Welcome to the 2014's 4th, and overall 39th installment of Tracking, a regular series in which we discuss our current favorite songs. This time around we discuss new music from Real Estate, Rick Ross, Kanye West, Beck, Mac DeMarco, Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks and Trust.
Real Estate, "Talking Backwards"
Is it a little cute that Real Estate, a band whose sound exemplifies clarity, has recorded an elegy for precise communication? Sure. Does that diminish “Talking Backwards,” the glistening first single from Atlas, their latest LP? Not in the least. Though I’m in the lonely minority as a Real Estate skeptic, who once compared their previous album to a horrific scene from A Clockwork Orange, the band’s charms are hardly lost on me. Especially when presented this well.
“Talking Backwards” brims with the adjectives enthusiasts regularly cite in their praise. But there’s a scuff to cloud the shine, a twang to counter the jangle, a frustration to temper the spring. Such minor tweaks make all the difference here: Martin Courtney’s exasperated lyric, in particular, provides the song’s sugarcoat with barbs. “The only thing that really matters,” he sings to his lover, “is the one thing I can't seem to do.” Self-flagellation this is not. “Talking Backwards” is rarity – a beaming kiss-off, which rings with joy and chimes with only a hint of apology. [Peter Tabakis]
Rick Ross, Kanye West & Big Sean, "Sanctified"
The only person at this party that deserves (or at least thinks he deserves) to undergo sanctification is Yeezus himself. In the context of Ross's Mastermind, "Sanctified" is one of the album's best, and with not much help from Ross and Kid Sean. DJ Mustard lends his touch to the soul swept Betty Wright aided track, with cavernous synth and drum slaps throughout. It's appropriate that Kanye is justifying his holiness over such a vaulted track. Making no apologies (obviously), Kanye defiantly points out that "when Ali turn up and be Ali, can't ever [...] go back to Cassius." Poignant in the wake of the 10th anniversary of College Dropout and of the Yeezus fallout. But can we take a guy who raps sarcastic conversations with the Heavenly Father only a few bars later, seriously? Absolutely. And all the while Ross is still in the slow lane, bragging about post-coital tweeting and post-fellatio grilled cheeses and rims and girls and blah blah blah... [Dorian Mendoza]
Beck, "Country Down"
The boundless dexterity Beck is best known for stirs suspicion as often as it garners acclaim. Naysayers claim his frequent genre shifts point to a career-long game of dress-up – with style held at a premium, substance not so much. It’s hard to counter such criticism. After all, his most imaginative albums – Mellow Gold, Odelay, Midnite Vultures – rejoice in the protean, sometimes at the expense of depth. Even Mutations and SeaChange have moments where Beck’s grown-up emotions ring hollow. His splendid new album Morning Phase, however, lacks any aftertaste of superficiality. “Country Down,” the LP’s strongest and simplest track, telegraphs country-song melancholy upfront. It’s right there in the title. And “Country Down” follows with four minutes of Harvest-worthy splendor.
However sharp its musical trappings – pedal steel guitar, electric piano, and harmonica – the song’s lyrics are murky, with pastoral vistas evoking bygone, and soon-to-be bygone, memories (“The hills roll out like centuries/ Pass by without a sound”). “Country Down,” all verse and refrain with no chorus, has a repeating, built-in circular song structure. Beck’s poignant vocal, likewise, traverses a plateau – no peaks, no valleys – steady as the march of time. And so present and future become past. It’s a heartbreaking thought, but also fundamentally honest. This is real-deal Beck, unearthing, with arresting assurance, the mellowest of early-70s radio gold. [Peter Tabakis]
Mac DeMarco, "Brother"
In a twisted sort of way, this is what I have in mind when I think of comfort music. Languid guitar lines and vocals that sound like they are being sung by your older sister's strung out boyfriend as he wakes up on your front lawn and tells you life is meaningless. “Brother” takes on a resigned beauty, melting one guitar lick into another and ending in a crescendo of psychedelic meandering. DeMarco, not unlike his label mate Juan Wauters, is building up a collection of world-weary vignettes, and, based on the first two singles from upcoming Salad Days, he is well on his way to making an album of laid-back, meditative perfection. “Brother,” while slighter than “Passing Out Pieces,” finds a sweet spot in between the energetic psychedelia of Tame Impala, the shimmering guitar lines of Real Estate or Beach House, and the somber, slightly obnoxious sense of detachment that underpins everything from King Krule to Parquet Courts. That DeMarco is able to meld all of that into a song as cohesive and unassuming as “Brother” is a testament to the progression of his craft. Listening to it, one is consciously depressed (hard not to be with lines like: “you are no better off living your life than dreaming at night”) but subconsciously grinning from ear to ear. If the rest of Salad Days carries out the sad/happy tension as effectively as “Brother” it will be one of the most inexplicably enjoyable albums of the year. [Drew Malmuth]
Slasher Flicks, "Little Fang"
While some songwriters seem to grasp their tunes fully formed from the ether, Avey Tare's tracks have always felt like the result of a mad science experiment. His incredibly rich output, with Animal Collective as well as multiple side projects, seems to have been born from a spastic melding of obscure lyrical tangents, twisted samples, and boisterous pop melodies. At the very least, his songs are never exactly what you expect. With “Little Fang,” the first single from Portner's collaboration with Angel Deradoorian (Dirty Projectors) and Jeremy Hyman (Ponytail), these sensibilities are grounded by a groovy bass line and a straightforward song structure. It's not completely new territory for Avey Tare – his penchant for melodies that recall Paul McCartney has been evident since Spirit They're Gone Spirit They've Vanished – but it does find him celebrating the pop tradition rather than skewering it. The dense layers of Animal Collective's recent releases have been peeled away, leaving Tare's knack for guitar riffs, his sunny vocal oddities, and, of course, much of the creepiness (Portner is, after all, singing to a vampire puppet about not letting society bring you down). Slasher Flick's debut, Enter the Slasher House, is said to contain pounding drum work from Hyman and, in general, a “dedication to garage music supported by miscreant artifice.” That sounds fantastic, but, in the meantime, “Little Fang” offers a charming dose of whimsy that confirms Avey Tare is still a sucker for a good melody. [Drew Malmuth]
Writing about Trust’s sophomore album Joyland earlier this month, I said that the record blows Robert Alfon’s sinister synthpop from “basement- to stadium-size,” but my principal trouble with Joyland is that it doesn’t do much that’s interesting with that newfound scale or square it with Trust’s particular aesthetic strengths; too often, it was the sound of an artist going bigger for the sake of mere escalation alone. The major exception is album closer “Barely.” If Joyland is a stadium-sized record, “Barely” is one of those magical moments – despite the fact that they share nothing else in common, Spoon’s minimalist anthem “Paper Tiger” springs to mind – that conveys the feeling of watching an artist sing their heart out to a stadium of one. Trust has always dealt in loneliness (or at least solipsism – even at his most hedonistic, Alfons sounds trapped inside his own head), but “Barely” takes the tension between Joyland’s massive sonic ambitions and a crushing sense of total abandonment and twists it to the breaking point. The crucial factor is Alfons’s vocals, which step back from the edge-of-the-stage vamping found elsewhere on Joyland and remain resolutely frail even when, two minutes in, the song finally works up the strength to shift from somber synthpop balladry full-on club banger. We’ve heard Alfons snarl, growl, moan, seethe, and mewl, all to great effect, but here, he’s able only to sigh, and it’s crushing. “No, it’s never what I wanted it to be…. All this time, have you been waiting for a change? And all I tell you is that everything’s the same,” he confesses, spent and resigned. A haunting whistle, a pogo-ing beat, and shoegaze-y sheets of blissful white noise well up around Trust’s hard industrial edges. The singer may be resolutely trapped in his own suffocating state of being, but the song will sweep you off your feet. [Samuel Tolzmann]