Author Archives: Ian Cohen

Earl Sweatshirt: “Whoa”

Until we hear Doris in its entirety, every Earl Sweatshirt track is going to feel like a comeback, or at least a reintroduction-- and as Tyler, the Creator helpfully reminds us at the top of "Whoa," Earl's last single was the unusually plainspoken and revealing "Chum", which makes "Whoa" on some "ol' 2010 shit about...fuckin' and fuck and all that." As usual, Earl makes good on that promise by maintaining a frightening stability that counterbalances Tyler, sounding simultaneously in love with the possibilities of rap and wearied, burdened by the demands of his talent.  "Whoa"'s roots can be traced back to a time when Def Jux and Star Trak were assumed to be competing for hip-hop fans' attention. The influences are every bit as dense as Earl's macabre threats, but the larger context is that you really are hearing a guy who still maintains the original allure of Odd Future's 2010 output: straight-up rap-for-rap's sake intended to please no one other than the people making it, but too accomplished and unique to be ignored.

[from Doris; forthcoming via Tan Cressida/Columbia]

Smith Westerns: “Varsity”

Front page photo by Sandy Kim

Soft Will is Smith Westerns' third LP, so you figure that their age should no longer be a main talking point-- and yet, here's the lead single, "Varsity". Even getting past the title, as Cullen Omori's vocals strain and charm, you sense the emotional tenor of someone who's right back in high school trying to be liked, and if all fails, trying just to be noticed. The band also maintains the inherent, youthful swagger it takes to be a straightforward power-pop band, and thus on something of an aesthetic island, in 2013. More pointedly, as with Dye It Blonde, Smith Westerns use reverb in an ingenious way that puts you in the clouded, overwhelmed mind of a teen at his first keg party - there's a heightened sense of presence and possibility even while everything feels a bit soused.

While they're most often likened to British rock bands, that reverb actually puts them in the lineage of Galaxie 500. There's a similarly stoned logic to the opening salvo, "I thought I was a loner until I went out on my own." For the rest of "Varsity"'s four minutes, Omori takes comfort in the "four-leaf clover" of a girl that can solve this riddle of wanting to be unique and loved - and so "Varsity"'s connotations of high school accomplishment makes sense, as it evokes a time when your main goals seem far-fetched and yet so well-defined that they manage to feel achievable.

Smith Westerns: "Varsity" on SoundCloud.

[from Soft Will; out 06/11/13 via Mom + Pop]

Drake: “5AM in Toronto”

Goddamn, Drake's glad y'all set it off. No matter how many people still took issue with the very public details of his unconventional past, the insistent hook from "Started From The Bottom" did nothing to stem Drake's hit streak-- but you got the feeling that it was a setup for something like "5AM in Toronto." The closest thing to the hook is its title, giving us a picture of a restless Drake still operating from a position of strength. He ended Take Care promising his "junior and senior [records] will only be meaner," and he's making good on that promise for three minutes over a Boi-1da beat that glimmers but knows better than to get in Drake's way. He's at once exasperated at having to air out weak rappers, unappreciative rap listeners and hawking media, but damn if he doesn't sound like taking care of business is pleasure.

A poorly kept secret is that Drake is a great rapper that's pantheon-level when he's angry (see: "Pop That", "Stay Schemin'", "Headlines") and here, he's rapping like he's the guy who gave Sway his first TV. Pointing out the quotables-- and there are many-- feels redundant, seeing as how many of them are already meme-ing their way to ubiquity. Although you might as well catch up with his boast that hip-hop sounds like "Drake featuring Drake," probably the most egocentric use of the third person in rap history, which is saying something. But that's Drake for you: someone whose self-absorption is so strong, it can control hip-hop's orbit all by itself.

Drake: "5AM in Toronto" on SoundCloud.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Sacrilege”

Front page photo by Dan Martinson

"Maps" celebrates its 10th birthday this year, so it's worth remembering how long Yeah Yeah Yeahs have been working the same M.O.: temporarily stun listeners with an overt pop maneuver, subvert expectations, and come out on the other end making it look like the right move after all. But it would be a huge understatement to say "Sacrilege" merely ups the ante from the slick, direct, and very underrated Show Your Bones or the glitz of It's Blitz: this is going all in during a game of strip poker, and their brazen challenge is admirable.

The title itself can be taken as some sort of metatextual skeleton key to unlock everything else that's going on: the first sound you hear is the kind of "Is that...bass?" riff that threw down the "fuck what you know" gauntlet on the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army", Karen O falls for an angel who falls from the sky, the constant clank of Brian Chase's cymbals and Nick Zinner's guitar curlicues evoke "Gimme Shelter" with an exaggerated gospel swing-- and, oh yeah, there's an actual gospel choir, catching the holy ghost while being slightly distorted by its superproducer pairing of Nick Launay and Dave Sitek. Whether "Sacrilege" is indicative of the rest of Mosquito is unclear, but they've been a big pop-rock band for much longer than they were a bunch of beer-soaked art brats, so "Sacrilege" is Yeah Yeah Yeahs being themselves.

[from Mosquito; out 04/16/13 via Interscope]

Jackson Scott: “That Awful Sound”

Jackson Scott's Soundcloud page has three songs and not much more. We know he's from Asheville, North Carolina; there's also a link to his Tumblr, which hosts a faded Polaroid and absolutely nothing else. Considering the slackened style of music he leans toward, it's likely this is more a result of self-effacement, rather than a masterplan to generate intrigue, since forensics analysis on Scott's "That Awful Sound" reveals DNA from the entire bloodline of home-recorded, scrappy indie-pop.

The mazelike structure and wiggly guitar leads of Built to Spill, Elephant 6's sped-up vocals and hard-strummed acoustics, Bradford Cox's reverence for four-track recording and countless other minor figures pop up during this instantly ingratiating and puzzling song. It's a style that's undoubtedly tied to the 1990s and familiar with older heads, but it sounds perfect on him. "That Awful Sound" is proof that the best way to pay tribute is to add to its legacy.

Jackson Scott: "That Awful Sound" on SoundCloud.

KEN mode: “The Terror Pulse”

"The Terror Pulse" is not an instrumental, but I'm willing to speculate KEN mode would've kept the same title even if it was. The Winnipeg band isn't looking to capture fear, or some kind of flight-or-fight response. This is the stuff you have to preface with adjectives like "abject" and "paralyzing": the sickly lurch feels both too fast and too slow, Jesse Matthewson's shards of guitar trigger paresthesia with each prickly blast, and the whole thing gets that aluminum taste in your mouth. So when Matthewson finally does take the mic, his first words are "I'm not playing!", which is fitting.

By the song's end, KEN mode lock into a chorus of "Say goodbye to the man that you once knew," and Matthewson either sounds like he feels like an emotional nailbomb or he's actually strapped with C4-- or, both, it's tough to say. Either way, "The Terror Pulse" makes for gripping, completely antisocial metal, the kind where your fellow man just looks like collateral damage in waiting. It's a feeling "The Terror Pulse" allows us to completely revel in for five very important minutes so we can go on with the rest of our day like civilized human beings.

[from Entrench; out 03/19/13 via Season of Mist]

Kurt Vile: “Wakin on a Pretty Day”

As a song title, Kurt Vile's "Wakin on a Pretty Day" is on-the-nose, a mood/weather-changing call for "Serenity Now" that'll either get your mind right or encourage you to call in sick. It's just that easy to sink into, largely because it maintains the same comforting qualities that defined Smoke Ring for My Halo: close-mic'd, drawled vocals, shimmery acoustic guitars, squishy flanger. What distinguishes "Wakin" isn't so much its length but its meditative simplicity. Vile seizes on a few small gestures, riffs, and phrases, giving ample space for your own thoughts to give them concrete meaning. "Wakin On A Pretty Day" embodies Kurt Vile's ability to make songs that sound like they could've been written in two minutes and could also go on for twenty, with no complaints from our end.

[from Wakin on a Pretty Daze; out 04/09/13 via Matador]

James Blake: “Retrograde”

Up to this point, James Blake has gone to great lengths to prove he's a fighter, not a lover. Or, at least, someone who can see battle lines in any artistic pursuit-- in between "CMYK" playing chicken with sample clearance lawsuits and his fears over the purity of dubstep, there was 2011's James Blake, an album where he wrote songs (well, some of them) and sang them while appearing extremely uncomfortable with the connotations of "singer-songwriter". They were pretty, but goddamn, were they serious.

Maybe he's mellowed with age: "Retrograde", the first single from the forthcoming Overgrown, is a straight-up soul crooner where his characteristic production details are still in place, but they're in the service of arrangement rather than disorientation. Those wordless falsetto curlicues recall none other than D'Angelo's "Brown Sugar", as the snap of the snare suggests that this is the sort of steady pop you typically get from ?uestlove. Even though the same buzz-synths from "Unluck" and "I Never Learnt To Share" reappear, their jutting points are shorn off. And his big vocal trick isn't some kind of electronic manipulation, but rather an heretofore unheard lower register where he intones, "We're alone now." Hell, it may just be a love song and another subtle attack to anyone who thought he was simply an interpretor rather than a songwriter capable of giving the public his own "Limit To Your Love." "Retrograde" sweetly says, "Yeah, I can do that too."

[from Overgrown; out 04/08/13 via Republic]

My Bloody Valentine: “Only Tomorrow”

If you spent Saturday night watching your spouse, child, or other loved ones sit in front of their computers refreshing mybloodyvalentine.org for literally hours, I'd like to apologize on behalf of all of us for fighting over the difference between a 404 and a 403.6 error, and then sounding like we just experienced an alien abduction during our initial listen to My Bloody Valentine's first album in over 21 years, mbv: "Details? What's important is that this actually fucking happened."

The album's second track, "Only Tomorrow", establishes mbv as something different than Loveless. The song's playful (gasp!) drum shuffle reminds you that MBV are four living, breathing human beings who do human things. And that anthemic guitar lead that takes up the last two minutes-- is it possible that Kevin Shields has taken a shine to playing festivals since the band reunited? For the headphone-captive audience, there's still a vault-clearing of studio trickery: the punctuating gaps of harsh silence, the point where Bilinda Butcher's voice morphs into an ascendant quasar, Shields' guitar mirroring the AOL retro-futurism of the album cover and imitating a crackling modem. But when you hear Butcher navigate those jazzy, complex chord changes that mesh with Shields' beautifully discordant guitar squalls, it's unmistakeably them. Which is the unfair advantage My Bloody Valentine have over all their shoegaze imitators: they're allowed to sound like My Bloody Valentine. "Only Tomorrow" is an awesome display of them being not-quite themselves.