What I’m Listening To: October 2017

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile – Lotta Sea Lice: This album between the Melbourne-based Barnett and the Philly-based Vile is a minor work in both of their catalogues, but it’s a lot of fun. There’s a few playful originals – “Over Everything” and “Continental Breakfast” – covers of each other’s songs – Vile’s “Peepin’ Tomboy” becomes “Peepin’ Tom” here, similarly, “Out of the Woodwork” is graced with Vile’s signature drawl (and some great Barnett backing vocals). The covers are great too – Barnett’s cover of her partner Jen Cloher’s “Fear is Like a Forest” and the album-closing take of Belly’s 1993 track “Untogether”. It’s a fun, unserious record that somehow only feels like it could come from these two. It’s a hang you’ll want to feel a part of.

St. Vincent – Masseduction: Annie Clark’s fifth record under the St. Vincent name again blows the debate wide open as to if she’s created her best record. Each record seems to build on the last, and this one might somehow be the most obtuse and accessible yet. It’s a diverse collection of neon-hued pop – the slinky “Los Ageless”, title track “Masseduction” with the lyrics “I can’t turn off what turns me on” to the devastating “Happy Birthday Johnny” and piano ballad “New York”. The arrangements are just as dense as they have been on previous releases, but here they feel streamlined and tighter. Highfalutin it is not. It’s St. Vincent, David Bowie and sex filtered through hell.

Margo Price – All American Made: Price’s 2016 album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter positioned the Aledo, Illinois native as one of brightest country stars with a sound that hews towards traditional twang with lyrics that convey personal heartbreak and devastation. Here, the tone is a little more political, as there are songs that confront sexism and wage inequality. It’s an assured LP, a great new chapter in her story – “A Little Pain,” “Weakness” (the title track from the EP of the same name from earlier this year) as well as tone-perfect duet with Willie Nelson called “Learning to Lose” are standouts. Every new Margo Price record unfolds her story just a little more. We learn as she does.

Hiss Golden Messenger Find Hope in the Dark on Hallelujah Anyhow

It’s hard to feel good about the world right now for a variety of reasons. Take your pick: politics, natural disasters and the simple passage of time claiming many of our heroes are just a few examples. It would be easy to be resigned and depressed about all of this, but thankfully there are reminders of some light peering through the darkness. M.C. Taylor seems to think that, or that’s the idea you get on Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest album, Hallelujah Anyhow.

Released under a year after last year’s magnificent Heart Like a Levee (and the deluxe edition bonus album Vestapol), Taylor and company return with a looser sounding collection of songs than the more pristine sounds of its predecessor. That’s not to say it’s any less gorgeous. Opener “Jenny of the Roses” kicks things off rather breezily, but sets the tone pretty quickly as he sings, apparently quoting the subject of the song: “I’ve never been/Afraid of the darkness/it’s just a different kind of light.” This theme continues with a song succinctly titled “Lost Out in the Darkness,” buoyed by an insistent kick drum and choppy acoustic guitars. Harmonica bleeds in and out of the song as Taylor sings something that sounds optimistic – “I’ve been waiting for you patiently/I’m trying to be hopeful for you, brother” and “If you carry the good news/show me/I’ve been looking for a sign down among us.

The instrumentation feels more like a delivery device for Taylor’s searching than it has previously – there’s simply much more that needs to be heard this time. It’s an album that’s feels like shades of color than a progression of sound. The songs here sooth in their autumnal hues – “Gulfport You’ve Been on My Mind,” and “Domino (Time Will Tell)” feel like sunsets, and “John the Gun” reappears here, revived from a serene acoustic take first found on Vestapol, fleshed out with an awesome full band arrangement.

There are also moments on the album that strike familiar tones. Multi-instrumentalist Phil Cook’s piano flourishes combined with soft horn hits and the roughhewn texture of Taylor’s voice lends itself to some irresistible Van Morrison comparisons, especially on “Harder Rain”. The song carries the intimacy and romance of people playing in a room together. It doesn’t break as much as it crests, building to a dewy crescendo. You can almost feel the collaborators looking to each other where to go next.

The album’s finest moment is it’s last – the instant-classic “When the Wall Comes Down”. It’s unclear if Taylor is referincing about that wall, but moments here feel more like advice than political statement. “What you oughta do is let it lie,” Taylor says. Then some more advice. “Step back, Jack, from the darkness.” Taylor is talking about being hopeful when there’s something in your way. “It’s a beautiful world but painful, child/Tear it down.” He’s right.

Hiss Golden Messenger group has crafted something to be a balm for a persistent burn. It is not a record made as a reaction to terrible times, instead it is a beautiful example of creating great art in spite of them. What it says is that we’re all in this together, moving forward and doing the best we can. That, truly, is Hallelujah Anyhow.

Halleujah Anyhow is out today on Merge.

The National Shake Things Up on Sleep Well Beast

When you talk about a new album by The National, there’s a few concessions you make. You’re not really stressing sound and progression but you do detail the mood and intensity. They’re a band of Midwestern men, two sets of brothers, and a guy that has a brother (as the excellent 2014 documentary Mistaken For Strangers shows), that define themselves by both their creative and personal tensions. They progress in inches, not leaps. Well, that is until now. Sleep Well Beast feels somewhat like a sonic redefinition.

While each record from 2005’s Alligator felt like a deeper descent into an emotional and sonic black hole, there’s an electricity that runs through their latest that feels like a band reacting against their darker impulses. Opener “Nobody Else Will Be There” creeps up on you – Berninger sings like he’s telling a secret, backed by nocturnal percussion and string swells. It’s a beautiful, but odd opener, as the pulsating “Day I Die” kicks into gear. The balance feels off The band experiments with synths and guitar solos all over the place – including the ripshit “Turtleneck”. The National have not made a song that has let Berninger go this loose on record since “Abel”. The guitars are nervy and suspenseful. It’s going to sound awesome live.

The three song run of “Guilty Party,” “Carin at the Liquor Store,” and “Dark Side of the Gym” are some of the most gorgeously staggering songs that the band has put together about love and relationships. “Guilty Party” talks about a failing relationship, while “Carin at the Liquor Store” is a piano ballad that’s apparently about guitarist Aaron Dessner’s mother-in-law that passed away during recording. “Dark Side of the Gym” has ‘wedding song’ written all over it, Berninger, evokes Renaissance imagery as he sings in duet with Irish singer Lisa Hannigan: “I have dreams of anonymous castrati/Singing to us from the trees/I have dreams of a first man and a first lady/Singing to us from the sea“. It’s language ripe for a first dance.

Despite these high points – there are some moments that don’t feel right. The intro to “I’ll Still Destroy You” feels a little out of place, perhaps like an Amnesiac-era Radiohead outtake, as well as the first single “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness”, has a lot going on – keys, guitar stabs and some synth hits. It’s also got sickly-sweet guitar solo which is the best part of the song, mainly because they are rarely, if ever heard on National albums.

At its core, Sleep Well Beast is a very good album by The National. The band backed itself against the wall with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, hewing a little too close to the sound they’d cultivated with their previous three albums. It’s the sound of a band taking chances with an established formula, spreading out and showing that after nearly twenty years together they can find ways to create something deeply engaging.
Is it the album to start a new fan with? No. Is it a worthy addition to their catalog? Certainly. They have consistently made records that try to top one another. Perhaps they have yet to create their best. If anything, Sleep Well Beast shows that all bets are off. Keep listening.

Sleep Well Beast is out now on 4AD.

LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream is a Remarkable Return

LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has always been obsessed with aging, the process thereof, and the self-awareness of coming that you are no longer the cool person in the room. One of LCD’s most enduring songs, “Losing My Edge” – is about that. I’m a few months away from being 32, the same age when he wrote that song. I get it. I’m still heavily involved in being a music fan when many of my peers have turned their attention elsewhere. Even with that, the pulse of pop culture is evaporating under my fingertips. We live in an era of ‘everything now,’ but culture now moves so quickly, it’s almost impossible to decode the latest meme without a Google search or find yourself realize that you’re technically old enough to be the parent of some of the artists in the Billboard Top 100.

Then, of course, “I was there”. I love to gloat that I was at the ‘final’ LCD Soundsystem show at Madison Square Garden. The documentary of the final show, titled Shut Up and Play The Hits, is a defining moment in rock history, sort of a next gen version of The Last Waltz. It was a four hour long show, a sort of euphoria mixed with a wry sadness. In essence, it was a really big Irish wake. Hearing last year that the group was reforming, I couldn’t help feeling a little put off by it. But it wasn’t without precedent – even The Band mostly got back together after The Last Waltz. The difference here is that they never truly released an album that stood next to their classic material. But with American Dream, LCD Soundsystem managed to.

Released today, the album is not exactly about that, but there are parts of it that show a wisened Murphy bringing the sounds of his youth to the forefront. Many of songs on this album are reminiscent so much of Robert Fripp or coke-era Bowie – a sound that somehow hasn’t been strip-mined within an inch of it’s life – recast as a way to transmit Murphy’s state of mind.

As with any LCD Soundsystem album, there are endless quips that strike with their *realness* – take “Emotional Haircut” for example: “You got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete/And you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat,” or on “Tonite” which sounds the closest thing like a paint-by-numbers LCD song as it gets before Murphy observes – “Everybody’s singing the same song/It goes tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight/I never realized these artists thought so much about dying”.

Dying. The album’s most emotional moment is the 12-minute closer “Black Screen” which is clearly about Murphy’s friendship with David Bowie during his final years. Murphy contributed elements to Bowie’s final album Blackstar. Words here really can’t do it justice. Listen to it in a quiet space when you’re alone. It may be the most vulnerable Murphy has ever sounded on record.

American Dream is an album that in no way sounds like a rehash. Even the songs that sound like “Classic LCD” have an undercurrent that places them out of time. The themes that Murphy sings about might be similar, but make no mistake, this is a band that has been somewhere, has grown older and better. By all accounts, they’re here to stay. May we all accept aging and the evolution of “cool” as well as they have. What a great example to have. By all accounts, they’re here to stay. May we all accept aging and the evolution of “cool” as well as they have. What a great example to have.

American Dream is out today on Columbia.

Coming Closer with The War On Drugs A Deeper Understanding

My first experience with The War On Drugs is in 2009 when I saw them open up five times for The Hold Steady. They had just released Wagonwheel Blues, a promising, if not wholly remarkable debut. Adam Granduciel quickly identified me night-to-night as “Phillies shirt guy” because of the shirt I wore one of the nights. He and Dave Hartley and their drummer at the time signed my copy of the LP. I saw Adam play with Kurt Vile the next few years, was surprised by the release of 2011’s Slave Ambient, and watched the band skyrocket on the heels of 2014’s brilliant Lost in the Dream. It’s been remarkable to watch a band like that come full circle, but nothing could prepare for the release of their latest, A Deeper Understanding.

To put it bluntly: this is a really special album. It’s both accessible and ethereal, somehow operating as both a passive listen and intensely rewarding for much more detailed listeners. I keep playing it over and over, revealing bits I simply missed before. How often is an album both good for the passivity of a long drive but dense enough for headphone listening? There are moments that exist here that you don’t really notice until you focus, sort of like when you focus on taking a deep breath. You’re always *doing* it, but not until you take time to really concentrate, it’s then you are cognizant of the process.

A Deeper Understanding is an album that passes through your body with each inhale and exhale, with an ability to make you feel *something*. Sometimes that feeling that doesn’t always have a word to describe it. It envelopes you in sound, feeling heavy without the properties of being solid. Maybe that’s not for you, but damn if it’s not remarkable that something like this can exist today, when there are so many options to blunt those feelings. It invites you to come close, to be intimate, and reminds you what it’s like to be alive.

A Deeper Understanding is out now on Atlantic.

On Everything Now, Arcade Fire Sound Infinitely Content

There’s a real problem of being fatigued through overconsumption. It feels like as a culture we’re maxing out: we now have access to an endless pleasure funnel. If you have the means, you can gorge on all the music, movies, television and food you want. There is so much of everything. It’s perpetuating a practice of going-until-you-can’t, exhausting yourself and starting all over again. It never stops. There’s always “infinite content”.This is the thesis of Arcade Fire’s new album Everything Now.

Arcade Fire are one of the last bands to be born before the culture of critical mass, releasing one critically acclaimed record after another, culminating in a Grammy for Album of the Year for 2010’s The Suburbs. Every one of their releases has been an event, a sort of take on the modern blockbuster. You know when it’s coming, you know what it’s about. You’re immersed. The records themselves – always a little stuffed to the gills and a little long. Let’s be real: there’s always a few bummer tracks. While 2013’s Reflektor was actually a really great late-night dance record, it often got maligned self-indulgent.

Self-Indulgent? Isn’t that what got them here in the first place? Isn’t that what we want?

Pretty succinctly, Everything Now is a solid Arcade Fire record, and at this point in time, that’s good enough. From the title track where Win Butler singing about “Every room in my house is filled with shit I couldn’t live without” to the middle-era Talking Heads groove of “Signs of Life,” these are some of the more accessible singles they’ve put out in a long time. Then, with one of the best tracks is the synth boom of “Creature Comfort” where Butler and Regine Chassagne talk about the desire of those who want to be famous, and if they can’t, dead. It gets real meta: “Assisted suicide/She dreams about dying all the time/She told me she came so close/Filled up the bathtub and put on our first record.” This sort of self-awareness from such an image-conscious group is a bit jarring.

“Chemistry” sounds pretty hokey at first, but then there’s a weird butt rock breakdown midway through that’s irresistible to want to play over and over. “Electric Blue” is a breezy showcase for Chassagne, but it doesn’t quite pack the emotional punch of her earlier tracks, like “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” from The Suburbs.

The album both begins and ends with a track called “Everything Now (Continued)”. Both songs feature a tired Butler singing “I’m in the black again/Not coming back again/We can just pretend/We’ll make it home again/From everything now.” The difference is that opener builds towards what ends up being the title track, while the closer the other forms a horn swell and cuts off abruptly. If the songs are left to repeat, the end of the album loops with the beginning. The album doesn’t truly begin or end until you’ve had enough.

It’s literally “Everything Now”. It is infinite content. Wait to for the prompt to ask “Are you still watching?”

Everything Now is out on Columbia Records.