Friday, November 10, 2017

Review Round-Up

Welcome to this week's Review Round-Up. This time around we have three projects, all, coincidentally, led by strong female presences. One has been weird, one wants to be weird, and one's downright bizarre

Fever Ray | Plunge
Electropop | Listen

Ah, Karin Dreijer Andersson. What's there left to say? She's a Swedish creature whose art, apart from Bjork, resembles nothing of her contemporaries. She gracefully, or not so gracefully depending on your position, angles love loss with a fierce political agenda and a jovial sense of social activism. Known most prominently as one half of the acclaimed duo The Knife, Andersson's work with her brother became progressively weirder as their confidence grew. In the early 2000's, ostentatious Electropop was their origin. By 2006, with Silent Shout, their tone turned dark and menacing, equating their sonic identity to the cultural issues they so often spoke on behalf of. By 2013, boundaries were no longer necessary as Shaking The Habitual, a massive Experimental project, pushed every possible sensation to its unpredictable conclusion. Amongst the rubble was a nine-minute Industrial Techno calamity ('Full Of Fire') and a 20-minute Ambient trip to the icy abyss ('Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realized').

Now, why bring up all The Knife's work when Plunge is the second project of Fever Ray, Andersson's dynamic solo project? Well, the album reverts Fever Ray's cold and calculated standards and practices with the very convivial Electropop that the artist proudly hailed early in her career. For fans who prefer The Knife's work over Fever Ray's atmospheric drudge, like myself, this came as a pleasant surprise when 'To The Moon And Back' scampered with intangible percussion and awkward language as the lead single. Of course, many ignored the genetic catchiness of the song right when Andersson cried out "I want to ram my fingers up your pussy." I don't blame them. But at the same time, this is the same grotesque sexual deviant who, nearly 15 years ago, ended Deep Cuts by hollering with macho, auto-tuned brass: "I keep my dick hanging out of my pants, so I can point out what I want." Andersson's careless view on sexuality, in that all the controversial dialogue surrounding its fetishization is inconsequential, has always fascinated me. On Plunge's anti-peak, 'This Country,' Andersson reaches even further into the extreme with squelching bass and irritable vocals, culminating by screaming that "this country makes it hard to fuck." Which has already become meme material, a pro given the reach of its social activism.

With Andersson's abrasive language and seemingly irresponsible production, that, when compared to Fever Ray's debut, holds virtually no atmospheric conditions, it's easy to see why many would call this a disappointment. After all, this is Andersson going back to contentious Electropop after a slew of artists, like Anohni, Arca, and YACHT, watered down the genre she so clumsily characterized. Overall, I'm still a bit hazy towards my thoughts on Plunge. The project essentially combines the absurdity of The Knife's first two projects with the Electronic refinement of Silent Shout. Apart from 'To The Moon And Back,' or even including it despite its success, there seems to be a lack of extraordinary set-pieces. On Silent Shout, the epic tracks like 'Neverland' and 'We Share Our Mothers' Health,' felt massive and relentless. Here, 'Falling' and 'An Itch' attempt to rise but get shafted by an unforeseen glass ceiling. 'Plunge' does so too, but lacks a voice, literally, causing it to be an instrumental dud. Meanwhile, 'Mustn't Hurry' and 'Red Trails' do their best at pleasing the Fever Ray crowd, providing a thinly-veiled aura of crispness that's largely absent elsewhere. 

However, the traditional Knife cuts, whatever that may mean, flourish burrowed in their quaint, kooky nests. 'A Part Of Us' is arranged meticulously, 'IDK About You' counteracts that with a breathless, savage fervor. The ending of the latter in particular is straight out of 2001's Knife canon, with oriental synths and cleaved vocal strips. 'To The Moon And Back' finds a fluid mix of each, even incorporating some of the rapid Techno fixtures of Shaking The Habitual. Right now, the single still stands as my go-to favorite, an instantly-likable cut that flaunts the exact reason I was drawn into The Knife nearly a year ago. As far as an all-consuming track though, 'Mama's Hand' seems to comb over all of Andersson's work thus far. It has everything. Multi-layered, gorgeously arranged, with plodding drums and melodious singing, Andersson even goes so far on 'Mama's Hand' to unveil a personal anecdote from her childhood. Here, the singer's at her most reflective, drawing on past instances of hope and grief, excelling with a more mature songwriting approach that works all too well over the various, overlapping measures. It's inconsistent, sure, but as a whole Plunge wins me over by incorporating long-dead Knife elements that, to me, will never go out of style.


Art Pop | Listen

I'm writing this review virtually a month after MASSEDUCTION initially dropped and, being honest, I still have no firm ground for which to judge it. St. Vincent's fourth LP, at times, is aggravatingly enjoyable, frustratingly disappointing. Annie Clark's ridiculous transformation from everyone's favorite pure Indie soul to an aging expressionist who isn't afraid to expose her rear end to millions has me baffled. In 2014, the writing was on the wall. Her self-titled release exploded into the Art Pop world, stripping any wholesome fabric left from her humbling Indie roots. For the most part, I enjoyed St. Vincent a great deal, more so than any of her previous works. 'I Prefer Your Love,' for instance, was a remarkable mid-album peak that still acts as one of the most captivating love songs in recent years. Therefore, it's safe to assume that MASSEDUCTION should've continued the trend. And yet, with an irritating promotional campaign that screamed try-hand, from the artsy-fartsy photoshoots to the offbeat pseudo-press conference, and songs that topples over into music's out-of-touch no man's land, MASSEDUCTION struggles to remain interesting and/or relevant.

Those were my generic thoughts after the first few listens. I initially hated this record, partly because I wanted to. The first handful of songs off MASSEDUCTION only reaffirmed my stance, even though 'Pills,' the most egregious, is irresistibly catchy. However, as time passed, the deep cuts began to boil to the surface. 'Young Lover,' for one, represents the greatest aspects of St. Vincent. Dark, moody, with an overarching sense of power, 'Young Lover' relies on first-rate guitars that overwhelm the background as Clark's glass-breaking note-holds billow during the climax. Then there's 'Slow Disco' and 'Smoking Section,' two songs that borrow halves from St. Vincent's grand finale 'Severed Crossed Fingers.' The former sees Clark receding within herself, withdrawing the egotism splayed all over MASSEDUCTION, whereas the latter circles back to her cinematic appeal, even if the instantaneous melody mooches off 'Fiddler On The Roof.'

Those are the peaks of the record. Unfortunately, MASSEDUCTION has plenty of shameful valleys. Many of these suffer in the same way 'Smoking Section's' power is diminished; the catchiness feels cheap. Here, similarities can be drawn to Arcade Fire's Everything Now or select tracks off Gorillaz's Humanz. As mentioned before, 'Pills' is the absurd outlier. So much so that the single rounds back to enjoyable territory, primarily because I can't believe Clark would even devise something so callow. Even though the second half is unnecessarily sentimental, 'Pills' knows just how preposterous it is. The tracks surrounding it? Not so much. Four of the next five tracks, excluding the extraneous melancholy of 'Happy Birthday Johnny,' are embarrassingly unfashionable. They seem so cheap and feeble, as if they're made of plastic. 'Masseduction,' 'Sugarboy,' and 'Savior' are the type of songs crafted by aging Pop stars desperate to glob onto the spotlight, wholly intrusive and ugly without saying anything prominent at all. They're tactless and tasteless. And, considering one is the title track, thoroughly representative of the album's overarching theme. 

A few bright spots can't dissuade the poor directional choices St. Vincent has made in an attempt at maintaining relevance. Comparisons can be pointed towards Everything Now, if only for the fact that it's two Indie stalwarts formerly in-tune with their own aesthetic deciding that, since the times are changing and youths are too, that they must as well. At the very least, Everything Now had a purpose. Sure, the worst moments made that message entirely unclear ('Chemistry' anyone?), but there was a message. MASSEDUCTION truly has none, shifting between cultural commentaries ('Pills,' 'Los Ageless'), heartfelt ballads ('Happy Birthday Johnny,' 'Slow Disco'), and foul sexualization ('Sugarboy,' 'Savior'). What is Annie Clark trying to say with MASSEDUCTION? An album filled with any one of those aforementioned duos would've made sense. But a splatting of all amounts to nothing. Therefore, songs need to be appreciated within their own parameters. Unfortunately, as noted previously, that rarely works in St. Vincent's favor.


YACHT | Strawberry Moon
Indietronica | Listen

Last we saw of YACHT they virtually imploded their own career when a sex tape allegedly leaked of the duo turned out to be nothing more than a publicity stunt for the music video of 'I Wanna Fuck You Till I'm Dead.' While I'm still unsure of their original intent, the internet didn't take too kindly to their desperate art project and proceeded to berate and bury the duo, whether justified or not. However, it wasn't exactly this magnificent misfire that entombed YACHT. The low quality of their latest LP I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler did the job without assistance. Nothing on that project compared to the delightful intrigue brought on by See Mystery Lights, and namely, their standout track 'Psychic City.' The self-effacing Strawberry Moon, a five-track EP that doesn't come equip with any sensationalist marketing campaign, aims to return to their genial roots of catchy Indietronica.

For the most part, they succeed. At least in comparison to the problematic and needlessly confrontational I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler. That album, at its worst, set aside musical enjoyment for a heavy-handed dose of provocation. 'The Entertainment,' 'War On Women,' and 'LA Plays Itself' were just some examples of their liberal testiness, basically alienating whatever fans not in their immediate typecast were left. Strawberry Moon has none of that political charge and, therefore, focuses attention back on the nonsensical catchiness. Opener 'Shame' accomplishes this the best, finding singer Claire Evans returning to her charming, childish spark that lit up 'Psychic City.' In fact, her adorable tone plays throughout the bulk of Strawberry Moon, relinquishing the autotune annoyance and basic Pop starling vocals spread across Future. Even though 'Finger Like A Gun' teeters ever so closely to jumpy, randomized Art Pop with a handful of scene set changes, Evans vocal chops here help to personify the otherwise bland production.

Elsewhere, 'Hard World' draws comparisons to LCD Soundsystem's early work, not a surprise given that James Murphy's creation was one of ultimate inspiration to YACHT. Really, replace Evans with Murphy and it would be hard to distinguish. See to 'tonite' off American Dream for a recent correlation. That's really the only direct point of influence though, as 'Strawberry Moon' and 'Shame' truly hark back towards YACHT's youthful days. There's less edgy corners, less distinguishing bleeps and bloops, but the charm and pizzaz still remains.


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