Thursday, March 11, 2021

Jane Weaver - Flock (Review)

I wrote about Jane Weaver's brilliant new album, Flock, release on 3/5/2021, on Fire Records. It may be published eventually in the usual place, but in the meantime I wanted to put it out here, so that at least it's out somewhere, before the trail goes cold.

The press materials that accompany Jane Weaver’s new album say the following: “Flock is a natural rebellion to the recent releases which sees her decidedly move away from conceptual roots in favour of writing pop music.” With all due respect to our colleagues at Fire Records, there seems to be a good deal with which to take issue in that statement. Because Weaver’s latest album is precisely a continuation of her pre-existing refusal to plow a straight furrow, albeit that much of the material here might seem (and “seem” is, ahem, decidedly the operative word here) to be branching out, or rather in, to the mainstream, and all of that works within Weaver’s pre-existing conceptual framework. But it’s a brilliant sleight of hand with which to begin our consideration of the album.

Flock is, to be clear, a masterpiece, and in that Weaver is also consistent. But if this is a rebellion toward the mainstream (an act that itself appears at least a little bit perverse), it is nonetheless still a rebellion, and in that it is in fact an act of subversion, of musical entryism, deploying pop tropes and styles in the service of Weaver’s continuing restless mission, to explore and to re-invent, both herself and the world around her. And let’s make another clarifying point before we embark on the odyssey of exploring these fantastic songs: if this music were actually to enter the mainstream and become massively popular, heard on radios all around the world, civilization and the Zeitgeist would be significantly improved. This is the very kind of music that should be hugely successful, in a just and peaceable world.

All of this might seem like abstract posturing on the part of your reviewer, for which apologies are pre-emptively offered, but as you listen to the album, which covers about 50 minutes of earth time while covering eons of cosmological time, you will, one hopes, understand the ways in which the album is organized into discrete sections, each of which make statements about numerous musical genres and movements. Indeed, the ways that the various sections of the album are sequenced and juxtaposed are an integral part of the album’s triumphant success and absolutely well-earned self-confidence.

Briefly, there seem to be three sections, as follows: the first three songs (“Heartlow,” “The Revolution of Super Visions” and “Phases of Stages”) experiment with and work out a few different strands of popular music that might serve as foundational reference points, to musical peers, toward some generic trends in popular and art-pop music, and as pointers or harbingers, foreshadowing what is to follow. After that there is a very short interlude (“Lux), followed by the two anchoring songs of the middle section (“Modern Reputation” and “Flock”), which form a bridge between the first and third sections, while also offering a kind of meta-commentary on each of their juxtaposed sections – they are, you might say, quintessential Jane Weaver songs, embedded at the heart of the project. Finally, there is a truly magnificent suite of four songs to conclude the album (“Sunset Dreams,” “All The Things You Do,” “Pyramid Schemes,” and “Solarised”), which really strike out for the stratosphere in a way that sees Weaver trying on a kind of cosmic funk that suits her remarkably well, and opens up her own musical future to a world of untold possibilities. This, then is the brilliantly conceived structure of the album, and its execution is even more impressive.

The album’s first three songs cover the waterfront of what you might loosely call contemporary and recent art-pop. In this imagining of the “pop” spectrum, it breaks down roughly like this: opening track “Heartlow” serves very approximately as an analog for the Broadcast and Stereolab strand of the alternative canon.  The second song, “The Revolution of Super Visions,” nods in a couple of directions, one of which is St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and her virtuoso avant-garde guitar music, the other of which is the first breadcrumb that will eventually lead us to the astonishing funk that characterizes the back end of the album. And the third song, “Phases of Stages,” is just a beautiful and bold agglomeration of 1970s pop soup, combining progressive flourishes and glam rock swagger. Jane Weaver owes nothing to anybody, but this opening triptych of songs, feels like an ostentatious act of credentializing, as if to say, “I can really do whatever I want, and I can do it as well as anyone else, just watch me.” And it’s also as if these opening songs are describing a certain kind of pop landscape, the kind of landscape that the charts used to resemble, when weirdness was actually popular. In this respect, Weaver is both forging forward with a futuristic and avant-garde pop vision, at the same time as she is also providing a call-back to a time in the history of popular culture when a band like, say, Roxy Music could be experimental and mainstream at the same time.

Having flexed in some really rather astounding ways over the course of the album’s opening fifteen minutes, there is the very brief palate cleanser of “Lux,” the light of which offers both a buffer between and bridge to the next section of the album. “Modern Reputation” and “Flock” are quintessential Jane Weaver songs, and progressive chamber pop workouts all at once. “Modern Reputation” swirls and soars with cascading and looping electronic and vocal entanglements, conjuring pyrotechnic visual imagery with sound over six glorious minutes, as if Weaver is deep in thought and conversation with herself, communing with spirits only she can see, but whose import she is trying to convey to us. This is almost literally a kind of enchantment, the likes of which even the most motorik and kosmische music could not capture as wonderfully. This is followed immediately by the utterly stunning title track which, while half the length of its predecessor, describes a universe with its sweeping keyboards and woodwinds lined up alongside Weaver’s equally vertiginous vocals. There are multiple moments in “Flock,” but at least one, that may well make you gasp in wonder.

Taken together these two songs feel like the high watermark of Weaver’s career, and they are the filling in the pop-funk sandwich of the album as a whole, such is the genius of the project. Because the first part of the album shows you what pop music could be. The second section shows you how virtuosic and utterly original Weaver can be, and is, and the third section says, what if we take all of that and just go even crazier by making the whole thing into twenty minutes of cosmic  funk. It bears repeating that this is a marvelously sequenced set of songs.

That final suite of fours songs, comprising “Sunset Dreams,” “All The Things You Do,” “Pyramid Schemes” and “Solarised,” is probably the best twenty minutes you’ll spend this year. “Sunset Dreams” has a scratchy and deliciously aqueous guitar that recalls the funk of post-punk, a vocal that recalls any number of brilliant forbears, too many to mention, and a lyrical reference to “Hammer Horror” that might make you remember Kate Bush without inviting any actual comparison, but the whole thing just swings and chops, beautifully syncopated. “All The Things You Do” feels like perhaps the most openly romantic moment of the album, even if it never loses the mysterious archness of the whole, and all while we seem to be venturing further into outer space, on a low simmer, funk-wise, until the song fades out of sight. There is just the slightest pause before things get very slinky indeed with the sensuous groove of “Pyramid Schemes,” the album’s penultimate song. “Pyramid Schemes” is seductive and deceptive, pulling you in with the funk of Prince’s “Alphabet St.” and cutting you with the acerbity of its lyrical thrust. We might even be able to trace this mood and this groove all the way back to the psychedelic soul of the Temptations and The Isley Brothers, such is the sweeping historical view of music that Weaver takes here.

And then we come to the end, and the lush vision of “Solarized,” which is also, like its predecessor, musically alluring and lyrically challenging, daring us to “escape…and return to a time that’s more real.”  This is another audacious gambit from Weaver, using the twinned temptations of escape and nostalgia simultaneously, all in a bid for authenticity. And in almost anyone else’s hands, all of this might topple over under the weight of its ambition, perhaps its absurdity, and almost undoubtedly its pretension. But Jane Weaver is a special kind of talent, who can pull all of this off, managing to make our heads spin in place as we think of musics past, present and future.

This is truly a virtuosic tour de force. Every time you hear a new Jane Weaver album and think to yourself, well, that’s about it, there’s nowhere she can go from here, and then she goes to yet another level, forging still new paths. And this is the mode of the best and most interesting music, finding pathways that none have found before, yet making them seem familiar, and also unimaginable, while also making it hard to imagine a future after them. This album is perfectly complete, hermetically sealed, while suggesting any number of influences and reference points that never usurp the originality of the songs themselves. Jane Weaver does all of this. She is a prodigious talent. 

Brijean - Feelings (Review)

I wrote about the new album by Brijean, called Feelings, released on Paper Bag Records on 2/26/2021. Not sure when it will see the light of day in its intended place on the internet, because there have been some technical difficulties over there, so here it is for now in this obscure corner.

Brijean’s Feelings is a solid set of 11 pop-dance-lounge songs, and that might be more than enough. The instrumentation and arrangements are tasteful and sophisticated, the lyrics elliptical and intriguing, and it’s the kind of album that can just easily live in the foreground or the background, in the living room, in the coffee shop, or on the dancefloor. It’s a great album to herald the proximity of spring, to get us through the last of winter and perhaps the beginning of the end of our confinement. But it might also be something else, something more complicated and multivalent.

Brijean Murphy, who along with instrumentalist and producer Doug Stuart comprise Brijean the band, is herself a percussionist of some renown, having played with, among others, Toro Y Moi and U.S. Girls. Such a background accounts for the rhythmic underpinning of the album, but it also explains the implicit understanding of space between sounds that allows each song to breathe comfortably, if not luxuriously, throughout. Feelings is an album predominantly about rhythm and it is also, therefore, necessarily an album about time. The music itself is both percussive and watery, which taken together suggest both motion and fluidity, and this is fitting for an album that time-travels so expansively.

Feelings actually presents us with an interesting conundrum, by existing in four simultaneous time zones, as follows: firstly, in 2021, the year of the album’s release; second, in a mythical version of the future that the album’s soundscape suggests; third, in a much earlier era when such a mythical future was first imagined via such cultural artifacts as The Jetsons and others, namely the 1950s and 1960s when the future seemed so glorious, colorful, shiny and full of possibility; and finally, the period when that original nostalgically imagined future was revived, not for the first time and obviously not for the last time, beginning in 1990 with bands like Saint Etienne and Fila Brasilia, and perhaps reaching its apotheosis with Air’s Moon Safari at the tail end of the last century, in 1998, when we perhaps needed to revive our imagining of the future based on some flawed projections, and by recourse to prior conjurings of it. This kind of simultaneity can make you feel a bit dizzy and perhaps even a tad postmodern, but there needn’t be anything coercively theoretical about it. Nor is this to disparage the Brijean project, but rather to note the ubiquity of both the past and the future and the constant dynamic between them in our experience of “new” music.

The album begins with some clues as to what we are in for with “Day Dreaming.” First of all, notice that it’s not called “Daydreaming,” and that the words are separated, even though the activity of “daydreaming” is clearly implied and suggested. There is thus both a connection and a separation between time and space in the very title of the song. Second, the song starts with a woozy watery keyboard that sounds as if it is being transmitted from somewhere else, or through a filter. This will become a hallmark of the album’s sound throughout. Third, the keyboard then recedes as percussion and a bassline take over, themselves being joined by Brijean Murphy’s slightly otherworldly vocal. There is a lot happening at once here, and that is perhaps the key to understanding what Brijean are up to. The fact that the song eventually settles into a solid groove might be reassuring, but the general experience also puts one on the wrong foot, which is an odd way for a dance track to make you feel. It’s not unpleasant, nor is it necessarily counter-productive, but it does feel slightly counter-intuitive, and that may be deliberate. At the very least it contributes to the overall effect.

Another slightly disorienting but not unpleasant feature of Feelings is the way that so many of the songs seem to flow into each other, which doesn’t meant that they’re anonymous or interchangeable, but rather that there is a consistent fluidity to the album, a sense both of time passing but also of all time, once again, being simultaneous. And so “Day Dreaming” gives way to “Softened Thoughts,” where the common denominator seems to be a slight variation on the rhythm track, bent slightly but not dramatically to accommodate the contours of the new song. This foundational rhythm is slowed down dramatically on “Pepe,” which really serves only as an interlude or a bridge, to the splendid “Wifi Beach,” which goes into a different gear and is one of the album’s highlights.

“Wifi Beach” is what music writers have historically tended to call “propulsive,” and indeed it is, but the easy co-existence of the driving percussion with the very light and deft instrumentation on top of it shows great finesse, as does the seamless transition into the title track, so seamless in fact that you almost do a double take before you realize that we have made the segue. And so it happens again as “Wifi Beach” elides into the title track, and time keeps on slippin’ slippin’ slippin’ into, well, you know where that goes. And of course the way that Brijean slips repeatedly and continuously from one song to another might also be an analog for the way that the album as a whole slips and swirls between and around past, present and future, one scenario replacing another as we pivot endlessly.

The middle phase of songs from “Wifi Beach” to “Feelings” to “Ocean” to “Paradise” and then through to the conclusion of the album with “Lathered In Gold,” “Chester,” “Hey Boy,” and “Moody” is an impressive run of grooves and melodies and you feel the currents of the album ebb and flow, just as you also feel the album gain confidence and momentum.  And so Feelings proceeds to work on our consciousness, as a song like “Chester,” for example, slides into its successor “Hey Boy,” and the slippage is almost enough to induce a kind of motion sickness, perhaps not for the first time. The chords from one song are transfused into the next, but there is also a barely perceptible warping of the sound as one song and groove give way to the next. It’s almost like being on an actual dancefloor and becoming absorbed into the sounds that are being woven in front of you.

But it’s the sense of time passing, and time co-existing with other times that stays with you, to the point that it becomes almost an experience of existential exploration, wandering and wondering. In “Feelings” itself, the vocals appear to get scrambled and may or may not be going backwards, as time seems to turn in on itself, just before we hit the very center of an album, where something even more interesting happens. The middle track at the heart of the album is “Ocean,” and one has to assume that the ocean in question is almost certainly the Pacific, since Murphy is based in Oakland, CA. If you play out this thought experiment, recognizing that this song is at the dead center of the album, and that the International Date Line is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you might also then realize that when you cross it traveling west you enter a new day, the next day. If you cross it traveling east, you enter the previous day, an old day. Think back, then to the first song, “Day Dreaming,” and then think forward to the moment we move through “Ocean” to the last five songs on the album, and you can imagine moving from day to night and back again, from coffee bar to nightclub, perhaps, from the city during the day, filled with the bustle of commerce (as it used to be) and with the buzz of nightlife (the thing we dream of becoming a reality again) as the sun goes down.

This is a lovely and disarming way to think about the album experience as a whole. Or you could just enjoy the 11 songs for what they seem to be on their surface, a fine collection of tunes to be consumed with coffee or with cocktails, as you please, depending on your pleasure, your time zone, and your time of day. But you always somehow have that well-known quote in your head while the songs are playing, that thing about time being what keeps everything from happening at once. It’s a line that has been attributed variously to Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, and a small host of lesser lights, never definitively pinned down, fittingly enough. And the fact that it has been difficult to pin down the source of a quote about the simultaneity of experience requiring the construct of time to keep it all straight is, you have to suppose, kind of perfect, because perhaps lots of people said it, at a lot of different times, and yet somehow all at once. And Feelings is, at the end, the sound of the experience of everything happening at the same time, and it’s really quite a delightful way to feel off-kilter. 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Half Waif - The Caretaker (PopMatters)

 I forgot to post this review here back in April of last year, so just for the sake of completism, I'm adding it now. It turned out to be one of my favorite albums of 2020. 

Half Waif - Lavender Review

Sleaford Mods - Spare Ribs Review (PopMatters)

After a long break from blogging, painting and reviewing, I'm dipping my toe back into at least one of those waters. I got to review the magnificent new Sleaford Mods album, Spare Ribs, which is definitely worth your time. Here's a link to the review:

Sleaford Mods - Spare Ribs 

I'm going to try to revive this blog bit by bit during 2021. The painting may be a lost cause at this point, but the writing might still have some life left in it. I have a few ideas that are percolating.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 4, 2020