Modest Mouse has touched heights few of their contemporaries have managed (or, necessarily bothered to pursue), the band’s career a curious journey beginning in the punk/DIY scene of the American Pacific Northwest, before meandering on into mainstream credibility and Top 40 respectability mid-career. This sudden success can be attributed to 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News and its once ubiquitous lead single “Float On,” which granted Modest Mouse mastermind Isaac Brock access and resources far grander than anything the band had had up until that point. The new cache let the band flex in big ways (conscripting Johnny Marr so as to record a follow up concept album of nautical tunes), but none of it has managed to translate into music that appeals to those outside of Brock’s devotees, the post-Good News version of the band never cracking the charts like they did with “Float On” again, nor made albums as wily and evocative as their first three.
Now on their seventh LP and 17 years out from their most visible moment, Isaac Brock trudges along dutifully with drummer Jeremiah Green (the band’s only other still-active founding member), committed to continuing the Modest Mouse sound, but not really bettering it. The band faced a semi-reset back in 2012 when bassist Eric Judy (the band’s other founding member) quit after several years went by without music being released, but 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves and now, this newest project, The Golden Casket, suggest that Brock and Green’s vision for this iteration of Modest Mouse is a safe (read: shallow) one. Initially promised as a sequel Strangers to Ourselves, The Golden Casket seems to not be that anymore (though the two albums naturally have more in common with each other than the rest of MM’s discography), but rather a venue for Brock to vent and muse against the implied context of the last few zany years.
At first glance, this isn’t the worst choice for Modest Mouse. After all, Brock is himself a famously zany man; a raucous chronicler of debauchery and alienation, with a delivery that oscillates between an emo whine and a ferocious bark usually compared to that of a sea captain or a carnival attendant. These vocal stylings remain intact on The Golden Casket, but the content of Brock’s songwriting has been toned down, less reliant on narrativization (the exception being opener “Fuck Your Acid Trip,” a mostly amusing and characteristic way to kick things off) and more inclined toward wistful musing and cliched, old-guy philosophizing. The former is less objectionable than the latter, with the album’s more abstracted, psychedelic tracks being too lyrically vague to annoy (“We Are Between” and “Leave a Light On” being two of the better examples, and appealingly optimistic as well), while songs like “Wooden Soldiers” (“Hashtaggin’, photo braggin’, no one’s even sort of real”) and closer “Back to the Middle” (which is indeed a humble plea from Isaac for a return to an imagined political centrism of yesteryear) are pitiful in their attempt to establish a stance on the cultural climate, Brock so clearly on the outskirts of it now. There are moments of newfound earnestness that seem like a step in a correct direction (ode to childrearing “Lace Your Shoes” is genuine though incongruous), but much of it is still unconvincing and macho in a fashion not dissimilar to contemporary Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon. The Golden Casket is long too, concluding at the 50-minute mark and inevitably overstaying its welcome. It at least indicates that there must have been some passion driving this project, some care taken with its production, but, increasingly, it feels as if Modest Mouse is investing more time into work that resonates less.
Polo G, like every great rapper before him, is ready for a coronation of his own making. In fact, if he hadn’t already just used it for his last release, the title of The Goat may have been more appropriate here given the gravity of the occasion. Polo’s been steadily honing his craft over the last three years (what must feel like an eternity to an up-and-comer) and slowly amassing a more attentive audience as a result. He had a hot song with Lil Tjay (“Pop Out”) and kept at it ever since, while also marking himself as the leader of his XXL Freshman Class, against such soulful heavy hitters as Jack Harlow. Hip-hop tastemaker/videographer Cole Bennett of Lyrical Lemonade fame made a bold prediction at the end of last year: that 2021 would be Polo’s most advantageous hour, a “#1 hits type of year” as he put it; just a few months ago, Polo secured his first number one hit. It’s not a coincidence; it’s hard work paying off — and the release of his latest album, Hall of Fame, serves as the type of ambitious crowning achievement one needs before cementing their legacy. 2Pac had it with All Eyez on Me and Biggie had Life After Death; but those were records with a stronger artistic vision than pure vanity, and their grandiose heights were supported by a variety of forward-thinking production choices. Hall of Fame has neither of those qualities, and instead feels like the product of a long business meeting at Sony headquarters to create a product that would please everyone and anyone. Even when comparing album covers, it’s not even close: 2Pac looks forelorned, Biggie unaffected and haughty — and then there’s Polo, in business casual attire, awkwardly slouching and a tad sleepy looking.
Granted, Polo’s never been what one would call an “underground” rapper, but the degree to which he’s being positioned as the next big versatile superstar becomes only more ridiculous as Hall of Frame trudges along its bloated hour length, with a promised Deluxe Edition dropping any day now. He gets a song with DaBaby because everyone who’s big makes a song with DaBaby, and Polo gets the exact same feature DaBaby gives to every big person he works with. He tries to make a cute love song with Nicki Minaj, and while the two share zero chemistry over CashMoneyAP’s boring sorta-dancehall beat, it isn’t the worst collaboration here (that would probably go to an ordinary-sounding Young Thug). There’s a Brooklyn drill song — because every mainstream rap album needs one — and there’s a Pop Smoke feature because obviously it needs to be there; if there’s one compliment that can be given here, it’s that Polo wisely decides against centering the track around himself, which also makes the record more faceless as a result. This backend run of tracks feels so removed from the narrative the album has been attempting to build, though with some minor success — biggest highlight: Lil Wayne, who bodies his feature on the melodic “Gang Gang” — but even the initial run of lead singles that kick off the project feel awkward and rarely play to their artist’s strengths. “GNF (OKOKOK)” has Polo clumsily shouting off beat, and “Rapstar” feels almost indistinguishable from any number of surly piano- or guitar-led tracks before or after (fans have been merciless in their renaming of Polo G to “Piano G” for the insane number of keys here), except it uses a ukulele as its central instrument instead. If being an all-time great only requires a few decent flows and a strong closer (the determined, laser-focused “Bloody Canvas”), then we might as well begin the inauguration festivities. If more is needed, then it seems as if Polo G has a bit more work to put in before starting that coveted conversation.
Rebecca Black transcended “Friday” years ago. Since 2017, she’s been putting out synthpop gems that shine alternately with melancholy, exuberance, and defiance, but, without fail, are polished to perfection. Her earlier singles tested the edges of the indie-pop-girl landscape in all directions, trying genres from glittering dance-pop to anthemic ballads to drop-driven electropop and attitudes from snark to hesitance to unabashed romance. Rebecca Black Was Here is her first EP since 2017’s RE / BL, and it reintroduces Black as a pop artist worthy of attention by (finally) packaging her different musical impulses together into one compelling project.
The EP is split cleanly down the middle between hyperpop and more traditional synthpop sounds. “Better in My Memory,” “Personal,” and “NGL” all play around with a similar kind of hyperpop style where sweet, shimmering verses are contrasted with sour, clanging choruses in order to explode emotions outward into the most visceral manifestations possible. “NGL” is the best of the group, and at three and a half minutes long, it’s also the most structurally developed compared to the sub-three minute runtimes of the other two. Indeed, it uses that time thoughtfully, giving the song’s diverse array of textures room to breathe and mingle, particularly on the lavish bridge where each harsh and sugary layer of synths is broken down and built back up amid playful vocal processing and dramatic stop-start rhythms. The writing is also interesting, with Black admitting she was the bad guy in a relationship, speculating about what a breakup song from the other person’s perspective might be like, and rhyming “Sky Ferreira” with “mascara.”
The last three songs on the EP scan as more tried-and-true synthpop reminiscent of Black’s previous singles. Track 4, “Blue,” is a ballad that puts her voice front and center: after the vocal manipulation of the first three songs, it’s a breath of fresh air that reestablishes her presence as the cohering factor of the EP. Following it is latest single “Worth It For the Feeling,” which is similar to her 2020 track “Self Sabotage” in the way it transforms complicated relationship troubles (“If history’s repeating / Then it’s worth it for the feeling”) into surprisingly gorgeous pop confection. Drenched in reverb and layered with hazy synths, violins, and electric guitar, “Feeling” is pretty because it relies on melancholy, instinct, and uncertainty, and it’s a strong contender for the project’s best song. Rebecca Black Was Here then closes with its first single, “Girlfriend,” which is a fun, frothy cut about Black getting back together with her girlfriend that takes the soul-baring, weightless qualities of “Blue” and “Feeling” and morphs them into the happiest track here. “Girlfriend” is also the final clue in revealing the overarching narrative: Rebecca Black Was Here is a reverse breakup album, beginning when the relationship is already over and ending with Black changing her mind and vowing, with infectious optimism, that “this time it’s gonna be different.”
The EP features, in the context of Black’s discography, both sounds that are new and some that are already familiar. She still excels at her brand of synthy futurepop, but “NGL” in particular is a nice calling card if she decides to venture further into the hyperpop scene. Regardless of genre, though, one thing remains true in all her work from 2017 to now: Black’s songs are distinguished and elevated by her singular presence. Of course, her voice has enough power to carry the music convincingly, but her biggest strength lies in her ability to imbue even the most hushed line with emotion — and, conversely, her ability to make even the most forceful melody sound delicate. Her sweet, emotive vocals anchor the chaos of the more maximalist tracks, tie them to the more traditional pop output of the second half, and ensure that the inherent emotion of each track remains front and center. Rebecca Black’s name may carry old baggage along with her pop music career, but she’s proven over and over that she’s worthy of being seen as a meaningful artist in her own right.
Given that he’s been a professional musician for more than half of his life, it’s something of a surprise to realize that Laysongs is Chris Thile’s official solo debut. First gaining recognition as part of the pop-bluegrass trio Nickel Creek, then founding progressive stringband Punch Brothers, working alongside collaborators including Yo-Yo Ma, and taking over as host of A Prairie Home Companion, Thile has rarely taken a break in the last two decades. Though he has served as the lynchpin in both Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers, there’s always been a collaboration amongst the members of those bands, obscuring what Thile has or hasn’t brought to the table in terms of his firsthand experiences. Laysongs, then, is striking for its openness and transparency: The album consists of just Thile’s voice and mandolin, and the occasional handclap or footstomp for percussion. That there’s nowhere for Thile to hide is fully in service to the album’s greater focus, which finds the MacArthur Foundation-certified genius attempting to reconcile the tensions he perceives between his prodigious talents, longings for both justice and community, and his evangelical upbringing.
It’s an album that is truly agnostic in the sense that Thile lays bare his uncertainties and questions about matters of faith, and it’s perfectly aligned to the growing “exvangelical” movement that has gained considerable cultural traction over the last few years. The very premise of “God is Alive Magic is Afoot” would certainly have many fundamentalists clutching their pearls at Thile’s playful conflation of the holy with the profane. In contrast, “Ecclesiastes 2:24” (“There is nothing better for a man, than that… he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor,” for the heathens reading this) is more literally aligned with scripture, in that it finds Thile taking a joyful approach to his work, picking a nimble, intricate melody from his mandolin. As is always the case with Thile’s recordings, there is no faulting his technical gifts: Few artists in popular music have such a forward-thinking and sophisticated capacity of composition and how musical structures relate directly to tone and theme. His singing voice rarely draws much commentary, but he’s always been a skilled vocalist, and the versatility of his performances here — his falsetto on “Laysong,” in particular, is stunning— capture the full range of the album’s challenging emotional terrain. Closing the set with a cover of Hazel Dickens’ “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me,” Thile ends this evocative song cycle by suggesting that, even in the absence of conclusive answers, there is still something valuable in shared experiences and a true sense of community: That may not be gospel, but it’s still a message worth preaching.
While there was that one definitive 2019 hyperpop album that dominated most mainstream music coverage (hint: it was our AOTY), the year also saw the release of the less talked about — yet equally as hectic and sticky — debut self-titled mixtape from human Catherine Grace Garner, AKA internet-entity Slayyyter (spelled exactly as is, extra Ys and all), an amalgamation of kitschy Britney worship, happy hardcore musical stylings, and a vulgar visual aestheitc straight out of 2000s VH1 reality programing. It blew its load at about the halfway point with “Daddy AF,” a song that was coincidentally about blowing your load, but showed enough songwriting savvy and promise during its initial leg to not make the affair a total wash. It was an encouraging debut, the type where one can clearly see what bugs needed to be fixed and what quirks needed to be ironed out for what’s supposed to be the even better follow-up record. Troubled Paradise is not that record, or even in the ballpark of that record; from a purely qualitative standpoint, it’s actually hard to say if Slayyyter is improving or not compared to her last outing. But while the last time we heard her resulted in a lot of fun, one now gets the distinct feeling that it was perhaps just a fluke; there’s little provided here to suggest that, after this, we’re in store for something — anything — better on the horizon.
The first four tracks are all at least solid — especially the aggressive, horn-blaring “Throatzillaaa” and some of its more choice lyrics (“I went straight down from the very first kiss/Like, baby, lemme swallow them kids”) that position its lead artist as the Godzilla or King Kong of dick-sucking. The other three are likewise enjoyable and capture the deranged spirit and ethos of what one would expect coming into the record, but they can also often feel like tired retreads of old material with a less biting attitude, like the really cringe line on “Venom” about how all these vegan bitches “want beef.” But problems really arrive with “Butterflies,” which is the first noticeable instance of how shallow Slayyyter’s entire shtick is once she tries to attempt anything remotely sincere, and more follow soon after: the production choices from here on out sound amorphously out of touch with anything one could possibly consider exciting. The previous song has a lifeless trap beat, and the following title track is artificial to a fault; “Cowboys” offers some alt-country twang, but feels like a desperate gimmick far beneath Grace’s usual level of skill. But perhaps most damningly, Slayyyter as a persona feels even less defined here than on the mixtape — it was always a bit of a hodgepodge before, but at least reflected a distinctive entity with their own outrageous voice. On “Serial Killer,” Grace sounds quite a bit like No Doubt-era Gwen Stefani, but with a flat intonation that suggests she’s merely going through the motions. Which might actually be the best way to summarize what’s accomplished here: it’s more of the same, but usually not as good, and when it’s not doing that, it’s noticeably crummy.
23-year-old Faye Webster returns after a buzzy album cycle with I Know I’m Funny haha, another genre-bending Americana-adjacent record with a lot of heart and a unique approach to the familiar fodder of life, depression, and getting through the hard days. Given her instinct for subverting such norms, it shouldn’t surprise that her relationship with the music she makes is also unique. Take, for example, the way she builds tracks: while she records with a full band that she’s worked with throughout her entire career, she completes all of her vocals in her kitchen on GarageBand rather than in a studio, trusting the band to fill in the appropriate accompaniments around her rather than the other way around. This might be why what initially sounds like a traditional country song can so easily turn into a lounge ballad, as the band swells for an extended musical breakdown. It may also be why she adds pedal steel to an R&B beat, a rejection of the traditions of both genres, instead marrying classic sonic rudiments in a new type of union, one that suits Webster’s singular voice and sensibility quite specifically. The singer utilizes all of these unique features in support of lyrics that are similarly personal, often consisting of brief snapshots of her day-to-day existence. Here, such ruminations are largely fixed around time spent in isolation during the pandemic, and I Know I’m Funny haha accordingly runs an emotional gamut, from losing the joy of your old hobbies on opening track “Better Distractions” to solitude-inspired musings on unrequited love and relationships past on “Cheers” and “Half of Me.” Notably — and perhaps inevitably, given the circumstance and inspiration of their creation — the tracks on this album are patient, taking their time and even occasionally meandering about, the aforementioned breakdowns and rerun choruses and outros a sort of sonic replication of the boredom and monotony of seclusion.
But it’s in this mission to mine and define loneliness that Webster hits something of a wall on I Know I’m Funny haha. The intentional repetition starts to become uninterestingly drone-y after a while, and her chosen thematics announce themselves early and overstay their welcome. And in her attempt to toe the line of distinctiveness and relatability, Webster leans hard into a quirky e-girl personality that can be off-putting (though some listeners will certainly find the performance endearing). At its core, there’s no denying that the record is unlike any other to come out this year, despite the multitude of albums angling to be the definitive musical document of this micro-era of isolation and fear, nor that the tracks do come together in an admittedly unique way — often as intended, and occasionally not. To that end, Webster mostly achieves what she sets out to, though the path to that destination makes some of the songs a real slog in the process.