Visible Cloaks – Reassemblage

Visible Cloaks is an electronic / ambient duo based out of Portland.  Their debut full-length, Reassamblage, was released in late February, and I’ve been listening to it on and off ever since.  Like the best ambient music, it’s a subtle record, and I’ve spent close to three months trying to make heads or tales of my opinion on it.

In short, this record is really, really well-crafted.  The word ‘texture’ gets thrown around a lot in music (a friend of mine once cynically stated that people described music as ‘textured’ when they had no real opinions and were trying to sound verbose and intelligent), but it should really be reserved for albums like this one.  You really can feel all the sounds on Reassemblage, and there are a lot of them.  Synth notes, often disguised as marimbas, flutes and traditional Asian string instruments like the koto, trickle like pebbles through your hands and flutter like sticks and reads whipping your legs.  This record sounds incredibly organic.  One image that comes to mind is the surface of a pond, which, as one zooms in closer and closer, reveals itself to be teeming with life in every corner.  Another image is of a time lapse of organic life putting itself together, one step at a time, like in this video.  Both the album’s title and artwork are able descriptors.

Visible Cloaks makes excellent use of panning (placing specific sounds at various spatial locations along the left-right channels) all over the record, creating dense, colorful worlds in which a trickling chime pops up over here while a wet, splashing sound buzzes along over there.  The songs develop as a collection of disparate parts, like a series of different insect or plant species, humming along at their own unique cadence and frequency until the natural symphony reaches a breaking point, at which the songs dissipate into the sounds of shattering crystals.  Occasionally we hear voices, cloaked in chorus effects, hum and ‘oohh’ soothingly in the background.  A singular Japanese spoken word passage is presented within the empty spaces left by the gentle clanging of pipes on “Valve”. The record has a notably Japanese vibe to it, and my fiance twice asked me if I was listening to the sound track to Mushi-shi (a beautiful, calming anime that takes place in rural villages of 18th century Japan).

This is the kind of album that doesn’t lend itself to highlighting specific songs.  The ideas within each track are distinct but also make use of similar discrete pieces, and thus the work should be taken as a whole, but some moments do stand out as examples representative of what the album is doing at its best.  “Mask” lets a marimba melody build as whooshing, windswept synths envelop it further and further until it exits out of nowhere, allowing a few glimmering, glistening notes to drift about as if on a light breeze while heavily processed vocals coo softly behind.  “Bloodstream” is the record at its busiest, as rippling notes shoot in every which direction before huge, warm, earthy bass washes over the entire track.  The effect is gorgeous.  “Terrazzo” dips, bends and curls while buoyed by the mysterious sounds of a chorus of shakuhachi flutes.

Reassemblage is incredibly detailed, cohesive, pleasant and thoroughly interesting.  It represents an adept stroke of ambient song craft, and I anticipate enjoying this record at opportune times for years to come.

Score: 9/13

Rank the Songs – The Lonesome Crowded West

This is the first edition of a new feature on reviewsbybitterblossom, where I rank the songs on an album.

Yes, I know that art and music are subjective.  No, I don’t care if ranking albums or songs in lists attempts to objectify them.  Doing so makes me listen more carefully to the pieces and all their components, and ultimately results in appreciating the music more.  Besides, I love ranking things and making lists.  It’s fun.  My college notebooks are lined with song rankings of various Andrew Bird and Vampire Weekend albums.  It’s a past time of mine and now it’s a part of this wordpress.


First, the album’s sequencing, for reference:

  1. Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine
  2. Heart Cooks Brain
  3. Convenient Parking
  4. Lounge (Closing Time)
  5. Jesus Christ Was an Only Child
  6. Doin’ the Cockroach
  7. Cowboy Dan
  8. Trailer Trash
  9. Out of Gas
  10. Long Distance Drunk
  11. Shit Luck
  12. Truckers Atlas
  13. Polar Opposites
  14. Bankrupt on Selling
  15. Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright

For a period of about three years (my freshman through junior years of college, roughly 2011-2014), I considered The Lonesome Crowded West to be my all-time favorite album.  It’s Modest Mouse’s masterpiece, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Yes, The Moon & Antarctica has more careful, intricate production and arrangements (the production on that album is actually unreal), but the desolate themes, grounded in gritty reality as opposed to existentialism, make The Lonesome Crowded West the more emotional, more frightening, more raw, and ultimately stronger album.  The first time I ever listened to music on LSD, the two albums I listened through were Animal Collective’s Strawberry Jam and The Lonesome Crowded West.  The imagery that came most prominently to me were nails driving into a white concrete wall, bleeding the colors blue, red and grey.  The album came across incredibly bleak, stark and sad.  The title is incredibly apt.  Anyway, onto the ranking.


15.  “Long Distance Drunk”

I’m a big fan of interludes, as I think they add to the cohesiveness and narrative of an album, helping transform it from a collection of songs to a singular piece of art.  Modest Mouse has literally never done an interlude well, and their two attempts (?) on Lonesome Crowded West are no exception.  “Long Distance Drunk” is monotonous, boring lyrically (yes I get it, that monotony is a metaphor for being drunkenly repetitive on the phone), and, at nearly four minutes, entirely too long.  It’s not catchy or interesting and I don’t care for it.

14. “Jesus Christ Was an Only Child”

Another track that feels like something between a song and an interlude, this was Isaac embracing his inner country western folkster, cobbling together a creepy track that features his trademark religious imagery.  Said imagery doesn’t seem to convey much of a point, especially relative to the metaphysical genius of “Third Planet” or “Never Ending Math Equation“, and I hate the lo-fi witch cackling sample.  The fiddle is the only redeeming part of this song, and it does very little to redeem.  Another track I think the album would have been stronger without, especially since it disrupts the wonderful opening side of the record, but at least it has a little more personality than “Long Distance Drunk”.

13.  “Shit Luck”

The third of what I consider the pseudo-interlude tracks, “Shit Luck” is the loudest, most abrasive moment on the record, and a lot of Modest Mouse fans love it.  Absurd, screamed lyrics like “This plane is definitely crashing!” and “This boat is obviously sinking!” are funny and in theme with the roller coaster guitar and drums, and the song at least has the good sense to stay closer to two minutes (though I’d still say it overstays its welcome).  It’s fine, definitely adds some color to the album (not that it needed it), but is still weaker than all the true songs.

12.  “Lounge (Closing Time)”

I’ll never know why Modest Mouse chose to give two completely unrelated songs on their first two albums identical names.  There’s really nothing wrong with “Lounge (Closing Time)”, which speaks to how absurdly deep this record is, it’s just the least emotional, personal, intimate or face melting song of the bunch.  It moves through three distinct movements, the first being the happiest, even most danceable thing Isaac had put on record at that point, and describes a fun night out at a bar.  I’ve never felt there was anything deeper in the middle section refrain of “I’ve got a girlfriend out of the city / I know I like her I think she is pretty”, which strikes me as a bit banal relative to the rest of the record’s lyricism, but the sad, slow, blood-letting final third, which imitates closing time at a bar, is well done and representative of one aspect of the album’s sound.

11.  “Out of Gas”

One of the more interesting quirks on The Lonesome Crowded West is how similar two of the tracks, “Out of Gas” and “Heart Cooks Brain”, are to each other both melodically and structurally.  They both ride a descending riff / progression front to back at similar tempos.  “Out of Gas”, which is definitely a great song, features something of a refrain (“You might come down soon too”) and touches on alcoholism (“I had a drink the other day / Opinions were like kittens I was giving them away”), but alas, between its length (at 2:31 it’s the second shortest track on the record), its lyrical repetition, and its lack of an interesting production note or guitar solo, it doesn’t stand up with the more intricate and fleshed out ideas found throughout the rest of LCW.  The lumbering, shuffling drum and bass line are highlights, and representative of one of the album’s greatest features – the synchronicity of Eric Judy’s thick bass lines and Jeremiah Green’s ramshackle drumming.

10.  “Truckers Atlas”

A few years ago, Pitchfork did a wonderful documentary on the making of The Lonesome Crowded West as a part of their “Pitchfork Classics” series.  (A quick aside: all of these are awesome, not really sure why they stopped after making only four of them.)  Each video in the series features in depth profiles of six songs from the record in question.  From LCW they chose songs 7, 6, 4, 2 and 1 on this list, as well as “Truckers Atlas”, which always struck me as the only song that didn’t stand up to the other five.  As an eleven minute epic, it’s tempting to call the song the album’s centerpiece.  After all, it is mainly about driving long hours on lonely highways, which is the album’s central motif.  My issue with it has always been (a), lyrically, it’s a fine description of lonely trucker life (“Start at the Northwest Corner, go down through California / Beeline you might drive three days and three nights to the tip of Florida”)  but not much more metaphorical than that, and (b) the extended jam of an outro doesn’t really develop much.  I don’t really think this is a problem, I think the length and vibe of the song fit perfectly well on the album’s backside and help make the album so great for long road trips, I just don’t think it’s a masterstroke of songwriting the way most of the songs above it on this list are.

9.  “Styrofoam Boots/It’s All Nice on Ice, Alright”

The final song on the album, and the one that is defined more by one single moment than anything else in Modest Mouse’s discography.  After a folksy, acoustic opening passage on which Isaac is at his most country, rattling off great lyrics regarding his thoughts on the afterlife (“I’m in heaven trying to figure out which sack they’re gonna stuff us atheists into and Peter and his monkey laugh”), the album builds tension using only a single acoustic guitar, anticipating, anticipating, anticipating – and then when the drums crash in, mixed as high as they possibly can be, it sounds like a hole ripped open in heaven itself and the sky began raining down.  A perfect choice for the record’s closing, as the band rides an extended outro on the peaceful serenity of the titular phrase, ending a frightening and lonely record on the most apathetic of optimistic notes.

8.  “Convenient Parking”

Sequenced in the powerful third position on the record, “Convenient Parking” melds two of the record’s prominent themes; the paving of the west with shitty parking lots and strip malls, and the anxious, fucked-up world of hard drugs.  The opening lyric, “Soon the chain reaction started in the parking lot”, feeds the song’s lyricism, itself a chain reaction that repeats and repeats, as well as serves as a double entendre for the creation of crystal meth.  As the tension boils around Jeremiah’s quarter note shotgun snares and Eric’s creeping, dreadful bass line, the song explodes into some of Isaac’s most aggressive, screaming vocals.  The song’s cyclical structure is unique and thematic, and the lyrics, like a bad addiction, grow dirtier and more psychotic with each repetition.

7.  “Bankrupt on Selling”

“Bankrupt on Selling”, alongside “Trailer Trash”, is what people usually cite as the album’s sweetest, saddest moments.  It comes in the penultimate position, lacks bass and drums altogether, is one of only two tracks on which Isaac doesn’t double track his vocals (making his voice sound more vulnerable and intimate), and features a guitar solo (courtesy of part-time member Dan Galluci) that feels completely devoid of the buzzing, terrified rage found throughout the record’s previous thirteen tracks.  The lines feel more lucid than many that preceed them, touching on self-consciousness (“I’ll go to college and I’ll learn some big words / And I’ll talk real loud, god damn right I’ll be heard”), drugs (“Well it took a long time til I came clean with myself”), and, of course, the hypocrisy of religion (“And all of the angels they’d sell off your soul / for a set of new rings and anything gold”).  The song still stands as perhaps the barest, single prettiest track in the band’s discography.

6.  “Doin’ The Cockroach” 

“Doin’ The Cockroach” is a proud display of Isaac Brock’s lyrical genius on this record.  It has the best opening line of any song here (“I was in heaven, I was in hell / Believe in neither but fear them as well”), alongside one of the record’s best guitar riffs, some great loud/soft dynamics and more road trip imagery (“Back of the metro / ride on the Greyhound / drunk on the Amtrak / PLEASE SHUT UP!”).  The song, like others, falls into an extended outro, but rather than slow and meandering, it’s fast, frantic and constantly on edge.  Isaac’s terrifying guitar work and deranged shouting down the stretch make for the album’s most relentless section, before the dense, tight, multi-part song comes ends in only four and a half minutes.

5.  “Heart Cooks Brain”

Coming in at the number two slot on the album, “Heart Cooks Brain” provides a much needed respite in between the madness and intensity of opener “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” and “Convenient Parking”.  Never budging from its descending groove, the song is LCW at its most surreal.  The constant record scratching, obsessive-compulsive, never-ending background guitar solo, and incredible dreamlike imagery (“On my way to God don’t know or even care / My brain’s the weak heart, my heart’s the long stairs”, “I tried to get my head clear / I push things out through my mouth, I get refilled through my ears”, “Inland from Vancouver shore / the ravens and the seagulls push each other inward and outward”) combine to make for a song that is at once low-key as well as a four-dimensional prison of drug-induced madness, contemplating depression and the overtaking of the natural world by the material one.

4.  “Trailer Trash”

The other song most noted for its lyrical content, “Trailer Trash” caps off an incredible four song run in the album’s center and, true to its name, sticks on a theme that Isaac knew intimately from his upbringing.  The specificity of the lyrics (“Eating snowflakes with plastic forks / And some paper plates of course / You think of everything”) the push and pull of love and desperation (“Short love with a long divorce / and a couple of kids of course / they don’t mean anything”) and the intense self-loathing (“God damn I hope I can pass high school means nothing / God damn I am such a jerk I can’t do anything”) are heartbreaking and visceral, but the song really slays with the uproarious guitar solo that erupts after the second quiet section and seems to somehow channel the song’s lyrical sadness into a grand, cathartic melody.

3.  “Polar Opposites”

“Polar Opposites” has always been my all time favorite Modest Mouse song.  It usually gets overlooked on this album in favor of the heavy hitters like “Trailer Trash”, but I truly think it’s essentially the perfect Modest Mouse song.  Extended outro with noodling guitar solo?  Check.  Sad, drug-fueled lyricism (“I’m trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away”)?  Check.  Loud-soft dynamics?  Check.  Incredible, bouncing base line from Eric Judy?  Check.  I also think it’s the catchiest melodic refrain in the band’s discography, as well as the song which features their most endlessly cryptic verse:

Two one eyed dogs, they’re looking at stereos

Hi-fi gods try so hard to make their cars low to the ground

These vibrations oil its teeth

Primer grey is the color when you’re done dying

I’ve spent many a night attempting to decipher the meaning of this verse, but I’ll keep my interpretation to myself.  “Polar Opposites” may not be the densest or most inventive song on LCW, but for three and a half minutes, it’s pretty much as good as Modest Mouse gets.

2.  “Cowboy Dan”

On my aforementioned LSD trip listen through LCW, no song stuck out to me more than “Cowboy Dan”.  It’s the definition of ominous and unsettling.  Jeremiah’s pounding toms and tambourine, Isaac’s angry, defiling delivery, and the song’s drunken, enraged undertones (“He goes to the desert fires his rifle in the sky / And says “God if I have to die, you will have to die'” / “He didn’t move to the city, the city moved to me / And I want out desperately”) combine perfectly, but it’s Isaac’s surreal, incredible western-tinged guitar bends, with that expansive reverb effect, that elevate the song to the next level.  The center section, with its sweet, redemptive guitar riff and truck stop poetry (“Every time you think you’re talking you’re just moving your mouth”) is the perfect setup for the return of the devastating opening passage, which escalates into a creature more menacing than anything else on the album.  Sequenced seventh, “Cowboy Dan” is the album’s true centerpiece and a masterpiece of songwriting.

 1.  “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” 

The Lonesome Crowded West kicks off with a song can only be summarized as incredible.  “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is a manifestation of the entire album in one unbelievable seven-minute spectacle, moving between loud, abashed, aggressive verses, harrowing, trickling slow passages and perilous, breakneck crescendos.  The lyrics are all over the place, and half of them are either tragically lonely, unexpectedly prophetic or both – see “Go to the grocery store, buy some new friends / And find out the beginning, the end, and the rest of it”.  The western imagery is all around (“A rattlesnake up in Bozeman, Montana / He bit the leg off the old sheriff”), as is sickening commercialism (“Let’s all have another Orange Julius / Thick syrup, standing in lines / The malls are the soon to be ghost towns / So long, farewell goodbye”).  The song moves between too many sections to count, the guitar is unrelenting, oscillating between bending harmonics, devastating power-chords and thrashing solos, and Isaac’s vocals similarly move between pacified hopelessness (“Well do you need a lot of what you got to survive?”) and unhinged aggression (“Take em all for a sense of happiness that comes from hurting deep down inside!”).  “Teeth Like God’s Shoeshine” is my pick for Modest Mouse’s most ambitious song, somehow managing to bottle the entire spectrum of emotions spread throughout the album’s 74 minute run time in merely 7.  It’s a masterwork of indie rock, and stands as a testament to their legacy.                                                      

Feist – Pleasure

Hey what do you know, it’s the best indie rock album of the year thus far!  And it didn’t come from some hot new artist on their debut or sophomore release, but instead from a consistent veteran of the genre, Calgary’s Leslie Feist, who has put out five solo LPs, worked within the Canadian super-group Broken Social Scene, been nominated for Grammys and Canadian Juno awards, and won the Polaris Prize for Canada’s best album with her last LP, Metals.  So how is this record flying under the radar?  I guess the zeitgeist is to fawn over the younger acts in the indie rock renaissance.  Pleasure thus arrives as a good kick in the ass in the from of an emotional, catchy, lo-fi guitar record.

Pleasure was recorded quickly, with raw, gritty, lo-fi production aesthetic.  Tape hiss blankets every song, acoustic guitars twang and scrape, and the vocals are rough, like they’re coming from old dusty speakers in a old dusty cabin.  That said, these songs are still adorned with creative production flourishes that often come in the form of creepy choral harmonies and zig-zagging or crumbling, devastating electric guitar lines.  Some of these songs are quicker than others, featuring a more upbeat and ‘rocking’ melody or chorus, while more often they are slower and lack definite shape, picking up and falling at Feist’s will, but never are they straightforward, 4/4, four-chord verse/chorus rock songs.

The title track that kicks off the record is as dirty as anything here, featuring little more than Feist’s vocals and her guitar, with a little bass drum pounding out quarter notes on one channel and some very low synths in the other, hopping back and forth between chilly verses and a muted chorus before the song explodes with energy and singalong vocals for the final coda.  “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” is a haunting acoustic ballad with some excellent tremolo vocal harmonies.  After the sort of red-herring title track, the lyrics solidify the album’s core theme – alternating feelings of love and hate, desire and disgust post-breakup.  After the cozy and meditative “Get Not High, Get Not Low”, “Lost Dreams” rounds out the album’s opening act with its sparsest, most ghostly track, complete with trickling chimes and a guitar solo that evokes the twisted metal of a car accident splitting the song down the center.

The record truly comes into its own (and, from a structural standpoint, reminds me of Panda’s Person Pitch) with the twin behemoth centerpieces, “Any Party” and “A Man Is Not His Song”.  The former is a gargantuan strummer of a ballad, the first track to make use of a full drum kit and one that embraces big, full harmonies courtesy of the record’s co-creators.  The track takes place sometime in the past, before the heartbreak of the rest of the record (“And I tried reaching you on your new flip phone,” Feist hollers at one point), and the titular sentiment is an interesting one.  Yes, this is a triumphant love song, but as Feist repeats over and over “You know I’d leave any party for you,” it becomes a love song contextualized by her own life, likely based in some real, true event, where leaving a party, any party for someone, is the truest display of affection at that point in their relationship.  The coolest moment on the record comes when we physically hear Feist leaving a party – she walks through the house, out the door, through a crowded yard, and down the sidewalk as a car flies by, blaring the album’s title track from its speakers as it passes.  The inventiveness and coolness of this moment is hard to overstate.

As the car passes and the chirping of crickets takes over, Feist moves into the album’s best song, the sad and beautiful “A Man is Not His Song”.  Back in the present, post-party, all the love and energy of “Any Party” has been transformed into painful nostalgia – “That filament that files by / And it brings yellow light from those yellow summers back / By coconut palm, snowy pine / I’ve heard years pass through my ears to hear otherwise”.  The lyricism is brutal and poetic and excellent.  There is a heartbreaking moment of call and response – “We’ve all heard those old melodies / (Like they’re singing right to me)” before the song becomes enveloped by multiple falsetto overdubs repeating “More than a melody’s needed”, a curious phrase that worms into your brain and requires repeated investigation.  That too is then eaten up by the chugging guitar of Mastodon’s “High Road“.

Nothing compares to this peak in melody, creativity, energy and emotion, but the record’s third act is far from a let down.  “The Wind” is a breezy comedown, but the record hits another climax in the form of “Century”, a building, driving track that features a guest passage from Jarvis Cocker as the group counts down “One of those endless dark nights of the soul / When a single second feels like a century”.  The track is a force, and the bitter sentiment at its core, the idea that relationships just pass time until death (“Someone who will lead you to someone who will lead you to someone at the end of the century”) is uncomfortably true.  “Baby Be Simple” continues the established pattern of relieving tense, brittle tracks with sweet, amorphous, folksier ones.  The penultimate “I’m Not Running Away” moves toward tired and bluesy, before the album closes with “Young Up”, an interesting but correct choice for the closer.  We’re treated to the album’s only prominent keyboard part (a 60s-style electric organ), and Feist artfully glides through a swooning, jazzy, 50s and 60s lounge-style arrangement before leaving the album’s audience with one last wizened but optimistic thought – “Fear not ya young punk / That everything that falls is falling / Even if you don’t have your own back / And everything that needs to fall is fallen”.

This album isn’t full of new, radical ideas, mind-boggling production, world-building thematic concepts or dense, nine-minute, multi-part epic tracks.  But the choice of a spectral, creepy, dusty production aesthetic, combined with Feist’s wonderful vocals and great use of falsetto harmony, scratchy and jagged guitar work, intriguing lyrical work and perfect sequencing all combine to make it a record that I can’t stop listening to and my favorite album to have come out this year.  “Any Party” into “A Man Is Not His Song” is the best 1-2 punch I’ve heard in a long time, and I hope that this record receives more attention as the year winds on – its certainly deserving of it.

Score: 11/13

 

Spoon – Hot Thoughts

Spoon are an Austin, TX based indie rock band that’s been pumping out LPs at a consistent clip since 1996.  Hot Thoughts is their 9th album, the follow up to 2014’s They Want My Soul, an album I thought was pretty mediocre but somehow still netted them some critical acclaim.  Still, the band has shown considerable consistency across their releases, and opinion is split on which from their great three album run – 2002’s Kill the Moonlight, 2005’s Gimme Fiction and 2007’s Gagagagaga is their definitive statement (my vote would undoubtedly be for Kill the Moonlight).  While the group is far from Radiohead-like when it comes to developing a new sound or sonic identity, their familiar palate of tough, drum-led rock songs, often featuring pounding, rhythmic piano and Britt Daniels’ signature raspy, too school for cool vocal delivery has served them well and produced myriad catchy, poppy rock songs.

All that said, I think Hot Thoughts is actually a great late-career album and a return to form.  It doesn’t reach the heights of the band’s creativity at their peak, but it’s consistent, interesting, well-sequenced, very well-produced, cohesive and has great sequencing.  The lyrics, as is often the case with Spoon, more often shoot for slick, cool-sounding turns of phrase than profundity or subtlety, but here they’re are never really weak, cringe-worthy or awkward.

You can split the record’s songs into two camps – the ‘classic’ Spoon rock songs, and the darker, more atmospheric and experimental tracks.  The record does a great job of shifting back and forth between these modes, and letting their elements bleed into each other.  Take leadoff “Hot Thoughts”, delivered entirely in falsetto (not uncommon for Daniels), driven by funky guitar rhythms overtop of a minor synth chord, and coining a catchy phrase to discuss courtship / romance.  It’s followed by the record’s best track, the eerie, progressive and building “WhisperI’lllistentohearit”.  The song is the very definition of tense, riding crackling fuzz and synthesizers to a fantastic payoff when the song shifts gears into a driving rock track that trades in anticipation for reckless energy, where Daniels lets out a wail reminiscent of Nebraska-era Springsteen over a riveting, jagged guitar solo.

“Do I Have to Talk You Into It?” and “First Caress” are back to girls, jaunty, plodding pianos and bar-room rock choruses, the latter featuring some nice female harmonies and a very dancey, feel-good rhythm.  These songs also develop one of the signature sounds of the record – shifting, twangy guitar chords that alternate rhythmically and across both channels.  But the record’s A-Side all feels like a build toward the fifth-sequenced “Pink Up”, a very slowly developing, six-minute, largely electronic track, consisting in part of vibraphones, tambourines, wood blocks and reversed vocals.  Daniels’ single verse is delivered almost as a chant and features the album’s most interesting lyrics – “Break off from everyday / Spend a week in the moment / Take the train to Marrakesh”.  The meaning is oblique and veiled, but haunting ambiance is thoroughly delivered as the song builds further with additional drumming and ghostly falsetto harmonies.

The second half of the record kicks off with the obvious single candidate, the catchy, smoldering “Can I Sit Next To You”.  The track is cut from the same cloth as the band’s biggest hit, “I Turn My Camera On“, is prominently set in Memphis, TN and features what I think is the record’s best vocal performance – I love the passionate delivery of “Under Tennessee skies!  Down on South Front Street!”.  “I Ain’t the One” and “Tear It Down” are fine but the production and development fail to excite relative to the A side’s denser arrangements.  The former is a little too minimalist and underwritten, while the latter is sure to raise politically minded eyebrows with its chorus of “Let them build a wall around us / I don’t care I’m gonna tear it down” (though I’m inclined to believe Daniels’ liked the phrase regardless of its extraneous connotations, a la the title track).  The penultimate “Shotgun”, though, is great.  The guitars are tight and edgy, and the story in the lyrics, which seems to address another musician Daniels has fallen out with, are both biting and idiosyncratic (“Back when we couldn’t afford the Continental / You and me dreaming ’bout full medical and dental”).

The record ends with one of the most experimental and avant-garde tracks Spoon has ever recorded, an ambient, psychedelic, instrumental saxophone piece titled “Us” that reprises some melodies from “Pink Up”.  I think the track works, and I love that both sides of the album mirror each other in energy and structure, with both ending in atmospheric, electronic tracks.  I think there’s enough tightly written rock songs for the band to afford themselves the luxury of trying something different, and the variety and color delivered those risks pays off.

Like most Spoon releases, my biggest issue with the record is emotionally and lyrically, where I think the band still falls well short of acts that both rock and cry, but from a purely musical point of view, the album is very solid, has some great tracks that are right up there with some of Spoon’s best, and feels cohesive from a sonic perspective.  The band didn’t attempt to reinvent the wheel here, but they still came out and delivered 10 good tracks, a few of which could crack any fan’s top five.  I’m pleasantly surprised by this album and will likely be coming back to both its better moments and the entire project as a whole.

Score: 9 / 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

Actress – AZD

Actress is the pseudonym of British electronic musician Darren Cunningham, a veteran of the genre for over a decade the man behind four well-received LPs, spaced enough apart to allow Cunningham time to develop and hone in on a new idea and give each record a definitive sound.  His latest, AZD, feels cold and calculated, whirring with machinery and industrial noises to create a thematically consistent record in agreement with the record’s robotic, metallic cover artwork.

The songs on AZD are more often than not danceable and pulsating, preferring tinkling, minimalist riffs and white noise to huge moments of bass or synths.  Such is true on proper opener “Untitled 7”, a good bellwether of the album’s overall sound before fading into the followup “Fantasynth”, which loops pitched up bells alongside a dusty piano hook, all to a pumping, organic backbeat.  The track, like others on AZD, develops slowly, becoming encompassed by a subtle but steady stream of snowy noise before ending as mysteriously and unceremoniously as it began, with a simple fade out.  “Blue Window” follows a similar formula, changing its hook, tempo and murky, muffled back beat just enough to distinguish itself while remaining firmly within the sonic palette the album paints early on.  The cross fading of tracks gives the opening third a DJ set list vibe, which slowly juxtaposes itself to the standalone, more conceptual tracks that appear as the record progresses.

“CYN” is the album’s first detour, going with a heavier, more dynamic arrangement that brings in various buzzsaws, theremins and organs built around intense 90s hip hop and spoken word samples.  The song dissipates quickly and is picked up by “X22RME”, which, as the title suggests, is the heaviest song on the record, mixing darker techno with Classixx-like triplet arpeggios before going full-throttle on the fuzz and noise.  “Runner” concludes the album’s second phase with a driving beat, insistent synth instrumentation and a flurry of static that masks human conversation, distorting it to sound completely artificial.

The final third of “AZD” begins with the ambient “Falling Rizlas”, a delicate piece of music lacking in a rhythmic beat and featuring synthetic string arrangements and deep bass around snowy chimes.  The track is beautiful and serves as an eye of the hurricane before “Dancing in the Smoke” affronts the listener with a hail of glitchy, clashing, squealing synths, ray guns and broken glass.  Experimental and occasionally intriguing, the track nonetheless feels chaotic and claustrophobic.  “Faure in Chrome” is the album’s climax, a dramatic string piece that features the ingratiating sound of metallic welding and buzzing, not far from the sound of a dentist’s drill into teeth.  It sounds like the soundtrack to fatal robotic surgery, and I can appreciate the conceptual nature of the song, which feels related to the story on the cover art, but the high pitched buzzing is just too unpleasant for me to enjoy listening through it.  The record closes with the mysterious, alien come-down “There’s an Angel in the Shower” and “Visa”, an uptempo, nostalgic techno throwback that doesn’t make a lot of sense sequencing wise, sort of reminding me of a bonus single or deluxe track tacked onto the album’s end.

I think AZD develops a signature sound early and provides a solid mix of minimalist production and catchy, dancey hooks, but its indulgence into clashing, grating and wholly unenjoyable experimentation on the back end is a huge downer and a strike against the album for me.  I think there was a great idea behind these dark, metallic tracks, and I can see a record that does such a concept beautifully, but AZD is not it.  The center of the record, while fine, isn’t as strong as the first third, and I think the end truly is a sequencing mishap, as “Angel in the Shower” works better than anything else here as the closer (though clearly Actress felt otherwise).  There are good ideas and a deft hand behind AZD, but the record itself feels like a missed opportunity.

Score: 6/13

 

Laura Marling – Semper Femina

Laura Marling is a British singer-songwriter, specializing in acoustic-guitar based folk music.  Her last two albums, 2013’s Once I Was an Eagle and 2015’s Short Movie, both received significant acclaim and showed two sides of Marling’s music – minimalist acoustic arrangements on the former, electric guitars on the later.  Semper Femina arrives somewhere in between, blending folk with elements of jazz and pop and oscillating between pure voice + guitar tracks and ones with fuller, albeit quite gentle, arrangements.  Linking all these songs together is the singular theme of women – women who are friends, lovers, mothers, inspirations and regrets.

The record opens with “Soothing”, a slinking, jazzier number, featuring two basses (one panned to each channel), with Marling’s delivery taking on a coy, intriguing tone.  “The Valley” follows up with steadily building finger picking and harmonies before the song is enveloped by a large string section.  “Many a morning I have woke / Longing to ask her what she’s mourning / Of course I know it can’t be spoke” Marling sings in reference to the song’s subject, a female friend mourning the death of her father.  Her tone changes again on the third track, “Wild Fire”, which makes use of a cool, casual, conversational tone to dig into a friend.  “You want to get high? / You overcome those desires, before you come to me” Marling scoffs before admitting “She’s gonna write a book someday / Of course the only part that I want to read / Is about her time spent with me”.  So goes Semper Femina – personal songs about personal friends.

The first real glimpse we get of Marling herself is on “Always This Way”, another bouncing, bass-led track with the occasional electric guitar strum and soft violin feature.  “25 years, nothing to show for it / 25 more, will I never learn from it / Never learn from my mistakes” Marling ponders somberly before an uplifting guitar riff breaths daylight back into the song.  Even here, though, we sense Marling is seeing herself within the context of another woman’s shadow, perhaps a maternal figure – “Now she’s gone and I’m all alone / And she will not be replaced”.  “Wild Once” is a reflection on youth and an offering of advice to younger women in her position, and “Next Time” is another rumination on regret and guilt for not appreciating those since past – “It feels like they taught us ignore diligently / I feel her, I hear her weakly scream”.

The penultimate “Nouel”, a line from which the album takes its title, is both the simplest track on the record (one guitar, one voice, no overdubs) and the most complete sketch Marling puts down.  “She lays herself across the bed / The origine du monde / Slight of shoulder, long and legged / Her hair a faded blonde” Marling sings of her muse, adding to the list of strong, individualistic qualities described.  But, like the rest of the record, the emotion both in her vocals and in her lyrics never wades past the breakers.  When Marling is positive or sympathetic, she only graces poetic and stays more in the realm of naturalistic imagery and physical beauty.  When her relationship with her subject is more complex, Marling’s tone and style is simplistic and matter-of-fact.

And here lies the fatal flaw of Semper Femina – almost every song is a portrait of a woman Marling is or was close to, but none of them make the listener care about those women.  None of them bear the kind of raw, resonant emotion that can evoke our own relationships as the subjects of these tracks.  Sonically, the album follows suit – always pretty, never really going for it.  There is no bare, hollow moment of clarity, no driving, aggressive moment of angst or sadness.  The album is about as exciting as floral wallpaper – pleasant to look at, not much of an artistic statement.  While I can appreciate the cohesive theme and delicate arrangements, there isn’t enough going on elsewhere that elevates this past any other folk album – Jesca Hoop has stronger lyrics and demonstrates intriguing genre hopping and Julie Byrne‘s voice and melodies are more engaging and beautiful.  Semper Femina is never bad but never stands out.

Score: 6 / 13