youth.

Frontman Doug Martsch experimented with layering noisy guitar chords and alternative tunings to create 1990s classics like “Perfect From Now On” and “Keep It Like A Secret.”  Martsch is 44 now, but he and the rest of the band proved they still know how to rock after all these years.

They opened with the beautiful “Velvet Waltz,” a song I didn’t even expect them to play, much less open with.  That song showcases the sound layering that made Built to Spill so famous in a sublime way.  They continued with the punky “You Were Right,” an ode of sorts to the classic rock Martsch grew up on.

The band did an excellent job of mixing their early pop cuts like “Reasons” and “Joyride” with longer, more experimental songs like “Untrustable.”  Martsch sounded as polished as ever on guitar, and his distinctive vocal whine hasn’t lost much intensity as he has aged.  It was a great rock show.

It got me to thinking about the present state of rock and roll.  The seminal genre that kickstarted popular music as we know it is struggling right now.

Before I dive in to this, I need to define what I call “rock and roll.”  It’s literally impossible, as is categorizing any kind of music, but I’ve come up with a very loose, very broad definition.

Rock and roll started with the guitar, bass and drums.  That’s still the core group of instruments that, along with vocals, we can call rock and roll.  Other instruments, like piano, strings and horns, are often featured.  But for me, rock and roll should be based on those three core instruments, especially the guitar.

With the exception of two brief uses of a cowbell, Built to Spill only used those three instruments on Tuesday.  But let’s remember that they mostly played songs that are 15-plus years old.  I love the band, and I loved the show, but they haven’t really demonstrated any innovation since 1999’s masterful “Perfect From Now On.”

It seems to me that Martsch and the band know this.  Out of the 15 songs they played (excluding two covers), only four were from their albums after 1999.  They played two each from 2006’s “You In Reverse” and 2009’s “There Is No Enemy.”  These two albums, while they have their highlights, are generally considered to be two of the weakest in Built to Spill’s seven-album catalogue.

You’d think a band would play mostly songs from their latest album on a tour.  I saw Bruce Springsteen last year after he released “Wrecking Ball,” and even though the Boss has an incredible body of work, he played a lot of songs from his newest album.

But not Built to Spill.  Martsch has always seemed like an insecure rock star kind of guy, but it was clear from Tuesday’s setlist that he doesn’t have much confidence in his latest two releases.  Could it be he thinks his band’s conventional rock sound has run its course?  After all, what all can you possibly do with just guitar, bass, and drums?

The two openers also only used the three core instruments.  The first, Genders, had some nice songs that were well-written.  But they heavily borrowed sounds from other bands.  I thought their rhythm section sounded like Yuck, their guitars sounded like Real Estate’s and their singer sounded like Victoria Legrand from Beach House.

The second opener, Slam Dunk, was a lot of fun.  Again, they used only the core group.  They had a goofy onstage persona and yelled a lot, which was really entertaining.  But none of their songs were all that interesting.  I got bored in the middle and looked at my phone for a while.

The truth is rock and roll has hit a brick wall.  In indie music, its presence is catastrophically limited.  There are some groups you could consider rock and roll.  Arcade Fire have the driving rhythms and guitar riffs that characterize the music, but they are also heavily orchestral.  Their new, electronic-influenced music would have Chuck Berry rolling in his grave if I called it rock and roll.

People call bands that have banjos and saxophones rather than electric guitars “indie rock,” but that’s not the type of music the genre was founded on.  Bands like the Black Keys and the White Stripes are definitely rock, but their music is largely a throwback to blues sounds.

Speedy Ortiz released a wonderful album this year.  Its sound is harder to pinpoint, but it again borrows from the alt rockers of the 1990s.  Torres released a raw, emotionally powerful rock album at the very beginning of this year, but she’s from Nashville and borrowed songwriting techniques from the country singer-songwriters of that city.

Deerhunter are pretty clearly rock and roll, and their frontman Bradford Cox has a fresh style of songwriting.  But they borrow heavily from the garage-rock sound of the Strokes.  Emo/screamo revival bands like Touche Amore and The World Is A Beautiful place are trying to bridge the gap between mainstream and alternative, but it’s slow-going and has little potential for success.
The freshest rock release in recent memory came in the form of Deafheaven’s “Sunbather.”  Their mesmerizing mix of shoegaze guitars, black metal drums and screaming vocals make a great concoction that is excellently executed and produced.  It’s about the only rock release I can think of from the last five years that has lasting potential.

There are lots of bands that have decent songwriters who write nice melodies, but most of them borrow from earlier bands and sounds.  That’s not enough to create really good music with lasting power.  It’s not enough to be catchy, there has to be something new and different.  And that’s something for which the rock and roll genre is at a loss right now.

Of course, rock and roll is based on borrowing aspects of music from other people.  But for as long as the genre has existed, we’ve seen new, innovative sounds.

Bo Diddley was an experimental master of guitar.  George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimmy Page all had polished, perfected, and unpredictable guitar skills.  Then Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo came along in the 80s and made the guitar sound like a totally different instrument.  Only a few short years later Kevin Shields reinvents the instrument again.

Radiohead and Wilco both made strides in experimental music at the beginning of the 2000s, but they didn’t totally flip the genre on its head like those other guys did.  It’s been a long time since we’ve seen anything truly new in rock and roll.  And if Doug Martsch can’t figure it out, it will be very difficult for anyone else to get out of the rut.

I don’t consider myself a classicist by any means.  I like music new and old.  But I’ve realized that for at least the past year of my life, most of the rock and roll I’ve listened to has been from before 2000.  There just isn’t interesting stuff happening right now.

I don’t know what to tell people to do with their guitars to sound new.  I don’t have the answers.  But I do know that the situation is dire and only getting worse.  It would be a shame to see this great music go away, but maybe it has run its course.  It seems to be the beginning of the end.