Purple Mountains

 

Purple Mountains

8

Berman’s Brave New World

by Jericho Cerrona

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In 2009, David Berman quit music. As a cult icon fronting lo-fi indie group Silver Jews in the 90s and 2000s, the man could have kept making albums (along with a book of cartoons, documentaries, and poetry), but instead, he spent a decade going after his corporate father, Richard Berman. Within the familial discord there was also reflection, loss, martial strife, and a rekindled love of reading. As a purveyor of bummed out poeticism, Berman’s work sits nicely alongside troubadours such as Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Bill Callahan. Like those artists, Berman weaves narratives rife with malaise and the idea of being fucked by the universe. He’s also self-aware, and at times, very funny.

There’s a full band this time out utilizing members of psych rock group Woods to fill out the rustic sound, and the results are more lush and orchestral than anything in Silver Jews’s back catalog. Still, despite the sonic upgrade, this is sad bastard music. Kicking a prolific drug addiction, conversion to Judaism, a failed marriage, the death of his mother; Berman’s life over the past decade has been almost as scattered as previous decades, but Purple Mountains finds a surprising vulnerability amidst the pain.

Make no mistake, Berman is still as depressed as ever, but there’s an openness here which finds the singer-songwriter unfurling a laundry list of foibles and insecurities without ever coming across misanthropic. Our failures are what makes us human, and Berman is a canny enough songwriter to match that notion with jaunty melodies. One might even mistake opener “That’s Just The Way That I Feel” for an upbeat riot; with its honky-tonk piano, saloon organ, and rollicking groove, but the lyrics depict a man in complete free-fall. Things have not been going well/ This time I think I finally fucked myself Berman sings in his gravely croon, and when he laments When I try to drown my thoughts in gin/ I find my worst ideas know how to swim, we are fully in the realm of a psychological spiral.

The largest weight on Berman’s fragile heart is his disintegrated marriage to Cassie Marrett, who was part of the Silver Jews touring band back in the mid 2000s and whom Berman claims saved his life. Marrett was by his side through some of his darkest days; including suicide attempts and heroin addiction, and this union seems to have set him on a more hopeful path. However, as evidenced by the bittersweet ballad “All My Happiness is Gone”, the gulf between them has become insurmountable. With mordant wit, Berman dictates a scene where his estranged lover is moving on while making new friends as he watches placidly. This is a genuine vision of an introvert; someone who doesn’t want to alienate those around him, but can’t help but feel insignificant in the company of so many bright faces. On “Darkness in Cold”, this sentiment comes full circle with the realization that his wife is going out with a new beau as he looks on in resignation. There’s never a sense that Berman is shaming the woman he loves or even disapproving of her actions. Rather, he berates himself for not being able to make her happy with lines like she kept it burning longer than I had right to expect.

To say Purple Mountains is simply about Berman’s struggle with a failed relationship is reductive, though, since the first foray into writing again post Silver Jews was brought about by the death of his mother. The utterly gorgeous “I Loved Being My Mother’s Son” is a prime example of this; a direct elegy for the one person who knew him best. Berman never allows his lyrics to become saccharine, even as the Americana stylings of the instrumental give off an almost uplifting vibe. It’s a mournful song, to be sure, but it also transcends so many confessional ballads dealing with deceased loved ones in that it nails the absurdity of existence to begin with. The futility of mortality is examined even further on “Nights That Won’t Happen”, a slow tempo bummer that, according to Berman, details his regrets of not being there for a drug addict friend before he passed away. Truthfully, death haunts nearly every song here; the inevitability of it, the depression regarding aging, and the idea that all one’s accomplishments will be lost to time.

Whatever the case, there’s no question that Purple Mountains will not suffer such a fate, resting triumphantly alongside the best Silver Jews albums. It’s a Berman creation through and through; sardonic, playful, sad, funny, and brimming with fractured narrative vignettes. Through all the pain and defeat, there’s a sense that Berman is transitioning into a new phase. When he sings If no one's fond of fucking me/ Maybe no one's fucking fond of me on closer ”Maybe I’m the Only One For Me”, it’s less dictating an ideology than it is about self-acceptance. Berman isn’t asking anyone to feel sorry for him because he isn’t feeling sorry for himself, and for all its downbeat introspection, Purple Mountains ultimately emerges as the ultimate “self-care” album.

The Flaming Lips

 

Kings Mouth: Music and Songs

6

Disembodied heads and children’s lullabies

by Jericho Cerrona

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The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, and it could be argued that after 15 studio albums, fame still eludes them. Still, they’ve collaborated with the likes of pop superstars Ke$ha and Miley Cyrus, so that counts for something, right? Beginning life as an alt psych band in the late 80’s before landing a hit single with 1994’s “She Don’t Use Jelly”, the Lips seemed forever on the verge of being “the next big thing” for most of the 90s. It wasn’t until 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2002’s followup Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots that the Oklahoma weirdos broke through with mainstream acceptance and universal critical acclaim. A series of wild, hallucinogenic live shows and Grammy nominations followed, cementing the band as that rare outsider art crossover act. The fallout from such success, naturally, was more outsider left-turns into self-indulgence. Bizarre 24 hour-long songs, experimental double albums, covers of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and Dark Side of the Moon, and those aforementioned collabs with pop divas became the norm. The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, sure, but they were perhaps trying too hard to be gonzo and lost the thread.

With Kings Mouth, Wayne Coyne and company have returned to a more gentle form of psych rock/electronica with a concept album in conjunction with a children’s book and massive art exhibit. Initially released in a limited vinyl-only edition on Record Store Day, the album is in many ways a return to form, and shockingly, the first time the band has ever made an album with a complete narrative through-line. While there are occasional forays into proggy soundscapes (“Mother Universe”), on the whole, the record is much more straightforward. Of course, this is also admitting that the conceptual framework involves a monarch’s giant disembodied head swallowing galaxies as narrated by The Clash’s Mick Jones.

Like most Lips albums, Kings Mouth is grabbling with the big ideas; life, death, mortality, love, and the mysteries of the universe, but there’s a lightness of touch this time that may even surprise diehard fans. Truthfully, there’s a lot here which recalls Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, with songs like the digital-folk ballad “The Sparrow” and the woozy funk-pop of “How Many Times” coming instantly to mind. However, more cinematic tracks such as the reverb-heavy dirge “Electric Fire” and the Tangerine Dream-esque “Funeral Parade” are cut from the more sonically bold side of the band, ala 2009's Embryonic. In any case, Coyne, Steve Drzod, and Michael Ivins disappear far less up their own asses here than on their last release, 2017’s cosmic flop Oczy Mlody.

Unlike that album, which lazily recycled autotune, pitch shifting, and wannabe hip-hop beats, Kings Mouth feels much more sincere. Coyne’s wispy vocals persist, but there’s very little moaning about the state of things. Perhaps his recent marriage and birth of his first child has given him a rosier outlook. Whatever the reason, tracks like “How Can a Head” feature swirling violins, blippy electronics, and an almost blissful attitude. “Giant Baby” is essential a warped children’s lullaby, which is on brand, but it never feels contrived. Less successful are the droning interlude-style songs, like “Dipped in Steel”, which is basically just Jones talking nonsense over plucked guitar chords and warm keyboards, and the washed out, effects-heavy “Mouth of the King”.

The Flaming Lips never wanted to be famous, and Kings Mouth won’t push the needle on that front. Nor will it feature heavy rotation on Spotify playlists. The whole idea of a concept record in 2019 is laughably admirable, as only a small percentage of the population even bothers with full-length albums anymore. To that end, the Lips are still doing the same thing they were doing back in the mid 90s, only now with more grey hair and back pain. More importantly, Kings Mouth is the sound of the band loosening up a bit after the ill-advised Miley Cyrus phase and the navel-gazing mess of Oczy Mlody. It is, for better or worse (mostly better) a true Flaming Lips experience, widespread acceptance be damned.

Thom Yorke

 

ANIMA

7

I, Yorke

by Jericho Cerrona

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The idea of dystopian vibrations coming from living in a technologically advanced society has always been a major component of Thom Yorke’s work. For years, Radiohead distilled the idea of being swallowed by the impersonal void of techno-babble, especially on albums like OK Computer, KID A, and Amnesiac. Yorke’s solo work has also dabbled in this area as well, combining his fear of the future with a more pronounced emphasis on downtempo electronica. ANIMA is certainly the songwriter’s most expansive release yet, and also his darkest and most disturbed. Fans who may have been put off by the restrained tone of 2014’s Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will find much more to chew on here, as the album takes some of the blippy soundscapes from Yorke’s excellent 2006 solo debut Eraser and adds notes of dark avant-techno.

From a production standpoint, ANIMA is a triumph. Yorke and longtime producer Nigel Godrich dig into a variety of layered compositions (it isn’t simply glitchy beats and synth stabs), and everything is balanced to the point of being awe-inspiring. Perhaps such a meticulous aesthetic approach isn’t a surprise given someone of Yorke’s talents and means, but the record sounds incredible. In that sense, ANIMA is the perfect “headphone” album experience.

One of Yorke’s strongest assets as a songwriter is his ability to meld melody with abstraction, and that tension is held on a razors edge throughout ANIMA. Opener “Traffic” has a pulsating electronic groove and standard song structure, but on “Twist”, the bustling bass line and skittering beat segue into into warm synth patches and choir-like chants. “Dawn Chorus” strips things back to brilliant effect using only a delay-soaked piano, airy synths, and Yorke’s downtrodden vocals. It’s one of the album’s simplest songs, but also one of its best; tapping into that melancholic balance between hope and dread. On the whole, ANIMA is dense but not overly cluttered. Whereas younger artists working in the electronic genre often tend to blow out their sound and overcomplicate things, Yorke proves the adage that less is more.

There is something about Yorke’s music that has always felt like an alien observing the mundane activities of the human race, but here, there’s a genuine openness absent from much of his past work. It’s almost as if the Orwellian fears of a society bereft of human empathy dictated by machines is now upon us, and Yorke, who has been sheepishly reacting to such a future for decades, has come full circle. The social network and the neural networks of our subconscious are intertwined. The robots may be making music now powered by AI, but there’s no mistaking the human touch at the heart of ANIMA.

Perhaps the greatest collision of these two worlds is the music video short directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, which takes three songs from the album and reimagines them as a kind of choreographed dreamstate. It’s a stunning vision, and all the more alarming that it finds its home on the almighty Netflix algorithm. If ANIMA doesn’t quite reach the heights of Yorke’s work with Radiohead or even the crisp accessibility of Eraser, it’s not for lack of effort. This is the end of all things, after all, and Yorke will go down mumbling into the void.


Tyler, The Creator

 

IGOR

8

Dr. Frankenstein meets his therapist

by Jericho Cerrona

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Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to contradictions. His post-Odd Future output has been both alienating and inviting; culminating in 2017’s Grammy nominated Flower Boy; an album many think is the most mature work of his career. Earlier albums like 2013’s Wolf and 2015’s Cherry Bomb may have felt like abrasive demos at the time, but in retrospect, they signaled the emergence of an artist who knew exactly what he was doing. At only 28-years-old, Tyler is undeniably talented, and many will claim his latest LP, IGOR, contains his best and worst tendencies; oscillating between moments of melodic bliss and lo-fi production. Honestly, it’s simply another addition to Tyler’s growing narrative of self-discovery.

Yes, IGOR is a breakup album, and yes, it features the requisite tales of heartbreak and loss, but it’s also attuned to the idea of gracefully bowing out when things have clearly reached the end. Throughout the album, Tyler embraces an alter-ego who seems to be viewing a disintegrating relationship from afar. It’s an understandable process for dealing with heartbreak—using an avatar who can voice sentiments locked inside—and this motif plays out over a series of tracks which range from mid-tempo breakup ballads like “EARFQUAKE” to therapeutic stompers such as “NEW MAGIC WAND”. Elsewhere, on cuts like “RUNNING OUT OF TIME”, Tyler seems genuinely interested in the betterment of his ex, complete with the closing lines You never lived in your truth/But I finally found peace, so peace.

There’s a loose, almost psychedelic vibe to IGOR which may turn off those who fawned over the bright accessibility of Flower Boy. The neo-soul production and Neptunes-inspired arrangements from that release are less prominent here, poking out mostly on slower R & B-tinged tracks like “A BOY IS A GUN” and the Kayne West-featured “PUPPET”. The use of wonky synth lines, low end bass, and metallic percussion are all over IGOR, to the point where an early 80’s inspired post-punk album very well may be in the near future. The best moments here combine Tyler’s skills with harmony (the “for real/for real/for real this time” refrain from EARFQUAKE comes to mind) and the menacing sounds of gutter hip-hop ala WHAT’S GOOD. Additionally, there’s a surprising beat change on NEW MAGIC WAND which continues Tyler’s obsession with pushing his songwriting beyond what is expected in the genre.

In the past, Tyler's ambitions have gotten away from him, particularly on 2015's Cherry Bomb, which boasted way too many sonic ideas than he could possibly fit into one cohesive project. Flower Boy was a deconstruction of his public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all the controversial verses and ego-stroking seemed to be a forward-thinking artist interested in sincerity, and IGOR cunningly splits the difference between the emotional openness of Flower Boy and the low-end noise of his earlier work.

This combination works brilliantly; with Tyler’s often pitch-shifted vocals creeping under the mix along with a discernible lack of highlighting guest spots; with the likes of Playboi Carti, Charlie Wilson, Jack White, lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and others making brief appearances here. While IGOR lacks some of the emotional clarity and crisp production of Flower Boy, it makes up for it with attitude and soulfulness. In a bold move, Tyler resists the urge to layer his album with playlist fodder. Instead, the songs here deepen with subsequent listens as the lovesick narrative becomes more apparent. To that end, when Tyler sings Are we still friends? on the neo-soul closer of the same name, the implications are clear; Tyler may be lonely, but he isn’t defeated.

Foxygen

 

Seeing Other People

7

The thing is…Foxygen are still around

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ever since Foxygen became the “next big thing” some 7 years ago before imploding in spectacular fashion, they always seemed on the verge of breaking up. Part of the duo’s appeal was their reckless abandon, endless partying, drug use, in-fighting, and classic rock sonic experiments. In many ways, 2014’s self-indulgent mess …And Star Power was the culmination of this fact, though the album was never less than fascinating as a snapshot of young musicians testing whatever goodwill they had built up within the industry. 2017’s Hang was an obvious course correction, seeing as how it embraced 70’s glam and Broadway theatricality to mostly winning effect. Now, Sam France and Jonathan Rado have returned with what is easily their most accessible collection of songs on Seeing Other People; an AM soft rock pastiche that’s part Springsteen throwback, part 80s-tinged breakup album.

If this is indeed Foxygen’s final record, it does have the feeling of something which barely registers as a statement. For years, France and Rado have attempted to bounce back after falling down in a coked-up stupor, but part of their mojo came from reinvention. Seeing Other People is more indifferent than anything Foxygen has done in the past, which makes it their most focused effort yet. However, while there are hints of swagger here, the duo’s pomposity is mostly relegated to the sidelines over the course of 9 tracks. In its place is an emotional vacuum of longing; letting the old ways die seems to be the most obvious theme, with France at his most world-weary.

Still, embracing one’s demise can be infectious, and in the case of opener “Work”, it translates like a yacht-rock stomper, complete with self-effacing lines like Well I have got this work/But I’d rather powder my nose instead. Here, Foxyen continue their knack for cynical songwriting while also holding their tongue firmly in cheek, as the drug-addled fallout of their pre-30s years is looked upon with a tinge of embarrassment. Of course, this doesn’t mean Seeing Other People is some kind of work of maturity, either.

“Mona” plays like sleazy 80s synth-funk and comes across like a lesser version of an Ariel Pink song. “Face the Facts” is a warped little electronic pop song with wonky keyboard washes and percussion, while the slowed down ballad “Livin’ a Lie” showcases the dashed dreams and bitterness of young musicians who got caught up in the music industry smokescreen. The album’s crowning jewel is the unabashed Springsteen homage “The Thing is”, a song which is simultaneously catchy, swaggering, goofy, and badass. France’s voice has always hinted at Bruce intonations, but it’s pretty much a copy and paste job here; while the twinkling pianos, violin stabs, and thundering drums fill out Rado’s production.

For every brilliant moment like this, however, Foxygen run into trouble when they mistake irony for feeling. There’s a case to be made that France and Rado aren’t really “breaking up”, but merely growing into their own as people and musicians. On the whole, Seeing Other People uses overly-processed sounds and winking retro production not to comment on this directional change, but to play dress up. The Stones, Iggy Pop, Bowie, The Boss, Velvet Underground, Marc Bolan, Fleetwood Mac; they’re all here reinterpreted through the Foxygen lens, but there’s only so far one can take pastiche. And yet, there’s a real tension here musically which mirrors the push and pull quality of two friends who have been making music together since they were 14. Ultimately, Seeing Other People glides along with a groovy charm which is easy to admire, but it could have been a great record had Rado and France truly bared their souls.

SPELLLING

 

Mazy Fly

8

Like an alien falling to earth

by Jericho Cerrona

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The witching hour is upon us, and Oakland-based artist Tia Cabral will be acting as high priestess. As the mastermind behind SPELLLING, Cabral is carving out a niche for herself in the burgeoning Bay Area underground electronic music scene by inviting listeners to her sonic seance and then casting them out into the darkness. If her 2017 debut, Pantheon of Me, used warm synths and sultry balladry to conjure an intimate feeling, then Mazy Fly opens things up to a wider array of experimentation. Songs are built around vintage keyboard sounds, drum machine, and spacey effects, but Cabral’s voice remains as beguiling as ever. The overall atmosphere is gothic (perhaps even witchy), but also sexy, scary, and soothing. It’s an album for weirdos, lovers, and seekers.

The spiritual longing anchoring SPELLLING’s music makes it into a kind of prayer where mysticism and carnal human desire coexist. There are many influences colliding here— Italian progressive synth-based band Goblin, the glitchy electronica of Apex Twin, Erykah Badu’s style of R & B Afrofuturism, Brian Eno, 90’s IDM, Kate Bush—but Cabral has a distinct sound which reaches back into the past while imagining a new future.

On songs like “Haunted Water”, with it’s icy retro synth leads and cooing vocals, and the occultic “Hard to Please”, which sounds like it was recorded inside the belly of a cathedral, SPELLLING taps into something almost supernatural while never forfeiting base desires. Elsewhere, the album goes into ambient territory with “Melted Wings”, which uses a wandering sax and Vangelis-esque keyboards to conjure an atmosphere of sadness, while the opening moments of “Afterlife” has a chintzy sci-fi vibe complete with an elevated theremin intro.

This isn’t all doom and gloom, though. “Under the Sun” plays like a slowed down warped disco track which actually points toward hope for the human race. Cabral gets into more outsider territory with “Real Fun”, in which she paints the picture of two aliens looking for a good time. There are references to Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson, but the song eventually moves away from bliss into a crescendo-filled outro filled with apocalyptic synth lines and pounding drums.

Mazy Fly is a record which gradually worms its way into your bones. Cabral is constantly trying out new avenues with her voice; overlapping, layering, and placing them at fascinating sonic intersections. With all of the electronic buzzing and wonky synth passages, it would have been tempting for her to blow out the production, but she leaves enough space within the recordings to inject haunting melodies. If Mazy Fly is indeed the place to make contact with the dead, then SPELLING ultimately seems more interested in the land of the living; wrapped up in dreams, fantasy, and hope for a better world.

 

Deerhunter

 

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?

7

Death. Decay. Loss. Mental illness. Optimism?

by Jericho Cerrona

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Really, there’s nothing new under the sun. Just ask Bradford Cox, the lanky weirdo mastermind behind the curtain who has been making music as Deerhunter since 2001. His statements regarding physical disorders, sexuality, gender identity, and depression have become canon, but on Deerhunter’s apply titled 8th studio album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, the band conjure a certain kind of hope in not knowing.

Fatalism etches its way into nearly every track here, and even when Cox maintains a cheerful disposition (with the instrumentals following suit), it’s almost like crime scene detectives cracking macabre jokes about the deceased in order to remain sane. Paranoia and pessimism have always been a staple of Cox’s songwriting, manifesting itself in either nostalgic pop songs (Halcyon Digest) or abrasive guitar squalls (Monomania). On 2015’s Fading Frontier, electro dream-pop soundscapes were tethered to painful insecurities regarding an eroding American lifestyle. Here, Deerhunter have fully leaned into this demolished myth of the American dream; recording the entire album in Marfa, Texas while picking up matching Western hats to boot. The results are catchy enough to be reduced to “art-pop” and despairing enough to be labeled “baroque bummer rock”, but it’s really just a Deerhunter album. No matter what niche they slip into, they are always entirely themselves.

With the help of musician Cate Le Bon (who plays harpsichord on a few cuts here) and fellow DRINKS collaborator Tim Presley, the production throughout Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? follows a similar template as Fading Frontier in terms of accessibility, but with less studio polish. The tension between pastoral ambiance and krautrock-inspired grooves is apparent, as is the influence of Low-era Brian Eno. Opener “Death in Midsummer” lays down that aforementioned harpsichord along with Cox’s beguiling croon. “No One’s Sleeping” uses glistening guitar tones, horns, and a shuffling rhythm to disarming effect, since the song was written as a eulogy for murdered British politician Jo Cox. “Greenpoint Gothic” is a woozy Eno-influenced instrumental featuring drums and synths. “Element” and “What Happens to People” are pastoral dream-pop ditties conjuring both curiosity and sadness, with the later being especially representative of Cox’s uncanny ability to write earworm melodies drenched in lyrical melancholy. Other sonic detours include “Détournement” (in which Cox intones reactionary responses to our current world via robotic vocoder) and the haunting “Tarnug”, which sounds like a beautifully deranged children’s lullaby. Overall, the album’s brisk 36 minutes manages to cover a variety of sounds and emotions, but the fallout is consistent; the world is broken, and we left with more questions than answers.

Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? is, in many ways, a response to Halcyon Digest, considered by many to be the band’s masterpiece. The nostalgic hue permeating that record wasn’t a reactionary mistake, but more of a distillation of where Cox was at that particular time in his life. Now 36, he is older and wiser, but also more prone to debilitating hopelessness. The great strength of this record is that Cox knows unadulterated nihilism isn’t the answer. Instead, he sees the outer apocalypse in conversation with the inner one. What happens to people?/They quit holding on/What happens to people?/Their dreams turn to dark…he sings at one point. We will all die one day, the world will still be here (unless ecological destruction catches up with us), and time will stutter on. But, at the very least, we can listen wistfully to the music as we vanish into nothingness.

BROCKHAMPTON

 

Iridescence

5

Self-help studio therapy

by Jericho Cerrona

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What a difference a year makes for hip-hop supergroup (or “boy band”) BROCKHAMPTON, who stormed into public consciousness in 2017 with their highly lauded Saturation trilogy. Some may view the group’s rise as a sad commentary on the Internet age, where SounCloud rappers and meta-pop stars flourish while mainstays of the industry (Eminem, here’s looking at you, kid) stumble into irrelevancy. The truth is the insane amount of music BROCKHAMPTON managed to unleash in such a short amount of time actually delivered the goods; showcasing 15 members playing off one another’s strengths effortlessly. Saturation II was an especially potent distillation of the band’s strengths; combining funky synth-laden production with aggressive rapping and pop-oriented song structures.

However, trouble was brewing even before signing a huge deal with RCA records and hunkering down in London’s famous Abbey Road studios to record major label debut, Iridescence. Allegations of sexual misconduct against founding member Ameer Vann hit hard, causing a split with arguably the most talented MC in the band. Cancelled tour dates and written apologies followed, and very quickly, the mighty BROCKHAMPTON seemed to be on the verge of implosion. Would the painful in-group shakeup, not to mention financial payout for signing the RCA deal, relegate the talented young men creatively bankrupt? For all its production muscle and ambition, Iridescence is indeed the sound of a band swallowed up by expectations; whether external or self-imposed.

Right off the bat, the most noticeable thing about the album is its lumbering excess. On the surface, this isn’t such a bad thing, since BROCKHAMPTON have always thrived on their unbridled abrasiveness and unchecked emotion. Part of the outfit’s appeal is how they manage to cram each member’s songwriting prowess into the length of any given song, but throughout Iridescence’s 15 tracks, the band equate loudness (with every conceivable sonic bell and whistle) as a sign of maturity. Take, for example, album opener “New Orleans”, in which producers bearface and Jabari Manwa allow a weak bass kick, low hum of distortion, and Merlyn Wood’s dancehall verses to plod along for over 4 minutes. The song is a repetitive start to a record which rarely, if ever, finds its footing. “Thug Life” attempts to combine sugary piano with 90s R & B style crooning, but even here, BROCKHAMPTON sound as if they are trying too hard. Rather than stripping the song back (the piano motif is actually quite lovely), Kevin Abstract’s cheesy chorus regarding the trappings of wealth take the tune into the realm of self-parody. We get it. Becoming overnight celebrities is a bummer, and money isn’t everything. This theme is also explored on piano ballad “Tonya” and trip-hop influenced “Tape”, in which Matt Champion raps about Vann’s absence in ominous tones. The tale of DIY trailblazers caught in the whirlwind of success has been captured in all its messiness, but this arc is so predictable as to be nearly irrelevant at this point.

The album’s two best tracks, “Where the Cash at” and “District”, showcase the band at their most focused. Both are typical BROCKHAMPTON bangers in that they feel raw and unhinged; using the newfound studio sheen to fuck with sound, tempo, and vocal range. Elsewhere, there are novel stabs at honesty, such as Abstract’s confession to being attracted to men on “Weight” and the Gospel-tinged choir refrains throughout “San Marcos”. Most of the time, however, Iridescence comes across like a product of studio overhaul.

Ultimately, there are too many voices here. Too many ideas. Too many producers throwing in sonic arrangements. Of course, with a group this large and a major label debut this anticipated, the pressure to deliver on every conceivable level must have felt overwhelming. In many ways, Iridescence caves into these pressures while only occasionally allowing a purity of vision to peek through. Sadly, BROCKHAMPTON sound desperate, and their strain of braggadocious introspection about the perils of fame, is in dire need of the edit button.

Guerilla Toss

 

Twisted Crystal

7

Tossing in earworm melodies to go along with the weird

by Jericho Cerrona

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If slap bass isn’t back in vogue, no one bothered to tell New York new wave/noise band Guerilla Toss, whose latest album, Twisted Crystal, goes full bouncing fret on multiple occasions. Of course, getting out the funk, as it were, isn’t that surprising in this case. On their last record, GT Ultra, Guerilla Toss managed to dispel the notion that they had no interest in making pop music; (albeit pop music coded in acid), by cranking out some exuberantly fun tunes. Twisted Crystal is a far mellower listen, but no less bizarre; playing like psych new wave spun through a worn out VHS tape.

One of the major changes for the band (who have been kicking around since 2010), is the clarity of singer Kassie Carlson’s vocals. Of course, one listen to 2013’s abrasively bonkers Gay Disco and you can be forgiven for wondering if this is even the same group in terms of sound. Still, Carlson’s growth as both a singer and lyricist is probably the most forward-thinking aspect of Guerilla Toss’s recent move to DFA records; a label specializing in experimental dance music. In the past, Carlson couched her scrappy melodies behind reverb and effects, but throughout Twisted Crystal’s nine tracks, she allows herself less leeway in terms of fading into the background. The interplay between guitars, synths, angular percussion, and her voice is much more melodic here than on previous releases, starting with opener “Magic is Easy”, which sounds like 70’s funk rock recorded inside a fish bowl. Meanwhile, lead single “Meteorological” is easily the most straightforward her vocals have ever been as she adopts a spoken word style delivery reminiscent of David Byrne or Grace Jones, which is foregrounded by blipping sound effects, lazer synths, and a dancey backbeat.

Guerilla Toss channel more avant-pop on “Come Up With Me”, which feature that aforementioned slap bass, along with kitschy guitar leads, shimmering keyboards, and a killer chorus. Meanwhile, “Walls of the Universe” feels like a trip deep into the cosmos, with Carlson’s robotic vocals overlapping amidst spacey strings and synth crescendo. Is she disappearing into the nexus of the universe or simply enjoying the ride? The line between genuine introspection and winking pastiche is a fine one, and what’s so enjoyable about Twisted Crystal is the way it throws out philosophical ideas regarding the unknown without ever betraying the band’s vibrant aesthetic.

Twisted Crystal is undeniably a pop record, but one that takes its cues from 70s/80’s acts like Brian Eno, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads, Kraftwerk, and Gary Numan. However, though Guerilla Toss’s influences are obvious, this is not some cynical pastiche job. In their own unique way, the band manage to distill the outlier tendencies of these aforementioned acts with the more accessible signifiers of modern pop. If Gay Disco and 2016’s Eraser Stargazer bombarded the listener with an array of conflicting sounds, then Twisted Crystal, and to a lesser extent GT Ultra, open their arms to melody as a defining trait. The sonic detail here is just as ambitious and overwhelming, but more focused on songwriting and less intent on blowing your hair back via sheer lunacy. And therein lies the album’s magic. It combines the whacked-out with the serene, the absurd with the reserved, the spiked high with the placid come down. And, less we forget, there’s that slap bass to contend with. There will always be that glorious slap bass.

Death Grips

 

The Year of the Snitch

8

Junk folder punk

by Jericho Cerrona

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Death Grips are still here. Death Grips have put out at least one album per year since their inception. Death Grips are post-fan service. Death Grips are noided. Death Grips are, umm, online.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about the Sacramento, Ca hip-hop/noise/industrial trio's sixth studio album, Year of the Snitch, is that it exists at all. For who could have conceived of a universe in which a group which released 2011's mixtape Ex-Military in 2011 and seminal The Money Store a year later, would still be using the Internet as their troll-heavy marketing tool? Of course, real Death Grips fans (and they are an army lurking on Reddit forums) would suggest that there's more going on here than Shrek memes and surprise self-leaked albums. 

Honestly, if Death Grips managed to crash and burn in spectacular fashion--see their post Money Store fuck off to major label Epic Records--then it's reasonable to assume they would have disappeared inside the Internet void by now. Instead, they've managed to release a string of albums in wildly different modes while still maintaining their distinctive sound. Part of the band's mojo stems from their use of public and private abstraction. On the one hand, their music remains excitingly inscrutable, while on the other, you aren't going to see frontman MC Ride dropping revealing Instagram posts. In a way, Death Grips have used the Internet to both bolster their mystique as well as troll their fanbase/critics. 

If 2016's Bottomless Pit was a sonic summation of the band's M.O. (rap, grime, electro, noise, rock, among other things) inching them back towards the accessibility of game-changer The Money Store, then Year of the Snitch is something else entirely. While still maintaining their signature sound, rapper MC Ride, drummer Zach Hill, and producer Andy Morin take a leap into genre-bending absurdism this time out. Sure, the album is still noisy as fuck; but also weirder, looser, and more unusual than anything they've attempted yet. Featuring turntablist DJ Swamp and Tool bassist Justin Chancellor (though the latter's contributions, much like Bjork on Side 1 of The Powers that B, remain tough to accurately pin down), Year of the Snitch is all over the map; fusing electronica, hip-hop, prog, psychedelia, Krautrock, metal, and even 90's techno into one unholy stew.

Revelations come right away with opener "Death Grips is online", which blares like a 1995 Netscape rave before descending into seesawing synths and Ride's shrieks. The muddy soundscapes continue with "Flies", where lyrics about suicide merge with lo-fi beats and some of Ride's most understated (and melancholy) rapping. "Black Paint" scrapes off some of that Jenny Death-adjacent rock instrumentation; with ascending guitar riffs, abrasive shouting, rolling drum fills, and turntable scratches that eventually crescendo in a fit of squealing keyboards. It's easily the heaviest song on the album (aside from the appropriately titled "Shitshow"), and one likely to get old school fans primed to explode. Allusions to the Mansion family comes during bizarre electro mashup "Linda's In Custody", Hill gets to show off his off-timing drumming with "The Horn Section", a throwback to his early days jamming in instrumental outfit Hella, and then there's "Streaky", which is either a trap rap in-joke or an attempt at the kind of Soundcloud banger Death Grips usually seek to invert. Either way, it's ridiculously catchy; farcical and hip swaying in equal measure.

Leaning hard into the experimental side of things is no huge surprise given Death Grips' uncompromising nature, but much of Year of the Snitch is baffling in all the best ways possible; resisting easy readings, coherent themes, or even musical consistency. By the time Shrek director Andrew Adamson shows up intoning I’m in the studio with Death Grips. They have a dilemma, but they’ll win their dilemma on Dilemma, one half expects the entire project to collapse under the weight of its own inward-looking absurdism. However, and this has been abundantly clear over the years; Death Grips are potent songwriters. No matter how off-kilter things get--the vaporwave toss off "Little Richard" and jazz trip "The Fear" come to mind--there's no denying the band are operating at the height of their powers.

During the final track, "Disappointed", Death Grips pretty much call out their fanbase for reading too much into the band's mythos. We could all learn a lesson from this. Stop analyzing. Stop obsessing. The Internet is a gross, hostile place. Death Grips fans are biased. In other words (or in the words of Ride), Talk less, show less, snatch yours trap doors. Amen.

SOPHIE

 

OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES

9

Plastic. Elastic. Pop.

by Jericho Cerrona

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At its very basic level, pop music seeks to give the listener a comforting feeling; incorporating current sounds into an accessible package by using medium to short song lengths, verse-chorus structures, and catchy hooks. However, this is a fairly reductive description since there's real craftsmanship in making an exemplary pop tune. While many artists simply copy and paste a formula, the very notion that pop music is at the center of the culture means experimentation is essential in redefining the rules.  Los Angeles-based Scottish producer/singer/songwriter Sophie Xeon (aka SOPHIE), who has spent the last few years working with everyone from Madonna, Charli XCX, and Vince Staples, understands the contours of pop music very well. In fact, with her debut album OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES, the former recluse opens up both lyrically and musically; using the foundations of pop and then warping it to her own ends. The results are thrilling, disorienting, pleasurable, and brilliant.

Utilizing elements of bubblegum pop, R & B, EDM, drone, ambient, industrial, and noise, SOPHIE's take on pop music is both transgressive and subversive. Thematically, the album revolves around gender identity and feeling loved inside your own skin. Sonically, it takes accessible song structures and chews them up inside a latex-crunching pop machine. Opening track "It's Okay To Cry" is a bit of a curveball right away based on what's to follow; with twinkly piano, warm synths, and clean vocals setting the stage. Clearly, SOPHIE wants the listener to open up and trust her intentions. There's a wounded vulnerability here; a soaring invitation to allow one's anxieties, fears, and pain to be enveloped within the auditory journey. It's a surprising opening salvo, and one that SOPHIE will build upon, often in unpredictable fashion, for the remainder of the album.

For a record about self-empowerment and reclaiming one's identity, OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES often unfurls like a schizophrenic war of contrasts--pairing jarring kick drums, abrasive noises, and vocals which sound buried inside a digital processor with tender balladry, gorgeous synth-scapes, and genuine emotion. "Ponyboy" is a filthy BDSM-inspired dance track full of herky jerky rhythms, humorously affected vocals, and a driving metallic beat. "Faceshopping" takes the deliciously simple line My shop is the face I front/ My face is the real shop front and makes a discordant banger out of it; all squealing keyboard, clanking percussion, and propulsive basslines. Some of the more melancholy tracks, like the absolutely beautiful synth-arpeggio backed "Is it Cold in the Water?" and the warped R & B ballad "Infatuation", showcase SOPHIE's smart incorporation of pop styles with mind-bending production. Truthfully, nothing out right now sounds quite like OIL OF EVERY PEARL'S UN-INSIDES. Even when we get an infectious dance-pop tune like "Immaterial", which inverts Madonna's "Material Girl" into a giddy Chiptune blast, there's a strange detour such as instrumental "Pretending", which rumbles along like a lost Brian Eno B-side. 

Obfuscation is a central theme in SOPHIE's work (both in terms of creating a public persona and the actual ways in which the songs flirt with pop accessibility), and this contrast is at the heart of identity never finding a fixed station. Though she covers consumerism, obsession, sexuality, and body mutilation, SOPHIE never pigeonholes herself here (tellingly, there are no lyrics specifically mentioning the words queer or trans), instead allowing the music itself to speak volumes. For example, when guest singer Cecil Believe sings I don’t even have to explain/just leave me alone now/I can’t be held down on "Immaterial", there's a direct link to the feminine/masculine dichotomy trans people live with every day. SOPHIE, like everyone else, simply wants to love and be loved. To exist. To be.

By the time closer "Whole New World/Pretend World" comes rumbling along at just over 9 minutes, SOPHIE has engendered so much good will that the glitchy, atonal weirdness she conjures as her exit strategy feels more than simply cathartic; it's the journey of pop music writ large. The highs and lows. The comfortable pleasure oozing into squelching waveforms. Bombast as sentimentality. The Disneyfication of pop star branding reverse-engineered. A whole new world, as it were. If the future does indeed reside in our ability to transform, then SOPHIE is making the case that being yourself (in whatever gendered or non-gendered form that takes) is the true aim of pop music.  

 

   

  

Parquet Courts

 

Wide Awake!

8

Dad rock gets political

 

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“Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive.”

That's a line from the song "Total Football" which perfectly encapsulates the thematic concerns running throughout Parquet Court's sixth album, Wide Awake! The Brooklyn band; made up of vocalist/guitarist Andrew Savage, guitarist Austin Brown, bassist Sean Yeaton, and drummer Max Savage, have carved out a pretty sweet niche revolving around the anti-establishment sensibilities of punk and the sardonic weirdness of early 70's art rock. It should be noted that Wide Awake! was produced by Danger Mouse, and therefore sounds more polished than past material while still maintaining a wonky charm. The newfound sociopolitical "seriousness" as it were, is also something of a tease; both earnest and artificial, searing and absurdist. As a whole, Wide Awake! is a total blast; a party album about the numbing ills of modern life that can be cranked loud at a backyard barbecue. 

The idea of a lo-fi post-punk outfit getting together with a producer like Danger Mouse (whose worked with huge acts like U2 The Red Hot Chili Peppers) might initially sound like a sellout move, but the truth is Parquet Courts have never been about fitting into a pre-conceived genre box. Maybe it's just the musical landscape we've found ourselves surrounded by in 2018, but there's something almost novel about a band employing guitars, bass, drums, and clever lyrics as their main selling point.

Again, going back to that tune "Total Football", and particularly that stellar line, one can clearly see the use of drunken sports anthems as a rallying cry for the plight of the working class zero. However, there's always been something slightly embarrassing about the visage of white men screaming via microphone about the plight of the oppressed, but Parquet Courts use that to their advantage; referencing Black Panthers, The Beatles, poets, and Italian singers before dropping a big diss on football star Tom Brady. The idea of yet another rich white man profiting from our collective need for patriotic entertainment is rife with satire; as is Savage's beat poetry rants on "Violence", which are positioned as defeatism before a haunted house-style organ and cartoon voices kick in. Meanwhile, "Before the Water Gets Too High" uses Sean Yeaton's funky bass lines as the main groove while Savage speaks in weathered tones over Max Savage's unflappable drumming. There's also alt-country ballads ("Mardi Gras Beads"), Jay Reatard-esque punk ("Almost Had to Start a Fight/In and Out of Patience"), synth-laden prog rock ("Back to Earth"), and even a little David Byrne homage with the dancey title track. Most impressively, Parquet Courts really diverge from their signature sound on songs like the children's choir-backed "Death Will Bring Change" and Elton John-influenced pop stomper "Tenderness".   

Wide Awake! splits the difference between the working class anger of 2014's Sunbathing Animal and the more subdued tones of 2016's Human Performance. The push toward funk and Americana is a welcome one, as is this idea that Parquet Courts are maturing without sacrificing their integrity. In fact, retreating into yet another batch of rowdy post-punk anthems would have seemed, at this point in the band's trajectory, something of a letdown. Fears of an uber-producer takeover are also unfounded, as Danger Mouse's contributions seem relegated mostly to better production quality and a few instances verging on power pop. No, Parquet Courts are fully in command of their collective angst, political malaise, and danceable punk; culminating in the band's most cohesive, genre-hopping record yet. Again, if Collectivism and autonomy are not mutually exclusive", then the sounds of Wide Awake! just might be the protest album from four dorky white guys we all need right now.

 

 

 

Iceage

 

Beyondless

6

Maturity sounds a lot like your heroes
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In the world of punk, ambition counts. In fact, the genre is notorious for being risk-adverse; channeling raw energy, confrontational attitude, and youthful dissatisfaction as a means to an end. This may sound like a reductive argument since there are always exceptions, but a band like Iceage have built their brand upon unleashing grueling punk/goth rock that never pretended to be anything but a sonic onslaught. The Danish outfit's searing debut, 2011's New Brigade, still remains a quintessential post-punk/hardcore statement made by four friends under the age of 21. Not even being to legally buy a beer at the local pub is an essential aspect of what drove Iceage's methodology; that reckless rage, the flailing attempts at finding one's identity, the snot-nosed fuck you to adult responsibility. New Brigade encapsulated all of that, with singer Elias Rønnenfelt's nearly unintelligible, abrasive rants leading the charge.

But, of course, people grow up. They learn. They adapt. Iceage's last album, 2014's Plowing Into the Field of Love, felt like awkward baby steps toward the idea of maturity rather than an actualization of it; adding layers of baroque rock, alt-country, and piano balladry to the mix. The results were uneven; like a group of sweaty punk kids climbing out of the basement and onto an anthem-sized stage in hopes of courting a larger audience. This all leads to their latest record, Beyondless, in which Rønnenfelt and company do their best The Birthday Party era Nick Cave impression, with decidedly mixed results.

It's not as if the intent isn't noble, and again, ambition counts for a lot, but Beyondless often comes off like young men equating dour self-seriousness with artistic growth. Iceage have always been an angry band, but by slowing things down and issuing social commentaries (complete with strings, horns, and stuttering piano) something gets lost in translation. There's the melodic opener "Hurrah", in which Rønnenfelt spits out police state proclamations like No, we can’t stop killing / And we’ll never stop killing over a driving rhythm section and soulful guitar work. Meanwhile, the Sky Ferrreira collaboration "Pain Killer" goes full orchestral pomp; with blaring horns and a repetitive chorus giving off a decidedly Foxygen vibe, except without the winking humor. The grimness continues with country-ish dirge "Under the Sun" and the sludgy, Iggy and the Stooges-inflected "The Day the Music Dies", wherein Rønnenfelt slurs his way through over-produced bombast. The angst here sounds earnest enough, but the band mostly fail at channeling this inner turmoil into a rallying cry. If anything, most of the music feels like confessional diary entries scribbled out during drunken jam sessions. Moody ramblings work wonders for Cave, and The Rolling Stones made a living out of contorting sensual debauchery into primal rock n'roll, but Iceage are often playing against their strengths here.

This doesn't mean there isn't an appealing nihilism to Beyondless. In the span of 40 minutes, the band manage to take the lyrical mantra The future’s never starting/ The present never ends from the chorus of “The Day The Music Dies" and apply it writ large. This is an apocalyptic record; part classic rock throwback, part horn-fueled beat poetry, part sonic noir about the end of all things. The album's standout track, "Catch It" exemplifies this by luring the listener into it's twisted web. Building slowly like a marching rite of passage with Rønnenfelt repeating phrases, the song morphs-- drums ascending, strings breaking, middle eastern chimes humming--before everything erupts into a psychedelic frenzy of distorted chords and atonal horns.

With this song alone, Iceage prove they could be capable of moving into The Velvet Underground territory; using the Lou Reed mode of sing-speak narratives and rock experimentalism to challenge genre altogether. However, some of the band's other attempts at homage; like the sloppy saloon rock of "Showtime" and the neo-folk ditty "Thieves Like Us" feel like young men playing a round of middle-age pastiche karaoke. There's a long history of young rock band's trying to outrun the shadow of their heroes, and Iceage are on the right track; but only time will tell if they can carve out their own version of gothic punk Americana and maybe, just maybe, crack a smile or two.

  

Young Fathers

 

Cocoa Sugar

8

Stripping back by going deeper
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Genre labeling is a bitch. It can confine, pigeonhole, and dictate expectations. Conversely, it can unburden, sabotage, and defy those expectations. It's something writers and critics (this one included) often use as a crutch; a way of condensing the essence of a thing down to a pull quote. These days, Scottish trio Young Fathers are doing everything they can do make give critics migraine-spinning writers block. On paper, their third album, Cocoa Sugar, carries a more "mainstream" and "streamlined" approach when placed up against their 2014 debut Dead and abrasively brilliant 2015 followup, White Men Are Black Men Too. The dub/hip-hop/R & B/ Krautrock tags certainly apply, as does the lyrical obsession with identity and otherness. Still, the group grapple with the polarities of diasporic community by using symbolic language rather than clearly defined ideas. Therefore, if White Men Are Black Men too was an angry rant of lo-fi anxiety about not fitting in, Cocoa Sugar is what happens when fitting in means realizing the world is rotten to the core.

Made up of members born in Liberia, Nigeria, and Edinburgh, Young Fathers use their differing cultural experiences to unify a cohesive message of wokeness. Utilizing rapping, chanting, and soft-sung vocals over wobbly synths, looping piano, and African rhythms, Cocoa Sugar continues the group's avant-pop sensibilities while managing a more straightforward narrative flow. While there are still songs here bordering on the experimental; the jittery "Fee-Fi", Dan Deacon-esque chiptune of "Turn", or the growling chants on the muffled dirge "Wow", Young Fathers turn even more toward the spiritually accessible/cynical. Lead single "In My View", for instance, uses the biblical character of Delilah as a placeholder for losing oneself in "sinful" behavior, while "Holy Ghost", the most overt hip-hop track on the record, gives us the refrain You can tell your deity I’m alright/Wake up from the dead, call me Jesus Christ over a buzzing synth-driven beat. Meanwhile, "Lord" is essentially a deconstructed gospel song; complete with a haunting piano motif and beautifully emotive choir-like chorus. In true Young Fathers fashion, however, the distorted keyboard and reverb-heavy beat take over, resulting in something blown out; sprawling, drowning in sound, and reaching towards epiphany.

Though more a populist effort, Cocoa Sugar is by no means a step backwards for Young Fathers. In many ways, it's the record they have been working toward all along; less abrasive and genre-defying to be sure, but no less idiosyncratic. The lyrical content on display--love, hate, fear, longing, cynicism, spiritual uplift-- are trapped inside layered production and startling vocal harmonies. At its best, the album lulls one into a relaxed state of contemplation only to shake your bones with a line, turn of phrase, or odd sonic embellishment. It is the sound of a group purging themselves of genre labels, expectations, and rules. It is the best kind of political album; using elements of religiosity and transcendence to tap into actual existential and societal fears. To that end, Cocoa Sugar is an internal protest album; one that may have you humming and head-bobbing before slipping into a dark night of the soul.   

 

 

  

Ty Segall

 

Freedom's Goblin

8

Segall's School of Rock

by Jericho Cerrona

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On his 2017 self-titled release, Southern California singer-songwriter Ty Segall seemed to be in a caring and sharing mood; alternating between Marc Bolan-esque glam, Beatles-imbued balladry, and worship of all things The Kinks. It wasn't a surprise to anyone paying attention to his trajectory, coming off like a natural extension of a decade-long pursuit for channeling 60s/70s style into an accessible rock n'roll package. The abrasiveness of 2016's Emotional Mugger was gone; replaced by the vision of a tireless musician nearing the age of 30 who had perhaps tried out every pose he could think of. It was more or less a sonic survey, and predictably, an entry point for all things Segall up until that point.

His latest record, Freedom's Goblin, also won't shock anyone attuned to the man's knack for wearing influences proudly, but there's also more ambition here, not to mention a newfound attraction to sprawl, that makes this perhaps his boldest release yet. Recorded over a lengthy period between five studios and the help of returning producer extraordinaire Steve Albini, Freedom's Goblin is a grab bag of post-punk, disco, funk, sludge metal, Jagger-esque rock stomp, Beatles-adjacent balladry, and everything Marc Bolan. Expected, yes, but also sublime.

Threatening self-indulgent bloat, Freedom's Goblin stays the course by never allowing the running time--19 tracks, around 75 minutes--to get in the way of earworm melodies and controlled songwriting. Tunes like opener "Fanny Dog" about his beloved pet, rollick along with self-deprecating lyrics and boisterous horns, and a reworking of Hot Chocolate’s 1978 single “Every 1’s A Winner” keeps the funky rhythm, but adds more fuzzy guitars. Elsewhere, there's nice variation to the usual Ty template, such as the sleazy glam-disco of "Despoiler Cadaver" and the squealing jazz freak-out, "Talkin 3", which sees Segall adopting a hoarse falsetto that feels like it might break apart at any moment.

Freedom's Goblin is really about being at a place in your life where contentment and excess aren't mutually exclusive. Recently married (check out the blistering punk anthem "Meaning" with wife Denee on lead vocals), Segall seems to be relishing the chance to jam in studio with a revolving cast of talented musicians without the need to indulge in sloppy rock decadence. It's a tricky balance; loud, bombastic dirges mixed with plaintive balladry, but Segall manages to pull it off.

For every barn-burner, like the Black Sabbath-inspired "She", there are a handful of gentle acoustic numbers ("Cry, Cry, Cry", "I'm Free", "My Lady's on Fire") which not only conjure The Beatles, but more surprisingly, Neil Young and Wilco. As a kitchen sink double-album where no genre is off the table, the listening experience really should be unwieldy, but the amount of pop hooks rising from every guitar solo and skronking saxophone means that there's a little something here for everyone. Of course, such an assortment of disparate elements might feel messy from the standpoint of conceptual consistency, but it's hard to argue that, from song to song, Freedom's Goblin emerges as the most unqualified version of Segall's school of rock to date.   

MGMT

 

Little Dark Age

7

More pop, less weird, but still chasing psychedelic highs
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MGMT may never make an album as brilliantly bonkers as 2010's Congratulations. Considered by many to be a middle finger to everyone who swooned over smash singles "Time to Pretend", "Electric Feel" and "Kids" from their hugely successful debut album, Oracular Spectacular, the record was actually a distillation of duo Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser's sonic obsessions. The fusion of druggy psych and electro-pop may have hit the Coachella scene like a mainstream bong rip back in 2007, but on the whole, Oracular Spectacular was a much weirder record than those singles suggested. Therefore, Congratulations merely doubled down on that strangeness; coming off like a wonky cross between Television Personalities and Syd Barrett. 2013's MGMT followed; another left-field swing into proggy noodling which once again denied fans the obvious hooks and melodies they craved.

The generational optimism MGMT helped usher in became a curse for the band, since they were never really interested in making mass appeal pop music to begin with. The two albums which followed Oracular Spectacular weren't simply reactionary moves, but exist as a natural pivot into the off-kilter soundscapes dominating the rest of that record. MGMT's resilience in making the kind of music they want, regardless of expectations, is noteworthy in parsing their latest release, Little Dark Age. Some will see it as a "return to form" after nearly a decade of self-indulgent excess, while others will criticize the duo for conceding to a slicker pop sound. The truth is somewhere in between, as Little Dark Age relishes the chance for a more focused set of songs which bridge the gap between accessible 80's synth-pop and acid-fueled psychedelia.   

At its heart, MGMT's latest is about thirtysomething malaise; the absurdity of being young enough to have some level of aspiration, but old enough to realize that it's probably all for naught. If Oracular Spectacular was a free-love ode to living in the moment, then Little Dark Age is the attempt to reconcile wasted youth with the uncomfortable vanities of contemporary life. Opener "She Works Out Too Much" is a telling example of this theme; a satiric riff on keeping up with a girlfriend who is active both in the physical sense as well as the social media sense. With its self-aware instructional audio cues and chintzy keyboard flourishes, the tune sets up an ironic distance that comes and goes throughout the record. There's goth darkwave with an infectious hook ("Little Dark Age"), anthemic power-pop ("Me and Michael"), and mocking tales of self-defeat and suicide ("When You Die"), but mostly, MGMT tap into the idea of inverting pop tropes in order to experiment with their now patented sound. At their worst, they fall back on flat textures, like the dub-influenced  “TSLAMP" about the tech phobia of spending too much time on your phone, or the psych-folk ditty "When You're Small", which plays more like a parody of stoner balladry than a homage. At their best, they utilize a mishmash of vintage keyboards, jazzy interludes, and stereo-panning soundscapes that rarely overwhelm some of the more focused songwriting of their career.

Elsewhere, MGMT lean into the pop pastiche of artists like Ariel Pink (who gets a vocal harmony on "When We Die") and John Maus (especially the retro synth work on "One Thing Left To Try"). Though VanWyngarden and Goldwasser certainly know their way around a gorgeous melody, they don't quite have the self-reflexive charm of someone like Pink; a guy whose spent decades reappropriating past sounds and aesthetics into something approaching originality.

Nonetheless, throughout Little Dark Age, MGMT strike a rather elegant balance of sugary pop and moody introspection; getting a few hooks out of their system while basking in the paranoia and fear of burning out in your mid-30's. There's a telling line during "When You Die" which speaks to this idea of using shimmering pop in order to hint at darker impulses, as VanWyngarden sings Go fuck yourself… don’t call me nice again. It sounds eerily like someone who made his name on empowering zeitgeist-chasing anthems now doubling down on the sham of it all, and maybe that's just the kind of sentiment, for better or worse, we need in 2018.   

  

 

Destroyer

 

Ken

7

Dan Bejar dreams of the 80s and still sounds cranky

by Jericho Cerrona

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No one sounds quite like Dan Bejar. To say he's an original is an understatement, even as the music he's conjured as Destroyer over the past two decades never hides its undeniable influences, which include David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, and Leonard Cohen, among others. Collaborations with The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, and indie supergroup Swan Lake have further added to his mystique as one of the most mercurial of singer-songwriters. His last record, 2015's Poison Season, was a surprisingly accessible mixture of Easy Listening pop which channeled both Hunky Dory-phase Bowie as well as Frank Sinatra. At the time, the album felt like a direct response to the critical success of 2011's 80s-influenced jazz rock opus Kaputt; this time using piano, bongos, lush strings, and Bejar's hippie musings to showcase a more relaxed side of the enigmatic frontman. The results were predictably expansive, but also intimate; coming off like the sound of a man reaching for empathy existing just outside his grasp.

With Ken, Bejar goes back to the sounds of the late 1980's British music scene and creates something which initially feels like Kaputt Pt.2, but in actuality, is going more for a New Order/The Jesus & the Mary Chain/ The Cure type of vibe. If anything, Ken is aimed squarely at the converted. Since Bejar comes across as downtrodden as ever, those who may have found his odd vocal delivery off-putting in the past will find little to latch onto here. There's theatricality, excess, and even musical adventurousness all over Ken, but the man creates the sensation of someone looking back on a lost time with ironic distance. Opener "Sky's Grey", for example, links the sociopolitical tensions of the Thatcher era with lines like Bombs in the city/Plays in the sticks and I've been working on the new Oliver Twist over soothing piano, digital blips, and melancholy synth washes. It feels like a distillation of everything Destroyer has done creatively up until this point; a collision of intellectual concerns wrapped in a sad/pretty sonic package. Is Bejar really the alienated poet, too disinterested to muster up answers for the horrors of our times, or is he still just playing the part of cranky uncle?

Whatever the case, Ken isn't all doom and gloom. Though initially a track like "In The Morning" seems like a straightforward homage to Robert Smith; complete with thumping drums, Disintegration-esque guitar leads, and airy synths, it transforms via Bejar's playful vocals. Somehow, he even manages lines like A death star in bloom/ Another thought in the incinerator/ You wanted it to be cool/ Oh you thought it would be alright/ In the morning without coming across overly twee. Meanwhile, the electro-pop of "Tinseltown Swimming in Blood" has the veneer of a New Order cut, but Bejar shrugs off the will to dance by lamenting I couldn’t see, I was blind/ Off in the corner, doing poet’s work. Certainly, part of Bejar's appeal is his sleazy, faux-romanticism. The constant use of wandering saxophones points to this near-camp aesthetic, as does visual representations of smoking under foggy lampposts, cool black trench coats, and tales of lonely poets. However, though Ken certainly tilts toward corniness, Bejar's strengths as a songwriter gives everything a neurotic energy.

To say Ken is far from Destroyer's best work is damning with faint praise, since Bejar's output has been consistently sublime. The poignant wordplay is on display, as is the flowery prose, and there's gothic new wave style here too, but overall, the album is less than the sum of its parts. Truthfully, the recurring motifs; both lyrically and musically, seem to indicate a sense of catharsis found in cycles. Much like Bejar's exploration of different sounds and textures throughout his extraordinary career, these cycles hint at something darker and more oppressive at the edges of his music. Of course, he may simply be winking from behind rambling non-sequiturs and jangly production. The failure of Ken is that the line between irony and self-importance feels unresolved at best, while the album's strength lies in the mystery surrounding that very thing. Ultimately, Bejar would rather strike an empty pose, since as he puts it in his uniquely Dan Bejar way, A pose is always empty.


 

    

Protomartyr

 

Relatives in Descent

9

Watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time

by Jericho Cerrona

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It's no secret that the post-punk genre attracts the lonely, disaffected, and working class zeroes struggling to survive. There's always anger stemming from feeling ostracized, personal sleights turning toward political ideology, and slurred protests signaling the rallying cry for a multitude of would-be revolutionaries. Without this kind of pretentiousness--seeing oneself as a victim, wallowing in self-defeat, conflating society's ills with some form of generational sickness--post-punk bands like Pere Ubu, The Birthday Party, and The Fall wouldn't exist. Detroit rabble rousers Protomartyr also fit snugly into this paradigm; unleashing noisy post-punk over the past decade by placing personal angst alongside social consciousness, from the cacophonous roar of 2012 debut No Passion All Technique to the driving outrage of 2015's The Agent Intellect.

Frontman Joe Casey's lyrical ramblings--political, familial, internal--have always been the band's defining force, but what's most surprising about their fourth full-length, Relatives in Descent, is it's relative restraint. Casey still has much to say about how shitty our world is (the record was mostly written during the 2016 election cycle), but this time, there's more tangent-jumping sonic detours to wind through. Throughout, drummer Alex Leonard, guitarist Greg Ahee, and bassist Scott Davidson match Casey's street preaching by applying a more varied instrumental palette to the usual punk onslaught. While not technically a concept album, Relatives in Descent is littered with lyrical connections and rhythmic symmetry. Ideas and concepts reoccur, guitar lines loop back in on themselves, and literate musings spewed from a shouting prophet contain cyclical patterns.

From the outset, it's clear Protomartyr are going for a slow burn rather than a drunken stage dive. Opener "A Private Understanding" takes Casey's usual sardonic poetry and places it at the service of rolling drum fills, repetitive guitar loops, and a mood of intimate dread. I don't wanna hear those vile trumpets anymore, he laments, and it's just the kind of existential salvo the world needs right now. When Casey finally stammers, she's just trying to reach you, during the outro, one can sense either a grand political statement or some kind of self-help therapy session. Thankfully, this push and pull quality--the tension between internalized ennui and macro social concerns--is held together masterfully throughout the album's 44 minutes. The band certainly have their influences; The Fall, Nick Cave, The Velvet Underground, The Pixies, but they also manage to synthesize these influences with a modern outlook. Moreover, Relatives in Descent is the first great post-Trump record; a series of tightly wound dirges expressing fear, paranoia, doubt, and even some much-needed wit, in the face of destruction.

Unlike many protest albums, however, Relatives in Descent never succumbs to sermonizing. Casey doesn't have answers, only more questions. This is what links Protomartyr's bleak perspective with the universality of the common man fucked over by a system too evil to be overthrown. "Here is The Thing" threads lines like dread 2017-18, airhorn age, age of horn-blowing with thick basslines and interweaving guitar, while on "Chuckler", Casey leans into scathing hopelessness; I guess I’ll keep on chuckling 'til there’s no more breath in my lungs / Lord how I wish there was a better ending to this joke. The American dialect is now at a point where divided political rhetoric has drowned out any sense of rationality, and this is crucial to what the band are going for here, with Casey acting as an observer wryly commenting on his own lack of empathy. It's difficult to get angry when the things to get angry about have become too innumerable to keep track of.

Throughout, Casey's lyrics nods toward gentrification ("Here is the Thing"), gender entitlement ("Male Plague"), sins of the father passed on to the son ("My Children") and attacks on liberal-minded frauds ("Don't Go to Anacita") while his bandmates maintain a balance between hard-edged noise and melodic catchiness. More so than any of their past work, Relatives in Descent melds the anti-capitalist venom of the post-punk genre with the introspective hooks of indie rock. Perhaps the record's defining moment comes on the haunting "Night-Blooming Cereus", where 80's-inflected synths merge with Casey's Nick Cave-esque spoken word; envisioning a cactus flower as a sign of hope, even as the lights grow dim. It's unquestionably the most hopeful song on the entire album, but then it transitions seamlessly, and rather brilliantly, into galvanizing stomper "Male Plague." Even here, the start of something optimistic is interrupted by patriarchal grandstanding; the kind of ironic gesture that eventually comes full circle on closer, "Half Sister." Here, amidst crunchy power chords and atonal dissonance, Casey sees truth as a babbling prisoner, linking the elusive "She" from opener "A Private Understanding" to a ghostly figure still hoping to embrace a diseased world. In other words, truth is the half sister, still trying to reach you. But, does truth even exist? Casey certainly doesn't give a direct answer, and nor should he. Instead, Relatives in Descent emerges as the sound of an entire generation watching the world burn, one non sequitur at a time.

Ariel Pink

 

Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

8

Warped pop mastermind finds his muse

by Jericho Cerrona

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The title for pop provocateur Ariel Pink's latest album is more than simply a nod to fellow Los Angeles fringe artist Bobby Jameson, whose career trajectory mirrors so many other lonely souls swallowed by the black void of Tinseltown. If Jameson found minor notoriety in the 1960's by conjuring psychedelic pop in the mold of Brian Wilson and Frank Zappa, then the following two decades would see him spiraling into drug abuse, depression, and music industry fallout. Incidentally, Pink has spent the better part of the last two decades conjuring his own version of cheesy psych-pop whilst imagining himself a tortured weirdo. His lyrical preoccupations are bizarre, kitschy, and often problematic; while his interview persona tilts toward the rambling and anti-PC. Of course, Pink is smart enough to know that trolling social justice warriors is part of what makes pop stars glimmer in 2017, but meme culture sensations are of secondary concern to a guy who's always obscured intent under the guise of retro mystique.

Back in the early 2000s, before the age of Twitter and Reddit threads, Pink was slinging out various cassette tapes, CD-Rs and ramshackle home recordings in an unapologetic ode to his hero, R. Stevie Moore. Like Moore, who released hundreds of lo-fi projects, Pink seems more interested in appropriating long-dead sounds of AM radio full of tape hiss, radio jingles, and warped pop balladry than making cohesive records standing on their own. Of course, the relative success of 2010's Before Today (made with a full band called Haunted Graffiti) changed that; catapulting him out of the basement and into the realm of 4AD-approved hipsterdom. He disbanded his group shortly thereafter in order to run solo again, leading to 2012's Mature Themes and 2014's Pom Pom. If the latter was a direct response to touring burnout and disdain for the pose of the reluctant rock star, then Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is a response to that response. Pom Pom was a work of brilliant maximalism which saw Pink pilling on every sonic tangent into one aural kaleidoscopic vision, while Dedicated to Bobby Jameson feels like a warm hug. The two records seem to be working in stark contrast, but upon multiple listens, the truth is that all of the work is of a piece; telling a very specific narrative, even as Pink imbues this tale with another mini-narrative about a fledgling L.A. songwriter unraveling in spectacular fashion.

Truthfully, there's a marked change in tone signaling Dedicated to Bobby Jameson as a more somber affair than it's predecessor, and Pink has admitted as much in recent interviews, where he talked about feeling depressed and world-weary. The death of innocence and pitfalls of fame is a central theme here; even as lyrically, Pink often sideswipes such navel-gazing by applying witty one-liners, weird puns, and earworm melodies. There I go again/Falling in love again/Knew better just like before but here I go Pink croons on the Cure-inspired "Just Like Heaven" with the kind of detachment reserved for someone nearing 40 who no longer believes in the kind of romanticism the tune implies. Elsewhere, on "Another Weekend", probably the saddest song Pink has ever written, he laments wasted time and the kind of loneliness that can only come after achieving a measure of success. The dichotomy of realizing that fame is poisonous to human nature is in direct contrast with the life of Bobby Jameson; a man who spent the better half of his life complaining bitterly about how no one took him seriously. Then, he was dead.

Despite the less wacky tone overall, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is by no means a complete bummer. There's goofy organ drones and looped quasi-British accents ("Santa's in the Closet"), warbly garage pop with Netflix and Uber references ("Dreamdate Narcissist"), and funky disco basslines ("Death Patrol"). Try not to chuckle, for instance, when Pink sings He was a Tinseltown tranny and mayor of the Sunset Strip on the 60's-sounding freak folk/psych title track. Still, there's an obsession with regret and sadness lingering around every sparkling melody and odd detour here that implies more than simply another cog in Pink's ever-growing catalog of bizarro pop.

Calling Dedicated to Bobby Jameson a focused or mature record, though, is another matter. As always, Pink uses pastiche, sleazy glam poses, and long-forgotten modes of production in order to comment on our need for self-reflection, even as he remains coy about how he really feels. If anything, the album's mantra comes in the form of the Krautrock jam "Time to Live", where the lines Time to live/Time for life/Time to live/Time to die repeat into oblivion, poking fun at the inane cycle of our existence. If Jameson were still alive, he'd probably be jealous.  

 


 

Tyler, The Creator

 

Flower Boy

8

Lazy summer soul-bearing with a dash of satire

by Jericho Cerrona

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26-year-old rapper/producer Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he's built his brand on an ever escalating series of Internet-savvy trolls and pokes at PC culture. After the demise of blog-hyped rap collective Odd Future, Tyler went off on his own, disappearing into the netherworld of narcissistic meme wars, homophobic slurs, and bracing musical bravado. 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011 followup Goblin now feel somewhat quaint in Trump's America; less transgressive than juvenile, more of a social media trigger warning for millennial snowflakes than an actual modus operandi from a young rapper with something to say.

Now, with Flower Boy, Tyler has supposedly "grown up" and made a mature record detailing a new found social consciousness, earnest stab at vulnerability, and the most attention-grabbing headline: his apparent identification as a gay black man. When word initially leaked that Tyler was coming out on his latest album, the response on social media was predictably polarized. Some praised him for his bravery, but most simply thought it was another way to stir up a reaction. Let's not forget, Odd Future made shockwaves years ago with homophobia and rape lyrics, and as a solo artist, Tyler has more or less continued waving that flag. There's a tension throughout Flower Boy--on the one hand, it's the least vile and most seemingly genuine thing Tyler has done yet, while on the other--there's a sneaking suspicion that underneath the left-field production and gravely voice, he's pulling yet another mean-spirited joke. Such is the pitfalls for any young artist known for provocation and controversy; it's hard to tell sincerity from satire.

Knowing what we know of Tyler (on and off stage) will undoubtably color one's reaction to Flower Boy. However, taken on its own merits, this is a beautifully arranged, surprisingly meditative hip-hop record. Unpacking Tyler's lyrical preoccupations is another matter, and determining whether or not he's actually being sincere or simply adopting a persona is instructive, but not necessarily essential. Can someone largely known for hate speech be forgiven? Does Tyler even want forgiveness? Are his pleas for connection and lovestruck longing for a male suitor (referenced here as "95 Leo") to be taken seriously, or has the anti-comedy mold of misogyny and vitriolic hate merely grown into something more outwardly acceptable? 

As an album, Flower Boy doesn't exactly answer these questions, and it's probably not meant to. Instead, Tyler lets us into his headspace through the power of verse and production. On "Foreword", he nods towards the Black Lives Matter Movement while simultaneously using the platform as a way of addressing his sexual orientation. Shoutout to the girls that I lead on/For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm/And trying they hardest to keep my head on straight/And keeping me up enough till I had thought I was airborne. Whether this is an apology for his previous homophobic preoccupations or simply a plea for understanding is debatable, but it's nonetheless a shocking opening salvo from someone known mostly for dick measuring contests and faux-braggadocio. The sensitivity training continues with cuts like "See You Again", which sounds like N.E.R.D. crossed with a sultry R & B jam, the synth-driven lovestruck ballad "Garden Shed", and "Glitter", which sees Tyler leaving infatuated voicemails for his elusive male crush. Throughout, the incorporation of funky beats, wonky keyboard flourishes, auto-shifting vocals, and Neptunes-inspired soundscapes keeps things floating in the realm of pleasurable awe. Of course, there are appropriately savage tracks here too that we've come to expect, such as "Who Dat Boy", which opens with creepy violin strings and off-kilter synths like something of a Darren Aronofsky film before exploding into an all-out rant, and the bong-ripped slow banger, "Pothole."

Those expecting a standard rap album will most likely be disappointed by Flower Boy. Tyler seems more interested in jazzy interludes, old school R & B, and progressive elements than typical verse/chorus/verse flows with club-ready beats, but this makes the record much more satisfying. In the past, Tyler's ambitions have gotten away from him, particularly on 2015's Cherry Bomb, which boasted way too many sonic ideas than he could possibly fit into one cohesive project. Here, there's a rigor and clarity that hints at progression and maturity, even if it's still too early to unequivocally state that Tyler has officially grown up. In a way, Flower Boy is a deconstruction of public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all of the controversial verses, pitch black horror imagery, and ego-stroking seems to be a forward-thinking artist interested in both aggression and tenderness. Guest spots from the likes of Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Corinne Bailey Rae, Estelle, and others also point to this fact, as if he hopes to redefine himself as the spiritual funk/soul grandson of Quincy Jones.

Has the detached, homicidal observer transformed into the open-hearted "loneliest man alive" or has great effort simply been spent creating another post-modern troll on listeners who have grown accustom to knowing everything about their idols via social media? Part of the fascination with Tyler is our inability to get a firm read on him. As such, Flower Boy is either a daring Andy Kaufman-esque con, or the evolution of the artist in full bloom, and honestly, does it really even matter?