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Album Review

GUM’s 'Glamorous Damage' Makes Slight Return to Tame Impala Psychedelia

Music ReviewEzra CarpenterComment

On Currents, Tame Impala did away with their nimble guitar riffs in favor of exclusively bass acoustics padded with synth melodies and drum kits, creating a divide amongst those who herald the LP as the band’s best work to date and those who are lukewarm to what they consider a mild disappointment. Consequently, Tame Impala’s reception has been more divided this year than any other. These observations are not intended to call the unanimity of the praise Currents has received into question, but to note that with any change in creative direction and the expansion of an artist’s discography, new material inevitably differentiates fans as either for or against an artist’s new sound. 

Three LPs, a significant style change, and several offshoot ventures have warranted enough material for the Tame Impala fan base to be classified in a few different ways: fans of the old, fans of the new, fans that are completely bought in, and fans devoted enough to have an opinion on every Tame Impala side project (of which there are plenty). The release of Glamorous Damage by Tame Impala multi-instrumentalist Jay Watson under the moniker GUM now furthers the criteria for die-hard Tame Impala fandom while simultaneously offering glimpses of the band’s forgone style. 

Glamorous Damage is an amalgam of synth pop (think backing tracks to establishing shots of an '80s coming of age film), stadium power pop, and electronic funk. The album is mostly an up-tempo extension of the sounds explored on Currents with the occasional semblance of Lonerism melodies. Consider “Notorious Gold,” whose synth leads and power chord accents can be best described as a Lonerism instrumental at a Currents pace. If you were wondering where Tame Impala’s signature psychedelic guitars went, Jay Watson hid them on this album. 

The instrumental production is noteworthy. Consecutive tracks “Elafonissi Blue” and “Television Sick” impress with the clarity of their layered synths, percussions, and guitar riffs. The delayed and distorted vocals on these songs are vocal highlights of the album that are, unfortunately, not replicated elsewhere. The low volume of the vocals throughout this album, in addition to the distortion and delay, are both an obvious guise for Watson’s limited vocal capabilities and an acknowledgement that Watson cannot compete with Tame Impala frontman Kevin Parker as a vocalist. The underwhelming vocals make the album sound as if it were the product of the theoretical situation in which Kevin Parker dies, but Tame Impala decides to keep going in his memory. 

For an album with the word “glamor” in its title and quintessentially glam rock album art, Glamorous Damage takes glam rock as more of a light suggestion than an outright influence. Had Watson incorporated glam rock’s distinctive grit into this project, it may have avoided the decline in the instrumental appeal evident in the album’s deeper cuts and fared better at sustaining listeners’ interest. While Glamorous Damage can commandingly excite a dancefloor at its funkiest moments, its inconsistency and lackluster vocals ultimately diminish it to a forgettable experience.

'Teens of Style' Is Rebirth of Car Seat Headrest's Furtive Journey

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Is there such thing as an overqualified musician? Does releasing eleven albums without any label backing constitute a titan of recording? What the hell does Car Seat Headrest even mean?

Rhetoric aside, Will Toledo is a millennial marvel - the twenty three year old man behind the automotive-comfort nom de plume Car Seat Headrest has recorded and released eleven albums since 2010. October 30th will mark Toledo’s first album released with a label, Teens of Style. Out on Matador Records, TOS is a refurbishing of some of Toledo’s more prominent tracks from his extensive pre-existing discography.

Perhaps the preeminent bedroom-based producer of the Twenty Teens, Toledo’s work as Car Seat Headrest runs the gamut of musical inspirations. With songs reminiscent of Weezer, Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston, and Beck, TOS acts as a proper retrospective of Toledo’s growth as a writer and performer. Songs that had once been released under the pretense of personal amusement and catharsis from life in Leesburg, Virginia have been repurposed as a formal introduction of Car Seat Headrest to the indie masses.  

TOS opens with “Sunburned Shirts,” an ambient psych rock track that first appeared on Toledo’s 2013 release My Back Is Killing Me Baby, is retooled as an aloof and apologetic narrative that blows itself up halfway through, becoming a raucous convulsion of surf guitar and filtered vocals.

“The Drum” (My Back Is Killing Me Baby, 2013) ushers in the Matador era of Car Seat Headrest angst, having abandoned his moniker-earning recording practices (recording in the back of his family car) and traded them for full-fledged production that asserts Toledo’s truest feelings of boredom and self-awareness.

Many songs on TOS exhibit Toledo’s distinct perspective of detachment from certain banalities of life, such as “Something Soon” (My Back Is Killing Me Baby, 2013), with its Brian Wilson-esque harmonies that veil indefinite boredom with lines like, “I want to sing this song like I’m dying.” Or “No Passion” in which Toledo remarks on trite millennial discontent, remarking, “Still alive / No perspective / Album is over / Go to bed sober.”

Other songs on TOS offer bleak insight into Toledo’s heightened self-awareness. “Time to Die” (Monomania, 2012) is an offertory of alienation and frustration with the divergence taken early on in others’ lives – “All of my friends are getting married / All my friends are right with God.” The sole new song for TOS, “Bad Role Models, Old Idols Exhumed ("Psst, teenagers / Put your clothes back on"), extends these emotions that Toledo has undoubtedly run into with his increasing acclaim, indicating passive aggressive tendencies like “I’m going to delete you,” as a means of escape.

Toledo’s solitary and honest dissemination of his inner-workings, up to this point, have been undoubtedly impressive, with Teens of Style acting as the punctuating mark on Car Seat Headrest’s furtive journey. In his typically prolific style, Toledo has already announced Car Seat Headrest’s next Matador release Teens of Denial which will feature all new material, but for now, Teens of Style will surely be an introduction and continuation of a budding indie luminary.

Julien Baker's Debut 'Sprained Ankle' Is Painfully Good

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

The world of music adores artists that are seemingly beyond their years – Låpsley, SOAK, Lorde – each has their own unique appeal. But none of those artists have managed to create intimately visceral narratives to the point of worry that Julien Baker has crafted on Sprained Ankle.

Sprained Ankle marks Baker’s official debut release on 6131 Records, an effort that reveals the nineteen year-old Memphis native’s matter of fact assertions of wishing “I could write songs about anything other than death.” A slightly alarming statement coming from someone of her age, Baker weaves private thoughts into vividly bleak accounts of nurses administering sedatives and awaiting the subsequent unconsciousness on “Brittle Bones.” Including lines like “I’m so good at hurting myself,” it begins to paint a perspective of Baker’s intense awareness of the frailty of life.

Tender and inward, Baker’s earnest soprano floats above guitar loops that at certain points actually resemble heartbeats over a rhythm base. Songs like “Good News” really start to give the most barren look into Baker’s psyche: “I know its not important / But it is to me / And I’m only ever screaming at myself in public.” She offers up her startling self-awareness in a poignant manner, and while for others such honesty might be be exultant, for Baker it's unexpected to the point it could frighten some. But that’s the beauty of this record; such fragile narratives offered up by someone so unassuming allows her lyricism to cut to the marrow of anyone listening.

Sprained Ankle ends on a somber note, with a song about addiction (of whose its hard to tell) in “Rejoice,” that offers thinly veiled anger like “Call the blue lights / Curse your name,” and uncertainty, “I think there’s a god / I think he hears either way.” Baker’s detached vocals create an intense empathetic aspect to the track and album as a whole. The album ends with the aptly named “Go Home,” which presents Baker at her least self-conscious yet most apologetic with “Burned out on the edge of the highway / I’m sorry for asking please come take me home.” Being so young and so incredibly mindful of the personal nature of the album, “Go Home” acts as a firm completion of this harrowing announcement of her existence, an end to the first installment of Baker’s emotional outpouring, and a return to solace until the next cathartic release.

Baker’s songwriting is peculiar in the fact that it acts as a sort of a misdirect. Without taking much consideration of the songs, one might assume Baker has an oddly morose outlook on life, with so much focus on the desolate motifs and dying nature of life, however, it should be argued, it actually acts as a foil to that thought. Sprained Ankle presents the unnerving realities of life in an ambient sense, as a sort of celebration of living and having the awareness of knowing this could be the only chance to do so. In turn, it creates one of the most powerful debut records of 2015, and likely the inception of a more fertile and durable career than that of Baker’s counterparts.

Find Company in Majical Cloudz's Crippling and Cathartic 'Are You Alone?'

Music ReviewWeston PaganoComment

You can sense the music that Majical Cloudz creates staring into your soul the same way you feel Devon Welsh’s unblinking eyes piercing and stitching you up all at once. The sound of Majical Cloudz is bathing in that small, warm patch of light streaming into an otherwise dark room. There are icicles on the mantel.

Are You Alone? takes off where the Montreal duo’s preceding Impersonator left off; a paradox of bare-bones, minimalist soundscapes ebbing with lush depth that are somehow simultaneously tranquilizing and uplifting. Welsh’s immaculately vulnerable monologues and unflinching vocals are gently bold, and they drive their synth lullabies forward with severe care. Calculatedly organic, passionately controlled, it’s a journal reading in a dream.

Not much has changed in that regard; it’s still quintessentially Majical Cloudz. If anything, this new record has shrunk the band’s dynamism to an even narrower midrange. Gone are the pitter patterings of “Mister” and the thick locomotion of “Childhood’s End.” Even the already opaque and pale cover art of it’s predecessor is scaled back to a purer incarnation sans artist name. It’s austerity at its most suffocating.

"Will you let me change? / I want to but I think you want me the same,” Welsh asks on “Control.” And it’s a fair assumption. While there is certainly little evolution here, who can complain when the niche carved out is so compelling and captivating even at it’s most static? Majical Cloudz may need to diversify at some point in the future to keep the fast-paced music world interested, but that time is unimaginable as of today. In “Heavy,” he concludes with calligraphic repetition, "You gotta learn to love me / Cause I am what I am.” 

And what is he? Undoubtedly an acquired taste for some, yet his lyrical content is not that far removed from the pop platitudes of Top 40 with lines like, "And we're going downtown / Cause we feel like running around / Is it really this fun when you're on my mind? / Is it really this cool to be in your life?” in lovely standout “Downtown.” The uniqueness in Welsh’s artistry is not necessarily every sentiment in itself, but the crushing sincerity and earnestness in which they are mined and delivered.

Welsh's simplicity is always innate and genuine, never formulaic. It’s as if his words are leaking out of a very well-produced private tape recorder one’s stumbled upon in the night. Though Are You Alone? as a whole is an offer of companionship, there is still a sense of shouting into the void as the title track implores, "What's the point of a sad, sad song / Do You hear what I'm saying / Or not at all?" 

There is at least one change since Impersonator, however, and that is somewhat of an upward emotional turn. While the previous record is near end-to-end misery, Are You Alone? often transitions into glimpses of sanguine, childlike wonder. "And if suddenly I die / I hope they will say / That he was obsessed and it was okay,” he admits. His obsession is crippling and cathartic and carries over to the listener by IV.

The first time I heard leading single “Silver Car Crash” I was strapped to a Boeing in the process of taking off. What ensued was a fitting 4D experience, literally soaring along with the track’s whirring body and Smiths-esque, morbid confessions of adoration. As the pressure pushed me back down into the seat to spite the adrenaline I wondered how much of it was my own inertia and how much of it was Welsh himself, slowly constricting around me. I hoped my vessel would fare better than his own vehicle's violent end.

"And I know love is worth it / I am in perfect love with you / But I am dead already / And I am bleeding onto you / I hope you won't forget me / I am so hopelessly for you" he asserts in his final breath. It's Welsh at his most overbearing, and yet his tight grip is irresistible. Unlike "Bugs Don't Buzz," Are You Alone? might just end with a smile, even if it's a crooked one softly broken on the dashboard.

'I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler' Is YACHT's Post-Modern Manifesto

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

As we’ve all been reminded to the point of mind numbing redundancy, October 21, 2015 marks the exact day Marty McFly traveled in time to a future filled with hover-boards, Jaws 19, and Mr. Fusion. In short, none of those hare-brained ideas have come to fruition, leaving many pop culture enthusiasts yearning for a “future” that would have been much, much cooler.

YACHT front woman and self-professed futurist Claire L. Evans may or may not share the same personal sentiments as many pop culture devotees, but YACHT’s sixth studio album, I Thought the Future Would Be Cooler, does not hold such convictions. Instead, the album addresses the bothersome nature of today’s “future” is in fact much more woeful than imagined.

YACHT has been known for variably high concept albums in the past, but ITTFWBC reaches new grounds. In promoting the album’s release, Evans and Jona Bechtholt chose to release a lyric video for “L.A Plays Itself” that certainly challenged the norms for album promotion. The video can be found on a specific domain of the same name, however there is an intriguing twist, the video only plays when Los Angeles Ubers reach surge pricing. Intended to highlight the growing traffic problem in Los Angeles, the intention is admirable, but might risk being too novel in premise. 

Some of ITTFWBC’s track titles alone indicate that Evans and Bechtholt are taking direct issue with society’s “plugged in” disposition. “Ringtone” takes jabs at our attachment to cell phones and the subsequent detached nature of modern human interaction with “hold me up to your face/hold me close to your ear/ hold me close to your head/I’m on the line why aren’t you here?” A playful package for a more critical narrative, something Evans’ deft writing lends itself to wonderfully. That being said, certain songs like “Don’t Be Rude” toe the line of heavy-handed attempts at getting a point across and subtle suggestion. Despite that fact, the musicality of the album is powerful and propels the listener to soldier on. Unfortunately, Bechtholt’s beats and funk infusion may be too infectious.

ITTFWBC is a premier platform for Evans and Bechtholt to opine over the present state of societal affairs, cultural cornerstones of the YACHT manifesto. Each track serves as its own individual touchstone within the larger demonstration of technological aversion, with a sonically self-aware wink to the highly electro-nature of the album. Irresistible tempos and pulsing beats make ITTFWBC hold the listener’s attention to the point of potential distraction, which really muddles the lyrical content of the record.

High in concept, the album’s true intention is almost certain to be obscured by the sensationalist song titles like “I Wanna Fuck You Til I’m Dead,” and “War On Women,” catchy cadences, and sing along choruses, but to the listeners who are able to see through the heavy handed use of smoke and mirrors, they will truly understand the record, and YACHT will certainly be satisfied.

Beach House Make Small but Meaningful Changes on 'Thank Your Lucky Stars'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Plenty of landmark events have happened in the two-month span between August and October of 2015. Facebook announced their intent to roll out a “dislike” button, and social curmudgeons everywhere rejoice. Summer sports aficionados sat on the edge of their seats as the Minnesota Lynx capped off the 2015 WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association) season with a championship. And most unfortunately, Donald Trump is still spewing asinine commentary along the campaign trail.

Pop culture potpourri aside, there may be no other event more uncharacteristically monumental than Beach House’s two album releases in as many months’ time. The dream-state, shoe-gazing nature of the Baltimore duo works wonderfully for the multiple year breaks in the band’s discography, with more than three years passing between Beach House’s Bloom beauty in 2012 and this past August’s Depression Cherry LP. So when Beach House announced the release of their second 2015 record, Thank Your Lucky Stars, for October 16, 2015, the indie world let out an exuberantly passive huzzah.

After the predictable (though enjoyable) sameness that was Depression Cherry, Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s assurance that TYLS was a departure from the typical Beach House approach seemed to enliven many that this may in fact be the band’s best work yet. That “departure” may have been a bit of a misnomer in regard to most people’s assumption that “departure” in fact equals “different,” when in fact, that was not the case. The press release explains:

Thank Your Lucky Stars was written after Depression Cherry from July 2014 - November 2014 and recorded during the same session as Depression Cherry. The songs came together very quickly and were driven by the lyrics and the narrative. In this way, the record feels very new for us, and a great departure from our last few records. Thematically, this record often feels political. It’s hard to put it into words, but something about the record made us want to release it without the normal ‘campaign.’ We wanted it to simply enter the world and exist.

Despite the ample explanations that accompany the record’s release, TYLS is still an enigma. The band’s insistence that it isn’t a Depression Cherry companion becomes difficult to grasp on tracks like “Majorette” and “She’s So Lovely,” with both tracks moving in broad strokes that resemble both Depression Cherry and Teen Dream. The “classic” Beach House metronomic sound echoes in the background of virtually every song.

That being said, there are songs on TYLS that act as the enviable marriage of the albums ultra-lo-fi beginnings and more recent endeavors, such as “Elegy to the Void.” Perhaps one of the best integration of all five preceding albums, you hear the metronome, drums are crisper, individual instruments are audible, and Legrand’s lyrics are unexpectedly discernible at certain points. Other songs avoid becoming heavy handed shoe-gaze with tired pop banality, such as “Common Girl” which seems to focus on one central, wretched character: “She makes movies where she cries on cue / She still lives downtown…” and “Takes the pills and hides the notices / Cartoon rings of ill will.” TYLS is miles away from tropisms like “I’ll take care of you…”

All in all, Thank Your Lucky Stars acts as an extension of Depression Cherry in a lot of ways, as well as pivot point for Beach House’s career as a whole – many may want the band to actively change in a progressive way but the band chooses to continually broaden their sound in the most familiar and microscopic ways possible instead. It's what works for Legrand and Scally, and its afforded Beach House the ability to carve out a dream-pop legacy (and avoid becoming a caricature) on their own terms.

Autre Ne Veut Flies Under the Radar With 'Age of Transparency'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

James Blake, SOHN, Rhye, How To Dress Well, and JMSN serve as the current stalwarts of the nouveau amalgamation genre best known by joke-portmanteau-turned-legitimate-label PBR&B. A relatively young genre in the mainstream, PBR&B’s rise to popularity has left some artists within its classification unjustly understated, and none more so than Arthur Ashin, AKA Autre Ne Veut.

The journey of Autre Ne Veut has not gone totally unrecognized – sophomore record Anxiety enjoyed its fair share of critical success as one of the best albums of 2013, but Autre Ne Veut still couldn’t quite breach the surface of the zeitgeist. Because of his atypical approach to the genre, Ashin’s foray into PBR&B has been a bit of an exercise in futility. With third album, Age of Transparency, the unabashed nature of Ashin’s vocal and musical deconstructions suggests that mainstream success within PBR&B was never his aim.

Opening track, “On and On,” showcases Ashin’s warbling vocals atop airy piano that never quite reaches a true coda, and hysteric percussion that writhes and jolts with the increasing fury his voice. 

Second track, “Panic Room,” corrals itself and sets the tone for what the rest of Age of Transparency will actually turn into. More akin to a light 80s power ballad than PBR&B pillow whispers, Ashin continues to utilize his clamorous vocals to plead “I don’t want to feel like you are not here with me;” setting a more vulnerable lyrical tone, more apparent than earlier Autre Ne Veut endeavors.

The musicality is much more involved in Age of Transparency, with tracks like “Cold Winds” mixing bedroom bass and industrial rock ala Nine Inch Nails, the title track adding a little bit of St. Elmo’s Fire style jazz, and the final two tracks – “Over Now” and “Get Out” – both feature tinges of folk and gospel within their depths.

Ultimately, where Autre Ne Veut’s unorthodox modus operandi has failed to meet mainstream standards of PBR&B, the “mainstays” of the melded genre have failed to develop and come into their own the way that Ashin has. Age of Transparency is a triumph of continued development and understanding of a personal representation that will serve its producer better than any conventional approach possibly could, and its culmination is one of the most underrated albums of 2015.

Age of Transparency available now via Downtown Records.

The Dead Weather Are Resurrected on 'Dodge and Burn'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

Five years removed from the release of The Dead Weather’s second album, Sea of Cowards, the scrappy indie-supergroup relegated (or elevated, depending on your perspective) to Jack White side project, released their third album, Dodge and Burn.

Following some haphazard research (Google search: “Dead Weather new album promotion”), it has become increasingly apparent that the majority of music/lifestyle blogs and brands covering the Dodge and Burn release are under the impression that The Dead Weather is a project only signified by Jack White's presence and his growing relevance in pop culture.

For the sake of uniqueness, Transverso has elected to avoid diverting the reader with the ongoing and over-saturated melodrama of Jack White vs. Dan Auerbach, Jack White-Hates-Life memes, and the enigma that is TIDAL music streaming, and instead focus solely on his collaborative combination with Alison Mosshart, Dean Fertita, and (the apparently eleven-fingered) “Little” Jack Lawrence.

Dodge and Burn opens with the Zeppelin-leaning “I Feel Love (Every Million Miles),” with Mosshart caterwauling with a warped joy throughout the track. Fertita’s guitar stands out as the song’s flair piece, while White’s drums leads the track every which way, further extending the Bonham-esque nature of the song.

“Buzzkill(er)” and “Let Me Through” follow “I Feel Love” on Dodge and Burn, and both tracks fit the more “classic” Dead Weather sound – sonic allusions to Captain Beefhart, crunchy bass, unkempt drums, and the unhinged pacing. Both are solid tracks, but don’t necessarily offer as playful a tone as “I Feel Love.”

While the second and third tracks on Dodge and Burn maintain what’s familiar, “Three Dollar Hat” heightens the album’s diversity (and overall bad-assery) with a romp of a track. Batting cleanup, the song sounds like Kurt Cobain and The Mad Hatter got together to record an industrial rock track and blow it up one minute in. With only White’s vocals leading the track along, it only helps extend the screwball nature that has become The Dead Weather.

The middle part of Dodge and Burn hearkens back with sounds more reminiscent of Horehound and Sea of Cowards, though “Rough Detective” begins with a brief (but intriguing) sort of skuzzball jazz beat, eventually diving right into the scrappy rock and roll the band cut their teeth with. “Open Up” probably acts as the most archetypal Dead Weather song on the album, with a ravaging opening and the eventual swell into a massive crescendo that lays waste to any expectation of anything else.

Dodge and Burn closes out with a three-track cacophony of rock and roll blitzkrieg – a tight manifesto in “Mile Markers,” a vociferous unraveling with “Cop and Go,” and a triumphant exclamation point in “Too Bad” – and ends with a curious, almost Raconteurs-ish ballad in “Impossible Winner” that acts as a departure from the standoff nature of Dodge and Burn and instead offers the affirmation that The Dead Weather are not just another Jack White side-project, but in fact a full-fledged band that looks to continue for years to come.

Big Boi and Phantogram Play to Each Other's Strengths on 'Big Grams EP'

Music ReviewJulian AxelrodComment

At this point, collaborations between artists from disparate genres aren’t a new concept. While a rapper remixing an indie band’s hit single used to be cause for confusion or celebration, these days it’s common for, say, Big K.R.I.T. to add a verse to an alt-J single. But these tracks tend to lack a sense of immediacy ­– more often than not, it sounds like the rapper just recorded a verse on the road and emailed it to the band’s manager.

Big Grams – the new collaboration between Atlanta rapper Big Boi of Outkast fame and New York electro-pop duo Phantogram – feels refreshing in comparison. Big Boi discovered Phantogram through a pop-up ad (making Big Grams the most compelling argument against Spotify Premium so far), before the trio tested the waters on three of the standout tracks from Big Boi’s 2012 album Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors.

It’s a testament to the versatility of both artists’ sounds that this new, full collaboration covers several different styles, never content to stay in one lane. Opener “Run for Your Life” features Big Boi maneuvering an anxious, clattering beat that feels nearly claustrophobic until Sarah Barthel’s soothing hook emerges like a sunrise on a dark night. Two tracks later, standout single “Fell In The Sun” lays Phantogram’s signature synths and horn samples over skittering hi-hats to produce a warm, exuberant summer jam that sounds like an ice cream truck riding on hydraulics.

Barthel recently told Rolling Stone, “The main focus of wanting to do this project was to do things that we wouldn't normally do anywhere else,” and the EP’s experimental streak extends to its guests: Rap legend 9th Wonder and dubstep wunderkind Skrillex contribute production to “Put It On Her” and “Drum Machine,” respectively, but these tracks don’t feel out of place alongside Josh Carter’s stylistically omnivorous production. Similarly, “Born to Shine” matches the aggressive energy of guests Run the Jewels while still feeling like a Big Grams song. Big Boi’s verse compliments the tone and theme of “Lights On” without feeling superfluous, while his playful sing-rap conversation with Barthel on “Goldmine Junkie” is one of the record’s most thrilling moments.

Not everything works – there are moments where Barthel’s hooks feel like an afterthought, and Big Boi has a tendency to fall back on familiar subject matter (if you don’t want to hear multiple references to Big Boi’s semen, Big Grams EP might not be for you), but the project succeeds overall because both parties understand each other’s styles and what makes them work, allowing them to play to their strengths while simultaneously exploring new, unexpected directions. Over the course of their debut EP, Big Grams prove that cross-genre collaborations are more than just a gimmick – as long as they’re done right.

Youth Lagoon Expands Sound And Soul On 'Savage Hills Ballroom'

Music ReviewSean McHughComment

If ever there were any doubt that Trevor Powers’ efforts as Youth Lagoon presented his own inner-workings in a genuinely vulnerable light, Savage Hills Ballroom acts as a visceral offertory to the remaining doubters.

Powers took up a two-month residency with Bristol, London based producer, Ali Chant (Perfume Genius, She & Him), recording and adapting his solitary narratives into more relatable motifs than albums past. It suggests an emotional actualization brought upon by the drowning of a close friend in Powers’ native Boise, Idaho in 2013. Understandably so, the death had great effect on Powers, propelling him to cancel a string of dates.

Where Youth Lagoon’s first two albums, The Year of Hibernation (2011) and Wondrous Bughouse (2013), played into the solitude of Powers’ being, Savage Hills Ballroom presents a more extrinsic aspect of Powers’ psyche. SHB’s opening track, “Officer Telephone” initially acts as a misdirect for the album’s course. The Wurlitzer-y ambling paired with Powers’ noticeably post-production-less vocals harkens to Youth Lagoon days of old with a slight twist. A minute into the track, however, Powers turns the track on its head in the best of ways with a psych-folk rock breakdown and layered vocals ushering in an irrefutably divergent Youth Lagoon, only marred by an abrupt fadeout come far too soon.

Highway Patrol Stungun” continues the startlingly in-your-face emotionalism that would seem to be the SHB norm. Powers offers unfamiliarly inclusive lines, such as “remember when no one danced the same / we all had a voice/we all had a name.” The composition of the track mimics the expressive lyricism, with less post-production wizardry and more warmth from strings and keys.

Other songs on SHB continue the remarkable deviation from introspective opining to highly associative accounts of what can only be assumed to be aspects of Powers’ emotional navigation since his friend’s passing in 2013. “The Knower” offers particularly familiar tones of sorrow and personal delusion: “oh, everybody wants to think they’re good at heart when they’re full of hate/oh, everybody wants to think their luck will change, when there’s no such thing.” Disconcerting realities of the everyman are prevalent throughout, but none more familiar than the opening line of “Rotten Human”: “How are we supposed to know what’s real?” Whether or not Powers’ intentions for lines such as the one referenced are intended to be highly relatable or not, the motif is beguiling nonetheless.

Appetizing lyrical and composition departures aside, SHB is not without the familiar dream pop musings that garnered Youth Lagoon its praise. Songs like “Doll’s Estate” and album closer “X-Ray” offer highly introspective glimpses into the soul of the album, despite both songs’ lack of lyrics.

Savage Hills Ballroom is an excitable coping mechanism framed with universal themes and existential crises. It is Youth Lagoon at its core, but vigorously distinct from preceding records. The change is good, if not grand, presenting Powers’ musings and idiosyncrasies in a more performative state.