Widowspeak Uses Nostalgia to Their Advantage on “Expect the Best”

November 21, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s easy to overlook a band like Widowspeak, who have been around for a few years while making music that is all within a very specific lane of hazy country/shoegaze/grunge (they call themselves “cowboy grunge”). None of that changes on their newest album, Expect the Best, but it still represents a subtle progression for the band and is their most confident and self-assured release yet. It’s one of those breakthroughs that is unlikely to be widely recognized as one, similar to how I felt about Beach House’s Thank Your Lucky Stars album back in 2015.

Widowspeak’s calling card has always been singer Molly Hamilton, who has had one of the best voices in music since their self-titled debut in 2011. She only really sings one way, but it’s perfect for this dreamy style of music, and her voice inherently captures the feelings of nostalgia and longing that fit a band that (for better or worse) has a very 90s aesthetic. While mostly sounding the same, Hamilton makes some subtle shifts on this album that help make Expect the Best feel different and better than Widowspeak’s previous efforts. Her voice is more a part of the music than it has been before, and it’s aided by her lyrics, which are the most direct and relatable she has written.

The gorgeous opener, “The Dream,” sets the tone for the rest of the album, with Hamilton waiting in line, thinking about leaving town and going west (likely mirroring real-life for the band, who moved from New York to Tacoma back to New York). “Isn’t that the dream?” she wonders in the chorus, and the rest of Expect the Best asks similar questions about the choices we make and the inertia we sometimes have to overcome to make them. “When I Tried” is the most direct song in this regard, as Hamilton confronts feelings of malaise in what might be the most straight-forward rock song the band has recorded. Her lyric ‘why am I still like this” speaks to any self-loathing slacker.

Hamilton repeats lyrics a lot on Expect the Best, which is another clever way of portraying inertia in the music. The most striking example is on the album closer, “Fly on the Wall,” where she repeats the phrase “it was nothing” for minutes until Robert Earl Thomas’ guitar builds and drowns her out. The song is about a go-nowhere relationship, and the repetition gets across the idea of doing the same thing over and over while hoping the situation will change. On “When I Tried,” the repetition of the phrase “you can try all the time” at the end feels more like a pep talk to herself, but it’s unclear if it will be effective.

A lot of bands use nostalgia in a cynical way by trying to transfer your love of older music onto themselves without bringing anything new to the table. I’m sure Widowspeak have been accused of that also, but I think this band uses nostalgia in a purposeful way that actually adds to the richness of their music. The retro, dreamy sound automatically has the feeling of looking back and wondering what could have been, which plays into Hamilton’s lyrics about encountering forks on the road in life and not being sure if you chose the right one. So even if Expect the Best sounds familiar, the depth and quality of these songs makes it feel new.

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“Masseduction” is the Sound of Assimilation

November 16, 2017 Leave a comment

Let’s start with this: Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) is a ludicrously talented artist. She can rip on the guitar, she writes songs that are simultaneously catchy and weird, and she’s extremely charismatic as a singer. She has always struck me as an artist who could basically make whatever kind of music she wants because she has so much talent and versatility.

So part of why her newest album, Masseduction, disappoints me is because I keep thinking about what could have been. Clark’s prodigious gifts make her a potentially singular artist, but on this album she seems content to sound like everyone else. While previous albums by her like Actor (which I think is her best work) were whimsical and had contrasts in her guitar-playing and indie pop stylings, Masseduction sounds more like a generic pop album that covers really tired subject matter — I’m not sure if you’re all aware of this, but apparently Los Angeles is a sleazy place with lots of drugs, sex, and plastic surgery.

This doesn’t hurt as much as it could because I saw it coming when Clark became famous (by my definition, which is that people are interested in who you date) and enlisted in-demand producer Jack Antonoff (aka That Guy From Fun) for the album. That Guy From Fun has cashed in on America’s desire for schmaltzy pop with obvious lyrics, and while I can’t pretend to know how much he influenced the songs on this album, I’m more than comfortable blaming him for some aspects. He has a co-writer credit on “Pills,” which has lyrics that are about as subtle as a burlap sack full of hammers, and I also sense his grubby paws on the back half of the album, which is full of sappy ballads from the Fun playbook.

In general, the lack of subtlety on the album is what bothers me — the themes all feel obvious and done before, and the music itself sounds more like a big pop production than an individual statement that showcases Clark’s talents. That said, this album has some good moments, because Clark is too talented to make completely worthless music. “Los Ageless” has been certified as a jam by the jam-certification committee (of which I’m a member), “Slow Disco” is a nice ballad even if it sounds a bit out of place on the album, and “Young Lover” sounds like a classic St. Vincent track with a sweet chorus that is undercut by some distorted guitar.

Still, even with those high points, my ultimate takeaway with this album is that it feels like a five-star chef who is working at a Chili’s. The music on Masseduction just isn’t befitting of an artist with this much ability, and at times it sounds complacent, like she is coasting through the songs. St. Vincent doesn’t owe us anything, and it’s hard to begrudge an artist for making a pop album to get her art to more fans  — in fact, one of my lingering inner conflicts over this album is that I’m glad more casual listeners will discover this artist who is legitimately talented and weird, and not of the traditional pop music mold. So maybe I’m just selfish for wanting something that was weirder, more subtle, and more like the St. Vincent whose music I’ve loved for years instead of this slick pop album.

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Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “The Kid” Sounds Like Life

November 9, 2017 Leave a comment

Childhood is a subject rarely discussed in music, for obvious reasons: musicians are adults who are writing about their current grown-up exploits, and it’s sometimes hard to articulate the feelings we all had as little kids in music. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s newest album, The Kid, is inspired by the four stages in the Hindu dharma, and it instantly took me back to those feelings of childhood. Its sound is a perfect reflection of the young mind: full of wonder, imagination, and possibility.

Smith is a prolific composer whose work I was largely unfamiliar with before this album. She’s known for using fluttering synths to make music that is light and airy, but also a little psychedelic. The Kid incorporates a wide instrumental palette; her trademark synths are joined by flutes and horns which, along with her layered vocals and off-kilter rhythms, give this album a playful toybox-like feeling. This suits the album’s early themes of learning, being a kid, and discovering the world and your place in it. One of the lyrics on the second track, “An Intention,” sums up how awe-inspiring the process of discovery can be: “I feel everything at the same time.”

A really smart aspect of this album is how the childhood themes of discovery and wonderment are paralleled by Smith, who is using her modular synthesizers as her own vehicle for exploration. Her vocals and lyrics are much more pronounced on The Kid than in her previous work, so you hear her growing as an artist by learning to make music in a different way, mirroring the album’s concept of a kid who starts as nothing but a name before growing into a complete person. This also tracks with her career: she learned to play her Buchla synthesizers after being lent them by a neighbor and now seems to have complete mastery over her tools. While this could easily feel like a detached artist assembling sounds, Smith feels like she is a part of this music in a very primal way because she has that connection with her instruments.

Eventually, The Kid moves past the early stages of childhood into songs with more existential themes that are reminiscent of adolescence. “In a World, but Not of the World” is my favorite of these tracks; backed by a marching beat and twinkly synths, Smith’s lyrics remind me of when I was a teen who enjoyed questioning things I learned in childhood: “I love it when I think I know something and then I find out it’s the opposite. I’m in love with contradicting myself.” The whole album builds up to the final tracks, where the inherently selfish process of discovering the self is replaced by caring for someone else. “I Will Make Room For You” describes finding love or companionship, but in the same brainy terms as the rest of the album: “All I want is to live my whole life for a chance to explore the unknown with you.”

Possibly the highlight of The Kid is its poignant closing track, “To Feel Your Best,” which deals with the fallout of caring for somebody and knowing that eventually they’ll be gone. It’s a melancholy ending that feels like even more of a gut-punch given the tracks that came before, as all the learning and growing eventually leads to heartbreak. However, there is also a spiritual, peaceful element to the song. I think Smith recognizes there is some beauty to the life cycle and how everyone has different experiences that bring us to the same place.

This album is an incredible balancing act, the work of a composer who has put thought into every note. It is smart without being pretentious, experimental and quirky without being too obscure, emotional without being sentimental. It took me back to when I was younger without being nostalgic and simply relying on recycled sounds. As insane as this is to say, Smith made an album that captures life.

Chelsea Wolfe Soundtracks Our Apocalypse On “Hiss Spun”

November 2, 2017 Leave a comment

If the world really is ending, Chelsea Wolfe’s new album, Hiss Spun, is a fitting soundtrack. Wolfe’s music is not particularly political, instead focusing inward on the darkest parts of ourselves, yet this album feels weirdly timely. As massive hurricanes crash the coasts and we reach the precipice of nuclear war because two idiot leaders can’t stop trash-talking each other like grade-schoolers, the turbulence and doom in Wolfe’s music reflects a dark world that is on the verge of complete chaos.

That sense of foreboding pervades every second of Hiss Spun, which impressively manages to be even darker than her previous effort, Abyss, which felt like a concept album about being stuck in a pit and not seeing the sun for 20 years. This is a massive, beautiful monster of an album — the kind that makes other rock albums feel ineffectual and tame by comparison. It pummels the listener with loud guitars and crashing drums while Wolfe’s powerful voice and her poetic, gothic lyrics sometimes struggle to be heard over the din.

What I love about Wolfe’s music lately is how unrestrained and feral it is. She seems to put every bit of herself into every song and note, and it makes these relentless journeys into the void cathartic and meaningful rather than sounding like empty noise. She also has no qualms about embracing drama and theatricality, which stands out in an era where a lot of music is self-consciously “chill” and relaxing. Every song feels like it has life-or-death stakes as Wolfe struggles to prevent her soul from sliding into complete darkness.

Like Abyss, this album uses dynamics heavily, and it’s easy to get lost in its thunderous loud parts or the bewitching folk-inspired sections. But beneath all of that, Wolfe shows an underrated ability as a relatively traditional songwriter who writes real hooks. “16 Psyche,” “Vex” and “Static Hum” are all not so far away from sounding like 90s radio hits, but Wolfe adds enough weirdness and personal touch (plus some growling vocals from Aaron Turner on “Vex”) to make them stand out from other alternative rock imitators. The album’s last track, “Scrape,” is rawer and even more intense than the rest of the album, as Wolfe describes a destructive relationship in blistering detail with less production and noise to hide her pain.

While Hiss Spun is bleak, there is always an inspiring quality for me when an artist really seems to throw all of themselves into the music they’re working on. Wolfe is among the best at that, and her charisma and songwriting ability make her one of the most captivating artists out there. So much music is content to sit in the background; Hiss Spun grabs the listener and doesn’t let go.

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Cold Beat – “Chaos By Invitation”

October 19, 2017 Leave a comment

It’s fitting that the first song on Cold Beat’s newest album, Chaos By Invitation, sounds like no other song the band has made before. “In Motion” is a long, spacious synth ballad that has a feeling of infinity to it — listening to it makes me feel like I’m alone on a boat in the middle of the ocean, looking at an endless horizon. There is an ambiguity in the track that has become one of the hallmarks of Cold Beat’s sound. On one hand, it sounds peaceful and relaxing to be in the ocean, but it’s also frightening to be solitary in a vast expanse.

This is only the third album for the Hannah Lew project, but it has already grown and evolved in ways that few artists do in their entire careers. “In Motion” is a strategic choice as the opening track, because it officially signifies the shift hinted at on their previous album, Into the Air, which started out as familiar guitar-driven rock before ascending into synth-pop territory halfway through. Chaos By Invitation focuses heavily on those synths, and it becomes primarily a solo vehicle for Lew, who recorded it with less collaboration than their previous albums.

The more solo nature of the album and the restriction to mostly synths would seem to imply a more narrow and claustrophobic sound. “In Motion” proves that wrong right out of the gate, and the rest of the album continues to showcase Lew’s ability as a diverse and creative songwriter who is emboldened by working with different resources than she has in the past. “Thin Ice” and “Don’t Touch” are more classic Cold Beat tracks with a spikier sound and anxious lyrics, but then there is “62 Moons,” another dreamier track with evocative lyrics about a relationship that ends with a “fade to black.”

With fewer collaborators, Lew’s singing stands out more on this album than it has in the past. She sings in almost a classical or operatic way, but adapts her voice to the different styles on the album. She reaches a more high-pitched coo on “False Alarm,” which sounds vaguely like a Grimes/Simple Minds collaboration, but she sounds more like an android on a dense electronic track like “Black Licorice.” One of the last songs on the album, “Strawberry Moon,” is like a synthed up version of a classic c86 pop song, and Lew’s voice fits snugly into its upbeat dreamy vibe.

What I most appreciate about Cold Beat is what makes them one of the trickier bands to write about: nothing about their music is obvious. The style they play is difficult to describe in buzzy genre words (electronic-synth-goth-punk-pop?) and Lew’s lyrics, while not being completely cryptic, don’t really lend themselves to the type of easy interpretations that are the bread-and-butter of music blogging. The only obvious parts are how the band changes with every release and how much thought is put into every part of the album, from the construction of the songs to the sequencing. Lew’s project is a model for what rock music should be, and the success of Chaos by Invitation reflects her continued growth and evolution as a songwriter.

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EMA – “Exile in the Outer Ring”

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment

The suburbs are a recurring theme in pop culture, and media about them usually centers around a familiar trope: the idea that, beneath the well-trimmed lawns and tranquility, there lies a darkness within the people, who are portrayed as unhappy or desperate even in their seemingly wonderful surroundings. My fear was that EMA’s new album, Exile in the Outer Ring, would cover similar thematic territory as lazy satires like American Beauty and center on that dissonance. Instead, she has made an album that is much more nuanced, much more real, and one that accurately cuts to the heart of a specific type of American existence.

That existence is people living in what she dubs “the outer ring,” an idea she explained in a recent interview with Jezebel:

 To me it’s kind of like the outskirts of a city and what would have once been thought of as the suburbs. The idea of the suburbs is kind of outdated, that kind of affluent, white, homogeneous area. But now in Portland and I think a lot of European and American cities, the inner city is really where the wealth is concentrated and everyone else is getting pushed out. So I’m seeing these spots that I’m calling the outer ring, which could either be a version of utopia or dystopia.

I thought the concept was rather nebulous when I just read her explaining it, but what makes Exile in the Outer Ring such an effective album is how it comes to life in the music. All you have to do is listen to one of the songs and it’s easy to see what the “outer ring” is and what it’s about. It’s conveyed not just through the lyrics, which are full of specific lyrical details like riding in the back of Camrys or people standing outside of casinos, but through the music itself. The grinding industrial sound and squealing guitars evoke images of worn-down buildings and grimy streets, and EMA’s voice captures a feeling of resentment and despair that could boil over at any moment (on some of the more aggressive tracks, like “33 Nihilistic and Female,” it does).

The other obvious pitfall of an album like this is that it could come off as EMA writing about Those People and the Way They Live, which was a problem I had last year with PJ Harvey’s Hope Six Demolition Project album. She avoids this by inserting herself into the narratives, and using details from her personal life and upbringing in South Dakota that make these songs live and breathe instead of reading like attempts at journalism. I also like that the album isn’t just portraying “the outer ring” simplistically as some nightmarish hellscape. It skews darker overall, but there are also moments of prettiness and humanity amid the ugliness, which makes the album feel very true to life.

This album is also a nice progression for EMA, who blew me away with her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, which I loved because it was an album that was unafraid to get ugly and confront the darker side of human nature. This album is reminiscent of that one in its fearlessness, and it also incorporates parts of what she did on her second album, The Future’s Void, which felt more external and political. Exile in the Outer Ring is like a combination of those two: it’s a bracing blend of personal and political songwriting that is provocative and dark, but also full of life.

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Stereolab in the Age of Trump

July 25, 2017 Leave a comment

When I drive, I listen to music from my car’s CD player, which can hold up to six discs at a time. I’m aware that I could easily buy a way to listen to music from a more modern device that could hold a million times more music, but I’m too lazy to get one and part of me likes the old-fashioned CD listening and burning my own discs, which rotate predictably with each trip I make.

With only six slots available, it’s a fierce competition to see which music makes the cut. One of the slots is permanently Loveless, which never gets old and is fun to blare out the windows, but the rest are pretty much up for grabs. Lately, one of my favorite discs has been a collection of my favorite Stereolab songs that I burned a few months ago. I figured Stereolab would make for good “driving music” because of their use of the repetitive motorik beat, which always has the effect of keeping me focused and helps reduce some of the driving anxiety that I still embarrassingly have.

For most of my years as a Stereolab fan, that has been my relationship with their music. Because of the driving beats and lyrics that are often in French, they were my go-to “background” band that I listened to when I needed to get work done and didn’t want to be too distracted by lyrics. Many of my college papers were written to a soundtrack of Emperor Tomato Ketchup, Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements, and Mars Audiac Quintet, but I was usually too focused on the work I was doing to really analyze what the songs meant. I primarily just liked their sound and their style, with the motorik beat, Tim Gane’s noisy guitars and electronics, Laetitia Sadier’s understated singing and the ba-da-ba backing vocals from the late Mary Hansen.

When I’m driving, though, I pay close attention to lyrics, because there isn’t really anything else to distract my brain. And while listening to Stereolab in the car, I started to notice some of the band’s lyrics and they began to really resonate with me, particularly after the election of Trump. I knew the words to some of their songs before, but it took that massive political shitstorm for me to realize that they were much more than some abstract political jargon.

The song that initially sparked this was “Les Yper-Sound,” off Emperor Tomato Ketchup, which had been one of my favorite songs by the band because of its addictive bass groove and its simple lyrics:

You go in that team
I go on this team
Divide everything
A flag or a number
Make ’em opposites
So there’s a reason
Stigmatization
OK now we can fight
Divide everything
Just put it all flat
Justification
OK now you can fight

In the last few months, this has gone from being a song I just enjoyed for its sound to one that I feel describes what is happening on 2017 on a number of levels, despite its being written in 1996. On a macro scale, the song is about pointless nationalism and the way we’ve separated mankind into arbitrary states, countries, etc that are used as reasons to kill each other. But it makes me think a lot about one of my most mulled-over topics, which is the internet’s effect on communication, and how it has resulted in massive tribalism and divisions among people over stuff as stupid as a Ghostbusters movie. This song seems to predict the massive divisiveness that our culture faces now, as well as hinting at a person like Trump being the ultimate benefactor who divides and conquers.

“Ping Pong” is another song that is fun and groovy on the surface, but contains a powerful anti-war message about the costs it has on other cultures while it is used to prop up our economy. At the end, it sarcastically quotes Bobby McFerrin: “Don’t worry, be happy, things will get better naturally. Don’t worry, shut up, sit down, go with it and be happy.” It’s a definitive lyric from the band, because so much of their music is about questioning the status quo, which makes many of their songs feel like anthems for the skeptics and contrarians of the world.

And while a lot of their lyrics could be interpreted as being cynical, there are also songs like “The Noise of Carpet,” which blatantly criticizes “fashionable cynicism” as “the poison they want you to drink.” In tandem with songs like “Ping Pong,” a message emerges in Stereolab’s music: “this world will give you anything,” but it’s also important to be critical and questioning of what other people tell you. I fall back on cynicism a lot, and grumble about how things will never change, so “The Noise of Carpet” is a song that legitimately motivates me to do better. It’s also one of the songs that separates Stereolab from a lot of other politically-minded artists, who are more interested in preaching or pandering to their audience than in actually using their art to help make sense of the world. Even if don’t agree with their politics, the band will make you reconsider ideas that you might have taken for granted.

“Wow and Flutter,” my favorite song by the band, might be the one that feels the most different since the election. Its opening lyrics, “I didn’t question, I didn’t know” capture that level one mindset where you are just accepting what people tell you, especially with regards to the idea of American exceptionalism, which is spoonfed to all of us through various flag-waving rah-rah rituals. Stereolab blow all of that up with three words: “the dinosaur law.” Even the mightiest, who seem “eternal,” eventually will fall. And after the election of Trump, America looks much less mighty than it did before.

The temptation here is to think Stereolab’s music was predictive, much in the way that Radiohead is credited with “predicting” the alienation of the internet generation with OK Computer. The truth is that Stereolab was right the whole time and I just didn’t realize it until I was confronted with it first-hand in the last election, which blew up a lot of what I thought I knew about America and politics. That they resonate now speaks to how smart their lyrics are and, more depressingly, the way history tends to repeat itself as societal problems persist, which can make lyrics written in 1995 feel relevant even 22 years later.

The word, “challenging” is used a lot in music, usually to describe artists who are making aggressively weird sounds that most listeners can’t handle. Stereolab were a challenging band, but in a different way: through their lyrics, they challenged listeners to think harder about the world around them and to question ideas that are deeply ingrained in their culture. That independent spirit was also conveyed with their sound, which embraced peculiarity and was some of the most forward-thinking pop music of its time. It makes them such an enduring band to me, and one that is especially worth revisiting now.

 

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