Another week, another Merry-Go-Round Music Roundup
Architects – HOLY HELL
Favorite Tracks: “Hereafter,” “Mortal After All,” “Damnation,” “The Seventh One”
Even if I’m not crazy about the subgenre of metal they inhabit, I’ve always considered Architects to be a cut above their peers. They’re not as grimdark or chugging as Asking Alexandria and their ilk, and while I prefer my -core to have more grit and gruffness to it, they’ve got a gift for powerful moments of pathos in-between the melodic, drop-tuned grooves and crushing breakdowns. HOLY HELL, their first album since the unfortunate passing of founding member and lead songwriter Tom Searle to cancer, has earned the band ludicrous praise, and it’s not hard to see why. A strange blend of Touche Amore’s STAGE FOUR and Bullet for My Valentine’s FEVER, it’s the rare modern -core release that uses bubbling electronica and symphonic swell to accent the lyrical existential dread and out-of-this-world angst rather than substitute for it. The clean vocals thrown in for a line or two in the pre-chorus don’t contribute much, and the worst songs on here are ones like “Royal Beggars” where they take center stage, but Sam Carter throws himself and his poor vocal chords into intense, distraught explorations of mortality and God. There are moments that verge on Christian metal-corniness, especially the second verse of “Dying to Heal” and mentions of the devil whispering in his ear, but the bombastic music, fantastical lyrics, and anguished delivery are more than the sum of their parts. Taken together, they capture the nihilism and moral quandaries that some go through with the death of a loved one far better than they could do on their own. It might be a tad too clean for my ears, but I know when a genre is being done right, and HOLY HELL is a strong case for the cathartic power and value of this brand of metalcore. [Blake Michelle]
Neneh Cherry – BROKEN POLITICS
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Fallen Leaves,” “Faster Than the Truth,” “Natural Skin Deep,” “Black Monday”
Do you remember “Buffalo Stance?” Were you even alive then? I hadn’t, and I wasn’t. But Neneh Cherry does, and was. Of course she does: the track and accompanying video—which is so perfectly of its time that it nearly reads like parody—launched Cherry into superstardom, the fire of which has waned, but the embers that burn out of view from the mainstream are more mature, refined, and mindful.
True to its name, the record is political, but unlike most of this era’s political albums, BROKEN POLITICS does not lash out. It’s a diary of defeat cognizant of the fact that most of the damage done is irreparable. Cherry wastes no time letting her audience in: “Now everything in focus / I can see it clearly / Every little detail / Crystal clear and dread / Breaks my little brain / The clarity hurts / So looking at the pain now / We clearly let us down.” The pain in this opening verse is accentuated by Kieran Hedben (aka Four Tet), the album’s producer. Hebden’s production on “Fallen Leaves” and the rest of the record is more muted than his solo work, serving as a perfect backbone to the delicately dark LP. “Natural Skin Deep” and “Black Monday” are feathers in the UK producer’s cap, the latter’s drum loop mirroring the brilliance of last year’s “LA Trance.”
BROKEN POLITICS’ most impressive accomplishment is its ability to navigate the narrow downtempo sonic palette without sounding one-note or boring. The aforementioned “Natural Skin Deep” is the sole track that could pass as an adrenaline inducer, but even the brief stings of Carribean flare are more featherweight than heavyweight. What it lacks in a standout single, it makes up for in a vivid narrative throughline that sets Cherry apart from her peers. [Ryan Moloney]
Christine and the Queens – CHRIS
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Tracks: “The Walker,” “What’s-her-face,” “Les yeux mouillés,” “Feels so good”
I have to admit, shamefully, that I had not heard of Christine and the Queens prior to writing this blurb. However, as a lover of La Roux and Robyn, any European synth pop with a flair for ‘80s Michael Jackson composition has my name all over it (especially considering my French music knowledge stops at Stromae). Upon first glance at CHRIS’ track list, I was both shocked and shockingly impressed at the 23 tracks staring back at me from Christine and the Queens’ latest. However, dispelling my own stupidity, I realized after “The stranger” that the track list repeats in Héloïse Letissier’s native tongue. I will say now: if you’re going to take the time to dive into CHRIS, do yourself a favor and listen to the songs in French. I hate to be that person that fetshizes European romance languages for no reason besides an indoctrinated love for tourism, but these songs are undeniably more placating in a foreign tongue. Don’t be one of those people who insists that they can’t appreciate the music because they don’t physically understand the lyrics. Melody, composition, and style all transgress language, and CHRIS is absolutely no exception.
CHRIS’ backdrop of rhythmic dance music is juxtaposed with lyrics of a queer woman discovering herself; the common thematic throughline is of people changing her, scaring her, and reminding her of the past, but no matter what still finding a way back to herself. In a sense, she’s had to learn a lot and grow unintentionally, but she’s grateful; this album’s experimental sound reflects the tumultuous nature of relationships, and therefore only further exemplifies that idea of growth. If you’re someone who is sensitive to enunciation, Letissier is trying her best, but regardless, we love a foreign queen, especially one whose queerness is shaping modern techno pop. [Jesse Herb]
Empress Of – US
Favorite Tracks “I Don’t Even Smoke Weed,” “Just The Same,” “Timberlands,” “ All For Nothing”
The bar is pretty high for me in terms of what I expect out of a good pop record these days. The new “pop-girls” of the late aughts (think: Charli XCX, Ariana Grande, Rina Sawayama, Kim Petras, SOPHIE) and women in pop in general are releasing a lot of groundbreaking music. For someone who enjoys reviewing music, I am pretty terrible at putting artists under genre labels, partly because there are a million of them, and partly because about 80% of the time their subjectivity renders them meaningless. If I had to, however, I’d categorize what’s happening in pop music right now as “future pop,” because it feels like it is distinctly forward thinking. While Empress Of’s debut, 2015’s ME, fit snugly into the new canon of pop music, her follow up, US, seems to miss the mark in some ways.
Honduran-American songstress Lorely Rodriguez steals the show on any record she lends her voice to as a feature, from DJDS’s radio dance-pop smash “Why Don’t You Come On” to one of the best tracks of 2016, Blood Orange’s “Best To You” off of FREETOWN SOUND (named Merry-Go-Round’s Best Album of 2016). Those songs, as well as some tracks from her debut, such as “Water Water” and “To Get By,” had that earworm effect, featuring catchy hooks and just the right amount of repetition paired with some clever wordplay so that the song could stay with you without driving you insane. US doesn’t pack as much of a punch. What this album feels like it’s lacking is the speed and shock of some of her earlier nu-disco sound without the overbearing optimism of disco music.
“I Don’t Even Smoke Weed” is one of my favorites from US, because it approaches that; it’s an upbeat, danceable jam about love featuring some interwoven self-loathing that seems to explore what it feels like when someone understands the weird and uncomfortable parts of you. That’s a moment that if you ever get to experience in real life is quite serious and vulnerable, but the tone of the song doesn’t take itself too seriously. Another stand out is “When I’m With Him,” a funky ballad that features some moments of singing in Spanish coupled with some great one-liners like “I don’t know how to love now / I pretend when I’m with him.” None of the tracks on US are definitively bad. Empress Of does some really interesting things that other pop artists, especially ones with major radio success, aren’t doing. But this album isn’t very memorable and feels somehow distinctly different from her first, which leaves me thinking that maybe I’m not quite sure who she is. [Amanda Ball]
Rubblebucket – SUN MACHINE
Genre: Art Pop
Favorite Track: “Lemonade”
As someone who constantly loves taking in new music, with all genres being welcome, I try to find at least one positive thing about every artist I listen to. For Rubblebucket’s SUN MACHINE, I will say this: I commend them for their incorporation of ambience and saxophone into their composition, as well as the active decision to find accessibility in the seemingly banal. However, I tried four separate times to get through SUN MACHINE and barely made it. Reluctant is a dramatic understatement; this is an album that spirals in the worst kind of way. The tracks seem to drone on about the band members’ experiences, but with no real room for connection. The album as a whole chases its tail about the same fleeting feeling of confidence and emblazoned freedom, but with no real depth underneath it. Furthermore, they have this solipsistic idea that since they’re incredibly enthusiastic about their music, so should we be as the listeners. (Side Note: If St. Vincent can mention solipsism casually, so can I!) For me, that ideology works, but only when there is something to adhere to—“Treats” by Sleigh Bells being a perfect example. SUN MACHINE throws out a chaos of lyrics and beats haphazardly, expecting me to be excited about it because they are. I wasn’t. If you’re anything like me, skip this record and put on some Vallis Alps to fill the void your expectations left you. [Jesse Herb]