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.
“Weird Al” Yankovic – Mandatory Fun
Being that it’s 2014, let’s take a moment to marvel at Weird Al Yankovic’s career. For over 30 years (!), Al’s not just been a successful comedian but a multi-generational cultural touchstone, a force of giggly glee that somehow transcended the novelty of pop music parody to endure, while other musicians, actors, comics and artists fell by the wayside. Granted, Al hasn’t released masterpiece after masterpiece. Musical comedy is already a hit-or-miss affair, and when you’ve been at it this long, you’re gonna have some stinkers. But considering most people in his field only flirt with success before they dissolve into bar trivia and remember-when lists, his continued presence is downright astonishing. I’m not suggesting his career is based solely on luck or nostaligia—rather, it’s quite the opposite. His 14th record, Mandatory Fun, proves why, in his mid-50s, he’s able to still churn this stuff out and make headlines.
First, it’s important to note his parodies rarely have to do with the songs themselves. Other than the backing track and maybe a rhyming title, the rest can go wherever Al wants it to. This means Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” can be rewritten about a boastful repairman in “Handy,” and Lorde’s spectral “Royals” instead espouses the food preservation and alien-signal deflection benefits of “Foil.” And that’s one of the other keys to Al’s, and Mandatory Fun‘s, success: his mix of absurdism and observational humor. No one else is going to write a song about these things, and the disparity between the pristine pop productions and his mundane subjects propels some unexpectedly funny moments, like when the bombast of Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive” juts up against a static slacker protagonist in “Inactive.” Plus, even when he’s playing with material that’s been worked to death elsewhere, like grammar scolding (“Word Crimes”) or privilege (“First World Problems”), there are enough clever spins on the subjects to make them worth the effort.
It’s Al’s original material where things become a bit more iffy. Try as he might, his songwriting just isn’t always particularly memorable, despite their humorous resemblance to the styles he’s skewering. This means that when the jokes aren’t working, like in the pointless college fight anthem “Sports Song” and the Foo Fighters rip “My Own Eyes,” the tracks don’t have a strong musical center to anchor them. But, as always, there are spots where his material comes together. There’s the name-dropping, cowbell-loaded, southern-fried rawk of “Lame Claim To Fame” (“I used the same napkin dispenser as Steve Carell at a Taco Bell!”), and the corporate-jargon satire “Mission Statement” uses warm, CSNY harmonies to enhance the cold business-speak. “First World Problems,” meanwhile, goes all in for a Pixies homage (check the “Debaser” riff that kicks it off) and comes up aces. “Jackson Park Express,” the Cat Stevens/Phil Ochs/Ben Folds-ish voyage that ends the record finale “Jackson Park Express” is stuck in the middle. At 9 minutes, Al’s clearly going for the same over-the-top, “I can’t believe this is still going” territory previously traveled by “Albuquerque” or “Trapped In The Drive-Thru,” and while its tale of an imaginary, escalating relationship has its fair share of laughs, it also can’t quite justify its length. But despite these weaker moments, Mandatory Fun finds Weird Al in fine form. Because at his best, and the highlights here often find him around that level, Al’s music is a glorious, inclusive pop culture celebration, and like the album’s requisite polka cover medley (this one’s called “NOW That’s What I Call Polka!”), it’s mostly a giant, lively party designed to get everyone together to put a big, stupid smile on your face at all costs. For a mission that began in the Cold War-era, I’d say he’s doing okay.
I realized that the posts I make in different sections of the website don’t trigger notifications to all my followers. So from now on, when I post a feature or concert review, I’ll make a post on the main page, so you guys know about it.
So in case you didn’t see it, check out “The 18 Types of Intro and Outro Songs“, a feature I wrote earlier this month that you all may find interesting. Read it! Comment on the page! Share the article with your friends!
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