A Seat at the Table
Solange Knowles worked on A Seat at the Table in fits and starts through the eight years preceding its completion, and consequently, there’s a lot to unpack in the finished product. “I’ve got a lot to be mad about,” she makes clear early on, and the tensions and injustices she has felt and witnessed as a black woman propel the entire album. And yet, her anger is channelled into a search for redemption rather than aggressive diatribes: a calm flipside to her sister’s Lemonade, and a moving celebration of black lives and culture that argues for belonging above all else. A Seat at the Table is a fitting title for a record that sounds so inviting: it welcomes its audience to the discussion, its anecdotes and manifestos detailed with grace and patience.
‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is the kind of protest song that resembles an open palm rather than a clenched fist, its force radiating without the need for dramatics. The same goes for its peers: ‘Cranes in the Sky’ and ‘F.U.B.U.’ firmly push against the bigotry and hypocrisy Solange and so many others are victims to, while remaining admirably open-hearted and generous in spirit. The sound is absolutely wonderful: laced with tasteful touches of Motown and soft funk, A Seat at the Table is heaped with earworms that flutter and snap alongside these celebrations of the self. Solange pitches her tone with fine precision, balancing her steely proclamations with joyous forays into liberating movement – not least on the effervescent ‘Junie’. There’s a lot to be proud about, too: when her mother venerates “the beauty of being black” during one interlude, her plainspoken honesty gets to the warmth at the core of her daughter’s album.
“I hope my son will bang this song so loud / That he almost makes his walls fall down.”
For several years, Angel Olsen’s talent has been in bloom for all to hear, but My Woman is undoubtedly a significant leap forward. No longer the preserve of alt-rock magpies, she has delivered the vigorous pop record that her music previously hinted towards, but seemed to shy away from. She hasn’t abandoned her signatures in compromise, but rather has embellished and fortified them further: the emotional charge is ramped up rather than watered down, and her zeal fills every note, whether her voice is trembling with vulnerability or raw with intensity. Olsen shows more of herself than ever before as both singer and songwriter: whether she’s howling through ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ or crooning dreamily as she does in the blissful ‘Those Were the Days’, her presence is generously multifaceted.
On an album that merges her folk and grunge trademarks with soulful deliveries and country pep, Olsen’s nous is apparent through the smoothness of the whole. Intentionally sequenced as an album of two halves, My Woman fits together perfectly, the winding jams of the latter side sounding like the natural comedown after the emotional expenditure of the album’s opening salvo. Her techniques as a songwriter are consistent, but she employs them to admirably inventive effect: where the guitar crescendos on ‘Not Gonna Kill You’ forcibly burst out of the song’s fabric, on the spectacular ‘Sister’, the build is akin to seeing fireworks launched in slow-motion: a revelatory moment of wide-eyed wonder that suits Olsen’s own ascension.
“All my life I thought I’d change.”
Channel Orange was far from simple in its constitution, but Blonde is thick with content to such a degree that a full analysis could easily fill a book. There is so much to be derived from its density that it invites patience and investment, coaxing its listeners into blurry, headier places than Frank Ocean’s previous full-lengths. Even if this less straightforward approach makes for a less gratifying listen than the slicker R&B of old, Ocean’s supreme knack for melody keeps Blonde welcoming. ‘Pink + White’, ‘Godspeed’, ‘Self Control’, ‘White Ferrari’: these tracks aren’t always forthright in their hooks, but the care of construction has yielded handsome results that make repeat plays appealing. ‘Solo’ is as rich in meaning as any other cut, but Ocean’s grasp and control of melody and flow elevate the song into a heavenly experience. Even based around minimal tools, ‘Nights’ sounds like a full feast of ideas; an impressive transformation from an anthemic montage of “everyday shit” to a coda of lounge soul, via a sequence of videogame guitar licks.
Blonde presents an opus of life’s makeup through fast years and rough hours. There are narcoleptic hazes (“skipping showers and switching socks / Sleeping good and long”), sudden jitters and outbursts (as nailed by André 3000), stark poetry (“weed crumbles into glitter”) and eloquently-expressed pangs of very modern fear and exhaustion. Ocean acknowledges that he is expected to be a spokesman, but Blonde connects with its broad span of followers by withdrawing into the intensely personal, as in Ocean’s reference to Trayvon Martin. It’s a tiny glimpse at an individual reaction: a haunting gut-punch rather than a polemic.
So often on Blonde, Ocean works magic by hitching deeply complex thoughts to the most mellifluous tunes. His formidable hit-rate would make such accomplishments seem effortless, were it not for the four-year gestation that alludes to the hard graft at this music’s core. This album presents a challenge to Ocean’s peers and listeners alike to match the ambition of his own creativity: a demand that we all raise our game to suit works of this intricacy and power.
“Want to see nirvana but don’t want to die yet.”
Car Seat Headrest
Teens of Denial
Whoever you are, if you’re in your twenties – or at the very least, can recall those hard knots of bewilderment and confusion that pierced (and possibly defined) your twenties – then you absolutely need this album. It’s essential. Coming across as a short story collection written with wit and candour, it’s a painfully acute opus set to subtly inventive lo-fi thrills. Will Toledo is no guitar hero, but his second major label album with Car Seat Headrest is thoroughly inspiring. The basic struts of garage rock are present and correct, but they’re dismantled and reassembled with dynamism belying the slacker-band languor Car Seat Headrest are audibly in thrall to. In seventy minutes, not a single hook fails to land.
But it’s Toledo who takes precedence, surrendering feelings towards himself from the very start: “if I was split in two, I would just take my fists / So I could beat up the rest of me”. From this sunny opening, Toledo eloquently stumbles from one ill-fated scenario to another: sobbing after a shakedown with some cops, screaming through an onset of social anxiety during a gig, trying not to piss his pants during a disappointing drug trip. Teens of Denial is brimful of honesty, hilarity, bewilderment and pathos, bound up in these unfortunate anecdotes that are joyous to hear. Toledo may shrug his way through some of these commentaries, but the lion’s share of them contain genuinely profound observations that stick as fast as the riffery. More ambitious and balanced than 2015’s Teens of Style, Teens of Denial lives up to its delightful song titles and then some. “You haven’t tried hard enough to like it”? It’s impossible to adore this album enough.
“Good people give good advice / Get a job, eat an apple, it’ll work itself out.”
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
Nick Cave’s sixteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds is an unequivocal masterpiece. It’s a wrenchingly sad, haunting, and courageous work from a veteran who revealed a whole new depth of personal and artistic mettle in its creation. Questions regarding what aspects of Skeleton Tree were completed before and after Arthur Cave’s death are hard to dispel, but ultimately, they are rendered irrelevant by a work throughout which the weight of grief, pain and loss is articulated with devastating potency.
On these eight songs, Cave peers into the inky blackness of his imagination, sifting through lurid memories and conjuring surrealist imagery of slow-moving dread. The stalwart Bad Seeds match the desolate subject matter with brooding and eerie soundscapes, on which conventional choruses are few and far between. These songs unspool in oppressive clouds of rumbling distortion and disquieting flickers of noise. ‘Rings of Saturn’ hints towards gorgeousness but consistently retreats, the singer “too tongue-tied to drink it up and swallow back the pain”. The trembles in his voice contribute to the effect of the whole: the stony tone he adopts suggests his deeper anguish is shelled away, but there are times when this protective layer cracks and the monstrous emotional flood begins to pour out. The album’s final stretch is equally agonising and delicate. ‘I Need You’ is almost impossible to stomach as Cave’s relentless refrains become choked with yearning: his wail of “I will miss you when you’re gone” must have been unbearable to witness in the studio. Yet ‘Distant Sky’ and the title track combine to form a touchingly human coda to the sorrows that came before: pleas to let go of the suffering while nurturing the love that we are able to carry further.
In many of these songs, Cave calls out beseechingly into the abyss, and receives no answer. By the album’s end, he hasn’t found peace, but has steadied himself enough to reach a resolution of sorts, albeit a fragile, irrevocably altered one. Skeleton Tree may be forever haunted by its shatteringly tragic context, but ultimately, the music herein is of such power that it is magisterial in of itself. It’s an album I won’t forget: its abstract articulations of pain and grief beyond imagining are profoundly disturbing, but that same despair bears forth a terribly unique beauty.
“You believe in God / But you get no special dispensation for this belief now.”
Top Ten Albums of 2014: 10 – 8
Burn Your Fire For No Witness (Jagjaguwar)
Before galumphing to last summer’s Green Man festival, I knew very little about Angel Olsen, the Missouri-bred folk-punk heroine sustained on a diet of throaty troubadours, lo-fi country, and even a splashing of Mariah Carey. The afternoon set that I stumbled across was an odd one to behold with innocent eyes, with Olsen resolutely unflappable even in the face of adoring fans and blinding sunshine. She remained stock-still in a set devoid of fuss or showboating, yet a devilishly sly smile fed into the tunes quite discernibly, and very occasionally, one would flicker across Olsen’s poker face.
It’s this sort of tone that is mainlined on her second LP, Burn Your Fire For No Witness. Olsen’s means of address to her patrons oscillates unnervingly between a thousand-yard stare and a devilishly sly grin, using the wreckage of an unceremonious uncoupling as kindling for the album’s titular blaze. And Burn Your Fire… certainly sparks, thanks to the billowy darkness of Olsen’s proclamations and John Congleton’s dense, calloused production. The crunchy, dusty instrumentation binds together to create a rawness which refuses to tip into raucousness, as lead single ‘Forgiven/Forgotten’ makes perfectly clear. The result fits the ears snugly, sounding off-the-cuff in the moment, but carefully co-ordinated upon deeper study; the product of a clever, calculated mind ensuring maximum impact with the bluntest tools to hand.
Musically, Burn Your Fire… is scrappy, and for the most part, so are Olsen’s words when seen on the page. But the final product is far greater than the sum of its parts: an album to wrap yourself in, allowing Olsen’s tremulous voice to ripple through you. With Burn Your Fire…, the singer gets to have it both ways: it can play loose and nimble just as easily as it can morbid and disturbing. There’s the creepy, spidery slow-burn of ‘White Fire’ on the one hand, and the almost-anthem ‘Lights Out’ on the other, during which her voice rises to its clearest to deliver basic, yet resonant wisdom.
One of the album’s greatest moments arrives in the form of ‘Hi-Five’’s cracked genius. Amid this reeling, fuzz-flecked saloon march, Olsen comes across as more effective at understanding personal troubles than a thousand empathetic singer-songwriters. The moment in which she croons “are you lonely, too?” with the music receding behind her, it’s as if the construct of the album briefly falls away too, and she removes herself from the confines of recorded context to communicate directly with you, the listener. And how does she respond to your sense of disconnection? “Hi-five! So am I.” Somehow, these five gleefully bleak words feel as compassionate as any mantra of tearjerking balladry. It’s because, just as Olsen acknowledges the importance of solitude in her music, she doesn’t forget to forge solidarity between fellow damaged souls.
Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.
Salad Days (Captured Tracks)
2014 was the year in which I fell in love with Vernor Winfield McBriare Smith IV – or, as he is more widely known, Mac DeMarco. Lured in by his effortlessly effervescent melodies, it wasn’t long before I was hooked on videos of his shenanigans, from his playful Rapid-Fire interviews to Sky Ferreira-baiting at Pitchfork Fest ’13. Mac’s persona is so refreshingly blasé, quick-witted and goddamn fun that his presence can become kind of addictive.
On top of this, he was able to walk away from 2014 having gleaned widespread praise for his third LP; the sunny wooze-pop of Salad Days. The album itself may be the mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mac’s wide-ranging appeal, but that being said, it’s still a bloomingly good record. Much of the press surrounding its release had it dubbed as a downbeat, delicate heartache of an album, as a consequence of the exhausting touring schedule for 2012’s 2, which allegedly left Mac completely burned-out. Or, in his own words: “The mood for Salad Days is, ‘Fuck man! I was just on tour for a year and a half and I’m tired!’”
Indeed, there is a heightened air of yearning and ruefulness perceptible in Mac’s music this time around, but beneath all those overbearing, sad-eyed labels, Salad Days is still a buoyantly vital listen, overflowing with the feelgood froth that 2 delivered in spades. All through the album, guitars warble drunkenly, delightful earworms rise to the surface, and Mac’s vocals chirp with a scruffy (and pleasingly versatile) charisma. ‘Let Her Go’ is troubadour pop at its sunniest, ‘Passing Out Pieces’ is a majestically spaced-out stomp, and I can’t hear the opening notes of ‘Blue Boy’ without breaking into a daft grin. The likes of ‘Chamber of Reflection’ and ‘Let My Baby Stay’ express a strikingly weary tenderness, but whatever the demons Mac channels, the end products never fail to raise the spirits.
I wouldn’t call Salad Days a classic record, but it is among the catchiest and most distinctive listens that I’ve enjoyed all year, and it has assured Mac’s status as one of the most infectious entertainers in the business. I found this out first-hand at the Kentish Town Forum in November, where I witnessed one of the most frenzied, hilarious, and memorable gigs I’ve ever been to, attended by a near-hysterical crowd whose adulation for Mac was redoubtable. People really are fucking nuts about Mac DeMarco, and between his goofball antics and fresh-as-a-daisy music, it’s easy to understand why.
Sometimes rough, but generally speaking, I’m fine.
Nikki Nack (4AD)
tUnE-yArDs’ third is a dizzying jumble of an album, with each of its thirteen songs erratically different in terms of tone and topic. It runs the gamut from neo-colonialism protests to a dystopic interlude about cannibalism, and ends with Merrill Garbus shrieking out against sexual harassment. Yet somehow, in spite of its breadth and heady shifts in mood, Nikki Nack works most effectively when taken in a single sitting. Even if it isn’t the smoothest album in terms of pace or cohesion, it’s only by taking a more leisurely tour of Garbus’ mind that one is able to completely satisfy the curiosity her music provokes. As she repeatedly wails on the closing ‘Manchild’, she’s got something to say – quite a lot, in fact, and a mere five-minute snippet can’t bring her wild imagination to bear fully.
tUnE-yArDs’ sonic landscape is one for getting lost in, rather than for visiting briefly. There are a couple of exceptions, but by and large, these songs only reach their full potential when heard amid this sprawling web of sound. Although its plodding rhythm may not be that enticing on a casual listen, the seesawing ‘Look Around’ is a stunning balm following the frenetic ‘Real Thing’, bringing the heat down to a simmer before rising to a cascading crescendo of multiple Garbuses intoning that creepy “never knew” refrain. As a result of this wildly creative approach, Nikki Nack is less lean than its predecessor whokill, but Garbus’ development as a composer is clear in the heightened level of detail this time around. Whereas several flavours felt a little lost in the mixture previously, on Nikki Nack every ingredient positively sings.
Additionally, Garbus’ voice has strengthened in the intervening years, with an increased confidence opening up more avenues for her to express herself more openly. ‘Find a New Way’ blisters through her insecurities as a vocalist, and smack in the centre of the album comes ‘Hey Life’, where she handles existential dilemmas with all the exuberance of a kid let loose in a funhouse. And then there’s ‘Wait for a Minute’, the album’s most sedate moment, in which she hones in on a crippling case of writer’s block that also alludes to the numbing waters of depression. Hidden beneath the Technicolor textures and tribal wails, these sombre themes rest like booby-traps, hitting all the harder for their bright, unassuming camouflage.
Nikki Nack is a wonderful release from this one-of-a-kind artist, and I was surprised to see it barely recognised on many end-of-year lists. Maybe the general feeling is that, while it remains a fun listen, it doesn’t quite top the bar set by whokill. For me, though, the adventurous spirit of Nikki Nack hasn’t lost is shine since its release back in May, and Garbus deserves recognition for tirelessly producing vibrant and flavoursome music which is as relevant as it is catchy.
Oh my God, I use my lungs!