This week's Tracking, the weekly series in which we discuss our current favorite songs, features music from How To Dress Well, Hundred Waters, Jessie Ware, Drake, Alt-J, Shamir and The New Pornographers.
How To Dress Well, "Face Again"
Tom Krell and I are at an impasse because I’m totally confused.
Here’s what I know to be true: How To Dress Well’s inaugural LP Love Remains almost exclusively represents that beautiful moment in the trajectory of R&B when ostensible lyrics and sophomoric sonic structure took a back seat to lurid intricacy and shameless emotional agency. Was there any sort of buffer amid this hairpin shift? Not really. Were there elements of his craft that were confusing and indiscernible? Definitely. But the more pertinent question is this: What was Krell trying to prove? That the most critical details are rarely the ones most immediately perceived? Hopefully, because The Love Remains works best when viewed as Krell’s dissertation on the merits of caring just a little bit more.
Here’s why I’m having an anxiety attack: I think we may have unintentionally lionized How To Dress Well’s contribution to the R&B landscape. This is at no fault of anyone in particular, including and especially Krell. But it’s the type of observation that must be made because of what has ensued over the past eight months in anticipation of What Is This Heart’s release. Now, no one (myself included) can deny that a) Krell’s newest offering qualifies with pathetic facility as one of the best records of the year, and b) that qualification has everything to do with the colossal strides Krell has made as an artist over the past four years.
But, at some unknown point, the expectation attributed to the album began to be eclipsed by what everyone in the world had to say in response to it. It certainly didn’t help that leadoff singles “Words I Don’t Remember,” and “Repeat Pleasure,” illustrated a never-before-witnessed versatility that Krell seemed to have perfected overnight. But before long, How To Dress Well’s completely nonexistent new album was the most prominent talking point in nearly every discussion regarding progressive music. Rumor began to bear an alarming resemblance to fact. That was the bad news.
The good news, however, is that What Is This Heart totally stands up to every positive criticism it prematurely received. Even more interesting: “Words I Don’t Remember,” and “Repeat Pleasure,” though surely some of the stronger moments of the album, pale in comparison to the structural integrity, stylistic imagination and melodic splendor of “Face Again,” What Is This Heart’s most defining moment.
Start with a cardiac bass line, a glinting vocal sample and the juxtaposition of Krell’s natural tenor with a downright terrifying three-octave harmonic drop. Layer in the languid ambiguity of lyrics like, “You know I want an answer / But I forgot the question,” and “Look me in my face again and tell me what I ought to be.” Polish it with a menacing marching snare interlude, and you’re left with “Face Again,” a palpably dismal yet strangely graceful representation of the ethereal environment Krell continues to augment. And this environment—this ever-expanding, never-misunderstood environment, is the most valuable gift How To Dress Well has to offer. [Austin Reed]
Hundred Waters, "Murmurs"
Nicole Miglis has stressed the significance of her lyrics on Hundred Waters’ second album, The Moon Rang Like A Bell. It’s worth pointing out. Though her words are revealing and often poignant, they do have a tendency to get drowned out by the album’s emotive, richly textured miasma on the first few go arounds. This seems to be implicitly understood by the band, and they make it count where they can: The album’s title couldn’t be more revealing, and the Floridian art pop/freak-folk group have inched closer to mastering the unearthly, tranquil atmospherics that they teased out on their debut.
“Murmurs” is jammed with much of what makes Moon so compelling – contorting time signatures, smorgasbord sonics, wonderfully inventive melodies – but it’s Hundred Waters’ finest achievement yet because its lyrics function as an integral piece. “I wish you … could see what I see”, the line repeated ad infinitum at the songs beginning, almost registers as a prayer. At face value, you would think Miglis is trying to get through to someone. Then the phrase is inverted halfway through, demolishing any hope of understanding with one devastating vocal tick.
Wounded, winded and endlessly involving, Miglis' double-tracked vocals are undoubtedly the focal point. Conversely, the song could be carried by the music alone. The detonation of ghoulish effects and stutter-stepping percussion are timed to perfection, and the song’s irregular structure ups the replay value considerably. The more you play “Murmurs”, the more you hear the sound of a band quietly dominating its surroundings. [Brendan Frank]
Jessie Ware, "Tough Love"
Following a subtly sweltering debut album in the form of 2012’s landmark Devotion, as well as a relatively quiet 2013, Jessie Ware returns with “Tough Love,” the first intoxicating taste of her forthcoming second record. Ware’s highly ordered approach to romance and music remains intact, preserving the restraint that made Devotion such a seminal moment in the maximalist soundscape that dominated 2012.
But evolution is evident here, albeit in small quantities. “Tough Love” has a higher BPM than a large portion of Devotion, and in addition to a quickening of the tempo, Ware has made room for some sonic experimentation within her music, allowing synthesizers to build, bloom, and fall away as she soars gracefully with a seraphic falsetto. “Tough Love,” while not inherently challenging in any form to Ware’s musical tendencies, brings a breeze of change. It might be the bridge to a more adventurous sophomore effort, taking greater risks where previously control was the name of the game. Or it might not be. Either way, the worst-case scenario is a repeat of Devotion, something nary a soul would complain about. For now, “Tough Love” stands tantalizingly as Jessie Ware at the crossroads, leading us towards the future while keeping us hooked with hints of the past. The answers are not quite evident yet, but that is tough love. [Jean-Luc Marsh]
Drake, “Draft Day”/“Days in the East”/“0 to 100”/“The Catch Up”
If you’re not downloading all the free tracks Drake keeps sporadically bestowing on the world in the tellingly wee hours of the night, you’re doing pop music in 2014 all wrong. In April, he responded to Jay Electronica and Jay Z’s sorta mean-spirited freestyle over Drake’s own “We Made It” with the surprise “Draft Day,” which reasserts Drake’s ability to deliver a tough, clever rap flow after a year in which his biggest hit didn’t feature any rapping (“All hits, no misses, that’s for the married folks” is the kind of middlebrow wordplay that goes over so easily it often gets overlooked). In one of rap’s most enduring traditions since its inception, Drake turns that talent to the gleefully ignoble purpose of talking shit. A sample of “Doo Wop (That Thing),” by one of hip-hop’s most magnificent shit-talkers, Lauryn Hill, set the tone for five minutes of supremely ornery fight-picking and generally inappropriate conduct, as Drake sinks his teeth into targets as undeserving as Chance The Rapper (“No offense,” he adds, in what might be the most uproariously funny two words of his career) and sleazily announces to Jennifer Lawrence, if she’s listening, that she “could really get it.” Nothing Was The Same is a great record, but like Take Care before it, it’s a dreary affair. Drake might be pissed off on “Draft Day,” but the song’s more purely entertaining than anything Drake’s done under his own name in years.
Of course, the next day, Drake did a Very Drake Thing when he followed it up with “Days In The East,” seemingly less for kicks than to remind us that Fun Drake is just a mask Sad Drake occasionally musters up the energy to don but always immediately regrets and hates himself for donning. “Days In The East” is co-produced by Noah “40” Shebib and PARTYNEXTDOOR, and sounds distinctly like the work of the former, all subwoofer vacuum and half-tranquilized anxiety. “When that shit is real, you just know,” Erykah Badu supposedly tells Drake during a climactic late-night bonding session over a cup of tea, a moment that lays out all of Drake’s favorite narrative themes – romantic anguish, the search for authenticity, celebrity name-dropping, talking about himself, and, mostly, staying up really late.
Then there’s the more recent “0 To 100/The Catch Up,” which bests Drake’s own April double-hitter by cramming both of those modes into one track. If following up “Draft Day” with “Days In The East” was a Very Drake Thing to do, the transition from the Forrest Gump-referencing “Started From The Bottom” strut of “0 To 100” into the moody, James Blake-sampling introspective comedown “The Catch Up” is the Most Drake Thing Possible. It’s supposed to sound like the mask slipping and cast aside in disgust, but of course, this is Drake, so it’s less spontaneous tantrum and more calculated, attention-seeking performance. The narcissism at work here should be off-putting, but it sounds so irresistible. [Samuel Tolzmann]
Alt-J, "Hunger of the Pine"
Earlier in the week, my friend and I were discussing what it means when artists or bands get incorrectly categorized. It’s an ill-fated reality that happens every day and in nearly every facet of pop culture. But our observation revolved more around the misconceptions of musical artists because of how seemingly fluid those labels tend to be by comparison. When staring down the barrel of a challenge, musical classifications can oft be revoked.
The case in question? Alt-J.
By all accounts, An Awesome Wave was a virtuosic debut full-length for the British math-rock visionaries. Constructing a sound comprising equal parts deliberately dialed-up synth pop and digestible post-dubstep, Alt-J single-handedly carved a previously unoccupied (but totally crucial) niche into pop music. Hell, the LPtook home the 2012 Mercury Prize for this very reason. And it did so handily.
None of this, however, really does much to contest the fact that Alt-J appear to be a bunch of nerds. This probably isn’t true in real life. I’ll bet they’re amazing folks. But when picking apart the lyrics of, “Tessellate,” one of An Awesome Wave’s most influential tracks, it’s impossible to avoid stand-alone lyric, “Triangles are my favorite shape.” Now, this is no-doubt an allusion to the effect of pressing the Alt key and the J key on a keyboard simultaneously, and kudos to Alt-J for finding a way to inject an explanation into an otherwise muddied message. But we attach labels to things we don’t understand in an attempt to explain them like we do, and unfortunately for Alt-J, “Triangles are my favorite shape,” accidentally became their calling card. Which is disappointing.
But remember: We aren’t talking about Alt-J to prove that mislabeling exists. We’re talking about Alt-J to disprove that those labels are immutable.
Our evidence rests firmly in the hands of, “Hunger of the Pine,” Alt-J’s newest, boldest and, by all accounts, baddest-ass offering to date for myriad reasons. To start, vocalist Joe Newman abandons the timid quiver once considered to be one of Alt-J’s token nuances. On, “Hunger,” he embraces a slower, more deliberate gait and a remarkably unencumbered delivery.
But it’s the hook that snags. Sampling Miley Cyrus’ anthemic “4x4,” “Hunger of the Pine,” takes on a shimmery veneer, effortlessly waxed by Thom Green’s double-over rhythmic sweep and Gus Unger-Hamilton’s melodic dauntlessness. One minute and 37 seconds is all it takes for “Hunger of the Pine,” to fully blossom into the grooviest, most iconic track in Alt-J’s portfolio.
“I’m a female rebel,” Cyrus snarls with that signature composure, and suddenly, “Hunger of the Pine,” possesses charisma in the face of logic and swagger in the face of calculation, almost as if some of Miley's posture has migrated into Alt-J's DNA. It’s a sonic double espresso dressed as a mocha: Smooth and viscous by appearance but gut-bustingly effervescent where it matters. [Austin Reed]
Shamir, "If It Wasn't True"
“If It Wasn’t True” starts off pleasantly enough: a gurgling, disco-tinted groove and a voice straddling the line between Dev Hynes and Donna Summer. Yet, two minutes in, following the lengthened delivery of words such as “become” and “through,” it becomes apparent that something else needs to occur, a denouement, so to speak. Then it happens. Following a somewhat stripped iteration of the title lyric, the percussion snaps into place, and the electro-bit pulses take control for a sublime fifteen seconds in which bursts of Technicolor dance to the disco beat. It is back to business immediately afterward, with the rhythm returning to its previous cadence, keeping its cool after a blinding show of energy.
Functioning as Shamir’s coming-out party to much of the world, “If It Wasn’t True” betrays none of his roots. Gone is the ostentation of Las Vegas, his glitzy hometown. Instead, Shamir dives deep into the fertile house scene to look for inspiration, and resurfaces beneath the lustrous reflections of the disco ball. The marriage of the two is marvelous, and facilitated by Shamir’s androgynous voice, which serves as the tether between the two mutually exclusive realms. His thin range works in his favor here, maintaining a remarkably even performance throughout, remaining for the most part within one register, and making the departures from it (the elongated elocution of “girl” before the beat drops) seem even more earth shaking. The result: confident, simple, and instantly accessible. So go ahead, “have a cow.” [Jean-Luc Marsh]
The New Pornographers, "Brill Bruisers"
The New Pornographers’ early trifecta of albums, overstuffed with irresistible melodies and boundless energy, is a hot streak that no band of their ilk has been able to replicate. Once the gold standard for power pop, they willfully mellowed out and subsequent shed of that mantle. This has left them in an unusual position with Brill Bruisers. For a band whose motto was once “too much is never enough”, the title track on their looming sixth album is subtle in a way that feels almost unplanned. Sure there’s the celebratory mood and the usual three-part harmonies, but everything is toned down somehow. Nothing about it really bowls you over, much like “My Rights Versus Yours” or “Crash Years”. Then you’ll find yourself humming it. Then you wont be able to get it our of your head, much like the “The Laws Have Changed” or “Use It”. A giddy blend of old and new, “Brill Bruisers” is a compromise that never sounds like one. [Brendan Frank]