American Football didn’t necessarily sound perfect in Boston last night, but the band sounded like one that’s still wrestling with themselves to carve out new paths. Opening with “Silhouettes,” a new tune of theirs that features concert bells, the band came out swinging, which made the mix a bit glassy. Something about the clang of chimes and Mike Kinsella’s go-to guitar effect clashed, but as things settled down the band achieved their trademark warmth and seemingly melded the lessons learned in the making of LP3 with the material that put them on the map.
“Honestly?” in particular felt more poised and confident than the original recording, with buoyant, bursting guitar work. This of course could be a product of the live setting, but we can imagine what those few original shows might’ve been like back in the day. Of course “Never Meant” was a perfect sing along moment, and the extended trumpet interlude before “The Summer Ends” felt otherworldly. Again, hard to say what exactly is new for the band, but between the contrast of Steve Holmes’ jangly sounds and Kinsella’s prickly guitars, and the solidly confident drumming from Steve Lamos, their instrumental chops were a constant show.
The encore was perhaps the cleanest, most full-circle moment of the night as the LP3 numbers felt fully fleshed out alongside the classic “Stay Home.” “I Can’t Feel You,” with its gloomy ‘oohs,’ assisted by Sarah from openers Pure Bathing Culture (who also did a perfect rendition of “Uncomfortably Numb” earlier in the night) achieved that glacial thickness that makes their third LP so beguiling. Then, the rest of Bathing Culture showed up for a wholesome redux of the “Heir Apparent” children’s choir, before cathartic repetition of the lyric “That’s life it’s so, so short” released us into the night.
On the whole, what really made the night was the fact that it flattened their hiatus. After adjusting to the stage and warming up a bit, each song very much stood on equal ground. They sound like any band working to truly challenge themselves on their third album, not like one that’s capitalizing on cult status with a bunch of retreads of their former work—a remarkable feat for a band that once felt lost to cult status.
Admittedly Nilüfer Yanya isn’t offering a completely new perspective on musical texture or what a song can do, but Miss Universe does more than simply pass the test for “singer-songwriter given a bit of a budget for their real debut.” With Yanya herself offering a bunch of goofy interludes to narrate her speak of self worth and its intersection with validation from others, the album offers a unique glance at its auter. Unpredictable, wirey melodies, build and caressing alongside synths, guitars, and horns that draw on everyone from Aaliyah to Blink-182. It’s sure to be relatable to anyone familiar with those musical references as well as those plunging into the depth of the teenage years today.
“In Your Head” certainly acts as a bit of a thesis. In it Yanya tells a potential love interest that she cannot act until she hears an exact description of how they feel. Though she doesn’t play this manic type of character throughout, the songs paint a vivid inner dialogue about the growing pains inherent to that time where you have to figure yourself out as much as those who interest you.
“Safety Net” might just be the heart of the record where Yanya seems to find the upper hand in a battle of whether or not she deserves more out of a partner: “I’m not trying to be someone/I’m not/So stop trying to be someone.”. It’s undercut by her self doubt “I’ll find nothing instead/because I’m not good looking,” but that tug and pull between doubt and worth represents the tension between the moment you realize you have to leave and the moment you actually do it.
Closer “Heavyweight Champion of the World” also explores the tension as Yanya pleads for herself to realize that the one she’s chasing will never truly commit. Then there’s tunes like “Heat Rises,” which more metaphorically address anxiety or “Melt” which more devilshly wish for another’s pain.
These songs are well accomplished sonically, though I can’t help but feeling like there’s a little bit to be desired in terms of singularity. Not quite, but if you ignore some of the musical flourishes, sax solos, there’s an inclining of “this product was manufactured to please indie rock and R&B markets,” whereas something SZA’s Ctrl more endearingly combined the two. But overall, Miss Universe is a worthy debut from someone with potential to speak to a generation.
Lizzo is uber talented, but I can’t say I completely get behind all of the results. She can undeniably dance, rap, sing, command-a-stage, but I promise you, you don’t actually want a flute solo on Ellen and “Juice” plainly has Bruno Mars syndrome, sounding like a Target-curated version of the 80’s. “Tempo,” on the other hand, clicks perfectly. If you asked me yesterday how a song with the two of them should go I’d probably basically describe what happens. They both rap with utmost emboldened energy over stripped-back but electric production. They don’t try to out-rap each other but they sound utterly perfect alongside one another, meeting each other halfway on the quest to sexual empowerment. There’s no over-stated hook, no overwrought break-down, it’s perfect. I prematurely find the album to be too much, but certain things can’t make anybody mad–this track should be one of them.
Few artists are better suited to working with a fire-power-heavy backing band than Lucy Dacus. She can certainly capture on her own–the show was book-ended by two unreleased tunes played without a band–but her tunes tend to twist and wind to their conclusions leaving plenty of space for rambunctious climaxes sporting massive cymbal crashes and noisy guitar flourishes to highlight her relatively grounded vocal style.
A band also allows certain influences and sounds to come through a bit too. Mentioning that she was from Richmond, Virginia, I wouldn’t say that she quite lives in the south or fully has any sense of twang, but there’s a bit of alt-country or blues swagger sitting in the background of tunes like “Timefighter” or “Yours & Mine.” Of course there’s more straightforward chugging rockers–her cover of “La Vie en Rose” particularly got the crowd moving– but for an artist who sometimes sounds a bit too broad-strokes stylistically, the live show alleviates this with more pronounced details to the tunes.
In terms of thematic material, Historian was largely a break-up album, but it also took time to ponder the question of what it means to write a narrative and look at the grand scheme of things. There’s kiss-offs to those that wronged you, but also tunes that look at individual action and try to see the viewpoint of another. The quiet and droney title-track, which ended the show literally asked “If past you were to meet future me/Would you be holding me here and now?”
Sometimes these questions can lead to apathy or aimless anger and Dacus can channel that into something productive, or at least recognize that avoidance is part of life too. The final, unrecorded tune of the night was a perfect send-off that found empowerment in allowing its character to get angry at a deadbeat father. The Lucy Dacus project is remarkably mature and as its writer continues forward, it feels like she’s only honing that weapon.
I mentioned in my Ariana Grande review that Thank You, Next, which was made in two weeks, avoids some of the blockbuster pop album trappings in its off-the-cuff tone and ease. There’s a bit of precedence for this in the mixtape work of Charli XCX who, despite creating some of the most adventurous pop music today, works casually, frequently releasing one-offs for the sake of collaboration. This also holds true for Kehlani’s latest mixtape which sounds lighter on its feet than Kehlani’s debut album, leaving none of the 30 minutes dull and plenty of features to give each moment life.
Kehlani doesn’t quite embody the subtlety of SZA’s CTRL here, but the tape is more stripped back in production than tunes like “Distraction” from her debut album, which saw big time vocal layering and pummeling bass. From the jump, there’s a lightly strummed guitar and hummed backing vocals before her low range shines alongside a feature from Musiq Soulchild. The tape picks up from track to track as “Too Deep” gets a bit deeper into a groove and “Morning Glory” hits a bit of a classic sound with its choir of backing vocals. Still, overall the work feels conversational and light.
The conversational tone also seeps into the lyrical ideas, many of which address Kehlani’s and her partner’s indecision. As previously discussed, “Nights Like This” is about a partner not showing up, but “Too Deep” sees Kehlani wondering if she wants to let a relationship flourish much further than it already has and “Footsteps” is about Kehlani leaving even though she wasn’t sure if that was the call: “when I walked away, I left Footsteps in the mud so you could follow me.” This song also exemplifies Kehlani’s humor with the line “it’s habitual to be the bitch I am.” It’s a conversational and vulnerable work, but it’s still relatively low-key, not feeling excessively heavy.
And it really holds up deep into the tracklist; closer “Love Language” features plucky production to call back to the beginning of the work as Kehlani sings “I wanna be fluent in your Love Language,” perhaps signaling a relationship where everyone’s finally on the same page.
The casual nature of the work does have some limitations. In this case, it leaves a little to be desired. Whereas say Vince Staples’s FM! felt as fleshed out as that specific concept wanted to be, While We Wait feels like three or four more tunes could’ve made it Kehlani’s full blown coronation. Still, she’s headed down the right path and hopefully this pallet cleanser will lead to a real moment in the sun for the rising star.
Though me and some other critics enjoyed Simz’s last album “Stillness in Wonderland,” others were skeptical and I don’t know if it has a whole lot of teeth with rap fans. Admittedly, I think I was a bit quick to the jump as her vision could’ve still used some honing and a bit more life–today “Wonderland” holds up to a degree, but it’s a bit overly dreary.
Still, the singles for her album GREY Area that drops tomorrow maintain much of the versatility that Wonderland hinted at, with its array of features, with a bit more songwriting focus and maturity. Highlight “Boss” is a singular moment in her catalog, sporting her sharpest and most poignant production to date. Her distorted voice crafts a punchy chorus and signature quick-witted rhymes effortlessly fly over the fuzzy bass sound. The gender play is interesting too. Aside from the lyric “I’m a boss in a fucking dress” the distorted and non-distorted vocals contrast each other, Simz bouncing between masc and fem vocal presentation. Certainly her most accomplished tune to date.
Having been something of a bedroom soul singer for her initial releases, “In Your Head” sees Nilufer Yana tightening the screws and delivering a burst of energy. Lyrics about needing validation from a potential lover spill out seemingly in one fell swoop over the sunburst guitars and pounding drums. Its a little “indie movie montage” in feel and may hint at a slightly safe debut album, but Yana’s spirally and spiky vocal chops give the performance some serious gusto as pillows of synths drive it all home.