Monday, September 06, 2021

Record Roundup: Rooms Of Their Own

Each album below creates a self-contained universe and feels like a direct view into the minds and hearts of their creators. All are also musical innovators who put deeply personal explorations solidly in the context of these challenging times. Their artistic and emotional bravery can be inspiration and guidance for us all.

Billie Eilish - Happier Than Ever I can't imagine what it's like to create something new when you're not so much an artist as an industry. One way around the pressure is to not think you're making an album, just recording a song here or there, and then get boxed into a corner by a global pandemic, which sidelines the world tour that was going to keep you occupied for the next 18 months. At least that seems to have worked for Eilish, who has beat the odds and followed up her earth-shattering debut with this excellent collection of (mostly) elegant and (mostly) intimate songs. I say "mostly" because when she lets all the tension out on the title track, it comes as an explosion of distortion maybe not heard since the golden age of digital hardcore. But up to that point, she and her brother Finneas, who produced the album, explore various realms of electronic pop, lacing in strains of bossa nova, blues, jazz, disco, in a restrained fashion that occupies the same small space as, say, Colossal Youth by Young Marble Giants. 

While there's no doubt this is the same artist who made When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go, the sense of an artist following her muse is very strong. Eilish has enough stadium anthems already, after all, but it will be interesting to see how quieter songs translate to the necessarily large venues she will be visiting on her tour, when it happens. As for her artistic development, there was a key moment in The World's A Little Blurry, the documentary about her early career, where she and Finneas are in the back of a tour bus trying to record their theme song for No Time To Die, and Finneas is urging her to put a little more power behind her vocal. She complains, saying something to the effect of, "I hate belting." Well, it seems like she protested to much. Besides the title track, there are a number of moments here where she lets it loose, like Oxytocin (which must have Madonna simmering with jealousy), a neo-house nightmare of a song that has her unleashing unearthly wails.

A note about the lyrics. While some have complained that they can't relate to the subject matter of the songs because they touch on Eilish's rapid ascent to stardom and the ensuing fallout...I say not so fast. Take the opening track, Getting Older, which has the line, "The things I once enjoyed, just keep me employed," which could be taken as a world weary plaint about how being famous is such a drag. Maybe there's a kernel of that in there, but it's also a rhyme Cole Porter would grab at, and in the context of a song where she also sings "I've had some trauma, did things I didn't wanna," I have no problem feeling sympathy for that narrator. And in NDA, where she makes a cutting remark about having a potential boyfriend sign a non-disclosure agreement before leaving her house, it would be easy to see that as a "first world problem," when the problem is really with the gossip-industrial complex that put her in that position in the first place. In the end, while there's plenty of hard-won personal experience fueling these songs, these are not journal entries but exercises in creative songwriting.

The sequencing of the album is one of its strengths, with tones, moods, and rhythms sliding into or interacting with each other in ways that pull you from song to song. Not My Responsibility is  the dark heart of the album and the tough inner core Eilish exhibits on that spoken word track about the many judging eyes on her and her body is a remarkable display of self possession - and will likely help many young women around the world. Only the last song, Male Fantasy, is ill-served by the track-list as it can't help feeling like an afterthought following the explosion of the title track. It's a beautiful song, however, with an almost folky quality and, like Your Power, shows off the crystal clarity of Eilish's soprano. It's thrilling to think that she has yet to fully exploit all the qualities of that golden voice.

My biggest concern after the massive success of Eilish's first album was that she and Finneas would be corrupted by success in a way that would taint their self-contained writing and production methods, leading to the use of outside writers, guest features, and other things that would dilute the power of their work. Thankfully that hasn't happened here, but I would note that on the vinyl copy I have, there's no mention of Finneas interpolating Gustav Holst in the intro to Goldwing, and neither is there any credit given for the lush photography (by the remarkably talented Kelia Anne MacCluskey) or the pretty graphic design. Until you can do literally everything yourself, it's a good idea to give credit where it's due. Just a minor point and one that doesn't sully one of the year's best albums.

Anika - Change I never knew how much I needed a record that combined the hauteur of Nico with the distracted pathos of Joy Division until I pressed play on this, Anika's second album in 11 years. That gap is misleading however, as she and Martin Thulin, who made the album with her, also released two albums  as Exploded View (along with Hugo Quezada and Amon Melgarejo) in 2016 and 2018. But I missed those at the time and was hence unaware of Anika's remarkable development as a songwriter and artist since that self-titled debut. Using a backing that often combines a tough rhythm section with synths that soar and squiggle in time-honored post-punk tradition, Anika declaims and sings lyrics that often hold up an all-too clear mirror to our current age of anxiety. This radical honest reaches a terrifying peak on Never Coming Back, a mantric (yet not preachy) chant about all we're erasing from the earth through our inability to stop climate change. That tension makes the title track all the more heartbreaking in its hopefulness. "I think we can change, I think we can change," she sings over and over, almost as if she's trying to convince herself. I know she's made me a believer!

My Tree - Where The Grace Is In 1971, Stevie Wonder planted a flag in the future world of synth pop with Look Around, the opening track from Where I'm Coming From. Now, we get the duo of Caroline Davis (vocals, vocal effects) and Ben ‘Jamal’ Hoffmann (keys, keybass, drum programming, guitars, vocals), who seem to have grasped a thread from that flag and pulled it right up to today. Another thing that outs them as Stevie's progeny is the captivating melodic invention of each song, which Davis sings with a jazzy lightness and flexibility. Hoffman's all-synth backing (right down to the LinnDrum rhythms) shimmers and sparkles, aided by a warm production and occasionally live contributions. Musically, it's a breezy experience, but dig a little deeper and you will find mention of Ahmaud Arbery and the Pulse Night Club shooting. They also dissect the Reagan presidency with some help from a rapper Rico Sisney, but even there they evince the light touch that distinguishes their sound and makes me hit "repeat" - I think you will, too.

(Eli)zabeth Owens - Knock Knock When I included Owens' debut, Coming Of Age, in my Best Of 2018: Rock, Folk, Etc., I closed by saying,
 "I get chills imagining the moment when her ambitions are fully realized." Well that moment came when I sat riveted on my couch as I watched the premiere of the visual album that accompanies this album. Using a dazzling variety of visual styles, Owens and their main collaborator, Oscar Keyes, explore issues of identity, breaking free from negative patterns, and the many ways our internal resilience can pull us through tough situations. The music, much of which was recorded and performed by Owens alone, combines sparking harp, lush piano, or spiky synth with glitchy hints of percussion, creating looping sound beds for their nearly operatic musings, which are unafraid of asking the hard questions. 

"When I was a kid, I thought I'd die young," they sing in Oversoon, "Wave goodbye to everything and everyone/Twenty years go by and I’m still alive…/What to do with all this time?" Often layering their voice to create hypnotic choirs and occasionally touching on prog rock, Owens is charting their own course here. While its easy to imagine fans of Kate Bush or Joanna Newsom coming on board, Owens communications more clearly to my heart than either of them. With this richly imaginative, almost theatrical album, Owens has installed themself yet more firmly in the musical firmament of our time. Catch a rising star today.

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  1. Really enjoyed this. Thanks. Want to listen to them all