Album-art-for-pom-pom-by-Ariel-Pink Ariel Pink – pom pom

★★★★☆

As easy as it is to hate Ariel Pink—the most hated man in indie rock, according to MySpace (so that’s what they’ve been doing since 2007)—it’s hard not to love the tangled, yet often melodic madness of his latest album, pom pom. It’s the musical manifestation of a grown man going to town in a playroom, and the result is disturbing, endearing, and, at times, unexpectedly lovely.

Pink’s stamp is obvious on controversial tracks such as “Not Enough Violence,” where he sings in a consciously deep, Satanic voice, “Now it’s time for pain, that’s right/Penetration time tonight.” Pink told Pitchfork the track is a commentary on our unwillingness to confront the violence that plagues the world, but it could easily be confused for a dance hit as it escalates into a layered frenzy near the end.

Songs like “Not Enough Violence,” along with more calculated offensive remarks made outside the musical realm, are what make Pink indie rock’s most hated man, and he regularly switches from taking a perverse pride in the title to whining about how much hate he receives.

Pink is the type of guy who’ll title a song about a stripper “Black Ballerina,” then sulk in the corner when he gets called racist. While his public persona mostly thrives on obvious trollery, in brief flashes of sincerity we see Pink wallowing in confused victimhood. It’s as if he’s come to the conclusion that people will hate him no matter what, so he might as well make them hate him on his terms—hence his deliciously weird music, high heels and wigs, and outrageous comments—but in the end, he still doesn’t get why he can’t click with other humans.

No song better highlights the provocateur-turned-self-conscious dynamic than “Sexual Athletics.”

As the track starts off with a twangy riff that your dad would be totally into, in classic form, Pink declares himself the “sex king, on a velvet swing.” By the second half, he’s confessing, “All I wanted was a girlfriend all my life.”

That’s about as much as the average listener can decipher from pom pom, but there are plenty of inscrutable songs still worth a listen. The second track, “White Freckles,” is what would happen if any generic ’80s beat suffered a bit too much sun damage; “Nude Beach A G-Go” is a perverse twist on the Beach Boys’ aesthetic (Pink sings, “All the kids will be attraction/All the parents don’t like the action”); and “Jell-o” is as scatterbrained musically as it is lyrically, making the nonsensical track a fascinating listen.

Pom pom’s mellower songs are also some of its most memorable. Single “Put Your Number In My Phone” sways along with instrumentation that, if pulled apart layer by layer, would most likely sound hideous, but when combined, it’s dreamy and nostalgic. It’s funny, because the lyrics are actually over-the-top creepy (“Talk to me, I’ll be your lover sky,” and “Make believe, I last forever babe” are a few choice examples), but like that one asshole you can’t believe actually gets laid, Pink makes the pick-up lines sound appealing with the romantic swell of his instrumentation.

Immediately following the single, “One Summer Night” is a pop ballad drenched in syrup, and the simple, sweet melody will randomly resurface on an absent minded walk. Near the end of pom pom, “Picture Me Gone” trudges along through slow-rolling synth, while Pink’s affected vocals sing, “I dedicate this selfie to the little ones who will outlast me when I’m gone” in a pointed commentary on the digital era.

Pom pom is a difficult album to unpack, much like the persona of Pink himself, but his creative entwining of disjointed elements creates an addictive (almost hypnotizing) sound that makes you want to try, again and again.

Ariel Pink – pom pom tracklist:

  1. “Plasic Raincoats In The Pig Parade”
  2. “White Freckles”
  3. “Four Shadows”
  4. “Lipstick”
  5. “Not Enough Violence”
  6. “Put Your Number In My Phone”
  7. “Nude Beach A G-Go”
  8. “Goth Bomb”
  9. “Dinosaur Carebears”
  10. “Negative Ed”
  11. “Sexual Athletics”
  12. “Jell-o”
  13. “Black Ballerina”
  14. “Picture Me Gone”
  15. “Exile On Frog Street”
  16. “Dayzed Inn Daydreams”
Album-art-for-Asleep-Versions-by-Jon-Hopkins Jon Hopkins – Asleep Versions

★★★½☆

There are few artists that could pull off a thematic companion to their last major album without it feeling regressive to their arc as an artist. Jon Hopkins’ Asleep Versions, the EP length reimagining of last year’s twitchy, expansive Immunity, isn’t the bold stylistic step that one would expect after an album that so expertly magnified and unfurled Hopkins’ sound. Pitching up the otherworldly qualities of the music and deemphasizing the computerized sounds, Asleep Versions is true to its name, the twilight counterpoint to Immunity’s sunny morning. But even if it’s destined to be a footnote in Hopkins’ prolific discography and growth as an artist, it’s a testament to Hopkins’ ability to create classically beautiful compositions.

Described in press releases as an attempt to create “decelerated, dreamlike re-imaginings” of Immunity tracks, the album certainly does feel contemplative and drawn-out, even at half the length of Immunity. Sonically though, the best way to describe Asleep Versions may be as the unplugged rendering of Hopkins’ Immunity-era sound. Eschewing the more futuristic, askew twinkles of that album for a lighter, more lucid analog sound, the music has unusually never felt less dreamy.

The EP opens with a re-imagined version of “Immunity.” Hopkins restructures the song, placating the glitching field recordings of the original, and realigning King Creosote’s aching vocal into a centerpiece position.

The track is pretty, but without the interplay of the wounded loop and the piano, the track feels like second-rate Sigur Ros, elevated by Hopkins’ understanding of production.

For most people, Hopkins was first heard in the new age sparkle of Insides’ “Light Through the Veins” that bookended Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. Plaintive but never conservative in his ambitions, Hopkins’ early recordings announced an artist who lived in the margins between classical and electronic music to create his own form of digital pastoral music.

When describing Hopkins’ music, he starts to sound like the lion’s share of electronic and classical musicians out there. There’s the classicist accents of Nils Frahm, the intimate warmth of Olafur Arnalds, the suspended compositions of Max Richter and so on, but Hopkins’ skills lie in his meticulous modulation. At any given time, his musical textures can communicate the lightness of a snowflake or the fury of a blizzard.

“Form By Firelight” is a prime example of this intimacy, transforming the lattices of squelching synths of the original into a siren song. Raphaelle Standell, who leads Braids and Blue Hawaii, is a phantom mewling against the menace of the flickering keyboards and aqueous strings.

“Breathe This Air” momentarily returns the EP to a place of sonic lucidity with ringing piano until it dissipates halfway into pixie dust synths and a haunting vocal loop.

It approaches that liminal feeling between sleeping and consciousness, but it feels more like an interlude than a track on an EP that barely reaches a half hour.

“Open Eye Signal” was kind of an outlier on Immunity; a juiced-up techno rumbler that was closer to Chemical Brothers’ pyrotechnic rave-ups than the intimate, anxiety-ridden suites that made up the rest of the album. Asleep Versions impressively channels some of the same mood even as it sounds completely different. Moored along by an inward rumble, the song sounds like one long yawn as the drone builds into an angelic peak before plateauing and dropping to an isolated whisper.

Asleep Versions is a fine entry in Hopkins’ musical career, but it feels like a period, whereas Immunity felt like an ellipsis. On Immunity, Hopkins wasn’t boxed in by his past sonic palettes, he was reinvigorated; he shaped them to create a sound that felt less like the house music at a stuffy concert hall and more like a living, breathing ecosystem. Asleep Versions is more accomplished and complete work than many of Hopkins’ contemporaries’ full albums, but he’s still trying to get back to the forest from the trees.

Jon Hopkins - Asleep Versions tracklist:

    1. “Immunity (with King Creosote)”
    2. “Form By Firelight (with Raphaelle Standell)”
    3. “Breathe This Air (Asleep Version)”
    4. “Open Eye Signal (Asleep Version)”
Album-art-for-Where-Does-This-Disco-by-YACHT YACHT – Where Does This Disco?

★★★☆☆

YACHT teases fans with its most recent four-track EP, Where Does the Disco? The EP is short and sweet, presenting listeners with the persistent pop beats expected from YACHT productions, with just strong enough of a political undertone to evoke some real thoughts. The duo attempts to explore our society’s dependence on technology and media, as well as the potential aftermath of these obsessions; but with only two new songs released, the message YACHT expects to convey with Where Does This Disco? isn’t clear enough to make a lasting impression.

As a band so far along in its career, YACHT risks losing touch with what listener’s want to hear. Luckily for its loyal fans of the past 12 years, the duo makes use of its modest EP by offering tastes of the old and the new. Where Does This Disco? whirls, pings, and trills. The digital sounds, layered together with electric keys and analog synthesizers, create robotic beats, especially prevalent during “Where Does This Disco” and “Works Like Magic.”

However, YACHT isn’t afraid to expand beyond the standard sounds and instruments associated with electric pop. On “Terminal Beach,” the most politically-charged song on Where Does This Disco?, a heavy guitar and drum pattern are immediately noticed. The angry presence of these instruments creates an ominous tone on an otherwise upbeat EP. Perhaps these surprising elements are included in an effort to prove YACHT doesn’t have to rely entirely on synthesizers or electric instruments. Producer Jerome LOL is enlisted for a remix of “Where Does This Disco,” and gives the song a much more scaled back sound than YACHT listeners might expect. The remix makes use of percussions reminiscent of a spoon tapping on a metal pot. It’s an interesting, minimalist approach to achieving the same sound, but with a powerful twist.

Besides its willingness to go beyond the standards of electric pop, YACHT continues to use its platform as musicians to write politically and socially themed tracks.

Breaking the album’s uptempo tone, “Terminal Beach” is much heavier, which is immediately obvious by the weighted instrumentals paired with vocalist, Claire Evans’, monotone tenor. Clashing drums and angry strumming stir up a steady, consistent beat during the verses of “Terminal Beach,” but the track becomes crazed and angry as the chorus approaches. The very beginning of the song leaves listeners believing they’ve been transported to a futuristic, post-apocalyptic world before any lyrics are sung out. But when Evans chants, “We washed up on a terminal beach/All the palm trees/Cell phone towers/Little metal coconuts/And in the ruins/Ancient desktops/Cables running to the sand/Pull the messages that nobody understands,” the feeling solidifies. Halfway through the track, a monstrous, computer-generated voice begins moaning and wailing as Evans continues to chant, “Too afraid to think that what we were taught to think could hurt.”

The bits of technology washing up on the desolate beach and Evans’ repetition of, “Too afraid to think what we were taught to think would hurt us,” spikes fear—fear of our dependence on technology and how we’ll function once these objects and conveniences dissipate.

“Terminal Beach” is a song with a powerful message, but that doesn’t transfer to the other three songs on Where Does This Disco? “Works Like Magic” and “Where Does This Disco” are standard post-bad-relationship songs found on nearly every love-centric album. It’s obvious from “Terminal Beach” that YACHT is fully capable of creating compelling music from a lyrical and auditory standpoint, so why wouldn’t the duo push for more?

Where Does This Disco? is a mini creative exploration that indicates YACHT isn’t losing any of the talent the duo has worked years to master. However, it’s odd that a duo that’s produced five full length albums would release an EP that includes only two new songs. It has been nearly three years since its fifth studio album, Shangri-La, dropped, and yet YACHT’s next musical release is a four-track album with only two “never-heard before” songs, a previous single, and it’s remix? If YACHT was intending to tease its listeners with forthcoming “goods,” the band’s succeeded. Where Does This Disco? gives listeners all the content they might want from a politically aware electric pop band, but not enough actual material to satisfy their needs.

YACHT – Where Does This Disco? tracklist:

  1. “Where Does This Disco”
  2. “Works Like Magic”
  3. “Terminal Beach”
  4. “Where Does This Disco (Jerome LOL Remix)”
Album-art-for-Xen-by-Arca Arca – Xen

★★★★½

Arca, or Alejandro Ghersi, has made it clear he is separate from everyone else with a veiled media presence and star-studded project list (Bjork, Kanye West, FKA Twigs). He is arguably the most-desired and skilled producer today, kicking off something that’s finally new. Devoted to Ghersi’s gender-neutral alter-ego, Xen is a maze of digital sound capabilities—an exploration of electronic music breaking down in the natural world and adapting to find its own beautiful place in nature.

Xen, Arca’s formal debut album, could soundtrack the coolest horror movie ever. From strings that painfully mimic nails on chalkboard, to ruptured and screeching patterns, and just a few melody-centric tracks, the album is built on an intentionally shaky foundation, darting and gliding frantically like a school of fish, without ever losing its elegance.

Arca doesn’t break the rules—he simply doesn’t see them.

The flow of Xen is very hurry-up-and-wait with its revolution of sporadic, racing industrial tracks followed by sensuous steel reggaeton, only to pick back up with somber strings and ambient vocal samples. Arca has crafted an album for thinkers to get lost in over and over.

Opening track “Now You Know” casts a haunting daze in its first few moments of launching and buoyant sounds. The track then builds up with soaring, engine-like noises and unexpected, yet sustained introductions of more experimental production.

The derailed intro to Xen subsides and collects with a crawling, echo-filled track as Arca moves to the piano for a short stint of a song, “Held Apart.” But an urgent ambulatory sound quickly moves in for “Xen,”  and the title track paces and falls with a primitive nature.

Xen serves as musical representation of the digital world at its best. Arca’s music evokes a feeling of flipping through a catalog of auditory and visual memories. His primal, tangled temperament offers the dimensionality to suggest his music as part of a new direction of digital music that’s more intellectual than ever before; it reaches out to other senses, particularly vision.

“Sisters” begins with the layered crashing of what sounds like tin pans floating in water. The track takes a sensuous turn, scooping up the cryptic eroticism that’s been peeking through the album all along. Themes of bold sexuality may explain the puzzle-like feel of the album, paralleling spontaneous sexual experiences. Dizzy glitches bounce through the steady melody at the pace of a bobble-head. It’s easy to picture the digitally-rendered depiction of Arca’s alter-ego Xen grinding along to the track. The Xen character is seen in the music video to “Thievery” by visual artist (and Ghersi’s roommate) Jesse Kanda, where Xen’s silky, metallic, almost reptilian body moves with elasticity and unnatural vibrations.

“Thievery,” the album’s sort-of-single, stands on a reggaeton beat and is the most melodious track of the album. The song may even work with a crowd, despite the unspoken producer rule of “no Arca at the club.” “Promise” then closes the album with robotic sounds similar to popping popcorn. Plucking noises ensue as harsh, shrill bass powerfully and abruptly ends Xen.

Despite the obvious mechanical, digital construction of this album, Arca blesses listeners with an elemental feel. Xen exploits digital music’s important relationship with nature, testing how the two break one another down and reconstruct in curious ways.

Arca – Xen tracklist:

  1. “Now You Know”
  2. “Held Apart”
  3. “Xen”
  4. “Sad Bitch”
  5. “Sisters”
  6. “Slit Thru”
  7. “Failed”
  8. “Family Violence”
  9. “Thievery”
  10. “Lonely Thugg”
  11. “Fish”
  12. “Wound”
  13. “Bullet Chained”
  14. “Tongue”
  15. “Promise”
Album-art-for-Springtime-Carnivore-by-Springtime-Carnivore Springtime Carnivore – Springtime Carnivore

★★★★☆

It takes a special artist to capture the uplifting spirit of an entire season in one collection of songs, and an even better one to send listeners from the unforgiving cold of winter to the pleasant warmth of summer in an instant. With her inaugural full length, Greta Morgan, aka Springtime Carnivore, manages to defy the elements and summon the carefree soul of summertime on her debut masterpiece with flashy synths, uplifting vocals, and danceable beats.

Springtime Carnivore takes an unconventional route with an electronic flair on the self-titled album, trading musical austerity for a heavy focus on Morgan’s ghostly voice. Much of the instrumentation is simple with only subtle embellishment, allowing the vocals to soar.

Even though instrumentation is not the obvious focus of Morgan’s music, it is equally responsible for creating the undeniably contagious feel of the record. The synths establish a shimmering tone, the guitars respond with beautiful, animated reverb, and the drums brighten up the mood with catchy, rhythmic beats to unite the music.

Springtime Carnivore has its share of everything. From melodious singles like “Sun Went Black,” to stunning, intricate instrumentals like “Karen Bird’s Theme,” the album covers a range of genres.

However, the pieces still fit wonderfully together to frame Morgan’s seamless tour de force.

While many of the songs differ in regards to tempo and type, one thing always stays the same: Morgan’s alluring vocals. At times stylistically distorted, at others clean and pure, Morgan’s voice consistently carries the music from track to track.

“Two Scars” throws distortion on Morgan’s haunting melody, adding to the dreamy tone of the song. The song relies heavily on her commanding vocals, placing the entire wall of instrumentals behind her echoed crooning. On the opposite side of the spectrum is “Other Side Of The Boundary,” the only song to feature solely guitar and vocals. This track is Morgan’s most powerful performance, featuring clean vocals and an exploration of her vast range; both show her immense talent and ability to adjust her style depending on the mood of the song.

Lyrically, Morgan is heartfelt, honest, and at times quirky in her approach. Her true power comes out in the melancholy ballads where she sheds her skin and opens up. It’s apparent from her words that she’s an emotional intellectual who’s got a lot to say. Lines in tracks like “Other Side Of The Boundary” offer insight to her sense of alienation as she sings, “I’m a raven, just a raven, waiting for the black night to fade in/I will finally blend in, disappear for a while,” while she counters with more uplifting lyrics in songs like “Collectors.”

She’s all over the place in a beautiful way, writing what she feels and holding nothing back, whether it’s sadness, joy, or somewhere in between.

Morgan’s vocal prominence on the record is paired perfectly with the instrumentals, which often take the backseat, but shape the tones of the songs. Summer anthem “Name On A Matchbook” would be nowhere without jovial synths, essential tambourine, and infectious whistling. Bouncy guitars and a wall of synths dance over a simple drum beat, shining as the musicians have one of their few solos on the record. The track carries the nostalgia of a sunny road trip back home, and immediately incites a contagious feeling of joy.

Another crucial element of Springtime Carnivore is the instrumental tracks at the beginning, middle, and end of the album. “Low Clouds” wins in capturing the spirit of the mellow ending to the record. The finale closes with a serene feeling of resolution and a slight sense of apprehension. It’s an unorthodox way to end such a positive album, but feels fitting when it’s grouped in with the rest of the tracks.

It’s hard to find any issues with Springtime Carnivore—a rarity; not only does the album display quality musicianship, fantastic singing, and original songwriting, but it’s also a diverse, genre-spanning magnum opus for the band and the entire scene.

Springtime Carnivore – Springtime Carnivore tracklist:

  1. “Western Pink”
  2. “Collectors”
  3. “Name On A Matchbook”
  4. “Sun Went Black”
  5. “Foxtrot Freak (Something In The Atmosphere)”
  6. “Other Side Of The Boundary”
  7. “Karen’s Bird Theme”
  8. “Keep Confessing”
  9. “Last One To Know”
  10. “Two Scars”
  11. “Talk To Me Slow”
  12. “Creature Feature”
  13. “Find A New Game”
  14. “Low Clouds”
Album-art-for-Variant-by-Ben-Frost Ben Frost – V A R I A N T

★★★☆☆

Australian noisenik Ben Frost isn’t the most obvious recipient for a remix EP. Frost’s brand of brutalizing noise isn’t allergic to snatches of melody, especially on this year’s full-bodied A U R O R A, but the album is more concerned with cumulative world-building than stand-alone suites. Frost’s musical building blocks similarly seem challenging for remixing with monochromatic, grayscale synth patterns and nightmarish strings.

On V A R I A N T, all five remixers acquit themselves well, merging their own strands of trap, R&B, ambient techno, and the unclassifiable jungle/ambient hybrid of Dutch E Germ, but, as is the problem with most remix EPs, V A R I A N T never examines why it should exist in the first place.

The EP rarely feels cohesive even if the sequencing makes a nice valley of tempos; recognized as separate entities from A U R O R A‘s incarnations, these remixes still stand in the shadow of the originals.

This is often a problem that exists with remixes, which almost exclusively—outside of rap—work better when they re-shape the context of the original song or dramatically change the architecture of the song (Four Tet, for example, has consistently been one of my favorite remixers because he brings the song into his world rather than the other way around). V A R I A N T unites a diverse, talented collection of artists who have built their own formidable discographies, but all either try to replicate, or worse, fail to understand what makes Frost such a unique artist—the relentless combination of tension and (delayed) release.

Beginning with a triptych of “Venter” remixes, all three demonstrate the versatility of Frost’s beaten-to-a-pulp percussion and nuclear winter atmospherics, but all three fail to either recreate the coiled violence of the original or more importantly, express their own mood. Instead, they all feel like bloodless re-imaginings of Frost’s “Venter”.

On A U R O R A, “Venter” felt like a sneak attack. Coming after the suffocating distortion of “Diphenyl Oxalate,” the track disguises itself as a respite before becoming a heaving colossus of church bells, John Carpenter-style squelches, and a cyclone of a climax that feels more apt for Godspeed You! Black Emperor than ambient noise music.

The three remixes here ignore the original’s creeping build, but attempt to retain the oppressive mood.

English wunderkind Evian Crist slows the track to a crawl, emphasizing the punch of the snare/clap/siren combo to make a trap remix. Without the destabilizing whirr of the original though, Crist’s remix is all thunder and no fury.

Dutch E Germ is more adventurous, but not enough to give the song its own character, isolating the gently drifting drone before dismantling and reassembling the pieces into what literally sounds like a combination of a typewriter’s punched keys and Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. Its machine gun burst drum fills and ugly/beautiful piano tones with the original’s oppressive haze are thrillingly disorienting at first, but on repeat listens, it feels more and more like an unwieldy Frankenstein than anything else.

HTRK, who released the beguiling Psychic 9-5 Club earlier this year, brings the biggest stylistic curveball to the track, staggering the central melody into mournful slow-motion R&B and modulating the drum beat to the point it sounds like an arhythmic heart beat, always lapping at the synth melody, which is pitched further back. It feels markedly different than the rest of the EP, but its metronomic spell lasts a little bit too long to fully hold.

The solo remix of “No Sorrowing” may be the strongest remix on the album. Frost’s original “No Sorrow” was an aural steam bath, luxuriating in synths and languorous strings. Despite his similar penchant for gelatinous gloom, Kangding Ray avoids the obvious choice and makes it an absolute banger, placing the drums in a zero-g space and grafting an insistent techno thump. Ray twists the original’s clacking distortion into its own percussive melody; it’s ferociously intense and almost danceable without losing the bombed-out zen of the original.

Unfortunately, after that peak, the final remix, the Regis Self Medicating Edit, is entirely forgettable. Neutering the African-inspired percussion and swallowing drone combination that made the original “Nolan” feel so alienating and impressive, the track grinds along in a perfunctory fashion with cushioned bass and industrial loops to a pretty, but uninspiring end.

What is the purpose of a remix? Is it supposed to remind the listener of the virtues of the original artist, or cast the music into an entirely different context? The answer seems to be both, but remixes can’t exist in a vacuum, they always come with the knowledge that they’re built from something else. V A R I A N T’s greatest accomplishment is that it reaffirms Frost’s mastery of his own material, but that doesn’t prove the album should exist. These remixers are barely able to get out from under Frost’s melodic thumb, let alone create their own sound.

Ben Frost – Variant tracklist:

  1. “Venter – Evian Christ TF 12′ Mix”
  2. “Venter – Dutch E Germ Remix”
  3. “Venter – HTRK Remix”
  4. “No Sorrowing – Kangding Ray Remix”
  5. “Nolan – Regis Self Medicating Edit”
Album-art-for-Chubbed-Up-+-by-Sleaford-Mods Sleaford Mods – Chubbed Up +

★½☆☆☆

Of the people, by the people, and for the people.  These words, delivered over 150 years ago in Gettysburg, may seem out of place in discussing the new release by Sleaford Mods, Chubbed Up +, however, for Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn it seems to fit. Often in times of political and economic turmoil, the younger generation ignites the fires to upheaval and social change, which is why there will always be a place for a group like Sleaford Mods. This might also explain why the band’s newest release Chubbed Up + is garnering so much attention. While the album does nothing to depart sonically from previous releases, with repetitive elementary beats underneath a relentless verbal assault on less than glamorous minimum wage and socially under-appreciated lives, Sleaford Mod’s new release might be perfectly timed to feed fans’ fury of the current socio-economic issues around the world. This duo of Nottingham verbal venom spitters are sick of the system and tired of low pay, which is forcefully driven home on Chubbed Up +.

To be clear, this is not a record of catchy hooks, killer riffs, or crystalline production, that has never been Sleaford Mods’ goal.

There are entertainers on Chicago train platforms that create more sonically vivid images in one song than this whole record may have combined. Each of the 12 songs follow the same formula, with bare basic beats that sound like someone playing drums on a Casio keyboard. The beats are so simplistic and unimaginative, that it is difficult to regard Sleaford Mods’ creation as falling under the category of music, as the tracks portray the image of an angry beatnik at a poetry slam more than a band playing songs. With lyrics like, “Desperately clutching to a leaf-long depression, supplied to me by the NHS/It’s anyone’s guess how I got here, it’s anyone’s guess how I’ll go,” from “Jobseeker,” it is clear Jason and Andrew don’t care.

Sleaford Mods does not exist to make you dance or make you sing along, the band doesn’t mind if you hear its creations at your local club, not even a little.

No, Sleaford Mods exists because of the band’s willingness to unabashedly attack the ignominy that is, in their view, the state of British and world politics. The Vesuvial spew of harsh critique, mashed with the often hilarious top-of-mind distractions, (“So Mr. Williamson, what have you done to find gainful employment/Fuck off/I sat around the house wanking” from “Jobseeker”) are what make the band unlike much of the current music landscape.

Sleaford Mods started as a one man project in Nottingham, England in 2006 when Williamson began writing beats and lyrics. In 2009, Williamson hooked up with Fearn and the duo took to stages together, with Fearn working the bare but driving and hypnotic backing tracks to Williamson’s unapologetic vitriol.

Now, in Chubbed Up + the duo has done little to change the equation that has led to its rising popularity in the UK. Fearn continues to copy and paste flat beats like a DJ at one of Eminem’s Eight Mile rap battles, keeping the focus off of the musical creativity, but all eyes instead on Williamson as he calculatingly sprays his bitterness toward the self-aggrandizers of Europe. But perhaps there is something more to this new release. If listened to closely, maybe Sleaford Mods has acknowledged a wider audience and broadened its attack.

On Chubbed Up + it appears that Williamson has traded in his laser-guided assaults for lyrical lightening that cuts a wider swath.

In past releases, Sleaford Mods’ lyrics were precise and targeted on the band’s own backgrounds and hometowns. But on Chubbed Up + there is some indication the focus has shifted to a broader criticism as they reach regional recognition. On “Scenery,” Williamson scowls, “The Red Curtain are wankers, wanker and sickle,” displaying his love for communism and Russia; a far cry from the admonitions of London and his Nottingham roots, which litters earlier Sleaford Mods releases. However, Williamson and Fearn have not mistakenly aimed for the mainstream. To do so would abandon the one thing that has brought the band the most recognition. The press in the UK has remarked that what makes Sleadford Mods stand out is its “visionary ranting” and the fact that they sound “like nothing else.”

But not to worry. On Chubbed Up +, Williamson still holds on to his unrelenting wit and comedic timing, all while maintaining a frustrated and angry edge. In “Fear of Anarchy” he asks: “Meat sweats and carpet suppliers, the Prince of Persia’s got a nice life, what does it take to make it all go wrong?” While Chubbed Up + will not earn awards for its composition, there is something to be said for timing. Williamson and Fearn are striking political and satirical blows at the establishment, when youth around the world are primed for ignition. Whether it was over 150 years ago, or whether it is 2014 and beyond, people have always wanted the same things, to define themselves and their future, on terms agreed upon by the collective. What Sleaford Mods has created with Chubbed Up + is a wise-cracked political tirade, authored by the people and delivered for the people.

Sleaford Mods – Chubbed Up + tracklist:

  1. “The Comittee”
  2. “Jobseeker”
  3. “14 Day Court”
  4. “Black Monday”
  5. “Jolly Fucker”
  6. “Tweet Tweet Tweet”
  7. “Bambi”
  8. “Routine Dean”
  9. “Scenery”
  10. “Pubic Hair Ltd”
  11. “Bring Out The Canons”
  12. “Fear of Anarchy”
Album-art-for-Faith-In-Strangers-by-Andy-Stott Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers

★★★★½

Andy Stott is a musical chameleon. He isn’t easy to pin down from album-to-album, let alone song-to-song. He’s played with Drum ‘n Bass’ manic breakbeats, microhouse’s exacting hypnosis, avant-garde’s unpredictability, and even unabashedly beautiful soundscapes—sometimes all in the same song—but if there’s one defining element, it’s an aching, monolithic backbeat. Stott’s songs don’t so much contain a bass line as an enveloping abyss as the foundation.

After 2012’s masterstroke, Luxury Problems, Stott could have easily coasted on variations of that album’s atmospheric dub, but Faith In Strangers thrives on unexpectedness and flipping the script between grotesque and beautiful, calming and dissonant. In the process, he’s made a stunning techno album admirable for both its technical innovation and its stark emotional resonance.

“Time Away” sets this dichotomy nicely with an unusually somber slow-burn soundscape that recalls the majestic instrumental work of Johann Johannson mixed with the narcotic haze of William Basinski. Playing with distance, the main horn figure glides as if it’s undulating back and forth through a reverberating canyon toward the listener.

“Violence” heads closer to the dancing floor with crater-inducing bass blasts, a squealing melody, and a disembodied siren sounding vaguely like Bjork, but there’s still a halo of unease that hangs over the track. “On Oath” similarly oscillates between severity and tranquility beginning as a bubbling drone before being overwhelmed by throbbing percussion and a juxtaposition of angelic voices and whirring machinery.

In Stott’s world, the natural and mechanical spheres don’t so much confront each other as co-exist.

Stott’s arrangement coalesces voices that sound like woodland nymphs and factory machinery merging into one cohesive whole. But Stott’s strength isn’t just building these hermetic worlds; Stott’s music takes genre architecture that already exists and scrambles it to his own will, twisting lulling drones into dancey bangers and completely changing the tone of familiar genres.

Stott’s music doesn’t need to be provocative. It’s capable of startling beauty even when he’s not subverting genre conventions. “Faith In Strangers” is one of the most gorgeous things Stott’s released—a rippled, melancholy techno song that serves as one of a few reunions with Luxury Problems‘ highlight, Alison Skidmore. Skidmore is still ghostly here, her wisp of a voice gliding through the heft of the music.

It’s far from make-out music, but it’s mechanically wounded in the same way that the best Aphex Twin songs strives for.

Like the best synthesists, Stott is voracious in his musical appetite without ever feeling like his influences are intruding on his own sound. “No Surrender” recalls Actress’ stuttering techno for nearly two minutes before field recordings and bone-snapping percussion lead in a pulverizing bass to destroy the foundation of the song. “How It Was” is similarly corrosive, like a post-apocalyptic version of Disclosure’s two-step. Likewise, “Damage” reimagines Trap as a futuristic soundtrack to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with rusted snares, cymbals and blown-out atmospherics.

Stott isn’t unique to use bass as a weapon though. Groups like shamanic droners Sunn O))) have long built their sound on swallowing low-ends, but Stott’s brand of techno is so much more than sonic terrorism. This is fundamentally melodic techno, interested in the dance floor even when it sounds like the melody is sinking into quicksand.

In an interview with Tokyo outlet, Gadabout, Stott was asked to describe his music. He said, “If you can imagine an atmospheric soundtrack to a film, but at the same time it’s dance floor friendly.” It may be hard to imagine Stott playing in anywhere that wouldn’t cater to more adventurous strands of electronic music, but unlike some of his contemporaries, Stott isn’t just making this music as a monument—there’s a soul in this machine.

Andy Stott – Faith In Strangers tracklist

  1. “Time Away”
  2. “Violence”
  3. “On Oath”
  4. “Science and Industry”
  5. “No Surrender”
  6. “How It Was”
  7. “Damage”
  8. “Faith In Strangers”
  9. “Missing”
Album-art-for-Otherness-by-Kindness Kindness – Otherness

★★★★☆

Kindness, the solo project of London-based Adam Bainbridge, showcases a certain musical altruism by casting progressive, cohesive collaborators to enhance his sophomore album Otherness. These smart collaborations give context for Bainbridge’s own funky talents and yield a clear-headed, neo-soul pop album that beautifully scouts the genre’s expanse.

Bainbridge’s 2012 debut album explored the depths of disco possibilities, but on Otherness, he’s carefully built a new home in the prime nook of pop music. He taps into elements of ’80s pop, ’70s jazz, ’60s soul, and modern R&B, and his affinity for perfecting these wide-ranging sounds and stitching them together cements his status as a tastemaker for the future of pop.

Album opener and single “World Restart” features Night Slugs goddess Kelela alongside a big band jazz sound, heavy saxophone, and understated bass and electronic drums. Bainbridge lets the featured artist and soulful instrumentation shine in the most tasteful light; halfway through “World Restart,” he steps back and makes room for Kelela’s celestial vocals, showcasing the beautiful capabilities of collaboration done right.

The lyrics, “I felt the world restart/I felt the world begin,”  serve as a palate cleanser, while the fiery, soulful jazz sets heightened expectations for the rest of the album.

At the tail end of Otherness, Bainbridge collaborates with longtime musical cohort Devonté Hynes for “Why Don’t You Love Me,” also featuring soulful London songstress Tawiah. Their friendship is omnipresent on the album—hints of Hynes’ project Blood Orange are heard in the niche sound of drowsy keyboards, stirring vocals, rich ’80s flair, and R&B admiration.

“Why Don’t You Love Me” is among the album’s most full-bodied tracks. There’s a seamless emotional switch from the repeated pleas of “Why don’t you love me?” to impassioned, layered vocals, where sad feelings can get comfortably lost in a passion for music.

But, while every track on Otherness falls in the realm of love, “Why Don’t You Love Me” is only one facet of the ever-changing dynamics of relationships. For Bainbridge, love is constantly on the brain, but the feelings under that umbrella jump around on Otherness as honestly as they do in real life. Sultry ballad “With You,” also featuring Kelela, captures lovers’ intimacy, while “This Is Not About Us” lays out the deeper issues of a problematic relationship.

Though Bainbridge plays well with others, he proves he doesn’t need the backup of Hynes, Kelela, or any others; groovy track “This Is Not About Us” most purely captures his solo talents. An emotive piano loop supports whimsical syncopated accents and dancing rhythms. Despite the track’s bold instrumentation, Bainbridge knows when to scale down for the occasional minimalistic harmonized vocal section. These muted moments exhibit the undressed emotion tied to assessing a relationship’s future.

Bainbridge compromises nothing on Otherness, ignoring the unspoken schemas of mainstream pop music in an album that’s bound to influence like-minded experimenters. He displays his affection for the unique talents of his collaborators via his impressively attuned and tasteful ear, celebrating both their and his own otherness.

Kindness – Otherness tracklist:

  1. “World Restart (feat. Kelela & Ade)”
  2. “This Is Not About Us”
  3. “I’ll Be Back”
  4. “Who Do You Love? (feat. Robyn)”
  5. “8th Wonder (feat. M.anifest)”
  6. “With You (feat. Kelela)”
  7. ‘Geneva”
  8. “For The Young”
  9. “Why Don’t You Love Me? (feat. Devonté Hynes & Tawiah)”
  10. “It’ll Be Ok”
Album-art-for-Memorize-Now-by-J. Fernandez J. Fernandez – Memorize Now

★★★½☆

On his third EP, Memorize Now, Chicago native J. Fernandez is still negotiating the dangers of the “bedroom pop” aesthetic. The genre has had a natural, yet unpredictable evolution as it emerged as a quick and dirty vehicle for releasing music, but is now loaded with lofty expectations. In 2014 when nearly anyone with a laptop can record music with at least a layer of gloss, sculpting music with a lo-fi quality requires far more effort. In that sense, some artists use it as a gimmick—a shorthand for homespun intimacy or low-stakes authenticity—while others embrace the method as a way to flatten musical history by placing computer modulated effects next to vintage synths and sequencers.

J. Fernandez is an example of the latter, a heady cosmonaut who’s equally enamored with the oblong structure of paisley psych and the gear that gave those songs their otherworldly quality, but this fetishism turns out to be a double edged sword. Hampered by sketchy songwriting, awkwardly paced melodies, and self-indulgence, this EP feels more like a blueprint than the execution of J. Fernandez’s high ambitions.

Despite having an aesthetic and palate resembling artists like Stereolab, Youth Lagoon and Wild Nothing, J. Fernandez’s closest relative may instead be a galaxy tripper like jazz/hip-hop phenomenon Flying Lotus. If Flying Lotus crate digs through obscure hip hop, jazz, and electronica to build his universes, J. Fernandez looks to a more elemental form of nostalgia, the ongoing war between analog and digital instrumentation.

Rather than clearly delineate these contrasting eras of instruments, J. Fernandez creates something playfully confrontational.

He overlaps squelching synths, wispy guitars, and bass in a way that inexplicably conjures both the funky dissonance of Can and the charred bedroom pop of Neon Indian.

From the opening moments of “Memorize Now,” it’s clear J. Fernandez isn’t concerned with the current vein of indie pop. After a brief guitar opening, a geometrically blocky guitar figure falls back to let a hypnotizing bass and a screeching keyboard encase the foreground of the song.

“Memorize Now” is not significant enough to make an impression on its own, but it’s a peek at the boldness of J. Fernandez’s compositions.

“Failed Scales” is an even better showcase of J. Fernandez’s understanding of melodic point and counterpoint—an eerie web of shapeshifting arpeggios on keyboards, organ, and sequencers. Fernandez interlocks each arpeggio like spider legs before a seasick looping keyboard bumbles down the middle. Playing to his interest in analog and digital sounds, avant-garde touchstone Terry Riley is the operative influence here. By the end, the synth patterns sound less like musical notes and more like malfunctioning code translated into sound, but while parts of the EP are noisy and drone-based, there is clearly an interest in off-kilter pop here.

“Cosmic Was” feels less mathematically exacting with its loosely prickly guitar sound, flowing bass, and drooping sax, but like the rest of the EP, the keyboards possess a stark rigidity and prominence that tilt the song off-kilter. Its calculated elegance lends an almost European slickness, resembling a chunkier, but no less aerodynamic version of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s influential “Bonnie And Clyde.”

This verve for experimentation isn’t ultimately taken far enough though, or at least not cohesively implemented. “Close Your Eyes” erratically smashes together melodies from two different songs without ever finding a groove to link the two. Beginning with dueling arpeggios before braking into a sluggish and lumpy jazz-psych number and back again, the song falls apart with its monotone mumble and its anti-climactic build. “Geneva” is a throwaway suite, and the restless “Image” fails to find a compelling melody, although its vaguely Latin-themed backbeat initially seems promising.

J. Fernandez has a unique musical voice, and his interest in unconventional equipment is welcome in an increasingly monochromatic musical space, but this EP is still the work of an artist who’s lost in the limbo between melody and ambition. J. Fernandez has the capacity to create colorful musical worlds like a Flying Lotus for instance, but right now, he’s still having trouble finding his own home.

J. Fernandez - Memorize Now tracklist:

  1. “Memorize Now”
  2. “Image”
  3. “Failed Scales”
  4. “Cosmic Was”
  5. “Geneva”
  6. “Close Your Eyes”
Album-Cover-for-…And-Star-Power-by-Foxygen Foxygen – …And Star Power

★★½☆☆

Foxygen, the California duo that captivated listeners with its debut album, We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, has written a 24-track monster of an album, …And Star Power, with the inclusion of its alter-ego band proudly tucked in the middle. Individually, the album’s songs are engaging and well-produced, but the tone of …And Star Power is sporadic and lacks buoyancy, creating a cluttered and overwhelming listening experience.

There’s no denying Foxygen’s musical capabilities after listening to the 84-minute album brimming with talent. The vocals are clear and powerful, and the array of instrumentation (brass horns, strings, organs, guitar, bass, drums, etc.,) is balanced and enhances insightfully written lyrics. From a technical standpoint, this is an album of solid songs. What’s concerning is the how the album jumps from one sound to another without any clear reason. Foxygen provides an eclectic mix of sounds; the album presents music reminiscent of ’70s funk, psychedelic folk, and ’90s garage punk bands. However, it’s as if the duo created all these songs with no clear outcome in mind before mushing them together in one album.

The band released four songs on the album (“Star Power I: Overture,” “Star Power II: Star Power Nite,” “Star Power III: What Are We Good For,” and “Star Power IV: Ooh Ooh,”) under its fictional alter-ego band name, Star Power. When Star Power takes over, the soft ’70s rock vibe quickly shifts to a jolty, jarring mess. The more Star Power “performs,” the more the songs deteriorate, each one sounding more scattered and unhinged than the last. “Star Power II: Star Power Nite” consists entirely of static, jumbled classic rock sounds layered over clashing guitar riffs—a stark contrast from the album’s previous tracks with cheerful acoustic guitar and selected synthesizers. Though Foxygen incorporates a song or two further into the album that sounds just as chaotic as Star Power, the drastic juxtaposition of the two musical entities indicates which “band” is playing.

The introduction of Star Power would have been a great opportunity for Foxygen to switch to another style or tone of music, had Foxygen stuck with two different sounds, that is.

“Wally’s Farm,” one of the songs following Star Power’s take over, is the type of music you’d expect to hear in an under-appreciated Mexican restaurant. In all honesty, “Wally’s Farm” is actually kind of confusing. The track starts with funky notes from a keyboard and electric guitar ringing out, but those sounds are quickly traded in for poorly tuned brass instruments and an acoustic guitar’s prominent plucking. The song then switches back to the original vibe—think old school alien invasion but more aesthetically pleasing to the ears, before ending the song with the two varieties layered over some hastily sung lyrics.

Sound aside, Foxygen knows how to write a song and put some meaning behind it. “You & I,” one of the many songs that sound eerily similar to a younger Paul McCartney, is a heartfelt, mini exploration of a former lover. Sam France, the vocalist known for his behavior during Foxygen’s live performances (he broke his leg during a July 2013 concert after falling off the stage), sings, “I saw you in town and I thought you were gone/But now I’m on a train/You and I will always be here/… listen I don’t even wanna know who you hanging around with/You and I will always be here in love/Why does no one help me/Why doesn’t anybody care/Why doesn’t anybody love me.”

While it’s commendable that Foxygen was able to create a 24-track album teeming with an array of sounds, the lack of cohesion throughout …And Star Power creates a muddled and hard to follow album.

Foxygen is talented, so it’s a shame the band produced an album that just couldn’t decide how it wanted to sound. Picking a style (or two) and sticking with it wouldn’t make the duo any less of artists. Scaling back and narrowing in on sounds is what’s missing to show the control Foxygen has as a band.

Foxygen – …And Star Power tracklist:

  1. “Star Power Airlines”
  2. “How Can You Really”
  3. “Coulda Been My Love”
  4. “Cosmic Vibrations”
  5. “You & I”
  6. “Star Power I: Overture”
  7. “Star Power II: Star Power Nite”
  8. “Star Power III: What Are We Good For”
  9. “Star Power IV: Ooh Ooh”
  10. “I Don’t Have Anything/The Gate”
  11. “Mattress Warehouse”
  12. “666″
  13. “Flowers”
  14. “Wally’s Farm”
  15. “Cannibal Holocaust”
  16. “Hot Summer”
  17. “Cold Winter/Freedom”
  18. “Can’t Contextualize My Mind”
  19. “Brooklyn Police Station”
  20. “The Game”
  21. “Freedom II”
  22. “Talk”
  23. “Everybody Needs Love”
  24. “Hang”
Album-art-for-Plowing-Into-The-Field-Of-Love-by-Iceage Iceage – Plowing Into the Field of Love

★★★★☆

It’s becoming clear the music industry prematurely judged Iceage. When these raucous Danes first emerged with the blistering thrash of New Brigade back in 2009, it felt like lightning in a bottle—an album by a fully-formed band that perfectly cross-bred punk and indie-rock into a form that both seasoned punks and the Williamsburg elite could unite on. Last year’s less frayed, but no less corrosive, You’re Nothing, advanced the narrative further while folding in more complicated structures (songs that reach past two minutes, intelligible lyrics) and an even more oppressive atmosphere.

Plowing Into the Field of Love, Iceage’s third album, completely changes the narrative. The album is so different that it feels like a totally different band—but this band is a fundamentally better one that is messier, but also far more ambitious and paradoxically formed. Whether it’s come through time or expanding influences, Iceage has a new-found clarity and sensuality in its songwriting, and it’s to the band’s enormous credit that its sound has become so opulent without losing the vacuum-sealed dread or chaotic abandon that Iceage made its name on.

Toning down the cascading guitars and dizzying time signatures that dominated the band’s previous output, Plowing Into the Field of Love skillfully pilfers from operatic art goths like Nick Cave and Scott Walker.

Iceage hasn’t just gone bigger, it’s spread out into rockabilly, goth-rock, folk, country, avant-garde and celtic-punk.

The tarantella opener “On My Fingers” firmly establishes these new muses with its scraping guitar, southern gothic piano, and a vocal delivery that sounds like it was recorded after singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt polished off a bottle of cheap vodka and ran a marathon. Ronnenfelt’s slurring is so thick that the title line sounds less like words than the growls of a monster, and even with this increased unintelligibility, the imagery has never been stronger. Taking another page from Cave, Ronnenfelt’s voice pulses with a manic desperation. “On My Fingers” climaxes with Ronnenfelt singing, “I don’t care whose house is on fire/As long as I can warm myself.”

From then on, the album follows its own flow. “The Lord’s Favorite” kicks up dust like a regular cowpoke. Fondly recalling the grimy rockabilly of The Cramps and the feverish energy of The Gun Club, it’s pummeling punch-drunk rockabilly that equally belongs in arenas and dive bars. There’s a thrilling looseness and confidence that feels seismic to the band’s growth, even if some will find Ronnenfelt’s vocal style off-putting and abrasive.

“Lord’s Favorite” is only one departure in an album full of them. “Abundant Living” tiptoes around a prickly mandolin figure, “Cimmerian Shade” indulges in EVOL-era Sonic Youth abrasion, “Simony” is a transfixing combo of The Cure and R.E.M., and “Against the Moon” is a crass but radiant ballad with a twinkling piano and violin arrangement.

Even on songs working with familiar tools, Iceage has refreshed its formula with instrumental flourishes, tempo changes, and other hairpin turns.

“Glassy-Eyed, Dormant and Veiled” subverts a thickly ordinary post-punk spine with blustering horns, “Stay” grinds its attack to a halt with flurrying guitars before exploding with sawing violins, and “Let It Vanish” splinters Iceage’s usual sound with stampeding snares.

Lyrics have often felt secondary in Iceage’s songs, but Ronnenfelt has grown into a bolder and more articulate lyricist. There’s certainly some semantic confusion with English phrases, and the wording may occasionally sound like it was translated on Babblefish, but Ronnenfelt is working with far weightier material, lending melodrama, eroticism, and a pervading menace that makes for a much richer experience.

In an interview with Self-Titled magazine, Ronnenfelt said he no longer feels connected to previous Iceage records. He said, “…one is a picture of me as an 18-year old. People can tap into that if they want…I’m somewhere else.” For long-time Iceage fans, Plowing Into the Field of Love might feel like a betrayal, but Iceage no longer feels like a band with an expiration date. If anything, these punks have never had a brighter future.

Iceage - Plowing the Fields of Love tracklist:

  1. “On My Fingers”
  2. “The Lord’s Favorite”
  3. “How Many”
  4. “Glassy Eyed, Dormant and Veiled”
  5. “Stay”
  6. “Let It Vanish”
  7. “Abundant Living”
  8. “Forever”
  9. “Cimmerian Shade”
  10. “Against the Moon”
  11. “Simony”
  12. “Plowing Into the Field of Love”