Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

Crack-Up, the third LP from famed Seattle indie folk act Fleet Foxes, convincingly cements the group’s place in the “3 for 3 club”.  The “3 for 3 club” is a term I made up to describe artists whose first three studio albums have all been very very good.  The reasoning is that while making one great album is hard, and two doubly so, going three for three signifies that you really really know what you’re doing.  You didn’t get lucky and you didn’t burn out, and you’re probably here to stay.  (Other recent indie rock inductees to this club would include Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Father John Misty and Tame Impala.)  But I don’t think there was ever any doubt that Robin Pecknold and co. were the real deal – I mean just listen to those harmonies on the chorus of “Helplessness Blues“.  The question, rather, was in what direction would the group push?  Would they move to more ambient, conceptual music?  Would they add layers of synths and other electronics, as bands are notoriously known to do on LP3?  Would they abandon their heavy folk aesthetic?  The answer is twofold; first, Fleet Foxes got really good at writing and arranging enormous, overwhelming and beautiful Fleet Foxes songs, and second, Pecknold got far more socially conscious and political as a lyricist.

Everyone is making Crack-Up out to be this soul searching depression record for Pecknold, citing his extended absence from the project, his return to school at Columbia, the album’s opening lyric of “I’m all that I need / and I’ll be til I’m through,” but Crack-Up is far more outward looking than any previous Fleet Foxes material.  Recently, Pecknold himself responded to a negative review of the record with a wall of passive aggressive text that’s generally in poor taste save for this hilarious quote – “If some of the lyrics are more imagistic than explicit, they’re still more engaged in the present world than anything on our first album, where the lyrics were just pure RPG fantasy.”  Correct!  After nearly a decade, Pecknold has successfully traded “I was following the pack all swallowed in their coats” for “Song of masses, passing outside / All inciting the fifth of July / When guns for hire open fire”, from standout Cassius, –, a song about Pecknold’s engagement in the protests surrounding the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  Cassius here refers to the recently deceased Muhammed Ali, who shows up again in “I Should See Memphis”.

Both “-Naiads, Cassadies” and “Kept Woman” concern themselves with gender dynamics and feminism, the former addressing the perceived helplessness and delicacy of women by comparing them instead to elemental forces; “Fire can’t doubt its heat / Water can’t doubt its power / You’re not adrift, you’re not a gift, you know you’re not a flower”.  The second half’s “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me” acts as a calm and reassuring voice following the election of Trump – “How could it all fall in one day?  Were we too sure of the sun?  If you need to, keep time on me”.  The election is again referenced with optimistic sentiment on “Fool’s Errand”, where Pecknold sings to a marching beat “Blind love couldn’t win / As the facts all came in /  But I know I’ll again chase after wind”.  In short, Crack-Up is, unique to a Fleet Foxes’ discography, in time and in tune with the current political and societal climate.

But Crack-Up, lyrically dense as it may be (just check out Pecknold’s own Geinus annotations on “Third of May / Odaigahara”, about his relationship with bandmate Skye Skjelset), is really a record about the music and the arrangements.  This album is enormous.  From the one minute mark of opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumprint Scar”, a rushing cacophony of aggressively strumming acoustic instruments and pounding bass drum rock the listener into some of the densest instrumentation Fleet Foxes have attempted.  The song’s conceptual structure is phenomenal; Pecknold debates himself, a low, insecure voice arguing one point before the arrangement takes the song by force once again and no less than eight vocal harmonies scream back at himself.  “I am hardly made of steel” – “Tell me, are you so concealed?!”  The dynamics and juxtaposition of loud to soft are masterfully done.  The rest of the record’s A-side follows with further lush instrumentation – the finger picking electric guitars on “-Naiads, Cassadies”, the haunting, jumbled piano on “Kept Woman” standing apart from the fray.  “Cassius,-” barrels ahead like a rapidly rushing stream, symbolic of Pecknold’s fall into the slipstream of social protest and in theme with the album’s water motif.

Of course, this front side is all a build up to the album’s unbelievable centerpiece, “Third of May / Odaigahara”.  Pecknold finally let’s his voice soar above the arrangement alone, free of third and fifth harmonies, and soar it does, reaching an absolutely gorgeous high melody line.  That this is the most memorable, most sing-a-longable but also the densest and most conceptual and complex song here is astonishing.  Again, loud soft dynamics serve to highlight Pecknold’s back and forth with himself, moving through time in Fleet Foxes’ history, shuttling himself to Columbia and back to Seattle (“Now, back in our town, as a castaway”) but constantly comforted by friendship and music (“But I can hear you out in the center / Oh how we were made to be crowded together like leaves”).  The song moves into an aggressive minor key movement before making way for the ambient, Japanese-inspired “Odaigahara” section that caps off its nearly nine-minute run time.  This track is ridiculous and I wouldn’t be surprised to find it atop best song lists by year’s end.

Crack-Up is carefully sequenced, following the gigantic “Third of May” with the gentle and reassuring “If You Need to, Keep Time on Me”.  The album then falls into its darker, murkier second half, where the personal mantra-like “Mearcstapa” evokes cold Northern European seas both in lyrical imagery and ambient tone.  “On Another Ocean (January / June)” features ominous piano as Pecknold continuous to dig into himself and his choices.  The record ends the trek down the other side of the mountain with the nearly formless and drifting “I Should See Memphis” (which, I should mention, features my only issue with the production, on Pecknold’s vocal”) and the slow, steady title track, which again sees Pecknold debating himself in multiple voices (“I can tell you’ve cracked / Like a china plate”) before ending the record with horns, a choir of voices and the sound of someone running down a staircase and out the door.

Every second of Crack-Up is more densely arranged than just about anything else out there, the record alternates between personal and political, there are myriad conceptual moments carried out in the production, there are definite motifs and lyrical themes, the songs are often very beautiful, and the sequencing is spot-on.  The only fault I can really find with this album is that it lacks the catchy upbeat, marquee singles the previous records featured, and calling that a ‘fault’ feels pretty flimsy.  I think Fleet Foxes have delivered an album rich and detailed enough to warrant countless deep listens, each unveiling new pieces of the album’s many themes and textures.  I don’t know if this is my favorite Fleet Foxes album – I really do love singing along with the by now canonical melodies on many of the tracks from their self-titled debut – but it’s pretty much everything a band could hope to deliver on one fifty-five minute LP, and I anticipate seeing it referenced as one of 2017’s definitive albums in the years to come.

Score: 12/13


(Sandy) Alex G – Rocket

Philadelphia’s (Sandy) Alex G, (formerly just known as Alex G) is a twenty-four year-old prolific bedroom recorder/producer whose plethora Bandcamp releases got him a deal with Domino.  Rocket is his second album for the label, following 2015’s Beach Music.  I’ve been following Alex since his 2014 release, DSU, which was affecting and emotional despite (or because of) its lo-fi production aesthetic.  Alex last popped up on Frank Ocean’s Blonde, of all places (he played guitar on “Self-Control”), and on Rocket, he shows that the two enigmatic musicians have more in common than one might think – they’re both in the business of completely throwing the idea of genre or traditional song or album structures out the window.

Rocket starts with one of my favorite songs of the year thus far, the droning, banjo picking, other-world folk of “Poison Root”, on which Alex, singing as though he’s drowning in a puddle of mud, describes taking psychedelic plants before repeating “Now I know everything,” a lyric that I’ve come back to again and again for its endless interpretations as the introduction to an album about learning how to be an adult.  The song rockets immediately into “Proud”, an upbeat, jaunty, head bobbing piano and acoustic number that, even at 4:57, doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Alex sings of his insecurities as a young adult – “If I sink / I don’t wanna be the one to leave my baby out without no bottle to drink”.  “Country” is a slinking, jazzy extended electric guitar solo over which Alex, in innumerable overdubbed falsettos, sings the harrowing tale of being in jail with a kid who had “a few bags of heroin deep in his stomach / He swallowed a razor / See I got some stories” before the fourth-wall breaking “Hey why don’t you write that into a song / Maybe your fans with dig that”.  And, naturally, the album courses directly into the melancholy fiddle and banjo duet “Bobby”.

By this point in the record, it’s apparent that Alex is plays by no rule book, linking his songs together only with his ever present easy acoustic strumming and unique but personal songwriting topics.  Then we hit “Horse”, which sounds like a bunch of cheap Logic bell loops all played a half step out of time with each other around an ominous synth bass, bringing us to the album’s centerpiece, “Brick”.  This experimental, raging, loud, distorted piece of raw, unadulterated free form experimentation sounds like Death Grips meets Mellow Gold -era Beck.  “Proud” might make its way onto the curated eight-hour Yankee Candle store corporate playlist.  “Brick” might make people on bad acid trips kill themselves.  Personally, I think the track is genius and perfectly sequenced right at the record’s half way point, as if Alex was concerned that the listener was growing too comfortable.

I think the record’s back half, however, features Rocket‘s weakest songs, not because they are too inaccessible or self-indulgent, but because the aesthetic concept they shoot for just isn’t that compelling.  The immediate follow-up to “Brick” is “Sportstar”, a piano loop track on which Alex utilizes unflattering chipmunk auto-tune and sings “Sport star / Let me wear your jersey / If you want to hurt me”.  The song appears to be about violence and masochism, but I don’t understand the auto-tune choice and I feel like the song lacks the emotional punch a more raw, stripped back version could have delivered.  The grungy “Judge” is classic Alex G but not particularly memorable, as is the careful, downcast “Big Fish”.  But I do like the unsettling, shifty looping, banjo, fiddle and sound-effect percussion of the instrumental title track.

“Powerful Man” is one of the record’s many ‘WTF’ moments- if I get what he’s going for, Alex is purposefully utilizing a simplistic lyrical style to tell a story that demonstrates a young male’s immaturity and sows the seeds for a violent future as a parent: “Mom’s in a mood this week/ Cause she thinks her family’s going crazy / Guess it started with the baby / She went for a hug but it bit her on the cheek / That was pretty funny to me / Guess I should have more sympathy / I ain’t never raised no kids / But I bet I’d do a good job if I did”.  The title may also be a reference to fellow Philadelphia artist’s song of the same name about domestic violence.  Either way, the song is catchy and the fiddle work is sublime.  The album ends with “Guilty”, another upbeat, jazzy track featuring electric guitar, drums and a saxophone solo.

Rocket is a wholly unique album, and although a couple of these tracks miss the high water mark set by the standouts, the record’s many twists and turns, lyrical, instrumental and production detours and cohesion through raw, intimate recording make it a success.  Not all the tracks are catchy or easy to sing along with, and at times its hard to see where Alex is going lyrically, but I’m willing to bet there are far more nuances and subtleties than I’ve been able to detect, resulting in an album that rewards listeners for closer, careful inspection and reinterpretation.

Score: 10 / 13

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

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


Sun Kil Moon – Common as Light and Love Are Red Valleys of Blood

If you aren’t familiar with Sun Kil Moon (aka Mark Kozelek), here’s the rundown:

1990s – Kozelek is in a band called Red House Painters that releases some, slow, atmospheric albums about Kozolek being sad and disillusioned.  They’re all pretty good.

2003 – Solo under the name Sun Kil Moon, Kozelek releases Ghosts of the Great Highway, which is a fucking amazing album.

2000s – Idk, output probably mediocre.

2014 – Sun Kil Moon puts out new LP, Benji, composed of long, drawn out acoustic songs that feature Kozelek speak-singing incredibly personal, diary-entry, prose-style songs about people he’s known who have died in Ohio, his family, his upbringing, his mid-life crisis, etc.  It gets rave reviews.

2014+ – Kozelek is an asshole to journalists and other bands, gets in feuds, frequently in the music news, doubles down on speak-singing story songs with new album that does not get acclaim.

So then this two hour behemoth drops and its basically the 2010s Kozelek style (speak-singing, stream of consciousness, long songs) to the max.  The average length here is like eight and a half minutes.  They include incredible minutia and trivialities from Kozelek’s life ranging from buying fruit from a roadside stand, speaking to a Syrian shopkeeper about ISIS, staying in the hotel where Elisa Lam (the girl from that unsettling elevator footage who was found in the hotel’s water tower) died, trying to buy shoes in Portugal and corresponding with a Sarah Lawrence College concert organizer.

For many, this album will be insufferable.  The instrumentals are very minimalist and repetitive, typically consisting of a bass, drums and acoustic guitar just chugging along the same phrase or 2 chord progression for 10 minutes, often with a “bridge” or alternate refrain thrown in every few minutes or so.  The Kozelek’s mind-numbing details about his life, and the narcissism required for someone to put two hours of that to tape, can be off-putting.  The record requires 2 hours to listen to in full, and its often not remotely catchy.

Still, like some, I find this album fascinating.  While Benji was just melodic and poetic enough to be universally adored and labeled as ‘groundbreaking’ or something, this record was always going to be far more polarizing.  I’m just someone who was attracted to the positive pole.  I like this album for the little details, the humor, the Bay Area and NorCal imagery (there’s a whole song about driving down highway 80 from SF to Sacramento, which I do multiple times a week), and the observations that break through into insightful, even profound territory.

When you get an album this full of one person’s day to day life, the themes that emerge are just the idiosyncrasies and personalities of that person, and those can be both interesting and charming to behold.  Kozelek is obsessed with murder, serial killers and deaths under mysterious or bizarre circumstances.  He acknowledges that this is messed up, but he likes it, and I can relate – I’m sure we all have our Wikipedia guilty pleasures (mine would be… lists of populations of metropolitan statistical areas).  Kozelek sings on one song about planning a trip to the hotel where Elisa Lam died (“Window Sash Weights”), then in another song (“Stranger Than Paradise”) he actually goes there and talks about his own private investigation.  And then later, he lies in bed and feels guilty for doubting the girl even existed (“She died at 21 years old in 2013 / the height of the internet age / Yet only 2 known photos”), thinking about her grieving parents.  On the aforementioned “The Highway Song”, he fabricates a hilarious murder story about an Eric Clapton impersonator who was killed by someone who’s middle school heartbreak loved “Wonderful Tonight“.

Kozelek has strong feelings about the current political climate.  The ‘fuck Trump’ sentiments are obviously expected but are dull and don’t really interest me, but his long passages about how he’s disgusted by the North Carolina transgender bathroom legislation (“Hicks and hillbillies, unite and get along / Rednecks, bury your axe with transgenders and be strong”) is politically incorrect enough to be genuine.  Ditto for his thoughts on the Orlando massacre (“It’s my opinion that he deserves a blunt object lodged into his temple”) and the concert shooting in Paris (“Or Paris, France about that Eagles of Death Metal / Actually don’t mention that one ’cause for them the dust is still not settled”).

The famous curmudgeon takes plenty of shots at twitter, millennials, social media, the internet age, the death of culture, the ‘me’ generation, etc. etc., that plenty of critics have already focused on, but I’m neither offended nor focused on that aspect of the album.  The skit where he plays a journalist talking to a fan (“Oh yeah I know Jim James, Doctor John Misty / Hold up Suf-jan Stevens is texting me”) is actually great.  I’m not so sensitive that insulting my generation and people exactly like me makes me dislike Kozelek’s little touches, like how he “watches The Shining every Christmas”, any less.  He makes it clear that his hatred is directed in a general direction, but his interaction with a millennial with whom he plans a concert at Sarah Lawrence College is touching and demonstrates some effort on his end to bridge the generation gap, and he even seems to have a great time at the show – “A nice girl named Sophie played piano on a few songs with us because my mic couldn’t reach the piano / She played the four notes on “Richard Ramirez…” and “Carry Me Ohio” really, really, well / That was a lot of fun”.

Some of the melodies are truly pretty as well.  Kozelek’s style of using harmonies to echo his sentiments in nice, major chord arrangements are hilarious when they’re paired with phrases like “Guns from the trolls” and “Huge fucking asshole” on the wonderful “I Love Portugal”.  The opener “God Bless Ohio” would have actually fit perfectly on Benji, given its content (Kozelek’s love/hate of his home state of Ohio and the tragedies he’s witnessed there) and its sad, downbeat, minor tone, kicking the album off with perhaps its most song-like track.

I don’t really love all these songs (or parts of these songs) – some of the sections aren’t funny, go on too long and are too monotonous to be enjoyable.  It certainly could have used just a big of editing to keep it focused on the more interesting passages.  But this record is a magnifying glass on one musician’s life and thoughts, in excruciating detail, over the course of a year, and every additional ten minutes of it just adds linearly to the big picture, and that pointillism crafting of an image is the whole point of the album.  It’s not a traditional sort of record, where you can throw on nice headphones to enjoy all the production flourishes and read all the lyrics and think about the arc and sequencing and scope and themes and motifs.  Rather, you put it on in the background, and listen in and out, catching glimpses and chuckling at some lines here and there, and every time a more complete picture of this man at the age of 50 emerges, which is pretty satisfying.  And no one else is doing this, easy as it may seem, so its still incredibly original.  I like it.

Score: 9/13

Jesca Hoop – Memories Are Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 11/13

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