Album Review: St. Vincent – St. Vincent

By Michael Papich

St. Vincent’s musical trajectory has been a fairly steady experiment in taking her starkest, prettiest sounds and merging them with her most metallic, jarring tendencies. On the latest, self-titled album, Annie Clark plays around with this experiment some more, switching the script a bit from her last, noisiest venture.

On St. Vincent’s last album, Strange Mercy, the make-up of the band changed from a baroquey grouping of wind players and other guitarists, bassists, and even violinists to intense keyboards, drums, and Clark herself. St. Vincent sticks with this formula even harder, limiting the types of sounds the keyboards produced last time around. St. Vincent is a much more closed-off album and doesn’t have many of the same soaring, airy moments of most of Clark’s work.

Now, the heavy and well-placed distortion that made Clark’s guitar playing so signature on previous albums permeates St. Vincent. “Rattlesnake,” the album’s opener, starts with a simple synth melody that’s slowly ground down throughout the course of the song. “Bring Me Your Loves” brings creepier sound modulation to Clark’s singing and throws in little static wrinkles throughout the tune. “Digital Witness” is filled with bizarre, hellish saxophones that give the song a surreal quality.

While that all sounds like the makings for a super-odd album, this might be the closest St. Vincent album to traditional, typical rock music. Take away the guitar’s distortion on “Regret” and it’s easy to imagine any skilled band playing it. “Psychopath” has a traditional kind of melody and rhythm too, with a heavy Berlin-era David Bowie influence. Even “Birth in Reverse” has a quick-stepping guitar chorus which none of Clark’s previous albums even seemed to aim for.

On top of that, Clark still plugs in her characteristic sounds in unexpected places. “Huey Newton” starts off fairly dull until it shifts into blistering, headstrong guitar. “Bring Me Your Loves” is a jerky electro-rock song, but Clark still manages to get in her rising acapella vocals. “Prince Johnny” changes its heading pretty quickly into the song, balancing out all of St. Vincent’s best attributes: cooing vocals, drum-like guitar, and airy synths.

The album has its duller spots, with songs like “I Prefer Your Love” and “Severed Fingers Crossed” not offering much apart from Clark’s vocals. Slow songs like this have appeared on other St. Vincent albums. In fact, they’re typically a large part of the albums, but they’re matched with the appropriate instrumentals. Here, it’s just uninspired filler, unfortunately.

If St. Vincent’s best tracks hadn’t been released as singles ahead of time, maybe this album would have had more of an immediate impact, but for now it feels very within the expectations of Clark, after three albums and one super shocking collaboration with David Byrne. There’s plenty of good on here but the envelope isn’t pushed much beyond the few standout tracks. She’s proven through her solo career that her best music comes from mashing up beauty and ugliness and this album needed more ugliness. But I’m going to see her live in a few weeks so Clark will have plenty of ugly to draw from.

Album Review: Xiu Xiu – Angel Guts: Red Classroom

By Michael Papich

There are lots of artists who make gritty, dark pieces of work for the sake of weirdness – the Bukowskis and Lars Von Triers of the world. And with this new album, it is hard to tell if Xiu Xiu avoids falling into that category anymore.

The easiest way to start talking about Xiu Xiu’s latest album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, is to look at where Xiu Xiu was with their previous non-Nina release, Always. That album introduced a dancey, nearly mainstream (mainstream being a very subjective term) sound into Xiu Xiu, while still sticking to Jamie Stewart’s gasping vocals and gruesome lyrics.

Angel Guts is staying in that lane in a bizarre way by going to electronic music’s dark roots. The Suicide influence is pretty heavy and there’s barely any instrumentation that sounds like it doesn’t come from a keyboard or a drum pad. Even Always played with acoustic guitar. But Angel Guts is all electronics, and sludgy, difficult electronics at that.

Any dance element Always had is drowned in other sounds here. The majority of the tracks here are ambient droning with typical Stewart hushed singing and simple drums, with some keyboard chords thrown in every now and then. The rest is pre-programmed samba drums with Stewart doing his distorted yelling of the lyrics.

There are plenty of nice surprises, like “Stupid in the Dark,” which allows for a consistent beat to carry on along with creepy synths and some clearer and more varied singing from Stewart. “Cinthya’s Unisex” feels like a haunted house ride, and this is a compliment. The tiny tapping drum and in-and-out pulse are thrillingly odd and Stewart’s quick shouts have a great weak-willed punk vibe. And “Black Dick” includes what sounds like live drums to create a neat, rocking vehicle, complete with dark synths and Stewart’s consistent lyrical delivery creates a rhythm of its own.

Of course, the lyrics on “Black Dick” segue nicely into that whole side of the album as well. Most of the song is Stewart repeating over and over again, you guessed it, “black dick.” But this is no more on the nose than “I Luv Abortion!” or “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)” In fact, “Black Dick” has more clever lyrics than either song, where Stewart sings a description of sado-masochistic sex, using the line, “One nipple/A volcano on fire/The other nipple/Baking soda.”

Stewart is still a master of strong imagery in lyrics that sticks with you. Take your pick with any song on the album: “Cinthya’s Unisex” with “Whimpered compliments coming through the keyhole/Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” “New Life Immigration” with “What is it about life that you think is special?/When I see you I see one life that is special.”

But there are just as many lyrics that feel overly hokey. A line like “You adjust your breasts to a more tasteful size D/When I touch them, it is like a lobster crawling under my arm” on “Adult Friends” feels less like an experimental music pioneer and more like a kid at an open mic night reading his gross-out short story.

Really, most of the lyrics are lost in the muddy synths and drones of the album. That’s one of the real shames of Angel Guts: Red Classroom. The starting beats on many of these songs, like “The Silver Platter” for example, are actually darkly compelling, but are utterly lost in the purposely dissonant sounds Xiu Xiu throws in. The more one listens to Angel Guts, more nuance appears, like the gradual wind-down of the keyboards on “Adult Friends” and the way the wall of sound lets Stewart’s screams reverberate on “Lawrence Liquors.”

But unfortunately, for every “Stupid in the Dark” on this album, there’s an “El Naco” to balance it out with nonsense. Combine that with the hard emphasis on “dirty sex” that permeates the lyrics, the obnoxious drone tracks that start and end the album, and Stewart’s telling that the inspiration for the album came from moving to crime-riddled parts of L.A. where he lived in a building with dead bodies and Angel Guts feels a little exhausting. There’s plenty of good and it slowly grows on the listener, but it’s not one of Xiu Xiu’s best albums. But maybe we’re still bitter over Stewart calling this the first full album he made since leaving North Carolina.

Who’s Going To Win All The Grammys?

 

 

So the 2014 Grammys just happened and if you’re a horrid, unbearable indie kid like us, you either didn’t notice or are steaming with rage that it even happened. That’s weird, right? This blog entry is rooted in the thesis that that’s weird, so amend your contradictory mindset.

People who watch a lot of TV don’t seem all that upset when the Emmys roll around. Movie fans always seem pretty excited when the Oscars come to town. And when the Tonys are on, I’m not sure what happens. Theatre people get exhausting quickly and it’s hard to gauge whether they like or care about the Tonys at all. But it always seems like a fun affair.

Whoopi Goldberg, one of the few people to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar. Seen here using the mafuba on King Piccolo.
Whoopi Goldberg, one of the few people to win an Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and Oscar. Seen here using the mafuba on King Piccolo.

But not so with the Grammys. Now why is that? Are the artists and groups recognized undeserving or uninteresting? Are individuals nominated and awarded based on ridiculous and unrealistic standards of talents and musicality?

Yes, that sounds about right. The same dull pop people are nominated for the same awards and perform the same songs every year. And the “rock” category is always laughably weird and outdated. This year’s nominees for best “rock” album include Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin (for a recording of a benefit concert from 2007), and Kings of Leon. I’m leaving out David Bowie, Neil Young, and Queens of the Stone Age because I still respect them, but still, that’s 60 percent artists from the 70s. Are there really no other rock bands?

This shouldn’t just be a rant about the Grammys, however. Let’s think about this. There’s lotsa lousy music that’s popular. But the same is true of movies. The Academy Awards would likely be received much differently if Grown Ups 2 were nominated alongside 12 Years a Slave and Gravity. Especially if Grown Ups 2 also won.

So are the Oscars and Emmys and Tonys more nuanced than the Grammys, and that’s the source of their relative praise? That’s a hard case to make. Look at how many categories the Grammys have. “Best Regional Roots Music Album.” “Best Jazz Ensemble Album” and “Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.” “Best Comedy Album.”  These maniacs even have an award for “Best Album Notes.” This isn’t a pass for the Grammys, though. The nominee list for “Best Comedy Album” is especially sad.

Without award shows, this picture would not exist.
Without award shows, this picture would not exist.

There’s also the Polaris and Mercury Prize to nitpick over.  Are the “indier” music award shows any better? Well, maybe. Any list of “best album” nominees that includes Jon Hopkins or Metz is probably in pretty good shape. But really, is this any better? Is having music compete within itself a damaging concept? The beard boys over at Godspeed! You Black Emperor seem to think so after they won their Polaris Prize. Maybe they shouldn’t have been cleared of terrorism charges after all.

But what benefits can even a horrendous music blog-reading, college radio-listening ruffian get from the Grammys? Well, without it, we wouldn’t know about most pop music, I imagine. Without it, who among us would know there’s a musician named “Sara Bareilles” or that she’s apparently well-liked? Or that it takes five people to write a Katy Perry song? Or that Bruno Mars is a very short man?

So are we any closer to answering the question of whether the Grammys are really any worse than another award show? Eh, probably not. Still seems like it’s a pile of garbage. But all award shows are pretty bad, and even pretentious seapunks can watch some fun performances by some legitimately talented artists like Janelle Monaé and Daft Punk and Kendrick Lamar and others and learn what’s going on in the world of pop music. So good luck to the deserving artists and performers who are nominated, let’s forget about the different tiers of irony and enjoy the-

 

Never mind. Throw the Grammys in the dang trash.

Album Retrospective: Sunset Rubdown – Dragonslayer

dragonslayer

By Michael Papich

Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer came out five years ago this summer, and a typical music site or an ordinary fan might take the opportunity to reminisce about the album’s merits. How it merged Spencer Krug’s experimental style with a more palatable pop-rock sound for a smoother experience. How it paints a more cohesive and present picture lyrically than any of the bands past releases. How it ended up being the band’s last album, thus allowing for a look back on Sunset Rubdown’s work.

But this is no ordinary music site and I am no typical fan. Instead, it’s much more important to talk about how Dragonslayer secretly tells one long story about a man’s life, death, and subsequent travel through the afterlife to find a way to come back to the land of the living. Is this crazy? Is this looking too deeply into things? Let’s find out. It can’t be any more improbable than Radiohead’s Kid A predicting 9/11.

The album starts with “Silver Moons.” A pretty, soft tune about accepting that past memories cannot be relived and that the time comes to give certain things up. We get lines like “I think maybe these days are over, over now/I believe in growing old with grace/I believe she only loved my face.” But in the context of the theory, imagine these lines being said from the perspective of a dying person. Yes, the album starts at the initial death of our hero. All of “Silver Moons” seems to point to this. The lines even point to some sort of overlying community or quest, with Krug singing “I’m passing the baton from the old mare to the fawn/It was out of line but it was fun/Didn’t you love the part right before the dawn?”

What was the quest? Let’s take a stab in the dark and say it was a quest to slay a dragon. The hero seems to have previous experience with such quests before his death, as he notes “There were parties here in my honor/til you sent me away.” The presence of a dragon itself is noted in later songs as well, but in “Silver Moons,” Krug says, “Gone are the days bonfires make me think of you/Looks like the prophecy came true.” Dragons breathe fire, people. And our hero was likely not alone in the slaughter, as he follows these lines by surveying his surroundings with, “You are a fallen tree, he is a fallen tree/How old are you, no, how old are you?”

Directly after “Silver Moons” is “Idiot Heart,” a more fanciful song that is also about reminiscing about one’s life and experiences, with the same sense of regret and apology that hung over “Silver Moons.” At a surface level, “Idiot Heart” reminisces about death, with the ending line repeated over and over again: “I hope that you die in a decent pair of shoes/You’ve got a lot more walking to do where you’re going to.” This would point to an afterlife and the protagonist noting that there is more after one dies. But going further, the song starts with repeated messages and directions. “No, I was never much of a dancer/But I know enough to know you’ve got to move/Your idiot body around” and “You can’t, can’t settle down/until the Icarus in your blood/in your blood drowns.” Both of these could be seen as the rules for existing after death. The first is a basic push to be conscious and the second is to be calm and accept one’s fate as a deadman and not be foolhearty.

The song flows in a slow direction that would seem to point to this. The directions come at the beginning and our hero also says that “If I found you in this city and called it Paradise/I say I love you but I hate this city and I’m no prize.” Krug’s character is resisting being death, clinging to the memories of someone else – likely the same person he apologized to in “Silver Moons.” Then, as the song speeds up significantly, we hear “look at you go!/Oh look at you go!” The protagonist has accepted death and enters into some sort of magnificent afterlife existence, which leads him to end the song with the lines about having a long way to go after dying.

Not so crazy now, is it? Yeah, yeah, let’s keep that suspension of disbelief going because up next is “Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!” Here is where the story of our hero gets considerable depth. For, as the album’s conclusion tells us, he escapes death, and the rest of the albums reminds up repeatedly of difficult and powerful memories in his past. He sings, “My God, I miss the way we used to be/So here’s a photograph for you to hold/It’s my picture right before I got old.” The protagonist’s relationship seems to be more than just fleeting love for the person in question, whom the song suggests is the Greek goddess Artemis.

Our hero’s emotions reach a high, mythical level, as he asks “Will we ever find out way into Cassandra’s gaze again?” and “Where have you been, Erato?” Cassandra was a mythical Greek prophecy-maker and Erato is the Greek muse of romantic poetry, so Krug’s song suggests that the relationship between the two crumbled apart as the hero cries out for these imposing figures to try and put it back together again.

The album follows a mixed timeline from this point on, as some songs, like “Apollo,” show our protagonist’s memories flooding back, while others show him continuing his journey through the dead, now angling for a way back to the world of the living. This is where Black Swan comes in on the album. “Black Swan” is a much darker and feverish song and is further from any pop sensibilities than anything on Dragonslayer. This could represent a deeper level of the afterlife for our hero as the song repeatedly talks about a palace and a kingdom, as well as a king and queen.

Is the hero consulting the leaders of the Paradise city of the dead for a way to escape? Does the fact that I’ve listened to this album eight times in a row with no REM sleep contribute anything to this theory? Whoooo let’s keep going!

The force present in this song seems to be quite powerful and have something to do with the dead, as it taunts the hero about his own fears about the supernatural, saying, “There was a rumor of a ghost in the bedroom/Hanging in and around the bed/But by the time the moon rose, you had taken off your clothes/And had the pillow under your head.” Later on, the force tells a brief story that can relate to the hero himself, saying, “There was the matador who said he would have you/If you could only give it up and walk away.” The force, or the king of the dead, whatever it is, says that the matador had his accomplishments, like the hero, who killed dragons and other beasts instead of bulls. But the force goes on to say, “And now it’s half destroyed/And you are half destroyed/I see you running down a washed out road/I see you running between the dream and the void.”

A warning: the ruin that faced that bull killer is now being faced by the dragon slayer and he is trying to tackle a “dream” of returning to life and possibly making up with those in his life and “the void.” And given that our hero is already dead, there is little mystery around “the void.” And like the directions our hero receives in “Idiot Heart,” in “Black Swan” he is advised that “My heart is a kingdom/Where the king is a heart/And my heart is king.”

Up next is another song mixing memories with the journey through death, “Paper Lace.” He hears that, “She will be tired/But she’ll be glad/When you go back/To your good home.” A positive sentiment, but as the song goes on, the reality of our hero’s relationship with Artemis or whoever he is seeking becomes more cloudy. Krug sings,” And when she’s done dancing with everyone/She will go back to your good home/She will be tired from loving everyone/But she’ll be glad that you’re back home.” While our hero was both out of her life and dead, whoever he was with has had her own life with her own relationships.

But the song goes even further, showing that much of the blame goes on the dragon slayer for his obsession with quests, as “There’s nothing left inside the room you’ve filled/With lion skins and laurels.” The problems might be more emotional and structural in nature as well, as Krug sings, “There was no way you could have known/About the things she didn’t know she couldn’t trust.”

At this point I question whether I’m in reality or in this strange land between worlds the hero is in. This is taking a lot out of me. I should go to sleep. Is this why Spencer Krug’s other albums are just about his friends that broke up with one another? I need to put on a nice, sturdy pair of shoes in case I don’t make it through the rest of this ramble.

Now the album’s journey takes a turn with “You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II).” Here, the hero seems to both accept that his time with those in his previous life are over and see that he has unrealistic expectations and goals – expectations and goals he still wants to come true. That goal is a return to life, which he pushes for in this song. He wants Artemis or whoever to “go on ahead” while also saying “I’d like to watch the white flash of your heels/As they take turns breaking the desert heat/To beckon me in languages I’ve never learned.” He has hopes that they can both go forward too, wishing that “On the way decide what mendings of your will/You’re willing to forgive.”

The second half of the songs kicks up considerably and our protagonist’s hopes soar and he targets his own personal hopes to come back to life, singing, “See the sirens and the lizards lick their tongues behind the stage/See the actor keep a ritual to keep them all at bay/He would like to come home naked without war paint on his face.” Dragons are lizards, people. Warpaint, quest, dragon, dragonslayer, album, sleep, NASA, holographic principle, okay! Back to the piece.

Now we have our hero’s actual return to the land of the living. Like how Idiot Heart documented his descent, so does “Nightingale/December Song” illustrate his ascension. The song’s overall melody is graceful and lifting and Krug sings about his relationship to another person, likely the protagonist’s special person who appears throughout the album, in an epiloguic sense. That’s not a real word, but Shakespeare made up plenty of words. Let’s talk about the eerie similarities between Richard III and the presidency of Gerald Ford.

Okay, focus and get through this. So in “Nightingale/December Song,” he tells her, “You are too hot for me/I am too slow for you/You are a fast explosion and I’m the embers/You need the one who slowly burns, and burns to stay alive.” While the hero was blinded by his constant quests, he now understands that he needed to be more grounded to the world and to reality. He also talks about fire the entire song, like in Silver Moons, and on the album’s last song “Dragon’s Lair,” he talks about the sun. I’m jumping ahead a bit, but stay with me. It’s also worthwhile to note that Apollo is associated with the sun and Artemis is associated with the moon.

Alright, let’s get right to the last song. “Dragon’s Lair” shows the hero now back and alive, while also giving some overviews of his life before being killed by the dragon. The very first lines of the song harken back to “Silver Moons,” where he gets killed. “I’m sorry that I’m late/I went blind/I got confetti in my eyes/I was held up at yesterday’s parties/I was needed in the congo line.” Silver Moons opens with “Confetti floats away like dead leaves in the wagon’s wake,” and later on he tells the woman in question “Over are the days where the congas make your hair.”

There’s a fair amount of symbolism here that fits in nicely to the story’s plot. The “lateness” is being a disembodied spirit in the land of the dead. “Confetti” was there when the hero died, so whether it’s actual celebrations or a misinterpretation of flailing innards, who’s to say? “Yesterday’s parties” could be either the gathering of the dead or the quest itself. And all the conga/congo stuff is just…they’re in both songs. Are you with me or against me?

Wow, “Dragon’s Lair” is rife with evidence for this theory. Maybe I’m not going insane after all. Or I’m so far gone that I’m believing my own lies. The song goes on to say, “I’d like to fight the good fight for another couple of years/’Cause to say the war is over is to say you are a widow/You’re not a widow yet.” He is saying that he’s not dead, folks.

Up next we’ve got more for the whole Artemis theory, with the protagonist noting that “This one’s for the critics and their disappointed mothers/For the cupid and the hunter/Shooting arrows at each other.” Artemis was a hunter herself and notably a bow user as well.

But as the song goes on, it seems that our hero wants to continue working to kill the dragon. And the song makes it pretty clear that he was trying to kill a dragon, especially given this whole stanza: “If you are sharpening your scissors,
I am sharpening my scissors/And I am sharpening my sword/So you can take me to the dragon’s lair/Or you can take me to Rapunzel’s windowsill/Either way it is time for a bigger kind of kill.”

Why? Well this guy seems to kill a lot of monsters anyway so he might just be a maniac. But he also mentions that his journeys, both in the world of the living and possibly in the world of the dead have given him an insight into the potential that the dragon can bring to the world, saying “I have seen into the wasteland/Oh, the future/Oh, the future of us all/Of dead, dead leaves last fall.” In Silver Moons, he compares the confetti to dead leaves, and if the confetti is actually viscous insides, then boy, that future sounds pretty bad.

So there we go. There’s a lot of common imagery between songs, the storyline works out pretty well, and we had fun learning. But don’t just take my word for it. Take my word for it and listen to the album yourselves.

Album Review: M.I.A. – Matangi

MIA-MATANGI

By Michael Papich

The new Arcade Fire album is a weird, patoisy disappointment! Let’s talk about a surprisingly great album instead!

 

Namely, M.I.A.’s new album, Matangi. It’s quality isn’t surprising because M.I.A. has a reputation as a bad artist. Her breakthrough album, Kala, and the globe-ensnaring song that came from it, “Paper Planes,” threw pop music into disarray. It had ambitious production, instrumentation that borrowed from styles few underground artists even used, and had political lyrics that brought up issues out of the periphery of many British listeners and definitely most Americans.

 

But then her next album, Maya, wasn’t…all that interesting and M.I.A. quickly got wrapped up in a lot of controversy that ended up eclipsing any music she was trying to promote.

 

Now, with Matangi, M.I.A. is throwing another fantastic album into a chaotic year marked by all kinds of surprising albums. From the first two tracks, “Karmageddon” and the title track, Matangi sets a consistent theme of more intense, house-influenced production with quicker, wittier rapping. M.I.A.’s lyricism is more sarcastic and shade-throwing than her previous, knife-to-the-gut style of spitting. Take “Y.A.L.A.,” which matches her clever, boasting lyrics with a sticky, mocking tone. Instead of trying to flat-out cut down listeners, on this album, she is slyly putting enemies in their place.

 

To summarize the production on Matangi, the best way may be to say it was what everyone wanted from the new Major Lazer album. It is a pumped up, at times dubstep influenced, house music hip-hop album. But, it also incorporates the South-East Asian instrumentation M.I.A. is famous for in serious ways that actually contribute to the songs. On Major Lazer’s Free the Universe, house music was sloppily mixed with reggae and dub to create a pandering mess. Of course, Major Lazer’s Switch and Diplo gave plenty of production help to M.I.A.’s Kala and Switch still gave production to almost half of Matangi, so the influence might still be lingering. But on Matangi, M.I.A. still completely blew Major Lazer out of the water.

 

M.I.A. even does reggae-house better than Major Lazer on Matangi, with “Double Bubble Trouble” bringing all of the rhythm and relaxation as a slow drive through an idealized vacation movie set.  Most of Matangi actually has fairly easy to trace musical influences. “aTENTion” (with production help from Julian Assange?) and “Y.A.L.A.” both use British dubstep and electro-rock respectively to a great degree. “Only 1 U” and “Warriors” sound like they’re influenced by the new forays into glitchy, electronic hip-hop used by American artists. And that’s not even touching on the massive house music sound permeating the entire album.

 

The main complaint with Matangi is, weirdly, the presence of “Bad Girls.” Somehow, the reemergence of this song that’s been out for almost two years disrupts the listening experience. And “Bad Girls” isn’t a bad song, but it feels out of place in the fresh Matangi. The production doesn’t fit with the rest of the album either.

 

Matangi serves as a cool, engaging listening experience with no true drop-off of bad area of the album…except for maybe “Know It Ain’t Right.” The production is powerful and textured and M.I.A.’s rapping is as unique as ever. After all the controversy and the disappointment of Maya, M.I.A.’s new album puts her back into the musical discussion strongly and proudly.

Album Review: Moonface – Julia With Blue Jeans On

Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On

By Michael Papich

Spencer Krug has hung up his warlock hat for over three years now, and with that, a surprising array of musical experiments have come forward. The incredibly lush instrumentation of Sunset Rubdown and the focused, rhythmic electro-rock of Wolf Parade brought out a totally new beast in Krug’s current solo effort, Moonface. Earlier Moonface releases saw a bizarre approach to minimalism, with strange electric organs humming on and on while Krug crooned with his signature esoteric lyricism. Then, Moonface’s next big release, With Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery, took another side-step, with Krug partnering with a more traditional rock band and putting out an album that was, in many ways, more conventional than even a Wolf Parade release.

 

Now, on Julia With Blue Jeans On, Krug is taking another out-of-left-field approach, this one possibly his most severe: Krug is foregoing everything in favor of just a piano and his voice. As largely unexplored territory (the piano Sunset Rubdown track “Us Ones In Between” still featured smatterings of keyboard, guitar, and drums), it was unclear how well Krug would be able to pull this experiment off.

 

Happily, Julia is an impressive musical adventure. Stylistically, it is a much different experience than other Krug-affiliated albums. Julia is probably his most passive album. The musical medium Krug is using lends itself to the imagery of a man hammering away at a piano and singing loudly to himself on the city streets. Which is not to say that Krug is a plain or blunt pianist. His pieces are all immaculately played and still eccentrically arraigned. “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark” closes with a quick, expectation diverting flourish of ivory. Much like Krug’s own voice, which easily evokes a wide range of his emotions, the piano on Julia traverses the album’s tones near-effortlessly. The title track is a gradual and well-chiseled build to a grand head. “Barbarian II” begins with crude, avant-garde composition that slowly dissolves into glistening, gentle chords. Not all of the pieces are athletic shows of piano mastery. “Black is Back in Style” is a typical kind of barroom piano tune of loss and personal history.

 

Julia’s main fault, however, is in its lyrics. It’s not that the lyrics are bad, per say. The main issue is that the piano and lyrics sound like they are mixed together, making it difficult to always hear Krug over his playing. And perhaps more listens are needed, but classic, mysterious Krug lines are not jumping out as easily as “You should have been a writer/You should have played guitar/But your face looks like a statue in the dark” did on “Return to the Violence of the Ocean Floor” from Moonface’s first full-length release, Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I’d Hoped. Still, Julia has great spots when it is understandable, like “Everyone will end up talking to the sky/Or looking the elephant in the eye” on the metaphor-thick “Everyone is Noah, Everyone is the Ark” and “Let me take you like a lamb/To the slaughterer with a knife” on “November 2011.”

 

Moonface has been one of Krug’s biggest musical laboratories and Julia With Blue Jeans On is another big step and big success on Krug’s part. The album is surprisingly intricate for such a limited medium and new facets come to light with each listen. Julia is also a much more accessible album for listeners who may not be able to palate Krug’s other, instrumentally eccentric releases. In whole, an intriguing listen, especially for Spencer Krug fans, but likely for music fans of many stripes.

 

 

 

 

 

David Bowie: A Catalog Assessment

David Bowie is one of the most widely known rock musicians in the canon and has had a major hand in popular music since the early 70s. And yet, nearly everyone you typically talk to about Bowie’s music will only have a few words to say about him. Whether it’s rock-heads who say that Ziggy Stardust is one of the best albums to 80s babies who like to sing along to “China Girl” and “Let’s Dance” to hipsters who can’t be restrained in their adoration of albums like Low or Station to Station.

But with a catalog as long, diverse, and plainly good as David Bowie’s, these quick, focused adorations do not do it service. So, let’s do our best to set the record on Bowie’s career with an overview of the man’s career over the last third of the 20th Century.

 

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Self-Titled Album: Your Dad’s Hilarious Prom Photo

 Every true Bowie fan will, at one point, get curious about that very first album he put out and want to see where it all began. This may or may not be a good idea, depending on your perspective. What you get is a full album of bizarre, British-invasion pop music. Very flowery, very cheeky, and of course, very cheesy. But, it’s hard to call these songs “bad.” In the way that many early Beatles albums are cheesy but still somewhat beloved, the titular Bowie album works in such a way. Songs like “Rubber Band” and “She’s Got Medals” are enjoyable and I’ve still got friends who love to bring out “The Laughing Gnome” and giggle along to the ridiculous tune. In general, the self-titled album can be a fun look at where such a massive artist began, especially if you snicker “oh no” through a clenched smile.

 

Hunky Dory: The Most Underrated Overrated Album

 Hunky Dory is a great album. It really is. And it doesn’t get much of the attention it deserves in Bowie’s catalog. But it also has several flaws that need to be addressed immediately. First and foremost, “Changes” is a horrible song and its popularity is baffling. Hunky Dory has many good spots, but there are plenty of pretty cheesy songs. If the self-titled album was Bowie’s Beatles for Sale, Hunky Dory is his Revolver. Some goofy bits, but the clear beginning of great music. “Life on Mars?,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” and “Queen Bitch” push Bowie into his more lyrical direction and start to show the stripped down instrumentation that would follow into his next few albums. And he still remained experimental with odd songs like “Quicksand” and “Andy Warhol.” It is certainly not as sophisticated as many fans claim, but it was a clear, strong step in the right direction.

 

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the rest of the long album name

Yes, the one people usually know! I prefaced this article half-complaining that less savvy Bowie fans usually point to this as his best album, but…they’re kind of right. Ziggy Stardust is one of his most consistent and interesting albums. The concept is relatively easy to follow, the hard-rocking parts flow in and out in a way that makes sense, his lyricism is in display throughout nearly every track. The quality of every song is hard to argue. And here, we see the beginning of the “funky” Bowie sound that’s so present throughout his career. “Hold On To Yourself” and “Suffragette City” have a magical rhythm about them and tracks like “Moonage Daydream” and “Ziggy Stardust” have this inherent motion about them. And that’s not to underscore lesser-known songs. “Soul Love” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” are some of Bowie’s most gorgeous songs and “Star” a consistently overlooked great, weird rock tune. As an album, Ziggy Stardust serves as a sterling flagship in Bowie’s career.

 

Diamond Dogs: The Real Best Album?

Imagine an album with all of the hard-rocking elements of Ziggy Stardust, but then carried over throughout an entire album. That’s Diamond Dogs. The title track is an anthemic, grimy rock track, “1984” is a perfect example of what disco got right, and “Big Brother” is a darkly poetic song that’s hard to pin down. And, of course, everyone gets a little excited when the guitar melody to “Rebel Rebel” first comes in. Diamond Dogs also shows the beginnings of Bowie’s most experimental composing, with the “Sweet Thing” and “Candidate” medley, which serves as a long, perfect mix of minimalism and maximalism in Bowie’s composition.  Bowie fans would be remiss to overlook the entirety of the Diamond Dogs album, which it unfortunately seems to usually be.

 

Station to Station: The Easiest Listen

Station to Station is the second big shift in Bowie’s catalog, Hunky Dory being the first. From the opening title track, he gives us a 10-minute song with a lengthy, bizarre, soundboard beginning. The rest of the song is one of his strangest lyrically and it relies on even more jazz sounds than the previous, lackluster Young Americans album had. And, of course, it’s all-amazing; truly one of his best songs. The rest of the album is a little less bombastic, but the heavier reliance on funk sounds and a sharp turn away from rock music is still prevalent. “Wild is the Wind” is almost an R&B song and when the little drum fills come in, it can take your breath away. Songs like “Word on a Wing” and “Golden Years” are kind of corny, but that’s balanced by the ambitious, funky “Stay” and the truly bizarre “TVC 15.” Station to Station is a relatively short album, dominated by its opening title track but contains numerous other songs that don’t slouch.

 

Low and “Heroes”: The Inseparable Duo

Ah, the “cool” albums. Part of the “Berlin” trio that saw heavy involvement by Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and Tony Visconti. But the last part of the trio, Lodger, isn’t too note-worthy. But Low and “Heroes” live up to their hype…somewhat. Low especially heralds a lot of ambient music and the album’s second side sounds like something made by Daniel Lopatin. “Heroes” has its own ambient sections, but its incorporated more with rock and especially jazz so it has a more specific “Bowie” sound. And both albums have plenty of engaging funk and rock songs as well. “Breaking Glass” is a cool little song and “Be My Wife” is a perfect example of minimalist rock music. “Heroes’” first half is filled with amazing rock songs, like the title track of course, but songs like “Joe the Lion” and “Blackout” are absolute bangers. And “The Secret Life of Arabia” is an addictively rhythmic hidden gem at the end of the album. Low and “Heroes” are both great albums, but in both cases, especially Low, they may not live up the high lauds it gets from some sections of music fans, depending on your love for ambient music.

 

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps): The All-Over-The-Place Album

 Scary Monsters is a difficult album to pigeonhole, which is definitely not a bad thing. But this album hit the highs in each of Bowie’s styles of music. The title track is one of his most bombastic rock songs, “Ashes to Ashes” is his most screwed-up weirdo tracks, and “Fashion” steps up the tongue-in-cheek disco music to amazing, hilarious extents. He also takes more odd steps with the opening and closing songs and in “Scream Like A Baby,” which sounds like a mix of Bowie’s earlier, concept-album era and the grimier sounds he started to move toward on this album. Overall, Scary Monsters is a return to Bowie’s rock sound and a showcase of how the genre has changed over active 70s.

 

Let’s Dance: The Embarrassingly Good Album

 It would be the easiest step in the world to just skip this album altogether. Although Bowie hit some of his biggest popularity heights in the 80s, his real impact on music dropped off pretty sharply at this point. And most people know the songs on the album as his real “pop” songs, so there’s not a lot to say. But here’s the thing: the reason everyone knows the songs from this album is because they’re great. “China Girl,” “Let’s Dance,” “Modern Love,” “Cat People.” They’re all here and they’re all amazing. “Let’s Dance” has an undeniable groove that can really move people to dance. “China Girl” is a shifting, difficult pop song and the Iggy Pop version should definitely be listened to as well. “Modern Love” is cheesy, sure, but it is engaging and has dazzling, coke-fueled saxophone. Let’s Dance as an album can be easy to put down and overlook, but its impact is undeniable and a revisitation can be eye-opening.

 

Outside and Earthling: Please Hear Me Out

Everyone loves to rag on 90s Bowie. And it makes sense. He tried to do the whole Tin Machine experiment, which crashed and burned, and he put out some of his most embarrassing albums. But Outside and Earthling were the decades’ two big works he put out and they’ve been debated healthily by critics. But Outside has some impressive songs, like the exciting “Hallo Spaceboy” and the creepy, anthemic “Voyeur of Utter Destruction.” Outside is often put down as an imitation of “industrial” music, but the only band that ever seems to apply to is Nine Inch Nails. And sure, the album kind of sounds like NiN, but it still carries Bowie’s iconic voice and his little flourishes of eccentric arrangement. Earthling, the “electronic” Bowie album is a harder case to sell. I…I like it, I dunno. Just try it even though it’s really not defendable.

 

The Next Day: It’s Not Bad

 The rest of Bowie’s career was pretty rocky. Heathen, in the early-2000s is not a bad album, but it’s hard to really write about. But after a long hiatus that everyone assumed would be a permanent stop in music, Bowie announced The Next Day and it was not just a cheap cash-grab album. It was a real attempt at a return to music and a last note of what Bowie has to give. So, since this will likely be his last album, it’s important to look at what The Next Day has. And it’s just…hard to really summarize. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s just rock music. Some tracks are easier to see Bowie’s earlier styles, like “Dirty Boys” has some of the Scary Monsters-era grime and the best song, “Set the World on Fire,” is a return to the same uniquely-arraigned rock music that was seen on “Diamond Dogs.” But overall, The Next Day is a bit of a sad final note. This is how the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper.

Concert Review: Hopscotch Music Festival

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By Mack White, James Crooks, and Michael Papich

Marnie Stern

Marnie Stern put on a thoroughly refreshing performance at Hopscotch. She brings a fun energy to each little movement that so much live music is lacking, from the quick little steps she takes as she builds into a riff to delivering more emotion in her singing when the microphone would routinely not work. There was also the bizarre stage banter, where she and her amazing bassist Nithin Kalvakota would exchange quick barbs and she would abruptly cut off the punchline with the squealing guitar of the next song, creating absurdist comedy episodes.

But by far the most incredible thing about Marnie Stern’s performance was seeing first-hand just how original her approach to song writing is. Each song has several sudden tonal shifts, and live, these turns were even sharper. That’s paired with her chipper vocals, quick guitar, relentless drums, and evocative but vague lyrics. Seeing such unreplicable music was a good sign that music will continue to evolve and grow into amazing new forms.

 

Kurt Vile and the Violators

 On albums, Kurt Vile does not necessarily sound like a charismatic live performer. Or, at least, it does not sound like a traditional rock show with pumping fists and banging heads. But boy did Kurt and his band bring it home on Thursday night. All of the backing Violators band played furiously, especially his drummer, Vince Nudo.

This relatively intense and musicianship-driven performance ended up pairing perfectly with the haziness of Kurt’s most recent music. The gloss of his reverbed vocals, combined with the gun-ho band, created a perfect wall of music and echoing lyrics. It was like a dream.

 

A-Trak

A-Trak is promoted as one of the few real DJs left and his set on Friday proved this quite well. From start to finish, A-Trak entranced the crowd with incredibly danceable beats, with the occasional flourish of a recognizable sample that reignited passions in the audience. The crowning achievement was a roughly-10 minute sample of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” with the song’s robotic chorus repeated over and over as A-Trak played and created increasingly complex and changing beats and melodies.

Beyond the obvious appeal of an energetic dance session, A-Trak truly made his set memorable with his clear prowess at physical DJing. His hands would fly and dip with nimble dexterity from record to console, creating a show both visually and musically. He also had a penchant for adding glitch characteristics to his set, making the beats unpredictable and fun to move to. Also, going against the stereotypes of DJs, A-Trak was very cordial toward the crowd, interacting with them on a regular basis and even giving the local audience a nice nod with the repeated sample of a wolf howl.

 

Mykki Blanco

No credit should be taken away from Mykki Blanco’s skill as a rapper, but her Friday show could not honestly be described as a “rap show.” It was full-blown performance art. Of course, there was her DJ, Larry B, who brought creepy, vaguely-trap flavored beats throughout the show and both she and her opener, Psycho Egyptian, rapped with unbelievable ferocity and skill. But Mykki also gave acapella performances of bombastic poems, ran through the audience and around the enormous Contemporary Art Museum the event was held in, at one point climbed up into the rafters and hung from her legs, and used the microphone stand to stymy her arms, turning her into a lumbering, crucified demon.

None of this was a distraction from any lack of rapping ability, however. Every true song Mykki did was hungry, heavy, and had the audience going wild, especially with her closer “Wavvy.” Even after her show was technically over, Mykki had Larry B keep the music going and had the audience dance on stage. Mykki went to high school locally at Enloe High School, and at Friday’s show, she came back to remind us that she could conquer us just as easily as she did New York’s underground.

 

Suuns

Suuns’ show suffered from being in one of Hopscotch’s smallest venues and starting over half an hour late, but when they played, it was captivating. The size of the environment may have helped as the dark waves of the band washed over the audience completely. Every heavy, fast note possessed everyone on and off stage, leaving few heads still. The band’s bassist, Joe Yarmush, couldn’t escape the rush of passion, at one point playing so vigorously he crashed down into the drum set.

The darkness of Suuns’ performance cannot be overstated. The droning guitars made it feel like the lights were slowly losing power and the walls were melting together. Listening to Suuns’ studio music, one can easily predict what singer Ben Shemie’s face looks like when articulating Suuns’ slurred vocals. His face was turned into a sarcastic grimace, each word slithering out. Through and through, Suuns did not mess around when it came to delivering a journey into the dark recesses of space.

 

Breeders 

Three months after the Pixies announced that Kim Deal is no longer associating herself with them, it’s comforting to see that she still has enough musical talent to keep her fans satisfied. Backed up by her sister and three friends, the Breeders took the stage at Hopscotch to play their 1993 masterpiece Last Splash in its entirety. The band did an excellent job of making the audience feel like part of the show, asking people in the crowd questions after each song and lecturing on how each song got its title.

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Among the many highlights, one shining moment was Kim Deal tearing off the bottom off a plastic cup and putting it on her microphone to create the same vocalization of Last Splash’s biggest hit, “Cannonball”. Kelley Deal also put on a powerful performance, slaying with her guitar and taking lead vocals on “I Just Wanna Get Along”. To everyone’s surprise, all the equipment that the band used on stage were the exact same ones that they used in studio in 1993 to make the album. It was like taking a step back in time, hearing the Breeders play the album in order and with just as much enthusiasm as back in the day.

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Right when they finished with the album’s closer, “Roi (Reprise)”, Kim said they wanted to play a few more songs. With the audience on their feet cheering, the band slammed into a medley of songs from their 1990 album, Pod. It felt like seeing a second show from the band, considering the change in musical direction they took with Last Splash. Kelley Deal taking lead vocals on the Beatles classic  “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” was a spectacle of the show, letting the crowd sing along to the background “Bang, bang! Shoot, shoot!”. Not many bands that have been around for over twenty years still put on a commanding performance, but the Breeders have without a doubt been privileged in that department.

 

John Cale

Collaborating with Brian Eno, singing with Nico, and being a founding member of one of the most influential bands of all-time, the Velvet Underground, is a resumé that only John Cale has. At 71 years old, I expected Cale to walk onstage and have a shot voice that faded with time. Fortunately I was wrong and Cale gave us the best performance of the whole festival.

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For a man who is as skilled at production as he is performing, I was surprised to see how under-produced the show was. Backed by a guitarist, bassist, and drummer, Cale took lead on the keyboard while occasionally busting out his guitar. Seeing Cale was a primal experience, because if you listened to his 2012 release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, you may have been turned off by his autotune and Vocoder-influenced sound. He took a right turn for the songs from that album and performed them without effects, including the booming chorus of “I Wanna Talk 2 U”.

It didn’t really hit me until after the show, but recognizing all the bands over the years like the Pixies and R.E.M. who cite the Velvet Underground as a primary influence, it’s possible that Cale is among the highest tier of musicians who create a novel sound that over time means something bigger than they imagined. Hearing classics like “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend” and “Ship of Fools” was without a doubt a primal experience. I waited after the show to see if I could meet Cale, but the only people I ran into was his band. They were a group of young, nice guys who said Cale is a great guy and has his mind set on continuing the tour and entertaining his fans. After almost fifty years in the industry, that’s all a fan could ask for.

 

Prypyat 

Made up of members of local bands Hammer No More the Fingers and Lost in the Trees, the boyfriend-girlfriend duo of Prypyat was a very pleasant surprise at Hopscotch. The two started off with what seemed like a recipe for seemed like sleepy indie-folk – a cello, a guitar, and a kick drum – but after the first few songs they both started churning out big numbers, with the cello’s sounds altered to sound electric and distorted.

A signature aspect of Prypyat’s performance was the overall dorkiness of their between-song banter, with the two talking about their history as a couple (they first met at Hopscotch 2010, interestingly) and the stories behind songs. The lyrics and vocals themselves had a yearning whine, whether it was talking about local N.C. streets or the dreaded Ghostwoods of Twin Peaks, WA. Hopefully Prypyat stays active in the local music scene to give more people exposure to their take on the North Carolina sound.

 

Horse Lords

Unfortunately, I was only able to catch the last 20 minutes or so of Horse Lords’ set, but these four musicians put on an incredible performance. Guitar and bass played off each other in incredible textured strumming while the two were accompanied by two drummers. This created an amazing beat, especially as one of the drummers primarily used nimbler percussion instruments.

Horse Lords’ finale was amazing, as the “nimbler” drummer moved to saxophone and the four traded off quick little solos, getting faster and faster as they went. It was all reminiscent of a Battles show, with every member of the band clearly having impressive chops and each enjoying jamming in tandem with one another.

 

Holly Hendron

 Holly Hendron’s performance codified modern art quite well. On the wall next to her, a projector played a constantly shifting program of 3D renders of Japanese products and stills of Japanese living spaces. In her music, she filled the room with samples of her own gentle singing which she chopped and screwed several different ways, adding abrasive bass and roaring sounds. As this chaotic and somewhat unpleasant sound grew, she dispersed the noise immediately, going into strange and pumped up beats that had the awed crowd moving in an instant.

All of Hendron’s set was then defined by this challenging dance music, combining the staccato, raindrop-like beats with whooshes, bizarre samples, and her own siren cooing. As the show went on, the video got more chaotic in response, with boxes of Japanese flour and Amazon.jp.co packages flying and stopping, the screen flicking in tangent with Hendron’s music. This odd brilliance made it an incredible original and fulfilling set and despite its complexity, no one was still when her music hit its high marks.

 

Low

Despite being in one of the largest venues at Hopscotch, Low managed to put on one of the most intimate shows of the entire weekend. The three, using just their guitar, bass, and standing drum set, created an autumny atmosphere, every line Alan Sparhawk delivered carrying a heavy amount of melancholy emotion.

While Low, with their big carpet set-up and their sparse instrumentation, could easily have passed for a light band, Sparhawk took plenty of opportunities to grind his guitar and get wrapped up in the passion of playing. But the skill and texture that was brought to the bass and drums also seasoned the room well, making Low’s slow music rich and nearly tear-jerking.

 

Solar Halos

Saturday evening at the Lincoln Theater opened with N.C.-native stoner metal group Solar Halos. This female-fronted three piece opened with their galloping track “The Vast White Plains,” and this was only the beginning to what would become a heavy set list. The following track, “Frost,” was bass driven and would establish their sound as a band.

Between the sludgy chords and droning vocals, Solar Halos capture the sound that any fan of stoner sludge is looking for. Slow, distorted, and heavy easily describe the sound of this new band, and it fits them well. After seeing and hearing this recently created band, I can easily say that they have gained a new fan and have a great chance at quickly moving up in the metal ranks within the next few years.

 

 Evoken

The penultimate band of the evening was N.J.-based funeral doom band Evoken. This set list was low and slow, with the bass guitar having a heavy, driving tone. An interesting addition to the Evoken performance was the presence of Japanese noise veteran Merzbow. Hooking up what looked like a wash pan covered with two metal coils, Merzbow added a distorted feedback to one of the songs of this set list. Between the shrill sounds of Merzbow and the pummeling bass, the sound produced by Evoken was easily one of the most interesting at Hopscotch Festival.

Each song appropriately captured the funeral doom sound, with slow processions and minor keys to add to the saddened sound. After the high feedback, low bass, and slow rhythm, Evoken put on an amazing performance that was one of the best metal performances of the festival.

 

Sleep 

The final band of the evening, and of the Lincoln Theater portion of Hopscotch, was stoner pioneers Sleep. This show marked an important date in metal music, as this show was Sleep’s first in N.C. in almost 20 years, and one of only a handful of shows they have performed since their split in 1998. Playing classics off of their landmark album, Holy Mountain, every track was met with huge cheers from the crowd.

After playing most of the aforementioned album, the true praise was heard when Sleep played their signature song, “Dragonaut.” Although each song was met with cheers, it was not until the opening riff of this track was slowly played that the entire venue exploded with cheers and fists in the air. Following “Dragonaut,” Sleep continued to play through their set list before reaching the final, epic ending that was Dopesmoker. This 63-minute song was another piece that cemented Sleep in the history books of stoner, sludge, doom, and metal as a whole. Playing an excerpt from this 1996 epic, Sleep stretched their performance time to nearly 2 hours, every minute of which was amazing.

 

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Album Review: Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty

 

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By Michael Papich 

In as much as witch house can be considered a genre of music, Chelsea Wolfe is the indie rock equivalent to that. Glitchy, dark visuals. A lumbering mood accompanying genuine beauty and pop appeal.

Ever since her debut album, “The Grime and the Glow,” Wolfe has taken a strange, gothic approach to folk-influenced rock music. Her breakthrough sophomore album, Apokalypsis, or as it is spelled in a much more badass way on the actual packaging,” Ἀποκάλυψις,” stepped deeper into this darkness and largely left the acoustic guitar behind. Then, in a total 180, Wolfe’s third album, Unknown Rooms, was a pure, lo-fi folk album. Sure, she maintained her haunting, siren-like way of singing, but the macabre allure of her earlier work was essentially non-existant.

Now, on her fourth album, Wolfe has brought the best of heaven and hell in the aptly titled Pain is Beauty. Wolfe’s dark songs have never sounded darker and her gorgeous accompanying melodies have never sounded brighter. The album’s opener, “Feral Love,” is easily Wolfe’s most gothic song; her voice drifts like a shadow on a catacomb wall and the guitars and drums form an ambient drone that sounds like it could have come from a 70s horror movie. Other songs like “Kings,” which has an almost demonic, Mordor-like quality to it.

Wolfe also steps up the beauty in her music, with “House of Metal” and “The Warden” sounding the closest to electro-pop Wolfe will likely ever come. Her experimentation with genres helps to create a crack in the heavy cloud of soot that hangs over so much of her music. Other songs manage to keep the beauty of Wolfe’s music while letting it struggle against the chaotic tones she works to cultivate, as evidenced on “Ancestors, the Ancients.”

Not all of Wolfe’s new tinkering with styles always pays off, however. “Destruction Makes the World Burn Brighter” is a pure beach-rock song. Although it’s well executed, she does not bring much new to the genre and it does not bring much to her repertoire either.

“Pain is Beauty” also manages to combine the atmosphere of Wolfe’s darkest works with the song-writing seen in her most folky and intimate tunes. “Lone” and “They’ll Clap When You’re Gone” both take the acoustic guitar and see how much evil can be extracted from the strings and casing. “Reins” and “The Waves Have Come” take long, drone compositions and see how much longing and artistry can be painted on the cavern walls.

Chelsea Wolfe remains a very complex songwriter on her fourth album and challenges the definitions of both dark and ethereal music. Songs written by Wolfe need to be heard to be understood and near-every track on “Pain is Beauty” is well worth the listen.

 

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Concert Review: Run the Jewels

Run The Jewels

By Michael Papich

There were more security than I’ve ever seen at Cat’s Cradle and they were giving people pat downs, which never happens. Anyway, the show started kind of late, and while I was waiting, I got to survey the scenery. I first noticed that there were a lot of seapunks. But then I saw the giant posters on stage for the Run the Jewels tour, and they included the two opening acts: Kool AD and Despot.

For exposition, Run the Jewels is the name rappers Killer Mike and El-P are giving themselves as they work together on an album, this past July ‘s Run the Jewels. It was released for free, which is partially what made the audience so interesting. Both Killer Mike and El-P put out huge albums last year, charging for them as usual, but everyone here was obviously and overwhelmingly here to hear music from Run the Jewels. They were on a huge promotional tour for a free album and it was working.

Anyway, I knew Kool AD was going to be opening, which excited me because I like him and I’ve never seen Das Racist perform live, nor will I ever because they broke up. But I had no idea that Despot was going to be there, which was exciting. His rapping is surprisingly intense and his general persona is funny and odd. Plus, he’s working on new material so I’d get a sample of what’s coming next.

Two  DJs came out on stage after a while and one of them introduced us to him as Amaze 88 and he said he’d be filling in for Despot, who couldn’t be there. Kind of a bummer, but I didn’t know Despot was going to be there in the first place, so I can’t really complain. Amaze 88 rapped for about 20 minutes and warmed up the crowd pretty well. He had a kind of slow flow and wasn’t astounding lyrically, but he had an overall “positive vibe”, which wins me over when it comes to hip hop. He also did a kind of slam poetry acapella song that was cool and had lots of rhyming big, long words together.

Not too long after him, Kool AD came out and he immediately started interacting with the crowd, running around, high-fiving, doing his stage banter. Like I said before, I like Kool AD, but I haven’t heard much of his new solo songs. Despite my lack of familiarity, each track was completely enthralling. They had the typical kind of funny, weird lines I’ve always known him to have (“legalize weed, outlaw credit cards”) and all of the beats were done by the opener, Amaze 88, were impeccable. They reminded me of Madlib beats, almost. And throughout the set, and even during his final, 10 minute song, Kool was constantly engaging the crowd in real ways, responding to what we were doing and saying.

A while after he finished, Killer Mike coolly walked on stage. I was waiting for El-P to come out as well, thinking, “okay, now here’s all the Run the Jewels songs.” But no, he started belting out “Big Beast” from his album last year, R.A.P. Music! The crowd went wild, and as he thanked us for coming out, he went into “Untitled.” The realization then dawned on me: I was not just going to hear Run the Jewels. Both Killer Mike and El-P were going to do sets from both of their albums AND THEN do Run the Jewels.

After the first two tracks, Mike talked more with the audience, talking about how he loved us and wanted us to be nice to each other and encouraged us to sing along loudly with him. With that, he went into an acapella version of “Reagan,” which was incredible. Not only is it a hard-hitting song, both in tone and lyrics, but every line was punctuated with the audience chanting along. From there, he did “Don’t Die” and “R.A.P. Music.” He ended with “God in the Building,” giving a brief talk about the importance of the song and his belief that God is more present at a rap show than at any religious institution. And toward the song’s end, he went into the audience, walked a good way in, and did the song over acapella, stopping every now and then to explain the lines, and when it was over, he disappeared. He completely vanished. He left a complete chill over the audience, leaving us all with this sense of history and power and passion.

Enters El-P blasting “Drones Over BRKLYN.”

El-P’s set up had two “DJs,” but they were more or less playing live instruments. The beats for El-P’s “Cancer for Cure” are a lot more intense and band-like than most hip-hop albums, so they added a whole extra element to the performance. El-P was less about banter and more about pure energy, so from there it was one banger after another, starting with “The Full Reatard,” which had everyone jumping and flailing more than for any other song the entire show.

A while after El-P’s set was concluded (Mr. Killums, unfortunately, never showed up), both Mike and El’s DJs came on stage and started belting out the beat to Run the Jewels’ title track, going right into “Banana Clipper” after that. The two had great stage presence together, pointing and motioning to one another between verses, choreographing poses, all kind of great stage work like that. Before “36’’ Chain,” El-P gave a speech about how everyone in the audience should believe in themselves and be cool – a corny kind of message, but in the context of the show and the music, was real. So much of rap, especially modern, mainstream rap, is about projecting a character, and on the flip side, there’s a whole cultural misunderstanding about the listenership of rap music. But what El, and the song itself, says is as you do what you do, you embody hip hop values and people will be able to tell.

“36’’ Chain” flowed directly into “DDFH,” and from there the show followed the order of the album up until “Job Well Done.” After that, amazingly, they both went into “Butane Anthem” off of Mike’s “R.A.P. Music,” starting by turning the song’s hook into a real kind of old-timey, rallying cry. It was impossibly fun. Then came “Get It,” before which El-P had to literally wring the sweat out of his shirt. It was unbelievable and, as Killer Mike put it, disgusting.

They both slowed things down a ton for “A Christmas Fucking Miracle.” El-P took time the point out how Run the Jewels was a totally free, unfunded album that belonged to the people and presented “Miracle” as a tribute to those who died too early and included Trayvon Martin.

Compared to the rest of Run the Jewels, “Miracle” is a much drearier and grittier song and both Killer P and El-Mike gave it the last remnants of their spirit. They absolutely brought the house down. Watching these two perform as a true pair felt like something totally new was happening in music, something good. If these two continue to make music in such a close capacity, rap music is going to continue to be in a very good place.

 

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