This week's Tracking, the weekly series in which we discuss our current favorite songs, features music from Lana Del Rey & Dan Auerbach, Future & André 3000, Jamie xx, Baths, The Horrors, Owen Pallett, White Lung and Hannah Diamond.
Lana Del Rey, "West Coast (Dan Auerbach Mix)"
For Lana Del Rey, the time between her blogosphere breakthrough with one of this decade’s finest songs, “Video Games,” and the present has been filled with so many awkward missteps, embarrassing blunders, painful gaffes, WTF moments, and outright disasters, I don’t have time to list the lowlights. But perhaps most disheartening of all, though, was the way her career’s nosedive translated to the music: a whole album of songs that sounded identical, mining the “Video Games” model for drastically diminishing returns, punctuated with a mind-numbing EDM remix of the mediocre “Summertime Sadness” that – of course – became her first bona fide mainstream crossover smash. Without that remix, LDR surely would’ve slowly disappeared, dimly remembered half a decade later only as the one-hit wonder responsible (well, vocally, anyway) for “Video Games.” With it, it seemed inevitable that LDR would be hanging around, presumably making more awful 4/4 Eurocub chart bait per her handlers’ orders.
And yet instead, our first exposure to Dan Auerbach-produced upcoming third album Ultraviolence is “West Coast,” a sumptuous, haunted, sun-bleached slice of exquisitely produced noir-pop that plays to the singer’s strengths without repeating past successes (or failures) and actually pushes her to grow as a performer. Like all her material, “West Coast” seizes on a few strands of dusty Americana – the naïve small-town beauty who moves to Hollywood in pursuit of big dreams, the seedy underbelly of the movie business, the poetic magnetism of the California seashore, Manifest Destiny idealism – and wrings them for every single alcoholic drop of cheap glamour and outsized pathos they’ve got. But “West Coast” isn’t just a Tumblr-friendly assembly of rebloggable kitsch; LDR, for the first time, brings intelligence to her material, actually playing with and even subverting the story she superficially seems to be telling. When she says, “Move, baby, move, baby, I’m in love,” she’s not telling her man to dance, she’s telling him to get the hell out of her westward way.
It wouldn’t work without Auerbach’s first-rate production, which eschews the singer’s well-worn comfort zone of canned strings and cheap beats in favor of crisp live drums, moody “Wicked Game” guitars, and menacing wisps of synthesizer. On the pre-chorus, the melody twists up and down and side to side, and it’s all LDR can do to keep up, her increasingly frantic agitation capturing the feeling of a person buckling under the belief that she deserves better than she’s got. Then she finally reaches the beach and it’s all okay for a moment, the whole composition slowing down and spreading out luxuriously with lush waves of harmony. The bliss doesn’t last; things turn out to be rougher than the song’s protagonist dreamed, though she ultimately settles for them anyway. There’s a dark, resigned undertone in her romanticization of the West Coast, like she knows there’s rot at the heart of her L.A. dreams but has decided it’s better to die young and sinfully in California than love virtuously anywhere else. Historically, we know better than to expect a great album from Lana Del Rey on the strength of a single song. But, like the doomed starlet narrating “West Coast,” we can hope against the odds anyway. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Future & André 3000, "Benz Friendz (Watchutola)"
If there’s one virtue Andre 3000 has insisted on upholding throughout his entire career, it’s his need for honest marketing. His penchant for lyrical simplicity lends itself well to a thought process that sort of demands to be considered, and the product never fails to provoke overwhelming agreement. More often than not, he spits bars that are completely contradictory to those of his peers. Most people don’t know a damned thing personally about the technical merits of a two-seat Lamborghini, but when it comes to bewilderingly observing those people who do, I’ll bet it’s a different story.
Such is the subject matter of, “Benz Friends (Whatchutola),” the newest collaborative effort between Andre 3000 and hip-hop wunderkind Future. Propelled forward by a beat, melody and choral undertone as catchy as any other track released this year, “Benz Friends,” illustrates both Andre 3000’s commitment to his brilliantly less-than-subtle artistry and Future’s high-register conviction.
“I told that bitch I don’t give a fuck about her Benz, bitch,” is the sentiment, and “I don’t want no bitch who needs to have that kind of friendship,” is the logic. It’s delightfully plausible, and the entire track is devoted to (probably embellished) scenarios that have elicited, “Wow. Really?” responses from both Andre 3000 and Future. Props to Andre for matter-of-factly insisting that he’d rather ride his fucking bike or walk than deal with those who consider bike-riding and walking to be inferior modes of transportation.
Future’s recently released full-length Honest quickly qualified him as one of hip-hop’s most prominent young talents, and “Benz Friends,” despite being one of the more light-hearted tracks on the album, captures Future at his most quick-witted. And maybe that was by design, because the only thing that “Benz Friends,” promotes more than Andre and Future’s mutual face-palm regarding luxury vehicles is how much fun they’re having while explaining themselves. [Austin Reed]
Jamie xx, "Girl"
Turns out Simon Tallywhacker (that shady, invented persona James Blake devised in a recent Radio 1 show) is actually Jamie xx. While we should all take a moment of silence to mourn the passing of that name, the result of this odd gambit, “Girl,” is worthy of celebration. To dispel any lingering doubts that any member of the xx is incapable of managing anything with a BPM higher than a resting heart rate, Jamie xx dropped a precise, menacing, and addictive jewel of track.
Built around a spiral staircase of heavily distorted iterations of “I want you love,” “Girl” descends deep into a shadowy, subterranean space. The production is typically cavernous, allowing the interplay between high-hats, percussive smacks, and background hymns to fill the room with an intoxicating miasma. Occasionally, a sound similar to a muted foghorn cuts through the dense haze. Yet it is the baseline; a subtle creature that pushes “Girl” relentlessly forward, that packs the strongest melodic punch. Then, when it seems a solid footing is finally been found in this labyrinth, the rhythm collapses to a few muffled pulses, and the floor falls out. From there, it is a delicious freefall into the abyss.
For Jamie xx, this is shaping up to a banner year. First with “Sleep Sound” and its touching visual treatment, and now this. Those who thought he had reached a career high with “Sleep Sound,” should turn that track over, and prepare to be blown away by the A-side. The legacy of Simon Tallywhacker may be dead, but Jamie xx’s is alive and well, and seems poised to remain that way for the foreseeable future. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Baths, "Ocean Death"
Baths’ stunning Obsidian was one of 2013’s very darkest pieces of music, a self-destructive plunge into deep despair, sexual malice, and a dogged foreswearing of anything resembling hope, faith, love, or kindness. The title track from upcoming companion EP Ocean Death is grounded by a pitch-black didgeridoo-like vocal cut-up, sampled waves, and a straightforward, unobtrusive techno beat, and though the effect is somewhat meditative, “Ocean Death” really feels like all the air being sucked out of a room. It sounds like a crypt. Will Weisenfeld dances through the final third with a playground sing-song about mirrors and graveyards. He sounds like a ghost gone stir-crazy, bouncing off the walls, but the walls aren’t giving way – they’re caving in. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Coming up in the L.A. beat scene, Baths was once lumped in with chillwave, a connection that seems hopelessly misguided in (dim) light of the work he’s produced since his debut, and so the title here is appropriate: the chillest of waves can come crashing down on a swimmer, too, and the undertow does not know sympathy. Wiesenfeld has called upcoming EP Ocean Death “the Dia De Los Muertos to Obsidian’s Halloween,” so who knows what other horrors he’s got in store for us. It’s hard to imagine something more sinister than “Ocean Death.”
The Horrors, "So Now You Know"
To borrow a phrase from Pineapple Express, it’s like The Cure and The Smiths met and had a baby, and then The Stone Roses and My Bloody Valentine has a baby. And then if by some divine miracle those two babies met and had their own baby, it would be “So Now You Know”. A teaser from Luminous, the fourth studio album from the Horrors, “So Now You Know” has the 30 years of UK music running in its veins, dutifully appropriating them for the present day. Prodigious synths hum and groan, and there’s a cleanliness to the production that highlights the rhythmic acumen that is commonly present but often obscured in the Horrors’ music.
While technically impressive, the track resonates for other, better reasons. Strident and impassioned, Faras Badwan’s vocals occasionally sound unusually labored, as if his throat is seizing up as the words try to escape: “Better to forget all the things you could have said”. But the damage is superficial. “So Now You Know” is surprisingly playful, brilliant in its simplicity, and everything you didn’t know you wanted from the Horrors. [Brendan Frank]
Owen Pallett, "Song For Five & Six"
Arcade Fire sideman Owen Pallett is best known for making chamber-pop albums with unusually labored lyrical concepts – a gay videogame character in the throes of existential crisis (He Poos Clouds), an entire medieval fantasy world whose denizens slowly become aware they’re mere concept-album inventions by some Canadian guy named Owen Pallett (Heartland and its companion EPs). As such, it’s always difficult to talk about Pallett songs in isolation. His upcoming Brian Eno-assisted fourth LP, In Conflict, is being billed by Pallett himself as his “most direct” effort to date, but it might just be the case that those wacky gimmicks were the very thing that made Pallett’s incredibly dense songwriting more accessible.
The advance singles from In Conflict have all been songs that have dropped Pallett's love of unifying narrative but not his love of thorny complexity, songs with instrumentation which tends more toward proggy rock than neoclassical but which has lost none of the conservatory-trained compositional intricacy. Unless you followed along with the imposing lyrics booklet, you probably experienced Heartland less as an album-length story and more as an obscure parade of beautiful melodies and emotional impressions, and from what we’ve heard thus far, the “more direct” In Conflict will likely be similar.
“Song For Five & Six” is constructed from limited elements – a single squiggle of synth, a drum machine preset, and some pizzicato, plus Pallett’s wonderfully clear tenor – but it has a grand, skyward thrust suggestive of a world of possibility. The world this time, though, is no fantasy land but our very own. Down on the ground, you may notice Pallett doesn’t sound so content in his own skin: he’s haunted by the threat of mortality, encroaching old age, a life’s worth of regrets, and the world’s basic cruelty. Just when the song’s inner tension between music and sentiment reaches a breaking point, the whole thing simply evaporates mysteriously. Does "more direct" necessarily mean "less enigmatic"? "Song For Five & Six" argues that it doesn't. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Hannah Diamond, “Attachment”
It’s now apparent that the candy-coated gloss, dinky post-8-bit toy store aesthetic, jerking stop-start tempos, piercing manipulated vocals, and adorable freakiness of enigmatic Scottish producer SOPHIE is the cutting-edge U.K. dance music sound of 2014. Singer Hannah Diamond rolls with London label PC Music, which, though not home to SOPHIE himself, specializes in just that same sort of weird-ass magenta electropop. Diamond’s voice is clear but absolutely blank; it’s not robotic (there’s plenty of personality here), but rather devoid of expression. This affected innocence makes her a perfect fit for this shiny, all-surface style of pop – and it also makes her a deeply, deeply creepy singer. The “Attachment” here, which has sprouted in the wake of a breakup, is not reciprocal. It’s one-sided and out of control: “Though I love you, baby, / It feels kinda crazy, / Every time you see me, / I’m on my own,” Diamond notes, that “kinda” not mitigating the uneasiness the way it’s meant to, before adding that she’s “Feeling better, really. / I can see you clearly, / Now I’ve saved you as a picture on my phone” – the clincher being that, in keeping those pictures on her phone, she obviously is not seeing this situation clearly at all. In the hands of a different singer, “Attachment” might be melancholic in a pathetic sort of way; played the right way, the desperation of the singer’s obsession could even be heartbreaking. But as Diamond presents it, elusive and empty, it’s so chilling that you can’t really blame the other person for leaving her. And don’t think this is an isolated incident: on prior single “Pink And Blue,” Diamond again assumes the perspective of a lonely person who doesn’t seem to have any ethical qualms about imposing her fantasy life on reality. She develops the inherent superficiality of the PC Music sounds she’s surrounded by and takes them to their natural conclusion, and it ain’t pretty. “Now I tell you that I love you almost every day…though maybe things have got to change.” No kidding. [Samuel Tolzmann]
White Lung, "Snake Jaw"
Have you ever noticed how difficult it can be to keep a straight face when watching someone pretend to be angry? Or, if you’re a performer, perhaps you’ve noticed how hard it is to convincingly display anger? Too often, the show is ridiculously overwrought or awkwardly rigid, and too often, performances of anger read like performances and not like the real thing. I’d love to be proven wrong, but to my ears Vancouver’s White Lung is the most convincingly angry band around. “Angry” doesn’t even quite cut it; White Lung sound livid. A lot of that has to do with frontwoman Mish Way’s snotty bellow, and with the way that all of White Lung’s songs, from Way’s vocals to Anne-Marie Vassiliou’s drums and Kenneth William’s hellfire guitars, play in a single unbroken hysterical register, like the chorus of Hole’s “Violet” put on repeat at earsplitting volume. What White Lung lose in dynamic diversity, they make up for in brute force: Way is the singer, after all, who compared an enemy to a terrified horse on a track from 2012’s Sorry before announcing her plan to “melt” said enemy “down to glue,” and Williams and Vassiliou are the musicians who made it clear this was no idle threat.
All the band’s weapons have been polished and put on display for “Snake Jaw,” the searing second single from upcoming LP #3, Deep Fantasy. It is, first of all, a gorgeously produced rock song: the way those drum hits resonate and those piercing treble guitars gleam, you’d never know the band’s lineup has actually dwindled since Sorry. “Snake Jaw” is filled with brief, beautiful moments that push the production to the fore – 1:51-1:54 springs to mind – but the band always shoves these impulses back under the song’s torrid, ugly surface, which jerks violently at the generic border between noisy hardcore, pop-punk, and power metal. When the track premiered on Rookie’s website, Way explained that it’s intended to be about female body dysmorphia. “We live in a country where women go to bed hungry, not because they don’t have anything to eat, but because they’re worried about getting fat. That is fucked up,” she stated, and it’s easy to hear those words delivered in her characteristic onstage snarl.
If White Lung set their sights on a target less insidious and more tangible, he’d already have been ripped to pieces by now, but since they’re not just pissed off but also ambitious, they picked a more worthy fight with a much more powerful opponent. One two-minute punk song isn’t going to overturn a whole culture of misogyny, but if any two-minute punk song could, it’s “Snake Jaw.” [Samuel Tolzmann]