Five tracks, 44 minutes; that’s enough time to get truly entangled. Especially at the hands of Amp, the long-running experimental (read: entrancing, gorgeous) project of Richard Walker (aka Richard Amp). It’s currently, and for a while now, a duo, with vocalist Karine Charff.
Amp exists at “the space where noise and melody meet” (their own description). No record sounds exactly alike; some float along while others get closer to ‘songs’. But they feel similar; each are capable of surprise and a state of wonderment. This new one is no exception.
Since the early ’90s Amp has amassed a universe of beautiful recordings. Entangled Time, their first full-length in about eight years, fits right in with them. It’s a ‘bliss out’ — like the name of the Darla Records’ series they contributed to back in 1997 (vol. 4, Perception, a forever classic in my book and one of my all-time favorite works of music for napping to).
“Drifting”, the first track on Entangled Time is called, as it should be. It ends like we’re being carried away by an ocean. The 8-minute “Will-Oh Dreams” is absolutely gorgeous, peaceful and still. It’s here also in an “extended mix” that doubles the time and carries us away with a feeling of gentle transcendence. Drifting, indeed.
At a distance Asiahn’s style of R&B is very 1990s. Up close it’s right in today’s moment. That’s a compliment, not a criticism; her on-point singing harks back to a classic, sometimes underrated period for the genre, while still feeling fresh (which may say something about said period). On Love Train 2, a sequel to a 2017 EP, the production by Cardiak (who’s worked with Rick Ross, Joe Budden, Lloyd Banks, Dr. Dre, J. Cole, dozen of others) perfectly sets up that feeling, sleek yet deep.
The topic at hand is love, plain and simple. Or really it’s honesty. By the third track Asiahn has already described several lies and acts of wrongdoing, on the part of an ex-lover. Her message to potential lovers, and to humanity at large: “mean what you say”.
These 12 songs divide into those about leaving a lover whose “truth is shit”, those where she’s fancying a potential new lover but isn’t sure the timing is right, and those where she’s full-on surrendering to a new love, confident that this time they’ll be real with each other.
Somewhere in between are a few moments of sheer pleasure — for example “Drip”, a glacial slow jam about bodies speaking the same language for lovers who verbally do not. As the album proceeds, the balance shifts from lies to truth, mistrust to surrender. The 40-second closing song “Stuck” is a final love note, or really a prayer – “I wanna be stuck in love with you”.
“Dolphin-assisted births are a thing”, proclaimed the headline of a 2013 Timearticle about dolphins serving as midwives for human births. But let’s forget about that for a second; focus on Dolphin Midwives, the musical project of Portland harpist Sage Fisher.
Harpist, you say? Yes, and singer too, but while listening I mostly forget about what instruments were used to make the music, and instead get lost in the transformative, fanciful, otherworldly music. Voices are instruments are manipulated and layered, getting us to focus on the whole more than each part.
Classify this as ambient or New Age, but this is not background music. It’s more riveting, attention-grabbing than that, connecting sound to nature’s mysteries, to the most fantastic imaginary world you can imagine.
I said mostly forget because there are songs throughout where we’re accurately aware that someone is playing a harp. The playing is gorgeous, nimble, and in contrast with but complementary towards the more abstract, meandering soundscapes of tracks like the opener “Grass Grow”.
Nature imagery is abundant, in the track titles and in our minds. Liminal Garden is a great title for this type of strange beauty, suggesting new, phantasmagorical vegetative or animal life.
On Dawn Richard’s brilliant trilogy of progressive pop/R&B (Goldenheart, Blackheart, Redemptionheart), she seemed always somewhere between here and the galaxies. Her songs were tied to our lived reality – disparities, injustice and all – but also creatively oriented towards intergalactic realms. On New Breed she comes down to Earth, without stepping away from the sparkling sonic architecture and streamlined production of those past works.
Geographically where she’s landed is clear from the start, when she re-introduces herself as “a girl from the Nine” – 9th Ward, New Orleans, Louisiana. In “The Nine (intro)” she sings, “I want to go back”, and that’s significant. Her family left New Orleans post-Katrina, and have since returned. This time she’s musically come with them. The songs point back towards her upbringing, with autobiographical memories referenced throughout, but also pull us along with her on a trip to her New Orleans.
On the album cover she’s wearing the headdress of a Mardi Gras Indian. Their actual voices are woven into the mix, in moments, as is the voice of her father Frank Richard, singer for New Orleans funk band Chocolate Milk. The culture, style, history and music of New Orleans are here in her music, yet it’s more like lightly surfacing roots that were always there, rather than her adopting a new direction.
Whether directed towards an ex-lover, a would-be lover, to herself or the world at large, Richard’s songs carry themes of independence, survival and freedom, while keeping style and spatial design always at the forefront. Those personal themes sync up with the New Orleans theme in a natural, perhaps inevitable way.
The 5-minute “Vultures / Wolves” is perhaps the emotional centerpiece, a portrait of the predators among us, in relationships and business. Predators disguised as men, be they would-be lovers or music-industry businessmen Vulnerability is displayed in her delivery, leading to a statement of strength and determination.
Songs like “Dreams and Converse” and “We, Diamonds” are aspirational but not naively so. “Let’s get lost up in the moment and live richer than we can”, she sings in the former. On the latter, she’s asking to be challenged so she can soar past the low expectations.
“We rough around the edges / but that don’t mean we ain’t diamonds”, is the chorus to that song. That’s a recurring attitude on New Breed, one she carries for herself, her family, her culture, her city.
In 2019 Robert Pollard’s music is critic-proof. His hundreds of recordings, usually coming at an almost non-stop pace, resemble a river you either run away from or fully immerse yourself in. (For evidence, and a deep dive, see the 79-hour Pollardverse playlist someone put on Spotify.)
It’s also critic-bait, in the sense that those who choose submersion set themselves up for obsession, dissection, comparisons and an endless addiction to list-making. It’s fanboy-bait, then, perhaps even more so. Music for those OK with getting led into a cult.
There’s a with-us or against-us quality to Pollard/Guided by Voices fans that sometimes belies our individual preferences within that fandom. At this point, personal preference is without a doubt going to be a factor in any review of a new Pollard/GBV album, even for someone like me who has a hard-to-count number of records, CDs, cassettes, T-shirts, books, posters, etc. with a Pollard connection. When someone says that X Pollard album is the best thing he’s done in years (as I may be about to; spoiler alert…), where that writer is coming from matters.
So let’s put personal preference front and center. By now I know which types of Pollard songs are my favorites and which my least. My least favorite are the power-crunch anthems and overt ‘classic rock’ exercises (meaning ‘70s over ‘60s; big and ponderous over quick and lean). Pollard’s version of prog-rock, of hard rock. The fewer songs where the band stomps forth while Pollard intones rock-and-roll “yeahs” and “uh-huhs”, the better.
My preference is for these three Pollard song-types: 1. Short-and-weird (one-minute or less, surreal). 2. Bubblegum (the hookiest, most pop sing-along tunes). 3. Mid-paced melodic melancholy. By the latter I mean ‘ballads’ in a general sense, and mid-tempo songs where melody is a driver but in a more impressionistic way, not as a straight-ahead carrier of a repeatable chorus but as a feeling or mood.
The new Guided by Voices album Zeppelin Over China persistently leans towards type 3, which is right up my alley. Bubblegum pop, hard-rock stomp and song-sketches are like birds circling around, appearing here and there but never landing for long.
A double album split neatly in half (16 songs each), it feels to me so much like two separate albums that I’ve taken to thinking of it as two. In my thoughts I’ve begun referring to the second half as Zeppelin Over China, since the sixth song on that half is “Zeppelin Over China”, and to the first half as Holy Rhythm, after the sixth song on the first half. I think of the album this way because I’m a nerd. But also because it helps me digest this beast in a way that makes sense to me.
Holy Rhythm is kind of a perfect title for the first half, which picks up where 2018’s Space Gun left off, dancing close to that stompier, crunchier side that’s not my favorite, but within anthems streamlined by melody and a psych-pop dreaminess, to move forward in a tuneful and driving, yet pleasantly strange way.
The pleasures of these first 16 songs are familiar and new at once. Style-wise I’d slot this in the Under the Bushes Under the Stars/Isolation Drills vein of melodic pop-rock, but with less of a sense of striving for hits. They’re comfortable here with abstraction and strangeness, with it all washing over the listener the first time through, the details sinking in deeper with each listen.
Nothing here is out-of-this-world new for Pollard; it hovers in a comfortable, and comforting place for fans. Yet it also feels very fresh, in the sound, in the strength of the current band (Pollard, Doug Gillard, Bobby Bare Jr, Mark Shue, Kevin March, Travis Harrison), and Pollard’s fairytale/surrealist lyrics, which feel more purposeful and at the same time intuitive than they have recently.
There are unique and memorable songs throughout the first 16. “Carapace” (a word that means the hard shell of a turtle, apparently) might be the most rhythm-driven GBV song in years; even the singing becomes mostly about the rhythms of the words as they break down into nonsensical syllables. “Send in the Suicide Squad” steps up the emotion, the hookiness and the late ‘60s pysch-pop leanings in a tidy package. “Bellicose Starling” is tender and pretty in a still warped way. “Charmless Peters” takes Pollard’s psychological probing in a near-horror direction, and then unexpectedly leads into an anthem built around the line “Smoke / them / if / you /have / them”, sung with that emphasis.
“The Rally Boys” is the punchy pop classic, optimistic yet mysterious. I love the playfulness of the final lines – “you won’t catch the rally boys / the cyclone alley boys / the Rand McNally boys.” The first half ends with “You Own the Night”, a rousing finale.
Yet we’re only halfway there.
The second half is in a very similar vein, but in some ways goes even further into it. Some songs fall into a gorgeous but unsettled dream-state – like a sharper, deeper version of some of Pollard’s most introspective, most underrated minor releases (say, 2010’s Moses on a Snail). But scattered throughout are the punkest songs of the album – spunky little razor cuts.
Each half of the album has its own beginning, middle and end. This second half starts quick with “Everything’s Thrilling”. At first it sounds optimistic, but what is thrilling? Sin, dying, “a minimal request for the river of souls”.
That’s not the only reference to sin, and certainly not the only one to mortality, in this portion of the album. There’s a continual thread of life and death, without any one clear idea or message. As always, Pollard’s lyrics are more poetic image-clouds than complete stories. One theme here is survival, challenges. In “Questions of the Test” it’s a challenge to give the right answers; it could be one of those “oh crap I didn’t study” school nightmares, but it feels broader in scope.
Yet it’s hard to characterize or summarize even just these last 16 songs. There’s one straight-up fantasy piece (“Lurk of the Worm”) and an incredible pop tune that seems maybe music industry-related (“My Future Is in Barcelona”). The prettiest song in this stretch, “We Can Make Music”, might not be about music at all – “We can make music with the trees / shake them so they’ll sing / until they are free.”
“The Hearing Department” is some kind of classic, of a variety I’m not sure I’ve heard from Pollard. I keep interpreting the title as a menacing corporate entity. But more likely the song might just be about people who struggle to hear.
This is not a concept album, and to treat it so would be a mistake. But something’s lurking beneath the surface, some deep-down questions about life and the universe, that I’ll keep trying to bring up to the surface as I listen.
As I’ve said time and again, to try and rank Pollard’s albums seems beside the point, with the way he approaches music- and art-making as one continual action. Yet, nonetheless, I’m an obsessive fan, so I won’t hesitate to declare it as the best, most exciting Guided by Voices album of the past 15 or more years. And I’ll be right, in my own mind at least.
I sat down to write a top 10 list and came up with 200 albums. I got honest and maybe even cruel, and cut it down to 68. The numeric order gets more arbitrary as we proceed downward. I’m publishing this before I change my mind.
Has music writing turned into mere list-making? For me it sometimes has. I’ve written brilliant descriptions in my mind of why each of these are my favorites, but all I’ve managed are a few words describing each of the top 10.
I wrote very little about music in 2018. What’s the right metaphor for keeping up with all of the brilliant new music released every week, and then finding enough minutes to stop and write about it along the way? Something about a river or a waterfall, in a barrel or holding onto a twig. Or maybe it involves lava, a boiling pot, some other scientific phenomena? Rocks and hills? Weather? Traffic? Somebody find me the right words… (a mantra for 2018). Time marches on, there’s always next year, etc.
Dear Nora – Skulls Example– Career-defining, and a brave step forward; projecting all of the environmental and social anxieties of the moment into a nexus of Southwest mysticism and bubblegum pop.
Makaya McCraven – Universal Beings– Drummer-driven, like much of the best jazz and experimental music this year. But also collaborative and freeform; each of four sides connecting multiple cities, players and dynamic jazz scenes to build new connections and creations.
Kacey Musgraves – Golden Hour – Country-pop taken in a sunlit, daydream, philosophical quandary direction. Filled with clever turns and breathtaking moments; it is possible still for an album to keep surprising.
Rico Nasty – Nasty – A somewhat goofy Internet rapper transforms herself into the hardest and on-point rapper of the moment, projecting anger, humor, style and multiplicity.
Meshell Ndegeocello – Ventriloquism – The best work of music criticism of the year, and non-stop pleasure to listen to. Recommended if you like ‘80s/’90s R&B, or have forgotten about it and need to go back.
The Beths – Future Me Hates Me – Punkish pop-rock with a ‘90s sheen that nonetheless totally inhabits the current moment, via sharp-as-nails songwriting and self-deprecating humor that rides an amped-up guitar-pop wave like nobody’s business.
Caitlyn Smith – Starfire – An accomplished songwriter steps into the spotlight, and dazzles, with show-stopping highway ballads and small-scale Waits/Hopper-esque scenes.
SOB x RBE – Gangin II – The big splash from this youthful, hyper SoCal group began last year but picked up steadily in 2018, with the explosive Gangin’ and their Black Panther track “Paramedic!” Gangin II took all the fire of its predecessors and deepened the emotions and overall feel.
Swamp Dogg – Love, Loss & Auto-Tune – Extending the Autotune-as-emotional-moisturizer approach of 808s and Heartbreak into every neck of the woods has become the life calling of Justin Vernon; here the eccentric soul legend Swamp Dogg wears that Autotune aesthetic remarkably well, through ‘futurized’ standards and more typical Swamp Dogg hijinks.
Michael Nau & The Mighty Thread – Michael Nau & the Mighty Thread – The most tender rolling Americana melodicism of the year – lush and lovely in its melancholy exploration of wandering desert balladry.
The title, alluding to the hymn “Abide With Me”, is a description of darkness arriving. Surely it feels like darkness has arrived these days. Azure Blue’s answer to the surrounding darkness is to bask in luxurious layers of synthesizers. I’m not sure it’s an escape. By the second track “New Moon” it feels more like standing strongly upright within the current and refusing to be pulled along.
Tobias Isaksson — of phenomenal Swedish-pop outfits from days gone past like Irene and Laurel Music — has led Azure Blue through three previous albums of romantic synth-pop. This fourth album is especially reliant on synths, in a bright, welcoming way that makes the neon art of the cover feel appropriate.
The songs are sullen, heartsick and defiant. “Post Affect”, one song is titled. This immersion in ’80s-style synth-pop isn’t a pose. Isaksson is fully devoted to the style and the sentiments it perhaps naturally pairs with – love, dreams, sensitivity, romantic obsession.
“Whatever ’18” might sound like a slacker title, but it’s a commitment. The mantra (sung at least 10 times) “I don’t care / I do what I want to / as much as I want / whenever I want to” is a declaration of independence that pairs nicely with the next song “Beneath the Sphere”, a dancefloor tribute to standing up for yourself. By the end of the album he’s dreaming off into the darkness, or perhaps the light. Dreaming idealistically of what’s next, even when holding the object of his dreams firmly within his arms.
Her future self may hate her, but her present self doesn’t think that highly about her either. On the debut album by the Auckland, New Zealand band The Beths, Future Me Hates Me, singer Elizabeth Stokes persistently voices self-doubt and disappointment within a climate of punchy pop-punk that’s inescapably “’90s alternative” but nonetheless has an of-the-moment immediacy. That comes from the melodies but mainly her singing, channeling lots of emotions within an overriding one of melancholy.
There’s self-destructive partying (“Uptown Girl”, not the Billy Joel song), multi-varied lust (“Little Death”, a mid-album stretch-out), and driving off a cliff in a failed double-suicide as the inevitable response to heartbreak (“Whatever”). For every song propelling towards destruction there’s one where joy is trying hard to poke its way to the surface. There’s tenderness, always, in the sulking, the hatred, and the instinctual drive towards “stupid mistakes”.
“You wouldn’t like me if you saw what was inside me”, she sings early on, but this is a very, very likable deep-dive into frustration and desperation. The last track “Less Than Thou” explodes – a soft but boisterous release.