Oneohtrix Point Never, Frankie Rose, GBV, and more in this week’s music reviews
Oneohtrix Point Never makes a confident foray into film scores with Good Time
Oneohtrix Point Never, Good Time OST
Daniel Lopatin has done film scores before (The Bling Ring, Partisan), but never under his Oneohtrix Point Never moniker. Of course, you could argue that most of his Oneohtrix albums are basically film scores. His early, melancholy synth-scapes, as collected on 2013’s Rifts, reflected murky sci-fi dreams in both their aesthetic and in titles like “Terminator Lake.” And while he’s expanded on that palette since, the liquid textures, vaporous sighs, and bursts of pixilated noise he’s incorporated continue to occupy a place somewhere between music and sound design. Still, it seems significant that Lopatin has delivered this score for the upcoming Robert Pattinson crime thriller Good Time under the Oneohtrix name—an implicit demand that it be considered in the context of that project, rather than as a side gig.
In that sense, Good Time makes an auspicious addition to the Oneohtrix catalogue, having already picked up the Soundtrack Award at this year’s Cannes and landed several complimentary callouts in early reviews, which means it’s been garnering attention from people not normally given to experimental electronic music. Still, while the score itself is both exceptional and enjoyable, it’s also some of Oneohtrix’s least distinctive work. Rather, it’s very much in the sparkling neon spirit of 1980s Tangerine Dream, particularly the score for Michael Mann’s Thief (the same rubric followed by Cliff Martinez on Drive), and there are nods throughout to John Carpenter, Wendy Carlos, and the forgotten VHS horror aesthetic that’s currently so in vogue. Again, the same could be said of all of Lopatin’s work, but here he’s mostly recreating it, rather than deconstructing it.
That said, it’s a masterful job of homage, and—as with Thief and Drive before it—all those pulsating synths and cavernous low tones give the film much of its swagger, and they promise to intensify your own, far less exciting commute as well. Cascading arpeggiations, plucked bass stabs, proggy pitch-bends, and a few tastefully deployed Jan Hammer keytar squeals (plus a few not-so-tasteful ones) combine to create a racing-through-grimy-back-alleys propulsion that matches the movie’s aura of claustrophobic desperation. The opening title track functions as a sort of mini-suite, building from a deep, THX-note crescendo into aquatic dub techno burbles, before exploding into a vintage ’80s car chase cleverly punctuated by strange, pained howls. The tribal beats of “Romance Apocalypse” kick off a mid-album hot streak that continues through the church-organ hot flashes of “The Acid Hits” and into the icily precise digital burble of “Leaving The Park.” And other than a handful of ambient interludes colored by random clatters, along with some hallucinatory, heavily echoed samples of Jennifer Jason Leigh yelling at you, the score mostly finds that frantic, strobe-light throb and sticks to it, until the huge Vangelis synth swells of “Connie” deliver a final emotional release.
“Connie” would be satisfying conclusion enough, but Good Time actually ends with “The Pure And The Damned”—a somber collaboration with Iggy Pop that finds the wizened Stooge croakily lamenting the human condition in world-weary, Leonard Cohen mode, all while Lopatin surrounds him with low, mournful piano. It’s an arresting number that evokes Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt”—although it’s a touch too wry to be anywhere near as devastating. And once again, there’s little that ties it to Oneohtrix’s usual sonic collage. Nevertheless, like the score that precedes it, the song affirms Lopatin as a versatile, valuable creator of tension and mood, whatever the setting. Hopefully Good Time is just the start of more filmmakers making use of him—whatever name he wants to do it under.
A period of personal crisis helps Frankie Rose craft her most resonant solo record
Frankie Rose, Cage Tropical
After her solo breakout with 2012’s Interstellar, Brooklyn dream-pop mainstay (and former member of Dum Dum Girls) Frankie Rose moved to Los Angeles. The change of scenery didn’t go as expected: She moved back in with her parents and wound up working on a catering truck before returning to New York 18 months later. Nevertheless, her identity crisis ended up being a creative boon. Cage Tropical, recorded on a shoestring budget and born out of her brief depression, is her best and most resonant record yet.
Like Rose’s other efforts, Cage Tropical has a decidedly retro vibe. At various times, it calls to mind the ethereal cascades favored by Cocteau Twins (“Art Bell,” “Red Museum”); majestic dream-pop throwbacks (standout “Game To Play”; the piano-iced, tranquil instrumental “Epic Slack”); and gauzy ’90s shoegazers (the Krautrock-influenced “Trouble”). But though it’s culled from vintage post-punk and synth-pop, the arrangements have a modern, deliberate complexity—“Dyson Sphere” ends in a shower of braided vocal harmonies in lockstep with neon-glow keyboards and roiling bass—while the record as a whole has a vital, biting edge.
The eerie keyboard shimmers pooling through “Decontrol” resemble Gary Numan’s alien late-’70s work, while “Dancing Down The Hall” is a gothic rock swoon with hypnotic vocal twinning and nods to Depeche Mode’s moodiness. Interpolations of The Cure’s rumbling bass lines and sighing grayscale textures lurk beneath the surface, as do nods to the vaporous, synth-based movie soundtrack work favored by John Carpenter. Cage Tropical possesses darker dimensions and inspirations, driven by twinges of velocity and an unsettled vibe. This combination suits Rose well: Her music may have emerged from a period of great turmoil, but, in the process, she’s found a new path forward.
Milo’s brainy, beautiful Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?! is his best yet
Milo, Who Told You To Think??!!?!?!?!
“Brainy” rappers are often viewed almost exclusively through the lens of their intelligence. The medium always radiates a love of language, valorizing knowledge at an almost existential level, and so rappers on the more cerebral end of the spectrum often get reduced to the scope of their references, the density of their syntax. We’ve seen the charts detailing how many words Aesop Rock has used on his records (short version: a lot), and rappers from Hellfyre Club like Milo are similarly characterized by all the different fields of knowledge and pop culture crammed into their verses. The rapper’s new Who Told You To Think starts with an extended sample of James Baldwin talking about the nature of art and existence, and his opening verse wedges together Dirk Diggler, Avatar, Skyrim, “virtue signaling,” and more. The record’s full of references like these—particularly focusing on technology and humanism, reaching an unlikely emotional apex with a line about Pokémon Go, of all things.
But it’s a moment right after the Skyrim/Avatar verse that’s more indicative of the direction he’s taken on Who Told You To Think, when his cadence slows, and he spits, with refreshingly plainspoken braggadocio, “I’m back on my black Bukowski bullshit / Fuck your notepad, wrote a poem with a toolkit.” It’s a sort of cleanly intelligible bridge between his intelligence (and cultural omnivorousness) and the pleasure center punched by more traditional rap records, something he’s sounded increasingly willing to do across his discography. His voice has always had a pleasant burr to it, but earlier records featured lyrics that ran roughshod over the fuzzy ambient and skittering IDM beats. Here he’s willing to play nice, work with the drums, crafting strange hooks and earworms that arise organically. Halfway through “Paging Mr. Bill Nunn,” he indulges the beat’s gradual metamorphosis with a repeated “He don’t know me very well, do he”; on “Sorcerer,” he turns the beat’s spiraling melody into an aching mantra, repeating again and again, “I flourish in the lag time,” his voice growing hoarse and tense and clenched.
These are moments that stick with you—footholds as you dig into his thorny musings on technology, selfhood, and hip-hop. It’s easily his best record to date, with tracks built on clean loops (“Yet Another” may as well be a Stones Throw beat) nestling easily alongside his more characteristically expansive soundscapes. As the Baldwin quote at the outset makes clear, Who Told You To Think is obsessed with nothing less than the human impulse to create, the will toward art as an act of both defiance and primal manifestation. Milo’s still firmly making experimental hip-hop, bridging various through-lines of mind-expanding boom-bap, but he’s also etching his way toward the center, his art getting clearer with each step.
Downtown Boys’ Sub Pop debut gives its political rabble-rousing laser focus
Downtown Boys, Cost Of Living
Anyone who thinks that post-election music isn’t political enough hasn’t been paying attention to Downtown Boys. Over the last half-decade, the Providence, Rhode Island-formed punk troupe has grown into one of the most outspoken, galvanizing bands around. Whether railing against crap landlords (“Slumlord Sal”) or fomenting a forward-thinking revolution (“Wave Of History”), Downtown Boys are committed to envisioning, and then manifesting, a more radical, equitable future.
Cost Of Living, the band’s Sub Pop debut, is even more laser-focused on this goal. Produced by Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, the record is an unrelenting barrage of razor-sharp guitar riots, pogo-punk grooves, and defiant sentiments, sung in both English and Spanish. Although X-Ray Spex is still a heavy influence—especially on the piercing, raucous “I’m Enough (I Want More)”—Downtown Boys noticeably expand their sound in subtle and smart ways. Echoes of the taut, ragged punk of The Jam’s early work reverberate through “A Wall,” while a recurring, droning keyboard line adds menace to highlight “Lips That Bite.” Urgent keyboard stabs also shade “Promissory Note,” although that song is even better served by insurgent saxophone.
Lyrically, Cost Of Living focuses on reclaiming spaces and places—physical, emotional, cultural, and societal—through any means necessary. “A Wall” disabuses people of the notion that a discriminatory physical barrier will work (“A wall is a wall / And nothing more at all”) while “It Can’t Wait” calls out the hypocritical (and unwarranted) fear that fuels bigotry and racism: “You’re worried I’ll treat you like you treat me.”
These political gambits are so effective and powerful because of Downtown Boys’ ferocious approach. Take “Lips That Bite,” which is about roaring back to life in the face of a setback. Vocalist Victoria Ruiz seethes, “I cut the hand / That shakes the hand,” and repeats the latter line eight times, with increasing speed and frenzied tone. Only then does she defiantly howl, “That wastes my time.” Ruiz teases out that phrase thrice, with deliberate and crisp enunciation. Her message is crystal clear, as is the rest of Cost Of Living. Downtown Boys is determined to be the kind of band we need right now, delivering the kind of punk that that aims to change the world.
Blondes have more (relative) fun on the club-ready Warmth
Blondes started off seeming more like a commentary on dance music than dance music itself. The (brunette) Brooklyn duo of Sam Haar and Zach Steinman made techno bangers out of purely analog instruments and jammed them out live in single takes, creating what felt like club music imagined by—and for—people who would never actually dance in one. But they couldn’t hide their knack for MDMA anthems for long; both 2012’s self-titled debut and 2013’s Swisher LP contained moments of unabashed house music euphoria, albeit still with a slightly more introspective, trapped-in-a-K-hole bent. And now comes Warmth, which sees the duo moving to the dance-forward R&S Records, while promising its most club-focused collection yet. Blondes are wallflowers no more.
Of course, that’s all still relative. Warmth isn’t going to be mistaken for Avicii anytime soon—and in many ways, it’s more subdued than some of Blondes’ previous work, lacking anything like the kaleidoscopic sparkle of 2015’s “Persuasion” or “Rein,” for example. Nevertheless, it dials down the experimentation just enough to foreground a persistent, four-on-the-floor pulse that runs throughout its 10 tracks, making it easy to imagine it working just as well at a crowded party as it does in the headphones. Outside of the harsh feedback squalls and industrial clangor of “All You,” the album maintains a feeling that’s bubbly and, well, warm, with some tracks—like “Clipse,” with its spiraling chime loops, and the sighing female vocal splices of “KDM”—even approaching the hypnotic bliss of occasional collaborator The Field.
As before, the minimalist, dub-techno throbs of Basic Channel are a huge influence here, with “Quality Of Life,” “Trust,” and “MRO” all recalling that other, influential duo in their precision beats, reverbed knocks, and ultrasound moth flutters. “Stringer” adds some intriguingly off-kilter synth-organ notes and what sounds like someone banging on the hull of a submarine to that formula. But both opener “OP Actual” and the gorgeous closer “Cleo” stray from that rubric—the former with its muted ambient tones and sonar pings, the latter with clattering, rain-stick percussion and spectral choirs. Taken all together, Warmth is an enveloping listen, whether you’re the type to get up and move to music, or just sit and overthink it.
Guided By Voices keeps plugging away on the hook-laden How Do You Spell Heaven
Guided By Voices, How Do You Spell Heaven
From its 50-song-plus live set lists to its semi-annual album releases to its large and tangled web of side projects and solo releases, keeping up with all things Guided By Voices is a full-time job. Earlier this year, the group released its 100th album, August By Cake, and now, four months later, Robert Pollard and company are already back with album No. 101, How Do You Spell Heaven. With only one of its songs clocking in at Pollard’s preferred length of one minute or less (the rest squarely between two and three), that’s a speedy turnaround, even for him.
August By Cake featured musically distinctive contributions from every member of the band, but How Do You Spell Heaven is very much a Pollard record. It opens with one of Pollard’s beloved call-to-action party songs, the catchy “The Birthday Democrats,” and it maintains that energy throughout the first half, through the winking “Boy W” and its references to “maximum high kicks” and the classic GBV hooks and handclaps in “Cretinous Number Ones.” Their rough edges worn smooth by touring, GBV’s latest lineup really coalesces here, bringing a polished sound to the classic rock-influenced guitars in “King 007,” the driving last third of “Paper Cutz,” and the Nick Lowe-esque acoustic intro to “Nothing Gets You Real.” That’s contrasted to the spare campfire jam that opens “Tenth Century,” which briefly mirrors the vulnerability of Pollard’s recent single, “What Begins On New Year’s Day,” before retreating to the delirious familiarity of straight rock ’n’ roll chords.
Still, How Do You Spell Heaven suffers from having a tad too much of Pollard’s lone influence, and as a result, it’s overloaded with the kind of mid-tempo filler that takes a few listens to really stand out. Even still, it’s a uniformly enjoyable listen, one that’s mostly upbeat—the disillusioned “How To Murder A Man” is the sole downer, and even that picks up in a swirl of guitars at the end—and an album wholly of Pollard’s long-road-tested style. Perhaps nothing here, not even the ebullient power pop of “Diver Dan,” is likely to become an all-time classic, but Heaven affirms Pollard’s ability to write off-kilter-yet-addictive melodies remains undiminished after all these years. Besides, there surely is a new classic to come, whether it’s on record No. 102 or 122.