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Mac Demarco – This Old Dog

Mac Demarco is a wonderful fixture of the indie music scene these days.  He’s easily the funniest person in indie rock (the Pitchfork mini-documentary is hilarious).  He self-records / produces all his music and plays all the instruments on his albums.  He’s been with the same woman, who we can subtly track through his songs about her, since he was a teenager.  He’s an immigrant (from Canada), he’s invited any willing fan to come to his house for coffee, he puts on a good live show and he’s well-liked.  He also carved out a niche for his woozy, pitch-controlled guitar work alongside simple, clean drum and bass arrangements that never feel cluttered, putting the onus on his strong melodies and songwriting abilities to do the heavy lifting, which they do.  2 is typically the fan-favorite Mac album, although I thought 2014’s Salad Days was a bright spot in an otherwise dismal year – so much so that I gave it album of the year honors in the Rice Thresher.

Mac never fails to put together a mix of fun, catchy jams and slower, sweeter, blissed-out guitar tracks – even his 8 song EP, 2015’s Another One, contained some classic songs.  Lyrically, though, he’s more of a mixed bag.  His lyrics are never awkward or off-putting, but rather safe, simple, and surprisingly conventional for a guy who does interviews lying between two men on the ground.  In short, you don’t come to Mac Demarco albums for lyrics.  This Old Dog at times feels like an attempt to remedy that in some way, but always winds up back in Mac’s wheelhouse.  He’s not really attempting to break new ground in any sonic way, aside from perhaps a slight uptick in synth usage and arrangement.  The drum machine that opens the album on “My Old Man” is as experimental as Mac goes, and it succeeds in spades.  “My Old Man” is the album’s best song and a sign that a little deviation would have done the album wonders.  But the song’s subject matter – Mac feeling more and more like his estranged father – is the sound of someone who no longer wants to write songs about cooking meth, smoking cigarettes and courting Vancouver prostitutes (although those songs all rock are my three favorite tracks off 2).

The record follows with the gentle but psychedelic title track, which moves into the crowded space of Mac Demarco love songs about his significant other.  The song is classic Mac and features some really nice guitar and synth sample panning, but delivers the album’s primary sentiment with relative simplicity (“This old dog ain’t about to forget / All we’ve had and all that’s next / Long as my heart’s beating in my chest”).   “For The First Time” falls into this camp as well, and uses the shimmering 80s synths we heard on “Chamber of Reflection”.  “One Another”, a catchy and upbeat number, musing on what a breakup must be like, could have fit perfectly on Another One not because the titles are so similar, but because Another One featured eight songs examining love and relationships.  “Dreams From Yesterday” and “A Wolf Who Wears Sheeps Clothes”, back to back on the album’s B Side, both feature the tropical clicking of a wood block, the latter also making good use of harmonica, but don’t pack memorable choruses or guitar lines.  They are followed by a song called “One More Love Song”, as if Mac knows there are a surplus of them on the record and is promising us that this is the last one.

All in all, This Old Dog is never unpleasant, always chill, if not lacking the signature distorted guitar rock song that other albums have featured.  But, and I hate to say it, Mac basically wrote the same ten songs he has on his last two projects, without much to show in the way of development.  Sure, you could point to that drum machine on “My Old Man”, or the acoustic piano and careful harmonies of “One More Love Song”, or even the 90s smooth R&B vibe of “On The Level” and say ‘look, he’s trying new things!’ and I’d slide every other track on the record into a playlist with songs from Salad Days and Another One and you wouldn’t know the difference.

The closer, “Watching Him Fade Away”, about watching his father die from afar (physically and emotionally), is, lyrically speaking, the best song that Mac has ever done, and hints that mining his personal life in a little more detail (“The thought of him no longer being around / Well it sure would be sad but not really different / And even though we barely knew each other / It still hurts watching him fade away”) would pay dividends.  But otherwise, This Old Dog just throws less memorable and catchy tracks on to the pile of love songs and ‘I guess I gotta be an adult now’ songs that Mac doesn’t seem to know how to stop writing.  Going in, this sorta felt like the album where we’d assess if Mac was a real pioneer and trailblazer in indie music or if he would go off in the Real Estate direction where you make the same album every two years until people get bored and forget why you were acclaimed to begin with.  This Old Dog is unfortunately strong evidence for the latter case.  It’s still a fine album to play as background music, driving music, chilling music, but not really in contention with people who are actually doing something interesting.

Score: 7/13

Cloud Nothings – Life Without Sound

Cloud Nothings, which began as the solo bedroom project of Cleveland’s Dylan Baldi, are one of the biggest acts in indie rock this decade.  Both their 2012 and 2014 releases, Attack on Memory and Here and Nowhere Else , garnered plenty of critical acclaim and did well on year-end lists.  I personally never got into them as much as maybe I should have, although I’ll admit that the final track on their last album, “I’m Not a Part of Me“, was one of my favorite songs of 2014 (FYI, that video is kinda creepy).  Three years later (their longest period of gestation thus far), they’ve returned with this new album, which has received unenthusiastic reactions from the music press, at least relative to their last two LPs.

And for the life of me I can’t really figure out why.  As someone who didn’t catch the Cloud Nothings fever, Life Without Sound sounds to me like classic Cloud Nothings, with some of the same gripes I’ve always had with them, but embodying the strengths I always conceded them.  Baldi is still throwing his emotions at a wall and hoping something sticks, his lyrics resembling whatever words he scrambled together to best describe his inner turmoil.  He’s still great at writing catchy melodies and poppy progressions that are distorted and angry enough to skirt a fine line between pop-punk and post-rock.  This album is certainly cleaner and more polished (likely due to production work by John Goodmanson, responsible for crafting Los Campesinos! huge, colorful arrangements), and the majority of the tracks are more poppy and melodic and less brooding than work on their previous records.

Life Without Sound even includes the staple one great Cloud Nothings song, a track that’s both raw and emotional as well as catchy as hell. “Enter Entirely”, sequenced dead center on the 9 song track list, combines a sweet little riff, a head-nodding 1-2 beat, a good melody line, some of Baldi’s better one-liners (“Feeling out on a limb because I’m out of my mind / But it’s fine”), a vocal performance that’s full of swagger before his trademark explosive, reaching angst hits on the dynamic chorus, and a huge, emotional coda that builds bigger and bigger.  The lasting sentiment, “I’m moving on but I still feel it / You’re just a light in me now” is optimistic but honest, and the idea Baldi is presenting, that an ex- can leave a lasting impression even after they’ve physically departed, is presented clearly and concisely.

But the rest of Life Without Sound always falls short of this track in one way or another.  The first two songs, “Up to the Surface” and “Things Are Right With You”, are both riddled with subpar lyricism, as Baldi expresses his ideas about being depressed (but recognizing that those feeling exist in a cycle that will eventually pass) through metaphors that are more vague than poetic (“The sun circled ’round the end / In darkness I’ve evolved again”, “Patiently waiting alone and now / Follow the line to sort it out”).  These songs, along with sixth sequenced “Modern Act”, all go for the ‘loud verse / soft chorus” formula, and by somewhere in the middle of the record, you recognize just how formulaic a lot of Cloud Nothings song structures are: Verse – Hook – Verse – Hook – Bridge/Solo – Coda.  Each track is a similar 4-minute length, and the biggest deviation comes from “Darkened Rings”, which explodes with a burst of energy but then repeats the same progression and lyrics (“Look through my life / Some darkened rings with a few! bright! highlights!”) for it’s entire run-time without much dynamic variation.

There are still great hooks to be found.  “Sight Unseen”, at 7th in the order, has a catchy chorus and some honest-to-goodness harmony vocals.  Baldi’s hooks almost always repeat a particular phrase (“Feel right feel lighter”, “The world of sight unseen”, “I’m not the one who’s always right”) which help to sharpen the song’s focus, but the verses don’t support these ideas with enough colorful language, personal experience or interesting anecdotes for my taste.

As many have pointed out before me, drummer Jayson Gerycz is a powerhouse who does a great job of ratcheting up the intensity of a song and is always on-point with his drum fills.  Baldi’s solos range from fine to catchy, and never feel overextended.  The guitars are bright and punchy, and I have no major gripes with the production, aside from perhaps the simplicity of the arrangements.

But the record completely changes gears in the final two songs, abandoning the verse/chorus pop structure of the previous tracks in favor of dark, prog and post-hardcore-inspired pieces that make no appeal to catchy melodies and instead sink Baldi into a dark place where he contemplates the linearity of time (“Years of my life have fallen behind / Try to go back from older inside”, on “Strange Year”) and the afterlife (“I believe in something bigger / I find it hard to realize my fate”, on “Realize My Fate”).  I don’t much care for either of these tracks, from both a melodic and lyrical standpoint, and they end an otherwise solid album on a sour note.

There’s nothing on here that makes me rethink my opinion on Cloud Nothings.  Baldi writes great hooks and thrusts plenty of emotion into his choruses and codas, but consistently falls short lyrically and isn’t quite Swans when it comes to post-rock.  It may have been time for the synthesizers, or some wide-open song structures, but Baldi played it by the book here, and the result is mostly fine, sometimes awesome and sometimes weak.  At this point, I think I’d rather put my favorite Cloud Nothings songs onto one sweet mix CD than choose a favorite album, as the themes and style (and artwork) doesn’t really change between one release and the next.  But if you liked Cloud Nothings’ previous stuff, you’re still gonna like this.

Score: 7/13

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

The acoustic singer-songwriter album has been around as long as recorded music itself, tracing its roots from Woody Guthrie through the genre’s most iconic figure, Bob Dylan, and onward through contemporaries like Sufjan Stevens (at least on his 2015 masterpiece, Carrie & Lowell).  For reasons perhaps historical or perhaps owed to the nature and sound of the genre itself, acoustic folk songs are often melancholic, jaded, naturalistic and geographically-minded.  With this in mind, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happinesfits so neatly and squarely into the canon that it’s practically archetypal.  Heartbreak-induced sadness?  Check.  Natural imagery?  Check.  Road-weariness in the American West?  Check.  Acoustic finger-picking, limited overdubs, dripping sepia-toned nostalgia?  Check check check.

The nice thing about an album like this is that, because there are few moving parts (the arrangements are never complex, the song structures and lyrics clear and succinct), it becomes easier to evaluate.  The record is made essentially of the following parts: lyrics, vocals, melodies, finger picking patterns and the occasional ghostly harmony or instrumental addition.  Thus we can pick apart the album logically and systematically, which may go against the spirit of music criticism and the entire idea of music as a subjective art that is more than the sum of its component parts, but hey, its my blog and my review.

Lyrics – Because folk records are often so stripped back and the progressions so simple and familiar, lyrics are the most crucial part of the experience.  Julie Byrne’s record is very much an album about sitting outside, setting the scene poetically through observation of natural imagery, and then being introspective about her relationships and her life on tour.  Nothing is straightforward, and although the songs sound like they are grounded in real experiences, the sentiments feel transient and nonspecific.

Take “Natural Blue”, which many of my contemporaries online have called the record’s best track.  Julie explained that the song was born from an unexpectedly sublime night in Boulder, Colorado between tiring bouts of touring, but little of that personality shines through in lines like “Stars over a back porch / They’re talking but I don’t say much anymore.”  Standalone, that lyric is actually great, but in the context of the album, where every other line consists of Julie sitting outside thinking about being lonely, it kind of loses its punch.  Other examples include: “I went out walking in the wood / I thought of you so presently”, “I’ve been sitting in the garden / Singing to the wind”, and “We’ve been lying on the shore for awhile / And our sun is still”.  If these are metaphors, they’re pretty fluffy.  If they represent reality, they feel like some default Julie turns to when she wants to be emotional.

Sure, Byrne can spin poetry out of every tree, sky and field she lays eyes on, and from time to time they are arresting (“Preserve my memory of the mystic west / as I lay no claim to the devotion I felt”), but the end result is a wash of feelings, a grey-scale wave of nostalgia that never feels tied to one specific incident, one idea or one emotion, and for that reason I think this album fails lyrically.  It’s never resonant because it never captures anything more personal than “I was made for the green / Made to be alone”.

Vocals – One of the record’s greatest strengths is Julie’s voice, which is vaguely bluesy but soothing, familiar, comfortable and warm, and experiencing the record is like being wrapped in a cozy blanket.  She occasionally hits falsetto notes, and she deftly glides between them smoothly and precisely, like running water.  Her voice also bears a strong resemblance to New Zealand singer-songwriter Tiny Ruins (who I like quite a bit).

Melodies – Julie can also write an excellent melody as easily as she can sing swiftly through one.  They are elusive, sad and nostalgic, with small contours tossed out like afterthoughts and reflections just out of one’s grasp.  No problems here.

Guitar – The best songs on Not Even Happiness are the ones with full, resonant finger-picking arrangements that perfectly compliment Julie’s melody lines.  Thus, my favorite tracks on the record are the first-half highlights “Sleepwalker” and “Melting Grid.”  Like the best Frank Ocean song, Julie succeeds here in crafting songs that fool you into thinking there are more than just one instrument on the track.  However, the unwavering guitar tone and general similarity of the picking arrangements, which are never sub par, still grow a bit repetitive and leave something to be desired on the back-half.  Julie is clearly an excellent guitarist and her work here holds up, but I would have liked to see a couple tracks use something like three patterns looping around each other, as she certainly seems capable.

Odds and Ends – Byrne rarely taps into anything bigger than a distant synth, shrouded in reverb, or a couple of mournful, distant ‘ooh’ harmonies during choruses.  One of the best additions is a flute melody line on “Melting Grid”, which expertly fits the color palette of the record.  That song even introduces a soft tambourine and harmonica at the end, making it by far the most fleshed-out and full song here.  “Natural Blue” features some nice watery synths and the guitar is electric and chorused (think Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah) and “Interlude” is, well, a synth interlude.  One bright moment is in the final coda of “All the Land Glimmered Beneath”, where outdoors sounds of birds and wind encompass Julie and set her in the environment she’s singing about.  The only song that doesn’t feature the guitar as its main instrument is the closer, “I Live Now As A Singer”, which doesn’t talk about Julie’s artistic life as much as you’d like, and also progresses so slowly behind sappy, held-out synth chords that manages to end the record with its worst track – it’s not especially beautiful and I don’t really care for the synth tones, either.

Album Concept – A interlude splits the record evenly into two four-track halves, but there isn’t an obvious difference between sides A and B.  The first half concerns itself a bit more with places and traveling, while the second is more stationary and serene, but both records have ‘happy’ and ‘sad’ tracks regarding her lover, both talk about touring and both definitively take place outdoors.  The second side is a bit slower and more atmospheric on the whole, but there isn’t really a natural arc to the track-listing here aside from ending on the two gentlest songs.  Julie never wavers far from her main talking points – thinking about relationships, being outside, feeling lonely, getting tired of traveling – which both keep the record focused but also keep it confined.

Overall, despite the charm of Julie’s voice and her knack for strong melodies, there isn’t enough lyrical substance here for me to say this is a standout singer-songwriter or folk record.  Everything here’s been done before, by people that also have excellent voices and who also have more to say, both sonically and emotionally.  This album is very pretty, but pretty albums are not hard to find these days.  I enjoyed this quite a bit before taking a closer look into it, and so it’s great as background music, gorgeous even, but really good albums have to stand up to cursory investigation, and Not Even Happiness does not.

Score: 7/13

Animal Collective – The Painters EP

Animal Collective are one of my favorite bands out there.  I think that their four album run in the 2000s (04’s Sung Tongs, 05’s Feels, 07’s Strawberry Jam and 09’s Merriweather Post Pavillion) is one of the best four album runs in music history- no record sounds like another, each builds on its predecessor, any one could be somebody’s favorite and their songwriting skills continued to developing and expand but still impressed for new reasons each time.  One of the neatest things about an Animal Colletive LP, however, is the assurance that sometime in the next year, an accompanying 4 song EP will be released, featuring new music in the same vein as the LP, with the same sonic palette.  While the LP/EP were typically recorded in the same sessions, the songs on the EP critically did not arrive on the album, and thus are forced to be evaluated in a very different context.

Such is The Painters, which is the companion piece to last year’s Painting With LP.  I was originally bullish on Painting With, but I’ve found that the record didn’t hold a lot of replay value for me, and toward the end of the year, revisiting it made me realize how much it paled in comparison to the band’s other work.  (Unsurprisingly, this was the first AnCo album since their earliest days that had nearly no presence on year-end lists.)  I can say happily, though, that I prefer all four tracks of The Painters to everything but the highlights from Painting With.  The length, merely 14 minutes, helps this style of songwriting as well, which got a bit repetitive on the LP.

Hocketing, or singers trading off words or syllables, was a very strong sonic theme on Painting With and was deployed on almost every song.  I don’t think I’m alone in suggesting that it didn’t go over too well, both because it was jarring and somewhat off-putting, but also because it revoked a humanness to AnCo’s most synthetic music yet.  The lyrics themselves had also deviated from the emotional but fantastical storytelling of earlier releases and represented unchallenging concepts about inner-peace and unity and other hippie fare.  Hocketing returns on The Painters, but is dished out in much milder doses and feels less forced.

The record starts with “Kinda Bonkers” and sees something of a return to form for Avey Tare’s on vocals- his performance is weird, wild and unhinged.  I don’t love the lyrics here (“My head was exploding / I said “Man, this Earth is Really Bonkers”), and the tribal drums and bubbling-below-the-surface vibe are a little boring, but the song isn’t unpleasant.  “Peacemaker,” the only Panda Bear led track on the EP, finds a calm, swaying rhythm like a boat being gently rocked by a tide, and doesn’t try to do to many crazy musical gymnastics, which stands in contrast to the claustrophobia of Painting With.  “Goalkeeper” is a classic chaotic Avey song, almost sounding like it could have been on 2012’s Centipede Hz, and actually features some great Panda Bear harmonies and a Panda vocal performance that was sorely missed on Painting With.

The EP ends with a completely unexpected cover of the 1967 Motown hit “Jimmy Mack“.  Of course the track bears little resemblance to the original outside the lyrics and choral melody, but the exuberant flutes, uptempo bounce and a generally freewheeling attitude  (plus Panda doing those sweet sweet Motown harmonies) makes it probably the best song on the EP and proof that AnCo can still have fun.

On the whole, The Painters won’t blow anyone away, and those that were unimpressed with Painting With still have to patiently await the group’s next reinvention.  But I can say that I was pleasantly surprised, and I wish the band had captured more of this sound on the LP.

Score: 7/13

Migos – Culture

I’ve sort of been putting this review off – not because I hate the album, or haven’t spent time listening to it, but just because I’m having trouble coming up with an opinion I can definitely stand behind.

The expectations from so-called ‘lyrical’ hip hop (Kendrick, Earl Sweatshirt, Das Racist, etc.) are different from rap where vocal delivery and beats are more important and the lyrics need not venture past well-trodden territory.  Migos fall pretty firmly into the latter category, and although nothing else about the album is revolutionary or particularly innovative, there isn’t really a bad or obnoxious song on here, either.  I’m new to Migos – I first heard the Atlanta trio last year when Quavo was featured on the awesome Travis Scott / Young Thug collaboration “Pick Up the Phone”.  This new album of theirs has been hailed as their best, which I don’t doubt, but it has also garnered some pretty serious critical praise (best Atlanta act since Outkast? Really?) that I can’t help but feel is more a result of Migos being a likable, of-the-moment, started from the bottom, chart-topping zeitgeist force in trap music than this record actually being something special.

Culture is 13 tracks long and runs about an hour, which is sort of a relief considering how bloated big rap releases have become.  Every single track rides a dark, minimalist trap beat, with no absence of rattling high hats and melancholy piano loops.  They all feature ad-libs after almost every line, frequently by not the rapper currently spitting but by one of the other members of the trio.  They all have hooks that range from catchy and fun to fine.  The lyrical content rarely makes a pointed statement beyond your typical trap fare (drugs, gangs, cars, girls, guns, money) but some turns of phrase are more clever than others.

And there really isn’t a bad song on here.  I think the best tracks come on the front half – the #1 single “Bad and Boujee” is obviously great, combining fun wordplay and a catchy hook (although, as many before me have pointed out, the final verse by guest Lil Uzi Vert ruins the end of the song), though my favorite track may be the follow-up “Get Right Witcha”, whose hook I really enjoy, especially Takeoff’s ad-libs of ‘woah’ and ‘wow’ and ‘hold up’.  The mid album cuts “Slippery” and “Big on Big” are further examples of how likable, easy-going and unoffensive trap can be when it sounds as effortless as it does in the hands of Migos.  Young Thug, Rae Sremmurd, Desiigner – they can all be off-putting when they try to tweak the formula in the wrong ways, but Migos generally steer clear of any rough patches.  The triplet flows of each member never stray from the beats, and I like all three of their voices, which, pleasantly, err on the side of soft and relaxed rather than aggressive.

Gucci Mane’s feature sits naturally among his Atlanta peers.  2 Chainz’s feature is short, and his voice certainly stands out, but it also goes over well.  Lil Uzi Vert’s is bad, as mentioned previously, and Travis Scott’s is fine, but otherwise it’s a constant trade off between 2 to 3 of Migos at a time.  Certain spots on the record are highlights, like the sweet, melodic “Skrrt Skrrt” through the hook of “What the Price” and Takeoff’s verse on “Deadz”, which strikes as the most technically deft and aggressive on the record.

My biggest gripe with the album is just that it never really deviates from a formula, and any one of these beats and verses feels like it could have been spliced into one of the other tracks.  The back half of the record also gets a bit tiring, and I feel that 10 consistent trap songs would have made for a more compact, compelling listen than the drawn-out 13.  The last three tracks being the weakest and least necessary further emphasizes that point.  There isn’t really an emotional or musical climax, there doesn’t seem to be a centerpiece unless you count the back to back bangers “Bad and Boujee” and “Get Right Witcha” sequenced fourth and fifth, respectively.

All in all, the record is never bad, a bit long, a bit repetitive, occasionally great (often on the back of the flows) and fun and exciting, very consistent, but never innovative or head-turning.  It’s better than fine, but maybe slightly less than good.  I’ll probably spin a few of my favorite songs from it throughout the year, but I don’t have any strong desire to listen through it cover to cover again.

Score: 7/13

Austra – Future Politics

My friend Joanna is, as far as I’m concerned, the foremost authority on the Toronto music scene (not that I know many foremost authorities on anything).  She’s been a big fan of Austra, an sytnhpop act fronted by vocalist and songwriter Katie Stelmanis, since their inception and has declared their newest LP, Future Politics, a certified 100.  These dark, beat-heavy tracks are less colorful and melodic than the synthpop I tend to gravitate toward, and I find that Stelmanis’ unique, operatic vocal deliveries and interesting lyrical moments are forced to do some heavy lifting to hold up the repetitive, undeveloped instrumentals arrangements.

With a name like Future Politics, you’d expect Austra to deliver a political record.  Which they do, but only mildly and non-controversially.  The titled track arrives second in the sequencing and, according to Stelmains in an in-depth track-by-track interview, concerns itself with a technological revolution that will overthrow capitalism.  Lyrically, the track feels concerned but only touches on its subject vaguely, with lines like “I’m not a coward like them / Well I got my money” and a chorus of “I’m never coming back here / There’s only one way – Future Politics”.  The follow-up and lead single “Utopia” takes a rosier-colored stance on the same topic and fares slightly better, with nice imagery in a line like “Cut me a slice of apple that I grow / My work is valid, I can’t prove it but I know”.  The chorus melody is soaring, the synths add together and fill out the song vividly, and the breakdown two-thirds in sees almost all instrumentation cut-out as faerie-like falsettos sing ‘Utopia!’.  In short, the song does well what a lot of the rest of the record fails to do – be melodic.

A handful of the tracks on Future Politics plod along at the same 1-2 bass/snare beat, keep their electronics minimal and in the low frequencies and shy away from big hooks or sparkling reverb, which is effective in letting Stelmanis’ striking, high-pitched and falsetto vocals cut through and deliver their lines clearly.  But too often these songs fail to develop into something compelling.  The closer, “43”, stays about as minimal as the record ever gets, slow, looping beat and a few bouncy basses around Stelmanis’ lyrics of “Oh I believe it, I haven’t seen it”.  The song is another political one, about 43 missing Mexican students and their lack of acknowledgment, but again, without the backstory, the song is vague, and even with it, lacks in earnest sentiment.  “Beyond a Mortal” rides echoing trip-hop production, but lacks any moment of tenseness or climax, and Stelmanis’ whispering vocals of “I’m in love with your color” leave something to be desired.

The high points come when songs take a simple beat or idea, then expand, add, color, and developer on it; or just kill it with a beautiful melody.  The mid-album highlight “I Love You More Than You Love Yourself” falls into both categories.  It’s a simple concept lyrically but still effectively paints depression (“There is nothing in your soul tonight / I only see darkness”).  The chorus melody is fantastic, the keyboards and synthetic woodwinds fill out the arrangement wonderfully without ever being overbearing.  There’s a mid-song bridge where the beat drops away and Stelmanis’ stands up as impressive as ever.  The opener, “We Were Alive”, similarly delivers a radiant piece of new wave, capping with acoustic piano and string sections around the impressionistic refrain of “It’s like we were alive”.  The penultimate “Deep Thought”, which is just a solo harp interlude, is also well-arranged and a welcome change of pace to the pulsating beats.

Still, the prettiest songs are never truly gorgeous, and for each solid track, there’s a dark, drab and underwritten one right around the corner.  Stelmanis is a gifted singer, and she can certainly write about interesting topics and can craft a good piece of new-wave, minimalist synthpop, but she fails to do so consistently on Future Politics, and while none of these songs are offending, few of them excite.  Fans of Depeche Mode and similar acts may dig it, but for me, the record failed to resonate lyrically or leave much of an impression sonically.

Score: 7/13

The xx – I See You

Note:  This album review originally appeared on the Berkeley BSide, over here.

As the 2010s enter their eighth year, I’ve taken considerable time to reflect upon the decade’s most influential artists. Bands like Beach House came in strong, put out consistent LPs with only minor variations on their signature sound, and still sound pretty good. Kendrick Lamar entered under the radar, blew up — and seems to get better and more ambitious still with each release. Tame Impala and Father John Misty began manning the helms of guitar music and have since sought a bigger, more intricate sound on each LP. And then there’s the xx, who started the decade as teenagers winning a deserved Mercury Prize (best British album) on the back of their stunning, emotional debut, xx; proceeded to release an underrated sophomore effort a few years later that garnered a collective “wasn’t as good as their first one” from the music community; then disappeared for five years, showing up only in passing on Jamie xx’s 2015 solo album, In Colours, which was showered in critical praise.

And thus the scene is set for I See You, which has every former Obama years teenager (or anyone who’s discovered the magical powers of xx) frothing at the mouth to hear with raw abandon what heartbreaking, back-and-forth, sexually-charged minimalist ballads Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim will conjure up next. And what did they receive? The guy giving a pulse to the otherwise fleeting spirits of songs from xx. The producer who has so heavily imprinted the sound he cultured on In Colours that The xx’s two vocalists, who once illuminated the darkness of their songs with something human, have been relegated side players acting to reinterpret that classic xx sound. In a word, they received Jamie.

I See You is still an impressive album, and not without its highlights. The horns on opener “Dangerous” and the bassy, shuffling dance beat the song develops kick the album off with an energy previously unseen on an xx song. The string arrangement on the bleak mid-album ballad “Performance” are striking and beautiful. The climaxing guitars and thundering percussion on “A Violent Noise” similarly creates the song’s mood and drives home its themes and ideas, while the penultimate “I Dare You” builds steam around an uptempo ‘80s handclap beat, masterfully pulling in a guitar, synth or voice at a time in an ongoing, song-length crescendo. Jamie xx is still one of the game’s top producers, and his skills are on display throughout I See You. The vocal samples he includes (such as Hall and Oates), however, feel like missteps, notably on “Say Something Loving” and “On Hold”, where the presence of someone else’s voice feels like it penetrates an intimacy between Romy and Oliver that has been there since the earliest xx songs.

“I Dare You” suffers a similar fate – Oliver’s opening line of “I’m in love with it / Intoxicated / I’m in rapture / From the inside I can feel that you want to”always invokes a cringe – and the song’s energetic build makes me think that with the right featured rapper and hook it could have been a standout Jamie xx single, but is instead weighed down by a chorus of Romy and Oliver’s pleading, “Go on I dare you!”  The mid-album “Replica”, which incorporates Oliver’s bass and Romy’s guitar lines better than almost any other track on the record, endures as a four-minute slog through the vocalists’ tedious melody lines and emotionless harmonies, offering nothing new or compelling lyrically (“And as if I tried to, I turned out just like you / Do we watch and repeat?”).Which gives rise to what I feel is I See You’s primary flaw: Jamie xx has created Jamie xx songs that are forced to conform to The xx formula, and this pairing is more often than not at odds with itself. “On Hold” is the biggest offender, coming across at first like something that could have fit snugly on In Colours, but is rewritten to feature some of the blandest xx lyrics to date (“My young heart chose to believe / We were destined / Young hearts all need love”). Two vocalists must trade verses in a song that really didn’t need any, and the dripping, reverb-drenched guitar lines that once encompassed the entire skeletal structure of an xx song, now feel like unnecessary pieces to be incorporated like any other sample or synth because this isn’t a Jamie xx song, this is a The xx song.

And here we arrive at the second and fatal flaw of “I See You” — when did The xx become a fucking zero in the lyrics department? After listening through I See You a handful of times, I found myself asking, “Have xx lyrics always been this generic and uninteresting?” Checking back in on xx and Coexist, I arrived at ‘No’. Alas, it seems that aging into their late twenties has left Oliver and Romy devoid of unique ways to talk about their relationships. xx was at times cryptic and at times direct, and most lines felt like being witness to a sentiment more personal and arresting than could typically be translated through music. But reading through I See You’s lyrics sheet leaves the impression that these lines could have been written by anyone at all.

Take “Brave for You”, a song about Romy’s deceased parents that unfortunately unfolds as something pulled from the latest Disney movie — “And when I’m scared / I imagine you’re there / Telling me to be brave”. I’m also pretty over hearing Romy go on about putting on a “Performance” (“You won’t see me hurting / When my heart it breaks) — the sad clown pantomime has been around at least since 17thcentury Italian opera, and her addition to the canon is lacking in any new or interesting spin. The closer “Test Me” has been billed as the first xx song to openly acknowledge being written about dynamics within the group, but lines like “Ceiling’s falling down on me / You look but you never see” are so generic that they could be applied to any fifteen year-old that’s ever felt sad. Perhaps this universality is something The xx were shooting for on I See You, but if I wanted pop music lacking anything other than two-dimensional sentiment I would just grab the newest Chainsmokers’ single and call it a day.

So that’s where we sit: comparing The xx, arguably the most influential indie rock group of the last decade, to The Chainsmokers. Of course, from a musical and production standpoint, Jamie isn’t even playing the same sport as those guys, but the sentiment is the same — this band has lost what made them different and unique, and I doubt very much that this record would be attracting so much attention had it not been released by The xx. At the decade’s onset, everything the band touched felt innovative. Now, by its end, they’ve become just another face in a crowd of imitators. The xx was wonderful because they stripped away everything to make their music as naked and pure as possible, and the filling out of their sound with a dozen new ideas has revealed that The xx in 2017 just isn’t a very compelling act. The group introduces nothing new to the current musical landscape. Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath for LP 4 — there are better things going on in indie rock and pop to waste time waiting around for a group that’s been left in the dust of their own prodigious wake.

Score: 7/13