The Hot Take #13: Robyn, Beck, Miguel, and More

The week's singles reviewed
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The 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 Robyn, Beck, Eagles of Death Metal, Miguel, Mac DeMarco, Ratatat and Vince Staples

Song of the Week: Robyn & La Bagatelle Magique, “Love is Free” 

Nathan Wisnicki: I adore this woman; adore everything from her quirky dance moves to her hair to, yes, her music itself. The direction she’s been going post-Body Talk - the Röyksopp EP last year and now this - is very throbby and club-ready, almost to a worrying extent; she could overbalance and produce something really atrocious if she’s not careful. That said, this does what “Sayit” on last year’s EP did, and she’s not playing the sexy android this time; it’s just pure propulsion, her voice half-rapping coolly and effortlessly over the jittery drum programming. It’s simple, and I hope she re-ignites her sense of melody, since that is after all one of her primary talents. But for now, this’ll do fine. B+

Brendan Frank: I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something about “Love Is Free” reminds me of “Bang That”, Disclosure’s free-floating cut from earlier this year. This track is all kinds of fun, conjuring everything from LCD Soundsystem to Factory Floor, mashing in dance and pop touchstones from various eras and regions. You can hear Robyn taking a wider stance, opting to go toe-to-toe with the vocal loops that eschew melody in favour of attitude. There’s no delicacy here; it’s all spunk. A-

Stephanie Moise: Yay, Queen Robyn! Like a groundhog, the pop perfect songstress has stuck her head out for a bit before heading back underground. I'll take the collabs and side projects but where is the album? Gimme a Body Talk Pt. 4! I'll even take a Body Talk Pt. 3.5. I'm loving the return of UK garage, big beat type electronica. It's sexy, fun and plays well here. Robyn talk rapping will never be anything but cute and enjoyable. I'm just going to say it one last time it case it's not clear: I. Need. An. Album. A

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: 1. Put your dance shoes on. 2. Dance. 3. Wait for more, because this shit is awesome. A

Jean-Luc Marsh: Any new material from Robyn is a cause for celebration, and “Love Is Free” is no exception to the rule. While it’s no “Dancing On My Own” or “Call Your Girlfriend” (honestly, did you think lightning would strike thrice?), “Love Is Free” hits the sweet, danceable spot that any Robyn song aspires to by way of its slick production, an amalgam of 90s deep house elements and that high-pitched sound endemic to samba music. (It comes from an instrument called the cuíca—which, full disclosure, I had to look up). Guest Maluca’s foray into Spanglish only serves as the icing on the cake in terms of Latin flourishes, giving some hope that Robyn’s forthcoming mini-album (again…) with her band La Bagatelle Magique might have an intriguing international slant. B

Average: A-

Beck, “Dreams”

Zach Bernstein: I enjoyed Morning Phase, but in a year that gave us the pop monolith Beyonce, Beck's Grammy victory certainly earned its punchline status, continuing a bizarre trend set by Arcade Fire and Bon Iver. For those of us though who love Beck's "2 turntables and a microphone" era, it's easy to remember just how cool Beck can be when he really wants it. This is the first time I've heard ear candy of this caliber from Beck since Guero — a funky, off-kilter guitar hook, Beck's jittery falsetto, and three different changes in tempo. "Partition" was still funkier, but "Dreams" comes pretty close. A-

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: It says a lot about Beck’s impressive musical diversity that I initially mistook the South Korean laundry ad that first loaded on Youtube as his new single. Once again, Beck’s got something surprising for us (read: disco). I’m down with the return of dance-y, fun Beck, especially after 2014’s hat-wearing folksiness. While I hope that the rest of the album offers a little more to think about (as Beck usually does), this is a promising direction for an artist that seems to wander where he pleases. B

Nathan Wisnicki: The news here is that Beck’s back to being fun, but we should’ve expected that. Oh sure, he gives us an “introspective” album every once in a while (to mostly dull results, in my view, and that includes Sea Change), but he always come back to his home base of quirky party music that can unite the jocks and the nerds. Truth be told, this isn’t even as quirky as the singles from something like The Information, to say nothing of his ‘90s work. But fun and hooky it is, and though the wordless backing “whooa-ohh”s are too Coldplay for their own good, it goes from upbeat and dancey to a slower, vaguely psychedelic bridge that actually reminds me of his old studio buddy Carl Stephenson, a.k.a. Forest for the Trees (look him up). B+

Sam Catlin: Splicing white bread indie rock with Prince isn’t anything new, especially not for Beck and especially not since MGMT blew up last decade. But there’s still something to be said for “Dreams,” namely its production: it’s amazing how satisfyingly clean this song sounds. The drum track hits with just the right amount of stickiness, the chugging bassline under the verses boasts just the right amount of grit, and little pockets of empty space shape the song by punctuating it. You can tell Beck knows he’s got a winner here because of the way he vamps it up on the mic; the drawl that turns the title into rubber on the chorus is a contender for the best-sung word of 2015. B

Stephanie Moise: I never know what to expect when I click play on a Beck song. He has been up, down and all around several genres. If I heard an EDM song, I don't think I would blink. This one is nice. Pleasant, reminds me of the Foster the People songs I like to blast when I want life to feel like a Budweiser commercial. And then, the bridge. It momentarily stopped me from filing this away as another indie pumped up jam. Cool. Nice guitar riff. B-

Average: B

Eagles of Death Metal, “Complexity”

Brendan Frank: Unlike Queens of the Stone Age – particularly their mid-Aughts work -- Eagles of Death Metal have never taken themselves too seriously, a mindset that has served them well so far. “Complexity” is the kind of track that you can dismiss as goofy or lightweight, or embrace because it was never intended to be much else. There’s a charming self-awareness to it. Homme and Hughes are conscious what kind of song it is and the limitations of its setup. This is primo highway music; it neither asks for nor earns your full attention. B-

Jean-Luc Marsh: If these hot takes evaluated artwork instead of music, “Complexity” might take the trophy for 2015. However, to be frank, I had never heard of the Eagles of Death Metal before this track appeared on my docket, and with good reason. When their last album, 2008’s Heart On, came out, I was in middle school, a wholesale aficionado of the mainstream fare that they played at school dances during the late aughts (think Flo Rida’s “Low”). The closest thing to rock I heard that year was probably “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles. I’m digressing. The official verdict is that “Complexity” is all right, but it doesn’t make me regret not knowing of EoDM’s existence until now. B

Zach Bernstein: A little helping of classic-rock-leaning nonsense never hurt anybody. As evidenced by the general musical tone and that ridiculous single artwork, Eagles of Death Metal aren't taking themselves too seriously on this one, and there's nothing wrong with that. I personally probably won't spin this too many times, but I can certainly appreciate its breezily boozy vibe, as I'm sure many others will as well. B-

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: Whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it perfectly. This may not be high art, but it’s got sex, humor, and lots of guitar, and if that doesn’t make great rock, I don’t know what does. A-

Sam Catlin: I want to like Eagles of Death Metal because I have a sense of humor, I like joke bands, and I think their band name is genius. But their humor never really seems anchored to anything in particular to me, and the songs themselves don’t provide enough ballast. It just seems like they’re making fun of masculine rock’n’roll theatrics, as seen everywhere from the Eagles to death metal, but the joke doesn’t really work if it’s all the songs have going for them. Musical convictions beyond irony would help this duo out a lot, but as “Complexity” indicates, the years go by and the song remains the same: that is, mediocre. D+

Average: B-

Miguel, “Face The Sun” featuring Lenny Kravitz

Stephanie Moise: I'm going to be honest here. I stopped taking Miguel seriously after he head-slammed that audience member at the Billboard Awards and then kept it moving. There's also the fact that Frank Ocean has pretty much overshadowed him his entire career (Really? You're gonna release your new album the same year as Frank again? AGAIN?) That being said, Miguel is no amateur at baby making music. This one is a bit more expansive than his previous works, thanks Lenny. I feel like actual drums would have served him well on this. Eh. I don't know. I don't see myself adding this to my mix. C+

Zach Bernstein: I just keep getting more and more excited for Wildheart. Miguel is stepping up the atmospheric, hard rock flourishes that dottedKaleidoscope Dream's soundscape, and the results are pretty swoon-worthy. And that voice - Miguel can offer featherweight crooning, piercing falsetto, and impassioned belting in equal measures without missing a beat, and he truly has one of my favorite voices in contemporary R&B. And lest we forget, judging from that guitar solo, Lenny Kravitz can shred when he wants to. A-

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: Who knew what Miguel needed most was some electric guitar? While it takes about two and a half minutes to get good, the track's climax throws the ball to wall, musically speaking, and makes the most out of layering Miguel's crazy, soaring vocals over Kravtiz's equally spectacular guitar. I promise, this is gonna be a good album. B+

Samuel Catlin: As a Miguel song, this is decent but average. As an exploration of just how much echo you can add to a song before it becomes ridiculous, it is a giant step for mankind. I did really dig the Lenny Kravitz part, which maybe says more about me than the song. C+

Nathan Wisnicki: This thing never ends and it’s only four and a half minutes. I found Miguel’s recent “Coffee” genuinely evocative of dreamy morning sex in an anxious world, but this shit’s like a funeral dirge; it just keeps thumping…and thumping…and thumping, slowly getting louder with more layers. The Brian Eno formula, nothing new there. But the song fails by both (a) not making the layers themselves particularly interesting - just typical drifty synths and cold echoey vocals - and (b) including some of the most shamelessly inane baby-baby lyrics I’ve heard in a while. Miguel’s definitely got a better voice than the Weeknd, but the colors of someone like Frank Ocean is clearly beyond him. Big sweeping theatrics, complete with “Purple Rain” howls near the end…yeah, he’s found a formula and he’s running with it. Sadly, I’m betting it won’t get him as far as he thinks. D+

Average: B-

Mac DeMarco, “Another One”

Natalie Dorbandt: "Another One" sounds like a song that an aggressively hip, small company that makes $10 hand-crafted chocolate bars commissioned as its elevator music. That might sound like an insult, but the song is actually really good. Just in time for summer, Mac Demarco is back to consolidate his hold on the "chill music for a warm afternoon" genre with this track, which reminds me of sleepier version of Al Stewart's "Time Passages" crossed with Destroyer's "Kaputt". I like it better with every listen. B

Zach Bernstein: This track just makes me want to curl up by the window in my apartment and stare out at the rainy streets as the cars pass by, and I mean that in the best way possible. This is a heavenly slice of lo-fi melancholy - it won't change your life, but it's just about perfect as encapsulating a particular feeling of urbane loneliness and ennui. That keyboard line is heartbreaking. Just skip the music video - that opening MJ mask will haunt my dreams tonight. A-

Sam Catlin: Another low-key gem from Mac DeMarco. I feel like I never have much to say about his songs when they come up on roundtable, but I think that’s because the magic of his music takes a while to reveal itself fully. For now, I am certain that the ascending scale on the chorus absolutely slays me. B

Jesse Nee-Vogelman: Ah, Mac Demarco, you beautiful weirdo. The video for this song is just so great (Michael Jackson mask and all) and makes explicit just how uncomfortable a gyrating masked Mac Demarco can make me. Similarly, difficult lyrics about the end of love set against Demarco’s relaxed beach rhythms is a recipe for yet another uncomfortably good song from the gap-toothed wonder. B+

Nathan Wisnicki: I’m pretty sure this whole Mac DeMarco thing is just a sociological experiment to see how much insipid navel-gazing “pleasantness” the indie taste arbiters can take without barfing (and while still, simultaneously, not taking whatever’s actually on the pop charts very seriously). Nice people can spin this guy’s niceness any way they like, but the bottom line stares you right in the face: this is airy, shallow music elicited with offensively minimal effort; not even the tiniest risk is taken anywhere. It’s John Lennon’s solo career for people who don’t listen to Lennon because he’s too “dad-rock” (read: too intimidating). Reverb, reverb, reverb. Let’s send this guy packing. D-

Brendan Frank: Even though it sees him taking a break from his weapon of choice, an organ-based track isn’t exactly a shift for Mac DeMarco. Several of the tracks on last year’s Salad Days featured it with varying levels of prominence. On “Another One”, the sadness is palpable, thanks to a pared down sound that draws the focus to Mac’s words. It’s not a gripping track by any means, but it’s still a well-written mood piece. B

Jean-Luc Marsh: I never liked Mac DeMarco’s music. Slacker rock has never been my cup of tea, but DeMarco’s music reaches (or rather ambles toward) another level of lethargy that triggers a physical reaction on my part. His music actually makes me feel sluggish in mind and body, a sensation I am not particularly fond of. (Side note—have you ever tried to multitask or get ready while listening to Mac DeMarco? It’s nigh impossible). “Another One” lacks any of the redeeming features of other songs like “Passing Out Pieces” or “My Kind of Woman” that allowed me to tolerate and find some enjoyable aspect within them. There’s no deeper meditation on life or music video production value here to distract from the languid melody, just a notably enervated performance from a performer who has built a career around being a connoisseur of lassitude. D+

Average: B-

Lightning Round

Ratatat, “Abrasive"

Sam Catlin: Ratatat have the curious distinction of always making fundamentally boring music I would never voluntarily listen to, but which is undeniably mesmerizing. Cannot…stop…listening…. C-

Nathan Wisnicki: I respect these guys because they realize their own modesty. This isn’t as hooky (or funky) as previous single “Cream on Chrome”, but for once ‘80s nostalgia isn’t pretentious or grotesque. B-

Zach Bernstein: Honestly, I can't tell one Ratatat song from another, but this is pleasant enough. B

Stephanie Moise: Ok, but kept waiting for something more. Where's the usual low key swagger? B

Vince Staples, “Get Paid” 

Zach Bernstein: I'm sure that if this came on in the club, I'd enjoy it. Sitting at my desk at work, though, it's tiresome and repetitive. C

Sam Catlin: At my day job making coffee for rich people, we’re only allowed to listen to jazz and ‘70s folk rock, but it’s important to me that the world knows I would blast this shit on repeat all shift long if I could. B

Nathan Wisnicki: Good percussion programming, passable rapping, anxious trebly hook of the kind that seems to show up every other day. C+

Miguel, “…Goingtohell”

Zach Bernstein: Wish I could write more about this one. Sexy as hell and I love it. A

Jean-Luc Marsh: The threat of eternal damnation never sounded so smooth. B+

Luis Tovar: Damn, that's thick. B