oeuvre

oeuvre

This is a more-or-less complete collection of my past work. Much of my early Emerald work was lost during a major website update this year, but the Emerald staff is currently working on recovering these articles.

My work can be found on the following sites:

Article count (630)

Date: Jun 27, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Long one of rap’s most consistent artists, for the first time he sounds confused.

An acoustic guitar and an animal cry of pain burble out of the viscous morass that is “Xanny Problems,” the opening track to Future’s latest EP Save Me. A down-pitched vocal sample sheds its skin to reveal the voice of Nayvadius Wilburn, employing a trick debuted on the Weeknd’s “Initiation” and adopted by Vampire Weekend on “Diane Young”—associated, either way, with self-destruction. The song fades out rudely after a minute and 41 seconds. Though Future has long chronicled the alternating flashes of pain and numbness that come with drug addiction, no Future song yet has so perfectly captured the feeling of being narcotized, of existing as in a thick soup, of being unable to get off the couch. Usually, Future likes beats that give a luxe contrast to his predicament. This one situates us inside the fog of his brain, and it’s one of the most jarring cries for help ever to open a rap album.

In a Rolling Stone interview last year, Future threw a wrench in the narrative for his last album The WIZRD by claiming he’d had an epiphany when his young collaborator Juice WRLD told him he’d been the inspiration for his trying Xanax as a seventh-grader. Future seemed to show remorse for writing so much about lean and pills in a way, as with many rock stars, that condemned them while simultaneously using them as ammunition for a cool, bad aesthetic. He was primed to, if not climb out of the stylistic rut of jets and pills and hi-hats he’d been stuck in since 2015’s definitive Dirty Sprite 2, approach it from a smarter perspective. Even at less than two minutes, “Xanny Problems” immediately joins the canon of Future songs like “Perkys Calling” and “Codeine Crazy” that work because they make doing drugs sound sickening.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 19, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

And doesn’t it make sense that the Jonas Brothers would grow up to be L.A. playboys with a Machiavellian grasp of pop psychology?

As an album, Happiness Begins is nothing special, designed to float into Lyft-shuffle anonymity rather than stop us in our tracks. As a marketing strategy, it’s brilliant. Get the Jonas Brothers back together just as people are starting to remember they existed, and then slap their name on songs whose authorship doesn’t much matter as long as their ubiquity gets people humming them. These aren’t the same JoBros who slayed stadiums in the late 2000s. The rock-band angle is gone, guitars are absent unless they’re the acoustic ones that convey sensitivity, and the brothers don’t attack their songs with childish ecstasy but croon them smokily, letting us know that the purity rings are a thing of the past. Joe’s boast that he’s “winning like it’s ‘Game of Thrones’” is a lot funnier when you realize he’s married to Sophie Turner, who played Sansa Stark.

So it doesn’t sound like the Jonas Brothers. What does it sound like? Every damn hit on the radio, down to the most alarming specifics. “Sucker” nicks its drum machines from Drake’s “Hotline Bling.” “Cool” does the same descending-chorus thing as Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” On “Every Single Time” Nick repeats a melisma identical to the one Adam Levine uses on Maroon 5’s creepy “Blurred Lines”-era embarrassment “Animals.” And “Love Her” kicks off its chorus with the same notes and almost the same words as Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself”; it’s no less mordant a song, though at least the protagonist is on the receiving rather than giving end of abuse. None of these songs are really carbon-copy clones. It’s more of a way to affiliate these songs with pop music as a whole rather than with a musical identity specific to the Jonas Brothers. (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 17, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Inspired by the traumatic circumstances of his child’s early birth, Kevin Richard Martin’s Sirens is one of the most frightening works of domestic horror ever committed to record.

Kevin Richard Martin’s (The Bug) Sirens shares with my favorite ambient album of the decade, Biosphere’s N-Plants, a concern with how systems meant to work perfectly tend to go horribly wrong. N-Plants was about the meticulous machinery of nuclear plants, ostensibly designed to provide humans with power while staving off the deadly by-products of this “clean” energy, failing more often than they ought to. And Sirens is inspired by the premature birth of Martin’s child in 2014, the ensuing complications for his wife during childbirth, the precarious operations the newborn had to endure for the first month of their life—and, of course, the helplessness Martin himself felt during that time as a father. His anxiety, as reflected in the titles of the suffocating dark ambient tracks on Sirens, seems largely directed at the unreliability and impersonality of the systems working to keep his child alive, and his lack of control over them. The old Robert Burns quote about mice and men comes to mind.

There is a dreadful sense of anticipation throughout Sirens, mixed with a sound design that obscures and distorts as if the music occurs behind closed doors and thick walls. Sirens is a remarkably passive album, preoccupied foremost with events beyond the control of the protagonist whose mindset Martin’s music approximates here. This music is about waiting, waiting, waiting—and not knowing. Two reviews I’ve read of Sirens have been from fathers, both of whom recognize the feelings of helplessness Martin invokes here. I don’t have kids and have no plans to at this moment in time, but everyone knows how it feels have a pit in their stomach, and the all-encompassing void of this music suggests one as big as a black hole.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 17, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A document of the missing link between indie rock and new age.

Emily A. Sprague, the smiling, bespectacled avatar of the indie rock band Florist, quietly dropped two of the best recent new age albums. It makes more sense than you’d think. Florist belongs to a latter-day tide of indie rock acts—many led by queer artists, non-men and artists of color—who reject trendy darkness because god knows there’s enough darkness in the world as it is, focus on the ways they keep themselves (and we can keep ourselves) happy and strong and preach positivity while writing candidly about the pain that leads us to seek peace. That was the theme of Florist’s If Blue Could Be Happiness, written after Sprague was partially paralyzed in a traffic accident and turned to accruing an impressive modular synth setup while unable to play guitar. An artist like Sprague is the perfect candidate to make music like this, aware of the utility of new age as a tool to help achieve balance and mindfulness while socially conscious enough to steer away from the dangerous pseudoscience and phony ethnography that have defined the genre for so much of its ignominious lifetime.

Water Memory (2017) and Mount Vision (2018), both freshly reissued, are largely based around Sprague’s exhaustive synth setup. The former is misty and ominous, the sound of lights half-glimpsed on the other bank of a lake, radiating a quiet intensity that suggests staring into the fog and feeling something staring back at you. Like the best ambient music, it’s peaceful but frightening, affirming the vastness of the universe but leaving it up to you whether to find fear or comfort in that fact. Of the two albums, it more completely inhabits a world. “Water Memory 1” is in the vein of ambient tracks like Biosphere’s “Nook and Cranny” or Mika Vainio’s “Viher (Green-Cellular)” that use low tones such as foghorns to suggest a world shrouded in mist. If “1” evokes the inherent grace and dignity of water, “Water Memory 2” suggests the ways humans can act on it, its aquatic blats suggesting the rush of water through a pump or an aqueduct. Water Memory would be pretty much perfect if not for “A Lake,” which occupies the first 13 minutes on the album but isn’t terribly interesting texturally.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 14, 2019

Publication: SPLITTOOTHMEDIA

The Albuquerque-based musician recorded the introspective I Can’t Believe They Invented It! at The Unknown in Anacortes, Washington

A dog was clearly audible through the computer speakers as I Skyped Tristan Puig from their home in Albuquerque. It’s Mimo; Puig’s had him for about three years. By sheer coincidence, he looks a lot like the dog on the cover of Puig’s single “From A Dog To Its Master,” which the singer-songwriter first released before buying the dog but which only last year found its way onto their debut full-length, I Can’t Believe They Invented It!

“From A Dog To Its Master” is about a dog who loves its master, who couldn’t care less.

“There’s this school of thought that dogs aren’t capable of feeling love and that any affection they seem to be showing towards you is because you’re the provider of its food and shelter and things like that,” Puig says. “I don’t think it’s true, but I love the idea that it could be. The most romanticized thing to us as humans is probably dogs.” (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 13, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Earthen Sea’s lavishly detailed new album, Grass and Trees, sounds like a classic dub-techno album but somehow doesn’t feel like one.

Dub techno is an interesting genre because, while built on the limitless possibilities of dub and still relatively young, it seems consciously and cautiously committed to orthodoxy. It remains defined by the work of a few Germans in the mid-’90s, most of them orbiting the production duo/label Basic Channel. If all Western philosophy can be said to be footnotes to Plato, the same can be said about dub techno and this tiny group (though the American Rod Modell has managed to mount a successful counter-tradition). The most innovative dub techno releases tend to work through subtle mischief rather than mold-shattering blows to convention, and Grass and Trees—the new release by Jacob Long’s project Earthen Sea—exemplifies this approach.

Long, a D.C. hardcore punk veteran who still rocks a fearsome beard and a stare like Satan’s has been flirting with the late ’90s intersection of ambient and club music for most of this decade. Last year’s An Act of Love evoked dubby classics like Vladislav Delay’s Multila but was equally as informed by the gauzy reveries of Gas and the hi-def, Ampex-treated ambient of latter-day torch-bearers like Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Rafael Anton Irisarri. Its dub techno DNA shone through mostly in its cold, corroded atmosphere, where everything seemed half-glimpsed through a fog. Grass and Trees is the reverse: it’s much more orthodox, using sounds we might recognize from the genre’s history, but somehow it doesn’t feel like a dub techno album.

Most notably, it has no interest in obfuscation. Every element is plainly apparent, and there are rarely more than five or six per track. There aren’t many new sounds to pick up on your fourth listen that you won’t notice on your third. The dominant percussion sounds are an untreated MIDI clap and an ominous knocking that makes Grass and Treesless than ideal for listening to in a dark room. Rather than everything melting into a briny soup as occurs on An Act of Love or most of the music from which Long takes influence, Grass and Trees has an oblong, building-block quality. It feels freshly assembled and polished, not dredged up from the rusty abyss and run through an acid bath.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Jun 11, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Few albums for a single instrument are this immersive and psychedelic.

Kelly Moran’s Origin EP is meant as a companion to Ultraviolet, the New York composer’s awesome album from last year. It documents the improvisations that gave rise to that album’s compositions, which were then fleshed out by master producer Daniel Lopatin into shimmering, aquatic Saint-Saëns reveries. That was the kind of album that’s hard not to love or at least appreciate once you’ve heard it, a record seemingly designed to make itself known by word of mouth. But the 36-minute Origin arguably surpasses Ultraviolet, or is at least the superior artistic achievement, because it transports us to that rarified world of hers without even seeming to try. Few albums for a single instrument are this immersive and psychedelic.

The instrument in question is the prepared piano, best known as applied by John Cage and accordingly one of the immediate clichés of avant-garde music alongside free-jazz sax skronk and Yoko Ono screams. Prepared pianos are more often ugly than not and tend to emphasize the metallic, percussive fact of the piano through dull thwacks and thuds. In Moran’s hands, they’re graceful and dignified, undulating like free-swimming tunicates or skittering like bottom-feeding crustaceans, upending how we think of pianos, prepared or otherwise. From that instrument alone Moran conjures astonishing textures, and it’s only gradually on “Reflexive Music (Autowave)” that we realize we’re hearing a piano rather than the distant, bullish thrum of a steeple bell.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 06, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Orcutt can be a powerful guitarist, but Ride a Dove leaves no doubt as to whose show it is.

If you want to stream the reissue of Harry Pussy’s 1996 noise-rock record Ride a Dove, you’ll have to take it as a single, 30-minute track. Prince pulled this trick on Lovesexy, but while that seemed like an arbitrary assertion of creative control befitting as obstinate a prankster as the Purple One, Ride a Dove demands to be consumed as a monolith. The divisions between songs here are as moot as the divisions between instruments, which melt away into a holistic slab of guitar-drums noise and dense cement-bath distortion. Whether or not there are any “songs” – the basic building block of rock ‘n’ roll – here is up for debate, even between different versions of the same record. Think those moments on the Stooges’ Metallic K.O. where you can hear bottles ricochet off Ron Asheton’s strings, then distend them into a full album. That’s Ride a Dove.

The only thing that’s certain here is the presence of Adris Hoyos, the octopus-creature at the sonic and geographic center of Harry Pussy. She takes up a lot of space and defends it fearsomely. Most drummers pick a side of the kit and bash out a beat on it, but Hoyos extends her arms to hit everything she can within whacking range. These are not beats but a robust exertion of presence. And the screams. I’m not talking rock ‘n’ roll screams, I’m not even talking about the controlled volleys of noise Yoko Ono (to whom she’s often compared, not just as a musician but as a wife working with her husband in avant-garde music) lets loose. I mean real screams: the alarming, distinctly feminine sound Fay Wray was famous for, though Hoyos is at least as much like Kong. By centering the drums as the lead instrument rather than the worshiped guitar, by using a sound culturally tied to innocent victimhood and the sexual frenzy of female rock fans as an instrument of jarring punk power, Hoyos subverts the power dynamics of the traditional rock band in more ways than one.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.”

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Date: Jun 05, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Sarah Davachi asserts herself as a composer rather than a mere ambient artist on these four ghostly tracks that comprise Pale Bloom.

Much of Sarah Davachi’s music could be called “ambient”, but that’s a nebulous term even some of its OGs, like Harold Budd, despise. Ambient is less a genre than a set of traits developed through convergent evolution. An artist who came out of the conservatory, an artist raised on dance clubs and chill-out rooms, and a reformed punk could all feasibly channel their influences into near-identical, droning, beat-free music if they stumble across the right mindset. Though Davachi shares more DNA with drone masters like Phill Niblock and Éliane Radigue than the Enos and Budds of the world, it didn’t seem too much of a disservice to slap the term on her music. Pale Bloom, which tells us exactly where Davachi stands. Though it sounds great swirling around your head like leaves in a gust of wind, Pale Bloom is composer’s music, precise and formidable.

The piano-centric record consists of four tracks: three “Perfumes” and the drone piece “If It Pleased Me to Appear to You Wrapped in This Drapery”, which matches the length of the other three tracks by itself. This is not the kind of album where every piece is part of the whole; its four songs are islands in themselves, each showcasing something Davachi can do. “Perfumes 1” is all spidery piano melodies that resolve in odd and unexpected ways, her playing always returning to a portentous half-note plod on a single key. Halfway through, the back-masked ghost of the piece joins her unadorned instrument, and the two incarnations of the music—one corporeal, one weightless and otherworldly—sing an eerie duet together.

“Perfumes 2” is based on the same repeated single note as its predecessor. The difference is this time around, the voice of singer Fausto Dayap Daos appears, androgynous and ghostly, hovering at the margins of the piece. As on “Perfumes 1”, the melody is doubled by more distant, processed layers of voice until we seem to be hearing a small choir, or perhaps one sad song echoing endlessly in space. At the dead center of the mix sits the piano, like the vessel from which these spirits spring.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 05, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

The song itself is the worst thing about the “Old Town Road” story. In it, a 19-year-old from Atlanta, best-known for running a Nicki Minaj-themed Twitter account, makes a canny country-rap fusion. He’s taken off the country charts just as he starts to climb them. Suddenly, more attention than ever is brought to his goofy two-minute ditty, and his friends and compadres conspire to get him back on the charts — all the way to number one. He tweets a photo with Billy Ray Cyrus; a day later, their remix hits the charts.

“Old Town Road” is one of the biggest and most inexplicable singles ever. It’s also, let’s face it, not a great song. It’s a juxtaposition of clichés from the two traditions it tries to marry, tongue planted firmly in cheek. His critics who objected to his Wrangler deal had a point. He is making fun of country music. What they fail to realize is he’s making fun of rap too.

The song lives and dies with its fusion, and on his debut EP 7 the man born Montero Hill presents himself as a monkey wrench in the machine that spits out neat genre labels and assigns them to artists. His lyrics aren’t half as interesting as the scenery he drops them in, but he’s the embodiment of rap’s most genre-agnostic moment ever, where trap is pop, where the promise of rap-rock was fulfilled by rappers rather than rockers, where the “yeehaw agenda” brings together marginalized groups alienated by the white-masculine ideal of the Old West.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Jun 05, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

California is Pet Sounds with the mic pointed at the goat’s asshole.

California is Pet Sounds with the mic pointed at the goat’s asshole; it’s a parody of the transcendent pop epics of the ‘60s that, deep beneath the layers of cynicism that mask its puppy-dog heart, aspires to compete with them. The final chord of “Goodbye Sober Day” parodies “A Day in the Life,” but when the harmonies hit on “Sweet Charity” they mean business. The opening of “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” wants songs like “Little Deuce Coupe” for their Golden State superficiality, but when Mike Patton gestures “from the skyscrapers down to the submarines” on its latter half, it’s that same sweep, that desire to encompass all of existence, that drove Brian Wilson’s doomed fantasies. “Pink Cigarette” has the rudest ending of any rock song in history, but it wouldn’t work if sounds that hurt the heart hadn’t burst forth from Patton’s five-octave throat mere seconds earlier. Genre parodies like this are a dime a dozen, but California would be empty snark if not for those moments that genuinely wound.

California is a war between two attitudes from two different decades. The ‘60s saw rock ‘n’ roll’s full flowering into Art when the hippie movement, Eastern mysticism and the bittersweet revelations of psychedelic drugs led to a desire among youngsters to create pop that pined for the truth of the universe. The ‘90s was the moment when that generation’s hungry progeny rifled through its trash, digging up bargain-bin obscurities and bits of cultural detritus to repurpose them with a wink and a nod. Within California is the same appreciation for the filigreed and florid that drove the Shibuya-kei movement, the oeuvres of Stereolab and Jim O’Rourke, the bachelor-pad wine-and-cheese of Air and the trip-hop movement. There’s also the same potty-mouthed prankster irreverence we see on shows like Ren & Stimpy and Beavis & Butthead, not least because all three are imbued with the spirit of Zappa, the first rock ‘n’ roller to lift toilet humor to the level of high art like Duchamp used to do.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 29, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Trombipulation is a well-played and frequently interesting funk record that might be a rare-groove classic if it were made by any other band.

1980’s unloved Trombipulation is a well-played and frequently interesting funk record that might be a rare-groove classic if it were made by any other band. Maybe Shock G would’ve still sampled it for the “Humpty Dance” and it would’ve taken on a second life as a cratedigger cult concern. No such luck. Parliament’s last album for 38 years has the misfortune of coming at the end of one of the most impressive runs in pop, and it’s acquired the same reputation as the Velvet Underground’s Squeeze or the latter-day Pixies records: an embarrassment that’s conveniently located at the end of the band’s catalog, so it’s as easy to skip as the end credits of a video game.

Embarrassing Trombipulation is not. In fact, it speaks highly of Parliament that the band sounds so tight and enthusiastic given the turmoil and talent drain that plagued P-Funk’s latter years. Exhausting it is. This is the only Parliament record that leaves us wrung-out and haggard rather than exhilarated. Listening to it can be a little less like listening to a funk record and more like going to the museum on free day or enjoying the buzziest restaurant in town on a busy Saturday night. There’s plenty to look at and chew on, but only if you can tune out the distractions.

The mix is impossibly dense with vocals. There’s always dialogue on Parliament records, either explaining the band’s mythology or simply illustrating how weird and funky the music is with bawdy non-sequiturs. Typically, it’s easy to keep track of who everyone is; but not here. “New Doo Review” and “Peek-a-Groove” (nice whistle register, man, but could you shut up for a second?) play like shouting matches. An interesting aspect of Trombipulation is that female vocals are more prominent than usual, predicting the excellent work Brides of Funkenstein would turn out in the ‘80s, but you’d be forgiven for missing them given how much else is going on at any given time.  (Click “web” or “pdf” link to continue reading.)

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Date: May 29, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

The music seems made not of arches and ribbons but of great oblong bricks and panels.

Flying Lotus’ Flamagra plays more like a modern jazz monolith in the vein of Wadada Leo Smith’s America’s National Parks or Wayne Shorter’s Emanon than the fleet-footed albums Steven Ellison made in Brainfeeder’s early days. At a little over an hour it’s not as long as those records, but that runtime’s still split over 27 tracks, and there’s a strong impression of implacability and immovability. Rather than threading great gossamer webs of sound between the snap of unruly, militantly unquantized snares, Ellison lays down crisp, basic drum-machine beats and goes nuts over them with all kinds of jazz runs and chords and dense arrangements, and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s string arrangements are never far away. The music seems made not of arches and ribbons but of great oblong bricks and panels. It looks less like a cathedral than a ziggurat.

This is odd because the element it’s meant to represent is fire, which typically dances and leaps much as Flying Lotus tracks tend to. But while You’re Dead could reasonably be about life after death and Until the Quiet Comes totally sounds like dreams, the fire thing feels like a red herring, a spark of inspiration rather than an undergirding concept.

What makes Flamagra a bit tricky to get a foothold on is precisely this lack of an easy guide. It’s his most self-contained music, and because it puts so little stake in sound design it demands you appreciate Flying Lotus as a musician rather than a producer. He says he recently learned to read music, and it shows. His keyboard chops are more apparent than ever, and he’s often spelling out big, spiky chords on the surface of the mix with big, unwieldy synth presets; the droll fairytale theme “Heroes on the Half Shell” does more than one thought was possible with the chintzy fake horn sounds that are a staple of every MIDI pack.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 16, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Gloryhallastoopid, which concludes the Parliament mythos, imparts the same bittersweet feeling as when anything wraps up and acquires a body count in the process.

The Spectrum Culture P-Funk retrospective happens to arrive at Gloryhallastoopid (Or Pin the Tail on the Funky) at a time when conclusions are a big part of the cultural discourse: “Game of Thrones” sprinting through miles of plot in mere hours, Marvel grandly dispatching its Avengers to their destinies. And Gloryhallastoopid, which concludes the Parliament mythos, imparts the same bittersweet feeling as when anything wraps up and acquires a body count in the process.

This is where the Sir Nose saga ends. In the last minutes of “Theme from the Black Hole,” the long-nosed enemy of all that is funky (if you fake the funk, see, your nose will grow) finally vanquishes his enemy, the George Clinton avatar Starchild, by turning him into a mule. The logic can be explained by another of Clinton’s elaborate jokes, and it’s to his credit that the record suffers from no shortage of donkey jokes without giving us a single “ass” double-entendre. The P-Funk mythology is more convoluted and makes less sense than fans like to pretend, but what little story exists concludes rather hastily. Starchild should’ve been sent off in grander fashion, especially when Clinton teases his demise as early as the second track.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 13, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy’s eerie calm reflects the domestic quietness every adolescent party animal fears.

It’d be a shame if everyone treated Here Comes the Cowboy as the last stand of early 2010s slacker indie against the genre’s more principled and inclusive new wave, because Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy is a thorny, frightening, often frustrating record about the passage of time. It’s something he’s been chronicling in real time since he first let loose the words “what mom don’t know has taken its toll on me” on his 2014 record Salad Days. The Rockaway Beach ruminations of Another One and the existential horns and thorns of This Old Dog paint a picture of a rock-star hedonist acutely aware of the toll of the touring life and not entirely willing to give it up. Cowboy’s eerie calm reflects the domestic quietness every adolescent party animal fears stumbling into when they get older.

Per DeMarco, “cowboy” is a term of endearment he likes to use for his friends, an admission that drew some derisive laughs in the wake of the “yee-haw agenda’s” subversion of the all-American white-male cowboy ideal. I think it’s a red herring: the cowboy is the unseen force at his back, keeping him on his linear path through life—not necessarily his conscience, but something in that wheelhouse. He refers to himself as “little doggy”, like how cowboys refer to cattle in cheesy old songs, on two separate songs. On “Little Dogs March” he’s telling himself to “march on”, and at the end, the cowboy finally arrives in an unsettling dust-storm of “yee-haws”, as if to tell him it’s time to stop fucking around on the guitar and do something else.

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Date: May 08, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

It sounds like a lot of Jelinek records, but it doesn’t feel like them.

Two years after the reissue of Jan Jelinek’s Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records on his Faitiche label comes the first vinyl edition of an earlier and more dated but nonetheless engrossing record by the German producer. Released as Gramm, 1999’s Personal Rock feels a little like a test run for its more famous successor and even uses many of the same sounds, most notably on “St. Moritz,” built on the same drone as “Moiré (Piano & Organ)” from Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records. But it holds its own as a foggier and more tempestuous record, and it boasts a marvelous sound design that departs from the weightlessness of so much ambient music to feel dense and oppressive.

More than Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records—but less so than 2002’s Textstar, the compilation of cuts as Farben that completes Jelinek’s impressive introductory triad—Personal Rock is haunted by the ghost of club music. The pinpricks and muffled footsteps that substitute for kick drums and hi-hats swarm high in the mix. Behind them we hear a little data cloud of clicks, muffled scratches and static transmissions that swirl amorphously in turmoil, filling in the neglected corners of the stereo field and situating us in a space. Then deep, deep in the mix we hear chords, usually the low hum of a pad that resembles machinery dutifully going about its day-to-day functions—though on “Non-Relations” he chances a full-on chord progression that resembles that on any cheesy house classic of the ’80s and ’90s, except it seems heard from miles away.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 07, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A.O.D. is a distressing loss of form.

There’s a moment on Tiger & Woods’ “Don’t Hesitate” that’s nothing short of miraculous. Katie Kissoon’s sampled vocal has been repeating the title ad nauseam, as if… well, hesitating to say something. The producers have to do something to help the poor woman. So, acting as wingmen, they insert a high-pitched pinprick of synth string that lines up so perfectly with the second syllable of “hesitate,” and becomes so indistinguishable from Kissoon’s voice we might think if we weren’t listening closely enough that she’d made the kind of vocal leap from which karaoke classics are born. It’s as conducive to maudlin ecstasy as any high note any singer could hit with elbow grease alone, and it pinpoints the curious magic of Tiger & Woods. Few dance producers wring so much power from the humble loop. Unfortunately, there are far too few moments like that on A.O.D.

Tiger & Woods’ third album pulls not from American disco but from their native Italy’s home-grown club-music tradition Italo disco. A little more rigid than its American precursor, Italo disco is more fixated on groove and less on ecstasy. Rome’s Goody Music/Full Time Records, source of most of these samples, leans especially languid. And A.O.D. sticks to a comfortable pace throughout, at no particular pains to get anywhere or to feel anything. It sounds a lot like synthwave, the French genre that draws from old video-game and action-movie soundtracks to conjure a square-jawed, strong-but-silent image of ‘80s masculinity. And like Ryan Gosling in Drive, which catalyzed that genre’s aesthetic, A.O.D. is curiously allergic to displays of emotion.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 05, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

A sort of alternative to end-of-the-world Trumpian madness.

“Compos Mentis,” the title of STFU II’s second track, means “having full control of one’s mind.” This album-length EP is funk as self-care, the kind of album that makes you want to strip off your clothes and put on a bathrobe and just not do anything tonight. There are a million other Dâm-Funk tracks like the ones we find here, but familiarity is the point. It doesn’t take us out of our comfort zone but wraps us securely in it.

Dâm-Funk isn’t always so modest. When he released 2009’s colossal Toeachizown, he positioned himself as something like an electro-funk Charlie Parker or Brian Wilson, a figure destined to take this goofy music meant for dancing to its logical conclusion as art. There was a sensitivity and Zen-like calm to this music, and he was as happy to evoke L.A. clichés like night drives and palm trees as create nature vignettes like “Brookside Park.” You could groove to his tracks, but that wasn’t the most important part. “Modern funk,” he called it, and this decade has seen a number of very good imitators, the best on the Peoples Potential Unlimited label.

STFU II embodies this style at the expense of experimentation. Think of a Dâm-Funk track—but not one in particular, just a generic Dâm-Funk track—and you’ll probably come up something a lot like what’s here: wormy bass, the musty thwack of a vintage drum machine, big jazz chords lighting up the whole night sky, something playing a downward-dog melody. Nothing here ventures far beyond that except the ambient cut “Inhale, Exhale” (which should be between three and ten times longer) and the only real experiment, the almost UK garage-like “Deeper,” whose drums seem to perpetually be falling apart and putting themselves back together again in real time.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: May 02, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

What saves Ride Waves from wretchedness is GRiZ’s innate knack for motion.

One of the most pleasant surprises at 2013’s Outside Lands festival was then-23-year-old producer GRiZ playing at the smallest stage. This was when EDM was getting a little stale and the dubstep thing was starting to mutate into trap, deep house and big-room electro house. Even if you think you’d seen enough DJs to last a lifetime, this skinny guy, projecting a bug-eyed confidence and grinning like a madman, spun funk so nimble and lithe it was near-impossible not to move. Yes, there were buildups and drops, but GRiZ’s music wasn’t about jumping ecstatically to an endlessly-teased musical cue. This stuff got under the skin.

His records are less exhilarating, which one might initially peg on the fact that a lot of dance music is built for DJ sets and not for home listening. Ride Waves, though, gives another answer. GRiZ is a festival artist, and this is festival music specifically for the jam-band crowd. These songs are meant to be experienced live, possibly many times over by the devoted descendants of Deadheads that still load up in vans in pursuit of the Vibe. How else to explain the classic-rock instrumentation throughout, the bluesy organs and Claptonesque guitar fills at odds with the liquid-metal motions of his bass drops? How else to explain the presence of Matisyahu? “All we need to learn is love,” he sings, a thesis that immediately deflates once you’ve heard his fake patois.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 30, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

These lesser-known records still feel like Alice whispering her secrets to us.

As the Alice Coltrane reissue campaign soldiers on, we enter the depths of the great musician’s catalog. The four records reissued by Superior Viaduct—Eternity (1976), Radha-Krsna Nama SankirtanaTranscendence (both 1977), and the live Transfiguration (1978)—were her first for Warner Bros. after years on Impulse. They find her embracing the bhajan and kirtanforms of Hindu devotional song while opening up new worlds with her Wurlitzer organ. Of the four only Transfiguration is a true masterpiece, but because these curious collections of prayers (both sung and implied) are so uncompromising, so removed from the classic profile of great jazz albums—so totally her—it’s like we’ve been given a glimpse into something sacred.

Eternity is the least of the four and the most experimental in terms of Coltrane putting her new tools to the test on wax for the first time. It opens with her Wurlitzer, whose sound will be a constant across the album, but it solos meekly over a lush orchestral arrangement, never quite finding the right notes. It’s meant to be a Sketches of Spain sort of thing, but as we’ll learn later, that organ sound is better when it does the bulk of the sonic load-bearing. An arrangement of a section of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring is similarly staid, and “Om Supreme” is a test run for the Hindu-gospel fusion she’d make her m.o. throughout her Warner Bros. run. The best track is the rip-roaring “Los Caballeros,” whose Latin affectations still feel a bit hokey.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 29, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

It’s unclear how or why Foxygen—indie rock’s most notoriously acrimonious duo—is still together.

It’s unclear how or why Foxygen—indie rock’s most notoriously acrimonious duo—is still together, especially after hearing their new record Seeing Other People. “Work” imagines a nasty argument between the two band members, and the jabs they lob at each other cut deep. “Face the Facts” recounts their failure to find stardom. “Livin’ a Lie” details singer Sam France’s disdain towards the name-dropping ingratiators he perhaps finds on tour. By the end, they’ve concluded they’re “seeing other people,” which is curious; the band has no intention of breaking up. Maybe it’s band-breakup-album as pastiche. France consistently uses the dated term “rock ’n’ roll” to place the grievances of an indie band within the storied tradition of road-warrior woes.

Foxygen is one of indie rock’s more reverent bands. 2014’s …And Star Power imagined a hypothetical third Todd Rundgren masterpiece, while 2017’s Hang paid tribute to the big-budget orchestral rock punk rebelled against. Seeing Other People might work if they ripped from something like Let It Be or Neil Young’s ditch albums, but they’re pulling willy-nilly from the past without apparent rhyme or reason. “Mona” resembles any indie band this decade that treats New Order’s “Age of Consent” as a sacred text. “Livin’ a Lie” is Elvis Costello. “The Truth Is” is Springsteen (they actually had to edit it to make it less Springsteenian). “The Conclusion” sounds like Sly Stone, specifically the dark funk of There’s A Riot Goin’ On. Why is beyond me.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 29, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

Band leader Michael Angelakos speaks about the terrors and rewards of his acclaimed first album—and the golden age of indie pop.

ALL EARS When Michael Angelakos first toured Manners, the 2009 debut of his then-rising project Passion Pit, he couldn’t hit the high notes. A side effect of the anti-psychotic medication Seroquel, it turns out, is paralyzing your vocal cords.

Angelakos was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 17 and speaks so candidly about his mental health as to often surprise interviewers. “When I was making this record, I didn’t think I was going to be alive much longer,” he tells me, rather offhandedly, of Manners.

Manners came out on May 15, 2009. Now, Angelakos is taking the album on tour for its 10th anniversary, backed by a crack squad of musicians tasked with performing songs that haven’t been played live in nearly a decade.

“It’s not like I’ve been very positive about touring in the past,” says the New Jersey-born, Boston-based musician. “But it’s jarringly therapeutic and strangely easy and fun getting back in the rehearsal and playing these songs.”  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

 

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Date: Apr 28, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Lizzo’s mainstream debut comes on strong, but its self-absorption can feel like an endgame.

Lizzo is feeling herself. After kicking around Minneapolis’s indie-rap scene for most of the last decade, the 30-year-old now exists on the level of fame where people will recommend her to you on the presumption you might not know who she is, but you do, because someone else has told you about her before. She’s perilously close to becoming a mainstream star, and Cuz I Love You is clearly meant to make as big an impression as possible. Given the breadth of what she’s done before, especially the military-grade, Missy Elliott-informed dance-rap tracks on her 2014 debut Lizzobangers, Cuz I Love You comes off as chart debut as a genre piece. She can make an album like this because she can, and she is at great pains to show us she can do everything else pretty damn well too.

It’s easy to see why people love Lizzo within the first ten seconds or so of Cuz I Love You. The album begins with her belting—absolutely belting; this isn’t some timid R&B-starlet melisma—the album’s title. Then she’s met by big, blown-out Dave Fridmannesque guitars that no doubt sounded great over Coachella-sized speakers this year. Soon she’s abstracted her words into a wrenching simulation of a crying baby, and when the song finally peters out, it’s hard to imagine she hasn’t twisted herself into a ball of twitching limbs like that girl in Suspiria. But nope—she gets up and sings the next song with gusto.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 24, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Beyoncé’s Homecoming is one of the most impressive shows ever, but its need to tell us how impressive it is deflates some of its awe.

When Beyoncé postponed her Coachella set by a year after becoming pregnant with twins, she shed the need to promote an album (2016’s Lemonade) and could focus on putting on a show. Her two sets at 2018’s Coachella felt like work as consequential as Lemonade or her earth-shattering 2013 self-titled album. The setlist wasn’t a parade of hits as much as a recasting of her catalog: in paying tribute to America’s historically black colleges, she re-calibrated her music to incorporate marching-band instrumentation while keeping the most Pavlovian cues (the siren-bark that signals “Formation”) intact.

But for all the great songs involved, the show wasn’t as exhilarating to watch for the music as for its scale: hundreds of people onstage, Beyoncé surveying the crowd from a giant crane, superhuman dancing, fireworks we barely even notice at that point. Watching the just-released Netflix concert film Homecoming and listening to its accompanying live album imparts some of the same thrill as watching some of those old Soviet films where they leveled whole hills to make the sets and spent as much government money as they could on extras. It might be the best show-as-statement in pop history, putting as much (if not more) ambition into its two-time run as any of her blockbuster albums.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 22, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Foodman, Japanese footwork’s biggest star, didn’t find fans through pop smarts but through sheer skill.

Foodman, Japanese footwork’s biggest star, didn’t find fans through pop smarts but through sheer skill. Early releases like Couldwork and the excellent Doguu EP were replete with sounds you might’ve never heard before but understood took great skill to make. Like a sound-effects artist in an alien studio, he threw robots, insects, deliberately obnoxious synth trumpets, and occasional snatches of blissed-out jazz into a machine that seemingly pulled them apart into their constituent atoms. Like the best footwork, his music was as weightless as it was weird.

It might strike one as odd that Foodman’s signed to Diplo’s label Mad Decent. But it’s easy to forget that before finding the pop formula most agreeable with Spotify algorithms (he invented those chipmunk noises on every EDM-lite song), the producer epitomized the mid-‘00s’ more optimistic approach to the musical possibilities of the Internet, promoting Brazilian dancehall and favela funk and hiring his Sri Lankan-British protégé M.I.A. to rap about Third World violence over untreated Missy Elliott instrumentals. Could Foodman have tapped into those old hungers?

In case you were concerned: ODOODO, Foodman’s first release for Mad Decent, isn’t an adulterated version of the Foodman formula. It is, though, an example of the producer working in a more listener-friendly milieu than usual. While beats were usually more implied than felt on Foodman’s early work, most of these cuts are grounded in house beats or trap skitter and are easily identifiable with the scuzzy dance-music mutant known as “outsider house.” But while ODOODO is far less interesting than most Foodman releases, his idiosyncrasies remain intact.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 22, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

The Redwood City band is emblematic of a Bay Area moment when rock, emo, punk, and pop combined—and audiences sang along.

ALL EARS Pursuing music often begins with a simple realization: that it could be you up on that stage. And before he started the Redwood City rock band Please Do Not Fight in the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Zen Zenith was just a kid staring goggle-eyed at the pop-punk bands that dominated Bay Area clubs in the late ‘90s.

The Matches, with whom he’s still friends, wowed him in particular. “They had rehearsed moves and such incredible stage presence,” he says. “There’s one song where people get down low. These are clichéd things now, but it was the first time I’d ever seen it. I was like, ‘how do they know how to do this? How do they know we’re all gonna jump at the same time?’”

After playing in a few short-lived bands, Zenith formed Please Do Not Fight in 2007, at age 24. That year, the project released its sole full-length, Leave It All Behind. Counterbalancing pop-punk sugar rush with spiky, sophisticated lyrics and a chilly, lonesome atmosphere, it’s the kind of album one could see inspiring the same underground cult love as American Football’s debut or Duster’s early records.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 16, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

This isn’t some kind of conservationist concept album.

If all you know about Jayda Guy is that she recorded for 1080p prior to signing with Ninja Tune, you might expect her to trade in a distinctly Canadian style of house music: bleary, stoned, based mostly on woozy chords and VHS-caliber sound quality, wary of the excitement that defined the genre’s embryonic form as an evolution of disco. By contrast, Guy’s music as Jayda G is proud of its lineage. Her debut long-player Significant Changes is made of sharp edges and clear lines and seems designed to sound good over big club speakers. She even has her own handbag-house diva on call, the fabulous Alexa Dash. The one snarky joke they make at house music’s expense is a pretty funny one. “Push! Pull! It’s antithetical,” Dash screams, parodying instructional dance records with a nifty paradox.

There’s another interesting angle. Guy is a marine biologist specializing in Canada’s threatened killer whales, and she recorded Significant Changes while finishing a paper on the effects of certain chemicals on the animals. We hear their piteous cries on track four, “Orca’s Reprise.” I’m no biologist, but to me the creatures sound frightened, helpless, in need of a friend. More cause for alarm comes on the next track, “Missy Knows Best,” as biologist Misty MacDuffee (misspelled in the track title, but “Missy” is more alliterative) steps up to the mic. “Why are these whales threatened, and what can we do about it?” she intones gravely as Guy fucks playfully with her voice. She doesn’t give us an answer, but she doesn’t pretend to, either. She gets us thinking.

This is the Midtown 120 Blues approach to political music, denying us disco goodness until we can get down with the message. Saving the whales is more palatable than DJ Sprinkles’ thesis that dance music is the music of suffering, of course, and a listener who might not even know Canada’s orcas are in trouble might hazard a Google search to see what they can do to help. Guy sees no discrepancy between her two hustles and, in fact, considers it her duty to your booty to combine the two. Her platform as a DJ is far bigger than her platform as a scientist, so why not use it to get the word out?  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 15, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Ribbons is a folk album made with a beatmaker’s perspective.

Bibio’s Ribbons is a folk album made with a beatmaker’s perspective. Throughout the record, Stephen Wilkinson keeps a curious distance between himself and his material in the same way as a producer using his favorite soul songs as fodder for a rap beat. Though Ribbons speaks the musical language of the British Isles, with finger-picked guitars and Celtic fiddles, it chucks the fundamental building block of folk music—that’d be the song—out the window.

Tracks end abruptly, as if Wilkinson’s trying to tell us to not really think of them as songs. There’s a fuzzy filter over his convincingly wizened voice, letting us know the vocals and lyrics aren’t really the point. The guitars loop almost aggressively, without the fluid motion of someone hammering out the chords to an old folk chestnut in real time. And the margins are filled with electronic burbles that definitely couldn’t be replicated by someone strumming a guitar in a field somewhere. The folk songs anthologized by historians like Francis James Child and Steve Roud were written sometime in the primeval filth of British history and designed to be passed down through the generations. Ribbons is designed to stay on wax.

But it’s unwise to hold Ribbons to the same standards as a Shirley Collins record. It’s an extension of what Wilkinson’s been doing for his whole career: conjuring a rosy, abstract view of rural Britain that, even if you’ve never taken a drive through the island’s countryside, gives you a pretty good idea of what it might be like. Last year’s disciplined ambient project Phantom Brickworks extended a tendril through his home’s impossibly storied past, evoking the mystery contained within vast swaths of time. Ribbons is more diurnal and contained in the present, but it’s in the same vein of Albion ambient.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 09, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

ew rappers have ever done so much with their voice as Young Thug—not just the physical action of bending the muscles in the mouth, throat and tongue but in using certain vocal tics and affectations to generate momentum. One of the great rap albums, Young Thug’s 2016 album Jeffery is worth it just for how his voice skids dangerously on the word “sleep” on “Wyclef Jean” to tease that “Life on Mars”-worthy octave leap. How the ascending “what-what-what” chorus of “Swizz Beats” seems to do backflips in midair. That third “earn” that rockets into the heavens on “Riri.” Everything is melted down into a hook with Thugger, and you’ll find yourself singing individual lines or even noises at least as often as the actual hooks. It’s one of the most audacious ways anyone has made pop, and the album establishes him as artist, stylist, star—and star child.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 07, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Is it appropriate for young kids to listen to this stuff?

Billie Eilish isn’t an exception to chart rules but an extreme. Teens have hit it big singing gothic lyrics over shuddering post-dubstep beats before. Have any gone as far over the top as Eilish on her first album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? It’s exhilarating when pop stars throw caution to the wind like this. Usually, the most avant-pop projects exist when an artist has reached such ubiquity that their name is the selling point rather than the product. There’s a lifeline between Kanye’s Yeezus and Rihanna’s Anti and this album. But Eilish is a rising star, so it feels riskier.

So much of the album is just her voice flickering faintly over a bass tone or a distant snatch of choral harmony. Then something happens, usually something big and frightening. On “You Should See Me in a Crown,” it’s a bass drop. On “Xanny,” it’s song-subducting distortion, over which she struggles to stay afloat. She gets one word out unscathed: the title, the “n” sound elongated until it threatens to snap.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 03, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

“Lost album” has a better ring to it than “posthumous album.”

The record being released as You’re the Man is not what Marvin Gaye would’ve served Motown as the follow-up to What’s Going On. Nearly all these tracks have already been released, there are several conspicuous remixes, and at an hour and change it would’ve had to have been a double album. But “lost album” has a better ring to it than “posthumous album,” so the stakes feel a little higher than if it were the thousandth dump of studio jams from the Hendrix estate.

Let’s pretend for a second that You’re the Man, in its present form, had actually been released in 1972. It’d probably afforded the same stature as Prince’s Around the World in a Day or Stevie Wonder’s Fulfillingness’ First Finale. It wouldn’t be revered as a towering album, but it’d be appreciated as a good one. These songs glide with the grace of an artist working at the peak of his powers. And it’s not that much messier than Here, My Dear.

Marvin Gaye albums in the ‘70s were always about something. What’s Going On was about a Vietnam vet adrift in the hell that followed the hippie dream. Let’s Get It On was about sex. I Want You was about his mistress. Here, My Dear was about his separation from the wife he was cheating on. Ostensibly, You’re the Man is where the hopeless searching of What’s Going Oncalcifies into a clear-headed rebuke of America the broken and the Tricky Dick in its highest office.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 01, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Neither Lennon nor Ono were great at writing about politics.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono seem to have started Some Time in New York City with the conviction that a song could, by itself, change the world. Then they apparently went through the papers with a highlighter before raising their voices to shout away gender inequality, the Troubles and the injustice and brutality of American prison systems.

But music can’t change the world by itself. Ever notice how “Imagine” is mostly played when something horrible has already happened? If any tangible good came out of the songs on the couple’s fifth album together, it has more to do with them playing “John Sinclair” at a rally for the leftist writer, imprisoned on a pot charge (he was released three days later), or “Attica State” at a benefit for the families of that prison riot’s victims. Money speaks louder than song.

If the agit-pop on Some Time in New York City is to be admired, it’s for having the courage to know precisely what it’s mad about. It’s refreshing to hear Lennon bluntly sing “the island for the Irish,” though I wonder how his support for the IRA squares with his pacifism. “Angela Davis is a political prisoner” is a simple statement, but it’s one likely to alienate his centrist fans. Better to be specific than to rage against some vague machine.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Apr 01, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

This is stripped-down Fennesz, or at least as stripped-down as music where the effects are the message can be.

For all the fireworks Christian Fennesz throws on his guitar, it’s usually pretty easy to tell what’s going on in his music. He’s not usually the shoegaze type who puts all manner of shit on his guitar until it sounds like an indistinct blur. His music is all sharp edges and clear outlines, and he has a pop-schooled knack for melody and shameless, maudlin emotional cues. It’s not for nothing his best record shares a name with The Beach Boys hits compilation Endless Summer.

On Agora, some of the detail bleeds out in the wash. Blame circumstance: the Austrian lost his studio for unclear reasons and was forced to move his musical equipment into his bedroom, constructing music the same way as so many of the Bandcamp punks he inspired. Without the benefit of state-of-the-art speakers, he was forced to mix the record on headphones. This is stripped-down Fennesz, or at least as stripped-down as music where the effects are the message can be.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 28, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

Legends Paul Simon and Mavis Staples alongside newcomers Tierra Whack and Kacey Musgraves in a fest more balanced than usual.

ALL EARS The monster that is Outside Lands (August 9-11, Golden Gate Park) coasts less on San Francisco’s rock ’n’ roll reputation these days than when the music festival was new—which means on the one hand the music is more youth-oriented, and on the other we get a lot of the same artists who’ve been making the festival rounds for a few years.

Last year’s fest was dull aside from Janelle Monàe’s usual extravaganza and an astonishing but poorly-attended Janet Jackson set. This year’s lineup, its 12th, was just announced: It finds a happy medium, with some predictable perennials—Childish Gambino, Hozier, The Lumineers, Twenty One Pilots—and a nice cast of oddities.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 26, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Solitude exposes the breakup album as the one-sided, self-obsessed, petty, and manipulative genre it is.

The two members of King Midas Sound, poet Roger Robinson and producer Kevin Martin, are happily married men. It’s hard not to see their second album together as anything but a subversive genre piece. Solitude exposes the breakup album as the one-sided, self-obsessed, petty, and manipulative genre it is. Whether that’s their intention is up in the air.

In a Wired interview, Robinson expressed disbelief anyone would interpret the album’s content as creepy—despite an entire song, “Who,” about the art of stalking. Perhaps embarrassed by his partner, Martin argued that the characters on the album aren’t “particularly nice people” and maybe were left for a good reason.

That seems clear upon a first listen. Robinson’s voice is perpetually perched on the edge of violence. He gives no details about the breakup and shows us only the before and after. A woman’s perspective is conspicuously missing—literally, as second vocalist Kiki Hitomi does not appear on this record. A female voice might have served better to make the band’s point than the feedback loop of male ego we find here.

It’s not a stretch to imagine someone sharing the Robinson character’s feeling of alienation and seeing him as a hero rather than a reprobate, the way so many college dorm-room posters continue to miss the point of Travis Bickle. But what’s clear is Robinson does not demand sympathy. We don’t feel for these characters so much as fear for them, or simply fear them.

Robinson is well-respected in his own right in Britain as a poet, and his words make delicious use of space. On “You Disappear,” he and his lover “float through different parts of the house like a chess game,” and on “Zeros” they separate “only to go to the toilet.” Sensory details abound: the look of a lover’s body, the feeling of a wet tongue on skin, the food she’d order, the food he eats now.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 22, 2019

Publication: Jewish News of Northern California

After interviewing so many mangy, foul-mouthed, hard-living road warriors as a music journalist, it’s kind of a shock to interview a rock band in a room with one of their moms.

The members of Cubed are all 12 and started playing together when they were even younger. When their faces show up on Skype for our interview, they look like a mini version of a classic rock band, especially with keyboardist Nataan Hong’s long hair. Each has a distinct personality, and were they 10 years older and 10,000 times more popular, they might incite fans to squabble over their favorite.

All four are Jewish and attend Brandeis Marin in San Rafael. If their win at the Oshman Family JCC’s Battle of the Bands in February doesn’t take them to the next stage of local stardom, the $700 they received as a prize just might.

But despite sharing a love of Queen (they’ve all seen “Bohemian Rhapsody”), don’t expect them to blow that money on harps or orchestras or expensive overdubs. Their concerns are more practical: “If Ezra needs a new snare or if we need a smaller keyboard or a new bass or whatever, we’ll use that [money],” says Hong.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 21, 2019

Publication: 48 Hills

The garage rock stalwart launches new label Rocks In Your Head and still believes deeply in the local scene.

ALL EARS As the decade began, all eyes were on San Francisco’s rock scene. Sic Alps, Thee Oh Sees, White Fence, and the Fresh & Onlys found adoring fans and astute imitators. Pitchfork wrote a love letter to “San Francisco’s new garage rock” and gave big red Best New Music stamps to Mikal Cronin’s MCII and Ty Segall’s Slaughterhouse. 

In 2014, Pitchfork published another article: “Why So Many Musicians Are Leaving San Francisco for LA.” You probably already know why: tech money’s coming in, DIY spaces are drying up, artists are getting priced out.

Sonny Smith is one of a few holdouts from the old, weird SF. He’s lived for 12 years in the Sunset: appropriate, as his band is Sonny & the Sunsets. And though it may seem like tech killed the city’s last DIY cells, Smith says San Francisco is very much alive.

His new label Rocks In Your Head will debut April 1. The label’s name comes from a record store Smith visited in New York once. He remembers it as a certain type of store “where you go in and there’s record covers all over the walls and you gotta dig around,” as opposed to the boutique record shops prevalent in San Francisco, which Smith compares to “galleries.”  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 19, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Plastic Anniversary, made of sounds sourced from plastic, juggles a lot of heavy themes.

Matmos’s music is so good it tends to outstrip its concept. Usually that’s a good thing. Martin Schmidt and Drew Daniel are highly skilled at repurposing things like the sound of liposuction or the clank and rattle of a trusty old washing machine into sentimental, good-humored, funky music. So much conceptual electronic music drifts too far from the ideas that fuel it, but Matmos are a mischievous antidote to these doldrums at their best.

Plastic Anniversary, made of sounds sourced from plastic, juggles a lot of heavy themes. It’s a celebration of the two musicians’ 25th anniversary as a couple, and like their romance, plastic lasts an awfully long time. Also at play are the inherent, inevitable problems with plastic: its disposability, its effect on the environment, the fact that it can be used for good (condoms, blood bags) as well as evil (3D-printed guns, riot shields).

How to fit that into a 40-minute record? Matmos…doesn’t, really. It’s cute to use a riot shield to make joyous sounds instead of to oppress the disenfranchised, but the shield—like the other loaded tool, a breast implant—isn’t recognizable in the same way as the body sounds on A Chance to Cut Is a Chance To Cure, which sounded about what you’d expect liposuction to sound like. We don’t get the same synchronicity of subject and emotion we get from, say, that album’s “For Felix (And All the Rats),” which uses sounds sourced from a lab rat’s cage to evoke fear, sympathy and, yes, the squeaks of a small mammal in terror.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 18, 2019

Publication: Spectrum Culture

Music for dancing, with tough beats and minimal atmosphere.

Peter Kuschnereit’s Substance project debuted in 1998 on Chain Reaction, the German label that’s put out a dozen or so of the best dub techno releases of all time. Chain Reaction was an oddly egoless affair. The music was packaged in metal tins with almost no artwork, and artists like Vainqueur, Fluxion, and Hallucinator seemed to draw from the same primordial soup of chords and echo. So did Substance, but his Session Elements was sharper than most of the stoned drifts on that label. It was music for dancing, with tough beats and minimal atmosphere.

Twenty-one years later, after some time spent by Kuschnereit as DJ Pete, Substance is back on the Ostgut Ton label. That’s the label of the great Berlin club Berghain, and listening to his new EP Rise & Shine, it’s obvious what kind of architecture Kuschnereit has in mind for his music. This is cavernous, decadent German techno, less purist than the cliché and happy to integrate influences from dub and ambient music but still tough to imagine outside the biggest of rooms.

There are five tracks. “Rise and Shine” starts with pinprick synths and follows a shuddering 2-step beat: slowly, distant little siren-things that would sound great lost in some distant corner of an airplane hangar-sized club start to flicker in and out. It’s a track with a lot of heft, but I couldn’t help thinking the main synth riff sounds a little stupid, almost like a rock riff a kid might write.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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Date: Mar 14, 2019

Publication: POPMATTERS

Drew Daniel of Baltimore-via-Bay Area pranksters Matmos discusses their new album Plastic Anniversary, homophobic Montana moms, and the difficulties of recording a breast implant.

“I feel bad Martin isn’t here to talk about the record,” says Drew Daniel. “He’d be arguing with me, interrupting me, going ‘no, no, it’s like this, it’s like that.”

His partner—better-known as M.C. Schmidt, the other half of Matmos—is off in the Netherlands doing an opera. But Matmos, according to Daniel, has always been about the “chasm” between them. Both come across as men of rigorous intellect and mischievous good humor, but if Daniel’s descriptions are accurate, Schmidt is

a little more of a hard-headed punk-rock realist, less interested in the poetic reasons for a sound’s existence than the process of creating it.

But it’s as clear from watching the two light-heartedly tease each other with plastic objects in the promotional video for their new album Plastic Anniversary as from listening to their extensive catalog of music together that Matmos is—as they titled a 2013 album—a Marriage of True Minds.

Since the ’90s, the Bay Area-rooted, Baltimore-based duo has released ten albums (not counting collaborations and limited-edition EPs) made mostly from found sounds and typically based on a concept. Perhaps their most famous album is 2002’s A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure, built from squishy, gruesome samples of surgical procedures like liposuction. Their best album might be The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast, a tribute to great queer artists made with sounds relevant to those figures: a track paying tribute to William S. Burroughs, for instance, is rudely interrupted several minutes in by a gunshot.

They’ve also made an entire album using the sound of their washing machine, which they lugged around on tour with them. A common wow-look-how-weird-these-guys-are soundbite involves the use of amplified neural signals from crayfish on a track on their self-titled debut. What’s astonishing is that Matmos’s music consistently transcends the concepts. Matmos albums can be sonically and academically challenging but are always sentimental, good-humored, and funky.

Plastic Anniversarydovetails with their 25th year together as a couple. It’s made entirely from the sounds of plastic—a material which, like their relationship, lasts an awfully long time. Via Skype, I talked to Daniel about how something as disarming as the longevity of plastic can tie in with something as beautiful as love.  (Click “web” or “pdf” view to continue reading.)

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