This time on Tracking we discuss our favorite new songs from FKA twigs, SOPHIE, Mr. Twin Sister, Rustie/Danny Brown & Merchandise.
FKA twigs, "Pendulum"
Few producers outside of big-tent EDM have played so prominent role in what’s been termed the “loudness war” than Paul Epworth. He’s a master at taking fairly ordinary pop and rock songs and transforming them into tidal waves, whether it’s the austere post-punk of Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm or the Big Pink’s gauzy frathouse anthem “Dominoes” or the earth-rumbling drums of Florence + The Machine’s “Cosmic Love.” These are big songs, clobbering pieces of music that knock you flat through sheer physical force. Epworth’s idea of subtlety is Adele’s “Someone Like You,” where the supposedly restrained piano is still coated in glossy big-room reverb and the singer’s showstopping performance more than compensates for a relatively anemic arrangement (relative, that is, in comparison to “Rolling In The Deep,” also an Epworth production).
What’s Epworth's name doing attached to a song like “Pendulum”? A recent interview in Crack with the song’s writer, performer, and co-producer FKA twigs (real name, Tahliah Barnett) doesn’t illuminate the collaborative process at all except to say that both parties were “nervous.” If anything, “Pendulum” is another example of Barnett’s ability to harness any and all collaborators’ gifts for her own, sometimes seemingly opposite purposes. “Pendulum” has a certain expanse to it, but it’s not an especially cavernous affair. The percussion track doesn’t even really qualify as a beat. It’s more of a rickety jalopy, accelerating and decelerating almost at random. “Pendulum” sounds like two songs in one: at heart, it’s a love song, rich and warm and liquid, full of intuitive, pleasingly resolved chord progressions; but then it’s also got this dark, jagged side, a frantic and fragmentary element that works directly and violently against the molten core. “So lonely, trying to be yours,” goes the aching refrain (does Barnett write any other kind?), and the song hauntingly acts out that horrible cycle. It comes so close to cohering into something readily recognizable, but then it falls just a little short and slips back into unseemly chaos only to regroup and try again and again, much like the narrator, one of Barnett’s many emotional masochists. [Samuel Tolzman]
I have hundreds of questions to ask SOPHIE, and almost none of them have anything to do with his veiled identity as a human being, his absurd domain name or his affinity for a 96-point all-caps typeface. In fact, only a handful of them address how he plans to pull off a multi-stop international tour while maintaining anonymity or his recent collaboration with J-Pop wunderkind/cultural head-scratch Kyary Pamyu Pamyu.
My hundreds of questions are loosely aesthetic-based, and if you refuse to empathize, you clearly haven’t heard “Lemonade,” or “Hard,” SOPHIE’s two brand-new, totally awesome, completely unclassifiable offerings.
I’m nitpicking, because by his own unspoken definition, SOPHIE’s a pretty unclassifiable producer. 2013 releases “Bipp,” and “Elle,” generated some serious blogosphere buzz and almost unanimous acclaim for their originality, precision and borderline-mathematical technical arrangement. Their themes were uncharted in 2013, and their authenticity holds up even today.
SOPHIE’s 2014 breakout “Lemonade,” operates using the same construction. Between its elastic bass line, an instantly repeatable vocal sample (“Lemonade. Luh-Luh-Lemonade,” and end-scene, pretty much), and a modulated choral uptick, “Lemonade,” mutates back and forth from filthy-as-fuck bass rumble to hyper-caffeinated melodic gossamer. It’s brilliant and confusing, and by the time you think you might be onto something, you’ve already listened to it too many times to care about whatever you think you might be onto.
Meanwhile, B-side “Hard,” operates like the even-more-manic-yet-slightly-more-depressed older sibling to “Lemonade.” Rife with bass sweeps, melodic chirps, syncopated highs, erratic synth breaks and a decidedly PC Music-inspired vocal sample, “Hard,” is the sonic equivalent to a rubber ball careening down an aluminum laundry chute. Several known electronic music elements are at play, here, but practically none of them stick around long enough to blossom into anything recognizable.
Which was totally the point. “Hard,” might not be a club-ready electronic banger, but its hairpin adjustments and gradated nuances showcase what happens when the comfort zone of bass drops and rudimentary melodic accouterments is abandoned in favor of something new. And by “something new,” I mean “a slightly modified version of something old.” It’s a brilliant move made by one of the world’s most unique and truly exciting producers. [Austin Reed]
Mr. Twin Sister, "Blush"
The summer months, man. They’re a bitch. Each year, June, July and August assume the role of the calendric Stygian Witches, prodding and lulling us into a submissive state of musical colorblindness. In this substandard universe, saturated bass, brain-dead lyrics and saccharine hooks thrive in perpetuity, replacing the pleasantry of intelligent melody with decidedly dim-witted oohn-tiss redundancy around every single corner. It’s only three months, but when it comes to the lifespan of sonic pigswill, three months is about three months too long. Especially in this heat. I can barely tolerate anything as it is. My hair is sweating, for Christ’s sake.
Thankfully, Mr. Twin Sister seem to have been victimized by this rant once or twice already. Earlier this month, they dropped “Blush,” a delightfully woozy Penicillin shot to the arm that saunters blissfully with lo-fi finesse and the intricacy of a recessive-hand watercolor. Andrea Estella’s come-and-get-me vocal arch deftly conveys the vintage R&B aesthetic perfected by Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding.
“Blush” illustrates a fool’s errand—a figurative knock-down, drag-out that leaves even the winner in the loser’s bracket. “If you could just read me / I would make everything right,” Estrella croons, beseeching more gravity and meaning from an obvious string of one-night hookups. Desperation has rarely sounded so tender, and Estella emotes as if we’re standing in the middle it as it’s happening.
“Now you have my secrets, but you haven’t said a thing,” paints an experience so lurid and universally experienced, you can almost taste it. This is a prominent theme throughout the rest of Mr. Twin Sister’s beautiful summertime sea change. Amid a season otherwise devoted to this, and this and, Jesus, this, “Blush,” gratifies with poise and electrifying stir. [Austin Reed]
Rustie, "Attak" (featuring Danny Brown)
Danny Brown songs generally fall into one of two categories. There’s down-tempo, more accessible, introspective Danny, featured on tracks like Grown Up, 25 Bucks and Float On, then there’s insane, turn up or die, pure aggression Danny, featured on basically the entire second half of the 2013 album Old (three songs of which were produced by Rustie). “Attak,” a single for Rustie’s upcoming Green Language, finds the Scottish producer releasing his long-awaited first rap collaboration, one that somehow fits into both categories of Danny Brown’s style.
Rustie’s booming, glowing synths sound like the ambulances coming to pick up your mangled body after the track destroys you. The instrumental immediately grabs your attention and overwhelms, without the Brown’s normal abrasiveness, which often alienates fans of his (relatively) softer music. Brown’s voice matches, occasionally slipping into growls and shouts but never breaking from a ceaseless continuation of spitting fire. When the bass hits, it stabs in and out like a strobe light, and the beat races forward at breakneck speed. There isn’t even time for a chorus in the mad dash to go dumb, plus the catchiness of the synth hook accomplishes the same goal as one.
“Attak” encapsulates Brown’s persona of a wildman with a penchant for progressive beats. His raw aggression is on display, but it augments high quality bars instead of the other way around. “Attak” dabbles in all areas of Brown’s skill. It makes a perfect Danny Brown song—which just goes to show how perfect Rustie is at producing a hype-filled ambiance, and why you should be very, very stoked for his album to drop later this month. [Charlie Dulik]
Merchandise, "Green Lady"
When I first moved to Seattle fifteen months ago I spent a lot of time listening to Merchandise and crying on the bus. Centrally I listened to “Become What You Are,” from 2012’s Children of Desire, and “Anxiety’s Door,” from 2013’s Totale Nite, and cried on the bus. In “Anxiety’s Door” when Carson Cox sings “Somewhere there’s a perfect country that sits right by the sea where the sun comes down just to talk to me,” and I was on the number four bus where it does that suicidal-seeming jaunt down an extremely steep hill on James Street and you can just kinda see Puget Sound glinting to the west, or Mount Rainier to the south through the buildings at Harborview, or the Olympics across the sound and the Cascades to the East, I would start crying. I cried also on the 48 coming home from the U District after work when the bus goes over the canal at Montlake that connects the sound to Lake Washington, and late in the sunset the mountains look like someone has torn a piece of brightly colored paper jaggedly and set it against a black backdrop. I cried chiefly to “Become What You Are” because it seemed relevant, and look at me writing “cried” in the past tense. I still cry on the bus to “Become What You Are.” It’s an important song mostly because it’s about forsaking what other people think you’re supposed to be and being just what you know in your heart you’re supposed to be. Cox is singing it about his music, because he and the rest of his bandmates used to play hardcore in bands like Neon Blud and Church Whip, and they quit to make stunningly romantic eleven-minute ballads that sound like lost Echo and the Bunnymen tracks, clearly much to the chagrin of other members of their community, as though anybody else has the right to define for you what kind of art you should make. Clearly there is a time in your life when you have to stand up tall and look back on the things you have accomplished and think okay, what else? That’s the moment at which you have to decide to become what you are, and it’s this pivotal, impossible moment, and it makes you cry, all the time, especially on the bus. The reality is you are doing it all the time. You are always becoming.
The message of that song seems relevant when you listen to Merchandise’s new record, which is called After the End, and which is their first for 4AD. My first thought when I saw that Merchandise had signed to 4AD was “Deerhunter’s label!” and this is a reasonable model by which to consider what’s going on here. 4AD has worked with my favorite artists when they are ready to make true pop music, as in how they put out Deerhunter’s very polished Halcyon Digest after they had put out their fucked-up pop album (Microcastle) and their fucked-up kraut-punk southern Gothic masterwork (Cryptograms / Fluorescent Grey) via the ambient / noise label Kranky. After the End, with its massive drums, huge riffs, and woozy synth tones, is the poppiest Merchandise have ever been; it’s their Halcyon Digest, if we’re extending the metaphor. “We’re going to remake ourselves as a pop band,” said Cox directly after the band announced their signing with 4AD, “but it’ll still be a twisted reality.” It is pretty twisted. One of its best tracks is “Green Lady,” in which Merchandise do what they have always been threatening to do, full-on woozy ‘80s balladry, with plenty of woodblock percussion, sparkly synth riffs, and acoustic strumming. It literally sounds exactly like something John Hugues would put over the credits of a teen movie. It makes you want to time travel back to your prom desperately, just so you could hijack the stereo system, crank it up, and slow-dance with your crush as ambient pink light bathes you both. It sounds humid; it sounds like the rain late at night in the band’s native Florida, like the silent wet streets, like the sounds from the forest. It sounds like a band becoming what they are, still in the process, still feeling it out from the inside. “I’m through with begging for an approval,” Cox sings right off the bat, and he might be talking about his green lady, but I like to imagine it being deeper still, good advice we could all sorely use – stop looking for validation and start finding it inside yourself, start becoming, keep becoming, never stop becoming. [Genevieve Oliver]