Björk: Vulnicura

Björk has logged nearly 30 years of increasing artistic cred and platform-omnivorous ambition, and she has the enviable ability to anticipate sonic and technological waves just before they crest. But her albums over the past decade have underwhelmed, despite their reach and sense of craft. Part of it’s how Björk, as she’s grown as an artist, has grown inward; at her best (parts of Medúlla and Biophilia), her albums come off like slivers of some grand unrealized possibility—undeniably dazzling, but intimidating for everyone who isn’t Björk. At her worst (parts of Volta), those slivers are contorted, Procrustes-style, into the easy templates she left behind somewhere around Debut

But part of it’s the tendency to make Björk into other, false versions of herself: Björk the wayward pop figure, Björk the wearer of the outfits that became memes, Björk the metaphor-smitten New Ager, Björk as the quirky vessel for her male collaborators, rather than the person with complete creative and curatorial control over all aspects of her music. Even Björk the genius, who works in the abstract, disconnected from, as she once sang, “the exchange of human emotions.” But for all her classical ambitions and hyperextended metaphors, the best Björk tracks express startlingly direct emotional truths, blown up to their towering real-life scale.

Nowhere is this more clear than on her ninth album proper, Vulnicura. Co-produced by Arca (Kanye West’s Yeezus, FKA Twigs’ LP1, his own Xen) and the Haxan Cloak and drawing on Björk’s split with artist Matthew Barney, the album places itself among the most human, emotionally candid, even functional of art forms: the breakup album. Its position is deliberate; in conversation with Pitchfork, she called Vulnicura a “traditional singer/songwriter thing,” suggesting something plainspoken, modest, even folksy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vulnicura is none of these things, but it’s simultaneously her most mature feat of arranging and almost psychosomatically affecting. It’s also, as was widely reported, with us a few months early. While it’d be wrong to say it’s for the best that Vulnicura was leaked then rush-released—no one in Björk’s position would welcome that—the leak does her an inadvertent service: it makes Vulnicura the first Björk album in years to come into the world untethered by museum exhibitions, movie tie-ins, iPad apps, or promo cycles involving Timbaland. We receive it simply on its own iconoclastic terms.

Vulnicura is loosely arranged around the chronology of a relationship: the period before the breakup, the dazed moments after, the slow recovery. It’s a sense of time that’s both hyper-specific—in the liner notes, Björk places each song up until the two-thirds mark in an exact point on the timeline, from nine months before to 11 months after—and loose, with half-moments that span entire dramatic arcs. “History of Touches”, for example, is a near-forensic exhumation of the precise time of relationship death. The song begins and ends upon the narrator waking her soon-to-be-ex-lover, and Arca’s programming develops in slow motion as Björk’s vocal and lyric circle back upon the scale and warp the timeline: “The history of touches, every single archive compressed into a second.” There’s some “Cocoon” in there, in the post-coital setting and smitten sigh, but there’s also the unmistakable sense that everything Björk describes is expiring as she speaks it. It’s luxuriant and bleary and sad, something like sleepwalking infatuated through an autopsy. Skip to several months after in the record’s progression, album centerpiece “Black Lake”, a masterwork of balancing elements: Björk’s requiem strings leading to Arca’s tectonic-plate percussion and vocal patches, cuttingly crafted (in unmistakably Björk fashion) lines like “I am bored of your apocalyptic obsessions” giving way to lines far more unadorned and unanswerable: “Did I love you too much?” 

What keeps these questions from sounding maudlin are those flashes of rueful wit (elsewhere, on “Family”: “Is there a place where I can pay respects for the death of my family?”) and Björk’s vocal delivery; she’s at least twice expressed her admiration, at the pure musical level, of fado singer Amália Rodrigues, and you can hear it in how she leans into syllables, indulging feelings then dissecting them. Rarely does Vulnicura sound anything but seamless; her palette blends in drum-and-bass loops, flatline effects, groaning cellos, pitch-warped echoes by Antony Hegarty. The more Björk has grown as an arranger, the less dated her albums sound; closer “Quicksand” initially scans like it’s approaching over-timely Rudimental territory, but it’s a little late in the album for that, and this is soon subsumed into a string reverie that’s unmistakably hers.

In Björk’s discography, Vulnicura most resembles Vespertine, another unyieldingly cerebral work about vulnerability and being turned by love to besotted viscera, and also an unmistakably female album. Vulnicura doubles down on these elements, from the choir arrangements to the yonic wound imagery of the cover, like Björk’s attempt at a grand unified photoshoot of female pain, to Vulnicura’s echoes from the first track (“Moments of clarity are so rare—I better document this”) of the long tradition of women artists thinking and rethinking their own life stories, in public, until they coalesce into art. Fittingly, when Björk dispenses with the breakup framework (and timestamps) two-thirds of the way through the album, Vulnicura becomes about more. “Mouth Mantra” is part glitchy nightmare of grotesque imagery (“my mouth was sewn up… I was not heard”) and part reassertion of her artistic identity: “this tunnel has enabled thousands of sounds.”

It isn’t just her. “I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them you’re not just imagining things,” she told Pitchfork, and on “Quicksand” Vulnicura shifts finally from personal documentation of one person’s rough year to words for those who’ve stayed for it all: “Every time you give up, you take away our future and my continuity—and my daughter’s, and her daughters, and her daughters,” Björk sings on the track, just before it cuts off mid-string cadenza. It’s possible to hear this as resignation, but it’s also possible to hear it as a note of hope, that there is a future after coming out of such an emotional wringer, if not quite one that’s reassuring. The ambiguity feels honest.

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King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard: I’m in Your Mind Fuzz

When a band hits the stage with more than five members, you’re looking at something that’s bound to be either a spectacle or a complete fiasco. Sure, the history of popular music is full of excellent bands with unwieldily large lineups (Funkadelic, Talking Heads on Stop Making Sense). Sometimes, it’s just a mess (various jam, nu-metal, and high school talent show bands). King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are a seven-person band from Australia who specialize in unpredictable psychedelic music. Their ranks include two drummers, three guitarists, and a harmonica player. To reiterate: They’re a septet with a name that sounds like it could’ve been ripped from “Masters of the Universe” who make heady soundscapes punctuated by blues harp.

Ridiculous as this all sounds on paper, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard aren’t wasting anyone’s time with throwaway joke music. While they started as a side-project (following in the great Australian tradition where each member plays in other groups) and self-admitted “joke band”, the Melbourne band have definitely paid their dues over the past four years with critically acclaimed live sets and a prolific string of records. I’m in Your Mind Fuzz is their fifth album to date, and if their discography tells a story, it’s one of a band who never fully settle into one sound. Their album Oddments from earlier this year featured flashes of bubblegum pop and Hammond organ-led soul. On their debut album 12 Bar Bruise, they invoked Oblivians-style garage punk. It’s never clear from the outset exactly which path they’ll explore or what sounds they’ll plop into the mix along the way. Horses neighing, xylophones, and instruments of unidentifiable origins have appeared in their songs, and impressively, King Gizzard always manage to wrangle the chaos into well-crafted compositions.

As usual, the band’s latest collection, I’m in Your Mind Fuzz, partially recorded at Daptone in Brooklyn, isn’t easily categorized. While the blues feels like an inevitable touchstone thanks to Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s harmonica (disorienting as it sounds when caked in psychedelic effects), it’s also got the psych pop jaunt of the Millennium. But as varied as King Gizzard are, they’ve established one surefire safe bet with each record: They implement their “more is more” approach for maximum impact. Their songs are dense, intricately crafted, and most importantly, powerful. It’s appropriate that Mind Fuzz is out via Castle Face (in North America—Heavenly‘s got it out in Europe and Flightless once again have them covered in Australia), as the 17-minute ripper “Am I in Heaven?” is arguably the best Thee Oh Sees track to be released in 2014. There are easy comparisons to be drawn between the two bands—Stu Mackenzie lets out a point-perfect John Dwyer “WOO” before employing explosive, rapidfire guitar lines. And like their label overlords, King Gizz also know when to let urgency eventually give way to elation.

The album’s overall lyrical concept is mind control. If they’ve managed to brainwash their listeners, they’ve done it by making a record that’s hard to tune out. Take, for example, I’m in Your Mind Fuzz‘s absolute peak—the opening 12-minute chunk comprising the four song stretch of “I’m in Your Mind” to “I’m in Your Mind Fuzz”. They churn and choogle relentlessly forward, each rafter-reaching jam bleeding into the next. The rhythm section—bassist Lucas Skinner, drummers Michael Cavanagh and Eric Moore—stay locked in the same groove across all four songs while the guitars, harmonica, and Mackenzie’s vocals explore various melodies within that structure—different movements operating in the same theme. 

But a steady stream of bangers comes at a price. When you open with a sprint, things eventually have to slow down, and the comedown is right where King Gizzard trip up. Immediately following the all-power introduction are a pair of tracks (“Empty” and “Hot Water”) that sound like watered-down versions of what came before them. They make the save later, though, closing the album with some of their best slow jams. (Two of which are titled “Slow Jam”.) And, right when it seems that they’ve settled into a restrained groove, they shake it up again: the speed picks up, guitar solos are delivered, vocals are augmented and distorted. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard don’t do predictability.

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Black Milk: If There’s a Hell Below

Black Milk is a paradoxical artist, one defined by both wild reinvention and stasis. To this point, every other Black Milk album is a corrective, somehow a refutation of the album that came before it. He keeps pressing reset and then playing the game the same: Tronic was his vaunted abandonment of vinyl fetishism for synthesizers; Album of the Year his embrace of live-band instrumentation; No Poison, No Paradise his nightmare-filled stab at creating a ’70s soul epic. But put them on shuffle and the delineations disappear—they all sound like Black Milk tracks. On If There’s a Hell Below, for the first time, he consciously takes a sonic mulligan, trading in the same murky Castlevania synth-lines, wrecking-ball drums and dark-night-of-the-soul wails as its predecessor. 

So, why does it sound better than that album? Because it’s a new Black Milk record, which always sound incrementally closer to some Ideal Black Milk Album that may or may not ever exist. This makes him a difficult artist to love, but an easy one to like. He’s constantly halving the distance to his target, getting closer but not quite getting there. But those infinitesimal improvements on Hell Below—indeed, the very places where it remains static—show, in some ways, what that Ideal Album might look like.

Most importantly, he’s acknowledging where his talents lie. The old line on him is: great producer, shitty rapper. If the dude could quit spitting double-time platitudes about getting faded backstage, the thinking goes, he’d release a great record. On No Poison, No Paradise, though, he dialed back his eagerness on the mic and let the beats breathe. This trend continues on Hell Below, particularly on “Story and Her”, a sprightly, smooth-jazz Tribe throwback that evokes Q-Tip more than Dilla. Over soft vibes, Black Milk drops sing-song come-ons that tumble organically into a low-key verse. The lyrics are as trite and sanctimonious as can be (think Dizzee Rascal’s “Jezebel”), but as the beat morphs, halfway in, to a keening, insistent guitar lick, Milk follows suit, with a wide-open flow painted in blank space. The crooning intro melts into an almost spoken-word outro, with a rhyme scheme that snaps into place as if only to tug the verse onward.

He sounds, in other words, good on the track—a first for the emcee. He repeats the feat on the nearly 3-minute conclusion “Up & Out”, which is just a drum loop, some scratches, and a delirious, stuttering mic performance. In both instances, he raps in reverence of the beat, letting his glorious drums hit without shouting punchlines over them. Elsewhere, he resolutely does not screw up highlights like the proggy “All Mighty”, the dense, clattering “Quarter Water”, or “What It’s Worth”, which recalls early Kendrick Lamar, of all people, in its tuneful sense of melancholy. He’s always seemed to want to be Black Thought, but he comes across more like T.I. on the best parts of Hell Below, saying very little but saying it well. 

The focus, then, stays on the production, which is, as usual, an absolute feast. He’s grown fond of the mid-track left-field switch-up, sometimes just for a bar or two (“Hell Below”, “Scum”), and of the short, dusty outro loop (pretty much every track). While this might sound scattered, in practice it’s just the opposite: He’s settled down a bit, flicking between beats with Madlib’s ease. A lot of his earlier stylistic about-faces were because of an anxiety, a tension between analog and digital production methods, which a recent LP and EP (tellingly called Synth or Soul and Glitches in the Break) seem to have eased. He found the ghost in the machine, and so he’s agitating less over realness—over fidelity to the “old school”. The music on Hell Below is one big wistful wash of sound, unified, but full of idiosyncrasies. (Bun B, for example, raps atop a bed of trilling flutes.)

We often talk about listening to Black Milk rap as the cost of entry for listening to Black Milk produce. That’s cold, but valid: his relatively flat collaborative work suggests that he saves his best beats for himself. But perhaps it’s also a mis-framing of the argument, in light of Hell Below’s success. In an interview with Complex last year, he referred to an incongruous blast of free jazz on No Poison, No Paradise as “a Spike Lee movie … written via a rap song.” A more skillful emcee would recreate Lee’s sense of place and character with words, but Black Milk needs the music to do the talking. On If There’s a Hell Below, he lets it.

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Felicita: Frenemies EP

If you told me that Felicita’s Frenemies was recorded mainly using samples of helium balloons, rubber balls, and a flea-circus sound effects record, I might just believe you. This odd, captivating EP is a 19-minute blast of uncontrolled kinetic energy and sonic non-sequiturs; the individual pieces of its seven interlocking tracks collide and scatter like a game of jacks in zero gravity. It might be the boingiest thing you’ll hear all year. 

Maybe one of the most cryptic, too. On a website accompanying the release, alongside an acrostic treatise on the physics of dropped tennis balls, or “falling doves,” there’s a strange sort of fashion editorial involving makeup brushes, a crimping iron, charm bracelets, glitter, purple freckles, a garden snail crawling across a young woman’s face, and, perhaps most confusingly, an oversized piece of pita bread worn like a falconer’s protective sleeve. Styled in a Palermo soccer jersey and staring intently at a magic tennis ball as elven sparks fly about her face, Tinkerbell style, the model comes across like a kind of Duchampian guerrilla for the age of Amazon reviews—a DIY warrior of the consumerist surreal.

If this all sounds a lot like Sophie, GFOTY, and the label/collective/phenomenon known as PC Music, that would seem not to be merely coincidental. According to a representative for Gum Artefacts, the new label responsible for this record, Felicita frequently DJs with PC Music’s A. G. Cook and even has his own project on that label, under a different, and undisclosed, name. One guess would be that it’s Lipgloss Twins, not just for the shared interest in cosmetics (and apparently snail facials are a real thing, by the way) but also the spring-loaded zaniness of both projects, with their holographic sheen and rhythms that ricochet like weaponized Flubber. Coincidence or no, Felicita’s warped pitch and funhouse-mirror atmospherics also bear a strong resemblance to the queasy textures  of GFOTY’s “Secret Mix” and “Don’t Wanna / Let’s Do It”.

From the moment the needle hits the record—and yes, unlike most PC Music-related output so far, this one actually comes on vinyl, and bright yellow vinyl at that—it’s clear that this is a new world. A strange world, where the usual laws of physics don’t apply. “Doves” begins like crashing through the ceiling into a tearoom filled with rubber duckies. Chattering voices, sped up to a cartoonish jibber, give way to carousel melodies, nonsense chants, splashing water, clucking tongues. The music lurches to and fro in fits and starts, its motion alternately checked by percussive outbursts and lubricated by angelic coos. “Skip Blush” sounds like an audioanimatronic tribute to Derek Bailey that’s been hacked by conflicted poptimists. It’s all pings and squeaks and elastic little hiccups cribbed from a ruthlessly plastic universe, and it creaks like a set of braces being tightened. “Climb Up Eh” pairs Rapunzel-inspired spoken lyrics (“My hair is black, climb up it/ Come up to the window, climb up it”) with see-sawing slide flute melodies and cacophonous clacks and shrieks. 

And that’s just the A-side: the B-side, equally thrilling and exhausting, manages to cover classical flute and brutalist 808 kicks (“When You Get Home”, one of the record’s highlights); mercurial sino-grime (“Wish”, sounding a little like Aphex Twin on really terrifying designer drugs); and erratic snare flam and mournfully plucked acoustic guitar (the closing “Bring It”, which suggests a copy of Tortoise‘s Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters with a terminal case of bit rot). And then there’s “MMMHM”, an unsettling clusterfuck of fist-mashed synthesizers, glass-blown glissandi, and squeaky refrains (“Jiggle jiggle lick it!/ Jiggle jiggle lick it!”) that sound like a cheerleading squad come perilously unhinged. It is not a pleasant thing to listen to, exactly, but then, I’m not sure it’s supposed to be; neither was a lot of powerviolence, for example, and “MMMHM” may be just as confrontational, in its own, pipsqueak way. Here, instead of volume, unease is the primary weapon, and that goes for the entire record. It tickles and discomforts in equal measure—just like a snail tracing a glittery path up your cheek. 

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Marianne Faithfull: Give My Love to London

“Give my love to London,” Marianne Faithfull sings on the title track to her latest album. At first it sounds like a friendly request, but it soon becomes a threat: “The river’s runny bloody, the towers tumbling down,” she sings, not exactly horrified by the tableau. “I’m singing ‘Pirate Jenny’ as the blackship’s bearing down.” It’s a sly reference. The second most popular number form Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera (the first being “Mack the Knife”), “Pirate Jenny” is a stout song about bloody wish fulfillment: A bitter and beleaguered hotel maid imagines a marauding pirate ship destroying the city and murdering all the people who treated her so cruelly, ending with Jenny escaping with the swashbucklers and scallywags.

Faithfull famously performed the tune in the mid 1990s during a Threepenny revival in Dublin, and her fascination with Weimar-era musical theater inspired her 1997 album 20th Century Blues, which includes her best version of the song. On “Give My Love to London”, Faithfull reimagines herself as Pirate Jenny returning to the scene of her greatest triumph and surveying a London still in ruins. Although the final verse resituates the song, it’s not hard to imagine Faithfull as the conquering anti-hero, especially considering how she was run out of the city in the late ‘60s for the same behavior that earned her male peers—including and especially Mick Jagger—their lucrative reputations as bad boys.

And yet, there is some affection in “Give My Love to London,” which was co-written with Steve Earle, now a Londoner himself. Faithfull navigates the bouncy melody gracefully and generously, evoking the easy bonhomie of old friends who have long put any ill will behind them. The song announces an album that will confront the past, her own and our own, as though trying to sever it from the present. This is not necessarily a memoir set to music, mainly because these songs find Faithfull playing roles other than herself. As a result, it’s her best and most daring album of this century, featuring some of her heaviest and most haunting performances.

Faithfull has spent most of the time since 20th Century Blues fashioning herself into rock’s grand dame, an avatar of European decadence redeemed into something like old-world authority. Working with Britpop survivors (Damon Albarn, Jarvis Cocker) as well as American alt-rockers (Beck, Billy Corgan), she’s made a handful of fine albums that persistently reinforce her reputation as a formidable interpreter of others’ songs, as if anyone still though otherwise. Before the Poison and Easy Come Easy Go may have put her in touch with a younger generation of artists who considered her both a hero and an influence, but Give My Love to London is something else entirely. Working with Roger Waters, Nick Cave, Anna Calvi, and a band that features Ed Harcourt, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and members of the Bad Seeds, she has created an album that bristles with danger and even roils with anger.

But it also has moments of disarming humor. Toward the end of Give My Love to London, she gingerly covers Leonard Cohen’s “Going Home”, a late-career rumination on the nature of creativity. It’s a monologue delivered by a muse who considers Cohen “a lazy bastard living in a suit”—in other words, a tool no different than a pen or quill. Faithfull does not replace his name with hers; instead, she plays the muse herself, claiming his triumphs as her own. It becomes a melancholic hymn to age and experience, but more wittily, it’s a funny and fitting turnabout for a songwriter who has repeatedly exploited his female subjects for his own spiritual gain (see, for example, “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”).

Faithfull has always conveyed a sensual gravity with that gravelly voice of hers, but the melancholy on Give My Love to London is tinged with angst and disaffection—perhaps inspired by her recent bout with cancer, or the back injury that left her bedridden, or just by a sense of alienation from a world that makes less and less sense by the day. For most artists of her generation, such topicality can sound either haughty (Neil Young’s recent orchestral protest song, “Who’s Gonna Stand Up”) or simply cloistered from the rest of the world (David Crosby’s latest album). But the theatricality of Faithfull’s performances lend weight to a song like “True Lies”, with its pendulum guitar riff and accusing lyrics: “True lies from your twisted little mind!” she glowers, her outrage absolutely withering.  

“Mother Wolf”, which Faithfull co-wrote with Patrick Leonard, may be her finest moment on Give My Love to London. It consists primarily of a single verse and chorus, each repeated throughout the song, but Faithfull sings each iteration with new dramatic emphasis. On the first time through, she delivers the allegorical lyrics almost passively, as though looking down on humanity from some high cloud. The next time, she has descended to earth and become a human amid the earthly horror of war. Faithfull doesn’t sing so much as she spits the words, her delivery grinding against the song’s meter. “How you disgust me!” she growls, turning those syllables into something acrid and poisonous and fundamentally ugly. Her performance meets violence with more violence, and the song’s pummeling pace and dark catharsis simultaneously underscore and undermine the song. The pirates are attacking London, and Faithfull is leading them onward. 

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