American Football-Paradise Rock Club 5/22

American Football didn’t necessarily sound perfect in Boston last night, but the band sounded like one that’s still wrestling with themselves to carve out new paths. Opening with “Silhouettes,” a new tune of theirs that features concert bells, the band came out swinging, which made the mix a bit glassy.  Something about the clang of chimes and Mike Kinsella’s go-to guitar effect clashed, but as things settled down the band achieved their trademark warmth and seemingly melded the lessons learned in the making of LP3 with the material that put them on the map.

“Honestly?” in particular felt more poised and confident than the original recording, with buoyant, bursting guitar work. This of course could be a product of the live setting, but we can imagine what those few original shows might’ve been like back in the day.  Of course “Never Meant” was a perfect sing along moment, and the extended trumpet interlude before “The Summer Ends” felt otherworldly.  Again, hard to say what exactly is new for the band, but between the contrast of Steve Holmes’ jangly sounds and Kinsella’s prickly guitars, and the solidly confident drumming from Steve Lamos, their instrumental chops were a constant show.

The encore was perhaps the cleanest, most full-circle moment of the night as the LP3 numbers felt fully fleshed out alongside the classic “Stay Home.” “I Can’t Feel You,” with its gloomy ‘oohs,’ assisted by Sarah from openers Pure Bathing Culture (who also did a perfect rendition of “Uncomfortably Numb” earlier in the night) achieved that glacial thickness that makes their third LP so beguiling. Then, the rest of Bathing Culture showed up for a wholesome redux of the “Heir Apparent” children’s choir, before cathartic repetition of the lyric “That’s life it’s so, so short” released us into the night.

On the whole, what really made the night was the fact that it flattened their hiatus. After adjusting to the stage and warming up a bit, each song very much stood on equal ground.  They sound like any band working to truly challenge themselves on their third album, not like one that’s capitalizing on cult status with a bunch of retreads of their former work—a remarkable feat for a band that once felt lost to cult status.

-Donovan Burtan

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Big Thief-UFOF: Album Review

Big Thief makes music that feels close from the jump. Adrianne Lenker’s singing conjures images of the microphone fitting somewhere nicely between her teeth and guitars occasionally sound plucked from your own membrane—matching lyrics that should be relatable to anyone who’s ever remotely been involved with some version of ‘the woods.’

Yet, there’s still an evasiveness. Whether the pronunciations falter a bit in Lenker’s haunting croon, or the imagery remains focused on one particular detail that feels detached from a more substantial story-line—“Jennis in my room?” well, what are they doing there—making meaning sometimes falls on the listener’s shoulder.  Their latest album is called UFOF after all, which quite literally pairs something unidentified with something familiar; serving as the perfect metaphor for music that pairs the kinship of playing hide and seek amongst nature and the incomprehensible nature of death.

Having gradually built cred on Saddle Creek records, Big Thief are clearly ready for more world building with their bump up to 4AD. Whereas older tunes like “Sharksmile” and “Mary” felt cut from the ‘best of indie’ cloth, UFOF serves as a more whole experience. It is a thick swamp of sounds, some terrifying, others crushing, and still others purely openhearted material to wrap oneself up in.

Opener “Contact” tweaks nervously. Though Lenker begs for intimacy, the general feeling is slanted towards dread: “wrap me in silk, I want to drink your milk.” After more disturbing calls for “sinking,” and the body horror like: “she gives me gills/helps me forgive the pills,” the whole song ruptures into terror with a distant scream and impossibly raw guitar line. The title-track that follows pivots to warmth, however, with Lenker imagining a friend taking her off on some sort of emotional journey. This type of flow is par for the course here. At any moment, there’s a complex array of emotional tones and maybe you hold onto one specific affectation.

“Cattails” pairs nostalgia with swaths of a specific place, an “open window,” those plants at the side of the road, whereas “Open Desert” looks at disruptions of the home: “The white light of the living room/Leaking through the crack in the door.” And again, these songs are paired with lots of ambiguity.  The lyric: “After all my teeth are gone/after all the blood is drawn” is spoken with such delicacy that you start to feel like death is some old friend.  Not to mention the sonic details which lift this music up. Towers of piano reach here, and crunches of life bring you down into the earth there. Lenker’s nebulous, androgynous vocal approach bends into all these spaces making a their singular sound rife with life.

“Orange” is a maybe a candidate for the heart of the work. Only accompanied by guitar, it stands out, and Lenker for once doesn’t name her counterpart in the song and simply speaks to ‘her.’ Lenker explores body and flesh as well as the details of their memories: “she kneels down and holds the frozen dove/the moon drips like water from her shoulder.”  This again is what UFOF is all about–the way someone can be full to the brim with so much familiarity and yet still unknown.  Lenker thinks about this unnamed character, and though they’ve been close enough to tangle limbs, one day they will die and Lenker can never know what that will mean.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Rico Nasty-Anger Management: Album Review

Rico Nasty’s voice is a weapon.  Sometimes grainy and raw like a hardcore singer, elsewhere easily overpowering her instrumentals with auto-tune croons, if nothing else her discography is a testament to her ability to draw all the attention in the room in a versatile way.  If her debut album took a wide lens at this strength, Anger Management is more a focused study in rage.

The songs are short and snappy, beats apocalyptic, and rhymes almost never delivered without blood curdling intensity.  Opener “Cold” is scruffy firebrand rapping, with a mission statement chorus: “none of these bitches cold as me.” “Cheat Code” features horror movie strings and cascading rhymes, “Hatin” thrives on electric ornamentation to a more old-school sample, and “Big Titties” clinks and clanks along with buoyant features from Baauer and EarthGang.  Fully produced by Kenny Beats, who specializes in this deathly electro blend, the pair’s chemistry is impeccable.

Of course, the project isn’t entirely one note: “Sell Out” is more warmly introspective like the singing that dominated Tales of Tacobella.  Still, the hallmark of this mixtape is the carefree intensity that burns on for the first string of hits.  At 19 minutes, the mixtape tends to feel like a start of something rather than an artistic peak or the peak of an artistic era, but Rico Nasty continues to grow and hopefully this knotty music energy will continue with each new release.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Aldous Harding-Designer: Album Review

Aldous Harding gives you thoughts to ponder.  Like the splatter-paint way she tosses vocal melodies in different colors onto her canvass of small instrumental devices, she throws out lyrical ideas that the listener must then piece together.  Designer is a vaguely evocative world that maybe could fade into the background on first listen, at least outside of some of the catchy numbers, but rewards deeper reflection on what it all means.

Sure, Harding leans into absurdity on occasion.  One song opens with the question “what am I doing in Dubai,” and closer “Pilot” as a whole can be particularly incomprehensible: “I wish it was white/But it needs blood for the new erection.”  Aside from these lyrics that rupture, however, certain ideas seep into her language throughout the work.

One recurring focal point is the idea of childhood perspective and how that creates tension with jaded adulthood.  Single “The Barrel” features a character who essentially knows how the magic trick works and is not interested in seeing it, but Harding speaks constantly about finding that childlike awe again.  “Do not lose your youthful eyes” she instructs on the title track and elsewhere depicts a literal conversation with her younger self: “I took my inner child to a show/he talked all the way home.”

This then relates to a larger theme of temporality–though with time we grow and change, we are constantly in conversation with different versions of ourselves. The simple contrast of the title “Fixture Picture,” for instance, sees the tension of a moment in your life and a person tangled with you more long term.  In it she plans a meet-up with a friend who’s moved on for now: “And how’s the wine where you live? Bet it’s expensive/One day we’ll share a glass together.”  Though the tune begins with a ending of sorts (“As the memory kisses you goodbye”), the moment is never truly gone; whether a person’s memory remains a part of us or we actually manage to reconnect, the people we interact with remain a part of our life.

Tunes like “Weight of the Planets” and “Heaven is Empty” look at the big questions of time, growing up, and death with a more confounded or terrified glance, but the overall effect of the album is rather playful.  Harding’s videos for this album have gotten a lot of traction, and though they can look rather daunting with their specific color patterns and angular motions, they also give you an out with their sense of humor–a perfect metaphor for a provocative work that also doesn’t seek to get you down.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Beyoncé-Homecoming: Album Review

It’s easy to make a case for Homecoming as the peak musical moment of the decade. Like other decade highlights such as A Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or To Pimp a Butterfly, and of course Beyoncé’s own Lemonade; Homecoming is a visual-oriented experience with that leans towards high concepts and narratives. But perhaps a bit more than these others, it avoids leaning on its concept too heavily and feeling very tied to this decade.

It presents Beyoncé as the heady auter that the 2010’s pop star was intended to be, but it also presents her as the classic pop system virtuoso of dance and performance, where little is needed outside feeling awestruck by the pure spectacle.  It is the best Coachella performance ever, in a time when the festival is more regulated than ever. This pyramid-stage remixing of her whole discography is perhaps the most flawless run of Beyoncé songs in a row that you can take home and listen to, with a vocal performance so transcendent that it sounds super human.

Aside from the constant stream of sheerly impressive performance, the impeccable planning makes the energy feel like one big climb.  The horn entry of “Crazy in Love” should make anyone making music today green with envy, but you can kind of hear how Beyoncé paces herself a bit.  She doesn’t coast through by any means, but she remains a bit constrained in the verses and the chorus is cushioned by her backup singers.  There’s also a dance break and a half-speed break down following the first chorus.  This way when she sings the absolute piss out of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” or closer “Love on Top;” or starts the quick, undeniable run through “Hold Up,” “Countdown,” and “Check On It” before diving into “Deja Vu,” it subtly hits a bit harder.

The arrangements are also intricate and mostly pretty damn huge, but they don’t become supremely over-the-top or over produced, so it can feel like a balm listening at home, which is kind of what’s compelling about the combination of this album release and the Netflix film to accompany.  Aside from actually being there, the peak experience is watching it all happen with your living room TV turned way up.  But somehow, the album offers something a bit different.  In headphones, you can bear witness to the ways her horns punch into “Drunk in Love” to prop up the chorus without overpowering Beyoncé; the intricacy with which stepping and clapping pulls us into that glassy “Diva” sample; and the way “Single Ladies” effortlessly interpolates a phat New Orleans parade break down without missing a beat. This is capped off by a bonus track, Beyoncé’s rendition of classic “Before I Let Go,” which expertly meshes her modern sensibilities with that undeniable classic horn line.

It might be a bit harder to pin an exact instant to it, as her most dedicated fans already streamed it live in full and now, though freshly mixed and mastered, it doesn’t have the surprise, sudden impact that her two big secret album drops of the 2010’s had. However, Beyoncé has built an astounding live track record and with the addition of documentary footage to illuminate the insane preparation between her giving birth and return to performing, this document illuminates the ferocity with which Beyoncé created this victory lap.

Beyoncé also tends to have a bit of a wall between her and her audience. Sure, she’s penned lyrics referencing their theories, but she doesn’t do interviews anymore, and pretty obsessively controls the narrative around her, but here that is shed to an extent.  She quite literally thanks her Beyhive on stage, and with the accompaniment film seemingly involves us in her personal life.  Of course, the whole experience is directed at the black community and black women in particular, but it also feels like a personal note to anyone who wants to listen.  Perhaps that what the 2010’s were all about.  It was a time period where specific identities (queer, black, queer and black) that may not have been previously accepted in mainstream culture were directly addressed by the people who experience them and more than any of them, Beyoncé transcended this and felt vital to all.

-Donovan Burtan

10/10

Billie Eilish-When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Album Review

Pop music when it’s good tends to make us feel like its auter is being unabashedly themselves. Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream feels like Perry being capital K Katy for all of its unabashed feminine glory, but Perry’s stumbles stem from moments that feel oppressively Katy.  Katy is loud, she is endearingly too much, on the nose in her hope.

This works with a cheery hot pink ode to California, but when you’re singing a Dolly Parton song next to Kacey Musgraves at the grammys, it’s easy to over do it. Sure, “Firework” is pretty algorithmically designed for the fourth of July, but it soars, which is mildly less true of something like “Roar,” another tune that takes one thing that is loud and louds about it.

Billie Eilish feels like she’s too much Billie right now. Her album is over stuffed with unnecessary and annoying flourishes. From the jump, she takes out her invisalign braces and laughs maniacally, later their will be a “duh” to punctuate a song section—she’ll sing along to her bass line then laugh off how dumb it is and unabashadly sing the following near-sighted lyric: “I just kinda wish you were gay…To give your lack of interest an explanation/Don’t say I’m not your type/Just say that I’m not your preferred sexual orientation.”  Though part of her brand is “I don’t care but also REALLY care,” and these self deprecating ruptures in the album experience accentuate that, they also place it as childish and carnivalesque.

This translates to whole songs as well.  An “Oh So Quiet”-core fake-jazz redux about Xanax sounds like a ostentatiously weirdo pop answer to the most surface level trap music of the day; and the baby voice+ukelele answer falls somewhere between the emoji movie and the whole “baby shark” situation.  Admittedly, it could be a bias problem. Her music comes across as if Eilish is the chesire cat in a Tim Burton film and maybe if I was a film critic, I would be the one who doesn’t like Burton.

I can see how there is a place for that, and the ways in which Eilish could be considered radical.  Especially considering the usual slant towards pristine femininity that women in pop music usually must embody.  Some of the best material stems from her subversion of this box.  Opener “bad guy” skews Eilish, her gender, and her demons into a smoldering pummel, and a tune like “bury a friend” with its zombie-like vocal delivery sound disturbingly chill.

But for now, I feel like the childish aspects tend to limit her scope and date her rather specifically to today.  The predecessors and audience are very obvious, and though Billie Eilish is great at being uniquely herself, I’d like to see how she matures to offer something a little less sarcastic and blatty.

-Donovan Burtan

6/10

 

Looking Ahead: 4/26

Aldous Harding-Designer

Aldous Harding’s videos operate similarly to the way Solange’s do for When I Get Home–they’re inseparable from the sounds.  Both works avoid narrative, and many of the songs phase in and out of specific ideas and theses, but with the very specifically conjured visual aesthetic, they make a bit more sense and offer more straightforward emotional warmth.  Of course, Harding has only released two videos for Designer so far, but the album stands for itself outside of that visual context, each tune a world of tiny sounds building acres of landscape together.

Buy it on itunes

Read my track review of “The Barrel”

Rico Nasty-Anger Management

Though only 19 minutes long, Anger Management feels necessary thanks to its relentless pummel.  Save some singing on her final track, these tracks are jam packed with quick jabs and risky, electro beats.  Anytime Rico shows her face it feels great, but this mixtape feels loose and carefree while losing none of the rage that infected her debut album last year.

Buy it on Itunes.

-Donovan Burtan