Neneh Cherry – Broken Politics

Broken Politics is a lovely album. Its enjoyability fluctuates with circumstance, yes – it’s an album best enjoyed on an early morning or a late night, when one is seeking to shift a neutral mood positively – but in any context, it’s a charming and intelligent work. Most importantly, it’s arresting, which is no small feat, given that it’s a gentle and unobtrusive work with few hooks or bangers. It’s an album of soft spoken dignity and quiet self-assurance, fully secure that what it’s doing will speak for itself without advertisement.

The lyrics are, absolutely, the strongpoint. There are moments of Erykah Badu-esque wit and Joni Mitchell-esque introspection, but Cherry’s voice as a writer is very much her own. She favours unusual metaphors (Deep Vein Thrombosis is mentioned), which are sometimes cryptically mixed (Cherry is a “Pisces hanging on a vine”) and unpacked with relish when the music gives her a chance to do so. Her sense of kinship with “Fallen Leaves” is in part because she is down, and in part because she is at risk of being stepped on. Moreover, Cherry has taken to heart one of the most overlooked creative writing adages: concrete images are stronger than abstract. There are few references here to love, justice or heartache, but there are mentions of bird shit on sleeves and dramatizations of tense physical struggles.

With the lyrics, then, providing clear narrative and thematic through-lines, Cherry is then freed up to go abstract on the music. Within the basic template of lose beats and arpeggios of synthetic sound, Cherry hides a menagerie of genre-jaunts and indulgences. “Natural Skin Deep” borrows from the softer moments of Ornette Coleman in its third act and mixes up a brew of horns that blends free jazz with Memphis soul ; “Slow Release” plays with layers of minimalistic woodwinds and echoing piano chords. In the hands of another artist, the whole thing might flighty and cluttered, but as singer and lyricist Cherry’s dignified yet confessional persona is consistent enough to tie the whole thing together. This is her story, however she tells it.

The whole thing is strengthened by some gorgeously warm production values, which takes advantage of Cherry’s seeming preference for arpeggios over chorded harmonies to emphasize and experiment with the timbre of each individual note. It works wonderfully with Cherry’s voice, which is a fascinating thing in itself: thin but agile, with just a little bit of roughness that hides in the edges and shows during the more dramatic pitch shifts.

Are there flaws? One or two. “Faster Than The Truth” employs a drumbeat that’s distractingly similar to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover”, and while that seems intended as a direct homage, it feels a bit odd in an album that otherwise feels so confidently itself. Once or twice, the spiralling layers of melody feel like they get away from Cherry’s control; “Black Monday” definitely feels like a bit of a ramble at times. But these are minor issues, even on these tracks themselves. Even after listening to it multiple times a day for a week, Broken Politics is still an album I look forward to hearing. It’s sincere, intelligent and strong, and comes highly recommended.

Elvis Costello – Look Now

Look Now bears more resemblance to 1982’s Imperial Bedroom than anything else in Elvis Costello’s career, and even then, it’s not a particularly striking resemblance. Costello’s goal here appears to be to age gracefully: always one of the more punkish of the New Wave cadres, he seems aware that he can’t quite kick up the furore he used to, and now wants to cultivate the wit rather than try and re-capture the zeal. How’d the experiment work? Well… eh. Look Now is a stately and elegant work, but not one that quite lives up to the sum of its parts.

Costello approaches Look Now with the chops of a veteran performer, and the budget to match. Every instrumentalist performs with impeccable precision, and when a track warrants horns or strings, no expense is spared in hiring the session players. The album, as result, is full of lovely little moments: bright baroque flushes and gorgeous bass runs. It feels like a blue-eyed soul record, and while Costello’s always been one of my least favourite household-name vocalists, he sounds particularly charming here, approaching his melodies with the same slightly creaky, aged swank that we heard from Bowie on Blackstar and glimpsed in the background of Scott Walker’s late-career nightmare-scapes. It’s a very pretty, very dignified record, and because of that there’s very little that distracts from the persona that Costello conjures out of his lyrics and delivery; the man’s a fine storyteller, and if you’re a fan of his stories, he allows little to get in the way of them here.

Trouble is, he also doesn’t do an awful lot to elevate them. The lyrics on Look Now are on the darker end, and always feel just a little bit too severe for the mild melancholy of the backing music. There’s also none of the earnestness that marks the difference between a “good story well told” and an honest-to-goodness performance. Problematically, Costello isn’t bringing his A-game on the hooks here, and while the witticisms of the album do stick out – “you can’t put the genius/ back in the bottle” – few melodies do. Drummer Pete Thomas seems to sum up the modus operandi of the whole album. One of the most explosive sticksmen since Keith Moon, he here relegates himself to backbeats and the occasional cymbal flourish, and while music like this isn’t necessarily asking for something more dramatic, it’s worth remembering that Thomas has found ways to weave fascinatingly subtle and complex drumlines around similarly soft music in the past. On Look Now, there’s plenty that’s worth your attention, but also not a lot that seeks to grab it.

High on Fire – Electric Messiah

Electric Messiah is the second album to be released this year by stoner-metal icon Matt Pike, and much like his other release this year – that was The Sciences, with his other band, Sleep – Electric Messiah is a record I had quite a lot of fun with.

While Pike’s guitar tone – and low, screeching vocal delivery – are classic stoner, what’s neat about Electric Messiah is that it isn’t really written like a stoner metal album. It’s a fast, at times sprightly thing. Converge’s Kurt Ballou is on production duties, as he was on High on Fire’s previous album Luminiferous, and you can hear his influence over the songwriting. More than anything else, Electric Messiah feels like a more reliably four-four re-tread of Converge’s All We Love We Leave Behind: buzzsaw riffing that sends atonal solos flying out like sparks only to collide with them at the end of the run, sludgy and pendulous breakdowns, furious flurries of low-end drums. It’s not really an album to get stoned to, in the way The Sciences or even The Art of Self Defense was. Just as Nirvana took the song structures of angry music and used it to communicate magnanimous relatable apathy, so High On Fire take the rudiments of stoner metal and use it for raw, kinetic rage.

What makes Electric Messiah work are the little touches. Pike’s established by now that he’s an original guitar player, but it’s moments like this that remind us that, on top of that, he’s a damn good one too. Rather than rolling along and relying on its heft to carry it, Pike continually claws at the audience’s attention, throwing in lightning-fast runs down the guitar neck when the riffs repeat, and changing direction on a dime from coursing fury to ponderous weight. It’s the same instincts that Mastodon used to turn a similar musical template into the greatest heavy metal discography of all time (don’t @ me), and while Pike is no Brent Hinds, this is definitely the kind of record that reminds you that Mastodon only exist because some guys met up at a High on Fire gig. In that regard, Electric Messiah feels less like a stoner metal album and more like late-career Testament: a stoic, sludgy thrash that rides the same storm as Megadeth and Metallica, but throws its allegiance behind the thunder, not the lightning.

All that being said, it is worth noting that my inability to talk about Electric Messiah without heavily referencing other bands is, on its own, a telling thing. Matt Pike is evidently an open minded musician, but that isn’t quite the same thing as being imaginative, and Electric Messiah doesn’t really have a distinctive personality of its own. Despite the mysticism of the cover art, the album doesn’t feel like it has any particular kind of spirituality; even on “Sanctioned Annihilation”, when the album comes closest to the Lovecraftian weight-of-the-universe dreamscapery that characterizes Pike at his best, the declarative marching riffs and woozy solo never really seem to capture a sense of worship or majesty. It’s slightly bittersweet that Pike describes Electric Messiah as the quintessence of what he wanted to achieve with High on Fire, because it’s not an album that really feels like a bold statement. What it is, ultimately, is just a damn good metal album.

Still, that’s not to say that Electric Messiah is particularly disappointing; rather that it’s one of those albums which is a lot more good than it is memorable. It’s a direct, relentless record, tight in the way metal often fails to be, and, if not the best at waking you up to anything, absolutely excellent at waking you up.

The Joy Formidable – AAARTH

This is a minor detail, but I feel it’s worth saying: AAARTH has really, really, REALLY cool album art. I feel justified in opening with that for two reasons: one, because seriously, the art is really, really, really cool, and second because it’s cool in the same way that the album is: big, bright, shapeless, almost (but not quite) incomprehensible and slightly mystical, in a psychonaut sorta way. It’s an album which, on one level, loses me, but on an other level turns out to be quite fun to get lost in.

AARTH is, fundamentally, an alternative rock record. It sits bang in the middle between the stadium bombast of Muse and the woozy haze of My Bloody Valentine, more melodic than the latter but less anthemic than the former. Tracks are heavy, but not dark or aggressive: rather than working the low end, songwriter and frontwoman Ritzy Bryan creates her furore by layering melody upon melody, rhythm upon rhythm, feedback blast upon feedback blast to create a vast, swirling cacophony. Like the works of My Bloody Valentine, this is an album that succeeds by being loud in an interesting way, but while My Bloody Valentine delivered loudness of an unusual texture and type, AAARTH is about making loudness out of a lot of interesting things.

It’s a schtick that works in part because Bryan reveals herself to be an imaginative and fearless riff-crafter. “The Wrong Side” builds its pendulous staccato wrecking ball with intoxicating, heavily chorded runs up the guitar neck. “Cicada (Land on your Back)”, as one of the album’s atmospheric numbers, runs the risk of pretentiousness, but dodges the pitfall by offering an elegant, Middle Eastern tinged main riff, and setting it against weird harmonies on lead guitars and vocals. “The Better Me” bases itself around angular, unpredictable squeals and harmonics. It’s an understated, in-the-pocket kind of virtuosity, the kind that suggests less time practicing speed and more time teaching one’s fingers to stretch over odd combinations of frets.

Although the album technically has versus and choruses, when you’re not reading the lyrics, you’re not particularly likely to notice them. Songs end not when a structure has gone through its acts, but rather when all variations of a common theme or mood has been explored. Songs feel simply like collections of riffs and melodies which sound good together. On the one hand, that’s kind of a negative point, and is maybe the big thing that holds the album back from greatness: it’s difficult to come away with it with much of a sense of coherent story or emotional journey, and while Bryan’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics are rather beautiful, the music rarely feels chosen to highlight or support the line which it backs.

However, the album’s tone and character feel very much designed to take advantage of that kind of structural looseness. The album was recorded in Utah and The Joy Formidable have discussed the influence that the state’s landscape had on their sound. It sounds primal and shamanic, as though written far away from civilization, full of the kind of surreality that comes from a hot sun, a beautiful landscape and a lack of water. Bryan’s vocal lines are chants, rather than anthems, and each track feels like an invocation, written to summon something, not to describe it. Moments of emotional connection do not invest you in a narrative – they appear, glimmer, and then are swept away in preparation for the next one. I don’t necessarily think that this is the best thing that the album could be doing, but it’s certainly a big part of what gives it its identity.

Do I recommend AAARTH? Yeah, overall. It’s not quite as absorbing as it is intricate, and it’s not quite as emotional as it is honest, but it’s a unique and satisfying record that, in places, really does manage that rare trick of being beautiful in a totally inexplicable way. At the very least, it’s a slice of cathartic loudness of a flavour all its own. At most, it’s a fascinating thing to sit and dissect. Sure, it expect you put the legwork into dissecting it, but there are worse ways to spend an afternoon.

Marc Ribot – Songs of Resistance 1942-2018

When transitioning from journalist to playwright, writer Tom Stoppard said that theatre – and, by implication, artistic writing more broadly – is not the way to change the world; if you want to impact politics with writing, be Woodward and Berenstein. Songs of Resistance is that rare political record that seems to acknowledge that. These are not protest anthems, these are song to sing, harmonica in hand, in the living room where the Black Block or the LGBT society or the striking union meet, with a Contrapoints video loading on the desktop and a rainbow flag on the wall. It’s not made for revolution. It’s made for revolutionaries.

Songs of Resistance is retro to the point of postmodern. It doesn’t flirt with genres, but rather conjure them up, warts and all. “Srinivas” is pure sixties pre-Dylan folk in the Woodie Guthrie vein. “John Brown” is a soul number reminiscent of Nina Simone. “Knock That Statue Down” is a hardbitten Rhythm and Blues number. Elsewhere, as the title suggests, the album presents new arrangements of old radical anthems. “We Are Soldiers in the Army” and “We’ll Never Turn Back” date from the civil rights era. “Rata de Dos Patas” is a vitriolic number first recorded by Mexican singer Paquita la del Barrio. Most striking is “Bella Ciao”, which dates from Fascist Italy and is brought to gravelly, soulful life by long-time Ribot collaborator Tom Waits.

See, while Ribot has said that Songs of Resistance was birthed from his desire to see open acknowledgements of grief and sacrifice in anti-Fascist music, that isn’t really what the album ends up doing most successfully. More than anything else, Songs of Resistance feels designed to incorporate today’s political crises with revolutionary history in toto. Roach, Guthrie and Simone were all radicals in their time, and what Ribot is doing here feels like a séance. Ribot seems to feel that those figures would all smile on today’s revolutionaries, and that after defeat after defeat, after Trump and Brexit and Kavanaugh, after Charlottesville, today’s revolutionaries at least deserve to know that. Indeed, even outside the musical canon, Songs of Resistance invokes radical after radical: Marsha Johnson, John Brown, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X. “Teach us how to walk in freedom,” sings Ribot to Parks, “cause I’m going to walk in freedom, if it takes my life.”

To an extent, there’s maybe something a little uncomfortable about the fact that Ribot, a white man, is so passionately wielding the legacies of a majority black cast of radical. At the same time, it’s also refreshing to see Ribot making his political mark in full acknowledgement of the influence that black activists had on every facet of the modern left – LGBT people of all ethnicities owe a debt to Marsha Johnson, and Ribot makes sure she is mentioned.

Impressively, Ribot also proves himself a sincere and expressive political lyricist, packing his songs with the same wry wit that, in a less political context, so elevated his earlier work. “The Big Fool”, a chronicle of late capitalism’s rampage through resources and rights, is a standout. Ribot is enthusiastic about mentioning Trump by name, which has its pros and its cons. On “Srinivas”, it’s extremely affecting. Many modern music fans rightfully lionize the 60s folk sound which Ribot mimics here, and it’s validating to hear our current socio-political woes voiced on an song which could have come out of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. However, when Ribot sets clips of Trump speeches and shouts of “not my president, not my president” to his arrangement of Rata de los Patas it feels a little crass. The song, as Ribot notes in the album’s liner, hides uncompromisingly angry political lyrics within what sounds like a romantic ballad, and I wish Ribot had as much respect for this as an act of artistic subtlety as he does for it as an act of professional cunning.

Songs of Resistance may be willing to acknowledge grief, but in a lot of ways it’s one of the most inspiring albums I’ve heard in a long time. The fight will be hard, it says, but it is not new. You do not have to go into it without guidance from the fighters that came before you. You do not have to go into it afraid that radical resistance always fails. And you do not have to go into it alone.

Spiritualized – And Nothing Hurt

Whereas the last Spiritualized album – 2012’s Sweet Heart, Sweet Light – was an eclectic collage of garage rock, psychedelic rock and gospel, And Nothing Hurt takes us back to the days of Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. It’s not a development I’m particularly wild about, to be honest. Ladies and Gentleman… was an innovative album for its time, sure, but that kind of effervescent space-rock is one of the great indie-rock templates now. Fortunately, Spiritualized are very, very good at that kind of sound. More than anything else, And Nothing Hurt feels like Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool – a band coming back, late career, to show all the people who have tried to imitate their earlier work how it’s done.

What’s nice about And Nothing Hurt is that while it gets a lot of mileage out of its moodiness, it never feels like it’s relying on that. Spacy production values can go a long way towards making simple chord progressions sound big and epic, and it’s easy to use them to make an album which sounds superficially pleasing but doesn’t reward repeated listenings. And Nothing Hurt, though, boasts a magnanimous pop sensibility and languidly virtuosic guitar solos right out of Live/Dead or Z. “I’m Your Man” stacks horns upon synths upon guitars to give a galaxy-spanning sense of scale, but applies that to a fundamentally sweet pop ballad, building from seductive verse to passionate chorus to exuberant guitar pyrotechnics. It would be a solid song even if it was just being played by a power trio at a wedding; put forward with this kind of grandeur, it becomes something truly enthralling.

The album in general is just full of lovely little motifs. “The Morning After” hangs off a delightfully syrupy bassline, and changes track effortlessly at the chorus, building to a climax of gloriously stacked traffic-jam horns. In the surprisingly well-populated genre of “songs with cool basslines and atonal brass climaxes”, it’s maybe not quite “The National Anthem” or “Hobo Ho”, but it’s definitely a worthy entry.

Hell, what’s kind of awesome about And Nothing Hurt is that while it has a thoroughgoing space-rock feel, each track is actually pretty unique underneath that. In the songwriting room, “Here It Comes (The Road) Let’s Go” would’ve sounded like Pavement (or maybe even Neil Young), while “On the Sunshine” could have once been Titus Andronicus. It even gets a little suspect in “Let’s Dance”, which sounds rather uncannily like The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” Then after the guitars are amped up, the synths are calibrated and the orchestras are arranged, the album’s raison d’etre makes itself known. It makes And Nothing Hurt that rare album that’s diverse but not incoherent.

I wouldn’t say it’s a great album. It’s definitely got its share of filler tracks, which are never awful but do bring the grade point average somewhat – “The Prize” and “A Perfect Miracle” can both be avoided with few regrets. It also certainly isn’t as good as Ladies and Gentleman…, which is a bit of a damning problem because of how similar the albums sound; you’d need to be pretty exhausted with Ladies and Gentlemen… before you’d consider it worthwhile to put on And Nothing Hurt in its place. But to be honest, it’s maybe a little counterproductive to recommend And Nothing Hurt solely on whether it’s a good or bad album, because this kind of music is very situational to begin with. And Nothing Hurt is a mood-piece; it’s a background album, a way to turn your speakers into a particularly effective sort of scented candle. To be sure, there’s probably a degree of humanity that got lost when blowing the album up to such cosmic proportions, and I could rag on the album for not being particularly intimate, but that feels like ragging on a spatula for not being a wedding ring. There are times when you need a spatula, and there have been times when the sun sets on the canal outside my window and I’m knee deep in job applications where And Nothing Hurt just helped everything else come alive.

Ultimately And Nothing Hurt is an album which is very much trying to do its own thing, and succeeding at doing it. If you’re on board with that thing – or hell, if you’re in the mood – then it comes highly recommended.

Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance

Although nudged from 1st to 3rd best on my best-of-2017 list by a couple of more striking albums, Brutalism, the debut album from Bristolian art-punk quintet Idles, is definitely the record I’ve spent the most time with of that year. It’s miraculous just how quickly on its heels Joy as an Act of Resistance follows; more miraculous still given how distinct an album from Brutalism it is.

Brutalism was, at its core, a cathartic record, and supported that with absolute mastery of the basics: an impeccably tight rhythmic assault that hit hard as a steam train but could change direction as gracefully as a windsurfer. Joy… isn’t quite so obliterating. Although still obviously punk, it’s a gentler, wittier record, comparable to Brutalism in the same way that the Minutemen are to Fugazi. Lyrically, it exchanges the absurdity for earnest, commonsense leftism, dealing in explicit terms with immigration on “Danny Nedelko” (“my blood brother is an immigrant, a beautiful immigrant”), Brexit on “Great” (“Blighty wants her blue passport, not quite sure what the union’s for”) and the effects of advertising on psychological wellbeing on “Television” (“And that’s what the do, the bastards make you not want to look like you”). It’s overall a much less oblique experience. Brutalism was a great album full of memorable riffs and witty observations, but even if it didn’t have those, it probably should have gotten by on the sheer heft of its attitude. Joy… can’t necessarily get away with that. It’s relying on you to vibe sincerely with what it’s putting out.

Fortunately, what Joy… also makes clear is that Idles really have always been a fearsomely technically gifted group of musicians who just happen to do an extremely good impression of desperate cro-magnon thrashing. Vocalist Joseph Talbot embodies this particularly clearly. Don’t let his blunt, amelodic bray fool you – he’s a singer of significant range, power and precision, who can make a chromatic scale sound like spoken word rambling (until you try to sing it, and can’t at all), and commands an odd but intense magnetism, like a veteran bluesman doing his best impression of a football hooligan. Drummer Jon Beavis also gets far more of a chance to cut loose here than on Brutalism, ramming home with equally effortless aplomb the bouncy skulk of “I’m Scum” and the churning tom-tom ocean of “Samaritans.”

At the same time, Joy… manages to feel incredibly personal. Don’t let the name fool you; this isn’t a particularly happy record, but it’s angry in a uniquely warm kind of way. Although drenched in explicit references to 21st century British politics, this is an album that salutes what it loves rather than rails against what it hates. It’s an album that feels fully committed to a sense that being on the right side of history is actually a more enjoyable experience for all; it’s hard to imagine an anti-immigration pundit listening to “Danny Nedelko” without feeling a little put out by all the love in the world that he’s obstructing. “Great” deals with Brexit voters with a kind of exasperated warmth; its vibe is less “you ruined everything” and more “you break it, you bought it.” When the album does get more uncompromisingly angry, it’s hilariously witty. “You are a topshop tyrant/ even your haircut’s violent/ you look like you’re from Love Island”, from “Never Fight a Man with a Perm” is the first lyric in a while that reliably makes me laugh out loud. Joy as an Act of Resistance is probably the catchiest permutation of the album’s sentiment, but I don’t know if it’s the most accurate – Resistance as an act of Joy, Joy as something worth Resisting For, Joy as the Product of Resistance – may all win out.

Is it as good as Brutalism? No, it isn’t, but who gives a shit; multiple orgasms aren’t as good as Brutalism. Any complaints to be made here are strictly nitpicks. “Colossus”, the album’s opener, shifts midway through its length from being an impenetrable doom-metal crawler to being a rowdier punk rock-out; both segments are fine (well, the second one is fine – the opening act is goddamn spectacular) on their own but the disconnect between the two is kind of distracting, and they’d have worked better as separate tracks. The album’s habit of suddenly foreshortening rhymeschemes can throw one a little off kilter, and when the album does get more surreal the imagery isn’t quite as cool as it’s been in the past. Perhaps the only underlying thing which could be considered a problem with the album is how blatant this is. There’s no bathos, or irony, or obscurity: song lyrics are blatant to the point of occasionally feeling outright cheesy. But you know, I don’t even think that’s a problem, not at the moment. There’s a fascist in the White House and white supremacists on our streets. We don’t have the luxury of subtlety anymore. Maybe a lesser band couldn’t have pulled this kind of thing off, but if Joy as an Act of Resistance makes one thing very, very clear, it’s that Idles are a lesser band to nobody.

 

Mitski – Be The Cowboy

Mitski’s never had to push the boat out to impress me. As a singer and lyricist, her rich-yet-plaintive delivery and grasp of incomprehensibly relatable imagery – a combination of skills which has managed to make such lines as “You keep your socks on in bed” and “I work better under a deadline” into gut-wrenchers – have sufficed on their own to keep her songs full of unique personality. Behind that, the instrumental songwriting need only be the kind of cro-magnon sludge blues that she perfected on Bury Me at Makeout Creek and continued to display in its perfected form on Puberty 2. I have high hopes for Mitski, and was expecting a great album in Be The Cowboy, but I wasn’t expecting an eclectic one. Yet we’ve ended up, amazingly, with both.

To be clear, Be The Cowboy still feels distinctively Mitski; one of the perks of her aforementioned sense of personality is that she gains the freedom to romp through various styles while remaining very much the same character. The album is saturated, no less than her earlier albums, in that distinctive confessional wit. Mitski is far from the only singer to use “you” as the subject of her lyrics more than “him” or “her”, but no contemporary musician is quite so able to place the listener in second person. One empathises with Mitski less than one takes the brunt of her anguish. Moreover, the album is still full of her aesthetic tastes: thudding Sabbathian riffs, languid yet sincere vocal melodies.

Yet all of these familiar raw materials are here smelted into bizarre new shapes. Mitski doesn’t so much draw from other genres here as she offers her personal impressions of them, borrowing their structures and clichés wholesale. “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” sees her go disco, with lashing funk guitars over thudding electronic off-beats and squidgy synthesizer. “Lonesome Love”, true to the album’s title, lets its soft guitars hang pendulously and skips out the beat in the clop and click of found percussion, sounding downright country-fried. The riffing on “Nobody” is pure funk. The result goes beyond eclecticism into outright postmodernism; rather than mining these genres for influence she asks us to bring to mind the connotations we have regarding their respective canons. Hence why “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” feels so effectively alienated, while “Lonesome Love” invokes the kind of solitude normally reserved for cattle trails.

In doing so, Mitski tidies up her performance somewhat. This is a cleaner, poppier album than those coming before. Even the more traditional alt-rock tracks are a little softer and less caustic than the pyrotechnics of earlier albums; there’s nothing on “A Pearl” or “Remember My Name” that bludgeons the head quite like the chorus to “Townie” or “Your Best American Girl.” Having said that, it’s pop in that rather twisted St. Vincent fashion, which doesn’t necessarily imply greater accessibility. Indeed, while Be The Cowboy might be Mitski’s tamest album, it also might be the trickiest for new fans to get their heads around. Songs here err on the short side – typically under three minutes – and one gets the sense from listening to the album as a whole that shifts in style and tone provide the structure more than verses and choruses do. Because of that, many songs are oddly linear, freeform rants that build from intro to climax without much by way of chorus or verse or relief. This doesn’t for one second get in the way of the album being stunning – “Geyser”, the opening track, catapults itself to such anguished emotional highs that it would feel disingenuous for it to come back down merely for the sake of pacing – but it means that the curve-balls come thick and fast.

And maybe there’s a part of me that’s a little sad about that. It’s always been charming to see Mitski give her sprinkling of auteur magic to tried-and-true dramatic devices (see: the staccato repeats of the main riffs on “Francis Forever” and “Your Best American Girl”); there are a lot more simple pleasures on Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2 than there are on here. But then, Mitski is pushing the boat out here when she didn’t have to, and returning from it all the more enriched. Be The Cowboy is still very much Mitski, but it’s not more of the same. It’s new, and fresh, and consistently brilliant, and without question one of the best albums of the year.

 

Foxing – Nearer My God

Nearer My God is a weird album to try to sum up. I can’t in all good conscience say it sets the world on fire: I haven’t brought a copy and I’m not rushing out to; much of it is serviceable art-rock appropriate for background listening or commercials. However, there are moments on Nearer My God which are downright transcendent. Plenty of albums try bold things, only to succeed hard at some points and fail hard at others; that’s the nature of experimentation. But Nearer My God is that rare album that blends competent mediocrity with blinding, career-defining, almost era-defining brilliance. On the one hand, I want to say that I “didn’t see this coming”, but that raises the question – what, exactly, did I not see?

Okay, so, Nearer My God draws from a wide range of influences: swaggering classic-rock riffs, Radiohead-esque rock-tronica, post-rock, post-punk and emo, but the cocktail comes out sounding overwhelmingly like TV on the Radio. On this blog, that’s probably a cheap statement, as I compare quite a lot of things to TV on the Radio, but look, as much as I’ve been the boy who cries wolf-like-me, this is nonetheless an incredible likeness. This could be a TV on the Radio release. Vocalist Conor Murphy as the same thin soulfulness as Tunde Adebimpe; grooves are thick, textures are smooth but intense, and there’s a faint funkiness running through the whole thing. Even the stuff it does which TV on the Radio haven’t done before – its odd extended guitar solo, its moments of 90s-emo gnashery – end up sounding like TV on the Radio’s take on the style. I can’t even in all good conscience call it a rip-off: yeah, there might be a debate about artistic integrity to be had, but at the end of the day if TV on the Radio released Nearer My God I’d commend them for developing their sound while remaining true to their core appeal. I can’t fault that album just because it happened to have another group of musicians in the drivers’ seat.

Another reason why I find it difficult to fault it? Because when it really does take the TV on the Radio sound out for a post-punk joyride, Nearer My God is the kind of pleasure-noise inducing good that only comes along once or twice a year. “Grand Paradise” starts things off with a bang, tracing a thin electronic beat and then pouncing on it with a chorus of reedy howls and fractured Pixies-riffing, layering on the sounds and shifting foot until we’ve arrived at a dense, syrupy climax, where shrieks, chants, riffs and trumpet honks stir around in the brew like an indie-rock version of D’Angelo’s Voodoo. “Lich Prince” appears low and menacing, with buzzing riffs and plaintive vocals, but builds inexorably to the kind of pyrotechnic solo you rarely get in alt-rock and rarely get in alt-rock as textured and moody as this. “Gameshark” is a tense, tightly-syncopated number that courses past like a suspicious car through a bad neighbourhood, and lets loose a spectacular, pulse-pounding chorus as Murphy’s wild, virtuoso howling blends with Ricky Sampson and Eric Hudson’s dense, fractured riffing. It’s all so breathtakingly climactic; a masterclass in the building and release of tension, tinged with enough genuine instrumental chops that the payoffs when they arrive is spectacular enough to be worth the wait.

Sadly, not all of the album rises to the standard set by the best tracks. That’s not to say any of it’s bad – pretty much none of it is – but it feels extra notable when it’s contrasted with how good the album is at its peak. “Bastardizer” is a solid enough ballad, but remains oddly amorphous next to the fractal of textures and dynamics that we saw on “Grand Paradise”; the chorus melody also feels a little too wilfully difficult, and the climax – a grinding crescendo – is just a little cliché. “Trapped in Dillards” has a nice piano melody, but remains a little too stuck in the stratosphere to really nail its emotional core. “Slapstick” builds itself up solidly but relies a little too heavily on volume; it’s as loud as the climax of “Lich Prince” but nowhere near as rich.

Look, it’s weird enough having to hold an album up to the standards of the career before it; it’s even weirder having to hold an album to the standards it itself sets. Nearer My God doesn’t walk the fine line between success and failure, it walks a weirder and thicker line between success and filler. It’s beautiful, frustrating, invigorating, boring and inspiring.  Is it unfair to shame an album for not living up to its own best moments? Maybe, but next week we’re gonna be dissecting the followup to Puberty 2, so we’re only getting meaner.

 

Travis Scott – Astroworld

Although Astroworld definitely isn’t the best hip-hop release of 2018 so far, it might end up being the most interesting. Whereas Kids See Ghosts and Daytona revelled in the lush, magnanimous sound of the Kanye era, Astroworld feels like something more new and a little more challenging; fewer melodies, fewer grooves, less indebted to funk and blues than to psychedelia, and concerned with atmosphere more than tension or narrative.

Lyrically, Astroworld isn’t a concept album. Sonically, though, it very much is: Travis Scott approached songwriting with the mental picture of a torn-down theme park being revitalized, and brings that image to life in a richly synaesthesiac fashion. The background ambience is big and vacant as a light-polluted sky; grooves and samples are bright and colourful yet dulled by age and distance, fading in and out of earshot on repeat like the theme music of distant spookhouses. Often, the album’s boldest statements are in the ways it finds to be quiet and unintrusive, and don’t make their case until revisited; which means that getting the most about the album feels like wandering about a carnival until all the little back-alley curiosities have been unearthed. NC-17’s eerie piano lines are almost baroque, as are those of the measured, stately “5% Tint.” “Coffee Bean” rests on a gorgeous brooding bassline and features gentle string-quartet style melodic lines played on an instrument I can’t name. When the guest rappers take the mic or a sample of a human voice is played, the voices sound ghostly and distant. It’s not an album which grabs your attention; it’s the feeling of being lost somewhere quietly fascinating, and while the ambiance there is fine enough to relax in, there’s always a gentle invitation to explore and things worth finding if you do.

That’s not to say the album is necessarily gentle, though. It still finds plenty of opportunities to bring the heft when needed while remaining committed to that raison d’etre. “Skeletons” moves itself forward on a viscous flow of pianos and bass, and feels like a dreamed-out vision of 90s alternative rock, seanced into a recording studio and once again making music with the living. “No Bystanders” is particularly striking, featuring a raspy shouting sample which evokes – but doesn’t, in full form and function, imitate – the punk rap of Death Grips. That’s perhaps what’s most interesting about Astroworld: it never really tries to sound like anything else, but it’s full of reminders of other genres, less obsessed by them and more haunted by them.

Fascinating though it is, the album definitely has some flaws. It’s substantially too long, for one, running in at only a few minutes shy of an hour. I’ve said this in the past, but for this kind of high-concept album – the kind which is committed to doing one thing extremely well – brevity really does tend to work best; once you’ve made your case you don’t need to hog the stage. It goes doubly true for an album like Astroworld. Although the album draws from a wide range of genres and styles, it takes them as raw material to synthesize together into a single, eerie whole. The result is that the whole thing, diverse though it is, really does end up being a little one-note, even though the note in question is exquisitely nuanced and worth a colossal amount of revisiting.

Also, while this isn’t necessarily a flaw so much as it is a missed opportunity, it’s worth noting that while Travis Scott is a formidable hip hop composer, he’s not quite so willing to push the boat out as a rapper. “Houstonfornication” probably sees his best performance, as he shifts suspensefully on and off the beat, but elsewhere his rapping is reminiscent of the easygoing, stolid monologues of Pusha T and Q-Tip, without the same strength of personality. Then again, maybe it’s best that Scott as a performer sticks to the background; after all, we don’t go around saying that D’Angelo albums would necessarily be better if we were more clearly able to hear his lyrics.

Ultimately, whether or not Astroworld works for you depends on how much you’re into what it’s selling. It doesn’t sell much else, but it sells it very, very well.