Album Picks: St. Vincent, Schoolboy Q, Beck, Wild Beasts, Neneh Cherry

Posted by Billy Gil, February 25, 2014 10:30am | Post a Comment

St. Vincent - St. Vincent (LP or CD)

St. Vincent’s absolutely breathtaking new album begins, as Annie Clark’s previous albums have, like some unearthly musical. Clark seemingly touches down from another planet, asking “am I the only one in the world?” on opener “Rattlesnake” amid all manner of alien guitar and strange percussive squelches. “Birth in Reverse” similarly paints a vivid picture, starting with the lines “Oh what an ordinary day …  take out the garbage, masturbate.” “Birth in Reverse” explodes into an extraordinary, paranoid chorus of restless glee. Clark’s way with words has never been more cutting, as on “Prince Johnny,” which manages to be strikingly specific while keeping its deeper existential meaning vague (“Remember that time we snorted/That piece of the Berlin Wall you extorted?” is her best rhyming couplet yet.) Even her ballads bite—“I prefer your love to Jesus” is a thoroughly loaded line repeated on “I Prefer Your Love,” giving depth and conflict to what’s on the surface a beautiful, Kate Bush-inspired love song. Musically, Clark employs everything from decaying choruses (“Prince Johnny”) to hip-hop synths (“Huey Newton”) to Prince-esque atonal funk (“Digital Witness”), but it’s a remarkably cohesive listen, as though each element has been thoroughly considered and sanded down to perfection. As implied by naming her fourth album simply St. Vincent, it’s an album that seems to be about truly knowing oneself—or the thrilling discoveries that come with a lifetime of seeking that knowledge.


Schoolboy Q - Oxymoron (CD or Deluxe CD; LP out 3/24)

If you thought Schoolboy Q would go soft on his major-label debut, think again. After releasing two much-loved independent albums, promising releases that sounded both weird and commercially minded, Oxymoron does predictably make some concessions—its first couple of tracks are fine, if a bit anonymous. But they’re just the mainstream teasers to hook in new listeners, as Oxymoron spools out with all sorts of twists. Single “Collard Greens,” featuring Kendrick Lamar (widely regarded as the best young rapper alive), lives up to the promise of Q’s early releases with an odd drumstick beat, deep bass and an intoxicating, kind of half-remembered delivery about the night before. 2 Chainz shows up for the dubstep-touched “What They Want,” unveiling a sexually paranoid streak that again appears on the excellent “Studio,” possibly the best song ever about trying to finish a song in the studio in order to go home and have sex. A couple of tracks in the middle of the album give it its intense core: “Prescription/Oxymoron,” which starts drug-addled and uneasy and ends up in a nasty, slow beat; and “The Purge,” a collaboration with Tyler, the Creator that works wonders out of Tyler’s dread-fueled production and Schoolboy Q’s more direct, emotionally engaging rap style. The oxymoronic implication here seems to be that Schoolboy Q is commercial and weird at the same time, but Schoolboy Q makes it work with flying colors.


Beck - Morning Phase (LP or CD)

True to its name, Beck’s latest record and first in around six years is a collection of soft-focus folk-rock songs that stretch into life. But its melodies are so instantly memorable that they seem to have been pulled out of the ether, like they’ve always existed. It has a lot in common with Beck’s excellent Sea Change record, but while that album was a harrowing exorcism of heartbreak, Morning Phase is a trickier prospect, made by an artist who has little left to prove and seemingly little sonic or emotional territory left to mine. So all he’s left with are the songs, and these are stunners, starting with “Cycle,” which starts up and hums along pacifically, quite a bit like Sea Change’s “Golden Age.” “Say Goodbye” touches on that album’s heartache, too, grappling with how to describe loss (“empty drawer, in my pocket there’s nothing more,” he sigs in poetic lines) with a slow, Neil Young-style jangle. “Blue Moon” pulls Beck out of the gloom with a majestic, harmonious choral arrangement and jaunty acoustic guitars and banjos. The more you listen to Morning Phase, the more you discover within it, like the heavily reverbed, ’70s-styled power ballad “Unforgiven,” whose piano strikes and vocal tones stretch out broadly and give shading to its lyrics about the healing power of time. Though there are plenty of great, classic pop moments—the perfect execution of the simple pleasures that “Blackbird Chain” offers shouldn’t be underestimated—the most paralyzing moment here is “Wave,” a song that finds Beck singing melancholically over strings that move like rainclouds and zero percussion, wailing “isolation” in an extremely naked moment, considering this is the guy behind an album as winking as Midnight Vultures. While we may miss Beck’s lively young musical moments, in their place is a wisdom befitting of a man in his 40s with experience gained by releasing 12 wildly different albums over his career. Though subtle, Morning Phase is as quietly unforgettable as anything Beck has released.



Wild Beasts - Present Tense (LP or CD)

Wild Beasts began as an indie rock back exceedingly true to its name, with Hayden Thorpe’s wooly falsetto careening through cabaretesque arrangements. Since then, they’ve whittled away until the band has come closer to the post-rock stylings of Talk Talk, with propulsive grooves to keep things grounded. The latter half of that equation gets expanded on Present Tense, their most widely appealing album to date. They’ve never done anything quite as boldly pop as “Wanderlust,” which pivots on a four-note synth groove that they keep layering on until they’ve got an awesome tower of sound. Thorpe’s feminized vocals make “Mecca” sound like a lost Kate Bush song, floating on cloudy synths, crystalline guitars and rumbling momentum from Wild Beasts’ excellent drummer, Chris Talbot. “A Simple Beautiful Truth” works similar grounds, using catchy, ’80s tropes like new-wave beats and Asian-inspired synth melodies to explore tough-to-reach emotional territory. Through those poppier concessions, the band earns its way into songs like “Pregnant Pause,” a spare, almost mystical heartbreaker—“sometimes you seem like a lost cause,” Thorpe sings sadly, pleading “speak to me in our tongue.” Though likely still strange as ever to new ears, Wild Beasts have their best chance yet at worldwide recognition while maintaining their singular identity on Present Tense.


Neneh Cherry - Blank Project (LP, CD or Download)

Neneh Cherry first got onto radio and MTV with “Buffalo Stance,” a blast of early danceable hip-hop that sounds as thrilling as it did then, ahead of its time and too much fun. Since then, Cherry has done quite a bit of growing up, releasing underheard albums throughout the ’90s, reappearing two years ago to release an experimental jazz album with The Thing and now we have Blank Project, her first solo album in 18 years. Her early adventurousness hasn’t been tampered a bit, as Blank Project sees Cherry teaming with producer Four Tet for a set of spare, adventurous electro-pop. This is no chilled-out, coffee house thing though; the title track rumbles with Four Tet’s electronic mischief, an out of place tambourine and Cherry’s commanding performance, singing with daring tonality about the difficulties that come with long-term relationships. The fuzz-bass-driven “Weightless” singing seemingly about losing herself in music—“mind is weak, heart is strong,” she sings of striving to keep on. Four Tet keeps things pretty minimal, but he pulls out the dance card when needed on “Out of the Black,” which sees Cherry singing alongside fellow Swede Robyn, another singer who found early fame, only to restart her career on new terms later on. Hearing Cherry’s voice meld with Robyn’s amid Four Tet’s dazzling production, it sounds like Neneh Cherry is just getting started, wiping the slate clean and embarking on a new era in her career with Blank Project.


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Album Picks (146), New Albums (213), New Releases (214), St. Vincent (15), Schoolboy Q (11), Beck (19), Wild Beasts (6), Neneh Cherry (5)