Saturday, December 7th, 2019

Zombie-Chang – Saredo Shiawase

Tokyo singer-songwriter closes out the first part of our increasingly-inaccurately named Amnesty Week.


[Video][Website]
[6.78]

Kylo Nocom: “A-Punk” via “Bubble Pop Electric,” not quite matching the pep of either but turning out nicely once the synths multiply and the bleacher-stomping beat comes in.
[6]

Iain Mew: The pattern of blaring siren synths and the rubbery bass are a perfect counterpart to how Zombie-Chang sings (and shouts) “Saredo Shiawase” with a calibrated level of abandon. It’s like watching someone carefully chalk out a space and then wild out without ever stepping over the lines, and it’s a lot of fun.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A cutesy, peppy track that might be the perfect theme song of some sitcom, cartoon, or anime. There’s not much substance here, but the “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!”s sure are fun. 
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: A wrapping, recording synth loop with headlight shrieks provides moving stage mountains for Zombie-Chang as she skips across the simple, loping drums. Slithering synth professions are pulled onto the stage then withdrawn for a brief blackout and breakdown, then returned, shielding her until she disappears.
[8]

Vikram Joseph: I’m getting strong 2006 indie disco vibes from this — Clap Your Hands Say Hai, if you will — and I like the way the synth train noise that recurs at the end of each line conveys a sense of constant, exhausting cyclical motion. The production feels flat and tightly compressed though, which restricts the sense of delirious euphoria you feel Zombie-Chang is trying to convey here.
[6]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: A kraut-y electropop jam beamed out of the 2000s wherein Zombie-Chang laments her young adulthood. A song for those who feel like they should’ve been where they are years ago, and still feel far off from where they should be. “Even so, I’m happy/I can keep going,” she concludes at the song’s end. The pulsing beat makes you believe she’ll keep moving forward.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: This certainly flirts with greatness but that warp/siren noise that actually makes me think of a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner is getting in the way and driving me to distraction. Everything else about this is fun, as if exhorting me to go out and live, but then it’s also reminding me to do the vacuuming, and that’s not fun.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: By now I think I’ve heard enough nu-new wave songs to fill the entire ’80s end to end with listening, and yet I don’t remember many capturing, like this does, the sense of freewheeling fun. I also hear a little Lorelei de Lux or NV (which is maybe to really say I hear EarthBound), both always welcome.
[7]

Ryo Miyauchi: The tendency for Meirin Yung’s synth-pop as Zombie-Chang to chase its own tail has enabled her to explore anxieties from listlessness over the last few years. But as committed “Saredo Shiawase” is to its infinity loop as her other songs, the music plays with an especially impatient urge to finally break out of its set tracks to instead become something different. The antsy mood is a response to Yung’s own frustrations with her life trajectory: “I’m so tired of myself/who can’t seem to ever grow up/a side of me who stays in her daydreams/keeps getting in the way,” she opens the song, and the rest is a classic case of millennial burnout, bitter from being cheated out of life’s promises. The song could end there, just moping around in her bed thinking how her twenties aren’t unfolding as she imagined. But it’s her saying fuck it and moving on in the best chorus ever written this year — “I don’t care anymore/I give up” — that differentiates “Saredo Shiawase” from other millennial burnout anthems. Instead of mere reportage of the current climate, Yung gives us an image of what’s possibly out there after we stop crying and throw out everything that we were told to believe. “Lastly, just dance with me/That way, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” she closes out the song. Giving up never sounded so fun.
[10]

Friday, December 6th, 2019

Urias & Maffalda – Rasga

Rejected subheads: “Wubthumping,” “Wub Be Good to Me,” “wub you wanna make those eyes at us for?”…


[Video]
[7.12]

Kylo Nocom: “Rasga” continues Urias’s musical trajectory towards the sounds of literal pandemonium, and happens to be the best composed song on her debut EP — a hip house track that wouldn’t be too out of place in the blog-buzzed NYC queer rap scene, yet beats them at their game in unimaginable ways. Maffalda’s production ensures that “Rasga” is constantly self-destructing: “Mi Gente”-esque vocal samples are transmuted into spooky pan flutes; various hybrids of funk carioca percussion, twitchy moombahton drums, and ballroom house kicks appear at breakneck speeds; muted Ha Crashes in the first minute give way to full-bodied Ha Crashes later on. It’s as if the club is deconstructing from within in real time, rather than being dissected and pieced together carefully by an outsider — the result being a natural, impressive dynamism. Despite the distractions of the production, Urias is still the song’s center of gravity, alternating between delightful vocal modes before the song implodes from her shrieking “Rasga!”. Abrasive electronic textures haven’t been used in nearly enough pop contexts, and Urias’ decision to use them without compromise has excited me in ways I haven’t felt in forever for an artist, especially when the abrasion somehow feels consequent of both SOPHIE-inspired sound design and EDC excess. More importantly, though, “Rasga” is a dance track powered on self-love, a song-world where you can tear clubs up and tear people into pieces at the same time.
[9]

Alfred Soto: I wub you.
[7]

Iain Mew: There are a lot of complex and enjoyable things going on in the rapping, but most of all I’m impressed by anyone who can make me admire some sick wubs in 2019.
[7]

Michael Hong: “Rasga” flips several times, hopping from a beat that recalls Willy William’s “Voodoo Song” to a clubby backdrop to the mechanical ravings of PC Music, and just when you think it’s done, it flips again. It blurs like a fast-forward montage when you’re too spaced out to remember where you are, then slows down, slamming on the breaks. “Rasga” manages to keep surprising throughout its runtime, jumping with frenetic energy and dizzying confidence but it would have been nice to see it tied together with a slightly more visible through-line rather than hopping with complete chaos.
[6]

Tim de Reuse: Sci-fi clutter, brostep growls, a genuinely unpredictable structure; I’m a sucker for any groove this disorienting.
[7]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A frenetic fireball gyrating and grinding and exploding across two and a half short minutes, then dissipating into thin air. 
[7]

Oliver Maier: A dizzying, remarkably self-assured piece of dance music, constantly about to topple over but keeping itself moving through sheer centrifugal force, Urias fixed at the centre. Skrillesque wubs are folded into hip-house and ballroom as if it were the most natural thing in the world. In these two’s hands, it might as well be.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: A karaoke singer pulls in slowed, lilting drums and a withering synth plant which Urias kicks off stage before it’s set aflame by a pressing bass. Hooting from a crowd of synths follows, while Urias pulls out bass snakes and whips away the crowd’s chairs. They carry them onto the middle of the dancefloor as the tiled drums rumble below, and the snakes start swirling as the crow starts dancing. Urias leaps off the stage and rides a bass snake into the roof before descending heavy, frazzled and clad in snake skin, snatching each bass snake and turning them into a belt. Then, she decides to walk out and call Chance for a Lyft.
[6]

Friday, December 6th, 2019

Charly Bliss – Chatroom

No, not a holdover from Amnesty 2001…


[Video][Website]
[6.38]

Michael Hong: The predominant theory of abuse is that the very nature of it is cyclical — that every incident is followed by a period of self-doubt and questioning by the abused and a return to normalcy, uncertain of the fault of the previous events. Eva Hendricks has spoken at length about the experience that led to “Chatroom” and the release and empowerment she hoped to give other survivors, but there’s still not enough credit given to her for how effectively she flips the cycle of abuse back at her abuser in a whirlpool of scorn, derisive sneers, and taunts in a massive “fuck you” against an abuser. “Chatroom” lures you in with a startling confession, one delivered with a tinge of reluctance but devoid of the shame, self-doubt, and apologies that come in that final phase of the cycle of abuse. It thrusts you into the center of its taunts, looping the angry defiance of the chorus and the biting sneer of the refrain. Hendricks’ sharp lyricism is made all the more powerful by her performance: an eye-roll on the line “everybody knows you’re the second coming” becomes a devastating snarl backed by the use of autotune and a dead-eyed sneer in the final line. Her second verse layered over the refrain sounds like an act of resistance backed by her bandmates and the survivors of sexual abuse. But “Chatroom” isn’t just this ultimate act of defiance, it’s a piece that’s as wonderfully melodic as it is scathing, and as hopefully joyous too. It’s bolstered by Charly Bliss’ adoration of pristine pop music, exploding with a sparkling guitar line, one that shimmers in the light to make the song out to be a celebration of survival. Watching Charly Bliss absolutely shred the hell out of “Chatroom” to close out their live set remains the highlight of my year, despite seeing Carly Rae Jepsen perform “Cut to the Feeling” in the exact same venue a month earlier. It’s a demonstration of the band’s ability to create ecstatic joy and life-affirming hope out of trauma and suffering and remains the year’s greatest little piece of invincibility.
[10]

Kylo Nocom: I love how the chorus doubles as a neener-neener taunt to dickheads about their impermanence and an anthem for audiences to sing along to until they believe in it, repetition as both irritant and irresistible hook. The ethos of “Chatroom” wins me over: an empowerment anthem that seeks the source of pain and shuts it down completely.
[9]

Iain Mew: Even before fully understanding the subject it was clear that the ugliness of sound was intentional. The proportion of it doesn’t quite work for me, though — they try to bridge hooky thrill and catharsis in a way which I can see the potential power of, but end up somewhere in between the two that doesn’t fully work for either.
[5]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Something about Eva Hendricks’ voice doesn’t quite sit right with me; it reminds me of how adults change their voices when they sing to children. The vibe is supposed to be Grouplove/Walk the Moon-esque pop rock fun, but “Chatroom” veers a little too far into Disney Channel/Rebecca Black territory to be enjoyable. 
[2]

Nortey Dowuona: A sloping synth riff leads a hopping drum line, then pulls in a soft, woozy guitar and synthesises with Charly’s plaintive, folding voice. Coolly and wryly it brushes off the desperate men clinging to the edges of her voice, like flies on sugar water.
[6]

Alfred Soto: Chat rooms formed an essential crucible for my gay identity, and Charly Bliss nails the sense of triumph after the traps set for potential lovers suddenly spring. The euphoria of not committing, however — that’s what Eva Kendricks’ voice and the rush of the guitars simulate. As familiar to me as one of Jupiter’s moons. 
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: In which Charly Bliss leapfrog a generation; where on Guppy Eva Hendricks sounded eerily like Kay Hanley, here she sounds eerily like Jessie Malakouti in Shut Up Stella. Also in which the leapfrogging apparently took a lot of energy. No matter how cathartic “Chatroom” was to write, or how much it might be live, the recording sounds audibly drained — almost to the point of sophomore slump, but Young Enough has better.
[6]

Oliver Maier: Not my favourite from this year’s (brilliant) Young Enough — the octave-jumping bassline is a little sluggish and the melody from the middle eight of “Capacity” sounds better there than it does on “Chatroom”‘s whirring synth riff — but still brimming with the cathartic fervour that makes the album such a joy. In a song about the narratives that spring up around a relationship and its secret traumas, the gap between public and private truths, Hendricks chooses every word carefully, and sings like it. By the time the hook rolls around she’s hollering with fierce, gleeful abandon, but savouring every syllable.
[7]

Friday, December 6th, 2019

Kirk Franklin – Love Theory

But does praxis make perfect?


[Video][Website]
[6.75]

Thomas Inskeep: This piano-based gospel jam about God’s unconditional love hit me hard from the first listen and just gets better. Franklin serves a Puffy/Khaled-esque role here, chiming in with ad-libs while his choir does the heavy lifting, and it works a charm. The chorus of “I don’t wanna love nobody but you” drills down, especially as my personal faith has deepened over the past year. And Franklin leads the proceedings like a God-centered James Brown — not quite as funky as the Godfather, but not as far off as you might think, either. One of the year’s greatest singles, pure love and joy on record.
[10]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Lushly appointed and generous in its orchestration, the kind of worship music that focuses on the glory of it all. I’m indifferent to the theology — my own faith does not tend towards excess in its liturgy — but I can appreciate the work of bending the sound of Frankie Beverly and Maze so expertly into recognizing a deity worthy of love.
[7]

Iain Mew: All of the showy embellishments, the breaking down and building up, bring the feeling of constructing something impressive for persuasion too far to the front for me to really enjoy. It might also be that the rolling piano bit it starts off with is so rich and lovely that I would rather just be listening to that the whole time, though.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: A plush, warm organ slides over loping, fuzzy bass riding a smooth four-on-the-floor drum kit lifted by the fantastic croons of the choir, while dribbling synth programming swells, bursts and then hermetically shrinks inside a silky synth and heavy bass drum progression. The synths spread wide for a slinking bass guitar to shimmy in and throw the whole song into the atmosphere, which it then slowly falls from, landing on a small leaf.
[9]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A joyous, soulful embrace of “greater love,” made more charming by the decision to title this piece of worship music love “theory” — a word that simultaneously describes something that can’t be definitively proved, but should still be taken as fact anyways. 
[7]

Alex Clifton: Music that celebrates religion should, well, make you feel celebratory — that’s the issue I’ve long had with a lot of Christian rock, mostly because those artists never come across as feeling any kind of actual joy in their music. It can feel put-on at times, even when the sentiment is earnest. You can’t fake enthusiasm with a gospel choir, though. Listening to Kirk Franklin and his choir, even though this isn’t really my thing, puts a smile on my face and makes me want to dance. Much as I have my own thoughts on God, getting to the line “he won’t fail/that’s not what superheroes do” delivered with such gusto makes me want to believe in that moment, and that’s a miracle enough.
[5]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The verve here is sterile, but the choir does a lot to make things charming and spirited enough to prevent disgust. God-as-superhero, though, is an unsophisticated and incomplete comparison. The middle eight’s invocation of Matthew 10:39 — this notion of one’s “death,” the restructuring of life’s self-centering to God- and other-centering — isn’t a pursuit that’s inspired en masse by Marvel characters. Let God be God for Christ’s sake.
[5]

Kylo Nocom: Nothing is quite like remembering that love’s at the center of it all at the end of the day, even if the heavy lifting is done by the boogie synths.
[6]

Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Keiino – Spirit In the Sky

Gotta have a friend in Jukebox…


[Video]
[6.83]

David Moore: I am glad that, via Eurovision, the millennial Europop turn to jolly pirate choruses never left us, and I am downright giddy about those sublime thirty seconds of what I have been told is a JOIK BREAK, a phrase that is as good as the thing sounds. I was reminded of a more earnest but still pop treatment of Polish folk I heard this year — two’s a trend, so JOIK BREAK is officially as essential a 2019 music neologism as BORT-POP
[8]

Katie Gill: A memorable Eurovision song is an equal mix of “well-written, amazingly catchy, (preferably) pop song” and “a dose of the unexpected.” “Euphoria” had amazingly powerful vocals and Loreen’s crab dancing. “Satellite” had a cute, peppy love song, mixed with a bizarrely Cockney accent. “Hard Rock Hallelujah” is a well-crafted, legitimately rocking metal song with people in silly monster make-up. And “Spirit in the Sky” is a fun, catchy, dance-pop song that launches right into an amazingly well-done yet totally unexpected joik phrase in the chorus before plowing RIGHT INTO a joik bridge. It is peak Eurovision, managing to merge some catchy yet by-the-numbers pop with at least one moment of “what? HELL YEAH! what?!?”. And this is why the public is right and the judges are wrong and Keiino should have won this year, thank you for coming to my TED Talk.
[8]

Alex Clifton: It’s been seven months since Eurovision happened and yet my blood still boils that “Spirit In the Sky” was technically beaten by that terrible “Arcade” crap. This won the people’s vote, and with good reason–this isn’t just a perfect Eurovision song, it’s a perfect pop song, full stop. The best pop songs make your body crackle with an energy you didn’t even know you had. It’s something that starts in your feet, maybe just tapping your toes, but it works its way to your body until the chorus hits and your heart just soars. It’s an adrenaline rush, one that makes you lose all sense of where you are because the only thing that matters is the music. And then the joiking starts. I love it when Eurovision entries contain nods to their country’s cultural heritage–“1944” was a fine example of this with Jamila’s incorporation of a Crimean Tartar folk song–but sometimes they can come off as hokey or forced. The joiking in this song absolutely brings it to the next level, setting my body alight each time I hear it. When pop music makes you feel like you can fly about and do anything, you know you’ve hit the jackpot. The rest of Europe recognized this; it’s a shame that the new and convoluted Eurovision voting system cheated KEiiNO out of what should have been a much-deserved win. 
[10]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A potentially beside-the-point, but still serious question: why wasn’t “Spirit in the Sky” included in the Frozen 2 soundtrack? After watching the new movie–I’m an adult, I know, but I’m also directing a musical version of the original Frozen with my Chinese students this year, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the film franchise–my first reaction was to feel a little disappointed by the music, which while decent, didn’t live up to the original’s caliber. My second reaction was feeling pleasantly surprised by the fact that Disney actually worked with indigenous Sámi people in northern Europe to when writing the story. (Granted the plot goes something like this: a Disney princess uses her magic ice powers to pay reparations to a group of native people subjugated through environmental warfare.) But “Spirit in the Sky” is a song by an actual Norwegian-Sámi group which tackles of spirituality and environmentalism in real life. It literally includes the lines “I need a hero/I need my light/Her shining lightwaves will break way the night.” Sound familiar? In any case, on to the song itself; it’s a ridiculously fun, uplifting, bilingual European bosh anthem in the best way possible. I can see why it did so well at Eurovision.
[7]

Leonel Manzanares de la Rosa: The song’s strength resides in creating a great contrast between its voices. The traditional Sami singing feels not as a mere addition to give it an “exotic” character, but as an essential component that works perfectly with the main female and male vocalists. It’s a good song for the stage — in this case, the Eurovision stage, where I personally consider it one of the top 100 ESC songs of the decade –, but it still struggles as a single because uplifting EDM-pop is already a very tired trope. 
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: The midpack Eurovision formula of late: you still get to yearn and emote and try very hard for a verse or two, you still get to throw in your traditional folk interlude, as long as the chorus evokes pop that’s not-totally-venue-appropriately MOR. For “Spirit in the Sky,” it’s “Wolves” and “Brooklyn Girls.”
[4]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: A [6] or [7] during Eurovision, where I’m more forgiving of intriguing but shoehorned elements of traditional music. At any other time of the year, it doesn’t rise above mere curiosity.
[5]

Iain Mew: The philosophy dictating the song’s creation at every stage appears to have been “why not?” Outside of Eurovision and in a less intense competition for attention it eventually gets too much, but it does at least offer a compelling new direction in which to take the drop as a concept.
[6]

Alfred Soto: The timbre of the male voices annoys me, but it’s part of a listenable example of expert schlock, especially when Alexandra Rotan yells “I am dancing with the fairies now!” as if she saw me scowling at the laptop screen and had just the right thing to change my mind: syncing the percussion and bass like classic Eurodisco. This non-watcher of Eurovision mourns “Spirit in the Sky”‘s stopping at sixth place. If you wanna be mad at the Continent, President Trump, here’s a reason.
[6]

Edward Okulicz: The drop and the joik make the workaday Europop seem monentarily exhilirating, but alas, there are verses, so it can’t keep up the cheap thrills for its entire running length.These (hot) dorks looked like such dorks on the Eurovision stage, but it sure was better than the tired gloop the jury went for.
[6]

Vikram Joseph: For two minutes, this could be a Eurovision entry by any country, at any time in the last 20 years (but especially sometime in the early 00s, when it would have been a nailed-on pan-Europe EDM smash) – this, coupled with its status as “undeniably a bit of a bop”, makes it no surprise that it won the public vote this year. And then there’s the bridge, with striking, incantation-like vocals in the indigenous Sami style from the north of Norway, lending the song an otherworldly feel and elevating the final, towering chorus to something close to transcendence.
[8]

Scott Mildenhall: “Spirit in the Sky” crystallises the too often ignored fact that, particularly with anything involving public votes, precedents are not the be-all and end-all. Effectively, a song that thoroughly tanked with both viewers and juries — Saara Aalto’s no less ostentatious “Monsters” — was rebadged into a runaway viewer winner in the space of a year. Admittedly, the points of differentiation are clear. KEiiNO’s camp was a much giddier one, and where Aalto had destabilising drops, they had Fred. It’s an object lesson in audience appeal, and a reminder that light can shine through.
[8]

Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Sasami – Take Care

Today in Amnesty, we just wanna go back, back to 1999… or is it 2019?


[Video]
[6.67]

Nortey Dowuona: A gentle, sweeping coo by Sasami, blankets the sandy and nearly invisible guitar, thins, stuck on bass and flat, limp drums.
[5]

Alex Clifton: I saw Sasami open for Snail Mail earlier this year, and I was kind of terrified of her. She’s super-intense on stage and I felt my heart pounding during her entire set, so even though I wasn’t crazy about the music I certainly remembered her. “Take Care” is toned down and chill, but it ends up fading into a background of Generic Dreamy Women’s Indie Rock. I do wish she’d do more material like this, but having seen her give a very engaging show I’m less impressed with this.
[4]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Bathed in sunlit, warm guitar strums and weightless, angelic wooing, Sasami proves herself an effective Mitski disciple. 
[6]

Alfred Soto: With the buzzing, brooding po-facedness of good Mitski, “Take Care” has a sound or voice to catch the ear every bar: multi-tracked harmonies, rifflets, the care with which Sasami enunciates “fake explore the neighborhood.”
[6]

Iain Mew: The sighing background vocals are beautiful and set up the mood, one of distance and pushing through an emotional haze as thick as the musical one on the guitars. The alternating two-note hook at the end of each verse is stuck in place while moving, just like Sasami. “I don’t leave my house anymore/Except to fake explore the neighborhood” but maybe faking it to make it is okay, an imitation of life as a step back to life. There’s nothing so clear as a resolution or answer in “Take Care,” but the song makes it feel like that’s okay too.
[7]

Michael Hong: Underneath the lush, textured arrangements of Sasami’s tracks is her voice, that soft hum that imbues each track with a sort melancholic sadness. Her voice is a softly resigned murmur, accepting of the circumstances and unchanging, but on loose single “Take Care,” Sasami is no longer a wistful voice buried in the mix but fully embracing the forefront of the track. The hint of resignation is still on her voice, but Sasami sounds so clear that as the arrangement chips away, “I could take care of you” sounds like a gentle bout of confidence rather than poorly-timed wishful thinking.
[8]

Oliver Maier: “Take Care” heaves towards its climaxes and bursts at the seams. When Sasami’s voice explodes into angelic chorus a little past the two minute mark, you can hear her breathe in, and you can hear the vocal layers fray the edges of the recording. It’s a sighing daydream, but it’s not optimistic enough to shrug off banal reality; it’s gorgeous in a way that feels larger than its DIY trappings — crummy synthesizers and stiff drums — but still dependant on them. Sasami’s lyrics tread the line between genuine despair and comical pathos (“being alone is such a chore“) with a levity reflected in the arrangement, as when the lead guitar on the bridge seems to wail in mocking response to her vocals. (The video is equally sheepish: a dramatic series of close-up shots where she wrecks a car with a bat is interrupted by a sped-up bystander viewpoint that foregrounds the slapstick side). In a weaker song all of this self-consciousness would risk undermining the sincerity, but “Take Care” never loses its tenderness. Sasami’s murmur is shy and delicately poised, like a glass sculpture a breath away from toppling and shattering, and the cheeky touches in song and video alike only bring the earnestness at the centre into sharper, more affecting focus. Feeling like your world will literally fucking disintegrate if you don’t fall in love NOW is melodramatic but it’s also how one feels sometimes, and there’s some peace in acknowledging that it’s the silly, embarrassing way that we’re wired. I don’t get the sense that the song is really addressing a particular “you” as much as an anybody, grappling with the raw need rather than a specific subject (though I’m fond of the reading that the “you” in the final chorus is self-directed too). It’s a fantasy that rolls its eyes and embraces itself at the same time.
[10]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: “Take Care” exudes a ’90s slacker-sadness that’s paralyzing in its ambling pace. Circuitous guitar motifs, simple organ chords, multipart harmonies–their sluggishness constructs a suffocating, uncomfortable atmosphere. A quietly harrowing lyric cuts to the core of Sasami’s woes: “being alone is such a chore.” With every patiently-sung vocal melody, she forces herself to speak as a way to process emotions; you can sense the discomfort in her voice, the stuffiness of a young life still unfulfilled.
[8]

Katherine St Asaph: By the end of the decade it’s possible that every ’90s alternative singer-songwriter — even the ones that haven’t gotten the full #rememberthe90s press treatment — will have a counterpart in a currently hyped indie-rock act that sounds just like them. “Take Care,” in its crunchy-but-not-sharp guitar, loping pace, scratchy voice, and sadsack lyric, would take care of Mary Lou Lord, maybe early Lisa Germano or Big Sir. It’s a sector of music that’s both distinct and underrated — but one that I, personally, bounce off pretty often, wanting the arrangements to be tenser, more dynamic. “Take Care” is not an exception.
[6]

Thursday, December 5th, 2019

Leyla Blue – Silence

Next up, some less nihilist Blues…


[Video]
[5.73]

Natasha Genet Avery: Leyla Blue captures the many discomforts of unrequited lust with just a few precise images: zipping yourself into “jeans too tight,” traveling in the “drizzling rain” for a minute-long interaction that your crush will likely not even register, trying to quell your anxiety in the bathroom with lip gloss and a motivational speech in the mirror. “Silence” is a happy marriage of form and function, the swelling synths are an uneasy, blaring heartbeat, and the ascending melody of the bridge mirrors her mounting distress before bubbling over to the nervous, sharp exhales of the chorus. I’ve been there, and I feel you, girl.
[7]

Kylo Nocom: “Silence” hits on the same notes of relatability as Alessia Cara’s “Here” — compare “fake friends” to “the girl who’s always gossiping about her friends,” or “a song I hate” to “this music I don’t listen to” — but Leyla excises the condescension in favor of deeper introspection. Her internal monologue traps itself in a loop of aversion and infatuation, begging to be heard yet never spoken. But the clash between the “1950” beat and Leyla’s Maggie Rogers-esque belting sullies the message. Throughout the song she’s alternately overcrowded by production or vocally overworked, an effect akin to screaming into a pillow: something that ought to be an act of release, instead dampened by fluff.
[4]

Kayla Beardslee: “Silence” feels both unignorably loud and helplessly restrained. The production swoops and spins, chorus playing in enjoyable ways with, well, silence, and Blue switches effortlessly between crying out and crooning. The lyrics deserve attention too: I can overlook the awkward stretching of breathe into “braaathe” for vivid lines like “half drunk in the drizzling rain” (“drizzling” is such a luscious adjective) and “remix plays on cheap speakers / Of a song I hate,” a line tailor-made for grumpy music critics. For a debut single, this is impressively self-assured.
[8]

Alfred Soto: The arrangement hairpins with the fuck-this abandon of a newbie hoping this isn’t her only chance to impress, and, impressively, Leyla Blue’s swoops and shouts are up to them. But the arrangement is also so of-the-moment that I fear the record company people will turn her into another Billie Eilish clone.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: [INT. HELL, EXCEPT IT’S ACTUALLY A NYU SONGWRITING SHOWCASE]
FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULTY/FLAK: What a great voice she has!
FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULTY/FLAK: So unprocessed.
PRODUCER(S)(???) POM POM: [bubbles is silent, and somehow even more silent during the pitch-shifting.]
FAMILY/FRIEND: Has she ever thought about trying out for American I
FACULTY/FLAK: We don’t do that anymore.
[One of the HANDFUL OF PEOPLE PRESENT WHO ARE NEITHER FAMILY, FRIEND, FACULTY, NOR FLAK attempts to speak, but is cut off.]
FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULTY/FLAK: Isn’t she like really young, 19 or whatever? Like that Billie Eilish kid.
[A FLAK, upon hearing coveted mention of the onetime No. 1 artist in America, grabs their phone and immediately begins tapping out emails, during the song.]
FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULY/FLAK: So talented at that age.
FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULTY/FLAK: I love the part where she’s all, you know, you remember that part, 100% that badass bitch? So refreshingly honest.
[NON-FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULTY/FLAK opens their mouth again, but the sound is lost amid the growing mass of vibrato, smoggy and peanut-butter-thick.]
FAMILY/FRIEND/FACULTY/FLAK: So real.
[1]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The production tricks make “Silence” interesting, but only superficially. Its sparseness is a double-edged sword: it justifies every swelling synth and familiar vocal manipulation, but the song underneath the veneer is perceptibly thin.
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: Warming bass, flat drums, multi-tracked choirs and clipped snaps watch Leyla irritably put up with her ex’s corny nonsense.
[6]

Michael Hong: Leyla Blue plays with the drawn-out confession of a crush and the tantalizing silence spent waiting for a response, stretching both moments across an eternity. It’s yearning but cautious, obsessed with the more crushing possibility in the final line: “I don’t wanna hear you say you don’t want me too.”
[7]

Iain Mew: The cluttered arrangement and Leyla Blue’s intense commitment make me think of force-of-nature songs overwhelming by removing any space for resistance — mostly, of Natasha Bedingfield’s “These Words.” Pulling that off at a slower tempo is a hell of a challenge, though, and for every “remix plays on cheap speakers of a song I hate/teardrops in the bathroom” brilliantly amping up pathos, there’s a crack that lets out the pressure “Silence” was building. The biggest one is the way that the chorus lands on the word “too” like it’s a stunning twist when it conveys no new information, unbalancing the whole narrative. 
[5]

Oliver Maier: “Ultralight Beam” by way of Alessia Cara, even sharing her penchant for #relatable, self-conscious detail and party-averse constitution. There are some good lyrical touches here: how Blue unmasks her own, initially cringey “badass bitch” line as bravado, the siren simile unusually applied to a boy, the jeans line being smart enough that I can forgive that “breathe” doesn’t remotely rhyme with “rain” or “wait”. The song falls apart a bit, though, in the execution. The patient, minimal instrumental is clearly meant to evoke the silence, punctured with a wink by the (nauseating) gospel delivery on the hook, but this restraint is gradually abandoned, dulling the contrast. If the negative space is the point, then it’s counterproductive to belt and flex showy vocal runs all over it. Not that “Silence” would have to be totally barren to pull off the trick credibly, but the bombast obscures its potential.
[4]

Jackie Powell: At first, “Silence” seems like a paradox. Leyla Blue’s dynamics reach far beyond forte every time that layered chorus drops. But in a behind-the-scenes video about the recording sessions, producer Kellen Pomeranz said the first draft of the cut was called “self-inflicted pain,” and the final song symbolizes Leyla’s mission of as an artist: putting her pain into a positive place, or better yet, a more productive space. In the video, she called the developing track a song with a “Lorde-‘Royals’ R&B vibe,” but the difference between “Royals” and “Silence” is that “Silence” masters the dynamism. Its brilliance is in how loud its explosions are; Little’s catchy minimalist loops and transitions are bland in comparison. Screeches, “shhushes,” the do-do-do-ooo-duhs laced underneath each hook, and the voices — including that of the actual guy in question — make “Silence” resemble a ride on your favorite roller coaster. I say “favorite” because the lyrics reflect a common conundrum: a story where fear wins but mustn’t remain victorious. Anticipating and avoiding rejection is staying on the coaster, which leads to sickening results. Then Leyla administers tough love, serving as her kicker. Silence might be a choice that’s self-inflicted, but now we know that we aren’t alone in screaming in it.
[10]

Wednesday, December 4th, 2019

Bring Me the Horizon ft. Grimes – Nihilist Blues

Say what you want about the tenets of Roko’s basilisk, at least it’s an ethos…


[Video]
[5.78]

Will Adams: Amo gave a power surge to the beginning of my 2019 by providing me everything I want in a rock-goes-dance album, namely filling the void that Pendulum left at the start of the decade. “Nihilist Blues” is its peak: blustery trance-rock that refuses to let up across its five and a half minutes, working in half-time breakdowns, suspended-on-wire pre-choruses, moments where all the air is sucked out of the room, and finally, the culminating drop where Grimes brings everything together. Her presence is inspired, given that the track sounds like Art Angels at its most relentless. The lyrics’ nihilism would fall flat were the track not so bracing. It neatly mirrors the beginning of the decade, when apocalyptic music actually sounded like the apocalypse. Only thing now is that it’s real.
[9]

Iain Mew: Amo was one of 2019’s pleasant surprises, an energising album full of ambitious twists. Among its more brilliant and batshit moments, though, “Nihilist Blues” isn’t a highlight. Bring Me the Horizon meet Grimes in a middle ground that’s well on its way to just being her ground. It’s a cool place to be for a while, but they sound too polite or awed to give more than a soft reflection of her. 
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: Not the blackpilled tract I feared after reading a song title in 2019 containing “Nihilist Blues” and “ft. Grimes.” But once I was all set for this to this to turn into Covenant circa “Call the Ships to Port,” it instead turned into Imagine Dragons: worse, and also impossible to take seriously. Grimes, as far as I can tell, is only here to be human creepypasta, sing and/or be mixed at 25% of capacity, and add a half-time break from 2013.
[4]

Alfred Soto: The Grimes additions are as easy to spot as an ostrich on a highway: the manipulations of space, the murmured vocal promises, the sense that something mysterious no one has yet identified is visible on the horizon. She accomplished her mission: animating a track whose rock elements remain stolid. Speaking of missions, I credit her for getting the dudes to allude to “Katy on a Mission.”
[5]

Nortey Dowuona: A loping hyena bass chases meerkat synths in and out of a tunnel network filling with raindrop drums. Oliver sings alone in the water, pulling the meerkats onto a boat he builds from a slippery bass progression. The bass and guitar jab in and try to pull out Oliver and the meerkats, who cluster around him, frightened. Then an anthill of a bass drum breakdown lands on top of them, scattering the hyenas. Grimes climbs out of it, sending her ant armies to consume and devour the hyenas, who are shredded by the thunderous drum bites of the ants. Oliver and the meerkats make for the river while Grimes pursues. They pull out a guitar and some drums and send the entire ant army into the sun, while a furious Grimes pulls her stalk eye in frustration. 
[10]

Oliver Maier: Bring Me the Horizon shoot for the cheesy, dystopian “everything’s-fucked-so-might-as-well-boogie-about-it” catharsis of all good death disco, and nail it in spirit. You can instinctively balk at the aesthetic or try to meet it on its own terms. The sludgy bass and urgent synths are suitably atmospheric, and the blown-out rave drop is nothing if not the logical move. Where “Nihilist Blues” falls apart is in its admirable but kind of inexplicable ambition. It’s obvious that BMTH have underwritten, given the pointless, fidgety sounds on the verses and blockbuster drum fills on the pre-chorus, the latter a clumsy means to a climax. The vista should be stark, not cluttered, and the musical detour that announces Grimes’ vocal feature (itself delivered via peculiar croak, where her spooky soprano would be a better fit) exacerbates the issue, trading a focused four-to-the-floor kick for ugly syncopated drums and sending the whole track into a tailspin that it never really recovers from. If you don’t have enough ideas to fill five and a half minutes of song, maybe just make it shorter.
[3]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: It aims to be a stadium-sized epic and nothing more. The walls of sound and pounding beats have a hollowness that feel more lazy than poignant — I blame the title for making me think such empty-sounding racket could be hiding something meaningful. Grimes’s presence is appreciated, but the track’s outro makes one wish they were listening to “Venus Fly.”
[3]

David Moore: I finally googled I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness the other day, a band-as-sentence whose identity has been a disembodied phrase buzzing around the periphery of my mind for year. This band name is just like that, but I can’t tell if this is really what they sound like or if it’s Grimes I’m recognizing. So I doubt next time I will be able to ID them while listening — maybe they really sound like Dogs Die in Hot Cars? We Are Scientists? Surely not Pretty Girls Make Graves?
[5]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Hard to pin down. I’ve spent the week going back and forth on whether or not this is as cool as it sets out to be, or if it’s too pretentious for its own good; whether it needs to be two minutes longer, two minutes shorter, or is just right. Grimes plays it coy; Bring Me the Horizon are either deadly serious or just good at never breaking character. The fever dream backdrop pulses with adrenaline and emo dance music angst. If they pull it off just barely, I suppose that makes it all the more exciting. 
[7]

Wednesday, December 4th, 2019

Inna – Tu Manera

And who would show up next but Inna, scoring a full two points higher than past singles…


[Video]
[6.78]

Will Adams: Between Betta Lemme, Sofi Tukker and not one but two singles by Jaded, 2019 has been a watershed year for an emerging micro-genre of house that I am tentatively dubbing “obnoxious banger.” I thank Inna for adding to the conversation.
[7]

Kylo Nocom: “Tu Manera” is bratty and idiosyncratic like Tove Styrke once was, funky and mesmerizing in ways evocative of a more realized “Makeba,” and so confident that it couldn’t have been anything other than excellent.
[9]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: More interesting than pleasurable, “Tu Manera” features a sticky bassline that’s as much a source of lively energy as it is a suffocating boundary-setter. I want to dance, but it feels like the instrumentation is clamping down on my options. Thank God for the middle eight.
[4]

Nortey Dowuona: Hopping bongos, chants of HEY!, slithering bass, and whispering percussion surround Inna’s gleeful voc(HEY!)al. She slides along them then hops off to get some Arizona with a plastic cone cup of synths.
[7]

Alfred Soto: A helluva bass line — I thought of the way in which Merrill Garbus worked massed chants around a similar rhythmic elasticity. And Inna delivers a shade-calling worthy performance worthy of early Madonna.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: We totally did get a sequel to “Bad Liar”! From Inna of all people, but she’s no less plausible a benefactor than Selena Gomez was. Though I suspect “Tu Manera” is actually part of the blog-pop nostalgia wave, i.e., wants to be “Shut Up and Let Me Go.”
[6]

Kayla Beardslee: The shouts, the drawled lyrics, the bouncy bass, the sound effects — oh god, this is “Icy” by Itzy again, and I did not like “Icy.” I do find this take on aggressive cuteness more palatable: The introduction of new elements is controlled, rather than kitchen-sink. The minimalist production and repeated lyrics make “Tu Manera” feel a bit thin, but what’s here is enjoyable, in a squarely “good” kind of way.
[5]

Iain Mew: A good display of minimalism done right. Each element outside of the hook (even one as good as the clumpy bass) gets its moment and moves out of the way. Fun, delivered with efficiency. 
[7]

David Moore: I missed my calling as a music programmer for quality-leaning but nonetheless junky dramas that through whatever miracle get aired on network television. This one would be my go-to pick — also in ads for jeans, headphones, you name it — and it’s the kind of cheerful commercial consensus song whose failure to hit is perplexing, especially after what felt to me like a pretty concerted Spotify campaign to make it stick. But then I guess my Spotify is not really your Spotify, which is the whole point of Spotify — the world’s largest walled garden turned into a hedge maze. The song’s just-plain-goodness, paired with its utter commercial failure, is abstractly fascinating, as incandescent non-starters often are, and yet I can’t help even now in the twilight of its fizzle but to hear it as a smash, not only in my little world but in some larger one in which those network shows run, for those people who still have live access to network television and whose tastes are informed by jeans commercials (as are mine, let’s be clear). Anyway, the show this thing finally landed on was Grand Hotel, an American remake of a popular Spanish drama series that limped through its single season. I’m sure that one felt like a winner, too, but you never can tell with these things. 
[9]

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2019

Kitten – Memphis

Time to take a big sip of coffee and log into AOL (Amnesty On Line)…


[Video]
[6.82]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “Memphis” sounds like reminiscing about love on Sunday mornings, a cup of a tea in hand, your hair a mess, and your bed sheets warm but messy because you’re a “bedroom guy” or “bedroom girl.” The whole song is warm and familiar, like an audio recording of a weekend gone too fast. It’s the hyper-nostalgic conceit of “Cornelia Street,” mixed with the escapist conceit of “Run Away With Me,” sung by someone who clearly was an “Avril kid.” The bridge is where things really take off: lines like “we can choose a house on the hillside” or “I’ll be a loving mom” are clearly romantic comedy fodder, but too sweet to be cynical about. Why not indulge in fantasy every once in a while?
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: Generally I like Kitten more when they’re trying to be Metric than trying to be “Closer.” To be fair, “Memphis” is massively better-written, with a few good sardonic lines and a lot of subtext (and Chloe Chaidez has apparently also read that Max Martin interview where he talks about nicking from Prince the trick of making verses and chorus the same). The result is less Chainsmokers than Barenaked Ladies, less Alex Pall than Maria Mena, and I’m thrilled that nostalgia is starting to mine that ’00s pop-rock tract. Though I’m a little less thrilled to realize that a large chunk of the audience for this was born after “Complicated” came out, and well after those modem sounds were commonplace (let alone the Missile Command sample!).
[6]

Natasha Genet Avery: In a thorough pan of “Closer,” Katherine noted that The Chainsmokers let “place names stand in for realism and Blink-182 references stand in for emotional depth.” Memphis, like Tucson and Boulder before it, is nothing more than a euphonic non-coastal city, the “wooden fence” fails to avert the cliche of picket fence ennui, and Avril references and dial-up modem noises are an empty nostalgia play. +2 for Demolition Guy and Bedroom Girl, which I’ve claimed as my superhero and villain names, respectively.
[5]

Iain Mew: The sound-world of this is so well put together, making connections seem obvious. Chloe Chaidez starts off with diffident vocals and a nagging chiptune riff combined like Neon Indian, but then transform it by running that through an Avril kid’s version of pop-punk. It gives just the right amount of bite amid the whimsy. The dial-up modem noises as texture sum it up: otherworldly, abrasive and nostalgic for a very specific time and feeling.
[8]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Oh the crackled fuzz of dial-up: it’s the sound of one modem connecting with another, of new technology interfacing with older infrastructure. “Memphis” finds Chloe Chaidez engaging in the same sort of interactions: she talks of a “bedroom guy,” reflecting on their past and staying hopeful for bright futures. The way the sample blends in seamlessly with the rest of the instrumentation, suffusing it with a soft wistfulness that perks your ears up — it reflects how life can suddenly feel enormously different given the prospects of romance. Things may seem the same — hell, things may actually be the same — but a lover can make you reconsider so much. Soon, even the dullest moments of life — the ugliest of buzzing noise — contain a sliver of something charming.
[7]

Alfred Soto: It took a few listens to get past the surface charms until I realized the surface charms were the charms: a “West End Girls” moved across the Atlantic and deposited in a Tucson subdivision where dial-up modems provide an outlet to sounds cooler than the kids will ever know.
[6]

Nortey Dowuona: A thick slab of drums is dropped on top of a whirring synth patch with loping bass while shouting guitars are tangled in a mangled crash with whirring dial-up signals and spritzer synths, while Chloe Chaidez gently tells her beau to put her trust in her and never return to a place that holds a weight over them.
[7]

Kayla Beardslee: Chloe Chaidez’s vocals are so one-note that I’d expect the song to fall flat, but, thankfully it doesn’t. There’s still emotion in the softness of Chaidez’s voice, the glitching dial-up sample and the guitars crashing around the fringes of the song, all of which work to build a wistful, romantic mood… I think? The dramatic situation is hazy: is this about an ending relationship (“By this time next, you’ll be married,” “And you let go, you are perfect”), an ongoing one (“Let’s run away… We can choose a house on the hillside”), or something in between? And if the central romantic conceit of the track is unclear, how are we supposed to understand “And I/you/we’ll never go back to Memphis” — as bittersweet nostalgia, as happiness over maturing, as relief over a breakup, as general sadness? Ambiguity and multiple interpretations are fine, but the hook, as a guiding force behind the movement of a song, should have some clarity and strength to it, and I can’t find that narrative clarity in “Memphis.”
[6]

Will Adams: The scuzzed up track, dial-up noises and Avril nod are there for nostalgia, sure, but what makes it work is the song’s structure. The first two verse-choruses are near identical in lyrics and melody, with Chloe Chaidez’s reflections veering almost bitter. It’s not until the bridge when she drops her guard and turns toward an imagined future, and the swooning violin in the final chorus goes from cynical to sincere. “Memphis” yearns for comfort; its beauty is in realizing that it can be found not just in the past but in facing the present with someone you trust.
[7]

Vikram Joseph: I love everything about this — the unhurried, early-summer daydream of Chloe Chaidez’s gently syncopated stream-of-consciousness, the pitch-shifted dial-up modem samples, the serotonin-rush chorus. For the most part, I have no idea what Chaidez is singing about, but it feels unerringly like falling in love. Avril Lavigne gets a goofy shout-out, and “Memphis” would have not just nestled comfortably on Let Go but would probably have been the best song on it.
[9]

Alex Clifton: The dial-up tone sample distracts more than it adds, but it does evoke a sense of nostalgia. “I’m an Avril kid” does, too. It’s nice to end the 2010s with a song that reminds me of the early 2000s, mostly because as time marches on I become increasingly aware of how distant my younger self is to my current self. But there’s a part of me that lives eternally in 2003 with Avril Lavigne blaring on my stereo and endless dreams of what my future might hold, and this helps tie me to those memories so they never float away.
[7]