Arcade Fire // Funeral (2004)

And thus, 21st century art-rock was solidified. Funeral is an interesting and emotional amalgam. It’s title stems from the untimely deaths of numerous family members that preceded it’s release. It was an instant modern classic, combining art-rock and baroque pop themes in an album wholly focused on the tedium and suffering of life in the current century. There’s a cloud hanging over Funeral and there always will be. It is at once euphoric and melancholy,  free of definable concept or conceit. An album born from death and illuminated by life.

Funeral begins what I like to describe as the “Power 3” of Arcade Fire listening (followed by 2010’s The Suburbs and 2013’s Reflektor). Win Butler, lead vocalist and songwriter, has his hands full with this one. Or rather, filled his own hands. People come and go throughout, but the themes remain air-tight, hellbent on finding some sort of answer to eternal questions. “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” is an operatic opening, flowing gently on and on, reaching it’s climax well after it was deserved. Butler chimes, “And if the snow buries my, my neighborhood/And if my parents are crying/Then I’ll dig a tunnel from my window to yours/Yeah, a tunnel from my window to yours.” Thus begins this ubiquitous theme of feeling both isolated and connected. This is continued in three more iterations of “Neighborhood,” which carry the bulk of the album’s first act. “Neighborhood #2 (Laika)” is an allegory unto itself, packed with symbolism I can’t quite define, and neither can most. “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)”—my personal favorite of the four—rides a strumming lead guitar and uplifting chimes, led by Butler’s aching, breathless voice. It’s a stadium song, one that refuses to halt and stop: “I went out into the night/I went out to pick a fight with anyone/Light a candle for the kids/Jesus Christ don’t keep it hid!” Those lyrics encompass a certain kind of white suburban sentiment, that things are kept hush-hush, unspoken of, quietly locked behind closed doors. “Neighborhood #4 (7 Kettles)” is the denouement, the musical reprieve of the first three movements. Strings balance gently with acoustic guitar, Butler’s distinct voice both whispered and piercing, the song moves along artfully, gracefully. He sings: “It’s not a lover I want no more/and it’s not heaven I’m pining for/but there’s some spirit I used to know/that’s been drowned out by the radio.” That last measure embodies these movements; one realizes Butler is not merely selling metaphors but in fact speaking about music itself, that too many musicians have in fact lost their idea of art and it’s intangible rewards.

The second half of the album is not as streamlined, but just as structured. “Crown of Love” demonstrates that while Funeral may be bleak, it is never without positivity. In fact, it exudes positivity; it burns slowly as bonfire and begs for you to dance to it’s sorrow. “Wake Up,” a song that would spend a decade destined for coming-of-age movie trailers, is brilliant, uplifting, and infectious. There’s something innocent about the song, with Butler singing “Now that I’m older/My heart’s colder/And I can see that it’s a lie” so honestly it hurts. The chorus is as simple as it gets, a successive series of Oh’s backed by an unrepentant battalion of guitar, cymbal-ping, and indistinguishable noise—a chorus so messy and free it actually feels like a relief, like youth itself. Then we wake. Near the end, “Wake Up” changes, living up to it’s promise. The reflective Oh’s are left behind in favor of short and sweet vocalizations sung under a bright, hopping piano line. Butler speaks (not sings) directly to us, proclaiming “You better look down below,” which can be interpreted as either a heads up or a wink-wink moment. It’s a fantastically economical use of time.

From it’s first guitar strums, “Haiti” sounds simple enough. Classic indie-rock masquerading as folk, a simple rhythm aided by drum and the occasional intrusion of some electronic, otherworldly element. That’s fine enough, as the first two minutes of the song play out as expected. Then we’re left without the lyrics. Régine Chassagne (multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and Win Butler’s wife) offers up a soft, unaffected voice which subsides and only sound remains, somewhere between a hum and a drone, little flares of sound sparking in and out. For a second, Chassagne inhales quickly as though she’s going to begin again, only to be cut off by the guitar. It’s amazing to listen to this song, recorded in 2003, with the full knowledge I have of the Haitian earthquake that devastated the country in 2010. The song speaks numbers to that context, that so much was said and then some. Sometimes it’s just as well if we close our own mouths, open our ears, and listen to others.

“Rebellion (Lies)” ignites from the tail-end of “Haiti,” a song so lyrically dense I struggle to find something insightful to say. Butler begins by toying with ideological profundity, stating “Sleeping is giving in/No matter what the time is.” It’s a headache of a metaphor, the meaning changing from person to person. The lies we tell ourselves continue, with Butler angrily growling “Come on hide your lovers/Underneath the covers,” which is either an immensely personal recollection from his past or a tried-and-true universal sentiment. Having experienced the rollercoaster that was the first eight songs, I’m inclined to side with the latter. Funeral is not without it’s melancholy, but there’s something joyous in not only knowing the truth but having the courage to speak it freely.

Arcade Fire is concerned more with art than music. This is my personal opinion of course. Listening to their music, their albums as a whole, it becomes evident that they view the two, art and music, as one in the same. Funeral is an elegy for the old you, the person you chose to leave behind when, say, you first experienced death. Or failure. Or when you felt the most alive, those conscious breaths you take upon waking. Or the first time sadness crept into your heart, and the invincible feeling when you fought it back, all bloody knuckles and unshed tears. This is a funeral for your old self. There is infinite joy in that.

 

Chris

Favorite Tracks: “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels),” “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” “Wake Up,” “Rebellion (Lies)”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Danny Brown // “When It Rain” (2016)

Never has Danny Brown’s frantic energy felt so cathartic. Old big goodbye to the old Danny Brown, whose best work was done when he was either sulking or violently high. The disjointed, unfocused “When It Rain” highlights the absolute best Brown has to offer, from the grimy electronica of the beat to lyrics that feel almost improvisational, off-the-cuff in the best way possible.

The song arrived coupled with one of the most hypnotic and crazy music videos in recent memory. The production is no less than incredible. Most obvious, I’m at a loss to find another rapper than can challenge Danny Brown’s lyrical flow. “When It Rain” capitalizes on even the most minute details, a revelation. It’s kind of crazy to behold.

Courtney Barnett // The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (2014)

There’s been a heavy trend in music this decade. Singer-songwriters really like to write about the mundane. Whether that be the sad nostalgia of Kurt Vile waking on a pretty day  or the glossary-like detail of Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek or Mac DeMarco’s sweet love of cheap cigarettes. Few artists can hit the nail on the head when it comes to turning the every day into something more. That makes Courtney Barnett a needle in a haystack. Her lyrics are stacked with wit, aided by her lackadaisical, deadpan delivery. She is a 21st century storyteller, sharing small details that in turn erupt into a much larger, more pertinent picture.

Courtney Barnett is very down-to-earth. The Aussie singer-songwriter’s lack of too much care makes her long-winded The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas stand out among a sea of otherwise boring, meaningless peas of alternative rock. She never pretends to walk wheels around you with her witty songwriting, though she very well could. Even her backing guitars have a lazy Sunday sort of vibe to them, highlighted in “History Eraser,” as they slog and struggle to coexist with Barnett’s rambling, cheeky delivery. The song begins, “I got drunk and fell asleep atop the sheets but luckily I left the heater on,” with Barnett stretching small syllables, giving her voice a disinterested, alt-punk attitude. Just a song later, on “David,” she bluntly proclaims “I don’t really like any of your friends, but it’s not that hard for me to pretend/Hard for me to pretend,” some of the few lyrics in a rhythmic 3-minute jam. Barnett relishes in those small moments where the music can speak for her. There’s no use in overwriting about everyday life when most hours of her day are spent in contemplative silence.

Barnett’s matter-of-fact delivery rings with sincerity. “Lance Jr.” begins with “I masturbated to the songs you wrote/Resuscitated all of my hopes/It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long/Much appreciated are your songs.”  Humor this authentic is hard to come by in stand-up comics, let alone singer-songwriters. Barnett is uninterested in the messiness that metaphors drag along with them, instead opting to strike for the heart of the music and the feeling therein. “Lance Jr.” rings along with a strange, grungy, Nirvana-esque plodding, uncomfortable and unsure as the lyrics it begins with. But Barnett never falters. The epic “Are You Looking After Yourself” finds Barnett drawling and contemplating, coyly asking “Are you eating? You sound so thin,” taking on the role of an overbearing parent. She then recoils, singing “I don’t know what I was drinking, I should get a dog.” The free spirit Barnett exemplifies gives The Double EP a bright, sunny disposition. The small scope of these songs place Barnett in the minimal category of songwriters who are able to flip mundanity to profundity.

I’d be remiss to speak about this EP without mentioning it’s best song, “Avant Gardener.” This is an alternative song that works on so many layers. Beginning simply with drums, then dropping off into a hazy world of aimless guitar screeches and stoned rambling; Barnett describes the day: “I sleep in late/Another day/Oh what a wonder/Oh what a waste./It’s a Monday/It’s so mundane/What exciting things/Will happen today?” In her sleepy crooning, Barnett describes the mundane Monday she experiences, full of cutely small revelations, rhyming “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing/Feel like I’m emphysemin’/My throat feels like a funnel/Filled with weet bix and kerosene and—.” But there is profundity within these lines, a brash intelligence and wit Barnett tries so hard to undermine—or at least make you think she’s undermining.  The chorus following the second verse rings out, “Anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic/Should’ve stayed in bed today/I much prefer the mundane./I take a hit from/An asthma puffer/I do it wrong/I was never good at smoking bongs/ I’m not that good at breathin’ in.”

For all her lazy ramblings and sunny disposition, Courtney Barnett deserves to do a little breathing in. The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas sees Barnett at her most immediate, with songs full of humor and aimlessness, uncaring and unflinching. Barnett has said of her songwriting “But, you know, those small moments, if you paint them properly, they can represent this beautiful moment, or whatever it was that made you stop and consider it for a second.” Courtney Barnett manages to capture those small moments where life meets circumstances, transforming a minuscule moments into something larger, and even yet, more personal.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Avant Gardener,” “History Eraser,” “Lance Jr.,” “Are You Looking After Yourself”

 

Tyler, the Creator // Goblin (2011)

Tyler Okonma hates his own music. He says as much in Goblin‘s closer “Golden,” referencing his debut mixtape: “Mom works hard, still working on her Master’s/Son lies about, taking classes at community college/Just to record some bullshit he calls Bastard.” He doesn’t like rapping. His lyrics are so foul and divisive that entire countries have backlashed. It’s also important to note that the young man who dubbed himself Tyler, the Creator was 19-years old when Goblin was recorded. It is a record populated by hyper-violence, a loosely structured rambling of anarchy and depravity. It is immaturity incarnate, a young provocateur finding his style and testing his limits. It is also utterly, unquestionably original, sometimes to a fault.

A loose concept surrounds Goblin. Tyler spends certain tracks talking to his “therapist,” Dr. TC, an extension of the outsider theme that dominated Bastard. This is a record of frustrated youth. In the eponymous opening track, Tyler somberly raps “I wish Thebe was here,” Thebe being his good friend and Odd Future bandmate Earl Sweatshirt, who famously spent a few years in a boy’s reform school in Samoa. This confessional style says a lot about Tyler, that he has to build an entire concept around speaking to a therapist in order to actually rap about how he feels. And that’s right about where the sentiment ends. The rest of Goblin is an unapologetic burning of hip-hop themes. Following the opener, we have “Yonkers,” which, along with it’s demented music video, launched Tyler to semi-mainstream success. This is a 1000-level class introduction to Tyler’s infinite strangeness. He raps, “Green paper, gold teeth, and pregnant gold retrievers all I want/Fuck money, diamonds, and bitches, don’t need ’em,” with grovelled snark, daring you to make fun of his ridiculous bars. “Yonkers” has become the poster song for Tyler, it’s mix of dark narcissism and out-of-nowhere rhyme schemes. Oh, and that beat was all a joke anyway.

These first two tracks on Goblin set a high bar for the rest of album, one it occasionally fails to live up to. “Radicals” is a rambling mess, with a cheeky, light-hearted chorus that chants “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” It’s bleak, awkward moments like this that make Tyler’s second album nearly inaccessible to those not already bought into the Odd Future motto. It’s also one of the most important tonal moments in the entire album. Where “Radicals” isolates, the stalker tone of “She”—featuring an ever-listenable Frank Ocean—packs a production punch. The beat skids and sings, lightened the grim subject matter and giving an altogether youthful, free air to the song. This song introduces us to an inescapable truth: Tyler, the Creator is an amazing producer that fronts as a rapper. This is part of the reason why it’s almost impossible to tell when Tyler is being serious. On one hand, Tyler often sounds so ridiculous one wonders whether he’s performing some highwire satire act for comedy effect. On the other, certain disturbing lines are delivered with such earnestness they can’t be anything other than serious, right? Goblin is an isolating record. Upon one’s first listen, I would struggle to say one would want to listen again anytime soon. It’s bleak to the extreme, uncomfortable and awkward and populated with terrible, violent imagery.

It’s a struggle to properly pin down Goblin. It’s the work of a young artist, one struggling to find exactly what he’s supposed to say and the usefulness of his voice. But Tyler’s at his best when he sounds the craziest. Tracks like “Tron Cat” exemplify the manic energy Tyler is capable of exerting. Where most of Goblin feels like a slog, “Tron Cat” establishes Tyler not as only a competent producer, but a rapper capable of building lyrical layers onto his music in the right circumstances: “You niggas rap about fucking bitches and getting head/Instead I rap about fucking bitches and getting heads/While you niggas stacking bread, I could stack a couple dead/Bodies, making red look less of a color more of a hobby.” Tyler’s ultimate power as an artist is his ability to make you cringe. There is no rapper better at delivering a gut-wrenching line about rape or murder or whatever other atrocity comes to mind than Tyler, the Creator. That is not to say this is a positive, only a point of emphasis.

One mid-album line sticks out to me, the end of “Sandwitches.” It makes me both reel back and feel for Tyler all in the same: “And we don’t fucking make horror-core, you fucking idiots/Listen deeper than the music before you put it in a box.” Tyler, the Creator’s second album is for him. I’m fully convinced that Tyler produced and recorded Goblin with him and only him in mind, which would explain it’s inaccessibility. If there’s anything to take away from Goblin, it’s that Tyler is a supremely talented producer with a dark, rambling mind—a talented isolationist searching for exactly what music he wants to make.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Yonkers,” “She,” “Tron Cat”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sufjan Stevens // Illinois (2005)

Subtlety has never interested Sufjan Stevens. Illinois is no exception—take a peek at that cover art. The one that looks like it’s made with clip art. And that gushing album title? Sufjan Stevens Invites You To: Come On Feel the Illinoise. Illinoise? Really? Is he serious? Oh he’s serious all right, and he’s about to explain to you why Illinois is the single greatest state to ever exist in any nation in world history. The second album in Stevens’ slightly ambitious “50 States Project” (which was bunk from the start) sees the electronica of Enjoy Your Rabbit and the lo-fi Christian folk of Seven Swans dissipate. What remains is a remarkably beautiful hot mess—one of the most amicable, symphonic, and gorgeous indie records of the decade.

Building on musical themes from his previous album, Michigan, Sufjan goes all-in, employing a ubiquitous orchestra and backing choir, which gives Illinois a musical scope and diversity as massive as the state itself. What’s so fascinating about Sufjan’s music is it’s sense of form, or lack thereof. Some sounds are conventional; in other instances, particularly in his use of time signatures, compositions can be frustratingly complex. Another key separating factor is the minute attention to detail in the lyrics. “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” a haunting ballad of Illinois’ most famous serial killer, sprinkles small details of Gacy’s life and crimes that in turn connect to the bigger picture. Sufjan chimes “When the swingset hit his head,” an actual instance in Gacy’s childhood that caused a blood clot in his brain. This personal fact segues into the macabre, with Stevens’ exclaiming “He dressed up like a clown for them/With his face paint white and red,” in reference to Gacy’s dubbing as the “Killer Clown,” and “He put a cloth on their lips, quiet hands, quiet kiss on the mouth,” calling to Gacy’s use of chloroform to subdue, molest, and kill his victims. It’s a shocking, intimate piece of songwriting, especially concerning the songs final lines, where Stevens turns the focus inward: “And in my best behavior/I am really just like him/Look beneath the floor boards/For the secrets I have hid.” This full-circle implication that everyone is capable of horrific strings of violence—that the only thing separating us from Gacy is our individual actions—is basically Songwriting 101 for any aspiring musician.

But Illinois is not all gloom and doom; in fact, Stevens takes a holistic approach to these songs, touching on all walks of life and locale within the state. Numerous cities get direct references (Jacksonville, Evansville, Peoria, Caledonia, Kankakee, Decatur) as well as famous historical figures in Illinois history (Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, Casimir Pulaski). Stevens even goes so far as to include a song about Superman, “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” because the fictional city of Metropolis is largely based on the city of Chicago. There’s a sweet ode to his stepmother, “Decatur, or Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!” which describes a trip Sufjan and his brother took with their stepmother to Decatur. It begins with the childlike innocence of “Our stepmom, we did everything to hate her.” The feelings Sufjan is able to invoke in these songs feel at once both small and universal, and all are delivered without a hint of irony or pretentiousness.

Musically, Illinois is largely a communal effort. Few songs break this pattern. “Chicago” is a fabulous example, generously employing strings, drums, keyboard, horns, and a backing choir. Sufjan uses Chicago as an allegory for his (or someone’s) constant reinvention: he is a man who loves, falls, and loves again: “I fell in love again/All things go, all things go/Drove to Chicago/All things know, all things know.” In those lyric lie infinite optimism, assisted by a perfect build and release. There’s a newness to the horns every time they appear, acting almost as a secondary chorus that propels the song, and the feeling, forward. “Chicago” is a beautiful tribute to mistakes, both large and small, and a reminder that we can always drop it and walk away, that we are capable of changing for the better. A different sort of optimism is expressed in “The Man of Metropolis Steals Our Hearts,” expounding on Sufjan’s belief in the inherent goodness of humanity: “Only a real man can be a lover/If he had hands to lend us all over/We celebrate our sense of each other/We have a lot to give one another.” The lyrics ring with sentimentality, but Sufjan’s distinct earnestness and skill as a songwriter elevate the song. Once again, Sufjan deploys horns, thrusting drums and loud, messy electric guitars. The song fades away in contemplation before being revitalized by the chorus. There is significance in that musical choice; nothing ever dies in Illinois, the feeling simply subsides for the moment, eagerly awaiting it’s inevitable return.

The excellent “The Predatory Wasp of The Palisades Is Out To Get Us” is both truth and embellishment. Sufjan explains “North of Sylvana we swim in the Palisades,” which is fiction, as the true-life story Sufjan tells took place in his home state of Michigan, not Illinois. But the heart of the song follows in the next stanza: “Oh how I meant to tease him/Oh how I meant no harm/Touching his back with my hand I kiss him/I see the wasp on the length of my arm.” The horns follow, lopping lower and lower as confusion and sadness settles in. There’s an innocence to Sufjan’s confession, as though he confused the intensity of boyhood friendship for unrequited love—but not once does he shy away from these feelings. In fact, he never shies away from any feeling. The song blasts it’s way back, the chorus beckoning “Oh great sights upon this state! Hallelu-,” with Sufjan underneath, “We were in love. We were in love./Palisades! Palisades!/I can wait. I can wait. ” The candidness with which Stevens’ expresses passionate feelings is what makes Illinois such a deeply affecting album; people and places come and go, but the feeling always remains, and feelings are no good if we refuse to acknowledge them.

Illinois is a special concept album. It’s unlike any other indie rock record I’ve ever listened to. The stories are by turns small and intimate, large and urgent, historical and contemplative. There is life, death, love, and passion within those lines, and the sense that, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, whatever life we’ve lived up to this point, there is some one and some place in this world that will accept us as we are.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “John Wayne Gacy Jr.,” “Chicago,” “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “The Man of Metropolis…,” “The Predatory Wasp…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Danny Brown // XXX (2011)

xxx

Danny Brown is a singularity. I’m also pretty sure he’s insane. I’m not kidding when I say I’ve never heard a rapper quite like him. This is a man who relishes in his own depravity, his music acting as expositional therapy sessions detailing a pretty serious pill problem, a particularly dark sexual appetite, and the inner-workings of a frantic, manically creative mind. Something interesting preceded XXX. On March 16th, 2011, Danny Brown turned 30. Danny had some questioning to do, certainly—30-years old is a landmark for anyone. But there was one question that kept nagging and nagging and nagging. What happens when a gangster rapper turns 30? Danny Brown wasn’t sure of the answer, so he created his own: They act out.

XXX is technically a mixtape (whatever the hell mixtape means anymore). 22-tracks clock in at just over an hour. The songs move at a rapid clip, coming and going as quickly as the squeal of Brown’s voice, all strangled yaps and yells. For as fast as XXX‘s tracks flip from one to the next, most of the beats sound like they’re stuck in sludge. A grimy-electro vibe dominates the soundscape, highlighted in tracks such as “Die Like A Rockstar,” which sounds like someone spilled maple syrup on a Daft Punk track. Brown apathetically exclaims “I got that Kurt Cobain kind of mind,” then proceeds to reference Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jimi Hendrix, Anna-Nicole Smith, River Phoenix, Heath Ledger, Brittany Murphy—scores and scores of celebrities whose lives were lost to drug addiction. Drugs populate Brown’s universe, both that of his music and his reality. There’s something to be said about this sort of candidness, as though Brown gets a kick out of making you uncomfortable by shoving these brutal truths in your face and not allowing you to turn away. In the track that follows, “Pac Blood,” Brown squawks in the quasi-chorus “Rhymes that make the Pope wanna get his dick sucked/Had Virgin Mary doing lines in the pick-up/Make Sarah Palin deepthroat till she hiccup.” Ladies and gentlemen, you are not in Kansas anymore. Welcome to Danny’s world.

And what a fascinating world it is. Brown has a unique way of starkly contrasting songs that play one after the other. The tongue-in-cheek “Adderall Admiral” (guess what that’s about) is followed by “DNA,” a song whose chorus rings “It’s in my D-N-A/’cause my fam likes to get fucked up the same way.” Both songs are delivered with the same degree of frankness, delivered as casually as a fact in a high school research paper. The next track, “Nosebleeds,” sees Brown chasing a darker vein, describing a woman’s cocaine addiction with the intimate knowledge only a fellow addict could impart. It’s an amazing artistic choice, this juxtaposition of jokey metaphor with the cruelty of addiction. But perhaps it isn’t a choice at all. Brown speaks with alarming directness, a means of communication that cuts through bullshit and gets to the point. It’s just who he is, unapologetically blunt. That’s not to say Brown’s songs can’t be layered and complex (quite the opposite), simply that he knows what he wants to say and he’s going to find a creative and easy way to say it.

The latter half of XXX sees Brown work out some demons. His family scraps metal for cash in a song which bastardizes Jeezy’s iconic “Trap Or Die” chorus (“Scrap Or Die”) and imitates the Motown sound of his hometown Detroit while taking an east-side/west-side roll call (“EWNESW”). Of all XXX‘s second-half gems, “30” is the culmination of the mixtape, both in theme and in spirit. No bar is squandered. Brown starts by boasting, “Sent ya bitch a dick pic and now she need glasses.” What follows are Brown’s hopes and fears, obstacles he’s faced and dreams for his future. “30” sees Brown at his most passionate, aggressively yelling lines like “Bitch I’m still up in this bitch” and “But I always tell myself that it’s gonna get better/You know who you is, you the greatest rapper ever.” He isn’t bragging—he’s encouraging. Danny Brown has lived many lives in his 30-years, and as he describes, “The thought of no success got a nigga chasing death/Doing all these drugs in hopes of OD’ing next, Triple X.” Brown, for all his panicked chirping and wrenching metaphors and penchant for violent imagery, craves success more than he craves life itself. He has to succeed—otherwise, what’s the point?

One line in “30” hits me harder than anything else on XXX: “I never learned to rap, always knew how/Ever since a nigga 8, knew what I would do now.” I don’t think there’s any intended reference to Danny Brown’s particularly rough childhood in Detroit or some other starry metaphor about life, no. I think it’s Danny Brown once again speaking his mind. This is what he’s known his whole life and he refuses to turn away from it. He’s going to describe every microbe to you, every tiny, ugly detail. And damn if anyone thinks they’re gonna change that.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “XXX,” “Die Like A Rockstar,” “Lie4,” “Monopoly,” “DNA,” “30”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Antlers // Hospice (2009)

The story is not unfamiliar. Young, male, Caucasian singer-songwriter secludes himself for months on end with the intention of suffering for his art. I suppose the idea is that seclusion breeds intimacy in certain forms of artistic expression, and there’s something admirable about a one-man-band approach, particularly in rock and alternative music. This may or may not have been the motivation of Peter Silberman, lead vocalist and songwriter of The Antlers, and for a few years, the band’s sole member. When Silberman finally settled on a concept, he found he needed assistance with additional instrumentation. He found it in Darby Cicci (bass, keyboard) and Michael Lerner (drums), and the two have stuck on to this day. But you’ve heard all of this before, right? These tropes are tried and true. Hell, Dave Grohl recorded the first Foo Fighters album all by his lonesome and that went much, much better than expected. What gives? When does a method of songwriting stop being inventive and start to become a gimmick? Enter Hospice, a brash, immediate, and painfully personal record about death and life, struggle and reprieve, and just about every human emotion contained therein.

Following one’s first listen, one might be surprised to find Hospice is a work of fiction. Silberman crafts an incredibly small universe with his lyrics and the music seems to react to his storytelling. The story describes a relationship between a male hospice worker and a female patient with terminal bone cancer. Throughout the course of her treatment, the two fall in love, and soon must confront the reality of their relationship and it’s inevitable end. Silberman has described the album as being about an emotionally abusive relationship and the depression that followed. The fiction Silberman crafts in his songwriting reflects his life experience in that the end is an inevitability. Sure, the knowledge of that inevitability can be buried or drawn-out as long as possible, but it will not continue forever. The issue will keep showing it’s face; eventually, something has to give.

Hospice opens with “Prologue,” providing us with a sonic introduction to the album. “Prologue” starts at barely a whisper, building to a very quick crescendo. The music seems to roam about, not quite sure where to settle; long stretches of rambling sound are broken only by somber piano chords and Silberman’s voice, which seems to echo in from somewhere far off. This is a record that uses Silberman’s light, sweet vocalizations as it’s own instrument, adding texture to each song. The aimless sound of “Prologue” diminishes, leading right into “Kettering,” the true beginning of the story. The album’s first words are delivered with a hesitant delicacy: “I wish that I had known in that first minute we met/The unpayable debt that I owed you.” Halfway through, the song erupts, all drums and loud grinding guitars and distant, impersonal vocals. Hospice functions less like a storybook and more like a film—emotions play out in flashes of unhinged sound, rising and falling and crashing together. The songs here feel both carefully controlled and somewhat improvisational. It forces one to be an active listener, something few albums have the ability to do.

It’s almost impossible to properly describe the anguish of Hospice. It’s what makes the album so affecting, this constant sense of dread and reflect, dread and reflect, repeat. No song better captures this helplessness than “Atrophy.” At nearly eight minutes long, the lyrics are spare and careful, with Silberman describing the inherent trouble of maintaining a healthy relationship when one individual is confined to a hospital bed: “I’ve been living in bed because now you tell me to sleep/I’ve been hiding my voice and my face and you decide when I eat/In your dreams I’m a criminal, horrible, sleeping around/While you’re awake, I’m impossible, constantly letting you down.” The melody of the song fades at the halfway point, overtaken by a rhythmic buzzing and chirping that collapses into a drone. The drone melts into the peaceful sound of wind-chimes, soothing us from the friction of before. One is given ample time to breathe, get lost in the moment… and back comes the guitar, simple and direct. The hospice worker has witnessed his girlfriend’s atrophy and he is lost, hopeless: “Someone, oh anyone, tell me how to stop this/She’s screaming, expiring and I’m her only witness/I’m freezing, infected, and rigid in that room inside her/No one’s gonna come as long as I lay still in bed beside her.”

Hospice contains numerous references to Sylvia Plath, including a direct connection through the third track, “Sylvia.” Plath was a pioneer of confessional poetry, poetry “of the personal,” which very often focused on extremely traumatic, truthful events and conditions of the human psyche; in Plath’s case, her battle with depression and suicidal thoughts, eventually culminating in her own suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Silberman alludes to Plath periodically, with Hospice acting as a meditation on mortality. The album, at times, fixates on guilt and death in an almost obsessive manner—so obsessive it becomes beautiful. Tragic, but beautiful.

Silberman always intended for Hospice to be listened to from start to finish, carefully crafting the flow of his story to move seamlessly from track to track. But there are certain tracks that remain standouts, especially the album’s centerpiece, “Bear,” which contains some of the most earnest and, believe it or not, humorous lines in the album (“All the while I know we’re fucked/And not getting un-fucked soon”). The track, which serves as a set-piece for a 21st birthday, is strangely joyful and carefree, containing little or none of the desperation that consumes the whole of the album. It captures that brief glimmer of hope we seek out in times of tragedy, how when life is down and hope seems exhausted, we would give anything for a few moments of pure, unadulterated joy. “Two” is another standout. The track sees all the conflict of the previous half-hour come to a head, while reminding the listener that this woman is indeed slowly dying: “87 pounds and this all bears repeating.” That line so perfectly encapsulates the dread of Hospice, a detail so intensely personal that one can’t help but relate to it. Silberman’s songs so delicately balance that in-between, that contrast of life and death, joy and grief, peace and pain.

Hospice is an album about death, but it would be inaccurate to describe it as being only about death. It is an album that details the complexities of romantic relationships, the emotional damage people can cause to one another, the obstacle of finding happiness in the face of inescapable tragedy, and ultimately, the importance of living as hard, honest, and fearless as possible. That’s where Hospice lives, in that little space between pain and peace, grief and joy, death and life.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Kettering,” “Atrophy,” “Bear,” “Two,” “Wake,”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kanye West // Graduation (2007)

Humor me for a second. Let’s play a game: Can anyone remember a time Kanye West was known predominantly for his music? No? No one? Okay, what about a time Kanye West was known only for his music? There’s an answer to that last question, and the answer is Never.

Kanye’s public stunts have elevated his ego to legendary status. From him bluntly proclaiming  George Bush doesn’t care about black people to him interrupting Taylor Swift’s VMA speech and the subsequent controversy of a certain lyric on “Famous,” etc., etc. The examples are endless. So how did all of this happen? When did the Kanye of the past become the Kanye we know today?

Graduation, Kanye’s third album, acts as an enterprise, a proclamation: Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. West is in the building. Graduation is chocked full of almost everything one desires in a mainstream hip-hop album—perfect features from artists all over the sonic spectrum (T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Daft Punk, Mos Def, remember Chris Martin?) give the album a “Most Relevant Artists of 2007” feel. The production is as crisp as ever; no note feels out of place, no piano key left hanging or unnecessary sampling or intruding gospel choirs. It’s a remarkably clean and tailored experience. However, Graduation significantly splits from Kanye’s first two outings. His sound is more diverse, drawing from a wider range of genres. Gone are the days of Kanye’s near religious dedication to soul-based music. Alternative and indie rock riffs, bumping house music, lush string arrangements and delicate piano lines now take their seats in the sheet music. “Stronger” and “Everything I Am,” though somewhat similar thematically, draw from two very different places musically. The vox-box electro-pulse of “Stronger” leads to a strolling piano intro in “I Wonder,” which quickly places synth and beat at the forefront and then mixes and matches the two for the duration of the song. I hesitate to pigeonhole Graduation as just a mainstream hip-hop record. I would say this is Kanye’s best version of concert music, and maybe his first foray into maximalism. There’s a lot of harmonious sound; the record moves at an elevated pace and is most certainly meant to be played in front of a sold-out crowd.

Especially noticeable in Graduation, even more so than Kanye’s departure from soul-influenced samples, is his shifting lyrical focus. Graduation is an introspective record, highly personal and revealing. There’s no greater example of this than “Big Brother,” detailing the ups-and-downs of Kanye’s professional and personal relationship with Jay-Z, his mentor and close friend. This is truly the point where Graduation turned Kanye into Kanye. Most male artists, especially rappers, would never cap an album with a song dedicated to explaining their feelings to another man. And still, for all of it’s heartfelt examination, “Big Brother” toes the line of idol-killing: “I guess big brother was thinkin’ a little different/And kept little brother at bay, at a distance/But everything that I felt was more bogus/Only made me more focused, only wrote more potent/Only thing I wanna know is why I get looked over.” Kanye realized that in order to truly grow as an artist, a man, and a friend, he needed to have some sense of transparency. Call him what you like, but not once have I ever accused Kanye West of being dishonest, especially to himself. It’s not in his bones.

Graduation is an album full of hits, for a number of reasons. It’s harder, faster, and stronger than any Kanye music that preceded. It solidified his stay in the mainstream and inflated his celebrity status—but most evidently, it illustrated that Kanye West is willing to adapt and, in turn, thrive in ways that were not evident before; he has grown into a man, capable of mature and honest expression in his music. He’s graduated.

 

Chris

Favorite tracks: “Good Morning,” “Stronger,” “I Wonder,” “Big Brother”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve missed some things

My name is Chris. Last December I cooked up an idea. I shopped it around to a few of my close friends and settled on it: I wanted to write about music. I cannot play an instrument to save my life, but I (along with everyone else) love to listen to music. Music has an immeasurable effect on the listener and I’ve always had a certain interest in capturing that feeling and putting it into words.

Here you’ll find missed reviews—albums I would have written about had I been a bit more proactive. Most of these albums will be my personal favorites, but I will be giving some classic albums a listen and sharing my thoughts. I also plan to write a weekly review of new music so as to not get caught in an endless loop of nostalgia.  My friend Jake will be writing for the blog as well, though we haven’t quite specified his role at this moment in the process.

I look forward to sharing with you, thanks so much.

Chris