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

Jens Lekman Life Will See You Now

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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.
A-

The Mountain GoatsGoths

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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.
B-

Mac DeMarco This Old Dog

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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.
C+

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.
A-

ArcaArca

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.
B-

GasNarkopop

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.
B+