Useful Noise #8
On chicken sandwiches, weak mayors, and Jimmy Smits
I was gonna make a “Be Sweet and Sour” joke in the headline, but that seemed a little much.
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.
Olivia Rodrigo: SOUR
A disgruntled everyteen anthem for the (and all) ages, “Brutal” introduces an unexpectedly funny and frazzled young malcontent (“I’m so insecure I think/That I’ll die before I drink”) who, pop being what it is, soon cedes the stage to a narrower if more intensely peer-relatable persona: Lorde as jilted Gleek-next-door. Turns out Disney kids have feelings too. They really did think their first love would last forever. They really can’t believe that sweet boy could turn out to be such a snake. They really are super-excited to get their license, even if they only drive aimlessly around the suburbs afterwards. They really do… sing along to “Uptown Girl”? Hm, OK, you’re the expert, Liv. Lotsa ballads, yes—too many, some (ok, I) might say—but with help from capable non-teen Dan Nigro, Rodrigo does spot new nuances in normie romance. (There are times in my life I could have used “Traitor,” which nails an under-acknowledged form of betrayal: the lover who didn’t technically cheat and so doesn’t feel guilty about having selected your replacement before breaking up.) Like a football team watching film to prepare for the big game, Rodrigo replays each step of her busted relationship less to nurse her regrets than to learn how to outwit the next boy. I just hope when she sings “I hate to think that I was just your type” or “I hope you’re happy/But don’t be happier” that Joshua Barrett’s not so vain he thinks these songs are about him. They’re all about Olivia. GO
Japanese Breakfast: Jubilee (Dead Oceans)
“I wanted [it] to be about joy,” Michelle Zauner says of her quartet’s leap into Forever Changes orchestrations, Tango in the Night synthetics, and Cardigans sweet ‘n’ sour pastels. Italics mine, but that “about” does double overtime here—Zauner doesn’t express joy, she rotates it like a 3D image, tinkers under its hood to learn its mechanics, feels along its surface for a secret entrance. “How does it feel to be at the center of magic?” she asks in wonder on “Paprika”; she demands love on “Be Sweet” not for its own sake but because “I wanna believe in something!” The extraordinary technicolor arrangements don’t overwhelm her ordinary human-sized voice; they set up a revealing contrast between the desire and the desirer. They also flatter Zauner’s lyrics more than the reverb-doused shoegaze of the band’s first two albums—and lines like “These days, I can't shake the awful feeling/I'm missing something I can't place/Is that you?/Manifesting like the fear of an oven left on” deserve the flattery. Sometimes those lyrics are obvious (“Savage Good Boy” is about a sugar daddy ISO a hottie to fill with babies after the world ends), sometimes oblique (“Posing in Bondage” is pro-monogamy). If pop can make yearning sexy, why can’t it make wishing you were having a good time fun? GO
Mannequin Pussy: Perfect (Epitaph)
Rhapsodizing over Missy Dabice’s voice in March when I Uselisted “Control,” I promised that when I got around to the EP I’d talk about the music, man. Well, duh, it rocks: On the lust-taunting title track and “Pigs Is Pigs,” which gives bassist Colins Regisford space to vent his internalized fear and anger as a Black man in 2021 America, brawling hardcore clenches and pummels. But it doesn’t just rock—what fun would that be? Though now down to a trio (albeit with departed guitarist Thanasi Paul contributing to the recordings), the sound has expanded: the college rock guitars of “To Lose You,” accented with trebly keyboards, chime as though destined to soar over vast festival crowds. A five-song EP from a band that’s thinking big. GO
Bachelor: Doomin' Sun (Polyvinyl)
Nineties indie/alt was destined to become the raw material for nostalgic rehashing, but it took the artistry of non-dudes too smart to mistake the ass-end of the 20th century for a golden age to shape unruly guitars and humanly unpop voices into the syntax of a contemporary musical language. Two such smarties form an ideal partnership here. With Palehound, Ellen Kempner’s tangled riffs pursue Built to Spill by way of Revolver; Melina Duterte’s multi-dimensional atmospherics as Jay Som give dreampop a waking life. Kempner mostly handles vocals, breathing precise desires into sharp melodies, whether she’s adopting a fan perspective on “Back of My Hand” or capturing the mundane show of loving kindness “Stay in the car and I’ll grab what you want.” In 10 songs that last just 33 minutes, guitars make their point without manspreading, the comparatively epic exception “Sick of Spiraling” requiring 4:27 to suggest “the drug of an endless scroll.” Even at their slightest, they make a quiet noise together. Perfect for night biking. SLOW
Dry Cleaning: New Long Leg (4AD)
Virtuosic post-punk-indebted guitar is in no short supply and spoken word has never been this lecture hall doodler and podcast avoider’s vocal preference. But the more I listened to this highly praised so-what-else-is-old South London quartet, the less the recurring comparisons seemed appropriate: backbeat too forthright for Gang of Four, the riffs too big for Wire, everyone altogether too sane for Joy Division. Tom Dowse’s multifaceted none-dare-call-it-angular guitar suggests the melodies Florence Shaw refuses to sing in a nice twist on the conventional rock division of labor, and Shaw pastes together received scraps of language as though eavesdropping on the world and her own thoughts simultaneously. She makes as much of simple phrases like “Do everything feel nothing” and ”You are. No, you are” as she does of dense clusters like “Just an emo dead stuff collector,” undermining the persistent myth that rock lyrics should be a form of self-expression. It’s impressive and still... not quite my thing. But why shouldn’t it be yours? 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.
Bella Poarch, “Build a Bitch”
“Post-Billie TikTok-core” is not a phrase I take any pleasure in typing or would ever say out loud, and “but good” is not a qualification I’d expect to follow it with. Yet my only complaint about this new-to-me social media star’s nasty-cute pop feminism is that her Instagram-era “You Don’t Own Me” is so efficient it seems overlong at two minutes.
James McMurtry, “Canola Fields”
“Cashing in on a thirty-year crush/You can’t be young and do that” is the line you’ll see most quoted, since anyone writing about McMurtry is likely old and romantic enough to harbor such hopes. But there’s not a word wasted elsewhere either. Images flash forward and back through time, as though trying to pinpoint the moment when the line from growing up to growing old is crossed.
Big Freedia, “Judas”
A Gaga admirer who always wished her music was as weird as her outfits (which sure is a roundabout way of saying “an Artpop fan”), I’m happy to hear Freedia bounce her boisterous way into the track like she’s leading a second line beyond Christ on the way to Calvary to the beat of a monstrous 808. And I can’t deny that Ms. Germanotta Is plenty weird as a backup singer.
Megan Thee Stallion, “Thot Shit”
You want wit? Meg’s got it. “Hoes said they wish a bitch would, and I'm a genie”? “One thing I know is two things are certain”? And ending her first three lines with "thot shit," "profit" & "toxic"? Call that ass-onance.
Dua Saleh, “Macrodosing”
As close to pure balladry as Dua has strayed, but with their rap-adjacent flow intact. And Psymun’s production spotlights the gradations in Dua’s timbre while anchoring the gauzy track with a firm bass piano part. What a team.
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.)
Raymond Williams, “Culture Is Ordinary”
I realize there are more perspective-broadening reading projects than returning to the all too white and male “common sense” of the postwar British Marxists. But I’m also a believer in taking encouragement where you can find it, and you can construct an entire worldview from the title of Williams’s essay alone. He closes with a question no less essential than it was in 1958: Who really believes in democracy? Not the capitalists, not the political managers, not the purportedly cultured, not the left vanguardists, all of whom consider their fellow humans “masses” and the masses simpletons. The simple answer is: The people who lack it.
Girls5eva & We Are Lady Parts
Welcome to my seven-day free (with ads) Peacock trial. Nida Manzoor’s We Are Lady Parts follows a group of young Muslim women in a London punk band; representation aside, the fun is watching Anjana Vasan’s charmingly wide-eyed, romantically deluded, chronically stagefrightened Amina grow into a guitar hero over six short episodes. As with many projects Tina Fey has a hand in, Meredith Scardino’s Girls5eva is slightly more sour than necessary: For all its knowing biz asides, the jokes about TRL-era teenpop are often adultly smug, lacking the double-edged affection that great parody requires. The plots are often klutzy vehicles for character development, and that 30 Rock rat-a-tat pacing cuts both ways: Weak jokes seem funnier, but the real duds land with a heavier thud.
Nile Rodgers, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny
As good as I expected, though not always in the ways I expected. The tale of how Rodgers and Bernard Edwards formed the greatest American band of the ’70s (a Black version of Kiss + Roxy Music, the guitarist explains, imposing perhaps a little too oversimplified hindsight) has all the sex and drugs and Studio 54 you came for. But the third of the book covering Rodgers’s childhood could be a standalone memoir: Raised by a Black hipster mom and Jewish stepdad in the Village, young Nile relocates to L.A., where he learns guitar and becomes a hippie, then returns to New York and joins the Black Panthers, apprentices at the Apollo, and heads off on the Chitlin’ Circuit. After all that, the Madonna and Bowie anecdotes are just a fancy coda.
Logan’s Burgers and Chicken
You want a chicken sandwich in Minneapolis? Feh on chains. I popped into this little joint one sunny weekend in early March 2020 during my last pre-quar jaunt down Lake Street and couldn’t wait to get back. For obvious reasons, it took me a while. Nicer on the inside than its location tucked behind a laundromat in a mini-strip mall suggests, Logan’s nails every item on its simple menu, with the nearly breast-sized chicken tenders worth a special mention. All at fast food prices. No one I’ve recommended it to has been disappointed.
I’m no Bleachers fan, and let us not speak of fun., but I’m fascinated with how Jack Antonoff has become a hate-magnet on Twitter simply by... producing too many widely beloved pop albums? Antonoff doesn’t make dunk-worthy comments. He doesn’t demand the spotlight. He doesn’t even have such a distinctive sound that when you hear his production work you think “Ugh, not again.” But loathing him has become a popular pastime, as though ubiquity itself has become a liability. Better not fuck up the Lorde album, bud.
In the Heights
Movies are back, baby! And if you want to gaze upon large moving pictures once again this summer, Jon M. Chu has gathered some pleasing images for you to gawk at. Colorful streetscapes! An earnestly cute young cast! Busby Berkeley homages in a public pool! Heroic taxi dispatchers! Jimmy Smits! (But please, directors and editors, stop cutting to reaction shots during dance scenes. Just let us watch the dancing.) But if Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Gilbert-and-Sullivan meets Schoolhouse Rock aesthetic would come to make its own transcendently nerdy sense for Hamilton (yes it did, shut up), this earlier Broadwayification of New York’s wide-ranging Latin musical traditions often seems forced, celebrating the idea of a culture rather than capturing its sound. Not that I’d complain so much if I could remember any of the songs beyond the three-note melody of the film title.
The Mayor of Minneapolis has complete authority over the Minneapolis Police Department. (Well, to the extent that any elected official does.) If this surprises anyone who casually follows Minneapolis news (including many Minneapolis residents), that’s because Jacob Frey and his PR abettors have shunted responsibility for the rise in violent crime (mirrored nationwide, incidentally) onto a City Council whose actions he has consistently misrepresented, especially to national media. Not all of us Minnesota transplants are carpetbaggers, but with no organic base to represent, Frey’s core constituency is a collection of downtown business interests whose chief concern is projecting an image of “safety” to suburban visitors who’ll never be convinced and to rattled homeowners hoping for an easy fix. Frey was clearly an empty if tightly fitting suit from the start—your grandparents’ idea of a cool young person—but until the murder of George Floyd we just winced at his overeager performance of the ceremonial aspects of his position and hoped for the best. Since the city’s long-ignored wounds split open last summer, however, Frey has ducked behind his Black chief of police, spouted platitudes like “culture eats policy for breakfast” (well, actually he’s spouted that same platitude repeatedly), and positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate whose hands are tied unless a “strong mayor” charter amendment empowers him. Did I mention that the Mayor of Minneapolis has complete authority over the Minneapolis Police Department?