Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

Grizzly Bear are, like Refused and the Strokes, one of those bands which I like but have never quite seen the hype about. Unfortunately, it’s one of those things I don’t really expect a new album to rectify, because my problem with Grizzly Bear always lay more in their overall raison-d’etre than in any failure of execution. It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it problem; the band is enraptured with odd chord progressions and strange harmonies, but it wants to play them on pretty instruments and gentle volumes, and the result just comes across as a little too obscure to be elegant, and a little too formless to be challenging. That said, when the band do put some weightier substance in the mix (see: the riff on “Sleeping Ute”, the chorus on “Southern Point”) the results can be quite lovely, and for what it’s worth, Painted Ruins does feel more substantial than either of its predecessors. That probably means that, on first few listening at least, I’d actually call it my favourite Grizzly Bear album, even though I’ll hang the qualifier that this might just be because it meets a few needs Grizzly Bear have notably failed to meet in the past, and that goodwill aside there may be a few babies thrown out with the bathwater.

See, Painted Ruins is without question the most straightforward Grizzly Bear album yet. You might not notice that until a few songs in – opening track “Wasted Acres” starts the album off by going from indie-folk ambience to avant-pop dissonance to black-and-white-movie-soundtrack sobriety in the space of a string quartet’s single slur – but it becomes increasingly clear as the synthesized basslines and sampled drumlines come in that we’re dealing with the strongest beats Grizzly Bear have played to. On the album’s best moments, this allows the band to ground their billowing more consistently than they’ve ever done in their career. “Four Cypresses”, “Wasted Acres,” and “Three Rings” (to name a few examples) remind me very strongly of Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool, which is absolutely intended as a compliment. It also lends much needed structure to the album’s artier moments: “Glass Hillside” is lifted above the twee quirk-riding I’ve railed against in my past reviews of Devendra Banhart and The Animal Collective by an oceanic crash-and-roar; Neighbours, although as floaty as anything else on the album, pulls off that old funk structure trick of stacking more and more sounds on a single rhythm until it can be smashed home hard.

What occasional stumbles occur do so when the album tries to build songs around grooves rather than trying to use grooves to pin down songs. “Mourning Sound,” with its thudding drums and buzzing, Kim-Gordon-esque bass playing, tries to go for the kind of direct, uncomplicated dance punk which early Arcade Fire could easily get away with using Grizzly Bear’s tonal palette, but Grizzly Bear can only make work during the track’s occasional needling guitar breaks. This kind of thing isn’t even close to common enough to break the album, but it’s an example of the problem that the introduction of a heavier rhythm section – which, to be clear, I have always felt Grizzly Bear needed – isn’t just as straight an improvement of the sum of its parts. Not to get all lit-grad over here, but Virginia Woolf once said that James Joyce disregards “probability or coherence or any other of the handrails to which we cling for support when we set our imaginations free,” which is something that could also be said of Grizzly Bear, both for good and for ill. In trying to straighten up and sculpt their swirling miasmas of sound, on Painted Ruins Grizzly Bear haven’t left themselves quite so much room to let them be miasmas. Consequently, while the album on the whole sticks in the head more clearly than Veckatimest or Shields, it doesn’t have anything quite as stare-for-hours-on-end-trying-to-make-sense-of absorbing as the “ooh, ooh, oooh” of “Fine for Now” or the rumbling thunder of “Half-Gate.”

Overall, I had fun with Painted Ruins, and while 2017 hasn’t been a particularly stirring year for music this has probably been one of the best albums for it so far (even if it is somewhat let down by the fact that the out-of-the-park best album of this year so far, Crack Up, is a much stronger, bolder version of a similar thing). Ultimately, much like with Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN, it’s worth remembering that, however difficult it might be to get excited about, it’s still an original work by an original artist, and what makes it noteworthy are things we all take for granted. Grizzly Bear still write bizarre, unique melodies, and bring them to life with a palette of textures which just borders on the coast of alienating but remains, nonetheless, in the territory of fascinating. It’s just in a squarer, neater box here this time.

 

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Arcade Fire – Everything Now

What band this century has had a more elegant career-trajectory than Arcade Fire? I think I’ve figured out the formula: each Arcade Fire album is 0.81 times as good as the one before it. Funeral, their debut, was a genuinely fantastic little album, managing to be at once intimate and tense. Neon Bible, its follow up, wasn’t quite such an enthralling story but still one told with imagination and verve. The Suburbs was… well, mostly background music, but unusually good background music, and with a few meaty bits in the broth (“all my old friends, they don’t know me now…”). Reflektor was maybe a spider-leg-spasm above average. Everything Now, thus, is… well, it’s not good, but it’s not awful.

The big problem with Everything Now is pretentiousness, and the second biggest one is tonal dissonance, and the two are so subtly interlinked that it took me a solid five minutes staring at this document before I figured out which order to put them in. But at the end of the day, yes, even if this album was perfectly constructed, its insufferable self-righteousness would still stick in the craw. Everything Now is an album about how the internet age is making us all emotionally distant, unhappy, and quietly suicidal, and while I’ve not gone over the lyrics with my literature professors to ascertain whether this album isn’t widening that particular discourse beyond the seemingly low-hanging fruit that Porcupine Tree/Moby/that fucking viral video from a few months back about why our generation is unhappy have all been decidedly wrong about, based on the… ah… the wordplay with which Arcade Fire talk about, I somehow doubt there are hidden depths. “Infinite content, infinite content, we’re infinitely content,” goes (not one but) two different choruses on this record, a line that Arcarde Fire are so goddamn proud of that they’ve named the tour after it. “Creature Comfort” depicts a girl committing suicide while listening to the first Arcade Fire album, and the band figure that this image is striking enough to be worth calling back in the later track, “Good God Damn.” Jesucristo.

Now, speaking as a kid who uses his laptop to alleviate his ADHD, I’m pretty acclimatized to learning to live with this particular bullshit-stick. After all, Fear of a Blank Planet is probably Porcupine Tree’s best album, and it’s hitting the same beats. This, though, is where the dissonance problem comes in: Fear of a Blank Planet was a tremulous, nocturnal beast, just woozy enough to suggest drugs and just slick enough to suggest detachment; above all, it favoured minor chords and oozing basslines, and was overall dark. Everything Now, though, goes for an ironic cheerfulness: this album is upbeat, soaring and bright. The flouncing offbeat rhythms of “Chemistry” and “Peter Pan”, and the disco-beat by way of holiday-resort-home-advertising-soundtrack of the title track, are all as bombastically cheerful and energetic as the tone is nihilistic, and it’s jarring as all hell. See, I’m all for ironic positivity in music – my heart is, after all, full up like a landfill – but those things tend to work best if they’re aping a lullaby or a pastoral, exposing the sinister side of calm. Making peace with your own misery is sinister. Getting excited and dancing about because of your own misery is flippant.

That said, I can’t quite say that the album really deserves all the bile it’s had flung on it, because there is a noteworthy sample of things here that do actually work. Although the album’s upbeat opening act mostly succeeds in reducing one of rock’s most original wielders of the string quartet into an epic metal act sans heft, Vikings and abandon, the actual melodies themselves are decently pretty, and once the album gears into its more sombre final third, Win Butler’s experience as a baroque-pop composer do start to pay off. “Good God Damn” and “Put Your Money On Me” hang themselves around the same texture-heavy soft funk as Daft Punk, and work in the same way (if not to the same degree). The shining star of the album, though, is the penultimate track, “We Don’t Deserve Love,” which, in addition to making its centrepiece one of the album’s most inscrutably un-shit lyrics, sports as its main motif a gentle, sparkling cascade that is tossed from instrument to instrument and builds to a genuinely stirring choral climax.

Everything Now is the definition of an album which isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, and that provides a kneecapping one-two punch: the lack of intelligence hurts the album, the fervent ignorance of that hurts it some more. “We Don’t Deserve Love” is maybe worth flinging 99p at iTunes for, but beyond that, Everything Now is saccharine empty space.

Nine Inch Nails – Add Violence

Fuck yes, after five months of procrastination and a couple of additional months of cock-teasing, Rick and Morty is coming home this evening! And what better way to celebrate than to review an album which, yes, I was planning to review anyway, but is by a band which I now find pretty much impossible to separate from Rick and Morty in my internal monologue because I have never responded to any of their songs quite so much as I did to when Rick was hauled off in chains as “Hurt” faded in over the animation, because Rick is played so straight as an asshole and yes there’s always a self-serving explanation for what he’s doing but honestly when you think about it it’s not as compelling as the suggestion that maybe there just is a spark of humanity in him and it’s not altruistic or public spirited but it’s just affection for his family and sure maybe that doesn’t redeem him but it does humanize him and it’s all doubly gutting because his family are the people who end up being casualties of his adventures and you could have it all, my empire of dirt, I could let you down, I could make you hurt…

Anyway, Add Violence.

Add Violence is just an EP rather than a full album, but honestly, coming as it does from a dues-paid rock auteur, it still manages to cram plenty of interesting stuff into its 28-ish minute runtime. Perhaps the most unifying thing about the album is that, while the riffs are as perpendicular and clear-cut as ever, the miasma – the motionless background noises – are notably thick here. Industrial rock is probably one of the most aptly named rock genres, and your standard industrial rock album does feel like wandering around rusty, dilapidated machinery; Add Violence, however, feels more like swimming through it. Riffs, when they come, are solid enough, but they’re just the shapes looming out of the scummy, rusty water that fills the bulk of the record’s sonic girth. This is most blatantly visible on the twelve minute final track, “The Background World,” which gradually fuzzes itself out into pure noise from about 1/3rd in onwards, but it’s probably most effective on “This Isn’t the Place,” which, with its ray-of-sunlight synths and distantly cresting pianos, feels like the soundtrack to a hypothetical pitch-black Finding Nemo sequel set after the death of the barrier reef.

Although the ambient parts of Add Violence are strong, this isn’t, ultimately, an ambient album, and the parts of the record which convey some more structured songwriting are… let’s say a mixed bag, but erring on the good. The opener, “Less Than”, makes a nice microcosm on that front. The engine-like grind of the main riff is meaty and turgid in the way that really does remind you that satisfying loudness requires a degree of sensitivity to the complexities of timbre, and the sudden hairpin bends in volume keep you well on your toes. On the downside, the reliance on twinkling disco-synths feels a little ill advised. It’s not that the two don’t work together, it’s that it’s a bit too cliché, a bit too familiar; it’s the kind of stuff that Rammstein only make sound interesting because Till Lindemann is a hell of a good singer. It’s not innovative anymore to pair pop sounds and noise, is my point. Now you actually have to be good at both of them, not merely the latter. “The Lovers,” although a slightly more filler-ish sounding track than is the album’s standard, is a nifty little example of how to change between fairly distinct themes without sounding chaotic, building itself from sparse and eerie to dense and menacing all while hanging tight to a constant, hypnotic synth-flicker. “This Isn’t the Place”, along with featuring a gorgeous bassline, makes the smart move of not beginning its first verse until about halfway through the song, giving an enthralling sense of space, as though the singer is just one face encountered through an otherwise lonely journey through the wasteland of the track. The standout, however, has to be “Not Anymore,” which shifts abruptly in tempo between sluggish, muscle-flexing riffage (for the verses) and frantic, stampeding noise (for the chorus). It’s a pretty striking contrast; it partially works because the lyrics and vocals create a nice air of incoherent panic, and also partially just because Trent Reznor is really, really, really good at writing both the kinds of motif on display here. “The Background World” concludes things with a pleasantly tinnitus-inducing outro, but also brings to the table a nice flickering funk, giving the album a few genuinely stately moments.

Add Violence isn’t a work of particular ambition, and I’m not sure if it’s anyone’s idea of a must-listen, but what it tries to do it mostly does well, and sometimes really well. I don’t exactly recommend it in an authoritative, commanding sense, but if you’re interested in it, yeah, I’d say it’s worth a half hour of your time.

 

 

 

Mura Masa – Mura Masa

So Mura Masa’s self-titled album is his debut work, but it’s not the first we’ve heard of him: “Love$ick” has been making some pretty solid chart impact over the past year. Having said that, I’m not really acquainted with whatever hype may have been built up around this record – I don’t really listen to the radio or to recommended music playlists all that much, so the first I really heard about him is when I did my traditional Monday morning “List of 2017 albums” Wikipedia search to figure out what album was going onto the chopping block this week. It’s a shame, because Mura Masa is actually a really good little album, and some hype about it probably would have paid off.

Although Alex Crossen (who I’m going to refer to by name here because referring to “Mura Masa” and “Mura Masa” makes me feel like Lionel Hutz telling Marge Simpson about “the truth” and “The truth! J”  isn’t particularly interested in reinventing the wheel, Mura Masa is basically good in the same way which Radiohead is good: richness. The common textural threads for the album include a predisposition towards squeaky whiteboard-wipe noises and a weird (and admittedly occasionally overzealous) enthusiasm for harp sounds, but each track is just so full of stuff. Not only does the first track “Messy Love” stack its melody with chimes, vibraphone-sounds and pianos, but it also augments it with subtle harmonies and darting, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them melodies. The lancing, elegant “Love$ick” is so committed to keeping the instrumental vigour up even during the verses that the track ends up sounding like nothing so much as a bizarre-world guitar-less Jimmy Page product. “Nuggets” features a strutting, twangy bassline which you might miss on first listening but absolutely brings the track to life. When the album drops the messy, nightclub hedonism and slows down, on “What if I Go” or “Second 2 None,” the blossoms of pianos, synths and samples around the choruses are downright kaleidoscopic.

The real masterstroke, though, is the fact that despite the fact that pretty much every song sports a wide range of motifs and ideas, the whole thing manages to feel if not quite tonally consistent, than at least admirably paced. There are maybe some issues with structure that hold the album (on a songwriting level) a little way back from genuine greatness, but for an artist prone to flicker several times between theme and tone on each song, Crossen does a fantastic job of making sure that no individuals segment outstays its welcome. “What if I Go” opens with deep, pumping drums, and then moves into light-skittering funk. The chorus sounds like off-kilter calypso, and the bridge is a chorus of manipulated vocals over squeaky, slurring synth. Although none of them quite manage to build off their predecessors in the way that really genius works of eclectic minimalism do, they all know their place in the track, and the result still manages to be equal to – if not quite greater than – the sum of its parts. Also impressive is the album’s ability not to lose focus when it attempts to get more intimate. “Blu”, the final track, slow-mo’s the album’s trademark skittering grooves to create a sombre but stately dirge. “Second 2 None” sees a quietly impatient drumline isolated within a motionless ambient haze, and uses it to cunningly manipulate the tension of the (really gorgeous) vocal melody without ever changing its pace.

About the vocals – they are probably the one place where the album does, more often than not, fall flat. To be sure, there are some great vocal turns: Christine and the Queens gives a great performance on “Second 2 None,” Bonzai’s rapping on “Nuggets” is fantastic, as is ASAP Rocky’s on “Love$ick.” But on an album where the song-writing sensibilities draw so much from an intimate indie-rock vibe, the fact that the vocal performances more often than not fall back on hackneyed nightclub clichés is more than a little disorientating. The chorus of “Nuggets” is an annoying bit of hedonistic braggadocio, and Tom Tripp’s insipid warbling on “Helpline” does an efficient job of reigning in the song’s otherwise engrossing gravitas. A lot of the time the root problem is that while there’s some genuine soul in the instruments, the lyrics just aren’t encouraging the kind of emotive vocal performances that it warrants. Maybe I’m just too much of a shut-in to enjoy nightclub music as nightclub music, and maybe that’s on me, but then I’ve enjoyed more hedonistic themes set to worse music because the music at least felt like it fitted the tone. The singers here –in general – don’t actually sound sexy, they sound trivial.

Still, let me set my sexual repression aside for a moment: Mura Masa is still overall a really good album. It doesn’t shoot for the most distant stars, but it arrives comfortably at Alpha Centauri. It’s got a good chance of ending up somewhere around the 8-10 mark on my top ten albums of 2017. Give it a listen.

 

Public Enemy – Nothing is Quick in the Desert

Okay, let’s get this out of the way first. On the third track of Nothing is Quick in the Desert, Public Enemy refer to Caitlin Jenner by the name she was known by before she came out as transgender. This, in the LGBT community, is called “deadnaming,” and it is, to put it frankly, a dick move. The reason why I wanted to say that outright is because I use the term “dick move” not just to identify it as being unpleasant and disrespectful but also as being, at the end of the day, totally inane. This isn’t an album that’s offering a controversial or reactionary thesis that is crucial to understanding the raison d’etre of the piece, it is an album which, among other things, decided to throw a shot at transgender women. This does, of course, bring back to light a nasty strain of anti-LGBT sentiment which has always been part of Public Enemy’s music (remember the screed against gay sex on Fear of a Black Planet?); in terms of what it means for Nothing is Quick in the Desert, however, it means that talking about this album is a bit like trying to assess the dress sense, intelligence and social acumen of a man who has sat down in your kitchen, discussed culture with you over tea, and at one point, gotten up from the table and smacked your sister across the face. The question, in other words, feels less like “is Nothing is Quick in the Desert a good album?” and more like “uncomfortable dick moves aside, is Nothing is Quick in the Desert a good album?” To which the answer is “yeah, I suppose.”

Nothing is Quick in the Desert is, quality-wise generationally divided album. Rappers Chuck D and Flavor Flav, respectively born in 1960 and 1959, are neither of them at their strongest. Chuck D’s voice has always been a rather awe-inspiring thing in terms of pure timbre, but it’s not coming with the force it did a few decades ago. On better late-career Public Enemy albums (How Do You Sell Soul… springs to mind) he got around this by reminding us he developed his stentorian baritone imitating sports announcers and not punks, but this time the rhythms and lyrics feel a bit too jagged for that schtick to work. The nadir of the album is Part 1 of the concluding track, “Rest in Beats”, where the chorus (“salute in tribute, light a candle, play a song/ as the legacy continues on and on and on”) sounds like a prose speech announcement randomly crowbarred into meter and rhyme, and as a result comes across as unbearably patronizing. However, DJ Lord, fifteen years younger than the band’s frontmen, absolutely brings his A-game, and is the reason why the album does, nonetheless, work overall. Lord definitely belongs more to the era of The Roots than of the Wu-Tang Clan, and the sampling on here finds innovative ways to sound both lush and aggressive. On “Yesterday Men,” he achieves it with thick banks of needling high guitars and quivering feedback. On “SOC MED Digital Heroin,” the secret turns out to be drawling trumpets (think Kendrick Lamar’s “Compton”) and a subtle but intense throbbing bassline. “So Be It” brings a nice Soundgarden-esque guitar riff. Hell, “Terrorwrist,” with its soaring, ominous Cathedral-echo synthesizers, sounds like nothing so much as a hip-hop remix of a mid-career Dimmu Borgir song, and I mean while I don’t imagine the overlap between the Dimmu Borgir fanbase and the Public Enemy fanbase is vast, I’m pretty damn thrilled that a comparison between the two bands actually has to exist now.

Although the album isn’t the most wonderfully structured thing under the sun, being a little too reliant on short interlude pieces, it’s worth noting as well that Lord does a nice job of pushing each song along dynamically. “Smash the Crowd” is my favourite example of this – a swelling, aggro riff giving way to a loose, casual funk for the outro – but it works on the album as a whole as well: although I’m not a fan of “Rest in Beats part 1”, “Rest in Beats part 2” is actually pretty awesome, thickening and then fading into a blur of warm, proud voices and frenetic guitar licks.

Nothing is Quick in the Desert does feel a little like an album for paycheck’s sake at this stage, and it’s difficult to imagine it pulling in many new Public Enemy fans. But as paycheck albums go, it’s not a bad one, and it’s made by men who, on the whole, know what they’re doing. I probably wouldn’t have listened to it more than once if I didn’t have a music blog to write, but bigger Public Enemy fans may feel differently, and if nothing else, it’s a reminder that the next time these guys do feel really inspired, they can probably pull together enough chops to make something great.

 

 

 

 

Editorial: Why Hadestown Rules

So my posts have been pretty patchy lately; I’ve been travelling for dissertation research, and haven’t had much time alone at a computer to give new albums a spin. This does look like it’s going to become a trend, unfortunately: once research season is over, then it’s writeup season and all the last-minute deadlines that will entail, and once that’s over I’ll probably be joining the workforce and who knows what that’s going to do with my schedule. Since I don’t want to let this blog languish in those times, I’m starting up a new tradition: editorials! Because even on weeks when I don’t have enough time to give an album the attention it deserves, you bet I’ll have spent at least 700-words worth of internal headspace thinking over some musical issue I feel strongly about. With that in mind: here’s why Anais Mitchell’s Hadestown is not only one of the greatest albums of all time, but is also one of the all-time great modern adaptations of a mythological story.

Hadestown is a re-telling of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, set in, depending on your interpretation, either the blighted shanty-towns of depression-era America or a post-apocalyptic landscape. I go by the 20s America interpretation, but truth be told it doesn’t really matter, and the reason why it doesn’t matter is a big part of why the album is so great and is something I’ll get to later. See, if you’re not familiar with the album you’ve probably inferred from the way I’ve been talking about it that it’s a concept album, and have been wondering why I’ve not made that clearer, the answer being that it is a concept album, but also kind of isn’t. Mitchell casts a bunch B-list folk rock singers and folk rock singers whose solo career is B-list quality (yeah, sorry, Bon Iver fans, For Emma never gelled with me) as her characters: Justin Vernon as Orpheus, Ani DeFranco as Persephone, herself as Eurydice, and Greg Brown doing his best Tom Waits impression as Hades. Each one of them gets a couple of songs to themselves (as well as some duets) and while there are “plot advancing” songs (“Wait For Me” being the one that springs to mind), most of the songs are just that – a mythological character singing about their predicament, their world-view, their side-hustle, or all three. The result is that while Eurydice’s actual descent into the underworld gets a full song (because this is where Mitchell sets up what Hades’ underworld-as-corrupt-mining-town world is actually like), Orpheus’s traversing of the underworld is basically a side note. What you get, then, is less a narrative and more a chronologically arranged series of monologues.

And the thing is, Mitchell can do that because of two things about the Orpheus and Eurydice story: one, everybody already knows it, and two, the actual story is simple as hell and pretty much devoid of character nuances. Hell, she doesn’t even need to say that Orpheus falls short on the final challenge and turns around – that scene is illustrated just by a really horrible dissonant chord at the end of a tense build up. Because of that, she’s essentially given herself free reign to cut loose and just explore all the weird thematic things that the myth touches on, but doesn’t go into because it has to move its story along. Ever wondered how the actual politics of the Underworld-as-dictatorship work? “His Kiss, The Riot” and “Why We Build the Wall” clear things up. Ever wondered what Persephone might be getting up to on the sides given how complex a personal history she has? On “Our Lady of the Underground” Mitchell gives us a pretty ingenious idea. Ever wondered what the relationships of Hades and Persephone or Orpheus and Eurydice must’ve been like day-to-day given how earth-shaking the consequences of their romances end up being? See “How Long” and “Epic, pt II” for the former and “Wedding Song” for the latter (and God, try not to tear up a bit).

But what upgrades Hadestown from just a great album to a genuine classic is that Mitchell does all this on the macro level too. Just as she uses a mythological story’s narrative simplicity as a way to turn it into a jumping off point for her own smaller stories, she also uses its thematic simplicity in the same way. What Mitchell twigged here is that the really great part of the original myth is the whole “what would you do” dilemma: if you were told by the King of the Underworld that you could have your wife back as long as you did not turn around while she followed you home, would you have the strength of personality not to look? On its own, that’s a harrowing little story, but given that Mitchell is actually working with characters here rather than archetypes, she can expand that into a full-blown underlying theme, which, in this case, is optimism. Orpheus’s ultimate test, by Hades, is a test of his optimism, so Mitchell makes that into his defining feature. It’s his optimism that lets him think he can go to the underworld to rescue Eurydice in the first place. It’s his optimism that Hades is afraid of, as the last thing the gravelly-voiced old despot wants is some hopeless romantic coming in there letting his beleaguered employees know that the world could be a better place. Hell, given that in this version Eurydice flees to Hadestown for work rather than ends up there after death, it’s Orpheus’s optimism that both causes her to go (because how can you stay married to a man who’s trying to make a living as a lyre-player when times are this hard?) and makes her want to come back. And if you want an example, right now, for why I’d call Anais Mitchell one of the all-time great rock librettists, then here’s Hades’ line in which we learn everything about why Orpheus’s optimism is simultaneously worth marrying him for and worth running away from, simultaneously:

Hey, little songbird, let me guess –

He’s some kind of poet, and he’s penniless?

Give him your hand

He’ll give you his hand-to-mouth

He’ll write you a poem when the power’s out.

Because on the one hand, he’ll write you a poem when the power’s out. But on the other hand, he’ll fucking write you a poem when the power’s out. That’s why the setting really doesn’t matter, because it isn’t important whether this is the end of the world or just the end of the roaring twenties: the important thing is that it’s a world where optimism, for good and for ill, is a rare, rare commodity.

And that’s why Hadestown is a legitimate masterpiece. It doesn’t just re-tell a myth, it actually goes one step deeper and thinks about what myths actually are in today’s culture, and what opportunities that offers by way of storytelling. What I’m saying, in summation, I suppose, is that it’s one of the century’s great works of literature, it deserves to feature in the reading lists for at least a few English Literature BAs, and that even if you take away all the gorgeous songwriting chops, Anais Mitchell is a god-damned genius.

 

Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

So Crack-Up is a very pretty record, but you already knew that. The prettiness of the average Fleet Foxes record kind of defies most everyday critical terminology – “prettiness” being a fairly minor criteria to bring up when talking about music – ; it deserves to be ranted about, semi-incoherently, accompanied by excitable arm-flailing and bursts of John Oliver-esque hyperbole. Crack-Up is aggressively pretty. Calling Crack-Up “pretty” is like calling Theresa May “embarrassed.” Crack-Up is the kind of pretty that post-industrial generations normally only encounter in really well-received free-roaming RPGs. Crack-Up’s prettiness had me saying “oh god” over and over again in a tone that I have only learned by mimicking all three of the collective orgasms I have experienced or invoked. And you know that isn’t even necessarily a compliment, because “pretty” isn’t the same thing as “awesome”; an album can be pretty but forgettable, sure, if the emotional heft isn’t there. So I suppose you should bear in mind that regardless of how awesome or not awesome I think Crack-Up is, I am writing this whole review making this face:

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Fortunately, Crack-Up is awesome.

Crack-Up is darker than its two predecessors; it’s no less gorgeous, but it’s a saturnine, slightly gothic type of gorgeousness. If you, like me, have been quietly disappointed that the album version of “The Shrine” (from Helplessness Blues) doesn’t feature the murmuring double-bass bowing of the live versions, then Crack-Up will be a deliriously pleasant surprise, because while the baroque arrangements are more Van Dyke Parks than Sgt. Pepper, they’re soaked into the album bone-deep. Not only does this create some of the most vigorous, billowing climaxes of Fleet Foxes’ career (aided by the wind-on-a-loose-sail pounding of a four-man drum section), but it gives the album enough layers to reward repeated listening. You don’t have to be pay attention for the opening track, “I Am All That I Need” to sweep you off your feet, but if and when you do, you’ll notice a murky birdsong of woodwinds threaded through the more obvious chimes and strings. Not that that particular motif is album-defining, but I suppose that’s kind of my point: writing about Crack-Up, even after +10 listens, feels kind of like writing a travelogue. Here is a gorgeous, twilit landscape conjured up from Robin Pecknold’s brain. I’ve not mapped it yet, but lemme tell you I have found some wicked-cool stuff.

Fleet Foxes clearly set out here to chart a new direction, and nigh on every experiment here pays off beautifully. The folksier work of Michael Gira – either in Angels of Light or on the softer Swans songs – is a clear influence; Crack-Up shares his love of low, plodding ostinatos (see “On Another Ocean” or “Kept Woman”) and his enthusiasm for varying timbre, texture and volume as much as possible on a single chord (which brings a driving catharsis to even the soft arrangements of “Cassius”). The up-and-down pounding that opens the title track even sounds, for all the world, like a folk cover of the much heavier pounding that opens the Swans’ “Bring the Sun.”

Yet at the same time, the soul of the album is still very much the soul of Helplessness Blues and the self-titled album. Third of May/Odaigahara is upwards of eight minutes long, yes, and is full of far too many clashing instruments and sudden dynamic shifts to preserve much of the traditional Fleet Foxes semi-catchy elegance, but Pecknold’s plaintive, confessional howling belongs without question to the same man who, if he had an orchard, would work ‘till he’s sore, while you would wait tables and soon run the store. If you liked the clashing horns on “The Shrine”, the Fleet Foxes bring it back on the title track; if you liked the sudden blossoming of instrumentals that marked the climax of “Montezuma,” you’ll find on tracks like “Mearcstapa” that Fleet Foxes have neither started to undervalue that kind of welcome, nor underestimate their own ability to do it. If you like the sounds of guitars, mandolins, chimes and strings continuing as percussion drops out, so that you find yourself peering through the haze you’d just been storing on, that’s still… well, everywhere, here.

Crack-Up is, so far, my favourite album of 2017, and potentially my new favourite Fleet Foxes album. Whether or not its darker sound or twistier structuring allows it to corner the market in “things people with acoustic guitars play when they’re with friends,” it’s nonetheless something that anyone who’s ever wanted to play folk-rock should own. It may be Fleet Foxes at their most serious, but it’s an intense, soaring, exalting, intelligent seriousness. You can’t help but soar with it.