Album Review: Tegan and Sara’s Heartthrob

Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob

Artist: Tegan and Sara
Album: Heartthrob
Label: Warner Bros

CLR [rating:5]

Heartthrob, semantically, has (at least) two obvious meanings- the slightly retro-referencing idea of the crush fantasy, a swoon-worthy (and usually male) poster, a pin-up for gazing at and giggling over. And then there’s the cardiac swell- the panicked drop, the almost-sickened reality lurch as you feel your heart literally throb. The dull space between beats, intense and disquiet, half desperate for some kind of ventilation, an intervention, flittering in the adrenaline burst of some fearful need.

The swing between the two states- of blissful, panting daydream and cold sweat, death grip coronary is where Tegan and Sara, the greatest (and cutest) folk pop lesbian sorority in all of music, offer this album.

The overwhelming majority of things written about it are surprised they’ve ‘gone pop’ -oh, jog on. They’ve always been pop, ever since the Yellow and Red demos and it’s never been a dirty word. They have, however, always been a woodier sort of pop, a sort of earthy, clay-and-green, if you’re synaesthetic. All acoustic hollows and thrums, folky tree-music.

And I’ve, along with an awful lot of other people, loved them for it. Their angry girl music is the sort of rage against the computer screen that happens at 4am in a rush of anxiety, their sex songs are about illicit exhibitionism through a late-night apartment window and their love songs are the most sincere vows to never mess things up again ever to trip out of a teenager’s lips. The emotions and the stories in their songs are pure pop- in it’s most exquisite, sugar-sweet and arsenic-painful expression of the ecstasy and agony of love and a constant struggle with the self.

For Heartthob, they’ve polished it up. The thing that keeps striking me, as I listen to the album is how incredibly, dazzlingly shiny it is. It sounds crystalline, prismatic, a refracted brilliance that’s almost blinding, demanding your attention. And it is one of the emotionally saddest albums I’ve heard in years.

Anyone who’s heard Womack and Womack’s ‘Teardrops’ will know that being a banging disco floorfiller is absolutely no guarantee of it not being one of the saddest songs in the world. And not every song on an album has to be heartbroken for it to be heartbreaking, of course. Which is why I want to talk about this as three key themes.

If you don’t want to read an in-depth breakdown, then in prece: this is a lusty, hopeful, heartrending masterpiece of eighties-influenced synth pop, propelled and directed by Tegan and Sara’s customary emotional complexity. It’s on Spotify, go listen.

And for the rest, here’s my customary thousand word exposition-

What you are is lonely
Lyrically, that’s going backwards but I think it’s the key line. Heartthrob opens on a stormer, the lead single ‘Closer’-

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It’s a sprint rush of a song, a heady, lustful burst of ‘I will say pretty much anything to get you naked but that’s just because you are so amazingly awesome that I can’t believe it’s happening.’ It’s falling over itself, a little bit cocky and a little bit wrongfooted, making no mistake that it wants to roll you into bed but also sweetly awestruck. Despite the bravado of “all you think of lately is getting underneath me” there’s the nervous proposal of just getting a little bit closer, the promise that it won’t treat you like you’re typical. It’s tender and excited and head over heels.

Similarly propulsive, probably even ‘poppier’ (whatever that means) is ‘Goodbye, Goodbye.’ This isn’t, despite the sparkling, soda stream synths and the big eighties beat, a love song, it’s one of the most broken things I’ve ever heard. The end of a relationship that’s sucked everything out of you, that crying, foetal moment of rage that this has taken your everything and you were just being stupid- “goodbye, I don’t wanna feel the need to hear your voice/goodbye, I don’t wanna feel the need to see your face” that urgent need to forget what a fool you’ve made of your own heart, to run away from almost everything and especially them- “I can’t stand it/all the things that I know/I can’t stand it/all the things I’ve let go” and all for nothing, in the end; at least, that’s how it feels at the time. The most acutely sharp, heartbreaking moment comes in the middle eight- “you let me try/knowing there was nothing I could do to change you/you coulda warned me/told me there was nothing I could do to change you” – effervescent in its heartbreak, this is a shimmering explosion of tears, the sort of heartbreak montage you get in a shoujou anime, plaintive and furious and despite its bubblegum features, very grown up. There’s a certain exhaustion to a mature heartbreak, a lack of caring who was right as much as who has to move their stuff and who’s going to sort all this out and how much time you’ve lost- there’s still a lot of who was right, of course but this isn’t Taylor Swift.

Which brings me neatly to ‘I Was A Fool’ -dressed in the sweetest stylings, this is a heartbreaking analysis of a relationship doomed from the start- it’s lyrically clever (“but stand still was all we did/a love like ours is never fixed”) and emotionally resigned, explaining not coldly but with no intent to change things, writing this history off.

You never really knew me

‘I’m Not Your Hero’ is and was within seconds of hearing it, one of the best things I have ever heard. It is a searing, fuschia melody, a burst of chug and determination. It’s not hard to chronically over-identify with the lyrics- “standing where I am now/standing up at all/I was used to feeling like I was never gonna see myself at the finish line” -if you’ve ever struggled. And who hasn’t struggled? Especially with themself. It’s a song about forgiving and appreciating yourself, shedding off a deeply dark time not to end up at peace but to wade back into the fray- “I’m not your hero but that doesn’t mean we’re not one and the same/I’ll do my best to walk the finest line ’till I’ve had all that I can take” -in the great theme of amazing, chuggy, determined Tegan and Sara love songs, which declare that this time it is going to be better seriously for real. This is the first time that the love has been offered to self-esteem, the respect to a personal experience and the determination to be better not for another person. And the first time it feels like it might really work -as sincere as ‘This Is Everything’ or ‘I Won’t Be Left’ are they always seemed a little bit doomed.

‘Drove Me Wild’ is another anthem to the theme of passionately doomed love- ”you carried romance in the palm of your hand/you put the brakes on us”. It’s probably the album’s indie-est moment, if that’s really a concept and one of the more basic song structures but still enormously melodic and appealing, filled with tangled sheets and the sun-kissed skin of a pin-up.

‘How Come You Don’t Want Me’ is about what happens outside those sheets, the external relations department of a relationship; ”why don’t you wanna win me now?/why don’t you wanna show me off?/tell me why you couldn’t try/couldn’t try and keep me here?” Being a secret girlfriend is no way to go, wanting to feel like you’re wanted is important. But also there’s a petulant tone here that’s always been one of the most charming and relatable aspects of Tegan and Sara’s confessional style, the slight poutiness of a borderline-unreasonable moment of pride when even if the other person’s wrong, there’s no socially good way of expressing the frustration. Ditto with ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend,’ an injured list of complications too great to ever tolerate their presence again, mutual blaming too bitter a taste in the air.

All I wanna get is a little bit closer

Heartthrob is deeply wounded and most of it is sad. Its emotional palette is reds and pinks, raw and tender, skin scrubbed too fiercely. But for all its sadness, all its discussion of never-going-to-work relationships, it’s an incredibly hopeful album. Not optimistic, per se but determined, teeth-gritted and snarling. Hope’s necessary for that, even if it is in small and ragged quantity. And hope’s never really stronger than when it’s down to its last shreds.

Which is why at the end of all this pain, there’s ‘Love They Say’ –”you don’t need to wonder/if love will make us stronger/there’s nothing love can’t do” guilelessly delivered like a chant, a mantra, a not-quite-belief but perhaps if it’s said with enough conviction enough times then it’ll work. It feels almost out-of-step with the rest of the album, so guileless but this is absolutely making a point, that the hurts overcome in ‘I’m Not Your Hero’ weren’t to turn a heart armored, that’s going to hurt again but that it’s wonderful. Which I guess so much so romance but if it wasn’t some integral part of human thinking then we wouldn’t keep repeating it, needing it repeated.

Next, a poised, elegant and utterly hurl-yourself-on-the-floor, lie-there-staring-dumbly-at-the-kettle-too-sad-to-move, numb-and-yet-somehow-stabbingly-painful masterpiece. ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’ is spectacular, an Annie-Lennox-worthy swirl of drama, wisdom and acute, sharp pain. It’s one of the songs on the album that is most spectacularly glassy- a chandelier of diamond shards, shining and blinding and razor sharp-

Stay/you’ll leave me in the morning anyway/my heart/you cut it out you never liked me anyway

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Everything about this song is wry, self-knowing, a tiny bit self-loathing and a little desperate. From the sharp crescendos ”now I’m all messed up/sick inside wondering where/where you’re leaving your make up” -aside from being one of only a handful of explicitly feminine-coded references to paramours on the album, the image is so sharply personal; smudgy lipstick tubes and eyeliner pens accidentally dropped in sinks, left on bedroom cabinets. And that soaring, beautiful, motivational-if-it-weren’t-so-broken refrain; ”go (please stay) go (please stay) go if you want/I can’t stop you/you go if you want to, I can’t stop you” -some sort of sun-bleached moment of unbearable clarity, no hiding places for the revelation and resignation.

And all that wry wisdom, all the self-knowledge of the album, the pride and the forgiveness comes to bear on album closer ‘Shock to your System.’ When I was listening to this album, I knew that I wanted to write about it. Firstly because it is very beautiful, quite probably my album of the year and secondly because I was annoyed by the ‘indie girls go pop’ narrative it was being shoehorned into. Every time I tried to, though, it came out as astonished spluttering about how incredibly shiny it all was- I have colour/sound synaesthesia and although I’ve tried to repress the extent to which I refer to it as some kind of prismatic statue it’s still how it appears in my mind.

Then I started thinking about this, as the album closer. And the line that I quoted to talk about the first segment of the album- ”what you are is lonely” -it’s the refrain of this track, not an accusation (as it reads, detached) but a reassurance; it’s ok to feel this way. And amongst the toughness of the chorus, the self-schooling of the verses (you’re only meant to hurt once in a while/who gave you reason?) this murmured comfort felt like the heart of the album. The search for contact and the bravery involved, even if it doesn’t look like heroics to others, is central to the concept of a heartthrob, lust and desire and the unattainable (or untameable) and the way it tears you up needs a platitude, a reminder to be kind to yourself-

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Tegan and Sara’s confessional torch songs suit the emotive scale of electronica incredibly well. Synths and keyboards have allowed huge, dramatic freedom to thousands of artists in expressing this sort of broken hearted hope, the poise and ambiguity and tiredness and sadness and longing. The Pet Shop Boys and St Etienne have made a career out of precisely that point of anxious heartbreak and desperate search for something comforting and Tegan and Sara slot both comfortably and spectacularly into that framework. I don’t know if they’ll stay with this style (they are musically chameleon between albums) but the results, on Heartthrob are an emotively extraordinary, delicate and exemplary pop album so good it seems already classic.

Album Review: Foxygen’s We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

Artist: Foxygen

Album: We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

CLR [rating:4.0]

I’ve noticed a theme whenever I mention the band Foxygen to anyone; every time I bring it up, there’s a moment of confusion. Did I misspeak? Was there a typo in my text? The deliberate addition of an “f” to the front of the word “oxygen” has become a source of predictable amusement in my life. It’s worth mentioning this because for all the confusion the band’s name has generated, I don’t believe this is going to be the case for very long; the music Foxygen creates is startlingly catchy, fun, and breezy without being flippant or shallow. If modern incarnations of psychedelic 60s pop speak to you, this is the pop you’ve been waiting for.

We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic, Foxygen’s second and latest album, is a solid offering. Beginning with “In the Darkness,” the listener embarks on a journey; the instrumentation is light and playful, traveling through electronic distortion, piano, and horns that have just a whiff of the Beatles about them with ease. The male vocals contain a hint of lazy affectation that often comes across when listening to Los Angelenos, a mild deliberation in elocution that leads the listener on through a phrase as surely as verbs and nouns do. The composed bite of that song is a perfect introduction to the rest of the musical courses that follow.

The most memorable songs on the album are anecdotal, at times almost free association stories of life, love, and loss. “San Francisco” relates the story of a singer leaving his love behind in the city referred to in the song’s title, but light female vocals echo the reassurance that “That’s O.K., I was bored anyway.” This casual ending of a romance is matched with an upbeat flute, peppered with light drums and lyrics delivered in a childlike, singsong way; here love ending isn’t a tragedy, but just a turn of events that can occur. Love ending isn’t a point of life ending, as it can often be in the musical world, but the start of something new. “Shuggie” ends up being a complex piece that shifts from a 70s street groove to slower moments of reflection, to interludes reminiscent of a full 70s musical and back again. Far from coming across as schizophrenic, the music is married by consistent instrumentation and themes.

The songs, while largely based in 60s psychedelic pop, show some moments of interesting experimentation, flirting with punk-like vocals and video game-influenced themes (“We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic”), and even the snarling of engines to compliment the music in “Bowling Trophies”. There’s a richness here among the pop that’s rewarding to uncover, and a world of discovery among the often humorous verbal surrealism contained within the lyrics (“No Destruction”, “San Francisco”).

Foxygen’s musical showing in We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic is strong in its own right; just in time for Valentine’s Day, here are songs that celebrate life instead of mourning love, and do so with aplomb. And while I’m about to lose a consistent point of befuddlement among friends, we’re all going to gain some slick grooves to sing along to, and I’d be hard-pressed to ask for much more than that.

Album Review: Wooden Wand’s Blood Oaths of the New Blues

Artist: Wooden Wand

Album: Blood Oaths of the New Blues

CLR [rating:2.0]

Wooden Wand is one of those intriguing little one-man-bands that often has the capacity to touch the heart. James Jackson Toth, the man that is the band, frequently creates emotional landscapes in a folk rock atmosphere. But while Wooden Wand has ventured into the territory of the heart in the past, Blood Oaths of the New Blues seems content to remain a more intellectual venture.

Blood Oaths of the New Blues has some interesting elements – in particular a trend to begin each song with a long, drawn-out note that sometimes ventures into the realm of experimental atonality – but the album overall feels like a series of progressions that never truly climax. Sometimes, as in the case of “Southern Colorado Song,” there’s even an eventual regression at the point where the song would generally build. This reduction of fervor and intensity, while interesting to listen to, creates a kind of abstraction and distance that is difficult to appreciate on a basic emotional level.

The song “Dome Community People (Are Good People)” uses the feeling of progression to good effect, creating a solemn, steady build that feels a bit like a melancholic parade approaching and then abruptly receding from the listener. Unfortunately since the mood of the album never shifts – either to darker or lighter places – “Dome Community People (Are Good People)” acts as a model of the entire album. The listener is held in suspended emotional animation, waiting for a push in one direction or another, but destined to be disappointed in that regard.

The lyrics of the songs ramble in that signature, country-tinged way that James Jackson Toth possesses, but within this album feel indistinct rather than sharp. There’s something of a poetry reading to the rambles, but instead of coming across as sincere and vulnerable, there’s a bit of a constructed barrier to navigate. While long-time fans of Wooden Wand might embrace this venture, the album James & The Quiet – which has less head and a bit more heart – might be a better introduction for newer fans.

Album Review: Andre Williams and The Sadies’ Night & Day

Artist: Andre Williams and The Sadies

Album: Night & Day

CLR [rating:4.0]

A new year is upon us, full of great new music to explore, but before we move on to embrace the new it’s always a good idea to look back and see if there was anything we missed. This is especially important now; in the era of disposable information, where we glut and feast on new facts as frequently as possible, fantastic things can get overlooked – buried alive, as it were.

Andre Williams and The Sadies is just one of the blips that you might have missed. Their album Night & Day was released in May of 2012, and is absolutely alive with verve and pockmarked soul. This is rhythm and blues at its grittiest, 70s-style traveling music at its catchiest, and features vocals with so much character that they seem to growl and snap at your elbow with every listen.

The lyrics range from topics of bitter love (“Hey Baby!”, “Me And My Dog”) to threats of violence (“Your Old Lady”, “Bored”) and thwarted jail time (“I Gotta Get Shorty Out of Jail”). The world of Night & Day is indeed often more night than day, with a kind of casual callousness broadcast in every song. In “America (You Say “A Change Is Gonna Come”)” Andre Williams spits out his philosophy against a background of organs and supporting vocals that evoke a blend of both haunted house and gospel house, spirits and the spiritual: “cuz without cash you’re trash, you gotta be blessed to live in America.” The result is an intoxicating moodiness as rich as any top shelf cocktail.

The following song may contain lyrics that are offensive to listeners.

Andre Williams has the deep, purring bass of a jungle cat, his voice percolating through his saliva to rattle out his threats and observations. If Andre is the night of Night & Day, then The Sadies are indeed the day; their supporting vocals hum, bing, and jive with a lithe, limber quality to perfectly complement Williams’ expletives. In fact it’s The Sadies’ vocals that add so much frank fun to the single “I Gotta Get Shorty Out of Jail,” transforming Andre’s violent promises into a song full of funk and sass.

The music is a rich medley of folk, including slow blues waltzes (“I Thank God”), gospel touches, and quick country fiddling blending with rock (“I’ll Do Most Anything for Your Love”). Sometimes Andre sings, sometimes he speaks, but whenever he vocalizes you can’t help but listen. So before we move onto the new releases, remember to look back and appreciate what’s come before; you might find something new – to you – out there.

Album Review: Crystal Castles’ III

Crystal Castles: III

Artist: Crystal Castles

Album: III

CLR [rating:3.5]

It’s unusual to make a sincere comparison between dream pop and death metal. Yet one came to mind quite easily while listening to Crystal Castles’s latest album III, and it is this; sometimes vocals are defined less by what they explicitly state than how they sound when they say it.

Alice Glass, vocalist of Crystal Castles, states that “Oppression is a theme, in general…” (of the album). That oppression is felt more through the rhythm and sound of the music here than in a constant awareness of what is being sung. In the haze of synthetic fuzz and snarl, words are either whispered (“Kerosene”, “Transgender”), or distorted to such pitch-manipulated spits of sound (“Insulin”) that the vocal recordings transform, becoming an instrument to be used with all the dexterity and bluntness of a drumstick. The result is surprisingly enchanting, and arguably just as effective in relating the inner drama of oppression as a carefully elucidated poem.

“Pale Flesh” is one of the more effective communicators of that oppression. After a squealing, shrill beat grinds into its bass groove the vocals then mirror the instrumentation’s theme; becoming frantic cries of panic that smooth and flatten out. This forced mellowing of anxiety creates a tension within the music which is ultimately quite successful.

Some of the songs on the album have a decidedly 90s sensibility about them. “Plague”’s echoing vocals are set among synthetics that rise to a crescendo of electronic house triumph before mellowing into somewhat ominous industrial sounds, while playful, high-pitched vocals are set to a quick, perky rhythm in “Violent Youth.” In both of these tracks the synthesizer is familiar, and the songs feel as if they were hidden on some freshly unearthed 90s electronica B side. But this should hardly be a deterrent; there is a vivacity and freshness to the music here that is definitely attractive.

The most innovative, and sadly the briefest in running time on the album, is the track “Insulin”. After a high-pitched intro reminiscent of the entry into a horror film, the bass explodes into pulsing heavy distortion as gratifying as a welcome plot twist. Vocals blur into a winsome crackle of low and high notes that can only be experienced as emotional entreaties rather than explicit ones. As sense of the song is jettisoned, there is ascension into a state of pure rhythm.

In III the rhythms, synthesizers, and distortions are meant to be savored as undiluted injections into the spinal cord, enjoyed as a feeling as much as a message. There is little room for disappointment here among those seeking a new dark groove to ride on.