American Football-American Football (LP3): Album Review

If the original American Football record was all about capturing a moment–graduation, the end of an era, a relationship–their latest moment is something new—the marathon of adulthood, where one falls on old habits, some inherited, and the effects the grindstone of aging has on those around us–a reflection of the band’s current epoch and, well, age group.  With a twinkling, and beautiful new sound, the band matches this new reality. Though not their first comeback record, it is the one we will remember, one that honors who they are while providing a new perspective on all the things that make them great.

So what’s the core of the band? There’s the occasional trumpet, the mathy landscapes, lead singer Mike Kinsella’s soft almost-tenor vocals—formerly reaching towards notes they couldn’t hit to expertly nail the aspirational tone of youth and now perhaps reaching backwards, towards one’s younger years—and the band’s moody tones which parse the difference between the somber nature of minor and the satisfaction of major.

On that basis, this is an American Football record, but the main innovation here is in the studio polish. These songs achieve a glacial thickness with all sorts of bells and whistles. Whether it be a huge slew of vocal tracking—especially true on the features—a rogue xylophone set, or some welcome slowdive-esque guitar sounds—the band is not settling down by any means.  Now when a major chord comes in, it comes in crashing, and the moody jam sessions of tunes like “Every Wave to Ever Rise” or “Doom in Full Bloom” gradually become colossal in a way they never could have before.  It’s not necessarily apocalyptic, rather fleshed out about as extensively as possible without becoming over-produced.  Sure, some will miss the scrappiness of yesteryear, but American Football has always taken a tasteful dose from both Emo’s scrappy origins and ambient and shoegaze’s pristine textures, and this accomplishes just that.

The running lyrical themes also equally honor the band and look to the future.  Of course there’s talk of lovers, the realization that someone was never meant for you, the classic falling out of phase moments, but there’s much more speak of time and aging, creating a new type of introspection.

Rather than awkward 20-something lack of experience (see: “Goodbye with a handshake, Or an embrace, Or a kiss on the cheek…possibly all three” or: I’ll See You When We’re Both Not So Emotional), here Kinsella wonders constantly about the relationship between his actions and his father’s. Most directly with the lyric “I blamed my father in my youth/Now I blame the booze,” but then there’s the utterly fascinating incorporation of a children’s choir on Heir Apparent where the lyric “Heir apparent to the throne/the king of all alone” fades into the mix over time.  With lyrics addressed to his father and children sort of in the background, the band poses questions about how our individuality interacts with our upbringing.

This is a true masterclass in wearing “20 years since our break-out” as well as “complete make-over” on one’s sleeve.  American Football know who they are, but they are certainly not done with us yet.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

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Nilüfer Yanya-Miss Universe: Album Review

Admittedly Nilüfer Yanya isn’t offering a completely new perspective on musical texture or what a song can do, but Miss Universe does more than simply pass the test for “singer-songwriter given a bit of a budget for their real debut.” With Yanya herself offering a bunch of goofy interludes to narrate her speak of self worth and its intersection with validation from others, the album offers a unique glance at its auter. Unpredictable, wirey melodies, build and caressing alongside synths, guitars, and horns that draw on everyone from Aaliyah to Blink-182. It’s sure to be relatable to anyone familiar with those musical references as well as those plunging into the depth of the teenage years today.

“In Your Head” certainly acts as a bit of a thesis. In it Yanya tells a potential love interest that she cannot act until she hears an exact description of how they feel.  Though she doesn’t play this manic type of character throughout, the songs paint a vivid inner dialogue about the growing pains inherent to that time where you have to figure yourself out as much as those who interest you.

“Safety Net” might just be the heart of the record where Yanya seems to find the upper hand in a battle of whether or not she deserves more out of a partner: “I’m not trying to be someone/I’m not/So stop trying to be someone.”. It’s undercut by her self doubt “I’ll find nothing instead/because I’m not good looking,” but that tug and pull between doubt and worth represents the tension between the moment you realize you have to leave and the moment you actually do it.

Closer “Heavyweight Champion of the World” also explores the tension as Yanya pleads for herself to realize that the one she’s chasing will never truly commit. Then there’s tunes like “Heat Rises,” which more metaphorically address anxiety or “Melt” which more devilshly wish for another’s pain.

These songs are well accomplished sonically, though I can’t help but feeling like there’s a little bit to be desired in terms of singularity. Not quite, but if you ignore some of the musical flourishes, sax solos, there’s an inclining of “this product was manufactured to please indie rock and R&B markets,” whereas something SZA’s Ctrl more endearingly combined the two. But overall, Miss Universe is a worthy debut from someone with potential to speak to a generation.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Looking Ahead: 3/22

Huge release day today, should have American Football and Nilufer Yanya reviews done this evening because they were on first listen all week, but these three can all be streamed today as well!

Ex Hex-It’s Real

Ex Hex may be a band with a pretty sharp and specific brand, but their new album also has a rich emotionality, both delivering their timeless bangers and more muted introspection.

Laurel Halo-DJ Kicks

Aside from her frankly ridiculous bag of musical references (you can here every era of electro as well as free jazz in there), Laurel Halo’s specialty is using small sounds for massive impact. This completely applies to her DJ sets. Though she gets up to a heafty rumble, as opposed to the continuously tiny areas of albums like Dust or In Situ, big sections of this album build momentum with miniscule motions. Around the 40 minute mark you’ll be walking everywhere like it’s a runway, but the path to get there might just be the most interesting feature.

Check out my review of single “Sweetie”

Jenny Lewis-On the Line

Jenny Lewis’s solo music has always bridged the gap between a rugged, American sensibility and open emotional rawness.  “Redbull & Hennessy” showcases that as well as the depth to the production here.  It’s got a certain burn too it in the distant pianos and the cavernous drums–studio gloss does everything right throughout her first album in 5 years.

-Donovan Burtan

Lizzo “Tempo (feat. Missy Elliot)” Track Review

Lizzo is uber talented, but I can’t say I completely get behind all of the results.  She can undeniably dance, rap, sing, command-a-stage, but I promise you, you don’t actually want a flute solo on Ellen and “Juice” plainly has Bruno Mars syndrome, sounding like a Target-curated version of the 80’s.  “Tempo,” on the other hand, clicks perfectly. If you asked me yesterday how a song with the two of them should go I’d probably basically describe what happens.  They both rap with utmost emboldened energy over stripped-back but electric production.  They don’t try to out-rap each other but they sound utterly perfect alongside one another, meeting each other halfway on the quest to sexual empowerment.  There’s no over-stated hook, no overwrought break-down, it’s perfect.  I prematurely find the album to be too much, but certain things can’t make anybody mad–this track should be one of them.

-Donovan Burtan

Concert Log: Lucy Dacus at Columbus Theater RI 3/19

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Few artists are better suited to working with a fire-power-heavy backing band than Lucy Dacus.  She can certainly capture on her own–the show was book-ended by two unreleased tunes played without a band–but her tunes tend to twist and wind to their conclusions leaving plenty of space for rambunctious climaxes sporting massive cymbal crashes and noisy guitar flourishes to highlight her relatively grounded vocal style.

A band also allows certain influences and sounds to come through a bit too.  Mentioning that she was from Richmond, Virginia, I wouldn’t say that she quite lives in the south or fully has any sense of twang, but there’s a bit of alt-country or blues swagger sitting in the background of tunes like “Timefighter” or “Yours & Mine.”  Of course there’s more straightforward chugging rockers–her cover of “La Vie en Rose” particularly got the crowd moving– but for an artist who sometimes sounds a bit too broad-strokes stylistically, the live show alleviates this with more pronounced details to the tunes.

In terms of thematic material, Historian was largely a break-up album, but it also took time to ponder the question of what it means to write a narrative and look at the grand scheme of things.  There’s kiss-offs to those that wronged you, but also tunes that look at individual action and try to see the viewpoint of another.  The quiet and droney title-track, which ended the show literally asked “If past you were to meet future me/Would you be holding me here and now?”

Sometimes these questions can lead to apathy or aimless anger and Dacus can channel that into something productive, or at least recognize that avoidance is part of life too.  The final, unrecorded tune of the night was a perfect send-off that found empowerment in allowing its character to get angry at a deadbeat father.  The Lucy Dacus project is remarkably mature and as its writer continues forward, it feels like she’s only honing that weapon.

-Donovan Burtan

Laurel Halo “Sweetie” Track Review

Though a major risk taker–bar none, Dust is up there in the rankings of most ambitious album of 2017–Laurel Halo has never abandoned her expert dance floor taste buds.  Whether it be sneaking a tune like “Moonwalk” onto an abstract vocal thesis, or yielding a pounding Boiler Room Set, the ability to get people moving has always been in orbit and “Sweetie” is perfectly on the pocket.  Sporting pounding bass work right out of the gate, the tune passes seven minutes bye with one stroke of a paintbrush. A metallic snare-adjacent sound dissolves into a steal drum like melody before collapsing into an impossible-to-pin-down ambient texture; the bass kicking into higher gears the whole way through.  It feels a bit like a reduced jungle tune, or a slightly more loose answer to Robert Hoods’ minimalism, and naturally, wholly of Halo’s eclectic world.

Kicks Set Drops Friday.

-Donovan Burtan

 

Jamila Woods “Zora” Track Review

If Jamila Woods’ first real ‘moment’ was “Sunday Candy,” HEAVN, the debut album that followed, was a slightly more multifaceted exploration of the wholesome identity that gave “Candy” its familial tone.  Still, there was a little bit left to be desired from the work that offered a lot of healing energy with little edge or bite.  “Zora” immediately rectifies any lack of attitude or confidence with a beat sporting a bit of electronic buzz–and in this youtube studio version, a distorted guitar flourish–to complement Woods’ bolstering delivery.

The song is sung from the perspective of Zora Neale Hurston, a black author who became one of the most successful of the early 20th Century on the back of her winning charm and charisma; you can read about her entrance to the 1925 Opportunity Magazine Literary awards on her website.  The opening lyric sounds almost like her mission statement: “must be disconcerting how I discombob’ your mold.”  Each tune named after a significant, discombobing black figure, Legacy! Legacy! promises to be a confident record that’ll buck expectations and safety for an emboldening experience.

-Donovan Burtan