The 1975-A Brief Inquiry to Online Relationships

The dream of emo is alive in The 1975.  No, they’re not a band that makes music rooted in the 80’s DC hardcore scene, rather in the vein of Morrissey or Rainer Maria, the band wants to appreciate the beauty of the world and the glee of youth, but can’t bring themselves too.  They’re happy and sad at the same time.  They’re idealists who call their new love interest a few too many times on “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME,” then cry over a sappy guitar ballad.  They use the internet enough to know what “Thank you Kanye, Very cool” means, but they’re also paranoid about what a dead man’s facebook means to him and the world.

“A Brief Inquiry into Online Relationships” is a ridiculous mess.  It features a tantrum of fake soundcloud rap, Roy Hargrove’s (RIP) signature horn counterpoints alongside a gospel choir, and the dramatic drawling vocal delivery of Devon Welsh, but that’s what the internet is innit.  Everything is a joke, but we’re all too anxious to talk to people outside.  Everyone wants their hot takes to be taken seriously, but we also gave birth to poptimism.

Certainly a band that’s going to take an approach in this vein runs the risk of drowning in its own concept and forgetting about craft, so let’s set a few things straight.  Matt Healy is a magnetic vocalist with range to cover a slew of different emotions all without losing his bolstering melodic style.  There’s the desperate yelp of “Love it if We Made It,” the schmaltzy coo of “Mine,” and the pop punk bliss of “Give Yourself a Try.”

The band delves into a lot of different genres and they don’t take themselves super seriously, but they’re not doing gentrified styles that sound fake in the vein of Sublime or 21 Pilots. In other words, “Sincerity is Scary” isn’t showing up at church like they belong there a la Nick Jonas, rather it fits more into the lineage of respectful collaboration a la
Bowie or Talking Heads.

The other thing is the context of the album, the band is very into the “highest of highs vs. lowest of lows” dichotomy as tempos bounce between blazing and sluggish and moods dot the line between “can’t get out of bed” and “riding a roller-coaster.” “It’s Not Living if it’s not with you” is a pretty stark shift in gears that really bursts when you get there in the work–not to mention the fact that it’s about heroine addiction (“collapse my veins with the things that you do”).  So, the band is able to maintain a specific aesthetic lens even though it might at first seem a bit overly scattershot.

Outside of “livin,'” the lyricism is hamfisted usually to a funny degree, but with a good amount of faceplants.  There’s textbook type of stuff like “you make me hard/but she makes me weak” and more nuanced propositions like “Take something and then make it brand new/Try and do anything fourteen times.” “I found a gray hair one of these days/like context in a modern debate I just took it out” will maybe conjure some eye-rolls, but it’s harmlessly fun.  “Inside Your Mind,” on the other hand, is more actively harmful.  The lyric: “The back of your head is at the front of my mind/Soon I’ll crack it open just to see what’s inside your mind,” being firmly on the creepy side.

In terms of my listening experience, I feel like the songs are all well fleshed out and rife with emotion that I relate to, which is a change from their second album, which was overly ambitious, taking away from the power of singles like “She’s American.”  There’s certainly a lot to them worth dissecting critically, however.

It’s an issue in music that so often we stake our support behind acts already on the fence of problematic–especially in the archetype of the white-male genius, but we’ve certainly seen critically-lauded acts like The 1975 before.  Kanye’s biggest hit 10 years ago had the lyric “You can be my black Kate Moss tonight,” and now, 21 Grammys deep, we’re mad that his biggest single of the year was an absurdly gross horn-dog anthem, which we probably should have seen coming.  Neutral Milk Hotel never came out with another album obviously, but maybe if the project was explored a little further we would’ve had to come to terms with the fact that one of the most famous cult albums ever is entirely comprised of borderline creepy notes to Anne Frank.

I’m not going to use the word genius and I’m not going to say that their artistic values aren’t flawed in a way that may lead to missteps in the future, but for now The 1975 are pretty damn good at speaking to millenials in a self aware way.

-Donovan Burtan




Earl Sweatshirt-Some Rap Songs: Album Review

Maybe you don’t believe in the legacy the same way certain social media bros do, but it’s undeniably strange to imagine where some of these Odd Future dudes are right now and where they came from at the turn of the decade.  Frank Ocean and Tyler, the Creator have grown up fabulously in different lanes; Ocean barely ever shows his face except for occasional albums and singles fusing classic pop, indie rock, and R&B all under a soft-ambient lens.  Tyler, on the other hand, is more willing to embrace fame with his Camp Flog Gnaw festival, Youtube bits, and constant release schedule showcasing his obsession with jazz and bedroom-pop instrumental sounds (and, of course, the obligatory Death Grips style anger here and there).  There’s a variety of narratives in this group alone, but they showcase how fame can support artistic innovation once an artist has earned fans that will follow them down new paths of maturity.

Earl kind of splits the difference between Frank and Tyler; he’ll tour and he wants to release music regularly, but he’ll also take his sabbaticals from the world to deal with his mental health and escape fame.  Having lost both his father and uncle around the same time this year, both of whom are mentioned on the album, Some Rap Songs itself comes after a cancelled tour, which cited depression as a factor.  The album is like nothing he’s ever done and some may say that it’s nothing like rap has ever done–at least not with Columbia records backing up the distribution.

Having been heralded as a virtuoso on mixtapes in the past, Earl has looked to looser, more experimental zones with his proper album catalog featuring brooding, dark production. Here, the man is no holds barred, rapping in disorienting fashions over woozy loops of warping vocals, hiss, and and broken instrumentals.  Capping the work off with the joyful sounds of relative and jazz trumpet legend Hugh Masekela, Sweatshirt appropriately looks backward to the nuanced ideas of spoken work and free jazz to push himself forward to uncharted rap territories.  It’s experimental, but natural; electronically configured analog; old as time, yet of the moment.

Lyrically there’s the usual knock-the-breath-out-ya-chest one liners and couplets.  I’d reckon that “Stuck in Trumpland watching subtlety decaying” is the most politically poignant lyric of this era and other legendary moments litter the work: “peace to my dirty water drinkers;” “peace to every crease on your brain;” “don’t think he said pro violence/but it’s gon’ be your problem if he did though.”  Earl also showcases his maturity.  There’s nothing violent or misogynistic–perhaps some would find “There’s not a black woman I can’t thank” a bit performative–but the work is more concerned with legacy and growing up than any shock value.

If there’s any sort of theme it’s family.  In an interview with Craig Jenkins, Sweatshirt mentions that he featured his father on the record in an effort to come to terms with their relationship.  His mother’s voice is featured layered on top of his father’s, speaking about how certain aspects of their family relationship were strained, but she’s thankful for the support and camaraderie her family has given her. Earl raps about his parents all over the place, generally striking that same emotional chord: “Growin’ from my father, bitter to his touch/Now I’m solely honor” and “Since birth mama raised and burped me, I ain’t changed/I’m a man, I’m just saying that I stayed imperfect.”  Knowing that he never got to reach any sort of closure with his dad, and hearing the addition of the last two tunes “Peanut” and “Riot!” makes for a heartbreaking listen.

The greatest accomplishment comes in the texture.  The lyrics, song-form, and sonic environment of the work are all intrinsically tied.  Every piece is teetering on the edge of possibility constantly pulling the listener in without telling them where the thing is headed next.  This may make the prospect of singles somewhat impossible and perhaps isolate him from the rest of the music world, but Earl still sort of has that Odd future pop sensibility in him, knowing exactly what words to emphasize how, to make them speak out and stick to the brain.

Maybe the only thing 2018 about it is the length, 25 minutes, but the music is so dense that it might as well be hours long–Sweatshirt has always been brilliant and this might be his most timeless and rewarding accomplishment to date.

-Donovan Burtan


Tomberlin-At Weddings: Album Review

“Feeling bad for saying ‘oh my god,’ no I’m not kidding”

Sarah Tomberlin doesn’t necessarily center her debut album around a loss of faith, but the songwriter pens a variety of coming of age moments that followed a sheltered youth–from simple moments such as hopping on a plane for the first time to more intense personal strife worth grappling with.  The album is personal and exceptionally well crafted, both wearing its bedroom origins on its sleeve and transcending them for a lushly dynamic experience.

Written and recorded around Tomberlin’s hometown of Louisville, the work sounds intimate, but incredibly fleshed out.  Each song is given a specific sonic imprint, some striving for big, impactful moments and others taken down to a dark smolder.  The opening track sees backing vocals and layered instrumentals give the light guitar strumming and cathartic lead vocals a decent amount of punch.  “Untitled 1” follows with enough recording magic to give the guitar a large-room like quality, but the vocals here are left essentially alone, starkly contrasting the bright melody of the first track.

Closer “February” is a similarly small sounding as simple guitar sketches bathe in reverb and Tomberlin emphasizes space between her vocal phrases.  However, the stand-out material on “Seventeen” and “Self-Help” comes closer to pulling off pop flourishes with warm string arrangements, looped and layered vocals, and atmospheric guitar work.  In isolation each of the tracks would likely be labeled “quiet,” but within the work there’s enough contrast to keep the momentum going.

In terms of lyrical material, some of the more memorable lines are as dark as the more smoldering instrumentals–named “At Weddings,” love is probably one of the most used words on the album, as Tomberlin discusses the pain and guilt that can underpin the word for those, especially queer women, who grew up around the church.  “There is a war in my mind/because I wanted to be near you;” “love is mostly war, and war what is it good for;” and “the heart is a heavy coffin where I lay down everyone I love” are relatively par for the course, eliding darkness with the feeling. However, as the “oh my god” quote indicates, Tomberlin can also pull off a wryly dark sense of humor here and there to make the work avoid feeling caustic.  “You always say that look so tough/but it’s because I’m tough” is bluntly emboldened, whereas “I just don’t trust people who like me” is smartly self-deprecating.

“At Weddings” is a capturing work that showcases Tomberlin’s developed sense of production and songwriting.  Certainly not a debut to overlook.

-Donovan Burtan




Julia Holter-Aviary: Album Review

Julia Holter is basically that kid who paid a little bit too much attention in music conservatory, seemingly got everything she could out of each lesson, and retained the entire story of Western music.  Remarkably her work remains approachable enough for any curious listener, making for an accessible collection of albums that meld together various academic styles of poetry and music with an eye on indie rock and pop-oriented emotional swells.  Spawned from a long synth improvisation with thoughts about the current political climate running through Holter’s head, “Aviary” is her starkest effort in world building to date.  It’s a throbbing collection that sees peaks and valleys, pain and pleasure, and finds catharsis in personal relations and the intersection of ancient history and the unknown future.

It’s probably important to preface the work as something that doesn’t demand one’s attention for its 90 minute run time, especially not on first listen. Holter stresses in her mini-documentary about the work that she wants people to listen to and relate it however they please–taking breaks is strongly encouraged and there’s moments of quiet in contrast to those more apocalyptic that may accompany a drive around town or those final moments before sleep.

Opener “Turn the Light On” feels like a monumental occasion as drums and strings clatter beneath Holter’s emboldened cries, a final “So what” gets swept up into an echo chamber as the whole sound world warps through time. The album is littered with many moments of quiet intimacy, however, where Holter pulls the sounds down to abstract levels and silence plays a role in the way everything breathes.

“Chaitius” doesn’t entirely fall into this categorization, but it serves as the crux between the bursting of the opener and the ambiance of “Voce Simul.” Opening with a baroque sounding small ensemble with trumpet, upright bass, and strings, the tune eventually sees Holter’s vocals creep in with sparse (as she calls it “hocketing“) soundings of the word “joy.”  Somehow a strong rhythmic meter comes out of this collage of ideas ending the tune on a powerful climax.

“Voce Simul” takes after the abstract beginnings of “Chaitius” as Holter nearly whispers a line of poetry one word at a time (“Voce simul consona obviosa deliriosa”), in an ancient language that serves more as a sonic flourish than a lyrical communication.  As the moody keyboard prodding and distant trumpet sounds build, Holter switches to english and wonders about the historical connotation of day-to-day activities: “I always find myself dead, from a fourteenth century/How did I forget I’m part of the dust?”  Never to leave a listener bored, Holter does provide a big swell in the middle of the track as vocal syllables echo against one another, but unlike anywhere previously on the album, atmosphere is the name of the game here.

Holter also mentions in her documentary that language followed music and admittedly it’s hard to grasp the lyrical ideas, other than the prophetic repetitions of “I Shall Love,” from simply listening to the thing–especially considering all of the play with different languages, but there’s a great deal worth exploring.  Coy lyrical clippings litter the work. (“Why claim control like gods,” “Slurping on the words I heard from the wretched zone,” “Idea storms are once a year”); and Holter achieves more structure on tunes like “Les Jeux to You,” which speaks about missing someone (“Blue is it that I hope you’ll say”) and then dives into nonsensical, manic lyrical delivery (“I see I no I yes I you I ace I hi I say I low”) to poke fun at the image of the hysterical ex-girlfriend.

“Aviary” is huge and confounding and might take years to truly digest, but I don’t think it needed an extra round of editing.  Holter gives each and every moment life and it’s worth an afternoon of gradual exploration or a walk through a park.  Set some time aside if you can.

-Donovan Burtan


boygenius-boygenius: Album Review

You don’t see it everyday that three songwriters who’ve garnered recognition in their own right decide to dive into a band together. It’s more often the opposite wherein bands with multiple singers and songwriters grow apart and head in different directions, but maybe that’s where the boygenius moniker comes in.

Given four days of studio time, the members of the band became each other’s yes men, convincing each other that all their ideas were good, and valid—you know, the way society tends to tell smart young men that their ideas are worth pursuing, in some cases leading to a lifetime of entitlement. Rather than being a three headed monster of headstrong, entitled men; boygenius are a group of women songwriters who probably naturally avoid dominating the conversation and find confidence in communal assurance rather than walk in the door already sporting it. Over the course of the six songs, three voices all flow in and out of the spotlight making for a perfectly balanced elision of the talents at hand.

The songwriting differences are key.  Although all three generally get tossed into indie rock, Bridgers’ contemplative and snarky folk leanings don’t necessarily encompass the emo inflected primal yell of Baker, and Dacus is the most guitar-centric of the three.  You can almost hear where a song turns from the initial idea of one of the songwriters and then gets ornamented by another presence at hand, or enveloped into some sort of group sound.  “Salt in the Wound,” for example takes the slow burning rock form of a Dacus tune like “Pillar of Truth,” but when the guitars begin to roar, Baker’s signature belts help lift the tune into the stratosphere–the last moment of the song is the gleaming highlight of the work as both emboldened voices lean up to their respective high notes over the massive stew of guitar sound.

Single “Me and My Dog,” on the other hand is inline with the Bridgers brand of humor, longing for a simple life rather than one spent stewing over heartache: “just me and my dog and an impossible view.”  Again the climax gets molded into something new with the assistance of Baker and Dacus, the two combining to create a supportive pillow for Bridgers’ cries.

Perhaps the through-line of this album, and the solo work of each artist, would be their lyrics.  Yes they’re generally sad, but there’s always specificity in each of them.  On her debut, Baker centered a song around “Appointments,” giving a clinical approach to escaping depressive tendencies; and Dacus talked about a “Night Shift” to avoid seeing an ex-partner.  Bridgers’ most quotable line is probably “emotional motion sickness,” which showcases the visceral reactions some people can give us.

Here, the three arts continue coin terms and find nuanced ways to ground their emotional states.  Whether it be the escapism that “Souvenir’s” can yield or the weird associations with the word “Home” that come with the young 20’s, the EP constantly offers ideas that are relatable, but also impossible to imagine anyone else executing the same way.

At six songs and 22 minutes, the EP calls for more; but it’s proof of the viability of the project.  Boygenius could easily produce a couple phenomenal full-length projects and by the sounds of it they probably will.

-Donovan Burtan


Eric Church-Desperate Man: Album Review

It’s reductive to say that Eric Church longs for simpler times, a type of nostalgia that pops up in a lot of country music throughout the decades of the genre, but a lot of flyover or “redneck” states folk feel like they have a chip on their shoulder in this MAGA era.  The current president didn’t win the popular vote, but he happened to have enough enthusiasm behind him to win the states he needed too.

Church didn’t vote for him, he didn’t vote at all apparently, and I think he represents the strain of people who couldn’t back what they saw as the establishment, but also didn’t want to be branded as the uneducated sheep who thought Trump would actually fight for them.  Church is of the Middle-America group that longs for a day where they could simply show up to the polls and vote republican without wondering if that candidate could veer into completely racist, sexist, or fascist territories.

Of course, the privilege to “not really care about politics” is something that has never been awarded to people whose sense of humanity has been consistently under attack, but I think we can still understand where Church is coming from.  On a song like “Hippie Radio” he sings about hearing rock and roll on the radio and singing along without a care in the world.  Growing up in North Carolina, Church was removed from some of leftist connotations that might have come along with hippies and their songs, he didn’t think about what these stars might have been advocating for other than maybe a vague sense of freedom.  By even invoking the word Hippie, I get the sense that he, and his family members, probably felt like what they had to say was all fluff.

Now, I’m not really one to cry about “identity politics” and their “divisive nature” because people of disenfranchised identities have always had to think about microaggressions and other forms of disregard for their position in the world, however, I can certainly see how Church might long for a time where he could just do what felt right without someone breathing down his neck about the details of his speech—where he could digest radical music without it feeling like an attack on his straight, white-male identity rather, a general attack on “bad folks in government.” A time where he could get together with a “Jukebox and a Bar” and not care about all the crazy inventions that city folk where thinking up.

Then there’s the alienation that must’ve come with the autobiographical detail that many have mentioned about Church in the context of the release of Desperate Man.  After the Vegas shooting, which took place at a festival Church had played at, Church spoke out against the NRA’s control over members of our government and recieved substantial backlash.  Going into the record, Church is alienated from both the right and the left in a sense as he can no longer not care and when he does speak about something that seems like common sense he also can get into trouble as many of his fans would be inclined to assume that he too is fully on board the MAGA train.  Certainly there’s limits to how much of Church’s life and the current political situation creep into the record, but the album grapples with Church’s foundation, the ways he’s always known and lived, and what exactly constitutes power and threats to person-hood.

The album opens with a conversation between two snakes, the copperhead and the rattlesnake, both of which garner a bad reputation due to the former’s habit of preying on the weakest and fighting for no reason.  Eventually, the Rattlesnake decides to side with the Copperhead and its unethical ways for the sake of filling its belly.  Not exactly the most thinly veiled metaphor, but effective nonetheless as Church showcases the problem with American politics when people are willing to side with a man who blatantly cheats the system and blames easy targets for our country’s problems rather than siding with people under attack and focusing on the greed of the rich.

It’d be a bit much to call anything on the album poignant, but the simplicity and non-specificity allows it to not drown in self importance or the lofty ambitions of sa band like say Muse.  Veering into more typical zones for the blistering “Hangin’s Around” and the sweet “Heart Like a Wheel,” Church spends enough time in his comfort zone too. Knowing your limits is an aspect of any songwriting gift and Church knows that he couldn’t pull off a big concept album trying to take down the NRA.

“Some of It” and “Monsters” again lightly touch on generalized political ideas as Church discusses the lessons of life and how they’re learned.  Having recieved online backlash for his comments, I’m sure the lesson that the “monsters aren’t the ones under your bed” is pretty autobiographical and applicable to the fact that governments can get scary rather quickly so there’s always the question of who the monster really is.

Then there’s the more personalized political ideas of the title track and “Solid,” the former proclaiming Church’s status as a desperate searcher, always looking for answers in new vices and ideologies, before he comes home to the place he’s always known on the next track and realizes the strength of his foundation.

Somehow removing the record from its moment and listening to it in a more face-value fashion may lend it to sounding simply a well written country album.  One that grapples with relatively standard topics such as the past, growing up, learning lessons out in the world, and coming back home. One that dabbles with smoldering, bluesy quiet sounds and dives into bucking-bronco guitar solos where appropriate.  Still, Church sounds in tune to a particular sect of the United States that feels a little lost, not quite sure how to act in a confusing political era, but convinced that things can get back to the so called glory days.

-Donovan Burtan



Vince Staples-FM!: Album Review

Vince Staples can just rap his ass off, so it shouldn’t necessarily come across as a surprise that he’s reinvented himself several times into his career at the age of 25.  He doesn’t produce so maybe some would imagine him sitting around just ready to throw rhymes at the wall over whatever gets handed to him, but the sonic, visual, and lyrical direction he’s aiming for is always clear, concise, and fully formed.  Whether it be the gothic drear that underpinned the catchy sensibilities on Summertime ’06 or the lawless electronic sprawl of Big Fish Theory, Staples always sounded in the driver’s seat, making every detail flow immaculately.

FM! is relatively straightforward, tackling the culture of pop-rap radio mixing, DJ-ing, and even commentary in a short, flowing opus.  The quick run-time sounds like an excerpt from a pop-art world where Staples holds the pen, deciding who the big names of the moment are and even crafting a hilarious call-in mini-game where a contestant doesn’t know his name.  Hooks and features abound over minimal, pounding production primarily from Kenny Beats who’s clicks, beeps, and 808’s replace the shields of electronic lightning from BFT.

The album continues a thread of fearlessness in Staples’s choice of collaborators.  Staples doesn’t care if you think he’s going too commercial or too experimental, if he digs SOPHIE and Ty Dolla $ign he’s going to jump on a track with them and the songwriting always seems to come together due to Staples’ adaptability.  People like Ty and Kehlani bring a vocal chops and melodic melodies to the mix, but a tune like “Outside” still jostles on with the help of Staples’ enthusiastic refrain.

The lyrics are of course snarky, but not mindless.  Whether it be candid, off the cuff remarks about Staples’ childhood neighborhood: “we gonna party till the sun or the guns come out,” or a more solemnly tuned song like Tweaking, which discusses coping mechanisms and the struggle for mental stability that comes with violence: “When Jibari died was off the porch for homicides/Then when Hefe died, I bought some things to pass the gas/But when Johnny died all I had was shows booked.” Staples infamously said lil Bow Wow was his favorite rapper and came under fire for dissing the 90’s gangsta rap boom and by hiding this sentiment in an overall pop-rap oriented work he showcases the cruelty which comes in wanting to hear the work of “real ganstas” with blood on their hands and darkness in their past in consumable music.

Listening to the type of station Staples is referring to this week, some of the big items were the hook for single of the moment “Mo Bamba” spliced all over the place; verses from rhymer of the moment Cardi B’s growing bag of features; and the in-between eye catching grace of Drake’s rap singing.  Here, “Mo Bamba” would be a tiny snippet of Tyga effortlessly bouncing over an impossibly late-night club beat; Cardi B would be Earl Sweatshirt’s 15 seconds of fleeting gravitas, and Drake would be replaced by Staples crowning himself the zeitgeist king of this world he’s created.  Although the work is short, it’s merely compressed and Staples somehow has involved himself with enough material to keep an FM station going for a lot longer than 25 minutes.

-Donovan Burtan