This week on Tracking––a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs––you can listen to additions from James Blake, Youth Lagoon, Rihanna, Kurt Vile, Iceage, CHVRCHES, Autre Ne Veut and Jagwar Ma.
(Click on the arrows to navigate through the songs.)
James Blake - "Retrograde"
James Blake admirers usually tout his sparse yet emotive arrangements, which often create a heavy atmosphere with very few elements. I can see why, but I prefer when his songs embrace and build upon their core melodies, as opposed to shrouding them in mood. “Retrograde” starts with a quivering hum backed by soft piano. Blake's humming etches out the songs stellar melody and even as multiple layers of swelling synths are added, that tender sound remains the backbone of the track. Still, the heart of the song is, unsurprisingly, Blake's vocals. In almost every tack, the man sounds like he is perpetually watching his family being taken away by rebel soldiers. If you don't find it overly-sentimental, then you'll likely find it completely heartbreaking. In which case, “Retrogade” will be on repeat for the foreseeable future. –– Drew Malmuth
Youth Lagoon - "Mute"
When an artist prefaces their new material with the fact they are “becoming more fascinated with the human psyche and where the spiritual meets the physical world,” I'd say it's fair to be suspicious, but also extremely intrigued. Suspicious, because this type of vague mysticism could lead to meandering dreck; intrigued, because in the right hands this approach could make for a mind-bending listen. That comment was made by Trevor Powers (Youth Lagoon) and if you were a fan of his debut then the suspicion was probably never warranted. “Mute” confirms that Powers' metaphysical mindset is leading to some excellent music.
“Mute” is an ambitious and sonically rich track that eschews some of the twee charm found on the Youth Lagoon debut. The opening melodies are built with broad slabs of echoey guitar alongside a delicate picking pattern. Powers' dainty voice rides along the cyclical drum beat. It's unclear where exactly the arrangement is going until after the first minute and then, with a clever little transition, the song finds its groove. Odd psychedelic flourishes bounce around the swaying instrumentation. There is a looseness to Powers' songwriting but he is also adept at building little pockets of melody that are lovely and potentially addictive. I welcome Youth Lagoon's larger sound and I also encourage other talented songwriters to join Powers in his study of metaphysics. –– Drew Malmuth
Rihanna - "Stay"
This song is only really complete with its video. You might think I say that because the video is Rihanna naked in a bathtub. You're probably right. But there is also an intimacy to the images that brings out something new in the ballad. It's a song about the perils of loving a person that is destructive, but also impossible to forget. When it's not overcrowded by synths, as is often the case, Rihanna's voice is surprisingly moving and the quiver in her tone goes a long way toward establishing the emotional punch that the song aims for. Mikky Ekko contributes as well, as his aching vocals stand in for the man that Rihanna is ostensibly pining over. The two trade frustrated lines such as “it's not much of a life you're livin/ it's not just something you take, it's given,” and “funny you're the broken one but I'm the only one that needed saving.” The subject matter is a little cliché, to be sure, but if that were the litmus test for whether a pop song is good or not there wouldn't be much good to speak of. Instead, it's best to appreciate this songs rising sense of intensity, it's sparse piano arrangement, and it's gorgeous vocals. Plus, Rihanna in a bathtub. –– Drew Malmuth
Kurt Vile - "Wakin' on a Pretty Day"
The music of The War On Drugs is full of sweeping epics with ever-building guitars and relentless ambition. The music of Kurt Vile, solo artist, is no less ambitious - his latest single, "Walkin On A Pretty Day," stretches for nine and a half minutes. But it's a different kind of epic - with a quiet power and a subtle grandness to it. "Pretty Day" drifts on for nine minutes with echoed guitar strums, light percussion, and Vile's soft, conversational preaching. It floats along aimlessly, building to nothing - never exploding, but never boring. Casual, soothing "yeah yeahs" from Vile fill the song's second half, a reminder that amid the airy guitars, he's still there to anchor the track. The song is transporting, one of those where you close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let the music breeze by you. Nine minutes haven't gone by this quickly since "Pyramids." –– Adam Offtizer
Iceage - "Ecstasy"
Keeping a sense of mystery is next to impossible in our age of exploitative internet hype; though, if we’re talking about the Danish post-hardcore outfit Iceage, keeping a shroud of mystery is of the essence. Through their recently released sophomore album You’re Nothing, the band has proven themselves as relentlessly loud as their debut, but with an emphasis on the turmoil of frontman Elias Rønnenfelt. While it would usually be interesting to speculate and investigate the inspiration for such turmoil in other artists, for Iceage, it’s almost irrelevant. What one can appreciate in the manic guitar buzz, the post-punk bass lines, the feverish rhythms, and Rønnenfelt’s haunting vocals is that nothing else – no information about its creators – is needed.
No song seems to better capture this better than Your Nothing’s opener, “Ecstasy.” From obscurity, Iceage emerge with only a few seconds of unnerving feedback before the roaring distortion of guitars break the silence. What ensues in the following two minutes is a testament to Iceage’s variety of influences: bass-heavy verses reminiscent of Joy Division, thrashes of hardcore, and a tribalistic drum beat under Rønnenfelt’s desperate plea, “Pressure, pressure/Oh god no!” The transition between these sections is intense and energetic, which is nothing unusual for Iceage. However, it does introduce something darker – something more vulnerable and reflective – in Iceage and in their frontman. –– David Hogg
CHVRCHES - "Recover"
While CHVRCHES' name may be more annoying for music writers than the punctuation at the end of fun., their buzz is continuing to build - and with good reason. On "Recover," the band draws from the styles and trends defining modern electro-rock (Purity Ring and Grimes) but manages to transcend those comparisons and distinguish themselves. The song is as immediate as one can get, blindsiding you instantly with helium vocals, blaring synthesizers and punchy, hard-hitting percussion samples. What makes "Recover" great is how it combines those frequently-used elements of electro-pop-rock and creates something musically complex, unique, and perfectly accessible. After the first chorus, there's a near-perfect musical moment - a definitive, transitional series of synthetic blips and beeps that bridges the song into the next verse. It's quick, minimalist, and big at the same time - a combination that CHVRCHES seem to master in general. –– Adam Offtizer
Autre Ne Veut - "Play by Play"
Autre Ne Veut, or Arthur Ashin, is a Brooklyn producer with a knee-buckling falsetto reminiscent of Prince and lyrics that confront “the anxieties and frustrations of trying to relate to other people in this world.” Surely that’s something most can relate to.
“Play by Play” stutter-steps through a 3-minute build-up to usher in an eruption of extended climax that sticks in your head like wood glue. This tension and release quite explicitly mirrors that of sex and Ashin’s lyrics frequently deal with these relationships, undoubtedly some of the most powerful and complex we face in our daily lives.
In short, consider me wooed. Ashin’s earnest vocals boil over with intensity from the moment his voice enters 30 seconds in, making one wonder where the hook is or if every line is the beginning of a new chorus. Our answer arrives in the silky-sweet refrain, “I just called you up to get that play-by-play / Don’t ever leave me alone,” stuffed with enough layers of harmony and echo to fill any open heart.
The album, Anxiety, is out 2.26.13, and though this nervous, post-bedroom-ridden-art-student producer may be battling with how to relate, the clarity and richness of this track makes it pretty easy for us. Just grab his hand and don’t let go. –– Ben Brock Wilkes
Jagwar Ma - "The Throw"
Ever wandered coastal avenues in an unknown city at sunset and been too stoned to care for a map or a destination?
“The Throw” offers webs of psychedelic haze for aimless or purposeful exploration like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. The barbershop echoes that open the song could have sound-tracked a scene in A Bronx Tale and the closing refrain of “Is it closer than I could imagine,” a jungle nightmare on the island of Lost.
This track has more to offer than a heavy influence from the much-mocked (until we grew nostalgic and started liking 80s music again) “baggy” genre of jammy British acid house that has been called everything from “funk noir” to “The Stone Roses.” Jagwar Ma has approached psychedelic dance music with tightened jeans and the mindset of new Noughties production. Spacious grooves leave just as much room for ambient dubbing as they do an insatiable, tripped-out vocal melody and its corollary guitar riff.
The Australian duo is producer Jono Ma and vocalist Gabriel Winterfield. In response to being ascribed the label of Madchester revivalism they say, “You’ve got something? Show me what / So why should I care?” –– Ben Brock Wilkes