He Descended Into Hell: ‘Mandy’ and the Subverted Saga of Self-Salvation

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NOTE: Spoilers within.

One of the most profound meditations on religion and spirituality to hit theaters this year (beside Paul Schrader’s riveting First Reformed, which technically debuted last year, anyway) comes from a singularly unexpected source. The film in question, of course, is Canadian auteur Panos Cosmatos’ psychedelic black-metal folk-horror sci-fi fantasy revenge thriller Mandy.

Mandy has proven one of the most divisive films of 2018. It’s been hailed by admirers as a highly original, grimly hilarious masterwork, damned by detractors as a juvenile splatterfest, a tedious, pointlessly gruesome spectacle meant only as catnip for superfans of the meme-ready oeuvre of its star – the truly peerless Nicolas Cage. Regardless of which side you fall on, there’s an argument to be made for Cosmatos’ film as a fascinating exploration of what true faith looks like – as well as the very real dangers posed by “religious” hypocrites.

1983: Logger Red Miller (Cage) and his artist girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough) live together in an isolated cabin in the Shadow Mountains. Watching them together, it’s clear that these two sci-fi nerds share a profound closeness with one another – one which they hardly even need words to express. We watch as Red stares in awe at Mandy’s highly-detailed fantasy drawings, dumbfounded by her incredible talent. They’ve each dealt with their share of hardships – Red is a recovering alcoholic, and Mandy speaks early on of a traumatic memory of her father killing an infant starling, an experience that has instilled in her a deep passion for all living things – but they understand and comfort one another amid their individual struggles. Even the simplest conversations provide moments of infinite tenderness as they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes. It’s as if they’ve lived in this perfect solitude for countless centuries, each one an inseparable part of the other.

Save for a mild sense of quiet foreboding (“Sometimes I think we should move away from this place…”), all is well in Red and Mandy’s little universe until Mandy catches the eye of a sinister cult known as the Children of the New Dawn – and their monomaniacal leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache). They enlist the aid of a demonic biker gang called the Black Skulls, who kidnap the couple and forcibly bring Mandy before Sand.

The Mansonesque Sand, a failed musician-turned-Christ figure, is a clay-footed idol; he hides behind the veneer of a gentle, benevolent hippie-prophet (complete with flowing white robe and crucifix necklace) but ultimately does little to conceal that fact that his small, devoted sect exists solely as a means of finding him women to have sex with. He regales his captive with the story of how, once audiences had rejected his saccharine psych-folk stylings, a mysterious unnamed deity blessed him with “his hot, loving light” and declared to him, “‘You are not separate from all that is, so all that is…is yours.’”

We soon realize that the deity of whom Sand speaks with such grandiosity is none other than Sand himself. Self-proclaimed God-prophet, he prostrates himself at the empty altar of his own psychotic lusts and self-obsession. The image of him staring mad-eyed into a dirtied mirror, desperately beseeching his reflection to “tell [him] what to do” – and then admonishing himself never to be in doubt – offers a haunting window into Sand’s fractured psyche.

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As a character, Sand is organized religion’s disdain for women pushed to its logical extreme: Deeply insecure and terrified by the opposite sex, he seeks to dominate them by whatever means he can, be it sexually or through physical and verbal abuse – in one scene, he forces Red to watch as Sister Lucy (Line Pillet) plays a round of Russian roulette in order to prove her “love” for her guru. When Mandy (who recognizes Sand as “the Reaper, fast approaching”) dares to respond to his sexual advances with mocking laughter, he all but loses his mind, shrieking for her to be silent and for his followers to avert their eyes.

The Children sentence Mandy to death – they cover her in a black shroud, hang her by a rope, douse her with gasoline and set her ablaze. The camera cuts to each member as they watch the flames roar, their faces contorting into wicked, twisted grins. Masochistic, nihilistic and viciously patriarchal, the group represents everything that’s wrong with organized religion. Though ostensibly a spiritual entity, they traffic with the Black Skulls – whose vile dependency on a tainted batch of LSD has turned them into the closest possible thing to demons in human form – and exult in “the cleansing power of fire” which “cannot be reasoned with.” Sand even smirkingly points out that Jesus’ “big mistake” was that he “didn’t offer a sacrifice in his stead” – thus delivering a death blow to any prevailing notion of the cult as some God-fearing enclave.

In killing Mandy, the Children may just as well have ripped Red’s still-beating heart from his chest. He looks on – helpless, bound with barbed wire that pierces his flesh like a crown of thorns, his pained cries drowned out by the brutal soundtrack – as an integral part of his very being is burned away forever. Her death is his death – together they are the crucified Christ, put to death for the sins of the Children.

The depth of his loss doesn’t fully hit Red until he has staggered back to his cabin in a daze and fallen asleep, at which point he experiences a vision of Mandy’s decaying body. He jolts awake, stumbles into his bathroom and breaks his sobriety by chugging a bottle of vodka in between howls, screams and sobs. The Children have broken him in body, mind and spirit – and now he must rise to life again. He must become his own savior, because there certainly ain’t no one else who’s going to save him now.

With the help of his grizzled war-vet buddy Caruthers (Bill Duke), Red prepares to hunt down the “crazy evil” “Jesus freaks” who murdered his beloved. Watching him forge and weld a glistening metallic battle-ax as the heavy score (crafted by the late great Jóhann Jóhannsson as his final film composition) rumbles in the forefront, it becomes apparent that Red’s salvation will be one of blood and hellfire, of righteous rage – things not typically associated with redemption, but then, Red is hardly your run-of-the-mill messiah.

I am in no way qualified to provide any kind of detailed analysis of the specific demons or devils represented by the Black Skulls or by any of Sand’s merciless goons. Suffice it to say that Red defeats each and every one in gloriously grisly fashion (the specifics of which I won’t do you the disservice of revealing here) as his grueling journey through the bruised, jagged mountain hellscape leads him closer and closer to his final confrontation with Sand.

It’s telling that Cosmatos chose to christen Cage’s character “Red.” It’s the color of blood, obviously, like the blood Jesus shed on the cross, but it’s also the color commonly associated with our archetypal interpretation of Satan – a bright crimson demon wielding a sharp weapon.

Red’s moniker reflects the duality of his nature: vicious and gentle, compassionate and wrathful. He murders and maims, but he does so out of love for Mandy. He descends into Hell, as Christ did, but only as a necessary step on the path to heaven – or at least something resembling closure, a balm for the gnawing grief within him. Right from the beginning, the film offers hints that Red is not one to gladly suffer a hypocrite of faith. Hearing a sanctimonious speech on his car radio from President Reagan on America’s supposed “great spiritual awakening,” he switches it off in disgust, clearly not buying all that talk of morality and goodness from a man who stood idly by as hundreds of thousands of people died of AIDS.

Red finally encounters Sand shacked up inside a pyramidic, unfinished wooden sanctuary in a secluded valley. Clad only in a loincloth and crucifix in a barren room full of pulsating light, he posits himself as the persecuted holy man he sincerely believes he is. As the threat to his life in the form of Red gradually becomes more apparent, Sand’s truest nature begins to reveal itself. He rebukes Red at first, denouncing him as an “meat without a soul,” an  “unholy abomination” with “hate in [his] heart” who has “no Spirit everlasting.” He offers to help rescue Red from damnation, but Red is undeterred by his pious mockery and almost immediately has the false prophet on his knees, pleading for his life, every last scrap of pretense stripped from his façade (“I’ll blow you, man – I’ll suck your fucking dick! Is that what you want?”) Red has a simple and blunt response to his bellowing spectacle: “I’m. Your. God. Now.”

Yes, Red is God, and his devious creation has displeased him and must be cast from the face of the earth. He cartoonishly dispatches Sand and burns down his hideout, and we watch as the cruciform, now a symbol of the Children’s grim tyranny, crumbles and topples to the ground – He is risen. As he drives off, he is reunited with his lost love, if only in his fevered imagination.

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Mandy draws from a number of influences – from Clive Barker and 80s cheapo exploitation/horror flicks to pulp comic books and black metal – and wears most of them proudly on its blood-soaked sleeve, right down to the grotesque TV spot for a boxed mac-‘n-cheese mix (directed by frequent Adult Swim collaborator Casper Kelly) and the clip from Don Dohler’s 1982 monster schlockfest Nightbeast. But there’s another less obvious inspiration at work here, one that befits our examination of Cosmatos’ opus as a religious character study.

The film’s stilted dialogue, bizarre good/evil dichotomy, and existential concerns in no small way mirror the hallmarks of David Lynch’s best work – in particular, the harrowing hell-and-back journey of Blue Velvet. As Tara Isabella Burton writes in her excellent piece on Lynch’s groundbreaking 1986 noir/romance, cinematic tales of faith need not be sugar-coated or sanitized in order to achieve spiritual authenticity.

In fact, just the opposite is true: In the real world, definitions of good and evil are rarely cut-and-dry, and all too often goodness is trampled upon while evil fails to receive its just reward. As such, stories of faith ought to show the faithful audience what they’re really up against in their fight to carry out holy lives in the midst of a wicked world. Mandy – a narrative crawling with drug abuse, attempted rape, murder, misogyny and pyromania – certainly fits that description. Its visually-arresting saga of death, rebirth and return to grace elevates what could easily have been a 120-minute meme into a dark religious parable of deep meaning and terrible power.

New Forms of Prayer: ‘First Reformed,’ ‘Duck Butter’ and the Art of the Existential Crisis

duck

NOTE: Spoilers within.

“Twelve months. Can I keep up an exercise that long?” – Rev. Ernst Toller, First Reformed

“We can fucking skip time.” – Sergio, Duck Butter

I’m going to let you in on an uncomfortable truth: We’re all going to die someday. It’s a devastating reality we spend most of our time trying to ignore – that life on Earth is merely one long, eventful prolongation of the inevitable. With that knowledge, the question is this: How do we go about finding a point in living when our lives are going to end anyway?

Our mortality as a species and the search for meaning amidst an impermanent existence are hardly new concepts – indeed, they’ve regularly consumed our public discourse and our art seemingly since the beginning of time. They’re also the surprising common link between a tense, introspective, highly-stylized religious psychodrama from the writer of Taxi Driver and a brightly-colored indie mumblecore romcom co-penned by an Arrested Development cast member.

 

 

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed and Miguel Arteta’s Duck Butter are two of the most striking and thought-provoking movies released this year. At a glance, they seem totally incongruous, but closer examination reveals some striking parallels between the way in which both films grapple with these unsettling philosophical questions. The protagonists of both stories undertake unorthodox methods in their search for an answer to these questions – only to eventually discover that they are taking the wrong approach with the wrong motivations.

 

 

 

The comparison begins with the central characters themselves. In First Reformed, Schrader grants us a gruelingly vivid window into the life of Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), an ex-military chaplain who presides over a historically significant but poorly-attended Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. The loss of his son in the Iraq War several years prior weighs heavy on Toller’s conscience and has left the reverend in a state of supreme doubt and despondency. Like his idol, Thomas Merton, he decides that isolating himself from the outside world is the only way to experience the divine. A heavy drinker developing the early warning signs of stomach cancer, he lives out his never-ending dark night of the soul in a crumbling 250-year-old parsonage that’s decaying just as much as his physical and mental state. His encounter with troubled environmental activist/soon-to-be father Michael Monsana (Philip Ettinger) – as well as Michael’s subsequent suicide – leaves Toller with a sense of horrified hopelessness about the Earth’s demise that sends him spiraling even deeper. He retreats farther into himself, disregarding the concerned counseling of megachurch pastor Joel Jeffords (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles) and Esther (Victoria Hill), a choir director and Toller’s ex-lover. His frantic thoughts are communicated via voiceover in the form of entries in a journal Toller plans to keep for a year and then destroy – as he sees it, the journal is a spiritual exercise, “another form of prayer.”

Duck Butter centers on Naima (Alia Shawkat, making her screenwriting debut), a young L.A.-based actress who has just snagged a role on the latest project from indie multi-hyphenates extraordinaire Mark and Jay Duplass (playing themselves, unsurprisingly – they also produced Arteta and Shawkat’s film). Like Toller, Naima is very much a social outcast – she’s just as out-of-place on the Duplasses’ set as the gloomy, austere Toller is at a youth group meeting. When she accompanies her friend Julia (Mae Whitman) to a bar, we see her hanging back timidly in the shadows – and when she does interact, it’s with a trio of visibly uncomfortable older women whom she lectures on climate change (which she likens to an all-you-can-eat buffet scenario wherein their generation has ordered everything and hers has to pay for it).

Naturally, Naima is taken instantly by the brash, outgoing Sergio (Laia Costa), whom she watches interrupt a stage performance to share a kiss with a total stranger. They spend the night together – the first of many sex scenes in a movie that offers perhaps the most remarkably tender, organic, and real depictions of queer sex and women’s bodies I’ve ever seen on film – and confide to one another their past relationships that crumbled due to lack of trust. It’s then that the two conspire to embark on an immersive creative exercise of their own: Stay together for 24 hours, having hourly sex and generally striving to become as intimate as possible. Naima is hesitant at first, but her realization that she has “never actually gotten close enough to somebody to love them” – compounded with the loss of her Duplass Bros. gig – inspire her to dive right in.

Naima’s fixation on the end of the world mirrors Toller’s, and it appears to come from the same place of despair and insecurity; Toller describes it as “a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit that God is more creative than we are.” The two films identify self-loathing as a particularly destructive form of narcissism – we wallow in our own fears and guilts, and it eats away slowly at our souls until we’re left with nothing but our own numb anguish. In an encapsulated video mini-sermon, Jeffords suggests to his faithful that our anxiety and worry are not signs of “how wise we are,” but rather “how wicked we are” – a bit of an extreme stance, maybe, but he’s on the right track.

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Just as Naima feels at first that she can finally be herself around Sergio, Toller only seems to be at peace when he is with Mary (Amanda Seyfried), Michael’s pregnant widow. Whether they’re in prayer together, bike riding in a local park, or engaging in the now-infamous “Magical Mystery Tour,” the two have a fellowship that neither seems to share with any other person. It’s easy to see the characters of Mary and Sergio as nothing more than convenient catalysts for the protagonists’ self-actualization. Indeed, they come dangerously close to embodying the “manic pixie dream girl” archetype. Fortunately, Seyfried and Costa portray their characters with enough dimension and pathos to sidestep the trope.

Despite a seemingly strong start, Butter’s intimate experiment begins to waver as soon as outside parties find their way into Naima and Sergio’s sphere. We already detect plenty of notes of suspicion, dishonesty and impatience in their relationship even before their uncomfortable breakfast with Sergio’s mother Susana, who frankly addresses Naima on sexual freedom. “Sex is so enjoyable,” she says with a knowing half-grin, “and I think the reason why is that it’s so impersonal. It’s not like love…you don’t have to be peaking up and like ‘I need you!’ No – it’s more free.”

Here Naima realizes – as do we – that she’s entered her intimacy pact with an erroneous attitude. Sex is great, sure – but it’s not necessarily the same thing as intimacy – just like intense suffering does not necessarily equal religious conviction or closeness to God. Jeffords makes this truth all too clear to Toller during a particularly fiery admonition: “You’re always in the Garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden. He was on the Mount…in the marketplace…in the temple. But you – you’re always in the Garden. For you, every hour is the Darkest Hour.”

The true breaking point in Butter comes when Naima suggests inviting Sergio’s friends Kathy (Kate Berlant) and Faye (Hong Chau) for an orgy – a clear act of desperation proffered as a way of avoiding having to spend any more time alone with Sergio. Needless to say, the plan is unsuccessful, and in an intense, tearful final confrontation, Naima confesses that she’s terrified of Sergio and can’t be with her anymore. “Thank you!” Sergio declares in response to this revelation. “Thank you for being honest for one fucking minute in 24 hours!”

It’s the implications of the films’ endings, however, that most merit a more in-depth look. In the already-iconic final minutes of Reformed, we watch Toller contemplate destroying his own church with a suicide vest, wrap himself in barbed wire, attempt suicide by drain cleaner – until Mary steps in, and they passionately embrace. Butter concludes a bit more subtly: Naima lies awake in bed, the little stray dog she’s taken in curled up next to her. By force of habit – as Sergio keenly pointed out earlier in the movie – her hands lock into fists, tightly clutching the front of her shirt. Aware of herself, she unclenches her fists – and then decides to clench them again, just as she closes her eyes. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it act of self-embrace that bears just as much devastating power as Reformed’s frantic finale.

 

Ultimately, Butter and Reformed are parables of self-love and self-care – far healthier, more productive strains of “narcissism.” Toller and Naima reach this common destination via similar yet opposite pathways – Toller by cutting himself off from the world, and Naima by trying to attach herself to a single person. They learn that caring for oneself – be it in the form of abandoning the celibate life that has driven you to suicidal despondency, or just accepting your own little quirks as integral parts of who you are – is the key to carrying out a worthwhile life.

While meeting with Michael early on in Reformed, Toller speaks of the contradictory truths of despair and hope: “Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers…A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” This paradoxical duality is the shared crux of these two existential crisis narratives. Relationships, no matter how passionate, end – often through forces beyond our control. No matter how zealously we fight to save it and the planet itself is going to end someday. And yet we soldier on through life, making the best of what we have while we still have it. Sergio puts it in simpler terms: “We have an end. So what can we do until now? Be depressed about it?”

Neither Butter nor Reformed ever find any concrete answers regarding the meaning of life – hell, there more than likely aren’t any concrete answers out there. What they do offer is a vital message for the pathological worriers of the world (among whose numbers I very much count myself). The message? It’s perfectly normal to worry, but you don’t have to let it get the best of you. If you spend all your time wallowing in your own bullshit and blindly fumbling for some kind of profound meaning, you’ll miss out on your own life as it’s unfolding before you. There’s nothing wrong with being glad you’re alive – or with giving yourself a break on those days when being alive isn’t all that fun. The meaning of life, as it turns out, ultimately depends on you. As Patricia Arquette says to Nicolas Cage at the end of 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead (another brilliant Schrader-screenwritten work with heavy religious undertones): “No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea.”

List: The 25 Best Albums of 2017

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Woof.

There’s certainly no need to get into how devastating and horrifying a year 2017 was. But no matter how much darkness enveloped us, the world of music was able to offer us at least a bit of solace in the form of powerful, affecting art from scores of ingenious artists. In a time when deviation from the norm seemed to be punished more harshly than ever before, the microcosm of indie rock was for once dominated by women, musicians of color and LGBTQ+ folk – from Vagabon and Girlpool to Jay Som and Julien Baker – yielding truly extraordinary music that broke down barriers and gave voice to the voiceless. Feminist anthems like Cardi B’s ferocious “Bodak Yellow” and Kesha’s rip-roaring “Woman” hit the airwaves just in time for the great reckoning of the #MeToo movement. We lost a host of luminaries, but were in turn greeted by throngs of new talent – as well as the welcome return of a few old friends (Fleet Foxes, Slowdive, and Grizzly Bear, just to name a few.)

What follows is an assortment of records that had the strongest impact on me over the past year. Albums that stunned me with their lyricism, their beauty, their complexity, their bravery. Albums that made my unending obsession with music in all its forms feel worthwhile. It’s hard to say what will be in store for us in 2018, but here’s hoping that, as we continue to fight the good fight, we’ll also continue to believe in great art – and in its power to unite us and reaffirm our humanity.

 

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Cigarettes After Sex

Cigarettes After Sex

Partisan

There’s an uncanny, Lynchian quality to the airy, sensual dream-pop of Cigarettes After Sex. Their full-length debut finds the group perfecting the layered slowcore/shoegaze-influenced sound they’ve been developing since its inception a decade ago. Greg Gonzalez sings in an aching, lovestruck half-whisper as he and his bandmates use jangly, echo-laden guitars and gentle drum beats to craft music that recalls Heaven or Las Vegas-era Cocteau Twins, constantly maintaining its intimacy yet managing to soar to breathtaking heights. Ten years, of course, provides time for plenty of living, and Gonzalez’s growth as a songwriter is evident. His lyrics comprise a series of quietly mesmerizing confessional tales of 21st-century love, packed with noir melodrama and self-deprecating humor. Calling an unfaithful ex “the patron saint of sucking cock” would sound unwieldy in almost any context, but when Gonzalez does so in “Young and Dumb,” it’s a wry comment on the fluid, no-strings-attached nature of the modern relationship. “Truly,” he croons on “Truly,” “know that you really don’t need/To be in love to make love to me.” Equal parts swooningly romantic and effortlessly hip, Cigarettes After Sex is a masterful exercise in passionate restraint.

 

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Tinariwen

Elwan

Epitaph / Anti-

The Malian outfit, now nearing its fortieth year of existence, presents on Elwan some of their angriest, most electric music yet. Jagged Saharan blues riffs slither hypnotically over rattling, argumentative percussion and throngs of backing vocalists as co-founder Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s weary, trance-like voice laments the political and social unrest he has witnessed firsthand. “Love these days is like a mirage,” he intones on “Arhegh ad annàgh.” “It gets fainter the closer you get.” The lyrics are mournful and the music often caustic, but it never ceases to be a thing of profound power and beauty to hear these many seemingly disparate elements – which here also include contributions from Western musicians like Alain Johannes, Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile – join together in an immaculately arranged tapestry of sound. It’s appropriate considering the band’s beginnings as a collective of grassroots rebels, joining together in the hopes that one day the peoples of the world might live in peace.

 

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Guided by Voices

August by Cake

Rockathon

August by Cake isn’t just Guided by Voices’ best album since Robert Pollard resuscitated the project (for the first time) in 2010 – it ranks up there with some of the best they’ve done, period. After plodding along in complacency for a near half-decade and cranking out a slew of competent but ultimately lacking records, Pollard and co. sound utterly replenished on this sprawling, 32-track set – like they’ve rediscovered the energy, joy and eccentricity that fueled mid-90’s masterworks like Bee Thousand and Alien Lanes. They leap gleefully from the brassy, Arthur Brown-esque power-pop of “5º on the Inside” to the stoner-metal mutation of “Packing the Dead Zone,” from the raucous, doom-ridden schoolteacher narrative “Substitute 11” to the tense serenity of “Sentimental Wars.” Pollard proves that his acerbic wit and idiosyncratic sense of humor haven’t entirely dulled after 30+ years and 100 LPs, and his bandmates (which this time around include Bobby Bare, Jr. and Nada Surf’s Doug Gillard) adeptly demonstrate their own songwriting chops. Whether the glorious momentum the band has established here will endure over the next 100 inevitable releases remains to be seen, but for now – goddamn.

 

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Charlotte Gainsbourg

Rest

Because

There are those that would relegate Charlotte Gainsbourg as an artist to a place in the shadow of dad Serge, and to them I say, casse-toi. With the darkly sumptuous Rest, her first album in six years, the multi-hyphenate permanently cements her own artistic vitality and depth of vision. Producer SebastiAn (with help from Danger Mouse, Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, and orchestral dynamo Owen Pallett, among others) constructs delectable, scintillating walls of ominous chamber pop and foreboding disco that engulf (but by no means inhibit) Gainsbourg’s lyrics and breathy, dramatic vocals. Every second on Rest is flooded with apocalyptic drama as Gainsbourg examines the deaths of two family members (her old man and half-sister Kate Barry) and muses on the horrors of addiction. She recalls curling up next to Serge’s corpse as a teen on “Lying with You” (“Where did my kiss go when the coffin shut?/I always hear the beating of nails/You lost, I’m distraught”) and attempts to revive the spirit of “Kate” via song; “Deadly Valentine” is a skewered set of wedding vows, while “Sylvia Says” channels Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song” to spellbinding effect. Gainsbourg’s welcome return to music is a thing of terrifying power; rarely has an album about death been so angry, so cool – and so effective. À votre santé, Charlotte.

 

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Iron and Wine

Beast Epic

Sub Pop

Sam Beam’s sixth album as Iron and Wine eschews the jazz-pop trappings of 2013’s Ghost on Ghost for something of a return to form, compiling a dozen lovely, gentle little folk tunes that strike a middle ground between the starkness of Our Endless Numbered Days and the lush orchestration of The Shepherd’s Dog. His arrangements are ramshackle yet airtight, with divergent fiddle and keyboard and guitar and drum lines joining together smoothly as one in that magical way only Beam can make possible. Right out of the gate, we’re greeted by his whispery voice, like the welcome call of a long-lost friend, as he uses his distinctive lyricism to spin yarns inspired by his own fascination with the passage of time—and all the beauty and pain it squeezes into the brief span of our lives. As he advises on the downright enchanting “Call It Dreaming,” we face plenty of hardships during our time on Earth, but we’re all still together at the end of the day—and if we seek to make the most of life, we need only take the good with the bad and chalk it up to experience (the essence of life itself). Clocking in at just under 36 minutes, Beast Epic is bittersweet, almost frustrating in its brevity—we’ve no choice but to listen close and hold on to whatever bits of luscious melody and lyric we can. Doing so, over and over, we ultimately realize that the “beast” Beam speaks of is us – this is our story, our epic.

 

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Sampha

Process

Young Turks

London’s Sampha Sisay made a name for himself with the soul-baring bedroom recordings that rightfully caught the attention of high-profile collaborators like SBTRKT, Drake and Solange. His debut full-length pairs the DIY star with producer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx), who helps Sisay sharpen and expand his otherworldly R&B sound. Process unleashes an enrapturing array of post-dubstep-meets-trip-hop beats, all held together by Sampha’s rich, mellifluous tenor. Each track presents an intense, vibrant snapshot of the singer-songwriter’s life – his memories of early childhood on “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”; his struggles with anxiety on the frigid “Blood on Me” (“They said there’s somethin’ bleedin’ in me/Somethin’ screamin’ in me/Somethin’ buried deep beneath…”); his regrets at a love that never came to fruition on “Incomplete Kisses.” This masterful, self-assured debut garnered Sampha a well-deserved Mercury Prize this year – just another reason to watch his star continue to rise.

 

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SZA

Ctrl

Top Dawg / RCA

It’s been a fantastic year for SZA. In addition to her SNL performance and Best New Artist Grammy nomination, she earned exposure to her widest audience yet by elevating Maroon 5’s “What Lovers Do” from dippy Top 40 detritus to among the most charming, kicky pop tunes of 2017. Still, Solana Rowe’s crowning achievement of the past 12 months likely remains her brilliant, brash studio debut Ctrl. The sultry TDE songstress seamlessly blends indie rock, neo-soul and trap into a sublime sonic confection with her hypnotic rasp as the central instrument. She tackles with ruthless confidence the highs and lows of romantic life for a “20 Something” black woman (“…all alone still, not a thing in my name…runnin’ from love…hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends…”) She snaps back at her unfaithful exes on “Supermodel” and “Love Galore” and uses “Drew Barrymore” to pick apart unrealistic beauty standards and the vast insecurities they create (“I’m sorry I’m not more attractive/I’m sorry I’m not more ladylike/I’m sorry I don’t shave my legs at night/I’m sorry I’m not your baby mama”). In “Doves in the Wind,” she and Kendrick Lamar present us with what’s easily the loveliest, most comprehensive paean to the vagina ever written, and “Broken Clocks” highlights the delicate balance between her love and work lives. SZA’s message couldn’t be clearer or more eloquently stated: our heroine is deeply unsure of herself at this juncture of life – and yet she keeps on moving forward, driven by the hope that things will eventually make sense. Ctrl‘s stirring, heartbreaking, genre-bending anthems are essential listening for the young, lost and in love – and for all who are familiar with their struggle.

 

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Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

Ba Da Bing! / Basin Rock

“Ambient folk” is a rather trendy and obnoxious-sounding descriptor, but there’s really no other way to describe Julie Byrne’s lovely, lilting arrangements. The Buffalo, NY native blends the understated style of Nick Drake and early Joni Mitchell with the aesthetic of Brian Eno’s pioneering ’70s work, channeling both into an inimitable universe of her own design. On Not Even Happiness, we hear little else other than quiet (but dexterous) guitar, bits of wispy synthesizer and Byrne’s ethereal voice – the voice of a peaceful yet restless wanderer, seeking meaning and permanence in her fleeting life and finding it through her connection with nature and with those she loves. Hers is an earthy, gorgeous world of immaculate serenity, a powerful refuge from the solid walls of noise that wedge their way into our brains daily and vie for our attention. Once you’ve settled into that world, the look of beatific bliss spread across Byrne’s face on the album cover may very well be your own.

 

17

17

The Mountain Goats

Goths

Merge

The case for John Darnielle as the finest musical raconteur of his generation is a strong one: His characters are vibrant and vividly realized, and each of his records reads less like an album than like a collection of short stories. What makes his songwriting truly unique, however, is his unparalleled knack for drawing lyrical beauty from the seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life. For the magnificent Goths – his sixteenth studio effort and his first entirely sans guitars – Darnielle draws inspiration from his youth, growing up listening to Siouxsee and the Banshees and the Cure on KROQ-FM and seeking out the company of society’s loners and outcasts. While the songs themselves are far more indie-folk than Gothic, his lyrics evoke masterfully the pain, angst, and melancholia of goth culture’s adherents – and the ever-present specter of death that fuels their black fire. From the doomy opener “Rain in Soho” to the heart-rending ballad “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” (that’s the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy, kids) to “Abandoned Flesh” (an elegy for the long-forgotten Gene Loves Jezebel), Darnielle lets his narratives-within-a-narrative flow beautifully, his crackling, energetic vocals giving voice to the voiceless masses. Goths is an album about death, about life, and about the triumphs and tragedies in between – all told with an inimitable grace that could only come from a mind as introspective and brilliant as Darnielle’s.

 

16

16

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

Interscope / Top Dawg

DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album in six years, opens with an understated spoken word bit from the Compton native atop soft, funky orchestration – sounds that would fit quite comfortably on his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Immediately after, we get an abrupt shift into the barebones riot act of “DNA.,” setting the pace for much of the album’s remainder and letting us know we’re in for an entirely different listening experience altogether. Skeletal, pseudo-trap beats buzz and snap in the background as Lamar – still easily the most gifted MC working today – unleashes some of the most direct, unadorned flows of his career on boldface-titled bangers like “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.,” and “LOYALTY.” His unmistakable voice shifts effortlessly between lethargic, understated drone and frantic near-scream as he philosophizes upon the experience of black America in 2017 and ponders his own place within its grand scheme. As with life itself, it’s tough to draw any definite conclusions from this colorful, jagged record at the outset, but piecing the puzzle together over subsequent listens (tracklist reversed and otherwise) is what makes the experience so exhilarating. Life, as our man Mr. Duckworth puts it on the track that bears his real surname, is truly “one funny motherfucker.”

 

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15

Various artists

Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)

Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Original Soundtrack)

Rhino

It’s only fitting that the best film of the year would have the best film soundtrack of the year. This is doubly true considering the vital role of music throughout David Lynch’s oeuvre – not least of all Twin Peaks. The long-awaited third season of Lynch’s groundbreaking soap-noir drama saw the writer-director unspooling some of his most feverish avant-garde nightmares to date for the small screen as the show transcended cinema and television to become an epic treatise on life, death, the afterlife, good, evil, and how maybe Jim Belushi isn’t such a hack after all. But as free-floating and frenetic as The Return often seemed, Lynch leaves nothing to chance in terms of sound design; every note we hear is crucial to the communication of his vision, and each of the dual soundtracks works surprisingly well as a cohesive unit. Lynch expertly books the Twin Peaks roadhouse with an array of artists both new and familiar who update the local aesthetic for a new generation, from the cinematic synthpop of Chromatics and Au Revoir Simone to the ethereal folk of Lissie, Sharon Van Etten and the Cactus Blossoms. Caustic cuts from the Veils and Nine Inch Nails sit comfortably alongside doo-wop staples as sung by the Paris Sisters and the Platters, and Lynch even makes some space for original-series muses Julee Cruise and James “James” Marshall. For the original score, Lynch reunites with his old partner in melancholic crime Angelo Badalamenti (along with engineer Dean Hurley and Chromatics’ Johnny Jewel), concocting newer, darker strains of the mutated ambient jazz that populated the original series and revisiting classic nuggets like the goofy, menacing “Audrey’s Dance.” Throw in Krzysztof Penderecki’s scathing “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” as accompaniment for nuclear Armageddon, and you’re left with a listening experience that’s as glorious and disorienting a mind-fuck as the cult phenomenon that spawned it.

 

14

14

Goldie

The Journey Man

Metalheadz

Over two decades removed from his 1995 masterpiece Timeless, the U.K. drum and bass hero (and recent card-carrying member of the OBE) proves with The Journey Man – his first proper record in ten years – that he hasn’t forsaken an ounce of his ingenuity or ambition since then. Goldie’s airtight, extravagantly orchestrated soundscapes remain incredibly, interdimensionally hip, and while the lightning-fast breakbeats, jazzy vocals and trancelike synths and strings that dominated Timeless still abound, his vision feels even more cohesive, and he’s rarely sounded like he’s having as much fun as he does here. Play this record at a rave or a meditation session and it won’t sound out of place. One of the most unexpected triumphs of the year, the 105-minute epic is, indeed, a Journey, but one that’s entirely worth taking.

 

13

13

Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors

Domino

Dirty Projectors is the kind of post-breakup album only Dave Longstreth could create. He splatters his canvas with brooding, glitchy soultronica, utterly deformed samples and spastic, warped vocal harmonies to mirror the alienated frenzy hopping around his brain. He experiments with the R&B side of his signature yelp on tracks like the slippery, chaotic “Death Spiral” and the devastatingly blunt “Winner Take Nothing,” while frothy, slow-burning opener “Keep Your Name” renders his voice all but unrecognizable as he ruminates on love’s labors lost (“I don’t know why you abandoned me/You were my soul and my partner”). His arrangements bluster and jolt in myriad unexpected directions, making for a delightfully strange and disorienting listening experience. It’s far and away the darkest release under the DP name, but at the same time Longstreth manages to let some glimmers of hope creep in, no matter how manic and twisted things get. He’s clearly having a rough time, but he’ll be okay as long as he keeps following the light.

 

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12

Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain / Sinderlyn

“Kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high”: This is the mantra that informs the woozily funky lo-fi R&B of Peter Sagar. On Fresh Air, his third LP as Homeshake, the veteran Mac DeMarco sideman crafts a succession of enticingly slick, lethargic dreamscapes as the backdrop for his subtle explorations of the fleeting highs and lingering lows of modern love. Armed with whispery, wobbly guitars; buzzing, thumping bass; and a voice that expertly treads the line between soulful release and quiet restraint (and between earnestness and kitschy throwback), he unspools scintillating melodies one after the other. Some of the album’s best moments come along in its middle stretch, when Sagar shifts into complete D’Angelo-esque soul-workout mode on tracks like “TV Volume” and “Getting Down Pt. II.” Fresh Air is an endearing and often lovely little work that provides an ideal soundtrack for – well, just read the first sentence again.

 

11

11

Blanck Mass

World Eater

Sacred Bones

Benjamin John Power, one-half of UK noise-psychtronica weirdos Fuck Buttons, explores the darker side of his idiosyncratic oeuvre under the Blanck Mass moniker. With World Eater, Power presents us with a soundtrack for the hippest, most abjectly terrifying post-apocalyptic horror flick never made—as well as a grim commentary on our own tempestuous times. Opener “John Doe’s Carnival of Error,” with its faintly menacing yet soothing organ grind, serves as the disarming calm before the hellfire descends. “Rhesus Negative” is a Depeche Mode instrumental on a bad acid trip, all twinkly synths and paranoia; the percussive noises on “Please” and “The Rat” ape murderous factory equipment and clattering silverware. The seven tracks rumble, screech and claw at the barren ground, sprawling every which way but never meandering—darkly beautiful and strangely melodic. Power amps up the psychotic spectacle with his impressive use of the human voice, injecting his scorched-earth visions with chaotically spliced vocal samples and howling choirs of damned souls. It’s progressive techno at its most adventurous and thrillingly theatrical—rife with the sort of all-consuming darkness that can only precede the light of a better tomorrow.

 

10

10

The Magnetic Fields

50 Song Memoir

Nonesuch

Just because Stephin Merritt has passed the half-century mark doesn’t mean he’s stopped approaching his music like a gleeful, twinkly-eyed kid. His Tin Pan Alley-by-way-of-Kraftwerk-meets-Jonathan Richman songwriting continues to sharpen with age, and 50 Song Memoir serves to remind us that he’s both a gifted raconteur and a masterful arranger. Never one to back down from an ambitious creative writing exercise (see 69 Love Songs), Merritt chronicles the first five decades of his life over the course of 150 minutes and fifty tracks (labeled by year for your convenience).  In his unmistakable baritone, he regales us with erudite tales of his first fumbling forays into the worlds of religion (which he ultimately rejects outright, much to his Ethics prof’s chagrin), love (which he’s not so great at), and music (from the terrible bands he formed as a youngster to the first inklings of a career in electronica), stopping here and there to deliver withering jabs at his flighty beatnik mom’s good-for-nothing boyfriends. He and his bandmates descend upon a bevy of instruments ranging from fairground organ to ukulele to autoharp to any number of magnificently orchestrated synthesizer flourishes. It’s quirky to a fault, to be sure – but what’s always made the Magnetic Fields truly great is that beneath all the wry witticisms and idiosyncratic deadpannery, there’s always an unflappable sincerity – and it comes through strongest on Memoir when Merritt talks of the death of his friend Elliott Smith (“’07 In the Snow-White Cottages”) or his bouts of melancholia and suicidal thoughts (most of the album, really, but especially “’97 Eurodisco Trio”). Even “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” ostensibly a cheeky ode to sexual kinks, eventually transforms into a touching meditation on finding a love of one’s own. It all amounts to an extraordinary celebration of the grand tragicomedy of life itself – and a wondrous, wacky, lovable glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the world’s greatest living tunesmiths.

 

9.jpg

9

Jansport J

p h a r a o h

blackwhitegoldville

Every single review I’ve read of Jansport J’s freewheeling, vibrant mini-hip-hopera (my own included) has drawn connections between him and another, more legendary J. These comparisons, of course, are not without merit, as Justin Williams’ work certainly owes plenty to the seminal Donuts. But let’s look past all that for a minute and consider the remarkable ingenuity and singular vision it takes to make a record like p h a r a o h. J’s funky, heartfelt and surprisingly fluid collection of song nuggets redefines the concept of the instrumental hip-hop album itself and explores the cratedigging genre’s potential for storytelling – in this case, our story takes the form of a ride on the L-train through NYC, an opportunity to breathe in the life and personality of the city. Old school boom-bap rides comfortably alongside psychedelic keys and analog synths, with an abundance of soul samples and vocal harmonies scattered throughout. J’s dynamic use of the human voice on tracks like “Peace, Pt. I” and “12” make p h a r a o h the warmest, most organic aural experience of its kind we’ve heard in a while. Just sit back, press play, and let it take you away.

8

8

Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

Sub Pop

Josh Tillman has become something of a punching bag among the music journalism community, with the critiques running the gamut from “his facial hair looks dumb” to “he’s an arrogant, smug, self-indulgent jackass-troll who embodies everything despicable about white hipster culture.” What people seem to forget in their discussions of Tillman, however, is the music. The public’s varied opinions of the man himself don’t change the fact that he’s one of the greatest and most imaginative songwriters of this infant century. The expansive, ambitious Pure Comedy could be used as fuel for either side of the Father John Misty debate, but still, it’s a damn fine record. Enlisting the aid of legendary orchestral arranger Gavin Bryars, Misty channels the majestic strings, soulful piano melodies and prickled wit of Randy Newman and early Elton John in a series of scathing critiques on technology (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution”), liberal self-righteousness (“Ballad of the Dying Man”), and even the elite group of “L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” of which he counts himself a member (the 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A”). Tillman’s attempts to cement his status as a social satirist for the millennial age vary in their success (the rather troubling “both sides” rhetoric of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” could double as a mission statement for centrist Democrats), but when the record fails, it does so nobly enough that it’s hard not to fall in love with it anyway. At its best, Pure Comedy is a sweeping, gorgeous and deeply affecting look at the absurd state of modern humanity, as well as a call for positive change. As Tillman croons at the end of the title track: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”

 

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7

Björk

Utopia

One Little Indian

Björk is in love, and she doesn’t care who knows it. After 2015’s cataclysmic post-breakup scorcher Vulnicura, the shapeshifting Icelandic icon exhibits a complete sea change, gazing doe-eyed upon a lush, shimmering Utopia brimming with chirping birds, cosmic harps and endless romantic possibilities. Reteaming with Venezuelan producer Arca and enlisting the aid of a 13-piece flute ensemble, she unfurls intoxicating, warbling incantations over beds of shivery folktronica. It all begins with the euphoric “Arisen My Senses,” wherein the simplest show of affection – a kiss – provides the impetus for Björk’s sensual and sexual reawakening. Though she’s certainly never shied from portraying sexuality in her work, Utopia is all strap-on dicks and heart-shaped vulvae, all orgasmic bliss. By extension, it’s one of her most organic, human-sounding records – she manages to unearth the deep beauty in “two music nerds” texting and sending each other MP3s (“falling in love to a song”) on “Blissing Me,” and over the 10-minute span of the bestial nature walk “Body Memory,” she finds healing from past wounds via self-reliance (with the help of a rapturous threescore-strong choir). After the pitch-black catharsis of her previous record, Ms. Guðmundsdóttir is finally ready to live again, and both she and we are made all the better for it.

 

6

6

LCD Soundsystem

american dream

DFA / Columbia

Plenty of musicians released records this year that reflected the anxiety and anger permeating Trump’s America, but few did so with as much nightmarish, devastating clout as James Murphy on the viciously bold american dream. A reunion record in name only, dream makes it feel like Murphy’s enclave of nervous indie punks never left. It’s a recklessly catchy art-dance vision of a dystopian future that may not be so far away – a glimpse into Murphy’s personal anxieties as well as the public’s. Now pushing 50, Murphy ruminates on his inevitable midlife crisis and the cruel hands of time (“I’m just not dangerous now/The way I used to be once/I’m just too old for it now/At least that seems to be true”). And yet, LCD sound more ferocious and vital than ever, drawing from the giants of New Wave for songs as danceable as they are haunting (see the rattling, discordant Talking Head-trip “other voices” and the glitzy slow-dance waltz of the title track.) Murphy’s clarion calls on “i used to” hearken back to a time when Bono actually gave a shit, and the robotic “tonite” and the Springsteenian sheen of “call the police” stand among the most electrifying, moving performances of his career. The ghosts of the prior year’s departed loom large over the record, from Suicide’s Alan Vega on the shimmering “oh baby” to the ominously droning 12-minute Bowie tribute “black screen”; their influence only adds to the feel of heavy sobriety throughout. dream vibrantly paints a tense present and an uncertain future for both the band and the country they live in – but, as yet another giant we lost in 2016 might have put it, if we’re all going to die, we might as well just dance our lives away.

 

5

5

St. Vincent

MASSEDUCTION

Loma Vista

A decade in, Annie Clark remains, from a vocal and lyrical standpoint, one of the most unique and fascinating voices in modern rock, and record no. 5 MASSEDUCTION is the most fearless, vicious and fully-realized manifestation of her twisted art-pop vision to date. Here Clark, working with a Holy Trinity of sought-after producers, takes everything great about her first four studio efforts and cranks it up to 11, resulting in a sequence towering synth-glam hymns that are both immaculately polished and miraculously avant-garde. The robotic chorus of the title track – “I can’t turn off what turns me on” – doubles as a statement of purpose, the artist herself having described its motif as “dominatrix at the mental institution.” Frenetic, unbelievably catchy cuts like Hollywood excess ode “Los Ageless” and the Sounwave-aided “Pills” – which sounds not unlike a dystopian commercial jingle – explore the many things in our absurd, overwrought world that get us off, with exquisite punctuation from Clark’s glorious voice and face-obliterating guitar shreds. But it’s not all New Wave paranoia – stripped-back ballads such as the mournful, pedal-steel driven “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and the glorious “New York” provide a new depth of meaning to her unflinchingly honest and often hilarious lyrics. Simply put, there are very few artists firing on all cylinders like St. Vincent, who has, with MASSEDUCTION, rightly earned her place among the true pop visionaries of our time.

 

4

4

Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD

The sublime theatricality of Baltimore’s Future Islands just keeps getting better with each record. The Far Field isn’t exactly a major shake-up of their signature New Wave-influenced sound, but what is different here is the trio’s ability to dig deep into the heart of their music, exuding levels of emotion and wide-eyed expression never thought possible. With help from the deft hand of producer John Congleton, the band delivers burst after burst of rapturous, euphoric sound. Sam Herring’s voice remains one of the most unique and inimitable in modern rock, and here he leaves no atom of himself unexposed, passionately bellowing about his hopes, his insecurities, his longing for connection with nature and with his fellow human beings. Bassist William Cashion and synth wizard Garrit Welmers, meanwhile, busily construct a lushly-orchestrated backdrop that intensifies and solidifies the drama of Herring’s vivid vocal performances. Like Singles before it, The Far Field is an instant classic – a collection of perfectly-executed, emphatically realized songs from three musicians with a distinctive passion not only for their craft, but for the human experience itself.

 

3

3

Fleet Foxes

Crack-Up

Nonesuch

Whenever an artist returns from an extended hiatus, fans’ expectations for new music from that artist can be impossibly high. When that artist is Robin Pecknold, who crafted a pair of landmark, generation-defining indie rock records with his band Fleet Foxes before his embarkment to Columbia University, those expectations are damn-near stratospheric. Luckily, Pecknold is nothing if not a forward thinker; he took his downtime seriously and eventually rejoined the fold of the Seattle folk outfit with the life experience and introspection needed to create the most complex, daring, and reflective Fleet Foxes record to date. Crack-Up quite literally picks up where Helplessness Blues left off, with lethargic guitar and voice giving way to a sweeping panorama of sound. The album revels in what originally made the group great – the rumbling percussion, the Laurel Canyon-echo harmonies, the wildly varied instrumentation, the masterfully-navigated dynamic shifts – while also signifying a giant musical step forward. The band draws from African and Middle Eastern music to craft a familiar yet entirely new sound, abounding with reedy brass and woodwinds, thunderous piano, lively strings, flickering electronic programming, and rapid time-signature changes. The tracks sprawl and ramble, mirroring their bi-coastal creation (including, among other locations, the legendary Electric Lady Studios). Lyrically, Pecknold reflects in his own poetic, erudite way upon the turbulent climates within his country and personal life. “Cassius, Naiads, Cassadies” reflects on the cruelties of a white patriarchal society towards its “others,” from the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (“Life makes short work of all I see…Red and blue, the useless sirens scream”) to the daily terrorizing of women (“Who turned you so against you?”) On the pastoral “If You Need To, Keep Time On Me,” Pecknold urges us to stick together as we continue to face our uncertain future. The record’s centerpiece, the gorgeous, anthemic “Third of May / Ōdaigahara,” examines the frontman’s strained relationship with bandmate Skye Skjelset and transforms into a meditation upon humanity and its shared experiences (“I am only owed this shape if I make a line to hold”). Crack-Up is beautiful and monstrous, harrowing and soothing, reckless and riveting—a monument to fearlessness in art and life. So, yeah—it lives up to the hype.

 

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2

Kamasi Washington

Harmony of Difference (EP)

Young Turks

The supernaturally gifted saxophonist-composer blew no shortage of minds two years ago with his sprawling solo debut The Epic. His follow-up EP is considerably shorter than its three-hour, 17-track predecessor, but Washington, virtuoso that he is, successfully packs the very same level of intensely jubilant cosmic rapture into its half-hour runtime. Playing alongside some of the brightest talents in the modern jazz stratosphere – Tony Austin on drums, Brandon Coleman on keyboard, Miles Mosely and Steven “Thundercat” Bruner on bass, et al. – Washington uses a disarmingly simple phrase-variation formula to explore seemingly every facet of human experience (“Desire, “Humility,” “Integrity,” etc.), visiting and revisiting similar melodies in radically different ways throughout six contiguous movements. The musicians are proud to share the same spotlight, and it’s truly beautiful to hear them assemble their fantastical sonic worlds together. This generous creative give-and-take is most evident on the 13-and-a-half-minute centerpiece “Truth,” which opens with a light rhythm section riff and steadily adds layer upon layer until reaching a glorious climax complete with string quartet, choir, and volcanic drum fills. Its complexity will impress jazz purists, and yet the music is so accessible – indeed, so human – that even total novices can catch the drift. Intoxicating and perfect in just about every way, Harmony makes a superb argument for Washington’s placement among jazz royalty – especially for those without three hours to spare.

 

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1

Tyler, the Creator

Flower Boy

Columbia

With Flower Boy, the Odd Future mastermind and one-time clown prince of alternative hip-hop is finally making the music we always knew he could make. The Stevie Wonder/Marvin Gaye-inspired neo-soul he toyed with on 2015’s Cherry Bomb comes to full, magnificent fruition as lushly orchestrated backdrops and a who’s-who of inspired collaborators buttress some of the most personal, introspective bars the 26-year-old has ever unleashed. (Of course, he hasn’t abandoned his horrorcore roots completely; he and A$AP Rocky go full mad-scientist on the raucous, braggadocio-stuffed jaunt “Who Dat Boy.”) We find him ruminating on his success and his place in the musical pantheon (“How many raps can I write until I get me a chain/How many chains can I wear ‘til I’m considered a slave?”), as well as his own anxiety and depression, doubt and isolation (most effectively on the devastating single “911 / Mr. Lonely”). Yet for all its bleakness, much of the album bears an audible joy – it doubles as a coming-out party for Tyler, whose lyrics have had fans launching “is-he-or-isn’t-he” speculations for years. They need wonder no longer upon hearing tracks like “Where This Flower Blooms” (featuring pal Frank Ocean) or the sultry love ballad “See You Again,” which burst with the jubilation (and confusion) of a man finally starting to live his own truth, his unadorned but affecting vocals mirroring the awkward, fumbling beauty of his brave, queer new world. Flower Boy is bold and beautiful – an exploration of life in all its joys, loves and fuck-ups that remains full of hope even as the darkness continues to rear its head. In other words, it’s the record the world needed in 2017. Thank you, Tyler. Keep on rocking, rolling, blooming and growing.

Honorable Mentions

best2

Julien Baker / Turn Out the Lights (Matador)

Neil Cicierega / Mouth Moods (Self-released)

Drake / More Life (OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic)

Foxygen / Hang (Jagjaguwar)

Kesha / Rainbow (Kemosabe / RCA)

Lorde / Melodrama (Lava / Republic)

Randy Newman / Dark Matter (Nonesuch)

Paramore / After Laughter (Fueled by Ramen)

Moses Sumney / Aromanticism (Jagjaguwar)

The xx / I See You (Young Turks)

Classic Album Review: Son Volt, ‘Honky Tonk’

son volt

[Originally published May 14, 2013]

Son Volt’s 1995 debut Trace is one of my all-time favorite albums. My mother played it for us in the car constantly during the summer before I began sixth grade. And I’ve found a new, more passionate appreciation for the record in recent weeks, listening to it essentially on repeat (which is rare for a music geek like me who is always searching for new things). So, when I heard earlier this year that Jay Farrar and co. were releasing a new record, it turned out it was only natural for me, as in numerous cases, to view that new record in light of their undisputed masterpiece.

So, here goes.

Right from the first bars of opener “Hearts and Minds,” Uncle Tupelo idolizers will instantly know Honky Tonk won’t be a standard Farrar effort. It’s in 6/8, as are several other tunes on the disc. The alternating time signatures are refreshing at first when observed in comparison to Trace’s full-4/4 itinerary (“Seawall” even features alternating signatures within the same song). However, the layout of tracks across the album in patterns of 6 and 4 becomes predictable and trite by album’s end. You find yourself knowing after each song what time the next track will be in before it starts.

Farrar, of course, is in top form as a songwriter. His world-weary, highway-evoking, quasi-pastoral lyrics have ripened, if only slightly, with age. Despite this perceived progress, Farrar’s gentle but substantial voice sounds less substantial. As if he’s holding back. This can be a good thing in some instances, but in this one, it’s not. That said, it’s pretty ironic hearing him sing, “Don’t let the barricades of life/Keep the wild spirit still” on the aptly-titled “Barricades.” This record makes it seem like Farrar is doing just the opposite: painting himself and his band into a corner with “barricades” of slick restraint that undermines the group’s own “free spirit.” There are signs of an attempt at past glory – the tranquil “Wild Side” and closer “Shine On” both bear more than a passing resemblance in structure and sound to the gorgeous Trace cut “Tear-Stained Eye” – but overall, it all falls flat.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate Son Volt’s efforts to expand their musical horizons – efforts that have been in motion since 2005, when Farrar resuscitated the broken-up group with an all-new supporting cast and released Okemah and the Melody of Riot. Whereas Trace was fairly straightforward alt-country, Honky Tonk is all over the place. Hammond organ. A melancholy-bright dual-fiddle attack that gives much of the album a “Ashokan Farewell” feel (the lilting “Down the Highway” even sounds a bit like a Celtic blessing). There’s even a few auxiliary strings thrown in here and there. It’s a sonic smorgasbord that can be overwhelming and almost unstable at times. Overall, though, the band’s deepened palate not only makes for a gorgeous and exhilarating listen, but also shows how far they have come as a group.

And yet – and yet – I can’t help but feel they’ve gone the way of Counting Crows or even (as much as it pains me to admit it) Ben Folds Five. In other words, they’ve spent recent years abandoning their loose, unbridled sound in exchange for sleeker, almost syrupy arrangements. Arrangements that, in Son Volt’s case, appear to favor modern trends in country-pop as opposed to the lovely, carefree college-rock abounding on Trace. Like the aforementioned groups, they do a reasonable job pulling it off, but the result is still somewhat less gratifying than what they’re really capable of. Each track on Trace has always evoked, for me, traveling down a long, empty stretch of highway, cool breeze blowing, taking my troubles away (sorry, couldn’t resist). With Honky Tonk, I just don’t get that – or any kind of unique emotion.

But that doesn’t mean this album doesn’t deliver in its own way. Far from it. It’s a great record. One of the best I’ve heard so far this year. It’s just not as good as Trace, is all. Then, the standard Trace sets for other Son Volt work is pretty freaking high.

Will my opinion of this record change with further listens? I’m almost certain of it.

For now, I can say this with certainty: while Honky Tonk may not stack up to the brilliant recklessness of Trace, it can still stand on its own as a thoroughly enjoyable record and a fine addition to the Son Volt catalogue. (7.3/10)

Son Volt

Honky Tonk

Rounder // March 5, 2013

Produced by Jay Farrar

Classic Album Review: Pixies, ‘Surfer Rosa’

pixies

[Originally published May 14, 2013]

The Pixies’ first proper studio effort embodies perfectly their recklessly unconventional college rocker persona. Every track incorporates that raw, fuzzy, unbridled sound later utilized by everyone from My Bloody Valentine to Deerhunter to Girls. That sound without which no one would ever have embraced a certain trio of long-haired Seattle upstarts and their fledgling garage-punk outfit – a mere three years, mind you, after this album’s release. (Kurt Cobain later admitted that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was his stab at writing a Pixies tune, and it’s easy to see the connection.) But just because the record is sloppy doesn’t mean it’s a total mess – true, it threatens to fall apart at any moment, but the band manages to keep it together, and then some. Kim Deal’s plodding bass lines; the frantic, scorching siren that is Joey Santiago’s guitar; and Dave Lovering’s able-handed drumming come together to create something truly memorable.

Like Buddy Holly and the Ramones before them, some of the band’s best moments come out in their shortest, punchiest tunes – songs like “Something Against You” and tremendously catchy closer “Brick is Red.” The four-and-a-half minute “Vamos,” one of the few tracks that surpasses the 2-minute mark, even seems to drag a bit in comparison to these. But this only serves to further justify the group’s massive appeal among the bored, angsty, disconnected youth of the late 80s-early 90s.

Adding to the record’s disjointed feel is the tension, just barely palpable here, between leader Black Francis and Deal – tension that would demolish the band by the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. Deal’s raspy yet oddly angelic vocals (used to miraculously eerie effect on “Gigantic” and the gleeful confusion of the band’s hands-down masterpiece “Where Is My Mind?”) collide haphazardly with Black’s yelping, paranoiac shout-singing – especially during the nonsensical hook of “River Euphrates” and the disturbed chorus of “I’m Amazed.” This goes without mentioning the countless moments when Black’s yelps turn to demonic screams and guttural growls – all of which are intensified by the masterful production of Steve Albini. Perhaps the group’s angst was directed not only at the deteriorating world but also at each other.

Surfer Rosa may not be a perfect record – that’s obviously not what they were going for – but with all its flaws, it’s still a brilliantly-assembled hodgepodge of bold ideas and a stellar cultural landmark from some of music’s true innovators. And after 25 years, it still hasn’t lost its sting. (8.8/10)

Pixies

Surfer Rosa

4AD // March 21, 1988

Produced by Steve Albini

List: The 15 Best Albums of 2017 (So Far)

2017 has indeed been quite a rollercoaster thus far, but it’s also been remarkably generous to us in terms of music. We’ve heard no shortage of remarkable, transcendent, intricate, gorgeous, and even hilarious work from both familiar friends and new up-and-comers. Here are fifteen of my personal favorites from among the bounteous array of record releases in the past few months. May the remainder of the year be just as kind to us, and may we all also be a little kinder to one other – God knows we need it in such turbulent times as these.

Here it is – my top 15 of 2017 (so far):

15

15

(Sandy) Alex G

Rocket

Domino

Meet the new Alex Giannascoli, same as the new Alex Giannascoli. The prolific Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter has made a name for himself – a name that now just happens to have a “Sandy” affixed to it – by crafting his own unique, eccentric world using the simple trappings of lo-fi recording. Rocket, the follow-up to his major-label debut Beach Music, sees him continuing trends from that record while at the same time branching out from his indie-folk/rock roots into the less comfortable territories of lounge-floor jazz (“County”), hardcore noise-punk (“Brick”), and country (the frothy banjo-and-fiddle stomp of “Bobby”). The ramshackle compositions, combined with Giannascoli’s heartfelt, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics, make for a novel, charming effort that rewards indelibly on further listens – an ideal showcase for the 24-year-old’s versatility and ingenuity as a musician.

 

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14

Tinariwen

Elwan

Epitaph / Anti-

The Malian outfit, now nearing its fortieth year of existence, presents on Elwan some of their angriest, most electric music yet. Jagged, electrical Saharan blues riffs slither hypnotically over rattling, argumentative percussion and throngs of backing vocalists as founding member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib’s weary, trance-like voice laments the political and social unrest he has witnessed firsthand. “Love these days is like a mirage,” he intones on “Arhegh ad annàgh.” “It gets fainter the closer you get.” The lyrics are mournful and the music often caustic, but it never ceases to be a thing of profound power and beauty to hear these many seemingly disparate elements – which here also include contributions from Western musicians like Alain Johannes, Mark Lanegan and Kurt Vile – join together in an immaculately arranged tapestry of sound. It’s appropriate considering the band’s beginnings as a collective of grassroots rebels, joining together in the hopes that one day the peoples of the world might live in peace.

 

13

13

Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

Ba Da Bing! / Basin Rock

“Ambient folk” is a rather trendy and obnoxious-sounding descriptor, but there’s really no other way to describe Julie Byrne’s lovely, lilting arrangements. The Buffalo, NY native blends the understated style of Nick Drake and early Joni Mitchell with the aesthetic of Brian Eno’s pioneering ’70s work, channeling both into an inimitable universe of her own design. On Not Even Happiness, we hear little else other than quietly strummed guitar, bits of wispy synthesizer and Byrne’s ethereal voice – the voice of a peaceful yet restless wanderer, seeking meaning and permanence in her fleeting life and finding it through her connection with nature and with those she loves. Hers is an earthy, gorgeous world of immaculate serenity, a powerful refuge from the solid walls of noise that wedge their way into our brains daily and vie for our attention. Once you’ve settled into that world, the look of beatific bliss spread across Byrne’s face on the album cover may very well be your own.

 

12

12

The Mountain Goats

Goths

Merge

John Darnielle is arguably the greatest musical raconteur of the 21st century. His characters are vibrant and vividly realized, and each of his records reads less like an album than like a collection of short stories. What makes his songwriting truly unique, however, is his unparalleled knack for drawing lyrical beauty from the seemingly insignificant moments of everyday life. For the magnificent Goths – his sixteenth studio effort and his first without guitars – Darnielle draws inspiration from his youth, growing up listening to Siouxsee and the Banshees and the Cure on KROQ-FM and seeking out the company of society’s loners and outcasts. While the songs themselves are far more indie-folk than Gothic, his lyrics evoke masterfully the pain, angst, and melancholia of goth culture’s adherents – and the ever-present specter of death that fuels their black fire. From the doomy opener “Rain in Soho” to the heart-rending ballad “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” (that’s the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy, kids) to “Abandoned Flesh” (an elegy for the long-forgotten Gene Loves Jezebel), Darnielle lets his narratives-within-a-narrative flow beautifully, his crackling, energetic vocals giving voice to the voiceless. Goths is an album about death, about life, and about the triumphs and tragedies in between – the kind of record that could only come from a mind as introspective and brilliant as Darnielle’s.

 

11

11

Drake

More Life

OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic

Last year’s charming but lackluster Views found Drizzy at a creative crossroads, but fortunately for us, it seems he picked the road less traveled. On the sprawling, lush “playlist” More Life, he adds dancehall, Afrobeat, and grime to his ever-expanding musical palate. He’s in top lyrical form throughout, unleashing an abundance of sometimes playful, often earnest ruminations on love, success, and the thinning line between his friends and his enemies.  It doesn’t hurt, of course, that Drake gets by here with a lot of help from his friends, including Young Thug, Giggs, Skepta, Sampha, Quavo, Kanye West, PARTYNEXTDOOR, Jorja Smith, 2 Chainz, and a walloping 31 credited producers. This seemingly endless string of cohorts adds another layer of vibrancy and excitement to More Life but never steals the spotlight from the man whose name it bears. Love him or loathe him, Mr. Graham is liable to stay with us for quite some time yet.

10

10

Slowdive

Slowdive

Dead Oceans

Thanks to the immense popularity of dreamy outfits like Beach House and Chromatics, shoegaze is perhaps more en vogue now than ever before. So it’s only natural that genre titans Slowdive would follow the lead of contemporaries My Bloody Valentine and make a triumphant comeback this year following a two-decades-plus hiatus. And as was true for 2013’s m b v, Slowdive proves that its namesake band hasn’t lost a single step in the 22 years since their last record. The lush ambient atmospherics, ringing guitars and hushed vocals of Souvlaki and Pygmalion are still very much present throughout. At the same time, we witness the band continuing to expand the dimensions of its sound through the Gothic post-punk of “Star Roving,” the hazy, disarmingly simplistic “Sugar for the Pill,” and the slow burn and fade of “Falling Ashes.” Equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking, Slowdive marks one of the most spectacular comebacks in recent memory – and perfect proof of just why the Thames Valley quartet mattered in the first place.

 

9

9

Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain / Sinderlyn

“Kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high”: This is the mantra that informs the woozily funky lo-fi R&B of Peter Sagar. On Fresh Airhis third LP as Homeshake, the veteran Mac DeMarco sideman crafts a succession of enticingly slick, lethargic dreamscapes as the backdrop for his subtle explorations of the fleeting highs and lingering lows of modern love. Armed with whispery, wobbly guitars; buzzing, thumping bass; and a voice that expertly treads the line between soulful release and quiet restraint (and between earnestness and kitschy throwback), he unspools scintillating melodies one after the other. Some of the album’s best moments come along in its middle stretch, when Sagar shifts into complete D’Angelo-esque soul-workout mode on tracks like “TV Volume” and “Getting Down Pt. II.” Fresh Air is an endearing and often lovely little opus that provides an ideal soundtrack for – well, just read the first sentence again.

 

8

8

Jansport J

p h a r a o h

blackwhitegoldville

Every single review I’ve read of Jansport J’s freewheeling, vibrant mini-hip-hopera (my own included) has drawn connections between him and another, more legendary J. These comparisons, of course, are not without merit, as Justin Williams’ work certainly owes plenty to the seminal Donuts. But let’s look past all that for a minute and consider the remarkable ingenuity and singular vision it takes to make a record like p h a r a o h. J’s funky, heartfelt and surprisingly fluid collection of song nuggets seeks to redefine the instrumental hip-hop album itself and explores the cratedigging genre’s potential for storytelling – in this case, our story takes the form of a ride on the L-train through NYC, an opportunity to breathe in the life and personality of the city. Old school boom-bap rides comfortably alongside psychedelic keys and analog synths, with an abundance of soul samples and vocal harmonies scattered throughout. J’s dynamic use of the human voice on tracks like “Peace, Pt. I” and “12” make p h a r a o h the warmest, most organic aural experience of its kind we’ve heard in a while. Just sit back, press play, and let it take you away.

 

7

7

The Magnetic Fields

50 Song Memoir

Nonesuch

Just because Stephin Merritt has passed the half-century mark doesn’t mean he’s stopped approaching his music like a gleeful, twinkly-eyed kid. Never one to back down from an ambitious creative writing exercise (see 69 Love Songs), Merritt chronicles the first five decades of his life over the course of 150 minutes and fifty tracks (labeled by year for your convenience). His Tin Pan Alley-by-way-of-Kraftwerk-meets-Jonathan Richman songwriting continues to sharpen with age, and 50 Song Memoir serves to remind us that he’s both a gifted raconteur and a masterful arranger. In his unmistakable baritone, he regales us with erudite tales of his first fumbling forays into the worlds of religion (which he ultimately rejects outright, much to his Ethics prof’s chagrin), love (which he’s not so great at), and music (from the terrible bands he formed as a kid to the first inklings of a career in electronica), stopping here and there to deliver withering jabs at his flighty beatnik mom’s good-for-nothing boyfriends. He and his bandmates descend upon a bevy of instruments ranging from fairground organ to ukulele to autoharp to any number of magnificently orchestrated synthesizers. It’s quirky to a fault, to be sure – but what’s always made the Magnetic Fields truly great is that beneath all the wry witticisms and idiosyncratic deadpannery, there’s always an unflappable sincerity – and it comes through strongest on Memoir when Merritt talks of the death of his friend Elliott Smith (“’07 In the Snow-White Cottages”) or his bouts of melancholia and suicidal thoughts (“’97 Eurodisco Trio”). Even “’15 Somebody’s Fetish,” ostensibly a cheeky ode to sexual kinks, eventually transforms into a touching meditation on finding a love of one’s own. It all amounts to an extraordinary celebration of the grand tragicomedy of life itself – and a wondrous, wacky, lovable glimpse into the mind and soul of one of the world’s greatest living tunesmiths.

 

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6

Dirty Projectors

Dirty Projectors

Domino

Dirty Projectors is the kind of post-breakup album only Dave Longstreth could create. He splatters his canvas with brooding, glitchy soultronica, utterly deformed samples and spastic, warped vocal harmonies to mirror the alienated frenzy hopping around his brain. He experiments with the R&B side of his signature yelp on tracks like the slippery, chaotic “Death Spiral” and the devastatingly blunt “Winner Take Nothing,” while frothy, slow-burning opener “Keep Your Name” renders his voice all but unrecognizable as he ruminates on love’s labors lost (“I don’t know why you abandoned me/You were my soul and my partner”). His arrangements bluster and jolt in myriad unexpected directions, making for a delightfully strange and disorienting listening experience. It’s far and away the darkest release under the DP name, but at the same time Longstreth manages to let some glimmers of hope creep in, no matter how manic and twisted things get. He’s clearly having a rough time, but he’ll be okay as long as he keeps following the light.

 

5

5

Goldie

The Journey Man

Metalheadz

Two decades removed from his career-defining masterpiece Timeless, the UK drum-and-bass god proves he’s lost neither the ambition nor the perfectionist’s touch that made that album great. On The Journey Man, he continually unspools vast, vividly-colored song-movements stuffed with breakneck beats, mesmerizing touches of strings and piano, and jazzy, soulful vocals courtesy of collaborators such as Natalie Williams and José James. It’s sixteen tracks and nearly two hours of hypnotic, luxurious, intelligent, and scintillating music that would feel out of place neither at a rave nor a meditation session. The Journey Man is, indeed, a journey – but one more than worth the taking.

 

4

4

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

Interscope / Top Dawg

DAMN., Kendrick Lamar’s fourth studio album in six years opens up with an understated spoken word bit from the Compton native atop soft, funky orchestration – sounds that would fit quite comfortably on his 2015 magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly. Immediately after, we get an abrupt shift into the barebones riot act of “DNA.,” setting the pace for much of the album’s remainder and letting us know we’re in for an entirely different listening experience altogether. Skeletal, pseudo-trap beats buzz and snap in the background as Lamar – still easily the most gifted MC of his generation – unleashes some of the most direct, unadorned flows of his career on boldface-titled bangers like “HUMBLE.,” “FEAR.,” and “LOYALTY.” His unmistakable voice shifts effortlessly from a lethargic, understated drone to a frantic near-scream as he waxes philosophic about the experience of black America in 2017 and ponders his own place within its grand scheme. As with life itself, it’s tough to draw any definite conclusions from this colorful, jagged, complicated record at the outset, but piecing the puzzle together over subsequent listens is what makes the experience so exhilarating. Life, as our man Mr. Duckworth puts it on the track that bears his real surname, is indeed “one funny motherfucker.”

 

3

3

Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

Sub Pop

Josh Tillman has become something of a punching bag in the music journalism community, with the critiques running the gamut from “his facial hair is dumb” to “he’s an arrogant, smug, self-indulgent jackass who embodies everything despicable about white hipster culture.” What people seem to forget in their discussions of Tillman, however, is the music. The public’s varied opinions on the man don’t change the fact that he’s one of the greatest and most imaginative songwriters of his generation. The expansive, ambitious Pure Comedy could be used as fuel for either side of the Father John Misty debate, but still, it’s a damn fine record. Enlisting the aid of legendary arranger Gavin Bryars, Misty channels the majestic strings and prickled wit of Randy Newman and early Elton John in a series of scathing critiques on technology (“Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before the Revolution”), liberal self-righteousness (“Ballad of the Dying Man”), and even the elite group of “L.A. phonies and their bullshit bands/That sound like dollar signs and Amy Grant” of which he counts himself a member (the 13-minute centerpiece “Leaving L.A”). Tillman’s attempts to cement his status as a social satirist for the millennial age vary in their success (the troubling “both sides” rhetoric of “Two Wildly Different Perspectives” could double as a mission statement for centrist Democrats), but when the record fails, it does so nobly enough that it’s hard not to fall in love with it anyway. At its best, Pure Comedy is a sweeping, gorgeous and deeply affecting look at the absurd state of modern humanity, as well as a call for some positive change. As Tillman croons at the end of the title track: “I hate to say it, but each other’s all we’ve got.”

 

2

2

Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD

The sublime theatricality of Baltimore’s Future Islands just keeps getting better with each record. The Far Field isn’t exactly a major shake-up of their signature New Wave-influenced sound, but what is different here is the trio’s ability to dig deep into the heart of their music, exuding levels of emotion and wide-eyed expression never thought possible. With help from the deft hand of producer John Congleton, the band delivers burst after burst of rapturous, euphoric sound. Sam Herring’s voice remains one of the most unique and inimitable in modern rock, and here he leaves no atom of himself unexposed, passionately bellowing about his hopes, his insecurities, his longing for connection with nature and with his fellow human beings. Bassist William Cashion and synth wizard Garrit Welmers, meanwhile, busily construct a lushly-orchestrated backdrop that intensifies and solidifies the drama of Herring’s vocal performance. Like Singles before it, The Far Field is an instant classic – a collection of perfectly-executed songs from people with a clear and distinctive passion not only for their craft, but for the human experience itself.

 

1

1

Fleet Foxes

Crack-Up

Nonesuch

The gap between the last and the next of a beloved artist’s records is always interminable for its fans, be it a year or a decade. But this sentiment felt doubly true for fans of Fleet Foxes, whose fearless leader Robin Pecknold disbanded the group after 2011’s generation-defining Helplessness Blues and essentially disappeared for the next half-decade. (Okay, he actually attended classes at Columbia, but hey, same thing.) Happily for us, great works of art often come from periods of isolation, and such is the case with the Foxes’ breathtaking, ridiculously great Crack-Up. At the outset, it sounds like your basic, run-of-the-mill Fleet Foxes album – reliable Laurel Canyon-influenced folk with echo-chamber atmospherics and thundering drum beats – but listen closely, and the album reveals itself. The harmonies are tighter. The songs are more complex, cinematic, sweeping, panoramic in scope (especially on lengthier song-suites like “Third of May / Ōdaigahara” and “I Am All That I Need…”). Pecknold’s songwriting is clearer and more socially-conscious – he witnesses the protests following the murder of Alton Sterling on “Cassius -” and laments the proliferation of gender inequality on “- Naiads, Cassadies.” The group even gets self-referential when a sample of a school choir performing “White Winter Hymnal” pops up. Crack-Up is everything we could have hoped for from the Foxes’ reunification; they move forward as musicians while keeping one foot firmly rooted in the sound that made them one of the greatest musical acts of the new millennium. Welcome back, boys. Stay awhile now, won’t you?

Honorable Mentions

Blanck Mass / World Eater (Sacred Bones)

Neil Cicierega / Mouth Moods (Self-released)

Foxygen / Hang (Jagjaguwar)

Steve Lacy / Steve Lacy’s Demo (EP) (Three Quarter)

Perfume Genius / No Shape (Matador)

Sampha / Process (Young Turks)

The Shins / Heartworms (Columbia / Aural Apothecary)

SZA / Ctrl (Top Dawg / RCA)

Temples / Volcano (Heavenly / Fat Possum)

The xx / I See You (Young Turks)

Album Review*: Timecop, ‘You Can’t Go Back From Where You Are Right Now’ (EP)

burning dome

(*not actually a review, just a shameless plug)

I’m going on vacation for a week, but before I leave, I thought I’d just say a few quick words about my new EP.

What’s this? An “EP”?? Oh, I see – you’ve finally decided to fulfill the stereotype of the music critic who “dabbles” as an artist? Very funny, Mr. Pretentious Writer-Person. Stop wasting our time and get back to work on those wryly comical semi-monthly music reviews, hipster scum. And by the way – where’s that best-of-the-year so far list? It’s almost fucking August now, for Chrissakes! Why don’t you just get your shit together already? Jesus, man.

To counter your argument, imaginary hypothetical detractors, this ain’t my first rodeo as far as music – making, not just listening – is concerned. Truth is, I’ve been a musician for literally over two decades (mostly vocals, though I’ve also been known to play a pretty mean harmonica/drum kit/vibraphone, etc.) This EP, however, is my first foray into the world of electronic music – a universe that has fascinated me for years, but which I’ve never really delved into fully myself. UNTIL NOW.

You Can’t Go Back From Where You Are Right Now (my first – and hopefully not last – release as Timecop) is a glitchy, atmospheric, idiosyncratic work – wow, with descriptors like that you’d think I was a music critic or something! – that draws equal inspiration mainly from IDM godheads like Aphex Twin and Goldie and ambient trailblazers such as Brian Eno and William Basinski. I like to think, however, that with this EP I’ve managed to channel those lofty influences into my own unique sound. More importantly, however, I finally motivated myself to thread together some of my experimental noodlings and happy electrical accidents into a cohesive whole. And you know what? I’m really, really impressed with how this thing turned out.

I hope you dig it, too.

Yours truly, faithfully and digitally,
Michael (aka Timecop)

(P.S. I swear to God I’ll have the best-of-2017-so-far list up here soon. I’m working on it. It’s coming. I promise.)

Timecop

You Can’t Go Back From Where You Are Right Now (EP)

Self-released // July 28, 2017

Produced by Michael Heimbaugh

Album Review: Future Islands, ‘The Far Field’

Future_islands_the_far_field

At the risk of exaggeration, Future Islands was probably the best thing that happened to me in 2014. I was one of many who had committed the egregious error of generally ignoring them prior to their now-legendary network TV debut on The Late Show with Dave Letterman in March of that year. I still remember how electrifying that first performance was – the driving opening chords of the group’s beautiful, anthemic “Seasons (Waiting on You)”; the synthpop sound that hearkened to another age yet felt totally modern; and frontman Sam T. Herring two-stepping across the stage, screeching, bellowing, punching the air, thumping his chest and staring into the audience’s very soul. It was a captivating spectacle, equal parts disorienting and really, really cool.

With “Seasons” and its superb mother album Singles (which I naturally declared the best of 2014 in my end-of-year list), the Baltimorean trio captured our attention. Its follow-up, The Far Field, then, represents their attempt to retain it. To put it lightly, they succeed in spectacular fashion. Those expecting a departure from their previous work will be sorely disappointed. However, those who’ve come to know and adore the power and beauty of their music will find the new record a veritable feast for the ears.

As was true for Singles, each track on The Far Field (the title a nod to the Theodore Roethke poetry collection of the same name, as was 2010’s In Evening Air) is a miniature drama, bursting with euphoric energy; even the saddest tunes shoot up towards the heavens. Herring, as always, sells the dear sweet screaming shit out of every syllable he utters – snarling, crooning, enunciating viciously, throwing in the occasional grindcore shriek. Sam could be likened easily to any number of expressive rock vocalists, but for me, the figure that comes most readily to mind is Meat Loaf. I think back to the first time I heard Bat Out of Hell and how awestruck I was by his voice. You could feel his raw magnetism shredding through your speakers; he made even cornball phrases like “You’ve been cold to me so long, I’m cryin’ icicles instead of tears” sound convincing. Herring works similar wonders with his vocal delivery and performance style. Not a word passes his lips that’s without meaning, that isn’t felt in every atom of his body.

But while Herring may steal the show at the band’s live performances, their studio efforts give his fellow Future Islanders a chance to shine. Garrit Welmers, channeling the best and most adventurous of 80s New Wave, crafts lovely, intoxicating synth universes on each track, while William Cashion’s driving bass propels everything forward and keeps Herring’s soaring vocals tethered to Earth’s atmosphere. They’re as much a delicate, meticulously crafted formula as they are a band; take one element out of the equation, and the whole thing crumbles.

The album begins by fading into “Aladdin,” our regularly scheduled Future Islands song, already in progress – a simple but effective synth hook enveloped by lush long tones, drum and bass keeping steady, thumping time. Herring then launches headfirst into a poetic diatribe, describing his relationship with a lost love in terms of nature while showcasing his unique talent for internal rhyme (“I’ve seen the beaches, breached the peak of ‘please’ and ‘thanks’/I’ve seen my features age, my fingers strange”). Like that titular treasure-seeker, Herring is trying to decide whether the riches he found were mere illusions. By the end of the song, he pointedly concludes, straining to hit the highest notes he can, that “love is real/Our love is real/It’s a hand, it’s a hold, it’s a shield.” It’s not as dynamic an opening as “Seasons,” but it’s still thoroughly stirring and enrapturing.

Even by Future Islands’ standards, these songs feel remarkably personal. Herring, bearer of a known predilection for breaking down in the midst of live performances and giving his audience quick emotional pep talks, provides us with several vivid, often painful windows into his soul. The autobiographical nature of his lyrics gives him more to feel, which makes the songs themselves exude more emotion in turn. He dedicates much of his energy here to meditating on his relationships with others and how life on the road can decay those relationships over time. The gorgeous, majestic “Time on Her Side” finds him accepting that his departed lover is free (“so free, it’s sublime”) to choose her own path in life, as angelic, soul-rocking synth tones and chiming percussion blast readily into action. On lead single “Ran” (which happens to sound eerily similar to “Seasons” in pretty much every way), he sounds a bit more mournful, howling, “What’s a song without you/When every song I write is about you?” He yearns to reconnect with nature – and by extension, with the loved ones he’s drifted away from – on “Ancient Water” and “Day Glow Fire.” In so many words and with so much chutzpah, he’s really just expressing his desire for what most humans want: connection.

Herring’s emotional nakedness reaches its apex during “Through the Roses.” As Welmers’ synths float breathily around him, he speaks at length about his struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts – “the temptation to look inside [his] wrist”. In other words, no matter how convincing Herring’s electric stage presence may be, when you take away “the lights and the smoke and the screen,” he’s just a normal guy – nervous, terrified, unsure of himself, trying to navigate this fucked-up, confusing world we’re stuck on.  He further ponders the inner workings of his troubled mind on the melancholy “Cave,” which explores the disillusion and loss of self he experiences in the wake of a breakup: “Is this a desperate wish for dying/Or a wish that dying cease?/The fear that keeps me going…is the same fear that brings me to my knees/I don’t believe anymore.” Herring obviously isn’t the first to unpack such emotions on record, but the sheer vulnerability and conviction with which he does so makes it truly unique.

And what self-respecting Meat-Loafian synthpop epic would dare to omit space for a rip-roaring, eleventh-hour boy-girl duet? That moment comes in the form of the driving “Shadows,” wherein Ms. Debbie Harry – herself at one time the queen-regent of New Wave – plays Ellen Foley to Herring’s Meat, urging him to “break free” from the darkness that holds him captive. Harry is perfect for the part, her ageless, ethereal voice an ideal counterpoint for Herring’s impassioned yowls. Together, they manage to make the song impressively sincere while reveling in its inherent goofiness.

But wait, I’m frequently tempted to tell myself. Didn’t they just use that exact same drumbeat/synth pattern/key three songs ago? And several more times on other albums? This is bullshit. I shouldn’t be enjoying this. This is base, vapid regurgitation. They’re just doing the same song over and over. Maybe so, but goddamn, is it a fucking great song. Sure, Field may essentially be twelve slight variations on a long-established signature sound (the possible exception being the tender, ultra-slowed-down reggae-cum-lounge ballad “Candles”), but the group infuses every moment on the record with enough charisma and genuine feeling to make it work – and then some.

Future Islands are a group that traffics in feeling – their success stems largely from the passionate appeal to the heartstrings and souls of their listeners they make in their music. More specifically, it’s their uncanny ability to mine pure joy, hope and goodness from the darkest depths of human experience – as they do plenty of times on the marvelous, sweeping Field – that makes them not just a good band, but a great one. As Herring puts it, bringing an auspicious end to the otherwise sorrowful “Through the Roses”: “We can pull through together, together, together, together.” Here’s hoping we do. (9.1/10)

Future Islands

The Far Field

4AD // April 7, 2017

Produced by John Congleton

Album Review: Drake, ‘More Life’

drake

Scoff all you like, O ye rap purists, but you have to hand it to the man: Aubrey Drake “Drake” Graham has, in his own way, revolutionized hip-hop. With albums like Take Care and Nothing Was the Same, he orchestrated a marriage of rap and R&B sensibilities that hitherto had never been heard before. He rapped. He sang. He was profoundly, often uncomfortably, open about his private life. And everyone loved/loathed/secretly liked him for it. More Life, the latest tell-all tome from our young up-and-coming hero, is a sprawling, colorful sonic panoply that constitutes some of the most varied and enticing work he’s created in his career. It highlights the Toronto native’s strengths as a rapper while providing an exciting new platform from which to flex them.

Ultimately, More Life turns out to be a refreshing return to form following last year’s interesting but mostly lackluster Views. That album, paired with the prior year’s subpar Future team-up What a Time to Be Alive, made some fear that Drizzy, following an unprecedented winning streak, was finally beginning to lose his touch. Fortunately, Mr. Graham is nothing if not resourceful, and he changes things up a bit with this release, turning it into a celebration of black culture and the various musical forms it has begotten.

Don’t get me wrong – the Drake we’ve come to know and love/loathe/secretly like is still very much present here. He’s still reveling in his outlandish success and telling off all the haters nipping at his OVO Jordan-clad heels (“I mean, I keep the fuckin’ lights on in the building/Man, my record deal should be $500 million”). He’s still stressing out over work, doubting himself, wondering who he can trust (“I cannot tell who is my friend/I need distance between me and them”). He continues his never-ending search for that sweet spot between his hedonistic lifestyle and being a more sensitive, caring companion to the women in his life, with Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, and Serena Williams being among the key culprits this time around (on one track, he even goes so far as to interpolate J.Lo’s “If You Had My Love”). At the same time, Drizzy has frequently proven that he’s at his best when he’s also at his most unpredictable, and More Life documents his evolution as a musician and as a person. If Views saw Drake fumbling for new ways to say what he wants to say, More Life confirms he hasn’t run out of juice just yet.

This reinvigoration is largely attributable to the project’s 31 (!) co-producers, who help instill it with its slapdash, globe-hopping motif (is it any wonder why it’s called a “playlist”?) Musical styles vary from track to track, keeping things interesting when the classic Drake formula threatens to slag. That’s in addition to the various high-profile guests (as well as a couple relative newcomers) Drake brings on board – and whom he wisely lets grab much of the spotlight. UK grime star Giggs makes two mind-obliterating features on the 808-heavy “No Long Talk” and “KMT,” brashly delivering such gems as: “I’m a black man, government earner/Could’ve just slapped man, but he wanted it further/Batman, da-na-na-da-na!” His fellow Britons Skepta and Sampha each get their own tracks, with the former unleashing the same ruthless, erudite flows found on his brilliant 2016 record Konnichiwa, and the latter using “4422” to croon about his relationship timidities as well as to shout out his Morden birthplace and his family’s roots in Freetown. South African DJ Black Coffee and British singer-songwriter Jorja Smith (another alleged love interest) endow “Get It Together” with a bouncy sex appeal, while lush, shimmering Afrobeat guitars and long synth tones bring a taste of Nigeria to the Wizkid-influenced “Madiba Riddim.” A few of Drake’s trap-slinging pals from the South – Quavo, Travis Scott, 2 Chainz and Young Thug – offer some competently jocular assists for “Portland,” “Ice Melts” and the somber, introspective “Sacrifices.” Even Yeezy and Weezy come along for the ride.

And then there’s the dancehall influence. Drake flirted with island rhythms on Views with the hit singles “One Dance” and “Too Good,” but here, he takes it to another level. He peppers many of the tracks with Caribbean soundscapes and Jamaican patois. He talks of being so “Blem” that he “might just say how I feel,” calling his lover’s ex a “wasteman” and warning her to “move from me with the passa.” The lush, tropical “Passionfruit” finds our man at his most vulnerable and tender, with a sunny backdrop flowing throughout as he softly expresses his anxieties about keeping a relationship together (“Listen/Harder buildin’ trust from a distance/I think we should rule out commitment for now, ‘cause we’re fallin’ apart”). Later, we hear tinny steel-drum hits punctuate his angry rebukes towards two-faced well-wishers on lead single “Fake Love.” It’s important to note that Drizzy never copies his influences directly or resorts to pastiche, but rather lovingly incorporates these styles into his own signature sound to create something new and uniquely stunning.

Drake himself often takes a noticeable backseat to his cohorts on a number of these tracks but is by no means phoning things in. When he does appear, he sounds completely rejuvenated, uncorking some of his most exhilarating, self-assured flows to date. Right out of the gate, he goes in on his manifold foes (in particular, one Meek Mill), offering them the fatal challenge of a “Free Smoke”: “Lot of n****s goin’ bad on me/Please, one at a time/I wanna move to Dubai/So I don’t never have to kick it with none of you guys/I didn’t listen to Hov on that old song/When he told me pay it no mind/I get more satisfaction out of goin’ at your head/And seein’ all of you die.” In this context, the title, a well-wishing catchphrase popularized by Vybz Kartel, becomes a bit of a double-sided mantra, echoed by Drizzy as much to himself as to the rest of the world.

Still, amid all the taunts, he isn’t afraid to do some genuine soul-searching on several tracks, admitting that much of his anger may stem from his own insecurities about himself. He bemoans the loss of support from friends and family on “Lose You” – “Winning is problematic/People like you more when you workin’ towards something, not when you have it…How they go from not wantin’ me at all/To wantin’ to see me lose it all?” Mom Sandi appears in voicemail form at the end of “Can’t Have Everything,” admonishing him to remember that, “when others go low, we go high.” By playlist’s end, his wrath seems to have cooled down a bit – or, at least, he’s a little more at peace with his situation. “Scary whenever I close my eyes at night,” he muses on album closer “Do Not Disturb.” “Wakin’ up to public statements about my private life/I can never sleep ’til morning on all my quiet nights/But you can rest assured that my mind is right.”

More Life is definitely a lot to take in and may be best digested in a few sittings, but there’s certainly a heck of a lot to love here. Drake melds his many influences into an intoxicating, irresistible aural smorgasbord; sometimes the seams are quite visible, but that only adds to the project’s charm. All in all, Drizzy seems to be learning more about the person he is, and in spite of his serious tone, he hasn’t sounded like he’s having this much fun with a project in quite some time. Here’s hoping that when he returns from his retreat to his “regular life” in 2018 to “give us the summary,” his inventive spirit will continue to thrive. More Life, indeed. (8.5/10)

Drake

More Life

OVO Sound / Young Money / Cash Money / Republic // March 18, 2017

Produced by Drake, Oliver El-Khatib, Noah “40” Shebib, Kanye West, Murda Beatz, PARTYNEXTDOOR, et al.

Album Review: Homeshake, ‘Fresh Air’

Homeshake_-_Fresh_Air

Peter Sagar first made a name for himself as the nimble-fingered touring guitarist for indie slacker idol Mac DeMarco. As a solo singer-songwriter, he creates music that (spiritually, at least) follows a similar path to that of the scruffy, weed-loving, chill-as-hell DeMarco. But whereas DeMarco espouses goofy, psych-influenced slacker-rock, Sagar’s muse is a bit more subtle, as evidenced by the lazy, delectable, discreetly funky electronica (often erroneously classified as “bedroom R&B”) that has become his trademark.

Sagar proves himself a master of that craft on Fresh Air, his fourth opus under the nom-de-stage Homeshake. For each of the album’s 12 tracks (bookended by two short instrumentals), he crafts a gorgeous melody and plays it on a loop, letting it soak into your brain until it permeates your entire psyche. The album plays much like a series of vignettes, offering intimate glimpses into the life of a young person who keeps regularly stoned on both love and other substances – and all the complicated emotions and relationship snags that accompany that life. Sagar soundtracks it all with a winning combination of quiet-storm instrumentals, bargain-bin yacht-soul synthesizers, and his lethargic, slightly strained falsetto (which sounds like a cross between the Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman and a more reserved, balladeering Prince). As he has on past releases, he effortlessly strikes a perfect balance between deep soul and incredible restraint. He incorporates styles of the past into his own distinct sound without merely borrowing them or resorting to pastiche or cliché.

The album opens with smooth, chill guitar grooves over a light and wispy synthetic beat as automated voices (literally) welcome the listener to the forthcoming experience. Then the percussion of “Call Me Up” starts its clicking and clapping, and Sagar instantly unleashes an irresistibly ethereal atmosphere driven by a woozy synth hook. “I can feel the pain within you,” he softly observes. “It’s turning your insides out/And filling you up with doubt.” The track depicts an idyllic young romance, wherein the two lovers are so connected that a sort of telepathy develops between them, and they each know how the other feels even when they’re in separate rooms.

Would that all human relationships were so simple. Throughout Fresh Air, Sagar navigates the troubled seas of interpersonal hecticism as he alternates between party-hopping and hanging at home, indulging in God’s sweet leaf. He rejects the advances of an unrequited lover over loop-de-looping synths on “Not U” (“Staring daggers, like you think that it could change a thing…Hope that this will be the last time that I hear from you”). The uptempo R&B jam “Every Single Thing” portrays a severe strain in communication, with bleak airport-terminal tones and striking chord changes accentuating the drama (“Thought it’d be easier/For me to think of her/I was dreaming when you spoke and not listening to you”). As many of us (Sagar, it seems, very much included) know well, it’s not easy to be a lover in this modern age of distraction, confusion, and uncertainty – and yet, we keep trying our best anyway.

Fresh Air also finds Sagar routinely demonstrating that he can establish tone and mood with the very best of them. “Getting Down Pt. II (He’s Cooling Down),” with its gently buzzing bassline and whispery drums, sounds not far removed from a Voodoo-era D’Angelo jam. On “Timing,” he uses a chilly minor-key synthscape to evoke the supreme ennui of his loneliness while whiling away the hours until his s/o returns home. As the weirded-out, glitchy outro sets in, we as listeners come to the consensus that lazing around the house has never been – and may never again be – this gorgeously dramatic.

It’s the second half of the album, however, where we start to behold the true depths of Sagar’s mastery as a musician and arranger. He’d like us to think he’s not even trying – the breezy grace of his arrangements certainly make it seem so – but deep down, he’s a fussy sonic perfectionist, striving to find the exact right combinations of sounds to illustrate the moods he envisions.

Pretty much any song on Fresh Air could qualify as a standout track, but high among the ranks stands “TV Volume,” which finds Sagar’s guitar purring funkily over a razor-sharp groove, the drums repeatedly start-stopping in time. It’s a subtle, sensual kick in the ass that’s so understated, it’s almost devastating. Immediately succeeding this quiet beauty is yet another standout, the robotic, pure-sex-exuding “Khmlwugh.” Descending chromatic synths hover atop steadily tiptoeing bass and a clap-trap beat as Sagar unfurls his mantra of “kissing, hugging, making love and waking up and getting high.”

And so the magnificent sonic journey continues to its serene end. The title track, a subdued, six-minute slow jam, is colored by sweet, silky guitar strums over the faint sound of a swirling wind. “So She” sounds more than a little like 50s/60s lounge-pop with a dash of bossa nova, like something Stevie Wonder, Caetano Veloso, Astrud Gilberto and Fagen & Becker might record after smoking a few together in the studio. Closer “This Way” is Sagar at his most unabashedly yacht-rock; he croons about chilling out at home with his main squeeze as shivery percussion and delicate, goofy “night-life” keys that rather deliberately recall Paul Davis’ “I Go Crazy” meander in the foreground. It’s a great summation of what Sagar does best – using snippets of the past as a soundtrack for snapshots of the present. “Come and sit and stay a while,” he breathes. “You can relax, it’s me/Feeling slippers on the frozen tile/So cold, living comfortably…”

The charm of Sagar’s scrappy yet immaculate concoctions is boundless – simple elements are expertly combined to form something truly grand. He weaves magical, intimate universes out of his guitars and synths, creating a listening experience that’s equal parts soothing and compelling. It’s certain to serve as the backdrop to a THC-haze-coated makeout sesh between young hipsters – and I mean that as the highest possible praise. Here’s to Homeshake’s most thrilling and intoxicating effort yet, and here’s to the further sonic triumphs certain to form in its wake. (8.6/10)

Homeshake

Fresh Air

Royal Mountain/Sinderlyn, February 3, 2017

Produced by Peter Sagar