Friday, March 20th, 2020

Arca – @@@@@

The longest song we’ve ever covered on the Singles Jukebox – a masterclass in queer theory and theoretical physics…


[Video]
[8.00]
Leah Isobel: Before the pandemic shut down every club in the city, I’d started going out dancing by myself. It’s a self-care activity I’d been circling around for awhile, a ritual to force my mind to return to my body. When I’m dancing, I want music that keeps me moving; form matters less than continuance, and time doesn’t move in the same way. “@@@@@” carries some of that disregard for temporal structure, and not just because it’s a single that stretches over an hour. Arca presents it, at first, as a pirate radio broadcast, so she segues from one distinct idea to the next. But over the course of the piece, sections start to bleed into each other without as much space between – she changes its form both more frequently and more seamlessly, like she’s sculpting with primordial ooze. The music moves from punishing industrial to club music to piano balladry and back, over and over and over. The challenge she presents the listener is like the one I present myself when I’m dancing: can I stay present and responsive to each new dynamic shift? Can I make my body and mind a coherent, functional system? Now that I’m spending so much time alone, this challenge feels more important than before. Arca embeds an answer directly in the track: “you can shake that pussy, bitch.”
[9]

Oliver Maier: On the cover of “@@@@@”, Arca is draped over a crushed car. The wrecked vehicle suggests a gruesome accident, the freaky wiring suggests a calculated setup, Arca’s corpselike diva pose suggests both at once. It’s a solid visual metaphor for her music, split between manicured order and grinding chaos, as if any one of the movements (or “quantums”) which comprise “@@@@@” could tear a hole in reality if it were allowed to go on for too long unsupervised. They’re all jammed into the one track under a title implying continuous motion, signifiers unto signifiers, movement towards an uncertain destination; rather than linger on ideas, it spasms and recontorts itself, like a final boss entering a series of new, stronger phases. It’s overwhelming and more than a little exhausting, but “@@@@@” also comprises some of the strongest material she’s ever released. The emotional core developed over her self-titled album collapses back onto the freeform mania of her earlier work, and what emerges is Arca at her most cinematic. “Survivors” and “Amantes” warp in and out of focus like transmissions from a dying satellite. “Mujere” is surely the sound of intestines spilling out of a cyborg stomach. “Turner” is “BTSTU” in a blender. So grand is “@@@@@” that it seems to exert itself, burning through calories or fuel (or both) and churning out moments of brutal pathos: the weary trip-hop lurch of “Membrane”, or the way that “Gaita” ends with a crawl up a major scale that shatters before it can be resolved (even “Form”, the heavenly climax that follows, is a promise for the future rather than a conclusion). Not every moment is essential, and some will have already dismissed it as a glorified series of sketches, particularly with an album proper forthcoming. But in spite of its unwieldy size and shape, “@@@@@” succeeds through its commitment to its own Arca-ness; you meet it on its own terms and you reap the reward, which is to say, the privilege of hearing Alejandra Ghersi salvage scrap metal from another galaxy. Nearly a decade in and she’s been in flux the whole time. Chances are this isn’t even her final form.
[9]

Joshua Copperman: Like contemporary SOPHIE, Arca shifts between cacophony and pure beauty, but there are only rare moments of balance. Quantum (as these songs are called) “Pacifier” nails. Sometimes, the songs just alternate between chaos and order, like how 3D images flicker between the left and right eyes to give the image depth. (Even if they’re separate, ideally they merge together anyway.) I just wish I understood this more, particularly why it had to be a 62-minute track instead of a mixtape. These comparisons are amusingly different from Arca, but: On Spotify, They Might Be Giants’ opus Fingertips is separated into different tracks just like the proper CD, though there are still recurring motifs and enough in common between the songs to justify a single track. There’s just no unifying theme – even 45:33 is “running jams commissioned by Nike.” Maybe that’s the point. The Diddy laughs of “Recusion” were outright irritating, but the section right after at “Monstrua” is the best part of the whole single. If something isn’t working, it’s worth toughing out for the parts that do.
[7]

Joshua Lu: Described by Arca as a “transmission broadcasted into this world from a speculative fictional universe,” “@@@@@” is a body of work that defies contemporary categories. You could try to call it an album, with an adapted “tracklist” of 30 bits; you could call it a single to justify its inclusion on this website, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single that’s also over an hour long. You could compare it to those YouTube channels with 24/7 lofi hip-hop music, intended to be pleasant and firmly in the background of your life, because like those tracks, “@@@@@” is at times ambient and peaceful, not dissimilar to those white noise clips you’d play to help you fall asleep. Other times, though, it veers into more abrasive, disruptive, and pointlessly weird audio clips, actively fighting for your attention like an orchestral symphony intended to be your main source of entertainment. Words (not necessarily lyrics — they’re too fluid to be called them) sometimes flitter by, in English or Spanish, and further draw your intrigue, even when they’re too faint and distorted to be discernible. Categories be damned, though — it’s best to consider “@@@@@” a journey, if not into the kind of bizarre world that Arca envisions, then at least into the mind of a talented producer operating without regard for definitions.
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: “@@@@@” feels like the waves on a southern California beach in winter. It opens loud and disruptive, fake dj calls and glitch pops hitting like the crash on the sand, but quickly (relative to its length) switches to more subtly disconcerting moves. The trick is that Arca never lets you regain footing after the first blast– the cold water washes over you again and again, breaking you just as you thought you understood its logic. And yet it’s a baptism I’ll come back to time and time again, always hoping for a closure that will elude me. It’s the kind of song that can’t help but be a puzzle, but it’s a puzzle that I’ll always try to solve.
[9]

Nortey Dowuona: Lick me Dadd!
[10]

Alfred Soto: Yeah, no — I’m not reviewing an hour-long track. I’ll review at most ten minutes of tactically deployed squelches, synth drops, and vocals sampled from many a fever dream.
[5]

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Car Seat Headrest – Can’t Cool Me Down

Cool cool cool cool cool cool, several doubts, several doubts


[Video]
[4.75]

Alfred Soto: I’m not sure what’s happening here: are CSH testing the equipment? Keys? Check. Microphones plugged? Check. Are we in tune? Kinda.
[3]

Oliver Maier: “Can’t Cool Me Down”‘s effectiveness at any given moment is pretty much directly proportional to how layered the mix happens to be. It shimmers here and there, but falls flat every time Toledo opts for starkness, which is sadly very frequently. Is it intentional that a song about performance anxiety sounds so naked? Probably. Is it intentional that a song with this title exudes no heat? Probably, yeah. Does that make for a particularly good listen? Um.
[4]

Ian Mathers: There’s still something resonant here, just not much of a song per se. When CSH has worked for me in the past, it’s really worked, but it seems like that was a marriage of the emotional/lyrical stuff with a songwriting knack that seems temporarily (hopefully?) busy here.
[5]

Ryo Miyauchi: Will Toledo brings back so much of mid-00s indie rock that should’ve been left behind when that decade turned anew. The preppy dance beat is so plastic like a keyboard demo, and the cheapness of the music makes his awkward horniness come across even creepier.
[4]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: There’s nothing that’s exactly bad about “Can’t Cool Me Down,” but something feels off– the change of scenery from nervy guitar rock to washed out, broken synths works, but Will Toledo’s lyrics feel vague where they once burned with specificity. The hook still breaks through the haze, and the bursts of chopped up guitar at the songs end pairs well. Also the piano sound is really similar to the one on the new Lil Yachty, and I don’t know what to do with that.
[6]

Vikram Joseph: Part of the charm of Will Toledo’s distinctive muscial persona is the duality of his instincts towards both ironic detachment and deeply earnest expressions of feeling. His last release as Car Seat Headrest, the 2017 re-recording of Twin Fantasy, tended more towards the latter, but “Can’t Fool Me Down” never really lets its guard down. Toledo’s lean into electronics manifests as a low-key anxiety hum rather than fireworks, sounding at times like a dysthymic Talking Heads and devolving into fragmented ambience towards the end. Still, for the first truly new Car Seat Headrest material since 2016 it’s a muted statement. At least it offers us the chance to play “is Will Toledo talking about that one time he got high again, or something else?” once more.
[6]

Kylo Nocom: Ever since Car Seat Headrest transitioned from lo-fi bedroom-prog one-man-band to increasingly-obnoxious indie-prog group, I’ve been pretty concerned about where Will Toledo was going to take this project next. Their next album’s been branded as a complete artistic renaissance of Car Seat Headrest as a project, concerning given the recent trend of budding Vernons and Longstreths adding synths and Auto-Tune to tunes that otherwise would have been completely unremarkable. Thankfully, Will Toledo has more unique ideas with what to do with his new direction. Unfortunately, that new direction feels as skeletal as a Mario Paint song.
[4]

Tobi Tella: Despite the title, it doesn’t feel like it heats up for a while. Never unpleasant or not relatable, but I wish it grabbed my attention more.
[6]

Friday, March 20th, 2020

Anne-Marie – Birthday

Anne Marie is just going to bring us a birthday gift on our birthday to our birthday party on our birthday with a birthday gift. (It’s not actually our birthday)


[Video]
[3.50]
Katie Gill: Just because you’ve found a bunch of fun sound effects on your keyboard doesn’t mean that you have to use ALL of them during the verses.
[4]

Michael Hong: It’s bold, it’s brash, it has the energy of a funhouse covered in streamers and candles and blown up to double its size. That’s to say, “Birthday” could have been a hell of an event if it didn’t feel so self-serving and artificial, like you were attending the event of someone who only invited you because they knew you’d bring a good gift.
[2]

Alfred Soto: The enervated vocal and blah beats suggests self-congratulation at 2 a.m. when your friends have gone home but you’re still drunk.
[1]

Kayla Beardslee: One of those pop songs that exists in a strange vacuum of competency and pointlessness. Who is this for — who wants to hear a successful pop star lie about not being able to afford their rent? If you want to shout about yourself (which isn’t inherently bad: we all need self-esteem boosts now and then), at least do it over a less basic beat. And don’t constantly remind your ex that “I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you” when you’re the one who keeps unconvincingly referring back to the breakup (“I won’t cry about you anymore”; “Whatever I can do to get my mind off you”). I guess every year from now on has to begin with a posturingly pink anthem about mindless consumption. Maybe I hate this “7 Rings” aesthetic because it tries to have the best (eh… the most) of both worlds — the stereotypically feminine vs. the one-dimensionally bitchy and competitive — without ever looking for nuance. Women be bratty, amirite, but it’s fine because they’re sticking to their pretty pink gender norms and not threatening us. Although light-hearted tracks like “Birthday” aren’t required to comment on femininity/fame/other deeper concepts, the song is hollow and self-centered even when grading on a curve: stripped down, all that’s really there is a celebrity demanding money and attention, in a tone that’s not nearly joking enough.
[3]

Joshua Lu: At first glance, “Birthday” is a bold affirmation of Anne-Marie’s right to be young, stupid, and horny that I can’t believe Bebe Rexha didn’t cowrite. But there’s an underlying sadness to “Birthday” that makes these histrionic festivities feel forced, best exemplified by that contradictory statement of “Now I ain’t thinkin’ ’bout you.” The heartbreak she’s desperately fleeing gives her recklessness not justification, but purpose. Part of me wishes she left this aspect out — a party song doesn’t need tragic backstory, and isn’t necessarily stronger with one — but it makes sense; rarely is a party felt without some lingering sense of sorrow.
[5]

Kylo Nocom: A grotesque blend of SOPHIE sound design and more conventionally obnoxious trap-pop. Yet who doesn’t love causing some shit on their birthday? Anne-Marie has a fine addition to the annoying party-girl canon of pop, slotting in nicely as a substitute for Melanie Martinez’s “Pity Party” post-cancellation.
[7]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: There are so many specific choices being made here in the lyrics and the production (especially Anne-Marie’s vocal production) and I hate every single one of them. This sounds like a Target ad from hell.
[0]

Leah Isobel: [hits bong] Dude, birthdays are, like, liminal spaces… they’re concentrated 24-hour blasts of solemn reflection and consumeristic hedonism. It makes total sense that people start to hate them and wanna get drunk and make stupid decisions. It’s, like, who even enjoys their birthday in 2020? [coughs] Like, bro. Anne-Marie’s singing about feeling heartbroken on a day that’s supposed to be a celebration of her life. She’s fucking-…. she’s like, “I’m supposed to be happy but all I can think about are my dumb decisions and regrets! And I can’t even pay my rent!” Oh, sorry, I’m hogging this. [passes bong] But like… do you think she even pays rent? Like, I know popstars are people too and stuff but you’d think she, like, bought her own place by now or something. “Look at me, give me money” is a pretty direct summary of what it’s like to be a pop artist but in this context it feels more pandering than, like, honest. It’s like, yeah, we know birthdays are shit, but that doesn’t mean it feels good to listen to an adult basically have a tantrum on record, no matter how catchy it is. Can I see that again? [hits bong] What do you mean it’s just a pop song?
[6]

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

Phoebe Bridgers – Garden Song

And we managed not to write “tonic” or “balm”…


[Video]
[7.00]

Vikram Joseph: The deep, soft ache in the bones of every Phoebe Bridgers song feels that much more poignant right now. The muted flicker of “Garden Song” sounds like an underwater pool sequence in a film, and plays out like a fractured montage, a string of unconnected visions and recollections which form not a narrative but rather an oblique window into Bridgers’ psyche, a thousand stills coalescing into a single image capturing something devastatingly precise. The image of a movie screen turning into a tidal wave sticks with me, as does the strange, lovely line “The doctor put her hands over my liver / she told me my resentment’s getting smaller.” It ends by (probably inadvertently) echoing Billie Eilish — “I have everything I wanted” — in both cases, a line so loaded it weighs the song down like an anchor. It’s hard to think of a voice in music that moves me more right now.
[9]

Alfred Soto: It begins with a scratched, warped string loop. If we could see memories, they would also look scratched and warped. Gnomic lines (“The doctor put her hands over my liver/She told me my resentment’s getting smaller”) suit Phoebe Bridgers’ furtive approach. She sings as if she holds secrets close, which can be off-putting. 
[7]

Michael Hong: Throughout “Garden Song,” Phoebe Bridgers’ voice seems to shake with nervousness, like every thought is sung apprehensively in case someone might overhear. The rest of the track takes shape around her voice, like a calming wisp of smoke, but that shakiness reverberates across, never letting the track fully form and creating the unsettling feeling that it’ll blow over with the slightest draft.
[6]

Katherine St Asaph: I think I just need my folk music to have venom and spikes.
[5]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: “Garden Song” both succeeds on the virtue of and is held back by its skeletal nature. Its solo guitar and vocal arrangement (give or take a deep bass backing vocal) is less folky than ghostly, lending the whole song something the feeling of waking up from an afternoon nap in the sun, still dazed and incoherent but full of warmth. It’s an insubstantial feeling, but Bridgers handles it well.
[7]

David Sheffieck: Balancing halfway between unsettling and elegant, but teetering between the two; like a chaotic good take on an early Animal Collective track, this is beautiful even as it disorients. Bridgers starts out threatening to murder a skinhead and winds up in a meditation on aging and contentment; somewhere in between there’s a kind of transfixing peace.
[7]

Ian Mathers: It kind of surprises me each time “Garden Song” ends as soon as it does, because between the looped or almost-looped guitar (very soothing), the little bits and pops and crackles applied to it (somehow even more soothing) and how good Bridgers’ voice sounds over it, I could easily sit here for another ten or twenty or thirty minutes, just letting the narrative unspool. It’s the kind of song that briefly makes all other songs feel slightly awkward because they’re not just further unfurlings of this beautiful, melancholy thing.
[8]

Alex Clifton: It’s the musical equivalent of Lady Bird, which is to say it’s a beautiful collage of memories related to change and growing up and finding yourself, but I will cry if I think about it too much.
[7]

Thursday, March 19th, 2020

David Dunn – Yes and No

Mostly “no”, actually…


[Video]
[2.50]

Alfred Soto: Will you choose already? Damn.
[2]

Josh Langhoff: Christian music rests atop a cold irony. Despite celebrating the unfathomable work of an infinite deity, all that “canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook” stuff — the obvious answer being no, thou canst not, so stayst in thy lane — Christian hymns often sacrifice musical transcendence for utilitarian purpose. This goes back at least to practical hymn-writer Martin Luther. Hymns can be vessels of praise overwhelming sense and reason, but just as often they’re mnemonic devices for keeping God’s truths on the assembly’s brains when they’re going about their business. As the memory of Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Let Us Pray” regularly calls me to prayer, this passably catchy electrostim aims to remind positive, encouraging Christians how those prayers work. Spoiler: It’s not always the way you want! This is A+ theology, but at least Garth Brooks included a sermon illustration.
[3]

Kylo Nocom: “Make me more like You / Less like me,” he sings in a vocoded choir of himself. God’s plan has never sounded so self-loathing yet so self-righteous.
[0]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: Desiccated and insipid, “Yes and No” is exactly what I’d expect from a white guy with dreadlocks whose claim to fame is appearing on Season 2 of The Voice
[3]

Thomas Inskeep: Chainsmokers-core infiltrates CCM: CC(ED)M? I can see this becoming a popular praise & worship song at Millenial/Gen-Z-focused churches/youth services, but on its own it’s pretty limp. I suspect it would benefit from a more fleshed-out arrangement with a full band, because I like the lyrics fine, but the heavy EDM-ness and production let “Yes and No” down to the point where I have to say: no.
[4]

David Sheffieck: The production is the kind of middling synth-and-snare playlist-core that made me stop checking Spotify’s New Music Friday, all contrast and interest and personality stripped out in search of the median — in search of the most high-ranking placements as a palate cleanser between the A- and B-tier artists. But the joke’s on them, because as we face down a pandemic I’m finding a song about god’s ineffable plan pretty fucking abrasive.
[3]

Wednesday, March 18th, 2020

Jessie Ware – Spotlight

Well, we do like / Living under this “Spotlight”


[Video]
[7.88]

Scott Mildenhall: Jessie Ware borders on the miraculous. It is stupefying how often she has sounded so at one with her songs; even when they’re written by Ed Sheeran, her presence is assured and reassuring, quietly commanding. Here she is an extension of the rhythm, and the strings an extension of her longueur. It’s magic that this is her career, and magic that she can make a song out of posh chocolate ice cream.
[8]

Will Adams: The warmth Ware brings to dance tracks is unmatched. “Spotlight” continues that legacy, with strings draped like silk and a melody that recalls Sally Shapiro’s farewell song, a similarly yearning gem. The “single edit” makes me hopeful for a 12″ version that keeps the disco fantasy going for over ten minutes.
[8]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “Spotlight” is an immaculate study in unrequited longing and fantasy. It would slot perfectly in a playlist next to CRJ’s “Your Type” or Robyn’s “With Every Heartbeat,” but the predecessor the lyrics remind me most of is actually Katy B’s “I Wanna Be.” While the songs don’t sound too similar, both singers have a whisper-like, ethereal quality to their voices, and project strength even in their reserved dignity. But the comparison works more because the lyrics line up exactly: Jessie Ware’s “Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you, ‘cuz a dream is just a dream and I don’t wanna sleep tonight” is a perfect thematic twin to Katy B’s “You don’t know how good it is to dream of you, I take my time.” Both tracks are about love as a transient dream to be savoured, and the fantasy of our dreams being a place of light or dark. Luckily for Jessie, we loved the previous track, so I’m sure this one will get a lot of praise too.
[7]

Ian Mathers: I went and checked; sure enough, I gave the last couple Jessie Ware songs I blurbed here [7]s too. She might be my quintessential [7] artist, at least for one version of the score (none of the scores mean exactly the same thing in all cases, welcome to hell, idiot subjectivity, kind reader); the one where [7] means solidly excellent, wouldn’t turn away from the radio, fully capable of making me go “oh cool, I love Jessie Ware” when I hear it, but somehow not specifically enough to my taste enough that it becomes one of those songs or bands that are mine, you know?
[7]

Alfred Soto: The more assiduously she courts anonymity the stronger she sounds, but the beats could be faster or less designed to turn her into Annie Lennox with disco strings.
[6]

Michael Hong: Glasshouse painted foggy sketches of happiness as domesticity, shrouded not with mystery, but portrayed in a way where the details were unimportant. Here, it’s the reverse. The shape is more defined but clouded in whispered secrecy. “Spotlight” takes the form of its title — stare directly at Ware and you’ll be blinded by her radiance, but glance from one side and you’ll catch only its mystifying silhouette. Taken as a whole, it’s more sophisticated than earlier singles, creating tension with the crescent shape of her voice and not needing the previous trio of singles’ flash and bang.
[8]

Oliver Maier: Decadent disco that should make Mark Ronson green with envy, so exquisite-sounding that I feel like I need a platinum card just to hit replay. Ware is a pro at setting the mood with her velvety voice, but “Spotlight” represents a comprehensive level-up in her already-formidable songwriting. It wallows in the dark corners that Gloria Gaynor resolved to transcend (even sharing the ballad-into-bop bait-and-switch), using tragedy rather than triumph as its axis, though Ware’s yearning is so poised that I almost wish she would cut loose a little more. It’s not clear to me whether she’s a bona fide disco diva or just enchanted with the idea of cosplaying one; then again “Spotlight” seems to ask what the difference is at all, blurring the lines between reality and performance as moonlight and spotlight become interchangeable. Need I overthink it so much? It makes me want to dance on the table and swoon on the couch all at once, a vision of another sleepless night in a string of many that feel like the end of the world.
[9]

Pedro João Santos: A good song is like so, irrespective of any bonuses — but there should be a study on how music videos can enhance the auditory experience. Evidently, it works the audiovisual as a package; an extra medium/opportunity does further to monopolise your attention (music works hard, but the video works harder). But when the union is perfect, while the video mostly remains an opaque signifier for the music, the audio is affected for good. It’s recurrent in pop. Case in point: do you think of “We Found Love” and not relive that psychotropic mess of a relationship directed by Melina Matsoukas? I know “New Rules” wouldn’t have become half as much of a hit, but would we care about it expurgated from those images of choreographed sorority? Here’s Jessie Ware’s turn at confounding pop languages, with the disco partly via beauty, partly via foreshadowing of “Spotlight”. Call it orchestral Moroder + Ross for the 2020s: it’s “MacArthur Park” 2.0 in more than one way, but especially that falsetto-led intro, though the remake reverts to nocturnal bliss and the original boils to a speaking-in-tongues, devastating loss. It sets down a pathway (the visual goes for a hallway) where cryptic riffs meet slap bass, like hands in a darkroom — the chorus pops in like a trial, and all the other parts of the structure compete for the same vitality it’s afforded by nature; in other words, it drops hooks like dollar bills. When the second verse creeps in, the guitar has grown and strings are assumed in plain sight, and this amounts to its inherent visuality: a musical illustration of illumination, the night turning to day, daylight as a goal of dancing through the night. The video knows to play with lighting, never being too on the nose — and never afraid of digressing (the Serbian wedding dance!) — unlike the song, whose beauty belies the standard hodgepodge of nighttime infatuations. But who cares? When the middle-8 arises, with the “can’t keep” anaphor, it comes in like the suavest dark horse in musical history — and smoothly catapults the chorus to ecstasy. But the frisson is reserved for the very end: “Tell me when I’ll get more than a dream of you” floats like the resolution to the melody teased by strings in the bridge. It all comes out flowing: the spotlight only works in negation of the darkness.
[10]

Tuesday, March 17th, 2020

Joel Corry – Lonely

“The DJ revealed that it was his amazing director who came up with the concept, explaining that the subject is, ‘Very relevant… it’s about people who are basically obsessed with their smart phones and social media.'”


[Video]
[3.50]

Will Adams: You know what’s lonely? The feature credit slot! Songwriter and vocalist Harlee may not have much to speak of as far as solo music, but she deserves some shine for this, at least. If Joel Corry’s approach to house music is going to be as boring as ever, why not make some good of it?
[3]

Oliver Maier: Either Harlee didn’t care enough about this song to insist on a feature credit or Joel Corry thought it was noteworthy enough to hog all the glory for. Really hoping it’s the former!
[3]

Alfred Soto: I like nyah-nyah choruses and house keyboard lines, so why is “Lonely” so blah? Blame a flat-footed chorus whose single decent idea requires repetition.
[5]

Thomas Inskeep: Middling house-pop of the kind that the UK is churning out by the metric ton at the moment; maybe “Sorry” was better because it was a cover? And because its vocal wasn’t so shrill? Lightning didn’t strike twice.
[3]

Scott Mildenhall: The phantom effect continues unabated — here is Becky Hill without Becky Hill obtainable, and Sigala on an early draft. Credit to Joel Corry et al for coming up with an original follow-up (insofar as it’s more a cover of everything than the one song in particular); it’s held him in good stead, commercially at least. If they still made Clubland compilations, this would be close to track 1, and Ultrabeat would be spinning on their decks, if not yet in their graves.
[5]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: In 2014, this would have sounded passably generic; in 2020, it sounds downright archaic. 
[2]

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Harry Styles – Falling

Nine-point-eight metres per second per second…


[Video]
[5.29]

Alfred Soto: Every generation coming of age after 2007 gets the “Apologize” it deserves.
[3]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: A compelling experiment in whether I’ll like a Lewis Capaldi song any better if it’s mislabeled as a Harry Styles song.
[3]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: On its surface, “Falling” sounds like another banal Lewis Capaldi piano ballad du jour. But hiding underneath is a surprising amount of depth, reflection about regret, self-loathing, and harm that you’ve done to someone else. “What if I’m someone I don’t want around?” Harry asks, “What if I’m someone you won’t talk about?” The questions are never answered — they just linger uncomfortably, leaning into introspection rather than running away from it. It feels vulnerable and authentic, like something that could only belong to Harry Styles. 
[6]

Tobi Tella: Maybe overwrought and melodramatic, but it’s never less than honest. The brevity and simplicity of the lyrics helps it hurt more; “what if I’m someone I don’t want around?” is a pretty devastating statement of loathing rather than the generic sad platitudes that have become synonymous with the piano ballad. Stars: they self-hate just like us!
[7]

Alex Clifton: It’s simple, pretty, honest and earnest — also a bit overdone, but it’s nice to hear some self-reflection from Styles that, err, some former bandmates never tried to emulate. It’s also a dull single from Styles. “Adore You” deserved a much better follow up — although, to be fair, “Adore You” is peak-Fine Line perfection, so anything that came after would be weak in comparison.
[5]

Edward Okulicz: Oh, gimlet-eyed Harry, his shredding is earnest and delicious. He wears self-pity like a cloak, and it fits him like Lycra. He is lovely and he knows it. But then he wrote that chorus, which, apropos of the title, is as banal and clichéd as an Alicia Keys song (that means very). It is also very, very bad and the over-emoting is painful to listen to. I’m not sure why anyone would torpedo such a promising, on-brand ballad with such horrible impersonal gloop, but perhaps like his beloved watermelon, Harry Styles just doesn’t have much flavour taste.
[4]

Michael Hong: The world is aflame, and where do you seek refuge? The fast-paced pop-music that makes you feel like the world will end if the beat stops? The casual nihilism of Grimes? Or do you turn to the quiet solitude of Harry Styles, the kind of balladry specifically manufactured to tug at your heart? When faced with the reality that the only way to survive is social distancing, capital Pop music only feels like a temporary escape. And Grimes’ nihilism feels pointed, like a sarcastic joke that you were never part of. Instead, there’s some sort of consolation in “Falling,” a reminder that everyone else is going through the exact same quiet solitude, a disconnect with reality that can only be felt through the pain in Styles’s voice. The concept might be different, but the feeling’s the same. Styles doesn’t look for an escape but confronts it head-on. Each question hangs with a sort of lingering grace but the questions all have one thing in common in that they can’t really be answered. Like the best of these questions, the best approximation of an answer is an emotion, here, an intense gut-wrenching, sinking, loneliness that, paradoxically, reminds you that the feeling is shared between others. For me, the lack of an answer only adds to that comfort.
[9]

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Becky Hill ft. Shift K3Y – Better Off Without You

Future collaborators include Esc, Ctrl, and PgUp…


[Video]
[5.00]

Iain Mew: Becky Hill climbing out of a relationship and up into the heavens on steps made of “Likey” was good. I’m just not sure it was good enough to need it again less than a year later.
[6]

Scott Mildenhall: Like a woman who’s worn a baseball cap too tight for too long, Becky Hill has extricated herself from Sigala, yet seems to think he’s still there. Granted, Becky Hill on auxiliary autopilot is better than most — that’s why she’s enlisted for it so often — but it’s a shame that her first solo top 40 hit shows little of the individuality she’s capable of. From the title down, the irony is iron-plated — this pales into comparison with “Wish You Well”.
[6]

Alfred Soto: When the steel drum preset tinkles beneath the title hook, I swear it’s 2014. Becky Hill brings nothing except nostalgia for an era of Eurothump missed by no one.
[2]

Michael Hong: Becky Hill belongs to a specific group of British women singers: those bright soulful voices that choose producers who enjoy overshadowing them with bland drops that render their voices anonymous.
[4]

Thomas Inskeep: In the same ballpark as Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” a fine 2020 uptempo house-pop kiss-off (rooted, as all of ’em are, in “I Will Survive”) strongly sung. And Shift K3Y give this a great build to the chorus. Deserves to be as big a hit as Lipa’s smash, too.
[7]

Will Adams: The opening plucks and atmospheric pads evoke a nice, trance delicateness, eventually blown to bits by that same house wallop. It’s not bad, but it’s not innovative, and not helped by sounding way more cluttered than par.
[5]

Monday, March 16th, 2020

Dixie Chicks – Gaslighter

Well, we’re ready to make nice…


[Video]
[7.67]

Jessica Doyle: I made the mistake of reading some of the hell-hath-no-fury-like-Natalie-Maines-on-vocals early publicity, and ended up expecting something a lot less jaunty. If you played “Gaslighter” for a non-English speaker, I’m not sure they’d hear the angry breakup from the music and vocals alone. That stray “Look out you little–” heading into the chorus at 2:05 sounds downright affectionate. This makes for a less emotionally clean song, and the video feels like overcompensation (was the “Daisy” ad really necessary?). But it makes a certain sense. This isn’t a fictional story à la “Before He Cheats”; the Chicks chose to eschew the luxury of marinating in two-dimensional righteousness. Adrian Pasdar, as much as he will now forever be known as That Guy Who Did Something on Natalie Maines’s Boat, is also presumably tied up irrevocably with Maines’s two sons and a couple decades’ worth of her memories; she’s allowed to refrain from hating him straightforwardly. “Gaslighter” is less cathartic than it could have been — it might get bellowed into karaoke mics less often than it could have been — but truer.
[6]

Katie Gill: Someone please just tell me what Adrian Pasdar did! I suspect that part of my love of this song is sheer nostalgia. I adore the Dixie Chicks and I’m so happy to see them make a comeback now, even if I worry that, with the current state of country music, it won’t go anywhere. And I am here for the big divorce energy this single has. It’s wonderful to see that the Dixie Chicks can summon up the beautiful cathartic anger that made their last album, Taking the Long Way, so good even over ten years later. And that anger is matched with gorgeous harmonies (that, granted, are a little bit too hidden by the arrangement), a cathartic chorus, and a brief moment of wonderful vulnerability from Maines near the end. Top that off with one of the best lyrics in 2020 in “you’re sorry but where’s my apology” and, look, I just can’t wait for this dang album to come out already.
[8]

Alex Clifton: “Gaslighter, you broke me/You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” has rung in my ears for nearly two weeks. I wrote a boatload of bad poetry for years around that sentiment, and the Dixie Chicks sing ten words what I couldn’t do in a thousand, and I love them for it.
[10]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: “You’re sorry, but where’s my apology?” So many lines in “Gaslighter” speak truth to my experience of being emotionally and psychologically manipulated, but every time I hear this one in particular, several things happen. First, my blood starts to boil and race and I feel my hands get clammy. Then, I instinctively clench my teeth and get the urge to pump my fists in the air. Finally, I remind myself that if the Dixie Chicks can get through the past decades, I can too — and my anger dissipates like air from a balloon. That’s the argument the Dixie Chicks are making here: winning the argument means not letting anyone else’s actions consume your emotional state. 
[7]

Tobi Tella: “Repeating all of the mistakes of your father” cuts like a knife, the harmonies are tight, and the lightness of the production makes it clear that they can still do fun. If there’s any justice in this world, this would be a hit on country radio.
[7]

Michael Hong: “Gaslighter” is the Dixie Chicks’ first single in fourteen years, and by virtue of being that, is interwoven with each thread its own narrative: 1) the story of the Dixie Chicks — the rise, the fall, the good, the bad, all of it always culminating in the idea that the women had something to prove. 2) Jack Antonoff on writing and production, straying into bold country territory, furthering his influence in modern music. 3) The rampant use, and in some cases, overuse, of the term “gaslighting,” and how it’s already led to thinkpieces on whether or not Natalie Maines was actually gaslit. And finally, 4) the politicization of the Dixie Chicks, broadcasting the political as a mirror of the personal. All of these narratives matter, and yet, none are necessary to understand “Gaslighter.” The track is compact in all the right ways, with tight harmonies on top of fiddle and banjo arrangements and verses that pick up right where the chorus lets off. The Dixie Chicks package the gleeful realization of the truth into a chorus so jovial you can’t help but sing along. All that’s to say, even divorced from every narrative that you can throw at “Gaslighter,” “Gaslighter” still demands you turn the volume up when you hear it through your car stereo.
[7]

Alfred Soto: The inevitable emphasis on the dropped hook is purest Jack Antonoff, not Dixie Chicks, but the best of their tunes relied on outside help anyway. “Gaslighter” squeaks by on chutzpah, skill, and nostalgia from the silent minority of lib country listeners. But Antonoff’s infatuation with percussion gives the Chicks the gaslighting urgency necessary to sell the songs in Labelle, Lynchburg, and Mena. They’re still not ready to make nice — except with Taylor Swift’s producer’s platinum cred. 
[7]

Joshua Lu: Jack Antonoff is perhaps the last producer I’d expect or want to produce a Dixie Chicks comeback song, largely because his limited palette of plinky pianos and muted synths isn’t something I’d think I’d like to hear in country music. To Jack’s credit, though, “Gaslighter” is a veritable romp, even in spite of how unfulfilled some of the instruments are and how the chorus sounds like it’s coming from a couple of rooms over. The real charm, though, is in the lyrics, so full of the charm and wit that really signify that this is a Dixie Chicks song — “you know exactly what you did on my boat” alone makes the song a perfect addition to the sizable “My Partner Cheated on Me and Now I Must Destroy the World” section of the country music canon. Fourteen years might’ve been a long wait, but at least it was worth it. 
[8]

Jackie Powell: So while 2020 has absolutely been an abysmal year, here’s it’s one redeeming quality: it set up an absolute glorious return for the Dixie Chicks. Their new single “Gaslighter” comes in at the right place at the right time. So do we have Taylor Swift to thank for this? Is it fair to assume that their vocals on “Soon You’ll Get Better” (which might be the most beautiful song on Lover) were an introduction to Jack Antonoff? His signature drums on the second chorus and beyond provide the track with the train that will entice stans of Spacey Kacey Musgraves. A divorce anthem that is also reflexive to frustration with the world in 2020 is so on brand I want to cry. But tears of joy this time. The Dixie Chicks were some of the original victims of cancel culture. But really they were gaslit by their entire genre. Tomato-gate didn’t happen until 2015, but the sexism the Dixie Chicks faced preceded the incident. What’s fascinating about their return is they won’t be in this fight with their genre and the country music establishment alone. Since the Dixie Chicks’ hiatus, Musgraves, Maren Morris, The Highwomen and others have taken a spot on the no bullshit mantel next to the trio. It’s refreshing. In classic Natalie Maines fashion, she regrets nothing, calling the repercussions of “Not Ready to Make Nice” a “blessing.” But really, in 2020, we are the ones who are really truly blessed.
[8]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: “Gaslighter” is triumphant both in its specificity (“you know exactly what you did on my boat”!!!) and its broadness (the harmonies, Jack Antonoff’s shiny-as-hell production.) Despite that glory, though, “Gaslighter” feels a little empty at its core. It’s the rush of the breakup without the consideration of the fallout, the thrill without any crash.
[8]

Edward Okulicz: On first listen, this sounded too small, too restrained, too modest for its concept. These aren’t things that you would expect from the big ambitions and big voices of the Dixie Chicks. But when the chorus comes in a second time with the drumbeat, it works as a mantra for a protagonist no more ready to forgive than she is to forget. And, as if you needed to be told, their voices still sound gorgeous together.
[8]

Oliver Maier: A tumbling boulder of rage for a chorus and Jack Antonoff graciously refraining from turning “Gaslighter” into a big echoey 80s-inflected synth pop confection. “We moved to California and we followed your dreams” is such a great opening line for the verse, charging the events of the song with a mythological, Dust Bowl-era resonance and signalling the relationship’s disintegration before it even occurs, like something out of a Steinbeck novel. Maines rattles off each charge against her ex just vividly enough to get the raw emotional beats across, without fixating long enough to stall the song’s momentum. A relationship is cremated and catharsis is achieved; no need for an autopsy when there’s no ambiguity left.
[8]