by InRO Staff Feature Articles Music Year in Review

Quick Takes on Albums 2018 – Halftime (Part 3)

July 6, 2018
XXXTentacion

All this week at In Review Online, we’re presenting our takes on some notable (and less notable) albums that saw release during the first six months of the year. In the third of four installments (find the first one here and the second one here), we look at some recently released albums, which means we finally wade into the G.O.O.D. Music release cycle conversation that’s been dominating industry discourse. We also grapple with the presumably final album from controversial rapper XXXTentacion, who was shot and killed on June 18th of this year; praise two works that project a sense of sociopolitical strength and righteousness, from The Milk Carton Kids and Tami Neilson; and make a case for the enduring importance of rock institutions Nine Inch Nails and Yo La Tengo. Be sure to check back at the top of next week, when we present our 10 favorite albums of the year so far.


Teyana TaylorPut aside arguments over whether Kanye West’s Wyoming albums are actually good. The one seemingly insurmountable challenge to Ye’s stated goal of creating improvisatory, experimental music with a collective of longtime professional collaborators was one foreshadowed by the media’s obsession with release delays, streaming malfunctions, and “rushed” promotional efforts. It was the moment that the inflexibility of the industry caught up with Ye and G.O.O.D. Music and reminded them that bureaucracy is expected, and demanded, to be attended to before the artist’s vision. It was the moment, or series of moments, between the June 22nd listening party premiere of Teyana Taylor’s second studio album, K.T.S.E., and the project’s belated release to streaming services, in a severely truncated form. The potential for this album was clear on the page: Producer-mode Kanye returns to the R&B beat-crafting he first made his name on, to provide a proper showcase for one of the most underrated and versatile vocalists working in the genre today. Teyana can trill and she can dive into the depths of her lower register; she can stretch high and strong into a falsetto and at the same time maintain perfect vibrato. Her voice has grit and grace, and while you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the genre boilerplate of her 2014 debut album VII, it can work well in a wide variety of settings: On K.T.S.E., she skips across the surface of the minimalist funk jam “Hurry,” gets raspy and indignant on the half-rapped manifesto “Rose in Harlem,” and belts with catwalk authority over industrial clatter of the Ballroom-style anthem “WTP.” It’s a minor tragedy, then, that the considerable strength of these individual tracks is blunted by the clipped flow of the album’s sequencing, an awkwardness that Teyana herself admitted is due to sample clearance issues. One can piece together the artist’s intended vision from the listening session version — the way the martial beat and handclaps of excised track “Love Is the New Money” (unofficial title) provided a way of transitioning into the hard-edged “WTP” — but as was recently confirmed by Teyana on her Twitter, initial plans for a rerelease that would include the missing pieces have been scrapped. Which means that K.T.S.E. represents the moment when all the logistical issues that Kanye’s unconventional release plan had been criticized for finally left their mark on the music. Sam C. Mac


XXXIt’s around 2012 and you’re a fourteen-year-old boy with a bit of free time to explore YouTube. You like popular anime shows Naruto and Dragonball Z. You type in “Sasuke AMV” (anime music video) into the YouTube search bar. The results: a flurry of bright colors from male-marketed shows poorly edited in sync with popular heavy rock bands such as Hawthorne Heights, Papa Roach, Linkin Park, Godsmack, et al. It’s really cool and you like it and dear lord your hormones are satisfied and that’s kind of the stimulation center that XXXTentacion’s early singles hit. The rapper’s first collection, Revenge, had the distinctive, violent swagger of mid-to-late-aughts gangster rap and Hot Topic rock, and, sure enough, most of these tracks come with AMV visual accompaniment found on YouTube. In fact, X’s official music video for “SAD!” — from his second and final album, ? — revels in anime tropes. Anime is not a defining quality of ?, but it’s a blaring indicator of X’s wide range of Internet-derived influences. Joey Bada$$ is featured on ?, but so is meme artist Matt Ox. Acoustic ballads, featuring Travis Barker, eventually give way to songs with standard production but that are flippantly titled “I don’t even speak spanish lol.” X was known for his disparate styles, each song-sketch delivered in a lightning flash. ? was the promise of a coming storm. M.A. Lucan


Nine Inch NailsNine Inch Nails’s six-song, 31-minute Bad Witch has a kind of emotional arc, a tonal trajectory, not unlike a mood swing; like a sudden headache, aching and throbbing. The furious “Shit Mirror” — all repetitive blasts of distorted handclaps, chugging guitars, and Trent Reznor’s bellowing — is succeeded by the manic burst of “Ahead of Ourselves,” a ferocity that then gives way to the anxious percussive sounds of “Play the Goddamned Part.” The angst-ridden, juvenilely named “God Break Down the Door” follows, and harks back to Reznor’s work on David Lynch’s tenebrous and nightmarish Lost Highway, which represented a transition for the filmmaker (and for Reznor as well). For that soundtrack, Reznor remixed David Bowie’s “I’m Deranged,” and the ghost of Bowie, especially his work on 2016’s Blackstar, lingers on Bad Witch, in fractured jazz and warbly ballideering. But after these rambunctious first few songs, there’s a comedown. Drum machines grow torpid and wisps of noise and slackened notes drift by on “I’m Not from This World” — a tense, restrained instrumental, permeated by brumes of static, which seems perpetually on the verge of rupturing. It’s one of the best songs from any of NIN’s last three EPs (which together form a kind of trilogy), and it breaks Reznor out of his usual assiduousness and perfectionism. Ultimately, Bad Witch feels more lively, and less fussily programmed, than the last few NIN releases, and that vulnerability and earnestness registers as progress. Greg Cwik


nas

The opening tracks off Nas’s Nasir make declarations about the present, even while sounding as though they’re about the past. There is little to suggest that the problems of the past have been resolved in the present, and so a track like “Cops Shot the Kid” obviously remains relevant — even though it might seem like Nas is repeating himself. But staying stuck in the past may be the point as well. In the present, Nas would need to respond to the allegations of abuse that have been made against him by his ex-wife, Kelis Rogers — which he does not do on Nasir, and that, for many, might make an attempt at engaging with a wholly contemporary reality feel unearned. And perhaps Nas’s engagement with the progressive ideas on this album is unearned — and would be for any artist, even a great one, who fails to address personal failings that are so widely known to their audience. This isn’t Nas’s apology or atonement — but at the same time, qualifying a work like Nasir, in that way, tends to make it automatically more difficult to engage with some of its legitimately important ideas. Instead, the genius on this album can coexist with the narrative of an artist who was given a chance and blew it. And the work can speak for itself to some extent — because tracks like “Not for Radio,” “Everything,” and “Adam and Eve” have more in common with Nasir producer Kanye West’s “New Slaves” then they do with the old Nas, and speak to the truth of how systematic, racialized abuse has not disappeared but rather has become even more normalized: “Listen vultures, I’ve been shackled by Western culture/You convinced all of my people to live off of emotion.” These songs establish Nasir’s thematic through-line, both in the manner that they see systematic abuse being perpetuated and how they recognize this abuse as the now-invisible lines of segregation. Nas’s distrust of institutions can get muddled — the Old Nas returns on “Everything” for an anti-immunization lyric — but the rapper’s status as one of the great poets and storytellers of hip-hop is unchanged. And there is poetry to a juxtaposition that sees systematic abuse in a continuum with the first time a child experiences pain — a profound juxtaposition, actually, suggesting that abuse has become so normalized that it’s natural. Which is why a song like “Everything,” with its chorus declaring the need for a complete reclamation of the world, feels so necessary. Neil Bahadur


Yo La

What to do with Yo La Tengo? It’s been twelve years — since I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, to be exact — since a new record from Georgia, Ira and James didn’t largely exist so they’d have an excuse to tour. That’s reason enough: They’ve always been the NPR patron’s version of The Dead, except their records are often as wonderful as their shows. That includes their last few, even if they’ve lacked the punch of a Painful, an Electr-O-Pura, even an And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. YLT are elder statesmen, and these recent ones are elder statesmen records. That’s to say they require you to lean in, to do some work you didn’t have to back in the halcyon days. And surprise! Their fifteenth full-length, There’s a Riot Going On, is a delight; it practically screams “underrated.” Speaking of which: There is no screaming here, no rockers, and, for half of it, no vocals. This is rock ‘n’ roll’s cultiest band disappearing further into themselves, and into soundscapes. YLT have always been undervalued producers, and Riot finds them leaning into acoustics and sonics; the enveloping “Shortwave” plays like their twist on Spacemen 3’s “Ecstasy Symphony” (or Enya). Traditional songs are often swallowed by walls of sound that serve as balms in a chaotic world. “Laugh away the bad times, lie about what’s to come,” Ira sings on the slo-mo doo-wop digs of “Forever,” which is either a statement about the world right now or about themselves, as established rock gods easily taken for granted. Listen closely, though, and you can hear them still experimenting, still finding new sounds; dig the fuzz guitar on “For You Too,” the drum machine and lurking warm jets on “Ashes.” There are even jokes, maybe; “Dream Dream Away” sounds so much like “Free Fallin’” that you can sing the melody along to it. (I did.) So treat Riot like you did Fade or Popular Songs, if you must, but know this: As ever, they’ve done more than simply add another handful to a catalogue larger than a border militiaman’s home arsenal. Matt Prigge


Milk CartonJust look at us now,” sigh the two weary, beleaguered men of The Milk Carton Kids at the top of their garrulously-titled fourth album, All the Things That I Did and All the Things That I Didn’t Do. They could be singing a song about wayward lovers or about a nation in shambles; a subsequent track, called “Mourning in America” — a clear-eyed state of the union in the Paul Simon vein — seems to tip their hand, but actually, All the Things… is seamless and elegant in how it weaves its storylines together, recounting traumas both personal and cultural, telling stories of disarray through both winsome plainspeak and supple metaphor. It’s an album about shake-ups, and it proves its own point by augmenting the duo’s chemistry with a robust cast of supporting players, all corralled by producer Joe Henry. The result borrows from the ramshackle myth-making of The Basement Tapes, the second-hand Americana of Gram Parsons, the alluring genre fluidity of Willie Nelson, and the formal control of the Great American Songbook. Wearing its hurt on its sleeve, it offers emotional acuity and melodic directness; it packs frayed edges and loose ends into its clean and concise songwriting, turning dishevelment into something wondrous and beautiful. Josh Hurst


TamiInformed by of-the-moment cultural signifiers including the #MeToo movement and Harvey Weinstein’s indictment on charges of rape, Tami Neilson’s SASSAFRASS! is urgent in its politics. Drawing heavily from her first-person experiences with sexism (on raucous opener “Stay Outta My Business” and the melancholy “Manitoba Sunrise at Motel Six”), and telling others’ stories with empathy and panache (“Miss Jones,” a perfect tribute to the late Sharon Jones, and the stunning “A Woman’s Pain”), Neilson gives a powerful voice to modern women. That she continues to stake a claim as one of the finest vocalists in popular music only elevates the impact of her narratives. And the content of her songs is matched with a fearless approach to genre: On SASSAFRASS!, Neilson incorporates a heavy dose of vintage soul and gospel into her brand of country music. However weighty her subject matter, though, Neilson’s subversive sense of humor and playfulness make SASSAFRASS! a listen that’s as fun and rowdy as it is provocative and smart. Jonathan Keefe


OneohtrixFrom the heavenly baroque notes of ersatz classical instruments (synthesized clavichord, perhaps? A harpsichord?) that open the album to the grinding electronic noises, recalling machines and mechanisms breaking down, that appear several tracks later, Age Of is, like all of Daniel Lopatin’s albums under the Oneohtrix Point Never moniker, eclectic and befuddling. Lopatin’s Auto-Tuned vocals on “The Station” wouldn’t be out of place on a Daft Punk song, but those soon give way to a lush swell of synthesized chords on “Toys 2.” The album moves sinuously from gentle Eastern-inspired ambient pieces to the sounds of despair, unwelcoming and unapologetically unstructured. Though the only instruments credited in the liner notes are keyboards and drums, there is a multifarious array of emulated instruments, an orchestra conjured by a computer. You could go insane trying to figure out which instrument is being imitated where; it’s best to let the album simply enfold you, to succumb to the vertiginous babel. Lopatin has always had a penchant for mingling chaos and calmness, shattering sustained periods of quietude with calamitous, rapturous bursts of electronic tumult, but here the transitions are less jarring. The album could be considered more accessible than his others, but Age Of is also the kind of music you put on in the background and forget about. It ends on a moment of serenity, a nearly Zen tranquility. Lopatin has, at least for now, kept the apocalypse at bay. GC

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