March 23rd, 2015 12:18pm

How Can Something So Free Feel So Rehearsed

Grimes featuring Bleachers “Entropy”

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.

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March 19th, 2015 11:58am

Kissing Anybody That’s Around Us

Madonna featuring Nicki Minaj “Bitch, I’m Madonna”

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.

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March 18th, 2015 12:17pm

All She Ever Wanted Was Another Friend

Avid Dancer “All the Other Girls”

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.

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March 17th, 2015 1:07pm

You Better Have An Awfully Big Boat

Speedy Ortiz “Raising the Skate”

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.

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March 16th, 2015 12:31pm

Haven’t Slept In Days

Echo Lake “Waves”

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.

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March 12th, 2015 12:08pm

Lost You In A Dream

Tobias Jesso Jr. “Can’t Stop Thinking About You”

Everything about this song, from the melodies on down to the vocal style, screams “wimpy ‘70s lite rock.” Well, except for how minimal it is – this recording sounds like it may have been a demo in another context, or at least the basic track before the addition of several layers of overdubs. This is pretty much Jesso, his piano, and a very subtle keyboard wash that sounds like some kind of choral setting. No bass, no guitar, no drums, no strings. It’s so bare, but it really suits the direct, unguarded sentiment of this song. It’s just this guy putting his love out there, and it comes out sounding very sweet, and very brave.

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March 11th, 2015 4:07am

We Beg While We Chew

Modest Mouse “The Best Room”

I suspect I’d be annoyed by the sentiment of “The Best Room” if it was a song by a lot of other artists, but I actively want to hear Isaac Brock sing from the perspective of a grumpy misanthrope. He’s just really, really good at it. This song is part “let’s get back to nature” and mostly “ugh, these whining entitled assholes and their dumb first world problems.” You’ve heard it before, but Brock makes it sound beautiful somehow. The song is jagged and anxious, but occasionally shifts into oddly tranquil tangents with lovely but understated lead guitar. His language is blunt, but the details are so vivid and specific that it doesn’t come across as a litany of complaints. This is a judgmental song at its core, but I don’t think it’s lacking in empathy. It’s just that frustration and irritation has eclipsed all that.

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March 10th, 2015 1:04pm

Everybody Likes To Talk

Matthew E. White “Rock & Roll Is Cold”

There are certain strains of music that I’m not even sure qualify as “retro” anymore, since they never really go away. I think a song like “Rock & Roll Is Cold” trades on a certain comfort level the audience may have with ‘70s rock, but there’s really nothing about it that couldn’t be ‘90s or ‘00s instead of 2010s. It’s a very commercial sweet spot – a patina of “oldness” to feel cozy and classic, but modern enough to seem relevant now. It’s funny – the sound of this song isn’t even the most retro thing about it, since the lyrics talk about genre distinctions about rock, soul, and gospel as if that’s something that matters in any big way to people now. People listen to rock music in great numbers and it’s not going away, but the idea of people talking about rock as a concept or ideal now feels so quaint. So yeah, dude, rock & roll is cold. Sure, if you say so. Nice vibe, though.

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March 9th, 2015 12:39pm

I’m Sure It’s A Bore Being You

Courtney Barnett “Small Poppies”

Courtney Barnett is the only vocalist on “Small Poppies,” but I hear it as a duet. As she sings about feeling anxious and annoyed by the way her relationship with someone is slowly dissolving, the lead guitar plays the role of the other person. That part is shimmering and lovely but aloof and elusive as it hovers around the core of the song in a noncommittal daze. Barnett’s lyrics are mainly about desperately trying to avoid conflict and refusing to become as vindictive as this other person, but as the song reaches its climax, she loses her temper. At first, it’s just her being strident – “I make mistakes until I get it right!” And then it’s her acknowledging why she was once willing to tolerate some behavior, but isn’t anymore: “I used to hate myself but now I think I’m alright!” And finally, she snaps: “I dreamed I stabbed you with a coat hanger wire.” That’s the one time she and the lead guitar seem to be on the same page.

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March 5th, 2015 12:45pm

Every Day Of My Life

Hot Chip “Huarache Lights”

technology and a lot of songs about feeling old, but it’s rare to find a song that’s about both and isn’t remotely hysterical about either. Most of the guys in Hot Chip are DJs when they’re not playing in the band, and this track clearly comes out of that experience, with Alexis Taylor having a very subdued existential crisis while realizing that he favors a more old school, tactile way of doing things, and how that means he’s a little out of step with how things are today. But he’s not really freaking out about it – as befitting a guy in an electronic band, he’s not bothered by technology, and he admits that maybe he’s bored with “youth.” This is a song about being OK with aging, and not necessarily looking at obsolescence as the worst thing that could happen to anyone or anything. There’s a beauty in a moment that passes, and some grace and dignity in belonging to your moment instead of forcing yourself into someone else’s thing.

The song also gets at what seems to be the core philosophy of the band: “Machines are great, but best when they come to life.” It’s all about investing these things with humanity. It’s not a mistake that the recurring hook “replace us with the things that do the job better” shifts from Taylor’s voice into a robot voice and back to Taylor at the end. Hot Chip just aren’t ever going to see the robot as a replacement for the flawed but soulful voice of a real person.

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