This week's Tracking, the weekly series in which we discuss our current favorite songs, features music from Vic Mensa, Lana Del Rey, Caribou, Chali XCX, PC Music's A.G. Cook and A Sunny Day In Glasgow.
Vic Mensa, "Down On My Luck"
To those of you who are resting laurels on “Problem,” as the unofficial Song of the Summer, do me a favor: Hold up for a second.
Because last month Vic Mensa dropped “Down On My Luck,” a diabolically deep-house hydrogen bomb that replaces light-heartedness with real-life frustration, repeatability with an awe-inspiringly complex vocal structure, and universally melodic appeal with a blistering bass groove that swallows you whole. It’s not formulaic. It’s not even radio-relevant. At best, it’s a club-ready representation of what happens when you take a chance on an outcome you can’t predict.
And the chance Vic takes is apparent from the get-go. “Down On My Luck,” resembles nothing from his superbly sinister 2013 debut INNANETAPE—the dissimilarities not the least of which comprising his comprehensive trade-in of brain-busting Chicago lyrical rap for a seductively gossamer croon that glides without ever losing control. For a guy who just got named to XXL’s Freshman 2014 list, he seems to have a few previously unrevealed tricks up his sleeve.
I say “a few” because the only element more shocking than Mensa’s vocal talent is his brutally unorthodox vocal approach. “Down On My Luck,” at its simplest, is a cerebral, borderline-nonsensical valuation that pits the anxiety of public perception against the repose of public disinterest. This disparity has existed for centuries. It’s nothing new, especially within the realm of run-of-the-mill Summer Songs. But rather than breaking down this worldview using traditional verse-chorus structure, Vic instead employs a steady-gait, liquefied stream of consciousness that drives restlessly and relentlessly forward, breaking the speed limit the entire way. The fact that you can barely understand anything he says is a fitting illustration of his passion on the subject.
But the crux of the message exists in four simple words that summarize his point clearly and concisely. “Fuck that. Get down,” he urges with vicious zeal, and the ensuing drop provides the most chilled out exclamation point I’ve ever heard. In fact, its elemental construction is the primary takeaway associated with “Down On My Luck.” Just as soon as you think Vic’s less-than-subtle call to action highlights the track’s importance, the beat migrates, exposing itself to be this fully activated warhead of a groove that has existed the entire time.
To call this a stylistic departure would be to severely downplay the trajectory Vic has been busy creating for himself. We’re talking about a guy who spent much of early 2014 touring with Disclosure, and if nothing else, “Down On My Luck,” ascertains that his time with Guy and Howard Lawrence was spent learning, cultivating and apparently perfecting a brand of hip-hop he can own and operate for as long as he decides. And do you really think a talent of Mensa’s caliber is going to hang it up anytime soon? Fuck that. Get down. [Austin Reed]
originally posted june 10, 2014.
Lana Del Rey, "Shades Are Cool"
“Shades of Cool,” the second offering from Lana Del Rey’s (very) forthcoming LP, Ultraviolence, proves that the new direction she took with first taste “West Coast” is no isolated incident. (This has been triple confirmed with later cuts "Ultraviolence" and "Brooklyn Baby".) The flower-crowned chanteuse has traded in the “gangster Nancy Sinatra” aural aesthetic for something more closely resembling the seventies, moving her music forward a decade or so with the assistance of Dan Auerbach’s production. Like “West Coast,” “Shades of Cool” is a grungier, more organic affair, drawing its strength from robust, albeit hazy, plucks of guitar.
That’s not to say that seventies Lana has lost her vocal flair though. The deep contralto tones she affected on “Video Games” are gone however, replaced by something that falls within a more natural range between the dirge that started it all, and the cooing “Happy birthday, Mr. President” vibe she aimed for on “National Anthem.” Gone also are such vapid attempts to encapsulate the sex appeal of bygone icons. Del Rey sings of something much more concrete on “Shades of Cool:” an unruly lover. She deems him “unfixable,” citing her ineffective attempts to “break through” his world via dreamy melismata that soar through the June gloom on a bed of strings. Of course, it would not be a Lana Del Rey production without some geographic revelry, and the references to Golden State mystique make their token appearances (though she veers dangerously close to saying “Cali” in her uniquely lilting elocution).
Where Born to Die often seemed sterile, encased in a universe orbiting around Del Rey with little else of note, Ultraviolence seems keen to buck this tendency. Instrumentation takes center stage at points throughout “Shades of Cool,” most notably the guitar solo in the song’s latter half, where Lana is subsumed into a passionate maelstrom of guitar. For once, she yields the limelight, and it suits the storyline behind “Shades of Cool,” of a man who Del Rey was unable to get through to, perfectly. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Caribou, "Can't Do Without You"
The first three and a half minutes of “Can’t Do Without You,” the lead single from Caribou’s upcoming album, Our Love, function like the mind of a guy pumping himself up to tell his crush he loves her. The lyrics are looped over and over again—Caribou is unable to get his love off his mind. These hazy vocal samples softly echo over plucky, reverbing synths, each time providing deeper understanding to his yearning. A vibrating hum builds in the background, like a rush of blood to his head as he starts to consider actually proclaiming his (nearly obsessive) love.
The volume starts to build, the pace picks up, and about three minutes in, new, muted, uplifting tones mix with electric synths. This lovesick crescendo is the final rush of adrenaline, the “screw it, I’m just gonna go for it, I’m gonna tell her” moment. Then, silence. In the final thirty seconds of the track, instrumentals revert back to their quietest. “You’re the only thing I think about, it’s all that I can still do,” Caribou finally confesses, which you may have already figured it out from him saying “can’t do without you” 88 times in a row earlier in the track.
If the soundscape of the track weren’t so beautifully fragile, the repetition, which suggests a more house-influenced direction for this album, could seem emotionally forceful to the point of creepiness. A press release notes that Our Love will be the Canadian artist’s “most soulful record to date,” and comparing this single to 2010’s Swim hints that the new album will be equally sprawling, less hectic and emotionally deeper. Caribou has revealed his love. We’ll have to wait for the rest of Our Love to drop to find out her response. [Charlie Dulik]
Charli XCX, "Boom Clap"
From the moment it begins, “Boom Clap,” Charli XCX’s contribution to the soundtrack of tragic blockbuster The Fault In Our Stars, yanks you in by your collar with a triple assault. However, this first saccharine burst of pop perfection serves a secondary purpose, keeping you invested in what is to come and catalyzing the chase after the sugar high that must surely follow. Clocking in at under three minutes, XCX delivers on that promise, jamming high-octane, handclapping, off-kilter pop into a concentrated dose, then wasting no time in administering it.
In terms of material, XCX treads on trails she has walked before: namely, adolescent attraction in all of its euphoria and giddiness. The palpitations resulting from such feelings form the basis for the track’s title and its energetic chorus. But what is remarkable here is how quickly XCX is able to build back up to these heights, almost entirely sidestepping the need for a sonic refractory period, requiring nothing more than a paltry thirty seconds to throw out a verse and return to the bubbly chorus. The bridge itself, a twenty-second affair, is particularly telling of this tendency. Most astounding though, smart songwriting aside (as XCX has always shown a spark for), is the fact that she is able to keep a couple recycled phrases sounding so fresh even after their umpteenth iteration. This is a feat within itself, especially considering that the final minute of “Boom Clap” is a victory round consisting of pure chorus.
At only twenty-one years old, and dominating the airwaves at the moment, XCX seems poised for a takeover upon the release of he still-amorphous second album later this year, especially if she can accomplish so much sonically in only three minutes. “Boom Clap” is more than a song title. It is the onomatopoeic rendering of XCX’s meteoric rise and the many bursts of pop innovation yet to come. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
A.G. Cook, "Beautiful"
PC Music are at the precipice of pop’s ever evolving state, and man-at-the-helm A.G. Cook has recently bestowed upon the world “Beautiful,” a track that personifies pop as equal parts a disposable commodity and an indispensable realm of artistic creation. In an airy space that’s carefully filled with novel sounds as well as stereotypical dance tropes, Cook’s work rises and falls through sun drenched sounds and bubble-gum sentiment. “Beautiful” is immediately infectious, and proves that if and when upstart groups like PC Music gain any ground, they can really make waves in the greater pop zeitgeist.
Unlike past releases, “Beautiful” seems to be more of a loving adoption of modern pop ideals more than its subversion in an experimental or dance frame. Take Cook’s “Keri Baby,” where a conventional (but contagious) hook is laid carefully upon inverted radar synths that jump in and out of plucking tones and heavy, yet smooth horns. Cook is intentionally breaking down the pop framework of the track to inject sonic creativity, and there’s an assumption that both he and the listener are in on the musical joke that’s being played out. In “Beautiful” however, Cook introduces this interplay with praise instead of parody.
The track's beauty comes in its unabashed devotion to adopting the weird and integrating it into an easily consumable product. The pitch-shifted, repeating vocals, the chopped “ohhs” and “ahhs” prancing on top of screechy and hazy keys, the cheesy, frenetic “Sandstorm” quality of the climax that links the track to some euro-trance construct somewhere in my subconscious, all shouldn't make sense in conventional pop standards. And they’re not supposed to in all actuality, but Cook’s ability to take such disparaging ideas and morph them into a cohesive, candy coated unit speak to his talents and explains his rising popularity. The best pop music can be immediately, superficially digestible and intricately, if at least subtly, thought-provoking. A.G. Cook is showing that he is the next wizard of this craft to be reckoned with. [Dorian Mendoza]
A Sunny Day In Glasgow, "Bye Bye Big Ocean (The End)"
“Bye Bye Big Ocean (The End)” plays out like one massive segment of a bigger song, a mountain of buzzing, engulfing effects connect all but one of its sections. The first 10 seconds of A Sunny Day in Glasgow’s imminent Sea When Absent are sensory deprivation. The net effect is dizzying before you realize just how purposefully the sky-high synths are rubbing up against one another, and their net effect is gorgeous. Everything here oozes a single-mindedness that overwhelms with its sense of finality. There’s not a wasted note – though it’s hard to discern them from one another until the final passage, where featherweight strings provide a necessary comedown. And when a female vocalist sings about “How young we’d be”, you get a perfect sense of just how young. A Sunny Day in Glasgow have built a perfect paradox, a song that seems to stand completely still, even as it’s moving and growing. [Brendan Frank]