In my “Most Disappointing” list from last year, I came down really hard on Fleet Foxes’ most recent album. Looking back on what I wrote, it reads pretty terribly and is a pretty weak summary of the album. I didn’t give Helplessness Blues its due, but now I think I can. This isn’t because I discovered that I like the album, even a little bit. It’s because I’ve started watching old episodes of Parks and Recreation on Netflix.
I should love Parks and Rec, it has a non-patronizing portrait of the midwest, a pretty diverse cast (without the feeling of a token-black/hispanic/female character) punchy dialog, a great cast, and (like Community) a premise that would seemingly restrict the number of storylines but is instead twisted and reconstructed in hilarious ways each and every week. But I can’t watch more than one episode without a nagging feeling that things in Pawnee, Indiana are too easy. There isn’t the slightest bit of tension in Parks and Recreation. All the characters are likeable, easy-going. and comfortable with their own (comparatively, pretty low-key) flaws. The arc of most episodes relies on outside events happening to characters, who react in unique but altogether sympathetic ways. The characters don’t really change much, it seems. For a character-driven show, this is a problem. You feel really good about how supportive this small town parks department is to one another, but if you’re anything like me, you wish to high heaven they’d hire an irascible possibly-psychotic accountant to make the show even a little bit uncomfortable. Before I attract the ire of Parks and Rec fans everywhere, I have only seen scattered episodes from seasons one and two, and have been told the circumstances I describe change slightly in season 3. Still, I don’t care enough to test that hypothesis out.
And that’s Helplessness Blues, too. It’s well played, arguably well written, and easy to listen to, but it is also so unimaginative and painless that it has to come out and tell you what its personality is; because you sure as hell won’t be able to figure it out for yourself.
This is all a big leadup to me talking about Pearly Gate Music, the project of Zach Tillman, brother of Fleet Foxes drummer/singer/songwriter J. Tillman, and how refreshingly unsettled Pearly Gate Music’s first self-titled album is. This is an album which bleats at you from the muddy edge of a sawgrass field by an industrial park by a interstate spur route. Tillman is all of this album, and so most of the songs have only as much sound as he could play at one, a guitar, a drum machine, a hand-smacked rhythm, his voice. The joy, for me, of this album comes in the empty space, the silhouette of silence that ends right above the patina of feedback on “Big Escape.” It’s how you’re certain there is going to be one more line in the couplet that ends “Oh, What A Time!”, “And when you lean in for a kiss/I say ‘God, I don’ think I can do this.’”, but there isn’t. The song just leaves you with that moment of wavering bravery. It’s in the closest thing the album has to a full-band pop song “Daddy Wrote You Letters,” which still has moments of nothing in between the thruggened guitar, hungover keyboard and slurry drums. These songs have disquiet, they have threats, and they are not afraid to provoke you. These songs start with the same warm, inviting instruments that Fleet Foxes do, but every note here stands like a 6 foot- tall succulent looming at dusk.
The oft-harmonizing members of Fleet Foxes have better singing voices than Zach Tillman does, and they’re probably a certain amount better at the instruments they play. But Pearly Gate Music absolutely get my vote, because this album has a reason for existing, and is entirely successful at making you understand and feels its impact.
In a vaguely similar, but really not all that similar way, there’s a lot to like about the new Santigold album. Like her first one, Master of My own Make-Believe feels freeform; it’s an album informed by Hip Hop as much as Swedish techno as much as Dancehall, but all of it feels like the best kind of pop, the kind you can tell is written and sung by a voice which has laughed and cried before. That might sound mundane, but, c’mon, can you actually picture Carly Rae Jepsen crying? Can you picture Robyn screaming her guts out at someone who broke her heart?
Throughout Master of My Make-Believe, Santi White sounds unbelievably human, even when she fucks up (and she does, with the hilariously bad swashbuckling fantasy “Pirate in the Water” and “Look at them Hoes,” which sounds like a parody compared to the other tracks on the album where Santigold raps), and this gives a great pull to music which, by definition, is designed to have an expiration date. This’ll be around all summer, at least.
Also Chicago, Dark Dark Dark play at the Hideout tomorrow, Jonathan Richman plays for free on June 4th, Moonface play Lincoln Hall on the 16th, and Mogwai play The Metro (on what will probably be their last tour for a while) on June 20th.