Friday, August 7, 2020

Review: Dreamland • Glass Animals

The COVID-19 crisis has provided us no choice but to change the way we write, produce, promote, and listen to music. Since the viral disease proved serious enough for the world to shutter its doors on non-life supporting functions and typical human interaction as winter neared its end, no art has been analyzed without the lens of self-isolation. The concept of a "quarantine record" has become a cliché for albums released while we can enjoy them only alone, from the comfort of our makeshift work-from-home stations. Charli XCX led the charge to document the do-it-yourself hobbyist approach to her newest record, and Taylor Swift recently revolutionized the concept when capturing the emotions that are left to bang between the walls of our empty homes.

Dua Lipa and Fiona Apple were among the first to have found the narratives around their newest records re-framed into quarantine's terms; Lipa's otherwise club-ready sophomore release was lauded for allowing its listeners a personal getaway from silence, while Apple's already elusive lifestyle and introspective songwriting lent themselves seamlessly to the new normal in 2020. And with their third record, English pop outfit Glass Animals join these ranks. After having its pre-release tour canceled due to mass gathering concerns and its release pushed back to prevent adding digital noise at the peak of the Black Lives Matter protests, Dreamland has been redefined by its time period despite bearing compelling signs of growth and a personal narrative detached from global conversation points.

On the band’s 2016 sophomore release, How to Be a Human Being, Bayley translated his first years as a touring artist through characters based on those he met and questioned along the way – a method that charged fictional characters with the responsibility to speak on his own experiences. Though Bayley tends to write his tunes in second-person on Dreamland – singing directly to his subject, as if we aren’t here to spectate –  he provides a bystander’s uncomfortable perspective on – and relief from – a lifetime’s worth of trauma, not just a six-month residency in abnormality. With its titular track, Bayley introduces the record as his own rejuvenation, hinting at lasting memories that will be explored in later tracks with vivid intensity: "That first friend you had, that worst thing you said, that perfect moment, that last tear you shed, all you've done in bed, all on Memorex," he lists off from the contents that float within Dreamland.

Bayley credits this record’s self-confrontational approach to an accident that halted the band in 2018, when a truck hit drummer Joe Seaward while he was riding a bicycle. And although the incident, which caused life-threatening brain injuries and required extensive rehabilitation for Seaward, is never directly referenced in song on Dreamland, the event triggered a retrospective on moments in which Bayley felt just as vulnerable. Suspending the few seconds of dead air that occurs between breaking bad news and the response it elicits into a four-minute pressure cooker, "It's All So Incredibly Loud" might best capture discomfort. Its unorthodox structure swells under the suspense but never pops. It's also an interesting take to hear him crawl through tragedy on “Domestic Bliss,” his voice creaking to match his uncertainty when he witnessed habitual domestic abuse at a childhood friend’s home: “Why do you smile when he cries? Why do you cry when he wins?”

The band's debut record, Zaba, was heralded for its mystique and humid ambiance, which both eroded from their work over time but have been replaced with sharper musicality and frankness without losses in the band's finesse. Even within the gloomy jungles of Zaba resided indications that Glass Animals would morph into what is heard on Dreamland. The band's deep percussive nature, for example, remains their modus operandi, but their rumbling foundation's edges are better defined with sharp beat samples. Hip-hop sensibility lends itself perfectly to Bayley's strongholds in repetition and rhythm, while the band's lyrics and favor for low-fi synthesizers – in particular, check out the whiny horror flick synths and spacey samples on "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," a dark ode to a friend who tried to commit a school shooting – keeps the record from falling into anonymous streaming fodder.

The band's pivot is perhaps most evident on "Hot Sugar," a mutant slow jam that simmers just below boiling point, or "Toyko Drifting," a chest-puffing warehouse banger drenched in vocal alterations and equipped with the album's most assertive production. But nearly every song on Dreamland is instantly stickier than expected due to effective implementation of ticking hi-hats and pounding beats over faux-vintage synthesizers and simple hooks. "Tangerine" guns for an eight-bit video game aesthetic, employing a killer vocal line and textured plucked synth more effectively than even Drake’s "Hotline Bling" – a close cousin to this one’s instrumentation. Standout track "Heat Waves," meanwhile, embodies its name only in its studio form, in which a sturdy beat chops up deep wobbly synths. In stripped form, the song is rooted in fragility rather than magnetic appeal – and perhaps that's the point.

Dreamland may journey into the abstract much less than the band’s previous records, but its balance between straightforwardness and poetic imagery is something to be admired. The record scrapbooks repressed memories and splices in some stray thoughts – admittedly, we all have drifting thoughts of "big dicks and big 'ol titties on the sly" from time to time, don't we? – while gluing them over the band’s sharpest melodies and most gratifying instrumental visions yet. Not if, but when 2020 in the fine arts can be viewed through rose-toned reminiscence a few years (or maybe a few decades) from now, Dreamland could be misfiled as an oasis from quarantine. Though it is just that in some ways, what's more memorable is what we learn about Dave Bayley through his processing of the people who molded him well before 2020 – and he just happened to put it all to some pretty rad music, too.

Dreamland is available now under Wolf Tone Records.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Review: Die 4 Ur Love • Tei Shi

To die for one’s love is a strong statement, but Tei Shi is more than capable of making music to match it.

While it was a phenomenal release, Tei Shi’s last full-length record, La Linda, was released without much fanfare late last year as her contractual relationship to her label clearly neared its inelegant end. In contrast, her newest extended play, Die 4 Ur Love, feels much more enjoyable and much less like an obligation. Written during a retreat just before COVID-19 began its rampage this year, the release escapes for a short time into both playful imagination and impending doom – a perfect encapsulation of 2020 if ever there were one.

An exemplary show of arms in pop songwriting, the title track builds and bursts with an undying urgency as an apocalypse looms in the near distance; its opening hums are later interpolated into “Goodbye,” a chugging downtempo cut that welcomes the end (of a record contract, at least) with open arms. It’s not all gloom, though: She impersonates a stalker on “OK Crazy,” a stellar cosplay of a vintage workout track, and chases down a missing man on “Johnny,” which toys with some spaghetti western undertones.

When blogs and music publications began to cover Tei Shi, she was thrown into the clan of “bedroom pop” artists – those who came to ranks online, weren’t expected to break into mainstream culture, and didn’t care. And as it turns out, that’s exactly where Tei Shi belonged and has returned. Die 4 Ur Love may have commercial pop on the mind as it contrasts her light, simple harmonies with thick beats and a few fickle influences, but it doesn’t try to be anything but a sign that Tei Shi is free to do whatever the hell she wants – and it feels great.

Die 4 Ur Love is available now under Diktator Records.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Review: Folklore • Taylor Swift

When Taylor Swift detailed the creation of her last studio record, Lover, in a Netflix documentary, she spoke at length about invisible rules engrained in American society that dictate how a young woman should look, feel, and act in entertainment. Reinvention, she deduced, is a woman’s necessity about which a man would know nothing. Moreover, what is age to a man is an expiry date to a woman, and how many album rotations can be harvested before her time is up defines the success of a woman in Hollywood. “As I'm reaching 30, I'm like, I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful,” she told the camera, bearing the pressure of having been the pinnacle of celebrity status – and among the industry’s highest achievers – for nearly half her life.

Swift hit age 30 last December, about half a year after releasing Lover and few months before COVID-19 would make landfall in the United States. Shuttering live music venues and reshaping everyday life, the viral illness stomped the entertainment industry in many ways. But soon after it was realized that the virus would not be a fleeting moment in history, it was determined that the show must go on, upon the backs of artists who performed virtually from their living rooms and continued their record promotion with only their smartphones. And to someone who wouldn’t have known better, it would have looked like Swift was buoying her brand through the storm via nostalgia when a 2008 live record was released online.

The live record, however, was the work of her former record label, after its two leaders claimed ownership over the masters of her first 11 years of work and began wringing profitability through limited physical runs and special digital releases. Having already spoken her piece once, Swift swiped at the unethical practices and moved on. At the time, little did we know, she was actually readying to subvert expectations with Folklore, a 16-track folk novella written and produced in quarantine with Jack Antonoff and The National’s Aaron Dressner. Announced with less than a day’s notice and unveiled with a fully actualized marketing campaign that some artists can barely bother to muster under typical circumstances, the record uses an acoustic alternative blanket to commodify the vulnerable, lonely feelings that self-isolation can bring.

Given Taylor Swift’s artistry and folk music tradition both find cornerstones in storytelling, a stripped record like Folklore feels, at the very least, natural and a bit expected. While she has been criticized as selfish and short-sighted at times, Swift’s ability to romanticize or deject ordinary situations with vivid intensity is nearly unmatched – and this time around, she spreads a cast of characters across the album and entangles their affairs tightly with her own, suspending the listener’s perception of autobiography versus fiction. "Cardigan," an incredible choice for the record's lead single with lush orchestration and subtle harmonies, marks one point of the love triangle formed alongside the more optimistic "August" and "Betty."

Channeling the spirits that roam her Rhode Island manor, she also superimposes her own story over that of a deceased socialite who owned the home before her. Perhaps the most technicolor cut from the album, "The Last Great American Dynasty" details the overblown speculation that they both endured as women of a certain financial standing; "Mad Woman" later interpolates the same ideas with a less sarcastic tone. She inserts herself into the storyboard more directly on something like "Mirrorball," a hazy, open track that parallels her personality to an alluring but fragile disco ball, or "Invisible String," a casual stream of consciousness that hints at her own song titles and her boyfriend's teenage part-time job. "My Tears Ricochet," another standout, builds gradually to match the intensity of her destroyed relationship – assumed to be the one with her former record label.

Opposed to her last three records, Folklore boasts an under-produced acoustic ecosystem of guitars, strings, and keys – an environment in which Swift can relax her voice into a thin, natural tone, with nothing in the musical landscape to tug at its limits. The 16 songs send listeners on a trip into an endless forest; once sucked in through the first few songs, it's nearly impossible to stop the journey until the edge is finally reached – in the record's case, the ending tracks "Peace" and "Hoax," the former of which feels like a more appropriate closing number. Though the record's long-winded nature equates to feeling like she retraces territory already explored at times, Folklore sounds effortless and uncomplicated – and deservedly so, it's the most at ease Taylor Swift has ever sounded.

Folklore is available now under Republic Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall