The Hot Take #2: The National, Janelle Monáe, and more

The week's new singles, reviewed.
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The week's new singles, reviewed.
Torres

Welcome to The Hot Take, a new feature where a selection of writers discuss some of the noteworthy single releases of the closing week. This week we take a look at the new singles from The NationalJanelle Monáe, My Morning JacketJamie xxSBTRKTTorres, Failure, and Du Blonde. If you dig it, stick around every Friday for more.

The National

"Sunshine On My Back"

Peter Tabakis: By-the-numbers National is, by definition, good National. Good National is, as a tautology, reliably moving. Upper-register Berninger is, by personal preference, best of all. But strings are the real selling point here, with or without the assist of a bow. Legato guitar notes, in particular, underscore a familiar lyrical desperation. Sharon Van Etten’s contribution, on the other hand, registers as a mere blip. What a waste. Given more to do, perhaps she could have steered “Sunshine On My Back” into fresher air, if not full-frontal sunlight. B-

Luis Tovar: "Sunshine On My Back" joins "Exile Vilify" and "Think You Can Wait" as exquisite between-album songs from The National, a band so focussed and confident that their slow, iterative movements are often seen as stagnation. I'm no better than any other music writer, I like that new-new and I like it a lot, but there's something comforting in listening to the handicraft of expert musicians who have combed over every detail, every minute, nearly-impercievable deviation from their "sound." Overnight evolution and reinvention are king in popular music, but I'll always make room in my playlist for a band like The National. B

Benji Taylor: Slow-burning, under-stated and stunning, I’ve had this on repeat for the last 12 hours. Few bands can write a song this beautiful and have the audacity to exclude it from their album. They pulled the same trick with "Wake Up Your Saints" back in 2010, and it’s that habit of being so consistently bloody brilliant that means these guys are still the best around. Seemingly a song about unrequited love, this is the perfect meld of malaise and misery to soundrack your Easter. B+

Zachary Bernstein: Isn't that just a classic piece of National imagery right there? Turning one's face away from the sun - Matt Berninger & Co. really have a gift for making the most basic and simple of pleasures sound completely miserable. I can understand why this wasn't included on the excellent Trouble Will Find Me - it's hardly their greatest work, but any new National song is fine by me. Berninger's aching vocal range, that quiet storm of background drumming, the mournful strings - more than anything, this song makes me crave an entirely new National album. Here's hoping we get that one soon. B-

Jesse Nee-Vogelman:Sounds like what it is: A Trouble Will Find Me B-side. That being said, it’s probably an A-side for everyone else, so maybe I’m just disappointed because they’ve spoiled me so. It is nice to hear Matt Berninger’s unbearably somber bass paired with some solid backing lady vocals (courtesy Sharon Van Etten). B

Genevieve Oliver: As I’ve gotten older the only National songs I can summon interest for are the raucous ones (“Sea of Love”) or the ones that explode at the end (“England”). Plus, if there was really sunshine on my back, I’d put on something to match my vitamin D-influenced euphoria. I guess this is just not my thang. C

Samuel Tolzmann: I know I’m probably in the minority here, but a National song needs to be, like, really good to get my attention because, yes, they are all immaculate, but also, they all sound sort of the same. (I’m aware that this is one of the thematic preoccupations of all National songs and I see the irony in my criticism, but moving on.) This new song is a B-side which means that, while it’s pleasant in the way all National songs are pleasant – moody atmosphere, baroque flourishes, witty lyrics, natch – it still wasn’t good enough to get a slot on Trouble Will Find Me, i.e. it is not a Really Good National Song. It is a Just-Okay National Song. Mostly this song made me wish it were a Sharon Van Etten song because her backing vocals are nice and I love her. Sorry! C+

Adam Offitzer: I knew I shouldn't have gotten too excited. Because this isn't really so much a "new" song as a "bonus" track from Trouble Will Find Me. So yes, as always, it's super nice and pretty and mellow and melancholy. But there's a reason it didn't make the album: even by The National standards, it's dull. C

Average:B-

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Janelle Monáe

"Yoga"

Zachary Bernstein: It’s Janelle Monae, so I’m naturally predisposed to love it. Honestly, this isn’t her greatest song, but it’s hilariously awesome to hear Monae temporarily ditch her intellectual android act to indulge in something much more lowbrow and decidedly sleazier. Even so, she elevates the soccer mom workout metaphor to something much sexier and strangely thoughtful than would have occurred in lesser hands. “Yoga” will serve as the highlight of SoulCycle playlists for months to come, and I don’t intend that as an insult. “Get off my areola” – best lyric of 2015 or best lyric of 2015? B

Peter Tabakis: Our slyest chameleon shows Rihanna the right way to make trap and pop play nice — with an elegant touch and a sturdy hook. “Yoga” is more welcoming than “Bitch Better Have My Money,” and yet it’s way more subversive. On the song’s chorus, Monáe commands her Wondaland labelmate Jidenna to bend over. Then she straps one on and goes to town (“Let your booty do that yoga”). Dom and sub swap on Jidenna’s verse, with the potential for a threesome on the horizon. Just another Tuesday night at the Wondaland HQ! Somewhere in Seattle, Dan Savage is raising a celebratory bottle of lube. B+

Luis Tovar: Remember when Janelle Monáe sounded like the future, not just like Future? JK! It's a fool's errand to try to box in a shapeshifter of Monáe's caliber, but out of all of her genre-hopping, her foray into what the GRAMMYs call "urban contemporary" has been my least favorite. Still, even second-tier Janelle can be memorable as all Hell. “You cannot police me, so get off my areolae!” is this year's "They be like, 'Ooh, let them eat cake.' But we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground!" Which is to say, it's the lyric of the year. B

Samuel Tolzmann: We’ve long known that Janelle Monáe can run shit in basically any genre, from film scores to English folk, but it’s notable how, although she’s occasionally cracked the charts, we’ve never heard her try her hand at her peers’ style du jour. Until now! Surprising nobody, she’s as adept at clubby pop (the staccato “Hey!”s punctuating the drum track are pure DJ Mustard) as everything else. “Yoga” isn’t top-shelf Monáe, but it’s at least as good as the best of the songs it so closely resembles, and Monáe seizes a welcome opportunity to push self-empowerment and independence on a platform usually reserved for deplorable sexual politics – I don’t picture anything surpassing “You cannot police me, so get off my areolae!” as the greatest dancefloor battle cry of the year, and thanks to the on-trend pop strengths of “Yoga,” it’s one that might actually find an audience. B

Average:B

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My Morning Jacket

"Spring (Among the Living)"

Nathan Wisnicki: The interesting part is that it sounds like Merrill Garbus (tUnE-yArDs) is doing some backing yelps in the choruses. I swear it must be her. Everything else? Well, I’m positively offended by the lazy doofiness of that one chord chug-chug-chugging along as a mid-tempo quarter-note. Frankly, this sounds unfinished, and perhaps representative of how tired Jim James is of doing anything non-Dylan related after the notorious Evil Urges. Don't give me any weak vibes about spring, Jim — I've been looking forward to it for too long already. D+

Jesse Nee-Vogelman:It’s nice to hear MMJ smash some of their folksy charm and scream a little. And, while the beginning is a little overlong and repetitive, at just about the four-minute mark, the song picks up and delivers some chaos. Too bad the song’s syrupy title didn’t get the memo. B

Katie Steen: This song strikes me as trying to be epic.  It's got some metaphors related to spring—growth, renewal, life, whatever.  If you want to raise a clenched fist and yell “HELL yeah!” after hearing this song, that would probably be appropriate.  Jim James has a very gravelly, rugged-man voice that I think strikes a certain chord in some people, but it doesn't do much for me.  But hey, is that Tune-Yards singing at the end, for like two seconds?  It is!  Why bring Merrill Garbus into the song and only have her pop in at the end of the song?  Guys!C

Adam Offitzer: I absolutely love songs about seasons...but is it weird that this tune—written specifically for the beginning of spring—feels like fall to me? Ominous, brooding chords and deeper, chanted vocals? Orange-tinted visuals of waterfalls in the video? I think MMJ got the season wrong. Still a solid track. C+

Average:C

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Jamie xx

"Gosh"

Samuel Tolzmann: I can’t even write about this song because I only have max 150 words and I don’t know which part to focus on! I could write 150+ words on any isolated aspect of it – and no matter which one I chose, the word “perfect” would pop up somewhere. That vocal sample! Perfect! The synth solo! Perfect! I feel cold and alone and warm and happy at the same time. What is happening! Don’t let it stop! A

Luis Tovar:Those breaks! I could listen to those breaks for hours. You know, Smith could've kept it at that, but because this is Jamie xx we're talking about, he switches it up midway, introducing a strangely pretty synth tone that elegantly dances between and around those breaks. Prophetic of the swath of bodies that will move to this at XOYO this Easter weekend? No doubt. B+

Zachary Bernstein: In the wake of the spectacular “Loud Places,” perhaps it was unfair of me to expect that every forthcoming Jamie xx song would reach those same dizzying heights. Not every track can feature Romy Madley Croft or Oliver Sim (might as well be the new xx album otherwise), but I frankly don’t feel that “Gosh” goes anywhere in its nearly five-minute runtime. That eerie synthetic whirring that enters around the three-minute markhelps me move past the initially annoying vocal sample, but I feel like I’ll just end up skipping this one on In Colour to take another listen to “Loud Places” or “Sleep Sound.” C

Peter Tabakis: Bass throbs and snare upbeats give “Gosh,” another peek at In Colour, an anxious, bewitching tug. Much like “Loud Places,” a steady progression is as an end in itself. And much like “Loud Places,” “Gosh” glows with some big heart. So, I’ll swallow the cliché. Yes, yes — it’s all about the journey. But I prefer getting there at some point, and by “there” I mean a fireworks display. A small one, even. B- 

Average:B

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SBTRKT

"No Less"

Nathan Wisnicki: Perfectly pleasant piece of low-key beat ambience that reminds me of the great decade-old MFA single “The Difference It Makes” but without the sky-opening-up catharsis. A fine comedown — no more, no less. And the world is full of fine comedowns. B

Zachary Bernsterin: This song is beautifully harmless. The pulsating serenity and the interlocking beats work nicely together - perhaps my main criticism is that perhaps the song is a little too harmless, largely at the expense of any real substance. The track ends far too quickly, with a climax that sneaks up on me but doesn't fully reach a conclusion. It just passes through my eardrums without leaving any real impression. It may be titled "No Less," but at only two and a half minutes, I really could have used a little more. B

Average:B

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Torres

"Sprinter"

Genevieve Oliver: Albeit somewhat not as gut-wrenching as lead single “Strange Hellos,” the title track from Torres’ upcoming Sprinter is still a profound emotional bulldozer. Like, holy shit. Who else in the game right now can make unholy noise and palpable heartache into something you want to put yourself through again and again, as a listener / obvious masochist? Maybe Mitski? Can they tour together, or actually maybe not because I would die? A

Samuel Tolzmann: Omg yes! Torres is 2/2 for singles from her upcoming second album. “Sprinter” is A) amazing, and B) a testament to Mackenzie Scott’s status alongside Courtney Barnett as one of today’s best rock lyricists. This brutal account of a troubled Baptist upbringing, like many Torres songs, really goes all in on the catharsis, swinging from hand-wringing moral dilemma and half-remembered traumas to a fist-pumping breakthrough of an outro set to stadium-ready guitar heroics. Props to Scott for her consistently knockout songwriting, her (seriously) all-star backing band for kicking ass, PJ Harvey producer Rob Ellis for making those guitars sound like a million bucks, and everyone else with a sad story and a guitar for showing up. B+

Adam Offitzer: Dig the raw emotion here, and the gradual build (classic Torres). Kind of feel like this could be a My Chemical Romance song—in a good way. B

Jesse Nee-Vogelman:I just saw Torres at SXSW, and it confirmed what we already know: Mackenzie Scott is very good at what she does. “Sprinter” is another solid, epic offering from a band that always delivers, but rarely surprises. B+

Katie Steen: Such a pouty track.  Torres goes on for awhile about about escape and running away, but "Sprinter" is a bit too heavy to really feel free. B

Average:B+

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Failure

"Hot Traveler"

Nathan Wisnicki: Oh yeah, THESE guys! Hmm. Some people contend that Failure made some underrated gems of post-grunge back in the late '90s. I'd suggest that if post-grunge was a dodgy area at best at the time - which I think we'd all agree on - post-grunge in 2015 is flat-out dire. Is this bad? Nah. Is it particularly good? Not really; they seem to want to sound like a more inert Queens of the Stone Age. Is this better than what, say, Pearl Jam's been doing lately? Do you care? C-

Genevieve Oliver: The initial period of Failure’s tenure – the LA band released three albums between 1992 and 1996 – was a little before my time (I was literally a child and thus listening to the radio and my parents’ record collection) so I’m listening to “Hot Traveler,” the band’s first new music in almost twenty years, with relatively fresh ears. It proves to me that the ‘90s rock revival is back in spades; “Hot Traveler” sounds like a logical continuation of the band’s oeuvre and also thoroughly modern, like a booming, intense, self-proving first single from a contemporary band. I think this is okay with me? Then again, I have a big soft spot for ‘90s alternative rock, and I’m a postmodernist. Everything old will be new again. B

Samuel Tolzmann: Ugh. Well, it was only a matter of time before the Wheel of Nostalgia landed on the late 1990s, but did anyone really want a reminder of what “Alternative Rock Radio” sounded like in 1999? For all the problems associated with the gentrification of indie rock, at least it moved us away from awful macho crap like this. I can’t tell what makes me shudder most about this song – the squiggles of syncopated guitar, the toothless faux-menacing hook, or the close-harmonized double-tracking on Ken Andrews’s raspy drawl, a pretty slick studio technique which Nickelback has taken good care of during Failure’s absence? – and I don’t want to have to keep listening to find out. No thanks, brah. I will award it a D- though because I can think of songs I like less than this.

Benji Taylor: Ok ok, that filthy guitar riff is the absolute shit, but isn’t it a bit cruel for Failure to make us wait 19 years and then return with a QOTSA pastiche? This is so underwhelming, the aural equivalent of turning up to see your long-lost son and bringing donuts. I have zero interest in hearing their new LP after this single. C

Average:C-

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Du Blonde

"Mind Is On My Mind" (featuring Samuel T. Herring)

Nathan Wisnicki: No more chamber-folk vibes here; this has a big simple barreling rock guitar hook that’s…actually pretty invigorating, like pummeling into a sunny Friday evening in an open-top car. And yet it’s too short! I kept waiting to see what other hook she’d pull out and keep up the momentum, but instead we get Herring’s bellowing verse that sounds like an overwrought Monty Python sketch. And then it’s over. Kick the bellower out of the car and we can party. B

Genevieve Oliver: I think I’ve found a new heroine in Beth Jeans Houghton, a songwriter who’s proven her chops under her own name and who’s now reinvented herself as Du Blonde; she’s just announced a debut record under that name, Welcome Back to Milk, on whose cover she poses in an ostentatious fur jacket and matching merkin. Thus, I’m predisposed to dig “Mind is On My Mind,” the project’s first single, even more so because it features Future Islands’ Samuel T. Herring’s emotive, one-of-a-kind pipes alongside Houghton’s. Literally my only complaint is that I wish it were longer. A

Samuel Tolzmann: Ok so I had never heard of Du Blonde before hearing “Mind Is On My Mind,” and for the first fourteen seconds I was rolling my eyes, like, Ugh, not another woozy pseudo-R&B electropop band, and then Du Blonde started singing like, I know right? I admit this song is really a lot of fun. I mean, it sounds exactly like Marina and the Diamonds singing a Charli XCX song, so it’s not exactly racking up the 2015 originality points – side note: was this song titled so it would come up in Sam Smith searches? – but if it didn’t include the Future Islands frontman doing his best/freakiest Mike Patton, I would totally give it a slot next to “Roar” on my workout playlist. C-

Benji Taylor: Wow, Sam Herring is basically a modern King Midas at the moment, everything the guy touches turns to gold. He basically elevates a decent off-kilter pop song into something great. Beth Jeans Houghton sounds fine and her bizarre lyrics are interesting, but Herring pulls the carpet out from under her. Let’s all be honest though: this track just makes you really want to listen to SeasonsB-

Average:B-

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Score Review

The National - "Sunshine On My Back" B-
Janelle Monáe - "Yoga" B
My Morning Jacket - "Spring (Among The Living)" C
Jamie xx - "Gosh" B
SBTRKT - "No Less" B
Torres - "Sprinter" B+ Song of the Week
Failure - "Hot Traveler" C-
Du Blonde - "Mind Is On My Mind (featuring Samuel T. Herring)" B-

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