The Drums, Portugal. The Man, Ride, and more in this week’s music reviews
Now a one-man band, The Drums hit harder than ever on 4th album “Abysmal Thoughts”
When they breezed onto the scene as part of the great indie-rock beach migration of 2009, The Drums were two against the world. Jonny Pierce and Jacob Graham were a couple of young gay men who’d somehow survived their strict Christian upbringings and found solace in the brave-face summer-bummer music they made together. They were surfing with tears in their eyes, pairing taut monophonic guitar lines and perky drum-machine beats with telling lyrics like, “I thought my life would get easier / Instead it’s getting harder.” In the lead-up to “Abysmal Thoughts”, the fourth Drums album and first since 2014, Graham quit, and Pierce split from his husband. The “band,” which at one point had grown to be a quartet, is now just one man’s story of resiliency, and it’s all the better for it.
Pierce has claimed in interviews that he was responsible for 90 percent of The Drums’ sound, and “Abysmal Thoughts” bears that out. The usual brisk rhythms and rubber-band guitars surface on tunes like “I’ll Fight For Your Life” and “Under The Ice,” augmented elsewhere by tasteful flourishes like the sub-bass on “Mirror,” the fuzzy guitar on “Shoot The Sun Down,” and even the trumpet on “Are U Fucked.” “Head Of The Horse,” a devastating flashback to growing up as the son of a homophobic pastor, has the minimalist snap of a Neptunes track. “Your Tenderness” is drum and bass as Brian Wilson might do it. (He could even get the sax player from “Kokomo.”) The new sounds heighten the bittersweet flavor, as Pierce opens up about feeling lonely, stupid, betrayed, empty, and at times, hopeful. If his life hasn’t exactly gotten easier, his music has never been better.
Portugal. The Man loses itself in the mainstream on Woodstock
It’s taken eight albums and more than 10 years, but with the surprise hit “Feel It Still,” Portugal. The Man finally has a song that’s nigh-inescapable. Over that time, the group ditched its Alaskan stomping grounds, signed to major label Atlantic, and even employed the likes of Danger Mouse to expand its psych rock into something more broadly palatable, all in the name of openly chasing a trajectory toward bigger fame. “Let’s make the mainstream better,” bassist Zachary Carothers told Rolling Stone in 2013. With Woodstock, they’ve finally landed there, though it’s debatable whether it can be considered an improvement for either the mainstream or the band.
Woodstock—which features production from Beastie Boy Mike D along with the returning Danger Mouse and John Hill—offers up zero wasted space. Each song moves deliberately toward a radio-friendly chorus, backed by soaring harmonies and dirty rhythm sections, ping-ponging between big ideas and tried-and-true formulas. Early album cut “Easy Tiger” bursts at the seams by trying to be everything at once, while “Rich Friends” and “Tidal Wave” struggle to distinguish themselves from their cornball titular gimmicks.
Realizing those ambitions, where the album leaves its biggest mark is in the moments where Portugal. The Man strays furthest from its established identity. “Feel It Still,” currently sitting pretty at No. 2 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, and “Keep On” both push the band into neo-soul territory, coming across like a more tasteful version of single-making machine Fitz And The Tantrums. John Gourley’s piercing vocals prove well-suited for this new terrain, and even better suited for the headfirst dive into hip-hop on “Mr Lonely,” proving the band is capable of putting its own stamp on previously foreign sounds. But while all that tinkering and aiming for the center have reached their payoff with the most commercially viable record of the group’s career, something of what made Portugal. The Man unique feels like it’s been lost.
2 Chainz has earned an album as good as Pretty Girls Like Trap Music
2 Chainz earned this shit. No one would call him a “workmanlike” rapper—he preens and upstages, he makes the hook and steals the show—but he has, over the course of a decade or so orbiting the rap periphery, made a name for himself as both reliable and tenacious. His humble origins are almost mythical, first coming to attention as a Ludacris affiliate with the unfortunate name of Tity Boi and a single hit (“Duffle Bag Boy”) remembered almost exclusively for its incandescent Lil Wayne verse. After Playaz Circle split up, he wisely changed his name to 2 Chainz and started grinding out mixtapes and studio records, many of which went uncelebrated. You know his familiar howl not through them but through his endless, elastic guest verses: the hook on A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems,” the centerpiece verse of Chance’s “No Problem” (with the jubilant “School of hard knocks / I took night classes!”), plus uncountable spots on tracks by pretty much every rapper and singer, major and minor, of the past few years. It’s more rare for 2 Chainz to not have graced someone with a few bars at this point.
And through sheer willpower, public opinion on him has gradually shifted, to the point where his verses became a reliable and even beloved part of the hip-hop ecosystem. Pretty Girls Like Trap Music enters a world vastly more receptive to his particular set of talents than ever before. It marks the first album by the emcee to not feature an incomprehensibly dense title (witness 2013’s B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time) and to work as a glossy and comprehensible front-to-back mainstream rap album, the sort of thing we once looked for from Rick Ross or, say, Jay Z. 2 Chainz has described the record as “top-tier yacht music,” and it is redolent of hard-won success, particularly on tracks like “Rolls Royce Bitch,” which features phasing, lux-life guitars and a characteristically exuberant hook that consists of him shouting the song title. (It would be a good thing to shout while inside of a Rolls Royce, if one were to find oneself in that situation.) The record’s full of such opulent, one-percenter touches, like the crooned penthouse montage “Blue Cheese” (on which Chainz boasts that his “chain got influenza”) or the work-hard, play-hard anthem “Sleep When U Die” (“I got a bank account, another bank account / Got another bank account, to be continued,” he trails off, bored).
Of course, well-fed rappers often fall off, but 2 Chainz sounds hungrier than ever, even as he enjoys increasingly decadent banquets of caviar and strippers. (There are a lot of women on Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, parading through 2 Chainz’s mind and bedroom like the feverish fantasies of a teenage boy.) There’s no galactic change to his style here, just a further refinement of it. His crisp, stand-up delivery lends itself particularly well to his Scrooge McDuck-style vision of wealth, which he stretches to the point of absurdity for his weirdo-specific punchlines (“This a new kinda kitchen, marble countertops, see-through fridge”). But his autobiography is omnipresent, a justification for all the flossing: On “Riverdale Rd,” he’s pounding his chest with vehemence as he details his childhood, and on the almost experimental “OG Kush Diet” he repeats lines in a paranoid stutter, “Fuck what you thinking, fuck what you thinking,” or “My partner just died, my partner just died.” The record closes with “Burglar Bars,” which is as close to a statement of purpose as the emcee has ever delivered, a victory lap encapsulating his full career from trap-house grind to major-label kingship. You can hear him bursting with pride when he spits, “I did everything except a fucking song with Jay / But I murdered every song I fucking did with Ye.” It’s a bootstraps saga for the ages: clocking in and clocking out until you own the factory.
Jason Isbell is world-weary yet hopeful on The Nashville Sound
On the simmering “White Man’s World,” Jason Isbell sings of injustice, of privilege, of racism and sexism, lamenting his own sins of inaction toward them all by wishing he’d “never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.” That song, like the rest of the album it appears on, The Nashville Sound, feels deeply informed by Isbell’s worry over what the world may hold for his young daughter, Mercy. As he looks to the future, he’s consumed by anxiety and thoughts of mortality. The result is Isbell’s most topical and far-reaching album yet, but one that’s also suffused with hope.
Career standout “If We Were Vampires” is the rare love song that starkly confronts the inevitability of death in the context of absolute devotion. On the gorgeous, front-porch breeze of “Something To Love,” Isbell provides Mercy with as good a bit of fatherly advice as you can hope to get in this life: Find something to love, and it will spark a light even in your darkest moments. Although it feels easy to take the trendy tack and say they’re exactly the kind of songs the world could use right now, it doesn’t make it any less true. And with Isbell at the helm, none of them feel overly sentimental or pandering.
That’s because Isbell knows it’s hard to look toward building a decent future without also confronting the past. The lonesome “Last Of My Kind” tells the tale of a Southern man watching the world leave him behind, while “Cumberland Gap” speaks to the same feelings of isolation through someone who’s never escaped where they’re from. We’re all in it together, and while “last year was a son of a bitch”—as Isbell yells on the rollicking, defiant “Hope The High Road”—dwelling isn’t going to help fix the future. After all, as he points out: “There can’t be more of them than us.”
Com Truise introduces a few shadows to his neon-lit world on Iteration
Com Truise’s Seth Haley has been making vintage synthesizer moodscapes with a faithfully retro-futurist, Atari-age bent since 2011, long before Stranger Things pushed that sound firmly into the mainstream. It’s an intoxicating, if knowingly indebted style that openly relies on packaging; its geometric pastel album covers, reminiscent of ’80s science textbooks and old episodes of Nova, and its smattering of sci-fi concepts are nearly as important as the actual music. But it also traps Com Truise within a fairly narrow lane, one that’s currently being traversed by scores of Bandcamp sound-alikes with a Fairlight (or a decent Ableton preset)—even if few others do it with as much flair.
If that increasingly crowded marketplace (or inevitable boredom) concerns Haley, his new Iteration doesn’t show it. The first new Com Truise full-length in five years remains built on big, simple drum-machine beats, stiffly funky robo-bass, and racks of layered synths—primarily the arpeggiated kind that tinkle urgently, like the score to some Reagan-era medical procedural. Which is to say, if you like Com Truise’s very particular sound, you will probably like Iteration, whose title promises the repetition the album delivers.
In fact, Iteration is differentiated only slightly by its sense of melancholy and space—the negative kind—with Haley saying it’s about “longing, hope, anxiety, and triumph.” That’s a tall narrative order for primarily instrumental music built on such rigorously programmed textures, but it’s borne out somewhat by the ominous low notes and New Order-esque bass line of opener “…Of Your Fake Dimension” and the wistful synth-cries of “Isostasy” and “Syrthio.” The latter in particular is more reminiscent of the sort of blacked-out, alleyway ambience plied by Shlohmo and his WeDidIt collective than Haley’s usual “bright lights, big city” vibe.
Throughout, Iteration often plies that slower, slightly somber burn. On “Ephemeron,” the synth notes seem just imperceptibly out of tune, until the whole song begins to slacken and warp, evoking the sound of a dying Walkman. On the club-ready “Memory,” the album’s emotional centerpiece—in that it’s the only one with discernible vocals—the computerized voice that once mused nonsensically about “VHS Sex” and “Beta Eyes” on Haley’s earlier records announces, “I’m finally free of your memory,” a moment filled with surprising emotion. In Com Truise terms, it’s practically his “Tracks Of My Tears.”
Haley does get around to the “hope” he promised on songs like “Dryswch,” with its sighing, upwardly spiraling synth washes, and “When Will You Find The Limit…,” which kicks into aerobics-video tempo mid-song before fading out on a glitchy cacophony of digital noise. And yes, there’s triumph, too, in the anthemic, heavily reverbed chords of the back-to-back “Propagation” and “Vacuume”—both of which sound like they’re trying to recreate Underworld’s “Born Slippy,” before going off on their own tangents—and especially on the closer title track, a soaring return to Haley’s usual, pristine digi-funk. But even these emotional subtexts offer only subtle shifts, and they feel somewhat forcibly applied. Mostly, Iteration offers only a minor darkening of Haley’s familiar neon-lit moods. It’s a great sound and one always worth returning to, but you’re left wondering how long Haley can keep it up.
Beth Ditto’s debut solo LP is a bluesy, disco-pop revelation
In the last few years, Beth Ditto has experienced major life changes. She married her longtime best friend, started a plus-size luxury fashion line, and—on the downside—weathered the breakup of her electro-riot-punk band, Gossip. It would be perfectly understandable, in other words, if Ditto had decided to open this new chapter of her life with a complete reinvention.
Her stellar solo full-length debut, Fake Sugar, however, is reassuringly familiar. The record revolves around pulsating disco grooves, corrugated pogo-punk riffs, and a glittering pop sheen, all arranged so there’s plenty of room for Ditto to stretch her voice and approach. On some songs, this means she’s giving a fresh coat of polish to familiar sounds. “Oo La La” is an electro-punk lightning bolt; “Do You Want Me To” is retro robo-punk; and “Fire” and the title track hew toward dizzying twang-blues.
On other songs, Ditto explores new vistas. “Savoir Faire” boasts conspiratorial girl-group vocals, a smoldering rhythmic backbone, and scorching blues guitar, while “We Could Run” is a panoramic, big-sky ballad that could’ve appeared on a blockbuster ’80s movie soundtrack. Standout “Lover”—a song about relationship uncertainty due to a partner’s wandering eye—is even more striking: It’s a modern analog of the majestic, plush synth-pop ballads Cyndi Lauper favored in the ’80s.
Ditto’s powerhouse voice remains a steely, piercing instrument imbued with Southern sass and dynamic range. “We Could Run” finds her unleashing a towering, howling yell; she then turns in an introspective, meditative performance on “Love In Real Life,” a song describing the prosaic realities of a long-term relationship. “In And Out,” meanwhile, is a crackling vintage soul number with an optimistic stance: “We made a home and it can’t be broken / The give and take will make it all work out.”
But no song sums up Fake Sugar better than the slow-burning “Go Baby Go,” a strident soul anthem predicated on empowerment and unbridled passion: “I believe in the freedom to choose / And I’m choosing you.” The defiant exuberance of choice, and the implied ability that it leads to positive changes and happiness, is the biggest takeaway from the record. By embracing her life upheavals, Ditto has forged a bold new musical direction.
Ride redeems its squandered past with the promising comeback Weather Diaries
Among its shoegaze contemporaries who have also made surprise returns in recent years, Ride has both the least and the most to prove. Unlike Slowdive or My Bloody Valentine, the Oxford group doesn’t risk sullying an otherwise perfect discography with a new, decades-later album; it more or less tanked its reputation with a pair of mid-’90s clunkers that chased Britpop trends with some turgid classic-rock posturing. On the other hand, Ride’s legacy as an also-ran puts an onus on the band that MBV and Slowdive didn’t face, forcing it to justify releasing new material when most fans would be content just seeing it rehash Nowhere and Going Blank Again. It’s a tricky spot to be in: No one’s exactly been clamoring for a new Ride album, but if it’s going to make one, it better be great. Or, at least, better than Tarantula.
On this last note, at least, Weather Diaries succeeds. It is, indeed, better than Tarantula—better than anything since 1992’s Going Blank Again, in fact, though this is admittedly faint praise. The returning quartet of Andy Bell, Mark Gardener, Steve Queralt, and Loz Colbert has impressively recaptured the jet-engine force of its shimmering, psychedelic pop, aided once again by mixer Alan Moulder, who had a hand in shaping so much of that classic shoegaze sound. Here it’s given a contemporary, three-dimensional sheen by producer Erol Alkan, best known for his electro house remixes of everyone from Tame Impala to Interpol. But aside from the occasional synth flourish or sharp editing turn, there’s no hint of an old rock band hiring a hip DJ to give them the false blush of youth. Rather, Weather Diaries is both recognizably Ride and a logical, tasteful update of its sound.
In keeping with that, the lyrics are still pretty shitty, in classic Ride fashion. Here they’ve been updated to reflect Britain’s current political turmoil in a way that college freshman slam poets might find a tad overwrought. “Charm Assault” is probably the worst offender, its crunchy/cheesy, wah-wah-inflected, mod-punk riff not done any favors by a repetitive chorus of “Your charm assault / Has scarred the world / It looks so ugly / As your lies begin to unfurl.” Opener “Lannoy Point”—which Gardener has called a direct reaction to Brexit—kicks off with the couplet “If seeing is believing / then believing is not seeing” and only gets more placeholder from there, rhyming “treason” with “reason” along the way to a chorus of “A better sense can start again.” “All I Want” has been billed as a screed against Prime Minster Theresa May, but aside from a line about it being “1932” again, it’s mostly full of a vague longing to be somewhere else, just as equally applied to a bad romance or stifling desk job. Beyond politics, it doesn’t really get anymore memorable, aside from the loopy fantasy of “walking with David Foster Wallace” and “surfing with Robert Anton Wilson” on “Lateral Alice.”
But lyrics have never been Ride’s strong suit, and all of the songs—and “Lannoy Point” and “All I Want” especially—are redeemed by their unusually strong, often unexpected compositions: a swirl of synths over Cure-esque chorused bass on “Lannoy”; an addictive, spliced-and-diced vocal stutter effect on “All I Want” that makes it both the album’s best track and the strongest argument for new Ride material in 2017. Sure, the Nowhere-harkening, beautiful cumulus billows of “Home Is A Feeling,” “Impermanence,” and the title track offer a welcome if somewhat redundant return to the past, even as the irritatingly singsongy verse of “Rocket Silver Symphony” recalls the mid-’90s Britpop it unsuccessfully aped at its foppish worst (though it too is ameliorated by some fascinating layers of synth burble and a big, shiny chorus). But surprisingly, the moments that work best here are those that don’t immediately evoke Ride as it’s best remembered. In addition to “Lannoy Point” and “All I Want,” there is also “Cali,” a fusion of blissed-out noise and beach-bum cool that nearly beats The Jesus And Mary Chain at its own game, and closer “White Sands,” whose patient, free-jazz slow build recalls Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk. In moments like these, Weather Diaries suggests a band that—topical stumbles aside—still has a surprising amount to say. It’s an ambitious effort from a group that could have easily coasted on its “Vapour Trail” forever, and a promising comeback that offers redemption for its unfortunately abbreviated past and stokes anticipation for its future.
On City Music, Kevin Morby gives urban life a dose of imagination
When we last left Kevin Morby on 2016’s Singing Saw, he was channeling his inner ’60s folk troubadour. The former Babies frontman demonstrated a deft feel for the Dylanesque world he was paying homage to while still making the record his own. He seemed comfortable in the past without letting it completely consume him. One year later, Morby has left his pastoral country dream behind in favor of the restless mania of urban living. City Music, as its name implies, is Morby’s love letter to the American metropolis—or, at least, his hep notions of one. It’s a record that lives in a bad neighborhood of back alleyways and dimly lit bars.
The record could be the soundtrack to most any major urban town, but Morby seems particularly caught up with New York on his latest set. The attitude and feel of the Big Apple is there in his sleepy, Lou Reed-style vocal delivery, or the overt Ramones tribute “1234.” But City Music has more to offer than just slick, Manhattan cool. There are also somber but equally bohemian meditations in the style of Leonard Cohen (“Come To Me Now”), cuts that shuck and jive with lively flare (“City Music”), and still others that wallow in the sounds of blue-eyed soul (“Dry Your Eyes”).
There’s a lot of musical shape-shifting on City Music, but the varied approach helps capture the gritty, up-and-down nature of a place that never sleeps. Morby inhabits a gloomier, more mysterious place than before, but it’s one he nonetheless has great affection for. “I’m a prisoner here, but I don’t mind,” he sings on the record’s title track. Kudos to Morby for making the streets a fun place to hang out, at least for 45 minutes.