Album Review Round Up Q1 2014 (Pharrell, Beck, St. Vincent, Against Me!)

Pharrell – G I R L
Well, let’s not all act surprised. Hell, once Pharrell’s third big name collaboration was released last summer, I started wondering if he was sitting on an album already. But no, in an interview with Pitchfork, Pharrell revealed that Columbia Records essentially commissioned him for G I R L, which is almost more foresight than I’m used to giving labels.

This all means that G I R L is informed by the reach-across-the-aisles dance numbers “Get Lucky”, “Blurred Lines”, and to a lesser extent Despicable Me 2‘s “Happy”, and the album sees Pharrell play the role of a seasoned DJ, ready to give the crowd what they want. G I R L is loaded with the same blend of pop, funk, disco, and soul that made Pharrell such a hit last year, and he clearly knows it. The record is rock solid in terms of consistency–it doesn’t have any real lows to speak of (“Lost Queen” as an 8 minute 2 parter is as close as it gets), but ignoring the independently written year old “Happy”, there aren’t any dramatic peaks, either. The album’s first half is filled with the staccato drums and twangy basslines that are more dance oriented, and made Pharrell such a hit last year. And any of them, from the horn-laden bounce of “Brand New” to the tight funk of “Hunter” could easily fit as a radio single or club cut. After culminating with “Happy”, G I R L considers the dancefloor claimed, and heads to the VIP lounge for its more laid back, experimental second half that doesn’t have the rush of side A, but still has enough groove to make your shoulders sway.

Like the main man himself, the guest artists on G I R L are rarely thrilled, but constantly entertaining. Daft Punk turn in a satisfying Random Access Memories outtake on the symphonic strut of “Gust of Wind”, and Alicia Keys is steps out of balladry for the reggae infused “Know Who You Are”. Hell, even Miley Cyrus cuts her schtick and sounds great on “Come Get It Bae”. But still, my favorite is Justin Timberlake on “Brand New”, where he gets into a falsetto-off with Pharrell while sounding as joyfully carefree as he does on Jimmy Fallon (and, pointedly, not on The 20/20 Experience).

G I R L‘s a fun time, but can’t help but be a little underwhelming. Once Pharrell starts namedropping famous women in the chorus of–wait for it–“Marilyn Monroe”, you know exactly where this is going to go, and there are few surprises over the next 40 minutes. The more I think about it, Pharrell reminds me of another super producer with an album out this year: Danger Mouse of Broken Bells. Both of these guys are at their best when they bring out a hidden edge in other artists, but their own solo (or near solo) work tends to be a little too self-satisfied for its own good. But, in either case, they’re still fun listens, 3.5/5.

Beck – Morning Phase
Beck might be 12 albums and 20 years into his career, but Morning Phase still makes a first. Unfortunately, it’s the first time that a Beck album wholly and predictably aped a Beck album. I should clarify: Beck’s hat trick has always been an eclectic mix of rock, folk, funk, psychedelia, and hip-hop in a style so effective that he could probably make your kitchen sink sound kinda catchy, but he’s always been great at finding new and distinct sounds in that style. That’s not the case for Morning Phase.

Morning Phase is billed as a “companion piece” to Sea Change, Beck’s shuffling acoustic acoustic singer-songwriter album, his critical high water mark of the 21st century, and one of the great Sad Bastard albums of the last 15 years. Morning Phase deliberately invokes Sea Change: the same warm string arrangements, breathy production, mid-tempo numbers, and even supporting players all returned over a decade later. On one hand, it makes sense to return here, because hey, this shit works. “Morning” is as majestic as any opener you’ll find, and “Waking Light”, “Heart Is a Drum”, and “Unforgiven” are blissed out, gorgeous soundscapes (especially “Unforgiven”‘s textured piano chords). To it’s credit, the album’s pacing goes a long way; no two back to back songs sound similar to the point of detriment, making Morning Phase a mood album above all else.

The problem here is that the mood is almost punishingly monotone. Even with all the obvious musical signatures repeated, the crucial difference between Sea Change and Morning Phase is that the former was driven by an immediate sense of loss that you can’t imitate with all the acoustic guitars, pianos, and violins in California. Sea Change had an austerity to its arrangements, and the reverb heavy production channeled dejection or isolation, in addition to being breathtaking. It was focused, it had a point.

Morning Phase‘s greatest problem isn’t that it lacks is predecessor (sorry, “companion piece”)’s sadness, it’s that it lacks anything in its place. Sea Change was made because it was a way to convey the emotions that Beck wanted to convey; Morning Phase was made because this shit worked on Sea Change. If you really want to see something like this that isn’t Sea Change, I’d suggest Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts, which Beck produced and arranged, since it hits the same beats as Morning Phase, but better. Morning Phase is still an ornate, kinda beautiful record, and it gets marks for that, but few songs leave a lasting impression. It’s Beck, but boring. Not every first occasion needs celebrating, 3/5.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Now here’s what I was expecting from a Beck album.

St. Vincent has always felt like a warp on whoever Annie Clark actually is, and this album marks that disparity at its widest. St. Vincent pushes the artist’s inherent traits to, and sometimes past, their breaking points. The skittering drums, angular guitars, and off-kilter arrangements of the record feel exaggerated next to, say, Strange Mercy, but they’re also pulled off here with a deftness missing in St. Vincent’s previous output. The feeling of prettiness is still here, but the most prominent feature on the album is corrosion. The guitars, especially on “Birth in Reverse” and the ugly beauty of
Regret”, sound like they’re being played on rusted guitar strings through an amp covered in grit, while Clark’s vocals come in digitized and distant on multiple tracks.

The album’s delirious shininess fits with its themes of paranoia, anxiety, loneliness, and fragility, particularly in a, ah, reflektive age. But St. Vincent doesn’t have any of Reflektor‘s moralizing–there’s no “Flashbulb Eyes” or “Porno” here. It accepts, grudgingly, that the way technology has integrated itself into our lives is more or less permanent, and sounds more interested in exploring how this affects us. “Huey Newton” doubles as a surreal Google walk with a killer guitar riff, and it isn’t hard to imagine the twitchy protagonist of “Birth In Reverse” as a social media obsessive who hits you up for Candy Crush lives. Elsewhere, we get some “gear and guts” imagery via “Severed Crossed Fingers”, and a number of times St. Vincent feels away from people. But, the album also finds room for connection with “I Prefer Your Love”, an open ode from Clark to her mother. As always with St. Vincent, there’s a meaning to her choices from the lyrics to her reference choices to the “near future cult leader” she portrays on the cover, but it’s on the listener to find what they mean.

Which, thankfully, is more inviting than you’d think. For how easy it is to get lost in the record’s allusions, St. Vincent is an approachable, if weird, album. The album’s main sound is deranged pop-rock, and it possesses a dead-eyed energy that makes them stick. Part of it is that feeling of corrosion; the bulk of St. Vincent was recorded with the “everyone playing together in the room” organic feel, but the production distorts their sound to the point of near synthetic (see Clark’s goopy grey and utterly striking dye job on the cover for a visual representation). The album falters a bit from a mildly shiftless back half that starts around the clumsy “Give me Your Loves”, but the rest of St. Vincent is an enjoyable, weird mess. 4.5.

Against Me! – Transgender Dysphoria Blues
I’m going to be upfront: this was my favorite album of 2014’s first quarter. Transgender Dysphoria Blues isn’t just a great album or an Important one, it’s endlessly fascinating and commands attention. The album was written by Against Me! front woman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, and began transitioning to living full time as a trans woman. It’s up for debate how much of TDB is pure autobiography, but that’s beside the point. The songs that make up this record burn with an intensity and an immediacy that comes from a deep personal crisis, like the simple hell of feeling disconnected from your own body.

I said that the details don’t matter because Transgender Dysphoria Blues is relatively light on specifics. Grace is such a talented songwriter that she can take these complex and specific emotions, and present them in such a way that they affect people as universal experiences. The album is loaded with trans-centric imagery (no shit, right?), but the ragged summer dresses, chipped nail polish, and fucked up femininity lead into brand new worlds raging inside us, the differences between me and you, and disillusionment. In pushing these details past their surface reference points to their rooted emotions, Transgender Dysphoria Blues succeeds as a massively humanizing and more poignant record. It slyly plays itself up as “the transgender record” to avoid becoming just “the transgender record”.

Not hurting things is the fact that Transgender Dysphoria Blues is an accomplished punk album as-is. The music’s larger than life, hitting an excellent balance between stadium-sized aspirations and furious punk catharsis, and a lean 28 minute runtime ensures that the it’s filler free and self-contained. It’s Against Me! playing to their strengths as a band. Literally the only thing holding the record back from a perfect score is the production; the band got a little carried away in gutting their work of Butch Vig’s sheen, and as a result, they underproduced some, meaning that TDB doesn’t hit as hard as it could.

Which isn’t to say that the band doesn’t hit damn hard. “Drinking With the Jocks” kicks the shit out of punk bros, even without the lyrical fuck off, and “True Trans Soul Rebel”, “Fuckmylife66”, and the title track are fantastic rock anthems in their own right. Even the material that isn’t hardwired to the main lyrical concept is exemplar; “Osama Bin Laden As the Crucified Christ” (remember, this band has songs like “Cliche Guevara” and “I Was a Teenage Anarchist”) has some snarling riffs, while “Two Coffins” is an excellent little ditty regardless of context. And, of course, closer “Black Me Out” is as much of a quintessential punk anthem as they come.

Every year you get great albums, but ones as intense and compelling and flat out wonderful as Transgender Dysphoria Blues are few and far between. It isn’t exactly light subject matter, but it’s surprisingly approachable, and I keep finding something new on every listen. 4.5/5.

About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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