originally posted may 23, 2014
This week's Tracking, the weekly series in which we discuss our current favorite songs, features music from Ariana Grande & Iggy Azalea, Sia, Sharon Van Etten, Röyksopp & Robyn, Torres, The War on Drugs, Shabazz Palaces and Rush Midnight.
Ariana Grande, "Problem (featuring Iggy Azalea)"
Starting with its "99 Problems"-biting lyrical conceit, "Problem" offers very little that's really new. It’s a post-Le1f-v.-Macklemore world, after all, and raunchy saxophone loops might even qualify as a trend at this point. It’s not like Mariah Carey’s going anywhere soon, so what’s fresh about octave-spanning R&B diva melismatics? Build-it-up-to-break-it-down song structure is everywhere, and so is floor-shuddering bass, and the third-act verse from a guest rapper is a trick nearly as old as rap itself. Ariana Grande already tried and failed to attain success on both sides of the mythical indie-mainstream aisle with 2013's Yours Truly, and with her own full-length currently running the charts, Iggy Azalea's hardly news. Hey, you know what’s really not new in pop? Swedish producer Max Martin, the mastermind responsible for basically everything you love, from “…Baby One More Time” to “Since U Been Gone” to “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” to “Teenage Dream.” Well, here’s something else to love. Something new.
What Martin does here is take these elements, some of which were cherry-picked from the sounds of the moment and some of which were selected for their timelessness, and stitch them together so smoothly that the results sound as though they could never have been any other way. What is Ariana Grande’s appealing, technically flawless performance without the tonal and textural counterpoint of massive synth hits and that awesome growling sax? What would the enormous, aching upward swell of that pre-chorus be for, if not to suddenly drop roller-coaster-style all the way down to the floor for the year’s most gloriously badass and eloquently minimal pop refrain? How tedious it would be if those components simply repeated three times through – hence Iggy Azalea, rewriting Jay Z in what might be the cleverest verse of her career (not saying much but still), providing a welcome zig/”Igz” to the rest of the song’s delirious zag. “Problem” is perfect, but it’s delicate, subsisting solely on an internally generated, self-perpetuating compositional pressure. Take any part away from it, and the whole thing falls out of balance.
Yet “Problem” exudes such a surfeit of charisma, confidence, and cool that this would be easy to miss. Grande, Martin, and Azalea transmute negative feelings most listeners can probably identify with all too closely – confusion, disorientation, unrequited desire, loathing, regret, entrapment – into an effervescent fantasy-come-true of independence, empowerment, style, and fun. That is to say, “Problem” does what most would-be pop hits are trying to do, but it achieves that goal more efficiently and entertainingly than most. It’s likely you’ll hear this song a lot in the coming summer months, so you should probably get started on learning the lyrics: “I got one less problem withoutcha” is going to be the new “You’re from the ‘70s, but I’m a ‘90s bitch!” You’ll probably never hear it at any volume other than “LOUD,” though, which is good – you won’t have to strain to hear the sound of a star (or at least a one-hit wonder) being born. [Samuel Tolzmann]
It has been four years since Sia Furler dropped her last album, the fantastic We Are Born, whose pop-oriented slant portended her future. However, just as her career trajectory pointed towards on-the-verge stardom, Sia decided to take a sabbatical from the stage, choosing instead to be the MVP of Top 40 songwriting. And when it seemed that she had settled into her newfound niche comfortably, as ghostwriter for the new crop of pop divas and occasional collaborator with David Guetta (to the dismay of those, who like me, fell in love with the emo, downtempo Sia circa “Breathe Me”), she dropped “Chandelier.”
“Chandelier” requires a disclaimer: Sia has not gone back to basics. This is not a redux of “Breathe Me” or even “I’m In Here.” This is Sia applying every skill within her pop arsenal to her particular emotional brand. As a product of her newfound environment, Sia, naturally, aims her newest effort at the party scene. However, she takes the YOLO-anthem and completely inverts it, exploring the darker, psychological side of the play-all-night lifestyle. Sia comes unhinged, swinging from chandeliers and shit, living a debauched nightmare of booze and insincere attention, partying just to keep the pain at bay, while she knowingly spirals deeper into the vicious cycle. If the Weeknd had a conscience, this is what it would sound like. Her voice, the same emotive rasp that even managed to breathe life into “Titanium,” is at full force here, reaching towards the heavens for the light of the sun, or simply a helping hand. If her performance does not make you want to dance like the girl in the music video, then you might want to check your pulse.
This is Sia the pop star, transcendent siren, patron saint of the lost, running on all cylinders while burning a torch for the aimless. She left her previous, downtrodden singer-songwriter self somewhere in the late-aughts. With “Chandelier,” Sia is reborn, and it seems that she plans to stick around for a while. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Sharon Van Etten, "Your Love Is Killing Me"
I’ve had a lot of dreams about running away and in them I’m always forgetting to bring anything with me. I’m in the airport ready to go to Hong Kong – this was the last one. I’m in the airport ready to go to Hong Kong, of all places, and I realize I’ve left literally all my belongings at home and I have absolutely nothing with me, and I panic for a second, and then I stop worrying and it feels exciting, and I’m ready, and then I wake up or the dream changes. It’s weird because I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the idea of having no belongings; I have a lot of books and records and cassettes and clothes that mean a lot to me. There’s a complete freedom in owning and possessing nothing that would be nice if it were feasible, or maybe it is and I’m just copping out.
Regardless I like this song “Your Love Is Killing Me” by Sharon Van Etten because she sings about her attempt to bring about this complete freedom for herself by destroying everything she possesses, down to physical parts of her body, in order to relinquish her love for someone – to surrender completely in her attempt at ownership of another person by mutilating herself. Obviously it’s excruciating, I mean, how could it not be? Sharon’s emotionally bare songcraft is in a league of its own even in a year packed with exceptional emotionally bare songcraft (Angel Olsen, Sun Kil Moon, Perfect Pussy, Merchandise, etc.) and her ballads are torches that burn for years and years through the darkest nights, through the wind and the rain, like this single searing beacon in the world just burning…
If you ran away with no belongings you would find this song in your travels, probably outside a bar after last call, on the prairie somewhere, under the blood moon, smoking cigarettes. Windblown, bereft, wandering in the clothes on its back; all you need, in the end. [Genevieve Oliver]
Röyksopp & Robyn, "Do It Again"
Robyn has risen! And what a return it is. For this round of dance floor domination, she teams up with fellow Scandinavian beat-smiths and routine collaborators, Röyksopp, to craft a sleek, endlessly catchy, modern dance gem that only serves as further proof that we should bow down to our Nordic pop overlords now rather than later.
The rhythm is a perfectly calibrated sequence of swells, pulses, and drops straight out of the Norwegian underground. Production masterminds Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland stand at the helm of this creation, engineering a melody that moves in perfect synchronicity with Robyn’s unmistakable vox, elevating “Do It Again” from a well-built banger to a complete and utter jam. Robyn’s soprano climbs out over the throbbing mass of synthesizers, at times a chilly robotic refrain, and at others a fiery self-admonition. Where the lyrics skew rather simple, she picks up the slack with a riveting performance, crossing the line between human and machine several times throughout the track, her voice occasionally manipulated by Berge and Brundtland, but always given command over the melody. Then the breakdown hits, and 8-bit chirps abound as Robyn asserts, “we should not be friends,” a dance-floor queen rendered steely amidst the splashes of sound. And after getting that out of the way, she breaks the trance with a forceful iteration of the title lyric. It comes just in time for Röyksopp’s detonation of the final sonic supernova, giving the Swedish chanteuse cover as she fades into the coda, heading, presumably, towards her next dance floor smash. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Torres, "New Skin (featuring Sharon Van Etten & The War on Drugs)"
It’s easy to forget just how young Torres (née Mackenzie Scott) is. After dropping her astonishingly well-formed debut LP last year, she’s kindly taken the time out from writing her follow-up to remind us. “New Skin” finds Scott dealing with aftermath of Torres, getting her bearings, and examining the myriad ways in which that early success has altered her life. In tow are Sharon Van Etten as a curator, and Adam Granduciel and Dave Hartley, both of the War on Drugs, and Chris Wilson of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists as session musicians.
The vets bring a palpable air of experience to “New Skin”, but Scott retains the emotional turmoil that defined Torres. The arrangement is clearly hers – from the gaunt, hollowed-out riff to the washed-out production to the cascading array of instruments that drop in at ideal moments. The experience is somehow fuller, embedding itself deeper the longer it runs. Lyrically, Scott is frequently combative and standoffish, but in light of the compassion she’s shown herself capable of, it ends up all the more humanizing. [Brendan Frank]
Shabazz Palaces, "They Come In Gold"
With buckets of world-beating sonic tricks and an intelligent blend of insight and irreverence, Shabazz Palaces remade hip-hop in their own image on their 2011 debut, Black Up. The avant-garde Seattle duo continues to illuminate uncharted corners of the genre with “They Come in Gold”, a snippet from their forthcoming sophomore effort, the 7-suite Lese Majesty.
The problem (if you can call it that) with Shabazz Palaces’ music is its density. Frontman Ishmael Butler’s lyricism and Baba Mariarie’s mercurial beats both require incubation periods, but “They Come in Gold” almost goads you to skip back and absorb all of its intricacies. Exoplanetary effects twitch and glide through the track’s expectedly irregular structure, while Butler’s waxy flow is a conduit for any and all forms of philosophizing. He never remains on a single topic for long, as if being caught flat-footed were a cardinal sin.
For all of its oddball soundscapes, the lyrical juxtaposition is the track’s most alluring feature. Boasts are backstopped with humility (“Sanity, a visage of my wealth/Lost but always found before the idols that I knelt”), and modernity sits hand in hand with antiquity (“The chrome tire screeching every time we hit/We converse in ancient languages”). Then just when it seems like a dictionary would be a handy companion piece, Butler drops a simple mantra that perfectly encapsulates the radical that he is: “You say it’s cool/But it’s old hat”. [Brendan Frank]
Rush Midnight, "Fix Me Up"
I’m waiting for Russ Manning to make a misstep.
I’m waiting, because I just don’t quite buy it. I can’t wrap my head around how rare of a talent Rush Midnight is, especially given the fact that he has spent the past four years almost completely veiled as the second fiddle (read: first bass guitar) to Twin Shadow’s George Lewis, Jr.
Now, I almost didn’t write that last sentence because of how inflammatory it sounded when I read it aloud. But I kept it because it’s important to acknowledge the necessity of influence, especially within the confines of today’s musical identity. When it comes to cultivating a unique, instantly iconic brand of 80’s-inspired funk, I can think of no better stylistic incubator than Twin Shadow. After all, it’s a subgenre that Lewis, Jr. had a hand in creating.
Manning’s motives, therefore, won’t sneak up on anyone. But the subtle differences he brings to the table? Those might. Where Lewis, Jr. often sounds like he’s trying to drive a nail through a cedar plank, Manning sounds more like he’s applying the stain. It’s airier, which makes for a product appearing to be much lighter-hearted than it likely is.
That brings us to, “Fix Me Up,” the second pre-released single from Rush Midnight’s forthcoming full-length. Languid-yet-still-danceable, “Fix Me Up,” rather explicitly grieves the loss of a first love due to distance. It happens all too often, this theme, but it’s constructed with an irregular amount of charisma. Herein is where Manning and Lewis, Jr. tend to overlap: The confident delivery adds such substantial definition to their message. Incidentally, it also ups the tempo, so when Manning croons, “Just move in to my heart, make yourself at home / Why did you move out west on your own?” he fools you into believing he’s why.
It’s a hell of a track that will have no problem establishing the foundation for the rest of Rush Midnight’s record, due out next week. Factor in that Lewis, Jr. is the principal producer, and it becomes pathetically clear that waiting for Manning’s misstep is probably pointless. [Austin Reed]