Category Archives: Album Reviews

REVIEW: Turtlenecked – Pure Plush Bone Cage

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By Arya Imig

Turtlenecked is the latest, but perhaps greatest, find by Good Cheer Records, who have dedicated themselves to chronicling the emergence of the best potential Portland has to offer. They succeed. Turtlenecked mastermind Harrison Smith exemplifies the aesthetic the label best strives for with his debut album, Pure Plush Bone Cage. Songwriting comes first for Smith and you can tell by the myriad of sound that are taken into account into developing his sound.

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REVIEW: Björk – Vulnicura

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By Hollister Dixon

It should really come as no surprise to anybody who has ever listened to me talk about my favorite subcategory of music, otherwise known as “sad bastard music”, that I’ve long been a collector of miserabilia. Since I was very young, I gravitated towards music made by sad people about sad things, in a way that felt less like emotional schadenfreude, and more like commiseration. It’s hard to really explain why I am the way I am, but the subtle art of heartwrenching songwriting is something I treasure and hold dear whenever I find it.

It’s weird to hold the concept of “breakup music” in my mind while thinking about Björk. She’s always been an incredibly personal songwriter, to the degree that her most tender, or beautiful, or pained music feels as though she made the songs as a way of trying to simply feel just a little less than she does after she’s done. Bitterness, however, is an emotion I’m not used to. Searching through her catalog, it’s hard to find a song that I would call “bitter”, much less a full album of those songs. And yet, here on Vulnicura, Björk’s 9th album, we find the artist singing about abandonment and betrayal and loss in ways that feel almost alien.

Vulnicura‘s structure is meant to emulate the steady and painful decline of the artist’s relationship with her longtime partner/collaborator/father-of-her-child Matthew Barney, a progression which is annotated in the album’s liner notes. The album’s opener, “Stonemilker”, is labelled as “9 months before” (most likely in the final strains of that relationship, where it was obvious that the end was near but was far enough out that it could still be saved), and goes up to “11 months after” with “Notget”, with intimate moments in between – some broad, and some incredibly precise (“History of Touches” documents, in painful detail, the exact moment the relationship died). Like any great breakup record (I’m looking right at you, Blood on the Tracks), Vulnicura is one that will never be separated from the reason it exists, which is a shame, considering how emotionally resonant the album’s material is even without the backstory.

With that in mind, for just a moment, let’s talk about the album itself: after repeated listens, this album holds up as some of Björk’s strongest material to date in both songwriting and arranging, on par with the superhuman craftsmanship of Homogenic and Vespertine. Her style is 100% unmistakable, and even though she worked with two brilliant producers (Venezuela’s Arca and Yorkshire’s Haxan Cloak), their styles merge perfectly with her’s to the point where it’s very easy to forget that she didn’t do everything herself. The music swings wildly from discordant beats (“Notget”) to perfect string arrangements (“Stonemilker”), and despite the sometimes disparate styles, nothing ever feels out of place. The sequencing is close to perfect, and even though Antony & the Johnsons’ frontperson Antony Hegarty feels incredibly out of place in “Atom Dance”, I couldn’t imagine the song without her voice on it.

There’s a lot of familiar touches on opener “Stonemilker”, right down to the way she sings certain words. Here, she the ascension of her voice on the phrase “Show me” echoes that of Medulla‘s “Show Me Forgiveness”, which is followed by a variation of the word “Emotional” (notice the way she enunciates that “oh” sound) all the way back on “Joga”, and there’s even a subtle nod to Biophilia‘s “Mutual Core” in the phrase “mutual coordinate”. It’s not clear if these choices are intentional or not – it may just be the nature of Björk fandom that leads me to notice the unintended – but these small touches feel as though they subtly tie the world of Vulnicura – a world concerned with attempting to move forward and heal – with the world behind her, with everything painful and wonderful that that entails. Even the song’s sweeping strings and beats feel like a definite throwback to the classical-tinged arrangements of Homogenic. That this song is the only song on the record produced solely by Björk herself is no accident: despite the fact that she’s still clinging onto hope in some ways, it’s really just her out there on the ice.

As the album progresses, Björk’s words go through every possible stage of grief, though in an often mixed (and repeated) order. She goes from Acceptance (“Maybe he will come out of this loving me / Maybe he won’t / Somehow I’m not bothered either way”) to potent Anger (“You have nothing to give / Your heart is hollow”) to pained Acceptance (“Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?”) everywhere in between. Inexplicably, the anger is where she really shines; the album’s blistering 10-minute centerpiece, “Black Lake”, is an acid-tongued anthem for a scorned lover (“You fear my limitless emotions / I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions / Did I love you too much?”) that takes aim not just at the idea of being left personally, but at the idea of her family being torn apart by that event (“Family was always our sacred mission / which you abandoned”). Here, the daughter of Björk and Matthew Barney plays an unspoken role as the collateral damage of the relationship’s dissolution. This is somehow a unique perspective in the pantheon of breakup albums: those that are affected by the fallout. Throughout Vulnicura, Björk sings about “we” almost as frequently as she does about “me”, and each of those moments comes from a place of pain and fear, but never defeat.

It’s hard not to want to quote a lot of this record when talking about all of the emotions on it. For every lyric you read in the last paragraph, there’s maybe five more that would have worked just as well. Though Björk has always been an incredibly talented songwriter, on Vulnicura that talent is brought straight to the very front in a way that it never quite has been. There’s never really a moment where her words aren’t clear or precise, and if ever they are, the album’s immaculate production and programming help guide the listener. On that front, it’s hard to understate how much of a masterstroke it was for her to team up with Arca and Haxan Cloak. Both are forward-thinking to the point of feeling almost aggressive (this is more true of Arca than of Haxan Cloak, however), and though their touches are easy to catch if you’re really paying attention, their work seamlessly blends into hers without ever losing who they are as producers. From the lurching mass of strings and beats that propels “History of Touches” to the sparse throb of “Black Lake”, every touch feels absolutely crucial to the structure of the album. There’s even a few incredible headphones moments, like the subtle vocal panning in “Quicksand” when it sounds like her voice is actually splitting apart and coming back together when she sings “When I’m broken, I am whole And when I’m whole, I’m broken.” It’s a touch very few people will ever notice, but for those that do, it makes all the difference.

On “Notget” (the last song labelled with a timestamp in the liner notes, here being “11 months later”), there’s a line that feels more brave than almost anything else on the record: “Don’t remove my pain / It is my chance to heal”. With Vulnicura, Björk has created a perfectly-crafted time capsule of that pain, and as a result, she’s given the world not just a piece of her suffering, but a glimpse into her own journey to find peace in the aftermath of emotional loss. It’s easy to want to dissect every single moment moment like this one on a record like this, or compare it to those before it. Despite all the heartbreak and pain and suffering, and the fact that it will never be separated from that part of the album’s existence, Vulnicura is an album that stands tall as one of the most solid and cohesive works in her already stunning catalog, and is an almost perfect example of how to grieve and, after everything, begin to feel human again.

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REVIEW: Cibo Matto – Hotel Valentine

Cibo Matto Announce Hotel Valentine, First Album in 15 Years, Share By Hollister Dixon

When I was maybe 12, the kid that turned me on to The Cure and The Unicorns sent over a song that blew my young mind. The song in question was “Spoon” by the Japanese band Cibo Matto (made up of two women, Miho Hatori and Yuka Honda – the fact that I didn’t have to look that up says a lot about the state of my 12-year-old mind), from their second and (at the time) final album, Stereo*Type A. “My aunt sent me this record. It’s insane. I need you to listen to it.” He proceeded to send me the entirety of Stereo*Type A over AOL Instant Messenger, one song at a time. This was 2003, and sharing albums was a pain in the ass if you didn’t know what you were doing. Little did I know that, just a year-and-a-half before that, the frontwoman of Cibo Matto, Miho Hatori, was already a potent earworm of a woman, having provided vocals for the Gorillaz song “19-2000”, which was burning up the airwaves at the time. The late 90s and the early aughts were a weird time for music, and Cibo Matto were on the forefront of that weirdness. They made an album called Viva! La Woman, which was packed with food imagery. On the song “Sci-Fi Wasabi”, Hatori namechecked Obi-Wan Kenobi twice. Their bassist and guitarist, Sean Lennon, went on to form The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger after the group disbanded, after enjoying a nice long stint as the son of Yoko Ono and John Lennon (the group has since performed with Yoko Ono). They once played “Moonchild” at The Bronze, the club in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was a weird time for the empire.

I never thought I’d get to hear a new Cibo Matto record. They were a band that were in the past, doomed to never return, a relic of the earlier parts of the last decade. Imagine my immense surprise when I learned, late one night, that not only were they back, but they were just a couple weeks away from that new album I’d always hoped for. It’s always a wonderful feeling to get new music from a long-gone band, and even more wonderful when that band helped shape your life, if only in a small, yet still noticeable, way.

The first thing I notice when I put on Hotel Valentine is that it’s much, much more subtle than its now 15-year-old sibling, the aforementioned Stereo*Type A. Where that album was a massive, skronky mass of J-pop energy, with massive horns all over the place and mile-high beats, it’s almost like this album was born 16. The pop sheen of Cibo Matto’s older material is still ever-present, but Hatori and Honda are holding back on us a little bit. There was an all-over-the-place quality to the last record, but this one feels… dare I say… cohesive? It’s a strange word to use for the music, considering the hodgepodge nature of their music is something I’ve always loved so very much. But, that’s okay – it almost feels as though they’ve grown with me. The horn stabs are still here, and the painfully sleek guitar grime is too – “Deja Vu” and “10th Floor Ghost Girl” are riddled with these things, the latter being bouncy and sexy enough to make up for their long absence.

It’s entirely possible that all of this could be the result of an incredible team behind Hatori and Honda: whereas last time we had Sean Lennon, this time we have Nels Cline, Glenn Kotche (both current Wilco members), Reggie Watts, Douglas Wieselman (known for his work with Antony & the Johnsons), and a boatload of others. Surrounded by that much talent, it would be really hard to not make something wonderful, but as far as I’m concerned, Hotel Valentine is a home run.

You can take that or leave that. Maybe I’m too close to the band, and am just too happy to have a new record, and can’t see the flaws. But, there are flaws. Sometimes, the album wanders a bit: lead single “MFN” feels too tied to the past, while trying desperately to move itself forward, with a chorus that just sounds out of place in the framework of the song. The lyrics are sometimes hard to manage, as well, with the 4-minute “Lobby” trying to tell an unintelligible story, doing its best to squander a wonderful beat. But even those songs are reasonably delightful to listen to while passing through the album that shares more of than a few aesthetic traits with last year’s dinner party centerpiece Woman, the debut by LA’s Rhye. And, really, if you’re listening to Cibo Matto for lyrics, you’re approaching this band for the wrong reason. This is a band that once sang about the “lint of love”.

But, those quirks aside, it’s hard to not feel wrapped up in Hotel Valentine, if you let yourself sink into it. The name and the release date are by no means an accident, and it’s clear that the album was designed to be a sexy, romantic little jaunt, choosing to not challenge you, but simply please you. Listening for the first time, I feel like I’m missing the wave of nostalgia I expected when I started up “Check In”. But, instead of nostalgia, I found a decent amount of comfort, mostly due to the fact that, even after a 15-year gap, they’ve still got the right amount of power to make me want to obsess over them, and want to ignore the silly flaws. I don’t care if they’re flawed, or if they make everything-but-the-kitchen-sink records – I’m just really glad to have Cibo Matto back.

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REVIEW: Kanye West – Yeezus

There are times when we have trouble separating the artist from their actions. This is a common theme on Faces on the Radio, where an artist can make their music hard to take seriously, because they themselves are, in one way or another, insufferable. Kanye West is this way for a lot of people. For a lot of people, he’s the top of the list when it comes to “rappers who take themselves too seriously”, and he seems, at times, to be allergic to not making himself look like an idiot. Be it the incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (you know the one), or the Hurricane Katrina benefit concert on ABC in 2005 (you also know the one). In the lead-up to album #6, Yeezus, West compared himself to everyone from Michael Jackson to Steve Jobs. It can be hard to not cringe when you hear about the things he does.

But, for the sake of the music itself, let’s take a step aside and talk about Kanye West the artist, rather than Kanye West the entity.

A few things stand out when you first listen to Yeezus, and one of the first things you will notice is that it’s a very strange record for West. He’s no stranger to stylistic changes, such as the switch-up that occurred when he decided to follow up his brightly-produced Graduation with the autotuned, almost hypothermic breakup record 808s & Heartbreak. There are no clear singles on Yeezus, even though he performed “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on Saturday Night Live to promote the record; these songs are far too aggressive to really work on Top 40 stations at the moment, to say nothing of the content of the songs (more on this in a bit). It’s his shortest album to date, in both track listing (Yeezus is a scant 10 tracks) and album length (It clocks in at only 40 minutes, with the average length being around 3-4 minutes long). There’s only one actual guest verse (courtesy of King L on “Send It Up”), unless you count the odd instance of Frank Ocean appearing more as a sample than anything on “New Slaves”. It’s all slightly alien for an artist known for lush, jam-packed records, stuffed with guest stars, interludes, skits, the whole nine yards.

Of course, the most notable thing about Yeezus is that it’s one of the most aggressive hip-hop records I’ve heard in recent memory, easily comparable to Dalek or (most recently) Death Grips. There are a few moments that come off as almost militant, and though this is nothing new for West – see the lyrics to “Crack Music” for some of the sewn seeds that, in some ways, brought us here – but it lasts for quite a long time on the record. For all of their disco leanings, Daft Punk (who produced four of the albums tracks) spend a decent amount of time ensuring that the discerning listener will have tinnitus by the time they take their headphones out at the end of the album. “On Sight” is almost reminiscent of the intro to the aforementioned Death Grips album opener “Come Up and Get Me”, and “Black Skinhead” sounds so much like Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” that Hypetrak actually had to get the production arm of the record to confirm that they weren’t sampling Manson. Even in the last third of the album, when it simmers down a considerable amount, the production is fairly sparse and a bit alien, in terms of West’s catalog; witness as Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is twisted together with TNGHT’s “R U Ready” which snake  in tandem through the six-minutes of “Blood on the Leaves”. It’s an interesting combination, to be sure.

At this point, it’s necessary to actually talk about West himself on the record. “Yeezus season approacheth / Fuck whatever y’all been hearing”, he intones right off the bat on “On Sight”. While his tone is abrasive, he’s still got a decent amount of humor: “Yeah, I know she likes chocolate men / She got more niggas off than Cochran”, “Soon as I pull up and park the Benz, we’ll get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson’s”. One of the biggest lyrical complaints that I have is that West takes himself far too seriously on this record, as these couple lines are really the only intentionally funny moments on the record – other than the excellent couplet “Slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla”. After this, he gets angry, referencing Malcolm X more than once, and essentially compares the recording industry to a collective of slave traders. “Good Life” and “Heard ‘Em Say” feel like a million miles away. Included in the album is a massive song called “I Am A God”, in which he compares himself to Michael Jackson and Jesus himself. It’s the height of rapper hubris, even when you take into account the fact that the title itself is actually a reference to the Bible (Psalm 82:6 — “I said, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you'”, in case you were wondering). It would be an incredibly cringeworthy track, if not for the fact that it’s likely one of the best tracks on the album.

Ultimately, Yeezus is not the album that it should be. The first half of the album is incredibly tight, but the unfortunate thing is that it begins to wander a grave amount in its back half. “I’m In It” is likely the most disposable track that he’s ever made, and “Bound 2” is, in the words of FOTR’s own Yousef Hatlani, “annoying”, with a sample that overstays its welcome approximately 45-seconds into the runtime. “Guilt Trip” and “Blood on the Leaves” are great songs, but the two seem adrift in a sea of forgettable tracks and sub-par sequencing. Then, there are the lines that plain and simple fall completely flat. Do we really need the line “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce”? Probably not, and we definitely don’t need the laughable “I am a god, in a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants”.

Can you believe it has been two-and-a-half years since My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped? This far on, that album still makes everything that West puts his name on look bad in comparison. It’s incredibly possible that, while listening to Yeezus, I’m remembering how grandiose that album was, despite the fact that he made it look so incredibly easy. He’s been busy since then: he’s taken part in two albums (Watch the Throne with Jay-Z and Cruel Summer, the hit-and-miss collection put out by he and his G.O.O.D. Music collaborators), not to mention the fact that, at the time of this writing, West is likely holding his approximately-24-hour-old daughter, whom he had with his girl-who’s-a-superstar-all-from-a-home-movie Kim Kardashian. His cup is overflowing just a bit. However, if West had put in a few more months in the studio working on Yeezus, we would likely be looking at a completely different record. The run between “On Sight” and “Can’t Hold My Liquor” is one of the tightest sections of any of his records, but most of what lies beyond that feels slightly half-baked and unrealized. He’s onto something with this new sound, but it’s a little unfocused. I’ve been a fan of West since Late Registration, and while I can make attempts at looking past his non-musical antics, I get the feeling that we may have to wait a little while before he makes something jaw-dropping again.

In short: Yeezus season does not approacheth.

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REVIEW: James Blake – Overgrown

On the very first track on Overgrown, James Blake sings something fairly humble. “I don’t wanna be a star, but a stone on the shore.” I feel bad for him in this moment, because he’s a little too far past that now. Two years ago, Blake released his self-titled debut, a stunning and understated study on the human voice in relation to electronic music. It was a natural progression of the world Blake lives in, taking cues from his peers (specifically Four Tet and Burial), who made names for themselves doing the same thing. Say what you will about the differences between dubstep in America vs. that from abroad, but one of the most telling things about the divide is how each handles the voice. James Blake has always treated it as an element, on the same level of any other piece of his music. This came through constantly on the debut, but listening to Overgrown, it’s incredibly clear that he has outgrown that belief. Here, his voice at the forefront, and though it sounds weak at times, there is never a moment where it wavers, and he knows just when to let it burst. This is best demonstrated on “Retrograde”, the album’s first single, which chooses the chorus to do just that: “Suddenly I’m hit!” he yelps as the track erupts. His voice is still full of that signature crackle, but it stands strong, though it comes off as very cold.

The telling thing about Overgrown is how much he relies on his (seemingly) unaltered voice to do the storytelling. Where the first album was sparsely filled with simplistic lines, here his songwriting elevates everything to a level where that manipulation seems superfluous. What is immediately noticeable is the fact that this album makes the last look like a rough sketch. The aforementioned sparseness is traded for sheer size, with each track feeling more full than the last one. It’s a welcome change, and it acts as a pseudo-progress-report for how Blake is coming along as a producer, nevermind his songwriting. On top of that, it feels clear that he’s become somewhat willing to share the experiencw with others around him: one of the most obviously altered tracks on the record is “Digital Lion”, a track produced not by Blake, but by master-produced Brian Eno, whose fingerprints are all over the track. Even RZA gets in on the action, providing solid vocals for “Take a Fall For Me” near the beginning of the album, despite on occasion feeling like he’s fighting the urge to fake a British accent.

Overall, one of the best things about Overgrown is that it feels like Blake is itching to continue a trend he started on his first album. He’s a maudlin and reserved man who doesn’t seem to enjoy being interviewed about his work, but he’s churning out some of the most soulful music of the last 10 years. You could describe it as neo-soul, but it’s something more than that, really. In short, this album is the work of someone who wants to forge a new path for himself, letting his music express the emotions he finds himself unable to really express on his own. It’s a brave direction for someone as young as Blake (as of this writing, he’s only 24), and someone who is under as much constant artistic scrutiny.

If you’re like me, you like to categorize albums into different categories. Some albums are designated as “workout albums” or “cleaning the house albums”, or “lovemaking albums” or “playing video games albums”. Listening to Overgrown late at night, it’s obvious that the album is one of the best albums possible for dinner parties, drinking whiskey at 3am, and loneliness. It is an album that embodies a very specific mood, and it’s interesting to feel how that changes the mood I’m in when pressed up against it. Time will tell if James Blake improves upon the formula he’s already perfected, but even if he only built on this, rather than forging a path forward, I would gladly listen to every single album he put out.

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REVIEW: The Knife – Shaking the Habitual

This is going to be a long one. Strap in.

Once more for the cheap seats: When I first heard The Knife’s Silent Shout, I hated it. I hated it enough to rant to everyone I knew about how much I hated it. I hated that everyone loved it, and I hated how it sounded. I hated the people I knew that loved it. But over time, I grew to truly adore the record. Now, I could put on Silent Shout three times a day and I would never feel like I had heard it enough times. It stands up as one of the most forward-thinking records I’ve ever heard, subverting everything I thought I knew about not only songwriting conventions, but about what it means to make solid pop music. That’s something that 20-year-old Hollister saw that 16-year-old Hollister did not, and that is okay.

Silent Shout was over seven years ago. Since then, The Knife have been entirely dormant, letting Karin Dreijer-Andersson make a record as Fever Ray before everyone went back to sleep. When they rumbled back to life, it felt like nothing had really changed at all. The first song back, “Full of Fire”, was a rumbling, bleak track that was almost impossible to ignore – especially because that single was nearly nine-and-a-half minutes long. Then “A Tooth For An Eye” came out, and besides the incredibly insane imagery and press done for the record (I’m not even going to get into the press release for this album), it felt like the most natural progression possible for the band. But as facts about Shaking the Habitual came to light, it started becoming apparent that The Knife were less of a dormant band, and more of a dormant war machine, ready to rattle things up a bit more than one might have expected.

One thing that you cannot get past is the fact that this album is an odyssey. At just shy of 100 minutes long, it dares you to take it all in in one sitting, a task that few people have the time or patience for. Those first two singles serve as Shaking the Habitual‘s first two tracks, and as said, they feel like natural Knife songs. The former comes right out of the gate with Dreijer-Andersson hollering over steel drum beats, and it is this song that gives birth to a line that feels like the motto for the album as a whole: “I’m telling you stories, trust me.” In hindsight, after listening through the album, this is more of a warning than anything else. What they’re doing here is taking us along for a great, big, long story. The theme of stories holds on throughout the album, and is ever-present on “Full of Fire”: “Sometimes I get problems that are hard to solve / What’s your story? That’s my opinion / Questions and the answers can take very long / Here’s a story, what’s your opinion?” You get a sense of being included in the proceedings with these lines, and that little touch makes it almost feel like an interactive experience.

Those first two songs comprise the first 15 minutes of the album, and there’s no real preparing you for what sits outside those borders. “A Cherry on Top” makes it abundantly clear right out of the gate that you’re leaving your comfort zone with its strobing synth drones, reminiscent of “The Captain” from Silent Shout. But the thing to remember about that song is that it was a short ride that lasted nearly three minutes less than this one, and the payoff is a paperweight meditation on the permanence of classist society. It’s a trying experience for the casual listener to drudge through some of the vast swaths of sonic wastelands, where melody is a mere afterthough if it is a thought at all. But The Knife, for as trying as Shaking the Habitual is, know that they can’t throw everything at you at once, and provide you with rest stops along the way. “Without You My Life Would Be Boring” comes up next, and is one of the catchiest tracks that The Knife have ever made, positively begging for a dancefloor remix by one of their more sensible peers. At least, that’s how it seems at first, until you decide that you want to read the lyrics: “A handful of elf pee / That’s my soul / spray it all over / fill the bowl / legs astride / an axe to grind / generous actions with the speed of light.” The message contained in the title and chorus may be sweet, but this is a song that is meant to be about territorial pissing, literally. It’s no wonder the track is so incredibly fun: It’s actively trying to get you acclimated as quickly as possible before it throws something else at you.

“Wrap Your Arms Around Me” is up next, and it does about the same thing. It’s a stomping, massive, almost Drums Not Dead-era-Liars-esque slog that feels like one of the quickest songs on the record. It’s dark and sexual, and it gives way perfectly to “Crake”, the album’s second shortest track, a wall of feedback and reverb that leads startlingly into “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”, one of the most trying tracks on the record. Standing tall at just over 19-minutes, it’s one of the biggest teases I’ve ever heard. This is the sonic twin of a passing cloud, drifting by and occasionally threatening to start a downpour, but just when you feel a couple drops on your cheek and ready yourself, you realize that nothing’s going to happen. This happens all over this song. Just when you’re absolutely sure that the song is about to start, for real, it retreats back into itself, and you’re left wondering if the track is attempting to troll you. It just might be.

Massive tracts of time pass without much happening, and you begin to forget about the human element of things. 20 minutes is a long time to go without hearing another human being on a record like this, and when “Raging Lung” comes on, the weight comes down on your shoulders like you wouldn’t believe. It’s a heady song, one of the strongest of this offering, with Dreijer-Andersson cooing seductively from behind a barricade of tribal beats: “Hear my love sigh, I’ve got a story that money just can’t buy.” We’re back here again. “Networking” is one of the few songs that bears a sonic resemblance to the band’s previous works, ablaze with hyper-synthesized beats that beg you to nod your head along and sway in place. This song is also a tease: just when you think the vocals are about to kick in, it pulls back, leaving you feeling slightly cold. “Oryx” is the shortest of songs here, a 36-second blast of feedback almost like “Crake”, but without the melody. “Stay Out Here” stands ahead, as the final waystation of normalcy, a 10-minute wave of dark beats and pleas of “Love me”, a request that can be hard to contend with at times. The final hurdle, “Fracking Fluid Injection”, is up next. This song is 10-minutes shorter than “Old Dreams Waiting to Be Realized”, but this is a song that makes you feel every single second. It is nearly ten minutes of (what sounds like to me) an experiment in excess, where violins are played without rosin and looped through a delay pedal, with Shannon Funchess and Emily Roysdon yowling behind it. It is trying. “Ready to Lose” finishes us off, gently and for the first time, you actually feel like you’re listening to a song that the band that you came to see made: it’s sexy, and presents itself as a diatribe about classist societies (“Ready, ready to lose a privilege / An ongoing habit / a transfer of possessions”), and it bobs along at a pace that, while just a touch too slow, makes you feel right at home.

You may not like this album. It’s entirely likely that The Knife designed Shaking the Habitual to fight against its listener, presented at times to be a trap that was put there to aggravate and frustrate each and every person who listens to it. That’s the album cover up there, and it almost feels like even that was designed to illicit a negative response. But, as said earlier, they aren’t stupid, and they know that those pop conventions thrown into the mix are meant to help you get used to the water, inch by inch, rather than throwing you into the pool straight away. For its length, even the 19-minute “Old Dreams” never feels as long as it actually is, and the 96 minutes go by incredibly quickly. It is going to take a lot of time for us to get far enough away from this album to completely understand everything that Olof Andersson and Karin Dreijer-Andersson put into each and every second of this album. You get the feeling that every note is completely deliberate, and this is a feeling that can keep you holding on throughout. Shaking the Habitual is, in a lot of ways, not as much an album as it is a singular experience that urges you to spend the time on it, rather than listening to it passively. It serves as a mission statement for two people who want to – if you’ll forgive me for the turn of phrase – shake the habitual as much as they can, and challenge you to see things from a different perspective. Whether or not you like it is up to the listener, the passenger on this journey, but nobody will ever be able to accuse The Knife of compromising the vision they have. I’m just glad I came around and was able to experience this on good terms with the band.

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REVIEW: Iron & Wine – Ghost on Ghost

In the Dixon household, a never-ending war goes on constantly. I have been a devotee to Sam Beam since Iron & Wine was only Sam Beam. In the gap between Our Endless Numbered Days and The Shepherd’s Dog, you will find the Woman King EP, a fabulous, overflowing meditation on the power of the differences between working alone, and working with a band. To my wife, that was enough. She has been a devotee half as long as I have, but her devotion is a blend of sycophantic and jaded. The last album, Kiss Each Other Clean, is a sharp point in this war. To me, it is a triumph, proving that Beam is not just a songwriter, but a conductor, able to change his music based on the people surrounding him. To my wife, it’s a bridge too far, and where Beam went too far with his full-band edge. During that tour, my wife vowed to never see Iron & Wine play again, at least not until he cooled it with the free-jazz improvisations that filled his live shows. She is one that yearns for the simple days of The Creek Drank The Cradle.

But for me, half the thrill of being a fan since Our Endless Numbered Days cooed me to sleep has been watching him evolve with a band. Each album has been more ambitious than the last, and as such, it proves rewarding to have held on for so long. Kiss Each Other Clean was a hot, sax-cooked mess of an album, culminating in a breakdown of a song, the glorious “Your Fake Name is Good Enough For Me,” a track that proves more abrasive than any song in Beam’s catalog. But earlier on that album is the goosebump-inducing “Godless Brother in Love”, a song that is equal parts gorgeous and affecting. It’s truly what he does best.

Between those two poles, two years later, lies Ghost on Ghost, an album that finds a solace in the ability to scale back the production, without sacrificing the heart. There are dozens of little touches that make the record worth it, like the smooth horn stabs on “Caught in the Briars”, or “ba-da-ba”‘s and string section on “The Desert Babbler”. And it’s incredibly hard to not get wrapped up in the saccharine touches of “Joy,” which is (as weird as it sounds) likely one of the most peaceful and easy-going songs in Beam’s incredibly extensive catalog of folk rock lullabies, awash with multitracked vocals and twinkling bells. It’s beautiful.

The rest of the album is beautiful, but past “Joy”, the real fun begins. It’s a grimy, vocal reverb drenched trip, and though all of the touches that proved unlikable by my wife are still there, it proves to be an exercise in restraint, and for the first time in Beam’s career, it seems he’s content with refining, rather than building. It sounds like it could have been recorded in an alternate universe where he had started with an orchestra, rather than in a place akin to that which John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats) found his footing in the 90s. “Low Light Buddy of Mine” slogs on with barroom saxophone and a rattling drum beat, pushing Beam to the back of the track – par for the course on Ghost on Ghost. And I dare you to sit still during “Grace For Saints and Ramblers,” a flat-out pop song the likes of which we haven’t seen from Iron & Wine… ever, if memory serves.

Now, you will notice that I haven’t talked about the songwriting on Ghost on Ghost up to this point. To me, it’s almost a waste of time to discuss Beam as a songwriter; he’s always on top of his game in that department, no matter what the band sounds like. This is a man who manage to toss out the line “We were born to fuck each other, one way or another” on “Evening on the Ground (Lilith’s Song)” from Woman King EP without coming off as one-dimensional or hackneyed. This album is no exception to the rule, and although it never reaches the transcendent levels that he’s achieved in the past, there’s nothing to sniffle about here. You’ll find all of Beam’s usual topics here: young lovers, sinners, organized religion, cats and mice. It’s a mark of his skill as a songwriter that, after being so far removed from “Sodom, South Georgia”, I can hear a line like “Chewed up and swallowed by the prophet they were trying to follow” and not roll my eyes; these are familiar characters that he manages to enhance with every go around.

The real question I feel myself asking is: will Ghost on Ghost please someone like my wife, who finds themselves bored with the AM radio soft jazz leanings of Iron & Wine’s music in the last few years? The short answer is, I’m not entirely sure. There are still songs on the album that the folk rock lovers will enjoy: “Winter Prayers” being an incredibly stripped down guitar-and-piano track, and “Baby Center Stage”, the album closer, feels like a much more natural progression for the band following Our Endless Numbered Days, a flat-out country song complete with lap steel. If you want to know what I think, it’s this: Sam Beam knows exactly what he’s doing, and no matter what the music sounds like, it will always be Iron & Wine. If you’re looking for a return to basics, you shouldn’t hold your breath. If this album is any indicator, he’s having too much fun not being alone anymore.

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REVIEW: Czarface – Czarface

The Wu-Tang Clan will always be the best hip-hop collective that has ever been, but the problem with having a crew as big as the Wu is that the talent becomes a tiered system. You can tell a lot about a person by who their favorite Wu-Tang affiliate is: most people are going to choose RZA if they’re into the beats, or Ghostface Killah if they want their hip-hop to be gritty, but a little over-the-top. Ol’ Dirty Bastard fans are always fun at parties, unless they’re the kinds of people who wear shirts with Kurt Cobain or Bob Marley on them (read: people who obsess over dead musicians, without bothering to listen to them). Fans of GZA are the kinds of people who understand being disappointed after getting their hands on one great thing (read: every GZA record that isn’t Liquid Swords). Fans of Raekwon are patient, and can wait for what they’ve been promised. We all know what it says about a fan of Method Man. It should be stated that there isn’t anything wrong with being a fan of anybody in the Wu, at all. But what does it say about someone who’s really into Inspectah Deck?

For better or worse, Inspectah Deck is the most commonly forgotten lower-tier member of the Wu. It’s not that he isn’t talented, by any means: I attended a show featuring Inspectah, U-God, and Masta Killa last year, and he was the only person who wasn’t drunk to the point of being unforgivably bad. Were he with another crew, he would have definite star power, but being that he has seemed content with being in the background, and stepping in to deliver a few really great verses. My allegiance has always been with RZA, Ghostface, and Raekwon (but only because Only Built 4 Cuban Linx I and II are hip-hop classics), so my knowledge of Deck’s back catalog is incredibly lacking, so I feel like his newest record, Czarface (which is the name of Deck’s collaboration with 7L & Esoteric), is as good of a time as any to get with the program. Admittedly, I’m only a little more familiar with his solo output than I am with the work of 7L & Esoteric, but their work on this album is mindblowing at times. One of the thing I notice immediately is the fact that I’m drawn in by the fact that the supervillain-centric artwork and sampling remind me a lot of that of MF DOOM’s comic book obsessions. That’s a common hip-hop trope, but here, it works perfectly, especially considering the fact that its use isn’t overbearing. However, the best sample comes near the very end of the record on “World War 4,” when the late George Carlin’s stand-up shows up – twice (first a sample of You Are All Diseased, and the other of his landmark “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” bit). But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The next thing I notice is that the production on the album hearkens back to a time before rap was a commodity, and was more of something that nobody was sure how to monetize. 7L manages to make the album sound like it may as well have come out around the same time that Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… came out, but instead it was born during a truly depressing drought, and it fits in perfectly. The biggest issue here is that, just like in Wu-Tang, everyone around Deck steals the show and pushes things just a little far. These things happen, but when he takes the ball back, he truly shines. Take “Savagely Attack,” for example: he takes it from the top, and delivers a verse that’s good enough to make Ghostface Killah’s appearance look clumsy by comparison. It’s hard not to feel like he’s been holding back a little bit. And while “Marvel Team-Up” has a concept that’s a little clumsy, the slow-flow by everyone feels like they’re trying to purposefully hold back. It feels lethargic, but this is intentional: the following track, “It’s Raw,” proves to be a potential classic – and it doesn’t help that the guest appearance by Action Bronson slays so very, very much, and he gets the best one-liner here (“I’m like the Bobby Flay of rap the way I flavor shit”).

Czarface is a minor release, to be very sure. It was released with little to no fanfare, and it’s hard to not wonder why this hasn’t gotten any real promotion leading up to the release. In the end, we only get half an hour of music, which means that there’s almost no filler whatsoever. It’s not a perfect album, but considering how long we’ve been waiting for a new Wu album  – and how much longer we’re going to be waiting – it’s hard to not get excited by something new from the main camp.

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REVIEW: Tegan & Sara – Heartthrob

I’m not going to lie to you, dear reader: Tegan & Sara aren’t a band that I can really click with. It has been pointed out to me that this makes little sense: considering the music that I have sewn into the fabric of my life, it comes as a surprise to a lot of people that I never quite made the Alberta natives a bigger part of my life. It could have been something that could have happened once upon a time, but the sad fact is, they were unceremoniously ruined for me by a friend who decided that they were one of the only bands worth talking about, and she would talk about them ceaselessly. This isn’t my fault, and it isn’t theirs.

I have a lot more friends who adore them now, so it has become necessary to at least put on a smile when listening to people talk about them. It’s not that they aren’t a good band, they just never weren’t for me. But, I am a professional, and seeing as how they had a new album out, I figured it was about time to set aside those prejudices and give them a fair cop. And, dear reader, I’ll admit that I really do enjoy the album. Heartthrob is album number seven for the duo, and as such, there’s no real need for an introduction, is there? So let’s just talk about the thing: for one, there’s a definite love of the 80s here, and it’s clear that the sisters Quin just couldn’t shake that. Admittedly, I skipped Sainthood, so I don’t know if the synth-beats and the dancefloor-ready bangers are part of the norm these days, but to me, it actually suits them incredibly well. As of this moment in writing about the record, I’m about halfway through listening through again, and thus far, my left leg has not managed to stop bouncing. This is definitely a good sign. But does that mean it’s a good record? It certainly helps.

Heart-on-sleeve dance music is, as you may know if you’ve read my reviews, like catnip for me. Tegan & Sara have made the heart-on-sleeve part their bread and butter over the last two decades, so adding in the rest of it just adds fuel to my fire. The minute I really got into their particular brand of it was on the ridiculously good “How Come You Don’t Want Me,” a song that is exactly two minutes too short: “I can’t say that I’m sorry, for loving you and hating myself.” It’s a line that hits close to home for damn near everyone listening to this song, myself definitely included. This is a song that comes from a place of shame influenced by an external force, and the tightrope act involved in making a song that catchy out of hurt that deep is an incredible song. But here’s the thing: that happens all over the place here. Anyone who has been listening since they first heard So Jealous in middle school is likely scoffing at that thought, but for me, this is all new stuff. Even the songs that come from a place of unbridled love are undercut by a tinge of regret, and a desire to cover up old wounds: “I won’t treat you like you’re oh-so-typical,” they sing in the chorus of “Closer,” which opens the record. It’s a line that comes off as a sweet nothing if you aren’t paying attention, but from the right mindset, it’s hard to not want to be the person hearing someone telling them that. And that’s just two songs on this record. That’s not even bothering to talk about “I Was A Fool” and its soaring chorus and its twinkling piano line, or the vaguely claustrophobic “Now That I’m Messed Up, which steals a trick or two from the Bright Eyes handbook, which flows into the pounding synths that cool down over the course of the album’s lonely closer, “Shock To Your System,” with its truly heartbreaking refrain: “What you are is lonely.” Time will tell if this album is a classic, but a lot of the time, it feels like it has a fair few of the markers of being one.

It’s a hard thing to pull off a record like this. To make pop music, you have to cover up the worst parts of life, but Tegan & Sara make it seem incredibly simple on Heartthrob, just like my personal heroes of therapy rock. This is an album that makes you want to put on spandex short shorts and dance with someone who probably gave you a fake name, and is definitely wearing some kind of body glitter. It’s an album that is influenced by a desire to escape real life. And, just like real life, even the most resplendent moments let sadness in through the cracks.

It’s an awesome record. Now get off my back already.

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REVIEW: Johnny Marr – The Messenger

Close the door and have a seat. I need to get something off my chest. Can you keep a secret?

I never got into The Smiths as much as I should have. I’ve listened to all of their music, and while I think that Morrissey is a dirtbag a lot of the time, I think he’s one of the most talented musicians we’ve ever had. I think that the combination of Morrissey and Marr is completely unbeatable combination, but I never found the same love for their seminal band that everyone else did. Don’t hate me, okay? I’ve never really tried too hard to hide it, but I never really came out and said it, you know?

Still, whenever either Morrissey or Marr do anything, my ears perk up. While Morrissey immediately started working for himself after the dissolving of The Smiths, Marr became a chameleon, working with everyone from The Cribs to Modest Mouse to Paul McCartney, he’s made no small name for himself working in the background, save for the one thing he ever truly stamped his name on, Johnny Marr + The Healers. But, true to his nature, he decided it was about time to make a solo record, and just not make a very big fuss about it at all. There’s something to be said about those actions, considering Marr borders on a household name, but I, personally, wouldn’t have it any other way.

The biggest issue with The Messenger is that Marr has spent more time in the background than he has in the foreground, and it has basically made it an uphill battle to define himself outside of the music he’s made for other people in the past. You hear it immediately, and it’s hard to truly connect with at times, especially because there are a fair few stylistic shifts, the most notable of which being the album’s title track, with its glam rock leanings and it simplistic lyrics: “Your eyes are open and you’re on / I’m here and I’m ready / My time’s for taking if you want Who wants to be a messenger?” Really, if you came for the lyrics in general, you may be a tad disappointed; while the words are good, they’re definitely nothing to write home about. The harsh reality is, if this album had come out at the top of his post-Smiths career, it would have been hailed as a classic, but it may have come a couple decades too late.

But that’s just the bad news. The good news is that the album is loaded with truly great stuff, too. Go listen to “Generate! Generate!” and tell me that you don’t want to dance in your chair and pump your fist in the air along with the song (spoiler alert: it’s not quite possible, and you probably look as silly as I do). Take the aforementioned shiny little title-track, “The Messenger”, for example: for its simplicity, it packs a wollop as a flat-out wonderful song, and likely one of the best ear-worms I’ve heard in months. It’s easy to miss, but you hear a lot of the influences of his old bands all over the record, and it really works well in a lot of places.

The real question is this: is The Messenger a good record? It is, without question. The problem is that it never stops being good, so that it can start being great. There’s a lot to love about it, and for a lot of people, this is going to be on repeat for months and months. It’s going to take some time for Marr to find his own footing as a solo artist, and when that day comes, he’s going to blow everyone else out of the water. I hate to say it, but at this moment in time, he’s missed the mark.

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