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.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Review: Gaslighter • The Chicks

The last time The Chicks (née Dixie Chicks) released music, George W. Bush was midway through his second term in the Oval Office. The economy was near implosion, and the nation was waist-deep in an endless war with a moving target – the war that lead vocalist Natalie Maines had protested three years previous. In hindsight, the war was revealed to be the product of the largest public relations blunder in American history. But when Maines told her London crowd in 2003 – very tamely for 2020 standards, mind you – that she was ashamed of Bush’s decision to invade the Middle East, America had been whipped into an insatiable patriotic frenzy. To many, war was the only option – and Maines was unfairly determined to be a domestic terrorist for exercising her First Amendment right.

The Chicks’ story has been retold under every headline about them since 2003. If it hasn’t been the topic of an academic case study, it certainly should be. However, the iterations often are built upon the underlying belief that The Chicks are just the victims of a sexist, radical society. And while that is true, their resilience and endurance are often underplayed, if mentioned at all. Across the country, The Chicks were destroyed in effigy, blacklisted, and on one occasion, threatened to be shot on stage. Nevertheless, their nationwide tour – with most shows sold out – went on as scheduled the same year. By 2006, they stormed back: Shut Up and Sing, a documentary that covered the aftermath of their personal ground zero, was released in tandem with Taking The Long Way, a lauded studio record that collected five Grammy Awards. The Chicks prevailed, then fell silent.

Even after we as a nation realized that his marketing campaign that packaged and sold the endless war to the American public unraveled beneath him, George W. Bush could be seen no more than a mere dunce in comparison to the national embarrassment in the Oval Office today. In the wake of Kathy Griffin’s self-sacrificial stances against Donald Trump, Maines’ anti-war declaration is well within the contemporary standards for political protest today. Theoretically, The Chicks should be cleared for landing with Gaslighter, their full-length return to music. But enter Maines’ ex-husband, actor Adrian Pasdar, who attempted to bar the record’s release on grounds that its narrative may violate a prenuptial confidentiality agreement. If two sentences could trigger a lifetime struggle, what are the consequences of an entire record? The Chicks don’t care.

Despite The Chicks’ strained relationship with country music and its predominantly conservative listenership, Gaslighter listens like a country album for the modern era, which has granted a fresh space for left ideals and pop-colored variations in the genre since the last time The Chicks promoted a full-length effort. Written and produced with pop music’s most prominent contributors – most notably, executive producer Jack Antonoff and songwriters Justin Tranter and Julia Michaels, whose minimalist preference is this record's Achilles' heel – Gaslighter is built upon stronghold country archetypes: Songs about heartbreak and the other woman. All three of The Chicks – Maines and multi-instrumentalist sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer – divorced their husbands during their hiatus, though Maines may claim stake for the most fiery, given the court battle over this very album.

The Chicks’ battle cry rings deeply personal – and oftentimes, not only for them. The title track makes it clear who the original gaslighter was – "Boy, you know exactly what you did on my boat, and boy, that’s exactly why you ain’t coming home," Maines stings on the record's strongest track, only to reference the scene of the crime in more detail later on "Tights on My Boat" – but within the signature harmonies of the chorus, a certain commander-in-chief certainly comes to mind. "Wish I could go back and tell my younger self, 'You're a fighter, you just don't know it yet,'" she sings over the gentle ripples of a vintage synthesizer on "For Her," equal parts a self-reflection and a large scale cry for women's rights. And in the era of Black Lives Matter, the movement which inspired them to drop “Dixie” from their name, "March March" takes a new meaning with its brooding underbelly and bare vocal take.

Contrary to indications from its title track or third single, the accusatory "Sleep at Night," Gaslighter is hardly a singalong record. These are campfire folks songs for the scorned and betrayed, stripped to their fewest elements to allow Maines' words to take a direct hit her listeners. Truth be told, those looking for another cheeky anthem to which they can murder an abusive husband should probably look elsewhere, because this record won't offer much in terms of typical fare from The Chicks. (Probably goes without saying, but the girl who left her garments on Maines' boat best steer clear, too.) But those who want the honest assessment as to how Maines, Maguire, and Strayer have felt in the past decade – and how they pivot their anger over personal affairs into a similar outrage for societal issues at large with nearly seamless translation – step right up. 

Gaslighter is available now under Columbia Records.

© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall