The New Releases Shelf — Love is Dead

chvrches

For their third full-length release, Scottish band Chvrches are making a concerted charge for broader commercial success. Despite their occasional protests to the contrary, I don’t think there’s too many other realistic interpretations of the choice to bring in an outside producer for the first time, especially since that collaborator is Greg Kurstin, known for co-writing and producing Adele’s maudlin monstrosity “Hello.” Their protests to the contrary carry a verifying defensiveness. “People are like, ‘Oh, you’ve got Greg Kurstin,’ and talk about him as if he’s like this big pop factory producer,” lead singer Lauren Mayberry told Billboard. “That belittles how good a musician he is, and the musicianship of what he’s doing. He doesn’t just go in with one thing and apply that to everybody; he’s such an intuitive person, and he listens.”

Bolstering Mayberry’s argument, the strong presence of Kurstin (in addition to co-producing, he’s credited co-writer on nine of the album’s thirteen tracks) hasn’t resulted in a significant change to the Chvrches sound. All of the band’s hallmarks are present on Love is Dead: slinky melodies, an eighties pop effusiveness, and lyrics that flitter mischievously between simple and profound, with little punches of cynicism that can be easy to miss in the romping squares of light reflected off the disco ball. The slick dance music affect was already there. Kurstin fortifies rather than remodels.

If anything, Love is Dead suggests Chvrches could have used a little more jostling. Iain Cook, Martin Doherty, and Mayberry still have enviable instincts for pop hooks and electronic rhythms, but the formula is starting to show. At their best, the tracks still shimmer with surprise. I suspect there are few other current acts who pull off the magic act of “Graves,” take the sentiment of railing against privileged complacency in a time that calls for protest (“Oh, baby/ You can look away/ While they’re dancing on our graves/ But I will stop at nothing/ Oh, I will stop at nothing”) and make it as effervescent as a freshly cracked orange soda on a summer day. When they falter, though, the result is something like “God’s Plan,” which sounds like Erasure on a day the lads are trying to punch out early. Even Mayberry’s vocals, easily the band’s strong suit, occasional suffer from too much pressing off the set style. I love the way, on “Heaven/Hell,” she sings “return” like there’s an unavoidable right angle built into the word, but I’m far less fond her choice to warp the title word of “Deliverance” into about six syllables through stuttering repetition.

It’s telling that the most intriguing tracks are distinct deviations, at least in terms of collaborators. “My Enemy” sets Mayberry in a duet with Matt Berninger, of the National, and the stateliness he brings with him like a trailing cape provides a nice contract to Chvrches’ clockwork. Then there’s “Miracle,” which enlists Steve Mac as a producer. Although his credentials are yet more gruesome than Kurstin’s, Mac seems to understand that Chvrches needs some sonic friction to movie forward creatively. It’s a small touch, but the probing melody and the rhythm track that alternates between skulking and booming cuts against Mayberry’s sweetly refined voice, even she swerves into digital manipulation.

Whatever the album’s aspirations, “Miracle” is the one cut I can truly imagine taking hold as a mainstream hit. Maybe the real secret code that reveals the reason Love is Dead wobbles is contained therein. Chvrches might have started off as indie darlings, but these days their collective heart is with the other plasticine pop purveyors in the sterilized music biz factory. The closer Chvrches gets to them, the truer they sound.

The New Releases Shelf — Tell Me How You Really Feel

Courtney-Barnett
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Courtney Barnett clattered into the public sphere — here in the U.S., anyway — with a fitting hesitancy. Her first two EPs were collected together on a release that got the most meager of pushes, as if her modest indie label, Mom + Pop Music, was concerned about her flaring out too quickly in the ever-fickle stateside scene (a fear that was probably spot on, p.s. and by the way). Then her proper debut full-length, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, arrived to acclaim and broader recognition that escalated like a fireworks show grand finale. The self-effacing, endearingly anxious lyrics, gently warbled vocals, and muscular guitar work added up to something special, drawing on decades of college rock affected disaffection and miraculously making it seem fresh.

For her sophomore effort (following a collaboration with Kurt Vile, released last year), Barnett demonstrates a capacity to grow beyond the tender, wryly comic scuffle of her previous work. Tell Me How You Really Feel is fuller and richer, with lyrics that are slightly more conventional and music that chugs along amiably only to take nifty little turns into noisemaker bursts of sly invention. She doesn’t exactly shed her prior skin, but there’s a sense she’s trying to wriggle out of it. At first, “City Looks Pretty” is familiar Barnett, presenting the jauntiest version of the slacker lifestyle (“”Sometimes I get sad/ It’s not all that bad/ One day, maybe never/ I’ll come around”), peppered with guitar flourishes that sound like the precise moment a purr turns into a growl. Before it ends, though, the song shifts into a more ruminative tone, as if a brave face has slipped away.

“Need a Little Time” offers the indie rock version of the downbeat melodic exhaustion with life perfected by Kacey Musgraves. There’s a similar vibe on “Walkin’ on Eggshells,” which finds Barnett singing, “Before we get started, I’ll clean this up/ No use drinking from a leaking cup/ You know what I mean?” Barnett wanders sonically with the punk punch of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” and the vibrantly catchy “Charity.” Variety is always welcome, but I can’t quite shake the sense that the little shifts in sound on the album aren’t assured explorations so much as Barnett trying doors at random, waiting to discover a confirming mirror. Maybe that’s because when it doesn’t quite work (as on “Help Your Self”), Barnett’s brimming creative personality becomes vaporously indistinct.

It’s still early on the arc of Barnett’s career, so it’s entirely reasonable for her to skid a little as she sprints forward. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a strong album, just not quite as nimble as its predecessors. The sneaky ingenious songwriter is still there, and it’s a pleasure listening to her find her way.

The New Releases Shelf — 7

beach house

In writing about recent albums, I can sometimes lose sight of the simple fact that new bands aren’t always that new. (Unless the band has been around for ages, of course.) I go through a litany of comparisons to other songs and artists in trying to provide an approximation of the band’s sound, hobbled by the usual dancing-about-architecture shortcomings of scraping together shards of my limited vocabulary in the service of describing an art form that I find both transporting and so apart from my own skill set that it may as well be quantum metallurgy. In tapping out a review of the new Beach House album, I’m reminded by its very title that maybe agonized correlations aren’t always necessary.

7 is, as is implied, the seventh album from the Baltimore duo Beach House. And it sounds exactly like a Beach House album. Even as I write that, I’m wrenched by a pang of guilt at the reductive quality of the description, but it’s true. Although Beach House has gone through subtle, satisfying evolutions on every album in the twelve years since they released their self-titled debut, the core has remained the same. Rather than a sign of stagnancy, the consistency speaks to an admirable — and, given the quality of their music, completely understandable — purity of artistic vision. Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally developed a style that drew on some predecessors, but was immediately all their own, too. The music swirls and undulates and serves as a billowy cloud for Legrand’s airy, emotive singing.

The new album begins with “Dark Spring,” featuring music that moves like a stride picking up and singing that is like sunlight breaking through haze. It is elusive and immediate, soft and sharp, and all sorts of other contradictory textures merged into one. The same is true of the casually lush “Pay No Mind” and “Black Car,” which has a  burbling pulse that’s irresistible. Arguably, “Drunk in LA” achieves this magical intertwining most memorably, as it somehow manages to be both hypnotic and edgy as Legrand intones beautiful abstract poetry such as “Strawberries in springtime/ Pretty happy accidents/ My awareness that I’m lucky/ Rolling clouds over cement.”

Beach House even manage to avert the lapses into self-parody that can easily emerge when a band has been at the same basic approach for long enough. Ss if trying to triple underline the first word in “dream pop,” the track “L’Iconnue” features Legrand’s vocals layered into a small heavenly choir singing in French. And yet it works, coming across as sincere and exploratory rather than indulgent. On album closer “Last Ride,” which lasts precisely seven minutes, a spare piano leads into a slow sonic build that refuses to crest. It’s a feat of restraint and, by extension, confidence. And why wouldn’t they be operating with supreme certainty at this point? As 7 thrillingly reasserts, Beach House are no newcomers. They know what they’re doing.

 

The New Releases Shelf — Dirty Computer

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It seemed entirely possible that any new music from Janelle Monáe would be a long time coming. Although she had already started the process of developing her third studio album when she stepped into the job of big-time movie actress, the tremendous success she enjoyed as a cast member of 2016 awards season titans Moonlight and Hidden Figures carried her to a whole new level of fame. That ascendency was further enhanced by Monáe’s grand sense of style naturally aligning with the fervent need for glamour, all but guaranteeing she’d become a red carpet stunner. Surely the atrophying music industry had to look a little less appealing from the vantage point of newly shining stardom.

Luckily, Monáe decided she had to tend to her unfinished business. It’s unclear if Dirty Computer would have followed the same rough trajectory without Monáe’s forays down other artistic avenues, but it certainly crackles like the product of a creator whose had their fortitude and confidence bolstered by a few spare triumphs. Where her other two fine albums — ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady — were constructs build around the frame of entertaining but distancing science fiction conceits, Dirty Computer reverberates with the seismic tumult of blazing personal revelation and fearless truths. Monáe has conceded the songs are freer expressions of self than she’s allowed before, but that’s clear without the explication. It feels like everything Monáe is — spiritually, politically, emotionally, sexually — is laced through the soulful grooves and snapping lyrics.

The flashing headlines sparked to existence by the album — and its consistently striking accompanying videos — are preoccupied with the hints of revelation associated with Monáe’s romantic attractions. And the album does indeed sometimes seem as if came to life after Monáe pushed vast skies of fluttering bisexual lighting through some magical reverse prism that transformed it all into vivid pop music. And Monáe is thrillingly upfront — even brash — about deploying delightfully salacious language against her fulsome neo soul.

On “I Got the Juice,” Monáe sings, “Got juice for all my lovers/ Got juice for all my wives/ My juice is my religion/ Got juice between my thighs.” It’s not exactly coy, but Monáe’s intriguing gift across Dirty Computer is making all the randy come ons play like sweetly innocent seductions, a flirty magic act that was previously mastered by Janet Jackson. The trick is present within the glorious flow of “Take a Byte,” the gorgeous fragility of “Pynk” (featuring a guest appearance by Grimes, a splendid returned favor), and across the whole album, really. Monáe is so overtly powerful in her evocations of sexuality that she’s able to position them as a particularly joyful version of political defiance. “You fuck the world up now/ We’ll fuck it all back down,” she proclaims in “Screwed,” as a rubbery Prince-like guitar line slips in and out.

The influence of the purple-hued icon is also ever-present on Dirty Computer. According to Monáe, Prince helped her out during the early stages of the album’s creation, and at times the influence is so evident he may as well have his spectral fingers interlaced with hers at the base of an especially fabulous torch. Single “Make Me Feel” almost sounds as though it was pulled whole out of Prince’s fabled vault, even as it inevitably calls to mind one of Michael Jackson’s finest hits. Monáe isn’t slavish to Prince’s sound, though. She incorporates what she’s learned from her forebear and makes it her own, just as she does with Stevie Wonder on the intricate and lovely “Stevie’s Dream,” which features its namesake providing “oratory blessings.” There even seems to be a sly reference to TLC on the airy R&B track “I Like That,” when Monáe sings, “‘Cause I’m crazy and I’m sexy and I’m cool/ Little rough around the edges but I keep it smooth.”

Monáe pulls all of these ricocheting pieces together on the album closer, “Americans.” Soaring and punchy at once, the song is a scathing history lesson, a statement of belief, and an act of defiance in the face of grotesque fools who want to eradicate the hard-earned progress toward a valuing of all people: “Love me baby, love me for who I am/ Fallen angels singing, ‘Clap your hands’/ Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land/ I’m not crazy, baby, naw/ I’m American.” It’s the spirited anthem to an uncompromising resistance that will not give anything back, no matter how much clawing and whining there is from those who’ve become accustomed to unearned privilege. Hold speakers aloft and blare “The Americans” from the rooftops.

If Monáe has moved away from the safety of casting her eyes to fanciful, robotic futures, it’s in part because the here and now needs her voice. Monáe has made terrific music before, but she’s shifted to a different plane. Dirty Computer is vital.

 

 

The New Releases Shelf — Golden Hour

kacey

I can’t claim to understand the vagaries of what drives country music radio, but the apparent middling affection for Kacey Musgraves is perplexing to the point of aggravation. Despite the Texas native’s place in the Universal Music Group Nashville stable of artists  (she’s released three albums on Mercury Nashville and one on MCA Nashville), she’s only graced the Top 10 of the Billboard country charts with one single, and even that was a glancing blow. In the meantime, if Carrie Underwood recorded herself struggling with the sniffles for three minutes, it would hit the top spot.

Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that Golden Hour, the new album from Musgraves, demonstrates a cheery disregard for adhering to any twang-tanged formula. And it sounds free and deeply content because of it. Part of that warm, sweet comfort is surely a product of Musgraves writing and recorded while in the throes of newlywed bliss, a circumstance she readily acknowledges contributed to the feel and outlook of the finished product. She’s still recognizably the same rambunctious songwriter who employed the country music vernacular while simultaneously tweaking its tropes to suit her own preferences: mellow pot-smoking instead of barroom sorrow-drowning, woke inclusivity rather than myopic heartland first antagonism. Now, though, Musgraves is less impish and more earnest, fully prepared to be who she is with a take-it-or-leave-it confidence.

According to the songs found within the album’s grooves, she’s a shrewd, quietly inventive lyricist with a gift for tender melodies and an ability to express emotion without pushing into melodrama. Appropriately, album opener “Slow Burn” is a fine declaration of this identity: “Taking my time, let the world turn/ I’m gonna do it my way, it’ll be all right/ If we burn it down and it takes all night/ It’s a slow burn, yeah.” Spare and lush at the same time, the track sounds like the kind of ethereal alternative folk gem Victoria Williams would have crafted in her nineteen-nineties heyday. In general, Musgraves strikes a certain tone that’s reminiscent of other artists from around the same era, when there was a welcome pushback against grunge excess with decidedly adult and sedate pop. “Lonely Weekend” calls to mind the earlier solo efforts by Natalie Merchant, and “Happy & Sad” veers close to Aimee Mann territory, in both sound and conflicted outlook (“It’s never felt so right/ And I’m the kinda person/ Who starts getting kinda nervous/ When I’m having the time of my life”).

The prevailing sound of the album is mid-tempo ease, but there a little tinsel tosses of idiosyncratic flair. The first distinct elbowing of the boundary occurs on “Oh, What a World,” which employs some synthesized vocals. Later, “High Horse” offers the sharpest turn into pop, shimmying with a modernized disco sound that wouldn’t be all that out of place on a Cut Copy or Carly Rae Jepsen album. As if playfully arching an eyebrow at the sonic distance she’s moved from her label’s signature sound, Musgraves name-drops John Wayne in the very first line.

As with her previous effort (non-holiday division), the masterful Pageant Material, Musgraves delivers nothing but gems. And she can tell full stories with an artful turn of phrase or two, as on “Space Cowboy”: “Sayin’ I don’t know/ Would be like saying that the sky ain’t blue/ And boots weren’t made for sitting by the door/ Since you don’t wanna stay anymore.” In both her skill and her mild struggle to meet the favor of the country music tastemakers, Musgraves is a direct descendent of Lyle Lovett. Nashville power brokers didn’t quite know what to make of that big-haired Texan, either. Like Lovett, Musgraves’s place in the popular imagination is ultimately beside the point. If she keeps making albums this wonderful, enough will notice, and every song will feel like private treasure.

 

The New Releases Shelf — Boarding House Reach

jack
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From the jump, Jack White always had the air of huckster about him. That he kept his music shiny and new through regularly applications of snake oil wasn’t a problem. Indeed, it was a major part of the appeal. Through his various endeavors, the bruising garage rock, muddy blues appropriations, and whirligig inventiveness was informed by a sprightly sense of humor which served as a welcome, arguably necessary pressure release valve. Hailed as a creator, performer, and impresario, White was probably always doomed to eventually warp into hopeless self-parody.

White’s latest solo album, Boarding House Reach, doesn’t find him fully in the depths of indulgent inanity, but its perilously close. It’s been four years since White’s previous album under his own name, and nearly three full years have passed since he was central to any new full-length release, as astonishingly long layoff for a musician who between the White Stripes, the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, and his solo work delivered thirteen original albums between 1999 and 2015. A generous assessment of Boarding House Reach posits that White spent the time figuring out how to stretch his sound into strange new territory. I think that’s a misreading of what the emperor has pulled out of his massive wardrobe.

Opening track and lead single “Connected by Love” helpfully establishes the album’s messy contradictions. It’s immediately, unmistakably identifiable as a White song, but with a hesitant muddiness, as if he’s churlishly combatting his own muscle memory. There’s less passion and discovery than can typical be found in White’s work. And it’s been replaced by a sighing indifference, a thick chord reverberating “I guess” over and over. The familiar isn’t inherently bad. If anything, Boarding House Reach could use more of it. The liquid guitar heroics of “Respect Commander,” the buzzy seventies funk of “Corporation,” and the comparatively straightforward “What’s Done is Done” (which finds White borrowing from his country music juke joint elders) are all, to at least some degree, White in his comfort zone. In this instance, anyway, that’s far preferable to White stretching.

White should of course be lauded for not churning out the same old thing, but if the alternative is the tedious experimental goofing of “Hypermisophoniac,” we’re all better off with a lifetime of De Stijl retreads. At times, the results of White’s sonic wandering are little more than a dismissible curiosity, as on “Ice Station Zebra,” which finds White adopting a casually bouncy vocal cadence makes me expect DJ Jazzy Jeff to lean into frame and shake his head while cocking a thumb in White’s direction. It’s far more dire when high pretension drifts in like a choking smog. On “Everything You’ve Ever Learned,” White channels the tripping preacher persona of Jim Morrison at his most comically indulgent. “Ezmerelda Steals the Show” has a similar smack of nonsense profundity (“What melancholy magic/ Has turned a multitude into mush/ Mandibles drop from shock/ An old lady at high altitude/ Whispering, ‘Hush'”).

I’ve gladly bought into White’s fussbudget gimmickry in the past. My household’s copy of Lazaretto, White’s 2014 solo album, has more spring-loaded tricks than a Leatherman Surge, and it remains a prized possession. Boarding House Reach isn’t so jarringly off that it makes me rethink my previous affections. But I do expect I’ll mover forward from here armed with a little more skepticism about a certain sly salesman’s pitches.

The New Releases Shelf — There’s a Riot Going On

tengo
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By the official tally, There’s a Riot Going On is the fifteenth studio album from Yo La Tengo, and the band’s first of predominantly new material since the masterful and underrated Fade, released in 2013. It’s been over thirty years since their first LP, a span in which Yo La Tengo developed into a critical darling fairly quickly and basically settled into a zone of rapturous reviews and only meager commercial success. It would be a cause of chagrin if not for the seeming contentment the band has with their place in the rock ‘n’ roll world. Like Jonathan Richman, they seem genially content in their cult heroism, playing to the faithful and following their collective wry, understated muse.

The title of the album is at once a reflection of the upended state of the society and an ironic assessment of the music delivered. The occasional swerve toward noisy squalls notwithstanding, You La Tengo’s general approach favors the sober and downbeat. The songs muse rather than snarl, striving for a sense of peace within the agitation of modern life. There’s discontent and anxiety aplenty, but that’s no cause for a sonic ruckus. There’s potency in the soft and the ruminative, too.

Being fair, there’s also a certain amount of snooziness to this approach. I’m charmed by Yo Tengo when they commit to the shrewd and sedate, but I know better than to put it on at parties. Even I start drifting on the mid-album triad of “Dream Dream Away,” “Shortwave,” and “Above the Sound.” The tracks are unmistakably rich and complex, which doesn’t necessarily prevent them from cohering into a downbeat drone. The situation could have been improved with a simple adjustment in sequencing, since there’s variety to be found on the album, such as “Shades of Blue,” which tinkers with the formula or sunny nineteen-sixties pop, and the band’s take on Esquivel-styled samba lounge with “Esportes Casual.” Even a track like “For You Too” finds appealing texture within its highway steadiness.

“We’re just going to find a way to make it through difficult times and that, in itself, is positive,” singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan told Bob Odenkirk in a recent interview. “But some of that can be acknowledging and not hiding from your sadness or your fear. So there’s a lot of sadness, but I think there’s something really joyful in expressing that sadness.” That mission is fulfilled marvelously on There’s a Riot Going On, which is celebratory because of its resolute truthfulness. On the almost unbearably tender “Forever,” Kaplan sings, “Laugh away the bad times/ Lie about what’s to come/ The less said, the better/ Let’s drink until we’re dumb.” Even the minor issues with the album hold a worthiness. As the songs remind, there’s grace in imperfection