Welcome to 2014's first Tracking – a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs – you can listen to additions from Beyoncé, Supreme Cuts, St. Vincent, Warpaint and Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew.
Beyoncé would own pop music right now on the sheer strength of her brassy, sassy vocal firepower alone. In the same way that she owns a physical space simply by entering it, the singer’s usually been at her best when she overwhelms us with the simple presence of her remarkable singing voice rather than anything in particular that she does with it. Since 2011’s 4 was the ultimate showcase for this quality, on last December’s surprise self-titled “visual album,” ‘Yoncé tries out a different tactic, wowing us as or more often with off-kilter bursts of technical dexterity as with force and charisma. Never before has the singer sounded so loose, so fluid, so elastic as on Beyoncé, and nowhere is this more apparent than on its central highlight, “Partition.”
Real talk: this song’s a fucking beast. Before the first two minutes are up, Beyoncé’s already showing off her newfound vocal playfulness and flexibility as she fires off haughty braggadocio and clever innuendo alike in a nearly rapped cadence that sounds both intimidating and effortless. However, even though this bit contains the already immortal lyric, “I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker,” it’s nothing compared to what happens when that spring-loaded beat actually gets sicker, doubling up over the massive bassline as the synths snap into laser focus. And then we’re off – like the limousine in which it takes place, the first half of “Partition” is relatively presentable compared to the second, which is just insane.
For one thing, its narrative of Knowles-Carter in-transit backseat sexcapades (Stars! They’re just like us!) is perhaps the bluntly horny Beyoncé’s filthiest moment. Yet the thrill lies not in the racy content, but in the way it’s sung. Even as recently as 4, it’s unlikely that even a singer as preternaturally gifted as Beyoncé could have pulled off the kind of vocal gymnastics she engages in here. Just listen to my vote for the single best-sung line of 2013, an unfortunate post-fellatio discovery: “Whoa there, daddy, daddy didn’t bring a towel!” The first six syllables pinball back and forth at peak tempo, gathering enough momentum that for a second it seems like the song’s going to tailspin out of control before the singer slams on the brakes and gracefully stretches the words out, delivering the final clause in a seductive drawl so patient it nearly erases all memory of the pandemonium we were hearing just a moment before. Later, she fails to make it to the end of the line “Took forty-five minutes to get all dressed up” before her voice devolves into a breathy growl. These are perfect decisions that take us right into the heat of the moment, and indeed, all this zig-zagging resembles little so much as the experience it relates: you can sense, in the phrasing and sharp tempo shifts, the cramped walls of the limo, the accidentally bumped heads and spilled drinks, the adrenaline rush, the frantic attempts to restore composure before appearing before the cameras. How many songs have you ever heard that gave you the vivid, unmistakable sense of getting it on in the back of a luxury vehicle? Beyoncé might prefer that her driver not see “’Yoncé on her knees,” but I’m glad she lets us voyeuristically catch a glimpse before the partition’s rolled completely up, because it’s one of her very finest vocal performances. And, oh yeah, it’s presented in an instantly incendiary, club-storming package, which is pretty great too.
Beyoncé, “Drunk In Love (feat. Jay Z)” and “XO”
When 4 was released, critics praised Beyoncé’s ability to present long-term monogamy as playful, sexy, exciting, fulfilling, and empowering (against the flaky, hedonistic relationship models promoted in so much contemporary pop music). I think we’d all have reserved our praises somewhat if we knew that Beyoncé was on its way, with its many very frank descriptions of just how hot marriage can be for couples who wake up flawless. “Drunk In Love” and “XO,” two of the new record’s best songs, offer compelling accounts of monogamous love within the context of stylishly minimal, very current-sounding takes on two classic Beyoncé love song models: the power devotional (“1+1,” “Halo”) and the aural assault (“Crazy In Love,” “Déjà Vu,” “Countdown,” “Love On Top”).
“XO” is a successful attempt to rewrite the more exquisite but culturally tone-deaf “Halo” – it’s an instant stadium smash, a sky-high tidal wave of synthesizers, jagged cello, and a crowd of backing vocalists on loan from Florence Welch. Unlike “Halo,” which deserved better lyrics to match its devastating production, the central come-on here (“Baby, love me, lights out”) is one of the most affecting, romantic lines Beyoncé has ever sung, and it’s contained within a rich, gorgeous power ballad that projects private feeling at IMAX scale in a way that renders the sentiment utterly convincing and all-consuming. “Drunk In Love,” meanwhile, is a direct sonic and thematic sequel to “Crazy,” right down to the title and the unfortunate presence of an embarrassingly WTF Jay Z guest verse. It milks a pretty silly love=alcohol metaphor for a bit too long, but it’s worth it for the triumphantly witty and intensely real moment when Bey and Jay wake up after a night at the club and either have blacked out or are shocked by the bliss of domesticity they’ve somehow stumbled into (or both): “We woke up in a kitchen saying, ‘How the hell did this shit happen?’” I don’t know, guys, but I’m glad it did. Plus, “serfbort.” [Sam Tolzmann]
Supreme Cuts, "Gone (feat. Mahaut Mondino)"
A door slams in the first instant of "Gone," Supreme Cuts' single featuring vocalist Mahaut Mondino. What's left inside is a lockstep dollhouse ditty, its timbre between pianos and steelpans. The door breaks again as Mondino's voice comes in from splintering height, accompanied by a harp that hesitates to leave its tonal center, as it might in the hands of Four Tet. For a moment we're left to find the beat again, and when we do it's not because of change but habituation.
Save the cleanliness of the percussion and the synthy sounds of stone plunking into water, nothing yet hints at the house underbelly that comes in past the minute mark—after the devolution in which the harp snaps strings. In its throes, all Mondino can manage are tender, spoken admissions: "It was good / It was me and you / It felt good / you and I / It was always with you..."
From here a synthetic gadfly carries the tension to different parts of the listener's ear. The first drop is given a raincheck in favor of a thematic change, the bass providing an anchor only every other measure. And that's perhaps where Supreme Cuts impress most, in a nearly tantric stamina that keeps dancers guessing when to finally unhinge. The Chicago-based duo might know about their strong suit. [Pierre Bienaimé]
St. Vincent, "Birth In Reverse"
As St. Vincent, Annie Clark writes what you could call nursery rhymes for adults. Over three solo albums, most recently 2011’s superb Strange Mercy, she’s portrayed characters that are as unsettling as they are intriguing, such that you would eagerly follow from a distance, even if you would have no interest encountering them in real life. She put forth a more arch effort with David Byrne in 2012 with Love This Giant. Although it limited her technically-proficient guitar work to a supporting role, it demonstrated the flexibility Clark is capable of absent total creative control. “Birth In Reverse” snatches it back violently.
Anemic drums set an agitated pace; but, as usual, the Clark’s guitar is the lifeblood, unhinging its jaw for a chorus that scrapes your eardrums on its way in. “Birth In Reverse” brings the many juxtapositions found within Clark’s sound to a startling head. It’s a testament to her fastidiousness as a musician and composer that descriptions of quotidian chores can mushroom into a lament on social inertia and political polarization without stumbling. [Brendan Frank]
Your absence has been noted.
By PMA, at least. We can make no assurances for the outside world. In a culture where 140 characters and 10-second videos are the predominant forms of communication, there’s no guarantee that a band as young as yourselves won’t be forgotten about in your off-cycle. By the same token, we extend our thanks for making the wait so worth our while.
If The Fool, Warpaint’s skeletal, slow-burning debut was an indicator of how willing the Californian group are to take their time, then their self-titled follow-up really hammers the point in. The tinkering is evident on early cuts “Love Is To Die” and “Biggy”. Although it has not officially been released as a single, “Biggy” easily stands out as a gem in Warpaint’s unripened catalogue. Darker and grittier than anything on The Fool, Beth Gibbons acts as a beacon for Emily Kokal vocally, while band discerningly channels the likes of Massive Attack and Air, preserving the spaciousness that has marked their previous work. “There’s a world out there that I’ll never see,” sings Kokal, but Warpaint’s plaintive, subtly audacious music is eager to show you theirs. [Brendan Frank]
Kevin Drew, "Good Sex"
Good sex, with Kevin Drew. Kevin Drew would lead you to believe he’s got stipulations, but they’re realistic. Good sex should make you feel neither hollow nor clean. Good sex is this and that and all these things all figured over blissful ambient drones, a charmingly redundant guitar chord, a little underlying bump and grind reminiscent of Drew’s band Broken Social Scene’s kraut-y lower end (driving alone and stoned to your lover’s house, headlights in a pinwheel… park that car drop that phone sleep on that floor etc, etc etc). “I’m still breathing with you, baby,” is the hand-scrawled note under the manufactured niceties in the Hallmark card, delivered in Drew’s characteristic (dare I suggest, post-coital) murmur. Delivered like, something approaching ten years after the fact with seventeen stamps in the corner from a postal code you don’t recognize. Delivered too late for your birthday, lost in the mail. Are you gonna roll your eyes? Are you gonna burn it in the backyard? Are you gonna put it on the fridge?
Then there’s the matter of single’s cover, which looks like a Snapchat. Ephemeral postmodern art of the highest order. Sexy, fleeting. Gone, maybe forgotten, it happened, once or twice, a long time ago. The memory’s what’s important – and however you’ve revised it after the fact, that’s important too. In the end the nostalgia’s what’ll rip your heart out. [Genevieve Oliver]