Author Archives: PMA Writers

Review: EMA – The Future’s Void

opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

Erika M. Anderson’s astonishing, chastening 2011 solo debut Past Life Martyred Saints turned intimacy into a form of punishment, both for her touchingly realized characters and her captive listeners. Intensely insular, almost myopically focused on the inner workings of dependence (on persons, drugs) and abuse (of persons, drugs), the broadest PLMS ever skewed was the much-quoted line, “Fuck California!” But Anderson wasted no time reining “California” in and bringing her wholesale rejection of the state back down to a paradoxically more comfortable, claustrophobically personal level: “You made me boring!”

The closest sonic sibling to “California” on her sophomore outing, The Future’s Void, is “Solace,” which also commences in widescreen – “From the gulleys of Atlanta to the plains states where we pray, I can measure all the distance by the way she says my name” – but doesn’t relinquish that sense of grandiosity or expanded geography. In fact, “Solace” grows even more massive in scale as Anderson concludes, “We made the constellations out of the falling stars.” Then “Dead Celebrity” begins, appropriating the melody of the U.S. Military’s mourning hymn “Taps” over sampled fireworks. It’s hardly Japandroids’ “Continuous Thunder,” but it’s similarly sweeping and emphatically unsubtle. The artist’s vision this time has taken a definite turn for the epic, fittingly enough for a record whose punning title conjures up multiple notions of vastness.

One might have surmised as much from advance singles “Satellites” and “So Blonde,” stacked at the top of Side A. The former’s an icy blast of industrial clamor, gothic strings, and unintentionally timely Cold War dystopianism; the latter’s a loose, sweaty, raw-nerve rock workout. Taken together with the third track, the ethereal ballad “3Jane,” these songs deftly preview the record to come and accomplish the difficult task of situating EMA’s work into a clear historical context. With Past Life Martyred Saints, genre classifications beyond “singer-songwriter” proved inadequate (blues? folk? post-rock? drone?) the closest analogues were still only distant cousins (Hole? Cat Power? Xiu Xiu? The Velvet Underground?), and the only explicit reference point was Bo Diddley (“I’m just 22, I don’t mind dying”). The Future’s Void engages openly with the conventions of specific genres, namely goth, industrial, and grunge. At the same time, “Satellites,” “So Blonde,” and “3Jane” also signal a broadening of Anderson’s lyrical horizons, often literally so as landscape figures prominently throughout. Instead of the introspective narratives of PLMS, the new album is heavy on the communal, the political, the national: America is a character in these stories and a target of their criticisms, and distance is thematized in the frequent references to surveillance, cameras, the internet, and wide open Midwestern plains.

It’s worth asking, though, whether these developments are all that positive. It wasn’t so long ago when the mere presence of a guitar in a singer-songwriter’s hands promised a certain kind of audience engagement, an emotional transmission. That model has become increasingly obsolete in recent years, what with the mix-and-match of such conventions heard in, for example, the work of James Blake. Of all the varieties of paranoia expressed during The Future’s Void, the most deeply rooted is a doubt about the validity of the confessional singer-songwriter trope. The initially lovely “3Jane” is less personal than it seems, as it turns sour with an ugly punchline: “I don’t want to sell you anything, don’t want to put myself out there and turn it into a refrain, it’s all just a big advertising campaign,” delivered in the hushed tone most singers reserve for doing exactly that. The question of the ethics of marketing pain is fascinating, thorny, and important, but in order to ask it, Anderson reneges on the principle that made Past Life Martyred Saints, probably this decade’s most powerful entry in the confessional singer-songwriter category, possible in the first place.

In renouncing the potential for that kind of confrontational exhibitionism and artist-audience empathetic connection, she also renounces or at least dilutes all her greatest strengths. It’s possible to connect much that worked about PLMS to its truly horrifying subject matter: the brutal frankness of “Marked” and “Butterfly Knife” made their haunting revelations impossible to avoid, while the collaged lyricism of other songs did the opposite, prettifying tough truths to make them somewhat digestible. These qualities don’t transfer smoothly to the new, more guarded context of The Future’s Void. “Dead Celebrity” is as unsubtle as “Marked” but the heavy-handedness feels overtly clunky when applied to American pop culture, and the song veers into self-parody. So does Lovecraftian rocker “Cthulu,” whose artificial gothic choir might have hit home paired with different material but sounds like campy ‘80s dress-up here. “When She Comes” tries for the accidental-magic refrigerator poetry of a “Breakfast” or “Anteroom” but the closest it manages is a dead-on-arrival scatological metaphor, “She’s my favorite enema.”

In general, the biggest offense The Future’s Void commits is that even when it’s successful, it still sounds cold. Anderson’s melodies are consistently strong – not one of these songs is forgettable – but ultimately uncommunicative. When, at the final refrain of “So Blonde,” the guitars cut out and Anderson holds out a single larynx-shredding note, it’s electrifying, one of only a couple moments on the album when Anderson feels totally present. For The Future’s Void, she’s traded in the tarnished grace and drug-ravaged ten-mile stare of her past life, but it’s not always such a fair deal for the listener. C+


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11 Downloads You Won’t Regret

by ANDREW BRANDT


[Other Downloads You Won't Regret]

Allie X – “Prime”

Yes. Just—just, yes.

Bear Hands – “Bone Digger”

“Bone Digger,” Bear Hands’ latest, is just too funky to have come from human hands.

Big Boi – “Part Time Hater (ft. Kid Cudi & Stevie Wonder)

While Outkast reunion gossip flourished, Big Boi quietly released tracks each week as part of his Mashup Mondays series. “Part Time Hater” is the last of the group.

Cate Le Bon – “He’s Leaving”

For a song about heartbreak, “He’s Leaving” is surprisingly musically laid back. Leave it to Le Bon, the queen of bittersweet tunes, to make it not only work—but prosper.

Earl Boykins – “Leggy Blondes”

I was disappointed to learn that Earl Boykins the band is not equivalent to Earl Boykins the basketball player. Then the music started, and I moved right on to rockin’.

Future – “I Can’t Believe (Moving On)”

Autotune is alive and well on Future’s “I Can’t Believe (Moving On),” a track that won’t see his upcoming record’s final cut.

Future Islands – “Seasons (Waiting on You)”

Future Islands’ tear continued this week with the release of their latest record, Singles. Album opener “Seasons (Waiting on You)” is arguably the spark that started it all, thanks to the band’s stunning rendition of it on Letterman earlier this month.

Hallelujah the Hills – “Pick up an Old Phone”

Hallelujah the Hills is a band without frills, and “Pick up an Old Phone” wears their skin well: plain and simple, it’s just a damn good rock song.

Lotus Plaza – “Indian Paintbrush”

“Indian Paintbrush” is the 13-minute A-side to Lotus Plaza’s (Deerhunter’s Lockett Pundt) most recent, most ambient cassette tape.

Sophia Mitiku – “The Hollow”

“The Hollow” is a beautiful and awe-inspiring introduction to Sophia Mitiku—an artist who recently signed to FatCat Records.

Swans – “A Little God in Our Hands”

Swans is back. I don’t even need to say the rest.

#art


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Review: Pure X – Angel

opinion by MICHAEL WOJTAS

Angel, the third album from Austin’s Pure X, arrives less than a year after the claustrophobic, willfully difficult Crawling Up the Stairs. It was recorded in the pastoral ambiance of a remote, century-old dance hall in the band’s native state. The record features weepy string embellishments, plenty of slide guitar and a litany of song titles (“Valley of Tears,” “Wishin’ On the Same Star”) that could have been pillaged from any dust-covered honky-tonk compilation buried deep in thrift store vinyl stacks. All of which might serve to create a vivid — though wildly misleading — portrait of what the album actually sounds like.

Angel has more in common with the slickly engineered roots rock of the bicentennial U.S. (see: Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Eagles) than, say, Hank William’s run of post-WWII hits. Circa 2014, such radio royalty could hardly be considered unconventional source material; Kurt Vile, the War On Drugs and the Men have already co-opted the most tasteful aspects of coke-fuelled classic rock, especially the kind of meticulous production that allows multiple layers of tenderly picked guitars to stream together as harmoniously as several small channels feeding into one big river. And while that particular lesson surely isn’t lost on Pure X, what’s unexpected about their approach here is how earnestly they employ the mid-‘70s FM tropes their peers have likely dismissed as utterly cornball — namely, nakedly romantic lyrics, 12-strings treated to sound like harps and synths treated to sound like raining glitter.

Angel harkens back to a time when everyone from desert hippie Gram Parsons to crooners such as Al Green and Nashville vets like Mickey Newbury were rethinking the ways soul, classic country and Top 40 rock could fit together. It’s a heartfelt, narcotic odyssey through the seductive pleasures of lava lamps and black light posters, a kind of escapism that comes in the same strange, silk-screened colors as the novelty lighters and t-shirts one might find at a backwoods southwestern gas station.

True, an indie rock ballad like “Fly Away With Me Woman,” buoyed as it is by erotic bass pumps that cocoon the repeated, falsetto-sung title phrase, may not have been conceivable in a world without master satirist Ariel Pink. But Angel seems to exist outside of the viewpoint of contemporary irony, even when Pure X invokes Steely Dan’s silky blue-eyed funk or drops a couplet that might make Lionel Richie swoon. Dual frontmen Jesse Jenkins and Nate Grace lack some of the technical chops of the vocalists they’re indebted to, but they’re true pop believers that can really sell unabashedly silly imagery like “white roses falling.”

As always, the band sounds as entrancingly codeine-slowed as any chopped and screwed DJ from their homeland, and their penchant for mirage-like textures and gluey tempos ensures that Angel, like their previous releases, could fit somewhere in the shoegaze and dream pop spectrum. Yet those typically Brit-associated micro-genres have never sounded so peculiarly American, and if there are any traces of trans-Atlantic influence, they belong to Sade as much as they do Kevin Shields (the carefully modulated distortion and prom night sway of bedroom-bound heartbreaker “Rain” seems to find room for both parties).

Pure X has largely abandoned the reverb-as-a-way-of-life haze of their 2010 debut Pleasure, as well as the stomach turning, insect-like electronic scribbles and tendon-shredding vocals of the harrowing sophomore catharsis Crawling Up the Stairs. Their growth is perhaps best exemplified by one of Angel’s simplest songs, “Every Tomorrow.” A pillowed sanctuary built from just rudimentary woodblock percussion, shooting star synth notes, acoustic golden tones and a few submerged lyrics, it’s perhaps the finest moment on record from an outfit that, just 10 months prior, sounded largely deflated.

Ultimately, it’s the running theme of full immersion in a fantasy world that acts as the tissue joining each Pure X album, and perhaps gets to the heart of the band’s connection to their forbearers. After all, what are records like Rumours or Hotel California if not the studio-aided realizations of their creators’ purest pop reveries, dream material siphoned into gorgeously streamlined packages? While an album-long air of eerie artificiality suggests swimming in the unadulterated bliss of this high comes at a certain cost, Pure X has decided that sustaining the illusion is worth the toll, whatever it may be. “Heaven is a feeling/A whole world I can finally believe in,” explains Grace on “Heaven.” Or, to paraphrase Christine McVie, they’re over their heads, but it sure feels nice. B+


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Review: Liars – Mess

opinion by BRENDAN FRANK

Liars have a pretty good thing going. Every album they release is a blind taste test defined by the complete discontinuity from what’s come before it. Over seven albums, they’ve never felt the need to repeat themselves, sucking dance-punk, noise rock, electronica and a massive amount of general strangeness into the inlet of their fucked up music-making machine. As electrifying as they are, gear changes like Drum’s Not Dead and WIXIW are more or less expected at this point.

The downside of course is if you grow attached any one of the band’s albums, it comes with the promise that there won’t be a sequel. Mess isn’t that, but it’s probably the closest Liars have come. The seventh effort from the New York trio isn’t another wholesale reinvention, rather a head-first dive into a pool they’d previously only dipped a toe in. Vocalist Angus Andrew, utility man Aaron Hemphill and drummer Julian Gross build off of the gaunt minimalism of WIXIW in a very bellicose manner, complete with weapons-grade synthesizers and four-to-the-floor sonic stampedes.

But describing Mess as dance music is a slight misappropriation. It’s Liars’ anti-pop album, danceable in the way that drone music is hummable. This is the Hyde to WIXIW’s Jekyll, a wild, kinetic record that dares you to ponder how music this menacing also actually wants to get your feet moving.

Andrew described the writing and recording of Mess as “instinctual”. Several of the songs have discernible choruses, and there are bangers the likes of which haven’t been seen since “Mr. Your On Fire Mr.”. But despite the more orthodox structure, Mess is quite clearly anti-pop, anxious and dystopian in its vision.

From a technical standpoint, Mess is astonishing. Hooks appear in the strangest places, sometimes deeply embedded into the atonality, sometimes closer to the surface than Liars have ever allowed before. Take “Vox Tuned D.E.D.”, a sludgy stomper that experiments with syncopation and contains an outro that’s downright catchy. Twitchy lead single “Mess on a Mission” is as close as the album gets to accessibility. Synths whizz and gurgle, the percussion so tightly coiled that the arms-up lunacy of the chorus seems necessary to prevent a malfunction.

Sometimes it’s all about restraint, as with closer “Left Speaker Blown”, which bookends the album’s more abstract half, or with the second-generation Kid A product, “Dresswalker”. But sometimes it’s all about scale: “Pro Anti Anti” takes the portentousness of Justice, its fiery beat the kind you’d expect to be played in an occult, subterranean club where you can pay $50 a minute to talk to a hologram of Ralf Hütter.

Through it all, the experimentalism on Mess is a little more reigned in, never straying far from buzzing synths or rhythmic emphasis, even across a range of tempos. Some of the lyrics are clever (“Trash the book the films are based on”), most of them are buried by the production. Some of it is indulgent, all of it is fascinating. As the trio continue to remould and refine their craft, Mess, an album fuelled by impulse, demonstrates their ideological core hasn’t moved an inch. B+


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Review: The War on Drugs – Lost In The Dream

opinion by BRENDAN FRANK

If we’re to look at the methodology of guitar music, we’re within Zeno’s reach of the point where every possible input has been tested to some degree. The debate over whether rock and roll is somewhere between dead and dying has intensified as of late; even titans of the field are feeling the need to come to its defense. Either way, I don’t think you could find many who would argue that there hasn’t been a sea change for the genre in about 20 years – unless you’re willing to consider nu-metal and post-grunge as innovations, which you shouldn’t be.

The challenge, then, lies in finding a particular permutation that’s allows an individual to meaningfully cleave off from their predecessors. Adam Granduciel understands this concept better than most of his peers, and makes a concerted effort to avoid replicating his influences in favour of building off them. Any time there is mention of the man or his band, The War on Drugs, allusions to Dylan, Henley, Springsteen, Petty and Mascis can’t be far behind.

Lost in the Dream, the War on Drugs’ third full-length, is a record cut from illustrious cloth, but that’s by no means a sticking point. Granduciel has found his permutation, and mastered it. This album is derivative in the best way it’s possible to be so: It never makes you pine for the heroes of yesterday, it breathes new life into old ideas and personalizes them. But the real reason this album is such a triumph is that inspired songwriting will never become unfashionable; Lost in the Dream is overflowing with the stuff.

It goes without saying that Lost in the Dream draws from nearly every big name rock star you’d care to name. While the best pop songs tap into some aspect of the collective experience, Lost in the Dream wastes little time establishing a pattern of lonely introspection. Granduciel is feeling his way through life, while shamelessly plugging into the same serotonin-pumping jubilance that makes a hit song a hit song. The music on Lost in the Dream is uplifting, occasionally joyous, in direct contrast to its insular lyrics. Even when he’s in the presence of others, Granduciel is isolated. More often than not he’s addressing someone directly, or recalling a shared memory, and his journey inwards allows his personality to shine through.

When he set out to start Lost in the Dream in 2011, Granduciel did so with input from his bandmates, long-running bassist Dave Hartley and pianist Robbie Bennett. Uninvolved with much of the writing/recording of the band’s excellent sophomore effort, Slave Ambient, Hartley and Bennett were, uh, instrumental in building Lost in the Dream from the ground up. A narcotized blend of krautrock, Americana and sun-soaked dream pop, this album is meticulously written and produced, but the detail-rich arrangements don’t feel fussed-over. Instead, the songs are fleshed out, well-oiled and accomplished, preserving most of their momentum even as they ride on into extended runtimes.

Bennett’s presence in particular is felt immediately, as he anchors the wafting, ambient Americana of opener “Under the Pressure”. Even amidst the featherweight textures, Granduciel’s words carry weight. “When it all breaks down/And we’re runaways standing in the wake of our pain/We stare straight into nothing/But we call it all the same”, he sings. Bennet’s work offsets some of the gloom and provides an easy entry point into an album that has a lot of sorrow under its surface.

Lost in the Dream is split down the middle between pensive numbers that slowly imprint themselves with multiple listens, and high-energy jams that hook you in and refuse to let go. “Suffering” qualifies as the former, with Granduciel channeling former bandmate Kurt Vile, stabilizing the album’s recurring themes of regret and renewal with some evocative prose: “Like a snowflake through the fire/I’ll be frozen in time”. Then there’s “Eyes To The Wind”, a strikingly overstuffed ballad with the record’s thesis at its heart: “I’m a bit run down here at the moment”.

But Lost in the Dream is never more captivating than when it’s rocking out, delivering anthems in the making. “An Ocean In Between the Waves” brilliantly recaptures the spirit of 80s pop radio with relentless percussion and a searing guitar solo that stands among the best in recent memory. With its warm, reverb-rich production, lead single “Red Eyes” is a bracing journey that slowly expands until you think it’s about to burst. And then it does, spilling out exuberant, molten riffs and resonant melodies.

All told, The War on Drugs have a little something for everyone, yet they never feel like they’re making concessions. In reimagining the vision of his idols, Granduciel has put his own stamp on a storied musical lineage. The real pleasure comes from tracing the growth that the project has undergone as he continues to let us venture deeper into his own mind and heart. Its nerves are uneasy, but Lost in the Dream stands as Granduciel’s most open-armed record yet, filled to the gills with selfdom and sprawling musicality. B+


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Review: Say Yes to Perfect Pussy


opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

I don’t know about you, but for me there’s sometimes just no defense. Some music sounds like the direct molten extract of the soul…or something. There’s always so much to be said about production and composition and execution and context, but it doesn’t always feel like it matters. Last year Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety and Deafheaven’s Sunbather did a mean one-two on my view of the world and my ability to function in it, but trying to quantify that effect for you, the curious listener/reader, in terms of technicalities like “crescendo” and generalities like “vision” and “audacity” seems – not false, but inadequate. I did my best anyway, because it’s my job to tell you what this music is supposedly doing and how well it accomplishes that, etc., but I confess to you now that there’s only so much I can tell you (below, I’ll try) before I hit a wall. You can run a web search for “Perfect Pussy,” but most of the results won’t be for the Syracuse-based punk quintet. Pussy Riot comment that the word “Riot” is the part of their band name that gets them into trouble in their increasingly terrifying homeland, yet “in America, they seem much more afraid of the other word.” Ah, us repressed Americans and the pages upon pages of search results we can’t look at on our office computers. With Perfect Pussy, forget “Pussy”; they knew what they were doing when they paired it with, you know, that other word.

It’s strange to think a work so brief will be a part of my life for so long.

Someone gave this band a record deal with a well-known indie (Captured Tracks FTW). Bless that person. Last year’s I have lost all desire for feeling was a four-song, honest-to-god cassette tape that went digital via Bandcamp but miraculously never leaked – good for the band’s finances, bad for hype and exposure in 2014. Lupita Nyong’o just won a richly deserved Academy Award for her debut film performance in Steve McQueen’s galvanizing 12 Years A Slave; Perfect Pussy kicked up a shitstorm of buzz with a fucking cassette. Sometimes these things have a way of working out. Maybe it’s just that the best art finds a way to get where it needs to go, making a travesty of traditional industry avenues in the process if necessary. Perfect Pussy have a band name that’s hard to market and they make brutal punk rock that’s an equally hard sell to anyone not acquainted with the pleasures of a good basement show. But the cassette found a wider audience, an influential one at that, on its own strengths, and I’m so happy it did. I mean, when someone with the power to help this band make a living out of its music heard I have lost all desire for feeling, what were they going to do? Not offer them a contract? Please.

Say Yes To Love is twenty-three minutes long; strange to think a work so brief will be a part of my life for so long. There is no preamble unless you count eight seconds of static: once “Driver” puts the light to the touch paper, you’re either out for the count or you’re already hooked for the long haul. It’s a bracing two minutes of screeching, runaway rock music that grinds to a cacophonous pileup, with Meredith Graves breathing fire from start to finish. The mix on this record is a little cleaner than on I have lost all desire for feeling, but that’s not saying much; Graves, on the other hand, says a whole lot that I can’t make out. She says, “You can’t just take your own life”; she says, “I’ll tell you, it never gets better”; she says, “A fucking river to some other world…he dragged me, I have a history of surrender”; she says, definitively, “You don’t know shit about me.” She talks someone off the ledge without sounding all that optimistic, shrieks about imagination and choices and something about how there are “many paths.” There’s a lot going on in “Driver,” and it’s just the first two minutes of Say Yes To Love. This is music that operates at full force at all times. Guitarist Ray McAndrew, keyboardist Shaun Sutkus, bassist Greg Ambler, and drummer Garrett Koloski form a merciless, airtight unit submerged deep in a bed of feedback that bludgeons the listener first into submission and then, impressively, past pain into bliss. Say Yes To Love rocks hard as fuck but by the time I hit the amber-glowing third track “Big Stars” for the first time, I was in a place of ecstatic calm. “I am full of light, I am filled with joy, I am full of peace. I had this dream that I forgave my enemies,” she sang on “I,” from I have lost all desire for feeling. It’s just a dream, the enemies are real, and it’s that knife-edge balance between inner serenity and outward violence this band strikes and holds for the duration of the album.

What makes Meredith Graves extraordinary is that even when she is not comprehensible, she is utterly believable.

In the midst of it all, Graves — formerly of the also-excellent Syracuse trio Shoppers (pick up their LP Silver Year when you’ve played out Say Yes To Love) – steals the show even though she’s mostly impossible to decipher; “I want to fuck myself and I want to eat myself” is still all I can get out of “Dig” after all these listens. Forthright in interviews about her debt to critical theorists like Barthes, her interest in contemporary art, and her investment in staying on the right side (that is, the vanguard) of cultural politics, there’s clearly a lot of meaning in her words, but what makes Graves extraordinary is that even when she’s not comprehensible, she’s utterly believable. If you can’t quite understand her, you can somehow still understand her – how could you not, when she hollers with such pure force and passion? Her pipes are as raw and powerful as her peer Mish Way (of Vancouver punks White Lung), but although Graves seethes with as much rage as Way at times, her perspective puts me more in mind of Marnie Stern, converting the toughest shit life can put a person through into strength and positivity because what the hell else are you going to do with it? Graves at least dreams of forgiving her enemies, and that beautiful truth bleeds through the distortion of the music and the pain of its circumstances. Despite the sheer quantity of words in these songs, Say Yes To Love hits on a level slightly beneath the relatively specific one afforded by language. But it hits there hard, all at once, triumphantly. It hits with precision and energy. It hits with, I don’t know, love? That’s not a common thing in punk, but it’s also not a white flag. “When did we all decide to give up? Since when do we say yes to love?” Graves roars at the heart-stopping climax of the band’s best song to date, the radiant “Interference Fits.” The song’s about rejecting wedding dresses, married life, and, oh god, children; “He makes me sick, he makes the water undrinkable,” Graves spits. She won’t settle; her love is real and it’s radical.

“Interference Fits” fades out with drifting white noise, a trick the band uses again for the segue from “Advance Upon The Real” into the composed, kraut-y groove of closer “VII” – they know we need to catch our collective breath. Hell, they probably need the break, too. Where do these people get the energy to do this for twenty-three minutes? Even they don’t seem to know: on a non-album live recording of “Bells,” Graves banters, “This is the longest set we’ve ever played. If I die, you guys can divvy up my shit.” But when I hear that, I just think back to the brilliant final lyric of “Driver”: “I want everything I want before I die!” I guess she understandably just wants to make it to the end of the set before she goes. The stakes of this music are so high – dizzyingly high, perilously so. Life-or-death high. Perfect Pussy are so good, it ought to embarrass most of their peers. Feeling is the most difficult thing there is, so difficult the band lost all desire for it, but losing the desire to feel isn’t the same as actually going numb. Haven’t you listened to what I’ve been telling you? Haven’t you listened to Perfect Pussy? Going numb – not a chance of that.  A

Review: <i>Say Yes</i> to Perfect Pussy


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Review: MØ – No Mythologies To Follow

opinion by JEAN-LUC MARSH

Synth-pop is a tired beast. A genre that reached its apogee in the eighties demands serious innovation on the part of the artist in order to remain relevant—and riveting—in the internet age. Scandinavia seems to have a monopoly on synth-pop to this day, so no one bats an eye when some new upstart emerges with a catchy track. The secret to success is consistent originality.

Enter MØ. Her debut single, “Maiden,” meshed well with contemporary trends, while displaying some eccentric spark, but was to remain a curious footnote on the long history of synth-pop. However, Karen Marie Ørsted harbored much greater ambitions. In the following year, the hits kept on coming. By the autumn of the same year, the Danish synth maven dropped her Bikini Daze EP, a smash that cemented her status as an ascendant talent and turned No Mythologies To Follow, her debut record, into one of the most anticipated of the new year.

Ørsted’s debut LP wears its history heavily, composed of equal parts previously released and new material. It is a risk for an artist as dependent on earworm shock value as Ørsted, but a deliberate one that yield dividends at the end of the day. She intertwines the two timelines deftly, allowing the old guard to bear the weight at significant junctures that call for a tried-and-true hit (“XXX 88,” “Waste of Time”), while allowing the freshmen class plentiful opportunities to prove its mettle. The oldest cuts, “Pilgrim” and the aforementioned “Maiden,” contrast against the lush production of the more recent work, providing breathing room between sweeping synth epics at the slight expense of continuity, while “Never Wanna Know” remains the irrepressible torch song it always was.

Lead single, “Don’t Wanna Dance,” while an undeniable jam, is uncharacteristic of the album as a whole. It is the sole extant species of a genus underrepresented on No Mythologies To Follow: the mindless pop song. This is Ørsted at her most carefree: high BPM, easily accessible chorus, and Top 40 structures in place; and atypical, something she addressed in a recent interview, explaining that “Don’t Wanna Dance’ is one of the only songs, maybe the only one, which is looking on the bright side of being young, confused and lost in society.”

Elsewhere on No Mythologies To Follow, unease and disorientation lurk, eloquently camouflaged amidst the neon soundscape by clinging to the lyrics. “What am I to do in the city if I can’t have it all and I just want to feel pretty?” asks Ørsted on otherwise-upbeat opener “Fire Rides.” Meanwhile, “Red in the Grey” cites the existential remembrance that “every night was cold,” and references a “house of horrors,” before closing with a caterwaul that declares a desire to “go back to you someday.” Yet, Ørsted refrains from exposing herself entirely, instead opting to cloak these vulnerabilities in riotous cavalcades of synthesizers, strings, and siren songs.

The tempo only slows for “Dust Is Gone,” a mid-album ballad that demonstrates Ørsted’s vocal prowess at the expense of instrumentation. It essentially functions as “Never Wanna Know” 2.0, with heavier strokes of heartbreak, and a greater focus on lyrics such as “Salvation will come and break our hearts,” and “I would’ve liked this to work / But life had other plans.”

Album closer “Glass,” a crash course in stuttering synths, towering crescendos, and concise lyrics, wrapped in equal parts whimsy and weltschmerz, serves as the best introduction to MØ for the uninitiated. Complex and euphoric, it sums up the psychology of No Mythologies To Follow in one fell swoop. “Why do everyone have to grow old?” wails Ørsted over a twinkling array, sounding manic and galvanic at the same time, infusing the question with a desperate, transfixing energy. The turbulence of your mid-twenties never seemed so tantalizing. B+



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Review: !!! – THR!!!ER

by JEAN-LUC MARSH

Five albums and over a decade into their career, !!! continue to deliver music that caters to the most primeval desire of any music listener: the need to dance. In this regard, THR!!!ER does not disappoint. Saturated with rousing jams steeped in a newly honed funk direction, THR!!!ER succeeds in its singular goal with flying colors.

Album opener “Even When The Water’s Cold” sets the dynamic tone early on with a spellbinding rhythm featuring an addictive guitar loop. Lyrically and structurally, “Even When The Water’s Cold” is nothing remarkable, aside from the absolutely delectable bridge in which lead vocalist Nic Offer sings in a soft, near-whisper over a fading, ethereal piano, but it serves its purpose, and will have you dancing about the living room in less than a minute.

“One Girl / One Boy” is unapologetically funky. Guest vocalist Shannon Funchess makes her first appearance on the album, serving as an ideal counterweight to Offer’s deep timbre, and delivers a soulful and emotive verse amidst the seventies-inspired melody. In its second half, “One Girl / One Boy” takes one last turn, incorporating some house influences into the instrumental interlude to remind the listener that this is, in fact, 2013.

“Slyd” and “Californiyeah” both suffer from the fact that they share catastrophically odd opening moments. The former begins with tribal drums only to be saved by a female recording proclaiming “No, that’s weird,” while the latter starts off with a few microseconds of guttural noises. “Slyd” is a tightly coiled neo-funk noir tune, heavy with menacing bass, the distorted vocals of Offer, and feminine bursts of light offered by Funchess, that expands into a hand-clapping nocturnal dance floor jam. It is unlike anything else on THR!!!ER, offering a sleek take on the funk that manifests itself in more luminous and obvious ways throughout the rest of the album. “Californiyeah,” on the other hand, is the quintessential ode to the Golden State. “California save my heart / Currently it’s torn apart / I’ll make it back there someday / If I have my way,” proclaims Offer in the chorus, extolling the therapeutic properties of the great West. Then he turns around and launches an insult, singing “Now I miss California almost as much as I miss you / But why would I live somewhere where the bars close at two,” implying a more complicated relationship. Where the lyrics leave some ambiguity, the melody does not, growing into a funky, western-influenced, cavalier rhythm around the two and a half minute mark.

THR!!!ER is a remarkably fluid album, transitioning seamlessly between songs and only rarely getting mired in moments of subpar music. “Get That Rhythm Right,” the brooding barracuda in the school of otherwise colorful tracks, is one of these unfortunate moments. Offer’s vocals seem downright creepy, auto tuned into an unearthly growl that is more fear-provoking than catchy. Without the dance floor glitter found on the rest of THR!!!ER, “Get That Rhythm Right” simply passes by in ignominy, leaving with as little fanfare as it arrived. “Fine Fine Fine” is in much the same boat. Heavy on rock and light on funk, the resulting sound is tired and trite, something that can be found on any dime-a-dozen rock album recorded with drums and guitar.

!!! show their roots on album closer “Station,” a rowdy rah-rah banger with a melodic avalanche of electric guitar, drums, and tambourine. The song swells into a wildly intense chorus with the strength to evolve into a dive bar anthem. Then just as quickly as it comes, “Station” dissolves into silence. THR!!!ER has passed you by in forty minutes of dance-funk bliss, lifting you out of your seat while leaving little impression otherwise. That’s the point of dance music though: to make you temporarily forget your troubles in a frenetic frolic. !!! have mastered that concept and produced through THR!!!ER, the sonic embodiment of such an idea. [B-]

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Review: Young Galaxy – Ultramarine

by JEAN-LUC MARSH

To call Ultramarine a simple dream pop confection would be a disservice. Astral and poetic though it may be, the restrictive labels of genre serve more to pigeonhole than categorize an album of this magnitude and thought. A heavenly amalgam of disco nouvelle, ethereal synthesizers, and the ceremonial voice of now sole vocalist, Catherine McCandless, Ultramarine contains all of the necessary elements to send it beyond the stratosphere, into the celestial realm that Young Galaxy’s name lays claim to.

“Pretty Boy” forms the first and most integral step of this otherworldly odyssey. The cordial clatter of estival drum machines embraces the listener in the clement grasp of a hypnagogic summer. “When we were lost / we found each other / and headed sightless for the city,” sings McCandless in a voice saturated with longing. Violins emerge from the ether en masse like fireflies, filling the air with phosphorescent flecks of alternating melancholy and joy. The moment flickers and fails in a kaleidoscope of conflicting emotions. “You’re my pretty boy, always” she warbles, holding on to the melody for one moment more before it disintegrates into the dusk, initiating the dream.

The anthemic zenith and magnum opus of Ultramarine comes in the form of third track “New Summer.” What begins as a dissonant assortment of buzzing synths over a background of what seems like pitched whale calls, coalesces into the most magnetic, transfixing four minutes on the album. “Feels like a dream tonight / A little break time / ‘Cause we howl at the moon,” croons McCandless in a gentle, rhythmic caress, expanding into a midsummer hymnal. Beneath the glossy instrumental dimension, lies a layer of nostalgia intensifying the transitory beauty that “New Summer” attempts, and succeeds in capturing. “It never would have been as good if built to last / We never would have stood a chance if it didn’t move fast.” Time comes to a standstill, and the last moments of “New Summer” are reserved for hopeless dreamers who want to waltz the night away while howling at moon, preserving the perfection of a moment that will never repeat itself.

Nothing else on Ultramarine matches the wilting splendor so carefully cultivated on “New Summer,” though gems abound. Unabashedly resplendent with Balearic synths and a sing-along chorus set to a captivating calypso cadence, “Fall For You” abandons all hinting toward a tropical ambiance and embodies the paradise that lies beyond the celestial halo. “Hard to Tell” grows on the listener, its eccentricity and skyward piano grounded by the McCandless’ contralto as she sings “Bring me back to your forest home / and marry me under its trees.” The intrepid rhythm of “What We Want” is funky enough to resemble a blurry figment of a Dadaistic dream, and perfect for a cosmic dance.

“In Fire” stands out for a different reason, marking the only weak moment on Ultramarine. A black sheep amidst the airy, whimsical flock, its relatively gloomy melody and lyrics such as “Worker bees under a spell / digging unmarked graves,” set it apart from an otherwise upbeat collection.

The dark detour of “In Fire” aside, Ultramarine is a last refuge for dreamers; a compilation meant to be played while speeding down some deserted country road at nightfall with the wind in your hair and the stars in your eyes. Time is fragmented and frozen, and urgency becomes but a distant triviality. However, what truly makes Ultramarine penetrate beyond the passé realm of feel-good electropop, are the subliminal hints of evanescent existence scattered amidst the stardust. All dreams must come to an end. Until then, McCandless intends to make the most of what precious time remains. “Come sleepwalk with me,” she beckons, and with that she whisks you away to a sparkling synthetic azure. [A-]

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Review: Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost

by RAJ DAYAL

Iron and Wine is the stage name of Sam Beam, and artist who comes equipped with warm, hushed vocals and an imitation-worthy beard. It’s easy for casual listeners to place Iron and Wine in the finely crafted box of Folk-inspired, Indie-rock. However, those listeners would be mostly wrong.

The earliest albums from Iron and Wine were modest recordings with wistful instrumentation—essentially Beam on acoustic guitar—and forlorn lyricism, but still contained the hint of musical playfulness that suggested that there was always something more.  But after a couple of albums, Beam began to show his hand and started experimenting with arrangements and styles pushing him well past the acoustic troubadour trappings. Now with Ghost on Ghost, the fifth studio release, Beam along with producer Brian Deck and a host of musicians including members from Dylan’s band, The Tin Hat Trio and Antony and Johnsons, Iron and Wine continues this evolution by crafting a lush album of AM radio pop—complete with funk and jazz grooves.

The album opener, “Caught in the Briars,” begins with a messy, percussive jangle; however, quickly settles into a bright pop song with Beam’s trademark mid-afternoon-warm vocals. The track includes marshmallow-soft horn accents and even closes with a time signature jazz shift. The song eases along, but it’s clear that Beam hasn’t abandoned his penchant for despondent love songs: “Where all of the naked boys/ Lay down beside her/ Sing her the saddest song/ All caught in the briars.”

The trend of warm upbeat numbers continues throughout the album, especially on songs like, “Grace for Saints and Ramblers.” While the 70’s-inpired arrangement offers hand-claps, an organ and lilting strings, Beam slyly sings, “Fountains full of penny wishes, parties full of pretty pictures/ Side by side with the birds and bees/ And we never said grace and never ever took a knee/ With the saints and ramblers, movie star handlers … But it all came down to you and I.” The song, emblematic of much of the album, is not so much a love song, but rather a meditation about living in an imperfect world yearning to be free.

On another standout track, “Low Light Buddy of Mine,” a perfectly timed saxophone solo accents the slow groove-funk throbbing. This song highlights Beam’s deft skill of changing the context of the familiar and making it improbably sublime. When Beam intones with hushed vocals, “I love you and you love me/ There’s new fruit humming in the old fruit tree,” what could easily be taken as lustful intimation, sounds instead like a warning.

On the ebullient, “Joy,” Beam’s reverb-laden voice just seems to float and linger as he puts aside the orchestration. The song seems to barely exist—as if it’s a nod to Beam’s acoustic past. When Beam explains in his soulful falsetto, “Deep inside the heart of this crazy mess/ I’m only calm when I get lost within your wilderness,” he reveals the heartfelt, poetic daydreaming that’s really at the heart of Iron and Wine. Apparently, love doesn’t come easy. [B+]

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