Cigarettes After Sex, Alt-J, Big Thief, and more in this week’s music reviews
Cigarettes After Sex makes mysterious dream-pop for your postcoital haze
The pond-ripple guitars, jazzy cymbal taps, and misty keyboards heard throughout the self-titled debut album by Cigarettes After Sex will trigger Pavlovian chills in anyone with even a passing appreciation for Twin Peaks. Singer and mastermind Greg Gonzalez is certainly familiar with David Lynch, just as he’s well-versed in the work of slowcore heroes like Red House Painters and Mazzy Star. But what saves this El Paso-born, Brooklyn-based group from being just another trafficker of “Lynchian” indie-rock tropes is Gonzalez’s ability to capture moments and stretch them into lusty little pop daydreams.
With his late-night purr, Gonzalez slides images of crashing helicopters (“Apocalypse”) and homemade porn (“Sweet”) into songs that ring more passionate than perverse. On “Truly,” he sings, “Know you really don’t need to be in love to make love to me” without sounding totally skeevy. Meanwhile, “Opera House” is about a guy who dreams of building his love a theater deep in the jungle, then taking the stage and singing her a song. That sort of theatrical surrealism is textbook Lynch, but the vibe hews closer to actual Roy Orbison than Dean Stockwell lip-syncing Roy Orbison.
The profane levity of Cigarettes After Sex’s closer, “Young & Dumb”—wherein Gonzalez calls someone the “patron saint of sucking cock”—could point a way forward for Cigarettes After Sex, one marked by slightly more wicked witticisms. After all, even Twin Peaks couldn’t succeed on psychosexual intrigue alone.
Alt-J travels too much musical ground on the meandering Relaxer
The Mercury Prize-winning Alt-J is known for its eclecticism, but Relaxer may finally take it too far—it’s so disparate that it’s hard to get a handle on. That endless mixing it up, even on the same song, leads to numerous unexpected departures on the British band’s third album. Sometimes it’s engaging, sometimes it’s a maddening, pointless jolt that makes listeners wonder if they’ve somehow slid into another album by mistake. It’s a testament to the group’s boundless creativity, but it could have used a bit more cohesion.
At least it’s a circular path. Relaxer begins and ends similarly: It leads off with “3WW,” a lacy, lovelorn ode so delicate it’s almost whispered—bringing in the welcome addition of Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell to sell lines like, “I just want to love you in my own language”—and it ends with the similarly lyrical, woodwind-driven “Pleader.” In between, “In Cold Blood” adds some necessary energy (with a video narrated by Iggy Pop himself), a murderous summer ode that resembles Alt-J’s established, engaging brand of alt-radio fodder. But a pointless, wandering cover of the beyond warmed-over “House Of The Rising Sun” almost immediately drags things down. “Hit Me Like That Snare” (which confusingly kicks off with a cowbell) sounds like nothing else on the album, a punk-era rant over a horror-movie melody The Cramps would envy, before descending into a minimalist “fuck you” chorus that seems strangely tacked on. “Last Year” has a similarly jarring shift: It chronicles the highlights of the previous 12 months like an audio Moleskine that’s aided only by squeaky guitar strings, before launching into an entirely different kind of folk song. Plotwise, according to the lyrics, the shift makes sense, but the effect is off-kilter: Why not just separate it into two tracks? “Adeline” may be the worst offender of the lot, a near-six-minute instrumental zombie hike gratefully interrupted by an angry-sounding chorus at its end.
In its eight songs, Relaxer feels as though it covers almost as many musical moods and genres. That overload, combined with its stylistic hairpin turns, leave one feeling queasy and slightly confused, lessening the impact of its more successful cuts. Next time, Alt-J might do well to pick just two or three directions and stick to them.
Big Thief offers its rawest, most personal record yet with Capacity
Adrianne Lenker’s songs offer such a revealing window into herself, it can feel almost overwhelming. The intimate family photos that grace the album covers from her New York folk-rock band Big Thief, combined with her revealing interviews, have been barely a glimpse compared to the confessional nature of her lyrics. On Capacity, Big Thief’s stunning and subtle sophomore record, Lenker positions herself as one of indie rock’s most gut-wrenchingly resonant songwriters. While Big Thief’s debut Masterpiece had winning songs (especially the folksy “Paul” and the heartbreaking “Randy”), few come close to the affecting moments she delivers here.
There’s no better example of this than lead single and album standout “Mythological Beauty.” Piercingly specific, Lenker details a traumatic episode when a railroad spike fell onto her head from the treehouse outside her family’s home in Nisswa, Minnesota. When she sings lines like, “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag / Soaking up blood with your eye / I was just 5 and you were 27, praying don’t let my baby die,” it feels as though she’s letting us in on a family secret. With her soothing coo and the band’s swirling arrangements, this harrowing tale also becomes one of the unlikeliest prettiest songs of the year. Elsewhere, Lenker dissects romance and sex to its most physical elements (“There is a meeting in my thighs / Where in thunder and lightning, men are baptized”) on opener “Pretty Things” with just a sparse guitar and her gentle, enveloping voice, giving the act a hushed intimacy.
While the propulsive “Shark Smile” and the distortion-laden title track do well to up the intensity from the album’s collection of largely understated, midtempo folk rockers, Big Thief operates best in those quieter moments. With the reassuring melodies on the closer “Black Diamonds”; the subdued twang on “Haley”; or the evocative, piano-led “Mary,” Capacity may not be breaking any new boundaries. But with a songwriter as undeniable as Lenker, it doesn’t need to.
Sufjan Stevens and friends… in space!
Look at all of those names! The inclusion of his less-famous collaborators on the masthead is perhaps meant to signal that Planetarium isn’t a proper Sufjan Stevens album, but rather something that resides solidly in side-project territory. Not that these other guys are slouches: Bryce Dessner plays guitar in The National; Nico Muhly is a revered classical composer who also loans his talents to bands like Grizzly Bear; and James McAlister is a percussionist who added some beautiful color to Stevens’ most recent tour.
Planetarium started as a commissioned orchestral piece years ago, which was performed live but never recorded. The quartet re-engaged with the material for the studio, though the finished product feels less like an album and more of a huge score that happens to feature Stevens’ unmistakable voice on most of its tracks. Notably missing from the entire affair: anything resembling a traditional chorus or pop structure. Consider that fair warning, fans of “Chicago.”
Which isn’t to say Planetarium is unlistenable: It generally just plays like a wash of ideas without much of a through-line, despite its galaxy-driven conceit. (Most songs are named after planets.) “Uranus” goes somewhere more interesting than the rest, engaging a chorus of background singers that provides it some warmth. “Moon” sounds the most like a typical Sufjan Stevens song before it, too, wanders off into majestic walls of orchestral instruments and glitchy drums. Maybe a 15-minute suite called “Earth” is your thing, or maybe you love Sufjan Stevens enough that his voice in any context is worth a spin. Anyone else might want to hold out for the next proper set.
Rise Against unleashes Wolves to predictable results
Nobody comes to a Rise Against album looking for subtlety—or change. The Chicago-birthed group has been plying its version of melodic hardcore for the better part of two decades, to varying results and a steadily increasing sheen of production values (or overproduction values, to put it less charitably). The group works a sound that’s of a piece with so many other contemporary hardcore bands, with lyrical content that remains defiantly, charmingly earnest. Current acts like White Lung are only a step removed from the group’s fist-in-the-air arena-punk, and what seemed outdated several years ago has come back around, giving Rise Against’s sound a renewed relevance, if not an equal sense of evolution.
But Rise Against is a punk band, and one that does what many bands do—namely, stick to one sound and type of song, repeating it ad nauseam. And the tracks on Wolves are therefore similar to previous ones, particularly those heard on 2014’s The Black Market—even keeping the same basic structures while the chords and melodies vary ever so slightly. One thing is different: It seems impossible, given the produced-within-an-inch-of-its-life sound of that last record, but Wolves is somehow even more polished, almost glossy to a fault with its compression and ladled-on sweetening of the distortion. At times, it veers dangerously close to latter-day Metallica.
But for those who relish the group’s over-the-top emoting and nonstop hardcore-meets-emo sound—as simple in its appeal in 2017 as it was in 1995—there’s pleasures to be found among the interchangeable riffs. There are songs that, production aside, wouldn’t sound out of place on Siren Song Of The Counter Culture, let alone more recent releases. The formula never changes: frenetic intro; usually an instrument or two getting quiet for the verse (the better to foreground its vague platitudes about fighting the good fight and believing in yourself); a slight pause before the refrain; and then a massive half-tempo stomp, leading into another verse, refrain, or bridge. There are alterations to this methodology—“Bullshit” adds a stuttering ska guitar; “The Violence” has verses indistinguishable from solid ’80s hair-metal—but the exceptions mostly prove the rule. There may be nothing new here, but it’s a routine Rise Against has mastered, and it’s not about to start fighting the power any differently now.