The New Releases Shelf: Goths

darnielle
(Image credit: the man himself)

I have a lot of affection for the Mountain Goats, but I was disappointed with their last album. Released in 2015, Beat the Champ was a concept album, awash in songwriter John Darnielle’s abiding affection for professional wrestling, and not the kind that takes up hours of national programming hours with intricate stories and flashy production values. Darnielle was writing for the hardscrabble, downscale grapplers who shed blood and sweat (but no tears in this manliest of sports) in half-filled municipal coliseums and on static dappled UHF stations in his younger years.

Much as I appreciate Darnielle’s conviction that absolutely anything is viable inspiration for a deeply emotional rock song, I found Beat the Champ to be a little tedious. The distinctiveness of Darnielle’s songwriting receded, which I attributed to the concept album format.  For a guy who can come up with a tuneful, evocative song about whatever springs to mind, why confine himself to single topic across an album? He’d certainly made thematically unified releases previously — and there were great albums in that number — but locking in so narrowly was too limiting, I figured.

As is often the case when I fall out of alignment with an artist whose work I admire, it turns out the the problem was me, not him. I come to this conclusion because the new Mountain Goats album, Goths, is again a concept album, wound as tightly in its specific subculture as its immediate predecessor. Evidently — and, let’s face it, obviously — I simply needed Darnielle to focus on an insular world that I love as much as he does.

I never had a phase of hair dyed black (it’s most of the way there already frankly) and sullen eyeliner. I have no business truly terming myself a goth, but I have a deep affinity for the ideas that run across the album: of deep connection to bands, of finding freedom and identity in music, of becoming an aged-out discard from a preferred youth culture ahead of a corresponding willingness to abandon it. It about fist-in-the-air rebellion meeting the mellowing of advancing year. Over a jazzy shuffle on “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement,” Darnielle sings, “I’m pretty hardcore but I’m not that hardcore.” I know the feeling, and I’ve known it for a good long time now.

Mid-tempo understatement is the default setting of the Goths. Among the pronouncements about the album’s is the promise that there are no guitars, a notable first given that many of the earliest Mountain Goats releases were created with little more than Darnielle, an acoustic guitar, and the boombox he recorded them on (including the clicks as he turned the tape player on and off). The band gets a reasonable amount of mileage out of the discord of lyrics about the gloomy bombast of goth music settled against chilled out, slyly spare tunes. In the right setting, the lyrics of “Wear Black” could carry some menace (“Wear black on your forgotten red heart/ Wear black in the present tense/ Wear black when you come around/ Wear black in your absence”), but that setting isn’t the easy swing of the Mountain Goats version of the Huey Lewis and the News version of Philly soul. The joke might wear thin eventually, but it sounds pretty dang delightful to me right now.

The closest Goths comes to truly evoking the music style it lyrically addresses with wit and insight is on album opener “Rain in Soho,” which come across like the showstopper in a middle school production of the Sisters of Mercy video for “This Corrosion.” Fittingly, that leads into “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds,” which imagines the Sisters of Mercy lead singer living out the black leather pants version of the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Darnielle has always mined culture freely, and Goths namechecks enough specific artists to fill a modest record store. “Stench of the Unburied” paints a perfect picture of a certain sort of weary bliss with the repeated lines “Outside it’s ninety-two degrees/ And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees.”

But the most joyously offbeat example of pulling lyrical details straight from the pages of Trouser Press comes on the album’s last song, “Abandoned Flesh.” Siouxsie Sioux is mentioned again, as is Robert Smith (and Red Lorry Yellow Lorry!), but the bulk of the song is about the band Gene Loves Jezebel. Delivered with the gentlest lounge swagger, the track offers a sympathetic few words to the sort of band that flared brightly but faded out of the canon almost entirely (“They charted once or twice/ They were on a major label/ When the singer went solo/ He left money on the table”). Darnielle’s generosity of spirit infuses the track, rescuing it from any judgment or mockery. As with everything else on Goths, he sings about thus bygone band because they fascinate and energize him. Maybe somewhere in that sentiment is the elusive element I missed on Beat the Champ, but found more easily here, because I knew better how to look for it. Every song is worth writing and singing as long as it is written and sung with love, respect, and purpose. I don’t know how goth that idea is, but it seems like a fine credo to me.

The New Releases Shelf: No Shape

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(image found elsewhere)

How ludicrously exquisite can pop music get? Truly, how much tingly elegance can be layered into songs of piercing beauty before the material shifts and ripples into something else entirely, some fragile creation that begs for the invention of a whole new artistic designation. Words must be coined, because the contents of the current dictionary are inadequate. Others have flirted with this level of dazzling transformation — Kate Bush comes immediately to mind — but it’s beginning to seem that Mike Hadreas, in his guise as Perfume Genius, may yet reach it.

No Shape is the fourth full-length studio release under the Perfume Genius banner, and it’s plainly a stunner. The album opens with “Otherside,” a spare, lovely melody playing as Hadreas coos out the lyrics with agonizing patience. After he intones, “Rocking you to sleep/ From the otherside,” the music explodes into a burst of astonishing sound that seems designed to accompany the dense shower of golden streamers from the rafters of the world’s most resplendent gay dance club on the last night of the universe. Really, that’s the closest I can come to describing the impact of the moment. And it’s not atypical. Across the album’s thirteen tracks, Hadreas offers densely-packed musical creations that meld the orchestral with the intimate. It’s a movie score from a better future that’s also been scorched with the sharp emotion of poetry wrenched from a hesitant, blooming soul.

By Hadreas’s own accounting, it is the stabilizing force of a healthy romantic relationship that has made his pen mighty. The album is filled with songs that are precious paeans to the love he’s found, such as the surging single “Slip Away” (“Take my hand/ Take my everything/ If we only got a moment/ Give it to me now’) and the tender album closer “Alan” (named after Hadreas’s partner). But Hadreas knows the world can also scald, and the songs carry those lessons, too. Sounding like the product a amalgamation of Magnetic Fields and Culture Club assembled in Heaven, “Just Like Love” is an it-gets-better testimony to finding resolve in the darkest times within a bullying society (“When it happens again/ Baby hold on and stare them down”). And the pulsating “Wreath” finds Hadreas confronting the failings of his own body (he has been afflicted with Crohn’s disease) with a dizzying mix of resignation and defiance.

Arguably more than any other performer actively making music today, Hadreas is insistent about bringing the listener along on his questing journey of damage and rejoicing. In exposing the roiling wavelengths of his inner life, Hadreas challenges himself to craft music that is a proper match to the entanglements of sensations he finds when he cracks wide his heart. It’s stirring to realize that he largely meets this challenge. Though this might be overstatement, it feels true: No Shape approaches the miraculous.

The New Releases Shelf: What Now

sylvan esso
(Photo by SOMETIMES ARTIST — via Tumblr)

I have previously confessed to having a weakness for songs about songs. The inherent meta-based tomfoolery is enjoyable, but I think there’s another layer to it. Responses to pop songs — great pop songs, anyway — tend to run deep, tapping into emotions that shiver beneath the surface, anxious for an outlet. When a song directly acknowledges that abiding desire, it is asserting the value of its purpose in the most automatically convincing manner. If the song also manages to be catchy, enticing, disarming, then it approaches the realm of the pop culture magic. What Now, the sophomore album from North Carolina duo Sylvan Esso, is jam-packed with songs like that.

Even an inattentive perusal of the track listing of What Now reveals how preoccupied Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn with documenting their love of pop music: “Sound,” “Radio,” “Song,” “Just Dancing,” “Rewind.” And that’s without noting that “The Glow” is specifically about Meath’s transcendent joy that came with listening to favorite music in her teen-aged years (“Walking back from the show/ With my heart in echo/ So alone in the snow/ And Phil singing just to me, only”). If there’s a touch of the generic to those song titles, the contents of the actual tracks more than compensates. An exploratory verve dominates the album. Sylvan Esso keep bending their electronic melodies in wholly unexpected ways, sometimes shifting within individual tracks to create an extra frisson.

Meath brings a similarly restless dynamic to her vocals. Sometimes her tone is velvety and rich, like a less otherworldly Fiona Apple (as on “Slack Jaw”) and sometimes it’s been manipulated in such a way that it recalls the tender android singing of Laurie Anderson in days of yore (as on album opener “Sound”). As with every other aspect of What Now, it’s simultaneously consistently and thrillingly unpredictable.

Fittingly, Sylvan Esso demonstrates a remarkable facility with crafting immediate pop songs, maybe none better than the single “Die Young.” It takes a wildly unique approach to the well-worn theme of transformative, unexpected love, positioning the newfound devotion as a wrench in the romanticized plans of youthful self-destruction. Over a layer of slinky synth sounds, Meath sings, “I was gonna die you/ Now I gotta wait for you,” making it sound like a wry, wonderful pledge. Knowing that pop songs as good as this are still possible in the world, it’s no wonder Sylvan Esso made a chipper, dance-inducing paean to the power of music.

The New Releases Shelf: Humanz

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(source)

Damon Albarn sure has a funky, groovy id. It’s now been about twenty years since the frontman of Blue created a decidedly strange side project: an Archies for the then-looming new millennium. Working with comic book artist Jamie Hewlett, Albarn fashioned an animated quartet (comprised of lead vocalist and keyboardist 2-D, guitarist Noodle, bassist Murdoc Niccals, and drummer Russel Hobbs) that unleashed loose, lithe dance tracks. I don’t recall if Albarn ever explicitly noted that the “virtual band” was a means to more playful expression musically, but it definitely seemed that way to me, especially as Blur moved toward increasingly dense and ponderous material.

With Humanz — the fifth Gorillaz full-length and first in six years — my surmised mission statement seems a little more certain. The release is positioned as a party record for a world that is falling apart. Albarn looked at all the social mayhem brewing — such as the Brexit disaster in his home country and the even more appalling encore delivered by the good old U.S. of A.) and somehow decided if it had a good beat you could dance to it. The tracks on Humanz are rarely so explicit and literal that they play as protest songs for the disco. And yet there’s a misty dread that hovers over tracks like “Strobelite” and “Andromeda,” as if the computer beat was built out of the sounds of previously valued norms tumbling to the pavement.

Since it’s a party, Albarn was sure to assemble a hell of a guest list. Nearly every song boasts a familiar collaborator, though a surprising number become mere grains in the sonic woodwork. Grace Jones brings a welcome icy fierceness to “Charger,” and the divergent approaches of Mavis Staples and Pusha T stands as the main reason “Let Me Out” sparks like few others on the record. Elsewhere, it can get a shade too goofy, as is the case with “Sex Murder Party.” With its ambling beat and breathy chorus of unexpectedly-connected words, it sounds a little like Tracy Jordan’s “Werewolf Bar Mitzvah” from a darker, twistier timeline, even if I do like the way Jamie Principle’s vocal contribution carries the effortless, yearning drama that David Bowie perfected.

Some of the album strains even more painfully. Committing to the party album aesthetic necessarily means a certain amount of facile repetitiveness, but album closer “We Got the Power” veers dangerously close the kind of politicized anthem Black Eyed Peas might generate to prove just how woke they are. (That makes it a tremendous waste of guest vocalist Jehnny Beth, of the Savages.) Besides, the politics of Humanz are better when they’re a little more coy. By now, it should be clear that Gorillaz are most convincing when they let the beat stand as both the opening and closing argument.

The New Releases Shelf: Robyn Hitchcock

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(Source)

When Robyn Hitchcock released his prior album, 2014’s The Man Upstairs, he offered explanations about the track listing’s assemblage of cover songs and previously incomplete originals salvaged from the archive. He told Billboard that the aging process stirred a specific instinct, making creators “want to put themselves in a historical context, like a picture looking for a frame.” It seemed an intentional announcement of a revised approach to his musicianship, an allowance that glances backward might be the new norm for a singular artist whose deeply embedded eccentricity had previously offered endless surprise. It wasn’t all bad news — the album had its charms — but I couldn’t help but speculate there might not be another Hitchcock album that quivered with the urgency of his best work.

Three years later, my theorizing is proven dead wrong by Robyn Hitchcock, which Yep Roc Records insists is the twenty-first studio album by the man whose name provides the title. Produced in collaboration with Brendan Benson, the new album is as vibrant and forceful as anything Hitchcock has delivered since his extended heyday in the nineteen-eighties and -nineties. Even the stately heft of Spooked — released in 2004 and developed in collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — doesn’t have the same punch. From the opening track and lead single, “I Want to Tell You About What I Want,” Hitchcock sounds veritably revived. The guitars are a little fuller, the backbeat a little more driving, the spirit of emotionally-piercing absurdity locked firmly into place.

There’s a rascally sense of adventure across the album. Hitchcock dips into different styles, blending each into his own bounding sensibility. His recent time spent in Nashville surely informs the honkytonk lope of “I Pray When I’m Drunk” (“Yeah, I’m glad when I’m drunk/ I feel more open/ To the spiritual leanings that I hold”) and the gentle twang laced through “1970 in Aspic.” And while its no revelation to find him indulging in the trappings of psychedelic rock, its been a long time since it swirled as radiantly as it does in “Autumn Sunglasses.” Then there are instances when Hitchcock seems intent on mastering his own familiar combination of wistful and wild, as on “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox,” which would have been a standout on either Queen Elvis or Perspex Island. That is about as mighty of a compliment as I can pay it.

To think there was part of me that expected Hitchcock to fold into some gentle creative dotage, wan but pleasant albums dropped like pebbles from time to time. How foolish. There’s clearly more joyful brilliance to be had — hopefully much more.

The New Releases Shelf: Pure Comedy

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(Via)

To a degree, Josh Tillman has always positioned himself as a man out of time when performing in his Father John Misty persona. There’s a wounded troubadour embrace of classic pop that’s always been the shiniest threads running through the fabric of his songs. There’s also been a sense of humor that clangs against the opposing guardrails of bleak and boisterous, but mostly Father John has long sounded like a guy on the brink of collapse, and not in the James Brown grand showman way. The existential agony is what’s getting him down. Even happiness sows aching confusion.

Tillman quadruples down on all that affected ennui on Pure Comedy, the third album under the Father John Misty banner. The title itself is of course it’s own bratty provocation, a preemptive strike against any who might impose too much aspiration onto this cascade of bitter, verbose poetry and swaying music. He renders a battle axe out of rancid cream cheese and swings it all inclinations of artistic pride, laying out his embittered argument in “The Memo,” which finds him imagining prankish acts of anti-art meant to expose the hollowness of the current cultural moment. “And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time,” sings Tillman. “Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online.”

As he performs with the floppy swagger and cooing tones of an old-time crooner, Tillman calls up an old man grouchiness to go with it. He devotes a remarkable amount of time to heaping disdain on all these kids who keep littering his lawn with stray fidget spinners. He opens “Total Entertainment Forever” by recounting the newfound pastime of “Bedding Taylor Swift/ Every night inside the Oculus Rift” before proceeding to a assessment of mounting aggravation: “When the historians find us we’ll be in our homes/ Plugged into our hubs/ Skin and bones/ A frozen smile on every face.” The crusty sourness undercuts Tillman’s quietly enduring gift for elegant, tuneful music. On “When the God of Love Returns There’ll Be Hell to Pay,” there’s something about the gentleness of the piano part of and the way that Tillman holds the notes vocally that makes it sound like early Elton John, albeit a more ruminative, less instinctively jaunty version of pop than the former Reginald Dwight usually delivered.

The album’s strengths are ravaged by its weaknesses. “Leaving L.A.” is lax to the point of being nearly unbearable. That Tillman sardonically calls attention to his own creative excesses in the lyrics (“I’m beginning to see the end/ Of how it all goes down between me and them/ Some ten verse, chorus-less diatribe/ Plays as they all jump ship/ ‘I used to like this guy/ This new shit really kinda makes me wanna die'”) doesn’t wash away the sins with the blessed water of meta-nificent self-awareness. Instead, it cruelly illustrates the fatal flaw of the blithely cavorting ironist: doing something with the intended distance of knowing mockery still involves doing that thing. What’s meant as wry commentary instead becomes another tiresome contribution to the discourse supposedly being held up for ridicule.

I’ve been an ardent supporter of Father John Misty previously. I stand by those raves, but with Pure Comedy even I have to admit the joke is wearing thin.

The New Releases Shelf: Swear I’m Good At This

dietcig
(Source)

Crushes on bands are a thing, right? Certain songs, certain albums, certain riffs and vocal howls can set the heart aflutter with something that transcends taste and appreciation and escalates to full-on swooning adoration. I feel like that used to happen to me about every other week when I was a devoted staff member at the college radio station, eons ago. Every undiscovered album dropped over the spindle or CD fed into the player held the potential of triggering a rapturing affair of the psyche.

For whatever reason, album rarely leave me reeling in that way any longer, probably because openness to such experiences tends to fade as youth does.  Of course, that only makes the moments when an album charges straight at me all the more thrilling and profound. And that brings me to Swear I’m Good at This, the debut album from Diet Cig.

Fronted by beaming firecracker Alex Luciano and given a clattering backbeat energy by drummer Noah Bowman, Diet Cig is poppy and fierce. Swear I’m Good at This is pink lemonade that’s been seriously spiked, not with a warm, endearing liquor like rum, but a rough grain alcohol that hits with a caustic harshness, like angry medicine. It makes it all the better to throw in the stupid face of a rat-jerk boy, leaving his eyes stinging and streaked lava red.

Luciano’s voice has a deceptive girlishness that recalls early Juliana Hatfield, luring the listener in with an approachable, almost comforting tone only to deliver lyrics of strident defiance. “I’m not being dramatic/ I’ve just fucking had it/ With the things that you say/ You think that I should be,” she sings on “Link in Bio,” and that’s really the crux of it all. She’s standing up to the world, branding her guitar like a broadsword. Her girlishness doesn’t mean there’s no cunning there. Sometimes eyes are bright because the brain behind them has got everything all figured out.

The album opens with “Sixteen,” which includes Luciano remembering a high school boyfriend who evidently also carried the moniker Alex, leaving her “moaning my own name while trying to fuck.” It’s attention-getting but not an empty provocation. Instead, it’s a flare of purpose, an immediate establishment that Diet Cig is going to play by rules they drew up themselves. Any topic is fair game and will be addressed honestly rather than demurely. It’s a thesis statement, and the rest of the album proves its validity over and over again.

Even in my throughly charmed enjoyment of the record, I must concede that there’s a certain sameness from track to track, which is a natural pitfall of music like this. Even if “Barf Day” swells to something a touch more thunderous and “Apricots” settles into a low-key timbre of tender, melancholy longing, there’s only so much sonic variety Luciano and Bowman can find in their musical aesthetic. Growth can come later, though. For now, hearing them bang out cheerfully angry truths is plenty satisfying, as on the spectacular album-closer “Tummy Ache.”  Against a churning guitar part, Luciano sings, “My stomach hurts/ Cuz it’s hard to be a punk while wearing a skirt.” Brash and brilliant, Swear I’m Good at This implicitly argues that the hard things are most worth doing.