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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Five Essential Steely Dan Solos by Walter Becker

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Living hard will take its toll” sang the backup vocalists on Steely Dan’s Glamour Profession on the group’s (first) farewell album Gaucho.  Donald Fagen and Walter Becker knew this all too well; as the Glimmer Twins’ nerdy, jazzy alter egos, the duo’s profligacy ran rampant across the 1970s before impelling the group into dissolution in 1981.  After several reformations and breakups over the next three decades and an undeniably storied career, it was announced on September 3rd that Walter Becker had passed away.  And though Becker’s website refrains from listing the cause of death, one can only imagine that his past addictions played a hand in his untimely passing.

Fronting a revolving door of accomplished musicians, Fagen and Becker were long recognized as the two-headed chieftain behind Steely Dan’s inimitable sound.  But with Becker relegated primarily to bass guitar and background vocals, it’s easy to dismiss him as the Art Garfunkel of ‘70s jazz rock.

On the contrary, Walter Becker was just as instrumental in the Steelies’ musical identity as Fagen, co-penning lyrics that both limned drugged-out low-lives as persecuted heroes and created the occasional inroads to the beau monde.  More aloof onstage than his lead vocalist counterpart, Becker never had to vie for the spotlight, as his role in the band was always well understood.  And as Dan’s career progressed, his presence became increasingly salient, as evidenced by his indispensable guitar work on the following songs.

  1. Pretzel LogicPretzel Logic (1974)

Becker’s first documented solo in the group, his musicianship seems deceptively tentative on those first couple bars.  Initially slow and unassuming, it’s clear this is not the work of lead guitarist Jeff Baxter.  But as the song swells to accommodate Becker’s bluesy noodling, his prowess becomes indisputable.  Featuring one sour note on the song’s outro, Pretzel Logic is a document of perhaps the band’s only mistake in the studio, but it remains one of Steely Dan’s most memorable solos.

  1. Black FridayKaty Lied (1975)

Cutting through the sheen of the rest of the band’s polished production, Becker’s fuzzed-out guitar-god riffing immediately takes command of the song upon its first appearance.  Languid, confident, and absolutely electric, the song stands out as one of the group’s most engaging blues indulgences, due in no small part to Walter Becker’s nonpareil guitar sound.

  1. Bad SneakersKaty Lied (1975)

In spite of a chorus featuring an almost Zappa-esque lyrical phrasing that all but alters its time signature, Bad Sneakers’s warm R&B piano on its verses and the lugubrious Michael McDonald vocals on the second pre-chorus establishes the song as a work of sympathy rather than cynicism.  Over the bridge’s two-chord progression, Becker exhibits a stentorian sound that not only complements the pathos of the song, but also documents Becker at his jazziest.

  1. The FezThe Royal Scam (1976)

The Royal Scam introduced funk into Steely Dan’s palette when it was released in 1976.  And on The Fez, the band’s PSA for safe sex (which starkly contrasted the lifestyle Fagen and Becker led at the time), Becker yet again showcases his predilection for guitar distortion while creating a sound consistent with the rest of his bandmates.  He seems to be dueling with the keyboard that appears intermittently during this solo, yet by the time the song’s main riff reemerges, the entire ensemble yields to Becker and his sleek/jagged guitar enigma.

  1. JosieAja (1977)

Boasting what is perhaps the Steelies’ sexiest riff, Josie is one of the band’s most memorable album closers.  With its laser-precision funk rhythm guitar, an ethereal synth that instantly merges with the song’s brass section, and lyrics that indefatigably praise its titular heroine, Josie proves a quintessential Steely Dan song.  Becker’s guitar solo on the track begins with a repetition of Fagen’s vocal melody, but soon careens into far more beguiling territory that effectively distills his love of blues, rock, and jazz into one shimmering gestalt.


There isn’t anything outwardly cool about Steely Dan, despite their dark sunglasses and super rad long hair.  Even in the ‘70s as stadium rock dominated the zeitgeist, the jazz-rock ensemble avoided anything resembling youth culture and effectively alienated themselves from the most voracious (and profitable) consumer demographic.  It’s telling that John Mulaney’s and Nick Kroll’s Oh, Hello Broadway show about two curmudgeonly septuagenarian New Yorkers constantly reiterates the fact that its stars are huge Dan fans.  Steely Dan’s music was mature, it was opaque, and thanks to the presence of Walter Becker, it was completely electrifying.

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Album Review: The War on Drugs – A Deeper Understanding

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

The War on Drugs occupy enigmatic territory in rock music.  Their synth-laden take on roots rock is theoretically incongruous and unsound—on paper, the group veer dangerously close to the formerly divisive, but now canonized heartland pop of Born in the USA—but long hair majordomo Adam Granduciel and his (mostly) faithful aides-de-camp have been effectively crafting heartening, singular indie fodder for the past nearly ten years.  Almost revisionist in their intent, the Philadelphia ensemble at times seem to be rewriting the rock landscape of the 1980s; reimagining the decade’s synthetic indulgences by aging rockers like Dylan or Harrison, whose attempts to stay hip fluctuate between sweetly naive and wholly needless, The War on Drugs re-contextualize synth-rock as a calculated effort to merge electronic and rock music and build off the tension therein.  But the group transcend gimmickry by virtue of Granduciel’s passionate lyricism.  Detailing personal strife, doomed and triumphant romances, and the overall perils of the human experience, The War on Drugs subvert their nostalgic aesthetic in favour of universal empathy, and on A Deeper Understanding, the band achieve one of their most fruitful excavations into the human psyche.

Opening with a flagrant admission of ignorance, “I don’t know, I’ve been away,” the album establishes immediately Granduciel’s vexations on Up All Night.  Here, he’s the ostracized derelict, the spurned acolyte forever cursed to harbor paranoia and malaise even as he “[steps] out into the world” after a symbolic rainstorm.  And halfway through the second track Pain, the singer makes clear his desire: “Give me a deeper understanding of who I am.”  So begins his venture into self-rediscovery, one marked by false respites (Strangest Thing), pleas for transitory comfort (“Hold me underneath your shadow once before I get erased” on Nothing to Find) and the periodic revelation, such as on Thinking of a Place (“There’s a darkness over there, but we ain’t going”).  By the album’s closing song You Don’t Have to Go, Granduciel has finally granted credence to the untenability of love, declaring, “Love is a bird I can’t even see.”  His Other Half may be gone now, but her absence isn’t the result of his own mistakes, it’s now understood as fait accompli, that which he cannot nor could not ever change.  With love as his foremost preoccupation, it’s fitting that the frontman should reach a new maturity following the dissolution of his relationship.

Although he spends most of the album pining for his old flame, Granduciel knows full well a reunion won’t end his woes.  By his understanding, romance isn’t an undertaking to be valiantly consummated—he knows he won’t find atonement in her embrace, even after this fraught voyage to self-realization.  Instead, Granduciel conceives of romance as something to be preserved: as the old adages goes, it’s a journey, not a destination.  As such, distance, both physical and temporal, is his greatest foil.  He’s racked with worry that while he’s away from his paramour, she’s forgotten him, and despite his best efforts, patience can no longer afford him reprieve, only more of the same consternation: “I’d been up all night/ Is it life and we’re just living it?”  For Granduciel, love is a lightyear and a lifetime away.

Accommodating the melancholia of their lead singer, the rest of the group provide airy, dreamy instrumentation to bolster Granduciel’s pained musings.  Never vying for the spotlight, each carefully selected synth and guitar sound plays into the other, often appearing from out of the ether and settling into its place in the mix without any fuss or ostentation.  On high energy numbers like Up All Night and Nothing to Find, just as on the slower songs, the music never distracts from the vocals, maintaining an aural dais on which Granduciel delivers his dirges.  As a safeguard to his lyrics, this sonic bubble is rarely pierced, save for the guitar solos on Pain and Thinking of a Place, whose freeform noodling hearkens back to acid rockers like Country Joe’s Barry Melton.  The overall effect of the group’s sound, however, is one of encompassing warmth and organic exploration.

Much like their previous releases, however, The War on Drugs revel too often in the long jam.  With just one of the ten songs clocking in at under five minutes, the album would benefit greatly from an editor who could scale back some of the more indulgent moments of the album and reduce its run time to under an hour.  True, the hypnotic nature of their musical meandering makes it easy to fall under the longer cuts’ spells, but after six or so minutes, the charm wears off.

Nevertheless, A Deeper Understanding serves as the latest in a string of hits by The War on Drugs.  Fully realised and deeply personal, the care put into this album is self-evident and marks another step forward in the maturation of Adam Granduciel’s songwriting.  The farther the group traverse the murky territory of the mind, the more things become illuminated.  As the lyric on Strangest Thing reveals: “I ain’t got everything I need/ If I’m living in the space between beauty and pain.”

7.5/10

Further reading:

http://www.pitchfork.com/thepitch/1508-the-war-on-drugs-on-their-epic-new-single-and-making-an-la-record/

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/indie-rock-band-the-war-on-drugs-frontman-adam-granduciel/

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Track Review: Kesha – Praying

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Am I dead or is this one of those dreams, those horrible dreams?” asks Kesha at the beginning of the video for Praying, her first single since 2013’s Crazy Kids.  As she bemoans her existence and questions her faith lying afloat the decrepit remains of a dinghy in an Ingmar Bergmanian moment of introspection, she entreats for death.  “Being alive hurts too much.”

            Kesha Rose Sebert’s legal strife has been highly publicized (yet only sporadically discussed) over the past few years, with journalists and fellow artists almost unanimously siding with her over much-maligned producer Dr. Luke.  In light of her allegations of his sexual and emotional abuse, it’s impossible not to read Praying as a response to the tribulations Sebert has incurred since the lawsuit’s inception in late 2014.  But the track isn’t a gesture of submission and wound-licking, it’s a song of survival and resilience.  This is Kesha’s Lust for Life.

            The singer’s supplication for her life to end is a necessary valley; only at her nadir can she summon the strength to “fight for [her]self” and attain inner peace.  As such, we see Kesha taking the high road here.  While she can be caustic toward Dr. Luke (“When I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”), her overall message is one of forgiveness: “I hope your soul is changing, changing/ I hope you find your peace.” 

            Praying is a marked departure from her previous singles.  Eschewing former themes of prurience and hedonism, Kesha displays a seldom seen openness in the form of a sobering, contemplative ballad.  Stentorianly sung over dour piano chords, Kesha’s affirmations may border clichéd at times (“some things only God can forgive”), but they never lose their cogency.  This has always been a talent of Sebert’s—her ability to convey a particular sentiment or construct a specific scene in her music often allows for the inclusion of well-worn turns of phrase, but never to detrimental effect. 

            Per the iridescent text at the end of the music video, Praying is a new beginning for Kesha, a second act following the years-long adversity pervading her professional life.  Whether it was out of maturity or catharsis (or both) that the song was written, Kesha effectively distances herself from a pernicious past without indulging in needless self-pity or petty invective against her adversary.  If the last three years have been “one of those horrible dreams,” then Praying is Kesha’s much-needed awakening.     

7/10


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Album Review: Big Thief – Capacity

By Sean Hannah (@Shun_Handsome)

Despite existing on seemingly disparate musical strata, hip-hop and indie rock share more common ground than one might presume. Both genres, generally speaking, tend to feature lyrics that serve to perpetuate distinct personae for their respective artists, with hip-hop espousing delusions of grandeur and indie rock false humility and overzealous self-deprecation.  Artists from either camp who indulge too blithely in these tropes tend to catch flak from audiences and critics alike; materialistic, hyper-masculine rappers are written off as tacky or contrived while lugubrious rock singers are dismissed as unconvincing and unnecessary.  

Though Brooklyn-based Big Thief fall into the latter category, their self-effacement is hardly disingenuous and their keen lyrics suggest a kinship with some of hip-hop’s more inspired songwriters.  On Capacity, Big Thief’s sophomore LP, the group deliver a reassuring continuation of the sound that so frequently impressed on their debut Masterpiece and refines the poetic lyricism of front-woman Adrianne Lenker, which effortlessly conflated unyielding sincerity with gut-wrenching viscera.   

            Similarly to Masterpiece, Capacity meshes together the warm guitar sound of late-‘60s/early-‘70s roots rock and garage music’s characteristically unpolished veneer.  “Shark Smile,” a Springsteenian tale of geographical travel and personal travail, incorporates a CCR-inspired chord progression to quell the disquiet of the song’s paroxysmal intro. On more subdued tracks like “Black Diamonds,” the lightly-distorted instrumentation butters up the otherwise dry album’s even-tempered musicianship (thanks to unsung heroes Buck Meek, Max Oleartchik, and James Krivchenia). But that’s not to say that the quieter songs falter without this roughness.  The record’s opener “Pretty Things,” with its gentle finger-picked guitar arpeggios, would be perfectly in place as a McCartney or Lennon ballad on The White Album but for its inimitable lyrical content courtesy of Lenker.  Soft or loud, Big Thief can sustain an intensity that lesser bands could only hope to achieve.

            As a lyricist, Lenker places the listener just outside of the intimacy of her songs’ characters.  Her words conversational and personal, Lenker’s songs sounds like private interactions we’ve entered in on, yet from which we haven’t been shooed.  Take “Haley” for example, whose lines “Just like how it used to be, Haley/ Kicking around, burying letters we wrote” capture the sanguine nostalgia of childhood friendship despite the distinct non-universality of the scene.  Even if the memory isn’t accessible to everyone, the bond between these two characters is. 

            Perhaps Capacity’s most pored-over song is “Mythological Beauty” due to its reportedly autobiographical third verse, but the verse preceding this highly-discussed stanza truly bespeaks Lenker’s talent for crafting lyrics.  Referring to her mother’s venture into young parenthood, the line “Seventeen, you took his cum and you gave birth to your first life” evinces Lenker’s aptitude for writing lyrics that are frank without becoming crass, personal but not indulgent.  In this regard, she’s like Frank Ocean, another songwriter who may similarly speak bluntly in his songs, yet remain stoic enough not to render a line licentious or trite.  Lenker’s air of aloofness is facilitated in part by her Karen Carpenter-like penchant for keeping an even-tempered voice throughout these songs in spite of the sensationalist subject matter therein.  Singing the affirmation “I am a beautiful bird, fluttered and floating” on the album’s title track, Lenker barely rises above the song’s mix, opting instead for a more furtive tone in her vocals. Her voice may be meek, but her ideas aren’t.

            Thematically, much of the album deals with the confrontation (or lack thereof) of trauma; “You can wake up now, Mama/ From your protective coma,” Lenker sings on “Coma,” describing the harrowing situation of a woman feigning sleep to withstand a (presumably sexual) assault.  “I can feel the numbness accompanying my plight,” from “Mary,” likewise describes the employment of unhealthy disengagement as a transitory coping mechanism for abjection.  Other times, the band depict intrepidness as a means of conquering distress, as in the line “Kissing on the vampire, Kissing on the werewolf/ We have no enemies” from “Objects.”  Singing in the first or second person, Lenker explores with adept laconicism highly personal accounts of tragedy, far beyond the lightweight clichés of unrequited love and perennial ennui that’s become well-trod territory in the indie rock community.  As such, a more apt lyrical comparison might be to Earl Sweatshirt, whose ever-increasing terseness also explores personal issues (alcoholism, drug addiction, parental abandonment) with unflinching honesty and a proclivity for astute self-reflection.

            Though Capacity never loses focus or control of its larger narrative, it suffers the pitfalls of a group whose musical identity is such that significant deviation would jar listeners, leaving it rooted in a fully developed, yet oft-repeated sound that lags in places on the album’s latter half.  The rustic instrumentation of “Haley,” while appropriate among the song’s bucolic imagery, fails to keep the track afloat and instead marks it as nondescript.  The same is true of “Black Diamonds” inasmuch as its tried and true guitar/bass/drums paradigm reduces the closing track to a modest gesture rather than a grand statement more apropos of the album’s previous heart-rending content.  

To be sure, there are no bad songs on Capacity; the album is a warm, ruminative exploration of personal strife and triumph with far more successes than failures, yet its musical consistency at times stymies it from achieving notability on each cut.  Still, Big Thief are perceptive and intuitive enough to compensate for these minor shortcomings, and Capacity serves as a confirmation that the brilliance they displayed on Masterpiece wasn’t just beginner’s luck.

8/10  


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