Useful Noise #4
this is starting to become a habit
Bad news for people who like lots and lots of words: No long essay this week. Just blurbs, capsules and other foreshortened nubs of writing. I’ll try be more long-winded next time.
GO SLOW NO
Go Slow No is a weekly survey of new, new-to-me, and overlooked album releases. The rating system is pretty simple: 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.
Cloud Nothings: The Shadow I Remember (Carpark)
Steve Albini’s production articulates this quartet’s strongest set of songs till they ring out with the clarity of a ’92 DGC audition: guitarist Chris Brown’s pin-prick leads make themselves heard without bring pushy, drummer Jayson Gerycz’s forward tumble contributes urgency until time comes to dramatically punctuate a chorus or bridge in unison with T.J. Duke’s bass. The frenzy’s all so tuneful that Dylan Baldi sounds consistently energized rather than overwhelmed, whether he’s posing timeless questions like “Does anybody out there really need me?” and “Am I older now, or am I just another age?” or setting boundaries with a reasonable sentiment like “I need to make time for me, for me.” (Who says self-care isn’t punk rock?) Any dope can convince himself that the harder he sings the more earnest he seems, wielding candor like a drunk with a busted bottle. Baldi unburdens his somehow still not yet 30-year-old heart with something like thoughtful abandon.
Jenkins’ breathily tactile voice improbably splits the difference between Jenny Lewis’s expressiveness and Aimee Mann’s chill, its subtle, sensible charms perfectly fitted to the cautiously open-ended structure of “Michaelangelo” (which drifts from “I'm a three legged dog/Workin’ with what I got” to places both dark and hopeful without ever seeking refuge in a chorus), “New Bikini” and its reluctant embrace of the ocean’s curative powers, and the more wistful than lustful “All I want is to fall apart in the arms of someone totally strange to me” of “Crosshairs.” But the make-or-break track here is “Hard Drive,” where Stuart Bogie’s sax and Josh Kaufman’s guitar both politely ease out of one another’s way as Jenkins shifts between speaking and singing, between observations on the metaphysical and the mundane. Admirers hear a masterpiece. I hear a blueprint for possible future brilliance.
“Next Girl” is a pure stroke of they-don’t-write-em-like-that-no-more, a warning about a serial jerk expressed in wordplay that reinforces rather than just gilds its message and delivered to an appropriately brisk Patty Lovelessish beat. This EP’s other six songs, reportedly influenced by Pearce’s brief recent marriage to country singer Michael Ray, bear down harder on heartbreak but don’t always cut deeper. While the late innovator busbee (mourned here on “Show Me Around”) served Pearce well on last year’s fine self-titled full-length, I prefer these collabs with Shane MacAnally and Josh Osborne, two of Nashville’s good guys. Still, I am concerned that the title track is convincing enough to make impressionable 28-year-olds believe turning 30 will make any appreciable difference in their lives.
An affectionate hair-stroke of a ballad, “At My Worst” sidled up to me with leisurely calm before I fell for it, and though nothing here compares (not even career-starters “Icy” and “Honest”), sometimes it just takes one song to open you up. Philly semi-traditionalist David Bowden is no distinctive stylist, but he’s not imitative of any specific singer either: He’s just his own kind, sensual, not overly ambitious self, retro only if you think gentle seduction and soulful electric guitar are passé. There’s not a sentiment here that somebody else hasn’t already sung to convince a person they want to see naked that they care about them. That’s kind of the point.
That’s “inspired” by the fine Shaka King film about state-murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton and FBI informant Bill O’Neal, not by the Chairman himself, though a funked up clip of his speeches does lead this overstuffed un-soundtrack. Context established, H.E.R.’s not quite period-appropriate but suitably mood-setting What’s Going On-era Marvin pastiche leads into three middle-aged champs going with what they know: Nas is vehement and confused (name-checking Huey Newton, celebrating “mob shit”), Black Thought spits casual brilliance, and Jay-Z borrows glory from his associates (not just the “mur—hol' up assassinated” Hampton, who died on Jay’s birthday, but late trackmate Nipsey Hussle). From there, rap’s get-yours credo prevails, disappointing young idealists who’d hoped Sony had gone into the anti-capitalism business. Me, I nurtured the possibly counter-revolutionary hope that Hit-Boy’s sampler might help me hear my way into some contemporary rappers I was on the fence about. Instead a moody haze engulfs even distinctive voices like JID and Rapsody, prominent Chicago Gs Polo and Herbo, and Pooh Sheisty. It’s hardly my place to tell Black rappers how to honor Hampton’s legacy. But I can tell when music is uninspired.
This running playlist of the year’s best songs, along with a few sentences that try to get at what makes ’em work, is called The Uselist, because it has to be called something, and if you can’t go high, go as low as you can.
“I just want to dance tonight,” the brilliant Chicago rapper and radical autodidact pines over an unobtrusive samba track, but then a world scarred by corrosive isms intrudes, and each verse accelerates from indignation to rage instead in a rhythm that suggests the unspooling momentum of spontaneous thought, making it harder to answer her truly revolutionary question “How you get closer to love?” In the three years since Room 25, Noname has dropped four singles, each chewy enough to deserve a full moment of its own. We’ll need a whole damn month off to process the album.
The historical legacy of racism is an inexhaustible subject that this Atlanta rapper sorts through from within, his coolly questioning intonation harkening slightly back to when Shabazz Palaces’ Ishmael Butler called himself Butterfly if you’re old enough to admit it. Christo’s production gathers literal voices from the past as the rapper struggles to convey hope without suggesting that individual achievement erases structural bigotry—not in a world where a NFL player with your pigmentation can “run for a million yards [and] you still 40 acres short.”
Nashville steam-gainer Shorr swipes dishily, nastily at a rival who banged her ex and commemorate the deed in song, with Butch Walker recording the guitars like ‘90s alt-rock airplay looms on the horizon. Stick around for the closing lyric if you think she’s gone over the top. Not gonna lie though: I do want to hear Amy’s album, even if she isn’t real. (Is she?)
Monroe continues to stake her claim to the title of horniest Pistol Annie, following up “Hands on You” with a track about passing the wheel to a man who knows your body like a back road. Mikey Reaves’ production gives the ghost of a song an ominous erotic shimmer as Monroe’s voice expresses the sensuality of surrender at the limits of her upper register.
“You like to smell my daisies,” “come on baby take a long bite,” and even “love me like you hate mе” are barely smutty by 21st century pop standards, but Chloe’s production adds a dimension of blush-inducing desperation to this plea for rough sex even before we get to the falsetto bridge or the drum ‘n’ bass climax.
Named for a song from back when Miley Cyrus was good, 7 Things is a grab bag where I dump uncategorizable thoughts too long for a tweet and too short for an essay. (Though unlike Miley I don’t hate ’em. Well, not all of them.)
As with so much great art, the concept is simple: The Legend of Zelda as voiced by Beavis and Butthead. The genius is all in the execution—YouTube user KhalidSMShahin and his sister Jameelah splice perfect B&B vocal clips into the crappy late-80s cartoon cash-in with Steinski- level precision. (Thanks Jess).
Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet
Shunted into a retirement home and subjected to a harsh quasi-mystical regimen, an old woman joins a witchily absurdist sisterhood and stumbles into history-enshrouded mysteries that I won’t go into any further because they wouldn’t make any sense to you if I did. Like a TARDIS, this 1974 surrealist novel feels bigger on the inside than the outside, and its message that castoffs are best equipped to persist through a rather delightful apocalypse is all too timely.
There’s no feeling quite so unsettling as being caught up in a movie’s slow build toward a climax you’re certain will disappoint you. Roughly four-fifths of Rose Glass’s extremely A24 film is a tense character study of the interdependence of two broken women that viscerally depicts the sexuality of spiritual devotion and mortification of the body. And then… I wouldn’t say the ending trivializes trauma or religious experience, but it sure does sensationalize them.
Ariana Grande, “34+35”
Positions can feel slight because it’s a nookie soundtrack rather than a big pop statement, and an understated one at that, meant for nights of familiar strokes and gasps and stifled giggles. Useful if you were stuck at home with the right person last year, I suppose, but for the rest of us just rubbing it in—and not in the fun way. Still, no sour grapes: While this coy-not-coy math equation annoyed me at first, the sweetest little “fuck” ever sung softened me up, and the cute outro “means I wanna 69 you” is too silly for me to resist. Though the bedroom does get a little too crowded on the Doja/Meg remix.
Brood X cicadas
I don’t remember anyone using this ominous name when these fuckers descended on New Jersey in 1987, providing a grating ambient soundtrack to my senior year of high school and bringing some comedy to my outdoor graduation, where dead husks fell from the trees onto the laps of hoity Princeton parents. If I’d known at the time they were the same critters Dylan sang about on “Day of the Locusts” I’d have felt pretty cool. Kinda bummed I’ll miss them this cycle. See ya in 2028, cicadas.
Only after I rewatched A Star Is Born and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea last month (not even consciously part of a Mason double feature, honest) did I realize both were released in 1954. Hell of a year, huh? (And for a nearly 70-year-old adventure flick, 20,000 Leagues holds up remarkably well, aside from an unfortunate run-in with, uh, “island natives.” Somehow the Nautilus—which is really just a fancy submarine—still seems futuristic. And if a stylish nautical gourmand wants to destroys munitions transports, well, who am I to shame his anti-war kink?) I went from there back to Lolita (Mason’s square-shouldered first appearance as Humbert is an ideal introduction for Kubrick’s partially successful excavation of the novel’s noirish elements) and a belated first encounter with the genius Odd Man Out (which exploits the stars blocky stiffness by forcing him to spend the bulk of the film as a dazed near-corpse). Rubber squid, Judy Garland, a surfeit of Peter Sellerses—no matter the co-star, Mason combines gracefully aging leading man looks with a character actor’s willingness to accept his proper slot in the picture. PS: I’ve been trying to do a serviceable impression of this guy’s voice since I heard Gilbert Gottried’s Honeymooners skit (with Mason as Ralph Kramden—no link available? really?) 34 years ago, still to no avail.
Watching Ghost for the first time
Sarah Miller and I continue our “Movies Keith and Sarah Have Never Seen (Until Now)” series over at her must-follow blog by watching the beloved ’90s gentrification fantasy Ghost. Boo. (Previously: Home Alone.)