On his first two efforts, I didn’t see Miguel as much more than a cheap Prince imitation. He had the pompadour hair, the gentle falsetto, and the guitar theatrics of The Artist Formerly Known As, but in my opinion, he lacked the songwriting chops. I probably wouldn’t have even checked out his new album based solely off my unsatisfactory experience with his past efforts, but then, he said the following in response to a question about neo-soul luminary Frank Ocean: “I genuinely believe that I make better music, all the way around.”
As a staunch supporter of Ocean after his soulful 2012 effort Channel Orange, I had to check Miguel’s Wildheart, if only to scoff at his empty, chest-thumping boast. I went into my first Wildheart listen in the crouched, ready to pounce stance, and left the experience feeling relaxed, nourished, and overall surprised by how much Miguel has grown as a songwriter and producer since Kaleidoscope Dream.
In 2013, Mackenzie Scott (who performs under the name “Torres”) came bursting out the gates with a debut that was intimate, honest, and powerful. Over sparse production and reverberated guitars, she displayed her vocal prowess, moving from hushed whispers to impassioned, operatic swells of aggravation. Each track dealt with emotional stories of struggle and realization, but for the most part, they provided glimmers of hope when in their most dire state.
Brett Morgen’s HBO documentary Montage of Heck is a gut-punch for anyone who grew up listening to Nirvana and lived through the eventual suicide of Kurt Cobain. In the film, Cobain’s life is told through his own home videos, journals, and drawings, all conveying the troubled life of a genius that never truly felt accepted by those around him and the world as a whole. As I watched this therapeutic film, I couldn’t help but wonder if we’d ever have another artist come along that has as big of an impact on a generation as Kurt had on Generation X. In a musical landscape that is littered with Justin Beibers and Taylor Swifts, where are those kids who were weaned by Nirvana from birth and why hasn’t that influence resonated in the music of today?
In what could only be a sign from beyond, the latest METZ album, II, arrived in the mail the day after I viewed the documentary. On their sophomore release, this trio of 20-somethings from Calgary, Canada burst from the confines of the recording studio with a frenzied dissonance and unbridled fury that could only come from the womb of Nirvana.
Carrie & Lowell
[Asthmatic Kitty; 2015]
An air of mystery has surrounded much of Sufjan Steven’s prolific career. His success is due in large part to his ability to write memorable stories with universal themes that connect with a wide-range of listeners, yet there has always been an ambiguity in whether the stories he tells are based on real life experiences or just plots he’s pulled from old issues of the Chicago Tribune and The Detroit Free Press. I suppose it doesn’t really matter if a song is drawn straight from a songwriter’s life – Bruce Springsteen never worked in a factory, Bob Dylan never worked on Maggie’s Farm, and Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno (that we know of).
Regardless, the listening experience is always going to be heightened when you know it’s drawn from the songwriter’s real life experiences, which has made Sufjan’s questionably personal songs all the more confounding. Did he really lose a childhood friend to a wasp bite? Did he ever live in a trailer park and own a snowmobile? Was he ever a best man, and did he in fact wear a tux that was a size too small?
Man It Feels Like Space Again
I’m not quite sure what’s going on in Australia these days, but based off the recent influx of innovative psychedelic pop bands from Down Under (Tame Impala, John Steel Singers, Blank Realm) someone might want to check the water for traces of DMT. Often lost in this Aussie Invasion is the outlandish, psych-outfit, Pond. Many may see them as a side-project to the more widely popular Tame Impala (only one member of the band hasn’t served time with Pond), but this is an unfortunate misconception.
Pond’s latest release, Man It Feels Like Space Again is evidence that these Vegemite stoners deserve more credit for the mind-expanding mischief they’ve concocted over the course of six albums. Not that you should take their bubbly, far-out mix of melodies seriously – these songs are meant to be silly and fun. It’s this complete lack of pretension that makes their rumpus ride more deserving of accolades from psych-pop aficionados. In fact, that refusal to take themselves too seriously helped to make the Pond listening experience stand in stark contrast to their more well-known brother-band, Tame Impala. While Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker ponders the emotional struggles that come with loneliness and isolation, Pond opts to sing songs with titles like “Elvis Flaming Star” and “Heroic Shart” (yes, “shart” – that magical contraction of the words “shit” and “fart”).
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear
On the latest BDWPS Podcast (check it out here), I took a look back at the music that defined the year 1972. One of the most popular genres at the time was the singer/songwriter movement. While Bob Dylan certainly “brought back” the folk movement in the early 60s, artists like Carole King, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Don McLean, Harry Chapin, and Jim Croce took this personal approach to songwriting and made it more palatable to the masses. Their songs were simple odes to the power of love and appreciation for the simpler things. These artists may have dominated the mainstream, but during that same time, a different vein of songwriters were releasing a strange mix of melodies and storytelling that didn’t fit within the cookie cutter constraints of the radio friendly folkies. Guys like Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen, and Harry Nilsson were creating innovative songs that strayed outside the norm. Sure, they still all had a knack for melody, but their lyrics were filled with cynicism, humor, and despair.
Father John Misty (real name J. Tillman) is a welcomed throw-back to this unconventional approach to songwriting. There are certainly a large of amount of singer/songwriters out there today creating songs that are weird and avant-garde, but the difference with Father John Misty is his voice. It’s soft and smooth like velvet. It’s rich and strong like mahogany. It’s magical and hypnotic like the northern lights. At times his voice reminds me of Nilsson, at other times it conjures up memories of Jeff Buckley. I shouldn’t be so shocked that a professional musician has such a phenomenal voice, but guys who sing about running down the road naked on hallucinogenic drugs aren’t supposed to sound this good.
[Jagjaguwar/Flemish Eye; 2015]
Around ten years ago, one of the biggest sounds to emerge was what I would call “imitation post-punk.” Bands like Bloc Party, Interpol, and The Bravery put out entertaining albums that borrowed heavily from the post-punk sounds of the late 70s and early 80s. A dash of Gang of Four angular guitars here, a smidge of PiL’s haunting synths there, and a catchy melody to boot – you’ve got yourself the ingredients for a nostalgia-based album. While it was fun to listen to these bands playing a game of “Where’d they steal that from?” the whole movement also felt a bit empty and inauthentic, much in the same way a re-release of Boo-Berry (now with more corn syrup!) didn’t sit well with cereal-aficionados.