Thursday, February 18, 2021

Regarding Taylor Swift's Re-Recordings

Legends, icons, kings or queens: No matter their titles, they’re the musical acts who have had the power and longevity to draw a through line between an incredible number of diverse listeners throughout (and after) their professional careers. AC/DC, Prince, Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, and Dolly Parton are often the common denominators in definitive lists of these acts.

As a music industry centerpiece for the past 15 years, Taylor Swift very well should have her name inscribed at the end as one of a few Millennial additions. In the past decade, she has been the successor to her own records: She has moved over 1 million units of each album released, scored seven number one singles, and became the first female artist to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year twice. So when she announced she would re-record her first six records to spoil the profitability of a business transaction that somehow put her original master recordings in the hands of a high-profile music manager, she created a cultural tidal wave with precedent-setting implications for music fans – of hers and at large.

She isn’t the first to do it. Most notably, former teen star JoJo recreated her first two records when her former label withheld the originals after a years-long career gridlock. However, Swift bears the weight to create systemic change and spark widespread conversation: Having previously exercised her force when inking roster-wide stipulations on streaming service revenue into her newest contract with the Universal Music Group and successfully suing a disc jockey for nominal damages in a sexual assault case, she now has opened the narrative over artists’ claim to their own master recordings. The new recordings are beacons for artists’ rights, placing a figurative spotlight on predatory contracts for new artists navigating the industry landscape.

In addition to reclaiming her creative property and degrading the value of her original material on streaming platforms, Swift’s refreshed versions bring a rare opportunity to re-contextualize the music that formed her career's bedrock. We all have taken this music with us like a security blanket, allowing it to bear the baggage of good and bad memories alike. In 2009, I listened to Fearless most through two blankets of drywall as my sister’s boombox blared it through the wall that divided our bedrooms. As a closeted pre-teen, I played a dismissive bystander rather than an active participant in her “girly” career in a foolish attempt to masquerade my gay attributes. But by 2012, I accompanied my sister for a trip to Target on release day to celebrate Red, an album that sat in my first car’s stereo for at least six months. I became a convert, no matter the social consequence.

My interactions with and attachment to Swift’s music has grown even further in the time since those Red karaoke sessions. Now, I (and so many others) are offered a rare second opportunity to experience these records for the first time all over again. When we hear the records’ stories retold, we all will have the gift of hindsight on our side – but rather than rebuke her younger self’s valid creative statements or look through a revisionist’s lens, Swift embraces the music as the emotionally valuable asset that it is. If “Love Story” and the promise to record vaulted material from the original album’s sessions are any indication to the rest of her plans, Swift looks to remain loyal to – and in fact, celebrate – her younger self’s vision and feelings: Something that, in some cases, likely will be taxing.

After interlocking her albums as stair-steps to create a natural progression, she declared her former self dead on Reputation, a harsh reactive shift in business practice that placed her public availability in a chokehold. The past year, however, has revitalized Taylor Swift’s career with much more nuanced evolution: She has become a businesswoman who can balance unpredictability, suspense, and calculation, yet she remains an artist with an impeccable skill set and undeniable creative drive. As she loosened her grip on the hard-sell tactic to music promotion, she began to bypass legacy media to pipe music directly to those who cared: Her fans, who seem to be growing in numbers even 15 years into her career. Folklore and Evermore were both announced unceremoniously via Tweet, without any large-scale legacy media coordination upon launch that would contribute to a perceived publicity overload – a claim that was levied against her toward the end of the six-album run she is working to recount.

In this way, Taylor Swift may very well be shape-shifting into a legacy act: One who leverages longtime fans for her career’s horsepower, not particularly concerned collecting new followers. As the primary audience for her re-recordings, her connected Swifties will be the ones to care enough to make the conscious effort to replace the original cuts with “Taylor’s Versions” in their music libraries. This effort may be lost altogether to the few who never accepted Taylor Swift’s open invitation into her universe, but her existing empire remains so large – enough so that her two most recent records were buoyed at the number one spot in America for multiple weeks each, with Folklore becoming the best-selling record of the year – that her status as a songwriting titan and cultural powerhouse may never fade into a nostalgic memory.

• • •

For fun, I ranked a song from each record that I'm most excited to hear revisited. 

(1989, 2014)

Given both our proximity to its release and how loyal the Taylor Swift lore remains to the record, 1989 may be the re-recorded album I'm least anticipating. It was Taylor’s biggest break in pop music, sure, but every Swift album since then has been at least partially informed by the familiar pastel vocal work and boldfaced synthpop. So let’s go for an underrated album cut here: “I Know Places,” a moody number that spins itself into a vocally demanding pseudo-call-and-response song. With its fountains of vocal runs, the song is anthemic in a way that not many other Taylor Swift songs try to achieve. 

(Reputation, 2016)

While she isn't permitted to record a new version of her sixth studio record just yet, a revisit to Reputation presents so many questions: Being the sharp peninsula that juts out from Swift's discography, it sidestepped most of Swift's own rules to music – and as we learned from her Miss Americana documentary, it marks an uncomfortable milestone for both Taylor Swift, the woman, and Taylor Swift, the celebrity. I could have placed a favorite from Reputation here, but instead, let's choose one that could present some important retrospective thoughts on the era: How will she approach "Look What You Made Me Do," the eulogy for the former self she now honors and the introduction to a stormy chapter of status rebellion?

(Taylor Swift, 2006)

As her only record to have its most essential songs captured in single releases, Taylor Swift’s debut record is largely hidden in the shadow of Fearless. “Should’ve Said No,” the last song to be pushed from the record on the heels of “Love Story” from Fearless, is the revenge song done right. Although she’s used the archetype plenty of times throughout her career, she sometimes falters upon landing. This one, however, is not one of those instances: Whichever Midwest cowboy inspired this song surely felt the sting when this one hit his stereo. Will teenage betrayal still resonant as strongly? Surely so, given the $300 million moral crime that inspired her to revisit all these songs.

(Fearless, 2008)

“You Belong With Me” was, by my accounts, the first Taylor Swift crossover song that my local Top 40 station started to pick up on heavy rotation. I believe it was my starting point into my secret casual Swift listenership. By that point, how could I resist? The song celebrates a coveted love in powerhouse pop, fashioned loosely in country garb. This may be among the most obvious choices for many folks on Fearless, but truth be told, the re-recorded album will provide me a much-needed fresh perspective on the deep cuts that I was so quick to dismiss in my younger days.

(Red, 2012)

Yes, I know. Every good Swiftie wants to hear the revamped “All Too Well” and an alleged 10-minute cut of the fan-favorite. I, however, will not sit idle and let the legacy of “Treacherous” be erased. This is grade-A Taylor Swift songwriting, and it should be treated as such. Its first two minutes build a winding road to its bridge, a full-throttle, white-knuckled race into a hasty relationship. Its instrumentation swells under the pressure, bursting beneath Swift’s promises to “get you, get you alone.” So yes, let me start the movement on #JusticeForTreacherous – and we'll get it soon enough.

(Speak Now, 2010)

Of the six records being re-recorded, Speak Now remains the most technically impressive and the most under-appreciated. Lodged between a landmark country record and a transitional pop breakthrough, Speak Now was the first release to declare her ambitions outside of country-pop. While the entire record will benefit from Swift’s matured voice – especially toward the back end, where rock influences paint a dark contrast to her bright voice – there’s a clear potential for added flair on an already incredible track like “Sparks Fly.” Its commercial release had already evolved well past its earliest banjo-laden demo origins, so there’s likely potential to create an even richer product this time around.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Review: Who Am I? • Pale Waves

When the band debuted a full-length project a few years ago, Pale Waves presented some dissonance for the senses. Adorned in heavy black eyeliner and fishnets, the band styled themselves as moody goth-pop newcomers who yearned for The Cure-era counterculture revival – but with debut record My Mind Makes Noises, the band fused synthesizers and guitars just as expected from a streaming-era act co-signed by The 1975. While “Television Romance” and “Eighteen” bouyed the record, it sometimes felt like maundering derivative of their closest contemporaries. This said, it initially seemed ironic for the band to title their follow-up Who Am I? – until we heard it.

Sharing only the most successful elements of the band’s debut, Who Am I? coordinates their guitar-driven synth pop with era-appropriate post-grunge. The resulting product presents as a fresh renovation to the space that Avril Lavigne and Ashlee Simpson once successfully occupied. The hallmarks of high drama and neon melodies are superimposed over a rock music underlayment, all of which has been polished to an attractive contemporary glisten. Album highlight “Easy,” where blown-out synths and full-bodied guitars collide in a climax of emotion, is perhaps best representative of how the record is indebted as much to aughts rock hit radio as it is to a ‘10s alternative playlist.

On “She’s My Religion,” meanwhile, these elements collide with the most melodrama. “She’s cold, she’s dark, she’s cynical. She’s forever angry at the world. She’s no angel, but she is my religion,” lead vocalist Heather Baron-Gracie declares on the slow burner. Similar remarks could be made about “Wish U Were Here,” perhaps the record’s best down-tempo reflection: “Crying on the floor, wishing you were here. Life is unfair, just want you here,” she sings through a hopscotch melody over fuzzy, unobtrusive guitar work. But when some instrumental energy backlights the group’s lyrics, the record presents even better material: “Change,” “Tomorrow,” and “Fall to Pieces” all thrash around to match the unruly energy that inspired this record’s aesthetic.

After Pale Waves positioned themselves as anonymous streaming fodder to benefit from their peers’ wake, Who Am I? answers its titular question with a course correction that moves them in the right direction, even if it fails to offer a completely unique definition to the band. While they sometimes graze the boundaries of self-parody with something like “You Don’t Own Me” or “Odd One Out,” Pale Waves make a relatively strong case as a rock band cosplay for the streaming age. Both their snippet-sized, stadium-ready anthems and their occasional depressive alcoves, yes, can lack nuance in their delivery and seem calculated for an optimal burst of nostalgia – yet their subtle progressive accents revitalize the genre with enough modern splash to make the album worthwhile.

Who Am I? is available now under Dirty Hit Records.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Review: Ignorance • The Weather Station

When listening in retrospect, each record released throughout Tamara Lindeman's decade-long history with The Weather Station seems to act as another milepost along a path that leads to the band's newest release. Once a no-frills acoustic singer-songwriter outfit, the band has gained enough comfort with sonic texture over its tenure in folk music to apply a progressive definition to the genre: The result is Ignorance, a bolder statement that does not dare mince Lindeman's thoughts on this generation's most prominent socioeconomic worries, even if it does prove to be pleasantly digressive in its musical touchpoints.

While much of the record's press narrative focuses on its underlying inspiration in Lindeman's recent self-education and subsequent activism in combating climate change, she often conveys her thoughts through ordinary circumstances: Take "Parking Lot," in which she gazes at a bird in the unending sky to suspend her human reality while a dance drum kit kicks against a pool of keys and strings, or "Atlantic," when she longs to pause her worry more often to appreciate the landscapes in front of her: "Thinking I should get all this dying off my mind. I should really know better than to read the headlines. Does it matter if I see? No, really, why can't I just cover my eyes?" 

Splashes of jazz inspiration are painted atop the drum and vocal bedrock of "Robber," the album's opening cut: Brass scribbles and the hum of an organ add color, foreshadowing a minute-long instrumental jam session of a finale. "Robber," like most of the record, cradles Lindeman's voice in a moody, saturated environment, sprinkled with genre-exempt adornments to accentuate its most pivotal moments. Almost always approaching a switch between her lower register and falsetto to achieve her melodies, Lindeman approaches her vocal work from a place of modesty: She could nearly be mistaken as a perfunctory vocalist if it weren't for the understated awe for which the band's music aspires.

Opening with its most ambitious material, Ignorance admittedly decelerates in intensity as it continue. When it hits its slowest pace – three-quarters of the way in, with tracks like "Wear" and "Trust" – Lindeman's nonconfrontational melodies can feel a bit meandering until "Heart" reintroduces a palpable drumbeat to push the songwriting back into form. That being said, the sparse "Subdivisions" better asserts its narrative of a lonely winter's drive to close the record: "What if I misjudged? In the wildest of emotions, did I take this way too far?" A record that so often carried grief on a granular level over a widescale crisis comes to a soft yet curiously inconclusive landing point – and it's an ending that only emphasizes there's still more to learn.

Ignorance is available now under Fat Possum Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall