Lorde – Melodrama

The first time I heard Lorde (outside of “Royals” on the radio in passing) was on a bus headed toward Austin City Limits in October 2013.  I had downloaded her 2013 debut album Pure Heroine and was ready to rip into it for a review for my college newspaper.  But one minute into opener “Tennis Court” I was completely blown away.  The lyrics and production were equally sublime.  The songs were catchy but catered to no pop music standards.  Pure Heroine did something few albums ever can; introduce a new artist with huge crossover hit potential who can also reshape the entire pop landscape.  Suddenly, dark, spacey minimalism was very in.  She wasn’t the first to hone this sound – see xx from 2009 or The Weeknd’s 2011 trilogy– but she successfully paired it with accessibility and personality without compromising any artistry.  In the four years since its release, Pure Heroine has only gotten better with age, and the fallout of its wake can still be seen on the charts.

Four years is a long time to spend on the followup to a massive commercial and critical debut, but Lorde isn’t a traditional pop artist, and she was right to think long and hard about what statement she wanted to make on her next LP.  Songs about the trivialities of being bored and sixteen probably won’t play well over two albums, but the classic “Im famous now and I’m still jaded” sophomore trope is played-out and lacks the idiosyncratic detail Lorde puts into her lyrical work.  Instead, for Melodrama, she chose similar themes to Pure Heroine, aged a few years, with renewed emphasis on contemporary party culture underscored by the paradox of the album’s titular expression.

Production- and writing-wise, Lorde turned most prominently to Jack Antonoff of Bleachers and Fun (who a few weeks ago released by far the worst album I listened to all year).  His penchant for “bombastic”, “feel-good” choruses burrows its way into opener “Green Light”, the most obvious play for dance-floor ready radio pop (where it seems to have been quite successful) and probably the record’s second weakest track.  Lorde still bites with a practiced cattiness, but the chorused vocals shooting for empowerment lack personality.  The production takes a turn for the better on the second-sequenced “Sober”, which returns to Pure Heroine’s spacious, bass- and reverb- heavy arrangements and antichorus structure (punctuated by sharp horns), and while the sentiment (the emptiness of partying) is classic Lorde, I find the refrain (“But what will we do when we’re sober?”) awkwardly straightforward.  “Homemade Dynamite” is the best of the dancey, “I don’t know how I feel about the banality of millennial club culture” three-song opening, letting a boom-clap beat and understated synths do the heavy lifting under Lorde’s practically whispered too school for cool delivery (“I guess we’re partying”, “Know I think you’re awesome, right?”).  Thus Melodrama‘s opening movement is effective at setting themes and a mood, but its “bangers” hardly bang and it doesn’t follow through lyrically.

“The Louvre” is another semi-successful attempt to make a minimalist anthem, and does feature a couple of nice lyrical turns (“They’ll hang us in the Louvre / down the back but who cares still the Louvre”) which see Lorde turn her attention to love interests, where she has a knack for striking a nerve.  But the refrain of “Broadcast the boom boom boom and make ’em all dance to it” feels like further rehashing of all the record is saying up to this point.  The album’s best song and centerpiece, “Liability”, succeeds by pulling away from all the tricks, featuring only Lorde’s capable voice, a piano, a couple organs and an excellent melody.  The image of Lorde returning home alone find comfort in herself (“So I guess I’ll go home into the arms of the girl that I love” / “All that a stranger would see is one girl, swaying alone”) is visceral and haunting, the emotion in the song’s lyrics and delivery feeling more real than anything that preceded it.

But the record loses me again on “Hard Feelings / Loveless” – I don’t care if its sarcastic, I just can’t get behind a refrain of “This is what they call hard-feel-ings”.  The production features some of the record’s best turns, again relying on anti choruses and huge harmony sections but bringing in bizarre and unexpected synth noises that give the some an anxious edge.  But Lorde is effectively a singer-songwriter, and so her lyrics and in particular her refrains are of capital importance.  Couplets like “Cause I remember the rush when forever was us / Before all the winds of regret and mistrust” are more than capable, but I struggle to find any more specific interpretation of her plethora relationship woes when they’re all built on the backs of similar poetic couplets evoking only a general wistful nostalgia.

The album’s back half has some of the record’s strongest moments – “Sober II / Melodrama” more successfully conveys the bitterness Lorde was shooting for on “Sober” (“All the glamour and the trauma and the fucking melodrama / All the girl fights and lime lights and the holy sick divine nights”) and “Supercut” makes a strong case for the record’s second best track, capturing a mood with detailed lyricism (“In your car the radio up / We keep trying to talk about us”) an excellent metaphor (“It’s just a super cut of us”) and a truly anthemic bridge into coda.  The song is successful where earlier spots on the record fail because it feels personal; this is one specific relationship, and not a blanket statement about a culture Lorde has surprisingly predictable ideas toward.  And “Liability (Reprise)” pivots successfully to Bon Iver style autotune, rehashing similar sentiments to “Liability” but with renewed cynicism.  And “Writer in the Dark”, despite being somewhat of a zero lyrically, is the only place where Lorde really lets an unexpected hysterical wild side let loose vocally.

But after a strong back half, the record chooses to close with its worst track, “Perfect Places”, which feels exactly like the record’s opening third, full of “big, theatrical” Antonoff choruses crowded by too many harmonies voicing the dopey “Trying to find the perfect places!” kids bop refrain, without any trace of the emotion and personality Lorde has displayed she’s capable of owning.  It’s a huge disappointment but also not atypical of a record as inconsistent as Melodrama.

Overall, I think this album has some excellent lyrical and production moments, but its play for a more generic dance pop sound does not go over well, I really don’t care for Antonoff as a co-writer on a lot of these tracks, and the lyrical themes frequently overlap and fail to stand out on their own.  There are plenty of catchy moments, playful moments and uniquely Lorde moments (I think like three or four songs feature full instrument cut outs so she can saying something clever and sarcastic), but the record utterly fails to capture a specific time and place without any more than an expected amount of nuance.  A lot of people already love this record, probably because they can really relate to that “God fucking damnit partying is so vacuous!” sentiment that shows up on pretty much every chorus here.  And after all, the album is called Melodrama, so cheers to cohesiveness (I also love the cover art).  But seeing how Lorde’s bassy minimalism has since been co-opted, I think that, aside from a few standout tracks, Lorde’s appealing personality and unique vocal stylings are the only things that save this record from being another generic pop album.

Score: 8 / 13


Dirty Projectors – Dirty Projectors

The new self-titled Dirty Projectors album is about as thorough a breakup album as you’ll encounter.  Every song, all nine of them, deals with project mastermind David Longstreth‘s breakup with ex-bandmate Amber Coffman, and Longstreth tackles it from every angle; anger, grief, sadness, nostalgia, acceptance, bitterness, self-loathing, questioning and re-imagining.  But as essentially a Longstreth solo effort (both Coffman and vocalist Angel Deradoorian have departed since 2012’s solid Swing Lo Magellan), the album is neither pretty nor catchy, and is thus ultimately a disappointment, despite its plethora displays of technical prowess.

Longstreth’s music is unmistakable.  He takes the ‘voice as an instrument’ concept to the next level by employing plenty of vocal effects and offbeat harmonies and rhythms through multiple voices coming in from all sides.  His melodies often sound like the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting – notes tumble off in scattershot, seemingly random arrangements that somehow make sense in the big picture.  This technique was made not only bearable but enjoyable and thoroughly unique when Coffman and Deradoorian were manning a hefty percentage of the vocal duties, typically trading off with Longstreth and one another, but on Dirty Projectors, Longstreth’s chameleonic voice is interwoven with his own falsettos and baritones, and the results demonstrate how pivotal the ex-vocalists were to the entire operation.

Simply put, these songs are more unsettling and off-kilter than they are enjoyable.  “Keep Your Name” kicks the album off in appropriate fashion, sending copies of Longstreth’s helium/chipmunk harmonies soaring while his own auto-tuned vocal splits them down the center.  “Work Together” is another prime offender, with a chorus consisting of chanting the titular phrase while vocals meant to sound like clarinets and oboes sail about on either side of a minimalist, tribal drum beat.  Throughout these tracks, the production is incredibly detailed and shows a high degree of deftness for arrangement and mixing effects, and the album is impressive in stereo with proper studio monitors or headphones.  But where before Dirty Projectors songs were both incredibly complex and catchy, they are now (aside from a catchy tropical little beat and guest feature from D∆WN on “Cool Your Heart”) strictly the former.

There really are two components to this record, though – the aforementioned sonics, and the lyrical content.  A concept album this tight is bound to do a lot of things right, and Dirty Projectors is no different.  The cover art is a bleak reference to the band’s breakout 2009 album Bitte Orca and the title is aptly fitting for the largely self-referential material on the album.  Since Coffman and Longstreth were both a couple and members of the same band, their relationship as well as the group’s trajectory are thoroughly intertwined on the record.  Never is this more true than on the standout “Up in Hudson”, an eight-minute epic ballad that doesn’t abandon the album’s sound but still manages to be pretty and melodic.  Through a series of verses,  Longsreth walks chronologically through the relationship in plainspoken detail, unique to a lyricist that typically paints in obtuse analogies.  “The first time ever I saw your face / laid my eyes on you / Was the Bowery Ballroom stage / you were shredding Marshall tubes” he starts, adding that he wrote her “Stillness is the Move” (from Bitte Orca) and that they “Saw the world side by side, from the road and the sage”.  The song is sad (“love will burnout, love will just fade away”) and has a handful of painfully corny lyrics, but it’s still the best track here by a lot and one of the best in the band’s catalog.

Another conceptual high point is the finger-picking melody of “Two Doves” (another of Bitte Orca‘s best tracks) over crackling fuzz on “Ascent Through Clouds”, which succeeds in representing the death of the former version of the band.  “Keep Your Name” hits on a similar idea, indicating that Longsreth kept the band’s name post-breakup despite pressure to switch or go by his own name.  And I do tip my hat to the subtle self-reference on the closing track, where Dave sings “The projection is fading away”.

But there are lyrical face-palms throughout as well.  Like on “Work Together” where Longstreth is naive enough to suggest that he thinks “Love should be enough to get it easily done”.  On “Little Bubble” (the album’s most insufferable track), while reminiscing about the relationship, he asks “What did you dream of?  Can you still remember? Was it in the key of love?”  There is bitterness and resentment throughout, like when Longstreth suggests that Coffman would “Sell out the waterfront for condos and malls”, but on the closer he still manages to state that he’s “Proud and glad you were in my life”.  Some of the sentiments are so direct and specific that they do manage to be emotionally compelling.  Some of them are head scratchers (“I don’t think I ever loved you / That was some stupid shit” – really?  You wrote this whole album and dropped the word love about 80 times).  Some of them are corny as hell (“I fly fluid and remade / Ascending through the clouds and joining the constellation”).  Nearly all of them are about his breakup with Amber Coffman.  It’s a bit much.

Ultimately, although Dirty Projectors never once takes its foot off of the ‘breakup album’ gas, it really only fails because the songs aren’t fun or catchy or melodic.  Dave’s solo vocal theatrics grow tiresome, and no production trickery can make up for it.  “Up in Hudson” is a good track.  “Cool Your Heart” is fun and not a bad indie pop song.  The rest of it is forgettable.

Score: 5/13

The xx – I See You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score: 7/13