Credit: Dimitrious Kambouris
Album Roundup Music by InRO Staff Featured

Album Roundup — November 2021 | Part 1: Taylor Swift, Radiohead, French Montana

December 14, 2021

Taylor Swift

Red is the Taylor Swift album most precariously balanced between different identities. Caught in between country and pop, it’s a fan favorite project that has some of the best songs of her career but also a wildly inconsistent tracklist. The album tends to be remembered for a handful of its highlights, as well as the abstract nostalgia for its stylistic commitment to not committing to anything but the heat of the moment, but its less iconic songs do make the project feel less convincing as a whole than some of Swift’s more focused releases. In short, Red is near impossible to pin down satisfactorily, and the newly rerecorded Taylor’s Version only makes it more complicated. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The heart of this album is the (literal) reproduction of the tracks that made up the original Red, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag. A handful are actively disappointing: “Holy Ground” is one of Swift’s best and most underappreciated deep cuts, flushed and breathless and pulsing with color, but even though producer Jeff Bhasker returned to work on the rerecording, some crucial sense of energy is missing from his updated arrangement and the vocal production. The new “wee-EE!”s in “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” also sound a little like a child going down a playground slide. But most of the songs end up in the solid, if unexciting, territory of being decent approximations of the original. Of course, there are plenty of small differences if you listen closely enough, but most of them are minor enough to fade from attention after a few listens. Like with Fearless (Taylor’s Version), the mixing is also crisper and wider. Occasionally, this makes the songs feel a little plastic, like their instrumentals could have been ripped from a tasteful clothing commercial, but there are also a few cases where the adjusted production and mixing are a genuine improvement. On “The Last Time,” small details pop newly out of the background and paint even sharper shadows as the guitar solo crackles with energy. The title track, although changed only subtly to lean further into pop-rock, also blows the original out of the water.

There are, of course, a few actual new songs on Red (Taylor’s Version) as well. Similar to the Fearless re-release, some of the From the Vault tracks (“Run,” “The Very First Night”) are pleasant but easy to understand why they were kept off the original, while others add surprisingly fresh elements. “I Bet You Think About Me” is a fun outing for Swift’s gleeful country-accent antics; “Message in a Bottle” captures the same, well, bottled feeling of playfulness, but turns it into synthpop instead. It’s also clear why “Nothing New” and “Forever Winter” didn’t make the 2012 album — the former is a meditation on the way the entertainment industry captures, toys with, and discards young women, the latter a message of hope for a suicidal friend, both probably too serious and un-romantic for the image Swift’s team was chasing at the time — but in a post-Folklore and Evermore world, these tracks feel more fitting than ever, acting as further proof that her lyricism has always reached beyond immediate relationship drama in thoughtful ways.

And then there is “All Too Well” and its 10-minute extended version, which somehow, against the odds, lives up to its almost decade-long hype. Sure, the additions to the story lose the lyrical economy of the original, but the goal of this new version isn’t perfection, but mythmaking. Recognizing fans’ faith in even the deepest cuts of her work, reaffirming the emotional and cultural impact of the original, reclaiming heartbreak and turning it into a carefully crafted global experience: at this point, Swift has written circles around her best-known b-side a dozen times, but no other track will ever define her career as perfectly as “All Too Well.” Like the rest of Red (Taylor’s Version), this final vault track is a look back at where she’s been in order to take control of her future — not just to ensure ownership of her masters, but to address public perception of the version of Swift that came along with each album. And going back to where she was in 2012 means taking listeners back to their past selves, too. Some fans of Swift might hate these rerecords, because the originals are too important to them to ever be replaced; some might take them in stride, returning selectively to just a few standouts; some might forge an entirely new, striking relationship with these updated versions. Although her re-releases are a fundamentally economics-driven project, they’re generous in the personal possibilities they offer up: Swift has never seemed more sure of herself, and although her newest music looks back to the past, it defines itself not by who she was, but by who she has become.

Writer: Kayla Beardslee   Section: Pop Rocks


Credit: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Radiohead

Around the turn of the millennium — when the Dubya era loomed over America and nu-metal was still nascent and people were freaking out about Y2K and the collapse of the binary system — Radiohead found themselves reluctant celebrities. The UK group were propelled to stardom by “Creep,” a pretty good if typical angsty ’90s rock song that the band quickly wanted to forget. (It remains their most popular song on Spotify.) When OK Computer was released in 1997, Radiohead’s star status was solidified, which upset the band: they didn’t want fame, and now that they had it they desperately wanted to shed it. Meanwhile, everyone began to eagerly await their next album, expecting more rock — you know, fuzzed-up chords and solos, maybe another “Paranoid Android.” Because as great an album as OK Computer is, for all its paranoid musings and dexterous instrumentation, it’s still more of a regular alt-rock album than a lot of people like to admit — or at least, not nearly as weird as the next effort. 

After OK Computer, Radiohead didn’t want to tool around with guitars anymore, and thus, we got Kid A and Amnesiac, two of the most daring works from a famous band in the annals of popular music. When the former dropped, jaws hung low, befuddled and beguiled by avant-garde electronics bleeping and blooping, notes as cold and sharp as icicles, atmospheric waves of keyboards pouring across jazzy drumming and Thom Yorke’s painfully pretty voice delivering cryptic lines reminiscent of William S. Borroughs. Kid A and Amnesiac (released eight months later) were supposed to spit in the face of stardom, break the shackles of being a famous rock band. Instead, they ultimately amplified their status, and went to no. 1 on the charts in the US and UK. Radiohead was as popular as ever, even if they no longer rocked. 

Now, 20 years later, we have Kid A Mnesiac, which collates both of the 2000s albums into something like a double LP — which, funny enough, the band specifically wanted to avoid in the first place, hence the albums coming out separately back then. The appeal here is a collection of B-sides, deep cuts, and rough tracks. There’s a different version of “Like Spinning Plates,” which like the live version layers piano over the backwards whooshes and quaking computer programming. Here, the track has a sense of fluctuating ephemerality, a bobbing and eddying, a sense of the ethereal solidifying into something semi-permanent. There are also three short, untitled tracks included as bonuses, each with an unsettling beauty akin to “Tree Fingers” or “Hunting Bears”; they’re fleeting glimpses of songs, lovely and lonely and incomplete. “Fog—Again Again Version” is shimmery, serene, and sad. “Baby alligators in the sewers,” Yorke coos, “Grow up fast / Grow up fast / Anything you want it can be done, how / How did you go bad?” Yorke yearns and laments, as he often does. “How to Disappear into Strings” is, as the name implies, just the strings, scraping and a little scary, not unlike Mica Levi’s sounds from Under the Skin. Maybe the most fascinating track is the mash-up “Pulk/Pull—True Love Waits Version,” which extracts the gossamer grief of Yorke’s voice from the latter — which, after many live renditions involving an acoustic guitar, finally came out as a heartbreaking minimalist anti-ballad on A Moon Shaped Pool — and drapes it over the distorted stomp of the former. With Yorke’s repurposed vocals, there’s now an air of sorrow to a track that some have always considered to be a throwaway, a feeling of (re)discovery that extends to much of this “new” record.

Writer: Greg Cwik  Section: Pop Rocks


French Montana

“For the next game, you need to name FIVE French Montana songs without features.” It was this challenge — issued to the world in the form of a Squid Game Twitter meme — that more or less kicked off the publicity campaign for They Got Amnesia, where an ever-cross French swiftly responded by naming 14 of his solo tracks (including the first single for this album, what a lucky coincidence) and claiming that the listening public at large has collective memory loss when it comes to the Moroccan rapper’s many decorated achievements. Ignoring the glaringly obvious marketing tactics employed here to stir up non-existent hype — mighty convenient that this interaction occurred right as French was finishing his fourth studio album — it does raise an important question: just what exactly are the many triumphs of French Montana? Since we’ve seemingly forgotten about all of his accomplishments, he goes ahead and lists them rather humorlessly on a shameless rip-off of Big Sean’s “I Don’t Fuck With You”: he has a lot of money, he’s dated a lot of celebrities, he’s friends with a lot of celebrities, he’s apparently influenced Travis Scott’s creative decisions; all of these trivial auto-biographical details are sprinkled throughout, but they lack any sense of real lived-in specificity to make them stick. He keeps insisting that “I don’t really care,” patently untrue given the song’s conception, but what should be a carefree sentiment ends up bitter and conceited — he comes off as a bothersome curmudgeon, sitting on his throne and angrily stewing over his perceived lack of respect from afar. 

Simply put, there’s no possible way that French Montana could ever make any part of his lavish lifestyle sound authentically exciting; he’s far too monotone, too awkward, too bland a performer to ever stimulate. He suffocates his verses with dead air, often rapping only one syllable at a time and filling empty space with overplayed adlibs — which will eventually build toward some lame punchline about oral sex, followed by a shout-out to Max B. He’s a charisma vacuum, one who has little to no talent when it comes to providing any semblance of allure to his music other than, you guessed it, the impressive list of guests he can still reliably assemble. So there’s a deep irony at the core of his latest project, at least when considered in this light: in an effort to prove these aforementioned detractors wrong, Montana has released an album whose most notable characteristics are its features — which isn’t even to suggest they’re all consistent in quality, but bring more of a presence than anything else he could string along. Doja Cat and Saweetie, two financially well-off women from upper-middle-class upbringings, allege they’re both “hood-rat bitch[es]” on the zestless “Handstand,” where each embarrasses themselves in different ways (Doja’s on vocal auto-pilot, Saweetie compares changing a baby’s diaper to missionary position) but are at least somewhat likable with how far they’re willing to take their shtick. Kodak Black, who’s collaborated well with French before on “Lockjaw,” grumbles his way through the inferior “Mopstick,” where the duo’s once singular sinister chemistry now feels watered down and tame. The only real positive stand-out is Coi Leray, whose infectious, short-burst chorus saves the non-starter “Push Start” — but then French shades her in the lamest way possible on “Bag Season” (“Your money thin like Coi Leray”), reminding everyone exactly why they forgot about his irrelevant ass in the first place.

Writer: Paul Attard   Section: What Would Meek Do?


Credit: Andrew Cigna

Beach Fossils

Brooklyn indie band Beach Fossils arrived in 2010, joining the sound put out by contemporaries such as Real Estate, Girls, and The Drums, formed just a couple years before. Dustin Payseur’s distant, low-key vocals and the band’s muted, jangling guitars also evoked the aura of earlier groups like Galaxie 500 and Slowdive. But with The Other Side of Life: Piano Ballads, Fossils frontman Payseur has elected to reinterpret the band’s hits through the genre of jazz. 

A longtime creative goal of Payseur’s, the album is a satisfying homage to a style that had certainly informed the architecture, if not the outright resonances of Beach Fossils’ work. Their former drummer Tommy Gardner has provided a beautifully delicate reimagining of the band’s melodies. By removing the guitar-driven lo-fi presentation from the equation, and turning their focus from the fuzzed out vogue of the past decade of indie rock, Beach Fossils has created a record that showcases a more relaxed, earnest sound.

With the addition of Gardner’s piano and saxophone, familiar singles like “This Year” and “Down the Line” have been given a new coat of paint. Short solos introduce new spaces that refresh the buttoned-up tenor of before. Their excellent “What a Pleasure” is reminiscent of a sun shower. This newfound breeziness makes for easy-going listening, the perfect soundtrack for a dinner party or nightcap. Payseur’s vocal stylings remain unchanged — a choice that, in his words, provides the link from this album to their previous work. A chance to hear him singing with more vulnerability would have been nice, but ultimately, this decision doesn’t diminish anything. The Other Side of Life is a swanky sonic reinvention, a taste of what else Beach Fossils has to offer.

Writer: Conor Williams   Section: Obscure Object


Body/Dilloway/Head

In the world of noise music and free improvisation, collaborative side projects are a fairly regular occurrence — in fact, calling such collaborations “side projects” is probably a misnomer, as really they’re one of the foundations of the genre. The opportunity to observe the musical synthesis that emerges from the collision of disparate improvisers can be one of the most exciting features of this music. However, in the case of Body/Dilloway/Head — a new trio comprised of Bill Nace, Kim Gordon, and Aaron Dilloway — the arrangement is not the usual one. Rather than these three heroes of American noise music gathering to spend some time freely jamming, the impression that Gordon gave in a press release quote is that of a two-step process: recordings created originally by just herself and Nace (who have performed together as the guitar duo Body/Head for nearly a decade) were later sent along to Dilloway to be used as source material for his tape manipulation-based wizardry. A listener schooled on the work of these artists might have come to this conclusion on their own, as Dilloway’s musical voice does indeed seem to dominate the proceedings, at least on the surface. But it would be a mistake to regard this simply as the authorial work of Dilloway alone.

This mode of construction is not necessarily without precedent, but its effect on the listening experience is significant. “Body/Erase,” the sprawling, side-long track that opens the record, is illustrative in that regard. Things begin barely above a whisper: a few fragments of warbled, abstract sounds scattered sparingly, undergirded by a soft, machinic hum, the sort of ambient drone present in almost any sonic environment, but rarely noticed or treated as a focal point. (Dilloway’s reputation as a noise musician can sometimes obscure his talent for utilizing negative space, but still this is strikingly sparse.) And it remains that way for quite some time; new sounds are mixed in, but the music refuses to settle into any coherent form or pattern. One would assume that the sounds we’re hearing began as Body/Head recordings, but there is no way to reliably tell with just one’s ears, as everything is treated beyond any point of reasonable identification. Dilloway takes his time, gradually sprinkling in more pieces of distorted tape, a painter slowly but deliberately adding little strokes to his sonic canvas, and it isn’t until over halfway through the track that we can detect anything that actually sounds like a guitar. Their entry is subtle enough that you might not even notice it, but an educated speculation suggests that the droning eighth-notes in the left speaker probably came from Gordon, whereas the more abstract noises coming from the right hail from Nace’s prepared guitar (though of course we can’t be certain). Meanwhile, Dilloway continues to tinker, and somehow by the track’s end, a new form has slyly taken shape, the piece mutating ever so slowly into a knotted mass of droning feedback and buzzing loops, without ever really calling attention to the shift. There’s no crescendo or climax, it simply evolves, and all of a sudden Gordon and Nace seem to have slipped into the foreground. It’s a remarkable work of patience and restraint, one that encourages deep, focused listening and pays off beautifully.

One of the pleasures of these sorts of collaborations is trying to pick out who is responsible for which sounds, but the arrangement here opens up broader questions of authorship — who is the Body and who is the Head? While the methodology might suggest one answer, Body/Dilloway/Head ultimately resists anything so simple. Though that first track begins sounding essentially like an Aaron Dilloway solo project, the Body/Head source material subtly morphs and grows until the track bears the unmistakable mark of all three of its participants. At certain points it even begins to sound like Gordon and Nace are overdubbing on Dilloway’s collage, not merely serving as ingredients to be diced up and arranged. Now whether that is actually true or not is less important than the fact that their three individual voices are undeniably present as crucial pieces making up this whole. It’s a dynamic we can see continue to play out as the record unfurls; Dilloway does seem to be playing orchestrator, but Gordon and Nace are still featured soloists, rather than being lost in the warped tape. “Goin’ Down” is a relatively traditional improvised trio, with what sounds like a mostly unedited Body/Head jam plus Dilloway laying down some ghostly loops over the top. But the third and final track brings perhaps Body/Head’s most iconic feature into play: Kim Gordon’s voice.

“Secret Cuts” is a beguiling work, jarring and sudden where the rest of the record is fluid and understated, but most striking is the way Dilloway slices and mangles Gordon’s vocals. They’re shredded into syllabic fragments and distorted in all sorts of ways, but somehow they remain obviously Gordon’s throughout. Her breathy voice is unmistakable, even when twisted beyond comprehension. The effect is something like a transmission from a dream, at once recognizable while being entirely unintelligible, intuitively familiar despite having been stripped of all information. And in that sense, “Secret Cuts” feels like a song torn apart, an observation that only further elucidates Body/Dilloway/Head as a project. If Nace and Gordon had initially set out to take Sonic Youth’s rock deconstruction somewhere more radical, then the inclusion of Dilloway is only a continuation of that same process, as they submit their music to be literally shattered and stitched back together. It’s another layer of deconstruction, another step in reimagining what rock music is and can be.

Writer: Brendan Nagle   Section: Obscure Object