You already saw our list of our favorite songs of January to March 2014, but the tunes don't stop. This week's Tracking, the weekly series in which we discuss our current favorite songs, features music from Disclosure & Friend Within, How To Dress Well, Twin Shaodw, tUnE-yArDs, SZA, Kyla La Grange, Parquet Courts, Allie X and Todd Terje.
Disclosure & Friend Within, "The Mechanism"
Disclosure’s 2013 debut LP Settle was an anomaly. It broke rules. It didn’t really line up with anything similar to it because it didn’t really care to. It was just deep-house enough not to be explicitly UK garage, and vice versa. And by boldly adding just a dash of Benga-era dubstep, Settle demonstrated without a stutter or a misstep how to properly combine elements of what came before you to illustrate what lies ahead.
This amalgamation of European house allowed Disclosure to develop a recipe for helplessly catchy dance music that just so happened to be universally understood. It uncovered the appeal of garage and deep house without ever being overzealous about either. It exposed J Dilla as the absent mentor he was always meant to be. And it established brilliant on-record musical identities based entirely almost upon the fact that they do this shit live. Guy and Howard are consistently creating in real time music that might as well have been specifically designed for on-stage playback.
It’s a bold move, and as such, it has garnered some fairly serious acclaim for the brothers Lawrence. Admittedly, it’s hard to believe they’ve had any time to themselves, let alone for the studio. But this time around, they enlisted some help. Collaboration with UK producer Friend Within (yet another name you should get comfortable telling your friends about), has produced, “The Mechanism.”
“The Mechanism,” is interesting, because you can almost hand-point to the elements of the track that belong to each party. Friend Within’s flair for staccato vocal samples meshes beautifully with Disclosure’s punchy, syncopated signature. An elastic bass wobble floats like ash throughout its entirety. Even Eric Thomas, the Hip-Hop Preacher responsible for the countless number of victims who lose their minds every time someone plays, “When A Fire Starts To Burn,” makes his presence known.
What ensues is, “The Mechanism,” a tightly constructed, perfectly curated dance tune that almost involuntarily evokes a head-bob. If you’re reading this on Friday afternoon, I dare you to unplug your headphones. [Austin Reed]
How To Dress Well, "Repeat Pleasure"
Tom Krell’s music as How To Dress Well has caused countless writers, yours truly included, to spill virtual ink in the name of context: how many hours have been logged tying How To Dress Well to classic soul, the late-‘90s/early-‘00s golden age of commercial R&B, “hypnagogic pop,” or the post-Untrue unholy duo of ghostliness and loneliness? Maybe we should think more about David Bowie instead when listening to How To Dress Well, since (though we haven’t heard anything as pop-averse from Krell as a Berlin-era Bowie Side B), from the album-title-as-quoted-speech on down to its two advance singles, “What Is This Heart?” is already shaping up to be a more interesting revision of “Heroes” than Bowie’s own The Next Day. “’Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact, yes we’re lovers, and that is that,” reads Bowie’s most victorious whoop. To indulge the ingenious idiocy of The Royal Tenenbaums’ Eli Cash: maybe it isn’t?
Because in Krell’s world, calling something a “fact” is nothing more than an easy way to duck a difficult question. In the week since its release I’ve read plenty of reviews calling “Repeat Pleasure” any number of positive things: ecstatic, joyful, radiant, you get the idea. But do you get Krell’s idea? Let’s bear in mind that this song is about innocence ruined and the myriad ways people can seemingly effortlessly wreak irrevocable damage upon one another. Krell’s “Repeat Pleasure” is not, despite the prominence of the line “I never want to miss a moment alive without your nectar kiss,” the “forever and ever” of Bowie’s “‘Heroes’”. Instead, it is, on the one hand, a childish notion of erotic love with no function in real, long-term sexual interaction (“In innocence I wanted all of this to never subside”) and, on the other, the destructiveness of the inexhaustible and fundamentally amoral human libido (“Even if you were holding out for something unchanging…once you got it you wanted something else.”) Internalizing a Bowie-esque desire for a heroic love that lasts “forever and ever” gives Krell’s characters illusions about what they want, what they deserve, and how people work that are disastrously wrong and harmful to others. These people will never be heroes, and their story ends no differently than the one told by Miley Cyrus's "Wrecking Ball," which How To Dress Well recently covered. The key lyric here has nothing to do with nectar kisses – it’s the verse-punctuating admission of a worldview in ruins: “And now I know.” Even as he flirts cheekily with a Celine Dion cliché, Krell grimly implies that these situations tragically recur in a life, and the only true “repeat pleasure” is, in fact, pain: “Even broken, my heart will go on.” “What Is This Heart?” the album title asks. Apparently, it’s a committed masochist.
Of course, Krell’s a pop lover at (ahem) heart as well as a pop revisionist, so “Repeat Pleasure” is an absolutely massive, celestial-grade pop song even though it rips open the idea of romance and spills its guts on the floor. Spotlighted between a snappy uptempo beat, two different guitar tracks, and a choral backdrop, Krell has never been more of a star than he is here. The fact that the (awesome) electric guitar solo in the middle of “Repeat Pleasure” is neither surprising, distracting, nor the song’s most interesting or cathartic moment suggests how far the angel-voiced Krell has come as a performer, from a talented evoker of atmosphere to a deft, magnetic communicator of the human heart’s darkest and most mysterious impulses. That "Repeat Pleasure," magnificent as it may be, isn't quite as powerful as previous single "Words I Don't Remember" suggests "What Is This Heart?" is a record fully deserving of feverish anticipation. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Twin Shadow, "To The Top"
Twin Shadow’s George Lewis Jr. is the type of guy you can’t help but love despite how adamant your parents were about avoiding his type throughout your formative years. He has cultivated a reputation as a musical lothario who produces heartfelt, emotionally saturated synth-pop just as easily as he fools you into believing he disavows it.
But he’s keenly aware, and he does good work of separating the two. George Lewis Jr. smiths the weaponry that Twin Shadow was born to wield. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition of desperate love-from-afar songwriting with a narcissistic, take-it-or-leave-it delivery. In fact, 2012’s Confess earned a gold star for doubling as both a bedroom mood-setter and a breakup soundtrack for this very reason.
It’s heavy-hearted 80’s-inspired pop veiled in relentless ego. Is it polarizing? I mean, I guess. But is it intriguing? All day long. Lewis Jr. derives inspiration from Peter Gabriel and Cocteau Twins equally, which means his product (probably) conjures some iconic memory of an event in your life that (probably) didn’t ever happen, but you read The Informers, so it’s easy to imagine it did.
More importantly, though, it inspires confidence. You want to follow this stuff even if you have no idea where it’s taking you. It’s mysterious and exciting, like the sting of fledgling love. And you believe every word of it.
As is the case with, “To the Top,” Twin Shadow’s powerful new offering. Swelling and bursting at nearly every turn, “To the Top,” evokes post-Genesis Phil Collins at his most anthemic, and Lewis Jr. executes it flawlessly. His definitive croon takes a backseat to a chorus that explodes with newfound fervor. He approaches the song with a reckless abandon that allows, “To the Top,” to open up and breathe without feeling crude or cumbersome.
But the beating heart of, “To the Top,” is its message. His lyrics paint a lurid portrait of resilience in the heat of passion. “I know it’s not the right time tonight, but I won’t move until this stops,” Lewis Jr. exclaims, never sounding more comfortable playing the role of the rule-breaker. [Austin Reed]
tUnE-yArDs, "Wait For A Minute"
Merrill Garbus spends her time as tUnE-yArDs pushing her voice to its natural extremes and then beyond those limits with the assistance of technology. Her zig-zagging vocal affectations and contortions maneuver through the confines imposed by song structures or simply bust clean through them. On a purely sonic level, tUnE-yArDs records demand only vigilant listeners, because Garbus’s work is always an adventure composed exclusively of left turns, a lesson in what it means to deal with a genuine wild card, an exhaustingly stimulating exercise in the unpredictable. So of course the most surprising trick Garbus has up her confetti-filled sleeves is the one where she slows things down and smooths them out. “Wait For A Minute,” the second track we’ve heard from the upcoming Nikki Nack after the more characteristically tUnE-yArDs “Water Fountain,” finds Garbus and producer Malay reshuffling her cut-up bleats and grating synth loops into a subtle, gorgeous little slice of accessible but still profoundly weird R&B. tUnE-yArDs’ music has never made for an easy listen, and “Wait For A Minute” is no exception (it starts out as an expression of self-loathing and things don’t improve for its narrator, who concludes only that “the illness is in my mind”), but its challenges come in the form of hidden twists on basic elements and concerns of chart-friendly pop. It’s a song that does, indeed, wait for a minute – it waits patiently in wait for the listener attracted by the irresistible bass groove and sleepy hooks, and then Garbus springs her many traps. [Samuel Tolzmann]
SZA, "Babylon" featuring Kendrick Lamar
At first glance, “I can’t recall the last time I took advice from anyone,” qualifies as one of the most cavalier opening sentiments of any track in recent memory. And stand-alone, it doesn’t do much to inspire any certain credibility on behalf of its author. But this is SZA we’re talking about, and “Babylon,” one of the strongest moments of her debut LP Z, delivers the context necessary to transform an observation like this from an uppity, off-handed report card into a brutally honest self-assessment by the time your second glance rolls around.
Probably more than anything else, SZA will be remembered as the first female signee to Top Dawg Entertainment, an arsenal of a label housing the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad. Which, frankly, is totally fine. It’s a label created by the stylistically superior for the stylistically superior, and SZA’s raw talent and ridiculously good debut album provide all the credentials necessary for her to fit right in like she was there the whole time.
Perhaps it’s Lamar’s 32 bars of get-the-hell-out-of-here that elevate, “Babylon,” to a downright-incredible level, and by all means, this is some of Kendrick’s most skilled work yet. But from the get-go, this is SZA’s show, and, “Babylon” is an unabashed siege to her livelihood. Verse-by-verse, every element of personal loss is picked apart, from the helplessness to the hubris and back again. It doesn’t help that DJ Dahi constructs all of it atop a helplessly catchy melody you’ll probably find yourself humming later. By the three-minute mark, SZA asks, “Was it worth it? Would you do it again?” And all of a sudden, accusing her of being cavalier seems awfully cold-blooded. She's mourning, after all. [Austin Reed]
Kyla La Grange, "Cut Your Teeth"
The evolution of English chanteuse Kyla La Grange is an interesting one. Her debut album in 2012, and the preceding singles, were all heavily indebted to the folk-maximalist sound pioneered by the likes of Florence Welch and Mumford and Sons, and found La Grange inhabiting organic tunes anchored by guitars and pounding, exhilarating drums. Yet, even then, especially on early single “Vampire Smile,” La Grange’s talent for imbuing her work with an unnerving edge was evident, and made for the more exciting moments on the record.
In 2014, the demand for raucous folk anthems has dwindled, and in turn, atmospheric, electronic sounds have become de rigueur. La Grange adapted, and the first offering since this shift in direction, “Cut Your Teeth,” the lead single from her forthcoming sophomore effort, sees her trying out new sounds and experimenting with restraint, to marvelous results. With little more than a gently percolating synth, lights slaps of percussion, and looped sounds somewhere between a shout and a wail, La Grange is given plenty of room to exhibit her greatest asset, her voice. Her lyrics take on a spooky quality without having to be explicit, letting the gentle quaver of her smoky intonation do most of the work, especially during the bridge. Ultimately, La Grange gives a transfixing performance: minimalist, unnerving, addictive, and indicative of more to come from this fascinating pivot in sonic trajectory. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Parquet Courts, "Sunbathing Animal"
You probably know Parquet Courts for writing slacker hymns that are taut, charming and catchy-as-all-hell. Their debut album, intellectually precocious but musically infantile debut Light Up Gold, was a favourite of ours last year. A slanted and enchanted take on rock and roll history, throwing out 15 vignettes of being young and drunk in New York. It was makeshift in places, but after listening a few times it was all too easy to tell that Andrew and Max Savage, Austin Brown, and Sean Yeaton had done their homework.
“Sunbathing Animal”, the title track from the band’s forthcoming second LP, is another studious piece. Only it’s hawkish, two-fisted hardcore, recognizable as Parquet Courts for its lean production and Austin Brown’s grumbly “singing”. Most songs of this kind are well-served by being slightly over a minute; Parquet Courts stretch it out to a seemingly impossible four, twisting and turning through scribbled guitar solos and hiccoughing drums. On paper, a transformation like this needs some serious commitment: in the hands of Parquet Courts, it’s positively lighthearted. [Brendan Frank]
Allie X, "Catch"
Despite the disappointment that was Prism, and the short shelf life of “Roar,” Katy Perry proves that she still has it in terms of tracking down promising pop talent. In a tweet on March 6, the California Gurl gave a shout out to Allie X, praising her debut single, “Catch,” as a “SPRING JAM,” and sending her reputation to new heights.
The recognition is well deserved. “Catch” is smart, precise, and dark, just the way a left-field, modern pop song should be. Allie X, a native Torontonian transplanted to the City of Angels, sings of settling the score post-breakup. She tells of a damaging relationship, chastising an unknown individual for thinking they “got away with murder,” only to follow up with an equally ominous response. “Just wait until I catch my breath,” she mandates, implying that whoever it is, their days are numbered.
Yet, in the grand tradition of acts like CHVRCHES and Passion Pit, Allie X disguises the dark subject matter of her work, obscuring it behind various medical metaphors, and most importantly, a sparkling rhythm, twinkling with a methodical confidence and a contradictory catchiness. It is not exactly Top 40 chart-topping material, but overall, “Catch” is a confident first step, hitting all the right marks, leaving us desperate for more and eager to find out the conclusion to this intriguing chapter. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Todd Terje, “Johnny and Mary” featuring Bryan Ferry
Describing Robert Palmer’s emotive ballad “Johnny and Mary,” is difficult at best. This bitter story of estranged love operates like a game of tag, assuming both parties are stuck on a carousel. No closure, and no decided winner. Just ambivalence veiled by a moderately danceable BPM and a whole bunch of questions.
That said, the importance of understanding the actual story behind, “Johnny and Mary,” pales in comparison to the importance of understanding what a deliberately decelerated cover of it is doing right in the middle of Norwegian producer Todd Terje’s debut full-length It’s Album Time. Terje has become known worldwide as a DJ with grit and marvelous cunning. He takes risks, but he knows his perimeter. And It’s Album Time, among many other things, showcases the many facets of Terje’s portfolio, including and especially his admiration for early deep house and authentic Bossa nova.
It makes perfect sense, then, that the question of how, “Johnny and Mary,” plays into all of this would be justified if it weren’t for the guest vocals provided by Roxy Music mastermind Bryan Ferry. By blending Terje’s beautifully languid reinterpretation of the original with Ferry’s notoriously tender baritone, you get a track that only appears to be unfamiliar territory for Terje. But by slowing it down and lovingly nudging both the lyrics and the melody into the limelight, he creates a fantastic universe comprising both lull and revival. It's moving and visceral, because suddenly, Johnny and Mary's fate is both alarmingly palpable and wildly necessary to understand. We feel for these two, but we can't, for the life of us, figure out why.
It's the type of sensation you experience just before you realize that Todd Terje has been showing off this whole time. [Austin Reed]