Here’s Some New Music I Like

Some music releases I’ve been enjoying lately:

Mrs. Piss – Self-Surgery

This is a bite-sized side project of Chelsea Wolfe, who is the reigning queen of hyper-intense, melodramatic rock music. While Wolfe has historically been known for slower, dynamically rich songs, on Self-Surgery she shows a different side of herself by amping up the aggression and tempo with help from drummer Jess Gowrie. It serves as a useful companion to her last solo album, Birth of Violence, which showed the other side of her artistry with a calmer, post-apocalyptic vibe.

Given the band name and imagery, which hints at body horror and trashiness, I actually expected this album to be more transgressive and discomforting than it is. Even when Wolfe is trying her hardest to make her music ugly, she can’t help but let some beauty slip out, and songs like “Downer Surrounded by Uppers” have catchy melodies even while taking on more of a hardcore punk structure. The lyrics of that song are in line with the rest of this album, which is the sound of introverts and weirdos unleashing their inner fury at the world. It’s nice to hear some music that actually reflects the rage that many of us are experiencing right now, and it does it without devolving into performative corniness.

Annie – “American Cars”

Grizzled indie pop veterans will recognize Annie, who turned many jaded indie rock snobs into begrudging pop fans with 2004’s Anniemal and 2009’s Don’t Stop. Those albums are classics in the “pop for music nerds” genre that would later be owned by artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, and now the Norwegian artist is preparing her first full-length album in 11 (!) years. “American Cars” is the first single and shows she still has a mastery of the craft and an ability to add deeper, subtler feeling into her tunes that eludes most of the pop artists you hear on the radio.

Noveller –Arrow

Sarah Lipstate serves as the guitarist for Iggy Pop and also records under the name Noveller. Her new album, Arrow, is a hypnotizing collection of ambient songs that form their own cinematic desert landscapes out of her electric guitar. I often struggle with ambient music because it either feels show-offy or impenetrable; Lipstate’s compositions have thought in every note, and she judiciously uses her considerable skill to make an album that is cohesive and vast. It’s surprisingly thrilling to listen to.

Dummy – Dummy EP

The first release from this band out of Los Angeles is the kind of noisy, motorik psychedelic sound that I’m constantly obsessed with. Over only five tracks, the band shows a lot of different sides of themselves on this promising debut. “Slacker Mask” is one of the bigger jams of the year and recalls mid-90s Stereolab pretty well, as does the opener “Angel’s Gear.” “Touch the Chimes” is a long, meditative droning track at the end that shows the band leaning more into folk. Nothing here is mind-blowingly new, but it’s executed so well that it becomes hard to deny, similar to the Peel Dream Magazine album from earlier in the year.

Bec Plexus – Sticklip

Sticklip is an increasingly rare treat: an album that doesn’t really sound like anything else. Plexus’ glitchy electronic sound and chatty, sometimes spoken vocals are most reminiscent of Laurie Anderson, but the themes and her personality are different enough that this album feels like its in its own world. She has presented this album as a “digital confession booth” with friends apparently writing lyrics about their deepest, darkest feelings, though the lyrics are more abstractions than anything that actually sounds like a straight-forward confession. “Mirror Image” is the major highlight; it’s a completely distinct, avant-garde song that confronts the self in a way that feels like a sci-fi movie.

Election Update: Joe Biden is an Electoral Genius

In my last post about the upcoming election, I argued that the democratic nominee was going to be severely underrated by the public, who perceive Donald Trump to be a uniquely difficult candidate to beat even though he sucks and only won last time through luck. Since then, a lot of weird stuff has happened. At the time, Sanders was a clear frontrunner and I assumed he would win, but the Democratic establishment rallied behind Joe Biden, who left him in the dust and claimed the nomination with a series of decisive primary wins. Then there was the whole pandemic thing followed by the current string of protests surrounding the death of George Floyd. These recent events have only strengthened my belief that Biden is very likely to win this election, and it might not even be close.

I want to be as clear as possible that this isn’t about me being optimistic. I don’t believe in optimism and rarely practice it. This is what I consider to be a sane interpretation of current data and trends. Betting markets are finally starting to agree with my hypothesis, as Biden recently became a favorite for the first time. Trump’s disapproval ratings were already high and are continuing to spike as the pandemic rages, the country is on fire, and many question his responses to both those issues. It’s also hard to see Trump regaining momentum because I don’t think Covid-19 is going away and it doesn’t seem like these protests and possible revolutions are either. I believe a lot of these fabled “swing” voters go with their gut on election day. When they go into the booth, in the middle of a pandemic that has been mismanaged, are they going to think “yeah, let’s keep things how they are. Everything is going great?” I doubt it.

Most of my belief here is due to Trump being a bad candidate who people despise. This election will be a referendum on him, and outside of his deranged cultists (which are not a large percentage of people), most see Trump for what he is and aren’t satisfied with his leadership. Biden is a trickier nut to crack, and I’ve been flummoxed by his increasing popularity despite never doing anything. The only notable thing I can recall him doing during this campaign is getting credibly accused of sexual harassment. And yet, there is the fact that he beat Sanders pretty soundly, after having zero momentum, with a lot of signs pointing to the bizarre reality that voters turned out and were legitimately excited to vote for Biden. Who are these people? I have no idea. But they clearly exist and it would be a mistake to discount them.

For full disclosure, I voted for Sanders and lean pretty far left, though I’m not as militant about it as some. I think there is room for reasonable disagreement with people and I am often not a fan of the left’s tactics, which I think are too often aggressive and condescending when the goal should be to welcome people to your cause. A lot of leftists, at least on social media, come off as oblivious to how average people think and seem more interested in proving their intellectual superiority than aiding the causes they purport to care about. I’ve been particularly amused at their behavior since Biden won the nomination. It was a clear repudiation of Sanders that should have been cause for some reflection on how the movement should move forward and welcome a wider range of voters, but instead most have just moved on to attacking Biden and insisting he has no chance to win because he’s a “bad candidate” like Hillary was.

It’s not like I’m a Biden fan (far from it), but anyone in touch with reality should be able to see the results for what they are. Once the establishment rallied behind him, he destroyed Sanders and even won states he wasn’t supposed to be competitive in. And now he’s leading Trump in every single poll I look at (sometimes by fairly huge margins) and is a betting favorite to win the presidency. These are not the results of a horrible candidate who can’t possibly win, unless you’re in an echo chamber and think the entire country reflects your views despite all evidence to the contrary.

Biden’s strategy right now seems to be to sit back and do nothing while Trump clowns around and gets more and more unpopular until people are desperate for an alternative. It’s kind of a genius play. It’s not like Joe Biden can say much at this point to look great to anyone not sold on him, especially given his difficulty forming coherent thoughts, but he can create an aura of competence while Trump continues to be a giant idiot. It’s sort of like how football fans fantasize about how good their unproven backup quarterback is because they haven’t seen him go on the field and throw an interception yet. By the time the election rolls around, Trump would probably be an underdog to a Jared Fogle/Charles Manson ticket, and there’s a distinct possibility Biden coasts to the presidency while doing practically nothing.

“The Archandroid” is Still a Testament to Limitless Talent

Maybe the harshest post I’ve ever written on this blog was about Janelle Monae’s song “Django Jane.” With some of my negative posts, my tone becomes sort of like a calmer version of that Tyra Banks “WE WERE ALL ROOTING FOR YOU” clip, where I’m deeply disappointed in an artist who I know is capable of much better. In Monae’s case, the context for my criticism of her came from loving her first album, The Archandroid, and being frustrated at her taking what I perceived to be an easy, much less imaginative career arc. The album recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary, and it’s worth looking back on what makes it such an enduring work to me, regardless of what came after.

I consider The Archandroid to be a commercial pop anomaly — an album for the masses that actually embraced the most powerful feelings music can conjure. The reason I don’t really like most heavily played pop isn’t that it’s popular; it’s that it feels generic and lacks anything that sparks the imagination. That’s why it was so refreshing and exciting to hear this album that strived to do more than just be some empty social/personal commentary. Monae embraced a wide swath of influences and actually told a story in her music, about an android named Cindy Mayweather who became a vessel for themes of afro-futurism, identity, cyborg feminism, and other heady topics. Also inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the album has a cinematic feel with its opening overture, its sprawling storytelling, and Monae’s performance, which was like an absurdly talented theater kid unleashing as many big ideas as she could.

The feeling I get listening to The Archandroid is that Monae was too unjaded and new to the industry to know that she wasn’t supposed to try to do all of this stuff in an album that had commercial aspirations. I don’t know why it is, but there’s an uncomfortable reality that black artists get boxed into performing fairly narrow genres and styles. Monae was on a mission to break that pattern, and part of this album’s charm is hearing Monae try to do everything, especially on the back half of the album which is one wild swing after another. You basically get to hear Monae’s take on every genre of music that has ever interested her: “Mushrooms and Roses” is trippy psychedelic rock with some strings, “Wondaland” is electropop, “57821” is quiet folk, “Come Alive (War on the Roses)” is her take on punk. “Make the Bus,” written by Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, is an absolute atrocity of a song, but it’s sort of charming because its borne out of the same manic ambition that defines the whole album. It wouldn’t feel as dangerous or crazy if every single risk paid off.

To some listeners, the stylistic hodge-podge probably made the album feel inconsistent or overstuffed. But every song sounding different gave the album its distinct picaresque structure, where each track felt like a different self-contained adventure in a fantastical, diverse setting. The Archandroid actually transported me to a different time and place, offering the kind of immersion I love in music and art in general. While most of the comparisons centered around similar-sounding artists like Michael Jackson, Prince, and David Bowie, the spirit of this album reminded me of my favorite quirky art rock classics: Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, Bjork’s Post and Homogenic, and Helium’s The Magic City.

That’s probably why I’ve always felt like I viewed this album (and Monae’s career in general) through a different lens than most of her fans and other writers. I consider “Tightrope,” the most acclaimed and popular song on this album, to be easily its low point because it didn’t have that creative energy running through it. It’s the only song on this album that felt solely designed to be popular, and it includes an unwelcome interlude from Big Boi, who breaks the immersion in the storytelling with a lame rap that rhymes “asscrack” and “NASDAQ.” “Cold War” is the much better “normal song” of the album; it’s upbeat with a big chorus, and it merges Cindy Mayweather’s story and her own with lyrics about being an oppressed outsider. That was a key to the entire construction of this album: grounding these themes in semi-autobiographical fiction made all of it resonate more because there was a story being told with dramatic rises and falls in the action.

It was such an obvious star-making moment for Monae, and at the time I think everyone knew she was going to be a big deal. Unfortunately, her career has gone mostly how I feared it might: the fame got to her head, she started collaborating with a bunch of pop bigwigs, and she began making music that was more suited for the radio and winning Grammys but didn’t have a fraction of the inspiring ambition she showed here. The Electric Lady and Dirty Computer mostly sounded like Prince knock-offs to me, and the Cindy Mayweather character eventually got pushed aside in favor of obvious lyrics that had the stock empowerment themes that every pop artist apparently is obligated to do now. Combined with her ventures into Hollywood, Monae is having a lot of success, but I don’t feel like anything she’s done has been nearly as special as The Archandroid, which I guess is one of my “island opinions” that makes me look like a contrarian weirdo.

You can’t necessarily fault an artist for making money and seeking fame, and Monae inspires a wide range of people because she is a unique talent who offers representation for some oppressed groups. But I listen to The Archandroid even now and wonder what could have been, because she literally could have done anything with her immense skill and instead is making music I consider to be fairly generic and similar to a lot of previous and contemporary artists. This album strikes me as being more empowering and uplifting than anything that followed it, because it was by an artist who walked her own path and refused to put limits on herself.