This week sees the release of two oblique, confounding albums, albums that toy with ideas of genre and song-form and vibe, albums I was excited to hear. I don’t really like either of them. Arca’s Xen has moments of dark, glinting electronic majesty. But the album is as interested in rupture as it is in rhythm, and all these discordant sounds and tempo lurches keep coming in to interrupt things and throw you, the listener, off. This is clearly intentional, and clearly a statement, but that tendency continually rips me out of the album. It loses me. Grouper’s Ruins, meanwhile, is a murky amniotic drift of an album, a hushed an intimate work from an artist who usually hides herself under layers of reverb. But it’s so quiet, and so minimal, that I find myself totally unable to focus on it. I wanted to like both of these albums, and I couldn’t find a foothold in either of them. Music criticism is an entirely subjective thing, so it’s not necessarily a failure of mine or a failure of the albums’ that they didn’t speak to me. It’s just a thing that happens. Plenty of critics whose opinions I respect have gone to bat for both the Arca and Grouper albums, and both of them leave me absolutely cold. Your mileage may vary. But for me, the most consistently rewarding album of the week wasn’t one of the difficult listens. It was the guy from Toro Y Moi making breezy and low-key dance music under another assumed name, playing with ideas of genre but changing none of them. Michael isn’t anyone’s idea of a landmark work, but it’s warm and pleasant and genuinely likable. For me, that’s enough to win the week.
Les Sins is the Daphni to Toro Y Moi’s Caribou, or the Audion to its Matthew Dear. Chaz Bundick has been making records under the Les Sins name since 2010, as a way to play around with dance music without alienating the people who might be listening to him for things like vocals and melody. But as with Daphni or Audion, the music Bundick makes as Les Sins isn’t that different from what he’s doing with his main project. For one thing, Toro Y Moi has proven itself to be a fluid and mutable entity, starting out as a crucial part of that initial chillwave boom before becoming an insular, off-kilter R&B project. Bundick’s music gets stronger the more he tries to unite his song-based craftsmanship with his rhythmic, production-minded playfulness, and that’s why last year’s Anything In Return remains probably the best thing he’s ever done. But the ideas and textures of that album are all over Michael, an album of giddy production ideas and stealthy flashes of personality.
Bundick has said that he started work on Michael when he got sick of doing songs with R&B chords, and there’s an exploratory joy to the album. There’s only one song with vocals on it, and the singer isn’t even Bundick; it’s the pinched blue-eyed funkateer Nate Salman on “Why.” (Bundick claims he didn’t even want to put “Why” on the album but figured it was such a good song that it deserved to go somewhere.) But even though Michael is more concerned with tracks than with standard, structured songs, there’s still a certain songwriting ingenuity at work. Bundick didn’t use the dance music format as a chance to break free from structure completely. The tracks on Michael are all bite-sized, progressing sure-footedly from one moment to the next and ending well before the five-minute mark. Bundick doesn’t care much about the self-imposed borders of dance music genres; he moves smoothly from techno to house to hip-hop drum patterns without trumpeting his arrival in any one genre. And he loves dropping the beat out so that he can play an ecstatic psychedelic jazz-funk keyboard solo before things kick back in. There’s a song called “Drop” with no drop; one that has skittering drum-and-bass drums and could pass for a laid-back LTJ Bukem track from 1996. “Sticky” is all gloopy DâM-FunK keyboard play, with a crisp and efficient rhythm track attached. “Bellow” feels like Bundick’s take on mid-’00s microhouse. For such a low-key album, Michael covers a ton of aesthetic ground.
There’s a different kind of playfulness at work on the album, too. In sneaky ways, Bundick has used this music to tell some jokes. On opener “Talk About,” for instance, we hear a droning and sexless British voice asking some of the most boring questions a musician can be asked: “Talk about your newest record. And where did you get the name?” A couple of days ago, I was talking with a touring musician who told me that, at the beginning of every album cycle, he’ll do a couple of interviews where the writers will ask thoughtful questions and he’ll enjoy the process of coming up with answers. But then other writers will read those interviews, and they’ll ask the same questions over and over, and he’ll have to regurgitate those answers until he gets sick of them, until he hates the sound of his own voice. It’s not exactly black lung, I suppose, but it’s still a professional annoyance that I can imagine being pretty soul-deadening. Bundick follows up that voice quickly enough with a garbled, chopped-up sample of Nas shouting about someone getting shot, and it sounds like his break breaking down into fractured aggression at getting that same question so many times.
And then there’s the first single “Bother,” my favorite song here and something that’s low-key been on a constant loop in my head for the past few months. The track repeats the same sample, over and over, on top of a glimmering shuffle that keeps restlessly building and rearranging itself. “Don’t bother me,” a voice says. “I’m working.” It sounds like a rapper being sampled, but it’s actually Bundick’s own voice. (As someone who works from home and has kids in the house, it’s become kind of an anthem. “Yes, it would be really nice to have Elsa’s powers, but don’t bother me, I’m working.”) Michael is an album made by someone working out some kinks. Bundick is an artist who can’t bring himself to stay in the same place for long. So instead of driving himself nuts, he closed himself up in relative isolation and put this thing together by himself. Bundick clearly made it for himself, and we’re lucky that it sounds as good as it does. Conceptually, at least, Michael might be an indulgent album, but it still sounds a way to sound friendlier and more welcoming than the big albums coming out this week.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Arca’s apocalyptically off-kilter electronic album Xen.
• Grouper’s quiet, intense, intimate Ruins.
• Mark Kozelek’s improbable seasonal album Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols.
• Neil Young’s sprawling, ambitious, orchestral Storytone.
• Ryan Hemsworth’s sweet, soft, melodic Alone For The First Time.
• Deerhoof’s confidently skronky La Isla Bonita.
• Dirty Beaches’ instrumental goodbye Stateless.
• Pharaoh’s hardcore-damaged doom-metal sludge-wallow Negative Everything.
• Deptford Goth’s soft, downcast Songs.
• AJ Davila Y Terror Amor’s giddy psych-pop attack Beibi.
• Korallreven’s floaty sophomore effort Second Comin’.
• Dean Blunt’s murky, genre-free Black Metal.
• Until The Ribbon Breaks’ jagged electronic rocker A Lesson Unlearnt
• Robert Scott’s upbeat, splintered indie-popper The Green House.
• Horse Lords’ ferociously experimental Hidden Cities.
• Lewis’ latest unearthed LP Love Ain’t No Mystery.
• Gold Lake’s twinkly, romantic Years.
• Glish’s self-titled noise-pop debut.
• Tyrannosaurus Dead’s fuzzy, flinty DIY indie-pop debut Flying Ant Day.
• Clark’s self-titled IDM album.
• Hideout’s sparkling, professional pop-rocker Rookie.
• Theophilus London’s Kanye-influenced, Kanye-executive produced Vibes.
• Calvin Harris’ guest-heavy EDM-pop takeover Motion.
• Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for The Theory Of Everything.
• The Hyperdub 10.4 compilation.
• The double-disc Five Years Of Friends Of Friends compilation.
• The box-set version of Bob Dylan’s complete Basement Tapes.
• Windhand & Salem Pot’s split EP Halloween.
• Baauer’s ß EP.
• A-Trak’s Full EP.
• Lee Bannon’s Main/Flex EP.
• Soft As Snow’s Glass Body Remixed EP.