Julien Baker’s crushingly intimate songs get more breathing room on Turn Out The Lights, Weezer feels caught in an endless summer, and John Maus’ hypnotic Screen Memories is either genius or a joke. These plus Ty Dolla Sign in the week’s notable releases.
Note: Our review of Fever Ray’s Plunge, released today, is forthcoming.
Julien Baker, Turn Out The Lights
Julien Baker’s debut, Sprained Ankle, was a hauntingly sparse, shockingly mature album recorded in the span of a few days by an 18-year-old former hardcore kid with help from her friend. One of the best albums of 2015, it attracted an overwhelming amount of acclaim, and Baker seemed understandably rattled by the attention to her deeply personal songs. After signing to indie powerhouse Matador Records, Baker is now poised for even brighter lights and bigger stages. But she keeps a tight grip on the reins on the new Turn Out The Lights, which she self-produced at in her hometown’s legendary Ardent Studios.
While the songs remain spare, she builds them out with strings (“Over,” “Appointments, “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” “Hurt Less,” “Claws In Your Back”), and clarinet and saxophone (“Over,” “Appointments”). Baker also bases several songs on piano instead of her usual guitar (“Televangelist,” “Everything That Helps You Sleep,” “Hurt Less,” “Claws In Your Back”). The short instrumental opener “Over” sets the tone: the sound of a door opening and closing, some footsteps, then Baker sitting at a piano and playing.
As Baker digs into mental health, relationships, faith, and adulthood, Turn Out The Lights is, understandably, absolutely crushing. Nearly every song has a devastating turn of phrase: the strained optimism in “Appointments” (“I think if I fail again, that I know you’re still listening / Maybe it’s all gonna turn out all right / I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is”); the suicidal impulses in “Turn Out The Lights” (“I’d never do it, but it’s not a joke / I can’t tell the difference when I’m alone”); the mental anguish of “Shadowboxing” (“You can’t even imagine how badly it hurts just to think sometimes / How I think almost all of the time”); the broken relationship in “Sour Breath” (“You’re everything I want and I’m all you dread”); the anxious insomnia of “Everything To Help You Sleep” (“Lord, Lord, Lord is there some way to make it stop / Nothing that I do has ever helped to turn it off”). It goes on and on like that.
But there’s also a newfound, weary optimism beneath it all. In “Happy To Be Here”—whose guitar recalls Jimmy Eat World’s similarly somber “Roller Queen”—Baker sings of becoming an electrician to fix her “faulty circuitry,” saying, “I heard there’s a fix for everything, then why not me?” Yet whether hopeful or wallowing, Turn Out The Lights is beautifully crafted throughout, full of the kinds of songs that linger long after they’ve ended. Baker doesn’t make it easy, but fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
RIYL: Waxahatchee. Elliott Smith. EMA. Sadness.
Start here: Building on Baker’s voice and guitar, the title track moves slowly to an expansive crescendo, shifting the song from intimate and unsure to something more powerful and empowering. [Kyle Ryan]
Weezer, Pacific Daydream
Rivers Cuomo’s fascination with the West Coast—from the Blue Album’s “Surf Wax America” to the Green Album’s “Island In The Sun” to Make Believe’s “Beverly Hills”—is well established. But more recently, it’s become an all-consuming obsession; last year’s White Album was more or less a concept album about summer love. The new Pacific Daydream continues that coconut-scented theme, albeit with even staler songs. The Weezer frontman continues to tap that increasingly dry well, his dusty lovelorn longings for perfect summer nights now sounding completely formulaic.
The “summer love” theme shows up from the get-go in leadoff track “Mexican Fender,” which also awkwardly rhymes “computer programming” with “end up jamming” on its way to a lame “She loves me / She loves me not” chorus. It continues through the schlocky “Feels Like Summer” and Cuomo’s ode to his longtime favorite “Beach Boys”—where Brian Bell’s dreamy, ’70s radio guitar works hard to overcome Cuomo’s flat platitudes about how listening to them “keeps you young”—as well as in Cuomo’s rhapsodic waxing over coconut and lime in “Happy Hour.” “La Mancha Screwjob” also extols the virtues of “hanging out on a summer night,” backed by some fun, insect-inspired percussion. But after so many trips to the beach, it all ends up hazily forgettable. There’s something hollow, too, about Cuomo—now a married father—still singing from the perspective of a teenage nerd who “can’t find anyone to do algebra with me” on the nostalgic “QB Blitz.” Throughout it all, the irrepressible hooks that have saved lesser Weezer songs are, unfortunately, nowhere to be found.
With 11 albums now to its credit, to Weezer’s disadvantage, there’s now a wealth of previous releases to compare itself to. And while all of Pacific Daydream is typically well-crafted—with expert production, luxurious swaths of guitars and effects, and those still-tight harmonies—it highlights that, at this point in the band’s career, what Weezer could use most is some digression. Instead, what Pacific Daydream offers is little more than another reason to tour.
RIYL: Weezer, especially enough to be a fan of even their C-level songs. The Beach Boys, especially their stuff about surfing. Still obsessing over high school. The smell of Coppertone.
Start here: “Get Right” blessedly leaves the beach for a welcome nighttime jaunt that sounds like it could soundtrack an ’80s caper movie. [Gwen Ihnat]
John Maus, Screen Memories
John Maus is a dazzlingly bright guy—a former professor of political philosophy who drops casual reference to ontology and ecclesiastical modes in interviews—who also happens to make incredibly dumb music. Because there is so much theory surrounding his music’s intent, much of the response to it can feel theoretical as well: His stock palette of analog synths; flattened drum machines; and gloomy, echoing vocals isn’t more retro-’80s nostalgia; rather, it’s an evocation of a harmonic tradition dating back to the Renaissance. Lyrics like “Grandma peed her pants again / And I got it on my hand” aren’t the kind of juvenile sing-song 12-year-olds might make up in the back of the school bus; actually, they’re subversive expressions of the symbolic constraints placed on us by language. The question posed here, you see, is not whether these songs are cheesy and dumb, but whether pop music itself is, and whether this is what makes it truly sublime.
Screen Memories—Maus’ first since 2011’s We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves garnered him an obsessive cult that’s already pissed about the preceding paragraph, and spawned endless think-pieces littered with Derrida references—only promises to muddle this conversation. On the one hand, it’s another record full of haunting, churning synth lines rendered with impressive precision, burbling over Cure-esque bass lines and under Maus doing his best Sleepy Ian Curtis. There’s nothing so lovely here as We Must Become’s (Molly Nilsson-written) “Hey Moon”—although the hazy spirals of “Decide Decide” come awfully close, thanks partly to Maus trading his usual baritone for a Bradford Cox-like sigh. But generally speaking, it builds on that record’s understanding of hooks, however muted under layers of murky reverb. Chances are you’ll once again walk away with some of its lyrics rattling around your brain.
On the other hand, those lyrics have never seemed more like open dares to take them way, way too seriously. “Teenage Witch” is built almost entirely on the couplet “Teenage witch / Want to start a fire witch.” “Touchdown” repeats the phrase “Go for the touchdown / Yeah, the touchdown” while literally describing what happens in a football game. “Pets” consists solely of the line, “Your pets are gonna die.” Perhaps these are all brilliantly concise, impressionistic sketches of our postmodern American angst—or maybe they’re just fucking stupid. Whatever interpretation you choose to bring to it, Maus’ music does have an undeniably hypnotic pull. Sometimes it’s even enough to convince you you’re hearing something else.
RIYL: Synthwave. Chillwave. Vaporwave. Pretentious-made-up-genre-wave. Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!. Having intense discussions about subtext with people who may or may not be kidding.
Start here: “Teenage Witch” is a pretty good litmus test for whether you find Maus’ music to be genius or a joke. [Sean O’Neal]
Ty Dolla $ign, Beach House 3
On Beach House 3, Ty Dolla $ign finds himself. Not morally—he’s still floating with great delight through a fog of druggy, misogynistic excess, so high he actually means it when he says he’s in love. No, the reliable hookman finds himself here by caring less than ever, sending his sweet tenor over airy Prince pop (“Love U Better”), aqueous ambient (“Daw$in’$ Breek”), and sprightly lite reggae (“$o Am I”), transforming the bleating dubstep-like intensity of earlier efforts into something warm and more mature.
The roster of A-list guest rappers—YG, Lil Wayne, Swae Lee, Future—all provide just enough contrast to highlight the weird versatility of Ty’s voice, which he spits rapid-fire or screwed or raspy or unvarnished, depending on what the frequently co-produced tracks need. But while 2015’s Free TC felt designed to impress, a little too encyclopedic and earnest for its own good, Beach House 3 takes its concept literally, soundtracking a hypothetical bender in a paradise where the comedown never arrives. (The closest it gets is a track called “$ide Effect$,” which makes actual side effects sound like a type of tropical drink.) It’s just a blurring sea of smiling faces, drugs, and anonymous women, one sunset fading into the next forever.
RIYL: Jeremih. Curren$y. “Clubbing.” Luxury goods.
Start here: “Love U Better” perfectly splits the difference between its two guests, with an aching The-Dream melody and one of those late-game Weezy verses the old guy proves he can still peel off every now and then. [Clayton Purdom]
Purchasing via Amazon helps support The A.V. Club.