A couple weeks ago a writer friend texted me a screengrab of an Instagram of a stocky guy in a tight black T-shirt tucked into pleated black slacks. The pants were held at his actual waist by a black leather belt with a gold buckle. After the photo the friend texted simply "NORMCORE?" The man in black was Samuel Herring, lead singer of Future Islands, and he was already meme-ing his way into the hearts of thousands on Tumblr because of a certain dance move.
This was, quite possibly, the best and worst introduction to Future Islands. Worst because, well, NORMCORE. Best because the band's performance on The Late Show with David Letterman, from whence the original Instagram came, was anything but normal. They played Singles' lead single "Seasons (Waiting on You)." Herring howled and grumbled his way through it, dipping down low to do said dance move, then standing tall to audibly pound his chest and search for meaning. It was mesmerizing, like watching a young Marlon Brando yell "Stellaaaaaa" into the Barrymore's cheap seats. The rest of the band just stood there like stagehands doing their jobs.
Great performances like that raise expectations, especially if they're introductions, especially if they're to promote a new album on national television. So that is the weight on Singles, and yet, miraculously, it doesn't crumble. Singles is extremely catchy, well-constructed classic pop: winsome and simple melodies, yearning lyrics, bass lines that will never die. It is also dark and desperate and serious in a way that feels fairly rare these days. There is no ironic withdrawal, no equivocation to avoid abuse, just pure commitment. Herring's voice, which can go from searching whisper to hoarse demonic shout on a pivot, does much of this heavy lifting. He sings like a Teamster with an adorable family of twelve. Must be a Baltimore thing.
With Singles, Herring and his bandmates, Gerrit Welmers and William Cashion, have hit upon something that seemed in development on their previous records. Captivating and confident songwriting coalesce with a troubling vision of fields once green and now fallow, falls from grace, and fading away. Honest and earnest when few asked for it; willing to bare their souls, no matter how abnormal they might be, in front of millions; searching for answers where there are probably none; and yet still ideal for an oblivious two-step. Future Islands are probably deserving of something more in this existence than a four-second gif-loop with no sound, but these are dark times. At least they're dancing on the edge of the abyss.
For a band originally slotted under the postpunk "angular guitar" descriptor, Liars threw plenty of curveballs in their 2001 debut, 2001's They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top. There was the ESG sample midway through, then came closer "This Dust Makes That Mud," which turned into a 20-minute loop of noise. With each subsequent Liars album, there was a stylistic swerve, from the tribal drum ethno-wave of 2004's They Were Wrong So We Drowned to the Jesus and Mary Chain garage rock of Liars (2007).
So when your oeuvre is built on left turns, how better to throw your fan base for a loop than by going straight ahead? For 2012's WIXIW, Liars sloughed off the black leather of Liars and instead explored clammy electronic pulses that suggested the ambient purgatory of albums like Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works II and U.K. producer Actress's R.I.P. And in some aspects, Mess finds the trio of Aaron Hemphill, Angus Andrew and Julian Gross continuing to investigate the electronic textures of their previous album.
Yet the new album embraces the type of electro-pop that underpins the catalog of the band's parent label, Mute. Throughout the early 1980s, Mute Records built its brand on the likes of Depeche Mode, Erasure and Yaz. On songs like "Vox Turned D.E.D." and "Can't Hear Well," Andrew uses his baritone to mimic the icy intonations of these hallmark acts, the gothic synth chord changes of Hemphill and Gross following suit. "I'm No Gold" even finds Liars doing Adult.-esque electro.
Some of the Europop moves on Mess are so spot-on that one gets the feeling that Liars are taking the piss. When Angus Andrew screws his voice down on opener "Mask Maker" to croak "Take my pants off / use my socks / smell my socks / eat my face off," he sounds less like Dave Gahan or Andy Bell and more like Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers. While known for their psychotic take on psychedelic rock, the Butthole Surfers also delivered stylistic U-turns of their own in the '80s and '90s, delivering skewered takes on Europop and electronic music. So Liars are at once paying homage to their forebearers and moving forward. There's been an underlying sonic mischieviousness in Liars' music over the last decade, and on Mess, the band finally foregrounds it.
Thou has never been about convention. The Baton Rouge metal band has little in common with its NOLA sludge peers, bucking Southern tropes for a world-heavy consciousness that comes from doom, punk, grunge, black metal, blues and drone. (They also love a '90s cover or two.) The members of Thou are fiercely DIY, outspokenly political and prolific — their numerous splits, EPs, 7"s, and compilation appearances over the last nine years sacrifice nothing to quality. But it's been four years since Thou's last full-length, the mighty Summit, and 2013 saw nothing released for the band's ravenous horde of fans.
But Thou has always made sense of its sprawling past and moved forward. Summit pushed the band sonically, but it could at times feel impatient in its experimentation. Some brilliant passages turned on a dime, not allowed to marinate in the despair. Heathen, on the other hand, bathes in foul pleasures. Case in point: It takes a full five minutes before Bryan Funck's unmistakable searing roar appears on opener "Free Will." But, oh, the build is a masterful Codeine-like guitar melody that carries the weight of the world. In the middle of this 14-minute track it becomes rallying cry for desperate revolutionaries: "We are the stone that starts the avalanche / We are the cough that spreads the plague / We are the spark that lights the inferno." It's thrilling and bound to be a clamoring-for-the-mic live staple, or at the very least a really killer quote for a backpatch.
This really sets the tone for the album: Civilization is dying and we must fight our way back to existence. Where Funck's lyrics sometimes felt divorced from their musical content, Heathen understands that the two should be inextricably linked. And the band's upped its musicianship. In recent years, when metal bands have let their shoegaze freak flags fly to varying degrees of success, the lessons learned from Ride and Slowdive are gracefully ingested here without even knowing it. "Feral Faun" is a thing of majesty, breaking up single-note bends with clustered chords — a classic shoegaze move rendered in Thou's own bleak context. And while the reference may be lost on some, "At the Foot of Mount Driskell" is the best tribute I've heard in years to early Starflyer 59, a band that understood how to sound oppressively blissful, even if the members of Thou don't know it.
While it's easy to be intimidated by Heathen's 75 minutes in a time of quick-hit downloads and (admittedly welcome) propensity towards shorter albums, Thou has made all 75 minutes essential here. Even the interludes — ever the filler for metal bands that don't know how to sequence albums — are used to full effect as foreshadowing and echoed themes. Early on, the ambient, acoustic guitar-led melody in "Dawn" — Current 93's stately and weird Renaissance folk comes to mind — is abstracted later on "Immortality Dictates," a showcase for Emily McWilliams, who provides string and brass arrangements on Heathen (and Summit), but is also a ghostly vocal presence here. And though I missed the mark on predicting a Southern black metal record with a ragtag brass band, it's yet another sign of what-might-be for Thou. Onwards, heathens.
If you think you know what Middle Eastern music sounds like, think again — because Beirut-born electro-pop singer Yasmine Hamdan is positioning herself in an incredibly interesting place. She's singing at the intersection of sexy electronica and iconic Arab tradition, fed in equal parts by PJ Harvey and the legendary Syrian-Egyptian vocalist Asmahan.
Hamdan is the groundbreaking co-founder of the duo Soapkills, which was billed as the first indie electropop band in Lebanon, and certainly one of the first in the Middle East. Then, performing as Y.A.S., she collaborated with Mirwais Ahmadza´ (of Madonna's Music fame). Now performing under her own name, Hamdan has perfected a very particular kind of disaffected cool, like a less effortful Lana Del Rey, as you can see from the video we made with Hamdan at this year's edition of globalFEST in New York. It's no wonder that Jim Jarmusch cast this super-charismatic singer in his film Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, which is set to open in the U.S. next month.
On Ya Nass (Oh People), her first solo album released under her own name (available March 27), Hamdan uses sonic textures that will be very familiar to any lover of synths and guitars, with a vocal style to match — even if the language is not. Produced by Marc Collin, a French musician and producer probably best known as a founder of Nouvelle Vague, Ya Nass is universes away from "world music." Despite mixing original material and reworkings of old Arab songs, the closest Hamdan comes to exotica is in the fleeting, North African-tinged close to "Hal," a song she wrote for Jarmusch's film, which features polyrhythmic qaraqib brass castanets.
Much of the material on Ya Nass is original, with a few surprises woven in. Hamdan often proclaims her love for iconic Arab singers of the 1920s through the '60s, and her track "La Mouch" is a smart, dark reworking of "Laa Mech Ana Elli Abki," a classic tango by the Egyptian legend Mohammed Abdel Wahab. He's an artist Hamdan has called "the love of her life."
Will it be detrimental to Hamdan's international career that this album is strictly bil arabiyya? That remains to be seen, but for Hamdan, it's an obviously deliberate choice to sing only in Arabic, rather than a more globally accessible English or even French. It's maybe even more of a statement for a singer from the comfortably polyglot Beirut, where English and French are just as common as Arabic. But Hamdan, whose childhood was splintered between Lebanon, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Greece and who is now based in Paris, has chosen to use Arabic (which she sings in a variety of dialects) as a way of defining herself. And through her singular pairing of sound and language, she's opening up what it means to be an Arab artist today.
This is a recording of a jazz trio playing the score to a 101-year-old ballet. It is not a "jazzing the classics" record or a "fantasia on the themes of" sort of project. It is a band translating one of the landmark works in music history to piano, bass and drum set, and doing it as literally as possible.
This makes more sense than meets the eye. For one, the ballet is Igor Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring, an immensely complex and cacophonous work which, paired with appropriately violent choreography, caused a confused audience to riot during its 1913 premiere. That tremendous potency came to be recognized over time as mastery, in part by modern jazz musicians with big ears. It's a rhythmically pulsing, frequently irregular work based on folk music — akin to the way improvisers swing, syncopate and draw from African-American folklore.
Of all the jazz groups to tackle such a hurdle, The Bad Plus seems like the right horse for the course. It's a group with an affinity for quirky, proggy original music; a reputation for transformative covers of anything from 20th-century classical music to Aphex Twin; an evident love for music history, whether jazz or otherwise. It's also been touring frequently for well over a decade, with sizeable fan base and media attention, making it possible for a few major performing arts institutions to commission it for something of this scope. So they did, at first performing their adaptation of the Rite with a video installation and later with a dance company. Now the music is on record for anyone to hear.
For such a loud orchestral undertaking, the Rite reduces surprisingly well to three dudes. Whether the herky-jerky action of the "Sacrificial Dance" or "Glorification of the Chosen One," or perhaps the unsettled majesty of "The Augurs of Spring" or the "Spring Rounds," a proper sound system gives you the gloriously noisy gist of it.
But this Rite isn't totally without its artistic liberties. Ethan Iverson (piano) and Reid Anderson (bass) supply the melodic and harmonic information, leaving Dave King (drums) to play a bit of free safety. King's beatmaking (and in the opening section, Anderson's electronic programming) often acts in a capacity Stravinsky never scripted, buoying with a backbeat or a bit of snare commentary or even ride-cymbal swing. His contribution certainly remains loyal to the mood of Stravinsky's fever dream; at the same time, it's also the key to why this still sounds like Bad Plus music, too.