Steve Gunn-The Unseen In Between: Album Review

Having been all around the underground block, Steve Gunn’s Matador records output is certainly his most clean-cut and streamlined iteration.  Sporting atmospheric grooves that smolder and bolster, The Unseen In Between and Eyes on the Lines are by no means boring, but rather than seeing guitar chops experiment with texture and form, they serve more as platforms for Gunn’s stream of consciousness-ish lyrics that mull over stories and landscapes.

If there’s a palpable difference between the latest and the last, it may come as a product of his change in recording strategy.  As highlighted in his Noisey interview, rather than meticulously arranging and performing the instrumental parts then adding vocals, he recorded as a band.  The energy and chemistry is more forward as the songs start small and gradually burst at the seams with Gunn’s voice leading the charge.  Coupled with some slight developments in melodic chops and more direct storytelling, its a record that should appeal to everyone who’s supported his trajectory thus far, again providing a new glance at the musician.

The emotional crux of the project is “Stonehurst Cowboy.”  Whereas singles “Vagabond” and “New Moon” maybe continue Gunn’s love of imagery and raucous grooves, “Cowboy” is Gunn at his most emotionally naked.  Inspired by his recently passed father, the song weaves a tale of young, strong men who are left behind by time.  The homes where they made their impact on the world remain, yet the “faces are gone.”  Without being too direct, the chorus beautifully captures the emotional color of a masculine relationship as Gunn realizes that time will eventually take his father away though they may not necessarily talk about those types of things forwardly:  “Teach us right, all those steps/Before there’s nothing left/For all those cowboys in the world.”

Admittedly more cryptic, “Luciano” meditates on somewhat of a similar theme.  Speaking about another fatherly(ish) figure, Gunn mentions the man’s dependency on friends and religion, and hopes that when he’s gone, that he’ll have the same kind of support system: “I hear him howling with his friends/Sometimes it’s Jesus who he calls/And you just hope that they’re all/There for you, just like he was there for me.”

This sheds a slightly different light on the loose beginning.  The opening couplet (“It’s all right here on the floor/A sea of shadows by the door”) might refer to grief and “Roll the gate, turn your key/Unlock your golden song from me” maybe references how family visits can pull a lonely, aging person from the depths. “This is my first place…I’ll just hang and watch the light/Move slowly, with you” showcases how elders in communities become witnesses to time, both in the day-in-day-out sense and also in the year to year reality as younger folks grow up and leave the place, the changes in their appearance visible just as the changes in elements and season.

The rest of the album sports more direct songwriting and maybe showcases how Gunn will likely ease into the most mature portion of his career with more trademark chill jams.  However, the man’s not completely done navigating new emotional territory and the band playing is some of the best heard in his songwriter era.

-Donovan Burtan





Sneaks-Highway Hypnosis: Album Review

Constantly picking apart melodic and lyrical ideas into a self-referential stew of collapsing rhythms, Sneaks makes dynamic music that cascades through different zones.  It will inevitably be heard as post-punk considering that bass is the closest thing to a constant in the Highway Hypnosis environment, but just as certain bands like the Talking Heads and New Order took dance music as a muse for new wave, the album is lawless; a moody, cold energy the only constant between mechanical bass rhythms and crashing beats.

In terms of subject material, Sneaks is more about exploring sketches than painting a whole environment, which will likely turn off some listeners, but for those into Palberta’s sense of humor, or the classic Wire material, these songs will be laughed at and loved.

“Saiditzoneza” sounds like Sneaks made up a word to see what it would be like as a foundation block of a tune and then didn’t build anything on top of it.  “Holy Cow I Never Saw A Girl Like That,” is classic Sneaks, toying with that title to maniacal effect with the equally evil bass-line accompanying.

The album also sports sonic tricks equivalent to these lyrical quirks.  “A Lil Close” opens with a high-electro melody that could serve as a background for a Weeknd or Drake pop-R&B smash, but a knob suddenly gets twisted you’re left with a hollow rhythmic background for some more bass smothering.  “Cinnamon,” on the other hand is definitely melodically imagined, with Sneaks adopting a childlike awe between bouts of adult mumble–much of the details in the lyrics getting lost in the mix.

The highlights of the work are “The Way it Goes” and “Ecstasy,” however, and hopefully give a glimpse at the material Sneaks may be shooting for in the future.

The first is a hype track for an ambient action sequence in a made up movie with the lyric “and when the match-a-lit it goes up” and an ironic rap verse about skate boarding.  “Ecstasy” is spacier with lots of catchy materials dancing around each other.  Elongated syllables open for “running ’round the world with a planet of my own,” but by inflecting tidbits like quickly sung “I Don’t Wanna Explain” and “all I got is ecsta-sayyyyy,” Sneaks hints at a more verse-chorus-verse dynamic structure.

It’s good to hear sneaks do sneaks, but also sneaks can do structure–something that undeniably could’ve given Highway Hypnosis more buoyant energy from cover to cover.  Hopefully Sneaks the ironic rapper will have more for us next cycle.

-Donovan Burtan




James Blake-Assume Form: Album Review

Oh man this tweet is cringy:

The lyrical ideas of Blake’s latest album are kind of like his partner Jamela Jamil’s tweets about body image and beauty standards.  Are they generally healthy? Yes. Are they approaching important subject material in an interesting manner that provides a new-found depth and nuance? Uh, no.

Speaking of blunt and obvious tweets.  St. Vincent recently has this to say.

Again, not really THAT interesting but here’s the thing: tweets aren’t art. They’re just innocuous ideas or jokes, so at least Annie Clark and Jamela Jamil’s surface level tweets aren’t their life’s work.  They aren’t things meant to be experienced deeply and really thought about. They’re literally intended to make their reader understand them in 2 seconds so they can continue scrolling.

In the case of Blake, he’s a songwriter making an album and its wildly surface level declarations of love and growing up to dissect the toxic aspects of his masculinity are far too forward, lacking any sense of subversion, and resulting in an album that’s just boring.  

For him to manipulate the idea that “toxic masculinity makes men afraid to express their emotions” into “critics don’t like this because they’re afraid of a man expressing emotions” is the definition of confusing important topics with important art.  Blake’s idea of the situation would be appropriate if he tweeted that he’s depressed and someone made a joke about it. Rather, Blake spent an hour saying unartful things and some critics have thought that was not a good idea for a piece of ART.

Granted, critics have had a history of dismissing confessional music as unartful.  Emo has received a revision of its former ill-fated relationship with the press and many women songwriters over time have suffered with critics assuming that their music is 100% autobiographical content and dismissed it as quaint, but much of this music is far less straightforward than Assume Form.  

Personifying “happiness” as a sort of unpredictable but necessary person in one’s life, Mitski put her own artful-yet-relatable spin on depression to spark Puberty 2 and later used the idea of a crack baby, addicted to something it will never know, as another angle on the topic.

Here, Blake begins the album with serious keyboards then seriously states that he will understand himself so that he can be loved and then proceeds to understand himself so he can be loved, never really leaving the initial tempo of the album.

Sunny Day Real Estate in their hey-day tapped into the explosive and straightforward feelings of youth, but their songs went in 50 directions at once sporting manic guitar and vocal work to constantly rupture their forms. Even Jimmy Eat World’s straightforward pop-punk was inflected with the darkness that can come with being the odd one out.

There are moments where Blake questions things and inflects ideas aside from growing up and finding love.  Aptly titled “What’s the Catch” sports support from Andre 3000 and cascades into a tirade of clips and samples building into a pulsing beat to end off, but Blake’s own performance her lyrically is still dull: “We delay the show, we kiss so long…everything’s ghost now…where’s the catch?”  Which is maybe another way of looking at the album.  Though he’s certainly not as weird as he once was, James Blake remains solid for a few sonic tricks and pretty good at working with collaborators, but lyrically just isn’t holding his own.

In a lot of ways, James Blake is just too much a product of his time.  The 2010’s were a time when checking your privilege for some semblance of wokeness became the cool thing to do.  Male feminists and white allies seeped into the mainstream. “Master of None,” despite it’s manic pixie dream girl character in the second season compounded Aziz Ansari’s awareness of being male into a whole tv show.  Before his fall from grace, Louis CK mentioned that white privilege existed on stage and then added that men do bad things. It’s probably an overall good trend—the 00s brought us achmed the dead terrorist after all—but Assume Form is a performance of doing the bare minimum in a personal relationship and hoping for critical acclaim in our collective artistic consciousness.  Let’s leave it in 2019.

-Donovan Burtan


Sharon Van Etten-Remind Me Tomorrow: Album Review

It might be surprising to hear that the Sharon Van Etten album that ends on the lyric “you will let me find my way/you love me either way/you stay” is actually one of her least ‘settled’ sounding records, but if you’ve read one of the numerous profiles of the artist in the rollout of her fifth album you know that Etten has seemingly been unable to catch her breath in the past five years.  

The sonic experience of Remind Me Tomorrow aches and crawls between its moments of steady clarity.  Perhaps if you’ve only heard “Seventeen,” this would come as a shock as the tune calls to the likes of Springsteen in its nostalgic emotional quality and goosebump-inducing vocal climax, but this tune is the crown jewel centerpiece at bouts of chaos.

“I Told You Everything” opens with lilting, crawling vocals over stark drones before spare outlines of drum texture come from the deconstructed kick, snare, and high-hat.  “Jupiter 4” finds smoldering darkness from oceans of synths and even a catchy tune like “Shadow” is angular and bursting at the seems.

Although Etten isn’t talking directly about abuse a la “Your Love is Killing Me,” the album grapples with relationships–to dating partners and children; the self and past.  Complementing the blistering musical chops. Though universes away from Etten’s first album, Remind Me Tomorrow isn’t out of nowhere as both Tramp and Are We There were adventurous in production.  Yet, the record is her most emotionally complex yet, taking former topics to new heights and truly trademarking the SVE brand of songwriting.

Thematically, the album could be divided into certain chunks. “I Told You Everything,” “No One’s Easy to Love,” and “Jupiter 4” talk about letting someone into your world.  The first couplet of the album is instantly iconic: “Sitting at the bar, I told you everything/you said: ‘Holy Shit, you almost died.’” It’s deeply human to feel that there’s too much baggage to you for a potential dating partner to hear.  Will they be freaked out, will they reject you over your past? “Holy Shit, you almost died” is comforting, but not without tension.

“No One’s Easy to Love” dives more into the tension that comes with learning about someone’s triggers and past pain.  What questions are appropriate, what things are impossible to talk about? The question “Is your father a man?” is a misstep that follows the unease that many women feel when meeting new men, but the chorus notes that everyone has their baggage and missteps.  “Jupiter 4,” on the other hand, begs the question “why was it so hard to find this?” With its brooding, dark production a certain haunting unease comes with the admissions of love, begging the question “what’s the catch?”

The album’s beating heart comes with “Seventeen” which fits into a lineage of songs that address youth, time, and growing up.  Here, an adult speaks to their younger self whose worried about becoming a boring adult just like their parents. The adult, on the other hand, wonders if they’ve lost the freedom of their youth despite the “success” they’ve had in adulthood.  “Comeback Kid” and “Shadow” embody similar tensions as on the latter, Etten tells her child that they will follow her every word and both claims to be the youthful runaway and laughs off the concept on the former: “I’m not a runaway, it just feels that way.”

On the whole, the album is a nuanced reflection of our view of self.  As time passes we constantly think of ourselves in new ways, yet we must also constantly describe ourselves to new people.  Having found a partner, Etten maybe has hit some kind of end-point in terms of the dating aspect of self and yet she has a kid to take care of.  One who’s going to hit puberty and probably rebel against their mother and try to grow up their own way. One who will probably do dumb shit that Etten told them not to and yet she’ll see her past self making those same mistakes.  Etten also still wants to settle down and yet her career is in a constant state of flux. The album doesn’t stew in her reality too directly, but it’s always present as Etten expertly translates her self into the visceral journey known as Remind Me Tomorrow.

-Donovan Burtan


Dawn-New Breed: Album Review

A bassline from Prince, a beat from The Roots, and some smoldering synthesizer fog via SURVIVE–Dawn Richard pulls together unexpected elements to conjure her forward-thinking sound.  The title-track single from her latest album discusses transcendence of labels, of stereotypes. In the vein of SOPHIE’s “Whole New World” mantra, the smoky sound world twists around Richard’s rising declaration “I am, I am, I am the New Breed” as a Grace Jones quote about her undefinable sexuality gets appropriately spliced into the background.  

At only 30 minutes and spending a bit too much time with interludes and sound bites, New Breed the album doesn’t completely live up to the promise of its single, but Richard’s evolving sound continues to elude simple categorization and pop trends.

The middle of the album sports expert pop songwriting.  “Dreams and converse” takes some future-funk guitar and bass plucking to new heights with slinky melodies before “Shades” picks up the slack with beefy bassline and vocoder ornaments.  “Jealousy” slow jams for a minute, as Dawn admits that she still faces the childish emotion here and there.

“Vultures/Wolves” and “We, Diamonds” are probably the most direct songs thematically as Richard addresses black womanhood.  It’s clear that black women largely drive the aesthetic and direction of pop culture, so the idea of existing and finding acceptance without interference from culture vultures underpins the straining ballad.  These underlying anxieties are flipped into strength for the gospelly piano tones on closer “we, diamonds.”

The albums over and done with too quickly, but Richard remains youthful and entertaining in those 30 minutes, proving that she’s still one of the most creative songwriters in the game.

-Donovan Burtan


Pedro the Lion-Phoenix: Album Review

If Pedro the Lion’s “Yellow Bike” succeeds because of its precise simplicity, Phoenix somewhat falters in its commitment to such a songwriting strategy.  The album is not a complete failure by any means, but for 44 minutes, David Bazan essentially sticks to the same script.  Finding life affirmation in cleaning up and mining the painstaking process of looking at potential homes as a kid or saving up your allowance, Bazan speaks to his audience over straightforward guitar music, his voice lilting up and down almost as if in the same melodic routine for the whole album.

Now there’s certainly albums that succeed without really manipulating their form too drastically–Snail Mail’s Lush was in my top five of 2018 and Lindsey Jordan’s voice and songwriting strategies kind of make the album feel like one long snapshot in the vein of Phoenix.  The two songwriters also sing in a fashion that mixes buoyant joy, regret, and nostalgia making their works equally listenable on a highway with the windows down and on a somber late night ride home from work, but where they differ is the approach to the subject matter.  

At their core, Jordan’s singles “Heatwave” and “Pristine” are both break-up tunes and they both say “I wish you well” but the tone is completely different.  With its raucous, summer anthem guitar solos, the former feels triumphant, Jordan saying “I wish you well” with a piss-off sense of sarcasm. The latter is much more self-conscious, Jordan feeling like she’ll never be able to truly move on.  Phoenix is almost strictly nostalgic, it mines Bazan’s past with a mixed sense of happiness and longing, but rarely dives too deep into the stories for more nuance.  

There are a few highlights including “Yellow Bike” and Bazan’s expert take on peer pressure via “Quietest Friend.”  The best album moment comes between “Tracing the Grid” and “Black Canyon” where Bazan mentions the joy he gets out of hearing his family member’s stories and then delivers one on the next tune.  About a man who attempts suicide by getting hit by an 18 wheeler, the “Canyon” tells Uncle Ray’s story of the aftermath where the victim hilariously says: “Get this truck off my back/don’t know what I expected but that hurt really bad.”  When telling someone else’s tale, Bazan showcases the brilliance with which he can illuminate foreign characters–it’s disappointing to only get a hint of this talent here.

Judging from their brilliantly orchestrated new single, American Football is on the verge of a perfect veteran album that captures the cold temperatures of their past in an entirely new way.  Here, Pedro the Lion captures its essence and not much else.

-Donovan Burtan



Toro y Moi-Outer Peace: Album Review

Having been on the frontlines of the chillwave moment, 2019 finds Chaz Bear much further away from steering the zeitgeist and a bit more comfortable reflecting it.  Not to say the whole album stews in the sounds of contemporary chill spotify, but the first 30 seconds definitely do as the now infamous chipped EDM vocal sample sparks the first tune.  Coupled with a few tropical house tricks, the album evokes a bit of skepticism, but Bear isn’t simply gaming algorithms here. Loosely about gig-economy anxieties and the general disconnect of the 2010s brand of silicon valley capitalism, “Outer Peace” is a buoyant, fun collection that doesn’t overstate anything or overstay its welcome.

The constant in Bear’s work is more forward vocal delivery and texture.  If chillwave is a more accessible version of ambient music, Bear’s adoption of acoustic sounds on his 2015 album “What For?” sparked a drive towards more traditional pop-textures and now the muse is dance music. “James Murphy is spinning at my house” sounds like prophecy and following the opening spotify-core dirge, tunes “Ordinary Pleasure” and “Laws of the Universe” sport beefy bass lines and punchy tempos to support even more vocal confidence.  

In the vein of Marie Davidson’s “Work It” lines like “maximize all the pleasure” and “you are your own boss,” poke fun at the form and its contemporary use to help rich people at equinox get their cardio on.  Subversive? Maybe not super militantly, but tongue in cheek, certainly. The slower tempos of “Miss Me” and “New House” take it back to Moi’s origins a bit, with mixed results. Abra’s delicate voice captures on the former, but the latter feels underwritten.  “Baby Drive it Down” sports the trendiest beat, but “Freelance” and “Who am I” again land some great vibes with enough shimmer to sound like classic Toro y Moi.

Admittedly, the Toro y Moi project has never felt extremely vital to me personally so those who thought “Causers of This”  or “Underneath the Pine” were some of the most earth-shaking things out there at release date will likely have stronger reactions to “Outer Peace.”  Whether fans will hear Bear getting comfortable or “reinventing himself,” I can’t tell you, but I will say that without wielding any jaw-dropping risks, the work remains rife with personality as the recording wizz continues to build his world and splash in some new colors.

-Donovan Burtan