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Phoenix – Ti Amo

Hey look it’s another classic indie rock band with a classic album that has gone full disco! (Looking at you, Arcade Fire.)  Although anyone that’s been plotting Phoenix’s trajectory over the last decade or so could see this one coming from a mile away.  After their most guitar heavy album, 2006’s underrated It’s Never Been Like That, the band became the best indie act of 2009 (maybe outside of The xx) on the back of their bonafide masterpiece Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.  I’ve written about that album before and will probably do a ‘Rank The Songs’ feature on it as well, so stay tuned.  2013’s Bankrupt! was met with mixed reviews, as most critics simply shrugged and delivered the typical ‘well, it’s not as good as their last album’ response.  Not that they were wrong, but Bankrupt! is another underrated effort by a band that hasn’t ever made a sub-par album.

Which brings us to Ti Amo, a love letter to Giorgio Morodor and schmaltzy 70s Italian disco.  This is the kind of record most people expect to be terrible.  And if you go into this project looking for an indie rock album, you’re going to be disappointed.  But honestly, the 10 songs and 37 minutes Thomas Mars and co. deliver here, while far from their most interesting or intricate work, is consistently catchy and enjoyable, and I think the vintage, sun-drenched summer sound is actually somewhat refreshing given the current climate of dark, frigid, minimalist R&B we find ourselves in.

Opener and first single “J-Boy”, despite the asinine title and a handful of asinine lyrics (“Then inside an alley you’re out of words / Well I thought it was radium at first”) is bristling with layers of colorful keyboard lines all over the channels, and Mars’ smooth, too school for cool, autotune-assisted vocal delivery is right in his wheelhouse.  Spoiler alert – the lyrics on Ti Amo are some of Phoenix’s worst, and this is a band that tends to only sound profound by accident (the language barrier probably doesn’t help in that regard).  But I find that they rarely detract from the listening experience – dance music has never been deep lyrical territory, LCD Soundsystem notwithstanding.  “Tuttifrutti” (it’s painful to even type that) rides the same pulsating 1-2 beat that persists throughout the whole album along with some funky guitar and flute lines before the tropical, slow and grandiose “Fior Di Latte” arrives, a song that somehow works (credit the strong choral melody) despite being part Jimmy Buffet and part 80s power ballad.  Mid-album cuts “Lovelife”, “Goodbye Soleil” and “Fluer De Lys” flow so effortlessly into one another the record can at times imitate a DJ set.

While none of these tracks are bad (although some lyrical moments – “So let me control, regret that I broke our thing”, “You’re numero uno, ready for the win” – are patience testing), few of the tracks stand out as highlights.  My choice for the album’s best cut is actually the final track, “Telefono”, which carries some of that deeply cathartic longing that made Wolfgang such an incredible album.  The chorus and melody are classic mid 2000s Phoenix, re contextualized for the band’s current disco obsession.  The song fades both in and out, like a passing idea from a past age, and that’s sort of all Ti Amo is – a fleeting moment, a passing phase.  But for a band as talented as Phoenix, and for a frontman as charming and confident as Mars, the seemingly effortless project still manages to succeed.  None of these tracks are really anything close to groundbreaking, and few pack novel, interesting ideas, but the record works for what it is, and I think spending some time with it reveals that it’s as solid a piece of unabashedly disco-obsessed pop music as you’re likely to find this year.

Score: 8 / 13

 

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love

Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossameryet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape.  That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself.  In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self.  I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred.  It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.

After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”.  A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music.  The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies.  But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works.  I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.

The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“.  The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks.  I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.

The B side boasts the biggest issues with production.  The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record.  Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this.  The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“.  The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”).  It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.

Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for.  But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo.  The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism.  Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.

Score: 8 / 13

Drake – More Life

On More Life‘s “Gyalchester”, in reference to where he ranks among the planet’s current crop of rappers, Drake states “I know I said top five, but I’m top two / And I’m not two”.  I absolutely believe Drake thinks he’s the best rapper on the planet – he smashed the Spotify streaming records twice! – but most familiar with the rap game would fail to see things that way (especially when the undisputed king recently murked him on back to back tracks).  I’d put Drake somewhere around 10th myself, probably after Kendrick, Danny Brown, MC Ride, the guys in Run the JewelsVince Staples, A$AP Rocky, Chance and Earl Sweatshirt.  But one thing is for sure – Drake is the most listened to rapper on the planet, and not for no reason.  He puts out a new project every year, often twice a year.  The list of collaborators on his albums reach to every corner of the hip hop sphere.  He has built up an image and actively maintains it and evolves it, moving from sad boy to asshole and back again on a semi-annual basis, all while being a genuinely funny SNL host.  And he puts out both catchy, poppy songs that land all over the charts as well as deeper cuts that see him exploring new styles.  Drake’s not top 5, but he’s not, like, Kodak Black, either.  His music is generally likable, even when it’s a massive disappointment.

The majority of the criticism I’ve seen about More Life stems from two general camps.  The first is along the lines of “Oh, Drake called this a “playlist” rather than an album or mixtape because it lets him use half-baked ideas, over-stuff the track list, and include Views b-sides under the guise that it’s still original content” (though I’m pretty sure all the Views b-sides still made it onto that record).  The second is that Drake is co-opting a bunch of foreign styles and ideas, white-washing them, and presenting watered down versions to the masses, specifically dancehall (Jamaica), grime (England) and trap (Georgia, state, not country (though that would be awesome)).

To the first point, I say simply, Drake put out a collection of original music, I’m going to evaluate it the same way I evaluate any album, EP, mixtape, soundtrack, etc.  He could have put it out exclusively as a video laserdisc and called it a ‘laserecord’ and I wouldn’t have given a fuck.  If there’s shit on it, people will call it a shit playlist.  I don’t believe in raising or lowering expectations based on if the release is free or physical or what have you.

To the second point, I’ll say yeah, Drake draws from styles that he had no part in helping form, and delivers his own version.  Is that a problem?  Music is a art – no one owns trap music.  If Drake makes shit trap music, then call it shit, but don’t get on his case for making trap music to begin with.  Did George Harrison ‘whitewash’ traditional Indian music?  Did the Beastie Boys co-opt ‘black music’?  God, who the fuck cares if Drake raps in a fake patois or a fake British accent – no one is being exploited here, there are no victims as a result of Drake messing around with silly accents.  The only one at risk is Drake himself – if the music is corny and sucks, then he’ll lose cred and play counts.

More Life, at least to me, is interesting and cool because it is a record of Drake trying on other people’s ideas.  Just when his trademark ‘style’ was getting stale, Drake took the opportunity to throw it all at the wall to see what sticks, with a few traditional Drake tracks thrown in, and a ton of traditional Drake themes, tying the whole project together.  “No Long Talk” is a grime song.  Drake raps about his ‘tings’.  “Passionfruit”, “Madiba Riddim” and “Get It Together” draw from the same low-key, tropical house vibe that fueled “One Dance“, and Drake similarly abandons rapping for singing.  All three songs are warmer, chiller and catchier than similar outings from Views.  “Portland” is basically a Migos song, with Quavo delivering the same style of ad-libs on the chorus that endeared me to “Get Right Witcha“, the flute riding the beat throughout sounding like a perfect match for the production on Culture.  Similarly, “Sacrifices” is a fucking Young Thug song, not just because it features Young Thug and a trap beat, but also because Drake imitates Thug’s cadence and vocal styling to a tee.  Honestly, it’s probably my favorite song here – the beat dropping out in favor of solo piano on the hook is amazing.  2 Chainz’ verse is great, and Thug’s verse brings some nice energy at the end.

“Fake Love” is “Hotline Bling” 2.0, but I don’t really mind, I think the beat is catchy enough, and I like the use of the “Pick up the Phone” sample (great song, btw), I just wish it arrived earlier in the track list.  Ditto for “Ice Melts”, another Thug feature, which is the funnest, sunniest song here but unfortunately arrives in the penultimate position of an 82 minute album.  Kanye on “Glow” is kind of awkward, and I think the album could have benefited more from aggressive Kanye than sing-songy Kanye, but his inclusion adds to the album’s theme of being a showcase for some of rap’s biggest names, including SamphaTravis Scott and Mercury prize winner Skepta.

Lyrically, its the same old Drake bullshit.  There’s a fair bit about women (I especially like “I drunk text J-Lo / Old number, so it bounce back”), but mostly Drake is talking about his paranoia regarding and distrust of those he surrounds himself with.  This concept was most thoroughly explored on the best song on Drake’s best album, “Energy“, and the fact that Drake still obsesses over it, after years of fame fame and more fame, is worth noting.  The whole message of the record is summed up in a voicemail from his mom at the end of “Can’t Have Everything”:

“You have reason to question your anxieties and how disillusioned you feel, as well as feeling skeptical about who you believe you can trust. But that attitude will just hold you back in this life, and you’re going to continue to feel alienated.”

Never before have I seen Drake’s trademark internal struggle so concisely summed up and slain before, and by his own mother no less!  Similarly to how Frank Ocean’s mother’s voicemail warning him about using drugs fit perfectly within the story of Blonde, so too does the voicemail from Sandi Graham.  But there is additional destruction to the fourth-wall when considering that Sandi is likely referring to the same songs that bookend her speech, and because Drake sings about communicating with her so often.

There are plenty of negatives to More Life.  It’s too long.  A lot of the songs (specifically on the back half) are boring, lag behind and feel like filler.  It’s all over the place (though as I said before, that’s somewhat to its benefit).  The sequencing doesn’t really make sense (which you think would be of paramount importance for a ‘playlist’).  Drake’s not saying anything new or inventive, his bars and flow aren’t always tight, and his voice can sound tired after awhile.  But I find myself truly enjoying listening through this thing, and with some editing, it could have been a very strong album.  The good songs are better than the best songs on Views, the hooks are catchier, the structures, beats and features more varied and colorful.  This isn’t a bad project, it’s just way too loose and scattershot to be a great one, either.  Which no one, probably not even Drake, believes it was meant to be.

Score: 8/13

Hurray for the Riff Raff – The Navigator

Hurray for the Riff Raff is the folk/rock/Americana project of Alynda Lee Segarra, a New York native and member of the city’s Puerto Rican diaspora before leaving home at 17 and moving to New Orleans, from which her band is based.  Her newest album, the third for major indie label ATO, is a blend of folk rock, country and Latin American music, and acts thematically as a cohesive effort focusing on cultural identity, appropriation, and overcoming from within a minority community.

The record begins with an a cappella folk ballad, complete with barbershop harmonies, singing “One for the navigator, get on board!” Segarra thus acts as the navigator on a passage across her own identity and the America as she sees it.  The second sequenced “Living in the City” is the record’s catchiest song and one of its most satisfying, with its colorful harmonies and overlapping guitar riffs, while Segarra describes her vision to escape the city  – “Well I”ll lock my dreams away / I’ll watch the city quiver”.  It’s followed by “Hungry Ghost”, which takes a vocal and melodic page out of Mitski’s book as a dark, bass-led rocker, which at first seems to show Segarra dissing an ex-lover, but within the context of the album reveals itself to be one of many songs about her own identity – “I been nobody’s child / So my blood’s starting running wild”.  This record is a political one, but it is clearly from one singular point of view.

Many of these tracks borrow heavily from folk tradition, not just in their instrumentation and cadence, but in Segarra’s use of repeating phrases, timeless metaphors (“Oh it’s getting lonely / Oh, at the bottom of a bottle”) and traditional structures.  The unique and interesting spin Navigator puts on Americana, however, is the infusion of Latin American and Caribbean salsa and calypso music.  While the record’s first four tracks don’t show sings of deviation, the mid-album title track opens with a recording of Spanish dialogue before plunging into a modern tango ballad, featuring guitar licks reminiscent of Santana, as Segarra positions herself as a navigator of her people, leading them out of the darkness of today toward the optimism of tomorrow.  “Rican Beach”, another sultry, Caribbean track (complete with bongos and steel guitar) is the most pointedly political song here, but unfortunately offers some of the clunkiest lyrics (“And all the poets were dying of a silence disease / So it happened quickly and with much ease.”)  Of course there’s a Trump reference – “The politicians, they just flap their mouths / They say we’ll build a wall to keep them out” – because how can you make music in 2017 and not reference Trump?!  Segarra is perhaps better positioned than most to express disdain, but it still doesn’t score any points for originality.

Two of The Navigator‘s best tracks come in its final third.  “Fourteen Floors” is an anticipatory piano and drum affair where Segarra describes her father’s struggle to reach a country that has made life so difficult for those like him, singing “My father said it took a million years / Well he said that it felt like a million years just to get here” while numerous vocal overdubs whisper the same phrase around her.  The song builds tension but ultimately never collapses into a huge moment the way I want it to, which is one of my major gripes with the record.  The penultimate “Pa’lante” does better in this department, featuring a heart-filled and passionate coda as Seggara raises a toast to “All who lost their pride / To all who had to survive”, but again doesn’t ever break down into the mass of guitars, pianos, drums, etc. that the build teases.  The record does end with an interesting conceptual moment, as the group reprises the opening track but in markedly Latin American fashion, suggesting a transformation of traditional American folk into the style of the country’s fastest growing minorities.

The Navigator is focused, well-produced and well-written, but its melodies are often more folksy than catchy, and it seems to consistently content itself with easy-going arrangements and passages instead of reaching for epic climaxes, the highs and lows that the content seems capable of inspiring.  None of the songs are bad, and the lyrics are personal and relevant.  But while the record successfully fuses two traditional styles of music, it still doesn’t feel like a major breakthrough because it rarely shoots for the stars.  I also think Segarra is capable of more nuanced and detailed lyrics, and while it may be a stylistic choice to opt for simpler, folksier lyricism, I think her instrumentation and vocal twang do enough work on that front.  Still, I think the record is a success, and wouldn’t fault anyone from enjoying the hell out of it.  I can see it being an anthem for Latin American communities in the Trump era, I just wish it was more anthemic.

Score: 8/13

Los Campesinos! – Sick Scenes

Los Campesinos! hold a special place in my heart.  Upon my discovery of them in the early months of 2014, I became completely enamored with their 2010 masterpiece, Romance is Boring.   You wanna talk about grandiose, incredibly dense, bursting-at-the-seams indie rock- this record has it all.  I’m aware that the band’s pair of 2008 releases are their most beloved, but Romance is larger in scope, both musically (the arrangements are wild and colorful) and lyrically (lyricist/singer Gareth gets really down deep into his college sex life).  Despite my love of Romance, I never bothered to listen to the group’s next two records, based on exactly two things; a) four members left the band post Romance, including vocalist Aleksandra (whose sweet voice and female perspective so perfectly juxtaposed Gareth’s manic ramblings), and b) I heard like two songs from 2013’s No Blues and immediately thought they had lost their luster.

Following the longest break in the group’s career (3.5 years, when they had previously been an album-a-year group), and the band’s devolving from constantly touring 20-somethings to fully-employed 30-somethings, I approached Sick Scenes with appropriate caution, ever-aware of the fear that one of my favorite bands (and a huge influence on my own music) would be tainted as I inspected their new releasein minute detail.  The first single they dropped, however, “I Broke Up in Amarante“, inspired hope – Gareth was older and more jaded than before, yes, but the energy and personal lyrical imagery were there (including classic LC! soccer (ahem, football) references – “Dreamt I’m anchoring that midfield / Like the anchor in my midriff”), and the song was catchy to boot.  A bit pop-punk and emo (complete with half-tempo breakdown and a chorus that repeats “It seems unfair!”), but a banger none-the-less.

Opener “Renato Dail’Ara” contends with “Amarante” as the best song on record, and once again delivers amped-up energy, soccer references, a great sing-a-long chorus, and a depressed, cathartic message.  Singing “Living off 2008”, Gareth reflects with bitter nostalgia on the early days of his band, when he played FIFA and drank beer all day and the group had time, youth, energy and critical opinion on their side.  The full-band harmonies are there and chief songwriter Tom’s love of noodling guitar scales bristles at every juncture.  Second sequenced “Sad Suppers” is another highlight, though not quite as immediate as “Renato”, and is followed in turn by “Amarante” to kick the album off with a strong trifecta and a sign of a possible return to form.

But the album’s weaknesses begin to rear their head from here on out.  “A Slow, Slow Death” is your classic ‘slower, more atmospheric, moodier’ LC! song, and has a catchy enough chorus, but here Gareth’s singing falls over the fine-line between impassioned and whiny, and despite a nice horn arrangement on the chorus, the track’s melody is a bit annoying.  “The Fall of Home” is one of the gentlest LC! songs on record, and despite a truly beautiful string, glockenspiel and piano arrangement, the sparser parts of the song showcase how bad Gareth’s singing can be when he’s really trying to be sweet and not scathing.  The lyrics, however, detailing coming home after spending years away, are on-point and nearly make up for the singing (“Battery dies on your monthly call / Budget cut at your primary school”).

“5 Flucloxacilin” is an ode to Gareth’s ongoing battle with depression and the myriad pills he takes to deal with it, but he lacks the sharp-tongued wit and sassy delivery from early LC! records, making a line like “31 and depression is a young man’s game” come off as more pitiful than pained.  The second half of the album, while never bad, feels underwritten, lacking the gut-punch and urgency that the first three tracks bristle with.  “Here’s To The Fourth Time!” has a great outro that completely changes pace and features distorted screaming referencing the band’s old tracks, and the penultimate “A Litany/Heart Swells”, with its couplet verses split by an increasingly intense chorus of “I’m shouting out a litany / An echo calls back!” nearly gets there.  But the closer leaves a lot to be desired and much of the rest is underwhelming and forgettable.

One of my biggest gripes with the record, unfortunately, is the production.  Despite being helmed by LC! vet John Goodmanson and arranged by founding member Tom, there is nothing approaching the density of colorful guitar, synth, keyboard and bass riffs that Romance found around every corner.  Missing former vocalist Aleksandra puts Gareth constantly at center-stage, and the group harmonies on the choruses feel phoned in and uninspired, often too low in the mix.  Gareth’s vocals frequently feature a slight fuzz that is too subtle to be cool (ala The Strokes) but just noticeable enough to be distracting.  And the snare drum, which strikes with a hollow, banging tone that I don’t care for, is way too high in the mix and hits almost every insufferable quarter note on the record.

Thematically, Sick Scenes is about Gareth’s problems with being 31.  He’s too young to be wise but too old to be energetic and optimistic.  He’s nostalgic for his youth, fighting the same mental illnes he had then but from within an older, fatter body.  While James Murphy handled these problems with heartbreaking acceptance of emotional decay, Gareth idolizes his glory days (calling out his former Cardiff haunts – “Hirwain, Minny, Twkesbury, or Brook Street / What I’d not give just to have another week”) but still resorts to juvenile alcoholism to deal with his current troubles (“Nursed a two beer buzz four whole weeks / Cause it’s the only way to feel sane”).  As was always the case, the more intimate and detailed he writes, the better, but too frequently, especially on the back half, we’re treated to vague sentiments like “When all is spent and all is lost / When all is said and done”.  Gareth is still one of the best lyricists in the indie rock game, but where once he couldn’t pen a verse that wasn’t as embarrassing as it was genius, he now only strikes gold when it seems like he has a song’s theme and personality focused and locked down.

While Sick Scenes is a pretty enjoyable listen, packed with good melodies and good lyrics, alongside a couple of standout tracks, it doesn’t excite much past its first three or four tracks.  It does show that LC! had the potential to put out something great, but too many of these songs make poor production choices and are underwritten both lyrically and musically, playing it too safe and lacking the huge swinging dynamics and interesting detours the band made a name for themselves on.  It certainly sounds like an older and wiser record, but this was a band that was built on youthful energy, and they’ve neither recaptured it or nor pivoted to some interesting new identity.  I’ve given the album about twenty listens at this point, and I’ll likely be listing “Amarante” and “Renato” among my favorite songs of the year, but I can’t say I’m impressed with the effort.  Still, it manages to succeed to some degree on the back of how well the Los Campesinos! formula works and how talented Tom and Gareth are at their respective crafts.

Score: 8/13

Priests – Nothing Feels Natural

My good friend Will thinks this Priests album – their debut LP – is the best record of the year thus far.  Given that it grabbed the red over at everyone’s least favorite music blog, I had been listening to it on-and-off for a couple weeks when we had this conversation.  When I responded with apathy, Will defended with conviction, and then continued to defend a week later, taking my comments to heart.  I had no choice but to give the record a few really good, careful, close-inspection listens to see if it truly held up.  (This is a punk album with post-punk and riot grrl influences, by the way).

For one thing, the record mostly nails the sequencing, which any consistent reader of this site will know is pretty much my favorite thing to remark on regarding any particular LP.  It’s opener, “Appropriate”, kicks the record off with a bang, driving a tom/timpani heavy drum beat into a roller coaster of ups and downs that nonetheless remain skeletal in arrangement, never flooding the scene with unnecessary guitars or synths.  Vocalist Katie Alice Greer is clearly the star of the show, and her snarling, direct, non-sequitur, political/personal one-liners are actually great.  She spits “You want something to move away from / A reason to colonize” side by side with “You are not you / Contestant, you’re on Wheel of Fortune!”  What is she saying?  I don’t exactly know, but the references are awesome.

“JJ” continues along with a surf-rock riff and more shout singing, with Greer’s confident, guttural delivery again lighting up the lyric sheet with “The most interesting thing about you / Was that you smoked Parliaments”.  But third-sequenced “Nicki” is lacking both the energy and lyrical prowess of the first two tracks, as does “Lelia 20”.  These songs are so minimalist in their production that they really live and die on their riffs and their vocals, and the move on these two tracks toward a spacier, more atmospheric punk sound kind of works against the group’s punchiness.  Luckily, “No Big Bang”, the towering, spoken-word centerpiece, swoops in to the rescue, detailing existential dread against an ominous bass riff and screeching, reverbed guitars from both sides.  It borders on pretentious, what with its “Just the weight of my own insignificance, my foolishness, and my hubris thrust into the glaring light that is the sun”, but the song doesn’t overstay its welcome or try too hard to be huge, to its credit.

After a pretty out-of-left-field classical string arrangement interlude (that feels kind of  unnecessary), the album descends back into trebeley, blissed-out surf rock tones for “Nothing Feels Natural”, where Greer abandons the snarl for ‘pretty’, songwriter/ shoegazey vocals that rob the band, once again, of their individuality.  “Pink White House” takes a turn for the political (“Come on palm trees, come on soft seas, come on vacation, come on SUV/ Oooh baby my American dream”) and falls back into the band’s wheel house – tense, tom-heavy drumming, bouncing bass lines, fuzzed out guitars, freewheeling structure, minor and diminished chord changes.

The penultimate “Puff” has my favorite opening of any song on here, with the most direct, clear and sarcastic vocals I’ve heard in a while declaring “My best friend says “I want to start a band called Burger King” and I say “Do it!” / Achieve your dreams, Burger King!”  But then the closing track (which on albums like this is usually just another high-energy punk track), “Suck”, is a dancey, snaking groove with that softer singing style I don’t really care for?  With cowbells?  And a sax solo?  What?   Such a wild turn in style would have worked great coming out of the interlude, but as is it ends the album on a weird note.  The song itself isn’t that bad, featuring the record’s most transparent lyrics (about a guy who “sucks”), but I would have hoped for a bigger bang to end such an (at times) explosive album.

There are consistency issues, to be sure.  The album can feel a bit formulaic at times (particularly toward the end of the front half or early in the back half), but at 34 minutes, it packs enough detours to stay away from boring.  Greer’s vocals are great except when they aren’t (like on the title track) and the lyrics range from pretty good to very sharp.  I feel like with 1 or 2 more great moments, the album could have cleared some kind of plateau, but as is, there are just a few too many nagging concerns for me to say it’s any better than a solid, better-than-average guitar album.  Still, the highs are pretty high.  As a 4 or 5 song EP, this would have slayed.  I like it, don’t love it.

Score: 8/13

Foxygen – Hang

It’s not uncommon for music journalists to call an album ‘self-indulgent.’  This typically means a somewhat eccentric and/or idiosyncratic artist makes an album that expands upon their pre-established eccentricities (or idiosyncrasies) in a way that makes their music either less accessible or, more often, worse.  One notable example would be MGMT, whose second album, Congratulations, embraced the weirder, more ‘eccentric’ side of their hook-filled debut and became perhaps the decade’s most critically underrated album (seriously, Congratulations is a masterpiece).

From the get-go, it seems like this new Foxygen (aka vocalist Sam France and multi-instrumentalist Jonathon Rado) album will be relegated to a similar territory.  Is the band ‘weird and eccentric’?  You bet- just note that their second album was called We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, or check out these videos where they bring David Letterman to pieces of go toe-to-toe with the silliest musician of all, Mac Demarco.  Do they write good songs?  You bet – just listen to to this one from the aforementioned 2013 LP, or this other highlight from 2014’s  …And Star Power (which, in the eccentricity department, was like 30 songs long (and also not very good)).

The reason Hang will probably be called self-indulgent and garner all the affiliated sentiments is because, well, it’s basically show-tunes.  I don’t even know what genre this album falls into aside from ‘pop’, because these songs could probably show up in any Rogers and Hammerstein musical and pass through the ears of every septuagenarian in attendance without raising an eyebrow.  For that reason, this album is really exciting- I don’t know if there’s any contemporary album by a ‘rock’ band or otherwise that sounds like Hang.  So as far as novelty goes, bravo.  If it weren’t for the hallmarks of modern music’s delicate, subtle production value, this album could have come straight out of 1970s Los Angeles.

As far as the songs go, and how enjoyable they are, well the results vary.  Essentially, verses and sections of songs fall into two camps – the show-tunes that dial in impressively catchy melody lines, grand climaxes and just the right about of Sam France’s cartoonish, glamed-up, ‘sexy’ vocals, and those that just sorta sound like they fall into some uncanny valley  between show-tunes and 2010s millennial parodies of show-tunes.

Opener “Follow the Leader“, despite being a zero lyrically, is the most notable exception, sounding culled from …And Star Power and grooving on a 70s electric piano riff.  Strong horns and strings sit comfortably amidst Supremes-esque backing vocals that pop up frequently throughout the record’s run.  Immediately following is Hang‘s worst track, the big band Sinatra bop of “Avalon” that, aside from a quick double-time detour, pretty much sits on the same two chord progression and repetition of the line “In the garden of Avalon!” for four minutes.

And so the record goes.  “Mrs. Adams” sounds like it’s trying to say something lyrically, with lines like “Hey, Mrs. Adams, whathca doin now / with a gun in your mouth”, but like the rest of the record, any message is impressionistic at best.  The track’s slower, more emotional sections are nearly touching, but the staccato piano and vibraphone disrupt any momentum the song builds.  Similarly, “America” is most certainly a political statement (“Our heroes aren’t brave, they’ve just got nothing to lose / Because they’re all living in America”) but features France’s most painful vocal delivery, alternative between equally vibrato heavy tenor and alto octaves, and disrupting the mood the song seems to establish with baroque harpsichord and piano sections that further deviate into swing-time lounge music.  The song is a purposeful mess, but rather than make an interesting statement, it stands as an obnoxious oddity smack in the center of the album.

The back half of the album fares better than the first.  “On Lankershim” is the record’s strongest track, combining a killer melody line, an emotional climax, some thoughtful lyrics (“Well it just gets bigger till you can’t seem to figure out / I walk away but I still can’t seem to figure it out”), great horn and string ascensions, and a triumphant, building jam through the album’s final third to France’s repetition of “you walked away!”  “Upon a Hill” displays France’s most theatrical vocal delivery and once again features a strong melody that is inevitably upended by a double time big band coda that at this point in the track listing is only surprising because it pops up within a two-minute song.

The record ends with two slower, more sentimental ballads.  First up is “Trauma”, which is cut from the same cloth as Meatloaf’s grandiose epics and features a wonderfully sad and wistful guitar solo, and the closer “Rise Up”, which actually crosses into a melody so sweet and familiar over a piano and woodwind backing that I was certain I’d heard it in a Disney movie before.  Combined with the repeated refrain of “Everybody wonders where the red fern grows”, it nearly approximates Foxygen as a children’s music act.  The huge timpani sections then give way to a progressive, driving distorted guitar solo that ends the record on a high note.

I can’t say I love the record, or will be listening to it much in the coming year, aside from perhaps “On Lankershim”, but at 33 minutes and eight tracks, it never overextends its welcome.  It’s refreshingly original but only rarely great.  My biggest hang up isn’t the album’s frequent and unexpected deviations between sections of orchestral baroque pop, but rather France’s lyric writing.  Where once he penned such hilarious but insightful gems as “You don’t need to be an asshole you’re not in Brooklyn anymore“, France seems content to let Hang‘s only statement be made through the band’s decision to fully embrace the big-band, musical theater aesthetic.  It’s been three years since the last Foxygen record, and only four since the band hit the big time- to think that France has nothing to say regarding his life or the state of affairs for the group in the interim is an ominous sight for the duo’s future.  Still, if they continue to show up with fresh ideas, I’m willing to indulge them and search for what made 21st Century Ambassadors such a great record.

Score:  8/13