#15: Kadhja Bonet – “The Visitor”

Kadhja Bonet has a soulful singing voice that sounds like it’s from the distant past. The rest of her debut album, The Visitor, is like from a semi-utopian future, with a vast array of instruments (many of them played by Bonet herself) forming colorful, psychedelic musical landscapes. The Visitor‘s retro-futuristic vibe reminds me of parts of Janelle Monae’s The Archandroid with its combination of classical soul and legitimate weirdness.

The Visitor doesn’t quite match that album’s ambition and sprawl; it clocks in at a short 27 minutes and mostly sticks to the same style of song, with cinematic orchestral productions backing Bonet’s unique voice. It’s all very smooth and pleasant to listen to, while also being inscrutable and strange — a small, intriguing work that feels like it’s setting the stage for something larger.

SubRosa – “For This We Fought the Battle of Ages”

One of the words most ruined by the internet is “epic,” which went from describing massive works of art like Beowulf to GIFs of people falling off their skateboards. In music, the word is similarly misused, attached to bands who offer bombast but don’t actually provide substance while they pummel their listeners with noise that ultimately becomes meaningless.

Salt Lake City’s SubRosa distinguish themselves by being legitimately epic. Their songs resemble those ancient tales that the word once described, with weighty, allegorical stories, eerie landscapes, and powerful climaxes. Their latest album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues to establish them as one of the most original and compelling bands in rock music today — a group that can sound as huge as anyone, but also isn’t afraid to be quiet when the time calls for it.

It’s easy to focus on the massiveness of SubRosa, who can create an avalanche of sound with layers of doomy guitars and their trademark pair of otherworldly electric violins, a combination that makes them sound like no one else. With songs that stretch past the 10 minute mark (with a couple going for 15), they work on a scale that few bands can equal. But what most impresses me about them on this album is their commitment to the littler things: the melodies and harmonies, and the quieter portions that help make their larger sound more impactful.

The opening track, “Despair is a Siren,” starts with one of these quiet folk-influenced parts, and it’s the most overtly pretty portion of music the band has created yet. Like most Subrosa songs, it has distinct loud and quiet sections (almost like there are two different bands playing), and the way both styles are accentuated by the other shows how powerful a simple use of dynamics can be. When the band does go into metal mode after a couple minutes of softness, it feels earned, because they took the time to build to that crescendo and made it matter. The band makes these shifts feel organic in large part due to Rebecca Vernon, who sings convincingly in a full range of styles, from roaring and growling to practically a lullaby, sometimes in the span of a single song.

Vernon’s voice is part of the band’s primary contrast, which is the feminine vocals from her and the two violin players, Rebecca Pendleton and Kim Pack, with the band’s crushing guitars. Their presence is how the band subverts traditional metal, a genre often defined by its masculinity, and infuses it with emotion and beauty instead of being a one-dimensional blast of noise. At times, the band feels like a progression from shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine, who combined more indie rock influenced guitar noise with lighter vocals to make music that was simultaneously chaotic and beautiful.

Over the last few years, SubRosa have refined their sound, emphasizing these contrasts in their music, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages sees them pushing themselves to new highs and new lows. It’s their most towering, monumental achievement yet — as well as their most intimate — and it’s one of the best rock albums of 2016.

 

Kristin Kontrol – “X-Communicate”

As the mastermind behind Dum Dum Girls, Kristin Welchez (at the time known as DeeDee) perfected the art of making the old seem new again. From album to album, the band traveled through time, morphing their sound around influences from different decades while still sounding like the same group. They peaked with 2014’s Too True, which went back to the 80s with a Siouxsie and the Banshees meets C86 aesthetic and was one of my favorite albums from that year.

Artists are often pressured to make music that is confessional, where they reveal their darkest fears and sing about horrible things that have happened to them. But in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin made a point of remaining anonymous — the band always had a focused style with the members dressing alike, and she rarely sang overtly personal lyrics. Now she has left Dum Dum Girls behind, but chosen to remain behind a veil of anonymity with the persona Kristin Kontrol, a name that I doubt is a coincidence. After years of being in Dum Dum Girls, Kristin has expressed frustration with how she felt boxed-in by the group and the preconceptions people had about it. With X-Communicate, she retakes control of her musical identity and the result is the closest she has come to an individual statement.

Kristin’s personality comes through more in the construction of her songs than her lyrics. Something I noticed about the last Dum Dum Girls album was how much I appreciated a band that could just craft simple pop songs that sounded good without relying on goofy instrumentation or other gimmickry. This is a gift Kristin has that has translated to X-Communicate, and it comes from her deep knowledge of pop music and what her idols have done before her to make it great.

And while Dum Dum Girls could sometimes be justifiably knocked for being too into nostalgia, X-Communicate feels more like a current pop statement. Similar to Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, it is borrowing from the past to make music that feels fresher than what is actually trendy right now. It also has the same feeling of an artist breaking free from how they have been perceived and starting a new musical life for themselves through pop music.

For most of her career, Kristin has had one foot in pop and the other foot in “indie.” The biggest difference on X-Communicate is that it is pure pop, which allows her more room to showcase her vocals compared to some of the more minimalist music she made in the past. The songs also have a lot more rhythm than her previous music did, with prominent bass and danceable beats, and guitar takes a backseat to keyboards and synthesizers as she channels pop from the 80s.

The fifth track, “Skin Shed,” most obviously states the album’s theme of reinvention, and near the end Kristin name-drops Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks. X-Communicate is a worthy tribute to those artists and others that Kristin idolized, and is also proof that she can stand on her own as a solo artist.

Bat for Lashes – “The Bride”

Nobody wants their art to be called boring. Artists say it in interviews all the time: “You know, you can love or hate my music, as long as you have a reaction to it and care about it. That’s what I’m really looking for.” Given how disastrous it is to be called boring, maybe the riskiest thing an artist can do is make something that invites the criticism head-on by eschewing excitement and novelty for subtlety and craft.

On her fourth album, The Bride, Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, takes that risk. It’s a concept album about a bride whose husband-to-be dies in a car accident on the way to a wedding, so she embarks on a honeymoon alone — not exactly something that is going to put asses in the seats, so to speak. Musically, the album is a similarly tough sell. Khan avoids the large-scale histrionics that might be expected of such a concept, instead focusing on quiet, contemplative songs that rarely offer the listener the satisfaction of a catchy chorus or a feel-good lyric.

And yet, The Bride is certainly not boring, at least to me, because Khan commits so fully to the concept, inhabiting her character and story and exploring its various themes — mostly heartbreak, with some bonus thoughts about the institution of marriage and how it affects women — with unusual depth for an album. Like a lot of “difficult” albums, it’s one that rewards the right listener, who has the patience to engage with it on Khan’s terms.

The Bride‘s greatest strength is Khan’s voice, which carries an album that is stacked with slow, melancholy songs that could be disengaging in the hands of a less talented vocalist. And more than just singing, Khan is also acting as the protagonist of this fictional story. That she pulls off this double-act is a testament to her talent, and it’s how The Bride works despite stacking the deck against itself with its inaccessible concept.

As for the story, it’s about what I expect from a concept album. It doesn’t have novel-level detail or development because it’s an album and that’s impossible, and it sometimes gets a bit repetitive with the “why me” and “where did my lover go” type lyrics. At the same time, it provides a through line that ties all of the songs together, and there is actual growth in Khan’s character over the course of the album, as she goes from excitement for her wedding, to heartbreak, to a kind of uplift and resolve at the end as she vows to love again.

For most of her career, like a lot of solo women artists, Khan has been burdened by comparisons to PJ Harvey, Kate Bush and Björk — singular artists who are impossible to truly replicate. On The Bride, she puts herself into that tier of innovative music storytellers, but does it in her own way with a work that feels very individual. It’s an album that is refreshing in its quiet boldness and its refusal to do the expected.

 

PJ Harvey is Mortal

PJ Harvey is a genius musician whose songs often provide keen insight into human nature, but she isn’t a journalist. She tries to be one on her new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which focuses on modern politics and her experiences traveling to Washington D.C., Kosovo, and Afghanistan. In the process, she proves that even the most gifted, well-intentioned and insightful artists aren’t immune to the lapses in judgment that happen when you stumble out of your comfort zone.

Part of Let England Shake‘s greatness was that it pulled off a delicate balancing act: Harvey was using stories she wasn’t a witness to and interpreting history to make observations about modern society, which can be a heavy feat to try to pull off in a series of short songs and comes at the risk of the artist not knowing what they’re talking about. It worked because there was the personal connection Harvey had to England, and because it was telling stories from the more distant past that weren’t fresh in most people’s minds and were thus more ripe for interpretation.

The Hope Six Demolition Project struggles because it is focused on the present, which makes the issues more controversial and well-known. When Harvey describes an area of Washington D.C. as “a shithole” with drug-using “zombies” in “The Community of Hope,” she is talking about a place where people currently live — and many of them aren’t too happy about the portrayal. Harvey toured the area with a reporter, and in his description of the encounter, she comes across as an outsider who floated in, jotted down some notes, and confirmed her pre-existing conclusion about the area without actually talking to any of its residents. Much of this album has that similar cursory feel, like it is only scratching the surface of its themes without having all the information or nuance. She is like a reporter who didn’t do all of her homework before submitting a story.

It sounds silly to talk about these sorts of journalistic standards in music, as if I would expect Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers to thoroughly research the effects of “Californication” before playing a song about it. But Harvey has established a different standard for herself, and if an artist of her caliber is going to try something of this scope, my expectations are going to be high. And it is Harvey herself who is missing from this album: without the personal connection to the subject matter, like she had on Let England Shake, the lyrics are just the kind of political commentary that everyone who is on the internet is tired of hearing about. The perspectives she is offering aren’t fresh or thought-provoking, and the focus on distant observations about foreign cities makes her seem like an intruder into other people’s stories.

This criticism probably makes the album sound like a disaster, but it’s fine musically and most artists would be happy to ever make something that sounds like this. After a couple albums of ghostly songs that used her higher register, Harvey sings more forcefully on this album and brings back some of the noise and chaos of her early albums in the form of honking saxophone parts and some distorted guitar. However, the sound also doesn’t feel all that new for Harvey, since it’s a lot of parts and ideas she’s used in her previous music, as opposed to one of her customary skin-sheddings like on White Chalk. Combined with the lyrics (which admittedly are hard to separate from the music for me), it is part of why this album is flat and uninspired for her standards.

The Hope Six Demolition Project will likely go down as one of my least favorite PJ Harvey albums, but it is a fascinating project that makes me think a lot about the limitations of music. In the span of 3-5 minutes, musicians can do incredible things and make us feel inspired, sad, or amazed. But in terms of portraying complex political issues and communities, subjects that demand a certain amount of nuance and space, maybe it isn’t possible to accomplish what Harvey is trying to do here. Certainly, if she can’t do it, I’m skeptical that anyone else can.

PJ Harvey – “The Wheel”

Five years after Let England Shake — which some reputable music bloggers consider to be one of the best albums of recent memory — PJ Harvey is back with a new song, “The Wheel,” from her upcoming album, The Hope Six Demolition Project. While Harvey is known for dramatically changing her sound and persona from album to album, this song feels like it’s on the same path that Let England Shake was, as it maintains the folk-inspired music and lyrics drawing on war and conflict. However, it’s clear that this isn’t going to be a rehash of that album, and the song feels like the the logical next step from it.

On “The Wheel,” Harvey is broadening some of the themes from Let England Shake, turning her focus to more global politics rather than only her homeland and also touching on more contemporary subject matter instead of drawing entirely from the more distant past. But the main theme — the cyclical nature of war and terrible things done in its name — is fittingly still here, illustrated by the metaphor of the titular “revolving wheel” that keeps spinning as children disappear. The video shows Harvey in Kosovo, which she visited while working on the album, but the lyrics themselves don’t specify the conflict she is referring to.

Harvey is known for not repeating herself on her albums, which is why it’s ironic that “The Wheel” is book-ended by two very noticeable repetitions. First, there’s the intro, a burst of chaotic noise with handclaps and a recurring saxophone part that lasts over 1:20 in the unedited version. Then there’s the outro, where Harvey repeats the phrase “and watch them fade out” over 20 times, which lasts 1:25 and is reminiscent of one of her most famous songs.

I’ve become obsessed with the outro in particular. In the context of the song, it is referring to the 28,000 missing children, but it’s easy to start thinking of other meanings it could have as she keeps repeating the phrase. And the fact that she says “and watch them fade out” so many times, over and over, speaks volumes in and of itself — just like the wheel keeps turning, we keep watching children fade out, and Harvey keeps singing it, shifting between a sense of accusation and resignation. In the world of art about war, “watch them fade out” is a worthy successor to a similar refrain: “so it goes.”

Savages’ Regressive Revolution

Savages are the kind of band I used to love. This is documented for posterity in my post about them back in 2013, when their first album Silence Yourself was released and I penned a historically bad “review” where I completely bought into the band’s hype and stupidly defended them against some detractors I had seen in my Twitter feed.

It was easy to be fooled by Savages, who marketed themselves as an exciting new rock band, and back in 2013 they looked and sounded the part. Their music was very striking and confident while their lyrics were strident, almost like a call to arms. Some songs, like “Shut Up,” even came with mission statements. These were virtues I admired a couple years ago, but since then my sensibilities and tastes have changed and I’ve become more aware of the phoniness of Savages and their “mission.”

With a new album, Adore Love, on the horizon in 2016, Savages are once again positioning themselves as the self-appointed saviors of rock. One of their new songs is called “The Answer,” fitting the band’s perception of themselves as the solution to all of music’s problems, while the video shows them melting people’s faces in an underground punk show like hardcore rockers. The album’s cover is literally a closed fist in the air, further signalling that Savages are a Revolutionary Band. The video for “Adore,” which the music press breathlessly labeled “stunning,” features singer Jehnny Beth STARING into the CAMERA INTENSELY, as if waiting for viewers through the screen to congratulate her on her bravery and fearlessness. It’s a video that reeks of effort and desperation as the band painfully tries to will their own self-described importance into existence.

Beth’s performance in the “Adore” video serves as a useful proxy for my experience watching the video and listening to the song. I stared blankly at my screen for five minutes, waiting for something to happen that never did. The song goes nowhere and ends with Beth unconvincingly shouting “I ADORE LIFE,” a trite lyric that is delivered like it’s the most radical thought anyone has ever had. This “adore life” message that seems to be the primary theme of their album rings particularly hollow given that Savages are possibly the least fun band to ever exist and make Radiohead look like Andrew W.K.

While I initially liked Silence Yourself, it quickly left my rotation in 2013 as something about the band left me cold. I didn’t figure out why that happened until I discovered a band called Nervous Trend from Australia. They had just released their first demo tape, which I saw linked on Twitter, and when I listened to it I was blown away. This band was drawing from many of the same influences as Savages, but made something that sounded much more original and exciting, without any of the manifestos and other media branding nonsense that had made Savages a small phenomenon.

I don’t think Nervous Trend and Savages are in competition with each other, and I can easily see people liking both of them. But for me, the Nervous Trend demo (keep that in mind, it’s a demo) exposed a lot of the flaws in Savages that I hadn’t considered before, and it helped explain why Silence Yourself had held up so poorly. Beneath all the imagery and attitude, the actual music Savages made wasn’t as inspiring as their portrayal of themselves indicated it was. Nervous Trend showed what a band drawing from similar influences could sound like, and how to have socially-conscious lyrics without being pretentious about it.

Part of my bitterness here is that Savages are a relatively big band, while Nervous Trend remain obscure — they just released an EP last year that I didn’t even hear about until yesterday, because the band doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account and has zero traction in the music press. It illustrates to me how Savages are a sanitized version of much better music, but have built themselves into an “important band” through branding, non-musical elements, and a music press that eagerly bought into their self-mythology because the band provides easy talking points.

Savages end up being a particularly brutal combination: a band that believes deeply in their own importance and ability, but makes music that is regressive and uninteresting. There are tons of bands, from the 80s through today, that have worked in a similar musical space and are much better, but aren’t as known because they lacked the flashiness and eye-catching press releases of Savages. It also makes it more insulting when Savages are perceived as fresh and exciting, when their music is mostly an imitation of bands like Bush Tetras.

Savages have ended up being a useful band for me personally, as the original post I made about them was a turning point where I realized I was too frequently liking music and thinking it was important because I was told to by others. It also made me far more skeptical of any band being trumpeted as exciting for reasons that don’t have much to do with their songs. The music decides whether a band is important or not, and in that regard Savages fall woefully short.