This time on Tracking we discuss our favorite new songs from Perfume Genius, Ariana Grande, SBTRKT, Shabazz Palaces & iceage.
Perfume Genius, "Queen"
It will not do to forget that Seattle singer-songwriter Mike Hadreas’s big break as Perfume Genius was a live video of “Mr. Peterson,” in which Hadreas tears up while elegizing about the teacher who seduced him in high school…and then leapt from a high building. That ending was a sucker punch: the tears might have been all too real and the repetitive piano melody might have been disarmingly simple, but the playful manipulation of expectations and the stark but mundanely rendered brutality signaled an artist whose (often autobiographical) narratives were worth more than their weight in exorcised personal pain, an artist willing to bend or even break the “rules” in order to prevent his work from being so dismissed. Yes, his 2010 debut Learning sounded wispy and maudlin, but that was part of the poker face: the content of the songs was both too impolitely horrific (Jamie Stewart-worthy levels of alienation, abuse, sexual transgression, fucked-up power dynamics, and self-destructive tendencies) to ignore and too modestly, humanely presented to write off as a Stewart-esque exercise in exhibitionist melodrama. Taking Hadreas seriously meant admitting there was no box that could quite contain his work, no matter its surface appearances.
“Mr. Peterson” was our first peek at Learning; do you remember our first taste of sophomore effort Put Your Back N 2 It? It was “Hood,” the video that Google and YouTube banned despite its lack of a single explicit image, the one that found a gender-bending Hadreas striking tender, loving poses with gay porn star Arpad Miklos. The song’s about a relationship founded on lies, lies in turn founded on self-loathing. On paper, the song didn’t read politically, but the video’s images, their censorship, and the ensuing outrage drew out a sly double meaning from the opening sigh, “You would never call me baby, if you knew me true.” Put Your Back N 2 It, like its predecessor, was an exquisitely lovely record. But also like its predecessor, it questioned the relative value of sonic beauty. If the poses in the “Hood” video were so demure, why did they make so many people uncomfortable? Call it Sucker Punch #2.
Hadreas knows a great first single when he writes one. “Queen” is, once again, the first thing we’ve heard from upcoming third LP Too Bright. “Sucker punch” once again applies, and with the hand that’s not doing the punching, Hadreas is flipping us all the bird. “Don’t you know your queen?” he asks at the cold open, with a sneer icy enough to put him in equal running against Beyoncé and Mick Jagger. It’s a rhetorical question. He sounds tough as fuck over a chugging bassline, a context in which a delicate faux-harpsichord hook is regal court music; saccharine Disney-fied harmonies become a choir of avenging angels. In Hadreas’s own words, it’s a song about taking pride in causing “gay panic,” about wordlessly striking confusion and fear into the hearts of homophobic strangers he passes on the street. “Underneath this hood you kiss, I tick like bomb,” he warned on “Hood,” and on “All Waters,” about internalized homophobia, he pined for a non-future “when I can take your hand on any crowded street with no hesitation.” This is the fulfillment of those promises. In the year’s best chorus, he declares, “No family is safe when I sashay.” After two records depicting the grim reality of living in an openly hostile world, of trying to flourish or even just survive under the burden of constant and blinding terror, a sea change has certainly taken place. It’s Mike Hadreas’s world now, and we’re all just living in it. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Ariana Grande, "Break Free"
Ariana Grande was already one of the more prominent candidates for breakout pop star of 2014 with early summer saxobeat-stunner, “Problem,” arresting our ears with something funky, streamlined, and improbably infectious. That she could have done anything to top or even approach that seemed nigh impossible, her status already stratospheric (along with her voice). But then she went ahead and dropped “Break Free,” the second salvo from her forthcoming album, and it seemed lightning had stuck twice.
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea is swapped for German producer Zedd (of “Clarity” fame), and the marriage of seraphic vocals and unabashed EDM goodness, despite not being a novel idea in any sense, results in a concoction more contagious than the common cold. It is difficult not to get swept away almost immediately by the opening barrage of synthesizers, but after that initial burst, Zedd takes a step back. His relatively restrained production pays due deference to Grande and her formidable pipes, giving her the necessary space to show off some serious vocal acrobatics. He complements her lyrics instead of crowding them, letting the music pick up the slack when she takes a breath, the blips and bursts acting as a form of encouragement, cheering on the pint-size chanteuse to do exactly what the track’s title lays claim to.
“Break Free,” trounces “Problem” in terms of scope and sheer exuberance. Where “Problem” threw shade with a whispered chorus, “Break Free” is blunt, letting it all, endearingly, hang out in a series of galvanic bursts. Saxobeat may have been the word on everybody’s lips a month ago (deservedly so), but Grande’s latest epic seems poised to paint over the mark “Problem” had made on the zeitgeist with the neon washes of synths and a cotton-candy falsetto to match. It would be a feat for any artist to dethrone “Problem” so soon, making it seem two-thousand-and-late despite being merely months old. That Grande managed to do it only makes it more impressive. The question everyone will be asking now is; can she manage a three-peat? [Jean-Luc Marsh]
SBTRKT, "NEW DORP. NEW YORK." featuring Ezra Koenig
I have to hand it to SBTRKT on this one, because I genuinely thought, “dorp,” was a word he made up.
It wasn’t (it’s a South African slang reference to a small rural village, JSYK). And even if it was, it wouldn’t matter. “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” despite its inexplicably loud title and goose-chase verbiage, is one of the most ridiculously groovy tracks to be released all year.
What we have with “NEW DORP. NEW YORK,” is an exercise in an almost-minimalist methodology. A handful of otherwise-nominal musical elements compound into a pressurized three-minute banger that only further enforces SBTRKT’s commitment to vilifying technical pragmatism. Cross-stitching manmade melodic values into a formula that works is a backbreaking feat. That SBTRKT can tweak it in a way that sounds sleek and new and altogether brilliant—well, that’s a completely different grade of math.
His proclivity for flipping the script, however, is nothing new. In fact, it’s barely even worth mentioning. When he dropped the stupid-good EP Transitions earlier this year, much ado was made over whether the removal of his borderline-signature guest vocals would reduce SBTRKT’s product into something shallower and more two-dimensional. To the surprise of pretty much no one, Transitions eradicated that idea before anyone began seriously asking questions.
But it’s an interesting theory that might actually hold up if twisted around. Would SBTRKT’s product become deeper and more meaningful if the vocal track was a more prominent fixture, delivered by a more widely known figure in pop music?
If “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” was the barometer, the answer is, emphatically, yes. SBTRKT’s newest offering explodes with a fresh degree of intrinsic intensity. His flair for heartbeat bass lines and periphery percussion has never been more apparent. Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig elevates the vocal sample from latent accessory to center-stage science project that operates as much like a second rhythm section as it does a spoken-word directive.
Which, by the way, doesn’t direct very much. Despite my shortcomings in the realm of South African colloquialism, these lyrics make almost no sense whatsoever. But again, it doesn’t matter. “NEW DORP. NEW YORK.” was made for dancing, and it deftly succeeds with style points to spare. [Austin Reed]
Shabazz Palaces, "Forerunner Foray"
About a month ago, Shabazz Palaces were in an interesting spot. All the pomp and circumstance leading up to the launch of sophomore Sup Pop LP Lese Majesty had positioned it as one of the most prolific albums of the year. Supporting this posit were pre-release singles “They Come In Gold,” “Dawn In Luxor,” and “#CAKE,” a series of tracks that illustrated with crystalline clarity just exactly how intent Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire were on breaking their own standard. 2011’s Black Up was incredible, but based solely on the preliminary content, Lese Majesty was going to revolutionize.
The strength of the three initial releases made it hard to imagine needing more any more of a leg to stand on. But seven days prior to the album’s release, Shabazz Palaces dropped one last single—a sturdily slammed final nail into the coffin of the argument. “Forerunner Foray,” decimated everything around it, and any contention to the validity of Lese Majesty went away forever.
Because for as incomprehensible as Shabazz Palaces can sometimes be, “Forerunner Foray,” is a delightfully comprehensible examination of past-tense hip-hop in a future-tense spacesuit. It glides forward without ever ebbing backward. Swift introductory vocal samples lead into Butler’s slightly adjusted, never-tire rhythmic rumble. Maraire creates a beat lush and woozy enough to soundtrack a tranquilizer injection. Arguably the most digestible of any other track, “Foray,” provides a sound foundation for the rest of Lese Majesty, which is no small feat when considering how sonically superior it is from front to back.
As Brendan Frank postulated in his review of Lese Majesty, Shabazz Palaces don’t seem too interested in ensuring universal grasp. Which isn’t to say they ever did—this isn’t the type of game Shabazz Palaces enjoy running. Back in 2011, Black Up firmly established Butler and Maraire as the type of guys who insist on furthering hip-hop’s footprint by recklessly abandoning every convention of hip-hop in existence. To wit, decades-old track samples from prior hits take a backseat to space-aged samples direct from the brain of Maraire. The only semi-obvious link that can be drawn to anything corporeal is in Butler’s Q-Tip-esque vocal delivery, but even that association is a stretch to the most open-minded. At their most intelligible, Shabazz Palaces occupy (and remain committed to) the grey area between groove-laced hip-hop and menacing back-alley poetry. “Forerunner Foray,” does well to capture what it sounds like when you blend the two in equal measure. It’s a track comprising enough gravity to crush but enough charisma to reassemble. [Austin Reed]
iceage, "The Lord's Favorite"
I first started hearing about Iceage in 2011. The probably not actually fascist Danish teenage punk band playing their US debut at Brooklyn’s 285 Kent in the midst of a typical blog hypestorm. It was June and very hot and I was listening to “White Rune” and hating my life because I was twenty and New York sucks a lot, all the time, always, but especially when you are twenty. I didn’t go to that show which I came to regret deeply and I also didn’t go to see them when they played also at 285 Kent the next summer because I was too depressed. When I finally saw Iceage I was twenty-two and it was at the tail end of a protracted epic nightmare, and it was in a bar decorated like a Rainforest Café across the street from the Yale University library in New Haven, Connecticut. A dude offered me marzipan Ritter Sport in the pit and I almost fell into a pile of drums while the band played “Remember.” It was the most cathartic show I have ever been to. The next day I woke up at 7am and presented my undergraduate thesis covered in bruises. If you had asked me how I felt knowing that everything was almost over I might have said something like Elias Ronnenfelt sings in Iceage’s new song “The Lord’s Favorite.” I do believe I’m God’s favorite one and now is the time I should have whatever I desire. I survived and that must be proof of my anointment from above; now bring me shit to bury with me in my pyramid. One hundred euro wine at a fucking minimum!
The point is, “The Lord’s Favorite” sounds different than Iceage’s other songs but is really not all that different, so who cares. Ronnenfelt clearly doesn’t give a fuck; his life’s awesome. Does anybody making punk music today sing about sex and excess better? In the song’s video he’s surrounded by these rockstar trappings that feel occultist and sanctified, sitting in the basement of a short-lived Los Angeles DIY venue called the Church on York like the one-man Alta Vendita, while his bandmates douse themselves in champagne. “I do believe in heaven and I do believe it’s real,” he sings, which is funny because so many of his other songs feel like blasted-heath hellscapes, and I wonder about the narrator in Spacemen 3’s “Walking with Jesus,” who gets doomed to hell by the Man Himself because he claims to have found heaven on Earth.
Meanwhile Johan Wieth’s guitar sounds like something from a lost Gun Club track recorded to wax cylinder and forgotten in the desert and this honky-tonk bassline kicks in like the last echo of some down-home pirate radio. Like the band’s best material it’s the kind of song that you listen to and then want to start living; unlike the rest of their best material it’s the song that comes on when you ride into town in advance of a dust storm and slam into the whiskey bar demanding the good shit (instead of, say, the sweaty moshpit / orgy that something like “Ecstasy” brings to mind). It feels like a kind of impossible triumph, and there’s the continuity, if you were expecting continuity from this band. It feels like getting yours, finally, and I’ll toast to that. [Genevieve Oliver]