What’s Up? (Grimes Edition)

Last  year Grimes released her new album Art Angels, and I absolutely loved it. It surpassed my adoration of her previous album Visions, which I had listened to over and over again over the last few years. In the six or so months since the release of Art Angels, I’ve listened to it more than I had listened to Visions in all those years; I can’t really understate how much I love this album, and of course, how much I look up to Grimes.

The discovery of Grimes came at a fairly transformative period of life. At the end of my Sophomore year of college I was rebounding academically, doing well and feeling confident in my studies, but I was at one of my lowest points socially. I accidentally crossed a line, probably a few lines; I learned hard lessons, coincidentally started down the path of becoming feminist, and was shown Grimes. “Oblivion” became my most-played song of 2013 and 2014, and somewhere in there “Realiti” and its Southeast-Asian globetrotting music video became another obsession of mine. Being afraid, paranoid, beautiful, daring, brave; I got a lot out of Grimes’ music during this period, and then Art Angels came out. Art Angels came out, and it just so happened to coincide with the completion of a lot of personal stuff for me. It was a banger of an album, and at once beautiful and reflective, it was rebellious, dealt with gender — I felt like I deserved to feel how this album sounded, because I went through all those dramatic changes during my Visions years.

So when Grimes set a concert date in Philadelphia, I had to go. I absolutely had to go. Grimes and my personal evolution are so strongly associated that missing this concert would be like missing my graduation ceremony. So I hopped on a Greyhound bus at 6AM, and made the trek out of Pittsburgh, and into Philadelphia, if only for 22 hours. I completed a Mindy Kaling audiobook, De La Soul’s “3 Feet High and Rising” and a few podcasts along the way, met a Cousin in Rittenhouse Square, and checked in at an Air BnB next to Pat’s King of Steaks. I helped myself to a cheese-steak, but not one from Pat or Geno’s; South Philly Bar & Grill was able to dish out a simple sandwich with provolone (not wiz), onions, and greasy meat, with some plain-tasting fries and a stout to wash it down. I thought the cheese wiz was what gave people stomach problems, but it has to be that greasy thin-cut meat, because I experienced said stomach problems, then hailed an Uber to the Electric Factory.

What followed was an extraodinary concert… with less a extraordinary crowd. Half the crowd was polite, tiny, leaning-towards queer/genderqueer style and presentation, the types of people I’d love to surround myself with at a concert like this. The other half? People who do what it takes to reach the front of the crowd, even if it squeezes everyone tight like sardines, huge tall bros who start fights, and people who were just flat-out rude assholes.

But I digress, because the people on the stage made the night, not the people in the crowd. Hana, Grimes, and her dancers killed it. Hana has a Lorde-esque thing going on, I’d have to listen to the record in person to get more specific than that, but she’s got a good stage presence, and I’m glad she stuck around to play with Grimes. And Grimes herself? Cute! Kind of like Bjork in the way she carries herself on stage; masterful execution of your work, but at the same time, that hundreds of people are cheering for you can make you blush. She danced the way I expected, she screamed, she sang, and she made funny, awkward chit-chat between songs. I could go on more, but, here I think it’s the journey that matters more than the destination. It started over three years ago; the Greyhound to Philly was just a milestone on that journey, the concert, just another amazing milestone.

And now? Now we go home to Pittsburgh (I’m actually writing this ON the Greyhound back) we have ~4 hours to go, but I’ve got Grimes on my back.

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Queens of The Stone Age’s “…Like Clockwork” (2013)

It’s been six years since Queens of The Stone Age released “Era Vulgaris” back in 2007. Now they’re back, and it’s awesome. I last “heard” front-man Josh Homme back in 2009, on Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” which he produced. Coincidentally, Queens of the Stone Age are touring Australia and New Zealand this coming March with another band I last heard in 2009, Nine Inch Nails.

Q: In a year of comeback albums; where does Queens of the Stone Age’s “…Like Clockwork” (2013) fall?
A: Somewhere near the top.

The concise ten-track album sounds different than Queens of the Stone Age’s past material, in a good way though, in the way that a band should experiment, change, and improve over the course of six years. The band has always had a broken-machine-like quality to their sound; something about the heavily distorted guitars staying on such impeccable timing sounded like machinery, but in deviating from the timing, finding funky, catchy rhythms, and dissonant sounds, that’s where Queens of the Stone Age finds their appeal. Not unlike the robotic duo Daft Punk that happened to find their humanity in 2013, Queens of The Stone Age sounds more alive than ever here on “…Like Clockwork.”

“Kalopsia”  starts off the second half of the album with the pulse of a breathing machine. And perhaps Josh Homme’s time with Arctic Monkeys was a learning experience as well as a mentoring of sorts, as the peaceful piano and harp-like heavenly guitars paired with the prettier notes of Homme’s voice seem more out of Arctic Monkeys’ playbook than Queens of The Stone Age’s. Of course, everything beautiful falls apart, and the album’s thematic battle between hope and despair wages on, with the band’s old dark sounds (slightly-off guitars, distortion, unrelenting noise) clashing with the new sounds (pianos, falsettos, acoustics, orchestra).

From the album’s third track: “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”
“I’m alive – hooray! / You’re wrong again / ‘Cause I feel no love”

“My God Is The Sun” the fifth track on the album is a personal highlight for me. Outside of the thematic elements of the album, the song is catchy, has a really nice rolling bass, an energy you can really feel, drum breaks; the kind of track that I can see myself playing intensely along with on guitar in the privacy of my own bedroom. I spent so much time playing along with tracks from “Era Vulgaris” (2007) and “Songs for the Deaf” (2002), and I’m glad to hear that “…Like Clockwork” will give me the same emotion-venting satisfaction.  “Smooth Sailing” finds a funky rhythm after a malfunctioning electronic introduction, and “Fairweather Friends” determines that gossip, drugs, and snakes are the friends that get us back into bed.

Title song “…Like Clockwork” hits you with the heavy emotions and really shows off all of the good things that Queens of The Stone Age have have learned to do over the years. Josh Homme almost sounds like Damon Albarn, in the album’s conclusion, and the song just encapsulates the feeling of surrender so well. It really captures the theme I was getting at earlier, that I think you can find through the album, everything beautiful and quiet about the beginning gets sledge-hammered by the familiar sounds of the band’s past music, and when the song returns to the beautiful, it’s not without the ominous march of the noise behind it. The friends that have told me that “…Like Clockwork” might be the best Queens of The Stone Age album might just be right, though I’m not going to start ranking things, I have to say – it’s a damn fine album.

Arctic Monkeys’ “AM” (2013)

I’ve listened to Arctic Monkeys roughly since 2005 or 2006. A lot was happening in that time: I got my an iPod Video, and made a lot of dumb purchases on iTunes. I made lots of one-off single purchases of songs I don’t think I have stored on any devices anymore, I bought South Park Season 10 digitally so that I could watch the Cartoon Wars episodes, I bought the Season Two finale of Lost. I started telling people that I liked “Alternative music,” whatever that means. I listened to and bought a lot of Bloc Party and Arctic Monkeys, I started surrounding myself with anything that iTunes labeled as “Alternative” and came from the U.K. It was a great time to be a fan of Arctic Monkeys because it felt like they were releasing a Single or an EP every few months, though that meant I had no reason to buy their first album “Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not” (2006) which featured most of the songs I already owned. Wisely “Leave Before The Lights Come On” (2006) didn’t feature any tracks that spoiled that surprise that was “Favourite Worst Nightmare” (2007) which I enjoyed. But in the time between 2007’s “Nightmare” and 2009’s “Humbug” my love for Arctic Monkeys cooled. In the midst of developing my love for artists like Beck, and They Might Be Giants, my music tastes shifted in such a way that the pure energy of the early Arctic Monkey’s catalog wasn’t my thing anymore. Arctic Monkeys’ “Humbug” (2009) reflected this shift in my musical taste, by showing that the band had the capacity to show down, and get dark, with the help of Queens of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme. I neglected to listen to the band’s fourth release, “Suck It And See” (2011), but now that 2013 is coming to a close, I thought I’d give the band’s latest and commercially greatest album had to offer. After this lengthy pretext, and without further adieu, this is what I thought about “AM” (2013).

It’s hard to say how much the band has changed in the last four years, since I’m missing an entire fourth album, but roughly speaking, “AM” sounds a lot like “Humbug,” and I still don’t know what to make of that observation. On one hand; I think it’s cool that after going years without listening to the band that they still sound familiar to me, on the other hand I was expecting something more after all of these years, and after all of the noise about “AM” being the band’s greatest commercial and critical success.

Sonically the album explores places the band’s been before; guitars in the fat of the fuzz and thick bass lines, but the band reaches uncharted territory by including pianos, organs, octave pedals, and a Blood Orange-like amount of plucky, reverb guitar parts. “One For The Road” stands out vocally, as Josh Homme’s backing vocals are chilling underneath the fast tongue of Alex Turner. Thematically, the first half of “AM” feels largely on edge, creepy, cool, dark, that sort of thing. I was getting tired of it by track five, “I Want It All” and it just so happens that track six is where my opinion of the album starts to turn around.

Arctic Monkeys have always done beautiful well, and “No. 1 Party Anthem” is no exception. Their brand of sleepy guitars, with Turner’s rocking crib of a voice, have always been amazing – but they’re the reason to come to “AM,” the highlight, the thing that Arctic Monkeys have taken to the next level. “No. 1 Party Anthem” and “Mad Sounds” following it, pierce the dark rain clouds floating above “AM” with hope, and light.

“They make you get up and dance, yeah they make you get up, out of nowhere somebody comes and hits you with an, Ooh la la la la”

This mid-album burst of energy is put to good use, launching into the funky number “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” and the return of Homme in “Knee Socks” before tying the knot of the album, thematically. Arctic Monkeys started by asking “Do I Wanna Know?” (a catchy opening song) and followed up with “R U Mine?” (and although it looks like a twelve-year old’s text, the song broached the dark and mature). By “Knee Socks” we were in the midst of assumptions, break-ups, asking what could have been, and so to close the album on “I Wanna Be Yours” feels right, like the last step of the album’s arc – starting with the desire to possess, and ending with the desire to be possessed.

I’m glad Arctic Monkeys are still around and making music. “AM” was a good listen; it reminded me of what I loved about the band, and showcased how they were developing their strengths. But without knowing what “Suck It And See” sounds like, it’s hard to say whether the band is stuck in gear, or whether this fifth album was just a return to style and themes of old.

M.I.A.’s “Matangi” (2013)

I’m a huge fan of M.I.A.’s first two albums, “Arular” (2005) and “Kala” (2007). They’re fun, unique, and I buy into M.I.A.’s rebellious angle on hip-hop; and as I’ve made clear in my review of Snoop Dogg’s “Doggystyle” (1993), a rapper’s credibility is incredibly important to how I feel about their work. Perhaps this is why I avoided M.I.A.’s third release, “Maya”  (2010); I had heard less than positive things about it, so in order to preserve her character I never listened to any tracks outside of “Born Free” which had a controversial music video that, quite frankly, I was a fan of. As such though, it sometimes felt like M.I.A. hadn’t released any music since 2007, though that was certainly not the case, and M.I.A.’s 2012 single “Bad Girls” set my expectations for a new album very high. “Bad Girls” is just an incredibly bad ass song and music video, clashing hip-hop tropes like gold chains and fast cars with  a middle-eastern desert and girls in hijab with guns. For over a year I waited for the album that would give the song a home; this is where “Matangi” (2013) comes  in.

In “Matangi” I see M.I.A. comfortably experimenting with the formulas that made “Arular” and “Kala” so great. The drum machines and rocking Indian beats I’ve come to expect are here, and mixed with some modern electronic elements this time around. “Come With Me” is a slower, more pop-sounding track, that becomes unrelentingly M.I.A. in sound; loud, fast, sampling musical themes from Indian music. It’s one of the first songs on the album that made me glad that M.I.A.; who performed with Madonna and has the potential to be a big huge pop sell-out, sticks to her guns (how many pop songs talk about Uganda and go into Bollywood-Breakdowns?). The song also samples an M.I.A. song from “Kala”, “M.I.A. is coming back with power! power!” and I couldn’t agree more.

“Only 1 U” features a shot at Tomb Raider “Lara Croft is soft, she’s made up, I’m real” (and I believe you M.I.A.), “ATENTion” is a song that’s got deep, club-worthy dub bass, and uses more vocoder effects than I remember ever hearing on an M.I.A. track, and “Exodus” closes off the first half of the album with a warning chorus, “You tell me you wanna have it all, [but] tell me what for?” It’s a very solid first half,  and “Warriors” is the only song I labeled merely okay.

“Bad Girls” finds its home in the center of “Matangi” where it’s still every bit as catchy and hypnotizing as it was when it first dropped, and sets the tone for the second, more intense half of the album. “Boom Skit” at just over a minute long is packed, packed, with awesome criticisms of American culture: “Brown girl, brown girl, turn your shit down, you know America don’t wanna hear your sound, boom boom jungle music, go back to India”, “Let you into Super Bowl, you tried to steal Madonna’s crown.” For the record, I was proud of my girl M.I.A. for flipping off the camera at the Super Bowl half time show, it’s not like she was ever going to be there again, so why not? But for such a short song, “Boom Skit” is incredibly fun, and I love the shots she takes, particularly at the failed Kony 2012 movement. “Double Bubble Trouble” and “Y.A.L.A.” are very dance-worthy songs with bumping hip-hop beats, pulling sounds from reggae music and modern dance-pop tracks. “Y.A.L.A.” takes a shot at Y.O.L.O. culture in such an amazing way, and it really speaks to why I love her.

“If you only live once why we keep doing the same shit? Back home where I come from, we keep getting born again and again, that’s why we invented karma.”

Way to take American/Internet culture down a peg by writing about what you know, and drawing on your larger world experiences! The rest of “Matangi” goes strong in the rap and hip-hop direction, leaving the lighter pop side of the album behind largely behind, until “Sexodus”, a reprise version of “Exodus.” As I talked about in my review of Massive Attack’s “Mezzanine” (1998) I’m a sucker for reprise songs, as an analysis of the two versions really lets us see how we’ve thematically changed since the beginning of the album. In the “Sexodus” v. “Exodus” case, we’ve gotten a little dirtier, grittier, and real since the beginning of “Matangi” and as the sounds of helicopters fly overhead in “Sexodus” I feel like M.I.A.’s warnings of “Exodus” have gone unheard…

With “Matangi” M.I.A. sounds different enough from her past albums to avoid repetition, but she is still unforgiving in her thematic choices, and that’s what defines M.I.A., and in that “Matangi” delivers in full; this is M.I.A. as awesome as she’s ever been.

Roses’ “Roses EP” (2013)

Roses is a self-described “Romantic Rock’n’Roll Synthpop Band,” and while my experience with Synthpop may be limited I totally understand what they mean by Romantic Rock’n’Roll. Roses’ EP is a braid of soft keyboards, pulsing sin waves, clean guitars, and modestly pretty voices. The band has a particular way of describing painfully obsessive love.  The third track, So Very Wild asks the question “How can I love you when you’re so very wild?” with a sense of romantic honesty that reminds me of Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City” (2013). Sometimes words fail us, and Roses doesn’t shy away from occasional non-linguistic chorus of “la’s” or “oh’s,” not unlike the The Fratellis’ sing-along-bar songs, if that particular bar was a little bit quieter and somber. My favorite thing about Roses’ EP is how they let songs step in both Romantic Rock’n’Roll and Synthpop. It’s not like they sat down and arbitrarily decided one song would be Rock and one song would be Synthpop, each song has a little bit of both and it makes for a dynamic and interesting listen on top of being catchy and pleasant.