Actress, Little Dragon, and John Mayer (but not Kendrick) in this week’s music reviews

Actress (Photo: Richard Eaton)
Actress (Photo: Richard Eaton)

Editor’s note: Unfortunately, today’s biggest release, Kendrick Lamar’s Damn., wasn’t made available to press in advance, so we’re only hearing it today, too. Look for our review early next week. In the meantime, here are reviews of some of the other notable releases on this otherwise relatively quiet day.

Actress reemerges and reclaims himself on the enjoyably idiosyncratic AZD

Grade: A

No one thinks about electronic music quite like Darren Cunningham, whose every release as Actress feels like a dissertation on postmodern semiotics, often accompanied by a weighty exegesis explaining its themes via references to colors, geometry, and Afrofuturism. It’s an approach that belies the enjoyable, often downright playful form of liquid, crackling techno he creates—as well as the fact that Cunningham’s claimed he mostly just smokes weed and doesn’t think about his music at all until it’s finished. It also made the prose-poem manifesto that accompanied 2014’s Ghettoville, with its somber eulogies for “the Actress image” and for music itself, feel like the inevitable, final surrender of a misunderstood artist. It’s no wonder so many interpreted Ghettoville as the concluding bookend to—and bleak photo negative of—his 2008 debut Hazyville. It felt like goodbye.

Happily, Cunningham was just being misunderstood, yet again. AZD marks a triumphant return for Actress—though “the Actress image” has mutated somewhat, taking Ghettoville’s dour, postapocalyptic churn and the burbling, abandoned-club music of his earlier releases and synthesizing them into something new. As always, there’s a little homework: Cunningham has stated that AZD is themed around “chrome,” specifically the skewed metropolitan reflections seen in Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate sculpture (or as Chicagoans know it, “The Bean”), while the press release also touches on Jungian shadows and the scavenged, sacred art of James Hampton. Taken in concert with the record’s scattered vocal samples meditating on identity and artistic analysis, and AZD could be read as a philosophical musing on how the self is constructed from one’s environment and a series of ineffable subconscious impulses.

But again, you don’t have to do the reading. There are plenty of surface pleasures to be found here, from the straightforward four-on-the-floor rave of lead single “X22RME” to the cascading, mournful music box tinkles of ambient interlude “Falling Rizlas.” Meanwhile, even the tracks that reward deeper research can be appreciated by the laziest of students. If you like the samples of MC and graffiti artist Rammellzee on “CYN,” by all means, visit your local library, then consider how his “Gothic Futurism” and calls for the anarchic deconstruction of language influenced Cunningham’s worldview. But the loops of the New York legend’s old-school hip-hop breaks spliced over a subway grate-hiss beat create their own pleasures. Similarly, “Faure In Chrome” features snatches of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem” overlaid with dying-modem shrieks, an outgrowth of Cunningham’s recent collaboration with the London Contemporary Orchestra—making it, like “CYN,” a moment of autobiography. But it, too, is engrossing even without the context.

Believe it or not, AZD also has a pretty good sense of humor. It’s there in “Runner,” its primitive synth-pop bounce billed cheekily as a “personal re-soundtracking of Blade Runner.” It’s particularly there in “Dancing In The Smoke,” whose samples alternately declare, “Dance!” and “The future!” over a staggering, tranquilized beat—a song that could best be described as “ironic house.” And some of the album’s best moments are those where Cunningham simply constructs a sonic space and allows it to billow, bend, and degrade: the ominous, Bernard Herrmann-esque synth-strings over a looped, ascending bass line that give way to stuttered laser blasts on “Untitled 7”; the ’50s sci-fi whirrs unfolding behind the shuffling beat of “Fantasynth”; the complementary washed-out breaks and blurs of “Blue Window” and “There’s An Angel In The Shower.” As AZD closes on “Visa,” its splattered snares, schmaltzy string hits, and ascending video game bloops making it one of the most upbeat compositions in Cunningham’s catalog, all those varied styles coalesce to form Actress’ most confident, most individualistic statement yet. If you want to know what Actress is all about, you don’t have to study; you just have to listen to this.

Purchase AZD here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

Little Dragon goes adrift on the otherwise spirited Season High

Grade: B-

A broad valley of snow, a few quiet homes in a row there. Zooming in on one of them, we find Swedish noise-pop foursome Little Dragon in a full-on cabin-fever dream: playing dress-up and jamming on instruments in rooms covered wall to wall with blankets—a warped haze of oranges and reds. This is the video for the Gothenburg band’s first single in three years (“High”), and it reveals the mindset behind its new album, Season High. Combatting the long gloomy months of its hometown and the apparent difficulty it’s faced in wrangling four strong creative personalities, Little Dragon uses its fifth full-length to return to why it makes music in the first place—to escape.

Of course, “escape” means something different to everyone, and Season High leaves room for it all: love, drugs, fame, and even death. Sonically, Little Dragon turns inward, toward the territory and influences it knows best. Take opener “Celebrate,” an overtly Prince-indebted dance number where Yukimi Nagano deadpans “Lose. Your. Grip,” over funky synth stabs and a staccato ’80s bass line. Next up is “High,” an R&B jam whose slow, galactic groove is on par with Little Dragon’s quintessential best. By the time the frenetic chip-tune synth lines of “Sweet” arrive, it feels like Season High might lift off to a truly transcendent place, and it does, in the lush arpeggio panorama of “Butterflies,” where Nagano dips into her lower register to gorgeous effect. When she sings, “Bright white emerald green / Silk blue satin seas / Amber spotted wing,” she paints a vivid, moving picture of her subjects’ reincarnation. Unfortunately, this bliss doesn’t carry through to the album’s end. In its last third, Season High loses its momentum with inferior retreads of earlier themes (particularly on “Push”) and inconsistent energy. What starts as a strong exercise in not overthinking things seems to end in aimlessness.

Like every Little Dragon album, Season High contains several new entries into the band’s essential catalog, but as a whole, it fails to fulfill its potential. Given its nearly faultless record of outside collaborations (most recently on albums last year for Flume, De La Soul, and Kaytranada), it’s a wonder the band didn’t call on other artists to flesh out its own album. Doing so could’ve introduced yet more opportunities to escape its own blocks, and it could’ve helped Season High avoid its swift downshift in the end.

Purchase Season High here, which helps support The A.V. Club.

John Mayer loses all trace of anything interesting in The Search For Everything

Grade: D

For years, John Mayer has largely functioned as the butt of pop culture jokes, a token representative of the sensitive-douchebag stereotype in the musical landscape. Trying to shake off such a reputation could make a person very ambitious—or very gun-shy. On The Search For Everything, Mayer has chosen the latter route, a record seemingly engineered from the ground up to be as inoffensive as possible. (For the most part, anyway: A record that literally kicks off with “The prettiest girl in the room / She wants me” is obviously still very concerned with keeping up appearances.) This 12-song collection of midtempo ballads and amiable easy-listening soul songs has little on its mind beyond providing generically soft, accessible hooks, but it’s far too mired in Muzak-style adult-contemporary arrangements to get anyone very excited, even Mayer’s easy targets.

Tracks like “Love On The Weekend” and “Changing” come closest to recapturing some of that pretty-boy lothario vibe of his early work, but don’t feel urgent enough to get a group of TGI Friday’s happy-hour-goers all hot and bothered. “Emoji Of A Wave” fails to deliver even the cheap laughs promised by its asinine title—he doesn’t even say the word “emoji”!—while “You’re Gonna Live Forever In Me,” unfortunately, does, along with some egregious, Bobby McFerrin-on-Quaaludes whistling. Elsewhere, Mayer stretches mildly with excursions into jazzy, flute-and-wah-wah-adorned sex jams on “Rosie” and the maudlin piano ballads “Never On The Day You Leave” and “Changing” (in which Mayer asserts he is “not done changing,” repeatedly and without changing), and he finds what could be his future wheelhouse on the pop-country ramble “Roll It On Home.” Less so “In The Blood,” a handclap-filled foray into The Lumineers’ folk-soul territory that, at the very least, confirms Mayer is hip to the music of 2013.

In fact, for an album whose lyrics are all about sobering self-reflection, there seems to be notably less of Mayer’s identity here; it’s even light on Mayer’s still technically great guitar soloing. Instead, he’s delivered a batch of songs that feel relentlessly focus-tested in an attempt to win back his female fan base, but that have, in the process, sanded away the edges that gave him personality in the first place.

Purchase The Search For Everything here, which helps support The A.V. Club.