Review: Always Not Quite Centered

Reviews of recent albums from Odd Future's singular Earl Sweatshirt and Brooklyn art-rockers Ava Luna.
earl sweatshirt art-min

opinion by SAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

Odd Future’s gaggle of post-Eminem MCs can sometimes feel like raging ids locked in ugly competition. However, although Earl Sweatshirt’s work on third full-length I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside can sometimes read as less urgently feral or technically accomplished than that of the collective’s de facto ringleader Tyler, The Creator or Earl’s own past releases (the rapping here is about half the speed, on average, of the flow heard on Doris), the more time spent with the record, the clearer it becomes that the MC is simply confident. I Don’t Like Shit moves at a stroll not because it’s lazy but because its creator knows exactly what he’s doing, such that there’s no need to show off. While Earl’s on-record persona continues to combine raw autobiographical material (or raw-seeming, as it’s never clear how much hyperbole or outright fabrication is involved) with a fuck-off attitude, he’s stripped his simultaneously fascinating and off-putting style down considerably without diluting its effect, jettisoning the loopy abstractions and lurid detail of Doris in favor of a commanding iciness.

Earl’s always playing the same game in his rapping, offering believable narratives (or, sometimes, narratives so unbelievably harsh they scan as supposedly “gritty” realism) that could easily be mere riffs on listener expectations; no matter how verbose he gets (and I Don’t Like Shit does have its occasional moments of double-timed virtuosity), he constantly offers to let us in and then plays us the fools for thinking we could ever get to the “real” Earl Sweatshirt. I Don’t Like Shit feels more than any of his earlier work like wandering through a funhouse full of mirrors while Earl’s voice echoes on the PA system. I Don’t Like Shit’s production – also by Earl – suits this game perfectly. Just like Earl’s vocals, it’s recognizably Odd Future (industrial beats, jazz samples, bleary synths) but tightened to a bare minimum: a lightless, airless vacuum (check the suffocating, dripping-faucet-slow “Grief”) that discloses only what’s necessary for the track to function, evoking atmosphere without communicating content, and always keeping the spotlight firmly on the mark where we think Earl will be standing (he’s of course never there, always not quite centered). It’s an off-kilter, disconcerting aesthetic of a piece with recent music by other crossover successes like Arca and FKA twigs. Key track “Mantra” clatters and clangs intelligibly but never settles on a groove, sounding like it’s either about to become a typical rap song or like it used to be one but has since splintered into pieces. It’s work that positions Earl, both as producer and MC, as a hyper-current presence in the pop landscape, acutely aware of how to manipulate fresh sounds and traditional expectations for his own inscrutable ends. B+

In 2015, Ava Luna sound like speculative fiction. They present an alternate history of indie rock where it’s 2008 forever, where their home base Brooklyn is already “Brooklyn” but not yet “Brooklyn”, where guitars don’t need to make a comeback because synths never came into fashion as a lead instrument. Like their more accomplished peers and, no doubt, key influences in Dirty Projectors, the art-rock band’s third LP Infinite House combines tentative dips into R&B and soul with a firm foundation in jittery, spindly, angular NYC rock, resulting in pop songs with a deliberately nervous, ungainly, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel to them.

However, while there’s certainly the nagging sense that we’ve heard this exact thing before – not only from Dirty Projectors, but also a whole host of Ava Luna-like Longstreth acolytes, some of them better and many of them worse – doesn’t mean the songs are necessarily unsuccessful; the zig-zagging interplay between guitarist Carlos Hernandez and Ethan Bassford (no prizes for guessing which instrument he plays) is especially tight and compelling on Inifinite House, especially when their disparate parts suddenly synchronize (“Best Haxagon”). It’s easy to imagine the songs from this record kicking ass live as a result of this interplay (Ava Luna shows are rightly well-known for being a great time). However, while there’s evident development in the band’s songwriting, it’s not enough to save the many moments like “Billz” and the strained spoken-word of “Steve Polyester,” cuts that somehow manage to be both overly self-aware and yet not nearly self-aware enough, suggesting that the band still has a good deal of growing up to do. C+

Earl Sweatshirt print by J.McAfee.