Welcome to the new installment of Tracking, the regular roundup of our favorite new songs. Next up are great tunes from Björk, Hot Chip, Sleater-Kinney, Waxahatchee, Viet Cong, and Marina and the Diamonds.
Björk’s Vulnicuramay well be the one breakup album to rule them all. One source of its immense stature among this storied strain of pop record is the sheer longevity of the relationship (with artist Matthew Barney) whose dissolution it chronicles: Björk and Barney weathered years of partnership, two ceaselessly demanding art-world careers, and children, among much more. That’s a lot of history with a whole range of emotional associations, which means that Vulnicura is about as complex and multidimensional as a breakup album could be. Most listeners have responded, rightly, to the intensity of the singer-songwriter’s expressed pain; Vulnicura is a brutal listen that will sap more or less all the hope you had in human relationships. But there’s also space for a track like “Lionsong,” a scathing six-minute declaration of independence in which burning resentment crystalizes “abstract complex feelings” into simple him-or-me-this-time vitriol. “Lionsong” isn’t the best cut on Vulnicura and it’s not the most representative of the album as a whole, but it is the one that’s easiest to listen to in isolation. “Maybe he will come out of this, maybe he won’t,” Björk sneers. Later, she changes that line to “Maybe he will come out of this loving me,” but the initial statement has already been made, and both variations conclude, “Somehow, I’m not too worried either way.” The song is grounded rhythmically in Arca’s unique brand of clattering trip-hop, but the musical star of the show is the string section, its regal swoops standing in for the singer when she’s silent and perfectly couching her icy sentiments when she’s not.
And, yeesh, are they ever icy. At one point, she considers deliberately baiting her partner (“Should I throw oil on one of his moods? But which one?”). There’s also a put-down that’s probably the nastiest line Björk’s ever penned: “I’m not taming no animal.” Yet the song also readily admits that such clear-cut emotions are probably fronts for ambiguity: “I refuse, it’s a sign of maturity,” goes a late lyric, but there’s something too smug about Björk’s claim to her own maturity, just as there is to her strident claim that she is “not too worried either way.” “Lionsong” is thrillingly mean, but by the end, it’s running on fumes. Cracks start to show in the steely exterior the singer presents. Increasingly, each expression of fury reveals new vulnerability, so that there is ultimately nowhere left to go at the conclusion of “Lionsong” but deeper into Vulnicura. — Samuel Tolzmann
Ah Hot Chip, they’ve never shied away from baring their souls to the listener, always in a humorous and intelligent manner, ever since "Over and Over"’s devilishly catchy beats and rhymes provided a slick satirical retort to the critics who’d branded them "repetitive and boring" on album number one.
The excellent lead single from upcoming sixth album Why Make Sense? continues down that path of fusing the fiendishly danceable with the intellectual: it’s a slow-burning, gradually escalating electro-paean to the creeping fear we feel as we become older. Of course, trademark Hot Chip lyrical humor abounds, with the Nike trainers of the title used as a witty reference point for the fact that all fads must end – there’s always a snazzier pair of sneakers on the horizon. And it’s all wrapped up in vibrant, tender-hearted, glitchy electronica.
Musically "Huarache Lights" is more akin in style and temperament to the title track from fourth album One Life Stand than to more propulsive earlier album singles such as "Over and Over" and "Ready For The Floor." The track begins with a rippling synth baseline churning beneath the ebb and flow of a wash of deep synths before singer Alexis Taylor’s inimitable, buttery silk vocal is introduced.
“Replace us with the things that do the job better,” deadpans Taylor during the track’s repeated chorus refrain, before being fittingly edged out by a Daft Punk style robot vocoder. Don’t talk crazy, Hot Chip – there’s no one out there who fits that bill. — Benji Taylor
Everyone remembers their first Sleater-Kinney song; mine was “Everything,” from The Woods, and I was fourteen. When hearing it for the first time I remembered this message board kids from my class had posted on when I was in seventh grade and how one kid whose music taste I otherwise generally respected had said something like “girls can’t be in bands.” In “Everything” Corin Tucker sings, “Who is more deserving than me? Why live with less when I can get all the things that I want to?” This is a useful thing to have circling in your head when you feel self-doubt – doubt that you deserve good things, doubt that you are capable, doubt that you are allowed.
Sleater-Kinney formed in Olympia, Washington, which is about an hour south of Seattle, where I live now. On Fifteenth Avenue two blocks east of my house there is a telephone pole wrapped in posters for Sleater-Kinney’s new album, No Cities to Love, their first since The Woods. If you drive down to Olympia from here you will drive under Sleater-Kinney Road. There have always been and will always be a lot of great bands from Olympia. Particularly if you’re a feminist and into punk there’s this profound mythology surrounding the place – Kurt Cobain named “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after a note left on his bedroom wall at Evergreen State College by Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill, referencing a women’s deodorant slogan.
“Surface Envy” is Sleater-Kinney’s second single from No Cities to Love. It’s a fantastic song. I’m very glad that people know Carrie Brownstein’s name because she’s very funny on Portlandia but I am hopeful that her fans will also realize she is an incredible guitar player. Corin Tucker’s self-assured chorus applies to the reunion of her band, but I think it also speaks to a problem that feminism and punk alike still have – inclusivity and intersectionality. You can’t call what you profess feminism if it does not include and advocate for women of color, queer women, trans women, poor women, disabled women, etc., just like your punk is bullshit if it does not include and advocate for women, folks of color, queer and trans folks, poor folks, disabled folks, etc. “I feel so much stronger now that you’re here,” Corin sings, “Only together do we break the rules.” I’m so grateful for the public discourse about feminism that swept pop culture in 2014 – I’m grateful for Beyonce’s feminism and Taylor Swift’s, for those people who need a musical push but can’t get into, like, Perfect Pussy. I’m grateful for this public, widespread conversation that challenges the popular understanding of what feminism is. I’m grateful for all these things and I understand that we need more. We need to keep talking, we need to keep challenging, we need to keep expanding, we need to keep embracing. We need to work very hard to break rules together. Remember this always. Think it about it up there with “Who is more deserving than me?” — Genevieve Oliver
Katie Crutchfield may be growing older, but that doesn’t mean her insights into the bumbles and blunders of twenty-something life have become any less incisive. She has become more comfortable too, evolving her sound gradually from the kind of music one envisions having been recorded under a bed sheet, to grand, rock roman candles. The one thing that has not changed, however, is the intimacy. No matter what Crutchfield tackles, it is immediately relatable; a human folly that feels shared among close friends during a profound conversation.
Case in point: “Air,” the lead track off Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield’s forthcoming third album under the moniker of Waxahatchee, which sees her analyzing the remains of a former relationship with stunning impartiality. Rather than a classic case of ex bashing, Crutchfield approaches the issue with a level head, and an expanded sonic palette. The standbys from Cerulean Salt, drums and guitar, are alive and well, but it is the minor addition of a keyboard (!) that is most striking. On the lyrical side, Crutchfield chalks up the disintegration of her relationship almost entirely to her own errors (“I left you out like a carton of milk”). She realizes the stagnation in her relationship (“when we are moving, we just pretend to be strangers lamenting a means to an end), but ultimately, the roots of this torpor have a mutual cause (“You were patiently giving me everything that I will never need”). Don’t call it a break-up song. “Air” is both an apology and a realization, the kind of perspective only time can provide. With age comes wisdom, apparently. — Jean-Luc Marsh
I first heard “Death” by Viet Cong in March when I saw the band for the first time at SXSW, and the sound guy officiating their noontime outdoor set offered them “one more song.” About five minutes in he was waving his arms frantically in the band’s general direction. At the end, when frontman Matt Flegel really lays into shouting whatever it is he is shouting, the sound guy wandered around the stage unplugging their instruments. They finished the song with hardly anything actually making noise except for Matt shouting and then quietly apologizing for going overtime. I thought it was probably the most punk thing I had ever seen. “Death” was stuck in my head intermittently for the next few months – sometimes in the silence you can just hear that vicious, fragmenting, screaming guitar bit – and finally I came into possession of the full record on my birthday while I was in Toronto with my best friend. She and I sat around and listened to it all the way through in silence except when we were laughing hysterically because it was so good, passing a bottle of wine back and forth until we drank the whole thing. Two days later I took the bus to Buffalo to fly home and listened to “Death” as we drove across this brown and completely vacant stretch of peninsula between lakes and nations. We drove past a housing development in progress bearing a sunbleached banner that read Building the Canadian Dream. Above the text was an image of a family cheering on their child as he played hockey, but their faces were whited out by the sun and weather and looked like ceremonial death masks.
The thing about the Viet Cong record that I find the most interesting is that it sounds like it was assembled in a bunker after the end of the world. Like, this is what you would be doing while hiding out from the mercenaries in your secret forested lair in order to distract yourself from thinking about how your supply of ramen noodles is running low. Soon you will have to go back to town to find supplies and it makes you nervous, angry, driven, determined: so you would make a record like this and you would make a song like “Death,” in kind of nostalgic retrospect, remembering all the hints you should have taken in the years before. You would be living that feeling inside “Death,” which feels at times like the world speeding by through wide windows and at times like everything is moving in slow motion and you are forced to confront some demon. Viet Cong sounds like it must be from the future, because like the future, it is terrifying and inevitable; “Death,” as its eleven-minute closer and literally epic masterwork, feels like the final harbinger of something larger than itself. Like a new star in one corner of the sky. It is hurtling toward you everyday and it is almost here now and on some days it feels closer than others.
Sometimes I cannot help but wonder, like eschatologist Carrie Bradshaw, how the world we’re living in can possibly sustain itself like this much longer. The sense of fear in that kind of thinking is primal; it’s the unknown, mostly. That’s the fear in everything. The sound of it is obvious. That sound has been since before we all were; before we were, death was. That sound is inevitable just like the end feels inevitable on the bad days. What is remarkable about “Death” is that Viet Cong have somehow made manifest your death march into the lifting of the veil, your final triumphant Pyrrhic victory, the song you’ve been hearing in your head since you first started facing demons. But it isn’t purely fear – the heartbeat keeps going in it, it keeps going everyday. — Genevieve Oliver
Marina and The Diamonds
Classic Marina. New Year’s Eve is a time generally reserved for purging, whether it be negativity, regrets, mistakes, or that last glass of champagne that marked one too many. All this catharsis, combined with hope in the form of some empty promises for self-improvement, makes for a day full of levity, ideally. Then along comes Marina Diamandis, not with the life-affirming anthem that fits in well with the party fodder that night, but rather a mid-tempo downer about the ephemerality of human life featuring such party-starting refrains as “but everybody dies.”
It is a bold move for Diamandis to release such a dour tune on such a festive day, but it is not entirely uncharacteristic for the Welsh chanteuse. The tracks fits in well within her oeuvre as Marina and the Diamonds, whose offbeat take on pop has been a major calling card. (And there is precedent, especially in the form of the previously released “Happy,” which, despite its title, is closer in tone to Colour the Small One-era Sia than Pharrell’s 2014 smash.) Maybe it is a throwback to The Family Jewels, combining the lyrical depth of her debut with the pop sensibilities of Electra Heart for her upcoming third record, Froot.
Yet hidden under the Sisyphean ideation, lies a glimmer of hope. In Diamandis’ words, “the only thing that doesn’t die is love.” A romantic message resounds under all of that. The trick know is to find that spark, create a lasting memory, and hold onto it before time leaves us in its dust. Blunt yet effective, the question remains: Is “Immortal” an emotional purge or a realistic take on the futility a new year brings? The jury is out for now. — Jean-Luc Marsh