March 31st, 2015 11:59am
Ashley Monroe isn’t known for writing upbeat songs, and that really comes through in a song like this, which is genuinely sunny and optimistic. The good vibes in this song are clearly hard-won, and it’s sung from the perspective of someone who’s been knocked around a lot by life but is making a real effort to be positive and hopeful going forward. You can feel that in the melody and arrangement too – it’s very warm and the melodies are total ear candy, but you just can’t ignore this subtle ache at the core of the track. It’s not so much a feeling that you’re trying to get away from so much as it it’s a thing you have to take with you to really appreciate anything good that comes your way.
March 30th, 2015 12:59pm
I’ve been listening to To Pimp A Butterfly pretty much every day since it came out, but have held off on writing about it because I found it hard to pick one song to focus on. It’s all so tied together that it feels like pulling one thread would unravel the whole piece. It’s also a dense record that reveals a lot over time, and a record that is primarily concerned with issues of blackness that I feel entirely unqualified to remark on – it’s that thing where you gain a lot from listening, but lose a lot by tossing in your white guy opinions. I know some people aren’t totally on board with where Kendrick is at right now in terms of his lyrical obsessions and the record’s smooth, jazzy sound, but I’m pretty dazzled by all that.
I love that the elegance of Kendrick’s rhymes are matched by the pure musicality of the tracks – a large portion of this album would stand up pretty well without him. “These Walls” is built around a double entendre that starts off lewd but grows deeper and darker as the song moves along and the metaphors become more elaborate. The music isn’t quite as elaborate, but it’s very sophisticated as it weaves several gorgeous, seductive melodies around a loose groove. This is maybe the most superficially pleasurable track on the record – I’m not sure I totally trust the taste of someone who could deny this on a purely musical level – but you can’t get away from the melancholy at the core of this. It’s there in the words, yes, but it’s present in the music too. You can hear it in the inflection of the lead guitar, and when the song tenses up near the end, and the mood sours as Kendrick’s thoughts go darker and he snaps out of feelings of comfort and lust.
March 26th, 2015 11:47am
Father’s new mixtape isn’t necessarily the first time I’ve heard dudes do ultra-horny rap tracks that are also very respectful of women, but it’s maybe the first time I’ve heard that be the primary focus of a rapper’s lyrics. The lyrics on Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First? are consistently sex positive, but not in a way that seems like a front – this is simply the work of a sex-obsessed guy who genuinely likes his similarly sex-obsessed partners, and has nothing but contempt for anyone who is going to slut-shame the women he’s hooking up with. The fact that he’s coming this point of view without compromising the XXX nature of the music is a good sign, and hopefully just the direction of hip-hop going forward. I know I’m not alone in liking a LOT of hypersexual rap that’s fantastic on a musical and lyrical level up to the point where it’s unnecessarily misogynistic or homophobic and it just kills the mood and diminishes the song. A song like “BET Uncut” proves it doesn’t have to be that way.
March 25th, 2015 11:57am
I love the way John Darnielle writes about wrestling because he’s so zeroed in on the exact thing that makes the contrived theatricality of the sport resonate with young people who feel powerless. This song is sung from the perspective of a vicious heel, and is basically just him ranting about tearing apart every babyface hero in his path. The audience is meant to identify with the face, but I think the ravings of the heel make more sense for a lot of young dudes, especially the ones with a lot of anger and fantasies about humiliating the people who have made them feel small and weak. Darnielle really gets into the bluster of this character, and in doing that he draws a line connecting a lot of other similar things – movie monsters, comic book super villains and anti-heroes, heavy metal stars, rappers, anonymous asshole trolls on the internet – that indulge the same fantasy of overwhelming strength and gleeful sadism.
March 24th, 2015 12:45pm
It’s a little too easy to imagine Rihanna as being an EQ setting or an artificial intelligence rather than an actual human singer – even her warmest vocal performances feel vaguely inhuman to me. But I don’t mean this as an insult! Pretty all of her best songs work because of this, or at least the implication that a real, vulnerable person is putting on a sort of vocal armor to keep us at a distance. I think that’s part of why so many people connect with her – most people wish they could so effectively guard themselves against their most painful and conflicted emotions.
There’s not much pain in “Dancing in the Dark,” but it’s definitely a song where Rihanna’s vocal affect pushes a song from good to great. I hear a lot of dancehall in her performance here, but it’s not totally that. It’s kinda like someone was adjusting the settings on the Rihanna bot to dancehall, but something is a little off. Like, every long “I” sound has turned into an “oi,” and she’s hitting each syllable on the verses a bit too hard. But like a lot of songs, the seeming off-ness of it makes it so much more interesting to hear. It’s hard to imagine anyone else actively choosing to do it this way, but it really works.
March 23rd, 2015 12:18pm
This is a very interesting time for Grimes – she’s pushing herself to write full-on pop music and figuring out different ways of doing that while retaining her sense of identity, but it’s still very unclear where she’s going to end up when she puts out another full-length record. I’m glad she’s making some of this process transparent to her audience. That’s a wise move, because if she’s moving in a different direction it at least prepares everyone for the shift. But if she doesn’t change that much after all, an outlier song like “Entropy” still gets to be out there, because it’s far too good to just throw away. This is her second collaboration with Jack Antonoff from Bleachers and Fun, and just hearing it, you can get a sense of the chemistry they have. They’re both artists who find a lot of inspiration in big tent pop from the ‘80s and ‘90s but have a solid footing in the present day, and I think that overlap in taste makes her feel comfortable enough to write and sing in a way that’s more direct and unapologetically pop than when she’s on her own. Unlike a lot of Visions, she’s not obscuring her hooks with cool sounds and textures – “Entropy” is very minimal and mostly focused on simple acoustic guitar, so all the emphasis is placed on her voice. I’m not sure if this is a sound she’ll want to do all the time, but I think her ability to make this work and for it to still very much read as a Grimes song is something that will make her music better going forward. She sounds very confident, and that confidence is going to serve her well.
March 19th, 2015 11:58am
The last time Madonna released an album I wrote a whole thing about how depressing it is to hear her struggling to chase trends and fit in with contemporary pop when really, that ought to be below her. I would love to hear a Madonna without compromise, especially when that would mean the fully honest expression of a woman in her mid ‘50s. It’s not necessarily the trend-chasing that’s the problem – that is an essential feature of Madonna-ness, really – so much as the feeling that on a lot of her recent records, she’s dumbing down or regressing.
But it’s exhausting to second guess an artist like this, and maybe a little insulting too. “Bitch, I’m Madonna,” a song she made with Sophie, Diplo, and Nicki Minaj, is something that sounds genuinely fresh and strange. The Diplo bits are as hard and dirty as you’d want from him, and the bits that are obviously attributable to Sophie take the regressive impulses of Madonna’s recent music and pushes it into ridiculous abstraction. Sophie speeds up her voice to sound cartoonish and uncanny, and it’s cute in a way that’s both charming and unsettling. This is a song that seems to put the idea of fun and youth in scare quotes – it’s self-consciously embracing these things, and going a bit too hard on them as a means of overcompensation. It rings emotionally true, in the sense that the age you ~feel~ becomes a more variable thing over time. I think a song like this is very earnest, but the music is produced in a way that context and self-awareness frame a lot of lyrics that might otherwise seem entirely vapid.
March 18th, 2015 12:17pm
I will admit that sometimes when I hear this song I focus on the guitar part on the bridge and try to remember which R.E.M. song it comes from. I swear it comes from something Peter Buck has done! (The lead part on the bridge also feels very Reveal to me.) I don’t mention this as a slam on the song – quite the contrary! This song is pulling from a lot of great sources to arrive at this very particular shy-guy vibe, and it really works. It’s basically about this guy having a crush, but the feeling of it falls right at the center of a Venn diagram of reserved introversion, genuine sweetness, and furtive paranoia. That sax solo at the end is the perfect conclusion for this song, and leaves you wondering whether it was intended to be sexy or sleazy.
March 17th, 2015 1:07pm
Sadie Dupuis has a very ‘90s indie rock guitar style – it’s all winding melodies, but with chunky loud bits for emphasis. You don’t get a lot of this style from younger musicians today, so it’s very refreshing to my aging ears. But while Dupuis and her band have an aesthetic tether to that past, I think they’re very much a band of this particular moment. Dupuis’ lyrics are unapolegetically feminist, but not in a way that feels particularly transgressive – her thoughts, observations, and proclamations are more matter of fact. “Raising the Skate” is a song that talks back to people who condescend to her, and rejects the way society pushes women to take less credit for their accomplishments because a confident woman is terrifying to insecure men. A lot of bands write “anthemic” songs, and the lyrics don’t really say much, but this is an anthemic song with lyrics that deserve to be so emphatic and empowering in their expression.
March 16th, 2015 12:31pm
Shoegaze and dream pop are indie subgenres that make me a little wary. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the aesthetics – I do, I’m not a monster – but that I’ve heard so many bands hide their mediocrity or outright incompetence behind a wall of fuzz and buried vocals that I’ve become very skeptical. Echo Lake is the real deal, though. They’re not breaking any new ground in the genre, but they are very good songwriters, and Linda Jarvis sings with a confident, lovely voice that cuts through the din rather than recede into the fuzz. Jarvis’ voice and melodic style feels a bit churchy to me, and I think that really works in this context – there’s always been something vaguely holy about being immersed in beautiful noise.