The second single from In Black and White was the one my sister brought home from the Riley County Fair. The A-side, “Operator, Long Distance Please,” captured our full attention. For the rest of that summer we played it repeatedly, almost incessantly, while the B-side, the eponymous “Black and White,” got no love. It’s easy to understand why: “Black and White” is a schmaltzy easy-listening duet. Mandrell is joined by Gene Miller, a backup singer from her live act and a regular part of her TV variety show, “Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters.” And it’s a melodramatic song about divorce—“Is this the way love ends/ with paper and a pen?”—which was too heavy for us kids.“Operator,” meanwhile, is epic, infectious pop.Read More
While Eno had suggested that his early ambient works might fade into the background and create a meditative space in which listeners could think more deeply, Yoshimura’s environmental music was intended to become part of a physical space in order to color one’s experience within it. In the years following his debut Yoshimura would create music for galleries, museums, train stations and other buildings both public and private; between 1986 and 1988, he created veritable soundtracks to the prefabricated houses built by Japan’s Misawa Home Corporation. Certainly environmental and ambient music exist within two largely overlapping sets in the same musical Venn diagram. Moreover, their distinct yet similar purposes are not mutually exclusive. At the same time, the way in which Yoshimura approached Music for Nine Postcards in particular is remarkably well suited to what he saw as the genre’s environmental utility.Read More
Earthly’s sophomore effort is thoroughly listenable and more mature than most, though in refining its sound the duo sacrificed some of the eccentricity that made the debut stand out. Both albums give the impression that Brool and Hansen like to toss out whatever’s at hand just to see what sticks. Luckily for them, much of it does. But it’s easy to imagine that this could be, instead of an arrival, more of a stop on the way to something that even more successfully fuses the unbridled weirdness of Dayswith the confidence of Heart.Read More
Much of I Tell a Fly features a type of splintered unconventionality, with structures that repeatedly bend away from the familiar to the point that it’s doubtful casual listeners will be up to the challenge. “Awkward Fish,” for instance, has a certain charm but also pushes hard at the boundaries of what’s effective, its disparate elements existing in the same space and time but with radically different moods and timbres that crash up against each other in a way that doesn’t quite cohere.Read More
The essays found in Against Everything are specimens of cultural critique, delivered on topics as disparate as the tyranny of exercise and the emancipatory potential of a universal basic income, a taxonomy of reality TV and the true purpose of the police. Greif is at his best—his most penetrating and his most engaging—when delving into topics that land on the assumedly frivolous end of the spectrum (precisely because he doesn’t deign to treat anything with frivolity). At the same time, it’s those same topics that most transparently betray the current weakness of Against Everything: What Greif has to say, while it will likely remain insightful and even illuminating for some time to come, will also suffer from diminishing returns as its audience progresses further and further into the future.Read More
In the early 2000s, singer-songwriter Anna-Lynne Williams recorded a trio of albums as part of Trespassers William, a band that’s often compared to the mopey, lovesick sounds of Mazzy Star. Roughly a decade later, in a duo with Robert Gomez, she released two albums as Ormonde, the first of which is less dreamy but still anguished, having been directly inspired by the beginning and end of a romantic saga the two musicians shared. And this album, Off White, is one of a handful Williams has now released under the pseudonym Lotte Kestner, a nod to unrequited love through the married name of Charlotte Buff, the real life Charlotte of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. Considering her catalog, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Anna-Lynne Williams has carved out a niche for herself writing melancholy songs about loves both found and lost.
For her part, Lotte Kestner agrees – love and lovers are her frequent preoccupations. On “Ghosts,” she sings, “Fiercely, I thought/ That I knew something about/ The thing that I’m always singing ‘bout/ And I spend my body on/ Who did I need the most/ All of my lovers are ghosts.” It might be tempting to dismiss Williams’ efforts as obsessively single-minded – particularly if love and longing are not your thing – but that’s unfair. It ignores the depth, nuance and artistry with which she approaches her subject. Having spent years deeply meditating on the vagaries of romance, Williams’ observations are personal, genuine and profound.
There is also the sheer beauty of her music: Off White is a very strong collection of songs both delicate and doomed. They are carefully crafted, however similar enough to sound like they were cut from the same cloth, yet still independently unique. They favor arrangements that are spare but luxurious, built mostly around a single piano or acoustic guitar, at times embellished by the sound of an organ or strings. Reverb and other effects add subtle shades to the emotional palettes of individual songs by judiciously re-framing Williams’ voice, which often strays into wordless reveries.
Lyrically, there’s a thematic cohesion that’s deeper than just a shared subject, with similar images and motifs recurring throughout the album. Most recognizably, longing pervades, with Williams repeatedly betraying her desire for a love that is both profound and durable, in which intimacy connotes not just transparency but the feelings of security that come from acceptance and deep regard. On “Secret Longitude” she imagines, “Someone who won’t leave you/ …Who won’t hurt you/ When they have your skin,” a person who wouldn’t be offended if you said, “I’d rather go out into the sea alone/ Won’t you leave me alone,” and who will stand by your side, “When the waves attack/ The secret longitude where you’re at.”
The references in “Secret Longitude” to the sea and waves are just a few of the many watery or explicitly nautical words and images that frequently resurface on Off White. They’re obvious in songs like “Have You Sailed Home” and “Senses,” in which Williams sings about, “when the world is under miles of sea” and promises an unnamed lover that, “Yours is the name I’m calling/ Long as I breathe.” “Another Moon” mentions “a sea safely crossed,” and “Ashland” describes a lover whose whistling, “set the waters bubbling” and whose hand on the singer’s back is, “holding back every flood.”
Less direct references to life at sea float by in the title track, which mentions “clouds rolling out,” and “In Glass,” in which Williams may be using the stars to steer her ship: “The stars are slow/ At telling us where they have been/ Or if they’re there at all.” One of the album’s best songs – for its simple, un-showy beauty – is “Boat of Mine,” which uses the nautical theme to say what needs to be said: “…This boat of mine/ Travels in a straight line/ To you.”
This lovely album is not without its faults, however. Aside from the superfluous instrumental coda “Dead/Sea,” there’s “Go to Sleep Now,” a jarring intrusion into this otherwise placidly morose album. It’s the only song with drums (save a lone(ly) snare on “Ashland”). This isn’t a terrible choice in and of itself, but the beat is so uninspired (and the playing so uninspiring) that it ruins the track, a sin still not quite as terrible as the fact the drums obscure Williams’ words.
All of this unfortunately distracts from the fact that “Go to Sleep Now” underscores one of the vital features of Off White: that Anna-Lynne Williams’ voice – unforced, intimate, at times hushed or breathy – suggests these songs are lullabies. A lullaby is part love song, part incantation. Of course, that love is typically maternal not romantic, but accounting for that difference these songs still fit the mold. They’re the entreaties of a woman forlorn, hoping that her voice might miraculously rekindle lost love or, failing that, perhaps her singing can be the salve that brings her peace.
Much like other primarily instrumental rock bands that wield the contrast between soft and loud like a dramatic bludgeon, Mogwai’s music is almost always epic. That sense of scope can be exhilarating, but it can also be exhausting, especially if it’s only ever joyless and severe. Every Country’s Sun may not be the feel-good album of 2017, but there’s so much light mixed in with the dark that it’s an affirming even uplifting listen.Read More
Trying to express what is or isn’t “German” (or “American”) is reductive in much the same way as trying to express what is or isn’t “tropical.” But any concept of German-ness refers to a single country, whereas notions of tropicality encompass a much larger geographic region that includes several disparate areas of the globe as well as the countless individual national and ethnic cultures represented therein. Tropical Drums of Deutschland presents notions of one (factually non-existent) culture filtered through the members of another that is very different and very specific.Read More
It’s remarkable that Bryan Fogel was both willing and able to set aside his original idea for the project in order to follow Rodchenkov’s story wherever it lead. But the end result, instead of being a single, unified, compelling narrative, too frequently feels like what it is – two separate documentaries forced into one.The two stories may be related, but they’re not the same. Each has its own ideas, and each reaches its own conclusions. Though the film’s overall focus changes at one point, the original story and its objectives are never completely abandoned. They’re still there, hanging around the edges of the new story, often getting in the way. Luckily Icarus is, on the surface, so competently assembled, and the story that it tells is, in the moment, so emotionally captivating that it can be easy not to notice what a mess it really is.Read More
for every track like “Romance Apocalypse”—which is a quick two minutes of pure ‘80s action-movie soundtrack gold—there is another disturbing hallucination like “Ray Wakes Up,” which drags the listener below the surface of some thick, murky pool, where dialogue and diegetic sounds swirl around unnervingly underwater, while muffled voices clink and clank, as if clattering together in digital chains. The title track also evokes dark images, in this case calling to mind the more sinister moments of sound collage by the Orb, or perhaps a less blissed-out version of the Orb’s criminally underrated side project with Robert Fripp, FFWD.Read More
It begins with desert air and the humming of idle amplifiers. A few moments later subtly shimmering plates of sound start fading in and out of existence, with a few bursts of feedback thrown in for atmosphere and/or attitude. Shepherd’s entrance on Fender Rhodes, its familiar electric plink-plunking awash in echo, signals the proper start of “Silurian Blue.” He’s joined by Alex Reeve on electric guitar, at first picking sparsely, idly, and once again bathed in echo. Matthew Kirkis also plays guitar, at points augmenting the atmospheres on an ARP Odyssey. Susumu Mukai adds some short, melodic, upper range bursts on the electric bass, and (once again with ample echo) Leo Taylor bangs the drums, regular fills ornamenting the moments when the group lands on some very satisfying downbeats together.Read More
More often than not, the music of The Books is rhythmic, mostly employing samples for percussion. On Lost and Safe those sounds come from a variety of sources: the bounce of a basketball on “Be Good to Them Always”; PVC piping on “Vogt Dig for Kloppervok”; and metallic whacks and thuds on “An Animated Description of Mr. Maps”. Even the sound of the more conventional instruments is transformed through self-sampling. This is distinctly digital music aspiring for the warmth of analog. And these are truly electroacoustic sounds, carefully layered and juxtaposed to create something that could only exist in a post-ProTools era.Read More
Maybe Little Creatures wasn’t a deliberate attempt at mainstream popularity, but there’s little doubt that it’s one of Talking Heads’ most accessible albums. Quantitatively, it’s the biggest selling – over 2 million copies in the US – and, starting with the sunshine and backbeat sound of “And She Was,” it’s pop from the get-go. Sure, barely three minutes later “Give Me Back My Name” inches back towards the darker days of Fear of Music, but it’s the only shady spot on an album bright with the simplicity of verse/chorus pop and comparatively relatable lyrics that feature romance and domesticity instead of David Byrne’s usual paranoia and abstraction.Read More
Long Strange Trip is out to tell a story, but it does not mythologize. It celebrates its subjects by letting them be human, because the things that made them ordinary are as important to the story as the things that made them unusual. It’s largely due to this tendency to humanize rather than mythologize that the familiar rock and roll narratives –about the perils of mainstream acceptance, about selling out, about excess, about addiction – are kept from being sensational. Instead, they feel relatable.Read More
Due to the portability afforded by streaming services and other digital formats, much of our listening these days is headphone- or earbud-assisted. Ambient music, in particular, is frequently piped in directly to our auditory canals, often while we travel or work or perform other tasks. However, the music on Mirage is not just aboutspaces but for spaces. It deserves speakers—good speakers—because it needs air to move, to stretch out, to breathe. And while each one of its tracks creates its own compelling sense of space, they also feel as if they’re meant to expand and fill whatever space you put them in.Read More
While not the most traditional of songs, “I Zimbra” does have individual sections—intro, verse, chorus, bridge, solo—that function more or less in the same way they would in a more conventional setting. In contrast, the songs on Remain in Light are in that sense barely songs at all. Each one of the eight tracks on the album is built on a single loop—in many cases a single chord—that repeats from sudden start to fade-out finish.Read More
This music is not going to change to suit you, so you’ll have to change to suit it. And you do. As you listen, you begin to adjust to the music on a level that suggests biology. You come to accept the sound as a feature of your environment and you adapt yourself to the conditions that it creates.Read More
Here we have outcasts struggling to be heard; parents who don’t, or can’t, talk to their teens; teachers and administrators who want to help but are constrained by institutions and/or propriety; counterculture(s) seeping into the sheltered world high school attempts to create; substance use/abuse as a way of subverting conformity and/or bypassing the expectations of parents/society; self-mortification as a route to intimacy with peers.And yet the presence of all these themes, while they add depth to what could otherwise be a shallow endeavor, doesn’t make up for the movie’s greater shortcomings. Speech & Debate is fun to watch. And it’s not without moments of brilliance. But it fails to cohere in a way that would make multiple viewings more, not less, rewarding.Read More
Surely, what Coltrane has done here is more musically compelling than anything recorded by Krishna Das or other modern-day Western kirtaniyas. But is it more musically compelling than her own work outside the ashram? This collection of overtly devotional music may well be uniquely soulful and deeply spiritual. Yet, so is the substantial catalog of instrumental music that Alice Coltrane recorded for listeners who are not her sworn disciples. Whether or not the average listener enjoys this album will likely depend on nothing more complicated than personal taste. But for a follower of Turiyasangitananda, enjoyment is not even a going concern; listening to (and participating in) this music is meant to be an act of worship.Read More
Kubrick was fond of symmetry. Wes Anderson loves The Kinks. The name JJ Abrams is synonymous with lens flare. Tarantino has a foot fetish. Directors often have obsessions, whether visual, thematic, or otherwise. Aside from his decades-long devotion to a very particular kind of romantic comedy – romance plus personal crisis, comedy for good measure – Cameron Crowe has amassed a sizable list of creative fixations.Read More