Good albums of 2017, part 5

Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

Out in the Storm

I originally felt that what was good about Waxahatchee was the arrangements – that is, the basic hyper-raw stuff was, like, fine, but it wasn’t all that compelling until it was formed into interesting songs. Then I saw her do a solo set that was totally amazing, and it completely reversed my viewpoint – the most basic aspects of her songs are what really weave the magic. So hearing this album after that was kind of A Thing, on account of a) it’s a polished and professional rock album, so it’s both highly stylized and completely straightforward, b) the demos were all released alongside the album, so you also have all the songs in their elemental forms, and c) it’s actually about changing perspectives.

The thing about the demos is that they make it very clear that the whole of each song is already there at that point. With rock in particular you’d think that you don’t have it unless you have the big sound, but the demos clearly have it. The two notes and the vocals on “Recite Remorse” actually are the whole thing. Of course, the importance of the vocals is far from trivial – they don’t have any particular gimmick or even complexity to them, but Katie Crutchfield’s plain-sounding voice is deceptively powerful. But it’s also the majesty of structure, the way that, when you have things organized in just the right way, you barely need anything at all. So this is almost like a white paper on songwriting; you can see the whole thing being built from the ground up.

And yet, as much as it all sounds like everything coming together, it’s actually about things falling apart. It’s a calm and dignified act of coughing up blood. With the extreme amount of polish and professionalism, as well as rock being particularly suited to expressing confidence, the heavy self-abnegation and even shame in the lyrics comes across very strangely. The singer here is someone committed to her own smallness and vulnerability, while the foil she sets up for herself consists of overbearing self-assurance. The album opens with “Never Been Wrong” as a criticism of the kind of person who promotes “narcissistic injury disguised as masterpiece,” and the singer’s complete admission of her failure here (“I got lost in your rendition of reality”) ends up being her active defense. Recognizing that “I could have fought with you forever and never break through,” she chooses to quit the war for order and let go of comfort. The album’s straightforward and even placid nature ultimately forms a commitment to chaos: “I went out in the storm, and I’m never returning.” This decision isn’t made in resignation, as grim acceptance of an unalterable reality, but as a positive choice, as the actual right thing.

“Sparks Fly” is the center from which the rest of the album grows out. The fact that the song doesn’t sound at all live-wire-y physicalizes the conclusion that things aren’t just how they feel to one individual. Electricity is a potential difference; it doesn’t arise by itself from one particular type of material, it happens when wires cross, or when things strike together. It’s by changing her perspective, by “seeing myself through my sister’s eyes,” that the singer is finally able to make the choice to stay unreconciled – which includes the irreconcilability of other perspectives, the absolute inability to get through to some people, and the necessity of dropping dead weight. “I know you don’t recognize me, but I’m a live wire, finally.”

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Good albums of 2017, part 4

Austra – Future Politics

Future Politics

I’m putting this on here because I’m completely conflicted about it. I’ve tried, but I can’t bring myself to like it. The vocals are still killer, but the music here is chill in the worst sense to the term: neither energetic enough to be exciting nor unpleasant enough to be interesting. It’s dull and unevocative, and all the more so for the blatant provocativeness of the titles. It completely goes to sleep halfway through and never really wakes up. None of the lyrics add enough context to compel attention (again despite the titles; for the record, this was written before the bottom fell out of the world, so it’s not explicitly about that, but as you know, everything happening now has a cause and was foreseeable and is understandable, so addressing anything in this vicinity bears on that endeavor. Not that that matters right now).

But despite all this, I don’t actually think it’s bad. I mean, it’s clearly not a “mistake”; it’s clearly exactly the album it’s supposed to be. But I don’t feel like any of the available options here really add up. One is that it’s a good album in the service of evil – obviously not, like, in the Leni Riefenstahl sense, but nonetheless a bad idea that happens to be expertly executed. This is putting the line in entirely the wrong place, though; if you actually accepted this proposition the amount of aesthetic culling you would have to do would be totally untenable. So the alternative (the one that most people accept implicitly and that you’re probably rolling your eyes at me for not just assuming) is that this is a perfectly salutary work that just happens not to be to my taste. That’s certainly the easy answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s too easy. I’m pretty sure my objections here are substantive. I’m not personally against chillness; I’m actually low-energy to the point of immorality. Rather, chillness is rationally harmful in ways that can be elucidated in technical philosophical terms. So I’m intellectually obligated not to close this case. I feel a very strong gap here, and I don’t know where it is, and I’ll admit that right now that’s all I have, and that my only claim on your time here is that I think this issue is worth highlighting. I guess this is the sense in which this album really did make an impact on me. It’s something I can’t understand yet, but which I’m forced to acknowledge right now.

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Good albums of 2017, part 3

The Dollyrots – Whiplash Splash

Whiplash Splash

One time when I saw these guys somebody called out one of their super old songs, and Kelly was like “Hmm, I don’t think our drummer knows that one. She could probably do it though, it’s just like the dumbest possible punk song,” and Luis goes “Well, yeah, that’s all our songs.” It’s certainly true that, from a modern perspective, where every random asshole is a classically-trained historically-informed avant-garde revolutionary, The Dollyrots are an extraordinarily dumb-sounding band. The naive fervor of their devotion to the most mundane and trivial aspects of their genre make it difficult to understand them as anything other than a joke. Which is exactly what they said about the Ramones.

The truth is that looking dumb and being dumb are not the same thing, and “Just Because I’m Blonde” directly addresses this very topic. The song is indeed a broadside against “dumb blonde” stereotypes, which initially seems ridiculous. No one actually thinks that blonde people are dumb; the entire thing about blonde jokes is that they’re a parody of stereotype-based humor. Except that isn’t really the case; the reason tropes like this endure is precisely because people really do adhere to them on a deep ideological level, despite how ludicrous they appear on the surface. The fact that people say they’re “joking” about things like this belies the fact that they care enough to bother in the first place. More importantly, I lied when I said “blonde people“; what these jokes actually are is sexism dressed up as triviality. The presumption of good faith is based on the assumption that no one is “really” sexist, that everyone “means well” in spite of their actual behavior. Superficiality – pointing out that “it’s just hair, don’t be dumb” – is not a retreat, but an accurate defense against this. (Also, I’m not overinterpreting this; if you require corroboration, there’s a non-album B-side called “Get Radical” that proves it.)

So the fact that the song also sounds dumb, that its rambly lyrics and singsong chorus make the singer come across as an actual ditz, reveals the true nature of the opposition: looking like a moron while making an incontrovertibly true point is preferable to play-acting depth while being, on the merits, a dumbfuck. This resolved contradiction defines the band’s entire body of work (their previous album has a hardcore song about being pregnant, which sounds completely silly, until you realize that pregnancy really is the most hardcore thing), and it’s on its fullest display here. There’s actually a fair diversity of emotional states, anchored in sentiments as simple as “I Do” and “Squeeze Me” (and of course “Dance Like a Maniac”), rendered all the more faithfully for being cartoonishly blown up and garishly colored. It’s pretty fast, but it’s actually propelled forward by complex and thoughtful production, layered with precisely applied backing vocals and stabbed through with shouts and breaks. It sticks to its guns, but also fully explores its possibility space – in other contexts this is called “minimalism,” which reminds us that complexity and nuance, while assumed to be indicators of underlying intelligence, can just as easily be used to disguise the fact that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Hence why the album ends with a joke song and a joke cover, neither of which is a joke: because joking is the most serious thing you can do. The mermaid, which would appear to be an arbitrary reference, is in fact central to the point. It’s a creature of two worlds that registers as a single entity, a living reconciled contradiction. Mermaid mythology continues to resonate because it’s immediately comprehensible even in the face of making no sense. Just so, this album is a mess of goofiness and also exactly what it says on the label: a message in a bottle that is also a molotov.

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Good albums of 2017, part 2

Trebuchet – Volte-Face

Volte-Face

This one’s kind of a problem for me. In theory, I hate it. It’s all slow strings and churchy harmonies and soft compassion. Like, it’s pleasant. It sounds nice. Give me a fucking break. The problem is that, actually listening to it, I have exactly zero negative feelings about it. It’s obviously great. I’m capable of objectively appreciating things that aren’t my thing, but that’s not what this. I really like this on a personal level, and that fact contradicts things that I’m pretty sure I know about myself. I mean, it’s not really that confusing. It opens with a literal hymn, but it inverts the meaning: not eating the fruit – failing to act recklessly enough to push the world out of its state of grace – is framed as the act requiring forgiveness. The rhythms are pretty hot; they’re not emphasized, but they do a lot to mitigate the austerity and get a little bit of blood flowing. And it’s not actually deniable that the singing is great, the songwriting is elegant and the whole thing is emotionally affecting on a very basic level. So it’s not like I have to renounce my faith here, but I still feel unreconciled. I suppose that has its own value, though. The world’s a complicated place. You’re definitely wrong about a bunch of stuff, and you’re never going to figure most of it out, so, if not caution, at least a little bit of magnanimity is called for. It’s parochiality that truly numbers among the greatest sins.

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Good albums of 2017, part 1

Kristeen Young – Live at the Witch’s Tit

Live At The Witch's Tit

The implication that this is an opera set in hell is pretty much accurate – it’s theatrically intimate, as clear as it is confusing. The furiousness of this album is not the shallow shoutiness that characterizes typically “negative” music but is rather a deep and abiding bitterness distilled into paralyzing venom. It’s a serious work whose depth merits its execution (even on the joke song). The vocals are a complete tour de force, screeching, thrashing, and soaring in all directions with precision insanity, huge basslines bulk the songs up to a monstrous amount of presence, and the way the drums snake together the disparate parts of each song, maneuvering through transitions and holding on to misshapen rhythms without relinquishing their own thundering intensity is beyond impressive. Even the production, which is often a strong presence (uh, this isn’t actually a live album, if you missed that) is extremely smart and well-deployed, substantive while also respectful towards and in service of the personality and emotion that constitute the core of each song. So it has the advantage of sounding great (Young really is a hellaciously powerful singer), but it’s extremely resolute about not letting you get comfortable. The songs don’t have tempo shifts so much as a completely alien sense of pacing that supports the off-message biliousness of the lyrics. It’s the perfect inverse of go-nowhere empowerment bullshit: it’s productive hatred, a flashing claw backed by tense muscle, coalescing around the one actual source of victory, shining in plain sight through the darkness: “You always win everything, but you lost me.”

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Mixmas ’17

Pony up

Here’s an old one for the occasion.

Story: in elementary school I had a hippie teacher who played an acoustic version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the lyrics replaced by the text of “Jabberwocky.” That’s all.