Monthly Archives: August 2014
The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers
There may not be a more aptly titled record this year. The New Pornographers, a supergroup that, let’s face it, more people probably know than the solo projects of its members, have always trafficked in contemporary renditions of classic pop. But with a title that doubles as a winking threat to the Brill Building, the New York hub of acclaimed ’50s and ’60s songwriters, Brill Bruisers announces itself Pornographers’ most conscious attempt at shirking the retro dressings they’ve played with in the past, even if many of the 13 songs here still begin-middle-and-end with the economy and structure of AM radio. This is still music that’s written then produced, bucking the modern trend that seems to favor the opposite. And make no mistake, this is an expansively produced album—recorded in multiple studios, full of overlapping vocals, splashes of keyboard arpeggios, horns, harmonicas and dissonance. In a world that champions records as huge, diverse and world-beating as Arcade Fire’s Reflektor and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it might sound downright quaint, but this is easily the Pornographers’ most contemporary and slick album to date. It also may be their most fun. (Coming after the relatively subdued Together, such a technicolor album is welcome.)
From the moment the title track crashes in with its overdriven guitar and candy-coated chants, bandleader A.C. Newman sets his sights on the rafters, and the rest of the record follows suit. “Dancehall Domine” and “Fantasy Fools” bubble with keyboard sequences before erupting in a fit of bubblegum harmonies; “Backstairs” and “Champions Of Red Wine” take some spacier detours, while “Hi-Rise” and “Wide Eyes” recall Wincing The Night Away-era Shins, and the tinny instrumentation on “Another Drug Deal Of The Heart” makes it feel like a discarded track off of Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. Though, as is par for the course for the Pornographers, the lyrics are only fitfully coherent, enough images of weaponry, unrest and violence are scattered about to give this record a uneasy feel that belies the hooks, harmonies and melodies they couch themselves in. That’s nowhere more clear than on Dan Bejar’s “War On The East Coast.” Freed from the late-night lounge of Destroyer’s Kaputt, Bejar creates a sublimely exciting piece of pop, propelling through a vaguely sci-fi/new-wave verse into a glorious hook and back again. Still, for an album as rock-solid and smartly produced as this, and even with the wartime imagery, it also doesn’t have the potency of the New Pornographers’ best music. There’s real craftsmanship to the songwriting here, much like the Spectors and Bacharachs of the Brill Building, but while it will sound great blasting in a car or at a summer party, there’s too little depth here, and it too often winds up leaves the listener cold. Put another way, it’s a record full of good, very catchy songs, yet it’s something that mostly inspires admiration instead of devotion. As apt as the album’s title may be, it’s ultimately ironic: Brill Bruisers doesn’t leave much of a mark.
FKA twigs – LP1
“Futuristic” is a weird word to use when describing music, precisely because it’s so vague. Does that mean it sounds like it’s made with not-yet-existing technology? Or that it sounds like what we imagine the kids twenty years from now are listening to? Or that evokes sci-fi films that guess at the near-future? As much as a cop-out as the word can feel, though, FKA twigs’ debut full-length, LP1, sounds futuristic to me—not for just one of those reasons above, but for all of them. With Tahliah Barnett’s use of breathy vocals and reverb-heavy production, the album definitely has its roots in the early-2010s R&B and indie electronic scenes, but this music is so slippery that it can’t be pinned down. The production sounds more intricate with each listen: drums scatter and stop, synth lines spring down from the sky and fly off again, drones rise and fall, bits of digital noise jump in a for a split-second before stretching out into something sweeter. Barnett and her fellow producers (who include Clams Casino and Blood Orange’s Devonté Hynes) merge disparate styles like UK garage and church hymns, and then turn it into a seductive come-on without getting too fussy about it. That description makes LP1 sound more fragmented and difficult than it actually is, though. This is a sound Barnett’s been fleshing out on the EPs that preceded this record, but she brings it all together here, where the music is formally experimental but the songwriting is refined enough so it sounds immediate and human, even poppy, working as well in the headphones as a slow-jam club set.
“Two Weeks”‘ pulsing hums give its sexual longing a desperation and subtle anguish—which makes it even sexier. “Pendulum” begins almost as a kissing cousin to James Blake, all spare, clipped falsetto, but eventually the dam bursts, creating a climax of quivering effects and layered vocals. Meanwhile, “Closer” rides on a drippy, high-pitched synth whine with Barnett singing like a one-woman children’s choir, belying the vulnerability underneath it. “Lights On,” though, is all about vulnerability. “The man that you are is defined/By the way that you act in the light,” Barnett coos, carefully gauging each step as she moves to a new lover. Barnett’s words don’t always hit as hard; some of her yearning can get a little broad (“Why you gotta go and hurt me babe?/Why you gotta go and make me cry?” wasn’t particularly evocative when Boy George sang the same sort of thing 30 years ago either). But this hardly matters when the wash of the music helps to develop the lust and heartbreak she sometimes can’t convey lyrically. And that’s pivotal: this is a sensual album that’s actually sexy, not because it can get vulgar (though that helps), but because of how the music creates an emotional intimacy. Rather, if LP1 has a stumbling block, it’s that while it’s distinctive in its own right, it could stand to change it up more from track-to-track. As a whole, it holds together wonderfully, but it’s also the type of album that doesn’t have a ton of dynamic range: If you tuned out for a few minutes before locking back into it, you’d be forgiven for thinking the track hasn’t changed up yet. But that’s no matter, especially this early in her career. What’s important is that Barnett has been building up steam with each successive release, and LP1 is the culmination of her work so far, a formal announcement of a unique talent, one that hopefully continues to push toward the boundaries of commercial pop. Hopefully the kids of the future will be listening to music like this.
Spoon – They Want My Soul
Can a band be too reliable? Short answer: No. But I get the sense that if Spoon fucked up a little more, they’d get more of the recognition they deserve. To be sure, people like Spoon. They know Spoon. Critics like me regularly pass out acclaim. (Look, I’m doing it again!) “I Turn My Camera On” even showed up in an episode of The Simpsons once. But you rarely hear “masterpiece” or “album of the year” in the context of one of their records. The band isn’t looking to change the game; they don’t swing for the fences. At the same time, Britt Daniel, a pop formalist at heart but a style scavenger by hobby, introduces just enough genre experimentation and dynamic range (helped, in no small part, by Jim Eno and the rest of the group) to keep things from getting too predictable. And so it goes with They Want My Soul, a very good album that hits the sweet spot between the expected and the surprising. Being a Spoon record, there are always moments of ripping garage rock, so there’s the banging “The Rent I Pay” and the skipping, sweetly melodic title track that more than fill that quota. But here, they take a few more deviations than usual, and it’s here that They Want My Soul finds its identity and its point of interest. “Inside Out,” the album’s centerpiece, is five minutes of shimmering dream pop, hard on beats and heavenly synth lines with no recognizable guitars in sight. It’s just as hovering and hook-less as Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s “The Ghost Of You Lingers” but it seeks to comfort rather than unsettle. And even if nothing gets as out of the comfort zone as that, it rubs off on the rest of the album, with the driving “Outlier” and “New York Kiss”‘ mix of brooding and danceable marking a new turn for the band, spiking each track with keyboards and slight electronic manipulations and underscoring the themes of paranoia and fleeting memories that permeate the album. Harassing street preachers and missed lovers stalk these songs, so it’s great to hear They Want My Soul have a little spring in its step with a short, bar-blues cover of Ann-Margret’s “I Just Don’t Understand,” and “Do You,” which finds a line between yearning and catchy effervescence so easily that it winds up being the best track on the album. Again, it’s nothing earth-shattering, but the fact that Spoon haven’t released anything truly close to a disappointment album in over a decade is stunning. They are a band that goes about their business, confident in their powers and skills, making music so sharp and tight and contemporary, it’s easy to forget the band formed twenty years ago and the members are well into middle age. If I’ve sounded too blasé about They Want My Soul, make no mistake, it’s a very good album, more cohesive than Transference while covering just as much ground. And if nothing else, it proves that, as Spoon enter their 3rd decade of music-making, they’re in better shape than many buzz bands at the peak of their careers.