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

7.5/10

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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

7.5/10

 

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

8/10

Kelly Moran-Ultraviolet: Album Review

I don’t remember exactly how, but Kelly Moran’s single for this album came up on my feed and I just clicked on it.  I later learned that she was an Oneohtrix Point Never collaborator, has been somewhat widely praised in the classical community and, honestly, the she played the piano.  

At the risk of grandstanding a la New York Times on Bradley Cooper, the core of music journalism is the idea that we can find a greater musical truth at the intersection of the real life experience of listening to it and an education on the process behind it or at least the context surrounding it.  In some ways this is impossible because so often we’re following along with artist’s careers for a long time and, in the internet era, we know what they’re up to. The “real life” experience is always an educated one and we loose track of the experience of simply enjoying a work as an unsuspecting fan might.  However, sometimes we still come across something that sounds good and gradually dig into how it was made and perhaps why it sounds so good.

Having gone through the traditional piano avenues–masters degree, traditionally composed contemporary classical album with New York Times support–Kelly Moran may be slightly more out on the trapeze wire with the process behind her first release for Warp records.  The album is built on an extended improvisation session that followed a moment of peace in nature and later recieved electronic treatments, a situation that is cliche to the point that Moran herself tends to refer to it in a self-deprecating way, but the result is detailed and sprawling, yet strikingly natural in its flow–certainly a product of the freedom to explore that Moran felt when making it.

Admittedly, there’s a bit of a feeling of sameness.  I almost get the sense that you could play Moran a 5-10 second clip from anywhere and she might not know exactly where in the record it falls, yet there are moments of resolution and tension.  Autowave opens with stagnant beauty, before the extended length of Helix sees the piece deal with more open space, allowing ideas to float out into the air and dance around each other before the quaking synths arrive and the energy peaks with furious melodic contours.  Water Music emphasizes the prepared feel of the piano as the strings clang around like wind chimes and In Parellel is stunning in its stark, high-range emotive melodies.

At first click, Helix reminded me a little bit of this one four-tet song where a stringed instrument figure wanders through a haze of rhythmic fog.  As we know from his infamous tweet about the process behind that piece, Kieran Hebden didn’t have a piano or a harp at hand for him to pluck out a melody and then edit to hell so I wasn’t really thinking along the lines of Moran being classically trained.  It sounded like an eerie ambient-leaning electronic musician almost like Kelly Lee Owens with a more abstract rhythmic drive, but still felt firmly rooted in electronic music.

By the end of my first listen of the whole album, after I had learned about Moran’s backstory, I managed to reach through the synthesizer fog and immerse myself in the sound world enough to come out the other end feeling like I was listening to a piano record.  Maybe there’s some piano graduate student out there cringing at the idea that a music journalist would’ve listened to any amount of this and not known that a piano was involved, but this album is, in essence, an ambient record in a lot of ways so the turn-your-brain-off first listen is still valuable.

This is not a record about the micro-melodic movements, rather it is affective in its big picture motions and moods.  Ultraviolet is a place where motion never stops, but it doesn’t tell you where it’s going and the entire texture is flattened into one breathing mass.  It operates like a world-building electronic music opus so maybe the listener shouldn’t be thinking about a piano the whole time.  Maybe the work is equally valuable to those concerned about the process and those concerned about finding bliss.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Robyn-Honey: Album Review

Pop must be legible, but not boring; youthful, but mature; pressing, but timeless.  There’s a new Carly Rae Jepsen song out in the world that obviously strikes all of these markers and although Jepsen seems to be building a brand which has a song that rather directly addresses each and every emotion (sic) with an emphasis on massive, world collapsing crushes, and Robyn escapes on-the-nose lyricism and song form when it comes to album making; the beating heart of her new album Honey expertly describes an emotional state that all of her listeners are likely familiar with.

“Because It’s in the Music” is about a break-up song that brings all of the feelings of the recovery back, but Robyn still puts herself through it night after night for cathartic or possibly regressive reasons: “I’m right back in that moment/And it makes me want to cry.”  It’s been mentioned in meme after meme that sad folks and depressed teens tend to bathe in sad music when they’re sad–the question being what does this do? Does it help, hurt?  The answer may be unclear, but music that makes one continue to stew in the emotion they already feel certainly means stagnation.  Honey is triumphant in tone, but it’s not an album that necessarily moves on, rather embracing the pain that comes when you know time will be the only healing mechanism, and fighting hard throughout.

Us music critics are probably a bit to quick to jump on the “break-up album” train, nonetheless the whole album feels addressed to an ex.  The title track sees Robyn aware of the fact that this person is not healthy or necessary, but the two are sweet for each other and she tempts them.  This idea that the good parts of the relationship will be enough to revive it permeates the whole work.

On “Human Being,” she begs “don’t give up on me now;” aptly titled Baby Forgive Me sees the lyric “Just let me make you smile again, baby/I know we can work it out.”  Even the last song on the album, with the lyric “never gonna be broken hearted/ever again” doesn’t completely signal relief.  It feels like Robyn didn’t necessarily deal with the problem at hand, rather pushing it away to convince herself of resolution.  Whether it be the sex or some other comfort of the relationship’s past, Robyn certainly never gives up the hope required for real closure.

For the most part, the sonic world matches the desperation in the lyrics.  Robyn sounds like a sole warrior fighting through a storm of attack synths.  Especially on Missing U, it doesn’t completely feel like a song with parts, Robyn feels suspended, stuck in one melodic line.  There are moments of escapism, however.  Most obviously on Beach 2k20 which almost feels like lounge music as the lyrics toy with the idea of vacation.  Robyn’s m.o. has essentially always been that the dance floor is actually sad and the happiness has always been performative and when she does get away from the obviously dark material here this becomes no less true.

Now approaching 40, Robyn will admittedly probably not be adored by 14 year olds–maybe because they’re all listening to Post Malone–which should at least hold some weight in the pop world, but her work remains youthful and vital, able to address simple topics with mature depth and also leaving time to escape formula and dance the problems away.  Honey is another testament to her time-tested brilliance.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Empress Of-Us: Album Review

In interviews, Lorely Rodriguez has explained that she wanted to shift her esoteric alternative work of yesteryear into a place of more direct clarity, even going as far to call her previous work “emotionally isolating.”  Working with new producers, Rodriguez has certainly achieved a different sound, but the feel is still a bit skeletal. It’s pop music, but it certainly wouldn’t speak on the radio next to the likes of Dua Lipa or even The 1975 who are both a bit more supercharged in the sonics department.  There’s exceptions, single “When I’m With You” is lush and arresting with strings to complement the stunning chorus, but on the whole Us feels transitional as the artist grows from dark alt-R&B to a more brightly embellished pop figure.

Older Empress Of cuts such as “Water Water” didn’t depend on a whole lot of equipment; the climax of the song sees distant vocal “aws” complemented by a dark and punchy synth lead, production that’s much easier to get away with darker music.  If you’ve fooled around in audio software you know that mimicking the cacophony of Beach House or the grotesque atmosphere of experimental music a la Yves Tumor is a bit easier than trying to achieve the Phil Spector wall of pop sound–I mean when Kanye went really pop he was working with a pretty massive production team.  When it comes to molding her production chops into something a bit more joyous or brightly toned, the effects can fall flat.

“Timberlands” sees Rodriguez deliver coy lyrics over a simple sequencer and drum machine foundation.  The lyrics are fun and quirky: “Don’t need another man/I don’t wanna shake your hand/I don’t care or give a damn,” but the rhyme scheme accompanied by the simple major chord keyboard sound, makes for a bit too simplistic a feel, almost like a nursery rhyme.  When it comes to the cresting chorus, it’s hard to not feel like the song should’ve been given a more lush treatment.  Then there’s “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” which sees a climax not unlike “Water Water,” but the less catastrophic production climate makes the synth line feel too simple and flat, almost computer generated.

I’m not trying to say that Empress Of will never be good unless it returns to its roots, a narrative which I find generally tired, but Us won’t be the document that affirms her status as a pop titan.

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

Neneh Cherry-Broken Politics: Album Review

I don’t know if I would call it the most interesting producer/pop-elder combination right now, we live in a Bjork (feat. Arca) society after all, but Neneh Cherry working with four-tet is certainly a mark of her ability to stay with the times and explore ideas on her own terms without falling into trendy mainstream trappings.  Someone who’s career started with buoyant 1989 MTV hip-pop hit Buffalo Stance and intersected with Michael Stipe in 1992 and Tricky in 1996, Cherry has always been able to stay on top of the times in a tasteful way and 2018 is no exception.

For perspective, Tom Morello is the same age as Cherry, but his latest album sees contributions from Steve Aoki and Portugal, The Man.  Wouldn’t refer to those choices as indicative of someone with their on the pulse, but complemented by sounds concocted at the same time as 2017’s New Energy–an album that captured many on both the fan and critic side of music twitter–Broken Politics sees Cherry airing ideas about her identity and power amidst the political climate of the day with the mature, artistic backdrop of Kieran Hebden.

Perhaps the most quotable line is Synchronized Devotion‘s “it’s my politics livin’ in the slow jam,” which refers to the continuously vital “the personal is political” argument as Cherry’s idea of her own identity becomes increasingly political in these trying times.  From her understanding of her past “Don’t live for nostalgia/but the impact of everything resonates,” to her understanding of her innate ways of living and thinking “My name is Neneh/March tenth/Water sign,” seemingly innocuous ideas are brought under a new light.

This “slow jam” idea is also important considering Cherry’s career path. Someone who’s released roughly 5 projects in a near-thirty year history, Cherry is an artist who takes time to breathe and stew over ideas, rather than prolifically pump out material.  With the times increasingly looking utterly devastating, many folks who may not have had anything to say previously are feeling the need to get involved–perhaps the politics are Broken because everyone is feeling the need to get involved with the daily onslaught of devastation.

The album is primarily dedicated to similar material to this slow burning personal dissection, with the exception of one pop moment–the bouncing horn feel of “Natural Skin Deep.”  Perhaps the lack of stand-out material will not nail it into the history books, but Neneh Cherry remains a mature musical force both of the moment and out of time.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10