Album & Song Reviews // SPIN
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On their third studio album, Crack-Up, Seattle folk-rock favorites Fleet Foxes have wandered far from the woodland sounds of their eponymous 2008 breakthrough. Drawing thematic inspiration from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s similarly named essay—a 1936piece in which frontman Robin Pecknold found solace during his band’s six-year hiatus—Crack-Up echoes Fitzgerald’s notions of existential rupture and duality through polyrhythmic compositions and disjointed arrangements. From its dirge-like first notes to its startling, striding guitar to the gratifying entrance of Pecknold’s familiar, ascendant cry, you can hear the tectonic shifts in asymmetrical opener “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco/ Thumbprint Scar.” Pecknold’s lyrics have become increasingly esoteric, with references to the ancient worlds of Egypt and Rome, paintings by Goya, Muhammad Ali, and the French sailor Bernard Moitessier. But no matter: The harmonic textures carry the listener through. Sweeping and turbulent, Crack-Upsometimes bends toward the grandiose, but its simultaneous embrace of cynicism and celebration, hope and hopelessness, fissure and healing, is a welcome attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable.
Published in SPIN's Top 50 Albums of 2017 (#46)
SLEEP WELL BEAST
While psychological digging is well-trod ground for the National, Sleep Well Beast finds the Ohio-born band in its most acute, and dark, moment of self-reflection. The band’s seventh studio album seems to exist in a spectral, late-night hour, in a space between dreaming and waking: there are liquid gurgles, metallic crackles, and xylophonic swoops; raindrop drumbeats punctuate “Empire Line”; synths flutter like beating wings on “I’ll Still Destroy You.”
Still, the band hasn’t completely abandoned their signature balladic set pieces. The wintry “Born to Beg” is an operatic exhale and Matt Berninger’s baritone is as murmured as ever, except for the paranoid wail released on the feverish psych-rock jam “Turtleneck.” A chilly melancholia hovers over any National album—the quintet wears gloom like a tattered shroud—but Sleep Well Beast follows that darkness more directly than ever before, leading the listener into nightmare while comforting with one small, but not insignificant, truth: We are not alone.
Published in SPIN's Top 50 Albums of 2017 (#37)
"CAN I SIT NEXT TO YOU"
Frontman Britt Daniels is anything but coy on Spoon’s sexy, strutting “Can I Sit Next To You?” from their ninth album Hot Thoughts. The indie-music veteran poses the question only twice during the boogying I’ve-been-watching-you pursual, but when Daniels slides from confident swagger into a longing yawp, you know what he’s after—and it’s not just the stars in your eyes. Spoon has always had a knack for earworms, but this tune is the Austin band’s most hip-shaking release in years.
Published in SPIN's Top 101 Songs of 2017 (#98)
Vancouver slacker-rock trio the Courtneys play a delightfully askew brand of post-punk. Signed to New Zealand’s Flying Nun Records, the all-girl gang naturally receives comparisons to Kiwi-rock acts like the Clean and the Bats, but the band’s sophomore record II is the kind of neo-grunge-pop rumination that road trip soundtracks are made of—infectious hooks, tight arrangements, and angsty-but-still-cheerful lyrics. Propulsive opener “Silver Velvet” and distorted-goodbye track “Minnesota” are both standouts, as is “25,” which includes the youthfully earnest shrug of lines: “When six months pass / Will I have made it last / I doubt I would have tried / Cause I’m a Gemini / And I change my mind.” Queue up this sleeper hit and let the steering-wheel tapping commence.
Aly & AJ: Ten Years
After a decade-long hiatus that seemed more like a permanent break, one-time Disney actors turned network sitcom mainstays Aly & AJ have made a surprise return to music with Ten Years, a short stack of glassy indie-pop numbers that shows the Michalka sisters at a creative crossroads. Riding the seemingly unstoppable wave of 80s synth nostalgia, their interpretation channels recent releases from Haim, Chvrches, and Carly Rae Jepsen, while also reaching back to acts like Genesis.
The sisters’ 2005 debut Into The Rush was likable enough, sitting squarely in that era’s pantheon of pop-rock records from current and former Disney stars. Their 2007 sophomore effort Insomniatic ventured into electro-pop territory with the frenzied lead single, “Potential Breakup Song,” which peaked inside the top 20. In 2009, the duo renamed themselves 78violet, but only released one 2013 single, “Hothouse,” with the rebrand failing to catch on.
With four tracks, Ten Years offers a quick hit of what Aly & AJ—now 28 and 26, respectively— have been up to. Opener “Take Me” begins as a languid meditation before bursting into a flirtatious, anthemic chorus. “I know that you would want it / If I could sink my teeth into you,” the song interrogates the frustrating gray area between mutual attraction and action. It’s hard to resist shouting along to the song’s cathartic release: “When you gonna take me out!”
Atmospheric and dreamlike, “I Know” employs distorted echoes and a fluttering backbeat. The song was reportedly written after an acquaintance passed away, and the simple, repetitive verses seek to reassure the listener and perhaps the singers that everything will be all right. “Who’s really gonna care about tomorrow?/ It’s gonna be fine / You’re gonna be fine / We’re all gonna be fine,” the sisters chant.
Nocturnal, cool, and slightly stalker-ish, “Promises” rests on a propulsive beat and hushed murmurs. Breathy and confessional, each truncated line is pushed out slowly and reluctantly, like a gradual realization: “Drove this time / To your house at night / Saw a car / But it sure ain’t mine / Must be someone here / It’s my worst fear.”
The EP closes with “The Distance,” a rearview-mirror track that looks back with wistful remembrance. “It was hot as hell / I still feel it / As good as it was / I just couldn’t take the distance” closes the book on a relationship with a bittersweet shrug.
With Ten Years, Aly & AJ have made a sinuous, slinky comeback, weaving an 80s synth sensibility with contemporary beats. The relatable lyrics glide in and out, serving more as conduits for their new pristine pop sound than intimate slices of their lives. Still, this earworm-ready release represents a promising turn for the Michalka sisters.