Singer-Songwritter

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

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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

Father John Misty – Pure Comedy

Pure Comedy, the third LP from Josh Tillman under his Father John Misty moniker, was my most anticipated release of the spring.  His last album, 2015’s I Love You Honeybear, was gorgeously produced, fun, honest, smart, catchy, humorous, deeply self-effacing, reflective, perfectly sequenced and one of the few albums I’ve heard centering on the theme of mutual love and affection that actually sounded fresh and original.  While the majority of the album was about his meeting and marrying a woman that saved him from his own self-destructive tendencies, two songs in particular stuck out – “Bored in the USA” and “Holy Shit“.  These tracks were Tillman turning away from his wife to take a devastating look at modern society, consumerism and late stage market capitalism, and they positioned Father John to become the decade’s standard bearer of those ever-recurring themes.  Thus the stage was set for Pure Comedy.

Going in, most critics would have told you this was poised to be the most political album of the post Trump era, but it’s still hard to understate the magnitude of the scope Tillman sets within his sites on Pure Comedy.  The record begins with a fundamental flaw of human existence – the undeveloped nature of newborn babies relative to other animals, and the reliance on protection and guidance from parents and others – and ends with Tillman referring to himself as a “speck on a speck on a speck” “clinging to a rock that is hurtling through space”.  This album is the definition of wide scope.  Forget Arcade Fire or Kendrick – Pure Comedy sounds like an honest attempt to write an album on the history of humanity, from distant past to distant, post-apocalyptic future, with the protagonist’s own melodrama spliced in the middle to represent one individual existing today.

Every song on Pure Comedy has a central concept or subject and rarely deviates, no matter if the track is three minutes or thirteen.  The opener and title track addresses the irony of humanity’s doomed existence, culminating with the record’s underlying thesis – “The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive / But the only thing that they request is something to numb the pain with / Until there’s nothing human left.”  Second sequenced “Total Entertainment Forever” is my pick for the album’s best track, and perhaps my favorite song of the year thus far.  In three minutes, FJM envisions a fairly believable world in which virtual reality becomes so entertaining and pleasurable that humanity succumbs to its embrace and society dies off completely, for future alien historians to discover and declare “this must have been a wonderful place.”  The song is the highest energy track on the record, has wonderful horn sections, thrilling, rocketing choruses, and one of the best opening lines I’ve ever heard – “Bedding Taylor Swift every night inside the Oculus Rift” (in reference to the opening line on Kanye’s “Famous“).

Third-sequenced “Things That Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution” is a plodding ballad that takes place in a post-government future (“It got too hot and so we overthrew the system”) where humans have to give up their previous endeavors (“The nightlife and the protests are pretty scarce”) and revert to relying on hunting and gathering.  Standout “Ballad of the Dying Man” rounds out the album’s excellent opening chapter, a track about a dying man who wonders who will critique all “the homophobes, hipsters and 1%” after he’s gone.  The jaunty piano, crisp drumming and beautiful harmonies also combine to make it one of the most well-arranged and spacious tracks instrumentally.

“Birdie” comes fifth, slowing the album down considerably and burning very slowly.  Thematically, it’s one of the more abstract songs on the record, sarcastically indulging in idealistic escapism to a future society where everything went right for progressives – “Soon we’ll live in a global cultural devoid of gender or race”.  While the track does explode in a cathartic climax, I can’t help but feel that it disrupts the pacing the first four tracks establish.

And if it didn’t, the 13-minute, “10 verse chorus-less diatribe” (as FJM describes it within the song itself) “Leaving LA” brings the record to a screeching halt.  This track is truly free-form Tillman, erring his grievances not just on LA, but on the music industry, the entertainment industry, religion, family and fame.  This is undoubtedly the most polarizing song on the album, and the artist is fully aware, predicting the reaction from his fan-base of “manic virginal lust and college dudes”: “I used to like this guy / This new shit really makes me wanna die”.  Aside from Tillman’s voice, an acoustic guitar and an admittedly beautiful string section, the song doesn’t have much in the way of development or progression, and unless you’re eating up each and every line, or are entrenched in a truly deep listening session of the album, my official verdict is that the track takes more away form the album’s focus than it does to fill out its story.  It’s the most personal song here, but I think the details of Tillman’s personal life shine through enough in other places to render being beat over the head with his psyche for 13 minutes unnecessary.

Like on the followup “A Bigger Paper Bag”, which returns to Father John Misty’s oft-discussed penchant for drowning himself in drugs and alcohol despite his knowing better.  “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay” is back to large scale, conceptual songs, imagining what a god that created humanity would think of where we are now.  Led by piano and featuring ghostly choirs, I could have sworn the melody was from Disney’s Hercules, a testament to Tillman’s ability to outfit a thematic song with a proper tune.  “Smoochie” comes next, and despite some really sweet, country-tinged slide guitars, the song is a love ballad a la Honeybear but isn’t quite as pretty or as lyrically memorable.  I really don’t care for the titular sentiment, although I like the creepy vocal effect, which serves as the “personal demons” and “shadows inside me” that Tillman describes as being availed by his wife.

“Two Wildly Different Perspectives” is exactly the song you thought would be on the record, featuring the tired “one says this but the other says that, can’t we all just get along?” sentiment that’s so popular nowadays.  It’s fine, but not one of the more original or poignant points on the record.  “The Memo” on the other-hand, is one of the more original songs here, a conceptual track about the lack of authenticity within the focus-group tested world of big entertainment masking itself as art, taking shots at mainstream pop (“I’m gonna take five young dudes from white families / I’m gonna mount ’em on a billboard”), streaming services (“Do you usually listen to music like this? Can we recommend some similar artists?”) and social media (“Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online”).  The robotic, broken down bridge through which an Alexa-like voice crafts the perfect indie playlist gives way to a pleasant final verse much the way existential dread inevitably gives way to complacency and pleasure.

The penultimate “So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain” is a slow, 10 minute ballad that reminds me quite a bit of “Leaving LA”, further making me question the latter’s inclusion.  Tillman is predictably pondering fatality, and the song’s extended outro of strings and fuzz make for a symbolic death and solid ending to the story of the record.  “In Twenty Years or So” thus arrives as an after the credits, fourth wall-breaking conclusion on which Tillman admits to the fatal flaw in his whole argument – what does any of this observing, reflecting, pondering and complaining matter when taken in the context of our own insignificance relative to the vastness of time and space?  “But I look at you / As our second drinks arrive / The piano player’s playing “This Must Be the Place” and it’s a miracle to be alive” Tillman concludes, and after 70 minutes of being the smartest guy in the room, he proves once again to get the final laugh in the face of his own vanity.

The production throughout Pure Comedy is unsurprisingly gorgeous.  The strings, pianos, drums and guitars are all crisp and clean, the arrangements feel big but spacious, and the songs often swell to huge, dramatic moments without ever feeling claustrophobic.  It’s so consistently good that you kind of forget how high quality the performances and recordings truly are after just a few songs.

My one big issue with this record is in the songs themselves.  Compared to Honeybear and 2012’s Fear Fun, FJM really isn’t having much fun.  Aside from “Total Entertainment Forever”, nothing rollicks the way “I’m Writing a Novel” or “Ideal Husband” did, and nothing is as dancey and melodic as “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment” or “Chateau Lobby #4“.  A friend of mine asked, sincerely, if the whole shtick with the album is that all the songs sound the same and have the same melody.  The record is slow and few songs lend themselves to singalongs.

That said, this album is clearly a showcase for Tillman’s lyricism and concepts, and although I don’t love 76 minutes of slow burning piano ballads, they are and always will be the vehicle that carries those aspects of Tillman’s music.  Despite the absence of singalongs and bangers, the album is still the most well-organized, most detailed and most critical look at contemporary society that’s come out this year, and if it feels like a disappointment, it’s only because the bar was set so high.  I don’t think Pure Comedy was the absolute slam dunk I thought it’d be, which is evidenced in the mixed reactions it’s received, but I still think it’s a tremendous triumph and deserves to be remembered as a landmark album from this decade.

Score: 11 / 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

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

Allison Crutchfield – Tourist In This Town

While Beyonce and Solange are certainly the most successful and well-known sister act in the music scene, my personal favorites are Katie and Allison Crutchfield.  The twin sisters, native to Alabama but transplants to Philadelphia, started writing songs and performing together in high school as P.S. Eliot.  Katie, going by the moniker Waxahatchee, was the first to break through into mainstream success on the back of her incredible 2013 album Cerulean Salt (which is all time favorite of mine), and pretty much every song she’s put out since has been at least notch above your typical indie singer-songwriter fare. Meanwhile, Allison put out two somewhat overlooked but excellent records with her punk band, Swearin.  Because the sisters have such similar voices, Waxahatchee was in some ways like an unplugged version of Swearin’, or vice-versa.  But anyone who listens to these songwriters as closely as I do would notice subtle differences in lyrical style, melodies, arrangements and song-structures.

Those differences come to a head on Allison’s Tourist In This Town, the first release under her own name.  For one, Tourist is a synthesizer based record.  Guitars still abound, and there is live drumming, so I’d hesitate to call this an electronic record, but the best description would be to call it a synthpop/indie-rock hybrid.  While Waxahatchee lyrics are beautiful and poetic but opaque beneath layers of metaphor, Allison has always written in more straightforward language, and does so consistently throughout Tourist.  This is easily decipherable as a breakup record, and although veiled crypticism is a hallmark of Waxahatchee music, there’s something refreshing to Allison’s everyday imagery.  She’s “drinking champagne sangria on the rocky beach” in Porto, “Losing her shit… in the backseat of a van”, or finding “empties at the headstones” (which signals that her love interest has gotten back with his ex-girlfriend in their old stomping ground).

The record begins with its strongest song, “Broad Daylight”, which opens with a red herring of a prelude that positions it as a vocal a cappella before synthesizers fade in to introduce us to the brand new world of Crutchfield’s musical palette.  Crackling drums shatter the delicate synth arrangements, making the 2-minute mark the best moment on the whole record.  Lyrically, Crutchfield mixes well-worded (if not well-trodden) breakup sentiments (“Was it mutual respect or was it mutual frustration?”) with more personal details (“Was it the great moonlight that night in July? Just remembering the heat’s enough to make me cry”).  The follow-up, “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California” features one of the record’s best melody lines and returns to a familiar, easy-going surf-rock vibe seen on many a Swearin’ song.

At ten songs and 33 minutes, Tourist is consistent with the brevity of Swearin’ releases, but a couple of these songs drag on longer than previously seen.  The biggest offenders fall in the rough stretch of songs 4-5.  On “Dean’s Room” a triumphant but unchanging drum pattern persists for the songs long 4:17 runtime.  I’m also not crazy about the chorus here, a repetition of “You just wanna catch me alone” that feels lazy next to far-superior lyrical moments on other tracks.  “Sightseeing” comes next, a percussion-less, atmospheric snoozer that has some nice imagery about Paris but also goes on far too long (4:38).

The back half, however, starts on the right foot with one of the album’s best tracks, “Expatriate”, a lyric from which the album takes its name.  Up until this point in the record, Allison hasn’t really sung about anyone but ex-lovers, and without a careful eye for detail, “Expatriate” would fall into similar terrain.  But lines like ” write me one more song”, “you were my only family”, “even after a disaster, some things remain intact” and “I will always love you” lead me to believe the song is written about Katie.  Behind an upbeat, bouncing piano melody, this track also reveals more about the singer herself, displaying her worry about touring, her career in music, and the feeling that in the music industry, she’s “a tourist in this town” (at least in comparison to her sister).

My biggest gripe with the record is, unfortunately, the production.  The drums and vocals frequently sound cheap and scratchy, either over-condensed, over-reverbed, or both.  Nowhere is this more apparent than the blazing 1-minute punk track “The Marriage”, which has a great melody and energy but gets crushed by the lo-fi recording, which sounds dirty and murky next to every other track on the record.  I’m also not a fan of the cover art – something about that background looks so green screen, Allison’s blank expression doesn’t do anything for me, and those weird white lines behind her look tacky.  Between the art and the production, Tourist comes off somewhat amateurish, which is a shame, knowing that Allison has put out well-produced, professional music in the past.

But overall, Tourist is a success.  Allison’s pivot to synthesizers feels natural, and the sound she nails on the album doesn’t neatly fall into any over-done genre.  The melody lines are always on point, her singing and personal, affected vocal styling is still her biggest asset, and the big, anthemic, cathartic moments are satisfying emotional payoffs.  While this isn’t the slam dunk that the latter two Swearin’ records have been, it’s not a regression, either, and I look forward to Crutchfield’s next project.

Score: 9/13