Album Review: As Much as I Used To by Vagrant Real Estate

by Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

rating 7

Foresighted listeners who read the song titles of this seventeen-track objet d’soul before actually listening to it will be able to glean its basic narrative. A thoroughgoing romantic tale to be sure, As Much as I Used To tracks all the important milestones of its hypothetical relationship: the serendipitous meeting (First Sight), inchoate affection and consummation (Lust, Rendezvous), mounting trepidation (Hesitate), allayment (Assurance), and the devastating quietus (No You Don’t, Plato’s Cave), which proves to be a felix culpa (Still Friends). Like the myriad soul records he deconstructs and reassembles, Vagrant Real Estate seeks to universalize romantic despair and felicity by way of deceptively simple music and lyrics coupled with sensationalized scenes of either unbridled affection or debilitating rejection. But this Aberdonian DJ imbues enough aural nuance into its story that his flash fictive romance avoids cliché while still maintaining the appeal of familiarity.

The bulk of Used To’s songs are signified by oblique leitmotifs. Lust is certainly informed by its repetitive “I want you so…” and “Come on, baby” interpolations, but only when the strings climax and the soundbite “I just make believe” emerges, backed by a chorine countermelody, does the track truly embody the carnal attraction its title suggests. Hesitate employs a striking, dissonant piano chord that, when treated with a stentorian bass pop and a fidgeting guitar flourish, only strays farther from attaining resolution, in effect cultivating the feeling of reticence to which the song’s name refers. But despite the album’s more erudite depictions of these abstract concepts, The Vagrant is still able to play his audience’s pleasure principle and demand for immediate gratification. Casual listeners will fawn over the demonstrable sexiness of Muscle Cars, the instant melancholy of Blinded, and the speeded-up desperation of its successor Talk.

The soul samples Real Estate chooses to employ are arcane enough—no Let’s Stay Together or Three Times a Lady to be found among the bricolage of plunderphonics—but as with most artists operating within this strain of instrumental hip-hop, this doesn’t matter to anyone but the producer. For the half-engaged listener or fledgeling soul enthusiast, the obscurity of an artist’s source material is incidental to the music itself.

Like DJ Shadow, Vagrant Real Estate scours his collection of esoterica to find an appropriate snatch of melody, an engrossing loop or a chipmunk-worthy vocal line. Impressive, sure, but too principled for a genre predicated on extravagance and surfeit. Recall that The Dust Brothers sampled Superfly for Paul’s Boutique, after all. Still, VRE isn’t above throwing us an easily recognizable soundbite, either. Just listen to the Zoolander clip at the :44 mark of First Sight.

Like his hero J Dilla, The Vagrant champions brevity and the hypnotic loop above all else. With its longest cut clocking in at just under three minutes and most tracks running about half as long, As Much as I Used To utilizes a laser focus to pare its songs down to their aesthetic and thematic cores. But also like Dilla, VRE misprizes the tension and release model lauded by EDM punching bag Skrillex and orgasm addicts The Chemical Brothers. As a result, Used To comes off as more ascetic than dynamic, showcasing an aptitude for austere song structures without the payoff of forte-pianissimo oscillations. Even Madlib knew when to layer his instrumentals.

Cluttering Vagrant Real Estate’s Soundcloud page is an olla podrida of referential hashtags that identify, according to him, the most astute artistic comparisons. These tags run the gamut of instrumental hip-hop icons and evoke varying levels of credulity. Here we have #yeezy (absolutely), #drake (defensible), #donuts (if you must), and #wu tang (come on!), among others. The Vagrant no doubt holds a great amount of deference for each of these vanguards, and the aesthetic he’s created for himself certainly pays homage to them, but he strives to distil too many influences into a singular work of art. Make no mistake, Vagrant Real Estate is a talented producer, and As Much As I Used To serves as a promising start for a beatmaker looking to hone his craft in the LP format, but he’s bitten off more than he can chew for this first record. Remember what Kendrick said: “You ain’t gotta lie to kick it… You ain’t gotta try so hard.”

Album Review: POST- by Jeff Rosenstock

by Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)rating 8

If there’s any confusion or uncertainty about Jeff Rosenstock’s politics, let the conspicuous “Fuck Trump” button adorning his guitar strap set the record straight: the pop-punk maven has no interest in bipartisanship. Like any singer worth his or her salt, Rosenstock performs with an unwavering conviction, brandishing his principles and foregrounding his beliefs to better represent his voiceless constituents. As Bob Dylan apprised us in the late ‘80s, we live in a political world, and between the releases of Rosenstock’s WORRY. in late 2016 and his surprise New Year’s record POST-, the American populace has borne witness to a jarring shift in political epochs. Of the multitudinous interpretations possible, the title of POST- may well be political in nature (Post-Obama? Why not?), but given Rosenstock’s facility for tying everyday imbroglios to larger narratives, there’s likely a human element to the album’s name. And though he’s often favored personal strife over expressly political subject matter, Rosenstock, here on POST-, keenly conflates the malaise of the human condition with the frustration of living in an autocracy that fails to reflect his own values.

POST- is an album rife with conflict, vacillating between furtive political references and forthright internal turmoil. Yr Throat questions the efficacy of self-expression as the narrator’s body and mind lock into a stalemate: “What’s the point of having a voice when it gets stuck inside your throat?!All This Useless Energy stages a contentious dialogue between under informed neurotypicals and frustrated depressives: “You’re not fooling anyone when you say you tried your best. I’m worried of abandoning the joys that framed my life, but all this useless energy won’t hold me through the night.

Despite all the inert, self-consuming acrimony in his lyrics, Rosenstock is still able to direct his vitriol toward the larger issues. More socially conscious than overtly political, POST- susses out the everyday woes of the American public while still attesting to Toni Morrison’s pronouncement that all art is, in fact, political. And though he never refers to Trump by name, instead amalgamating him and other elected officials into the duplicitous, caustic “USA” villain character, Jeff continuously makes sly allusions to his unsavory Commander in Chief. In a political climate that has fostered a pernicious fissure between its two parties, and in a cultural landscape that attacks its leader far more vehemently and directly, Rosenstock understands the merit in avoiding explicit Trump name-checking.

Jeff Rosenstock’s songs are so effortlessly symbiotic that it’s hard to tell if the animus of his lyrics informs the energy of the music or vice versa. Is the lo-fi tale of blighted romance on Powerlessness fueling its Descendents-derived power punk sound? Does the New York Dolls-inspired guitar-kitsch on Beating My Head against a Wall dictate Rosenstock’s delivery of the album’s catchiest chorus? In an album fractured by both internal and external enmity, Rosenstock’s dedication to cohesion between his music and lyrics is his most reliable asset.

Rosenstock may not have the firmest grasp on the political morass plaguing him and his compatriots—without mention of race or class, his political gestures can come across as vague or even worse, toothless—which is why he opts for oblique, rather than direct, allusions to the Conservative opposition to his Liberal way of life. But he isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last punk singer to tenuously assess democracy in song. In any case, Jeff further positions himself as one of punk’s most effectual mouthpieces here on POST-. His verve compensates for all the ambiguity rock lyrics demand, and with the clarion call at the end of Let Them Win (which could have been cribbed straight from the Woody Guthrie songbook but for its conclusive “Fuck no!” lyric), Rosenstock asserts that he won’t spend the first full calendar year of Trump’s presidency sitting on his hands.

Whatever the meaning you choose to ascribe to the term “post” (Post-Obama, Post-Trauma, or for the overdramatic, Post-America) POST- refers to the end of an era. Every generation grapples with its social and political conventions, and now the Millennials have been called to action. A daunting task, to be sure, for a throng of young people consistently written off as thin-skinned, lazy, and disinterested. But with Jeff Rosenstock at the forefront of punk’s socially-inclined philosophes, we’re sure not to be tired and bored with the fight. May we never be again.

Album Review: Utopia by Björk

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)rating 4

The greatest looming threat to a pop singer’s career isn’t necessarily a diminishing talent for songwriting. More often than not, it’s the artist’s waxing age that does him or her in. Popular music is so heavily steeped in the exaltation of youth that showing even the most innocuous signs of aging can spell death for a musician’s career. Crow’s feet and receding hairlines won’t move albums or bolster streaming numbers when there exists an arsenal of cherubic up-and-comers at the ready to capitalize on the vacancy left by those former hitmakers. In the face of oncoming cultural irrelevance, these older artists are left with essentially two options: accept defeat and resign to a life of musical obsolescence or combat the aging process by way of artistic reinvention.

Madonna fended off antiquity by crafting pop songs through her ever-morphing registers of personal maturity. Neil Young did it by striking up avuncular (and symbiotic) relationships with the likes of Devo and Sonic Youth. And Bowie had burned through so many iterations during his career that his name is practically synonymous with musical metamorphosis.

But for Björk, musical mutability has been less a carapace against the ravages of time and more of a compulsion. Embracing the onslaught of alternative rock in the late ‘80s with the Sugarcubes and later discovering electronica the following decade, Björk’s career is a brazen protest against musical stagnation. To be sure, there have been no periods of stasis for an artist whose career has thrice begun in earnest. Yet on Utopia, her ninth album as a solo musician, Björk mistakes heterodoxy for being boundary-pushing and heartbreak for wisdom in an engaging yet familiar meditation on interpersonal relationships.

Utopia marks the second collaboration with producer Arca, whose panoply of twitching, programmed synths undergirds and guides Björk through her vicissitudes of jubilance, despair, and altruism. Relying mostly on Apollonian chamber music, Arca, along with fellow producers Rabit and Björk herself, crafts a thoughtful collection of dynamic, if lukewarm instrumentals. A delicately plucked harp carries Blissing Me. An ethereal chorus propels Features Creatures. The album’s title track is driven by a flute. As are Losss, Courtship, and Paradisia. The music is decidedly stately in its restraint, but Björk’s artistry has never championed understatement in the interest of normalcy. This raises the question “Can Utopia be called ‘experimental’ if it resists subversion?” Is Björk truly challenging herself or just giving us more of the same?

In response to the malaise and despair of Vulnicura, a self-described “heartbreak album,” Björk seeks to attain self-actualization on Utopia. Inaugural track Arisen My Senses explores the physicality of love as it intersects with musicianship and the advent of the internet: “Just that kiss / Was all there is / My palms pulsating of the things I want to do to you.” Physical sensation proves the gateway to fulfillment, much in the same way solitude and pastoral asceticism do in the Emersonian Claimstaker. “The forest is in me […] This is my home.” She’s markedly more ecstatic in comparison to her lovelorn self on Vulnicura, but Björk isn’t without trepidation when it comes to happiness. On the track Utopia, though she’s found comfort in her current situation, “Utopia: it isn’t elsewhere, it’s here,” Björk maintains an untraceable wariness about her: “My instinct has been shouting at me for years, saying ‘Let’s get out of here!’ / Huge toxic tumor bulging underneath the ground here.”

Ideas are inherently fragmentary. David Lynch likens them to fish swimming in our consciousness that are caught by chance rather than created by design. Björk seems to feel similarly, given that most of the lyrics to Utopia are fractious in form. As such, many lines come off as insular and underdeveloped. In the case of Saint, they’re plain clunky: “She has entered me thousand fold often / And undone knots at my most awkward.” The same is true of Courtship: “I then upturned a green-eyed giant / Who upturned and entered me.” The three producers’ decision to largely forego the inclusion of drums creates a decentering feeling, which is exacerbated by the songs’ fractured lyrics, yet they rarely add up to anything significant. And when attached to Björk’s amorphous melodies, her words only distract from the aesthetic of her voice.

The fallout of her past relationship hasn’t quite yielded the profundity she aims for on Utopia. It’s left her more guarded, certainly, according to The Gate: “My healed chest wound transformed into a gate.” But Björk doesn’t arrive at any major conclusions about love. She is, however, careful not to sully her children’s conception of a relationship in the wake of her heartache: “Tabula rasa for my children, let’s clean up, break the chain of the fuck ups of the fathers.” She’s selfless in her resolve not to let her shit ruin others’ chances at happiness. A benevolent gesture in a record otherwise overflowing with navel-gazing.

Björk’s youthfulness is self-evident in her resistance to stagnation and complacency. She’s outgrown alt-rock as well as dance music, but her alacrity to explore new musical territory keeps her from the status of musical curmudgeon. If we’re lucky, she’ll continue to embrace the future of experimental music and search out new musical identities for the rest of her career. If we’re luckier still, they’ll be more fruitful than here on Utopia.

An Interview With…Cults

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Having risen to prominence at the turn of the decade with the success of their first single Go Outside, CultsMadeline Follin and Brian Oblivion are now veritable Indie Pop legends. The duo released their third album Offering at the beginning of October and have touring steadily ever since. I caught up with the pair before a show in Des Moines, Iowa, where we discussed the merits and pitfalls of working with both major and minor record labels, the ostensible egalitarianism of New York City, and the changes in the music landscape since the band’s conception, among other topics.

How’s the tour been?

Madeline: It’s been really fun. We haven’t been on tour in… two or three years. [We’ve still been] playing shows, but they were one-off, like we’d fly out to Chicago and fly home the next day. So we never got to get in the swing of playing the songs every night and just getting comfortable… it’s like having it be second nature, to be onstage performing, so it’s been really fun.

Brian: And it’s awesome that you create this stuff in such a vacuum, especially because 90% of the time it’s just the two of us jamming, and then to go see hundreds of people singing the songs it’s like “Damn! I guess this was all worth it! This is working, great!”

Madeline: Yeah, we were saying like, the first few shows, it’s always weird because… you play the first show the day your record comes out and it’s like, “Ooooh, what’s going on?”

Brian: Yeah, nobody knows the songs yet.

Madeline: Nobody knows the songs, everybody’s just listening, and in the past week it’s been really cool to see people singing along and [learning] what songs people are reacting to the best.

In your Reddit AMA you wrote that you wanted Offering to sound more hopeful. What do you mean by that?

Brian: We talked about… just the fact that we were feeling more upbeat. A lot of the songs are kind of a dialogue. It switches from ‘I’ to ‘you’ and it’s like [taking] another perspective. In a way, a lot of it was talking to ourselves, because so much of the time off for us between those records was reflecting and figuring out who we are as people and how we fit in with our friends and our community and the world. And most of the songs there’s kind of a switch between maybe someone who feels really desperate and then someone coming in saying, “No, no do it this way, it’s gonna be all right.” And I think that’s how we felt about our previous selves when we were writing this, like “Oh, we’re writing this and we’re having so much fun and we can see it now a little bit.” I think that just comes with age and with experience. It’s hard to find a happy 23 year old, but 27, 28…

Madeline: “I’m all right, I’m all right!”

For Offering you moved from Columbia Records to Sinderlyn—what differences have you noticed between the labels?

Madeline: Well one of the biggest differences is that we know every single person who works at the label and I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere any time soon because everybody is invested in the label.

Brian: It’s more of a family.

Madeline: As far as Columbia, there were… I don’t even know how many [people] work at Sony. You’d walk into the building and they’re like, “This is the person who… counts your Twitter followers.”

Brian: That was the main reason we split up with them, because when we signed with them, we did it because the people that we worked with there we really liked and we thought they were amazing and then they’re all so amazing they went on to go work at other places and suddenly we looked around and we had never met anyone that we worked with.

Madeline: Especially on our second record, people were showing up—we played Letterman and they were like, “This is your publicist.”

Brian: “Oh, nice to meet you!”

Madeline: [Before that] our publicist was our best friend… we met through signing the deal [with Columbia], but she was at our family functions, we just got along that well. So yeah, we just didn’t know anybody and we were all in it together on the first record and on the second record we were like, “Wait, what?”

Brian: And then we met Mike Sniper from Sinderlyn, and it’s like… it’s such a unique refreshing thing to have the guy who owns your label be a musician himself. Nobody at Columbia had ever been in a van for more than three days just with the band that they were repping. And he knows so much about what’s difficult and what you can do… he just [gave us] so much moral support from actually being a real music fan. I talk to so many people in the music business about everything BUT music. It’s really rare that you meet someone and they say, “Oh, you gotta hear this song you’ll love it!” It’s more like, “These guys are selling a lot of tickets!” But these people love music and that’s huge for us because that’s what we’re all about.

I think that the job of a record label, the whole function of a record label, our record label’s probably ten people and there are huge labels with a hundred people that are cool, probably. And there are cool labels with six people that are awful and there’s so much grey area in between what we call “indie” and what we call “major” and in that are a lot of people who are good and bad and shades of all in between. I think stratifying that stuff is weird and now it seems like that stratification is totally gone, like LCD’s on Columbia and Grizzly Bear’s on RCA. I’m not sure [whether] that word is as relevant as it used to be, but we just found the people that we like to work with.

Madeline: That’s always been our main thing.

Brian: No creeps!

Madeline: They’re basically planning your whole year for you so you want to know that that person understands you and actually cares about your life.

In an old interview with Pitchfork you described touring as fun, but also depressing. This was toward the end of one of your first major tours, so how do you feel about the touring process these days?

Madeline: I feel like it’s… I love it. I’ve been having a great time. Obviously, you miss your family and your friends and your bed, but you’ve got Facetime now!

Brian: You also learn your own limits. In the very beginning we didn’t know that we could say no to things. So it would be like, “Oh, you’re going to drive eight hours in the morning and then you’re gonna go do this fashion show” and we’re like, we’d say OK and then…

Madeline: Which we kind of started doing in the beginning of this tour and then we were like, “That’s not humanly possible.”

Brian: Or like, “I’m losing my voice, so I’m sorry, we’re gonna reschedule, but we’ll come back.” You prioritize your own physical [wellbeing], but also mental health is a huge thing. And people understand. A lot of the time people will try to make it seem like they won’t understand—

Madeline: And if they don’t, fuck ‘em!

After your self-titled debut became this kind of runaway success, did you find it unnerving to follow it up with Static and Offering or did it spur you on?

Madeline: I don’t feel like we’ve ever thought about it that way.

Brian: We’re trying to reinvent the wheel every time. I go to this restaurant in the East Village and our music is on some playlist that comes on all the time. And seriously, when I hear it, I feel like the speakers are broken. I’m like “Oh my god, is that what that record sounds like? It’s so crazy sounding!” And I love it because it’s so weird and it was such a strange record of us having no idea what we’re doing and just throwing everything at the wall.

Madeline: But I think if we were to come out with something that sounded like that today, people would think their speakers were broken.

Brian: It was just a weird pocket of time and we were just lucky to have started at a time when really amateur, lo-fi stuff was accepted by a mainstream kind of audience. Because that’s literally the best we could do, like we weren’t trying to make it lo-fi. That was it. And we learned so much over the years about getting better at songwriting and production and we’re just trying to do what we think is cool in the moment.

 

You’ve said in the past that you hope to live in New York forever. What is it about the city that you find so compelling or attractive?

Madeline: Well, my family’s there and I like being able to get anything that I need at any time of the day. Like, I’m hungry at 2 in the morning I can walk down the street alone and not feel afraid because there’s twenty other people doing the same thing. I don’t know, I just love the city. I feel like I’d get restless [living somewhere else].

Brian: My favorite thing about New York is that as much as it is one of the most stratified and expensive places in the world, it’s also the most diverse. You can go to a bar and sit down next to some of our good friends who’ll tell me they have $13 in their bank account and you’ll be sitting down next to another guy who might be a billionaire and everyone looks the same and kind of talks the same and just… interacts. And when we’re touring around it’s like… you go through different parts of the city and it’s like, this doesn’t feel like America. I just think there’s a blend of like, nobody’s impressed by anybody in NY. It’s very egalitarian. It’s like Seinfeld. And compared to somewhere like LA and the places in CA where we group up, that social status thing doesn’t really exist there and it’s super relaxing.

Madeline: And walking and never having to drive: major plus.

In what ways has living in the city influenced your sound?

Brian: Having to do it in an apartment!

Madeline: You can hear ambulances, people honking.

Brian: Because I think a lot of the move from band-oriented to electronic music is because the technology has gotten better and cheaper and also because the studios haven’t. So we’ll just sit at each other’s houses and write songs on a laptop and a little tiny interface and that’s all we need, that’s pretty much all we did, just with some keyboards and stuff. And having to be quiet really influences the sounds you pick and the way that you fill things out. If we had an awesome rehearsal space… and just play[ed] and jam[med] together it would probably sound way different.

Madeline: We’d be a jam band [laughs].

Brian: We try to fill [the songs] up and that’s something I see with almost everyone I know who makes music in NY and even LA too. They don’t have a dedicated space to go play so they do things one track at a time and that makes for a different process and a different kind of music.

You don’t sound like a lot of the bands typically associated with this NYC indie/alternative scene like LCD Soundsystem, the Strokes, Animal Collective, etc. Was it a conscious effort on your part to go against the grain like that?

Brian: I feel like all those bands sound different from each other.

Madeline: And also we don’t… I don’t feel like we ever sit down and say, “We want to sound like this band.”

Brian: Only when we’re trying to diss each other. I’ll come in with a song and our producer Shane will say “I love this, it kind of sounds like Toad and the Wet Sprocket [sic].” But I think that’s one thing that I get sad about. I mean there are some bands that we’ve been playing with over the years like Real Estate, Tennis that I feel a kinship with musically, but we’ve kind of always been drifting in our own space.

Madeline: I feel like we don’t fit in any [genre]… [But] you look at our Spotify and it says, “They sound like Sleigh Bells and Best Coast!”

Brian: We always get compared to Sleigh Bells and Phantogram and Chairlift, and if those bands all had male singers they [would be] drastically different sounding. You’ve got 80s pop, you’ve got shredding guitars, you’ve got ripping beats and night life drug music and we’re like, slamming on a glockenspiel. None of those are similar except for the fact that it’s a man and a woman making music.

Madeline: All of our “Spotify Similar Artists” are gender-based, which makes no sense. Just because there’s a male and a female in the band, like is it different if there’s two females?

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Genre classifications and comparisons aside, there’s definitely a kind of Sunshine Pop element to your music; was that informed by the fact that you both hail from California originally?

Brian: I think it was just the music that we connected on initially and also just that we burned through before we started this band. I feel like we spent our youth listening to, like, Sonic Youth and the Ramones and a lot of heavier music, so when we started thinking about what we wanted to make, we said we kind of did it in high school. So we would listen to a lot of 60s and 50s music and we were like, “What do we love about this?” And we just felt really inspired and it felt new and we kind of just tried to carry that vibe through each record and just listen to music and think: what are the threads that we’re feeling? What’s inspiring right now? For this record I had never heard the Cocteau Twins, sadly, or never really listened to Pink Floyd or the Motels. And there was a lot of this kind of 80s power pop vibe that I was just discovering a whole world of that I was blown away by. And then you hear something you love and it’s like, “Let’s go play!” So every record’s a little different.

As a group who gained so much exposure and popularity by initially putting your music online for free, what are your thoughts on the way the music landscape has changed since Cults formed?

Madeline: I think the only way to get your music heard is to put it out for free. Because we have friends who have bands that are trying to get big and [are charging] for their music. And you’re like, “Why am I gonna pay for this?!”

Brian: I get really personally frustrated because I feel like a lot of the sites that… a lot of the people who’ve helped us go from nothing to a real band are now just writing about Miley Cyrus and Beyonce and TV shows, and a lot of music sites have become popular culture sites. We’re really good friends with… the guys from Whitney and they’re like the only band that I’ve seen in the last three years go from nothing to playing huge venues and doing stuff and everyone listening and it’s really hard I think to start now because it’s like America, it’s all the 1%. I mean, I’m not saying Beyonce’s records aren’t amazing because they are, but if they’re considered in the same light, the same arena as people who are making music in their bedrooms, it’s a very difficult competition. There are maybe sixty people who work on those records and they’re all amazingly talented and it doesn’t feel like there’s as much space anymore for someone who just wrote a great song and recorded it by themselves and just wants to share it with people. It’s a tougher landscape for sure.

You both were attending art school before leaving to focus on Cults. Do you do anything artistically outside of music?

Brian: [Madeline] tried to learn how to use Photoshop.

Madeline: I was just Youtube-ing tutorials, when we were working on the record, I’m like, “What should I Photoshop?” And he’s like, “Photoshop Gary Busey in a snow globe on Mars!”

Brian: She does so many different collaborations and we already have writing time scheduled for after this tour’s over. I just did a movie and sometimes I mix and produce stuff, but it’s just music 100% of the time. I’ve never felt good at anything else.

Madeline: I bought a sewing machine during the time between records, didn’t touch it.

Brian: I’m always really impressed by people that can do all these different things, but for me, doing this is hard enough.

Madeline: And when I have free time, I just… want to work on music. I’m not drawn to the sewing or the Photoshop.

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You’ve performed with Freddie Gibbs, you’ve been sampled by J. Cole, and you’ve even described your own songwriting process similarly to a hip hop producer’s. Would you say you feel a certain kinship with the genre of rap?

Brian: Yeah, we’re all big fans… We had a song sampled by Cam’ron, which blew my mind. We’re really friendly to all that stuff and we think it’s super cool when people reinterpret our music.

Madeline: If anyone wants to sample we’re normally… I think we’ve only turned down one.

Brian: Or two.

Can you say who?

Madeline: Let’s not…

Brian: It’s sad actually, because they worked on a whole song and then [they] realize [they can’t release it]… We’re very precious about our music because we’re always trying to create something that’s just on the edge of kitsch. From the very beginning we were hoping this whole band would be like that record you found in the back and you pulled it out and you put it on and you’re like “Oh my god, this is actually really cool!” So if someone tries to push it over the edge, it’s the same as if someone tries to advertise—we don’t do many advertisements because… “Go Outside” has probably been requested by every outdoor apparel retailer.

Madeline: Although we do have an Australian milk commercial. I found on Youtube somebody posted something and it was a couple girls and they said “Us getting ready to the milk song!” And it was “Go Outside,” so I’m like, “In Australia we’re just the milk song!”

Brian: But while a lot of the sentiments in our songs are really kind of obvious and kitschy, they’re meaningful to us and we’re always trying to put that layer underneath there to… that we need to keep sacred for ourselves, so sometimes we don’t let people use them.

You’ll be touring with Christopher Owens shortly, is that right?

Madeline: He’s doing all of our California shows. We hung out with him, we recorded a lot of this record in Berkeley.

Brian: He’s like the last musician left in San Francisco. Everybody left, but it’s so good that he’s still there. We did a song together (which will maybe come out one day for the record), and it was awesome. He’s such a cool guy and he has that new band called Curls, so we said, “Do you want to play some shows?”

Madeline: I listened to—

Brian: She cried.

Madeline: [Owens] came into the studio and played [one of his new songs], because Shane, who works with us, is also working with him and I was listening to it and I actually started crying.

Brian: He’d seen that reaction before [laughs].

Madeline: I love it, I think he’s so good. I was a huge Girls fan and I’m a huge Christopher Owens fan so it’s super exciting to be on tour with him.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

Brian: No, we’re just happy to be playing the great state of Iowa for the very first time. I can’t believe it took us this long. We played Alaska, how did we miss here?

Madeline: We played South Dakota!

Brian: It’s true. I think the last ones are Arkansas and North Dakota, but darn it, we’ll get ‘em all!

 

Album Review: Masseduction by St. Vincent

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Rock n’ roll reactionaries have been lamenting the “Death of Rock” since at least the 1980s when the synthesizer supplanted the guitar as a sure-fire hit-maker in the pop charts.  For them, rock’s proud lineage deceased with either Ronnie Van Zant or John Bonham, only to be resuscitated in the mid-80s and then promptly inhumed by Guns ‘N Roses’ fleeting popularity.  The exact dates and other minutiae may vary from person to person, but there remains one common denominator in the abrogation of mainstream rock music from the zeitgeist: the absence of an immediate guitar deity.

Despite her indisputable virtuosity, when Annie Clark released her debut album Marry Me in the summer of 2007 under the name St. Vincent, she wasn’t hailed as the next Slash or Jimmy Page.  The music was too unconventional to establish her as guitar rock’s latest torchbearer when the genre lionizes recycled Zeppelin chords, a cult of personality sense of bravado, and little else in terms of nuance.  Nevertheless, for the next decade, Clark would continue crafting angular, labyrinthine guitar lines to match her songs’ outré fusion of synth pop and art rock, despite a lack of recognition from the music industry (with some exceptions).  But on Masseduction, Annie scales back her guitar-centric approach to instrumentation and reveals that her talent for penning both emotionally rich and emboldening songs did not hinge solely on her trademark sinuous-yet-jagged licks.

Without her restless noodling, St. Vincent runs the risk of sacrificing her musical identity.  After four albums of laser-precision guitar gymnastics, Clark has established herself as indie rock’s preeminent soloist, and to largely abandon the instrument can translate to heresy for her purist fans.  To fill the gaping void in Masseduction, though, Annie and producer Jack Antonoff flood the album with synths.  Ranging from pulsating warmth, as on Hang on Me, to the metallic frenzy of Sugarboy, Masseduction all but compensates for the notable absence of her unparalleled guitar riffing.

It is, however, ultimately this reliance on the synthetic that stymies the album.  Take the song Pills, for example. Before the track is redeemed by its stripped-down bridge, Pills abuses Antonoff’s programmed drums in an arrangement that evokes neither originality nor self-awareness.  Masseduction may also revel too often in the slow-burn on some of the record’s quieter numbers, but doing so often allows for Clark’s lyrics to shine as they were intended.

Masseduction teems less with sobering revelations than with fallen-scale understandings. On Happy Birthday, Johnny, the braggadocian enfant terrible from 2014’s Prince Johnny is finally recognized as the helpless cherub he’s always been.  With Savior, Clark makes clear the divide between sex and salvation: “Honey, I can’t be your savior/ Love you to the grave and farther/ Honey, I am not your martyr.”  By the penultimate track Slow Disco, Annie is forced to reckon with her reckless past: “There’s blood in my ears and a fool in the mirror/ And the pain of mistakes couldn’t get any clearer.”  In the wake of a personal battle with anxiety and depression, as well as a public breakup with a “very famous person,” Clark finds herself taking stock of her life and arriving at substantive conclusions here on the album.

But the purpose of Masseduction is not didactic, nor even necessarily cathartic.  Instead, it’s simply the scrupulous examination of a singer’s triumphs and losses, romantic or otherwise.  Just as fundamental as the album’s recollections of both failed and resilient relationships is its sense of location.  When juxtaposed with one another, Masseduction’s first two singles New York and Los Ageless create a continental ode to the allures and detriments of the two coastal linchpins.  New York serves as a jeremiad of the city’s loneliness without a partner, while Los Ageless wrestles with L.A.’s bifurcated reputation as a parasitic bastion of hedonism and a tantalizing fountain of youth.  Outside of the reified verve of these cities, St. Vincent figures smaller, more minute settings as personal zeniths and nadirs, whether they be the safeguarded bedroom on Fear the Future or an insular table inside the underpopulated smoking section of a restaurant on the album’s closing track.  Big or small, Annie Clark is able to capture the mien of a setting without compromising any of its emotional integrity.

Clark made the grievous mistake of declaring the album her “deepest, boldest work [she’s] ever done,” in an interview to preface Masseduction’s release.  In doing so, she immediately invited detractors to nitpick at her songs in search of foibles and other potential points of denouncement.  Unfortunately for these critics, the album affirms that St. Vincent is still able to pen challenging, engaging songs even without her formerly omnipresent guitar.  And while it may not strike every listener as the “boldest” record she’s ever made, Masseduction will allay any fears that Annie Clark is, to paraphrase James Murphy, “losing her edge.”

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Album Review: Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsomerating 8

Go ahead and stow the Zappa comparisons, they were superficial at best and have been a blight on Ariel Pink’s image ever since Animal Collective took him in as a stray folkie in the early 2000s.  All throughout his career, Zappa’s asshole utilitarianism was churlish and transparent and, when rivaled with Pink’s jerkoff affectionism, fails to inspire any humanism in his formidable body of work.  One hundred-plus albums in Frank’s catalogue and not a single lyric more affecting than Ariel’s “I wish I was taller than 5’4”” from the title track to Mature Themes.  The closest he ever got was “You didn’t try to call me/…Didn’t you know I was lonely? But he didn’t really mean it.

Though misguided for the most part, critics’ adamancy of Frank Zappa reference points in Pink’s music isn’t totally unfounded; both artists strive(d) to reappropriate ‘60s and ‘70s pop music hallmarks and cede them to their freak constituents by way of experimental, often kitsch, songwriting.  But while Zappa used idiosyncrasy to elucidate the already blatant vapidity of consumer culture of those decades, Ariel plunders from bygone musical trends in search of resonant sincerity, not self-important irreverence.  So here on Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, Pink finds himself vacillating between the deadpan romantic and the straight-faced satirist personae that he’s been embodying for his last few releases.

Beginning with Time to Meet Your God, a Kraftwerk-reminiscent number featuring a characteristically urgent Pink warning of an impending day of reckoning, Bobby Jameson furthers the singer’s propensity for off-kilter subject matter and instrumentation.  Ever ready to pay homage to his forebears, Pink runs the gamut of his impressively wide breadth of influences and distills them into an accessible collection of freak-pop indulgences.  By the time we reach the title track, Ariel has already aped The Cure (Feels Like Heaven), flirted with ‘70s funk (Death Patrol), and doubled down on Bowie’s pop-inflected Krautrock (Santa’s in the Closet), all while maintaining his trademark vocal detachment.

Though the L.A. singer often uses aloofness to temper his experimental tendencies, it never detracts from the self-evident emotion on Dedicated.  On the album’s eponymous track, he incorporates an ostensibly ironic backing “Hey!” after each utterance of the line “He was a Tinsel Town tranny,” though Pink never compromises the song’s pathos as he pays tribute to the titular failed 1960s folk star.  Bobby Jameson’s career was wrought with missteps and personal tragedy, and when rhapsodized by Pink, his legacy becomes one of a misunderstood genius, similar to psych-rock acid casualties Skip Spence and Syd Barrett.  This is perhaps the greatest difference between Pink and Zappa; while Frank wrote off his drug-addled contemporaries as weak-minded and self-debasing, Ariel searches for the human element of these characters.  He may have been “a dejected bum, an alien,” but Bobby Jameson was, in Pink’s eyes, one of the “Angles of Sunset Boulevard.”

Despite the undeniably human element of Dedicated, much of the rest of the album employs Ariel’s well-worn egotism.  Reaching its self-parodic peak on the song Dreamdate Narcissist, Pink assumes the role of the navel-gazing lothario, abusing all of the modern amenities that facilitate the so-called “hookup culture” with a tad too much self-awareness to make a definitive statement on contemporary romance.  At other turns, however, Ariel engages in fruitless self-pity, as on Another Weekend, wherein Pink tries, in vain, to alleviate his loneliness with relentless brooding.  Even on the elated, Vaselines-esque Bubblegum Dreams, gratification is intangible, ephemeral, and, above all, gratingly saccharine.  And as revealed on Acting, chasing pleasure is a hollow endeavor, as it is unable to yield fulfilment or self-realization.  The album’s namesake may be a heartening “In Memoriam” to a forgotten iconoclast, but make no mistake, Dedicated is yet another exercise in Ariel Pink’s self-examination.

As a songwriter, Ariel Pink doesn’t exhibit a linear progress so much as he wantonly treads new musical territories within each album.  With or without his Haunted Graffiti cohorts, Pink is more comfortable dipping his toes in a new genre rather than diving headfirst into uncharted aural waters.  This is why his songs often seem mercurial when aggregated together on an album.  Pink may wander through a myriad of genres and styles, but his understanding of the assets and limitations of pop music guides him and keeps him grounded through his dogged musical nomadism.  Just as he says on Do Yourself a Favor, “Seek and you shall find.”

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Album Review: Rostam – Half-Light

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsomerating 9

When Vampire Weekend released their debut album in 2008, the group had concocted an astonishingly unique and strangely polarizing musical and visual aesthetic.  Drawing from any and every cultural signifier in their Columbia-molded cache, the New York quartet conflated The Indestructible Beat of Soweto’s emphasis on primal rhythm and groove with the aristocratic idiom of Western Classical Music and packaged the dyad in the unfairly maligned fashion of prep culture.  As the band’s musical vision progressed and the group began to engage with Tropicália, dance music, and baroque pop on subsequent albums, their sound became more expansive and varied, but it remained true to the sonic underpinnings established on that first record.

Their progressive-yet-homeostatic musical identity can largely be attributed to producer/arranger/keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij, whose allegiance to both Classical and pop music had informed Vampire Weekend’s first three albums before his departure in early 2016.  Declaring the move an effort against being overshadowed by his work with the Vampires, Rostam left the band to forge his own artistic identity by producing for the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Frank Ocean, as well as collaborating with indie veteran Hamilton Leithauser.  And now, at the age of 33, Rostam has released his debut solo album Half-Light, a record that typifies his facility for layered, warm production and distills so much of what set Vampire Weekend apart from their peers.

Given VW frontman Ezra Koenig’s penchant for the occasional sharp, jarring vocal tick and octave-jumping melodic acrobatics, Rostam has often served as the Panda Bear to Koenig’s Avey Tare, singing equally engaging, but more unassuming, unadorned melodies in comparison to his bandmate’s vocal apoplexy.  As such, Batmanglij has created a reticent persona for himself, one who often shies from the spotlight, seeking attention rather passively in relation to the pop stars with whom he’s worked in the past.

Rostam’s timidity abounds on the record, as evidenced on cuts such as Never Going to Catch Me, in which Batmanglij’s dry, straining voice all but submits to the multifaceted backing music and the monotone vocal double tracks.  For much of Half-Light, Batmanglij vies with his instrumentation for the listener’s attention, yet unlike, say, The StrokesJulian Casablancas, who matches his bandmates’ garage-rock aggression with equally truculent vocals, Rostam instead metamorphoses his voice to suit the dynamics of each song as he sees fit.  Take the opening track Sumer, for example, whereby Batmanglij’s weary, but optimistic, singing initially yields to the worldbeat instrumentation, only to triumph at the chorus’s melismatic conclusion.  For Rostam, striking a balance between music and lyrics is an ongoing game of cat and mouse.

While Half-Light derives much tension from the capricious relationship between its singer and instrumentals, Rostam also makes use of the dichotomy between Eastern and Occidental sounds, much in the same way he did during his time with Vampire Weekend.  On the song Wood, sitars and tablas coalesce with a Western string section, with the end result combining the pensiveness of The BeatlesWithin You Without You with the vim of their Inner Light.  Elsewhere, Rostam indulges in avant-pop, as on the jubilantly hectic Bike Dream, or on Hold On, in which fellow Dirty Projectors alum Angel Deradoorian joins Batmanglij for a glitchy R&B number worthy of a spot on Dave Longstreth’s last album under the band’s name.  As has always been his talent, Rostam amalgamates musical customs from around the world in a way that neither disorients his audience nor dilutes those original styles.

Extending the symbol as far as it can reach, Half-Light employs the motif of illumination (or lack thereof) to mark Batmanglij’s struggle with pinning down a satisfactory narrative in his search for capital-T Truth.  On the title track, this Light-as-Truth is too effulgent to reveal anything: “All the lights came up to illuminate the room/ Blinded me, I shut my eyes to see an imprint of you.” It seems that a half light is a better means of relief than discovery: “The light falls through the room/ And all of it don’t seem so hard.”  On the didactic When, Batmanglij exhorts the listener to disregard the dogma of the all-encompassing “They:” “They gon’ tell you what to feel/… And you chip a tooth, but it was on the truth/ …I’m here to tell you don’t listen to them.”  But as Rostam finds, one can only arrive at an epiphany on his or her own volition.  This sentiment is articulated on Don’t Let it Get to You and its reprise: “Even when it don’t make sense/… Don’t let it get to you/… I know that you won’t realize it/ But it’s still all up to you.”

Rostam Batmanglij has been on the sidelines of pop music for some time now.  As the humble keyboardist of Vampire Weekend and the underappreciated producer for a host of pop hits, Rostam was never seen as an indie-rock tastemaker.  Instead, he quietly worked on a wide swathe of genre-challenging albums and singles, and, after ten years in the industry, is finally getting a fair shake.  If Half-Light doesn’t establish Batmanglij as the musical titan he’s so ambitiously strived to be, it should at least reaffirm his unwavering dedication to crafting songs that can endear, stupefy, and comfort—all in the course of a few minutes.

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