The Hot Take #12: The Weeknd, Health, Kacey Musgraves, Dan Auerbach

This week’s singles, reviewed
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This week’s singles, reviewed

Welcome to The Hot Take, a feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the closing week. This time we take a look at the new singles from Health, Kacey Musgraves, The Weeknd, and Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs

Song of the Week: Health, “Stonefist”

Sam Catlin: The Health song I’ve always been waiting for, the ultimate distillation of all their strengths, the perfect marriage of their brain-pulverizing noise-rock attack, dancefloor-baiting electro tendencies, and not-so-secret pop songwriting gifts. It’s the same genreless line treaded by Sleigh Bells, but instead of that duo’s Bring It On-meets-Loveless anachronism, HEALTH go all in on the gothy vibes of their erstwhile remixers Crystal Castles and the sleazy despair of Black City-era Matthew Dear. “Stonefist” is a big, nasty piece of songcraft designed to fill rooms with shuddering waves of static and black magic. My downstairs neighbors have never hated me more, but I’m gonna put a hex on them. A-

Genevieve Oliver: Try Dirty Beaches if you want thrashing noise and deep feelings. C-

Brendan Frank: Health have spent several years fleshing “Stonefist” out during their live performances, and it shows. It is a thrilling piece of noise pop, even if it has all the subtlety of a chainsaw. Every piece bleeds into one another like saturated watercolours. It’s abrasive and brash, but underneath all of the clangour is a surprisingly danceable tune. B+

Stephanie Moise: OK, I love this. Dark and pulsating, as usual, with a melody that's easy to follow? You have my support. Lyrics that can actually be understood? Sold, sold, sold. These guys could chant vague, creepy omens, set it against their drum kit and I'd be all over it. Actually, I feel like they may have done that already. This one is great. Softer than their usual stuff but still that signature driving beat that makes you want to star in an insane thriller. Approachable, dramatic, dope. A

Nathan Wisnicki: I keep reminding myself to catch up with these guys, since I liked the grinding machinery effects they delivered six years ago with a track called “Die Young”. Or at least I used to keep reminding myself. If they’ve turned into this - basically an even less sexy version of the Weeknd (not a compliment) with some token abrasion thrown in to seem Serious (abrasion which sounds like lower-drawer Sleigh Bells, God help us all) - I may have to put that catch-up on hold. A long hold. That voice…good lord, is that what they sound like these days? C

Zach Bernstein: That opening noise fanfare (of sorts?), mercilessly repeated several times over the course of the song, gives me a migraine. C-

Average: B-

Kacey Musgraves, “Family is Family”

Luis Tovar: Kacey Musgraves continues to peddle platitudes as inspiring country pop self-help. In “Biscuits”, her other single from her upcoming LP, Pageant Material, she found it necessary to reiterate, verbatim, a lesson we all learned from Bambi. “Family is Family” is even less lyrically ambitious—Ack! Family! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em!—but it is every bit as charming and buoyant as her big 2013 single “Follow Your Arrow” (which, if we’re being honest, is as inspiring as an episode of Glee to anyone who subscribes to a worldview outside of mainstream country’s gross insularity). Musgraves has done really well for herself, modeling most of her singles after Taylor Swift’s wonderful 2011 single “Mean”, and for the most part pulling it off with a confidence that can surpass Swift’s. I’m just sitting here wondering why Musgraves’ new singles have toned down her irreverent (for Nashville) attitude and moral relativism. Still, I can’t get myself to rate this lower than a B. It’s just so fucking pleasant.

Zach Bernstein: Now this song made me laugh out loud. Kacey Musgraves seems to be the blogosphere's chosen country artist worthy of critical evaluation (RIP TSwift's country career), and I think this track is great. Its articulation of the paradox of family life is nothing particularly new, but Musgraves has such a wonderful way of juxtaposing the helium sweetness of her voice and folksiness of her instrumentation with the complete acidity of her lyrics. This is real country music. B+

Nathan Wisnicki: I adore Kacey at her best, and was lucky enough to catch her live a few months ago, wherein she and her band closed with an adorable a capella lullaby. I like her kind-heartedness, her offhand attention to detail, her voice itself. A big fan of the recent gate-storming of contemporary country’s jock-douchery by talented women - Kacey of course, but also Ashley Monroe, Sunny Sweeney, Brandy Clark, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert above all - I’m still looking forward to Kacey’s upcoming follow-up to 2013’s wonderful Same Trailer Different Park. But this one strongly, strongly brings to mind a lesser re-write of that album’s “Follow Your Arrow”, so much so that I’ve now started to worry. That said, the sound of her voice is undeniably charming as always. B-

Genevieve Oliver: I’ve never been a country fan (hence the B rating – this is just not my thing) but I think everyone can appreciate Musgraves’ smart musings on the meaning of family, from giving you your first beer to asking you for money when they know you’re broke. It’s very interesting, if somewhat mystifying, that she’s received a lot of attention from the indie music press lately — I’m excited to see how her star continues to rise. B-

Sam Catlin: Do other people like this? If so, I’m happy to be the one person who finds it intolerable. This profoundly boring song has nothing to say; contradictions alone do not an interesting perspective make. These are the same ambivalent feelings about family you’ll find at the end of, like, a Brady Bunch episode or something. “Ha! Family! So annoying, but you love ‘em anyway! Sometimes they die and it’s sad! But you’re surrounded by people you love and that’s not sad!” Very illuminating. It’s maddeningly catchy though — just like the common cold. As ever, Kacey Musgraves has a nice presence, and it shines through here. It’s just that she’s capable of writing much, much better songs than this. D

Average: B-

The Weeknd, “Can’t Feel My Face”

Luis Tovar: Let’s recap: “The Hills” was for the kids-these-days’ Molly comedowns. “Can’t Feel My Face” is the story of how they got there. Oh, and, after teasing us with “Dirty Diana” in 2011, the Weeknd finally went full Michael Jackson on us. Yeah, I really like this. B+

Zach Bernstein: Whoa, I really did not expect that disco breakdown in the chorus. It was obvious to see the Weeknd's MJ envy on his howling cover of "Dirty Diana" a few years back, but on this one he really goes for it — bass-heavy dance beat, pleading high vocals - this would hardly have seemed out of place in the King of Pop's catalog. It's also probably the poppiest thing Abel Tesfaye has done yet on his own — perhaps he's taken a liking to the mainstream spotlight afforded him by Ariana Grande collaborations, top Coachella slots, and Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack real estate. All in all, really solid, catchy track — should be interesting to see where the Weeknd goes with his next full-length. B+

Nathan Wisnicki: The highlight here is the vocal leap before the drop near the beginning. Why? Because it reminds me of Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream”. Take that as you will. This guy’s voice seems to get whinier by the week, God knows how, and when it’s looped over itself over and over again - as it is here - it just sounds kinda ridiculous. To quote the eminent internet reviewer Todd in the Shadows, his voice sounds like a leaking balloon. C

Brendan Frank: I expressed my concerns about Abel Tesfaye’s stagnation as an artist the other week. Suffice to say, there’s really nothing that I didn’t say about “The Hills” that cannot be said about “Can’t Feel My Face” … in its first 45 seconds. The unexpected gearshift into funk is a pleasant and surprising shift, even if Tesfaye still can’t seem to escape the vortex of self-destructive hedonism at the core of his identity. The call-and-response Tesfaye does with himself during the final chorus is a little goofy, but overall, it works. B

Sam Catlin: What? Is this a love song by the Weeknd? One that uses drugs as a metaphor for love, rather than the other way around? Ugh, gross. What does Abel Tesfaye think we showed up for? Genuine emotion? Please. It’s fine, I guess, but if I want a decent MJ homage by a morally reprehensible man, I’ll still take Chris Brown over this. D+

Stephanie Moise: Ah, another song from the Weeknd about drugs and sex. To be fair, he's pretty damn good at setting that mood. This one is a little bit more fast paced and funky, I'm ready for the requisite comparisons to Bruno Mars, Michael Jackson, etc. It's not his best; I don't even like it more than his other new one, "The Hills." And it feels weird to hear The Weeknd's music sound almost upbeat, even if the lyrics stay the same. Overall, while it's a nice attempt at trying something new, I don't think it's a successful one. C+

Average: B-

Dan Auerbach’s The Arcs, “Stay In My Corner”

Genevieve Oliver: This is gearing up to be the Summer of Soul Nostalgia, and I’m only somewhat weirded out by it. “Stay in My Corner” is a good listen but I’ll be listening to Leon Bridges while I get stoned in the park. B-

Nathan Wisnicki: Dan Auerbach’s new side project sounds, on the basis of this song, like a mix of Tame Impala’s chill-out and Real Estate’s slight jangle. If that sounds good to you, godspeed. Me, I fail to hear anything here that I can’t get better (and less unctuously) from the late-‘80s/early-‘90s proto-twee music…well, except for the loudness. And the lethargic tempo. C

Zach Bernstein: I've never found the work of Dan Auerbach's Black Keys particularly interesting. I can't exactly describe it - maybe it's the heaviness of their sound that weighs me down. The same thing holds true for me with most of Jack White's body of work as well. Either way, in keeping with that precedent, this track doesn't really do it for me either. I'm not denying the artistry - it's well constructed, well produced, and pretty sounding, but not a song I would listen to more than once. C+

Sam Catlin: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ C-

Average: C+