TRANSVERSO

- A culture magazine reaching terminal verbosity -

Music Review

Heartache and Candor Shine on Julien Baker's 'Turn Out the Lights'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment
Julien Baker Turn Out The Lights Art.jpg
A+ rating.png

In 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, a nineteen year-old Memphis post-punker by the name of Julien Baker released Sprained Ankle, a collection of songs written with startling awareness and humility that, for the most part, remains absent in much of her peers. Naturally, the blogosphere erupted with adoration - here was a promising young artist that had depth, sustainability, and seemingly little interest in the post-Internet social media sphere - and thus began the meteoric rise of Julien Baker’s (totally deserved) legacy.

It’s almost amusing to consider that throughout the two years that followed Sprained Ankle’s release, someone as private as Baker would quickly become one of the most sought after entities in independent music. If Baker’s songwriting were any indication, forthright lyrics and minimalist guitar would leading to indie-stardom would have been the last thing on her mind. Nevertheless, Baker is a member of the late-millennial generation, so combined with Baker’s irrefutable musical excellence, she garner deep and devout support from any and all who see her (as they should).

But with Baker, there’s an added dimension of fervent devotion - both amongst contemporaries and gatekeepers alike (Matador, NPR, and everyone in-between) - within the indie world. There’s an artist worth talking about, and for once, it seems like there’s enough of a wellspring of talent to continue talking about her, so when we stop talking and move on to whatever artist du-jour may pop up in the interim, Baker’s follow-up will no doubt be exceptional.

And almost to the T, when Baker announced the release date for her sophomore effort, Turn Out the Lights, almost exactly two years following the release of Sprained Ankle, that same adoration returned, and with good reason. While folks within the blogosphere may be quick to move on to something with a little more sheen to it, consistency is what truly builds a legacy, and TOTL  manages to serve as a prime exemplar.

When Baker and her new label, Matador, released TOTL’s lead single, “Appointments,” Baker’s rasped whisper came through singing heart-wrenching thoughts of not living up to another’s standards, failing to understand change over time, and ultimately watching such factors lead into the end of a relationship. All of this on top of Baker’s tastefully minimalist guitar tones, this time accentuated by percussive piano, further extending the sentiments of what is a devastating first taste.

The rest of TOTL follows suit - expanded sound (piano, string arrangements, and woodwind on an instrumental “Over,” which seamlessly leads into “Appointments”), and decidedly more confident (“Turn Out The Lights”), but ultimately plain-speaking lyricism. Baker’s candor has always been her most disarming artistic attribute - just look to the immense pain and visceral imagery of “Shadowboxer” for reference - but on TOTL, she manages to lean into her guitar abilities a little more willingly. The dynamic crescendos of “Shadowboxer” or the subtle overlays of “Sour Breath” further extend Baker’s supreme progression as a lyricist on top of her continued prowess.

While Baker’s musicality may serve as a pleasant surprise on TOTL, her distinct capacity with language continues to be by far and away the most beguiling aspect of any Julien Baker project. Baker’s lyrical depth has hardly been doubted, refuted, or rebuked - and to do so would only serve a contrarian cause - but if there was ever an ounce of musing uncertainty, this album throws any and all cynicism by the wayside.

TOTL is an absolute masterclass in songwriting. Look no further than “Televangelist” for what is one of the strongest exercises in allegorical elocution in recent memory. Wasting no time, Baker opens with “My heart is going to eat itself,” diving headfirst into a hymn of heart broken masochistic martyrdom. Shortly thereafter, Baker utters what may be the greatest line of the year - ”I’m an amputee with a phantom touch / Leaning on an invisible crutch / Pinned to the mattress like an insect to styrofoam / Coming up from my bedroom alone,” - over nothing more than echoing piano. Baker goes straight for the heart, in an attempt to imbue her own anguish.

Turn Out the Lights is truly one of the best albums of 2017. There is no galavanting of gregariousness, no over-saturation of privileged existence, instead, there is only what Baker offers up for those who are willing to receive of her. This album is her via dolorosa, and we are privileged that she would be willing to share it with the world. Julien Baker is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, and Turn Out the Lights is simply exquisite.

The National Explores the Beautiful and Wild Inside On ‘Sleep Well Beast'

Music ReviewAarik DanielsenComment
Sleep-Well-Beast-Cover-Art-1494508970-compressed.jpg
A- rating.png

Some bands can’t help but sound like a place.

Whether it is in guitars that sound like the Sunset Strip five minutes before trouble, harmonies that feel like a damp Pacific Northwest, or grooves that drip like the faucets in a dirty Delta bar, these acts always take you somewhere, avoiding the tourist traps and surrounding you with setting.

Another type of band is just as evocative, yet the places it occupies and pre-occupies exist within a body, not outside it.

These artists, typified by a band like Radiohead, sound like the scrambled thoughts of an anxious mind, the rhythms of a quickened pulse, the weight of life as it sits squarely within the chest. These interior settings are immediately recognizable to listeners who regularly visit them, often with reservations.

The National belongs to that second company of artists. The Brooklyn band’s songs sound like a mind turned inside-out, a soul yearning for relief — sometimes in screams, sometimes in sighs. Sleep Well Beast, The National’s seventh record, continues in that vein, yet accesses refreshingly acute angles on what might be its most beautiful work yet.

Album opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” joins a gentle pulse and plaintive piano. Its atmospheric rock feels like a modern take on Peter Gabriel’s “Red Rain” until frontman Matt Berninger’s baritone enters the mix to remind you who you’re dealing with. “Day I Die,” another backlit standout, follows. Drummer Bryan Devendorf thunders along while the band around him brings the electric lightning to the storm. Berninger still is coping with existential matters, but clearly he has taken a few steps forward.

He delivers a compelling bridge lyric: “Let’s just get high enough to see our problems / Let’s just get high enough to see our fathers’ houses.” Set this against the sentiments of one of The National’s signature songs, “Afraid of Everyone,” from 2010’s High Violet; There he sank into the mantra “I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” By comparison, it sounds like Berninger is doing more than just getting by or high with a little help from his friends.

From there, The National deepens and widens its sound. Rather than reside in a rut or attempt to jolt itself into mid-career reinvention, the band shifts by degrees, surprising faithful listeners by finding very different ways to stave off the same problem. The band inches further and further from orthodoxy on tunes like “Walk it Back” and “I’ll Still Destroy You.” The former uses electronic sounds in a stimulating way, creating a sort of pulsating sonic light. The latter is more percussive, leaning into the new-music interests of guitarists Aaron and Bryce Dessner, achieving a sort of modal, exotic peal.

The band makes use of a more standard deviation on single “The System Only Sleeps in Darkness,” wearing the clothes of a more straight-ahead rock band. Glitchy riffing gives way to a proper guitar solo, a sort of novelty on the band’s records. The track does start with a few bars of madrigal cooing, so it’s not like The National suddenly have sacrificed to the gods of stadium rock.

Late in the tracklist, the band lands a 1-2 punch that is as quietly devastating as anything it has ever recorded. “Guilty Party” is the sound of trying to connect. Over booming drum sounds, the band’s jagged instrumentals even resemble the static of trying to dial up and dial in.

The song gives way to “Carin at the Liquor Store,” one of a few songs to grow from waltzing piano. Here the sound of the instrument contains both shadow and light. Both songs have the power to cut deep; stacked together, the sweet ache is unavoidable.

None of this — Berninger’s sad-eyed ecstasies, the Dessner Brothers’ cinematic visions — works without Bryan Devendorf’s drumming. One of the most reliable, underrated players of his generation, Devendorf truly provides the band’s heartbeat, whether in a melancholy waltz meter or a desperate crash of rock and roll.

The only thing keeping “Sleep Well Beast” from contending for the class of the band’s catalog is middling rocker “Turtleneck.” The National has proved it can growl and thrash when it gets the itch — “Mr. November” is the band at its loudest and best. The ill-conceived “Turtleneck,” however, comes up short on both style and substance.

It seems ridiculous to cast The National as some sort of rock oracle, but in 2017 it seems the rest of us are just now catching up to the sort of low-grade paranoia and restlessness the band’s songs have incarnated. Here it taps into even more shades of tension. The National wrestles with the personal, with needing landmarks, even crumbling ones, to find your way in the world. Weather patterns, fuzzy memories — these things anchor Berninger’s lyrics and help him make sense of things.

They wriggle around in the grip of the political, questioning how to act for the common good when you’re barely keeping your own house in order. The songs here seem to ask “How do you prepare for the end of the world when you just keep coming to the end of your rope?”

The band’s inward gaze still is a welcome one, even now. In the work of lesser bands, it might sound self-involved, too precious for this moment. Not so with The National. On Sleep Well Beast, the band continues to map out, then walk carefully into the beautiful wilds of the human heart. If we can’t wrestle with and know ourselves, how will we ever honestly deal with someone else?

Berninger and his bandmates offer up lullabies to soothe the savage within, soaking the heart in wine and softening it to exist in a world bigger than itself.

Wavves Create the Soundtrack for a Weird Summer with 'You're Welcome'

Music ReviewAarik DanielsenComment
B+ rating (1).png

Go ahead — make a list of the weirdest, wildest things you’d like to do over the next few months. Southern California outfit Wavves has created a sure-fire soundtrack for a strange summer with its latest, You’re Welcome.

Nathan Williams and Co. often get pigeonholed with a trio of terms starting with the letter “s.” In front of the word “rock,” people place “surf,” “skate,” and/or “stoner.” There are trace elements of all those pastimes — and the sort of music that tends to accompany them — in the Wavves sound. But failing to elaborate does the band a disservice.

Williams has a serious sense of songcraft that can be traced all the way back to rock’s founding fathers. But he and his bandmates also have honed a bloodhound’s instinct, sniffing out fresh ways to deconstruct, scuff up, and altogether shred all that melodic loveliness.

On its sixth album — not counting No Life for Me, its 2015 co-op with Cloud Nothings — Wavves reunites with stalwart producer Dennis Herring (Modest Mouse, Counting Crows). Herring worked with the band on 2010’s King of the Beach and 2015’s V, and seems willing to put a microphone up close to the band’s personality and capture all the feedback.

With its oscillating guitar riff and rolling drums, opener “Daisy” sets the tone for everything to come; Wavves sounds like the house band at a twisted luau that’s getting more debauched by the minute. As is often the case, the band somehow finds a way to write a huge chorus without calling much attention to it. All the extracurriculars distract from the hook until you realize you’re singing along by the second or third time through.

You can cling to your pop bangers or cruise to country tailgating anthems, but by the time the band gets to “No Shade,” you’ll swear it’s the song of the summer. In a mere 106 seconds, Wavves delivers a knockout punch of fuzzed-out guitar, sing-song vocals and huge drums. For as short as it is, “No Shade” evokes many images. It sounds like a Pulp Fiction pool party. It will remind children of the ‘90s of wasting their summer break on the couch, trying to sneak some MTV while their parents weren’t looking.

Other early highlights include “Million Enemies,” with its deceptively cool chorus harmonies, and “Come to the Valley.” With its whirligig organ and smiley vocals, the latter sounds like a tripped-out TV theme song. The cut contains a doo-wop breakdown that would make Bruno Mars feel... well, Bruno Mars wouldn’t be fazed, but it’s a fine touch.

Late in the set, “Dreams of Grandeur” is a hazy pop-punk confessional, the sound of someone navigating the tension between twin desires: to be emotionally available and to be left alone. Closer “I Love You” sounds like it’s being beamed in on some distant AM radio signal. The tune finds a sweet spot between Buddy Holly the legend and “Buddy Holly,” the signature Weezer song.

You’re Welcome is a record stocked with earworms, but it also lives along an emotional razor’s edge. Williams prizes melody above all, but seasons his songs with misanthropy. He comes off like the kind of guy who would gladly drive you out for a day at the beach, then slap your sunburn on the way home. He has more than a little Frank Black — or Black Francis, depending on your preference — to his personality. There are more than a few Pixies touchstones here, actually. On tracks like “Animal,” Stephen Pope sounds as if he took a few courses at the Kim Deal School for Snazzy Basslines.

The band’s previous record, V, was made for Warner Bros. This time out, the band is on Williams’ Ghost Ramp label. At times, You’re Welcome sounds like a band having fun with its newfound freedom. At others, it’s the sound of gleefully flipping off the major-label bosses.

Whatever Wavves is doing, You’re Welcome is a blast of fresh air tailor-made for the start of summer, sunset fades and moments of escape in whatever season they come.

Perfume Genius Combines Lyrical Contentment with Sonic Growth on 'No Shape'

Music ReviewAndy TabelingComment

Perhaps the most immediate thing one notices when delving into Perfume Genius’ newest record No Shape is how optimistic and hopeful it both begins and ends. Mike Haedreas’ fourth album under this moniker lets itself relatively loose from the more painful aspects of addiction, heartbreak, and the life as a gay man for a documentation of a deep relationship with a partner.

Hadreas’ relationship with his boyfriend Alan Wyffles seems to color the record with its most tender moments, such as the final track which is seemingly named after his longtime partner, “Alan." For an album by Perfume Genius to end with “Rest easy, I’m here, how weird” feels almost baffling looking back at a record like Put Your Back N To It. The temptation then is to lump No Shape in with other albums celebrating romantic and relationship success, domesticity, and the feelings associated with them, something like Lennon and Ono's Double Fantasy. However, such a comparison ignores the lyrical and emotional complexity of No Shape not always found in such records.

“Sides” explores the feelings that develop over time in a long relationship, as Hadreas’ character pleads against the other voice, a delightful cameo by Weyes Blood, to stop shutting themselves away from love. In other places, a ballad of devotion between Hadreas and Wyffles becomes a testament to how time leads to a stronger bond with a phrase simple as “woven slowly." Hadreas’ lyrical brevity and unpretentiousness return on this record, but so does his mastery of the turn of phrase. His power to define moods and relationships in so few words remains an astounding gift.

Where Hadreas’ songwriting has perhaps developed most is the records expanded sense of scale and instrumentation, and producer Blake Mills provided a perfect fit for this record. No Shape’s swampy low-end makes even the briefest jams a dense and exciting listen, while Mills’ skill in recording intimate acoustic guitars and vocals is well-used in the record’s quieter moments. No track represents this growth quite like opener "Otherside," which begins with a simple piano figure, but blooms into an electronic lullaby unlike anything else he's ever done. It’s a stunning moment - one of the album’s most exciting - and shows a songwriter never content to stay on one idea too long.

Even though previous record Too Bright had electronic flourishes such as its lead single “Queen," they've never been more pronounced than on No Shape standouts like “Slip Away” or “Wreath." The only thing listeners might yearn for is just more from the more anthemic, large tracks. Given the scale of “Otherside” and “Slip Away," they breeze by, barely giving listeners time to live inside them before Hadreas moves to another idea. Given the Perfume Genius standard seems to be shorter songs this might feel a deliberate structural decision, but other tracks reach nearly five minutes (an eternity by Hadreas’ previous standards), so this decision feels somewhat curious. However, this issue is a relatively minor one in a well sequenced and consistently engaging record. Hadreas wisely structured the record with exciting and energetic openings and climaxes, leaving some of the more intimate moments for the records’ rewarding middle third such as the ethereal and haunting “Every Night."

Given the sometimes-overwhelming sense of darkness and sadness that often pervaded previous Perfume Genius records, listeners will find No Shape refreshingly optimistic and full of lighter moments. But the complexity of the record, with such topics ranging from Hadreas’ battle with Crohn’s disease to intimate relational moments, encapsulates a vivid picture of an already compelling songwriter growing into one of the most valuable we have.

Elliot Moss Returns with Meticulous Melodies on 'Boomerang' EP

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Elliot Moss is a bit of an enigmatic figure within the world of independent music. He’s relatively young – still early 20s – and by far and away one of the most talented composer in his arena, regardless of age. Yet somehow, Moss’ work has become criminally under-covered and under-celebrated, at least for longer than a post-release week.

Perhaps part of the reason Moss’ work finds itself residing on the outer rings of the independent wunderkind producer orbit lies in the sheer excellence of his compositions. Point and case being Moss’ debut LP, Highspeeds, which dropped in 2015. It was highly musical with minimalist melodies draped over impressive jazz cuts and electronic 808s alike. Moss quickly differentiated himself from the rest of his debut class, filled mostly of bedroom producers hiding behind airy and minimalistic compositions.

Unlike some of Moss’ less meticulous yet over-hyped contemporaries (pick any of the PBRnB’ers out there today), the multi-instrumentalist melds genre in some of the most seamless and logical of manners. If one were forced to make gross immediate genre comparisons, Moss might best be described as the realist, less emotional nephew of Nick Murphy imitating James Blake in the midst of a Radiohead math-rock kick.

All that to be said, Moss seems to have set course toward the zeitgeist, rather than against it on his newest extended play effort, Boomerang. The EP opens with an almost instant groove – more languid and airy than Highspeeds, but altogether unique to Moss’ oeuvre.

Admittedly, aspects of Moss’ choice of synth effect and ventilated falsetto on album opener “Closedloop” do sound perilously close to James Blake. Luckily, neither are the zenith of the track – the song’s highlight is one of many new pathways for Moss – a nearly affectless break beat that never wavers for the entirety of the song. It feels more hip-hop than a James Blake single, but the manner of which is by no means forced. It’s an initial observation for more concerted listeners and then nothing more, as it diverts the listener’s ear from any and all undo comparison.

Other tracks on Boomerang flirt with either side of the dark wave and deep synth pop that seems to be en vogue at the moment. “Without Light” is sonically driven, as a Mount Kimbie-esque music sequencer dominates the track as Moss’ vocals serve primarily as yet another aspect of layering within the song.

Meanwhile, “99” is a largely lyric driven track that revolves around the hook of “I may never come home” and the thought of separation and abandonment. One may even feel moved to describe Moss’ lyrical preference on “99” as “mature” while considering his age, but that would be a tired and easy observation. If anything, the song is sultry and noirish, a nominally confessional track that explores the perils and pleasures of, for lack of a better interpretation, “solidarity.”

All throughout Boomerang Moss finds plenty of space to scrutinize and verify his own abilities within his respective dark pop arena, especially on Boomerang’s eponymous song. It’s the album’s second shortest, yet most rewarding track. “Boomerang” is tender and reserved, all the while swirling with confessional spirit. There’s a Klavierwerke nature once “Boomerang” comes and goes right into the even shorter “My Statue Sinking” - it crescendos into a highly emotive and orchestral whirl of tempestuous thought alongside Moss’ hypersensitive phrasing. The Boomerang triumvirate finishes with “Dolly Zoom,” a soft cooing confessional of “blood running circles inside the machine” and coming to grips with an end.

Where the three tracks that precede it embody the most idealized version of Elliot Moss’ historic “sound,” Boomerang closer “Falling Down and Getting Hurt” reveals an exciting foray into what could be yet to come on future iterations of Moss’ discography. The album closes as groovily as it opens – a reticent club banger propelled by a break beat flowing in and out of a dark wave dream. In a nutshell, “Falling Down and Getting Hurt” feels a lot like what one might imagine a happy James Blake to sound like, but that’s not happening any time soon, so thank goodness for Elliot Moss.

It honestly pains me to have referenced James Blake the handful of times he has been alluded to or sourced in this review, but I believe it to be accurate. Elliot Moss will not suffer the assignment of being “the next” whomever, but, its fair to point out that Boomerang being an EP – and a solid one at that – it's hard not to recognize the similarities – not only sonically, but in the career sense – between Moss’ post-debut EP and James Blake’s Klavierwerke EP way back when. They explore all aspects of the dark wave universe, from minimalist piano lyricism to heavy encoding and sequencing. Regardless, Moss’ work on Boomerang operates on a more earnest level, but all the while being just as apt for being ripped by Kanye at any given moment (that is a compliment). It's hard to gauge where Moss could go from this point on, but with the command of musical flexibility he exhibits on Boomerang, it can only be up.

It's Time to Set the Record Straight: Beastie Boys' 'Check Your Head' 25 Years Later

Music ReviewAarik DanielsenComment

Sandwiched between the sampling sorcery of 1989’s Paul’s Boutique and the wild roar of 1994’s Ill Communication, the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head suffers from an odd sort of Middle Brother Syndrome. It is eclipsed in a way that can only happen in a family of overachievers and big personalities. 

To be fair to the record, which turns 25 today, it is a child that is clearly loved by its three parents — Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock), Mike Diamond (Mike D) and the late, great Adam Yauch (MCA), and its success should be more apparent to those of us outside the family.

Check Your Head has moved more than 2 million copies and was widely acclaimed by critics upon its release. Still it’s hard to be born between a couple of landmarks. When hip-hop textbooks are written, the Beastie Boys chapter is likely to be littered with references to Paul’s Boutique and Ill Communication. The former is ingenious and soulful. The latter has an iconic moment to commend it: the cop-rock camp of the video for “Sabotage” will forever be burned into the brains of those who’ve seen it.

But, like any child, Check Your Head deserves to be understood for who it is in and of itself. It no doubt bears a family resemblance. But it also goes out of its way to do its own thing. Check Your Head is the most colorful, tattered freak flag the Beasties ever flew. The whole album sounds like the photonegative video for “So What’cha Want” looks — tripped-out, practically vibrating with color and energy.

Like a comic-book empire, the Beasties’ universe has its own particular set of landmarks, minor characters and color schemes. They all stay put for Check Your Head. “Finger Lickin’ Good” contains a quintessentially Beastie boast with MCA singing the praises of his recipe for “pasta with pesto,” then claiming to have “more spice than the frugal gourmet.”

Even at the record’s headiest, the band lightens the mood with a tune called “Professor Booty” or pits Biz Markie against Ted Nugent in the most out-there battle royale ever (“The Biz Vs. the Nuge”). The trio’s verses reflect its patented blend of hip-hop-isms, hyper-specific pop-culture references and pressing personal concerns.

A tune like “Pass the Mic” does it all: It invokes one of the holiest hip-hop phrases (“yes, yes y’all”), name-drops Jimmie Walker, Clyde Frazier and Stevie Wonder and finds the Beasties both deconstructing, then rebuilding their own mythology. That tune, incidentally, includes one of the all-time great Beastie lines in which Mike D rhymes “commercial” with “commercial.” Yet somehow it works as a trenchant critique of the group’s chosen art form: “Well everybody’s rapping like it’s a commercial / Actin’ like life is a big commercial.”

But Check Your Head breaks free of any personal history or external expectation in a couple of crucial ways. The album is as stylistically diverse as anything else in the group’s catalog. But it lands on a vibe that is immediate and uncommonly fluid. This is the Beasties’ take on free jazz. This is their Brian Wilson fever dream. This is the sound of the band taking punk kindling, dousing with it funky gasoline and sitting around the campfire singing a warped version of “Kumbaya.”

There are still sweet samples, repurposing the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, Cheap Trick, Bad Brains, Kool and the Gang, Jimmy Smith and more. The beat and bottom drop out of “Finger Lickin’ Good” to let Bob Dylan sing a few bars of “Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Mike D has proudly claimed he talked Dylan down from $2000 to $700 for the right to that sample.

But Ad-Rock, Mike D and MCA team with cohort Money Mark, aka Mark Nishita, to play most of the instruments you hear. There are big, booming drums, crunchy guitars, fuzzed-out bass and a heavy helping of B3. Money Mark’s organ playing is the instrumental heart of the record. Greg Kot, the Chicago Tribune critic with a historically high batting average, hit again when he called Money Mark the record’s “secret weapon.” On tunes such as “Lighten Up,” “So What’cha Want,” and an instrumental tribute to organist “Groove Holmes,” he plays like a church lady whose switch has flipped, electricity flowing through his fingers.

Here the Beasties built a reputation they would only burnish on records such as To the 5 Boroughs and The Mix-Up. For the next 20 years, they were the best white funk band on the planet.

Musically, Check Your Head trips a number of wires. Lyrically it’s just a trip. On top of the typical wordplay and chest-thumping, it’s littered with mystical explorations and themes of personal empowerment. This is a version of the Beastie Boys that could hold Buddhist tenets in one hand and spin a basketball on the other. These are the Beasties who wanted to free Tibet. If the belching frat-boy sympathizers who made Licensed to Ill foresaw this version of the Beastie Boys, they would have formed a circle and taken turns beating the sensibility out of each other.

Opener “Jimmy James” shouts out Mother Earth and treats music as a precursor to racial harmony. For all its quirks, “Pass the Mic” preaches the message “be true to yourself and you will never fall.” “Gratitude” is centered on just that, and reflects the sort of maturity that would bleed into future albums. This kinder, gentler side of the band was most fully realized in MCA’s famous ode to “all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and the friends” on “Ill Communication” standout “Sure Shot.”

The most obvious example of the band’s spiritual seeking comes on “Stand Together.” Over the rumble and squawk of the track, they talk of musical vibrations and chase this mantra: “Love vibe / contemplation time / Love vibe / Intuition time / Love vibe / Evolution time / Love vibe / Resolution time.” The most hippie-fied collection of lyrics on a Beasties record keeps good sonic company. There is drum-circle percussion throughout; chant-like passages on “Lighten Up”; and closer “Namaste” feels like the Beasties doing some deep-sea crate-digging and coming up with the music of Sun Ra.

No discussion of Check Your Head is complete without a few words about “So What’Cha Want.” It exists within the pantheon of signature Beasties songs, alongside the likes of “Brass Monkey,” “Sabotage,” “Sure Shot” and “Intergalactic.” It just might be their high-water mark. Money Mark’s organ is filthy; drums echo in a sort of self-contained call-and-response. And the band finds a flawless mix of braggadocio and goofiness that is embodied in, for my money, the best Beasties lyric of all time, courtesy of Mike D: “Y’all suckers write me checks and then they bounce / So I reach into my pocket for the fresh amount / See I’m the long, leaner Victor the Cleaner / I’m the illest motherfucker from here to Gardena.”

With 25 years’ worth of hindsight, Check Your Head isn’t the Beastie Boys’ magnum opus. It’s too strange, too stream-of-consciousness. But it is a fine middle brother, worthy of love, recognition and being addressed without mention of its siblings. It is the sound of the coolest band on the planet spending some of the capital it earned, but getting a whole lot back.

 

Kendrick Lamar's 'Damn.' Embraces the Complexity and Talent of the Man Behind It

Music ReviewAndy TabelingComment

Perhaps the most cinematic and high-concept rapper in the world right now, for Kendrick Lamar to release a record nearly free of skits, interludes, or interviews with deceased rappers seemed impossible after two major label albums that redefined the limits of what’s expected and acceptable for a mainstream rap record to feel and sound like. While the feature-length follow up to modern classic To Pimp a Butterfly begins with a spoken word track detailing the rapper’s supposed death, Damn. feels mostly like other rap records released in the past few years in terms of thematic material, structure and style. What makes the album special is it just happens to be one of the most talented, interesting and considered rappers in the world making it.

Much was made of the influence of the history of black music on To Pimp a Butterfly as that album was defined by Thundercat’s six-string bass and Robert Glasper’s keys as much as Kendrick's world-class lyricism, but Damn.’s first full-length track “DNA.” doesn’t veer too far from his Los Angeles roots, as producer Mike Will Made It puts on his best G funk impression with one of the albums most inspired beats. That track to some extent misleads the listener of what to expect from the rest of the record. Many of the album’s tracks are more muted than “DNA.," as it and lead single “HUMBLE” create some moments of tremendous energy and force.

The inclusion of a red-hot producer like Mike Will Made It is telling of Damn.’s sonic touchstones. Producers of the highest class are everywhere on this record, as TBAB’s Terrence Martin returns as well as Adele producer Greg Kurstin both supplement familiar faces like longtime collaborator Sounwave. Damn. uses an fusion of styles familiar to Kendrick Lamar already while exploring the world of rap trends. Given the album’s preoccupation with Lamar proving his prowess over others in the rap world, Kendrick’s melodic bars on the hooky and effective “LOVE.” seem a direct challenge to others doing a similar thing (read: Drake) to step their game up. On a track like “LOVE.," which wears its melodicism and sweet simplicity on its sleeve, Damn. deserves credit for embracing pop structure and simplicity without sacrificing Lamar’s core. A brief breezy “YAH.” fits incredibly well in the context of the album, as the pop moments are spread out well enough that they never feel like grabs for radio attention.

In other places, the album would have perhaps done better avoiding embracing modern trends that don’t suit Kendrick’s lyricism and storytelling abilities particularly well. Monster single “HUMBLE.” seems to ape sounds and styles present in the south. Considering Kendrick’s strength as a storyteller and songwriter, the simple brag-rap and repetitive flow rob us a lot of what makes Kendrick unique. Considering “HUMBLE.” was the lead single from this album, it’s a pretty strong step down from a “King Kunta," “Alright,” or “Swimming Pools."

The album doesn’t entirely sound like a pop-rap record, as some of Kendrick’s stylistic touchstones and experimental tendencies leak into Damn., producing again stunning results. Thundercat’s bass returns on “Feel” as Kendrick creates some of his considered and well-constructed verses in years, mostly abandoning storytelling for a nonlinear, near stream-of-conscious collection of musings on faith, family, and fame.

The one-two punch of the playful accessibility of “LOVE.” and the dense, hard-edged “XXX.” is telling of the album’s deliberate structure. The schizophrenic back and forth between calm and ferocity, tension and release, point to an artist deeply concerned the full-length listening experience. Even though the album isn’t broken up with interludes featuring Kendrick's father demanding Dominos pizza, the album’s structure lends itself well to its thematic considerations. The staggering and complex “XXX.” follows “LOVE.,” featuring three distinct sections that showcase some of Kendrick's most powerful lyricism (Kendrick has a remarkable ability to make frequently revisited topics feel fresh at every mention), and some of Damn.’s most ambitious production. The kinetic siren-fueled second section contrasted with the glum, Bono-sung third section is one of Damn.’s finest moments.

Damn. will most likely be remembered as Kendrick’s most spiritual album. Biblical references pepper his musings on success and recognition, and one of the few spoken-word moments is from his cousin Carl musing on God, the Israelites and the plights and struggles of Black America. Along with those religious themes, the tension between spiritual humility and rap excess worms its way into the album in interesting and fresh ways. The modestly produced “PRIDE.” precedes the audacious and swaggering “HUMBLE." While none of this is necessarily new ground for the artist or the genre, because Kendrick is such a clever lyricist, and the songs are either interesting or plain fun, the album never feels repetitive. Considering many of the big picture lyrical themes are present across Kendrick’s discography, Damn. manages to engage to a remarkable degree.

One could consider Damn. as a simpler foil to Kendrick's two major label full-length gems, though a closer listen and examination of the artistry at hand should keep even the most demanding listener appeased with an artist growing to occupy a unique space of accessibility and experimentation, ambition and pop satisfaction. While it doesn’t always reach the heights of the TBAP tracks like “Wesley’s Theory” or “Mortal Man," Damn. is at its best a breathtaking pop-rap record never content with one theme or idea, embracing instead the complexity and talent of the man behind it.

Father John Misty Writes Civilization's Obituary with 'Pure Comedy'

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

There will be no casual audience for Father John Misty’s latest studio album Pure Comedy. Any time appropriate for listening to the album will not be spontaneous, brief, or passive. The headiness associated with any Father John Misty release is multiplied here by an unverifiable amount of times over and any recommendation of Pure Comedy for listening should be accompanied by an obligatory warning: this album is not a comforting experience. It would be nice to have the romantic jest and the lush sounds of I Love You, Honeybear (Sub Pop, 2015) rehashed as a therapeutic remedy to 2016. But that is not what we need and that is not what Father John Misty is interested in. As we toil with the consequences of an election year gone awry and ready ourselves for the consequences of upcoming developments, how can we approach art, life, or anything with leisure?

On Pure Comedy, Father John Misty (née Josh Tillman) tackles everything between political antichrists, the digital human experience, heavy-handed religiosity, and warring ideologies. The album is simultaneously a self-interrogation and an interrogation of the broader public’s role in enabling the current state of the union. But the questions that Tillman dares to ask are amorphously oblique and daunting. “Has commentary been more lucid than anybody else?” the protagonist asks on single “Ballad of the Dying Man.” Tillman’s choice of subject matter is certainly ambitious, but it is appropriate and well-deserved for him to take on. He dares to confront the most difficult questions looming over the nation, forgoing an altruistic or omnipotent approach for one that is genuinely vulnerable, concerned, and ultimately limited by his humanity.

Tillman’s signature backhanded humor is almost exclusively sarcastic on Pure Comedy, in contrast to I Love You, Honeybear’s facetious moments. Pure Comedy focuses a critical lens on modern society’s cultural practice, socio-political choices, and value set. “Bedding Taylor Swift / Every night inside the Oculus Rift / After mister and the missus finish dinner and the dishes” goes the opening lines to “Total Entertainment Forever.” Tillman’s criticisms are unsparing and pessimistic, a fitting match to the balladic tone of the album’s instrumentals. Melancholic pianos form the foundations of nearly every song on Pure Comedy, achieving a quality comparable to any Carole King-James Taylor collaboration on “Ballad of the Dying Man” and a Billie Joel theatricality on “Total Entertainment Forever.”

The album becomes a manifesto at its longest and most epic moments. “Leaving LA” and “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” clock in at 14 and 10 minutes respectively. The songs take listeners on a real-time tour of Tillman’s disgruntled headspace as he commutes from his home to the highway and convey the unsatisfactory and fleeting experiences of life in Los Angeles. In these songs, listeners will find themselves introspectively protracted. They are the negative spaces to an album densely packed with lyrics that offer more questions than answers concerning humanity's current condition, but not for a lack of trying to ascertain resolution. 

Through Pure Comedy's satire, Tillman does his best to offer solutions to the world’s problems, but he does not pretend to know the answers to all of them. He has no qualms about identifying societal shortcomings and challenging listeners to question whether or not they have been complicit with the regression of society’s development. He laments the ways in which our aspirations have incurred woeful externalities, telling Zane Lowe “When the internet came out it was like, this is the truest form of democracy that human beings have ever invented, this is gonna be the utopia. And you fast forward and it’s pornography.” Pure Comedy is a sobering experience and a memorandum outlining the faults in our current condition as a society and species. For some, this album will reek of an artist taking himself too seriously, but this is a gravitas that deserves applause. When was the last time you put yourself on the line by voicing your complaints? Did you try to solve them afterwards too?

San Fermin's 'Belong' is Chamber Pop Excellence

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

As far as bands are concerned, San Fermin is arguably one of the most unintentionally musical projects on the active circuit. If you’re unfamiliar with the group (perhaps “collective” is a better term) San Fermin, you may find your subconscious asking “well, why are they famous?” If such is the case, I’ll bury the lede.

San Fermin is the vehicle for auteur composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone (an exceptional composer name, by the way) to get his proverbial chamber pop “rocks” off. While has Ludwig-Leone handled most to all of the composition and songwriting for San Fermin’s three LP releases, the recording process as a whole is by committee.

Vocalists Charlene Kaye and Allen Tate provide melodies and additional lyrical input, while John Brandon, Stephen Chen, Tyler McDiarmid, Rebekah Durham and Michael Hanf provide the grit and structure of San Fermin. Over the course of four years, San Fermin released two exceptional explorations of the baroque and chamber pop realms – San Fermin (2013) and Jackrabbit (2015) – which culminated in the production of the band’s newest full-length effort, Belong.

Between the three albums, Belong feels slightly more akin to the band's eponymous debut. The prevailing sensibilities of earnestness and simultaneous trepidation are as strong in Belong as any instance on San Fermin. Not to place Jackrabbit on the comparative backburner, but Belong serves as a current (in this instance meaning, “musically topical”) return to form.

There are classic tenants of San Fermin-dom such as visceral horn sections composed by Ludwig-Leone and performed by John Brandon (trumpet) and Stephen Chen (saxophone). If I may have a moment of personal expression and highlight one of my favorite instances of exceptional horn-i-ness (sorry) – “Better Form” has one of the strongest baritone sax basslines I can recall (I suppose that phrase isn’t uttered all that often in modern music criticism, but I digress).

Led by Allen Tate’s own baritone timbre, “Better Form” struts around like a modern wistful club anthem, but Ludwig-Leone’s brilliance places horns and strings where the familiar womps of a Deadmau5 or Flume might place some bright shimmery electronica. The song ebbs and flows with club sensibilities – drops, dramatic musical breaks – but maintains that strong baroque methodology San Fermin has nestled itself into. The song itself is one giant crescendo into the album’s second third, and by far and away one of it most dynamic.

Speaking of dynamism, such a descriptor is necessary when referencing any and all songs of which feature both vocalists Allen Tate and Charlene Kaye performing in unison. While both have their exceptional merits – Kaye being more airy and affirmative, Tate serving as the more despondent and doleful narrator – their “duets” offer up the purest sense of San Fermin. Title track “Belong” serves as an excellent example – Tate leads the song in his historically crestfallen croon, but Kaye and violinist Rebekah Durham provide a ray of light that veils Tate’s eventual growth into contentment.

While there may be no obvious stalwart track like “Sonsick” (off of San Fermin) or saccharine sweet single like “Emily” (off Jackrabbit), Belong as a whole stands to wind up being the most complete record in San Fermin’s early discography. Songs like “Dead” feel unique to current purviews amongst the new-age bourgeoisies and their individual (and potentially dwindling) freedoms as Kaye caterwauls in front of a frenzied composition only Ludwig-Leone could conceive.

Belong itself is a bit of a marvel, considering the extensive songlisting of San Fermin’s three record discography. Ludwig-Leone has composed 55 songs in the past four years. Mind you, that was composed, not “wrote.” The complex and concerted efforts of Ludwig-Leone have always benefitted San Fermin throughout the band’s existence, but never more so than on Belong. After half a decade of touring and playing alongside each other, Belong makes it apparent that Ludwig-Leone and his associates have reached their most intimate understanding of each other, culminating in a masterful crescendo.

Future Islands' 'The Far Field' is Both Journey and Destination for a Restless Heart

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

When describing Future Islands their recently retired, tongue-in-cheek Twitter bio put it best: “Too noisy for new wave, too pussy for punk.” Their distinctive formula has changed relatively little over the years, and The Far Field continues to weave Gerrit Welmer’s deft synth atmospheres and William Cashion’s bass groove spine into the perfect backdrop for Samuel T. Herring’s ever-exhilarating rants and raves.

An ode to the road, restless nomadism permeates their fifth full-length, the title of which even implies a promised land beyond. You can hear the drone of a jet engine, the pound of footsteps, and the angst of a heart beating all twisted into The Far Field's melodic pulse and swirl. Over 1000 shows deep into relentless touring and coming off of the peak of their popularity, Future Islands are exhausted, but they maintain a spritely rhythm despite this.

If anything The Far Field is guilty only of leaving the rougher edges on the cutting room floor. Perhaps the awareness of now larger audiences or even weary self-preservation softened the throaty metal growls found in past songs like “Fall From Grace” (At a gig I attended post-Singles Herring joked he had just begun to see a vocal coach for the first time and that said coach was concerned), though they are of course still sprinkled throughout the live show. In fact, though you won’t find quite a “Long Flight” or “Tin Man” level climax recorded here, you get the feeling these songs were almost made as teasers for their now famous performances; You can practically feel the vein-bursting screams in “Aladdin,” visualize the sultry hip swaying in delicious slow jam “Candles,” and taste the sweat in “Cave.”

The passion and drive is still there, but the “Spirit”-esque hooks are left behind as well; Future Islands have earned your attention, now here is what they have to say. Perhaps the most vulnerable moment of The Far Field is “Through The Roses,” with Herring juxtaposing internal anxiety with the rose-colored perception of the star on a stage who is, after all, still human, though not easily so. “And you see me through the roses / Through the lights and the smoke and the screen / I’m no one better / I’m no better than you / And I’m scared,“ he reveals. Despite the chest-beating confidence he can exude and the success that it's found, you believe him.

Though “It’s not easy just being human” seems obvious, many do lose sight of the delicate humanity in entertainers, especially one whose stocky frame and soulful evocations can at times seem larger than life. There is a selfish voyeurism afforded the listener - one can marvel at Herring as he mimes ripping his own heart out or tearing a mask off his melting face, but when the lights come on you go home. For Herring and Future Islands home still remains just that, a Far Field somewhere down the line.

Restlessness electrifies this album in a way deeper than to simply say the grass is always greener. “The fear that keeps me going and going and going / Is the same fear that brings me to my knees,” Herring grinds out at The Far Field’ intensest on “Cave.” How do you deal with the paradox that your art is driven by the same pain of love that the touring artist’s lifestyle unforgivingly impedes? By using it as the fuel to carry on.

“North Star” could be read as a prequel to canon staple “Long Flight” as a weather delay keeps Herring from fulfilling a promise to be home soon, and in a record written about a sort of unrequited search for a self-actualized peace any respite is fleeting. “Oh, at last! / You’re here in my arms again / And I don’t know how long / So I won’t waste a bit,” he sings on “The Beauty of the Road.”

Still, to the casual listener, the Letterman meme viewer, much of this might be glided over. It is, after all, a pop structure built on an undeniable throb and grab. Sentiment aside, it’s just damn catchy. And though this is a record review, as is already apparent it is nearly impossible to separate the theatrical dimension of the live embodiment of these tracks from the spinning wax that seems tantalizingly lifeless by comparison.

To fully internalize The Far Field it helps to have witnessed the shocking ease with which Herring seamlessly transitions between the emotional convulsions of his stage prowl to the wide, disarming smile he flashes the second the songs end. “We’re just fucking around,” he often small talks in between, but one glimpse of the way his face contorts as he pounds the side of his head with his fist before collapsing to the ground gives you the feeling he is extremely not fucking around. Despite this, whereas most artists this deep into character are impenetrably impersonal, the down-to-earth accessibility Herring maintains throughout it all is truly a thing of beauty. The balance between tortured artist and man you could comfortably share a drink with is rarely struck with real quality, and it’s this fine line of flexible authenticity that make Future Islands’ music paradoxically familiar yet otherworldly, oscillating between primal and candor and doing both better than most bands can do even one.

This record benefits from this self-aware duality in more ways than one. “And what’s a song without you? / When every song I write is about you,“ Herring pines in single “Ran.” As he first penned a decade ago, “The Heart Grows Old,” and Herring has come to terms with much since then, avoiding hardening too much or burning out in the process. The Far Field is a matured and knowing hunger, one “ran ‘round the wailing world.”