New Wave

Gorillaz – Humanz

God this album is bad.  Every year there’s bound to be one massive disappointment from a critically revered artist, and thus far this year Damon Albarn’s beloved Gorillaz project is winning (losing?) that race by a landslide.  The first Gorillaz album since 2010’s solid Plastic Beach, Humanz arrives two years after Albarn reunited Blur for The Magic Whip, a so-so album that sounds exactly like you’d expect Blur to sound 15 years after their heyday, and three years since his sad, grey, lonely and boring solo album, Everyday Robots.  And it’s a mess in all the worst ways possible.  It’s dense in songs, features and ideas but next to none of them succeed.  It’s way too long, a 20 track, 48 minute slog that feels much longer.  There are six needless, corny interludes.  The vocal features are all over the place; verses from solid performers sound completely out of place on the instrumentals Albarn has built for them, and others are just awful regardless of what they’re rapping / singing over.  There is no trace of personality or presence from the imaginary band that the project takes its name for; rather, Humanz sounds like a collection of unsuccessful demos that should have been titled “Damon Albarn writes subpar, half-baked songs for people he thinks are cool and wants to work with.”

Humanz, like other Gorillaz releases, is a pseudo concept album about the slow, deliberate destruction of humanity at the hands of greed, warfare, deceit, inept government and late stage market capitalism.  And for the most part, the featured vocalists adhere to the theme in their lyrical content.  The album also has a cohesive production aesthetic; dark, heavy, bassy tracks with little in the way of colorful synthesizers or guitars.  And those are the only compliments I can give Humanz.  It’s sort of remarkable that Damon Albarn wrote hits like “Clint Eastwood” and “Feel Good Inc.“, but couldn’t manage to put together one catchy song anyone would remember five minutes after it’s ended.  It’s perhaps even more remarkable that he wrote beautiful, melancholy ballads like “El Manana“, yet not a single song here pulls at any heartstring or impresses with synthetic production.  The instrumentals are incredibly boring, repetitive and lack imagination completely.  Every track is just a 4/4 pounding bass rhythm with a few low, ominous synths, a rap verse or speak-singing passage followed by a ‘hook’ or ‘chorus’ that sounds almost exactly like the rest of the track, like the rest of the whole album, except with some sad, faux-tragic female vocalist or Albarn’s own voice singing banal, nondescript lyrics about how much the world sucks.

The proper opener  is Vince Staples on “Ascension”, probably the best song here (Vince Staples can’t really deliver a bad verse), but the production fails to impress, an uptempo, vaguely dark, vaguely electronic haberdashery featuring a canned gospel chorus sample chanting “higher”.  Things only get worse after that.  “Strobelite” is the worst combination of Albarn’s dancey, techno impulses and inoffensive 80s disco pastiche.  “Momentz” is practically unlistenable, not because De La Soul isn’t spitting as fast as he can, but because the underlying bass pounding out every quarter note sounds fucking awful, the chanted “Momentz!” vocal sample spliced in every 12 seconds or so sounds fucking awful, and the shrieking, wailing “Plastic on the ceiling!” bridge sounds fucking awful.  All the interludes are heavy-handed and completely unnecessary, such as “The Non-Conformist Oath”, where the ‘irony’ of a crowd repeating in unison “I promise not to repeat what other people say!” makes 50 Cent’s fellatio reference on “Candy Shop” appear subtle in comparison.

No song is pretty.  No vocal take is especially memorable or enjoyable.  Danny Brown probably has the best verse here (another rapper who rarely fails to be exciting) but the droning techno R&B number he’s paired on compliments his vocal style like salad dressing compliments ice cream.  There’s a track called “Sex Murder Party” that’s as bad as a song called “Sex Murder Party” could have been (yes, the chorus whispers “Sex murder party”), but far more boring – nothing fucking happens on this song at all!  The record stumbles and face-plants out the door with the penultimate “Hallelujah Money”, which features a bizarre baritone vocal from Benjamin Clementine reciting revolutionary lyrical content expressing the concept that money is the root of all evil (Gasp!).  But the closer is miles worse; an upbeat, positive song that sounds like it was Albarn’s attempt to write for Sesame Street (“We got the power to be loving each other no matter what happens!  We got hte power to do that!”) before Savages’ Jehnny Beth (yes, you read that right) shows up with an incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, nearly campy vocal take that makes me want to kill myself.

And through it all, where the hell are the Gorillaz?  The fictional band is nowhere to be found, no guitar lines from Noodle, no acoustic bass lines from Murdoch, minimal live drumming from Russel and only occasional vocal takes from 2-D (aka Albarn himself).  Albarn stated in an interview that he has 40 more Gorillaz songs that didn’t make the album (there are also six ‘deluxe edition’ songs you can get on iTunes or something).  If these were the 14 best songs he could put together, I can’t even begin to imagine the steaming pile of shit that are those other 40.

Score:  2 / 13

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

 

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