For the last couple of years, big Internet music press has been hellbent on selling us this notion that indie rock is still the most vital mode of pop song-making around, a dominant force on yearly “Best Of” lists at various entrenched publications. Indicative of an ever-growing gulf between critic community and general audience, tepid, stodgy albums like Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud are celebrated as evidence that rock music is here to stay, but who’s really listening? Japanese Breakfast is an act that’s benefited from the press’s attempt to reorient toward a rockist future, but they’re also a group that’s been able to reimagine themselves a couple times over in their short existence, most recently and appealingly with Jubilee, their third LP.
Once the primary vocalist of punky Philadelphia emo band Little Big League, Michelle Zauner split from that band and relocated to Eugene, Oregon to be with her mother who was fighting a cancer that would eventually end her life. Japanese Breakfast began as a project through which Zauner processed her emotional distress following this tragedy; initially a solo act, soon after, a full band. Naturally, the tone and material on their first two albums skewed darker and colder, moving from 2016’s melancholic, lo-fi Psychopomp to the lonely, existentially-troubled Soft Sounds from Another Planet two years later without perking up particularly. Jubilee marks a conscious turn toward warmer emotions, repurposing the band’s instrumentation and compositional ideas to create bright, danceable tunes complementary to Zauner’s evolving perspective.
Admittedly, like most artists operating in this sort of pop strata, Japanese Breakfast aren’t exactly forging a unique path ahead with Jubilee, so much as they have managed to confidently claim and personalize current popular aesthetic trends. Embracing a moody ‘80s production sound largely built on synth and drum machine (part of the band’s repertoire in the past, though never so much as here) with strong bass lines and occasional disco strings. It’s a popular styling at the moment, but Zauner’s crisp, fem vocals offer a cool counter to these slinky, late-night melodies, her voice slipping from Kim Deal (track three, “Kokomo, IN,” sounds remarkably like The Breeders’ “Drivin’ on 9”) to Madonna and back, with casual effort. The result is commanding, yet cautious, a purposeful take on this aesthetic that accentuates the album’s central tension.
While Jubilee is certainly Japanese Breakfast’s most ebullient work, it’s anchored by insecurity and lingering pain (both personal and social) expressed lyrically. Album opener “Paprika” sets the tone for what’s to come with Zauner’s conflicted description of her recent fame (described as “a rush” while also being compared to opening floodgates that dispense no water) set to the crescendo of a marching band’s drums and horns that lead into the Phil Collins-y single “Be Sweet,” the title phrase intoned in the chorus more like a (gently) pleading request than a demand. Jubilee’s other two singles, “Posing for Bondage” and wonky Alex G collab “Savage Good Boy,” also follow this trend, exuberant pop works contending with doubt and the vulnerability that generally comes with being a woman (the former song’s title sort of a metaphor for heterosexual monogamy, the latter song adopting the perspective of a male billionaire attempting to coax a younger woman into entombing herself with him a la Under the Silver Lake). In these ways, Jubilee proves a smart and enticing switch-up for Zauner and Japanese Breakfast, one that broadens the band’s sound while accommodating the songwriter’s organic spiritual/emotional journey. What might have been another tired, if functional, act of indie rock pastiche is instead something more complicated, a work that chooses to revel in the contradictory.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux Section: Ledger Line
Lil Baby & Lil Durk
Lil Baby and Lil Durk: He’s the voice, and he’s the hero, as we’re informed on the introductory track on their collaborative album The Voice of the Heroes, nicknames that imply a certain level of authenticity mingled within their superstardom — and suggest a certain level of significance to the pairing of these two performers, like it was destined by fate or else written in the stars. It’s a partnership that couldn’t have happened at a better time in either artist’s career: Durk, a man who’s survived a disastrous major label flop and rebuilt his image and sound from the ground up — and who’s been riding high since securing a coveted Drake feature last summer — has finally achieved mainstream success, albeit partly from his close association with the late King Von. Baby’s trajectory has been more straightforward (one direction: up), but one also paved with hard work from his lowly beginnings as Quality Control’s towel boy. The fruits of their labors have finally paid off, and this is their victory lap; the fact that Durk also has a solo album titled The Voice helps to underscore how much this entire operation is an exercise in pure publicity, but the two have such strong, natural chemistry that it’s easy to ignore that.
In fact, it would be more accurate to say the two are in lockstep with one another, playing off each other’s vocal harmonies and verses with the type of tenacity not presented on one-off outings like these. Indeed, hearing Baby and Durk rap together is like watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen playing alongside one another on the ‘92 Chicago Bulls: bearing witness to the joint efforts of two young cultural sensations in their prime. For Jordan and Pippen, that manifested physically; for Durk and Baby, it’s artistically… sort of. They’re not exactly seeking to broaden their horizons here, but that’s easily for the best; they instead dig into their collective strengths and hone in on improving those together.
While the two operate with such ease around one another sonically, they also wisely know when to allow space for the individual. “Still Runnin,” which has Meek Mill show up for some reason, finds a triumphant Durk sound invigorated as he promises retribution against his enemies with a sinister resolve; Baby follows up after, who’s as determined, but more subdued. When one goes in, the other wisely ducks out; in this, they achieve a type of harmony missing from many projects of this ilk, often by sticking to the core dynamics of their respected stylings. “That’s Facts” has Baby vocally sauntering around Wheezy’s bouncing drum beat patterns, crafting a slick chorus from whistling and bragging about buying pretty girl’s lunches in the 5th grade. Durk follows up, creating his own sticky melody by complaining that Google doesn’t have his net worth right and laments that he fucks “too many bitches” who also happen to fuck Gunna, a rather odd predicament to be in. Which is to say that the two have limitations — Durk is a bit of a lothario, to put it mildly — and one’s mileage for this type of music will vary by how enthused they are for this newer wave of genuine “street” music. Admittedly, they’re not the greatest MCs of all time, but are also both very good at the things they do well, like flexing their bustdown pateks gifted from Young Thug (“2040”) and singing about staying abstinent during Ramadan (“Who I Want”). The result is plenty enough to help this fruitful partnership live up to its grandiose title’s namesake.
Writer: Paul Attard Section: What Would Meek Do?
Marina (stylized as MARINA) is not the same girl you remember from her 2012 breakout album Electra Heart. Latching onto tumblr-tinged politics and the divine feminine — though Marina’s “divinity” reads more “girlboss” — Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is a bold return to the sound that first made her famous.
After receiving poor fan reception for her 2019 release Love + Fear, an album which also confirmed the dropping of “+ the Diamonds” from her stage name, Marina steers Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land back to familiar tonal territory. Always maintaining a theatrical air, the electro-pop singer utilizes synth and stabbing verses with a confidence reminiscent of her “Primadonna” era. But don’t get it twisted, this Marina would never collaborate with Dr. Luke again, because ultimately, this album is an attempt at social criticism.
The album opens with eponymous track “Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land,” which combines rapid-fire hooks with a thumping bass as Marina preaches “You don’t have to fit in the norm / You are not here to conform.” With the album as her pedestal, Marina cycles through a wide range of contemporary issues: everything from colonization (“New America”) to the coronavirus (“Purge the Poison”) pops up here. Almost as if checking off a to-do list, one topic after another is mentioned, all against layered electronic beats with little elaboration. But in fairness, there are some broad themes Marina addresses with more conviction throughout the album: feminism and the struggle against misogyny being a primary focus on tracks such as “Man’s World,” “Venus Fly Trap,” and breakup ballad “I Love You But I Love Me More.”
But Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land is as front-loaded with hits as it is with hypocrisy. Referring to herself as a “millionairess” in “Venus Fly Trap” before later declaring that “capitalism made us all poor” in “Purge the Poison,” these contradictions reaffirm the superficiality of Marina’s lyrics. They are catchy, of course, and the production calls back to fan-favorite The Family Jewels (2010) while the colorful album art nods to Froot (2015). It’s a brash effort to reconnect with fans by not only re-adopting her experimental pop sound and look (though from a decidedly more mature angle), but also by addressing relevant topics such as the #MeToo movement.
However, the album seems to shift its intention in the back half, pivoting from intense political commentary in “New America” to longing vocals set against a rolling cello in “Pandora’s Box.” Indeed, the final four tracks find Marina focusing inward, narrating vulnerable and intimate moments between her and a partner: sometimes a lover, sometimes herself. The shift in tone is noticeable, and the transformation from carnivorous “venus fly trap” to heartbroken “almost psycho” contributes to this portion of the album being easily overlooked. But despite the lack of throaty braggadocio, final four tracks “Pandora’s Box,” “I Love You But I Love Me More,” “Flowers,” and “Goodbye” hold their own and even seem more true to the artist. At 35 years old, Marina Diamandis has experienced a life worth reflecting on, and it’s time for her to say “goodbye to the girl [she] was“.
So while there is no doubt that Marina is a legitimately politically-conscious individual, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land still misses more than it hits with its mouthy political commentary. Despite the distinct effort in the album’s back half to assert a different narrative, it’s too invested in broad strokes — Marina needs stronger focus and elaboration if she wants to indulge such topicality with nuance. Though not her strongest lyrical effort, Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land almost makes up for such shortcomings with catchy melodies, energetic dance pop, and Marina’s trademark dramatic vocal flair. Hopefully her next release will better capture the new self she is seeking to realize.
Writer: Alex Taranto Section: Ledger Line
Throughout the aughts, Gary Allan was one of the few consistent bright spots on country radio. Armed with a truly remarkable voice of real range and grit, Allan brought a rough-hewn perspective that filtered a Bakersfield country aesthetic through contemporary trends. In terms of scoring actual airplay, Allan positioned himself as the heir to Dwight Yoakam’s legacy, and it was an artistically rich and unique spot. That country radio actually embraced Allan to the extent that it did — he has a total of fifteen top 20 hits to his credit— is something of an anomaly, in that his aesthetic never jived with either the slick pop-country of Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood or the hip-hop inflections of Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt. What makes Allan’s latest album, Ruthless, such a disaster, then, is that Allan seems unwilling to accept that his time as a radio act has run its course, and he spends almost the entirety of the album chasing trends that are utterly beneath him.
Perhaps most troubling is the extent to which Allan and the litany of hired-gun songwriters who contributed to the album have embraced both the casual and the overt misogyny that is one of the reasons the last decade of mainstream country music has been so brutal. There’s a genuinely nasty contempt for the woman described in “Waste of a Whiskey Drink,” while “SEX”— yes, really— treats women as literal objects in exactly the same way that Chase Rice routinely does. That an artist like Allan, who had once belonged in the company of Miranda Lambert and Eric Church as examples of mainstream country at its best, is making such po-faced attempts at replicating the likes of Rice and Florida Georgia Line is, frankly, appalling. None of the women described in these songs even approximate an actual human: They’re all reduced to openly sexist clichés, whether being described as “hotter than an Alabama July” (on “Till it Felt Like You”) or being chastised for having any agency of their own (on “Ruthless”). It’s noteworthy that, likely because of his age and the fact that it’s been a full eight years since his last album, radio hasn’t given Allan any real support for the singles from this album. Hopefully, that leads to an eventual epiphany that Allan should return to recording the kind of provocative, thoughtful material that he can actually bring a sense of gravitas to, rather than this brand of desperate and deeply unsexy sex-jams.
Writer: Jonathan Keefe Section: Rooted & Restless
Now that Lucy Dacus has been inducted into the mainstream on the heels of two solo LPs and her boygenius supergroup with fellow wunderkinds Julien Baker and Phoebe Bridgers, she here follows up with third album Home Video, a nostalgia-laden document that traces her experiences with religion, relationships, sexuality, and the specific growing pains that so often accompany a rural upbringing. In weaving these threads, Dacus offers a deeply intimate look at her life, albeit set to somewhat familiar-sounding tunes and melodies.
What’s immediately evident on Home Video is that the artist has a deeply complicated relationship with her Christian upbringing. Multiple songs bring light to the struggle she has with her faith, notably “VBS,” a track which recounts memories of church camps and the darker realities that exist below such ostensibly safe spaces. The song is marked by light acoustic guitar strums and a simple melody that replicates the sounds of any number of worship bands, delicate on the surface but speaking to a deep spirituality. “VBS” also incorporates a notable genre shift in its final stretch, splitting from the soft tones and ripping into heavy metal guitars, a riff on the music she says her church-going boyfriend listened to — it’s a wink to the Christian hardcore scene that will be familiar to many who came of age as evangelicals in the early aughts.
It’s in such intricacies that Dacus finds her groove on Home Video, a necessary disruption to a tracklist that too often feels homogenous in sound, a weakness that lines up with common criticisms lodged at her previous record, Historian. But where Historian had the career-defining and emotionally resonant “Night Shift,” Home Video lacks any single moment of catharsis, instead opting for multiple smaller moments peppered across several tracks. If it robs the album of any kind of crescendo, it at least allows focus to shift to more minor successes, such as her translation of the previously live-exclusive “Thumbs” to a down-tempo, synth-backed studio track that stands amongst her best. While the song tackles an emotionally harsh experience at the hands of a friend’s distant father, the track’s true pathos comes in her unwavering loyalty, to the point of betraying her character in order to inflict harm for the sake of her friend. While this certainly reflects an extreme moment of narrative songwriting, it’s indicative of Home Video’s preferred theme of personal loyalty, whether it be found on “Christine,” where Dacus attempts to talk her friend out of a relationship that’s wrong for her, or “First Time,” in which she questions her allegiance to the religious dogma on which she was raised versus fidelity to her own feelings, questioning whether she’ll ever be able to capture old emotions again.
Such lyrical vulnerability and candidness is a bold choice on any record, especially when one that revels in a certain nostalgia, the combination too easily stopping short of real profundity, revealing only trivialities that make up any number of songs about teenagedom. Instead, Lucy Dacus opts for the personal and specific, and it lends the album an authentic diaristic quality. The songs may sound much the same — to each other and to past records — but Dacus’ skill as a lyricist remains distinct, offering plenty of intimacy across a record that is beautiful, flourishing, and occasionally messy.
Writer: Andrew Bosma Section: Ledger Line