All eyes and ears are on the Dirty Projectors. Given this moment of incredible attention, David Longstreth, the chief songsmith behind the band, could’ve made any statement he wanted. He could’ve been more obtuse than ever, or unveiled fancy studio trickery, or called on his expensive friends for guest spots. Instead, on Swing Lo Magellan, he’s chosen to strip away those distractions, as if what he wants most in the world is for his voice to be really and truly heard.
Lead-off “Offspring Are Blank” explodes into classic rock riffage a couple of times, but that’s a red herring. The rest of the album is significantly less bombastic, though no less spirited. “About to Die” seems the most likely to break out in the way “Stillness Is the Move” did. The basslines and dribbling beat are seriously funky, but the chorus is straight up Tin Pan Alley, despite all the words about “vagrant mutants” and the like. In fact, the record has a number of songs (“Impregnable Question,” “Swing Lo Magellan”) that feature little more than a guitar, a couple drums and an ear-worm melody more reminiscent of Simon & Garfunkel than any “indie” reference points.
Again and again Longstreth unfurls incredibly accessible tunes which in other contexts would be R&B radio–ready. “Gun Has No Trigger” has a build and resolution custom built for a killer wailer like Cee-Lo Green, while “The Socialites,” on which Amber Coffman gets the spotlight, will have you singing along on the first try. But even in the slightly more complex arrangements (“Unto Caesar” and “See What She Seeing”), it’s mostly a matter of drums and a simple guitar or strings line to augment the vocal harmonies that lead the way.
The album concludes with “Irresponsible Tune,” on which Longstreth matches lyrics about the world being “crooked, fucked up, and wrong” with a Cole Porter tone and lines about violins and how the song is his heart. Somewhere in the clash of those attitudes is the essence of what makes this record both accessible and compelling. At its best, the band nimbly balances their penchant for sonic mysteries with Longstreth’s most directly beguiling songs yet, and the result is a fucked up, forward-thinking classic.
Aesop Rock has often been portrayed as an anti-social paranoid whose music has reflected the grim tangled labyrinth of his mind. The truth is slightly different. While Aesop did spend time as a member of the grimy industrial-minded Def Jux crew, he also had a sense of humor about things. The songs could be dark and impenetrable, but there was also a straightforward love of hip-hop that poked its head through. In the years after Bazooka Tooth, the pinnacle of that dark sensibility, Rock moved closer to a relatively accessible style. From Fast Cars, Danger, Fire and Knives, to his production work on Felt 3: A Tribute to Rosie Perez and contributions in Hail Mary Mallon, there’s been more lightness and energy to his performances. It’s a logical progression that continues with his latest album Skelethon.
As is par for the course with Rock, things are a little more complicated. Skelethon is underpinned with tales of death and personal tragedy, but the sonics don’t allow the proceedings to sink into a dirge. The credit goes to Rock who self-produced the entire thing. While he has manned the boards for individual songs in the past, this is the first time he’s produced an entire album. It’s a master class in careful contrast. The tracks are as full of bounce and are agile as his vocals. There could have been a push to downplay the music in favor of the lyrics, but the music is just as compelling.
Lyrically, Rock is as dense as ever. He does defy expectations with “Ruby ’81” which is possibly one of his most straightforward songs. As a whole Skelethon’s songs are the type that slowly reveal themselves upon repeated listens. Part of that is due to the fact that Rock crams a lot into small spaces. The other part is simply that his construction is extremely intricate. It’s the type of record that simultaneously invites the listener in, but keeps them at arms length before eventually letting them closer.
Dorian S. Ham
MP3: “Zero Dark Thirty”
As anyone who’s been paying attention will tell you, the Bay Area of San Francisco and Oakland has developed a music environ that’s second to none (sorry Brooklyn). Seemingly having inherited the magic potions of their Summer of Love ancestors, this scene has largely worked in a psych-tinged pantheon, albeit a decidedly modern and definitively un-hippie-dippy take on acid rock traditions. Indeed, it’s like they learned from their luminaries’ mistakes, of which there were many, to create a new sonic utopia.
One can’t put such creativity down to just good pot, as many of the scene’s brightest are also its most prolific, with artists like Thee Oh Sees, Ty Segall and The Fresh & Onlys putting out records at an alarming rate. Seemingly in an attempt to capture this great moment of potency, Secret Seven has put out a couple of compilations that span the diverse sounds of the locale. In a Cloud II, the most recent of these comps, is a baker’s dozen of songs that showcases some of the Bay Area’s best. It begins with the pastoral pop of Vetiver, whose “Any and All” is dappled with great hooks. Hannah Lew (of Grass Widow) delivers a song that could stand with any early rock & roll lament. Kelley Stoltz, whose had a hand in nurturing many of the bands in the area, contributes “My Jacqui,” which is buoyed by a piano melody and an innate effervescence. (It’s curious that the Papercuts have given a cut called “Hey Jaqueline.” Could they be talking about the same girl?) Both Wymond Miles and Tim Cohen of The Fresh & Onlys lend their talents to the record, while Ty Segall’s “Swag” is the kind of fuzzy sugar rush for which he’s become known. All in all it’s an impressive collection, but perhaps what’s just as extraordinary is that what it represents is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
In the mid-90s, mainstream popular music had branched into many different genres. Pop radio and MTV featured hits ranging from gangsta rap to swing, as well as an amoeba like mass of weirdly similar music that covered the middle of the spectrum. REM and Elvis Costello liked to float around like mitochondrion, catalyzing artists they deemed worthy of a spark of recognition. Sam Phillips, currently known for her soundtrack compositions for Gilmore Girls and the ABC sitcom Bunheads, was one of these artists.
Phillips had found relative fame in the Contemporary Christian musical cabal using the name Leslie Phillips, but after being plucked from obscurity by T Bone Burnett, shunned the Christian genre and signed with Virgin Records. Van Dyke Parks and Costello played on her second record as Sam Phillips (actually her sixth record as an artist), and Peter Buck appears on Martinis & Bikinis. After Martinis & Bikinis was released, the cover photo landed her a role as a baddy in Die Hard With a Vengeance. Sometimes, even when the world conspires to give you what you want, though, it’s just never enough to get you to the top. Phillips is obviously a fully competent songwriter and performer, but marketed as Lilith fare in the ’90s, she couldn’t quite attain a Sarah McLachlan level of success.
Martinis & Bikinis has been re-released as Phillips wished it had been, on vinyl with a few extra tracks and a shiny new package. “Baby I Can’t Please You,” the XTC-esque single that seemed like it would push her through to the top, is as fresh and exciting as it was in ’94. The opening riff of “Same Changes” sounds like “For Your Love” almost exactly, but then switches to a Veruca Salt–like hook that doesn’t quite hit as hard as it should. Extra tracks include one titled “I Need Love,” which is unfortunately not a female version of the Luka Bloom cover of the LL Cool J love jam. The coolest song on the record is actually a take on John Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth,” and Phillips’s bleeding vocal sincerity, barely matched by the players on the rest of the record, is given the full shake. If this was one record you had to have had in ’94 to complete your touched-by-REM collection, then the full-analog treatment Phillips packaged up to her specifications here is essential. If you were content with knowing you’d hear her voice daily on Gilmore Girls reruns, then it won’t kill you to skip it.
Michael P. O’Shaughnessy
Teen Daze, a cleverly apt social milieu, is actually the moniker of a young man named Jamison who creates earnest, dreamscapes and ethereal remixes in the convenience of his bedroom in Vancouver, British Columbia. Emanating from an appreciation of fantastical fiction and storytelling, as well as the idyllic beauty of his mountainous hometown, he’s recorded a slew of singles, remixes, and EPs furiously and expertly over the past two years. The culmination of all these time-consuming sessions is the release of his first “proper” full-length album, All of Us, Together.
The sound as a whole is precise and beat-driven, though drenched with a translucent, ambient undertone that veers away from electronic and toward shoegaze (like Cocteau Twins for the iGeneration). Perhaps no tracks illustrate this surprisingly fitting genre-marriage more than the sweetly sad restraint of “Hold,” the ethereally hopeful “The Future” and the comparatively playful, “Late.” Sure, the blatant chillwave vibes of “Brooklyn Sunburn” and “Treten” are bound to soundtrack more than a few late-night wine-induced lovefests accompanied by a certain number of crucial “transformative” moments, but much like the party, the surface pleasure far outweighs the cynical reality. Plus, there’s even this really crazy split-second in “The New Balearic” where I was almost convinced the synths sounded like “Whiter Shade of Pale” in some alternate electronic existence.
While the album’s tracks don’t hold much sway individually (it’s very much a package deal—a veritable collection of a thousand dreams condensed into nine collaborative highlight reels), Together is superficially gorgeous and annoyingly sincere, and will find a welcome home amongst revelers and merrymakers far and wide.