Thursday, May 26, 2022

Review: Harry's House • Harry Styles

Harry Styles: Arguably the most famous former boyband member to dominate pop culture, or at least the one who achieved the most fame without personally victimizing Britney Spears and Janet Jackson in his ascent to the top. Each of his albums has not only sustained, but ballooned public interest in his life, his style, his relationships, and his next steps. Under the magnitude of celebrity lifestyle, it would be understandable for someone like Harry Styles to insulate his personal life from the stage persona that has grown far beyond his own control – yet here we are, in possession of a third studio album titled Harry’s House.

If Styles’ first two records were guitar-led rockstar testaments to the fact that he could succeed beyond the construct of One Direction, Harry’s House welcomes listeners into a freshly painted room – in something mint, or lemon, or salmon – where it’s all gone away. It’s just Harry and his music, played for whomever may stop in for a chat. Quaint and light, the music here aims to please no one. Harry often runs through lyrics with the fluidity of a grocery list – and on the horn-adorned “Music for a Sushi Restaurant,” that’s quite literal: “Green eyes, fried rice. I could cook an egg on you.” (Certainly the first 38-lettered way to say “hot as hell,” eh?) “Keep Driving” is about the same: “Riot America, science and edibles, life hacks going viral in the bathroom. Cocaine, side boob, choke her with a sea view.” (Harry After Dark is in full force, folks.)

The album is packed with these moments, when he is more focused on saccharine melody lines and the regularity of ordinary life. Of course, reality creeps in eventually on No. 1 single “As It Was,” a bright, flashing signal to get up and get on with it, and “Love of My Life,” a churning reflection on love lost – but even at its heaviest, Harry’s House remains an easy listen. It’s smooth, even if Harry himself isn’t the most suave in constructing his strings of alphabet soup, and maybe somewhat self-indulgent – but it’s an album from someone who stopped particularly caring what you think months ago, knowing that what he creates will surely be good enough for himself. And that it is, and that it should be. After all, this is his house. We’re just visitors.

Harry's House is available now under Columbia Records.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Review: Preacher's Daughter • Ethel Cain

On the night of the Met Gala, Ethel Cain tweeted that she was digging through the floorboards of her truck for loose change to buy a McDouble. A few hours later, she tweeted Sky Ferreira fan mail. By midnight, she tweeted a distorted photograph of herself in a sweatshirt printed with a naked man promoting an experimental band in semen. That night, I learned a lot about the pale white woman with the otherwise curated allure of a pilgrim whose manic stan behaviors had infiltrated my Twitter and Tik Tok feeds over the past few years – including the discovery of an affecting music career rooted in a backwards relationship with Southern charm.

Cain is the creation of Hayden Silas Anhedönia, a misunderstood child of the deep South who still proudly resides at a nowhere, Alabama, address – despite having gathered enough material from her all-American upbringing to smear it into a pseudo-autobiographical musical project that explores deep religious trauma and abusive relationships. Preacher’s Daughter, her debut record, is the twisted retrospective of her persona’s short life: Though it opens with an instantly serviceable synthpop cut aptly titled “American Teenager,” the 76-minute album proves to be an unpredictable exploration of musical touchpoints and rural American culture.

In fact, more often than not, Cain’s work is anything but instant: Many songs here are weighted with intense subtext yet carry well over the five-minute mark, churning like a wave pool to build from a gentle ripple to a fatal riptide. “Thoroughfare” crescendos over most of its nine-minute run as emotions deepen for a trucker who picked up on a highway – “Honey, love’s never meant much to me, but I’ll come with you if you’re sure it’s what you need,” she tells her new affair as the track busts into a panoramic sound that embodies the open road. It’s clear in “Thoroughfare,” “Family Tree,” and so many other songs here that withholding the payoff of a song – thus forcing devastating lyrics and evolving vocal arrangements to marinate with a listener – is an incredibly effective strategy.

It’s hard to imagine how another Ethel Cain project could exist after this one: The story is pretty well splattered across this record already, in enough detail to merit a content warning on songs like “Hard Times,” a graphic reflection on repeated assault and its aftermath, and to a greater extent, “Ptolemaea” and “Gibson Girl,” demented hallucinations that batter listeners with screams and grinding guitars. Scripted to elicit discomfort in ways that none of its closest musical references tried to accomplish, the album offers not a single moment of relief until the dreamy “Sun Bleached Flies,” when a sax squiggles over a postmortem moral to the tragedy of Ethel Cain: “If it’s meant to be, then it will be. I forgive it all as it comes back to me.” Maybe there’s a silver lining after all – we’ll just have to wait for the next record to learn about it.

Preacher's Daughter is available now under Daughters of Cain.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Review: Dance Fever • Florence + the Machine

When we heard from English rock band Florence + the Machine last, it seemed that centerpiece singer-songwriter Florence Welch had – at least temporarily – unfurled her hands from their years-long grip on disaster. On High as Hope, a tidy little 10-track record, she generally focused on healing over hurting. Four years later, the same could be said for Welch, despite having emerged from a global pandemic adorned in medieval gowns with visions of dancing mania – a widespread Renaissance era mental disorder that would force its prey to dance to their deaths – on the band’s fifth studio record, Dance Fever.

It feels impossible for a Florence + the Machine record rooted in medieval hysteria not to exist already – it’s so squarely on brand for Florence Welch that the record could risk becoming a satire of the band if it weren’t so damn good. Produced with Jack Antonoff and Glass Animals’ Dave Bayley, Dance Fever embraces each of Florence’s strengths: “Dream Girl Evil” is a stunning Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac revival, “My Love” is the closest brush to a dance club that the band has mustered since 2011’s “Spectrum,” and “Daffodil” lands Welch squarely into a high-drama action movie score as it pounds its way into a frenzy. It’s a wildly dynamic, sometimes restless record that burrows deep into places Welch has never gone before – though she probably should have.

Welch continues to shift masterfully between reality and mythology – sometimes making an example of the mundane, other times commanding an audience like a spiritual leader. “We argue in the kitchen about whether to have children, about the world ending and the scale of my ambition,” she sings on “King,” a song that begins with a simple argument and ends in a desperate howl for emotional equality. Similarly, she spins a drunken trip to Tennessee into a baptism: “But if I make it to the stage, I’ll show you what it means to be spared,” she declares as she ends the song in an arrangement of harmonies worthy of a gospel chorus. Whether she feels undercut or overpowered – both of which are sentiments on this record, dependent on scenario – she floods the ordinary with intense color. 

Despite its name, Dance Fever isn’t so much focused on a breakneck pace, massive hysteria, or even dancing for that matter. (Though, of course, “Choreomania” fits those three descriptors quite nicely and delivers the glorious rebuttal, “You said that rock and roll is dead, but is that just because it has not been resurrected in your image?”) Rather, it continues what Florence Welch does best: Like the records before it, Dance Fever finds power within the struggles of everyday life. It’s easily the band’s least focused record in regard to honing its sonic mission – which certainly makes it their least predictable, as well. These songs melt into the cracks left between the band’s previous work and cement their discography as a monument dedicated to an extraordinary career forever in motion – with no sign of an exhausted collapse in sight.

Dance Fever is available now under Republic Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall