Capsule Review: Romaplasm – Baths

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in November 2017. I don’t hate it. Nice.

When Will Wiesenfeld sings “Our goodwill is going to kill us” on ‘Extrasolar’ he could almost – almost – be describing the experience of listening to Romaplasm. To be sure, this record is shot through with an infectious sense of euphoria: Wiesenfeld’s heart would appear to be overflowing, as almost every track here is imbued with an indelible brightness – a pervasive warmth and exuberance – that’s difficult to deny. And, though he frequently foregoes the piercing candour of 2013’s Obsidian, the fantasies he frequently indulges on this record, while perhaps not as immediately striking as the naked despair of Obsidian’s lyrics, reveal themselves to be deftly redolent of very real and personal experiences: ‘Yeoman’, for example, delicately articulates fervent infatuation in terms of a character excitedly embarking upon a Studio-Ghibli-inspired dalliance in the sky. The record’s ebullience, however, eventually gives way to an exhaustion that threatens to kill it, as Wiesenfeld offers little in the way of modulation or variety. That is to say, though I am thoroughly charmed by the elation propping up this record, I cannot help but notice that it’s articulated in very similar terms throughout, with a consistency of tone, structure, and sonic palette that threatens to veer into a sameness. Which is not to suggest that the songs are bad; the maudlin “Coitus” notwithstanding, I actually find myself delighting in every track on Romaplasm, compelled to return to each one by an enchanting hook or a beautiful turn of phrase – or, quite frequently, both. Rather, my quarrel is that the experience of the album as an album – as a unified experience – is somewhat fatiguing; as much as I adore the neurotic dancefloor exaltation of “Out” on an individual basis, for example, I do feel somewhat numb to it when it appears eight tracks into the record, following many similarly hyperactive, synth-laden songs. My reaction to Romaplasm is thus frustratingly ambivalent: though I’m largely besotted with what Wiesenfeld is doing here, I’m not convinced that I’ll return to it in totality; it is ultimately more successful as a collection of (mostly) wonderful songs than it is as an engrossing album.

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Review: Sound of Silver – LCD Soundsystem

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A shorter version of this review was originally published by Audioxide in November 2017. As with the review of St. Vincent’s Masseduction, what I’m uploading here is more of a director’s cut of what was originally published. Sound of Silver is one of my favourite records, so, as I’m not restricted by a small word count here, I thought I’d elaborate on a few points made in my original capsule review. I’ve also significantly tidied up the latter half, which I found to be abysmal because I had to hurriedly write most of it on my phone while on a bus. Which is not to say that the two-hundred-odd words I’ve added here have done any more justice to the album; I found it quite difficult to write about Sound of Silver without resorting to some kind of hyper-personal account of where I was in my life when this record came into it (which was the direction taken by many of the tenth anniversary pieces I read when preparing for this), so I kind of wrote around it. I think I did okay; it’s perhaps a bit too dry and academic, and I’m not sure how well I convey the fact that it’s one of my favourite records, but I’m resigned to the fact that I couldn’t have adequately summarised everything that makes this album so special with so few words. So it goes.

LCD Soundsystem was introduced to the world in 2002, in a fit of cacophonous static noise and crashing cymbals, followed by an irony-drenched dirge for a pompous thirtysomething’s sense of coolness. The track was ‘Losing My Edge’, which, with its acute self-awareness and exhilarating confluence of rock and electronica, arguably still functions as the project’s grand thesis statement. If not, the track is still worth considering here because of the great joke underpinning it all: For all his comic insistence to the contrary, frontman James Murphy wasn’t there. He wasn’t there in 1974, at the first Suicide practices in a New York City loft; he wasn’t there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan; he wasn’t even alive in 1968, when Can played their first show in Cologne. No, he was born in 1970, and just barely missed out on what would become his favourite era of music, initially because he was too young to appreciate it, and later because, growing up in small-town New Jersey, he was too distant from the cities that hosted various significant cultural moments. Murphy, ever the neurotic, was keenly aware of this, and in “Losing My Edge” adopted the stance of his worst hipster self as a means of stressing the absurdity of claiming ownership of something that wasn’t even his to begin with, something he inherited. However, while it’s certainly worth challenging the ‘hipper-than-thou’ attitude espoused in ‘Losing My Edge’, the insecurities that motivated the song seem slightly ill-founded. It’s obvious to say, but first-hand experience of a scene or a band isn’t necessary to establish a profound emotional connection with the music, and one does not need to have written a record to feel some sense of ownership of it. Paradoxically, despite the self-lacerating nature of ‘Losing My Edge’, Murphy seemed to understand this, as in the music of LCD Soundsystem, and Sound of Silver in particular, we can hear him celebrating his music, and putting on all the parties he couldn’t attend back in the day.

This goes some way to explaining the magpie tendency that guides Murphy’s songwriting – the clear influence left by the likes of Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Giorgio Morodor, Lou Reed, Liquid Liquid, and the myriad others listed in ‘Losing My Edge’ – as well as his decision to privilege analogue equipment over digital software when making the record. Admittedly, such a way of working invites accusations of conservativism, of the project being little more than an exercise in borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered seventies and eighties. I am, however, unconvinced by such charges, as there is a sense of longing inherent in this record’s aesthetic that serves as the foundation for Murphy’s most sincere, mature, and emotionally complicated record to date. Indeed, the lyrical content here is frequently sombre and contemplative, with songs addressing the trials and tribulations of life on the road (‘Get Innocuous’, ‘North American Scum’, ‘All My Friends’), the loss of friendship (‘Time to Get Away’, ‘Someone Great’), and the dulling of his beloved adopted city (‘New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down’). It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Sound of Silver was made by a guy going through some shit, and, considering this, we could perhaps forgive him if he yearned entirely for the sounds of his adolescence, the party music of his heart. Though he is guilty of this up to a point, as LCD Soundsystem is nothing if not a product of nostalgia, Murphy is also careful to interrogate such nostalgic impulses; as the title track reminds us, returning an adolescent state would not be desirable because, in short, being a teenager fucking sucked. Thus, Murphy does not merely indulge his influences or delight in his memories of a time when Everything Was Better, but instead cribs from the music and the methods of the past as a means of forging something distinctly new: a heady, indelible blend of electronica and rock that connects the dots between disparate sounds and cultural movements with remarkable finesse. There is therefore a sense throughout that Murphy is constantly warring with his nostalgia, with the longing upon which the record is predicated, which is but one of them myriad facets that confers upon Sound of Silver a remarkable vitality.

Review: Masseduction – St.Vincent

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A much shorter version of this review was originally published by Audioxide in October 2017. I was originally going to upload that version here, but I wasn’t so happy with how it turned out because it was both: 1) Rushed, as I initially struggled to find a way into the piece and overcame this with very little time remaining before the deadline; and 2) Mangled in the edit, because I had to excise over one-hundred words to meet the word limit. So, I thought it would be best if I made a few changes here and there to tidy the piece up somewhat. Unencumbered by deadlines, however, I ended up labouring over the bloody thing whenever I attempted to finish it – always adding and revising and tinkering. Of course, the cruel joke of it all is that I’m still not entirely satisfied with it – particularly the section about ‘Pills’, which I fiddled with for a good while because academia has seemingly dulled the rhapsodic part of my brain – but I am, at the very least, sick of the sight of it.

In pursuit of a more pronounced pop aesthetic on Masseduction, her fifth solo album as St. Vincent, Annie Clark elected to replace her long-term producer, John Congleton, with Jack Antonoff, who has recently worked with the likes of Taylor Swift and Lorde. And superficially, at least, it would seem that nothing of her now idiosyncratic sound has been compromised in this new collaboration, as Masseduction appears to be just as gnarled and vivid as any of her previous records. There is, as intended, more of an inclination towards accessible, straightforward synthpop here, and, unfortunately, less of an emphasis on her virtuoso guitar playing, but this album’s wry, sexy, noisy as fuck interpretation of pop nevertheless seems to be of a piece with her work released since 2011’s Strange Mercy. Why, then, does it not work on me as her previous records invariably did? Why, for all its surface pleasures, does it appear somewhat vacant and, dare I say, uninteresting?

After a considerable amount of consternation – necessary, as St. Vincent is responsible for at least two of my favourite records of the previous decade – I have reached the conclusion that Clark and Antonoff simply aren’t getting as much from these songs as they could have, and certainly not as much as Clark and Congleton would have. To be sure, the collaboration between the latter pairing seemed, from the outside at least, as if it was motivated by both an inquisitiveness and a dissatisfaction: by rarely being content with what they had and always striving to find a way to do it better, to take a song further, to reach a higher level of creative expression. Thus, while many of the songs produced during this period were, fundamentally, straightforward singer-songwriter numbers, they were quite obviously developed with care and diligence in the studio. It’s not just that they were wrought from a lavish sonic palette, it’s that they were allowed to unfold in unexpected, circuitous ways, as myriad gnarly details and an untamed, spontaneous sensibility both imbued even the most basic song with a remarkable sense of vitality. Where those earlier songs were often stretched beyond the obvious, however, the same cannot be said of the majority of Masseduction, as Clark and Antonoff regrettably demonstrate only the most cursory interest in adequately developing a song. Take ‘Young Lover’, for example, which plods along a linear path established by a tepid four-on-the-floor beat, until it fizzles out with Clark screeching the song’s title over an innocuous, faux-grand instrumental. The song doesn’t blossom, or build, or lurch; it doesn’t zig when you expect it to zag, or even zag with a wondrous ferocity; perhaps most egregiously, it even forsakes a wonderful descending harmony between Clark’s vocal and her guitar, which offers a more fruitful direction for the song to take. ‘Young Lover’ simply is, until it isn’t. And, in this way, it’s representative of a number of inert, stagnant tracks on Masseduction that seldom deviate from their one governing idea, and are fatally bereft of the level of detail that would embellish or otherwise invigorate those ideas.

Among the mercifully unafflicted, however, is ‘Pills’, which initially adopts the stance of a warped advertising jingle – complete with a peppy, infectious nursery-rhyme inflection – but, halfway through, abruptly collapses into a haunting, theatrical reverie for the remainder of the track. This comedown is significant not only because it provides one of the few instances of genuine movement within a track, and not simply because it allows space for what is easily Clark’s most deeply-felt and animated vocal performance on Masseduction, but because of the astonishing contribution of Kamasi Washington in the final forty-five seconds; quite unlike anything else going on within the mix, the abrasive, wailing paroxysms of his saxophone swell within both the track’s proggy morass and the pit of your stomach, unexpectedly introducing a profound ache that frankly blindsided me. Though this kind of flourish isn’t strictly necessary – the song wouldn’t exactly be diminished if it were absent – it nevertheless delighted me because it displays an imagination that is mostly lacking elsewhere on Masseduction. In attempting to achieve a different kind of emotional flavour in the final moments of ‘Pills’, Clark and Antonoff experiment with an instrument that had not yet been featured in any previous St. Vincent record, and they succeed because they enlisted one of the best players in the game to perform the part. They therefore surprise and challenge the listener by deviating from what are now comfortable stylistic parameters for St. Vincent, by taking a song that little bit further to offer the listener something distinctly new from the project. This is, however, a rare example; beyond Washington’s contribution to ‘Pills’, as well as the gorgeous manipulated vocal that sees out ‘Slow Dance’, the only truly surprising moments on this record are the two tracks that offer drastic stylistic departures for St. Vincent: ‘Sugarboy’, which is glorious, delirious Hi-NRG disco by way of Hot Chip; and ‘New York’, which I’ll conceded is surprising only because it evinces an essentially insipid quality that had previously eluded Clark’s songwriting.

The rest is, as previously mentioned, worryingly of a piece with St. Vincent’s previous couple of records, offering only a flattened-out iteration of the wry, sexy, noisy as fuck interpretation of pop that she had offered previously. Masseduction, then, is comfortable in a way that no St. Vincent record has ever been; it sounds perfectly agreeable because it rehashes what is ultimately a pleasing aesthetic, but fails to attain any level of potency because it does not attempt to evolve that aesthetic – because it so rarely stretches the listener, and because the songs themselves are so infrequently stretched.

Capsule Review: News of the World – Queen

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in October 2017. It’s serviceable.

Before listening to News of the World, my previous encounters with Queen were not with any particular studio album, but with the outsized imprint left on popular culture by their ubiquitous hits — with the likes of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘I Want to Break Free’, and ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. Such tracks gave me the impression that Queen adhered quite strictly to the stylistic parameters of elaborate, theatrical stadium rock, that they rarely strayed away from the anthemic mode because it worked for both them and their audience. And though this supposed shtick never much appealed to me – diluted, perhaps, by overexposure – I could at least appreciate that it was delivered with a skill and verve, and understand why it would have appealed so broadly. With this in mind, then, I suppose I should credit News of the World for, at the very least, revealing that I was somewhat mistaken in my assumptions, as this record is endowed with a haphazard stylistic diversity that challenged my expectations of the band. To be sure, despite opening with a one-two punch of their quintessential anthems (‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘We Are the Champions’), the majority of the record is scattershot, offering the listener: a balls-out riposte to punk (‘Sheer Heart Attack’); a cute but ultimately inconsequential Paul McCartney pastiche (‘All Dead, All Dead’); a middling power ballad (‘Spread Your Wings’); ill-advised cod calypso (‘Who Needs You’); and perhaps the most tepid blues jam you’re likely to hear (‘Sleeping on the Sidewalk’). Needless to say, the majority of these stylistic digressions did little for me, as they registered as either uncomfortable, half-baked, or thoroughly insipid from the outset (the languid glam of ‘Get Down, Make Love’ is the rare triple-threat here). Just about the only track that worked on me in any significant way was the penultimate one, the appropriately titled ‘It’s Late’, which is the kind of robust, elaborate epic you’d expect from Queen, tied off with a guitar freak-out to relish and the band’s infectious layered harmonies. It’s familiar, yes, but in returning to comfortable stylistic parameters after several failed experiments, the band actually, finally offers something noteworthy on News of the World.

Capsule Review: Doolittle – Pixies

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in May 2017. Audioxide invited a couple of guest writers to contribute very short pieces about Doolittle for their 100th review, and this is my sorry attempt at trying to do justice to one of the greatest rock records of the last few decades in about two-hundred words. I usually enjoy writing capsule reviews, but when confronted with a work as monumental as Doolittle, the form cannot help but feel somewhat inadequate. Or maybe it’s just me that’s inadequate – who’s to say?

If Doolittle isn’t the greatest album ever made – and, frankly, it isn’t – it at least succeeds in briefly convincing you that it very well could be. There’s an ebullience and a forcefulness of feeling throughout that, in the moment, makes it seem as if it’s the only thing that could possibly matter in the world, as if it’s the only party you need to be at. And, make no mistake, Doolittle is a fucking party; just about the most generous, gregarious, fun record Pixies made. It emphasises the latent pop sensibility of Surfer Rosa, but not at the expense of the band’s idiosyncrasies and rough edges; Pixies remain as ferocious and strange as ever on Doolittle, but even the record’s most skeletal tracks (‘Mr. Grieves’, ‘Crackity Jones’, ‘Silver’), as well as those that play as dumb in-jokes (‘La La Love You’), invite you in with a compelling hook and/or a memorable moment. It is, in a word, infectious. And sure, nothing here throttles you quite like the opening of Surfer Rosa’s ‘Bone Machine’ – really, what could? – but it more than makes up for that by swinging and bouncing in a way that their debut never really does. As I said, it’s just about the best party, and why would you ever want to leave?

Capsule Review: Last Place – Grandaddy

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in March 2017.

It’s tempting to simply exalt Last Place for being an actual, legitimate, bona-fide Grandaddy record, because holy shit it’s an actual, legitimate, bona-fide Grandaddy record! I’d love to just skip around and rhapsodize about how it’s not some ersatz approximation that kind of, sort of sounds like Grandaddy’s woozy, bittersweet brand of indie-rock, and about how much of a relief this is. We are, however, talking about a band that has only recently returned from a lengthy hiatus, so I appreciate that such statements cannot stand on their own, because what the fuck is a Grandaddy record, anyway?

Well, as with Grandaddy’s best work, Last Place is a deeply sad thing. The band always had an easy-going, slacker’s charm about them – a strange way of working a sense of nonchalance into tracks that lesser bands would have turned into grand gestures – but this quality often betrayed a weariness and a melancholy. They were never the sort to quiver in the throes of despair or make Big Statements about how terrible everything is, but would rather shrug, sigh, and maybe crack a joke about the inexorable sameness of existence, or the insecurities and loneliness woven into modern life. Grandaddy were resigned, but never whiney or self-important: they were grounded, relatable; your depressed, stoner best friend, slumped on the sofa with a fragile grin and a profound longing in their eyes. Turns out they haven’t moved off that sofa in the eleven years since 2006’s Just Like the Fambly Cat. That is to say, Last Place is an actual, legitimate, bona-fide Grandaddy record not only because the band employs the same sonic palette and songwriting quirks as before, but because, even in the seemingly perky numbers, it retains a sense of melancholy nonchalance, an acceptance that we’re always on some kind of scrap heap. It superficially sounds like a Grandaddy album, yes, but it also works on you like a Grandaddy album; it’s entirely of a piece with their earlier work, and, given how long they’ve been away, that’s quite remarkable.

Capsule Review: Drunk – Thundercat

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This piece was originally published by Audioxide in March 2017. All I’m going to add here is that Thundercat’s brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., made a markedly better album than Drunk this year. I’m planning to write about it soon(ish), but I thought I’d mention it here because seemingly no fucker has heard it, and that’s a crying shame.

Of Drunk’s twenty-three tracks, only six exceed three minutes. The record is fifty-one minutes long, so the average track sticks around for roughly two minutes. Albums such as J Dilla’s Donuts and Flying Lotus’ You’re Dead! have demonstrated that this kind of structure is better suited to creating the illusion of formlessness: an album that’s rapid and seamless, that careens through short tracks that are mixed to function not as discrete units, but as movements within a larger, constantly shifting piece of music. Drunk diverges from this model in two respects: first, it’s fractured and elliptical rather than fluid, comprising entirely of short songs that function as discrete units; second, it’s more downtempo and mellow than exhilarating, consciously eschewing memorable hooks and melodies in favour of luxuriating in textures and grooves.

So, to summarise: Thundercat wants to luxuriate, but briefly; he’s adopted an album structure that’s restless and befitting of rapidity, but often plays with a languid tempo that makes two minutes feel like four; he doesn’t want to exhaust an idea, getting in and out of a song as soon as possible (often to its detriment), but has at the same time stuffed this album with so many ideas that it drags and becomes exhausting. Drunk is, in other words, an album of irreconcilable contradictions, and the way it was put together makes no fucking sense to me. It has its pleasures, of course: Thundercat is a magnificent player, a funny guy, and an inquisitive musician who trades in an intoxicating blend of jazz, soul, electronic, funk, and hip-hop. When these strands coalesce on tracks such as ‘Tokyo’, ‘Friend Zone’ and ‘A Fan’s Mail (Tron Song Suite II)’, it’s undeniable and indelible. But the way in which this album has been presented makes these highlights feel more ephemeral than they perhaps are, drowned out by the surrounding noise. It is, ultimately, a baffling construction, and an unfortunately unsatisfying experience.