April 17th, 2014 12:54pm

Find A Nicer Way To Kill It

Andrew Jackson Jihad “Temple Grandin”

Andrew Jackson Jihad has been around for about a decade, so they’re hardly new to sounding remarkably similar to The Mountain Goats, but wow, they sound remarkably similar to The Mountain Goats. Sean Bonnette certainly has his own voice and lyrical style, but the music sensibility is very close to where John Darnielle has been over the past several years – a very particular way of playing acoustic guitar, a very particular sort of melodic phrasing, an emphasis on lyrics above all other things. Bonnette isn’t on Darnielle’s level on that front – not a lot of people are, really – but his words are very vivid and rooted in the kind of bitter, ironic tone of a lot of ’00s emo rock. “Temple Grandin” is both oblique and extremely specific, with words that bring up a lot of bile and ideas about cruelty and convenience, but don’t take shape as a specific narrative. It’s just one of those things where you wouldn’t want to be the person addressed in the song.

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April 15th, 2014 12:03pm

Breaking Off The Day

Total Control “Flesh War”

My friend Maria sent this to me recently because she knew I’ve become very interested in new wave, and hey, this sounds like new wave! And yes, it does sound like new wave, or at least the more grim Joy Division/New Order/Depeche Mode end of it. But it’s NOT actually new wave, because this is a pastiche of a specific style, whereas actual new wave was about idiosyncratic artists being as distinct and strange as possible while also making bold, accessible pop music. It’s not about a particular style so much as it’s about individuality and imagination. This is a really great song – to me, this mainly sounds like a song that should’ve been on one of the last two Interpol records – but it’s a very post-00s kind of rock song because it’s just making no effort to be distinctive beyond reminding people of other music they probably like. And like, even as much as Interpol is heavily indebted to Joy Division, they really do have their own thing going on if just because Paul Banks is such a bizarre lyricist and singer. As appealing as “Flesh War” is, I’m not really picking up anything special about their personality. I’d like more of that from them – they clearly have the fundamentals down.

Here’s the Total Control page on Soundcloud. Their album is out in June.

April 14th, 2014 12:20pm

The Setting Sun

Thee Oh Sees “Encrypted Bounce (A Queer Sound)”

“Encrypted Bounce” sounds like Can if they were from sunny California instead of dark, dour Germany – the relentless groove and bad-trip vocals are there, but the guitar parts relieve the tension of the rhythm rather than add to it. The bottom end is pretty heavy, but most of this track feels completely weightless, with all the trebly parts seeming to float upward like helium balloons let loose. I find this song to be really comfortable – there’s just something very calming about the certainty of that beat and the incredible looseness of just about everything else going on in the song.

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April 11th, 2014 12:36pm

The Meant To Be

TEEN “Rose 4 U”

The first two releases by TEEN were frustrating to me because while I was very impressed by some aspects of the band – Teeny Lieberson’s voice, her particular melodic sensibility, the band’s taste in keyboard tones – the songs were, for the most part, too stiff and inert. But now that they’ve got a new bass player, it all totally clicks. Boshra AlSaadi has a very warm and funky style, and it loosens everything up and keeps their treble-heavy music from sounding too flat or brittle. “Rose 4 U” makes the most of the band’s new dynamic – everything in the song pivots off AlSaadi’s groove, in sometimes very unexpected ways. I especially love the way it keeps building as it moves along, and when everything drops out to foreground the vocal harmonies, it comes back feeling vaguely Motown-ish in the finale.

Buy it from Amazon.

April 9th, 2014 12:22pm


Mica Levi “Lipstick to Void”

Under the Skin is one of the best films I have seen in many years in large part because Mica Levi’s score is so effective in evoking the terror of confronting something truly alien and unknowable, and in pushing the viewer to see our world through the perception of an indifferent alien. Much of it is ambient, but the most powerful parts are variations on a melody rendered in scratching, trilling, oddly tuned strings. You can hear a version of the primary theme for the first two thirds of the film at the 4:14 minute mark of this track – it’s beautiful, but also something that feels off and vaguely grotesque.

Levi’s mostly atonal music is like a saw that severs the listener from a sense of recognizable humanity – much of it inspires a feeling of numbness that is different from how numbness usually comes across in music. It’s very alert, and very cerebral – the brain is active, but the emotions are dead. There are emotional cues in the music, but it feels scrambled somehow, or modulated in ways that signal a completely different frame of reference for experience.

Buy it from Amazon.

April 8th, 2014 12:34pm

Colors Getting Warmer

Avey Tare’s Slasher Flicks “Strange Colores”

I love how any time Avey Tare goes into a project thinking that he’s going to simplify things, the result is never actually simple, but just a version of what he does that’s shifted slightly in a different direction from what he’s done before. His Slasher Flicks material benefits from collaborating with new people – Jeremy Hyman is certainly a better drummer than Panda Bear, and Angel Deradoorian’s bass and harmony parts depart from the usual framing of his melodies and rhythms – but ultimately, you could play any of these songs for someone and they’d think it was a new Animal Collective album.

I think of Enter the Slasher House as a refinement of the musical ideas Avey was working through on Centipede Hz. Both are pretty direct and emphasize a “live band” dynamic, but the Slasher Flicks material successfully cuts out the overstuffed midrange frequencies that made Centipede Hz feel so cluttered and disorienting. This isn’t to say that there’s a LOT of space in these new songs, but enough to have room for melodic bass lines and silences that give definition to bursts of sound. “Strange Colores,” my favorite, isn’t “simple” by any stretch, but it does feel blunt and focused, so the bright melodies and thumping beat makes the song feel as joyful as it ought to be. I think that if this one was on Centipede, it’d be just as good as a song, but would’ve probably had a bit more sound getting in the way of those elemental things.

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April 7th, 2014 2:56am

Crazier Than Hell

Miley Cyrus @ Barclays Center 4/5/2014
SMS (Bangerz) / 4×4 / Love Money Party / My Darlin’ / Maybe You’re Right / FU / Do My Thang / #GETITRIGHT / Can’t Be Tamed / Adore You / Drive / Rooting for My Baby / You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go / Summertime Sadness / The Scientist / Jolene / 23 / On My Own / Someone Else // We Can’t Stop / Wrecking Ball /// Party in the USA

What the hell do I say about this? I feel like in a lot of ways you’re better off looking through my Instagram to get a sense of what it was like to see this show. It’s thoroughly brilliant on a visual level – in some ways very Tumblr and in other ways very Tim & Eric, and far more indebted to the work of Jeff Koons than anything Lady Gaga has ever done. It’s overwhelming, surreal and ridiculously fun, but also very emotional. Cyrus has a fantastic voice and is an extremely charismatic performer, and knows how to dial back the spectacle and do justice to the ballads in her set. The only song in the set that had no major visual component was “Wrecking Ball” because why the hell would you get in the way of that song, or specifically that chorus?

I figure that a majority of the people who are going to see Miley Cyrus on this tour have never been to a concert before. This is such an amazing first concert experience to have, but it sets up such unreasonable expectations of other shows, both in terms of glorious bizarre spectacle, and the intense enthusiasm of the audience. I’ve seen quite a lot of stuff over the years, and honestly, this was second only to Nine Inch Nails’ Tension and Lights in the Sky shows in terms of being a complete work of art, both in terms of musical performance and visual design. I’m going to be thinking about this show for a long time.

Miley Cyrus “Do My Thang”

The last time I wrote about Miley here I had to literally flip a coin to decide whether I was going to write about “My Darlin’” or “Do My Thang,” which are my two favorite songs in her catalog. “My Darlin’” won, and I wrote about how thoroughly heartbreaking it is. But “Do My Thang” is easily in the highest echelon of my favorite recent songs; I have listened to it a fairly ridiculous number of times over the past seven or eight months. I think of this song as being the essence of Bangerz-era Miley – in terms of genre, it’s bouncing all over the place and shouldn’t work on a structural level, but yet it does. (The concert arrangement brings bluegrass into the equation to make it even more dizzying.) I really love her voice on the rapped parts – she’s very good with expressive inflection and brings a LOT of character to rhymes that would otherwise be kinda meh. I wish I knew how many times I’ve rewinded to hear her do that “I’m a southern belle, crazier than hell” part over and over. It’s a high number.

But as with a lot of Miley’s music, the bonkers stuff sits side by side with some very intense emotion. This song turns on a dime to big, belty balladry, and at least half the time sounds like Adele if she had a “bad bitch” mode. The beauty of what Miley is doing right now lies in how well she fuses irony with raw, earnest emotion, to the point that it often seems like there’s no fusing at all. It all just exists in the same continuum and nothing contradicts anything. Silly enthusiasms, sexual displays, romantic yearning – it all overlaps here, just as it does in our lives.

Buy it from Amazon.

April 3rd, 2014 12:04pm

I Was Alone In The City

EMA “So Blonde”

This song is meant to be about the commercialized image of the “sexy blonde,” but if I hear it, I only have one blonde in mind. There’s just no way I’m not going to like a song that sounds like flawlessly executed fanfic about Celebrity Skin-era Hole. Courtney was on more or less the same topic at that time too – the idea of Los Angeles and the way Hollywood creates people in its image that it can chew and spit out – but I think she did it with a greater sense of stakes. EMA’s music is certainly passionate and emotional, but the songs often feel aloof and judgmental, whereas Courtney was a lot more interested in diving headfirst into things that a lot of artists today would just dismiss as “problematic.” But there’s a pretty big difference between talking about a complicated idea from within it and observing it from a distance. And that’s not to say EMA’s perspective isn’t valuable – a lot of the song (and the video) is about the way we passively absorb signifiers from culture – but it’s a lot less urgent and emotionally powerful.

Buy it from Amazon.

April 2nd, 2014 12:23pm

Ever Since The Day We Met

White Hinterland “Sickle No Sword”

I interviewed Casey Dienel for a piece about White Hinterland I’m writing for BuzzFeed yesterday, and she mentioned that one of the things that pushed her towards singing in a loud, emphatic R&B/gospel style was an experience where she sorta reluctantly sang a Beyoncé song at a karaoke party and totally nailed it. She used to sing more like this when she was younger, but had strayed from it out of embarrassment or a need to express a different sort of feeling, but it felt good to her, and physically comfortable. You can really hear that in “Sickle No Sword” – her earlier work was more restrained, but this sounds like a person who is completely at ease with themselves and not afraid to really belt it out. I think one of the reasons this style of singing endures and connects with so many people is that there’s just no way to hedge on emotion – you can’t go halfway with this, and you can’t put up a wall between yourself and the listener. It’s not simply about a display of technical prowess, though that’s in the mix. You hear a song like this – or a song by Beyoncé, or Aretha Franklin, or Otis Redding, or whoever – and you’re listening to someone be brave in their expression. I think we’d all like to be that way, or at least experience it vicariously.

Buy it from Amazon.

March 31st, 2014 3:20am

All Those Frozen Days

U2 “Invisible”

“Invisible” seemed like the beginning of a new album cycle for U2 – it debuted in a Super Bowl ad and was performed on the first episode of Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show – but now it seems more like a very expensive false start. Not long after “Invisible” came out they announced that their next record wouldn’t be out til 2015, though it was widely assumed to come out in April of this year. It’s unclear whether “Invisible” will appear on their next album in some form, or if it’s just a stand alone single in their discography.

U2 have ostensibly been writing and recording their 13th studio album on and off since 2009, but they seem particularly insecure and indecisive about what the record should be. Their creative process for the majority of their career has been to write in the studio and endlessly revise material until it feels right, or they’re literally forced to stop working and put something out so they can go on tour. Given that this method has birthed the majority of their best work, it’s hard to argue with results. But it’s not a very disciplined way of working, and this extended gestation for the new record is evidence that they probably should figure out a new way of doing things.

It likely would not take so long for them if they weren’t so paralyzed by the desire to write a few surefire mega-hits. I’m sure there is some pressure on them from their label et al, but it can’t possibly be as much as the pressure they put on themselves. I really admire that U2 want to be a relevant force in pop culture, and I think this drive kept them big after a lot of their peers – R.E.M., Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode – completely gave up on having big hits to play to their cult and follow their muses. But the reality is that U2 haven’t had a major hit since “Vertigo” in 2004, and ten years later there isn’t much of a space for them in mainstream culture. They can’t get on pop radio, and rock radio – the thing they need most to score a real hit – basically shrugged off “Invisible” in favor of younger acts like Bastille, Imagine Dragons, Passenger, and Lorde.

U2′s previous album, No Line on the Horizon, sold over a million copies in the United States alone, which shows that the band can sell a LOT of records to their faithful core audience even if they have no hits. It’s safe to say that whatever they put out next will sell about the same. And frankly, they should be happy with that. In this day and age, any record that can sell a million copies is a minor miracle. And let’s be really really real: Everyone knows that a U2 record is just a peg for an extraordinarily lucrative world tour that will sell regardless of whether they have new material or not. U2 are understandably afraid of being a nostalgia act, but they really need to be at peace with the reality that most of the audience thinks of them that way no matter what they do, and realize that this situation gives them license to be as weird and indulgent as they want to be with their new music.

“Invisible” is a pretty good U2 song, but it’s very obviously the sound of a band hedging their bets and desperately hoping that being familiar is enough to inspire excitement in their audience. This strategy paid off in 2000 when they released “Beautiful Day” after a decade of fairly arty material, but it makes no sense now. If they’re going to recycle a strategy from their past, it has to be the Achtung Baby gamble. They need to make a record that sounds distinct and uncompromising. It has to be something that sounds like them being “hey, we’re all over 50 and we’ve got tons of hits and we don’t give a fuck anymore, we’re gonna do whatever we want.” Ideally, it should be something that allows The Edge to truly cut loose and remind people that he’s one of the most inventive and influential guitarists of his generation. This is what would excite their base and attract the interest of lapsed fans and younger people who may have never taken them seriously. They need to stop sounding desperate for approval, it is very unattractive. No one wants to hear the musical equivalent of a combover.

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