03 January 2015

Review Round-up: 2014 Year-End List Blurbs (for Publications)

St. Vincent
St. Vincent

Annie Clark's self-titled fourth album as St. Vincent doesn't mark a dramatic shift in approach from 2011's similarly singular Strange Mercy, nor is it a grand defining statement in any immediately obvious sense.  Then again, little about Clark can really be described as "obvious" at this point (save perhaps that, as their recent collaboration demonstrated, she would and did make an ideal mirror/foil/counterpart/inheritor to David Byrne's nervy-smart art-rock eminence.)  But St. Vincent earns its eponymity in how fully it embodies its creator's essential idiosyncrasies.  Of course, there is Clark's merciless, mercurial guitar-wielding – she continues to wrangle astonishing new shapes and textures from her axe – often juxtaposed against some of her most tenderly lyrical vocal melodies.  Like her previous work – but even more so – St. Vincent is rooted in the tensions (and slippages) between humanity and artificiality, a fascination which is not (only) esoterically conceptual – informing, among other things, her increasingly theatrical visual presentation and stagecraft – but also gleefully visceral, audible in everything from the nervous, kinetic digital sputters of "Rattlesnake" (with its somewhat Byrneian naked-in-nature narrative) to the deliciously terrifying cyborg death-march of "Bring Me Your Loves" to the eerily perfect, almost baroque lushness of "Severed Crossed Fingers."  For all its gestures toward relatability, even mundanity ("take out the garbage, masturbate…"), it's an album that only seems more alien the more familiar it gets.

Against Me!
Transgender Dysphoria Blues

The compelling narrative of frontwoman Laura Jane Grace's coming out as transgender – explored in depth in Jonathan Valania's MAGNET interview in January – gave Transgender Dysphoria Blues a hooky backstory, attracting plenty of listeners who'd probably otherwise have little interest in a self-released effort by a fifteen-year-old Florida punk band.  And, of course, that story is undeniably central to the album, most of which speaks in no uncertain terms to the complex (and very punk rock) tangle of emotions – resentment, futility, isolation, confusion, awkwardness, self-loathing and ultimately (less in the lyrics per se than in Grace's searing, triumphant delivery of them) defiant pride – accompanying her experience, and those of trans people more generally.  These songs are not always as direct and legible as you might (or might not) expect, but they are never less than effective – equally potent as consciousness-raisers, psychological portraits and conflicted but rousing empowerment anthems.  What kept us listening all year long, however, is simply that this is among 2014's best and most thrilling rock'n'roll albums, flat-out: a breathless half hour of lean, surging riffs and pummeling drums, ready and primed for fist-pumping sing-alongs, as much in line with the guitar-rock classicism of Ted Leo or the Hold Steady as with any number of populist punk touchstones.
originally published in Magnet Magazine

Sylvan Esso
Sylvan Esso

Equal parts cozy and coy, Sylvan Esso's fertile trans-genre cross-pollination (dub-indie? folkstep?) brought us electronic pop music on an invitingly human scale, with Nick Sanborn's homespun, bass-savvy beatwork recasting Amelia Meath's folksy, feisty Mountain Man warble – and vice versa – to yield some of the year's purest pop pleasures ("Play It Right") and teardrop-tender slow jams (the lilting shakers-and-heartbreak of "Coffee") as well as, with the schoolyard-ready D.I.Y. tech-house of "H.S.K.T." perhaps 2014's most improbably infectious dance party anthem.
originally published in Philadelphia City Paper

No comments: