Sunday, March 29th, 2020

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending March 29, 2020

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Princess Nokia – Green Eggs & Ham

Sadly we don’t stretch to [33.10]…


[Video][Website]
[5.67]

Alfred Soto: Celebrating Kool-Aid smiles and purple corduroys with matching ribbons, telling cops to fuck off while reminding listeners to say “I love you” to parents, Princess Nokia scratches a nostalgic itch and proffers self-help. At less than two minutes “Green Eggs & Ham” is too slight to annoy, too brief to ponder.
[6]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “Love my inner child/Kool-Aid smile,” Princess Nokia raps, the smile on their face practically visible. “Green Eggs and Ham” constructs an entire childhood world in its less than two-minute runtime, but that line tells you everything you need to know about childhood mischief and wonder. Similar to how “Sunday Candy” was an anthem for Chance the Rapper’s grandma and the warmth of her love, this track is an ode to the feeling of parental love and childhood security and imagination. I hear “I look like my mama in the 1980s,” “public school and two Thanksgivings,” and “you and me, socks on feet,” and I’m transported to the first house I ever lived in, sitting in a room smelling like linen as my mom and I fold laundry together, watching Harry Potter weekends or The Parent Trap on ABC Family. (Matilda definitely also came on a couple times.) So much of childhood is spent trying to be an adult, and so much of adulthood is spent trying to be taken seriously — it’s in this context that “Green Eggs and Ham” isn’t just fun, it’s a revelation. 
[8]

Oliver Maier: All of the people to bite in 2020 and you go with Chance the Rapper.
[3]

Kylo Nocom: I guess the issue with this and all sorts of up-and-comers who abide by the Chance the Rapper philosophy of (irk!) wholesome or warm PBS Kids rap is that they never have the charm that makes stuff as otherwise messy as Coloring Book work. Nokia’s forced-smile bars expose the regression of a rapper who showed much more potential on earlier projects.
[4]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The alt-rap “Blueberry Faygo” — a beat so groovy that the rapper riding it doesn’t have to do all that much. Nokia’s clearly a better rapper than Lil Mosey, but that almost distracts from the appeal of 1-900’s beat — the two are not quite in sync, and Nokia’s stylistic trick of repeating words from line to line isn’t quite as clever as they think it is. But “Green Eggs & Ham” is still eminently charming, the kind of retro rap exercise that you could loop endlessly without it really getting old.
[7]

Alex Clifton: I’ve hated Dr Seuss since childhood (rhyming books made my skin crawl, go figure) so I’m not entirely sold on the concept of this song. At a taut two minutes, Princess Nokia’s trying to pack a fair amount in here, with recollections of a rough childhood set against a breezy beat, but I’m still mystified as to why Seuss has been brought into it. There’s something to be said about the juxtaposition of kid-friendly rhymes with darker material, an indication that even after going through the worst stuff you’ll be fine, but the song is frankly too short for me to have a good grasp of what Princess Nokia wants to convey, even if it does sound nice. However, the video does have a ton of Matilda references, which was my favourite book as a kid, so I’m giving this an extra point.
[6]

Saturday, March 28th, 2020

Victor Leksell – Svag

Och vad är fel med det?


[Video]
[4.88]

Olivia Rafferty: Inoffensive Scandi-pop that conjures images of sad white man in leather jacket.
[3]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Even before translating the lyrics from Swedish, I could already tell this was going to be some soft-boy, sappy crap about crying and loving someone else. Sometimes corniness transcends language. 
[3]

Scott Mildenhall: Quite rightly, Sweden decided against Felix Sandman’s literalist “Boys With Emotions” for The Eurovision That Wasn’t, but it must surely have struck some chord in a nation where “Svag” has been the most popular song of the year. Unlike Sandman though, Leksell shows more than tells. This is less proclamation than concession of vulnerability, and therein lies half of the appeal: he actually sounds soft. It’s not a Statement, and soars above all Capaldian bellows; a reminder that things can be restrained, emotional, tuneful and lively all at the same time.
[7]

Will Adams: A man whose received masculinity tells him it’s wrong to show emotion (“That’s how I was raised / just be a man and take it”) grapples with being struck with love. It’s… almost moving? The Sheeran-core arrangement is fine but never goes anywhere; by chorus three we’re still sat with the same pleasant strums, light percussion and reverb aplenty.
[5]

Kylo Nocom: Has the nostalgia cycle reached the pop intimacy of Ghost Stories, x, and other Starbucks favorites circa 2014 yet? Viktor Leksell, despite never reaching the same highs in “Svag,” clearly knows well enough how “Magic” and “Tenerife Sea” were once enchanting.
[6]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Maybe the low quality of European acoustic-pop imports to the US over the last decade has worn me down. “Svag” is less good than actively non-bad, its weak-in-the-knees lyrics and inoffensive production charming in the blandest way. But its blandness is its strength — I can’t help but bop along, and I can’t think of the last time I felt that way about a song that sounded like this.
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: Justin Bieber’s sonar R&B is a foundation here, but Leksell translates Bieber’s recent marital bliss more through adult-contemporary earnestness. For such a closed-in song, he reaches for very sweeping generalizations and grandiose metaphors, but the lyrical overwhelmedness does convey just how awe-struck he is at the sight of The One.
[5]

Tobi Tella: Likable, dreamy guitar-pop with few other attributes. The lyrics gesture to a shift in the song at the chorus, but I’m not sure it actually registers sonically.
[5]

Friday, March 27th, 2020

Lianne La Havas – Bittersweet

Does this count as a Pharrell intro…?


[Video]
[5.17]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: With smokey words and sepia tones, Lianne La Havas paints a devastatingly beautiful vignette: on a rainy but tranquil morning, you wake up in the warm embrace of someone who loves you, and suddenly, you realize that you don’t love them back. 
[7]

Alfred Soto: As much as I’ve taken mild enjoyment from Lianne La Havas in the past, this attempt to wring bittersweetness from genre requirements this constricted reminds me of Alicia Keys. This we can’t have.
[4]

Oliver Maier: La Havas and co. thread the production of a lofi hip-hop beat (to study and relax to) into a live band performance. It’s an interesting experiment but the two different approaches to momentum — one based around quick stops and starts, the other around gradual expansions and contractions — feel mismatched, and throw “Bittersweet” off-balance. La Havas might have elevated it with her performance, but the ostentatious chorus vocal is an unwelcome detour from the smoky, patient verses. Subtlety already sounds gorgeous on her, why bring out the big guns when they’re not necessary?
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: Lianne La Havas introduces just enough tension in the picture-perfect neo soul to elevate the Isaac Hayes-inspired prettiness beyond mere wallpaper decorations. She adds pressure in the wrong spots, leaving the actual relationship drama in the verses underutilized, but there’s still a passive-aggressiveness present to hint at a little crack behind the scenes.
[6]

Leah Isobel: The piano hits maintain a certain delicacy even as they’re doubled on top of every other instrument in the song, like raindrops hitting the ground with the force of a bowling ball. These soft-heavy shadings are where La Havas does her best vocal work; her vibrato and her fondness for a blue note makes her belts sound like they’re taking all the force from her body, while the warmth in her tone makes her softer phrasings feel reassuring, even at her most heartbroken. Yes, “Bittersweet” is texturally gorgeous, and it does exactly what its title promises to do — maybe to a fault. It’s perfectly composed and just a little airless, a baptism in a snow globe.
[6]

Kylo Nocom: It’s really hard to judge more critically when approaching polite music. There’s hardly anything to attack here: sure, it’s boring, but it’s pretty! R&B is hard to truly fuck up, and Lianne La Havas gives the chorus enough lift to feel like this song isn’t simply going by the motions, but God am I begging for something that’ll actively offend me once it ends.
[3]

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

The Killers – Caution

Take care out there!


[Video]
[6.88]

Alfred Soto: “Caution”? Ha! The Killers don’t know the meaning of the word. Still chasing slightly nutsy love triangles into total eclipses of the heart, Brandon Flowers remains unrepentant, a fool addicted to synth pomp like Donald Trump is to Big Macs. He still can’t sing and he’s singing worse, but when he wraps his so-white larynx around a pinched guitar solo I still hear the frustrated dreams of a fellow who wishes God had made him queerer than he is. 
[7]

Scott Mildenhall: It’s a surprise that Brandon Flowers has any caution left to throw, after seventeen years of these dustland fairytales, but the thought of a day by which he can no longer tap into those reserves is one that in itself could be the subject of a song in which it is something he strains every sinew to avoid — happily, it seems unlikely to come. “Caution,” with its broad-but-specific geography, narrative and production, finds the perfect match in its vocalist’s vast quaver. Somehow, it never stops being compelling.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: This sounds indistinguishable from the rest of the Killers’ pretentious, aspiring-to-be-epic discography, but hearing “If I don’t get out, out of this town/I might just be the one who finally burns it down” in the context of self-quarantining in my childhood home brought such a smile to my face that I might like this more than I should. 
[6]

Kylo Nocom: The dick-swinging dance-rock Brandon Flowers of 2017 is resting now; judging by the collaborations on the new record, an NPR Tiny Desk Concert has taken his place. It smells strongly of “The Boys of Summer,” but it doesn’t smell bad.
[7]

Will Adams: With a similar harmonic progression and quick tempo, “Caution” bounds with the same hopeful energy as “Human.” But instead of the starry-eyed wonderments of the latter, this is more assured. The chorus bursts like a sunbeam, with Brandon Flowers stretching to the top of his already shaky range. Somehow, he still sounds certain of what he’s saying.
[7]

Edward Okulicz: This sounds great if you listen to any particular 15 seconds of it, but makes absolutely no sense taken as a whole. Part of it’s Brandon Flowers’ role as native English speakers’ foremost practitioner of Nonsense English as a second language, part of it’s how the first 40 seconds sounds like U2 doing “Bright Eyes,” and the rest of it is the empty lunges towards the anthemic. USDA certified what?
[5]

Ian Mathers: If I say there’s always been a whiff of bullshit about the Killers (yes, even the deservedly deathless “Mr. Brightside”), I want you to understand that I mean it as a compliment. Whether it’s Flowers reaching for Springsteen and not quite grasping it on “if I don’t get out, out of this town / I might just be the one who finally burns it down”; or the acknowledged mix of UK and US so pronounced it sometimes confuses people; or little Sumner-esque lyrical infelicities like never actually finishing the idiom in the chorus here; or “are we human or are we dancer?”; or (my favourite, from what I think might actually be their best song) “you can dip your feet every one in a little while,” these are virtues, not vices, almost purely because the Killers sell every single one of them, and you can tell they believe in it. And what is more American than selling something faintly ersatz, something not-quite-as-promised, with enough heart and conviction that it becomes realer than the real thing?
[8]

Alex Clifton: “Caution” radiates the kind of freedom and ease I have always wanted to associate with America, rather than what it actually is. I think The Killers are actually the best expression of the American Ideal we’ll ever have, something bombastic and liberating yet able to unify a hundred thousand people for three minutes. They’re full of Vegas glitz and individualistic swagger, the promise of the West, but with a hidden tender heart they’re not afraid to let out of its cage show. It’s too bad America can’t really ever be like that. However, for a few moments, I can forget and give into the song, which means I’m sold. Anyway, listen to this if you want four minutes to escape the humdrum of quarantine: in the Killers’ universe, you’re warm and safe with a beer and some good friends, and none of the evils of the world can hurt you.
[8]

Wednesday, March 25th, 2020

Sauti Sol – Suzanna

Sauti Sol do not appreciate your stories…


[Video]
[7.43]

Olivia Rafferty: Pop-culture morsels criticising the Instagram influencer can often be trite and a little bit redundant, flexing a perspective that we’ve already been on board with since the dawn of Snapchat filters. But Sauti Sol take the trope and give it a delightful wryness, with the help of a guitar motif that wriggles constantly throughout the song. “Shaking what your doctor gave ya” is a brilliant lyric, delivered with enough smile in the mouth that you could almost forget it’s a song about someone trying to sell you hair vitamins from a Parisian balcony.
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: An anachronistic piece through and through — its references to plastic surgery and Instagram are the only indications of modernity, but the sweetness of the rest hearkens back to a more compassionate era of songs where a male singer shames the choices of a women he once had a connection with. It’s a noxious message, but the love in the vocals almost, but doesn’t quite outweigh it. “Suzanna” still charms, though — it’s mostly in the warmth of the guitars and genial chug of the beat, in the harmonies but not the lyrics.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: A slinking guitar one slips in the door, with a boisterous synth cloud and padding drums, with a sloppy bass and another swinging guitar flying through the window and all scrambling up and assembling behind Bien, Savara and Chimano, singing to Suzanna, who smiles tightly and teleports back to Sankofa Books and Cafe.
[7]

Kylo Nocom: Sauti Sol’s making-of video is absolutely worth watching just to see the absolute joy they have creating this song. The efforts of their labor are clear: this is a capital-P Pop statement, with well-deserved international ambitions as they prepare for their major label debut. I haven’t heard a track as refined as “Suzanna” all year, nothing with as lovely minutiae as their ad-libs, their sensuous guitar work, or their almost-communal chorus harmonies. Yet the lyrics deserve some scrutiny for what feels like misogynistic back-handed compliments and outright disses that would be inexcusable elsewhere. These concerns are somewhat assuaged by a cute response parody that flips around the dynamic of the song, but I’m left uncomfortable with how much I can’t stay away from the original’s gorgeous arrangements.
[8]

Alfred Soto: The melody’s country lilt should prove, if any proof were needed, of the cross-pollination between country music and the music of several African nations. Possibly I overrate “Suzanna” because I need some buoyancy.
[8]

Scott Mildenhall: There’s an obvious case to be made for this being massively sexist — every nation and every era gets its “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)?” But whereas Peter Sarstedt was playing with an unfortunate tall-poppy syndrome/superiority complex hybrid, Sauti Sol sound lovelorn. Their mocking isn’t quite toothless, but is concertedly undermined by the more pertinent desperation. They’re willing to put themselves on the back foot, and the result is winning.
[8]

Edward Okulicz: My first instinct was that the references to Instagram, silicon and “worst behaviour” were lightly condemning of an ex’s new best life, but that isn’t right — it’s a song about post-break-up denial and hopelessly, helplessly putting a smile on a situation, and you can hear it in every beat and every lick. The girl is gone, the narrator doesn’t realise she’s unfollowed him on Instagram, and the song is great fun.
[8]

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

Ashe – Moral of the Story

Aesop pop…


[Video]
[4.67]

Kylo Nocom: A ballad speedrun. There’s hardly any build-up between where the awkward sad-twee bit ends and the claustrophobic all-caps FINNEAS bit begins. How am I supposed to deal with a quicker, conversational verse two if I’m still reeling from the trauma of hook one?
[3]

Alfred Soto: The sprechgesang acts as its own reward: she babbles about lawyers over piano tinkle. There are no morals. The story? Well. 
[4]

Olivia Rafferty: Whisper-pop by way of a Danny Elfman tribute concert is now a hallmark of Finneas O’Connell’s production style. No wonder half the YouTube comments on Ashe’s video are comparisons with O’Connell’s sister and collaborator, Billie Eilish. O’Connell’s macabre piano riff sets the scene, and where Eilish’s performances hit like heavy, slow rain, Ashe manages to conjure different weather on a similar landscape. The wavering vocals and words rushed-to-the-point-of-aching-lungs give a much airier performance. Despite this, Ashe still fails to cover ground that hasn’t been heavily trodden by her contemporaries, and this is partly down to O’Connell’s vehicle which seems to re-hash ideas and techniques used in his work with Billie Eilish.
[5]

Ian Mathers: At first it’s just so aggressively post-Lana Del Rey it’s hard to actually hear the song on its own merits, but it’s… kind of a banger? And “you can think that you’re in love when you’re really just in pain” (not to mention “mistakes get made”) isn’t exactly a new insight, but it’s also not one a lot of people have stopped needing to hear, you know? I can imagine this being a bit too arch/sultry/whatever for some, but I like that kind of flavouring on these basic truths, it turns out.
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: I truly and deeply understand what Ashe is going for here. Divorce pop is one of the great traditions of the form, and Ashe’s talky style fits it well. But everything here put together is just so fucking goofy. She can’t seem to decide whether she wants melodrama or wry resignation — she sounds far more comfortable in the latter, but Finneas’s rote ballad production job drags her inexorably towards the former.
[3]

Tobi Tella: I appreciate the overflowing theatrical energy, and the production and vocal are definitely all in on the schtick here, but it’s just A Lot To Deal With. The spoken out-of-tempo section in the second verse breaks the already thin fairytale illusion, and even though there’s some arresting lyrics, the chorus expresses almost nothing. I look forward to hearing it at talent shows and coffeehouses til the end of time.
[5]

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

Bonus Tracks for Week Ending March 22, 2020

Hello from the Jukebox! After various disruptions this month (the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as technical difficulties with the site), we are moving back to a slightly modified regular schedule: for the time being, we will be covering two songs per day instead of three. In the meantime, we have additional writing from our contributors to share. To all our readers: stay safe and healthy, and be sure to look for comfort in your favorite songs during this uncertain time.

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

Perfume Genius – Describe

We do describe him for you!


[Video][Website]
[7.78]

Vikram Joseph: As far back as “Gay Angels” on his debut album, Mike Hadreas has been experimenting with washes of sound; back then, as a comfort blanket for queer pain, and on No Shape frequently as a way of transcending it. Where “Otherside” and “Slip Away” burst into ecstatic climaxes, “Describe” hits you with a wall of warped shoegaze guitars right out of the gate. Coupled with the stunning, sensual visuals (Perfume Genius aesthetics are rarely less than remarkable) it feels like a Bacchanalian dream, folding into a nocturnal miasma that’s more than two minutes long but which I would be happy for to drift on indefinitely. Hadreas has formed a career arc that takes you from songs that sound like being huddled next to him on the floor in a bare, cold bedsit to music that takes you to unimaginable places, while never sounding quite like anyone else.
[9]

Michael Hong: Another Perfume Genius single, another shift in sound, not so much a curveball but a progression. “Describe” is different from whatever sound you attribute to earlier Perfume Genius material. It lacks the hurried tempo of “Slip Away.” It throws out the sparseness of “Eye in the Wall.” And yet, the dense slow-burn of “Describe” never takes away from its urgency or primal desire. “Describe” doesn’t shimmer, it doesn’t glow, instead it features Hadreas chipping away at its dense exterior in a slow rise, like the feeling of waking up after being numb for so long. 
[8]

Alfred Soto: Some may miss Mike Hadreas’ delicate ministrations, but gimme the crunch of the last couple years. He hasn’t lost the resignation and insistent self-pity with which he’s darkened — it’s harder to hear them now. And “His love it felt like ribbons/An echo in the canyon” is a lovely line, complemented by those power chords.
[8]

Ian Mathers: Here’s the thing; it is absolutely understandable to note or even focus on how different the sound of Mike Hadreas’s music is now, compared to the first couple of Perfume Genius records. But at the same time, in a very different arrangement (and with a very different vocal performance), this would have fit in just fine in those tender, delicate environs. Which is to say we haven’t lost anything (not least because you can go listen to Learning right now if you want to), and Hadreas’s voice (both literal and figurative) fits all these new modes he works in so well that even when we segue from the Americana shoegaze of the first part of “Describe” into the beatific ambience it all makes sense.
[8]

Alex Clifton: Most of this is pretty good (sounds like listening to Sufjan Stevens through a dirty window), but I’m irritated by the last two minutes of emptiness. I get that it underscores the point of the song, feeling numb and lonely and how that feeling can stretch to eternity in no time at all, but it’s not compelling from a listener standpoint. As with most art dealing with mental health, it’s self-indulgent and I should be willing to forgive, but the world is currently stalling based on (gestures widely) all this stuff. I don’t need more empty minutes to fill with my own anxieties at this point.
[6]

Tim de Reuse: A celebration of awkward, clunky things; the distortion is heavyhanded and clumsy, and the rhythm is fast enough to pick up energy but slow enough to feel like it’s tripping over itself. The most infectious thing, though, is the extra beat that forces you to lose and re-encounter the meter at the end of “his love, it felt like rib-bons.” The expression of vulnerability through imperfect, off-kilter composition has been Hadreas’s strong point for a long time, so the first half is basically a victory lap; the dreamy second half, by comparison, is so clean and unsurprising I’m surprised it’s on a Perfume Genius album at all.
[7]

Ryo Miyauchi: While dissonance in the music made the emotions difficult to coherently read on No Shape, “Describe” hits it raw and direct. The raging reverb of the guitars is aggressively physical, untouchable only because it’s too hot on the surface to lay a hand, and the lyrics get straight to the point despite the details being shaped as a suggestive metaphor: “his love, it felt like ribbons — can you find him for me,” Hadreas yearns like he’s trying to remember a dream.
[8]

Olivia Rafferty: “Describe” arrests with the “hey, look at me” confidence of an oil slick on tarmac. It hits you and then just keeps rolling, shimmering murkily. We’re offered sonic footholds, lapping up one after the other: slide guitar, wavering vocals, possible mandolins… but as soon as they appear they melt, and are hard to fully extricate. Even the lyrics are imagistic enough to never offer firm disclosure. It feels over before it ever really kicks in, fading out but lingering oddly like a whispered mirage. 
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: I’ve never heard a song this exquisitely lost-feeling. In its first half, you can almost mistake its desolation for joy, its fuzzy wall of sound spreading out across the track like some kind of exultant beast. But once the waves of guitar fade out and the empty gets to creep in, “Describe” reveals its true self. It’s the most heartbreaking thing, too void to even know its own sadness.
[9]

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Yemi Alade & Angelique Kidjo – Shekere

Two Women of Steel


[Video]
[6.33]

Jessica Doyle: Despite the presence of Aggie the Dance Queen — and let’s all take a moment to give thanks that, of all the possible permutations of the universe, we live in the one that allows for the self-creation of Aggie the Dance Queen — “Shekere” feels more like something you wind down and get goofy with after a half hour or so for more intense, performative dancing. The music video’s grand introduction may do the song a disservice, making it more full and driving than it actually is. (Here’s the counterargument.)
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: Slippery strings and a lithe guitar loop around the bass, who is now riding a small Tonka drum pattern, while Angelique and Yemi kick back on leaned-out seats, both holding glasses of unsweetened bissau and looking at the sun. They watch the bass, which ditches the Tonka and immediately runs off, with neither Yemi or Angelique even bothering with its shenanigans. Yemi takes a sip.
[7]

Alfred Soto: “Talking drums and shekere combination,” goes the most instructive lyric, and Yemi Alade does her damndest to project a joy that need not smother to be infectious. 
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: “Shekere” is joyous and catchy and instantly compelling, but after the initial pleasures it offers begin to wear, there’s a strange stillness and lack of movement to it. It’s content to relax in the groove it has, not building anywhere else — and that groove isn’t interesting enough to work for the whole song.
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: “Shekere” is self-reflexive as dance-pop goes, offering exactly what’s present. Angelique Kidjo simply responds to the vibrant sounds, rhythms and scenery around her, and Yemi Alade pushes some personality while also participating in the activity.
[6]

Scott Mildenhall: It’s a self-referential celebration, and Kidjo’s grit and Alade’s smoother vigour complement each other in a way befitting both the esteem in which they hold each other and their desire to express it. There’s a clear sense that they want all of this on record — it’s a party thrown with heart, not obligation.
[7]