In this week’s album review roundup, two of today's wisest songwriters, two of today's rockingest bands, and an indie diva sadly marooned on an island of wan pastiche.
Julia Jacklin –Crushing
Like any “breakup album,” to too crudely classify this Australian singer-songwriter’s acute autopsy of a fragmenting relationship, the perspective cuts from present to past and back again, with the future manifesting itself through fretful anticipation as Jacklin faces a clump of unanswerables: Is he OK? What’s he gonna do with that nude pic? Did he ever watch that stupid video? Really though, is he OK? Fragile but sinuous, Jacklin’s sob stretches in tendrils of tuneful anxiety, while her guitar mimics unkempt emotion without getting rowdy or atonal—her music sounds like what heartbreak physically feels like, before we find the words for it. But what makes Jacklin a great songwriter, not just (like so many of her celebrated peers) an effective mood-generator is that each song here giving up a phrase that wholly encapsulates a mood, a scenario, a life stage. “I don’t want to be touched all the time.” “You know it’s bad when the family flies in.” “I don’t know how to keep loving you.” “I don't care for the truth when I'm lonely.” “Started listening to your favorite band/The night I stopped listening to you.” Oh, and finally, there’s “You can’t be the one to hold him/When you were the one that left.” Her greatest achievement here? A toss-up between 1) a refusal to vilify the dude who never listened to her and who she couldn’t trust without making him sympathetic either or 2) an ability to skirt despair without giving in to the myth of “closure.” GO
Jenny Lewis – On the Line
At 43, every indie-gal’s cool older sis has "had it with you trippers and drama queens,” flitting through middle age with little use for petty concerns like personal growth, love, security, or whatever other mirage of permanence or progress you’re peddling. With Beck’s production lending most of the tracks a colorfully lackadaisical shuffle, the blithe hedonism of Lewis’ “a little bit of hookin’ up is good for the soul” and “life is a disco” channels a carefree L.A. ideal with none of the self-serving b.s. spiritualism or free-love ideology that turns off us skeptical landlocked heliophobes. Yet the lyrics are choked with death, with drugs both legal and illegal taken in both moderate and extreme doses; listen up and you’ll hear sadness and regret fraying the edges of Lewis’ tarnished voice. Miraculously, though, no bitterness—hell, the chorus to “Wasted Youth” goes ”doo-doo doo-doo doo,” and that’s the one that compares heroin and Candy Crush. Along the way, each flawed partner, from the “narcoleptic poet from Duluth,” to the gabby La Crosse romantic she hopes to disillusion with some tawdry texted nudes, emerges as a fully recognizable individual—a songwriting trick plenty of Lewis’ male counterparts could stand to learn.GO
Ex Hex –It’s Real
Three adult women strip hard rock of its power lust and delusions of transcendence, with none of the ironic preening, slumming bad faith, or musicianly indulgence that nervous indie-rockers typically crouch behind when revisiting the déclassé music of their youth. Def Lep power chords, miniature melodic Neil Giraldo solos, ecstatic Charlotte Caffey outros—guitarist Mary Timony simply loves each enduring gimmick on its own corny, crunchy terms, and she favors a particular effects pedal I’m sure someone who spent more of their teens in a Guitar Center than I did could ID in a sec. Clinching the deal is Timony’s modestly terrestrial, resolutely unmetal voice. Rather than wailing like a strangulated angel, she sings like a regular human, assuring us that you don’t have to be a dope to like this stuff. You don’t even have to pretend to be a dope. SLOW
The Coathangers –The Devil You Know
Julia Kugel still chirps skeptically, Stephanie Luke still gargles ominously, Meredith Franco’s dubby basslines are still just as tuneful as the former’s guitar bits and as postpunk as the latter’s hurry-up-and-wait drumming. Allusive phrases like “can’t take it with you,” “nobody gets out alive,” and “the more you see, the less you know” pop out with as much force as deliberate slogans as “fuck the NRA,” and a dozen years after their debut, this Atlanta punk trio’s refusal to evolve is flat-out heroic. Though maybe the fact that their increased musicianship never seduced them away from their beloved single-note riffs and two-chord vamps is a kind of evolution in itself: They’re crude by choice, not necessity. SLOW
Karen O/Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
“Cinematic,” “lush,” “sweeping,” and let’s not forget (twice in the same review!) “immaculate”—strew enough Morricone riffs and John Barry orchestrations amid your indistinct synthesizer washes and endless arpeggios and you too can get any old dollop of crusty Velveeta championed as Brie. Parquet Courts’ Wide Awake! proved that as a producer, Danger Mouse can dynamically fine tune a rock band’s sound, but as a composer he’s a soundtrack hack without a movie to score, and a fussy one at that. Every element of his tasteful kitsch has been recycled more meaningfully decades ago, most definitely including the faux Motown (Fauxtown?) big beat that powers the livelier and most song-like tracks here. And while Karen O whooshes along gamely through these stylized settings, projecting high-stepping aggression or thwarted desire or torchy self-regard or whatever idea of an emotion the scene calls for, she could do so much more with music that challenges rather than flatters her. NO
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new, newish, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty self-explanatory: GO means listen to this now, SLOW means check it out when you get a chance, and NO means run screaming from the room if you hear so much as a note of it.