It’s been an exciting week for highly-anticipated new music. Joanna Newsom announced her next album and released an impeccable single, then Majical Cloudz presented the first song off of Are You Alone?. Just yesterday, FKA Twigs dropped her monstrous EP out of nowhere and this morning Neon Indian unveiled his VEGA INTL. Night School details. 5 Best was much-contested this week, but we ended up making space for some lesser-known names alongside the titans. Dive in.
When TWIABP’s Whenever, If Ever came out back in 2013, I was working at a college radio station in Central Jersey that trended towards the “emo” side of the equation, if you will, which means that I should have been a prime target for obsession with the Connecticut collective that so many of my friends were hailing as the Second Coming. That album never really connected with me at the time for whatever reason, but hell if their upcoming Harmlessness didn’t hit me like a ton of bricks when I heard it for the first time earlier this week. It inspired a fervent desire to listen to everything the band has put out, and I’ve spent much of the last few days catching up with what I missed out on. My takeaway: They shine more on shorter releases and longer songs and, on Harmlessness, everything they’ve been inching towards over the past five years coalesces — they give themselves enough room to spread their wings out and it’s breathtakingly glorious. “January 10th, 2014″ is just the tip of the iceberg, but it serves as a good primer on what makes the group so affecting. There’s the powerful This American Life origin story about Diana, The Hunter Of Bus Drivers exacting revenge for the decades of sexual assault at the hands of late-night bus drivers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It’s a real-life mythological tale, deftly run in parallel to the story of Diana The Hunter — the one standing up for the many, the cause over the individual. The lyrics hang like beautiful poetry, in a way that makes me not want to prod at them too much lest they fall apart. But the closing mantra of “Our hands on the same weapon / Make evil afraid of evil’s shadow” is rousing and empowering and terrifying in all its might. And the band benefits from bringing Katie Shanholtzer-Dvorak’s vocals to the forefront — the conversational middle portion is a particular highlight (“‘Are you afraid of me now?’ / ‘Well, yeah, shouldn’t I be?'”) in a song full of them. There’s just so much to fall in love with about this song and this band; it’s a sweeping post-rock epic for the ages, one that makes me finally understand why they acquired such a evangelical following in the first place, and makes me even more excited to see where they go next. –James
When I listen to Amy Bezunartea’s newest single, “Oh The Things A Girl Must Do,” I can’t help but think of the Magnetic Fields’ “A Pretty Girl Is Like…” which is fitting, since Bezunartea opened several shows for Stephen Merritt on his tour this year. That song, which was released on the band’s 69 Love Songs in 1999, is a tongue-in-cheek response to Irving Berlin’s patronizing ditty, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.” Berlin’s song was written in 1919, a year before women were finally granted the vote, several years before they started cutting their hair, shortening their hems, and loosening their waistlines. Berlin’s song is of its time, but as Merritt pointed out, a lot of the sentiment of that song prevails in the minds of the oafish and unthinking men of today. The Magnetic Fields’ song is a critique of the male gaze, a laundry list made up of all the things that make women interchangeable, volatile hysterics, not worth investing real time or emotions in. “A pretty girl is like a violent crime, if you do it right you could do time.” Merritt sneers through his inimitable drawl, and though he’s an openly gay singer quick to call bullshit on gender standards, he’s not actually living inside of the restrictive lens that he co-opts. That’s why songs like “Oh The Things A Girl Must Do” are so important, because Bezunartea steps out from under that same magnifying glass to illustrate the “things a girl must do” in order to fit into its frame, only to be told (in Merritt’s words): “A melody is like a pretty girl, who cares if it’s the dumbest in the world/ It’s all about the way that it unfurls.” Bezunartea’s reflects on that process of unfurling, or as she aptly explains it, personality derailment. Her narrator laments the number of times she’s changed her appearance, her personality, her interests, in order to assume the role of the desirable other. “Oh, the things a girl must do/ If you only knew, every angle the world wants to see/ They want transformation, like all the girls I’ve become are so effortlessly easy to leave.” Bezunartea sings about keeping up with appearances even when it means ripping your true sense of self apart at the seams, but she explains this destructive process in a way that’s empowering, honest, and funny. “They all want the pussy, but they don’t like the smell.” PREACH, GIRL. –Gabriela
“I will be honest,” Devon Walsh croons over gorgeously goopy synth-sustain. “I am afraid of love.” Yeah, no shit, buddy. We know this because Walsh has just opened this song by musing about how great it would be to bleed out in a pile of twisted wreckage, as long as he’s with the one he loves: “I want to kiss you inside a car that’s crashing / And we will both die laughing.” It’s the doomed romanticism of the Smiths’ “There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out” stated plainly and simply, with nowhere to hide. “Silver Car Crash” is a dizzy, full-throated, scream-it-from-the-rooftops love song as rendered by someone who knows he’s afraid of love and isn’t sure how this whole shit is supposed to work. So instead of singing about love in plain terms, he surrounds it with darkness: Mutual death, starvation, bleeding all over your beloved when your head’s split open. It’s like slipping a girl a Cure mixtape and a Sandman comic because you don’t know how to just write “I really like you” on a piece of paper and slip it into a locker. And it’s beautiful. –Tom
Every emotional reaction in an FKA Twigs song is met with a physical one. It’s part of the way that Tahliah Barnett seems to process her feelings, internalizing and then externalizing. This manifests itself right off the bat on “In Time” — “You’ll learn to say sorry and I will play tender with you,” she sings in the first verse. “In time your hands on my body will resonate through me.” But “In Time” represents an outlier in Barnett’s catalog so far, her catchiest track matched only by “Two Weeks.” The chorus twists her voice to sound like a Charli XCX facsimile, and the imitation is so on point that I can’t help but think it was an intentional homage to the pop queen from her side of the pond. So why this showy emphasis on the hook, where Barnett practically morphs into someone else? Well, the song is about stasis, waiting on both yourself and your partner to change so you can become stable once again. The voice change is part of that desire to move forward. “I will be better, and we will be stronger, and you will be greater, the one that I always wanted you to be” — it’s a transformation that’s entirely dependent on the passage of time, so the whole track takes the form of a digital splinter, a cry at the frustration over a lack of control. It’s an exciting direction for FKA Twigs, and a road I hope she travels down even further for LP2. –James
Forget about the mesmerizing “Sapokanikan” video for a moment and focus on the song itself, which is just as arresting and unmistakable. In this week’s video countdown, Tom said Newsom is “able to walk down a busy New York street looking like a unicorn skipping through a meadow.” She has always had a mystical quality about her, so much so that it’s odd to think of her marrying a decidedly non-mystical comedian or attending a hockey game. That quality continues to permeate her music even though since Have One On Me she’s been adding relatively modern touches, like the playful ’70s rock piano that kicks off “Sapokanikan” or the screaming electric guitar harmonies that bring the song to climax. Between those poles, she’s still letting her otherworldly chirp spiral skyward among the twinkling arpeggios, spitting complex diction about Tammany Hall and other business so old it feels like a fairy tale. Check back in a few weeks and maybe by then I’ll have pieced together the narrative. It always takes a while to untangle Newsom’s music, though the appeal remains immediate. –Chris