Monday, August 1, 2022

Review: Renaissance • Beyoncé

In the six years since it happened, there hasn’t been a moment in pop culture quite like the day Beyoncé dropped “Formation,” an unprecedented case study in a household name harnessing her inconceivable level of star power for social change. The single, and the album that followed it, solidified the journey that her self-titled record initiated: Beyoncé, a personally elusive yet professionally omnipresent entertainment figurehead, is determined to make boldface statements, not just music. It, of course, then didn’t seem unordinary when she charged out of a two-year silence adorned in strands of jewels atop an electrified horse, delivering a deep disco record in a promised trilogy set. The result, Renaissance, grasps dance music at its roots and exposes elements of the genre often steamrolled in modern day revivals.

Constructed atop a foundation of cross-generational samples – from the likes of Donna Summer, Big Freedia, and Kelis, with or without her blessing – with an abundance of self-confidence, Renaissance listens like a spontaneous amalgamation of yesterday’s unfettered funk and today’s filthy-forward vernacular. The songs are overheated and overcharged, launching out of the speakers like a water main break – a continuous stream of interdependent thumps and bumps made for the long haul of a club set, not for today's myopic playlist culture. To pull a song at random would feel like an unnatural interruption to the album's circadian rhythm: Even “Break My Soul,” the summer-defining lead single that blew through my car’s speakers as a self-standing fragment of this mural, feels incomplete now without its spitfire predecessor “Energy” and downright nasty “Church Girl” encore. 

With the rise in the words “quarantine” and “pandemic” in pop music critique also came the resurgence of “escapism.” Suddenly, dire worldwide affairs became the responsibility of artists to alleviate in hour-long increments – and even Beyoncé isn’t immune, as she roars, snarls, and moans through a record that is as much about a night in the sheets as it is a night in the club. In short, Renaissance is a solid bump ‘n grind record in spirit, but an even better disco record in construction. For better or for worse, many songs lack a hook worth committing to memory – because Beyoncé is far too busy delivering quick one-liners that are either ferociously forward (“Taste me, that fleshy part. I scream so loud, I curse the stars,” she slides across the metallic beat of “Virgo’s Groove”), quietly comical (“Monday, I'm overrated, Tuesday, on my dick”), or a bit of both.

“We jump in the car, quarter tank of gas. The world’s at war, low on cash,” she sings twiceoover on “Pure/Honey” as the song progresses from its moody “four, three, too fuckin’ busy” runway march to its unexpected call-and-response closing. (A literal escape, indeed.) While either of the album’s bookends – “I’m That Girl” and the Summer-sampling “Summer Renaissance” – could serve as the record’s thesis, there’s also a case to be made for “Pure/Honey,” where Beyoncé’s mission statement is unobstructed from any other distractions: Renaissance aims to repopulate disco music with the unadulterated eroticism and amplified flamboyance it once promoted within the cloaks of black and queer nightclubs. Sometimes it's quick and sloppy; but more frequently, it beats through any external distortion to assert Beyoncé, once again, as an unshakable force in musical collaging with a purpose.

Renaissance is available now under Columbia Records and Parkwood Entertainment.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Review: Sometimes, Forever • Soccer Mommy

Playing gigs around the world as alternative outfit Soccer Mommy, singer-songwriter Sophie Allison returns to her hometown of Nashville, Tennessee between tours. While it has become a business hub and a musicians’ mecca, the city maintains an unassuming status when plucked away from the Appalachia and stacked beside coastal giants and typical celebrity hot spots. To reject the expected migration and remain firmly in the South seems counterculture, but to embrace the establishment and belonging of a hometown safety net is warm and familiar. It’s that blend of emotion – somewhere between feeling comfortable where you are and being too cool to care what anyone else thinks of it – that Soccer Mommy’s music continues to capture on her third studio record, Sometimes, Forever.

On “Shotgun,” the album’s lead single in which Soccer Mommy’s propensity for well-crafted hooks is magnified with a blurry mix of electric guitars and subtle synthesizers, Allison sings through her grocery list: “Cold beer and ice cream’s all we keep, the only things we really need.” Its casual verses play down its underlying echo chamber of romantic admiration – and that idea extends to other corners of the record. “With U,” a swaying rock number complemented with fresh springs of synthesizers, is wholeheartedly dedicated to another: “Wherever you’re going, I’m going, too, ‘cause nothing else matters when I’m with you.” And even when love takes to the periphery and uncertainty creeps to the lyrical center, as it does on the grungy “Don’t Ask Me” and the heavy suicide confessional “Darkness Forever,” there’s still a semblance of calm within a Soccer Mommy tune. 

Both Soccer Mommy records leading up to Sometimes, Forever were alluring in their own right, but neither can compare to the textures brushed onto this record’s canvas. Any nods to late 20th century rock music are magnified with more progressive decoration of the genre. While lite psychedelia and dulled pop have become the primary underpinnings of her music, she shims in a subtle country guitar lick on “Feel It All The Time,” which opens with a dedication to a trusty old pick-up truck in the driveway to boot, and an unsteady mechanical churn with “Unholy Affliction.” But even when Soccer Mommy is doing what she’s always done without complication – rocking out on something like album opener “Bones” or masquerading a gruesome scene with a gentle guitar strum on “Fire in the Driveway” – she feels like she’s at the top of her game.

Sometimes, Forever is available now under Loma Vista Recordings.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Review: MUNA • MUNA

At the time of this piece’s publication, pop band MUNA’s Twitter biography is a confident self-proclamation: “greatest band in the world.” Their 2019 sophomore album was just as bold, titled Saves the World – which, of course, may resonate with a bit more irony in hindsight, given the events that would occur in the years to follow. But there’s a reason the band gets to speak in such declaratives: Because they’re just that good. As a three-piece synthpop group that was picked up and spit out by the major label machine before becoming the quarterback act of Phoebe Bridgers’ indie imprint, the band finds themselves more, well, themselves than ever. MUNA, their self-titled third record, asserts the idea that their “sad soft pop songs for sissies, angry girls, emo queers, and crybabies” can take vivid, genre-contorting forms without erasing their signatures from the finished product.

Opening their namesake record with “Silk Chiffon,” the sunshiney anthem that proclaims “life’s so fun,” seems like it could be a self-aware farce against MUNA’s modus operandi – and in some ways, one could suppose it is. But it’s exactly the song to fire the starting pistol on a record that begins in a dead sprint: “I want the full effects. I want to hit it hard. I want to dance in the middle of a gay bar,” Katie Gavin demands on “What I Want,” a reckless, heavy-handed dance number that comes in hot on the heels of “Silk Chiffon” and embraces a messy night out. (She and bandmates Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson capture the juicy tabloid era of Paris, Lindsay, and Britney perfectly in its video, too.) And let’s not be mistaken – there’s plenty of emotional mess to be had on this record, just as there was on the previous MUNA records. However, the coping mechanisms are far sharper than they ever were.

There’s plenty of unbridled queer joy and inner peace to be harnessed on this record, too. One listen to “Solid” will bring enough of it to gloss right over the fact that the band describes a girl in the same way that a fisherman would describe his trusted boat. “Kind of Girl” cracks open a country cosplay that carries onto “Anything But Me,” both of which are near-perfect examples of how encompassing a MUNA song can be while accepting solace and strength in being alone. Whether it’s when the pedal guitar cracks off through the skyline on “Kind of Girl” or the glistening synths and pidder-padder drum skitter across “Handle Me,” there are so many small moments to embrace on a record that is full of surprises, cut incredibly taut, and feels as if it’s a complete and untarnished vision from its three creators.

MUNA is available now under Saddest Factory Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall