Useful Noise #6
better twerku-later than twerku-never
I guess newsletters really are the new blogs—I’m compelled to lead each one off with apologies for not posting enough. Anyway, sorry, where does the time go, etc. Now let the floodgates of blah-blah-blah reopen.
GO SLOW NO
Go Slow No is a 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.
Tune-Yards: Sketchy (4AD)
Merrill Garbus has grown so eminently unfashionable that her duo’s most accomplished album since Whokill fluked into critical consensus a decade ago doesn’t even merit a review from Pitchfork or Rolling Stone. And sure, like a lot of self-conscious heart-sleevers, she can be exhausting when you’re not in the mood, her expressiveness as overwhelming in its way as a timeline of unpunctuated social media overshares, ill-suited for a moment where the wearily online seek refuge in just vibes, even unto Enya herself. But fraught times call for a psyche-rattling soundtrack—you can’t be chill on a moving train. Horn arrangements and guitars and electronics clamor for space as Nate Brenner’s conversational bass excuse-me-pardon-mes its way through a knottily anti-ambient groove that’s personal but not private, as busy as Garbus’s brain and maybe yours. On each song, verses pester along till a bubble of a chorus levitates above the roil, where phrases as suggestive as “A body knows a truth you can’t hear,” as simple as “Look into my eyes,” even as cross-stitch meme-worthy as “If you cannot hear a woman/Then how can you write her song?” are nuanced into resonance by the dialectic of noise and tune. And if you really do need a break, she gives you an entire minute-long track of silence midway through. GO
Sarah Mary Chadwick: Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby (Ba Da Bing)
A dead dad, a distant mom, a few suicide attempts, a one-day solo recording session—that’s all the biographical context you need for Chadwick’s 42-minute trawl through 37 years of accumulated mental muck. Where sadness, depression’s artfully disheveled normie cuz, typically offers tuneful commiseration, Chadwick’s ungainly, expressive voice slides off the edge of her tunes like a drool-stained fitted sheet you haven’t had the energy to pull back over the mattress corner for a week now. (I think her accent reflects her New Zealand point of origin rather than her current Melbourne home, but I’m literally basing that on comparisons between Chills and Go-Betweens records and a couple Flight of the Conchords jokes, so don’t quote me on that.) Hard to top “Mothers never love me/Baby that’s why you should” and, one verse later, “Fathers always dying/Baby that’s why you will” as a description of a life lived as a mobile bottomless hole of primal lack, though Chadwick comes close on “That Feeling Like,” which spools off a detailed listicle of melancholic symptoms and climaxes with “Let’s fuck/I’m scared.” She plays piano like nervous people smoke—to give her hands something to do—but her plunked chords are all she needs, accentuating her moods with volume or tempo shifts, and when she double-tracks her voice on “Don’t Like You Talking” it’s as startling as a Skrillex drop. Like a lot of miserable people, Chadwick’s funny (“On the way to stay alive I asked the guy his job/He said a paramedic.”) Unlike a lot of miserable people, she doesn’t wallow, she writhes, banging up repeatedly against the broken promises of self-awareness. “Maybe I should chill out on blaming my parents”? Eh, probably won’t work either, but worth a shot, I guess. GO
Dawn Richard: Second Line (Merge)
The restless futurist cultivates her New Orleans roots—sorta. Centered on but hardly committed to a house pulse already proven endlessly malleable in clubs across the globe, Richards’ groove is as diasporan and cosmopolitan as her hometown and as improvisational as the funky funeral tradition that gives her album its title. (As she says of the second line, “They don’t really have any set steps to do—they're just getting down.”) Though her track-first approach can make it hard to focus on whatever she’s specifically asserting, desiring, or demanding, hooky phrases like “I want those days back” and “You gon’ remember me in the morning” rise up to chart the inner travels of a brilliant, adaptable human finding her voice amidst the machines she lovingly tends to while reconnecting to her own personal and family history—even if she’s too interested in where her rhythmic ideas lead to stay in one place for long. GO
Lana Del Rey: Chemtrails Over the Country Club (Polydor/Interscope)
For all her "I'm covering Joni and dancing to Joan/Stevie's calling on the telephone," Lizzie Grant’s nom de swoon (not “persona,” no, no, of course not, never, please call off the stans, ma’am) is more akin to the posturing bros of Cali classic rock than its questing femmes. I pegged the doomsayer behind Norman Fucking Rockwell! as Don Henley in a flower crown, but Lana’s more like fellow published poet Jim Morrison—a sexy, name-dropping pseud who’s deliberately unclear about whether she’s daring you to take her seriously or daring you not to. (He’d have been a menace on a notes app too.) The world having failed to end (again?!), she escapes all the ashes of Calabasas to discover the real American heartland (#vanlife), visiting exotic locales (Tulsa! Orlando!), badmouthing Tammy Wynette like it’s 1992 all over again, drawling like a high school musical Ado Annie understudy, and waking up in Nebraska “wearing the same damn clothes for three damn days,” where she slums about as convincingly as Veronica Lake in Sullivan’s Travels. Producer Jack Antonoff’s melodic flutters flatter her pouts throughout a diverting little road trip that nonetheless feels like something of a detour after the opening track has already served up the quintessence of Lanadom. That would be “White Dress,” which offers examples of everything she does best (or at least does most): that strained whisper of a falsetto both grating and moving, the gratuitous Sun Ra and Kings of Leon references, the way she rams together “downatthemeninmusicbusinessconference,” the phrase “Men in Music Business Conference” itself, the images of leering attendees in ill-fitting suits it summons, and above all, that slight hint of distance as she indulges in the retrograde fantasy of cherishing how the male gaze once defined her, as if to say “Ah yes, we are better off now that this is all gone, but how lovely those illusions were.” SLOW
St. Vincent: Daddy’s Home (Loma Vista)
The sudden concern over Annie Clark’s blurred artistic vision highlights just how many benefits of how many doubts her fluent guitar, visual panache, and crisp diction have gotten her till now. As an appreciative bystander rather than a fan, I can groove to this Watergate-era period piece as an luxurious ambient bummer, an impressive kaleidoscope of splintered vinyl, a jaunt on Sheena Easton’s morning train to the dark side of the moon while harmonizing with LaBelle. But while Clark’s influences are dotingly reconstituted rather than received, the real history lesson here is a reminder that, like every moment of cultural upheaval, the ’70s beat many bruised souls into retreat, and recording studios offered unprecedented control over technology to artists who felt like they’d lost control of everything else. Clark’s authoritatively clipped Marc-Bolan-as-stern-headmistress delivery can’t rescue “St. Joni/Ain’t no phony” “Who knows what a caged bird even sings?” or “Like the heroines of Cassevettes/I’m underneath the influence daily.” But the incoherence would rankle less if it didn’t seem symptomatic of a thwarted impulse to communicate some ordinary universal human concerns from within an intricately outfitted retro meta-cocoon, a space where Clark feels safe to make feints toward self-expression elliptical enough for even a mind-reader to misinterpret. SLOW
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.
Iamdoechii, “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake”
Maybe the reason this Tampa weirdo’s current EP, Bra-Less, hangs a little too loose for me is that she already condensed a full coming-of-age movie into a six-minute single I really should have heard last year. Highlights include a Nicki-nicked growl, “narci-ni-ssistic” paired off with “beat the statistics,” memories of fingering herself while mom scolds her for not defrosting dinner, a Paramore melody coyly interpolated without causing even a bump in her smart-ass playground flow, and “While y’all was sticking house keys in motherfucking sockets/I was stuffing all y’all lunch moneys in my pocket.”
Tierra Whack, “Link”
As always, the video (Philly Aphrophuturism filtered through Sid & Marty Kroft) complements Whack’s lyrical whimsy without overwhelming it. This is the fruit of an official partnership with Lego, and even more than the imaginative interstellar themes, it’s the track’s spacey vibe that reminds me of long childhood afternoons spent searching through a pile of plastic blocks. (Way more than “Everything Is Awesome” does, for sure.) Give this genius a kid’s show, someone.
Illuminati Hotties, “MMMOOOAAAAAYAYA”
“Indie has gotten too tasteful,” I’ve long been known to grouse with varying levels of accuracy at no one in particular, or at least no one who’ll listen very long, so feel free to blast this enormous sarcastic mess loud enough to drown me out. Initial plucked chord sproings suggest both Mark Ribot warming up and rusty trampoline coils, and Sarah Tudzin’s never-unquotable bratty chants build to a mocking ever-get-the-feeling-Bernie’s-been-cheated bellow of “the DNC is playing dirty.” “If you’re not laughing baby/Then you’re not making money”? Ha ha ha *checks Venmo* I said HA HA HA.
The Goon Sax, “In the Stone”
“Do you think it’s better/Not feeling?” Louis Forster and Riley Jones ask (each other? some unnamed emotionally available “vampire”? you and me?) and open-ended but hardly vague lines like “Didn’t have to sound so disappointed when I called” summon up an entire unspoken history of romantic sourness. Riding a great, unfussy groove en route to their third album in five years, both sleeker and moodier with John Parish producing, this Australian trio has graduated from the highs and lows of teen infatuation to the mild malaise of young adult heartbreak. I can’t wait to hear how else the world has let them down.
City Girls, “Twerkulator”
There’s not a lot you can count on, but surely, millennia from now, the sentient roaches who inherit the Earth will still be waving their antennae to some distant cousin of “Planet Rock.” And the bugs won’t have to deal with the sort of copyright tangles that got this irresistible jam yanked from the leaked version of City on Lock before its official release, forcing it into “underground” virality on TikTok. But now, like JT and Yung Miami say here, it’s time.
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.)
Peep these responses from frothing Lovatics first. Now read the anodyne Rolling Stone review they were so worked up about. Stans (a stupid term that so many do their best to deserve) care about nothing beyond their idol’s Metacritic score and punishing any critic who dilutes it. After scouring my Twitter history and finding nothing more damning than a reference to the band the Negro Problem (nice to be vetted and come out relatively clean, I suppose), they forged tweets to make it look like I’d celebrated Lovato’s overdose. So I forged my own. All told, I got off easy. I wasn’t doxxed, I didn’t receive any credibly specific threats, and the harassment ebbed within a day. In other words, I’m not a woman.
Teri Garr on Late Night with David Letterman
After Charles Grodin’s death sent me searching for the same YouTube clips as everyone else, the algorithm and I both had talk shows on the brain last week. Which may be why, after a Twitter conversation with Alan Scherstuhl about Teri Garr’s odd niche in ’70s and ’80s blockbusters—cool-if-unstable chick who’s forever being ditched by an unworthy dope—I went back to her ’80s Letterman appearances, expecting some slight disappointment. But since micromanaged celebrity and endless publicity cycles haven’t gone anywhere, the fun that host and guest have undercutting the dumb job of self-promotion to just hang and gab still feels fresh. And wow, what a gabber Garr could be, offering one sentence more of information than she pretends she meant to than coyly retreating. She and her buddy Carrie Fisher could’ve done one hell of a podcast.
Bruno Mars & Anderson .Paak, “Leave the Door Open”
Add ‘em up and Mars + .Paak don’t quite equal one the lesser Blue Notes, let alone the master of seduction whose classic pantydropper they cutely contradict here. Their retro facility is a gift to awards shows and wedding bands, but when I want to misremember R&B history I’ll stick with Raphael Saadiq. Sometimes “la la” only means “la la.”
I Hate Suzie
So much of the best TV these days is less suspenseful than downright stressful, the everything-goes-wrong tradition of the madcap sitcom recast as an anxiety nightmare from which no one awakens. And this nervous wreck of a series is one of the best, following a b-list actress’s personal and professional spiral after her sex pics get hacked. Immobilized by the complications of second-guessing and people-pleasing until frustration drives her to impulsive mistakes, Billie Piper’s Suzie Pickles is an extraordinary character at the center of a web of personal conflict that short-circuits the non-issue of “likability” by toying with our sympathies—here everyone’s actions are justified from their perspective but unforgivable from yours, and bridging that gap is a lifetime task.
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half
Like too much well-received literary fiction, Bennett’s story of how the lives of two light-skinned Black twin girls diverge in the latter half of the 20th century loses its resonance the more you focus on its architecture. Everything is so carefully balanced thematically that when I shut the book, what stayed with me wasn’t the messiness of the human lives it related but the structure of imagery into which they’d been too neatly fitted.
I’m Not There
The first time I felt my way through this exercise in fractured Dylanology, I was too intimidated by Todd Haynes’ technical mastery to dissent from the acclaim, but after a long-postponed rewatch 14 years later, I’m finally ready to call its bluff. Some images here are so brilliant they cut through the he-contains-multi-dudes concept, and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance as an actual human trying to exist in this world of symbol and pretense is a beautiful tribute to all the women who’ve endured this or any other genius. But too often Haynes just renders myths of persona and actual lyrics absurdly literal in a way that reveals nothing about them. I mean, when the Stones illustrated the line “jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule” on the cover of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, they were trying to be funny, you know?
A simple concept: a Twitter account that selects eye-catching screengrabs from Reagan-era TV news, each distinguished by a klutzy graphic, an improbable name, and/or an incongruous chyron. The very human faces predate our now-homogenized idea of the telegenic and the low video quality adds an otherworldly touch, until a past I lived through and thought I’d remembered feels both unfamiliar and impossible. This is just the kind of miscellany the internet was built for.