“Running up that hill / I’m gonna call out every name / Until the one I’m meant to take / Sends her dove,” sings the Seattle-based art-popster Mike Hadreas, a.k.a. Perfume Genius, about halfway through his new album, No Shape. Hadreas is a singer-songwriter above all else (though he rarely sounds like one on No Shape), and his lyrics always matter. So when he quotes the opening track of Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love—itself a monumental art-pop song of existential yearning—it isn’t just to wink. The title, No Shape, is an apt self-assessment, for this is a transitional album that finds Hadreas in search of new forms for his voice. As if to underline the impression of a musical journey, the record is bookended by the only tracks to prominently feature piano, which up until now has been his primary instrument. But even these are sonically perverted. The opener, “Otherside,” finds Hadreas singing in a falsetto whimper that almost makes him sound like Sufjan Stevens, before bursting into a synth chorale straight out of M83’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming; the closer, “Alan,” wraps his piano in a thick gauze that brings to mind mid-to-late-1970s Brian Eno.
Elsewhere, one can hear touches of Lindsey Buckingham’s work with Fleetwood Mac (“Wreath,” the track that quotes “Running Up That Hill”); Dickon Hinchliffe’s string arrangements for Tindersticks (“Just Like Love,” “Every Night”); and future-minimalist, hotel-at-midnight R&B (“Go Ahead,” “Run Me Through,” and the gorgeous album standout “Die 4 You”). The glam-rock stylings that marked his last album, Too Bright, are heard only briefly on the longest track, “Sides,” dissipating into troglofaunal beats and slap bass by the time guest vocalist Weyes Blood materializes to sing her verse. The whole record is diverse, sexy, and, for lack of a better word, feminine; throughout, one can detect traces of the buried influence of Kate Bush, who seems to have become the primary inspiration for the last generation or so of non-guitar-playing singer-songwriters, from Joanna Newsom to Julia Holter, Grimes to Zola Jesus. Hadreas’ early output as Perfume Genius consisted of little more than piano and lo-fi vocals, but on his fourth album, he sets out to create a different sense of intimacy.
Like so many gay artists before him, he has found a mirror for questions of identity in the contradictions of personal taste. Whereas the first iteration of Perfume Genius (heard on Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It) at times sounded like it might have been recorded in a bedroom, the new Perfume Genius often brings to mind the sort of music one listens to in a bedroom while fantasizing about escape. It has moments of populist ambition (the soaring chorus of the lead single, “Slip Away,” for example) and self-consciously arty experimentation (“Choir”), and it’s a credit to Hadreas and producer Blake Mills that its 13 tracks sound as seamless and cohesive as they do.
This year promises to be flooded with albums that “feel especially timely” amid our Trump-fueled uncertainties, as will anything that seems somewhat political, angry, claustrophobic, or superficially concerned with championing equality and not getting blown the fuck up. With that in mind, hearing Forest Swords’ Matthew Barnes couch his new Compassion as a “response to the uncertain, aggressive new world we’re experiencing” raises a skeptical eyebrow. The U.K. producer creates music marked by its universality; his breakthrough, 2013’s Engravings, was one of the year’s most singular electronic releases for the way it merged its futuristic glitches with Old World mysticism, its skeletal guitars snaking around fractured R&B beats, dub bass, spacious field recordings, and ghostly, wordless chants. To frame it as a specific response to Trump, or ISIS, or whatever else is in the news today almost feels too limiting for music whose magic is that it has no fixed time or place.
And yet, Compassion does feel especially timely, damn it, but only because the tenor of the outside world has caught up to the anxiety, ominous portent, and mournful resilience that’s always been in Barnes’ work. The martial beats intruding on the stately electric drones of opener “War It”; the political thriller tensions of “The Highest Flood,” a constant push and pull between choral splices, stabs of distortion, and what resembles a digital gamelan; the plucked zither tones and other, vaguely Arabic flourishes of “Exalter”; the somber brass bleats giving way to nothing but a tense, tapping triangle on “Vandalism”—none of these moments would sound out of place on Engravings, really. (Or underscoring a Kathryn Bigelow movie; Barnes’ recent soundtrack work for movies and Assassin’s Creed games has given his music a noticeably cinematic bent.) And yet current events do give their atmospheres of global instability a new, undeniably emotional context. It’s a feeling made most explicit on “Panic,” which winds its eerie, modal melodies around a constant vocal refrain of “I fear something is wrong / The panic is on.”
If it all sounds a bit bleak, it is—though as always, there’s beauty in the fog. “Arms Out” may be the most gorgeous composition Barnes has ever created, its chopped-up, pitch-shifted vocal loop sounding alternately funereal and romantic as the song slowly builds to its swooning orchestral climax. As Compassion ends with “Raw Language,” its triumphant blasts of wordless female vocals and driving, handclap beat—suggesting a resistance unbowed—giving way to “Knife Edge,” a melancholy piano piece surrounded by distant war drums and ominous drones, it leaves behind a lingering unease, but one tempered by hope and humanity. Compassion may feel especially timely, but music this passionately realized will always be worth revisiting.
The two opening tracks of Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art? offer a distilled taste of the wild ride Black Lips have cooked up for their latest album. After the whisper-quiet overture, a flowery little intro built around Zumi Rosow’s saxophone and the band’s wide-eyed cooing, “Occidental Front” crashes into your eardrums like a cruel prank. With thunderous guitar and copious wailing—including some from guest vocalist and storied wailer Yoko Ono—it’s the band at its most unhinged, and the song’s placement right next to that gentle opening is indicative of the rapid shifts in pace, intensity, and style throughout.
Across this 56-minute goliath, the band takes you on a trippy tour of rock’s grimiest corners, making stops at each of the ’50s and ’60s styles that have formed the basis of its sound for nearly 20 years now. Early single “Can’t Hold On” turns out to be a shining highlight, following the fury of “Occidental Front” with a desperate descent into swirling psychedelia. “Got Me All Alone,” one of the album’s several “interludes,” smothers the clean power pop of “The Last Cul De Sac” with a wave of wild, sax-driven muck, which is washed away by “Crystal Night,” a twisted take on teenybopper sugar.
In the album’s first half, these transitions come so strikingly and so often (who else would go from imposing blues to quiet exotica to rubbery rockabilly in a matter of minutes?), the back half feels more conventional and flat. There are bright spots to be sure, like the wacky freak-out on “Lucid Nightmare” and the most sinister cover of “It Won’t Be Long” you’ve ever heard, but without the thrill of that breakneck pace, Satan’s Graffiti Or God’s Art? ends up turning turgid. Still, even with its lumbering back end, this is a return to form for Black Lips, who’ve once again found a middle ground between the manic, abrasive rock of their earliest records and the more clean-cut punk of 2014’s Underneath The Rainbow—not by sanding away the spirit of its restless graffiti days, but by attempting to spin it into something grander and, in the end, more artful.
Shoegaze music didn’t die in the early ’90s, when the British music press famously turned on the introverted alt-rockers with a penchant for staid performances. It just went back underground, largely ignored by the press that banished it in the first place. The result has been a spectacular, if gradual, evolution of the sound into a polished soupy bliss, with bands like Wildhoney and The Stargazer Lilies taking first-wave shoegaze’s ethos and applying it to post-indie-rock pop. It’s within this new, contemporary backdrop that Slowdive—one of the genre’s original forces—releases its self-titled fourth album, the first since 1995’s excellent, minimalist Pygmalion. Acknowledging the changing times, Slowdive is, in every sense, a pop record—a notable progression for the band. As the titans of understated shoegaze (in contrast with Ride’s bombast and My Bloody Valentine’s lurching punk), Slowdive’s ’90s music was experimental in that it eschewed pop sensibilities in favor of exploring quiet, tornadic bliss. And although Slowdive still retains some of that characteristic experimentation (notably on the nonlinear piano ballad “Falling Ashes”), much of it sounds like it comes from any number of North American bars hosting a modern shoegaze show to 50 devoted fans. Slowdive is the sound of a band catching up to a genre it helped to spawn, but that’s continued to evolve during its 22-year absence.
“Star Roving” is perhaps the boldest pop song Slowdive has ever written. A quickened tempo immediately catapults it from a lonely record player to, if you can believe it, a dance floor. Helped in part by Chris Coady’s breezy, balanced production, Neil Halstead’s deliberate guitar work rises percussively through the reverb while his vocal harmonies with Rachel Goswell are rendered clearer than ever before. (Who ever imagined Slowdive creating a song you could sing along with into a mirror?) But it’s not all shiny and new: There are plenty of Halstead’s wrenching chord bends, too, deployed most effectively during “Go Get It” as he cries, “I wanna see it / I wanna feel it” with the angst of a man 30 years younger. The most hesitant tune is the shimmery opener “Slomo,” and that’s only because it ends far too soon. Even at just under seven minutes, the song’s searing, gorgeous guitar highs leave so much unexplored terrain that the rest of the record, sadly, doesn’t revisit. It’s a bit of a letdown—but really, “Star Roving” is astonishing enough on its own that listeners will leave satisfied.
Slowdive is not a quantum-leap record, nor does it slavishly replicate past successes. Rather it’s another collection of thoughtfully written songs, filled with evident joy for the band’s reformation. In “Everyone Knows,” Goswell sings excitedly about traveling to (of all places) America in 2017, and her happiness at simply being out there playing music again is palpable. Fans are likely to feel the same way.
With each album Blondie has made since reforming in the late ’90s, the band has had two options, neither particularly attractive. One is to rehash the past with perky new wave, chiffon disco, and light reggae—the stuff that turned these CBGB grads into superstars in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The other possibility is to swap those sounds for approximations of whatever they think the kids are into. Blondie has tried both and faced criticism (or worse, indifference) along the way.
On Pollinator, Blondie makes peace with its past, foregoing the dicey club excursions of 2013’s Ghosts Of Download and delivering the synth-driven dance-rock it does best. It’s a sound the album’s many guest songwriters are familiar with. (Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein teamed up to write just two of the 11 tracks, including the standout “Doom Or Destiny,” guest-starring Joan Jett.) Dev Hynes and TV On The Radio’s Dave Sitek don’t even pretend they’re not rewriting “Rapture” and “Heart Of Glass” with “Long Time” and “Fun.” Johnny Marr at least acknowledges the passage of time with his sublime “My Monster,” which opens with Harry singing, “Human beings are stupid things when we’re young.” The co-writes from Sia and Charli XCX are surprisingly lackluster, but producer John Congleton (Franz Ferdinand, St. Vincent) keeps everything sounding like The Sounds and all those other fun ’00s bands that bit Blondie’s style. Vancouver artist An Unkindness penned the Meatloaf-worthy closer “Fragments,” wherein Harry repeats, “Do you love me now?” The answer doesn’t matter. Blondie carries on.
If Do To The Beast, The Afghan Whigs’ reunion record that came out three years ago, felt to many like a diminished expression of their power, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Greg Dulli’s voice isn’t capable of the from-the-gut force-blasts he used to deliver seemingly every other line, but it showed promise in the moments when things went somewhere new. In Spades feels like a concession to that altered grain of Dulli’s vocals: He can still hit that sweet spot of come-hither crooning, but the production hides much of his more agitated wails in the mix. The vocals are therefore no longer the dominant element of the music, which is a strange thing to say about an Afghan Whigs album.
And yet, this proves to be good news for the record as a whole. Musically, In Spades is a stronger offering than Beast, a compelling fusion of the band’s prior sound with a more languorous theatrical vibe born of the strings and horns to be found here, along with the orchestral arrangements the band sprinkles throughout. There’s a level of bombast and reach that feels more somber than soulful, though Dulli and his bandmates straddle that line with an assured confidence that comes from knowing they’ve mastered the art of turning a religious vibe into a sexual one, and vice versa.
Songs like “Demon In Profile” and “Light As A Feather” are old-school Whigs at their purest and most essential. The former launches into a full-on ravedown, as Dulli’s lyrics of desire and regret create a mood both sexually charged and pained at once, a music statement familiar to any longtime fan. ”Feather” is equally sharp, a snaky, stuttering guitar lick giving way to a handclap-driven rhythm that can stand alongside anything from the Gentlemen era. But some of the more experimental tracks work even better. The samples and synthesizers of “Arabian Heights” create an almost trip-hop vibe, as much Moby as Afghan Whigs, creating a dance-floor jam that works surprisingly well paired with Dulli’s crooning falsetto. “Copernicus” offers an ugly, distorted riff layered atop pounding, totemic drums. And “Into The Floor” ends things with an appropriately anthemic flavor: Dulli’s voice is raw and intense, shouting, “I’ll remember you always this way!” as a stark, brooding soundscape of distortion builds beneath it, guitars roiling, until Dulli sings the opening lines again like he can’t bear to let it end. It doubles nicely as a description of In Spades: a band straining to some cathartic release that never quite arrives, but an attempt that’s worth it every time.
A tuneless, album-length collaboration between singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer and Edward Ka-Spel, the front man of The Legendary Pink Dots, is about as “for fans only” as it gets—though fortunately, if you’ve sworn to completism with one of these artists, you will probably at least tolerate the other. Ka-Spel, who is sort of a poor man’s Robyn Hitchcock, has put out about a gazillion records (Legendary Pink Dots releases, solo albums, collaborations, etc.) over the past four decades, thanks in so small part to the fact that about half of his songs sound exactly the same. Palmer, formerly of The Dresden Dolls, has built a career on writing alternative piano ballads in the Tori Amos vein with theater-cabaret flair, though her music has come to be overshadowed by her public persona. Neither offers anything new or inspired on I Can Spin A Rainbow, which was reportedly recorded on Ka-Spel’s laptop over a month, though it might as well have been made in a day. Musically, it’s all dated bo-dee-boop electronic effects, randomly moaning strings, aimless glockenspiels, out-of-tune wordless vocals, and synths that sound like plucked farts.
Palmer has a somewhat limited vocal range while Ka-Spel simply talk-sings, and neither voice is done many favors by I Can Spin A Rainbow’s sound mix. “The Clock At The Back Of The Cage,” written by Palmer and mostly sung by Ka-Spel, and the percussion-and-violin-backed duet “The Changing Room” are the clear highlight of the album, in part because they play deliberately like performance pieces, meshing both artists’ whispery dramatic sensibilities into art song. But then there are tracks like the overly faithful, Palmer-sung cover of The Legendary Pink Dots’ “The Shock Of Contact” (as “The Shock Of Kontakt”) or the noodling, piano-led “Shahla’s Missing Page” that just speak to the two musicians’ shared weakness for putting big words in simplistic rhymes and to the project’s overall indifference to musical arrangement. The vinyl release of I Can Spin A Rainbow includes two bonus instrumental tracks, one of which, “The Sun Still Shines,” suggests that Palmer and Ka-Spel should have really focused their energies on composing interstitial music for a stage production.