Little Dark Age, MGMT (8/10)
Synth madness. Lyrics are cool as hell. “It didn’t work out because she didn’t work out enough”, is exemplary of that amazing sense of irony these boys possess; self deprecating, unabashedly mocking our culture, disgusted with peopl obsessed with superficial beauty and smartphones (Sitting all alone, time spent looking at my phone). ‘Little Dark Age’, is the greatest album title of 2018. Great little aesthetic. 80s ‘Big Sound’ gets bigger as the album progresses. Good for stoners, bad for cocaine users. Except if you were a stoner before being a cocaine user for a long (ish) time. (How long is too long?)
Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino, Arctic Monkeys (8.5/10)
This album is a glaring sign of Alex Turner growing up, and perhaps not wanting to (as Matt Helders confessed once) “be in a band called the ‘Arctic Monkeys’” when they’re “forty.”
TBH&C is a palette builder, a tad more esoteric, not for newbies (at all), especially not for those who want to know the Arctic Monkeys. If you thought Humbug or Suck it and See were too hoity-toity for the average fan, this is not for you. Treat TBH&C as a clue into who he will be later, minus the Monkeys. I mean, this album, for me personally, follows where Alex would naturally go after making those two amazing albums with Miles Kane/The Last Shadow Puppets (can I call them baroque rock?), and that’s all. A sophisticated musician will not be singing about falling in love and getting rejected and boozing and losing time anymore, when he has been hanging out with a Hollywood crowd, dating models, and playing piano. It just does not work like that, folks. When you’re there, all you see around you is beauty. Sometimes you can afford to look into the sky, and think of a colony on the moon, as a way into articulating a need for escape from what one has become, when all they wanted to be was ‘one of the Strokes’, this album for Alex is merely a way of dissing gentrification, Trumpistan and a a pain that can never be his, except when it takes the form of detached compassion. ‘Jesus in the day spa’: a true self portrait. It’s not a bad deal at all. Just that it’s a good deal only for Alex, for the larger part of it, as some would say (not me, I love this damn thing).
Bad Witch, Nine Inch Nails (8/10)
Alright, this will be a long one, because I have both good and bad feelings about this. I love the album, I don’t like the claims Reznor has made about it. True to Trent Reznor’s nature, this one doesn’t quite fail to meet expectations. T Rez’s voice, as Bowie remarked once, in not so many words, is that it’s a veritable thing, ‘a gale’ to quote him. This album is more interesting because of the noise around it, and I say album, because if you dare call Bad Witch an EP, you can suck Trent Reznor’s “entire d*ck”. I was especially taken by this project upon the second (and third, fourth…) listen. This work, though part of a trilogy in the Atticus Ross-Trent Reznor universe, stands on its own. Perfectly foreshadowed by a break at 1:56 in the opener ‘Shit Mirror’, it surprises, pushes, draws you in, to reminds you of the NIN sound, welcoming old guests (ie me, possibly you, and definitely Bowie, who we miss) into a new home. The second track, ‘Ahead of Ourselves’, is another ride, by the time it’s 3:30, it has become a wacky circus clown racing away on a bicycle after a bank robbery. ‘Play the Goddamned Part’, at 4:51, is a wall of distorted, rhythmic, syncopations. The whole album has such points of intelligent pastiche / collages of sound, they form entire soundscapes, which become a coherent segue from one track to the next. In these moments, lies the key to understanding what Reznor is trying to say.
He is erratic, anxious, sad, bored, and in a dark eddy – he is at the centre of it, flying upwards, or at least wanting to. Bad Witch grapples with his self doubt, the pertinence of his music, muted into an inarticulable feeling. A sense of entropy overwhelms the listener: is this a mercurial gloom? Simultaneously balanced by innovative, entrancing percussions. The treatment of the drum sound is not really new, but it’s his own. It’s an enjoyable disorientation, sonically pushing what was expected, to take the mood outside of its own self: the Reznor-Ross sound design aesthetic morphs to iconic proportions, more concrete, more recognizable. Not too much like their joint work on The Social Network. Sometimes though, one feels that whoever thinks NIN is ‘pure music’ needs to be told it’s dangerously in the sound design territory for that claim to hold water.
Bad Witch especially? Not the strongest work by the Ross-Reznor partnership. Figuratively speaking, it’s for people who, like Reznor, are feeling their own obsoletism, whether they are fading out in a real sense, or not. I don’t think Trent is. He just feels that way. No one young enough cares, and maybe that’s the issue. My problem with this album is that it is so intently anti beauty. Though anti aesthetic can be done with a political motive in mind, but when its done without a sense of awareness, when it’s simply a prosaic retelling of one’s inner impoverishment, without process, without a cerebral aspiration towards a mature synthesis of ideas, skill and emotions, it becomes uncomfortably hollow.
Yeah, it’s obvious he’s talking about bleak times ahead under Trumpism (what Henry Giroux has termed ‘neoliberal fascism’) Can we really assess if Reznor’s claim that Bowie has deeply inspired his (even earlier) work, be taken seriously? Not that the album is bad, I genuinely like it. I heard it a sh*tload this year. Sh*tting, showering, laughing, getting high, sober, studying, dancing, angry, hopeful, it was playing in my house, my car, at my friend’s places to a tune that they referred to as ‘obsessive’.
It’s just that, in the interviews of Reznor, one may feel simply that it’s not nearly worth mentioning someone like Bowie, as androgynous and free – as concerned with beauty, aspiring for a glimpse of the heavens – as an import to an album like this, that sounds like beefy, muscular, industrial music, muddy af, and full with a kind of aggression Bowie mocked with his Ziggy persona (because rock music, by the time Ziggy Stardust came around, had become too self assured, too masculine, too macho), and in employing that irony, also disavowed. Bowie was a constant purveyor of beauty, sexuality, hope, dreams of travel beyond, and Reznor is just, (what looks to me like) the exact opposite. He’s very worldly, earthly, concerned with the problems of this terra firma, where his feet have grown roots, and consequently it’s just his inner life that is there for us to see. Sometimes, that’s enough. Bowie created melodies. Reznor innovates sound. Bowie touched something ineffable. Reznor likes to rationalize mortality. He’s a paranoid, steely pessimistic, which is beautiful in its own way. The only thing that he can maybe claim, that Bowie helped him with, was to grant TR the confidence to pick up the saxophone. Additionally, the influence of the Berlin trilogy and Krautrock are visible too. Though that’s it, that’s all. It all ends with arpeggiated synths. That’s how it ends. Take a hint.
Call the Comet, Johnny Marr (8.6/10)
I’ve already said this before, but Johnny Marr’s album is timely and needed. He’s an aware, wise, brilliantly gifted artist. A true hero. I have heard ‘Hey Angel’, ‘Spiral Cities’, and ‘Walk Into The Sea’ drive a sense of immortality into my chest. Marr arrived into the world of music as a fully formed artist, as a part of The Smiths. Have you heard any B-Sides? Outtakes? Unreleased material? It’s because he’s always known what he has to do. It’s a very rare thing for any kind of artist in any field. Gaining recognition for his jangly, flowery sound in the 80s as part of the Smiths, he gave hope to Morrissey’s neurotic, desperate and sad poetry, he brought to the lyrics a kind of life, a solid girth to the texture and tonality of SM’s voice. Decades down the line, on the night of the 20th of December, I am awake, contemplating the beauty he has filled my life with. Call the Comet is part of a story that I want never to end. Each song in the album is pregnant with a delicate kindness, it’s necessary to feel this way in our world today. It’s almost an imperative to our inner humanity.
Hill Climber, Vulfpeck (7.5/10)
Okay, this one can get super cheesy, even border on John Legend territory, especially with the opener ‘Half of The Way’, but by the time it hits the second track ‘Darwin Derby’, you just want to dance, dance, dance. ‘Soft Parade’ is an ace track. So is ‘Lost my Treble Long Ago’ (because haha bass oriented track), the result of an inside joke, I’m willing to bet. For it isn’t that funny to an outsider. Welcome to Dad Joke town. It’s a great, great song, though.
Vulfpeck are so, so funky. A super duper groovy whopper, a tall glass of funkshake with a side of fruity fries, is what Hill Climber is. If they grew up, and got rid of the vocalist, they might sound like Martin, Medeski and Wood (Think Juice). Vulfpeck are the looney tunes of funky-jazz. Imagine sunshine, sprinklers, picnic party, and e pills all around. All things considered though, they are way better live. The jams and stage improvs don’t even compare to the album. They are another bunch of musicians, in the live shows that I’ve come across. The last track ‘It Gets Funkier IV’ is an immaculate close out. They’re telling you there is more to come, shameless and cocky as hell. Keep your eyes peeled.
Juniore, Juniore (8.7/10)
Imagine a band of mischievous twenty somethings in a dingy pub, dancing around on stage, nothing is visible but a bunch of swaying bodies and a lot of long hair, encased in rings of smoke and green and blue lights. And mystery. These enigmatic women come from nowhere (well, France) and are not in a hurry to be elsewhere. This group is one of the best I’ve heard in a long, long time. Really intelligent songwriting, the work is as smooth as it is full of vitality, the note selection is startlingly sharp, the songs are simple enough, about small pleasures, for example, in songs like ‘A la Plage’, ‘Marabout’, we anticipate a joy that is duly delivered, ‘La Fin du Monde’ is more morose, though a sense of plenitude runs through Juniore because of aesthetic choices like these. The perfect example being the uplifting, groovy, yet restrained and sophisticated ‘Cavalier Solitaire’. Think of the colour purple. Think of neon blue. Think of beige. Think of glossy cymbals reflecting light in a dark, dark night. Think noir. Think sex and cigarettes in the back alley of the George V. Juniore have an epic, epic bass player deserving a special mention. Simply, beautiful.
MASSEDUCTION, St. Vincent (6.5/10)
Annie Clark is cool as hell. She defines cool. The album is hella cool, but that’s all it is.
MASSEDUCTION fundamentally lacks substance, and though she is an amazing guitar player, a musician, a performer, she’s not a good songwriter on this album. She has done better in the past. St. Vincent is a stage act at best, an art project at most, for it relies too much on stage gimmicks. Empty aestheticism just won’t cut it if you don’t have the basic stuff there–The music! This isn’t art. She’s a skilled craftswoman, but it’ll be a long time before she knows what it is to be an artist in the real sense of the term. What does it even mean, you ask? A real artist won’t put a bare bones skeleton of a song like ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’ and another that belongs in the can like ‘New York’, next to awesome, ambitious bangers dripping with artistic buoyancy like ‘Saviour‘ and ‘Fear The Future’. C’mon, Annie. We expect better! (PS, Saviour is great because of the part where she goes ‘Pleeaaaseee’, which isn’t hers, it’s Billie Holiday’s).
Head Down, Rival Sons (9/10)
Let’s say they’ve got the magic, let’s say they’re everything one would wish was still alive about the 60s and 70s in our time, without wanting to romanticize its excesses (and limitations). The ballads aren’t their strength, all things considered. It takes no genius to see how much of Led Zeppelin, Sabbath, AC/DC, Free, and The Doors are in this thing, but let’s also say that ‘Manifest Destiny Pt. 1’ is the smokiest, most mysterious thread of sound that weaves my heart into my spine. They released an EP this year, Feral Roots, but I stay faithful to their previous two albums, Head Down + Pressure and Time. They are what GVF want to be, really. The bold, esoteric, spindly, classic ‘Keep on Swinging’ takes us into the dream at breakneck speed, throbbing all the way up to ‘The Heist’, a wild, free song that tells a persona poem, about a man who can’t make ends meet, doesn’t want to be known as a violent man, but will go in with the guns because he has ‘four mouths to feed, and a woman in doubt’. It’s a lyric for eternity. Jay Buchanan’s soaring voice turns the story into an epic of Titanic proportions, a victory. Head Down is full of shadows, smoke, and magic. Enter with an open heart, forget your mind at the door.
Greta Van Fleet, From The Fires (8/10)
Yes, the first album. I heard it over and over for months, fought with my friends about it. Left mean comments on the Pitchfork instagram page because they slandered GVF, when in the least they could have offered a decent critique, given how skilled their writers are at deductive insulting. These young boys, a pair of twins, their younger brother and a best friend have a special place in my heart because I know what it is like to artistically bond with one’s sibling. There is no joy like this. Secondly, I’ll never get to see Led Zep live in this life, but I’d be very, very pleased if I can catch them. Third, they have some decent power over the crowd, and they are phenomenally gifted. They came out of nowhere with ‘Highway Tune’, ‘Black Smoke Rising’, ‘Flower Power’, ‘Talk on the Street’, with that perfect dose of Tantra and Voodoo to carry over into Rock n Roll valhalla, thy are going to make it up there with Bowie, Hendrix, Lennon, whathaveyou. There is no doubt.
Liam Gallagher, As You Were (8/10)
I don’t have much to say about this album, except some of these songs are great, but they are great only because Michael Tighe worked with LG on the album. He played with Jeff Buckley in the ‘90s, and Grace is among my top five favourite albums of all time. There is no way I could have missed that. LG should write more songs by himself, because he really can (‘Songbird’,‘I’m Outta Time’ and ‘Soldier On’ aren’t the kind of things that emerge from those who don’t have music inside them, I’m just disappointed that I didn’t see more of that autonomy and richness of feeling in As You Were). Nevertheless, ‘Greedy Soul’ is there to sell the album, ‘I’m all I need’ is there to assure the world that Liam still has that honest spark in him, and ‘Wall of Glass’ is a way for LG to talk to himself. It’s a reckoning, this whole thing is. Tune out the information, if you want to enjoy it. That’s the only way one can.
Something Else, The Brian Jonestown Massacre (8.5/10)
What am I listening to right now? A rhetorical question. The answer is self evident. TBJM have given us blissful days of saturated, simple psychedelic ecstasy, tightly wound into a forty minute long dream. Newcombe’s repetitive chords, and the tambourine layer over it to put us in a state of rapture. Rapture with a capital R. I’m in another world. This album is particularly self reflexive, and sounds a bit like what Dig Out Your Soul (Oasis) would sound like if it were a slow tempo creature. TBJM hark back to an old sound, quite consciously, but one that has been redefining itself since their Anemone days. I mean, in the way Babe Rainbow try to do, but with less joy, and more bliss. Less frolic, more gravitas. Less levity, more gratitude. Keep it coming, guys. We’re eager as hell. Especially when we don’t expect you to turn up to the party. ‘Silent Stream’ is a top song. Kind of like Melody’s Echo Chamber’s first album (because the second was blah).
Recto Verso, Paradis (8.2/10)
I’ve heard this album a lot in the past year. I love the disco thing they’ve got going for them, but at the same time, it’s a reverential genuflection to the sound. The sweetest, juiciest melodies, groovy bass, oceanic synths. With a truly recognizable aesthetic, they’re clear headed about what they want to do, and you can listen to this album any time of the day, high or sober, sad or happy. It’s one of those things, ‘Mieux Que Tout‘ especially hits that spot. Chocolate syrup on your ice cream Sundae.
Coup de Grace, Miles Kane (8.7/10)
Oh, Miles! At least sing the name of your own album correctly, it’s in french and looks like you don’t speak t. Thank you for ‘Shevambacu’, this one just affirms that you’re a lover inside and out, and everyone should know it. What a pretty thing you’ve given us, love. You’re so handsome, too.
Medha Singh functions as India Editor for The Charles River Journal, Boston. She is also part of the editorial collective at Freigeist Verlag, Berlin. Her first book of poems, Ecdysis was published by Poetrywala, Mumbai in 2017. She took her M.A. in English literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and studied at SciencesPo, Paris through an exchange program, as part of her interdisciplinary master’s degree. She has written variously on poetry, feminism and rock music. Her poems have appeared widely, in national and international journals. Her second book is forthcoming. She lives inside the eternal eye of the New Delhi summer.
Medha is Music Editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse. Send her your reviews at music [at] queenmobs [dot] com. Image: "Little Dark Age" by MGMT, 2017