Distractions marks Nottingham outfit Tindersticks’ 13th studio album, and while the sessions were certainly affected by the conditions of the pandemic, the group’s front-man, Stuart Staples, has indicated that it shouldn’t be regarded as the mere result of some restrictive circumstance. That isn’t only because the album’s core ideas were conceived in February of last year, before the pandemic was officially declared, but because Distractions is part of an elaborate, deliberate strategy to take the band’s back-catalog in new directions. It is, decidedly, a more small-scale release, with an apparent minimalistic approach to musicianship and to the orchestral arrangements. But “small-scale” doesn’t have to mean minor, and as effortless and relaxed as this experimental jamming can sound on the surface, look a little deeper and it’s easy to find rich and detailed, sonically eclectic textures and ambiance all over this record.
“Man Alone (Can’t Stop the Fadin’)” — this set’s epic, madcap, 11-minute opener (also Tindersticks’ longest track to date) — is the fullest realization of Distraction’s ideas; its spiraling structure and claustrophobic atmosphere compliment disjointed, non-narrative verses that turn into surrealistic verbal automation. Staples’s echoing croon, a thumping bass-line, and spare drum-machine further the trippy effect. And as the track’s repetitious chanting (“Can’t Stop the Fading…”) breaks into a more emotionally raw refrain (“But I’m not greedy for the scan no more”), one could almost interpret this opus as Staples’s avant-garde take on an anthemic stomper like the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” In contrast, the album’s second track, “I Imagine You,” leads the listener through an ephemeral, soothing sprawl; its mood is akin to the soundtrack work that Staples and his band have become well known for, largely through continued collaboration with French arthouse filmmaker Claire Denis. The combination of vibraphone and Staples’s alternating spoken-word/singing on the track shape a phantasmagorical ghost-tale which includes probably the most beautiful poetry found anywhere on this record: “I imagine you in the sunshine, maybe / Whatever the weather / Whatever is on TV / I imagine you.”
The midsection of Distractions is formed by three cover songs. Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid” is rendered in a bluesy, trip-hop fashion, with the band’s frequent collaborator, Gina Foster, adding her Gospel-fueled harmonies to Staples’s husky voice in the chorus. Dory Previn’s “Lady With the Braid” allows for Tindersticks to embrace easy Americana- and country-adjacent vibes, as Earl Harvin’s soft percussion and Staples’s dreamy vocal — especially in the transition into the song’s outro — approach the exhilarating finale of the Eagles’s “Hotel California.” Closing out this trifecta, Tindersticks offer a groovy rendition of post-punk group Television Personalities’ “You’ll Have to Scream Louder” — another of this album’s major highlights, with its rhythmic mix of twitchy percussion and palm-muted guitar rendering the politically discontent poetry into an incitement to revolt (“I’ve got no respect for / These people in power / They make their decisions / From their ivory towers”). Inspired by the tragic terrorist attack at the Parisian theater Le Bataclan, Distractions’ penultimate track, “Tue-Moi,” is a piano chanson, an appropriately subtle precursor to the serene finale, “The Bough Bends” (filled with David Boulter’s flute-like mellotron and Neil Fraiser’s buzzy, gritty electric guitars).
After all, Distractions is an immersive record that configures itself mostly according to a melancholic, romantic confessional quality, both imperturbable and numinous. If it’s not a major leap in quality or concept for Staples and his mates, it still reflects legitimately bold, confident steps forward in the thought-out course the group has undertaken since the early ‘90s. Distractions is a deeply focused record, and an essential signpost in predicting what we should expect from Tindersticks in the future.
slowthai’s latest album TYRON arrives at a pretty hectic moment in the British rapper’s relatively young career, a point where he finds himself still working at breaking into the U.S. market while also reckoning with his P.R. debacle at last year’s NME Awards. Chances are most have already forgotten this incident, particularly here in America, but TYRON, the rapper’s second album, seems consumed with confronting the doubts that may persist about the artist, oscillating between brash dismissal of public perception and tender martyrdom anthems. The stark difference in tone is accounted for in the album’s structure, a lean 35 minutes chopped into two parts — a very concise double album!
TYRON’s first half takes on the more combative tone, apparently recorded following his NME fuck-up and the inevitable social media cries for cancellation. Those hoping for words of remorse from slowthai will come away disappointed, yet he doesn’t commit to a full heel turn either, reserving his sternest admonishments to the woke police with a song literally titled “CANCELLED,” which surmises that the artist’s cancellation was mostly talk, disproven by an assortment of awards and prime festival slots. Needless to say, this isn’t a topic that slowthai engages with gracefully, but aesthetically speaking, the songs that make up the album’s first half are probably the most fully-developed, seamless iterations of this new grime sound the rapper has been cultivating and tweaking over the past few years. His knack for building out tracks that blend influences running through American punk to trap and horrorcore has afforded him some status in U.S. rap culture — following Skepta’s feature on the aforementioned “CANCELLED” with an A$AP Rocky feature on “MAZZA” plays as a cute nod to slowthai’s intercontinental appeal —with his production preferences making him a natural collaborator for artists like Tyler and Denzel Curry, the latter indeed popping up on the album’s back half.
This second movement is decidedly more reserved than the first, using sparer, slower beats to match the album’s move toward more introspective material. Listeners’ appreciation for this project as a whole will likely hinge on the degree to which they buy slowthai’s dramatic pivot from brash punk to sincere soul searcher, a perspective shift that is convincing enough initially — songs “i tried” and “focus” offer unguarded details of the rapper’s struggles with feelings of depression and isolation. But other attempts at positioning himself as a deep thinker fall short, with “terms” reintroducing the idea that slowthai is a victim of media narratives run amok, and the corny, wide-eyed “nhs” considering the dualities of life via a laundry list of piercing existential queries (“What’s love without hate and stuff? Loyalty without no trust? Rick without Morty?”) Much has been made of slowthai’s ability to reconcile his boyish hoodlum verve with legitimately stirring political commentary, but there isn’t much of the latter on TYRON, forgotten amongst more vague, unsatisfying ruminations. There’s a lot here to suggest that what lies ahead of slowthai will be quite thrilling, perhaps major, but this most recent mostly release suggests a need to reconceive perspective and direction.
As the first release on the Phoebe Bridgers-founded label Saddest Factory, Claud’s Super Monster is a rich entry in the lineage of bedroom-pop releases that have speckled college radio stations and indie Spotify playlists over the last several years. While Super Monster admittedly adheres to many of the recognizable quirks and forms of the genre, Claud manages to break free from the overdone tropes that often make similar but lesser albums sound like self-parody.
Though only recently inaugurating their twenties, Claud approaches each track with an emotional maturity of someone with lived experiences of heartbreak, loss, and love. The nuance of Claud’s writing is impressive enough on its own, but in pairing this content with melodies and production that trigger memories of youth and its heightened emotionality, the album’s richness builds. These contrasts are similarly present in the bright instrumentation, smooth open tones and synth beats generally lending a bright, positive tenor aside the lyrical melancholy. Opening track “Overnight” makes clear that such themes are what the album will lean into, serving like as an announcement of what’s to follow: “I fell in love like a fool overnight / I fell behind can’t keep up with real life / and all the time spent with you in my head / turned into things that we finally did.” “Soft Spot” doubles down, bringing that sense of nostalgia to the fore: “You made it clear that it’s over now / But you’re all that I think about / So now I don’t know what the hell to do.”
Later moments on the album skew toward more contemporaneous, personal dialogues, such as on “That’s Mr. Bitch To You” where Claud offers a challenge to the very concept of gender; their thesis is largely the title, but they go on to sing, “I turned my back / I’m stronger than you thought / Bet you didn’t know / I won’t let a straight man throw me off.” Even universal notions take on new immediacy in a 2021 context, and on “Falling With the Rain,” a soft song about hope that bad things are going to get better, seems perfectly curated for our current times: “I know sometimes I start falling with the rain / Give me some time so I can fall back into place.”
Indeed, Super Monster’s release is impeccably timed; the album feels particularly fresh and of-the-moment without relying on any referentialism that will age poorly. It’s an impressive distinction, as Claud is just getting started in their career. Through both their solo projects and collaborations with their group Shelly (featuring fellow bedroom pop artist Clario), Claud shows immense versatility and an ability to adapt. If we’re to be so lucky — and all indications suggest we are— these traits reflect the necessary honesty and innovation for future efforts as pleasant and refreshing as Super Monster.
Yasmin Williams composes music almost exclusively for solo guitar — a fact that’s worth emphasizing because, listening to the fullness of Urban Driftwood, you might be tempted to forget it. Part of that is a testament to resourcefulness: To arrive at the sound she wanted, Williams had to augment her instrument with a kalimba, allowing her to accompany her rustling strings with occasional chimes, ringing as clear as any church bell. But more than that, the rich sound of Urban Driftwood conveys Williams’s ability to write orchestrally; her instrumentals typically begin with clean statements of melody that branch out into regally intertwined tributaries, Williams providing hypnotic, percussive effects by what might be a kind of magic. It’s not until the sixth song on the album, “Adrift,” that she’s joined by another musician: Taryn Woods adds resonant violin to Williams’s precise picking, and three songs later, Amadou Kouyate brings an insistent djembe pulse to Urban Driftwood’s title cut. Both guests’ turns are lovely and welcome — but they also feel like icing on the proverbial cake. By this point, Williams has proven herself a perfectly capable one-woman band.
Since Urban Driftwood was initially conceived by Williams to be a song cycle — capturing the fraught emotions of 2020 — it might come as a surprise to hear just how… cheerful the album sounds, particularly at its outset. The spritely “Sunshowers” opens the record with what feels like a dare; many of the subsequent songs feel more pensive, yet Williams remains steadfast in her commitment to melodic clarity, technical precision, and warm, welcoming compositions. Her music contains multitudes: The clean-cut verse-chorus structures of American folk music, loping African rhythms, sound effects that arrive from the ether and often defy quick explanation. Put it all together and you have a set to get lost in: A solo guitar album that exists not just as an exhibition of virtuosity, but as a conjuring of utterly ravishing, transporting songcraft.
Uploaded to Bandcamp with practically zero fanfare early in February, screen time is another in a long string of experimental side-projects from former Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore. Most of the attention paid to Moore’s solo career is lavished on the handful of records that feature recognizable song structures and his signature flat vocal stylings — in other words, the ones that sound more or less like Sonic Youth. But really, the bulk of his catalog is taken up by one-off instrumental experiments and live noise recordings (totaling nearly 100 releases over the last few decades), often in collaboration with free improvisation titans like Loren Connors or Mats Gustaffson. As its lack of a formal PR rollout indicates, screen time falls into that latter side-project category, but it still stands out amongst the rest of his catalog. Moore’s guitar appears to be the only instrument present here, but these pieces are at least partially composed, most featuring numerous overdubs spread across a wide stereo field. And though it does get dark, it’s an altogether pleasant listen — mostly absent is the chaos and abstraction that might turn listeners off of his more outre improvised work. It’s also markedly different from something like 2019’s epic, Glenn Branca-inflected Spirit Counsel. With a few exceptions, the tracks that make up screen time tend to stay in one place; there’s hardly any linear progression or shifts in dynamics within any given track. At times things almost sound loop-based, but Moore’s playing is too loose to detect any firm patterns.
Opener “the station” layers a few dissonant chords drenched in a chorus effect, with some Derek Bailey-esque scrapes and scratches sprinkled throughout. It’s an eerie stage-setter and fairly representative of what follows. The heavy amounts of processing make it difficult to be certain about exactly what we’re hearing at any given moment, but the percussive strum of an acoustic guitar is at the forefront for much of this record. It’s an unusual choice of instrument by Moore’s standards, but the effect is quite nice, adding another textural dimension to his sonic palette. In a brief release statement, Moore noted that he conceived this music as the score to an imaginary film noir, which gives some context to its stagnant quality; this feels like a collection of discrete mood pieces more than anything else. And with that cinematic comment in mind there is something of an arc that forms, however abstract, with the vague track titles (“the town,” “the neighbor,” etc) providing just enough information to make out a narrative skeleton, while the music and the listener’s imagination fill in the gaps as we move from scene to scene. From the cold arrival at “the station” we soon find ourselves in the comfort of “the home,” an unusually buoyant track that at times almost resembles a wind-up music box, with its slightly detuned strings and staccato plucking. From there, we pass through a number of similarly opaque settings, from the contemplative solace of “the view” through the more ominous atmosphere of “the parkbench,” before arriving finally at “the realization.” But the nearly nine-minute finale isn’t the transcendent climax that its title might suggest. Rather, it’s mired in the same sort of stasis that defines the previous scenes, which becomes a meaningful emotional gesture if one does choose to approach screen time as a narrative — there is no jolting epiphany to be found in this conclusion, merely empty deflation.
Nearly one whole decade ago, Cloud Nothings enlisted Steve Albini to engineer their third album, the project mostly a solo act with a touring band at that point. Here, in 2021, Dylan Baldi’s long-standing post-hardcore project has maintained a consistent lineup for a bit now, putting out records with some regularity over the last few years, culminating in this latest, The Shadow I Remember. Albini has been brought back into the fold, here to produce for the first time since 2012’s Attack on Memory. That album brought Baldi’s vision for the Cloud Nothings project into sharper focus, moving it away from its more overt pop origins, burying his catchy melodies and hooks amongst harder, noisier instrumentation. Tethering this newest release to that one via Albini’s production creates a spiritual link between the albums, setting them up to be read within each other’s context. Inevitably, The Shadow I Remember isn’t the dramatic career reorientation that Attack on Memory was, but there’s a poignancy inherent to Baldi returning to these specific production stylings and compositions, even if the Cloud Nothings’ aesthetic hasn’t strayed too far from what was originally codified on that earlier work.
The songs on The Shadow I Remember are songs about aging, time passing, and all the uncanniness that comes attached, though delivered with no less vigor than what’s characterized their discography up till now. Baldi is savvy in his songwriting though, and never really allows these big themes to do more than provide a general framework to build the album around. As such, The Shadow I Remember might be most immediately taken as wistful and angsty, the vibe clearly declared in album opener “Oslo,” which works the phrase “Am I older now or am I just another age?” over and over, into a chorus. Baldi is only this direct sporadically throughout the album, and even then, it’s clear that he isn’t addressing us from one strict perspective (he’s said that this particular song was written with Joachim Trier’s Oslo, August 31st in mind). Either way, The Shadow I Remember remains an excellent showcase for Baldi’s songwriting and pop compositions, pulling in various mundane inspirations — domestic living and quarantine boredom are significant touchpoints — and spinning them out into heavy, evocative jams. Many years deep at this point, Cloud Nothings still manage to find new, worthy directions to take their music even as it has begun to loop back on itself aesthetically.