Priests-The Seduction of Kansas: Album Review

Unfortunately, some of my reservations with the title track to this album do expand their reach to much of the material here.  At 43 minutes in length, the work almost feels like the band literally stretched out their songs.  Rather than punchy, quick tempos, the band is burning slowly, leaving lead singer Katie Alice Greer out in more open spaces, which can lead to humdrum lyrical moments.

Though some of the classic Priests lyrics like “And Munayyer says Netanyahu’s actually the best thing” and “consider the options of a binary” aren’t exactly evasive and artsy, in their context they feel like important calling cards, here the effect is a bit more corrosive with lines like “it’s your movie that you wrote, starred, and directed in/I may be your muse but I’m necessary” or “No agency or complexity/Not a single feelin’ inside of me” feeling overly on the nose in the more spacey musical territories.

There’s also entire songs that honestly feel kind of cruel.  Titled in reference to a book essentially about how Fox News made Middle America the main audience of the right wing, the album sometimes seems to rear its teeth at the people themselves rather than the huge conglomerates misguiding them. Yes, Youtube is probably the most toxic version of discourse to ever exist, but “Youtube Sartre” points its knife at the libertarians arguing for apathy more than the platform itself, which is more worried about regulating queer content than hate speech.

Of course, not all of these moves are really new; the title track of their last album was also slow and quiet, but its emotional openness made it feel more like a ballad than anything else.  Here, their snarly jabs at dumb Americanisms never really stop and the spotlight doesn’t ever seem to be on the interior of the band.  There are exceptions–“Jesus’s Son” and “Good Time Charlie” fly by and feel more lyrically nuanced and less cruel, but the album feels like a band between their punk roots and a larger rock storytelling ambitions.  I think they’ll figure out how to do their thing in a new way, but it doesn’t quite feel comfortable yet.

-Donovan Burtan



Billy Woods and Kenny Segal-Hiding Places: Album Review

Ranking Billy Woods projects, at least in recent years between the likes of Paraffin and Known Unknowns, is kind of impossible. His flow is so singular, sonic environment so vivid and rich, that each moment feels carved out of the same holy stone. Hiding Places is fueled by some of the same anxieties of his past work, speaking about gentrification and the livelihood of the poor, the kinds of societal limits that keep economic mobility at bay, classes and races segregated, and bad habits going.  It’s a perfectly balmy listen that may not get stuck in your head, but will keep you coming back.

“You’ll never get no answers/not for the stuff that keeps you up” he spoke on Known Unknowns in 2017, and here, there’s other forms of stagnation amongst daily struggle—in one particular passage he talks about how poor people don’t exactly get their mail forwarded to them because they can’t pay their bills, a song is punctuated by the ATM voice telling you that there’s only $10.22 in your account, these types of things prevent growth. Then there’s lyrics about how tough it is to bridge the gap between this reality and those who might legitimately be able to afford tickets to see Nas play with an orchestra at Carnegie Hall: “no man of the people, I wouldn’t be caught dead with most of y’all.”

Still, his rhymes are typically a bit difficult to unite to one single theme. There’s a line about the emotional lifting of depression; one that showcases the ways in which Woods’ community is forced to eat itself: “tape ain’t even out yet how the hell’d they get a copy;” and another that uses the image of tugging on a joy stick when you don’t have money to speak about an unprivileged life: “life is like a couple of quarters you either have them or you don’t.”

Like the way his rhythmic delivery spills over bar lines and wavers between exacting and loose, his words spill over themselves, ideas constantly developing. Turning on his work is like hopping on a treadmill that’s already moving—you gotta just get right up to speed. “Mosh through the orchestral pit” opens the work, and then his stream of consciousness is off.  The lyric: “too scared to write the book, took it, put in the hook of a song, no one listened to it” showcases his borderline word association methods were each line blooms into new space—it’s MF Doom in its rhyme scheme and spoken word in its imagery.

The metaphor breaks down a bit when you think about the moments after that initial jolt of needing to get up to speed with the treadmill as Woods maintains surprises with each footfall no matter how many times you listen. You cannot know all the words to a Woods verse. You cannot remember the conclusions you drew the last time, there is only forwards on his timeline.  Now, Kenny Beats does give certain hallmarks to the album. There’s little guitar licks here, a disembodied voice there. Like Earl Sweatshirt’s hypnotic loops, there’s a raw darkness and a perfect chemistry between production and vocals, but it’s to be expected.  Woods’ treadmill is always going; approaching it is all on you.

-Donovan Burtan


Weyes Blood-Titanic Rising: Album Review

Natalie Merling has previously built a world out of beautiful pillows as Weyes Blood, but her latest effort is more plush than ever. Evoking the cosmos in more than just lyrics, Titanic Rising is a monolith of galactic electronic tones, flourishing Philip Glass strings, and occasionally bellowing vocals. Though Merling’s voice can still be a little bit one note, her emotional senses are more eclectic than ever giving the listener doses of hope, and heart wrench; humor and irony in equal doses. It’s not so much packed with singable hooks and melodies, but these slow burning lamentations encapsulate the puzzles of life and love, and finding yourself in there somewhere.

To a degree, Merling plays the role of the hopeless romantic. Single “Everyday” strikes this rather directly with lines like “true love is making a comeback” and a chorus reading “I need love everyday,” but she’s also hopelessly devoted to giant cultural items–“Movies” frames her as a sucker who can’t resist a good blockbuster–and enamored with the world–“Wild Time” offers a somber answer to “Oh, What a World.”

She’ll add in a dose of existentialism for “Andromeda,” which sings to an empty galaxy, full of nothing to peak her romantic interest. Then on “Mirror Forever,” the concept of empathy creeps in through the lens of a break-up. Noting that no one can ever fully grasp your emotional experience, Merling still accepts that her experience has led to a place where she needs to move on and leave someone behind in the process.

If “Will I ever be satisfied by a partner?” is the connective thread, “what does that mean about connection?” is next on the docket, and “maybe not knowing is ok” is the final conclusion. Or A final conclusion as Merling also sends us off with “Picture Me Better,” which yearns for a world where she isn’t so stunted by these questions and able to just breathe.

The grappling nature of the album is achieved rather effortlessly, however, which makes it digestible and even fun. These may be brooding ideas but they aren’t brooding tunes as the listener is enveloped delicately and openly. Titanic Rising puts Merling in league with the likes of Fiona Apple and Mitski who find the depths of life’s meaning through nuanced exploration of interpersonal relations.  And like those two auters, she comes across as the conversationalist–a philosopher your can see yourself in.

-Donovan Burtan


PUP-Morbid Stuff: Album Review

Though I mentioned in my “Kids” track review that pop-punk is one of those genres where a song is either rad or not rad, not so much something that needed a bunch of explanation, PUP’s Morbid Stuff transcends that idea—it transcends its genre and everything the band has done up until this point, easily achieving one of the strongest rock records of 2019. This LP presents a band that’s both more effective at storytelling and infectious melodies, more emotionally piercing and relatable; tighter than almost anyone touring right now.

The beating heart of the thing is certainly “Scorpion Hill,” the band’s most complex and arresting song yet. It paints the tale of a man suffering on the train as his world falls apart around him, losing his job, and he wondering who he is and how he can care for his child.

After the slow acoustic intro, the band stirs up a semi-typical PUP tune with a driving verse and slow chorus, but the road-map isn’t so simple. The lyric “and I’m working the night shift, ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL” bursts to the surface acting as another, achingly slow hook, before the band kicks it back into gear, eventually screeching to a halt with “and i can’t pretend to know how this will end”—no big rock ending, no victory, just uncertainty. It’s Springsteen in its sprawl and emo in its darkness as “I found the gun, it was buried beneath piles of clothes, in the room where your son sleeps,” and other lyrics like it add nuance and depth to the broken protaganist.

Though the band still wields anger towards exes and others, as “Scorpion Hill” showcases, this is a band more apt at tackling the circumstances of their lives, and the inner strife that makes living so hard. “Full Blown Meltdown” most obviously points its gun at lead singer Stefan Babcock, going as far as pinpointing the pointlessness of the music itself: “I’m just surprised the world isn’t sick of grown men whining like children.”  Throughout, the band is self-critical. The titular phrase itself refers to the kind of weird shit that pops into Babcock’s head, he poses the proverbial “why am I like this?” on the very first song and that kind of thinking underpins the whole work.

When launching digs at others, the band is also funnier and more effective than they’ve ever been. “See You At Your Funeral,” is basically “yeah I’m better now than when we were together, also go fuck yourself,” but it remains relatively light in comparison to some of the over-the-top anger of their last album. Babock quibs about how he tried vegan food and started buying organic, a goofy 2019 version of a glow up.

Luckily, this music doesn’t become too weighty. An algorithm couldn’t have imagined a more PUP song than “Kids” and the finale “City” fittingly mirrors the close of their last album “Pine Point,” with the idea of “this place is tough” again sending the listener off.  So, PUP still knows themselves they’re just more grown-up, but not so grown up that they’ve lost their heart.

-Donovan Burtan


Show Me The Body-Dog Whistle: Album Review

It may sound contradictory to say that Show Me The Body’s Dog Whistle both takes a minimalist turn in the style of Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight and maximalizes in the fashion of Refused’s The Shape of Punk to Come, but the band threads together the polarizing spaces of lush addition and minimalist subtraction, somehow taking up less time to do it.

Opener “Camp Orchestra” probably does this in the most straightforward way. Tiny plucked textures gradually build into metallic mega riffs, the song at first shrinking down the band’s sound before letting it rupture at the seams, but the 28 minute listening experience is highly unpredictable (and maybe even a bit volatile on first glance). Small rhythmic devices clash with raucuous screams, and odd ball Dennis Lyxzén-esque speeches crunch alongside bassy rhythmic textures.

Now it’s important to separate the notion of maximalizing an artist’s aesthetic approach and simply adding noise because it’s not as if Shape of Punk… has no dynamics. Rather, the core of what the band is constantly ruptured out into new spaces. In the case of Kill the Moonlight, Spoon took ideas of rhythm and sound down to their most basic components and literally shrunk their achitecture.

So, for Dog Whistle, the textures may shrink at the beginning of “Not for Love,” where punchy distortion stabs combine with an open high-hat to get things going—resembling the rhythmic reduction of Spoon’s “The Way We Get By”—but then the band will toss in a proggy rhythmic breakdown in the middle of the tune, which resembles the clash of catchy guitar riffs and driving rhythms of Refused’s “Summerholidays vs. punkroutine.”

This makes the album relentlessly exciting and dynamic. Within the first 10 minutes, they tackle openly tuned rhythmic zones, and apocalyptic breakdowns, and of course the obligatory anti-capitalist rant. Later, a giant distorted bass seemingly single handedly drives the blazing pace of “Drought.”. “Forks and Knives” comes crashing to a halt for a noise interlude, before distorted guitar and bass swirl around bloodcurdling voices at even more of a blister. “Now I Know” is perhaps the slowest burn, the band never quite building up to their typical texture, rather electing to let a different vehicle transport their momentum as lead singer Julian Cashwan Pratt’s voice gradually grows from a paranoid mumble up to a belting screech.

I will say that this isn’t me trying to place the album as the pinnacle of rock history, the moment that did it all, but this is a great example of how a band can constantly think on their feet. How can I make this quiet section more drastic? How can I subvert what I would’ve done on my last record with this song? Dog Whistle presents Show Me The Body 2.0, a muscular vehicle that will likely continuously place their core sound through time warps and cheese graters over their next few releases.


-Donovan Burtan

Jenny Lewis-On the Line: Album Review

You really get a picture of the influence Jenny Lewis has on millennials when she casually drops a lyric like “mercury hasn’t been in retrograde for that long” as a quasi-get-yourself-together mantra.  Deemed the “the poet laureate of AIM away messages” by Pitchfork’s Jenn Pelly, Lewis has seeped into the way people of a certain age talk and the way some of them make music.  Whether it be Kacey Musgraves’ and Pistol Annies’ casual mentions of drug use, or some of the brutally open hearted work of the likes of Waxahatchee or Snail Mail, Jenny Lewis was part of a sea-change in indie rock over the course of couple decades that allowed for many of the women making music today in the indie sphere to be both artsy and open-hearted.

On the Line is Lewis’ first album in five years and in certain ways it comes across as her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road.  Released when Lucinda Williams was 45, Car Wheels was her first album in six years after years in the studio tinkering with final instrumental arrangements and it’s now scene as her magnum opus.  Lewis is 43 and the same may be true.  Though there’s not some ridiculous story about Bonnie Raitt’s guitarist stepping into a producer’s chiropractic office and eventually adding the final touches on the album as was true for Williams, On the Line features actual drumming from actual Ringo Starr, String sections, and production from, I suppose regrettably, Ryan Adams.  Though not an album that radically changes Lewis’ DNA, it’s her veteran-era opus that showcases her ability to elevate her work long into a ridiculous career.

In terms of life events, the album also follows a split from Lewis’ partner of twelve years.  I’m not sure if it’s a directly autobiographical nod, but on the standout title track, Lewis pretty candidly calls out a lover who left her for a younger fan: “before you let her under your sweater tonight/listen to my heart beating on the line,” and throughout the record Lewis references relationships gone by.

Scene-setting “Heads Gonna Roll” paints vivid imagery of specific moments.  There’s the guy on a different artistic wavelength (if you will): “a narcoleptic poet from Duluth…we disagreed about everything from Elliott Smith to Grenadine;” the one who maybe didn’t show up for you in the way you wanted: “Even though we were just friends/I think of us as bookends/And I’m gonna love you ’til I die;” and the rich guy off cutting deals instead of being with you “Riding on a private jet with you/I hope the sycophants in Marrakesh make you feel your very best.”  These are the kind of cutting remarks that maybe you wouldn’t say a few years down the line, but they capture the kind of savagery that comes from a wound still fresh.

If there’s an endearing immaturity in the lyricism, there’s not a shred of it sonically.  The record isn’t so much expensive sounding, but classy and warm.  From the distant pianos to the limitless depth to the drums, the thing coasts on like a western highway.  Admittedly there’s some weaknesses here and there–the real knock-outs come from “Heads Gonna Roll” to “Hollywood Lawn” and the last two tracks–but it’s still very much worth plenty of full listens.

Like Slowdive’s comeback, On The Line showcases an artist capitalizing on a zeitgeist she helped create.  Jenny Lewis is hugely important right now and though this isn’t some massive rekindling, it sees the artist doing what she does best and embodying a lane she carved out.

-Donovan Burtan



Ex Hex-It’s Real: Album Review

Ex Hex has the potential to be the most consistent act in rock.  They have a sound that expertly parses new territories and classic 80’s power-trio vibes and they feel like a perfect band that isn’t going anywhere.

It’s Real is an expert expansion of the low stakes, blissful music of Rips.  The raucous riffage of “Tough Enough” and “Cosmic Cave” should take fans of the band back to the last we heard from them and hopefully offer a knock-out introduction to some college radio shows for the next couple months.  Meanwhile much of the lyricism takes on more nuanced emotional qualities.

“Want it to Be True” simply hopes for reciprocated feelings, but “Cosmic Cave” itself takes on a queer teenage relationship, both capturing carefree love and the hope for “another world,” free from stigma.  “No Reflection” takes queer stories into the territory of vampires–the opening lyrics are “it’s one thing to be real/then another to pretend/this mystery you feel/that you thought would never end” like COME ON–and I’ll let you take a guess about “New Dimension” too.

Ex Hex could make an album next month or next year or next decade and it’ll probably still make me want to dance at their live show.  I can’t say that their career will be comparable to the shape-shifting of say Sleater Kinney, but god will they ever make a bad song? Doesn’t seem to be in the forecast for this listener.

-Donovan Burtan