11

SZA – Ctrl

Listening through Top Dawg Entertainment’s (label home of Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad) only female artist SZA’s debut full length, Ctrl, I’ve found myself thinking back to Frank Ocean’s masterpieces, Channel Orange and Blonde.  I think this is partially because these are among the best ‘R&B’ (if you can give Blonde a genre) albums I’ve heard over the last few years, partially because the production work of both records is so outstanding, and partially because both artists mine Forrest Gump for sexual innuendo.  But I think the true tying theme is the deconstruction of the complex emotions entwined with physical intimacy; power and control (from which the album takes its name), desperation, self-doubt, moral questioning and ambiguity.  Ctrl is absolutely a sex album, but, in the style increasingly common in today’s nuanced R&B writing (see FKA Twigs or The Weeknd’s older stuff), it’s also an incredibly personal record about what these encounters, these physical transactions of sorts, mean to SZA and her complex relationships, and how that empowers her as a woman in 2017.

Take third-sequenced “Doves in The Wind” (one of the many highlights that grace the album’s near-perfect opening side), where SZA and Kendrick Lamar thoroughly investigate all the connotations of ‘pussy’.  SZA asserts the importance of her sexuality (“You can never trivialize pussy”) and throws shade on anyone who attempts to diminish it (“Your dick is weak, buddy / It’s only replaced by a rubber substitute”), while Kendrick pitches the heterosexual male’s irrational take on the subject (“Niggas’ll lose they mind for it / Wine for it , dine for it – pussy / Pussy got endless prisoners, pussy always revengin’ her”).  Both artists complement each-other in a two-sided but refreshingly female-empowered take on sex.

But then on followup “Drew Barrymore”, SZA can relax into the perfect casual sexual encounter that can exist purely for pleasure, outside of power dynamics – “I’m so glad you could come by / Somebody get the tacos, somebody spark the blunt / Let’s start the Narcos off at episode one”.  This 360 evaluation of relations are part of what gives Ctrl heavy lyrical depth that also tackles depression (“We get so lonely, we pretend that this works/ I”m so ashamed of myself think I need therapy”), body image (“I know you’d rather be laid up with a big booty / You know I’m sensitive about havin’ no booty”) and aging into adulthood (“Hopin’ my 20 somethings won’t end / Hopin’ to keep the rest of my friends / Prayin’ the 20 somethings don’t kill me”).

But aside from its lyrical maturity, Ctrl‘s excellence is deeply indebted to how incredibly appealing and effortless SZA’s flow and cadence is throughout.  From her reggae inspired lilt on “Doves in the Wind” to her sinusoidal rap singing on opener “Supermodel” to the Destiny’s Child-like quickfire of “Wavy”, pretty much every vocal turn on the album is a home run.  She moves between singing, speak-singing and rapping with unexpected contours and emphasis on tracks (such as the Travis Scott-featuring “Love Galore”) like a surfer riding the curl of an endless wave.  And the production techniques applied to the dense and many harmonies that pop up throughout every verse and chorus of the record, including falsettos, echos and left-right panning (perhaps most notably on standout “Prom”), add even more dynamics and dimensions.  Through it all, however, SZA is never reaching, never shouting, constantly maintaining a cool level-headedness even on the record’s most emotional moments.  This choice to stay chill aligns perfectly with the album’s uninterrupted easy-going and minimalist arrangement choices.

Production-wise, Ctrl is full of interesting bells and whistles that tend to stay true to low-energy, bass and drums based arrangements, allowing subtle touches like the woozy, underwater synths on “Drew Barrymore” or the “Hotline Bling”-esque Trop-House notes on “Love Galore”.  As previously mentioned, the harmony and vocal overdub work account for many of the album’s most impressive moments, though crisp instrumentation like the snare drum that finally rolls into the final third of “Supermodel” are as satisfying as they are essential.  SZA makes room for four guest features, which feels like the perfect number, and packs them in toward the beginning and ends of the record, allowing her the space to solidify an identity through the record’s middle third.  Travis Scott and Kendrick both historically bat a high average on their features, but their voices here go above a good verse, syncing perfectly with SZAs relaxed but sexually-charged aesthetic.  Less so, however, for the abrasive Isaiah Rashad on “Pretty Little Birds”, the album’s penultimate cut.

If I had to nitpick, I’d say the more formless, down-tempo songs at the album’s center, “Garden” and “Broken Clocks”, hem closer to a traditional, less unique sound than what preceded and follow them, and the record, while in no means too long (50 minutes and 14 tracks) probably could have afforded to and benefited from their cutting.  Still, “Ctrl” succeeds lyrically and sonically, and in particular SZA’s unique vocals and singing style make it hard to go back to listening to airier or less distinctive vocalists.  As for standouts, “Prom” is a catchy-as-fuck low-key banger and “Love Galore” and “Doves in the Wind” are instant classics (also a big fan of the former’s music video).  I think Ctrl is by far the strongest R&B record of the year, and deserves to be seen as a shining example of the genre’s continued transformation come the end of the decade.

Score: 11 / 13

Feist – Pleasure

Hey what do you know, it’s the best indie rock album of the year thus far!  And it didn’t come from some hot new artist on their debut or sophomore release, but instead from a consistent veteran of the genre, Calgary’s Leslie Feist, who has put out five solo LPs, worked within the Canadian super-group Broken Social Scene, been nominated for Grammys and Canadian Juno awards, and won the Polaris Prize for Canada’s best album with her last LP, Metals.  So how is this record flying under the radar?  I guess the zeitgeist is to fawn over the younger acts in the indie rock renaissance.  Pleasure thus arrives as a good kick in the ass in the from of an emotional, catchy, lo-fi guitar record.

Pleasure was recorded quickly, with raw, gritty, lo-fi production aesthetic.  Tape hiss blankets every song, acoustic guitars twang and scrape, and the vocals are rough, like they’re coming from old dusty speakers in a old dusty cabin.  That said, these songs are still adorned with creative production flourishes that often come in the form of creepy choral harmonies and zig-zagging or crumbling, devastating electric guitar lines.  Some of these songs are quicker than others, featuring a more upbeat and ‘rocking’ melody or chorus, while more often they are slower and lack definite shape, picking up and falling at Feist’s will, but never are they straightforward, 4/4, four-chord verse/chorus rock songs.

The title track that kicks off the record is as dirty as anything here, featuring little more than Feist’s vocals and her guitar, with a little bass drum pounding out quarter notes on one channel and some very low synths in the other, hopping back and forth between chilly verses and a muted chorus before the song explodes with energy and singalong vocals for the final coda.  “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” is a haunting acoustic ballad with some excellent tremolo vocal harmonies.  After the sort of red-herring title track, the lyrics solidify the album’s core theme – alternating feelings of love and hate, desire and disgust post-breakup.  After the cozy and meditative “Get Not High, Get Not Low”, “Lost Dreams” rounds out the album’s opening act with its sparsest, most ghostly track, complete with trickling chimes and a guitar solo that evokes the twisted metal of a car accident splitting the song down the center.

The record truly comes into its own (and, from a structural standpoint, reminds me of Panda’s Person Pitch) with the twin behemoth centerpieces, “Any Party” and “A Man Is Not His Song”.  The former is a gargantuan strummer of a ballad, the first track to make use of a full drum kit and one that embraces big, full harmonies courtesy of the record’s co-creators.  The track takes place sometime in the past, before the heartbreak of the rest of the record (“And I tried reaching you on your new flip phone,” Feist hollers at one point), and the titular sentiment is an interesting one.  Yes, this is a triumphant love song, but as Feist repeats over and over “You know I’d leave any party for you,” it becomes a love song contextualized by her own life, likely based in some real, true event, where leaving a party, any party for someone, is the truest display of affection at that point in their relationship.  The coolest moment on the record comes when we physically hear Feist leaving a party – she walks through the house, out the door, through a crowded yard, and down the sidewalk as a car flies by, blaring the album’s title track from its speakers as it passes.  The inventiveness and coolness of this moment is hard to overstate.

As the car passes and the chirping of crickets takes over, Feist moves into the album’s best song, the sad and beautiful “A Man is Not His Song”.  Back in the present, post-party, all the love and energy of “Any Party” has been transformed into painful nostalgia – “That filament that files by / And it brings yellow light from those yellow summers back / By coconut palm, snowy pine / I’ve heard years pass through my ears to hear otherwise”.  The lyricism is brutal and poetic and excellent.  There is a heartbreaking moment of call and response – “We’ve all heard those old melodies / (Like they’re singing right to me)” before the song becomes enveloped by multiple falsetto overdubs repeating “More than a melody’s needed”, a curious phrase that worms into your brain and requires repeated investigation.  That too is then eaten up by the chugging guitar of Mastodon’s “High Road“.

Nothing compares to this peak in melody, creativity, energy and emotion, but the record’s third act is far from a let down.  “The Wind” is a breezy comedown, but the record hits another climax in the form of “Century”, a building, driving track that features a guest passage from Jarvis Cocker as the group counts down “One of those endless dark nights of the soul / When a single second feels like a century”.  The track is a force, and the bitter sentiment at its core, the idea that relationships just pass time until death (“Someone who will lead you to someone who will lead you to someone at the end of the century”) is uncomfortably true.  “Baby Be Simple” continues the established pattern of relieving tense, brittle tracks with sweet, amorphous, folksier ones.  The penultimate “I’m Not Running Away” moves toward tired and bluesy, before the album closes with “Young Up”, an interesting but correct choice for the closer.  We’re treated to the album’s only prominent keyboard part (a 60s-style electric organ), and Feist artfully glides through a swooning, jazzy, 50s and 60s lounge-style arrangement before leaving the album’s audience with one last wizened but optimistic thought – “Fear not ya young punk / That everything that falls is falling / Even if you don’t have your own back / And everything that needs to fall is fallen”.

This album isn’t full of new, radical ideas, mind-boggling production, world-building thematic concepts or dense, nine-minute, multi-part epic tracks.  But the choice of a spectral, creepy, dusty production aesthetic, combined with Feist’s wonderful vocals and great use of falsetto harmony, scratchy and jagged guitar work, intriguing lyrical work and perfect sequencing all combine to make it a record that I can’t stop listening to and my favorite album to have come out this year.  “Any Party” into “A Man Is Not His Song” is the best 1-2 punch I’ve heard in a long time, and I hope that this record receives more attention as the year winds on – its certainly deserving of it.

Score: 11/13

 

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Pure Comedy, the third LP from Josh Tillman under his Father John Misty moniker, was my most anticipated release of the spring.  His last album, 2015’s I Love You Honeybear, was gorgeously produced, fun, honest, smart, catchy, humorous, deeply self-effacing, reflective, perfectly sequenced and one of the few albums I’ve heard centering on the theme of mutual love and affection that actually sounded fresh and original.  While the majority of the album was about his meeting and marrying a woman that saved him from his own self-destructive tendencies, two songs in particular stuck out – “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit“.  These tracks were Tillman turning away from his wife to take a devastating look at modern society, consumerism and late stage market capitalism, and they positioned Father John to become the decade’s standard bearer of those ever-recurring themes.  Thus the stage was set for Pure Comedy.

Going in, most critics would have told you this was poised to be the most political album of the post Trump era, but it’s still hard to understate the magnitude of the scope Tillman sets within his sites on Pure Comedy.  The record begins with a fundamental flaw of human existence – the undeveloped nature of newborn babies relative to other animals, and the reliance on protection and guidance from parents and others – and ends with Tillman referring to himself as a “speck on a speck on a speck” “clinging to a rock that is hurtling through space”.  This album is the definition of wide scope.  Forget Arcade Fire or Kendrick – Pure Comedy sounds like an honest attempt to write an album on the history of humanity, from distant past to distant, post-apocalyptic future, with the protagonist’s own melodrama spliced in the middle to represent one individual existing today.

Every song on Pure Comedy has a central concept or subject and rarely deviates, no matter if the track is three minutes or thirteen.  The opener and title track addresses the irony of humanity’s doomed existence, culminating with the record’s underlying thesis – “The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive / But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with / Until there’s nothing human left.”  Second sequenced “Total Entertainment Forever” is my pick for the album’s best track, and perhaps my favorite song of the year thus far.  In three minutes, FJM envisions a fairly believable world in which virtual reality becomes so entertaining and pleasurable that humanity succumbs to its embrace and society dies off completely, for future alien historians to discover and declare “this must have been a wonderful place.”  The song is the highest energy track on the record, has wonderful horn sections, thrilling, rocketing choruses, and one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard – “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” (in reference to the opening line on Kanye’s “Famous“).

Third-sequenced “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” is a plodding ballad that takes place in a post-government future (“It got too hot and so we overthrew the system”) where humans have to give up their previous endeavors (“The nightlife and the protests are pretty scarce”) and revert to relying on hunting and gathering.  Standout “Ballad of the Dying Man” rounds out the album’s excellent opening chapter, a track about a dying man who wonders who will critique all “the homophobes, hipsters and 1%” after he’s gone.  The jaunty piano, crisp drumming and beautiful harmonies also combine to make it one of the most well-arranged and spacious tracks instrumentally.

“Birdie” comes fifth, slowing the album down considerably and burning very slowly.  Thematically, it’s one of the more abstract songs on the record, sarcastically indulging in idealistic escapism to a future society where everything went right for progressives – “Soon we’ll live in a global cultural devoid of gender or race”.  While the track does explode in a cathartic climax, I can’t help but feel that it disrupts the pacing the first four tracks establish.

And if it didn’t, the 13-minute, “10 verse chorus-less diatribe” (as FJM describes it within the song itself) “Leaving LA” brings the record to a screeching halt.  This track is truly free-form Tillman, erring his grievances not just on LA, but on the music industry, the entertainment industry, religion, family and fame.  This is undoubtedly the most polarizing song on the album, and the artist is fully aware, predicting the reaction from his fan-base of “manic virginal lust and college dudes”: “I used to like this guy / This new shit really makes me wanna die”.  Aside from Tillman’s voice, an acoustic guitar and an admittedly beautiful string section, the song doesn’t have much in the way of development or progression, and unless you’re eating up each and every line, or are entrenched in a truly deep listening session of the album, my official verdict is that the track takes more away form the album’s focus than it does to fill out its story.  It’s the most personal song here, but I think the details of Tillman’s personal life shine through enough in other places to render being beat over the head with his psyche for 13 minutes unnecessary.

Like on the followup “A Bigger Paper Bag”, which returns to Father John Misty’s oft-discussed penchant for drowning himself in drugs and alcohol despite his knowing better.  “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” is back to large scale, conceptual songs, imagining what a god that created humanity would think of where we are now.  Led by piano and featuring ghostly choirs, I could have sworn the melody was from Disney’s Hercules, a testament to Tillman’s ability to outfit a thematic song with a proper tune.  “Smoochie” comes next, and despite some really sweet, country-tinged slide guitars, the song is a love ballad a la Honeybear but isn’t quite as pretty or as lyrically memorable.  I really don’t care for the titular sentiment, although I like the creepy vocal effect, which serves as the “personal demons” and “shadows inside me” that Tillman describes as being availed by his wife.

“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is exactly the song you thought would be on the record, featuring the tired “one says this but the other says that, can’t we all just get along?” sentiment that’s so popular nowadays.  It’s fine, but not one of the more original or poignant points on the record.  “The Memo” on the other-hand, is one of the more original songs here, a conceptual track about the lack of authenticity within the focus-group tested world of big entertainment masking itself as art, taking shots at mainstream pop (“I’m gonna take five young dudes from white families / I’m gonna mount ’em on a billboard”), streaming services (“Do you usually listen to music like this? Can we recommend some similar artists?”) and social media (“Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online”).  The robotic, broken down bridge through which an Alexa-like voice crafts the perfect indie playlist gives way to a pleasant final verse much the way existential dread inevitably gives way to complacency and pleasure.

The penultimate “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” is a slow, 10 minute ballad that reminds me quite a bit of “Leaving LA”, further making me question the latter’s inclusion.  Tillman is predictably pondering fatality, and the song’s extended outro of strings and fuzz make for a symbolic death and solid ending to the story of the record.  “In Twenty Years or So” thus arrives as an after the credits, fourth wall-breaking conclusion on which Tillman admits to the fatal flaw in his whole argument – what does any of this observing, reflecting, pondering and complaining matter when taken in the context of our own insignificance relative to the vastness of time and space?  “But I look at you / As our second drinks arrive / The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place” and it’s a miracle to be alive” Tillman concludes, and after 70 minutes of being the smartest guy in the room, he proves once again to get the final laugh in the face of his own vanity.

The production throughout Pure Comedy is unsurprisingly gorgeous.  The strings, pianos, drums and guitars are all crisp and clean, the arrangements feel big but spacious, and the songs often swell to huge, dramatic moments without ever feeling claustrophobic.  It’s so consistently good that you kind of forget how high quality the performances and recordings truly are after just a few songs.

My one big issue with this record is in the songs themselves.  Compared to Honeybear and 2012’s Fear Fun, FJM really isn’t having much fun.  Aside from “Total Entertainment Forever”, nothing rollicks the way “I’m Writing a Novel” or “Ideal Husband” did, and nothing is as dancey and melodic as “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” or “Chateau Lobby #4“.  A friend of mine asked, sincerely, if the whole shtick with the album is that all the songs sound the same and have the same melody.  The record is slow and few songs lend themselves to singalongs.

That said, this album is clearly a showcase for Tillman’s lyricism and concepts, and although I don’t love 76 minutes of slow burning piano ballads, they are and always will be the vehicle that carries those aspects of Tillman’s music.  Despite the absence of singalongs and bangers, the album is still the most well-organized, most detailed and most critical look at contemporary society that’s come out this year, and if it feels like a disappointment, it’s only because the bar was set so high.  I don’t think Pure Comedy was the absolute slam dunk I thought it’d be, which is evidenced in the mixed reactions it’s received, but I still think it’s a tremendous triumph and deserves to be remembered as a landmark album from this decade.

Score: 11 / 13

Arca – Arca

April 7th was a day marked on my proverbial calendar since the beginning of the year, because it was the release date for the new Father John Misty album.  I had long speculated that that 80 minute LP would be among the strongest records not just of 2017, but of the decade.  While I’m still figuring out exactly how I feel about it, it’s safe to say it wasn’t exactly the 100% slam dunk I was expecting.  However, another release from April 7th has taken me by complete surprise and is currently my pick for the high water mark this year in music.

Arca is the artistic pseudonym of Venezuelan Alejandro Ghersi, who was educated in New York and is now based out of London.  After releasing a string of very well-received electronic releases over the past three years, united by their dark, unsettling production and red and black, fleshy, creepy aesthetic, as well as producing for Bjork, Kanye, FKA Twigs and even Frank Ocean, the twenty-six year-old has returned with his strongest LP to date, and one that sets itself apart from his discography by heavily featuring his own vocals, sung entirely in his native Spanish.

Arca is an immersive album, incredibly detailed and layered, made by one of the best and most inventive electronic producers in the game in his absolute prime.  The songs are very carefully arranged, abstract, surrealist soundscapes, but they never feel cluttered.  There aren’t a million synths holding out single notes.  Ghersi is careful to leave plenty of open space, especially on the record’s slower, more ambient tracks.  There is almost no percussion, no drum machine.  This is not a dance album in the slightest.  The songs are longing and romantic, and Spanish is the perfect language to encapsulate the torture and beauty present in the themes.  With almost no harmonies or vocal overdubs, Ghersi’s singular voice, covered in natural echo and reverb, sounds like it’s coming straight out of an ancient stone monastery or cathedral.

Kicking off with ‘Piel’, which features only some high pitched notes alongside Gerhi’s soft, surprisingly capable falsetto, he sings of wishing to shed his skin and awake a new person, a sentiment perhaps reflective of his struggle to come out as gay.  Deep bass envelops the vocals in the song’s final third, and we’re on to standout ‘Anoche’, which features a lyric sheet and vocal performance that feels like it could have come out of an 18th century Spanish opera.  “Anoche yo soñé Nuestra muerte simultánea / Anoche yo lloré / De felicidad, qué extraño me sentí [Last night I dreamt / Of our simultaneous death /Last night I cried / Out of happiness]” he sings as shuffling rhythms, compiled from unknowable instruments, mingle with delicate pianos.  The record then moves to ‘Saunter’, which hisses, crackles and squeals from all sides before Ghersi comes through with a stronger, more defiant vocal performance, reiterating a line from ‘Piel’: “Quítame la piel de ayer [Take my skin off from yesterday]”.

The record delves further into dark, explosive, industrial territory on ‘Urchin’, which sounds like a steam-punk-esque, underwater factory pumping out synth blast after blast.  Lonely pianos take back the reigns briefly before the song erupts in an epic climax.  ‘Urchin’ is also one of several purely instrumental tracks, which offer a chance for Ghersi to put certain impressive production tricks and instrumental effects front and center.  ‘Reverie’ (which comes with a rather artistic and unsettling music video), doesn’t let up on the gas, again delving into bombastic, devastating territory with each crackling fourth beat bigger and more expansive than the last.  ‘Castration’ is pummeling, offering tense anticipation in the form of zig-zagging synths before destroying the listener with a flurry of beats that arrive like jabs to the face.

The midpoint of the record is ‘Sin Rumbo’, which offers a breather of sorts.  The airy production, while still plenty terrifying, makes way for Ghersi’s incredible operatic skills, as he reaches higher and higher to sing still longingly about unrequited love: ‘Desde la distancia te añoraré / Camino sin rumbo [From a distance I will yearn for you / I walk aimlessly]”.  The follow-up, ‘Coraje’, continues in this vein, opting for sparse, celestial synths and vibraphone variants to accompany the record’s most bizarre and surreal vocal performance.

The eye of the hurricane of the record’s center is immediately displaced by the album’s most abrasive track, ‘Whip’, which very prominently features the ominous and frightening sound of whips cracking all over the sound spectrum.  The record falls onto a climax of sorts with ‘Desafío’, one of the most insisting and melodic tracks, and one with an honest to goodness verse-chorus structure.  Followup ‘Fugaces’ continues in this anthemic style, and is even uplifting in the face of the album’s continuing theme of pining for a lover from a past so distant it feels more like a dream, with Ghersi singing “Que desilusión / Que solo me quedan / Recuerdos fugaces / Tus ojos de luto [What a disappointment / That I only have / Fleeting memories / Your eyes of mourning“.  The penultimate ‘Miel’ is somber and pleading, the final chance Gerhi takes to speak to the object of his affections, before the record ends with the beautiful, glitchy ‘Child’, the musical soundtrack to walls of stained-glass shattering into a million pieces in slow motion.

If Arca was purely instrumental, it would still be a triumph.  The fact that Ghersi has such a wonderful voice, which so well accommodates his haunting, harrowing music, and sings in a language that does so well to express feelings of sadness, love and disillusionment, sets this record far apart from all his emotional ambient counterparts.  Add in the fact that the album is thematic and features two distinctive sides – the challenging and riveting front, the grandiose and atmospheric back – and you have the makings one of the year’s best albums and a new name to place at the top of the genre, if he wasn’t already there. This is one of the best producers in the game taking a compositional risk that pays off massive dividends while failing to compromise what garnered his acclaim in the first place.  My only gripe with the record is the feeling that the more engaging production work on the front side sets the bar so high that the slower, come-down back side is slightly less exciting.  That aside, Arca is excellent, and I very highly recommend it.

Score: 11 / 13

Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now

Jesca Hoop is a 41-year-old California native who’s been releasing music for about a decade now.  Last year she collaborated with Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam  (with whom she shares a label, Sub Pop) on Love Letter for Fireand is now back with her 5th LP, the wonderful Memories Are Now.  I was unfamiliar with Hoop’s work prior to this record, and have yet to investigate her back catalog, but I think the praise and attention this album has received, especially relative to her previous work, is more than warranted.

Hoop sort of fits into the same off-kilter folksy music that Joanna Newsom, Fiona Apple and Julia Holter call home, but her music is more stripped back and less electronic than any of those artists.  Her time signatures, melodies, arrangements and instrumentation are all weirder and more interesting than your traditional acoustic strummer with a pretty voice (cough cough *Julie Byrne* cough), and on top of that her lyrical moments oscillate between on-point, profound and beautiful.  Add in the factor that Hoop moves between different vocal stylings depending on the mood and tone of the song, and you’ve got an enjoyable, well-rounded and cohesive project.

Memories Are Now kicks off with a hell of a title track, one that ambles along to a strange staccato baseline and sweeps through with big vocal arrangements.  Hoop even manages to explore a fresh take on memory and nostalgia, landing on profundity with “Memories Are Now / I was not there, I was not there, I’m only here”.  She melds this living-in-the-moment ethos into a ‘fuck-you’ sentiment, and absolutely kills it with a gorgeous melody as she sings “I’m going through no matter what you say / go find some other life to ruin”.  Amazingly, this track features exactly three instruments – a bass, a bass synth and a single tambourine keeping time.  The rest of the work is done by her carefully arranged harmonies.  The song is both subtle and triumphant, dipping into emotional subject matter but emerging with its head held high, never sounding sad.

Tracks 3 and 4 both concern themselves with modern technology, particularly the internet and social media, but they approach the subject with a slightly different tone.  “Animal Kingdom Chaotic” has a faerie-like tribal flare to it and Hoop somehow gets her voice to sound like a flute, comparing technology to a jungle – “Robots are the new exotic / Animal kingdom chaotic” – while whimsically describing the present Vonnegut-like state where “you know you want it but the computer says no”.  “Simon Says” is a standout, a rambling, bluesy western that nails folk without ever pandering to modern pop-country, and features the great lyric “WWW don’t forget life before the internet / as we pixellated generation children become application” before a slide guitar flies through, right on time.

“Cut Connection”, the first track to feature prominent percussion, stands tall as a towering, powerful centerpiece before the gorgeous and almost archaic sounding “Songs of Old” enters in its wake, emerging like a lullaby that features some great string arrangements and the baroque-like chorus “Momma singing the songs of old / Singing the rock of ages / Empires were made this way / Singing the rock of ages”.  Its subject matter couldn’t be further from what Jesca had covered thus far – relationships and the internet – but she nails it both tonally and lyrically.

The followup tracks (7 and 8) again deal in the same topic with different perspectives.  “Unsaid” is brimming with sexual tension and is guided by an electric guitar arpeggio that feels like it could break into something produced by soft/loud guru Steve Albini at any moment.  The lyrics mirror this tension, with Hoop singing “Let’s not stay mad / Get mean / Say things we wish could be unsaid”.  “Pegasi”, on the other-hand, is the most easy-going, straightforward song on the record, an affectionate love song.  A whole album of cuts like this would have doomed the project, but as a one-of, in the penultimate position, the song’s melody and slide guitar are pretty enough to make it a welcome addition.

Which brings us to the epic closer, “The Coming”, where Hoop recounts the loss of her faith and religion following her upbringing in a conservative Mormon family.  Standing atop a single echoing guitar, treated with reverb and tremolo, Jesca somehow makes Jesus and the Devil metaphors that don’t sound corny, using the image of “Jesus turning in his crown of thorns” to trace her own abandoning of Christianity.  As the song progresses, she gets extremely personal lines like “I don’t blame my parents for clinging to the good word in hopes that it makes sens of it all” and “I can’t turn a blind eye to centuries of conflict and wrongdoing in his name” before the closing lyric, “And the coming never came”, ends the album at the edge of a cliff.

This record is excellently sequenced, offers plenty of variety, features satisfying emotional climaxes and more than some great one-liners.  The production is minimal but tasteful, excelling at vocal harmonies, and the singing can be at times arresting.  The only things that I think holds it back from making a larger impact on this year’s musical landscape are its relatively small scope, shortish track listing and a few songs that are fine but not standouts.  Additionally, as strong as the standouts are, they are never mind-blowingly good or revolutionary.  Still, as of this writing, I’d say Memories Are Now is the strongest release of 2017 (though that title may soon by usurped by Xiu Xiu or Grandaddy), and I anticipate featuring it somewhere in my top 20 by the year’s end.

Score: 11/13