This week's Tracking, the weekly series in which we discuss our current favorite songs, features music from Against Me!, The Antlers, Jamie xx, Yumi Zouma, Wye Oak and Mikal Cronin.
Against Me!, "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" / "True Trans Soul Rebel"
Gender ambiguity has been ubiquitous in the last four decades of American culture. From Bowie’s 70s heyday to the cult popularity of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” blurred notions of masculinity and femininity have almost exclusively been presented (and largely accepted) with glamour. A trans* person’s daily life, of course, bears little resemblance to such drag pageantry. Even in the best cases, a trans* individual faces a daily threat of suspicion and scorn, if not actual physical danger. This is the side of trans* identity that has been conspicuously absent in popular art, though therearesomenotableexceptions. Even fewer examples exist in music, the rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch coming closest to (oftenbrilliantly) dramatizing a trans* character’s internal experience through song.
So when Transgender Dysphoria Blues arrived earlier this year, it felt like a genuine breakthrough. Against Me! lead singer Laura Jane Grace launches into her artistic outing as a trans woman by laying all bare. Referring to herself in the second-person on the album’s title track, which opens Transgender Dysphoria Blues, she spits an immediately iconic lyric: “You’ve got no cunt in your strut/ You've got no hips to shake.” This, of course, is meant to shock. But it’s not presented for mere shock value. By using the dirtiest word in the English language, Grace jolts us out of our skin and makes plain the anger and self-loathing surrounding her (seeming) inability to “pass” for her true gender. “True Trans Soul Rebel” follows and is all the more devastating, with Grace fighting thoughts of suicide.
Against Me! juxtapose the dejection of Grace’s words by smartly turning “Transgender Dysphoria Blues” and “True Trans Soul Rebel” into a pair of forceful stadium-rock anthems. Rather than distract from the pain at the center of these songs, the soaring guitars and walloping drumbeats instead provide intense release. This is what Springsteen meant by the redemptive power of rock. For Grace, the short-term pain that comes with truth is a necessary evil. The goal here is triumph, and it’s just within her reach. [Peter Tabakis]
The Antlers, "Palace"
Antlers’ frontman Peter Silberman has a penchant for throwing himself into the centre of his stories. Their watershed album Hospice was a disarmingly intimate look at a couple’s struggle with cancer, and though less specific, all but two songs on their follow-up Burst Apart take place in the first person. “Palace”, the lead single from the Antlers’ forthcoming record Familiars, casts Silberman in a new role: that of the onlooker.
Further embellishing his already androgynous falsetto, Silberman examines an vicious relationship, occasionally zooming out and experimenting with metaphors that harken back to In the Attic of the Universe: “He left the tallest peak of your paradise buried in the bottom of a canyon in hell”. Elegiac in the extreme, “Palace” is a balancing act, stopping just short of sentimental mush. Musically, the track takes a lot of the elements introduced on the band’s 2012 EP Undersea. Horns and heavier use of reverb are the defining features, but they are reframed in the context of a band with a clearer idea of its own evolutionary path, and executing. [Brendan Frank]
Jamie xx, "Sleep Sound"
Has anyone else begun to wonder when Young Turks plan on producing something that passes as just pretty good? They currently boast a near-perfect track record of material, but I digress, because this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Over the course of eight years, they have accrued an arsenal of cosmic talent that points in a dozen different directions, and it’s clear that they aren’t interested in taking any timeouts. As for the artist collective, it’s straight-up silly. You don’t park Gang Gang Dance, Chairlift and SBTRKT in the same lot and expect anything less than musical enlightenment.
Especially when the not-so-hidden variable is the Midas touch of Jamie xx. Double-timing for nearly a decade as the forebear behind The xx’s signature heartbeat, Jamie has developed a reputation as a dauntless producer with an ear for center-stage syncopation and flutter-by melody. At any given moment, his product should sound heavy and hurried. But even at its most volatile, it’s merely a gossamer that effortlessly floats at a stylishly deliberate pace.
“Sleep Sound” is the newest demonstration of Jamie xx’s footprint. As to be expected, “Sleep Sound,” houses all the representative nuances: slow-fade melody casually reducing to five seconds of nearly inaudible bass, manipulated chirps that sort of sound like steel drums, etc. But it’s the decidedly new elements that draw a line between “Sleep Sound,” and the rest of his portfolio. Rather than operating within the ambiguity of rhythm, Jamie xx opts for a groovier, more digestible signature. His vocal tracks exist as a series of “Oh’s” that emulate a chamber chorus of controlled echoes. And Jamie xx acts as the confident conductor, bringing every characteristic of his craft—new and old—to glorious life. “Sleep Sound,” as a result, is Jamie xx’s catchiest and most club-ready single to date. [Austin Reed]
Yumi Zouma, "If Feels Good To Be Around You" (Air France cover)
I can’t claim to be an Air France one-percenter. By the time I heard “Collapsing On Your Doorstep,” at a bar in Dallas in 2010, I was already four years removed from the party. Two years later, however, when Joel Karlsson and Henrik Markstedt publicly announced their breakup, I mourned the loss like I had known them personally. Their impact was heavy enough to affect career-long followers and mid-journey adopters in equal measure. This was the allure of Air France: Once you heard them, you’d never not hear them again.
In spite of this loss, there was an implied understanding that Air France’s legacy would live on in some format or another. And for the most part, it has. Some of the world’s most prolific dance-pop outfits established their success (and possibly their entire musical identity) upon the trail Air France blazed. They were a group whose intangible legacy has proved much more fruitful than their tangible portfolio.
The most recent incarnation of this legacy comes in the form of Yumi Zouma’s beautifully orchestrated cover of, “It Feels Good To Be Around You,” Air France’s final and arguably most affecting track. It even features an emotionally jarring spoken-word memoir by Karlsson and Markstedt.
The cover is gorgeous, and Yumi Zouma couldn’t be a more ideal candidate to pull it off. Fresh off the release of their four-song EP, Yumi Zouma exhibit many sonic qualities that are admittedly Air France-inspired. They put those qualities to good use here, deftly recreating “It Feels Good to Be Around You,” in a way that is both a celebration of the duo’s influence and an exploration of their own musical talent. Their cover promenades at half-time and showcases a woozier brand of synth. But halfway through, the message is still the same: “Are you with Air France?” Yes. Resoundingly. [Austin Reed]
Wye Oak - "Glory"
Baltimore indie rock outfit Wye Oak are pioneers in a sense, taking indie rock to places where the moniker would normally disintegrate. The abandonment of the guitar, an instrument nearly synonymous with the genre, and the embrace of the keyboard on their upcoming effort, Shriek, exemplifies these avant-garde tendencies.
“Glory,” the second offering so far, is a tightly coiled track powered by industrial keyboard strokes and an ominous bass line. It possesses a slick sheen and a graceful, threatening cool. Much of it is vocalist Jenn Wasner’s doing. Her voice straddles a delicate balance between distance and immediacy, bringing to mind the removed hypnotism of Young Galaxy’s Catherine McCandless. It is an ethereal performance bearing little hints of grit here and there, like a siren dragged to a filthy port city, at once effortless and breathless.
In the instrumental segments, snaps of hi-hat duel it out against a growing droning and wayward licks of synthetic sound. But upon Wasner’s return, everything coalesces into one final push towards the finish line. Despite her lyrics being particularly susceptible to mondegreens, “Glory” has hooks with tremendous melodic potential, the kind that become embedded in the brain long after the music has ceased. So do not be surprised if you find yourself quietly repeating borderline-logical phrases throughout the day. Either way, “Glory” will make you feel like a badass when it is on, and long after as well, when you walk down the avenue synchronizing your steps with the grimy rhythm you cannot get out of your head. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Mikal Cronin, "Soul In Motion"
The first time I saw Mikal Cronin live he covered Wreckless Eric’s “Whole Wide World.” It’s one of those songs that everyone knows every word and chord progression to whether or not they know the title or the artist or the name of the record or any of the relevant categorical information, and, to paraphrase Carrie Bradshaw, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this what makes a song Really Good? That it transcends everything but how it sounds and/or how it makes you feel?
Mikal Cronin seems intent on writing these kinds of songs, which is a big compliment; he seems intent on writing instantly-accessible guitar pop rough gems that encapsulate a bunch of hard truths about the human condition, the kind of songs you’re singing along with by the second listen if you have a pulse. He seems intent on writing songs about a feeling of wanderlust that’s at once fulfilling and draining – I’d go the whole wide world just to find her, etc. Case in point, his lead MCII single “Weight,” and now, “Soul in Motion,” a new song he’s released as the a-side to a 7” with WAND for Less Artists More Condos. “I’m not a perfect person,” he sings, “I’m just a soul in motion,” and you wonder, are those things mutually exclusive? From a guy who’s very good at writing songs about being a rolling stone, it’s the ultimate assertion – “fuck it, man,” he yells when the horns kick in.
There’s a song on Cronin’s debut called “Apathy” which includes the memorable lyric “Now I’m older and getting along with my future,” and I think about that, three years later, when I hear “Soul in Motion.” The future’s a thing you have to reconcile; it’s as variable as your own identity can be. Cronin gives you the sense that he’s reconciled it within himself, he knows his flaws, he likes writing songs about them. He makes you wonder about yours too, and that’s what makes a song Really Good. [Genevieve Oliver]