It’s a little unfair to still view Ernest Greene, a.k.a Washed Out, through the lens of chillwave, the micro-genre he helped pioneer in 2009 along with Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi, and a handful of other acts, and whose name quickly became something of a joke. Nevertheless, his music still sounds refracted through that chamber, a mélange of hazy, echo-laden dance music for indoor kids that’s only becoming increasingly myopic as those artists age. This isn’t a critique: These are bedroom musicians in the Brian Wilson mold, and so retreating further into their stylistic obsessions represents a certain boldness, a clarification of that original vision. Neon Indian leaned into its chintzy Drive-wave pulse on 2015’s VEGA Intl. Night School, finding even more melancholy synth presets to explore. Toro Y Moi, long the movement’s most musically gifted figure, has wandered through various permutations, unable or unwilling to give into the pop hooks lurking beneath the surface of his music, but still doggedly presenting himself as a polymathic wanderer. And Washed Out has dug even deeper into sample-laden psychedelia, crooning softly over a globalist tapestry of beats.
His new Mister Mellow arrives as a full-length “visual album,” positioned as a sort of generational statement for millennials—a sample-rich evocation of pop music from decades past, assembled here into a breezy, disaffected montage, at once cool, geeky, and unimpressed. The accompanying visuals patch together dozens of different animation styles and images of junk-store ephemera from decades past. If Mister Mellow really is a generational statement, it’s the same one Beck made on Odelay!, sifting lazily through pop culture detritus with a stoned benevolence as an act of incredibly low-key economic rebellion. But in fact, that era is a good fit for Greene, who recently hopped to Stones Throw Records and seems more obsessed than ever with digging in the crates. His album evokes the dense musical montages from that era, including Cornershop, late-’90s Beastie Boys, Cornelius, and later descendants like Gorillaz and Edan.
All of which is to say, like both of Washed Out’s previous records, it is exceptionally pleasant to listen to, a seamless stretch of midtempo mood music that glides by in a neat narcotic haze. There aren’t so many standout tracks as there are standout moments, like the echoey crack of the hook on “Floating By,” or the moment the beat comes into dazzling clarity on “Million Miles Away.” But as you can tell by that title, this isn’t music to be teased apart so much as it is to be passively enjoyed. Chillwave always sounded nostalgic and out of time, so it’s fine that Mister Mellow’s stuck in the summer of ’09, dreaming of a past with glasses that only get rosier by the year.
Stuart Howard says he coined Ruinism, the title of the electronic producer’s third album as Lapalux, as a term to describe its approach, which consisted of “ruining” its various drum and synth samples through constant manipulation. While he probably didn’t need to invent a whole new word for it, his music could definitely stand to be a little messier than it was on 2015’s Lustmore. In cleaning up the foggy, decaying-cassette R&B he’d explored on 2013’s Nostalchic and his earlier EPs, Lapalux was left there with a record of largely straightforward, soporifically pretty neo-soul tunes that he billed as “hypnagogic,” but were mostly just sleepy—not to mention slightly forgettable.
Ruinism mines similarly hazy territory, but there’s a distinctiveness to it that Lustmore lacked. It’s notably harsher and more melancholy, born out of a performance-art piece aptly titled “Despair” that was reportedly staged in a London cemetery, and effectively moves Lapalux from lush velvet lounges to a stony graveyard with a spare, somber sound built, almost exclusively, on metallic synths and busted-speaker bass notes. More importantly, he’s dialed back on the whispery, ASMR diva vocals he once leaned on to incorporate some more unusual—if equally lovely—female voices, like that of cult techno DJ Louisa Pillot (a.k.a. Louisahhh). It’s Pillot who best embodies Ruinism’s vibe on standout track, “Rotted Arp”: Her icy voice intones in spoken word over detuned synth peals that build to a dizzying bass drop, giving way to a droning, grayed-out house beat. It’s bleakly beautiful and intriguingly brittle, in a way that Howard’s usual gauzy touch hasn’t allowed before.
In addition to the ever-present influence of Howard’s Brainfeeder boss, Flying Lotus, Ruinism feints toward the industrialized soul of recent Andy Stott on “Rotted Arp” and “Falling Down”; “Petty Passion” deploys concussive hits that superficially recall Rabit or Arca; and “Data Demon” features wordless, operatic wails from GABI over menacing sci-fi drones and playful woodwinds, coming off like Oneohtrix Point Never doing monstrous things to a John Williams score. But even within the strange new textures that color the album’s front half, Howard doesn’t stray long from his usual candlelit vibe: “4EVA,” featuring Prince Innocence’s Talvi Faustmann, is typically cool and vaporous, while Björk-endorsed Icelandic singer JFDR brings some Kate Bush-esque coos to the slow-motion synth-pads and digital glitches of “Falling Down” and “Flickering”—all of these not far removed from the delicately drippy, distorted love songs that are Howard’s stock in trade.
Still, he finds a transcendent balance between that old dreaminess and newfound discordance on late-album highlights “Essex Is Burning” and “Running To Evaporate,” both of which are colored by pointillist vocal splatters and alluringly slippery surfaces, placed over two of the most straight-ahead dance beats Howard has ever concocted. Altogether, Ruinism feels like a far more considered, cerebral effort than Lapalux has delivered before. It may not offer the uniformly sensuous pleasures of those earlier works, but it does a lot more to stimulate other parts of the body.
“This is a record of my life as it beckons,” Julia Steiner sings on the penultimate track on GN, the band’s ambitious and rewarding sophomore album. “This is a record of my life as it changes.” As with many of these songs, the words work on multiple levels—personal, artistic, meta—but none of that would matter much if the music didn’t land. On that front, GN is a bit of a revelation; this Chicago band conceals surprising depths, with music that rewards a closer listen.
At first glance, Ratboys seem like one of the endlessly interchangeable acts doing yet another gloss on Wilco-esque alt-country in the 21st century. Indeed, a number of earlier songs on debut AOID pegged the band as a genial but bland presence, churning out music destined for playing in the background while doing laundry. But within those generic country leanings were occasional flashes of a stranger, harder-edged version of artsy roots rock, capable of quiet storms of intensity and sprawling experimentation. From one song to the next, the band wavered between identities, one fey and forgettable, the other commanding and hypnotic. But with this new record, Steiner and her bandmates have grown into a more confident beast, one that seeks and achieves if not greatness, then something awfully close.
Steiner’s honeyed voice is a wonderful analogy for GN—and Ratboys—as a whole. Simple and plaintive, there’s an unassuming, almost timid, method to her delivery, as though she were perpetually holding back what she really wants to say. This hushed style pays enormous dividends, as attentive listeners will find startlingly bracing declarations of purpose amid the many subtle allusions and evocative storybook narratives that populate her lyrics. The best of these comes at the start of “Wandered,” a gently rambling number that, in classic Ratboys fashion, kicks off sounding dangerously close to more shopworn country hokum, only to turn into an unexpectedly swaggering, slinky groove that ends up exploding into noisy riffing and squalling guitars. “I’m going home someday, but I got news for you: rock ’n’ roll is my escape,” Steiner sings, almost in a purr, a secret only for those willing to lean in.
Nearly the entirety of GN follows suit, moving beyond stereotypical alt-country to deliver bold, thrilling Americana laced with artful sonic alternations between quiet and endearing bombast. There are still a few stumbles into the predictable: The title track can’t quite overcome its prosaic music, while “Molly” starts off much too blandly before finally evoking Neil Young in its beautiful middle. But these are the exceptions. The dominant theme here is turning the commonplace inside out—or at least a half-turn to the left—creating music more memorable and captivating with each subsequent listen. “Dangerous Visions” finds a wash of reverb and guitar transforming a quiet narrative into a massive soundscape, erupting periodically for bursts of pealing vocals and drums. “Crying About The Planets” puts a 3/4 rhythm to work in a muted and restrained melody, as Steiner practically whispers her lines, until the drums start tapping the bell of the ride cymbal, calling forth a louder sound from the other instruments until finally exploding into a 4/4 time with a fierce, Mogwai-esque midtempo stomp. It’s a cathartic payoff, providing a muscular retort to a delicate build. “Control” and “Elvis Is In The Freezer” likewise manage to twist familiar-sounding alt-country riffs into remarkably smart songcraft, the former through a patient attention to Steiner’s voice that alternates between vocals and riffing, the latter via an almost nursery-rhyme-like melody that transforms it from boring to bracing, like a warm blanket still bearing the sharp whiff of last night’s whiskey.
This is a record that deserves attention, music that supersedes its comfortable trappings and upends expectations for a style of music too often content to rest easy in its execution. If the added instrumentation sometimes feels a bit forced—there’s some slide guitar that feels extraneous, a sop to tradition—it’s more than made up for by the artistry that underlines the rest of it, including the swooning strings that turn album closer “Peter The Wild Boy” into a grandly operatic finale, like Ratboys’ own “Disarm.” The aforementioned, anthemic “The Record” might be the most forward-looking, with a timeless, jangling rock refrain and swirling distorted outbursts vying with faux-unassuming gentility. All told, it’s a bold step into the future.
If you think most modern pop music sounds like a pastiche of ’80s and ’90s radio, it’s not just your imagination. Some of these nods are direct: Carly Rae Jepsen samples Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on the rainbow-hued confetti drop “Cut To The Feeling,” while Lorde winks at Phil Collins’ iconic “In The Air Tonight” drum cadence on Melodrama’s “Loveless.” Far more groups and songs, however, strive just to capture the sonic essence of these eras—the synth-pop escapism of the ’80s, for example, or the lush hip-hop and R&B production that rose to prominence in the ’90s.
The L.A.-based trio LANY (Paul Klein, Les Priest, and Jake Goss) falls firmly into the latter category on its debut self-titled full-length. More self-assured and focused than the band’s two previous EPs, 2015’s Make Out and 2016’s Kinda, LANY is a luxurious collection of low-key, R&B-influenced electro-pop preoccupied with romantic vicissitudes: the aftermath of messy breakups, and the agony and ecstasy of intense relationships.
Appropriately, the record’s music conjures sultry Miami Vice nights and the Space Age vision of the future put forth in the ’80s. Among the highlights: “13,” a slow jam with plaintive acoustic guitar; “Dumb Stuff,” a brisk new-wave nod with dreamy, 8-bit frippery; and the percolating “Purple Teeth,” which resembles sleek, modern Depeche Mode. The danceable standout “Good Girls,” meanwhile, is a retro, boy-band-esque ballad with an inverted-funk underbelly.
Still, although LANY sounds pristine, its execution is hit or miss. On the positive side, the lyrics are earnest and from the heart—for example, “It Was Love” is a wistful look at long-ago puppy love, and colloquial lines such as “You need to know that I’m hella obsessed with your face” abound. However, songs tend to rely on lyrical repetition for effect, which has a detrimental effect on the music: Songs such as “Overtime” and “Flowers On The Floor” could use an editor to tighten up and diversify monotonous arrangements.
At 16 tracks, it’s also overly long, especially considering the record includes padding such as “Parents,” a voicemail message (ostensibly) from a doting mom that’s amusing only the first few times. LANY’s ambition is admirable—and this debut will sound great blasted at parties all summer long—but its pleasures end up feeling superficial and ephemeral.
Elaenia was one of 2015’s most pleasurable surprises: an “electronic” album from British producer and DJ Sam Shepherd that felt tangibly organic and alive, seamlessly wending synthesizer burbles around live drums, guitar, and piano, and touching equally on ambient, jazz fusion, kosmische, and the sort of experimental post-rock embodied by Tortoise and Laughing Stock-era Talk Talk. It was an album that naturally seemed to conjure ayahuasca-fueled vision quests, so it makes sense that Shepherd—along with the touring band he recruited to bring Elaenia to life—would find its next inspiration in the wilderness, retreating to the titular badlands to create the short film and accompanying soundtrack, Reflections: Mojave Desert.
Part of a promised series of “environmental recordings,” Mojave Desert is naturally wedded to the sunbaked rocks and valleys where it was tracked, with the band setting up in the middle of the barrens and incorporating field recordings of bird calls and wind rustling through the brush. It all sounds a bit turquoise and New Age-y—songs to swing your dream catcher earrings to, basically—but as with Elaenia, the richness of detail rescues it from being pure mood music.
Over 26 minutes and five tracks, Shepherd and his band shift from the scene-setting stillness of opener “Mojave Desert,” to the cascading Fender Rhodes notes and shuddering, bluesy guitar of “Silurian Blue,” to the Terry Riley synth flutters of “Kites”—all leading to the climactic “Kelso Dunes,” with its full-bore motorik beat and sky-screaming explosions, which is masterfully built upon every layer that preceded it. By the time the Cluster-evoking “Lucerne Valley” brings things to a gentle, cloudy morning-after close, Mojave Desert, appropriately, feels like the end of a weekend retreat: restorative, over far too soon, and with its finer points already quickly fading from memory, but all in all, definitely worth doing again.
Considering the process by which Lifetime Of Love was assembled, it’s a miracle that it sounds like a cohesive whole. The solo project of Moses Archuleta, the drummer-keyboardist who founded Deerhunter with Bradford Cox in 2001, its songs span a decade of tinkering, a time in which he toured with the band, lived in four different cities, and watched a 10-year relationship fall apart. The serendipitous nature by which Archuleta chose his sonic palette—the album’s samples were supposedly taken from unrecognizable thrift-store LPs that were removed from their sleeves and played at random, as well as digital files that had been scrubbed of all context and identifying marks—is a reflection of a life in flux, an unstable existence that stretches all the way back to his childhood as a military brat who “grew up all over the place.”
Remarkably, Archuleta has joined those random bits and pieces into something that feels like it’s always been together, a surreal broken record with songs that are able to grow and change, despite being snagged on hypnotic loops. The effect is at its most powerful on “Nightmoves,” where a wall of gentle keys pulsates for nearly seven minutes, changing only in the slightest as new contours fade in and out over a ceaseless disco beat. From there, Lifetime Of Love moves into its lengthy, transitional centerpieces. “Blue Ring” builds off the serenity of “Nightmoves” and is as ambient as the record ever gets, 11 minutes of shimmering keys, distant reverberating bongos, and Casio keyboard drums that give it an intentional Muzak feel that evokes the cheap records Archuleta was scrubbing for samples. But he follows that with “The Ghost And The Host,” an even longer track that snaps the album out of its stupor with deep thrumming bass and dark swirls of industrial rhythm. And it infects the LP’s back third with its EDM tinge. The disco shades of “Nightmoves” turn back up in the scratchy guitar of “Magic Killer” and finally emerge in full via the dispassionate dance pop of the closing track and lead single “End Of Heartache.”
While it’s as good as any other single released this year, “Heartache” is the one digression that doesn’t feel of a piece with the rest of Lifetime Of Love. It’s jarringly straightforward, and it ends by cutting to a keyboard drone that’s seemingly tacked on to give it a bit of the unearthly murkiness that permeates the rest of the album. That a song this catchy could be anything but a brilliant addition just proves how surprisingly cohesive and successful Archuleta’s Moon Diagrams experiment turned out to be.