The Magnetic Fields, Grandaddy, Minus The Bear, and more in this week’s music reviews
Stephin Merritt is his charming, morose self on The Magnetic Fields’ sprawling, autobiographical 50 Song Memoir
Stephin Merritt loves a good gimmick, doesn’t he? There was his Magnetic Fields magnum opus, 1999’s 69 Love Songs—exactly what it sounds like—and his subsequent experiments with form and instrumentation: i, Distortion, and Realism. While those latter gimmicks purposely limited Merritt, perhaps as a means to rein in his peripatetic style, 50 Song Memoir, like 69 Love Songs, allows him to indulge it. The central hook here is that, for the first time, the notoriously droll, guarded songwriter would write autobiographical lyrics across 50 songs, one for every year of his life (he began recording on his 50th birthday in 2015). The result, as you might imagine, is sumptuous, scattered, funny, and gutting, sometimes within the same song.
Still, Merritt being Merritt, autobiographical material leaves little room for anything so yearningly simple as 69 Love Songs standout “All My Little Words.” If anything, his confessional bent has only increased his reliance on wry witticisms, groan-worthy jokes, and self-deprecation, not to mention his proclivity for following his most profound songs with his silliest. Still, there’s a wistfulness at play that’s been heretofore missing from Merritt’s output. In “The Blizzard Of ’78,” for instance, he pays homage to his first band (“We called ourselves The Black Widows / We weren’t the last nor the first”) against appropriately out-of-tune strums and tape hiss, while the elegant “How I Failed Ethics” offers a charming, literate glimpse at Merritt the academic “establishing a so-called moral science” for his “Mennonite professor.” There’s even a trace of anger and resentment beneath Merritt’s passionless vocals in the propulsive “Weird Diseases,” which chronicles the various ailments with which he’s struggled.
Broken into five parts—each encompassing a decade of his life—the album’s structure reflects his journey both emotionally and aesthetically: 1966 to 1975 alternates between folk and psychedelic; 1976 to 1985 throbs with synths and disco influences; 1986 to 1995 finds him experimenting with classic pop structures and harmonies; 1996 to 2005 is heavy on melancholy and pianos; and 2006 to 2015 is all over the place, but thoroughly self-reflective. By virtue of its lyrical openness and the fact that the album cycles through more than 100 instruments, 50 Song Memoir, despite having fewer tracks, eclipses 69 Love Songs in terms of its ambition. And though it lacks its predecessor’s immediate accessibility, it benefits from an aesthetic texture that’s grander, darker, and more satisfying, if only for the sense that memoirs don’t have to be confessional; they can tell a life’s story through tone and structure in addition to words. A good gimmick, it goes to show, has the power to transcend itself.
Last Place is Grandaddy’s return to sad, beautiful form
“Damned if we do, damned if we don’t end up again back home,” Grandaddy frontman Jason Lytle whisper-sings on “Way We Won’t.” It’s a lyric perfectly poised to reintroduce the Modesto, California band to the world after an 11-year recording hiatus. On Last Place, Grandaddy feels at home, so much so that it’s almost as if the band never really left.
This makes sense, especially since Lytle’s two solo records recorded after Grandaddy’s turbulent breakup never sounded more than a degree or two removed from the band’s glitchy, disenchanted space pop. Lytle’s kept his songwriting tools sharp, and he uses them to great effect on Last Place. All the hallmarks are there, from the robotic synth lines on “Evermore” to the lush arrangements that color album closers “A Lost Machine” and “Songbird Son.” Thematically, Lytle still circles the emotional drain as he laments misguided life choices (“I Don’t Wanna Live Here Anymore”) and lost relationships (“Jed The Fourth,” “The Boat Is In The Barn”).
Grandaddy is every bit the dystopian miserablists on record as they’ve ever been, but the band’s gift for crafting dour yet beautiful sonic soundscapes has rarely been so pronounced. Last Place is the work of a reenergized band that’s clearly benefited from its extended downtime, even if its overarching mood hardly reflects it. Life is rarely easy or pretty, and the return of Lytle and friends leaves us with an oddly pleasant reminder of as much.
Lusine’s Sensorimotor is a pleasant, if unmoving slice of electro ambience
Jeff McIlwain’s work as Lusine is impressively crystalline and tightly controlled, even by the usual mechanical standards of electronic music. This rigor results in a pleasant, if unambitious sound that always offers a consistently enjoyable listen, but few surprises that linger afterward. That’s definitely true of Sensorimotor, his fourth album for Ghostly: As with releases like The Waiting Room or his excellent Arterial EP, its best moments involve guest singers that McIllwain can cut up and build his warm beats and precise textures around. “Ticking Hands” (featuring his wife, Sarah McIlwain) is the clear standout, a cool slice of watery electro-pop that’s built on low-hum bass tones, some gently off-kilter blips, and female vocals that sound like they’re shuddering through an oscillating fan. Similarly, “Just A Cloud” is a gorgeous, dreamy number that loops Vilja Larjosto’s ethereal musings around slowly rising and cresting synth sparkles. Although it’s uniformly beautiful, the rest of the album doesn’t leave nearly as deep an impression, with McIlwain occasionally indulging more experimental tangents (the pastoral ambient sketch of “Chatter,” the staticky drone of “Tropopause”) but mostly never pushing past his usual mode of lush, lightly skipping intelligent dance music.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya’s Drool is the start of something special
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya has always been in his own lane. “If Chicago music had elected offices, Ogbonnaya would be mayor,” Into It. Over It.’s Evan Weiss told the RedEye, summarizing Ogbonnaya’s impact on various Chicago music scenes. Whether he’s drumming in instrumental Tortoise-worshippers Monobody, playing bass in the pop-punk band Nervous Passenger, throwing out songs about how much he loves cats, or releasing both rap and rock records under his own name, Ogbonnaya is unmatched in terms of output. No record he’s crafted has captured his voice as a solo artist as well as Drool.
One of Ogbonnaya’s many charms is his willingness to play fast and loose with his own voice. Throughout Drool, his voice is often pitch-shifted up or down a few octaves, allowing lines in his verses to be pushed in any manner of directions without warning. A song like “nO drOOl” shows how effective this approach can be, as his voice bounces against the track’s ping-ponging snyth lines before putting a simple, sing-song hook right in the middle of the madness. But even when he welcomes guests—such as Mal Devisa and JD AKA ThrashKitten on “dOn’t turn me Off”—Ogbonnaya is still the star of the show. At times, his eccentric approach recalls that of OutKast’s André 3000; both can anchor bombastic pop songs and turn in tongue-twisting verses without things ever getting messy. Even if Ogbonnaya’s been active for more than a decade, Drool can’t help but feel like the start of something special, the moment when an underground, musical polymath starts to break out.
Blanck Mass’ World Eater is a singular sensory overload
On his third proper album as Blanck Mass, Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power finally cements an identity separate from his main gig. After 2015’s excellent Dumb Flesh gave Fuck Buttons’ fried-circuit electronics and mammoth noise-scapes a darker, dancier, yet not altogether different splicing across shards of techno and video-game warp-level sounds, World Eater represents a true stylistic leap. It’s a mammoth collection of songs that carve out a unique niche between apocalyptic anxiety and brief, cathartic bursts of ecstasy—a feeling that should resonate with just about everybody these days. Much of this emotional connection can be attributed to World Eater’s increased emphasis on vocal samples: The warped snatches of R&B crooning over the doped-up, limping hip-hop beat on “Please” and the heavenly choirs drifting through shimmering harp tones on “Silent Treatment” give Blanck Mass’ digital grind a new dimension of humanity—a pixilated, chopped-and-screwed version, anyway—as do, in a far more anguished way, the robotic stutters that give way to distorted black-metal screams on “Rhesus Negative” (the album’s most recognizably Fuck Buttons-esque track). But while Dumb Flesh already demonstrated that Powers could do industrial intensity, the true revelation of World Eater happens in its final act, as the watery maelstrom of “Minnesota / Eas Fors / Naked” gives way to a blissful, loping vaporwave outro and closer “Hive Mind” arrives on a bed of gentle, arpeggiated synths, before the triumphant chorus built on what sounds like rhythmically spliced cheerleaders. It’s a moment of pure uplift that makes you feel mountains tall after crawling through so many dark and grimy back alleys—as complex a journey as Powers has ever taken the listener on, under any guise.
On VOIDS, Minus The Bear throws an awkward dance party
Since its nascent days, Minus The Bear has always had one simple goal: to make people dance. Even when the band was an out-and-out math-rock band, vocalist-guitarist Jake Snider attempted to inject some sexiness into a scene far more concerned with time signatures than dance breaks. On 2010’s Omni, the band began shifting course, pulling back on the guitar tapping and putting an emphasis on synths and funk-oriented bass lines. It was the sound of a band still in line to get into a club that’s long been closed, blissfully unaware how desperate a look that is. But on VOIDS, it seems like Minus The Bear has finally found a way to craft hooks befitting of an ’80s club night.
“Last Kiss” opens the record and is effective in marrying the band’s prog-inflected past with its groove-focused present. Unlike with Omni and 2012’s Infinity Overhead, Minus The Bear finally finds a way to make those effects pedals work alongside synth backings. Not only that, Snider’s swagger sounds downright earned this time around. But the band can’t keep up. After putting its best foot forward, Minus The Bear goes back to that well over and over again, with increasingly diminished returns. While an album of ’80s-styled pop played by a band with a penchant for fretboard theatrics could be thrilling, VOIDS stumbles more than it should.