This week on Tracking – a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs – you can listen to additions from Vampire Weekend, The Knife, Autre Ne Veut, Angel Olsen and Smith Westerns.
(Click on the arrows to navigate through the songs.)
Vampire Weekend - "Step"
It’s pretty surreal to write that one of the year’s best songs borrows a melody from former pop star Vitamin C, but it does. Ezra Koenig’s opening refrain, “back back way way back I used to front like Angkor Wat,” follows the very same structure as the starting verse of Vitamin C’s “Graduation Song,” that unavoidable, slightly unbearable anthem celebrating “all the times we had together.”
Fortunately, this fleeting moment marks the only similarity between the two songs. “Step” has no schmaltzy strings, no painfully obvious Hallmark-card message, no soulful sing-along finale. Instead, it’s a magical new tune from a band that continues its career-long trend of releasing new music with consistent, instant excellence.
With a harpsichord, a piano, a drum-set and the soft sounds of a choir, Vampire Weekend has crafted a stunner in “Step,” which finds the foursome transforming an old-school rap song into a sentimental ballad; effortlessly blending typically witty lyrics with gorgeous production and the heartfelt vocals of Ezra Koenig.
Koenig’s voice has always been compared to Paul Simon’s – their voices naturally share a certain pitch. Here on “Step,” his vocals may be even less reminiscent of Simon’s than usual, but the connection between the two artists has never been more apparent. Koenig has developed that rare, uncanny ability, reserved for legends like Simon and James Taylor, to cut directly through the recorded medium and project straight to the ears of listeners. He’s singing in the room with you.
If “Step” isn’t magical enough on its own, the stunning, hypnotic lyrics video only adds to the song’s allure. Channeling the opening shots of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” and the title cards of Wes Anderson, Koenig’s seemingly random assortment of words fill the screen, “Magnetic Poetry”-style, sprawled out on top of subtly beautiful images of New York City.
Until now, all of Vampire Weekend’s music videos have been silly, rambunctious affairs – the frenetic confetti splash of “Cousins,” the werewolves of “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” the ping-pong match of “Giving Up The Gun.” Those videos worked, since there has always been a streak of goofiness running through this group’s image. But there has also always been a glorification of young life in the city (dating all the way back to “Ladies Of Cambridge”), and it’s never been visualized better than with these minimalist shots of a black-and-white NYC.
For three years now, fans have patiently waited for new music from this Columbia crew. With yesterday’s release of “Step” and “Diane Young,” we now know what took so long. Great songs like these don’t come around too often. Neither do bands like Vampire Weekend. – Adam Offitzer
The Knife - "A Tooth for An Eye"
Shaking the Habitual is shaping up to be a vibrant and stylistically diverse album. “Full of Fire” was a dark and driving tour de force and, while “A Tooth For An Eye” creates a similarly intense atmosphere, it employs more tropical, buoyant instrumentation. The song once again reinforces the strengths of The Knife's core elements – Olof's razor-sharp synth arrangements and Karin's searing vocals – but it also owes its success to the unexpected flourishes that pop up throughout.
Karin's voice escalates into a fierce shriek coming out of the first verse; the synths at times sound like birds chirping at one another; the end of the song breaks down into an epic, convoluted rhythm. These new aural territories are welcome but I suppose it just wouldn't be a Knife song without lyrics that delve into divisive social issues. As with “Full of Fire,” “A Tooth For An Eye” focuses on questions of gender roles and, from the looks of the video, specifically addresses masculinity and power. These are clearly important issues for the duo however the message is usually obscured by distorted or indecipherable vocals. One gets the sense that The Knife's songs are more cathartic exercises than attempts to make a point. I imagine that's why they're so powerful. – Drew Malmuth
Autre Ne Veut - "Ego Free Sex Free"
The booming fourth track of Autre Ne Veut’s Anxiety may claim to be “sex-free,” but make no mistake about it – “Ego Free Sex Free” is relentlessly sexual. The initial, aggressive thud of a drum gives way to a living, breathing pulse that pounds throughout the entire song. This beat (along with the chipmunk vocals and synthesized ghost choirs thrown on top of it) bangs along like a morphed, alternate-reality version of Justin Timberlake’s “Summer Love.” It’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, just further in the future.
Arthur Ashin’s vocals are otherworldly in their own right, turned on to maximum seduction level for this one. “I want to be the knight in armor,” he wails, “when you say this is forever.” There’s no great lyrical depth; no more than your average sex-driven pop song: “Love riding your sexy body…I know the place that you want,” and so on. But the chorus does differentiate it ever so slightly – “Ego free, sex free, I can’t feel my body moving.” How can a song be all about sex but glorify an experience that is “sex free”?
Whatever your interpretation, “Ego Free Sex Free” is undeniably a banger of a track and a definitive cut from Anxiety, an album that perfectly encapsulates the recent movement of futuristic, new-wave soul music. – Adam Offitzer
Angel Olsen - "Sweet Dreams"
Angel Olsen’s “Sweet Dreams” is a moody, grim slouch toward Bethlehem. Her guitar starts as a simple strum then devolves into a sharp, ‘60s-psych-tinged echo that sounds like fragile things being knocked from high shelves; over it her voice soars and, even more affectingly, cracks; she fights out lyrics that figure her lost love as her personal apocalypse as though each word is a little demon that possesses her. She sings about dying a little more every day. She sings “the time will come for everyone” and you get the feeling there’s more behind those words than the surface value. She sings with her voice like a candle flame guttering “say goodbye, sweet dreams, sleep tight,” and how are you supposed to after that?
This year’s already treated us to a handful of fantastic, very sad, and seething angry folk-inflected songs by women – I’m thinking mostly of Torres’ “Honey” and Waxahatchee’s “Dixie Cups and Jars,” joined by Olsen’s “Sweet Dreams” – in which these songwriters grit their lyrics out through their teeth, turn up the reverb on their guitars, and engineer apocalyptic emotional devastation. Though that kind of slow-burning, deep-current fury is no new sentiment in music, something about it is refreshing, and inspiring in the face of the love-song industrial complex – why would you be sad about being heartbroken when you can be so angry? – Genevieve Oliver
Smith Westerns - "Varsity"
The best tracks on Smith Westerns’ breakout sophomore full-length Dye It Blonde thrived as hazy, washed-out stadium anthems. The vocals were always slightly filtered and drained, the guitars fuzzy and faded, but the hooks, melodies, and riffs were so catchy that the songs were instantly accessible no matter what. With their first new track in over two years, Smith Westerns have added a bit more polish to their music, and the shine is visible.
“Varsity” radiates with joyous, shimmering synthesizers and the lovely high-pitched howling of lead vocalist Cullen Omori. Hardcore fans might not like the lush, squeaky-clean sound, but the Smith Westerns we’ve come to know are still very much present – the lyrics are still youthful and nostalgic, the guitars are still breezy, and the vocals are still light and airy. By broadening their scope, polishing up their production and brightening their tone, perhaps Smith Westerns haven’t changed their sound so much as they’ve perfected it. – Adam Offitzer