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Allison Crutchfield needs a vacation. Or some sort of getaway. In 2015, Swearin’ broke up and she ended her relationship with guitarist Kyle Gilbride. With two focal points of her life gone, Crutchfield spent the next year out on her own writing her solo debut, Tourist in This Town. This synthy, poppy, angry and melancholy affair is all about escape and the reasons behind it.
Saying that David Bowie was theatrical is as obvious as saying ‘water is wet.’ It’s only shocking that it took him so long to put together his own musical. Lazarus ran for a limited engagement in New York last winter. It’s just starting up previews in the West End this month. Envisioned as a sequel to The Man Who Fell to Earth, it features tons of Bowie covers. Unless you see the show, the plot seems to be hard to come by. But the songs hold up in their new setting.
It’s a little after 10 p.m. on a Saturday night and the crowd at Sunnyvale in Brooklyn is silent and enraptured. Onstage, Emily Jane White’s fingers glide over the keys as she sings Hands, her voice echoing out and filling every inch of space in the venue. This is the reaction that meets White for most songs in her set, followed by applause and shouts of approval.
Bon Iver creates beauty out of disarray. On his first two albums, Justin Vernon took his heartbreak and turned it into gorgeous, soothing melodies. 22, A Million takes a similar approach, but the filter for his turmoil is gone. Instead, these songs are chaotic, unexpected and jarring. Samples, vocoders, and shambling synths crash together in an unstructured soundscape. But if you listen through the anarchy, you will find a stirring, masterful odyssey.
22 (Over Soon) throws you into an alien landscape of stuttering electronic glitches and auto-tuned vocals. But Vernon’s voice comes in like an old friend, bolstered by a lovely sample of Mahalia Jackson’s performance of How I Got Over. The aggressive 10 d E A T h b R E a s T ⚄ ⚄ is the most tumultuous song here, with pounding percussion, unintelligible vocals and crushed, flattened instrumentation. Somehow though, these elements create a perfect storm, sounding harsh but not painful. 21 M♢♢NWATER goes a bit too far, though, barely holding together as a song at all.
While many songs are crowded and cluttered, others offer a calm in this maelstrom. 715 – CRΣΣKS is a corrupted choir of Vernon’s voice, contorted to several warped tones. ____45_____ is also stunning, with twisted saxophone lines, gentle banjo picking and Vernon’s voice. 666 ʇ is sunny with warm guitar chords and an electronic beat pattering away. “I’m still standing in/Still standing in the need of prayer/The need of prayer/No, I don’t know the path/Or what kind of pith I’ve amassed,” Vernon sings.
It’s this need for assurance from God on his path that occupies Vernon’s thoughts on this album. “These will just be places to me now,” he sings on 33 “GOD,” giving up attachments over a grounded piano melody. On previous records, this song may have been just his voice and the keys. Here? It’s buried and resurrected around samples from Jim Ed Brown, Lonnie Holley and Paolo Nutini. 8 (Circle) hits a similar note, as he sings “Not sure what forgiveness is/We’ve galvanized the squall of it all/I can leave behind the harbour.”
29 #Strafford APTS comes the closest to combining all aspects of Bon Iver so far. While there are electronic vocals and floating synths, this is a graceful spiritual that harkens back to earlier works. If you don’t feel something when that voice wails out the word “canonize,” or when Vernon breaks into distortion as he ascends to falsetto, check your pulse; you may be dead inside.
Vernon’s desperation for answers find a resolution of sorts on 00000 Million. This piano-based hymn finds Vernon trying to cut ties, only to return to familiar haunts. “I hurry bout shame, and I worry bout a worn path/And I wander off, just to come back home,” he sings, the weariness clear even through a vocal effect.“Well it harms, it harms me, it harms, I’ll let it in,” he concludes, choosing to stay and live with the pain.
22, A Million finds Vernon searching for a solution to the hole in his heart that he tried to fill with pandemonium. But despite the pleading and searching for answers from God, it’s up to him. Maybe the solution is realizing that there isn’t one at all. Vernon may not be sure if he’s on the right path, but he’s certainly on a good one.
Preoccupations have had a mixed couple of years. When their debut came out in early 2015, they went by the name Viet Cong. Although the record itself was a shadowy take on post-punk that garnered much deserved notice, a good portion of that attention took the form of criticism over the band name. So now, a year later, the four-piece has been reborn as Preoccupations. Same aggressive, foreboding sound, but now with 100% less controversy!
With their second self-titled LP, Preoccupations returns with a crushing, take-no-prisoners attitude that infects these nine songs, at times as tense as a knife against your throat. Anxiety sets the tone with an opening drone that could be mistaken for distant church bells, setting you up for a destructively sinister groove. While Matt Flegel speaks-sings his way through the verses, he draws out the two-word chorus, sounding more like a corrupted audio file than a belted note.
Sure, it’s easy to see Joy Division in this band’s DNA, but don’t think for a second that it makes them predictable or obvious. Monotony is all angry, angular chords slashing across the background with momentary shifts to a captivating hook. But as it moves into Zodiac, the motorik beat shifts from industrial to electronic, bubbling rather than battering. Zodiac itself is a roller coaster, as the tempo dramatically changes with no sense of build-up. Flegel snarls his way through each line, issuing commands like “Retake your form/From the sad days/Focusing on/The task at hand.” The monolithic Memory feels like a couple of segments stitched together by a lengthy jam session, ending unexpectedly with an ambient trip. Sense is a minute-long harmonious transmission, both calm and needy.
Even when a track seems more “traditional,” Preoccupations still aims to throw you for a bit of a loop. At first, the slow-climbing keyboard and vibrating guitar of Degraded would fit on side two of Low, but the song curves into a raucous, speedy number, courtesy of quick-footed drumming and screeching guitars. Forbidden pulls off almost the reverse trick, sounding spacey, but then inexplicably fading out as soon as the guitar and drums kick in. Stimulation‘s only trick is that it doesn’t have one, existing as a propulsive, head-banging slice of post-punk.
Preoccupations is a strong follow-up to an excellent debut record. It showcases a band that is evolving and finding new ways to stretch out their sound. Now that Preoccupations will no longer be….preoccupied by objections to their former band name, there’s nothing left to hold them back.
The story of My Woman is exactly as it says on the tin. Angel Olsen’s third album has been self-described as “the complicated mess of being a woman.” To tackle this immense topic, Olsen’s expanded her sound, fusing a late 60s/early 70s rock vibe to the alternative folk of Burn Your Fire for No Witness.
Opener Intern instantly stands out, its slow-pulsing synth right out of Twin Peaks. Olsen’s voice matches the low-key vibe, resigned to going through the motions in work and in love. “Falling in love and I swear it’s the last time,” she sings breathlessly, the lyric’s determination undercut by her passivity.
Of course, thinking about falling in love is a detached viewpoint. Once you are in the relationship, your perspective shifts. So does Olsen, tackling the ever-changing nature of such a commitment. Never Be Mine is pining, with the light fuzz of an electric guitar and tumbling drum rolls. Shut Up Kiss Me reinforces its rocking, commanding chorus with rapid guitar strums. “We could end all this pain right here/We could rewind all of those tears,” Olsen sings, backing up her words with a sharp and sly guitar solo.
As people have different life experiences, their priorities may change and relationships may drift. Olsen captures this in Heart Shaped Face, questioning if her love saw her for her, “Or was it your mother?/Or was it your shelter?/Or was it another/With a heart shaped face.” Such a change is rarely smooth and Olsen’s anger comes across in Not Gonna Kill You. The rage builds over a dry guitar hook with each verse until it bursts from her with a burning solo and a shout. Give It Up tries to get a similarly wounded feeling across, but the music fails to deliver.
The two longest pieces on My Woman are by far the most introspective and magnificent. Sister is a dusty number that unfurls into an epic of self-discovery, through the device of talking to an imaginary sibling. “Live it through your eyes/Piece us together/Know that this wild road/Will go on forever.” It ends with a killer repeated line, “All my life I thought I’d change,” interspersed with a pure 70s guitar hero solo and backing church choir vocals. Woman brings back the soundtrack style synths, like a blanket of clouds over vibrating guitar chords and a nimble bass. “Tell me that love isn’t true/I dare you to understand/What makes me a woman,” Olsen sings, belting out the last word in a cathartic release.
The piano ballad of Pops ends the record as it started, with lo-fi vocals that accept Olsen’s relationship is over. It returns her to the resignation of Intern, now tinged with heartbreak. It’s a beautiful, somber end to an emotional whirlwind of an album.
What makes My Woman great isn’t the new synths or the rockier tone. It’s Olsen herself, filling these songs with the love, desire, anguish and acceptance that comes from her perspective as a woman. While it’s easier to sing about being in love or falling out of love, Olsen is wise enough to see the long game. She knows that change is a part of life, whether it’s in the work you do, the people you love or the person you become.
Kelsey Lu’s Church is as direct an opening statement as you will get this year. The cellist’s debut is sparse in all the right ways, putting the focus on her voice, her playing and her lyrics. In lesser hands, this could be problematic as it’s much easier for cracks to stand out. But on Church, Lu handles all three of those segments so powerfully and passionately that you can only listen in awe.
Nowhere is her talent put on display as much as on Dreams. It opens the record with a beautiful slow burn of discordant notes, expansive, mysterious and jagged all at once. If nature had an orchestra, this intro would be its tune-up. It could also be the start of a vivid dream, in the way that it shimmers out-of-focus, but is bright and singular enough to get the message across. And this is all before Lu even starts plucking her cello strings and unveils her gorgeous, haunting wail. “I know you’re no good boy, I can’t get enough of you,” she sings, her dreams offering her no reprieve for her longing.
Lu’s voice not only has jaw-dropping levels of depth and range (see the near glass-shattering pitches of Morning After Coffee), but is filled with pathos, making you feel every note. On Empathy, Lu sings about a broken relationship, only to deliver the simple-in-concept but difficult-in-practice line: “Empathy is what I need. Empathy is what you need.” The forlorn, cutting strings follow up to bold-face this proclamation. Time also explores the sparks and burns of love, as Lu expresses a sensation of freedom from waiting around for another to love her back. The strings, somber and sad, weave through a bubbling percussive soundscape, like a fish cutting through water.
The beauty of Dreams is only matched by the closing sprawl of Liar. Opening with a burst of harp, the melody retreats to its barest form, to put all the attention of Lu’s otherworldly vocals. “I’d be lying if I said I was okay, cause I’m not,” she sings, her voice fragile but forcing the notes out. This isn’t a song Lu wants to sing, but needs to sing. The same can be said for her breathless cello solo that surges at the end, only to fade back into nature.
As talented as Lu is, it’s her passion and emotions that make virtually every song on Church connect. Besides the fact that it was recorded at a church, the title works as this is a spiritual awakening for Lu that we’re lucky enough to have witnessed. Now that she’s woken from her dreams, there’s no telling where she’ll take us next.
Natasha Khan has always used Bat for Lashes as a vehicle for stories, whether from her personal history or her imagination. Throughout her career, she used her entrancing voice and otherworldly music to weave tales both fantastical and mundane with equal passion. On The Bride, Khan goes a step further, creating an arc about a woman whose fiancé dies on their wedding day, sending her spiraling into a journey of self-discovery and healing.
Yes, a concept album is difficult to pull off in the best of circumstances, but damn does Khan sell it. By letting the music guide the narrative, not the other way around, she (mostly) avoids the storyboard pitfalls that plague other such endeavors. It also helps that Khan’s never sounded better. She hits that sweet spot between power and control that dazzles but doesn’t overwhelm.
Listen to In God’s House, which turns a wedding organ inside-out, flattening the notes into a funeral dirge. It’s only in the chorus that synths sparkle up, reflecting the prophetic vision the bride sees of her love’s demise. “What’s this I see?/My baby died on the beach/What’s this I see?/Fire,” Khan sings, shouting out the last word in a stunning burst of horror and heartbreak. Joe’s Dream doesn’t quite reach that level of pathos, but its thumping drumbeat and muted guitar chords wisely put the focus on Khan’s vulnerable, almost desperate vocals.
It’s fitting that The Bride came out 10 years after Bat for Lashes’ debut, Fur and Gold, as that’s the last record to hone in on Khan’s own perspective, if not necessarily her actual life. Now, instead of playfully swinging down the road on a bike in What’s A Girl To Do?, the bride of Honeymooning Alone cries and rages as the “girl that was denied.” Next, the propulsive highlight of Sunday Love finds the bride trying to outrun her own tragedy, the electronic beat spinning like spokes on a wheel.
When people are faced with death, they look beyond the everyday to seek answers or lay blame elsewhere. Khan does both. She curses out the heavens on the stormy Never Forgive The Angels. On the string-swept Close Encounters, she hopes that her lover’s spirit exists as a “pale green light” that she will join one day, becoming “a dream of time and sound.”
Nearly all these tracks work perfectly together for the fable Khan has crafted. Widow’s Peak is the only number that fails to land. The spoken-word piece goes overboard with the mysticism, throwing in wind chimes and lines about dreams, goddesses and demons. It pulls you out of the experience and is not a song you’ll need to hear more than once.
Thankfully, the beautiful closing tracks are a restoration both for the album and the bride. The healing begins on If I Knew, a sparse piano ballad as strong as Laura. “Baby, if I knew what I know now/I could never turn it back around,” she sings, knowing the relationship was still worth the pain. I Will Love Again is a mirror of Joe’s Dream, stripped back to put Khan’s voice in the center. But she sings each word with confidence, the fragility left behind. In Your Bed finds the bride reaching the point where she can look back and recall her time with her love happily, as strings swirl skywards around her.
With The Bride, Khan has created a sublime tale of sorrow and recovery, of accepting loss and working through pain to become a stronger person. Likewise, Khan has taken her interest in similar journeys from earlier albums and used them to make her most consistently captivating work thus far. If there’s one way that art imitates life here, it’s that remembering and learning from the past can help build a stronger present.
Companion is comprised of four tracks from Braids’ sessions for Deep in the Iris, their third and so far best album. Still, don’t think these are scraps from the cutting room floor. The trio of Raphaelle Standell-Preston, Austin Tufts and Taylor Smith are too dedicated to let their fans off that easily. Instead, Companion is exactly what it says it is, an accompanying piece that gives you a deeper look into the same journey.
The haunting title track begins with Standell-Preston’s voice, mournful and resigned, singing “It had nothing to do with you/how can I make that more clear?” to her stepbrother, who was left behind when her family was torn apart by the actions of her abusive stepfather. All the focus here is on her passionate delivery, with synths that gently swell like waves on a beach. It’s such a stripped-back track that it feels like we’re intruding on a private conversation she’s wanted to have for years with her sibling.
The destruction of a different type of relationship is the subject of Trophies for Paradox. Beautifully warped, taunt guitar strings form the bed of this tale of a man who fulfills his desire and then dismantles the relationship. Standell-Preston deftly takes her opening lines of optimism, “He came in/Like a winner/Strong and slim/Trophies in his grin,” and turns them upside-down as the relationship turns cold, singing “He came in/Like a sinner/Small and grim/Trophies to the wind.”
Joni moves with a jittery, jagged beat from Tufts, fitting for lyrics about being comfortable with not knowing where your life is heading. While the beat never truly goes off the rails, enough elements keep pushing and pulling it in opposite directions, with Standell-Preston’s vocal as the only anchor. Her voice is equally vital in Sweet World, echoing like wind over a canyon, as classical piano keys play off sharp percussion below. Still, this closing song does go on for a bit too long and doesn’t capture your attention as much as the other three tracks do.
While Sweet World may not be the best note to end on, Companion as a whole is an ideal way to close this chapter of Braids. It’s an excellent way not only to revisit and expand on some themes from Deep in the Iris, but also to hold us over for what comes next.