If you count 2012’s Cruel Summer and 2011’s Watch the Throne, Kanye West has released a new album each year of the new decade, and as a hardcore fan, I should have reviewed Cruel Summer, a solid pop album that’s sonically and spiritually West’s even if he doesn’t get enough mic time. The media clamor surrounding his new one makes such an omission inexcusable. It’s not as enjoyable as its obvious predecessor 808s & Heartbreak, an album I consider genius and most consider overblown, let alone the universally acclaimed Watch the Throne or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But I like every album West has ever made, which definitely includes this one. Buy it, why don’t you? The more money he makes, the crazier his art gets.

So So Glos: Blowout


Shea Stadium/SSG, 2013 [BUY]

Times change, styles evolve, but in the crustiest corners of major American cities there will always be geeky weirdos who wear leather jackets and whack their guitars with sledgehammers. Every now and then I get skeptical, but the beauty of punk is that everybody can do it pretty well, and this Brooklyn band is both joyful and demonstrative, just like their imitative Dookie album cover.

The process is simple. The record indeed makes clear, structural sense, but that’s not the focus of these twelve exuberant songs; they’re much rawer than that. This is a great installment in the glorious semiteenage tradition of turning the volume up as high as possible and just banging, kinda sorta playing the guitar and smashing your fists on the drumset or something closely resembling one, all while shouting young-white-misfit proclamations — “Get your ass off the superhighway,” “Everybody’s at my place puking on the walls,” “Take me out to the ballgame.” Abrasive and unrelenting, yet beaming with enthusiasm and the kind of passionate, positive energy that overcomes bands only when they first realize how great they are, the adrenaline-fueled pace slows only near the end with two insanely catchy, melodic little ditties. Snarling riffs, booming rhythms, straightforward melodies yelled loudly and directly, this band’s upfront potency is undeniable.

Whether this album’s failure to go gold will make them wise or angry by the time they record the next one remains to be seen, but as of now they’re fully committed to youthful release. Lighter, milder punk bands would get their tattoos removed for the speed and vitality mastered here.

Portugal the Man: Evil Friends


Atlantic, 2013 [BUY]

With Danger Mouse producing, all of a sudden these chillwave freaks sound like Mouse’s other pet project, Broken Bells, but in doing so they also typify the state of a supposedly definitive alterarock staple, the modernized psychpop common among bourgeois bohemians. Portugal the Man is slighter than fellow psychpoppers Foster the People, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffitti, and Matt & Kim combined, and a lot more adolescent.

This band is pretty recognizable from a distance, always an advantage when you’re competing for attention in a marginal genre, and a few of their predictable choruses do stick with you. Regardless, their distinct sound is distinctly obnoxious: chunky piano chords backed up with rich synth atmospheric wheeze, their melodies all dreamy and vague. John Gourley’s dinky high-pitched squeal, their sonic signature translated to the human voice, captures their hippie-defiant attitude — “We don’t need no modern Jesus to roll with us,” “I never was a child, I was born this way.” Okay, fine.

Shrewd and savvy their craft may be, and yet it’s made their style the official music of callow whiners all around the world. I wonder what Johnny Ramone would do with a brat like that.

Deafheaven: Sunbather


Deathwish, 2013 [BUY]

“Postrock” makes sense in theory, the idea of music played in a nominally popular form that disregards everything pop music has taught people about spirit, energy, and conviction. However, no new synthesis has yet emerged, and most albums in that vein function as contemporary-classical, as a means to convince worried aesthetes that of course there are high artistic statements being made right this minute. This turgid “black metal” band makes music exclusively for this purpose.

The sound here is fairly intense and all-engulfing due to its massive sea of distortion, but structurally as well as emotionally, they’re complete purists — they aim for total catharsis. Hence they’ve purged their music of any residual excess, leaving only grotesque amplifier buzz and occasionally some guttural throat noises from the singer. Sometimes they combine the magnitude of the symphony with the rawness of the bone-crunching guitar and achieve real chilling power. For the most part, though, it’s total white noise, pounding and scratching until your ears can’t take it anymore. Abstract, monotonous, hard to concentrate on, unpleasant when you do, and quite technically impressive, their thundering music defines the postrock aesthetic.

Pitchfork‘s Brandon Stosuy claims to be impressed by this album’s “scale,” which is telling. More than ever, young rock composers have mastered a content-free grandiosity that always screams Significant Masterpiece. Kind of shallow, don’t you think?

Kanye West: Yeezus


Def Jam, 2013 [BUY]

Supposedly Kanye’s exploration of hardcore electronica, it’s easy to understand why many see this album as his dumbest gaffe yet, but I love it anyway. So does Lou Reed, whose rave review for The Talkhouse appreciates West’s casual blundering right into his own sublime tastelessness.

Like 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, this record is an experimental genre exercise, and it also shares much of that record’s thematics – West in personal mode, no grand social or political statements, just his sheer crazy arrogance and the crippling insecurity that enables it. One minute he proclaims himself a god, the next he laments how the limelight tore him down. This isn’t as masterfully executed as 808s & Heartbreak, but while there he opted for a disconcerting slickness, here he embraces disconcerting discord. The crudely hedonistic keyboard slashes he’s devised are harsh and jarring, harmonizing with his vocal sheer: bleeps here, squawks there, sometimes a random Auto-Tuned fragment of a voice, and everywhere the unstoppable monolithic crunching of distorted acidhouse synthesizers mindlessly surging up and down, making you grin at their own raw power. Without one radio-friendly hook or catchy beat, his sonic environment is rich and engaging.

Outrageously deranged the whole way through, it peaks late with “Send It Up” and “Bound 2,” in which Kanye admits he doesn’t remember where he first met girlfriend Kim Kardashian and impersonates Martin Lawrence’s pimp parody Jerome. The pleasure in this perversely grating music continues absurdly to fascinate long after you’ve put it aside.

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This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?

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Lucas Fagen

Lucas Fagen's favorite artform is popular music, and that means popular music—bland corporate trash and faceless functional product in addition to critically respectable touchstones and obscure...

One reply on “Fagen’s Critical Catalogue (July 2013, Part 1)”

  1. Mr. Fagen, your interpretation of Sunbather is about as ignorant as they come. Educate yourself in the wider genre please before closing your mind off so much so that you find songs of incredible contrast and progression, “monotonous”. Also, please pay attention to the music, not just the guitar playing (no matter how forward in the stereo picture of the mix it may be), as a whole when attempting to define it within genres. The style of drumming and vocal intensity/style speak volumes of Black Metal, Hardcore, Thrash or Powerviolence genres. Please research wider and pre-judge much less when listening to music that is obviously beyond your normal spheres of listening.

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