Priests “The Seduction of Kansas” Track Review

Perhaps as a reaction to their break-out year seeing the band face a constant barrage of critics and fans calling them the #resistance punk band for Trump’s America, Priests are re-tinkering things more than they ever have and growing into new musical spaces.

They’ve always been a slithery band that slides between different zones with dance-able bass lines and kick-ass drums to support punk yelps–not to mention lyrics like “Obama killed something in me and I’m gonna get him for it” that don’t exactly date them to 2016.  Though funk bass lines seeped into classic post-punk bands like The Pop Group, much of this categorization is certainly unfair, the band may embody some spirit of post-punk but they were never simply “Thatcher era political music, reworded with Trump.”

Still, “Seduction of Kansas” doesn’t exactly sound like a band expertly standing on new ground.  The song feels a bit like “Suck” off their last album, but here the tempo is pulled way down to a sluggish pace, leaving Katie Alice Greer out in open space to awkwardly land melodic punches; that opening couplet rhyming “me” and “progeny” simply sounds off and, at least from an outsider’s perspective, Katie Alice Greer’s voice doesn’t sound like it’s in a completely comfortable range.  Lyrically, the band hasn’t forgotten that which makes them great as they paint some middle-america horror story, but the song sounds like a band in transition rather than one ready for a whole new era.

-Donovan Burtan

 

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Jessica Pratt-Quiet Signs: Album Review

It’s no coincidence that William Basinski shared props for “Quiet Signs” on his facebook page. Dedicated to the art of selecting perfect sounds, Jessica Pratt crafts a flowing beauty throughout that makes the 25 minute-ish experience fall away effortlessly like one of Basinski’s perfect ambient pieces.  These are the sounds of an unpopulated home, morning breeze, cooking yourself breakfast. “It makes my want to cry” peaks out of the fog of wordlessness on “This Time Around,” not completely making its own meaning, but allowing whatever meaning you like to get attached to it.  It’ll start your day slowly, call you to sleep quickly. Quiet Signs sounds of the earth; new but forever.

Another potential touchstone, oddly enough, is the latest from Earl Sweatshirt.  Some Rap Songs was nearly entirely comprised of instrumental loops, which Earl mentioned in an interview were inspired by the work of Tirzah and other producers who work with the format.  Like both of these artists, Pratt works with a simplistic instrumental foundation, oftentimes repetitive, more about the delivery and production than the musical complexity.

After the intro featuring the lick on piano, “As The World Turns” features a three chord lick that repeats beneath her vague melodic structures.  I’m not going to sit here and lecture you about the exact chords, however, each chord expands further into jazz-like harmonic extensions, giving it a cool, growing motion.  Throughout the album, Pratt lets expertly-crafted guitar motions like this sit there as her voice wanders above, or a flute appears, achieving a certain stillness even when new details arrive.

Perhaps a product of the harmonic openness is the aversion to sounding like a specific time period.  The classy piano opening sounds like an ode to classic 60’s and 70’s recording techniques, but then suddenly Pratt will sound contemporary or Medieval.  The album’s darkest offering, “Crossing,” is the latter, the plucked guitar sounding like some sort of ancient love song from an opera’s troubadour.  “Silent Song” then takes us back to some old art film and “Aeroplane” follows with tomorrow’s sunrise, a rhythmic guitar strum that could’ve been made anywhere at anytime driving the album to close.

Lyrically, of course much of its hard to decipher, but with the likes of Julia Holter, it seems like when you are paying attention and Pratt pronounces with clarity, there’s something to behold. “Reflection of your memory in the window” matches the imagery of the sonic environment and “its so long before my future’s come” pores over the ideas of time and aging that seep from the album’s atmosphere.

Pratt truly hits all the markers of subtle music here.  It’s expertly crafted, yet effortless to listen to, familiar and new, an immediate entry to one’s library of classics.

-Donovan Burtan

8.5/10

Girlpool-What Chaos is Imaginary: Album Review

What Chaos is Imaginary marks the second album cycle in a row where girlpool released a single in streamlined pop form, that doesn’t really describe the rest of the album that followed. Having started as this strange, otherworldly combination of sounds and poetry, the group’s proper rock band phase, if nothing else, has retained their aversion to simple understanding.

It Gets More Blue” is a perfect song that no one else could’ve possibly written, but also anyone who cares for rock can likely get into. There’s the slow starting verse, with the perfect lyric to kick off the raucous guitar-driven chorus: “the nihilist tells you that nothing is true/I said I faked global warming to get through to you.” Drawn out syllables at the end let the guitars truly shine and the band uses a similar trick in the bridge, almost sounding like the tune is about to wind down, before ramping up one more time.

The rest of Powerplant avoids fan service religiously however, with tunes like “123” going chorus-verse-chorus and “Soup” hitting chorus one time. Admittedly part of me feels like the group should embrace the conservative-adjacent rock sound in their lyrics and forms and give us 10 perfect bangers that sound and flow exactly like “Hire.” Of course they’re never going to do that, but in spite of this, Imaginary’s expanse yields the group’s current masterwork, catchy enough to service fans, but also rife with crystalline, motionless pools to ponder their evasive lyricism.

Similarly to Mitski, girlpool crafts insta-classic lines and phrases. “Advertise what makes you crazy/so I can second guess my focus/are you gonna hire me” has been bouncing around in my brain for a while. I’m literally job searching right now and second guessing my focus constantly so it’s hitting extra hard, but much of Girlpool’s material references relationships—you go out and ask a potential partner what makes them tick and hope it lines up with what you were about to say.

Other highlights include this expert take on pondering existence alone: “I wandered around a shapeless station/In soliloquy clouds/That nebulous dichotomy town;” a glance at childhood perception: “All the kids you thought had bigger eyes/Consumed by schemes;” or the absurdist version of taking your meds “He’ll break a pill into a thousand puzzle pieces/Drink up the spare change/Mute that golden drone.” The album’s got a bit of a sonic lull towards the backside, but lyrics like this always make it shine.

The sonics are also capable of meeting the lyrics halfway, however, as the album still generally avoids sticky hooks, but tosses in some instrumental equivalents. Between the tug and pull of the drum part on “Where You Sink;” the lilting guitar moves post-lyrics on “Hire” and “Pretty,” and the perfectly plucked guitar counterpoint on lovers anthem “All Blacked out;” there’s plenty for the audience to get addicted to.

If there’s anything about “Hire” that gives a general impression or theme of the album, it’s the angst. Even at the title “What Chaos Is Imaginary,” captures the essence of being 20 something or teenage where everything is a disaster, but you don’t know how big of a deal each part of that chaos is. The track puts this into words, capturing the feeling of being lost with in varying ways, without the guidance you may have subsisted off of in childhood: “You live halfway/In a transient home off the highway.”  With a brilliantly orchestrated string quartet towards the end, girlpool prove why this was their choice of title track.

Rather than yielding 10 perfect pop songs, or their usual dose of minimalism, girlpool go for an expansive set of songs that spread out their breathtaking lines and addicting melodies, still never taking it easy, but also expertly giving us something to hold on to at every turn.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

 

NKISI-7 Directions: Album Review

Melika Kolongo’s current project NON seeks to connect a wide variety of sound art made by members of the African diaspora (you can read their full manifesto here).  This, along with Kolongo’s own psychoacoustic research, perhaps describes the heavy dose of research and process behind her work, but a better first thing to note is her releases with Doomcore records out of Belgium.  Alongside gaudy album covers and dark tones from Belgium’s finest, Nkisi’s work for the label took sinister moods and pushed them to their breaking point with slow builds and apocalyptic vocal clips.

Though considerably more lush than her earlier work, 7 Directions’ first listen showcases its smoldering pummel. The beats aren’t necessarily unrelenting violence á la Blanck Mass, but there’s little sugar as electricity and acoustic-adjacent textures craft an impossibly late-night vibe that evokes the cosmos for a boundless depth.

If first listen will be marked by darkness, more exposure will showcase the work’s dynamic life.  7 Directions may be trance-like repetition at the macro, yet it’s remarkably dynamic at the micro.  Each track is comprised of a darkly electric melodic motion that’ll stick there throughout, but the drum layering beneath provides a stochastic, enveloping feeling, abstracting lines between pattern and random making 10 minute swaths of activity pass by effortlessly.

“II,” for instance, has a gradually moving ghost of a melody deep in the background that contrasts the looped cell of percussion up front, bending time by never completely embodying the same meter.  As time passes another layer of melody is added in the same place to continue this liquid approach to time.  “IV” sports the most sinister, addicting melody, the simple up and down motion phasing left and right as the drum sticks roar dead center and the closing track again phases melodies and rhythms, the bouncing drums accompanied by a seemingly unpredictable shooting stars of electricity.

In an interview with tinymixtapes, NKISI discusses how her research involves a lot of testing out sounds on her own body: “A big part of my music-making process involves listening to it and testing it on my body. I’m really interested in how the body can be affected by music and sound.”  Perhaps this is an element in the increased depth of her work.  Where previously skeletal electronic sounds once stood, now stands a huge block of all encompassing sound that, coupled with these songwriting strategies, never quite sits still for you.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Cherry Glazerr-Stuffed and Ready: Album Review

Though perhaps not the most lyrically nuanced band, Cherry Glazerr tends to bring piercing intensity throughout their work.  Here, the opening trio is the most essential as the somber, drawn out choruses of “Ohio” mold into biting sarcasm on “Daddi” and finally land on blood curdling anger for “Wasted Nun.” From then on out the band somewhat kicks into cruise control with tunes like “That’s Not My Real Life,” which sounds like an anxious Alvvays knock off, or “Juicy Socks” and “Pieces,” which sport drab melodies.  “Stupid Fish” is the band at their most heavy-handed, lead singer Clementine Creevy screaming out the words “I see myself in you and that’s why I fucking hate you” to end it off.

Stuffed and Ready is fun with highlights (check out “Isolation” too btw) but probably wont stick around forever, maybe catch ’em live sometime eh?

-Donovan Burtan

6.5/10

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

7/10

 

 

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

6/10