As most adolescents across the nation sit in their bedrooms and agonize over the eternal question, what do boys/girls like, some of us have more unfortunate and inconsequential concerns: what do critics like? Immersive soundworlds are one answer, albums with distinct and possibly arbitrary aesthetics ready for induction into alternative canons. Distancing strategies are another, albums that avoid the obvious through either attenuation or throwing a firecracker over the listener’s shoulder and yelling “Look over there!” The four touchstones reviewed below earn their acclaim by participating in the above tendencies. The latter two earn my adoration.
Car Seat Headrest: Teens of Denial (Matador)
Every indie-rock sadboy has his own method of coping with existential depression, and Will Toledo’s involves scale — if marshalled guitar riffs, inspirational choruses, and rather long songs can fill an arena, surely they can crush all those residual negative feelings that drive one to music in the first place. This album is his attempt at epic, infused with the requisite pathos, jangle, and willingness to look silly while making big, serious gestures.
Theoretically the record is animated by the disparity between emotional hugeness and lo-fi sound. Toledo’s melodies are strong, grand, soaring, sincere, as they invite fist-pumping and radiate major-key triumphalism. When he revs his mumble into a yell and slams down with thin, crunchy shards of guitar static splintering every which way, the band rouses, especially on “Vincent,” whose echoey single-string intro sets up an increasingly frantic and jubilant song, and the latter half of “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales,” when he goes overboard, pleasingly, with the moaning. Elsewhere the anthems fall flat; a roomful of sympathetic young people chanting along with “We are just, we are just, we are just teens of style” in a tune as nostalgically celebratory as this one, or for that matter, the ballad about the unforgiving world but she’s not an unforgiving girl, constitutes a ritual of resigned sentimentality that inadvertently self-congratulates. Corny songs remain so even when played on harsh electric instruments. Toledo’s voice is another problem, even in a genre where lead singers scorn technique — although it clears up when he yells (again, see “Killer Whales”), otherwise there’s a lumpy toad plopped in his throat or perhaps perched in his sinuses. It prevents him from projecting as the guitars deserve.
One could imagine Toledo cleaning/beefing up his sound if given enough label money, but that would corrupt his vision: creaky production, always threatening to crumble apart, is the doomed loser’s hallmark. A second option would be for the guitars to get spikier and angrier as snarl replaces soar. Don’t gulp, now—screeeeeeeeam!
Solange: A Seat at the Table (Saint/Columbia)
On her first release in four years and her first full-length album in eight, Solange Knowles strings a set of hushed neosoul exercises around nine spoken-word interludes. As befits her reputation as the subtle sibling, the resulting music is calm and unexciting, shot through with brief moments of intermittent beauty and prolonged moments of spacey drift.
Don’t think hers is a pop stance: texturally and especially vocally, Solange’s music follows a decade of atmospheric experimentation in R&B. Midtempo percussive clicks, jazzy piano chords, and assorted layers of synth burble produce a constantly percolating dreamscape as magical keyboard swirl flits through the mix and leaves sparkly traces. Her coos and sighs, plus whispery backup from many famous guest singers weaving the collective breathy tapestry, balloon to fill the music’s blank spaces, turning an airy vocal style into airy polyphony.
Individual songs are exquisite: “Where Do We Go” combines piano plodding and melodic swell to fraught effect, and the ostinato violin in the lead single “Cranes in the Sky” cuts through the smoothness and vocal flutter. As a whole the album floats aimlessly. One could speculate about her sister Beyoncé’s long shadow instilling in her a taste for quietude, for avoiding popstar exuberance with diffidence and a shrug. More likely the album’s slightness is calculated as a means to soulfulness. Only music this passively rapt could back the high soars and swoops of her singing, which evokes a free, dreamy, restless spirit in tune with nature while presenting beauty as an abstraction. A firmer set of hooks might present beauty as a concrete attribute.
Faint, sleepy, subtle to the point of indistinction, the album never materializes. Perhaps that’s the appeal; it’s forever receding into an imaginary horizon. Reticence can be its own fixation.
Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition (Warp)
Danny Brown’s childish yap and scrunchy, skronky beats have charmed before, but never so charmingly. Perhaps inspired/alarmed by his title’s dystopian resonance, the infamously silly Detroit rapper presents his most consistently thrilling album, rampaging through an imagined hedonistic-fantastical landscape with suitably hyperactive desperation.
Brown’s most delightful quality is transparently insincere remorse. Rappers who depict themselves drinking, fucking, etc., frequently provide disclaimers, likely intended to distinguish them from hordes of mere braggarts: these choices are dangerous, don’t be like me, and so on. Sure enough, in addition to the album title, the lead track announces he’s on a “downward spiral,” and throughout the album he continues making similarly gratuitous remarks about the excesses of his lifestyle. Naturally, he doesn’t mean a word, as the beats and his vocal mood indicate unsullied joy. Brown’s no braggart: where other rappers use hedonistic detail to assert superiority, he enjoys inventing scenarios whose details he finds amusing. “Lines and lines of coke” and the like become infinitely droller when delivered in his shrill cartoon bark, the voice of someone happy to dramatize, and for the record’s duration impersonate, one particular extreme mode of being. Ditto when recited over the twangy riffs, industrial crackles, ominous guitars, skewed piano echoes, percussive bells and looped clicks, obsessive basslines and random squeaks, jittery drum klatches and comic dissonances that drive the record, courtesy of producer Paul White, unified less by any coherent sonic signature than by a muscular spareness of method that elevates Brown’s music from shtick to vision.
Whoever said rappers had to take themselves seriously? Sometimes a giggle does the trick. Giggles can also substitute for middle fingers. Brown knows their adaptability well.
Christine and the Queens: Chaleur Humaine (RAK/123/Smokehouse)
Synthpop–what an excellent simulation of softcore erotica. Released two and a half years ago in France, the tweaked 2016 UK reissue of Christine aka Héloïse Letissier’s debut showcases the potential subtleties in popstar stance and an allegedly simplistic genre.
Whenever pop aesthetes assemble spritzy drum machines under chintzy keyboard hooks plus comforting softer washes of electronic texture to blur the edges and evoke light, one might ask whether the resulting music represents commercialism or eroticism. It’s a misleading question: one is rarely possible without the other. Shiny surfaces, upbeat in mood and extroverted in how they signal product, reveal private feelings and desires whose long shadows are thrown into massive relief by the spotlight’s dazzle. Christine eschews the cheer typically associated with perky electronic music for a caution that feels European partially because her flighty, assured, accented vocals switch off between French and English, partially because she’s committed to ironic modes that don’t negate feeling. Downtempo and fixated on slow, steady burn, her musical euphoria appears when she savors snaky lines of melody, when keyboard textures thwock and ping against your ear’s expectations, when rays of electronic light crisscross and leave the drum machine faintly shaded, when sonic contrast creates a hushed, fragile, hesitant mood. The highlight is “Paradis perdus,” which steals the chorus to Kanye West’s “Heartless” and makes it sound creepier, somehow, performed by a sincere, breathing, flesh-and-blood being over West’s Auto-Tuned original.
Time calls her “the voice of a different generation.” I’ll call her the bearer of a detached but not therefore otherized sensibility. She’s crafted a synthpop record whose obvious pleasures don’t obscure the attenuated ones.