Album Review: A Swede, a Canadian, and a Goat Walk into a Bar…

Jens Lekman Life Will See You Now


Every time I try to turn a friend on to Jens Lekman, praising his preternatural affinity for melody and his deftly layered instrumentation, the response is always, “Oh, like Sufjan Stevens!” But Lekman shares none of Steven’s baroque pretensions nor his myopic interiorizing impulse. Instead, he supplements boilerplate guitar-and-piano arrangements with primitive backbeats, jaunty guitar breaks, and steel drums while focusing squarely on the ordinary situations and small details that make up the sinew of human connection. There’s the worried bride he consoles with some Kierkegaard (“Marry and regret it / Don’t marry, regret it too”), the male aversion to vulnerability that prevents him from expressing (platonic) love to his best friend, the love story that stretches from before the Cambrian explosion to the time he asked a crush if he could borrow her bass guitar. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait quite that long for his next full-length.

The Mountain GoatsGoths


Having outgrown the Cure sometime around seventh grade and possessing a deep-set ideological opposition to the musical stylings featured here – soft rock, smooth jazz, adult contemporary – I was prepared for this to be the first Mountain Goats album I disliked. However, the thematic material here, which boils down to the disintegration of a subculture that itself fetishized decay, is a good deal more compelling than Beat the Champ’s exploration of the real sacrifices that go into fake wrestling, even if the instrumental trappings fail to pack the same wallop. That’s not to say the compositions, despite being sans guitar, are bad: the melodies are sweet and yearning without being cloying, and I’ll take John Darnielle’s crystalline half-singing over the ersatz Bowie of Andrew Eldritch any day.

Mac DeMarco This Old Dog


I can’t deny that I swoon when I hear this buck-toothed Canuck’s languorous, pellucid guitar-tone, but I also yawn during extended confrontations with his unflagging commitment to mellowness. Unfortunately, the guitar takes a backseat to dinky retro keyboards here, and he bombards us with ex-girl laments that he probably thinks sound awful wistful, but end up coming across as the whines of yet another indie sad sack. His one good lyric – “I’m home, there’s moonlight on the river / everybody dies” – appears on the tune about the death of his deadbeat dad, and he squanders it by closing the song with three minutes of tepid noodling. It’s high time for this old dog to learn some new tricks.


Album Review: The xx, Gorillaz, Lorde

The xxI See You

To say that these brits have made a mistake in abandoning their minimalism only gets it half right. Sure, Jamie xx layers sounds more densely here, but what made the group’s past releases so electrifying was the way in which they stripped so much away while still preserving a sensuous, human vitality. On this record, Sim and Croft are rarely afforded the opportunity to undulate in unison, instead belting at each other in such a bottled manner that a Hall and Oates sample steals the spotlight on one track. Add hackneyed metaphors into the mix (e.g. “Performance”, “Replica”), and the result begins to feel a lot like a staid take on generic downtempo that trades out their previous formula of sonic asceticism and emotional depth for its inverse.

Gorillaz Humanz

Gimmick though it was, Damon Albarn’s “virtual band” shtick was at least an identity, its cartoon logic lending the Gorillaz catalog a sense of cohesiveness while absolving Albarn of pesky burdens like signifying. No wonder then that in its absence, this feels rote, anonymous, and ultimately meaningless. The overabundance of features is no compensation either – at least DJ Khaled knows how to have fun.


Lorde’s husky, half-whispered voice lends itself well to these nocturnal, occasionally soporific, synth-washed cuts and allows her to do resentment, contempt, and schadenfreude quite well on this breakup chronicle. But when twenty minutes go by without her daring to show any blatant anger or aggression, her vocal restraint begins to feel like a conceit, as if she’s afraid of facing her own emotions. (It’s hard not to read the lines “Bet you wanna rip my heart out … I like that” as defensive projection.) Thankfully, Lorde treats her attitude to subsequent flings less obliquely. “Let’s kiss and then take off our clothes”; how’s that for honesty?

Album Review: Angsty Rappers and Adventurous Soundscapes

Brockhampton Saturation


What makes this rap collective so refreshing is the fact that they don’t shy away from the fact that, in terms of primary listenership, hip hop is music for adolescents. Consider “Trip”, with its chorus of “Today Imma be whoever I wanna be” and verses that include lines like “Trapped in the suburbs / We suffocatin’”. The last track, “Waste” is a clear nod to 2000s emo-pop, with vocals that recall the saccharine pathos of Dashboard Confessional. Of course, Brockhampton wouldn’t be so promising if their aspirations toward being an “all-American boy band” weren’t sullied by an ultimately endearing experimental streak: “Cash” is an alt-R&B ballad that glides by upon a single arpeggiated guitar, “Heat” is fueled by distorted bass blasts à la xxxtentacion, and “Bump”, the album’s most impressive track, flips back and forth between placid, reverb-sodden guitars and a whining, industrial beat. Overall, the album as a whole suffers from an overabundance of filler, but its highlights demonstrate that Brockhampton is capable of tight songwriting that flirts with new approaches to hip hop while also remaining rooted in pop traditions.

Tyler, the CreatorFlower Boy

In terms of production and flow, Tyler has grown in leaps and bounds since Wolf and Cherry Bomb – the beats, which show equal influence from lounge and video game music, feel immersive rather than pieced together, and his once stop-and-start flow has grown more nimble. Lyrically, however, there’s little of interest here – an entire track is about being bored – and I suspect that it’s due to this lack (along with the fact that two years ago Tyler was still hip-hop’s biggest homophobe) that so much attention has been given to his coming out on “Garden Shed”. On “911 / Mr. Lonely”, he complains about feeling lonely, and hypothesizes that it’s because he never had a dog, but I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that he makes obnoxious comments like “Everyone is a sheep / Me, a lone wolf”. On “November”, he claims to have “deep thoughts, deep thoughts”, and I believe him – I just wish he would share them with us.

Vince StaplesBig Fish Theory


The instrumentals here unfold like the petals of a paper rose, revealing the delights of each individual sound on offer, from the clattering, skipping drums on the SOPHIE-produced “Yeah Right” to the metal-on-metal squeal of “SAMO”. It’s all the more of a pity then that Staples has so little to say, with his lyricism fixated on the same three tired themes: being rich but eschewing the idea of material wealth as self-worth, being successful but still suffering from depression, and wanting commitment but being foiled by the fact that all women are hoes. It’s the sort of record that makes you wish you could forget your knowledge of the English language so as to better appreciate the auditory pyrotechnics on display free of distractions. Unfortunately, part of the problem is Staple’s stalwart, fastidiously measured flow, which ends up feeling like an effort at keeping sure footing as he attempts to wrangle unruly beats. While he succeeds on the tamer tracks (“Party People,” “BagBak”), we’re ultimately left with a project that feels underdeveloped despite resting on a splendid set of blueprints.

Album Review: Cyborgs, Mutants, Hermits

Laurel HaloDust

The sonic landscape conjured on this record is akin to Baudelaire’s grove of symbols become a jungle of pure tone and shape. Vibraphone and glockenspiel call forth images of trees boughs with mats of dewy moss as snatches of keening sax and murmuring Wurlitzer echo the parting of ferns. Borne along by digitized mbalax rhythms and Halo’s sinuous, carefully dissonant vocals, the whole affair has the organic fluidity of improvisation or alchemy. In “Sun to Solar”, she put the words of Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos into a refrain, singing “Where does this grinding grind? / Where does this gear engage?” The lines simultaneously suggest the alienation of life in a post-industrial order that reduces humans to instruments, as well as the power of thought to imagine and realize alternate futures. Here, Halo celebrates that power by using it to create a work of wonder and playfulness.


Even if you haven’t heard of Arca, it’s likely you’ve heard his production work for superstars such as Björk, Kanye West, and fka twigs. He has a preternatural talent for engineering disquieting, often grotesque noises – the tortured squeal of horsehair against cello strings, synths played in reverse, flutes sharply ascending in pitch – serving them on a bed of breakbeats that crepitate like lunar foil. At his best, he layers these sounds atop each other until they threaten to collapse under their own weight, barely held together by his cherubic voice. Too often, however, it feels like he’s content to luxuriate in the texture of it all without building toward song form, or like he simply isn’t sure how to conclude his compositions. At his worst (the album’s B-side), he comes off not as an arranger of deviant sounds but as a collector.


Gas, alias of techno éminence grise Wolfgang Voigt, traffics in an idiosyncratic strain of ambient recordings: incessantly thudding 4/4 techno beats, packed deep beneath orchestral samples that have been elongated until they creep, glacier-like. The overall effect is not unlike standing on top of a frozen river and peering through sheets of smoky ice, eyes peeled for what burbles up as it thaws. What’s notable about this album (besides the fact that it’s Voigt’s first under the Gas moniker in almost two decades) is that for the first time it feels as if the material isn’t just gliding past us, heedless of our presence, but actually trying to reach us, like waterlogged symphonies from below. The instrumentation is higher in the mix, allowing the tone colors of cello, oboe, and English horn to bleed through, while melodies are no longer held in suspended animation, giving them the chance to coalesce before us. If Voigt’s point of reference on his previous works (besides Detroit techno) has been Morton Feldman, then here it is Debussy, whose Nuages is featured prominently on the second track. Though at times, Narkopop veers dangerously close to the melodrama of Tim Hecker’s movie ambient, the language is still decisively Voigt’s own.

Album Review: Death, Nihilism, and Folkies

Fleet FoxesCrack-Up


When the fleeced flocks who admire this Seattle outfit told me to expect a foray into ‘progressive folk’, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Upon listening, I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean waxing poetic about the joys of single-payer healthcare, although there are moments of gentle social commentary. (One of the best moments on the album comes when chief songwriter Robin Pecknold, singing about an experience at a protest, warbles, “I was in a river, as if in water”.) Rather, it means that tunefulness and structure are replaced by churning, baroque texture. The result is that these purveyors of merely pretty ditties have become purveyors of merely pleasant Songs. As far as lyrics go, I’m all for literary ambition, but Pecknold’s need to endlessly annotate his own words online and in liner notes suggests that he thinks that his allusions are so deep as to require unpacking, when the truth is that they’re simply too weak to stand on their own. It’s hard not to suppose that this change has been precipitated by his stint at Columbia’s great books program, given the classical references and whatnot. So he can namecheck Grendel in old English – my old college had a fraternity named Heorot.

Father John Misty Pure Comedy


There is a long and fruitful tradition of grappling with the fact that we inhabit a world devoid of meaning. Father John Misty, né Josh Tillman, is not part of that tradition. He engages with the idea of a meaningless universe by adopting a persona that’s ironic and supercilious, not realizing that transparently-fabricated-identity as meta-commentary has been a tired trope since before Lana Del Ray did it (though at least she had hooks.) Tillman’s unflagging condescension wouldn’t be so tiresome if his opinions (or at least those that can be salvaged from the abyss of endless mirrors of irony) weren’t so staggeringly banal and devoid of nuance – conceptual artists are equated with boy band managers, and socialism with Nazism. Of course, part of the shtick is attempting to undercut his own smugness with a few tips of the hat: he sings of a dying man whose last thought is whether his “commentary [has] been more lucid than anybody else”, and it’s clear that his target is not just the world at large but also himself. But taking this self-effacing approach is like admitting to being an asshole: it doesn’t make you any less of one.

Mount Eerie A Crow Looked at Me


Phil Elverum, in the best song of the year thus far, begins his album by pronouncing that death is “not for making into art”. The warning is clear: what follows is not for our enjoyment or consumption, but instead a document of the aftermath of his wife’s death from cancer at 35. By making small details signify, Elverum traces a portrait of absence that has the weightiness and beauty of a death mask: a backpack for their daughter arrives unannounced, and he realizes his wife was “thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you”. If that sounds clunky, then be grateful that the lilting cadence of Elverum’s incredibly limpid voice has always been able to tame poetry that looks ungainly on the page. While this release is lacking the sonic innovation and climbing melodies that distinguished even the sparest of his past efforts, this feels intentional, meant to force listeners to confront the desolation of his experience. Besides, no one can say he didn’t warn us.