Synthpop

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

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

 

Passion Pit – Tremendous Sea of Love

Talk about overlooked – Passion Pit, the project of Cambridge’s Michael Angelakos, had huge synthpop hits and lit up the the album of the year charts on 2009’s debut LP Manners, then failed to slump on the sophomore followup, 2012’s Gossameryet the group’s newest LP has to date only be reviewed by two blogs and has made close to zero waves on the 2017 landscape.  That’s likely because it was released for free, on YouTube of all places, and was largely produced, mixed and mastered by Angelakos himself.  In a lengthy (and slightly obnoxious) announcement, Angelakos described his process as making something quickly, with human mistakes and errors rather than polished revisions, so that he could show his true, human self.  I don’t know how much I buy the excuse of doing something hastily for authenticity’s sake, but nonetheless, Angelakos has put together a solid collection of tracks here, with very cohesive themes and ideas, and I think the project succeeds and even points in the direction of a return to form after 2015’s underwhelming Kindred.  It comes as no surprise, however, that the album’s Achilles heel is in the production.

After a swirling and bombastic opener filled with all the typical Passion Pit synths (fun, sprightly, bouncy synth lines in all directions), the album opts for its most ambitious track in the number two position, the six minute “Somewhere Up There”.  A three-parter that begins like something off Manners, the album discusses Angelakos’ depression and insecurity regarding his divorce (and subsequent public coming out), a recurring theme in Passion Pit music.  The opening passage is catchy and dynamic, but the vocal take is rough and could have used with some cleaner production or the chorus effect that Angelakos likes to frequent on his melodies.  But unmistakable is the emotion in his voice, and I think the abrupt switch up halfway through to a soaring half-time track with crescendoing vocals works.  I even think the two spoken word passages (one from Angelakos’ mentor and another in the form of a voicemail from his mother) play into the deeply personal songwriting the album is going for.

The album’s front side continues the hot streak, with both “Hey K” (another divorce track, this time sung to Angelakos’ ex-wife directly) and “You Have the Right” being cut from the same cloth as Gossamer’s R&B-tinged standout “Constant Conversations“.  The vocals are clear and crisp, and the slower tempos, clicks and soft synthesizers providing a cushion to the jagged edges of the first two tracks.  I do think the album loses some steam by opting to sequence the instrumental title track, a four minute ambient piece that resembles the waves on the record’s cover, at the halfway point, clearly breaking the album into two distinct movements.

The B side boasts the biggest issues with production.  The chopped-up and glitchy “Inner Dialogue” is a mess, neither catchy nor pleasant, and “I’m Perfect”, which is filled with energy and features an excellent chorus, suffers from the same demo-quality production that haunts the entire record.  Passion Pit music is so dense and bombastic that it benefits more than most genres from crystal clear vocals and synths, and the quick mixing that Angelakos went for truly is a detriment on songs like this.  The eighth- and ninth-sequenced “The Undertow” and “To the Otherside”, while solid and featuring good melodies and piano/keyboard riffs, fail to really get big or go in as hard as you’d like, as hard as Angelakos did on Manners favorites “Make Light” and “Sleepyhead“.  The record ends with the largely instrumental “For Sondra (It Means the World To Me)”, a swelling instrumental that ends with a bare, raw acoustic guitar and voice take that features the record’s most intimate lyrics (“But mother you knew / Your love kept on hurting me / But you’re my family / Why would you?”).  It’s an appropriate ending to a cohesive, thematic and personal record.

Tremendous Sea has a few really good tracks and I think the low-stakes project succeeds in what it was shooting for.  But excellent LP this is not, partially because it’s quite short (36 minutes, including two instrumental tracks), and partially because a couple of the tracks are weak, but mostly because it sounds like a demo.  The extra flourishes, vocal harmonies, solos, layering and impressive production touches that other Passion Pit records relish in are largely absent, leaving us with a relatively stripped back collection of songs from a project that built itself on over-the top maximalism.  Still, this record is proof that Angelakos can still write great Passion Pit songs, and it instills hope that the next LP could move the band back in the direction of their creative peak.

Score: 8 / 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

Xiu Xiu -Forget

Note:  This review was originally published on the Berkeley BSide.  You can check it out (along with the rest of the site) over here.

Xiu Xiu, led by South Bay native and creative genius Jamie Stewart, are one of the most interesting, refreshing, consistently abrasive, and unpredictable bands this side of Death Grips. In some ways, they are to synthpop what Death Grips are to rap–very coarsely a member of the genre, but riding multitudes of innovative and what some might call ‘inaccessible’ production techniques, combined with an extremely emotional vocalist and a prolific work ethic. Their last effort, 2016’s Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, is one of the most beautiful but downright harrowing albums I’ve ever heard, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone looking for exciting, avant-garde instrumental music (with a few amazing vocal performances thrown in).

The record’s opening seconds are perhaps its most off-putting, as Jamie raps in a fast, aggressive voice “You wanna see it/ you wanna tick it / wanna lick it wanna kiss it you wanna whisper in my ear, bitch?” “The Call” thus rides along at a breakneck pace and Stewart delivers evocative lyrics in his trademark operatic, vibrato-heavy style regarding the desire to be wanted and loved by an emotionally abusive partner, and the rap voice that returns of a chorus of “Clap, bitches!” appears to represent the aggressor. The narrative technique is masterfully employed, but the question with Xiu Xiu is never “can they be interesting?,” but always “how much do these experiments take away from the enjoyment of the record?” “The Call” straddles that line, but I think the lack of a great melody tips it in the wrong direction.  Forget is the band’s 10th (!) LP in fifteen years, and while it incorporates some of the elements from Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, the LP also sees the band return to some of their more familiar sonic and lyrical elements. Forget feels like a breakup record, but helmed by a songwriter as tortured and manic as Stewart, the record could potentially be alluding to numerous personal relationships in his life. Perhaps it could even serve as a metaphor for the struggles of others. The songwriting nonetheless sounds pained and personal, as do almost all Xiu Xiu releases. The sonics are still jarring, the structures eerie, off-kilter, unexpected. There are no shortage of surprising, almost jump scare-like moments on Forget and the record holds onto lyrical themes, including learning to forget a bad relationship, and relearning how to not hate oneself after years of emotional abuse.

“Queen of the Losers” ups the production intensity, with huge, climactic industrial rhythms, metallic and squirming synthesizers exploding all around, a whole host of indescribable sounds, and a characteristically fierce Stewart performance. “What’s your name? Fucking nothing,” he repeats in the songs outro, reinforcing the idea of forgetting oneself, or some previous version of oneself. The record’s best song, “Get Up,” dials back the intensity for a sweet melody and some of the most straightforward lyrics on the record, with Stewart singing, perhaps to a parent, “A piano fell on my face / you told me to get up / Do you hate me / Because I seem so stupid?”  The song maintains a delicate balance: always teetering on the edge of a climax the way a nervous person teeters on the edge of a breakdown, and when it’s finally delivered, it does not disappoint, kicking off with Stewart yelling “You’re the only reason I was born!” a line that is at once simple and extremely difficult to parse.

Similarly, the record’s best songs are the one’s where Xiu Xiu can strike a balance between melodicism, exciting production theatrics, and raw intensity, like lead single “Wondering”, which couples a wonderfully catchy chorus with anthemic vocal harmonies. The second half of the album pushes more in an electro pop direction (it’d be a stretch to call Xiu Xiu music dancy), to mostly positive results.  The title track moves between sections of vibrant but ominous synthesizers, acoustic guitars, industrial rhythms and Stewart’s insane, pleading chorus of “Forget!  Forget!” “At Last, At Last” juxtaposes stripped back verses with choruses that sound like an EDM show inside a haunted house, while the penultimate “Petite” takes a break from the electronics and grind for a pretty, but unnerving acoustic and string ballad that Jamie has stated (in this great Tiny Mix Tapes interview) deals in subjects as dark as sex trafficking.  It then links to the closer, “Faith, Torn Apart,” which combines an airy, almost middle eastern instrumental suite with churning, marching beats and unsettling spoken word lyrics (“What do you want me to do? I want you to kill me.  Crushed to death)” before a creepy, haunting poetic finish read by notable queer writer and artist Vaginal Davis, listing attributes of child sex workers whose photos Stewart came across online.

The record is another solid Xiu Xiu release, as they proves once again that so long as you wield a weapon as powerful as Jamie Stewart’s singing voice, it’s hard to go wrong.  At the same time, I feel that the band is treading familiar waters, tragic as that territory may be, without breaking through to new and exciting sonic territory, as they did on Plays the Music of Twin Peaks.  Nonetheless, as long as the Chainsmokers are topping the charts, it’s comforting that you can still reliably grab a handful of new Xiu Xiu songs secure in the knowledge that you’ll still be treating yourself to some emotionally disturbed nightmares for as long as you engage in Stewart’s fucked-up world.

Score: 9/13

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