Thursday, December 27, 2012

Top Albums of 2012, 5-3

Part Two of Three.  Thanks for caring.

5. PASSION PIT - Gossamer.  Although it retains the schizophrenic electronica and otherworldly vocals from Manners, Passion Pit's sophomore album sounds wholly unlike its superb predecessor.  As I discovered earlier this yearManners layers sugary pop music over its devastating lyrics, allowing, perhaps even gesturing, a listener to dance unwittingly to Angelakos's deepest miseries: "you've caused all this pain / and you proudly shame / your whole family's name," he sings on the infectious "Little Secrets."  Yet Gossamer refuses to bury its pain, making for a surprisingly confrontational listen following the superficially joyous Manners.  While a song like "I'll Be Alright" revels in its maximalist approach, from crashing percussion to layers of synths to those glitchy, chipmunk vocals, it's nevertheless hard to miss Angelakos admitting: "I drink a gin and take a couple of my pills . . . I'll be alright."

"I'll Be Alright" leads into the insipid "Carried Away," but then the album picks up with "Constant Conversations," where Passion Pit  pares down its electronic eccentricities to offer something that is both straightforward and rewarding.  By removing these sonic layers, though, PP forces its listeners to confront Angelakos' morbid lyrics, which ominously recall the self-deprecation and helplessness found in Elliott Smith's bleakest songs:
"Well you're wrapped up in a blanket, and you're staring at the floor.
The conversation's moderated by the noisy streets below.
'I never wanna hurt you baby. I'm just a mess with a name and a price.
And now I'm drunker than before; they told me drinking doesn't make me nice.'"
Yet when Angelakos implores, "Everybody now! Oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhh-oh-ohhh.  Sing it now!," you want to sing along and forget what you've just heard -- to be like Angelakos and conceal his pain with melodies and songs and noise.  "Conversations" then leads to my favorite song, "Mirrored Sea," where the depths of sound return.  In one of the most gripping intros I can ever remember, "Sea" opens with a wave of ghostly synths which then bleed into the frenetic keys on the verse.  These discrete parts ultimately intersect at the chorus in the album's best moment.  Sounding like a gothier track from the Manners sessions, "Mirrored Sea" marks a return to PP's opaque lyrics (what's a mirrored sea?) and vocal delivery, though delving deeper reveals some of Angelakos' most illuminating poetry: "He could look good in the light and look bad in the dark / Good men are scarce and few / But always passing through."  

For a few months I stopped listening to Gossamer, thinking it failed to live up to Manners.   Maybe the change from album to album seemed to drastic, or maybe I couldn't handle delving into Angelakos's miseries while reading stuff like Hiroshima and "The Tell-Tale Heart" (but now I can, Merry Christmas!).  But Gossamer is a great album, a more than worthy follow-up to Manners.  And for all its painful moments, Gossamer still stresses its exuberant music over its sad lyrics, like on "Hideway," which starts with staticky, fragmented vocals and then speeds into a huge chorus that commands as much dancing as it does headbanging.  It's a warm, flickery, and all-around pretty song with an encouraging chorus, "someday everything will be okay"--words we so badly want to believe, even if the album gives us a hundred reasons to think otherwise.

4. CLOUD NOTHINGS - Attack on Memory. In late March, my buddy Ronan sent me a Youtube clip of "Stay Useless," a song by some up-and-coming band called Cloud Nothings.  When I first heard CN's vocals, Dylan Baldi's nasally monotones quickly turned me off.  But luckily I stuck around for the chorus, that right-hook KO of a chorus, where the song explodes, as cymbals and guitars burst in an unexpected surge of energy.  I was completely sold.  On repeated listens, Baldi's voice grew on me, too, adding a unique and, more than anything, steady element to those volatile instrumentals.  I couldn't have heard "Stay Useless" during a more fitting period in my life; buried under the heavy burdens of graduate school, words like "I need time to stop moving / I need time to stay useless" resonated all too clearly.  My life was moving too fast, and I knew that Baldi was right: I occasionally need to pause and be useless for a moment, even when every minute seems extremely important.  The awesome irony of "Stay Useless" is its relentlessness; for all its championing of being useless, it doesn't waste a note.  Similarly, the song's blistering follow-up, "Separation," is all-instrumental heaviness, which I think adds to the pathos of both tracks: for Cloud Nothings, uselessness is merely an unattainable ideal.

Cloud Nothings' album begins with the history-erasing "No Future/No Past," which features detonator-ticking percussion 
until the song crescendos over Baldi's feral screams.  "Wasted Days" maintains the album's tense instrumentals for nearly 9 minutes, by far the longest song on the album, by blending catchy guitars with pissed-off post-punk vocals; you can feel the disillusionment when Baldi screams "I thought I would be more than this" near the epic's tumultuous end.  As I said before, Attack on Memory is an album that doesn't waste time: most songs are short (five of eight are under three minutes), but when they call for grandness, they produce with compelling results.  I'm not sure which is more brilliant: the enormity of "Wasted Days" or the brevity of "Stay Useless."  Both songs rank highly on my imaginary "Songs of the Year" list, though I think I have to give "Stay Useless" the nod.  Regardless, though, Attack on Memory is excellent all-around, a cohesive, no frills record that would sound like it came right out of the garage if the sound quality weren't so impressive.

3. FRANK OCEAN - channel ORANGE.  You know how some albums connect to a certain time or place?  Well, for me, channel Orange will always remind me of my second trip to Vegas this year (a pretty ridiculous thing for me to type and something that makes me look like a compulsive gambler, but hey Annie won the first trip after I already booked the second, so cut me some slack).  I listened to "Pyramids" over a dozen times on that trip, which is a lot for a song that clocks in just under the ten minute mark. But considering the song's grand scope--R&B singing, slow rapping, guitar solos, even freakin' time travelling--ten minutes seems modest.  The narrative begins in ancient Egypt with its King describing the theft of his queen Cleopatra.  Swanky, middle-eastern guitars capture the initial setting, then synths emerge and the pace quickens as Samson and Cleopatra try, and fail, to flee the King, ending in Cleopatra's suicide.

Following Cleopatra's death, synths propel us into the modern world, where Ocean's spacey vocals introduce the American Cleopatra, who works "at the pyramid [and] hit[s] the strip." (The almost inconceivable irony of discovering this song on the day I visited the Luxor hotel for the first time continues to blow my mind.)  As the synths from the earlier portion of the song suddenly transform "Pyramids" into a (dingy) club banger, Ocean brings us into the lurid world of prostitution through a new perspective: Cleopatra's materialistic pimp.  In his rapped/sung monologue, Ocean plays on earlier imagery of diamonds when he says he has "rubies in my damn chain," a cheapened version of the previously described African jewel(s). Ocean also adds black comedy as the delusional pimp attempts to romanticize his squalid surroundings: "top floor motel suite . . .  floor model TV with the VCR." Everything he says sounds pathetic, and it's supposed to. The synths march on to the final scene, where Ocean details a sexual encounter between the prostitute and client. Once the act is consummated, "Pyramids" unwinds untriumphantly with John Mayer's desolate guitar.

Partially because of its ubiquity, "Pyramids" is the most important song I've heard all year, and surely one of 2012's best.  It's also Ocean's standout track on a phenomenal album: a brilliantly-written indictment of women's objectification, exploration of black-female and white-male relations, and critique of a materialistic human race (not just modern society).  And it sounds great, too, from the hauntingly Gothic opener to those somber guitar chords ten minutes later.

But there are 16 other songs on channel Orange, and many of them are worthy of high praise. "Thinkin Bout You" features those memorable opening lines, crazy falsetto moments, and wonderful, billowy synths that have made it a small hit; "Sweet Life" is a pure Summer jam to me, even though Ocean's title sardonically condemns upper-class provincialism; "Forrest Gump" is breezy pop, one of Ocean's catchiest songs to date; and "Crack Rock," on the other hand, is all bleakness--the story of an addict's decline, played over gritty keys and melancholic pianos: "You don't know how little you matter / Until you're all alone / In the middle of Arkansas / With a little rock left in that glass dick."  There are several references to drugs ("Pilot Jones") and money ("Not Just Money") on Orange, and Ocean does not just condemn the rich and bemoan the drugged-out poor; he sees the complexities, and more importantly, similarities between the classes.  On "Super Rich Kids," which has the bouncy swagger of Billy Joel's "Big Shot," Earl Sweatshirt describes the "super rich kids" who spend their parents' money on drugs to pass time and create meaning. Yet Earl doesn't just demonize the "bratty-ass" kids he describes; he empathizes with them. Their parents are absent, and the kids consequently spend their time either alone or with maids who don't care about them. Towards the end of Earl's verse, he admits, "Brash as fuck, breaching all these aqueducts / Don't believe us / Treat us like we can't erupt." This metaphor for an emotional outburst, of tears or rage or both, connects the "super rich kids" with the kids living in poverty, as they both suffer the pain of neglect. This message really reverberates, especially since Frank Ocean's R&B is often derided as R&PBR because of its white, affluent, hipster fanbase; a song like "Super Rich Kids" tries to demolish these barriers, creating the "real love" of empathy rather than the futility of bitterness.

However, channel Orange isn't perfect, stalling after the unbelievable "Pyramids" with the uninspiring "Lost" and later with "Monks."  But like Ocean's mixtape Nostalgia.Ultra, the minor speed bumps do not derail this fantastic product.  Orange is also an important album because of Ocean's notorious "coming out" letter, which promisingly met more praise than backlash from big-name artists, but the backlashers seem to claim that being a non-straight R&B singer violates some tacit masculine, heteronormative agreement.  I think it's ironic because R&B is probably one of the gayest mainstream genres; isn't it awkwardly voyeuristic for a man to listen to another man sweet-talk a woman, or detail his sexual fantasies to her?  Is there a vicarious pleasure gained from this, and if so, who is pleasing the male listener?  Ah, stupid arguments from stupid people.  It's just another barrier Ocean breaks, which will only bolster his debut album's legacy.

No comments:

Post a Comment