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Forest Swords – Compassion

Forest Swords, aka England’s Matthew Barnes, is an experimental electronic and ambient composer who, on the back of his head-turning 2013 breakthrough Engravings, has entered the sphere of similarly styled and admired artists such as John TalabotDarkside and Jon Hopkins.  His newest album, Compassion, feels like the crumbling of civilizations on the edge of mythical apocalypse; not a bad aesthetic for the current day and age.  The songs feel ominous but filled with energy; not a calm before the storm, but rather a revelry.

Titles like “The Highest Flood” and “Panic” from the album’s opening third are apt descriptions of the sounds within, which are evocative of communal unease and paranoia.  The clipped, non-lyrical chanting vocals and clacking of wooden percussive instruments of the former feel ritualistic, while the tribal drumming and weaving synthetic oboe of the latter are intoxicating.  “Exalter” follows as the actual sacrificial ceremony, the sound of a prehistoric Central American civilization filtered through distorted electronic vocoders and drum machines.

The album takes a respite in its center third, as “Border Margin Barrier” and “Arms Out” move into more lulling, ambient territory.  “Sjurvival” is a brief comedown, taking a chapter from William Basinski’s book by incorporating the sad sounds of muffled, dusty brass instruments floating in reverb, before the huge strings and chants of the penultimate “Raw Language,” end the scene with a bang.  Closer “Knife Edge”, led by glitchy pianos banging out minor arpeggios feels like an epilogue, a credits roll moment following an intense psychological thriller.

Compassion is thematic and well-sequenced.  But while the songs consistently feel appropriately dramatic, the mood they create is fairly static, and few individual tracks standout (“Sjurvival” being a notable exception).  Forest Swords is clearly a talented composer and his soundscapes are dense, but the constant buzz of reverb, use of glitchy editing and intentionally choppy vocal production leave me desiring for some crystal clear, beautifully synthetic moments.  This album sets a mood and sticks to it, and the overall trajectory works, but there’s nothing in it that strikes me as particularly risky, novel or compelling.  I find the darker ambient trance of Talabot more gripping, and the detailed production textures of Visible Cloaks more interesting.  Some ambient and electronic fans will really dig this release, but for me it was at best fine and at worst repetitive.

Score: 6 / 13

Actress – AZD

Actress is the pseudonym of British electronic musician Darren Cunningham, a veteran of the genre for over a decade the man behind four well-received LPs, spaced enough apart to allow Cunningham time to develop and hone in on a new idea and give each record a definitive sound.  His latest, AZD, feels cold and calculated, whirring with machinery and industrial noises to create a thematically consistent record in agreement with the record’s robotic, metallic cover artwork.

The songs on AZD are more often than not danceable and pulsating, preferring tinkling, minimalist riffs and white noise to huge moments of bass or synths.  Such is true on proper opener “Untitled 7”, a good bellwether of the album’s overall sound before fading into the followup “Fantasynth”, which loops pitched up bells alongside a dusty piano hook, all to a pumping, organic backbeat.  The track, like others on AZD, develops slowly, becoming encompassed by a subtle but steady stream of snowy noise before ending as mysteriously and unceremoniously as it began, with a simple fade out.  “Blue Window” follows a similar formula, changing its hook, tempo and murky, muffled back beat just enough to distinguish itself while remaining firmly within the sonic palette the album paints early on.  The cross fading of tracks gives the opening third a DJ set list vibe, which slowly juxtaposes itself to the standalone, more conceptual tracks that appear as the record progresses.

“CYN” is the album’s first detour, going with a heavier, more dynamic arrangement that brings in various buzzsaws, theremins and organs built around intense 90s hip hop and spoken word samples.  The song dissipates quickly and is picked up by “X22RME”, which, as the title suggests, is the heaviest song on the record, mixing darker techno with Classixx-like triplet arpeggios before going full-throttle on the fuzz and noise.  “Runner” concludes the album’s second phase with a driving beat, insistent synth instrumentation and a flurry of static that masks human conversation, distorting it to sound completely artificial.

The final third of “AZD” begins with the ambient “Falling Rizlas”, a delicate piece of music lacking in a rhythmic beat and featuring synthetic string arrangements and deep bass around snowy chimes.  The track is beautiful and serves as an eye of the hurricane before “Dancing in the Smoke” affronts the listener with a hail of glitchy, clashing, squealing synths, ray guns and broken glass.  Experimental and occasionally intriguing, the track nonetheless feels chaotic and claustrophobic.  “Faure in Chrome” is the album’s climax, a dramatic string piece that features the ingratiating sound of metallic welding and buzzing, not far from the sound of a dentist’s drill into teeth.  It sounds like the soundtrack to fatal robotic surgery, and I can appreciate the conceptual nature of the song, which feels related to the story on the cover art, but the high pitched buzzing is just too unpleasant for me to enjoy listening through it.  The record closes with the mysterious, alien come-down “There’s an Angel in the Shower” and “Visa”, an uptempo, nostalgic techno throwback that doesn’t make a lot of sense sequencing wise, sort of reminding me of a bonus single or deluxe track tacked onto the album’s end.

I think AZD develops a signature sound early and provides a solid mix of minimalist production and catchy, dancey hooks, but its indulgence into clashing, grating and wholly unenjoyable experimentation on the back end is a huge downer and a strike against the album for me.  I think there was a great idea behind these dark, metallic tracks, and I can see a record that does such a concept beautifully, but AZD is not it.  The center of the record, while fine, isn’t as strong as the first third, and I think the end truly is a sequencing mishap, as “Angel in the Shower” works better than anything else here as the closer (though clearly Actress felt otherwise).  There are good ideas and a deft hand behind AZD, but the record itself feels like a missed opportunity.

Score: 6/13

 

Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Laura Marling is a British singer-songwriter, specializing in acoustic-guitar based folk music.  Her last two albums, 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle and 2015’s Short Movie, both received significant acclaim and showed two sides of Marling’s music – minimalist acoustic arrangements on the former, electric guitars on the later.  Semper Femina arrives somewhere in between, blending folk with elements of jazz and pop and oscillating between pure voice + guitar tracks and ones with fuller, albeit quite gentle, arrangements.  Linking all these songs together is the singular theme of women – women who are friends, lovers, mothers, inspirations and regrets.

The record opens with “Soothing”, a slinking, jazzier number, featuring two basses (one panned to each channel), with Marling’s delivery taking on a coy, intriguing tone.  “The Valley” follows up with steadily building finger picking and harmonies before the song is enveloped by a large string section.  “Many a morning I have woke / Longing to ask her what she’s mourning / Of course I know it can’t be spoke” Marling sings in reference to the song’s subject, a female friend mourning the death of her father.  Her tone changes again on the third track, “Wild Fire”, which makes use of a cool, casual, conversational tone to dig into a friend.  “You want to get high? / You overcome those desires, before you come to me” Marling scoffs before admitting “She’s gonna write a book someday / Of course the only part that I want to read / Is about her time spent with me”.  So goes Semper Femina – personal songs about personal friends.

The first real glimpse we get of Marling herself is on “Always This Way”, another bouncing, bass-led track with the occasional electric guitar strum and soft violin feature.  “25 years, nothing to show for it / 25 more, will I never learn from it / Never learn from my mistakes” Marling ponders somberly before an uplifting guitar riff breaths daylight back into the song.  Even here, though, we sense Marling is seeing herself within the context of another woman’s shadow, perhaps a maternal figure – “Now she’s gone and I’m all alone / And she will not be replaced”.  “Wild Once” is a reflection on youth and an offering of advice to younger women in her position, and “Next Time” is another rumination on regret and guilt for not appreciating those since past – “It feels like they taught us ignore diligently / I feel her, I hear her weakly scream”.

The penultimate “Nouel”, a line from which the album takes its title, is both the simplest track on the record (one guitar, one voice, no overdubs) and the most complete sketch Marling puts down.  “She lays herself across the bed / The origine du monde / Slight of shoulder, long and legged / Her hair a faded blonde” Marling sings of her muse, adding to the list of strong, individualistic qualities described.  But, like the rest of the record, the emotion both in her vocals and in her lyrics never wades past the breakers.  When Marling is positive or sympathetic, she only graces poetic and stays more in the realm of naturalistic imagery and physical beauty.  When her relationship with her subject is more complex, Marling’s tone and style is simplistic and matter-of-fact.

And here lies the fatal flaw of Semper Femina – almost every song is a portrait of a woman Marling is or was close to, but none of them make the listener care about those women.  None of them bear the kind of raw, resonant emotion that can evoke our own relationships as the subjects of these tracks.  Sonically, the album follows suit – always pretty, never really going for it.  There is no bare, hollow moment of clarity, no driving, aggressive moment of angst or sadness.  The album is about as exciting as floral wallpaper – pleasant to look at, not much of an artistic statement.  While I can appreciate the cohesive theme and delicate arrangements, there isn’t enough going on elsewhere that elevates this past any other folk album – Jesca Hoop has stronger lyrics and demonstrates intriguing genre hopping and Julie Byrne‘s voice and melodies are more engaging and beautiful.  Semper Femina is never bad but never stands out.

Score: 6 / 13

 

The Shins – Heartworms

Another day, another early to mid 2000s indie rock band putting out a late career album that pales in comparison to the best acts that replaced them in the 2010s.  This week’s contestants are The Shins, an Albequerque/Portland based band, fronted by and primarily composed of James Mercer (who, in recent years, found briefly himself in Modest Mouse and scored a Grammy nomination for his polarizing work with producer Danger Mouse in Broken Bells).  Depending on how into indie music you are, you may either know the Shins as a band with a run of three straight good-to-great albums from 2001-2007 before slowing down and falling off as Mercer engaged his side projects, or you know them as the guys who sing that amazing song from Garden State.  In either event, throughout their music, Mercer has displayed a knack for writing catchy melodies and pairing them with either sparse, melancholy progressions and arrangements or full, upbeat and happy ones.  Heartworms (the group’s 5th LP) is rooted firmly in the latter style.

Heartworms is a largely traditional indie pop album.  11 songs, 42 minutes, an ebb and flow of higher and lower energy songs.  The album kicks off with one of its catchiest numbers, “Name for You”, a head bopping, upstroking, bass bouncing pop tune featuring Mercer’s trademark lilting and swooping melodies and following a classic verse / chorus structure.  The song serves as an able harbinger of what’s to come on the record, both musically and lyrically.  The song is about aging women trying to get back on the market, the lyrics toeing the line between bitterness and strangely dated misogyny (“You can keep your can up / If you just never eat again”).  That lyric, and others throughout Heartworms, are especially striking given Mercer’s friendly, innocent delivery.

As the record’s name might (or might not) suggest, Mercer’s feelings toward women, both individuals and in general, are a heavy theme on the album.  Third-sequenced “Cherry Hearts” takes an offbeat drum-machined, synth-heavy approach to the wholly original concept of unrequited lust after an intoxicated romantic encounter (“You kissed me once when we were drunk / And now I’m nervous when we meet”).  The setup isn’t far from a certain ubiquitous Sheeran radio smash, but I can’t get over the feeling that this seems childish from a 46-year-old who seemed light years more poetic and mature sixteen years ago when he was singing “And I’d’a danced like the king of the eyesores / And the rest of our lives woulda fared well“.  The sixth-sequenced “Rubber Ballz” is maybe the most lyrically cringe-worthy song The Shins have released (guess at what that song title is a lewd reference to), and includes such apexes of human prose as “And I just can’t get her out of my bed / Wish I’d gone with her sister instead” and “My vices have voted, her ass duly noted / Can’t kick her out of my bed”.  Again, the ironic twist is that melodically this is one of the most sober and beautiful tracks on the record.  By the ninth-sequenced title track, Mercer is back on the losing end of romance – “Now I’m trying to figure out when it was you gave me these heartworms / I feel them wriggling in my blood, you gonna do me harm”.  And again, the melody and production on this track, particularly the chorus harmonies (“What can I do?!”), the tinkling pianos, and the screeching guitars combine to prove Mercer has persisted as a more than capable songwriter.

The brightest moment is likely the centerpiece, “Mildenhall”, which is an origin story of sorts about fifteen-year-old Mercer moving with his family to an air force base in England and overcoming homesickness with the help of kind-heartened, music nerd classmates, inspiring him to start “messing with my dad’s guitar”.  It’s a lighthearted strummer, featuring a few blissful synths and a low, honest delivery, offering a respite from the wailing, girl-crazy Mercer seen throughout the rest of the album.

The production throughout Heartworms has plenty of bells and whistles, with synths, harmonies, guitars and drum machines zigging to and fro on even the lowest-key tracks.  And at their core, these are very Shins-esque songs, their melodies and structures fitting nicely into a later album like Wincing the Night Away.  But that same familiarity solidifies it as a very safe album, as gone are Mercer’s alternating pained, aggressive vocals and thoughtful, melancholy ones, replaced by the more synthetically happy Mercer we’ve seen since Wincing.  Where the songs are aplomb with studio trickery, they are lacking in emotion and resonant, heartfelt sentiment.  The record is fine, and its catchier moments are proof that The Shins perhaps shouldn’t yet be put to death, but I think Mercer is gonna need a brutally honest record about, say, being an aging rocker in a young man’s game to move the needle at this stage in his career.  Sexual angst and puppy love just aren’t doing the trick for music as mellow and low-stakes as this.

Score: 6 / 13

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Kelly Lee Owens is a Welsh artist who has previously released electronic remixes and singles, as well as an EP, to positive critical reviews.  Her debut self-titled album is a ten-track album of minimalist electronic and techno music, often featuring her own vocals.

The album is a pleasant enough listen, and the tracks operate well both alone and within the context of the record.  The production is soft but very minimalist, similar to the cover artwork.  The synths don’t weave and flourish in color, but rather bounce around on a single greyscale note or two, with Owens vocals nearly always present but soft and airy, as if they’re dipping out of the way.  There is only one featured vocalist, Jenny Hval on “Anxi” (though her stylings fit naturally alongside Owens’).  But I find myself lacking any unique concept, arc or sonic identity to grasp onto.  The album flows like water, refreshing, but tasteless.

There are nice moments.  The bounce of “Anxi”, its strings and intermixing vocal harmonies, and melodic change of pace (although I’d hesitate to call it a chorus) make it the most exciting song here.  “CBM” pulses with a “Strobe“-like anxiousness, and sounds like it could be a great intro for an EDM banger but opts for a swift departure.  And the slow, trip-hop beat and buzzing effects surrounding Owens’ high pitched melody on the penultimate “Keep Walking” give the song a darker, eerier vibe than what precedes it.

But on a lot of these tracks, it sounds like there are few, if any, interesting ideas that warrant a full track devoted to what is typically a simple, unchanging drum beat, a bouncing bass, some wordless, reverb-washed vocals, and the occasional synth or string picking out a murky chord here and there.  Closer “8”, which is the ‘industrial’ track, is a 10-minute slog that never really progresses or makes for compelling and beautiful ambient music, either.  Ditto for the jangling, Purity Ring rattle of “Bird” or the second sequenced “Arthur”, which uses Owens’ “Oohhhs” as an instrument nestled within rivers of bass and drum machine, that make for pretty but underwritten and unexciting ambient music.  “Evolution” is the only song on here I really think is a mistake, as Owens whispers the message-less “Be the / see the / evolution / revolution” (yeah, you aren’t the first one to realize those words rhyme) ad-nauseum.

Although Kelly Lee Owens is far from offensive, its also pretty unimaginative and uninteresting.  This is no pop/minimalist techno hybrid, its just kind of there.  It’s fine.  I don’t really think anyone who fails to hear it is missing anything.

Score:  6/13

Grandaddy – Last Place

Grandaddy is the project of Jason Lytle, originally based out of Modesto, California.  Vaguely indie rock (with more than a few synths), Grandaddy released four studio albums between 1997 and 2006 before taking a hiatus, and are now returning with their fifth LP after 11 years.  I’ve been listening to the band sporadically since high school, but am really only familiar with their 2000 epic (and best album) The Sophtware Slump.  Where that album immersed itself in a dystopian future where emotions are consumed by technology, Last Place wades much more domestic territory – it’s a middle-aged, suburbia-framed breakup album.  And while Lytle maintains a deft craft for production and arrangement, the center of this album is unfortunately lacking in hooks or emotional payoff.

Lytle’s albums are all thematic and somewhat conceptual, and he certainly knows how to move through a narrative with effective sequencing.  Therefore it comes as no surprise that Last Place makes the right move in kicking off with its two strongest tracks.  Opener “Way We Won’t” is a tight 4/4 rock track with a synth line almost as catchy as perhaps the catchiest synth line ever composed (excluding “Kids“), Lytle’s own “A.M. 180” from Grandaddy’s debut.  The track was a harbinger of a potential return to greatness, a song with a great beat and melody and lyrics concerned with the soul crushing consumerism (“Tropical smells and back to school sales / Why would we ever move”) that vaporwave has since co-opted.  The followup, “Brush with the Wild”, is another catchy, poppy synth-led rock track that makes the album’s intentions clear (“We had a thing whatever it’s called / And you were a dream, and I was a concrete wall”), but also hints at a flaw that will go on to plague much of Last Place – the lyrics.

While the first two songs treat the album’s subject matter with some degree of poetic subtlety, the middle of the album’s mundanity feels like the result of serious writer’s block while its hooks simultaneously fail to stand up to opening tracks’ strong melodies.  After the creepier, opaque and significantly less catchy “Evermore”, we’re treated to “The Boat is in the Barn”, where Lytle compares his temporarily shuttered love as being a, ahem, boat in a barn, while also delivering the album’s most cringeworthy lyric – “You were going through the photos on your phone / getting rid of me is what I figured / delete deletin’ everything that had occurred”.  The two minute fuzz rock gallop “Check Injun” (that’s an intentional misspelling of check engine, mind you) sees Lytle driving down the highway, staring at his dashboard hoping his car can make it to his exit – it’s not compelling.  The next song is titled “I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore” and rides a familiar three chord progression like a train right into Lytle’s overly saccharine delivery of the titular phrase.  The self-pity party continues on with “That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Out of Bed” (“for warming up your heart and clearing out your head”) before we arrive at “This is the Part”, where we’re made aware that this is the part of the breakup “that some call a broken heart”.  The king of cliché-land called, or something.

While these mildly depressing, mostly boring topics don’t necessarily doom the album, they aren’t helped by the pairing of the same old 1-2 drum beats, mid-level tempos, reverb-drenched vocals and chugging piano chords time and time again.  Lytle still shows prowess behind the boards, bringing in strings, guitars and synthesizers from all sides to keep things immersive and well-layered, but all the pro tools in the world can’t save a song that’s lacking a catchy melody or progression.

The album takes a surprising turn for the better on its final three songs.  “Jed the 4th” is a callback to Sophtware Slump‘s series of “Jed” songs and, despite being another slow ballad, turns enough interesting production tricks to make this much needed break from Lytle’s personal literalism into one of the record’s strongest songs.  “A Lost Machine” is the true breakup anthem, taking six minutes to develop around a basic piano and outer-space synth structure into a powerful, grandiose, sad and romantic piece with Lytle singing (still somewhat calmly – the guy never screams) “Everything about us is a lost machine”.  And the album ends with a flashback in the stripped-back acoustic number, “Songbird Son”, that looks wistfully at the relationship’s origins in third person (“And so they made their camp / On a runaway truck ramp / Yeah, they were on the run”) before Lytle brings things back to the present, regretting the harmful things he’s done (“Message better left unsaid / Don’t say nothing”).  It’s a perfect, emotional, full-circle ending to a breakup album.

If only that album were better.  Last Place both begins and ends in great form, but the bulk, from tracks 3-9, are just too painfully banal, repetitive and self-pitying for me to really advocate for this project.  Even the final three tracks, while on point lyrically and thematically, aren’t exactly standouts relative to Grandaddy’s older work.  As much as I wanted to like this album, and truly I did, the gaping hole in the center is as big a disappointment as I’ve encountered all year.

Score: 6/13