Xenia Rubinos- Black Terry Cat
From the outsider, the illegibility of high-register output. Are those screams of joy, suprise, anguish, elation? That can’t be a funeral, because it is loud. This can’t be a protest, because there are not delineated endgoals. Xenia Rubinos has written and performed and sung a challenge, not only to slow-poison power structures, but to herself, to critics driving themselves to defensiveness trying to pin down this album, to you, to do something that helps you, whatever that is. Black Terry Cat is a party, one where the cops show up, and that is the most terrifying option.
Meat Market- Dig Deep
Smear cement on your face. Drink coffee backwards. Spraypaint a house on the side of a house and then walk into that house you made and live there. Spraypaint some curtains on the house you made. Spraypaint them closed. Listen to Dig Deep.
Leonard Cohen- You Want It Darker
I’m the type to think planned final statements are, largely, bullshit. You Want it Darker might be Leonard Cohen’s best album. Everyone else halts at some point in the confidence of their passing. Cohen doesn’t break his stride.
Martha- Blisters in the Pit of My Heart /
Thin Lips- Riff Hard
The boldness where you haven’t been touched by the weight of the fact, just because it is your first time, it’s not anyone else’s first time. Or the boldness where you know it isn’t anybody’s first time any more, ever, but you say it like it could be. Or the boldness where the first time is precisely what you need to think about, breath in, walk around draped over your shoulders like a thrift-store winter coat you vaguely remember owning, and so you make it so. Or the boldness where ???
Blood Orange- Freetown Sound
Three comparisons reaching for accuracy
The album I come back to for this one is Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. It doesn’t matter that probably hundreds of double albums are released every year. It doesn’t matter that Cupid Deluxe, Dev Hynes’s last release, was also a double album. I hold Freetown Sound and Mellon Collie albums in the same hand because both are epic-scope albums with the early lifespan in their targets. While the Smashing Pumpkins chronicle White, suburban upbringing. from the frenzied tenderness of sneaking upstairs at house parties to seismic-scaled angst, Dev Hynes focuses on the lives of black boys and girls, and so both the threat and the levity feel less metaphorical.
In the same way that Moonlight brought gravity and significance to lives typically labeled disposable—people who are less than, because they brought it upon themselves—Freetown Sound offers a similar validation- your thoughts, your future, your life matters.
Walking past a tree fallen perfectly from the bottom. Those roots circumferencing out from the trunk. The work never seen that went into that height, that stability, those decades of life, now made visible. You would have never guessed.
Preoccupations- S/T /
Danny Brown- Atrocity Exhibition
The house of mirrors where there are no mirrors, no echo, no familiar scents, no light, no prescription refills, no unread messages. Then the last room, which feels scarier than the rest.
In the house of mirrors where the soundtrack is Preoccupations, that room is all mirrors.
In the house of mirrors where Danny Brown is playing, that room is the exit.
Modern Baseball- Holy Ghost
It isn’t even about the place namedropping (although I like the place namedropping, because I happen to live in the place, and it’s kind of weird to wring another layer, a thick, woolen layer out of the blocks I walk every day), Holy Ghost is the most Philly album this year. “Waking up every day is all about/Doing things you don’t want to do/But your reward is you get to wake up.”
Kera and the Lesbians- S/T
The party stays up all night. The party cleans its mouth out. The party smokes a cigarette out the window. The party drinks some water. The party cleans up empties. The party goes to the liquor store. The party thinks about adopting a shelter dog from the ASPCA van in the parking lot. The party responds to missed texts. The party reads a book on the bus, until the bus breaks down. The party goes to the voting booth. The party falls down the stairs from Sunset to Glendale near the end of an otherwise fantastic third date. Excuse me, have you been drinking?
The last line on the last Beauty Pill album was “Terrible things are gonna happen. This record’s over, so why not go outside and stop them?” You could have heard that song 11 years ago, a cracked Dischord disc case on your passenger seat, a war blood-blossoming across a different part of the word, the song the angriest and most commanding on the album, and you might’ve thought yeah, it’s time to do something.
I’m gonna half-quote myself from waaaay back in 2007 saying the group wasn’t a collective, but a band with porous boundaries, and then I’m gonna say that the democratic spirit of the band’s only full length and first two EPs did not mean there wasn’t ideology being pamphleteered through these songs. Sure, singer/principal songwriter Chad Clark has always been a storyteller (the tragedy of “Prison Song,” or even the vignettes of “Terrible Things” for two examples), but there were messages and goals in his past songs.
I’m going to link to myself from 2012, the year I thought Beauty Pill were going to release the album they released this year, to explain the backstory behind it. It’s worth reading.
And now here’s what changed on the album the Beauty Pill released a few weeks back: The Beauty Pill Describe Things As They Are. That’s it. It’s simple and also non-cartesian complicated. This isn’t an album of commands. At the end, you’re not being told to stop terrible things, but the terrible things are still happening. Why the change? Opening track “Drapetomania” (named after the “disease” that caused slaves to flea from plantation)—whose pace doesn’t suggest an 11 year jumpstart, instead suggests a track that’s been playing for 11 years and is mighty agitated of doing so—offers this about halfway through- “The neighbor’s wifi is called ‘magic negro’ now/I’m gonna burn his house down/if I may.” It’s that last bit, the asking for permission, where the album sucks its teeth after almost hitting a wall. This is the album that says you wanna do something about this? You’ll lose a lot trying to change. You’ll be hated and threatened trying to change. You might die trying. Describe Things As They Are is the album that talks about how change happens and, often, is pissed at the answer it provides.
This in an album enmeshed within power structures. This isn’t a punk record about beating up that racist skinhead at the show because those albums already exist. This is an album about not getting the job because your name sounds black, about getting shot or shoved into summer asphalt because of your high melanin level, of taking a job nobody with whiter skin wants and then getting accused of “stealing ‘our’ jobs.” This is album realizes a radical way of peeling back skin is to not.
“Afrikaner Barista” shows this well. Over a song that’s about 50 percent beat and ten percent horns and the rest Chad Clark’s voice, there’s the story of its title- a white South African working at a coffee shop. The song’s narrator recognizes the woman behind the counter as an Afrikaner, and, despite “bloody, subjugation/the history between us,” a major portion of the song’s refrain is “I want to be the one you like.” Talk about a fucked up legacy! This is a song hard-clipping servility, collective guilt, the idea of passing (our narrator notes “some mistake you for Australian/and you correct the one you like”), and emotional toll of reconciliation. It’s an intensely political song, but it is a call for thought, deep thought, not action. It’s the same as the snide bearing of social construction, “For Pretend,” which talks about roles we take on/ that are put upon us (and the baggage that comes with such roles) in the guise of an adult explaining the divide between movies and real life to a child who doesn’t understand the distinction.
The idea of film, of cameras, comes up a lot over the course of Describe Things As They Are. “Dog With Rabbit in Mouth Unharmed,” a personal song about the death of a pet, begins “Open with an aerial shot of a Maxfield Parish dusk, camera spinning.” The audience is an audience at least twice over. And the music does this as well as the lyrics- everything here feel manipulated- there are electronics, studio noise, miscellaneous drumbeats, samples. It’s the sound of a music layered on top of music—one more filter, one more frame. And if you didn’t click on the second link to find out how this album was recorded, that’s another level of subjectivity right there- the band recorded the bulk of it in an art gallery, windows open to the street, doors open to outside contributions.
And that’s one of the best things about this extraordinary album- the way that, in order to describe things as they are, the band has to specifically draw back, not attempt objectivity. Putting such a lens on real life can, when done poorly or clumsily, can result in some pretty racist bullshit.
I don’t at all mean to imply that the Beauty Pill succeed in describing structural violence because the band’s subjectivities evolve from their multiracial background (though given how overwhelming white, male, and American most indie rock and punk music continues to be, that certainly doesn’t hurt things). Instead, I think the presentation of these subjectivities through frames like the fast paced action of “Steven and Tiwonge” (the song follows a gay couple in Malawi fleeing state violence), shows an urgency and skill that bypasses questions of authenticity. It doesn’t matter whether Chad Clark or anyone in the band had an encounter with a white, South African barista, or whether anyone in the band has spent time enmeshed within our legal system to inspire “Aint A Jury In The World Gon Convict You Baby.” The entirety of Describe Things as They Are succeeds because it entirely fulfills the promise of its lofty title.
First off, the other week or so Kendall and I were in LA and driving and then the radio put on this song and it was like we stop and go-ed into a movie named “Summer Surfers Stare Wistfully At the Ocean.” Sure, it’s a bit melancholy, but the title track from La Sera’s really good new album The Hour of the Dawn is my 2014 summer jam. At least, my 2014 stuck in LA traffic summer Jam. You’re stuck on some highway you don’t remember the number of (because you’re not from here, you’re from san diego), and the AC is struggling against a deficit and you’re so worried about sitting still you’re starting to worried about left arm lacking sunscreen.
And then “Hour of the Dawn” hits.
Even if the traffic doesn’t part like Moses, even if a sky of soppy summer clouds doesn’t materialize and cool down the megaplex by 10 degrees, even if the guy behind you honking like that will change things holds fast to his belief that leaning on the horn will change things, things will get lighter. Then heavier, but let’s stick to lighter first.
On past albums, La Sera singer-songwriter-guitarist Katy Goodman sounded like she was performing with session musicians. The guitars at the the beginning of “Hour of the Dawn,” the guitars halfway through the song, the fume-rising solo halfway through the song, Goodman’s almost instructive-precise vocals, they’re all great as they have been on past La Sera albums, but here they’re all supported by drums, bass, rhythm guitar that actually seem written by other players. The band effort which runs through this album suits Goodman- I hope it sticks around.
And you could rightfully say “Gabe, this is one hell of a melancholy song for your summer jam pick” and you would be right. But I always will be a sucker for songs that wrap quicksand kinds of sadness into the most upbeat melodies, something Katy Goodman does exceptionally well. Just download this song, burn it to CD and drive as far and fast and long as you want- you will not get sick of it. Let me assure you, the rest of the album (including Game Of Thrones references) is nearly as perfect.
First, Jeff Buckley (and Bob Dylan)
It’s unusual that Buckley covered Dylan as much as he did, because in a key way the two were polar opposites. Dylan doesn’t, really, give a shit about the music (i mean, yeah, he went electric and country and all that, but mostly, dude cared about the words he was singing, not the guitar he was haphazardly strumming). Buckley was so much more about how he was singing than what he was singing. You could be charitable and call “This is our last goodbye /I hate to feel the love between us die/But it’s over” naturalistic and compelling, but then you’re being charitable and not actually paying attention to the average-quality lyrics. While neither could survive without some attention paid to their chosen neglected element, for Buckley the point was the music, and for Dylan it was the lyrics. So then the way Buckley does Dylan is to turn the performance into a sort of talent show cover; he starts with something familiar and then uses that base to establish himself as a unique entity.
There are three Dylan covers on the expanded version of Buckley’s first release- Live at Sin-e. The story is that Buckley played show after show after show at the small East Village club before going into the studio to record his first (and only completed) studio album, Grace. If you’ve got a 2-hour set and only one hour of original material, you’re not going to fill the rest with banter, so covers it is. What he does on all three of the Dylan covers featured on …Sin-e is blow them up. “I Shall be Released” gets an extra 2+ minutes tacked onto The Band’s studio version. “Just Like a Woman” gets 3 minutes extra. And “If You See Her, Say Hello” goes from Dylan’s somewhat compact 4:49 to a panoramic 8 minutes, 18 seconds- nearly double its original length.
Buckley tells a story with his guitar in that extra space. The lyrics, as Buckley sings them, are more moments in between the musical acts which, for Buckley, really make up the song. Look at how he speeds through two verses of the song between 5:14 and 5:50 just so he can have fun with the blocky, mimicked solo that follows. Then look at how he slows down the last verse to fill the holes in his spiderweb guitar playing. He even repeats the last line because he’s not done sustaining the final chord. Dylan almost never repeats lines! Sacrilege! But also great.
The interesting thing about Orcas is they go in the opposite direction you’d think they would. Thomas Meluch, who normally records under the name Benoit Pioulard carves away from pop music like sea mist, hazily and heavy with wet. His partner in Orcas is ambient composer Rafael Anton Irisarri who plays slow drones under his own name and slow drones hooked up to a large hadron collider under the name The Sight Below. You would expect this band to double up on the figurative. You would expect their recently-released album Yearling to drive you through the cloud forest at 5 am before the sun breaks through, if it even will today. Here’s why you’d expect that-
But nope. This album as much in the clouds as it is breaking through them. For every abstract moment like “Petrichor” there’s a slanted, rushing song like “An Absolute.” For the first time in the history of Meluch’s music, the lyrics here are crystalline, discernible, and seemingly very personal.
I don’t doubt the combined songwriting skills of the two principals of Orcas, but substantial credit has to go to the band(/the album)’s drummer, Michael Lerner. Lerner normally plays drums in the wonderful, rigid power-pop band Telekinesis, and he brings a promptness and collectedness to Orcas that prevents things from ethering too much. It’s a welcome addition which pulls some of the more abstract moments back to the woofer.
Next, The Menzingers
Speaking of drumming (which probably happens more than it should on this blog), here’s a band who have released a great album this year which, the drumming will tell you, owes an Atlantic-sized debt to 90s indie rock. The Menzingers are part of a new(ish), small(ish) group of punk bands (including personal favorites like Cheap Girls, as well as bands like Swearin’ and Fireworks) who borrow elements from the crunchy, loud ’90s rock without sounding derivative or out-of-ideas.
One of the easiest ways you can spot the ’90s on Rented Room,The Menzingers’ most recent album, is the backbeat. Unlike, for example, The Strokes/Interpol-style drumming that became popular in the early 2000s where rhythms were skeletal and austere, the 90s was a time when drumbeats were fun, ornamented, and, in their own over-the-top way, pretty emo. There’s an overflowing of sounds coming from the drum set. These songs had more that what was essential.
To make a broad overstatement, the 90s were when indie(/emo) band were unassuming and the drummers for these bands learned from suburban teachers who used to talk about things like “the pocket” “the grove” and “ghost notes.” The students only half-understood, but they tried hard to replicate these things, because this was what being a good drummer was. Yeah, it’s weird to think of 90s indie rock as grooving, but it did.
This was drumming which existed more independently from the rest of the song than, say the backbeats of modern bands like DIIV or Lower Dens or Chvrches do. Likewise, the drumming on Rented Room is a bit showy and dense, but it is so of the 90s era that it single-highhandedly makes the band in dialog with forebears like Superchunk and Velocity Girl. It makes the album more than just an update or a throwback- it’s a conversation.
and for comparison’s sake
Next, Wet Nurse, The Ponys
i mean, sometimes you need to beat the shit out of a bus shelter.
Now back to our regularly scheduled lack of a schedule.
You can either think of the Shout Out Louds as really good fashion models, or Dickensian orphans. Your pick.
A model isn’t a body that clothing hangs off of; s/he works to figure the clothing as art. Imagine moving your body as a frame- simultaneously making your features, angles, juttings accentuate the fabric you’ve been dressed in, while also appearing as a human, letting anyone who is watching you think “that could be my body. I could see myself in those clothes.”
Or maybe this: “Pip, you little demon. Clean the floors, wax all the windows, feed the dog and then perhaps you’ll get some gruel.” Pip knew the headmaster was cruel but never did he think the man was capable of withholding food. The headmaster might have thought this was a day’s work for a young child, but he didn’t know Pip.
If Pip could clean the floors of Brasseye the pirate’s ship in the middle of a gale, cleaning the headmaster’s floors was no trouble. Pip remembered the days he had spent dangling outside the Hartfordshire Cathedral by fishing line, waxing the stained glass windows of the sanctuary as the mean old deacon shouted his voice hoarse- “PIIIIIP! YOU MISSED A PANEL. DO IT AGAAAAAAIN.” The windows would be easy peasy. And how could Pip ever forget the countess’ exotic animal collection- her pythons and pygmy piranhas? Surely he could handle feeding a little…make that a giant dog, growling at Pip as thought he were made of sausage links. Still pip would take the dog over a snake, any day. The headmaster had clearly never met one of Pip’s stock before.
What I’m trying to talk about is adaptability. The Shout Out Louds are a Swedish band, active for about 10 years, who you’ll know by the plushness of consonants and diphthongs cusping out of singer Adam Olenius’ mouth, not to mention the able, amiable band who support him. Other than those constants, things change album to album. More than most other bands, The Shout Out Louds cede a lot of control to the people they work with in the studio. And more than any band that cedes as much control as The Shout Out Louds do, the group’s output remains high quality, varied, and yet still, thanks to those vocals and those straight-to-the blood choruses, still distinctly their own.
The group’s first album Howl Howl Gaff Gaff was produced by Ronald Bood, who, since then has gone on to helm the boards for winners of the Swedish Idol and Eurovision contests. However, the album is not full of cold, crafted Swedish pop songs. Bood doesn’t heap on studio trickery. Instead, he throws everything he has at the mixing board, accenting every plink of glockenspiel, every branch-break drum-hit, every vocal crack. Although the band probably went through take after take, the album sounds like it was recorded live. On their first album, the Shout Out Louds’ songs were poppy and immediate. By simply shoving everything right into listeners’ eardrums, Bood crafted an introduction that held nothing back.
The band’s second album, Our Ill Wills, was produced by Bjorn Yttling from Peter, Bjorn and John. Yttling, a top-40 fetishist, bridles the band into a coy, tightly- controlled act. The album is expensive liquor- imagine the high (or alternately the heat of proletariat superiority) you felt the first time you had something top shelf bought for you by a rich cousin or sort-of friend who felt like showing off. You will get that feeling every time you listen to the 7-minute lament “Impossible” or the rollicking “Tonight I Have to Leave It.” It’s an album of precision, of perfectly portioned excess. For better or worse, and on this album, certainly for better, the Shout Out Louds started to take themselves pretty seriously around this time, and that hasn’t let up since.
Rightly labeled the most challenging album in the band’s discography, the band’s third album, Work, was produced by northwestern indie god Phil Ek. Ek brought a crispness and guitar focus to Built To Spill’s career highlights There’s Nothing Wrong With Love, Perfect from Now On, and Keep it Like a Secret, as well as great albums by The Shins, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and The Walkmen. However the collaboration between the band and Ek is a difficult one. Ek as a producer knows what to do with guitars, drums and bass, with terra-cotta solos and quiet songs begging to be made louder. He has more trouble with spotlight vocals, keyhole details, the kind of songs that are coastlines, songs built for apartments, not homes. Even on the highlights of this uneven album, you can feel the tension between Ek’s production (seeking to make the band sound like an American indie band) and the Shout Out Louds’ songwriting.
Yet the band’s willingness to stretch, shed, and build is half of what makes their most recent album, Optica, so good. The other half is producer Johannes Berglund who worked with The Radio Dept. on their equally subversive record Clinging to a Scheme. On …Scheme, the catchiest songs are preceded by audio clips talking about the commodification of youth culture, It’s the kind of thing that sticks into your throat and catches on the melody bouncing through your ears .
On Optica, the Shout Out Louds make pop music that doubts itself. Opening track “Sugar” decays as you listen to it. The fake steel drums on “Chasing the Sinking Sun” couldn’t feel faker unless they were made with a midi keyboard. The riff on “14th of July” repeats itself so quickly and so often, the band sounds worried you’ll forget the melody the second it is done playing (you won’t). The programed beats on “Circles” feels like they emerge from a computer running hot on reserve power. These songs are a body-cross-section of a pop album. They show you their guts but never get maudlin or pretentious about it. This time around, The Shout Out Louds are showing you what they’re made of.
And here‘s a great Jens Lekman remix of Optica’s 14th of July.
Last night I was at Monkeypaw having probably the 50,000th conversation about what is it with California? It went on for too long, and I think someone walking over and pressing 02-14 for “Debra” might’ve shut us all up it. Not that Beck has an answer but he certainly is questioning this California bullshit the same way. I mean, dude’s got a new songs which is 15 minutes long and features a spoken-word interlude by Kim Gordon. Makes about as much sense as the ham fisted Big Sur trip I drove with friends coming back from San Francisco the other week- from the kind of ocean views that make your ears pop then harden then fall asleep as the sun tips past oil drilling equipment and small mountains around Barstow.
You can hear the new Beck song here.
You don’t even have to listen to Four Tet’s music to see how far removed it is from a sense of emotional immediacy. Just visit the Four Tet website. Look at the way Kieran Hebden announces his new album. Other minimalist techno artist resort to crazy marketing gimmicks to release their music. Hebden doesn’t even admit to being excited about having a new album coming out! He doesn’t admit to anything, besides the fact that some dude named Jason did the photography for that album!
The fact that Hebden announces album releases like other people announce a chance of light rain doesn’t mean he could care less about music. I think he just cares a lot less about releasing music than he does about making it. I don’t think I’m overreaching to say as much; Hebden works and releases at a Henry Ford pace.
If he doesn’t have a Four Tet album coming out (and he often does), he’s producing or recording something for his label, Text Records, collaborating with Radiohead, jazz drummer Steve Reid, or Burial, or playing all night sets in Brixton. I wrote the same thing a while back about Yo La Tengo, and I think it’s true of Kieran Hebden- he would be making music regardless of whether anyone bought a copy. He makes it for the sake of making it- he gets joy from the making.
This focus follows through into much of Hebden’s music – there is precision and lightness, a studiousness that ensures the process stays as important as the result. You can hear it in Four Tet songs, which crescendo and then do not over stretched, epic minutes. Though one can assume they are not products of improvisation, Hebden’s songs replicate the process of their creation; they are built, element by element over their length. By doing so, the songs challenge listeners- is a song more “complete” once all the elements are there (beat, melody, hook, etc.), as opposed to when those elements are building up? Are you as a listener OK with 15 seconds of climax in an 8 minute song? Are you here for instant gratification or can you hold on just a minute?
The whole thing (the lack of excitement in releasing music, the slow, deliberate pace of songs, the challenge to an audience) reminds me of Sol LeWitt and the instructions he provided for recreating his artwork. LeWitt was reluctant to speak about the motivation behind any of his work, but the idea that anyone could make a LeWitt, and that, perhaps the act of making such a drawing was powerful in itself, seems to mirror the emphasis on creative process you witness Hebden’s songs.
I’ve been listening to Fridge, Hebden’s band with his high school friends Adem Ihan and Sam Jeffers a lot recently. The band’s most recent album, The Sun, is across the board excellent. Similar to Four Tet, Fridge songs aren’t about a payoff; they’re about the build. The payoff sometimes doesn’t even arrive. Though it almost certainly falls into the genre of post-rock, Explosions in the Sky, this ain’t.
The most interesting moment on The Sun is when things appear the most human, the least purely instrumental. Listeners can surmise that “Lost Time” is different from other songs on the album because, from the start, there are real live human voices. This is rare not only because the rest of the album is entirely instrumental, but because, before they start singing, the voices on “Lost Time” seem to be planning out the song, talking about who will come in where in hushed quickspeak. Listeners are privy to a group huddle from a band that seems so precise, so meticulous and idea-driven. And then the group start singing, layering one voice over the next, and a real shift begins.
None of the voices on “Lost Time” voices are especially good at signing. They drop the melody, sing too high, chip their own keys and flatten themselves into muggy fuzz. That’s not to say they’re terrible, just that they’re pretty average- the way you or I might sing if we were asked to. But, as those pretty standard voices rise with the guitar, the impact they have grows as well. Compared to the stellar musicianship and feeling of composure in most Four Tet and Fridge songs, the track feels looser and maybe even a bit sentimental. While “Lost Time” is different from Hebden’s other work what it stands as is the proof that, even though Fridge might be doing it for themselves, there are doing it for themselves with delight.
“Angel’s (Four Tet Remix)” is an unreleased remix of an XX song.
Also, I know you do not need to be told to get pumped for the new Neko Case album, but all the same, this will get you pumped for the new Neko Case album.
Also, I know there is a slight chance you might need to get pumped for the new Califone album because it’s been a few years since their last one, this will nurture a heart-first crush on the new Califone album.
Let’s call it an error at the record pressing plant. Eleanor Friedberger’s first solo album was a record about its creator, a record whose faster, louder songs came out in clicking spurts and whose more exposed songs snort at you for using the word exuberant in any context, even appropriate ones. It was an album that showed you specific places, diminutive parks in Brooklyn, clothing strewn bedrooms it would not clean up for you. The places didn’t have to make sense to you, the listener, because they formed such a devastating logic to Friedberger, and that logic, the way it came out, was enough to keep listeners interested. These songs caught you, regardless of whether you thought they were catchy. Maybe it was an early spring record, the kind of thing which eases you from one kind of waking up to another.
Her more recent solo album doubles up on the SPF just in case, then gives you the best summer day of your life. Fresh flowers with little hairs on the stems, beautiful paperbacks sitting in free boxes on stoops and curbs, sweating beer bottles, gas settling on a beach-bound highways. It’s a summer album.
The first album was called Last Summer. The more recent one, Personal Record.
Personal Record is not. Personal, that it. For one thing, Friedberger worked with British songwriter/novelist John Wesley Harding on these songs. Between the lack of ego in collaboration and Friedberger’s expressed desire to write about characters, as opposed to herself, not to mention fudge gender norms a bit, these songs feel like stories. But here’s Friedberger’s thought-provoking quote for me from a recent interview about Personal Record
I wanted to write beautiful love songs that could be about you, your ex-boyfriend, or your aunt. Unlike Last Summer, which is so specific and so clearly about me, I think anybody can insert themselves into these songs
As a poet whose work delves into the very thorny issue of speaking for/about the other, I can tell you it’s a tricky a game, to write in/for the universal. The issue is, either your work ends up not being as universal as you’d think (“we’ve all experienced the heartbreak of loosing a pet falcon the nest our three year old son designed on the porch of our cabin in the Andes!”) or being so universal it means nothing (“so…you like…stuff?” “yeah, stuffs pretty ok.”). Friedberger has an interesting way of dealing with this- the distinct purposes of her verses and choruses, her lyrics and her music.
In “When I Knew”‘s second verse, our narrator is introduced to Soft Machine by an older, more cultured crush, then can’t find the album anywhere, except one drippy basement record store. In the third verse, the object of affection sings in a band where the narrator playing back-up. In the fourth verse, the love interest almost rollerskates into our narrator on a big hill in San Francisco. Maybe different stories altogether, or maybe some kind of When Harry Met Sally tableau. Regardless, the verses are specific. I’ve never listened to Soft Machine. Somebody running into someone on roller skates seems like it would happen on a syndicated sitcom on TBS.
What holds the song together is the chorus, acting as a thesis statement. “That what when I knew I was wrong wrong wrong all along.” Even if you don’t feel comfortable or at home in the specific images of the verses (and chances are, given their specificity, that you won’t), that chorus and that music (45mph drums, Saturday messed sheets guitars, the whole thing slightly sepia toned) will give you something you can grasp onto. We’ve all had those moments when things have changed, the introduction of a person makes us happy when before we were not, or makes us restless when previously content. We’ve all found ourselves so totally wrong all of a sudden that repeating wrong three times is a good way to capture it. That has happened to us all.
That’s how Personal Record works- choruses that are brashly universal (“Love is an exquisite kind of pain/And since I saw you I’ll never be happy again” from “I’ll Never Be Happy Again”) and short-story-caliber details in the verses (“In the back of the of taxi, you turned off the TV/And read me a book on your phone” from “Stare at the Sun”), and music as direct as express lanes that cues you in to the emotional weight of any given song.
At its worst moments, though, Friedberger takes it too far. She can perhaps sell an undeniably cheesy line like “Well I couldn’t get her out of my head, so I got her out of hers instead” once, but repeating it, drilling it in, becomes grating. Likewise, the repetition of the titular metaphor of “Echo or Encore” (a person stands in for both) dulls what might be an interesting song for me. The litany of “Other Boys” starts out as an intimidate confrontation- I know there are other women. Yet the longer it goes on, the more it becomes quippy and less emotionally immediate.
But part of me thinks that’s to be expected. Frieberger’s previous band The Fiery Furnaces showed off with their music, and as a fairly new solo artist, Eleanor Friedberger is showing off with her words. When most of her words are so on point, when they are doing so much work with so little effort or strain, you’ll forgive her when she goes a bit overboard. It’s possible that, like me, you’ll even be able to smile at the excess.
Also, how about a summer jam or two