Thursday, December 24, 2020

Review: Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016 • Maggie Rogers

It may seem reasonable to believe an artist’s career begins when they first crest into cultural relevance. For Maggie Rogers, that milestone came in 2016 when her composition class project was magnified into her mainstream launchpad. “Alaska” was the moment around which the story of her career has been rewritten, but the narrative ignores an important prelude of independent records and jam sessions from the past decade. Rather than charge forward off the back of her major label debut, Heard it in a Past Life, Rogers invites listeners to revere the work that lead to it with Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016.

Selections from Rogers’ indie records are pieced together in their original forms to create Notes, a reverse chronological autobiography that walks listeners backward from the artist we know to the one who made her folk music in New York City dorm basements. We as listeners can use the collection to deconstruct her current artistry down to the studs, as the record opens with hazy surf-rock – “Celadon and Gold” and “Steady Now” are the perfect light head-thrashers – and slowly throttles down to aimless acoustic folk. "Satellite," for example, sprawls out over seven minutes of piano and strings – a lonely musical landscape that cools the embers of the collection's warmer tendencies.

In the selections on Notes from the Archive, it's possible to pick out pieces of Rogers' songwriting that would carry forward into her major label roll-out. Capturing a half-decade of muses, the songs here are far more dynamic than the homogenized vision on her 2019 debut record – and even as songs that were written as a student and almost lost to time, most of them hold up well. While that allows more finalized peaks ("One More Afternoon," "Celadon and Gold," and especially "James," a memorable musical letter to a lost lover) to overshadow the near-demo ambiance of song sketches like "On the Page" and "Symmetry," the collection is an enjoyable survey of the path taken to this point.

Notes from the Archive: Recordings 2011-2016 is available now under Debay Sounds.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Review: Evermore • Taylor Swift

Let history remember that, among other things, this was the year that broke Taylor Swift. Once the most regimented machine in the industry, she followed inspiration into the woods without shaking her tact: The result was Folklore, a career-reinvigorating tour de force in pop-informed singer-songwriter music. Released as the sun set on an uneventful summer, the record bounced its ideas between the walls of solitude. Echoing existence during a centennial pandemic, Folklore seems to have resonated more strongly – and successfully broken more of her self-imposed limitations – than her prior two efforts. That was just five months ago, meaning that under normal circumstances, we should be 19 months away from another Taylor Swift record. But 2020 was the year that broke Taylor Swift... again.

Whereas every Taylor Swift album cycle before it swung into a new selling point, her ninth studio record, Evermore, bears direct lineage to its predecessor. Produced with the same team, the album inherits record store static intentions without the strict regiment to the aesthetic. Most notably, programmed drums and synth shimmers become more prominent without interrupting a raw, cinematic allure. A drum machine punches out the album's liveliest beat on "Long Story Short," though the track ultimately falls short when compared to something more elegant like "Willow." Pointed string plucks give the song a nearly Top 40 rhythmic shape, around which Swift bends her half-spoken verse pattern and over which she kicks into a falsetto chorus melody. On “Marjorie,” however, a drum machine is merely the warm underbelly to support Swift’s songwriting. Her reputations ring loudest on the touching tribute to her late grandmother: “What died didn’t stay dead. You’re alive, so alive.”

Featuring vocal and lyrical cameos from the Haim sisters, “No Body, No Crime” pays honorable homage to the “other woman” archetype in country music. While the song’s rich Western production value makes it somewhat of a pleasant outlier among its peers, it isn’t alone in containing some of Swift’s best vocal arrangements and storytelling. Her voice's light yet malleable qualities take center stage on something like "Gold Rush," where an attractive stranger triggers a majestic suspension from reality, or "Cowboy Like Me," a Bonnie and Clyde love story. But her vocal abilities are especially accentuated when presented opposite the gravel-throated frontmen from Bon Iver and The National on "Coney Island" and "Ivy," the latter of which is among the record's best thanks to the effective vocal work: "Oh, god damn. My pain fits right in the palm of your freezing hand," she sings with emphasis in all the right places.

It’s safe to say, at least at this time, Swift will never be a linear artist. Even at her most low-maintenance and unpolished, she entangles the affairs of a complex cast into the record’s patchwork (and allegedly incorporates it into the companion record's characters) with striking specificity. Tracing a Hallmark movie script but painting the affairs in more detail than her template, Swift rekindles the former high school passion between the average Joe and Hollywood star who are home for the holidays – then later details the long-term emotional knots that the reunion ties around them. Across town, a couple's marriage goes sour and ends in two murders. Then there's Swift, a songwriter who has gracefully adopted folk story songwriting. She is often the narrator who stitches together affairs upon a universal backbone – love – but more so here than on Folklore, her own experiences are superimposed nicely upon her characters' narratives.

With Evermore, Swift is more content to extend the legacy of Folklore than to supersede it. She becomes comfortable in her newest musical environment rather than transitioning into the next chapter, and in turn, we hear her dilate a singular vision for the first time since her opening run of country records. The admirable sepia tones of her last record's songwriting and storytelling mature into equally enjoyable pastel here, even at the expense of allowing a few ill-fitting cuts saturate into full technicolor. And while Folklore and Evermore alone won't determine the trajectory for the rest of Swift's career, the incredible expansion on Evermore proves that it would be hard – if not impossible – to isolate the lessons learned at this precipice to just a mere phase. Together, the two records manage to assert themselves as imperative additions in a discography already packed with essential chapters.

Evermore is available now under Republic Records.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Top 10 Albums of 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has required artists to get creative when producing and promoting a record: More than a few records were birth in at-home studios via virtual collaboration. Stripped live performances from the living room took the place of cross-country tours. Music videos were filmed from the front-facing cameras on smartphones. It was a strange year for most and a destructive one to the entertainment industry, but these artists endured the circumstances and prevailed. Here are the top ten records that defined my year.


Admittedly, Chromatica carries itself with less ambition than previous Lady Gaga records. Gaga scales back to dance music basics and smooths her cumulative level of service. While the record doesn’t enjoy any noticeable high spikes in quality as it plays out, there also isn’t a single unlikable song in the bunch. Ultimately, her approach works to the record’s benefit, as each song acts as a short burst in a never ending endorphin rush. "This is my dance floor I fought for," she asserts on "Free Woman" – and she doesn't leave her post for the entire 45 minutes of Chromatica. She seems ready to relinquish her worries, throw down some four-on-the-floor, and just dance once again, holding true to the promise she made to herself and her fans the very moment she hit the global stage. Click here to read the full review.


Not to be chalked up as just Williams’ dead sprint toward amplified pop music, Petals for Armor treats her solo material as the elastic venture it should be. While she grabs onto others' established stylistic choices from across contemporary music to craft her own fleeting shades of pop, Williams has crafted a record with few pitfalls; it remains engaging without losses in consistency or storytelling. With blunt lyricism, dynamic vocal performances, and progressively expansive soundscapes, the tracks carry a lineage that seems natural and logical. If it were a secret-spilling book, it would be a tough read for quite a few chapters. As a record, however, Petals for Armor translates a postmortem on the past decade of her life into a career-redefining musical monument. Click here to read the full review.


Greed, consumerism, and Western culture are explored over similarly interesting backdrops. She ties inherited money with the (dis)honor and hostility that come with it on “Dynasty,” a prelude to the album on which she pleads, “Catch me before I fall.” “XS” is an exhilarating take on turn-of-the-millennium rhythm and blues with sarcastic maximalist lyrics. And “Tokyo Love Hotel” is her love letter to Tokyo – and an overt self-awareness PSA to visitors to Tokyo who treat Japanese culture as a disposal hobby. While “Chosen Family” proves to be a bit dull and “Paradisin’” is charmingly chintzy, no track goes without ambition: Each one blindsides the senses from a new direction. The record’s elasticity and potency are its hallmark – and despite its losses in consistency, Sawayama is a high-definition snapshot of nearly an hour of controlled chaos. Click here to read the full review.


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. Click here to read the full review.


“Midnight Sky,” a new pinnacle in Cyrus’ career, was the harbinger to Plastic Hearts, her rock-indebted seventh record. Inspired by and later remixed with Stevie Nicks, the single delivers the best possible combination of elements in a Miley Cyrus song: Thrashing bass meets metallic synths, demanding the full weight of her voice to compete with the energy. With inspiration, co-signature, and collaboration from rock music’s legacy names, the rest of Plastic Hearts follows a similar trajectory with contemporary flair: Rock titans Joan Jett and Billy Idol appear on uncanny replicas of their own areas in rock music, while disco revivalist Dua Lipa appears opposite of Cyrus on “Prisoner,” a slamming rocker made for the dance floor. Not a single moment of the record underutilizes her voice, her presence, or her power: Representing the musical space within which she most comfortably resides, it is the record Miley Cyrus was destined to produce. That is, until the next one proves us wrong once again. Click here to read the full review.


Future Nostalgia charges at a full sprint from the starting gun: The title track alone spits confidence unimaginable from a woman who was just coming to terms with her place in the industry a few years prior. However, she understandably broke down that wall earlier this week: "I don’t want to do this," she said between tears on Instagram Live, just before she announced the album‘s promotion would continue through the largest global health crisis in decades. The decision surely wasn’t an easy one, but it seems the best results came from it. Decades from now, we’ll never forget the artist whose absolutely electric pop songs gave us permission to dance through the worst – and without a doubt, those songs will live on to accompany some of our brightest moments, too. Click here to read the full review.


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. Click here to read the full review.


When the fairytale overture on opening cut “Spotlight” stalls out, a saturated bass line and hand claps emerge from the shadows to support the album’s best vocal work. From there, What's Your Pleasure? is a slow burn of hazy titillation via lounge-chic seduction ("In Your Eyes," "Adore You," "The Kill") and more often, throbbing pulsations: A drum and bass tickle the senses beneath “Save a Kiss,” preluding a dance-induced sweat tsunami forming on the horizon, and a whiplash beat tosses the chorus chant of "Mirage (Don't Stop)" from wall to wall. When the doors to the club are kicked open in the morning, though, there's a sobering reminder: "The heart of the city is on fire. Sun on the rise, the highs are gonna fall," she sings on the closing number, reminding us that reality can't remain suspended forever. And while that's true, What's Your Pleasure? is at least one well-deserved midnight escape for the senses. Click here to read the full review.


Apple cuts into a primal heartbeat on “Heavy Balloon,” shaking loose from depression’s grip with an outburst: “I spread like strawberries. I climb like peas and beans.” If not for the title track, the similes for her self-nurturing would have acted as the record’s de facto mission statement. Despite its abrupt twists and blatant imperfections, Fetch the Bolt Cutters feels more homegrown than spontaneous by its end, having established a complex root system of heavy percussion, expressive vocal deliveries, organic household clatter, and flat-out brutal bluntness. With the sharpest, most interesting songwriting of her career, she unleashes a record that has waited not just eight years, but an entire lifetime to be made. Fetch the bolt cutters, indeed. Click here to read the full review.


At nearly an hour long, Women in Music Pt. III is a towering testament – and not a single moment feels inessential. Danielle steps forward more firmly as the band’s pseudo-frontwoman in a traditional sense, but the three women’s talents are balanced and spotlit in their own rights. They each prove to be crucial to the record’s success: Danielle earns co-producer credit on every song and takes responsibility for a myriad of instrumentation. With this album’s dependency on sturdy underlying grooves, Este’s sublime bass work dictates each track’s mood board. And though Alana’s instrumental contribution shouldn’t be underplayed, some of the record’s most enthralling moments transpire when her vocal harmonies radiate out from behind her sister. The very best recorded display of their collective synergy and musical force, Women in Music Pt. III reflects three women who – both metaphorically and literally – have hit their stride. Click here to read the full review.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall