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: 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.