Andy Grammer: The Good Parts
Date: Jan 03, 2018
Andy Grammer is likable. That’s about it.
Andy Grammer is likable. That’s about it. He doesn’t have the star-ready personality of someone like Bruno Mars, nor does he have cutting-edge production behind him like Justin Timberlake. But he always has a smile on his face, and he seems like a pretty good guy, at least in a Middle American Christian way. His big single “Honey I’m Good” is about staying true to his lover, and though it was cute and contrived down to the video edited together from happy couples’ home footage, it was shameless enough to work.
His desire to win everyone over is the animating force of The Good Parts, his third album. This is both a weakness and a strength: a weakness because he never takes any real risks and is happy to hop on any trend he can; a strength because even when he indulges in carnage like “Grown Ass Man Child,” it’s hard to stay mad at him, and he comes out of it like the proverbial puppy dog who tears up the house when you’re gone. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Charli XCX: Pop 2
Date: Jan 01, 2018
It’s hard to think of another recent pop album that writhes, squirms and splinters like this one.
Charli XCX’s best release by a mile, Pop 2 is perhaps the culmination of the retail mixtape as an outlet for an artist’s most batshit ideas. A mixtape carries lower stakes than an album, which means artists can get weird and still make money. Charli’s last proper album was the excellent Sucker, which seemed to poise the longtime indie darling, who’s been floating around in one form or another for nearly a decade, as a mainstream star. But even if she has her name stamped on an enviable number of Top 10 hits—as writer, guest or featured star—she still seems like the same shadowy cult figure she was in her teenage Myspace days. So even if her next album is a sad compromise, we don’t need to worry as long as she gets back to her real grind: indulging her whims on the fringe of the chart world.
Its very title implies a second coming of the format. In its inventiveness and unwillingness to condescend to its audience, Pop 2 hearkens back to the first half of the ‘00s, when the charts were as fertile a ground for avant-garde ideas as the underground. In these tracks is a kinship with such songs as “Cry Me a River,” “Toxic” and “Drop it Like it’s Hot.” That what was once mainstream now works best in the hipsterverse is hardly a deterrent, and indeed some of the sounds here are so strange they wouldn’t have worked on the charts at any time, save maybe on an early computer novelty song like “Popcorn” or the “Doctor Who” theme. Her liberation is inspiring. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Gobby: El Honko Mixed
Date: Jan 01, 2018
A non-stop, gonzo barrage of funny voices and ludicrous musical interludes.
Gobby’s El Honko Mixed is sort of like Superjail as a radio play, or maybe a “SpongeBob” episode directed by Stan Brakhage or perhaps a recorded diary from Mel Blanc’s last days of addiction. It’s a non-stop, gonzo barrage of funny voices and ludicrous musical interludes threaded into a loose narrative. Okay, maybe three narratives. The Hoss Records BandCamp calls it “a memoir composed of three timelines interspersed with distended quasi-covers and actual pop songs, all swirled into a larger semi-biographical scope.” But best not to think too much about it. Though avant-electronic sound collages like this are often trying to get at some lofty point, El Honko succeeds as pure comedy.
The most obvious narrative thread has Gobby asking for directions from a variety of weirdos: first a “Masshole” that might be the same one who freaked out over a sunfish in that viral video from last year, then a Southerner who sounds like a dejected Batman villain, finally a New Yorker who complains of Gobby’s body odor (“did a diapah give boith to an onion?”) The strangers are uniformly rude and threatening towards Gobby, and the Masshole in particular seems to be weighing the possibility of punching our hero in the face. Anyone who’s ever been faced with the possibility of a violent confrontation while doing something as innocuous as asking for directions will cringe as well as laugh. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Call Super: Arpo
Date: Dec 13, 2017
Arpo feels like it was sculpted out of red clay.
Call Super’s Arpo feels like it was sculpted out of red clay—and perhaps a bit of “Red Clay” as well. This is a mossy, earthy techno record that takes care to ensure nothing on it sounds like it was made on a computer—not because the producer is ashamed of his chosen genre, but because he sees it as a springboard for ideas rather than an endpoint.
This is an unusually performance-centric techno album. An oboe or clarinet, played by the producer’s own father, often floats on top of the beats’ burbling soup. The son chops these samples, loops them, picks his favorite parts, and weaves them into the fabric of his sound. As with Teo Macero’s tireless edits of Miles Davis’s studio jams, the editing seems like a showcase of virtuosity in and of itself. And Call Super isn’t content to simply let his loops lope on. His fingers are always busy, adding and subtracting elements on a whim. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Miguel: War & Leisure
Date: Dec 11, 2017
War & Leisure is a little like having stoned sex while CNN is blaring.
Listening to Miguel’s War & Leisure is a little like having stoned sex while CNN is blaring. It’d be fine as a sweaty psych-funk record about fucking, like Miguel’s other albums. But he’s taken great pains to tell us how he feels about the current political climate, even when we’d rather be thinking about something else. There’s nothing wrong with making political music; Miguel’s sincerity and conviction are never in doubt. But War & Leisure doesn’t make much of a case that it should have a conscience.
The protest songs are far from poignant. “Now” makes a noble effort but quickly devolves into a stream of brainless shout-outs to places in crisis (“way down in Houston!,” he yells, as if giving a concert). “Come Through and Chill” is about fucking for its first three minutes or so, which is all good and fine—then J. Cole crashes through the door, rapping: “Know you’ve been on my mind like Kaepernick kneeling/Or police killings, or Trump saying slick shit.” Yes, he compares his girlfriend to police killings. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Transformations (AKA DeepChord & Fluxion) in San Francisco
Date: Dec 08, 2017
When 2001: A Space Odyssey came out at the height of Flower Power, stoned hippie kids would sneak into cinemas and lie on the floor to take in Stanley Kubrick’s visuals. This came to mind at the world premiere of dub techno veterans DeepChord and Fluxion’s new, improvised Transformations project at San Francisco’s Gray Area. Housed in a converted movie theater that sprawled in front of the audience before coming to a stop at a 30-foot wall of fractal visuals, the evening was as much a “happening” as a dance event. The mostly well-dressed 30-somethings in the crowd were as happy to dance as to sit cross-legged on the floor—or to sit back in one of the cushy red chairs that lined the venue. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Prins Thomas: Prins Thomas 5
Date: Dec 05, 2017
It’s a shame Thomas would take such a dramatic step back at this time.
Prins Thomas’s new album is called Prins Thomas 5. The ones before that were titled, respectively: Prins Thomas I, Prins Thomas II, Prins Thomas III, and Principe Del Norte. Any guesses as to which one was the bravest and most experimental? Principe Del Norte wasn’t a great album, but its sprawling length and explicitly astral ambitions meant it felt like a leap of imagination from the most workmanlike of the Norwegian disco producers. A six-hour mix album, Paradise Goulash, and an even stranger (and arguably better) remix record only confirmed that Thomas was finally ready to get weird.
That’s why it’s so disappointing that Prins Thomas 5 proceeds as if nothing happened since III. It’s every bit of a piece with its numbered brethren: a collection of tracks that probably work in the club but are less conducive for a sit-down listen than the work of peers like the Lindstrøm and Todd Terje. He seems to undersell it on purpose. The press release makes a big deal out of Thomas’s recent bout of bronchitis, which doesn’t deliver any poignancy to this music but might be an excuse for why it’s so scattered and unambitious compared to the behemoths he’s been making lately. Maybe he’s just tired. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Jaden Smith: Syre
Date: Dec 04, 2017
It’s hard to say if Syre works because of Smith’s God-given gifts or because of his budget.
Jaden Smith, the older and weirder of the two famous Smith siblings, isn’t a great rapper. Maybe he knows this and that’s why he smartly ducks into the staging. The less attention you pay to what he’s saying on Syre, the more you’re likely to enjoy the album, which is a cold, downcast, gothic, big-tent carnival of a rap record in the vein of Travis Scott’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight or Kid Cudi’s Man on the Moon: The End of Day. Like those albums, it works in spite of its star.
Like his sister Willow, Jaden is a careless lyricist tripped up by a jones for conspiracy theories. What’s especially odd is that he espouses them in bed. “We all come from Africa,” he tells a girl on “Ninety” (true, but less meaningful than he thinks). “This country kinda cold/ I mean they feed the children dopamine,” he sings on “Fallen,” shortly before rhapsodizing about how he wants to kiss his girl. If he ever sets his sights on me, he’d better not start talking about the Rothschilds. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Metro Area: Metro Area (15th Anniversary Reissue)
Date: Nov 30, 2017
All dance nerds eventually get around to Metro Area.
Any of the 12 tracks on Metro Area’s self-titled album are certified floor-fillers, but placed end-to-end on a record they take on a curious melancholy. The drums are relentless, a snare reliably landing on the two every time; the bass lines are stretchy and sensual. But the key is always minor. Chords loom low and heavy. And the strings don’t zip around with the impish quickness typical of disco but hover sadly in the air, as if in lamentation.
It’s the kind of multi-level listening experience that makes classics, and indeed Metro Area has a cult following in dance circles. Resident Advisor called it the second best of the 2000s, with “Miura” the best track of the same decade, and it’s one of the few albums from the last fifteen years to get five stars from Allmusic (four-and-a-half is far, far more common). Rock critics were a bit less rabid: three from Rolling Stone and Q.
Maybe a dance mindset’s better-suited to approaching it. It’s not really an album, but a collection of three EPs that were coveted in dance circles before being compiled here. Dance music runs a track at a time, so a critic whose values come from the album-centric rock world might expect a smoother arc rather than appreciating how these tracks, laid end-to-end, create something much greater than the sum of their already impressive parts. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Date: Nov 27, 2017
T-Pain should stop chasing hits and focus on making good art pop.
Oblivion, T-Pain’s first album since 2011, begins with a challenge. “I did everything for the culture at gun point with the mask off,” he spits on “Who Died,” his rap voice still kiddish and eager. “I ain’t cry about it, I ain’t lie about it, I just kept working my ass off!”
Does the phrasing sound familiar? Culture is Migos’ biggest album, and “Mask Off” is Future’s biggest hit. Ever since T-Pain made the hugely popular decison to slather his voice in Antares Auto-Tune pitch correction, he’s been scapegoated for the software’s ubiquity thanks in part to a misconception that it’s a ruse to mask a lack of singing skill. Now, a new breed of rappers is using it to make some of the biggest and best music in the world, and T-Pain’s expressed understandable anger at being mocked for the same tricks that his progeny are riding to Pitchfork points and nine-digit streaming numbers. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Tove Lo: Blue Lips
Date: Nov 26, 2017
Tove Lo comes across as a real, messy person.
Tove Lo, the Swedish pop star at the center of Max Martin’s Wolf Cousins collective, comes across as a real, messy person. That’s the key to her appeal. She likes to have sex and get drunk, but not in a glamorous champagne-popping way so much as a true-to-life way that involves stained bedsheets and morning-after regrets. She’s instantly likable, with a great sense of humor, and despite the shambles of her life being her favorite lyrical conceit, she projects a self-confidence that’s easy to mistake for maturity.
She could bank on “realness” like Halsey and Lorde have done, but what’s interesting is how grandly she presents her music. Blue Lips, her third album, is supposedly the conclusion of a two-album cycle that included her 2016 release, Lady Wood. The album is meant by itself to chronicle the rise and fall of a relationship, and indeed, the first half is loaded with randy love songs while the second half is devoted to frustrated balladry. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Eluvium: Shuffle Drones
Date: Nov 21, 2017
Shuffle Drones fails in a few conspicuous areas.
Shuffle Drones is a great idea and a progressive one in that it embraces streaming, the bane of so many musicians, rather than reacting against it. The concept is simple and brilliant. Play the 23 tracks on shuffle, and they’ll flow into each other no matter the order, meaning you’ll get a different album on each listen. But an album as high-concept as this either works or it doesn’t, and Shuffle Drones fails in a few conspicuous areas.
Firstly, when the album’s played on shuffle, there’s a split-second gap between each 30-second movement that makes it obvious when one transitions to the next and physically breaks up what’s meant to be an unnoticeable transition. Ironically, this isn’t an issue when the tracks are played in the order they’re presented. Eluvium tells us on Spotify, ostensibly the intended platform for this thing, to turn the crossfade to zero. But turning it to two or three or 10 seconds actually improves the flow between the tracks. (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)
OCS: Memory of a Cut Off Head
Date: Nov 20, 2017
Total 180s like this are rare in the Dwyer catalog.
John Dwyer’s been itchy in the skin of Thee Oh Sees for some time. When the band’s generally- acknowledged classic run—Castlemania through Floating Coffin, conservatively—ended, he cycled through all manner of ominous stunts: moving to L.A., putting his band on comically short hiatus, coming back on the tepidly received Drop, changing the name of his band to Oh Sees, and, now, going back to OCS for the first time in more than a decade, he embarks on the most radical left turn since first embracing juggernaut garage rock on 2008’s pivotal The Master’s Bedroom is Worth Spending A Night In.
Maybe it’s a one-time thing, but total 180s like this are rare in the Dwyer catalog, which has long defined itself by incremental developments on a molasses-slow scale. Orc, their album as Oh Sees, was every bit the next step after the proggier, longer, weirder forays on A Weird Exits and An Odd Entrances. That name change seemed to mean nothing; does it this time around?
Memory of a Cut Off Head is a psych-folk album of the sort Dwyer was making around 2005 when he first stepped out under the OCS moniker. It’s a little more hi-fi than those, but it retains an intimacy lost in the rock-band squall of Thee Oh Sees. Brigid Dawson, Dwyer’s longtime second-in-command, is more visible than ever here. They sing most of the album in unison, like a psych version of the Mountain Goats’ Sweden. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)
Rabit: Les Fleurs Du Mal
Date: Nov 14, 2017
Rabit: Les Fleurs Du Mal
Rabit’s Les Fleurs Du Mal is meant to be taken as a piece with two recent albums he worked on: Elysia Crampton’s Demon City and Chino Amobi’s Paradiso. That’s easy enough to do, because the album is really of a piece with the last half-decade of avant-garde electronic music. Les Fleurs Du Mal is the breed standard of a specific kind of electronic album: typically made by a queer producer or producer of color, poptimist in its willingness to appropriate cues from chart music, filmic in the way the tracks blur together to form a cogent experience, bold in the way it uses sounds to scare and shock. The list of collaborators on Crampton’s Demon City is probably the best overview of this loose “scene,” which history will eventually give a nifty name.
Rabit is a Houston native whose experiences growing up queer and Catholic informed his first album Communion. While that album resembled nothing so much as shards of metal flying into each other at high velocity, Les Fleurs Du Mal is a slow-burn that seethes with dread. Talking about individual tracks gets to the point less than talking about individual moments. Rabit’s strategy here is to sedate us with atmosphere before scaring us shitless with a sudden interruption: a pitch-shifted coital moan, a blast of gunfire or, most jarringly, on “Dogsblood Redemption,” someone screaming “YOU’RE ALL A BUNCH OF FUCKING SLAVES!” (He flashes his poptimist card by having a robo-voice solemnly recite Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”) (Click “web or pdf” view to continue reading.)
Willow: The 1st
Date: Nov 12, 2017
Willow is an auteur, and the charts could always use more of those.
Has Willow Smith ever met an idea she didn’t like? The youngest progeny of Will and Jada might have more creative rein over her work than anyone else who can feasibly be called a pop star. She never sounds like she has anyone hovering over her shoulder telling her what to do. Sometimes, we wish she did. Smith has ambition, but she lacks taste, and her second album The 1st is one idea after another—some great, some good, some inconsequential, many cringe-worthy.
Look how the album starts. “Hey, Mom,” she exclaims over pizzicato strings that suggest the opening of a heartwarming family movie. “I met a boy/ He plays guitar/ He likes Quentin Tarantino/ And really sad songs.” The next lyric is “anxiety attacks,” and seconds later she claims to come from space. It’s not promising.
Guitars, Tarantino movies and sad songs have all become telltale signs of the patrician, patronizing soft boy who’s fixing to fuck you over. It’s possible this lyric is a clever update of the old girl-group tradition of pining for a boy that’s bound to break your heart. If so, it’d be the only place she displays any kind of wit or nuance. She’d rather her music sound smart than be smart, hiding behind purple prose and third-eye pseudoscience rather than writing lines that hit hard. (Click “web or pdf” link to continue reading.)