Pop

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

 

Bleachers – Gone Now

I came across this album browsing albumoftheyear.org, aka the best website on the internet.  I didn’t know who Bleachers was, but I assumed it was an indie rock band.  Bleachers is an indie rock band name.  And I actually love the artwork, which I assumed was a photo of someone that was definitely not in the band.  Boy was I in for a surprise!  Turns out Bleachers is Jack Antonoff, formerly of fun. and co-writer / producer of hits with Taylor Swift, Sia and Carly Rae Jepsen.  Gone Now is about as pure a mid 2000s ‘pop’ album as exists anymore.  This is an album full of songs that are one vocal take away from being on a kids bop CD.  I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these songs were supposed to be the single, since they pretty much all follow the same ‘jaunty Bon Jovi piano verses into big, theatrical, over-the top, epic I HAVE SINCERE FEELINGS chorus’ formula.  If this was 2009, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear any of these songs on the radio.

But it’s not 2009, it’s 2017.  One of the best #1 hits on the radio this year was Migos’ “Bad and Boujee”.  Bieber has owned the radio by pivoting from love songs to low-key Drake-washed trop house.  Kendrick Lamar set a streaming record with an album about expectation-fueled depression and conservative politics.  The two pillars of a successful hit in 2017 are Rihanna’s “Work” (repetitive minimalist song about fucking) and Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” (trap).  What I’m trying to say is, Antonoff injected a corny, saccharine, over-the-top sentimental tween-friendly pop album into the worst environment he possibly could.  Who the fuck is looking for a fist pumping choral refrain of “You steal the air out of my lungs, you make me feel it / I pray for everything we lost, buy back the secrets!” over 80s shotgun snares sung by Lena Dunham’s boyfriend when “HUMBLE.” hit number one?  Who wants sappy saxophones blaring away while said white dude throws on all the reverb in the world to build through a pre-chorus of “But there’s nothing I wouldn’t do to settle up with Heaven / And today I gotta settle in Heaven”?  Katy Perry’s much more adept songwriting team is floundering in the current environment.  Gaga pivoted to acoustic.  Sheeran is the poster-boy for sincerity and he killed a it this year with a repetitive minimalist song about fucking.  Even the calculated, manufactured Song of the Summer © at least has Chance and Quavo on it.

There is little variety of themes or sonics throughout Gone Now.  The run-times of the first 9 songs differ by less than a minute.  Every chorus on here is ‘bombastic’.  Every bpm is between 90 and 120.  Some moments are worse than others.  On “Goodbye”, there’s a Lena Dunham spoken word passage interjected into Antonoff’s singing that comes off as incredibly heavy-handed and indulgent.  It’s as if it wasn’t enough for Antonoff to beat you over the head with how much being sad sucks on his choruses so he had to prove it by saying “Here, look at this!  This is my GIRLFRIEND!  This is REAL!  This is RAW!”  “All My Heroes” is like the 3rd grade cliff-notes of LCD Soundsystem’s “All My Friends“.  Antonoff actually does two reprises of songs he did earlier on the album, and neither of them are the closer.  There is a song called “Nothing Is U”.

There is one moment on the record that shows signs of potential.  The second track, “Goodmorning”, is plenty corny, rehashing the same “I make mistakes at night and feel ways about them but I’ll persevere!” theme that pretty much every track goes for (“Because I lied to you / I lied to your face in the summer”), but it’s as catchy as anything on here and the production is actually very interesting.  There are plenty of moments were Antonoff isolates his voice completely in one channel, a risky move that leaves it very exposed.  Other times the vocal production is almost Casablancas-fuzzy, and rather than crowd the chorus with a million synthesizers and choir vocal takes, he actually keeps the arrangement spartan and tidy.  If the whole record took these kinds of creative risks, I’d say we might be in business.  Sadly, Antonoff abandons such ideas by track 3 and the rest of the record is fucking wallpaper.

Score: 2 / 13

The Shins – Heartworms

Another day, another early to mid 2000s indie rock band putting out a late career album that pales in comparison to the best acts that replaced them in the 2010s.  This week’s contestants are The Shins, an Albequerque/Portland based band, fronted by and primarily composed of James Mercer (who, in recent years, found briefly himself in Modest Mouse and scored a Grammy nomination for his polarizing work with producer Danger Mouse in Broken Bells).  Depending on how into indie music you are, you may either know the Shins as a band with a run of three straight good-to-great albums from 2001-2007 before slowing down and falling off as Mercer engaged his side projects, or you know them as the guys who sing that amazing song from Garden State.  In either event, throughout their music, Mercer has displayed a knack for writing catchy melodies and pairing them with either sparse, melancholy progressions and arrangements or full, upbeat and happy ones.  Heartworms (the group’s 5th LP) is rooted firmly in the latter style.

Heartworms is a largely traditional indie pop album.  11 songs, 42 minutes, an ebb and flow of higher and lower energy songs.  The album kicks off with one of its catchiest numbers, “Name for You”, a head bopping, upstroking, bass bouncing pop tune featuring Mercer’s trademark lilting and swooping melodies and following a classic verse / chorus structure.  The song serves as an able harbinger of what’s to come on the record, both musically and lyrically.  The song is about aging women trying to get back on the market, the lyrics toeing the line between bitterness and strangely dated misogyny (“You can keep your can up / If you just never eat again”).  That lyric, and others throughout Heartworms, are especially striking given Mercer’s friendly, innocent delivery.

As the record’s name might (or might not) suggest, Mercer’s feelings toward women, both individuals and in general, are a heavy theme on the album.  Third-sequenced “Cherry Hearts” takes an offbeat drum-machined, synth-heavy approach to the wholly original concept of unrequited lust after an intoxicated romantic encounter (“You kissed me once when we were drunk / And now I’m nervous when we meet”).  The setup isn’t far from a certain ubiquitous Sheeran radio smash, but I can’t get over the feeling that this seems childish from a 46-year-old who seemed light years more poetic and mature sixteen years ago when he was singing “And I’d’a danced like the king of the eyesores / And the rest of our lives woulda fared well“.  The sixth-sequenced “Rubber Ballz” is maybe the most lyrically cringe-worthy song The Shins have released (guess at what that song title is a lewd reference to), and includes such apexes of human prose as “And I just can’t get her out of my bed / Wish I’d gone with her sister instead” and “My vices have voted, her ass duly noted / Can’t kick her out of my bed”.  Again, the ironic twist is that melodically this is one of the most sober and beautiful tracks on the record.  By the ninth-sequenced title track, Mercer is back on the losing end of romance – “Now I’m trying to figure out when it was you gave me these heartworms / I feel them wriggling in my blood, you gonna do me harm”.  And again, the melody and production on this track, particularly the chorus harmonies (“What can I do?!”), the tinkling pianos, and the screeching guitars combine to prove Mercer has persisted as a more than capable songwriter.

The brightest moment is likely the centerpiece, “Mildenhall”, which is an origin story of sorts about fifteen-year-old Mercer moving with his family to an air force base in England and overcoming homesickness with the help of kind-heartened, music nerd classmates, inspiring him to start “messing with my dad’s guitar”.  It’s a lighthearted strummer, featuring a few blissful synths and a low, honest delivery, offering a respite from the wailing, girl-crazy Mercer seen throughout the rest of the album.

The production throughout Heartworms has plenty of bells and whistles, with synths, harmonies, guitars and drum machines zigging to and fro on even the lowest-key tracks.  And at their core, these are very Shins-esque songs, their melodies and structures fitting nicely into a later album like Wincing the Night Away.  But that same familiarity solidifies it as a very safe album, as gone are Mercer’s alternating pained, aggressive vocals and thoughtful, melancholy ones, replaced by the more synthetically happy Mercer we’ve seen since Wincing.  Where the songs are aplomb with studio trickery, they are lacking in emotion and resonant, heartfelt sentiment.  The record is fine, and its catchier moments are proof that The Shins perhaps shouldn’t yet be put to death, but I think Mercer is gonna need a brutally honest record about, say, being an aging rocker in a young man’s game to move the needle at this stage in his career.  Sexual angst and puppy love just aren’t doing the trick for music as mellow and low-stakes as this.

Score: 6 / 13

Grandaddy – Last Place

Grandaddy is the project of Jason Lytle, originally based out of Modesto, California.  Vaguely indie rock (with more than a few synths), Grandaddy released four studio albums between 1997 and 2006 before taking a hiatus, and are now returning with their fifth LP after 11 years.  I’ve been listening to the band sporadically since high school, but am really only familiar with their 2000 epic (and best album) The Sophtware Slump.  Where that album immersed itself in a dystopian future where emotions are consumed by technology, Last Place wades much more domestic territory – it’s a middle-aged, suburbia-framed breakup album.  And while Lytle maintains a deft craft for production and arrangement, the center of this album is unfortunately lacking in hooks or emotional payoff.

Lytle’s albums are all thematic and somewhat conceptual, and he certainly knows how to move through a narrative with effective sequencing.  Therefore it comes as no surprise that Last Place makes the right move in kicking off with its two strongest tracks.  Opener “Way We Won’t” is a tight 4/4 rock track with a synth line almost as catchy as perhaps the catchiest synth line ever composed (excluding “Kids“), Lytle’s own “A.M. 180” from Grandaddy’s debut.  The track was a harbinger of a potential return to greatness, a song with a great beat and melody and lyrics concerned with the soul crushing consumerism (“Tropical smells and back to school sales / Why would we ever move”) that vaporwave has since co-opted.  The followup, “Brush with the Wild”, is another catchy, poppy synth-led rock track that makes the album’s intentions clear (“We had a thing whatever it’s called / And you were a dream, and I was a concrete wall”), but also hints at a flaw that will go on to plague much of Last Place – the lyrics.

While the first two songs treat the album’s subject matter with some degree of poetic subtlety, the middle of the album’s mundanity feels like the result of serious writer’s block while its hooks simultaneously fail to stand up to opening tracks’ strong melodies.  After the creepier, opaque and significantly less catchy “Evermore”, we’re treated to “The Boat is in the Barn”, where Lytle compares his temporarily shuttered love as being a, ahem, boat in a barn, while also delivering the album’s most cringeworthy lyric – “You were going through the photos on your phone / getting rid of me is what I figured / delete deletin’ everything that had occurred”.  The two minute fuzz rock gallop “Check Injun” (that’s an intentional misspelling of check engine, mind you) sees Lytle driving down the highway, staring at his dashboard hoping his car can make it to his exit – it’s not compelling.  The next song is titled “I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore” and rides a familiar three chord progression like a train right into Lytle’s overly saccharine delivery of the titular phrase.  The self-pity party continues on with “That’s What You Get for Gettin’ Out of Bed” (“for warming up your heart and clearing out your head”) before we arrive at “This is the Part”, where we’re made aware that this is the part of the breakup “that some call a broken heart”.  The king of cliché-land called, or something.

While these mildly depressing, mostly boring topics don’t necessarily doom the album, they aren’t helped by the pairing of the same old 1-2 drum beats, mid-level tempos, reverb-drenched vocals and chugging piano chords time and time again.  Lytle still shows prowess behind the boards, bringing in strings, guitars and synthesizers from all sides to keep things immersive and well-layered, but all the pro tools in the world can’t save a song that’s lacking a catchy melody or progression.

The album takes a surprising turn for the better on its final three songs.  “Jed the 4th” is a callback to Sophtware Slump‘s series of “Jed” songs and, despite being another slow ballad, turns enough interesting production tricks to make this much needed break from Lytle’s personal literalism into one of the record’s strongest songs.  “A Lost Machine” is the true breakup anthem, taking six minutes to develop around a basic piano and outer-space synth structure into a powerful, grandiose, sad and romantic piece with Lytle singing (still somewhat calmly – the guy never screams) “Everything about us is a lost machine”.  And the album ends with a flashback in the stripped-back acoustic number, “Songbird Son”, that looks wistfully at the relationship’s origins in third person (“And so they made their camp / On a runaway truck ramp / Yeah, they were on the run”) before Lytle brings things back to the present, regretting the harmful things he’s done (“Message better left unsaid / Don’t say nothing”).  It’s a perfect, emotional, full-circle ending to a breakup album.

If only that album were better.  Last Place both begins and ends in great form, but the bulk, from tracks 3-9, are just too painfully banal, repetitive and self-pitying for me to really advocate for this project.  Even the final three tracks, while on point lyrically and thematically, aren’t exactly standouts relative to Grandaddy’s older work.  As much as I wanted to like this album, and truly I did, the gaping hole in the center is as big a disappointment as I’ve encountered all year.

Score: 6/13

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

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

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