The New Pornographers, Arca, Joey Badass, and more in this week’s music reviews
The New Pornographers’ computer blues are missing a crucial component on Whiteout Conditions
You can’t overlook the voice of Dan Bejar, a nasal yowl that has a captivating way of meandering around a melody, often scrambling its way toward the end of a lyric as his tongue shoehorns more words between the remaining beats. But you might miss what an important service that voice provides to the first six albums by The New Pornographers, the power-pop act Bejar formed with Carl Newman and Neko Case at the turn of the 21st century. The Bejar songs are the breathers, even when they’re more breathless than the tracks around them. Bejar’s the cooler, the calming agent, the guy in the trench coat who pauses for a smoke while Newman mouths Bejar’s words in the chaotic video for “War On The East Coast,” the second single from 2014’s Brill Bruisers and one of those aforementioned breathless breathers.
Brill Bruisers and a silent Bejar are the first things brought to mind by Whiteout Conditions, The New Pornographers’ seventh studio LP. The new record continues the previous one’s expanded interest in synthesizers and other electronic textures—this time without the input of Bejar, who was working on new Destroyer material while Whiteout Conditions came together. Originating from Newman’s desire to make a “bubblegum krautrock record,” Whiteout Conditions contains some of The New Pornographers’ most interesting musical ideas, but it lacks a “War On The East Coast,” “The Spirit Of Giving,” or any Bejar-sung reference to women named Jackie or Jenny. And unfortunately, that means it lacks any sense of dynamics for the first four or five songs, until the chopped-up vocal samples that kick off “Second Sleep.”
An album that never takes its foot off the gas wouldn’t have been a knock against New Pornographers 15 years ago, but as the band has matured, so has the emotional range of their work—and for an album that holds off on the ballads, Whiteout Conditions has some complex feelings behind it. With a name that invokes meteorological emergency and a lyric sheet that says, “Only want to get to work / But every morning I’m too sick to drive,” the title track bundles malaise in the sounds of an 8-bit chase scene. The song that follows, “High Ticket Attractions,” is the 2016-election sequel to the Bush-era allegory “The Laws Have Changed,” the hip-swinging of the latter swapped out for arpeggios you can pack a bug-out bag to.
The New Pornographers are one of the only bands that could turn “Is it too late to live in your heart / Too late to burn all your civilian clothes” into a sing-along, but they’ve handcuffed themselves with Whiteout Conditions’ Teutonic aspirations. There’s a sameness to the early songs, and while new drummer Joe Seiders applies a steady hand to the album’s motorik, he doesn’t get the chances to go all Keith Moon that were afforded to predecessor Kurt Dahle. Nifty studio trickery abounds—voices are stacked, bent, and warped, and “Juke” revolves around a loop of what’s either popping lips or a wood block—but this might be the first New Pornographers release where the backdrops are more memorable than the melodies. It can’t all be chalked up to Bejar’s absence; it’s also worth noting that the last three New Pornos releases all improved with repeat listens. But in the immediate, Whiteout Conditions might leave you a little cold.
Arca's self-titled third album exposes his humanity to intoxicating effect
Over the past few years, Arca has used his moniker and album titles as a type of shield. Names like Xen, Mutant, and &&&&& have intriguingly obscured the Venezuelan producer’s work—a hybrid of experimental electronics, IDM, and chamber arrangements—giving listeners room to slip into his tracks and explore without much in the way of authorial guidance. But on his third album, tellingly self-titled, it feels like Alejandro Ghersi is finally ready to expose himself to closer examination, without those barriers. The elastic snapping and industrial manipulations of past releases are downplayed. Instead, Arca sees one of this generation’s most forward-thinking electronic musicians shift the focus from humanity at large to his own worries, with a relatable human openness.
If the skittering fluctuation of Ghersi’s past releases gained him a cult following, then the open-hearted ballads sprinkled throughout Arca should earn him his well-deserved breakthrough—which, given that he’s already collaborated with Kanye West and Björk, really should have happened long ago. From the shaky hums opening “Piel” to the hollow piano chords on closer “Child,” Arca is the sound of Ghersi finally letting go and breathing. His lungs exhale with sorrow on “Anoche”; curiosity wavers behind his teeth on “Coraje.” Ghersi sounds like he’s reached a state of contemplative rest, gliding effortlessly between singing in Spanish and English. Meanwhile, the heavy use of strings augments songs like “Sin Rumbo,” with its usual static glitches and otherwise startling electronic samples, to give the album a meditative core.
Arca isn’t all downtempo reflections. “Castration” twirls through Aphex Twin-styled tension and “Whip” slaps notes with unrelenting force. Ghersi is able to fuse syncopated drumming or software-bent beats with the warmth of string-based instrumentation. These moments come across like the sort of boxed-in anxiety you have while lying in bed, a type of paralyzed fear that manifests the longer you try to relax. Nowadays, our world spins like it’s trying to make itself vomit. Arca moves at a similar speed—so fast that its surroundings, which should be a blur, resemble a still image, giving the illusion of comfort and peace while its heartbeat races.
Joey Badass’ sophomore record, All-Amerikkkan Badass, couches political insight in pop appeal
On All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, Joey Badass and his slate of Pro Era producers repeatedly punch rap-nerd pleasure centers—elemental turntablist interludes, swirling jazz samples, breathlessly smooth stretches of emceeing. The Brooklyn rapper’s 2015 debut was a deceptively light affair that nevertheless held up over the years, in part because, for all his conscious nods to Native Tongues, he took more from them than a high-minded sense of fun and a fixation on Herbie Hancock-derived cool. His fealty was to the low-end theory itself: The drums have to knock. He continues to hold this principle sacrosanct on All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ even as he yanks his sonic palette toward enormous arena-rap choruses and the sort of bright boom-bap that Lupe Fiasco once favored. The anthemic opening third gives way to an almost cartoonishly menacing stretch in the middle before turning reflective, but it all sparkles with the sort of major-label polish peers like A$AP Rocky and the Odd Future diaspora studiedly avoid.
All of which is sort of refreshing—Joey Badass wants to move units without being as joyless as Big Sean or as milquetoast as J. Cole. More power to him. The eager appeals to pop airplay could come across as corny were it not for the album’s unyielding, eloquent sociopolitical sentiment, which seethes out of every verse, hook, and interlude here. Badass is as clear-eyed and consumed by his political focus as an early-aughts backpack rapper. The vitriol of recent albums like To Pimp A Butterfly, There’s Alot Going On, or Summertime ’06 weave their politics into a greater tapestry of life and death, but every second of All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ seethes with thoughts on the fractured American psyche and the effects of the prison-industrial complex on young black men.
While Trump gets name-checked, these are also timeless musings on police, the media, and race; change a couple references and any of this would sound right at home on an early Ice Cube or even Public Enemy record. That so little has changed in 20 years is dismaying, but somehow Joey flips the whole package into something motivational, almost optimistic. He’s still reaching to the golden age for inspiration, but updating it so thoroughly that we’re reminded why we considered it golden in the first place.
Guided By Voices crams even more than usual into the sprawling double-album August By Cake
Given its propensity for 30-second songs and 20-song-plus track lists, the line between a single album and a double album is a thin one for Guided By Voices. Nevertheless, August By Cake is the band’s first official double album, as well as the 100th studio album for bandleader and only constant member Robert Pollard. Clocking in at more than 70 minutes, the 32-song spread represents the full range of GBV’s sound, from jubilant, hook-laden party anthems to pseudo-spoken-word tracks that sound like they were recorded underwater and played through a broken boombox. The music barely hangs together at times, but the potential for the roller-coaster to go flying off the tracks is, as always, part of the fun.
Appropriate for a band whose songwriting frequently nods to The Beatles, varied instrumentation gives August By Cake a Sgt. Pepper’s-esque carnival vibe, with Pollard serving as both barker and geek. Opener “5° On The inside” marches in led by a peppy trumpet with rousing guitars close behind, only to drop into the gravelly-voiced, feedback-drenched “Generox Gray®.” An apocalyptic snippet of audio attributed to “Detective Steven Stefanakos, GBVPD” sets the tone for the sparks of guitar flying off of the hard-rock riffs on “Packing The Dead Zone,” and a drum machine keeps the pace on album highlight “Dr. Feelgood Falls Off The Ocean,” whose up-and-down melody and choppy guitar fills are classic GBV.
Pollard asked each member of GBV—currently consisting of returning members Doug Gillard and Kevin March and newcomers Mark Shue and Bobby Bare Jr.—to contribute two songs to August By Cake, and each interprets the band’s aesthetic in their own way. Bare Jr. keeps it simple on the catchy lo-fi singalong “High Five Hall Of Famers,” while Shue stretches the boundaries of the band’s sound on “Chew The Sand.” Gillard and March, meanwhile, bring similar guitar-pop sensibilities straight out of the ’80s underground; March provides another album highlight in “Sentimental Wars,” whose tender, earnest chorus promises, “Just take my hand, I will be with you always.”
There’s an uplifting current running throughout the album, with Pollard alternating between silly (the Kinks-esque “West Coast Company Man”) and reflective (“Warm Up To Religion”). “When We All Hold Hands At The End Of The World” is as vulnerable as Pollard gets lyrically, a hopeful look forward into oblivion from the vantage of middle age backed by dissonant guitars and a metronome beat. We may even get a glimpse into Pollard’s life that’s not buried behind metaphors about elves on the acoustic track “What Begins On New Year’s Day,” originally released as a solo track on the Amazon compilation Indie For The Holidays.
August By Cake ends strong with the energetic “Escape To Phoenix,” bookended with a gang of (presumably drunk) guys chanting, “Grind up your organ and monkey without me.” Male bonding and camaraderie have always been part of the GBV experience, and the divvied-up songwriting and resulting range of musical viewpoints on August By Cake suggest that Guided By Voices has an eye toward the future beyond just being Robert Pollard’s band. Thirty years on, it’s a smart move to make.
Diet Cig's deceptively simple fuzz-pop on Swear I'm Good At This is retro, but its themes are ageless
A little over halfway through Swear I’m Good At This, the debut album from indie two-piece Diet Cig, singer Alex Luciano croons into the mic, “I know it’s hard showing the world who you are.” Just when you think it’s simply another lyric, she stops singing altogether and asks directly, “… Isn’t it?” It’s a moment that deftly captures the vibe of the band: both sweetly musical and bracingly direct. Luciano genuinely wants an answer—and the group’s excellent debut does its best to demonstrate the value in laying yourself bare.
Musically, Diet Cig would sound right at home with many of the pop-oriented riot grrrl acts of 20 years prior. Combining the fuzzed-out guitars and lo-fi production of TeenBeat artists from the early ’90s with the heart-on-sleeve honesty and raw vibrancy of similarly thin-voiced but deceptively soulful singers like The Third Sex’s Tricia Walsh, Swear I’m Good At This bears all the hallmarks of a potent rallying cry for disconnected youth. It fuses compelling contrasts in an effort to push these simple songs into more ambitious fare, pairing straightforward expressions of heartache and longing with upbeat riffing. Tracks like “Link In Bio” and “Leo” are immediate and catchy, while songs like “Maid Of The Mist” add ascending single-note synth melodies to expand the group’s sonic palette, providing an almost Superchunk-like hook.
In just under a half hour, the band displays a musical confidence rare for a joyfully ragged garage-pop debut. The lyrics of numerous songs detail the perpetual struggle of those just on the cusp of adulthood figuring out the impossible balance between ambition and insecurity, confidence and fear. Luciano can sometimes want to get away from it all (the open-road wanderlust of “Road Trip”), but is at her best exposing the frustrations that read like diary confessions yet, in Diet Cig’s hands, become anthemic sing-alongs. In album closer and single “Tummy Ache,” she captures the essence of her turmoil in a perfect (and perfectly simple) turn of phrase: “Finally it’s time to make my words count / In a way I haven’t quite figured out.” When the final coda kicks back in, it’s almost absurdly cathartic. Diet Cig’s musical pleasures look backward to a previous century, but the power of these pop tunes is timeless.
Clark's Death Peak hides a lot of surprising beauty beneath its ominous crags
Though he doesn’t quite have the name recognition of Aphex Twin or Boards Of Canada, Chris Clark has been holding down the Warp Records legacy as a home for boundary-pushing electronic music for the past 15 years. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that Clark, for all his dizzying technical virtuosity and stylistic diversity, doesn’t have a sound that is as recognizably singular; some of it is just due to the fact that he arrived a decade after those artists (along with Autechre and Squarepusher, two other obvious touchstones) laid the blueprints for his mashups of frenetic techno, ambient blurs, and neoclassical flourishes. But if his self-titled 2014 release went a long way toward paying overdue recognition to his own identity, Death Peak should be received as his official coronation alongside those venerable greats. It is as purely individual a statement as the English producer has released yet.
Happily, it’s also his most approachable, with the producer sounding more euphoric than he has in a long time. Clark’s music has lately often been described in terms like “apocalyptic,” which is a fancy critic’s way of saying there’s a lot of heavy shit going on all at once—beats that resemble muted explosions, ominous string drones, robotic synth lines that sound like the end credits to some sci-fi disaster film. There’s still plenty of that on Death Peak, heard especially in the video-game boss-level blasts of “Hoova” and the distorted hiss-and-churn of “Slap Drones.” But belying its very metal title, it’s all balanced by an unusual amount of beauty—his surprisingly gentle score for 2016’s The Last Panthers seems to have left an impression—abetted here by Clark’s emphasis on using digitally spliced female voices and an overall effort to dial back on the blitzkrieg.
“Butterfly Prowler” may be one of the most straightforwardly enjoyable songs Clark has ever turned out due to that restraint, propelled by a simple, subtle four-on-the-floor rhythm and a persistent, arpeggiated synth line over which washes of those celestial, wordless female voices wax and wane. It’s immediately followed by album centerpiece “Peak Magnetic,” whose fragmented rave floats across six minutes of MDA peaks and valleys over Aphex synth squiggles and a rolling drum beat, held aloft by that distant, heavenly chorus. And that humanity comes to the forefront on “Catastrophe Anthem,” which is built around a persistent loop of a children’s choir singing “We are your ancestors” to alternately soothing and chilling effect.
That song marks the first part of the album’s concluding triptych, bleeding into the spiraling, heavily phased synths of “Living Fantasy” that serve as reflective interlude before the dizzying 10-minute closer “Un U.K.” Here Clark traverses a comprehensive medley of his many skills—building from that gorgeously spectral ambience to coldly alien techno rattling industrial cataclysms, before ending on a pastoral, borderline-schmaltzy wash of strings and singing, giggling choirboys. It’s a bold thesis statement, and after all this time, one that’s unlikely to be mistaken for anyone else.
White Reaper proclaims itself The World’s Best American Band, makes a strong case
Considering the band called its previous album White Reaper Does It Again, the posturing of White Reaper’s latest, The World’s Best American Band, remains suitably in character for the brash garage-rock group. In case the title is lost on listeners, the album-opening title track begins with the roar of an excited audience ostensibly greeting Kentucky’s self-professed kings of American rock.
Or maybe revival rock, because the 10 tracks on Best American Band nod to the ragged proto-punk of the ’60s and ’70s, heavy on distortion, howled vocals, and attitude. (It also would have fit in the early 2000s heyday of The Hives, The Vines, The Von Bondies, et al., though White Reaper has a distinctly grittier take.) It’s easy to imagine rock fans who complain about the state of current popular music taking a shine to White Reaper.
That’s not to say the band’s charms are limited to rockists who feel pop culture has passed them by, because Best American Band has plenty of charm. It also has a lot of hooks, particularly in standout songs like the title track, “Little Silver Cross,” “Crystal Pistol,” “The Stack,” and “Another Day.” “Little Silver Cross” begins atop a wash of synthesizer and staccato bass that segues into an explosively catchy chorus that recalls The National’s “Abel” with strains of Boys And Girls In America-era Hold Steady. But White Reaper has a serrated edge, made more pronounced by the general difficulty of understanding what singer-guitarist Tony Esposito is howling about. The lyric sheet is helpful, if not especially engrossing. (“Another day / No dope / Another day / No fuckin’ nose drugs,” goes “Another Day.”) But it’s the whole package that matters here, and taken together, The World’s Best American Band has the elements of one of the year’s best rock albums.