Some Songs Considered #029: Grimes, Linear Downfall, and a DC Sonic Smorgasbord
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Welcome to the Big Leagues, Grimes
by Justin McCarthy (@JustinSMcCarthy)
Grimes is the musical project of Montreal-by-way-of-L.A. avant-garde pop artist Claire Boucher. If you’re not sure if you know her or not, perhaps you’re only familiar with the synth-soaked, sweetly sinister singles from her 2012 breakthrough album Visions — “Oblivion” and “Genesis” — songs that many, many people like and like a lot.
These songs are what make her “pop.” Grimes herself no longer likes these songs.
That’s where the “avant-garde” comes in.
A recent New Yorker profile, in advance of her highly-anticipated album Art Angels, presents this and quite a few other contradictions as lenses through which we’re meant to understand Grimes – or maybe decide that we shouldn’t try to understand Grimes. There’s her pluralistic embrace of both the low-brow and high-brow as a music fan, from MOR Top 40 to ambient, trance, and K-Pop (which leads to accusations of trolling when she’s asked to do hip things like DJ a Boiler Room set in Ibiza). There’s the fact that she’s appealing to music business big-wigs not in spite of but because of her iconoclasm, the “radical transparency” of her Tumblr-like persona, and the DIY auteur approach to her music-making (she’s the writer, producer, engineer, and performer of all her songs). There’s also the matter of Genghis Khan; New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh catches Grimes wrestling with the question of whether one should admire his intelligence or admonish his brutality. What will these zany artistes think of next, right?
It’s a soft piece, and maybe too soft.
It glosses over things like her cafeteria feminism: her vocal Twitter activism seems to be at odds with her willingness to be the pet-projects of powerful, problematic men like Jay-Z and Karl Lagerfeld – convenient for her career though it may be. It glosses over her repeated attempts to remove an old quote involving drug use from her Wikipedia page, an act of image control that seems significant if it’s precipitating a play for increased
audience market share. And it apparently doesn’t feel the need to unpack this quote, from her Twitter, in January:
now that indie music is obsessed with pop i feel completely bored by it.
The point of mentioning the above is not to discredit Boucher or her alter-ego, but to provide some counterpoint to predominant notions about artists who transition from the indie world to pop, as opposed to their pure-pop counterparts, namely that their whims are spontaneous, the function of pure artistic id, for which they can’t be held accountable. That they’re more complicated, and fraught, and thus brave for opening their true, fraught selves to broad audiences.
That they’re not calculating.
If you’re an avid GQ reader, you may remember this word from Chuck Klosterman’s recent cover story as the one thing that really grinds T-Swift’s gears. Klosterman posits that what troubles her about it is the double-bind it engenders: in his words, “Any attempt to appear less calculating scans as even more calculated.” I want to suggest that Swift, and artists in general, hate this word because it draws focus to the desired outcome of the calculation. If you’re known as an “uncalculating” artist like, say, Kanye, then success is simply being yourself. If you’re calculating, then success is, well, success.
We (music nerds) have already awarded Grimes the 2015 Kanye West Prize for Being Oneself, namely because we really like that self, namely because that self is basically a really cool and popular version of us. She’s well-educated (McGill University), she’s a veteran of a hip scene (noise music in Montreal), she’s a Tumblr list maker and a #woke Twitter feminist who reads fantasy novels and enjoys listening to “All I Want for Christmas Is You” at inappropriate times of year. She wins. Best New Music.
But if we judge her by Taylor Swift standards, then we’re talking about a different metric, which is to say whether she accomplishes what she sets out to do or not. So let’s explore that:
I think I’m stuck between an experimental scene and a pop scene. Everyone is always mad when I give lip service to one or the other. If I make stuff that’s too weird, people complain. Then if I make stuff that’s too pop, other people complain. This album is two halves. It’s very structured like that. If you’re going to complain about one-half, then you have the other half. – Grimes
Here we have Grimes’ stated goal for Art Angels, released last week. She wants it to appeal to the art geeks and FM radio listeners, which is a tall order.
So what’s the verdict? Well, it works…sort of.
Grimes has an incredible ear for the earworming qualities of big hits – the chugging guitar in “Flesh Without Blood,” the crisp hand claps in “California,” everything Janelle Monáe-related on “Venus Fly.” She uses these sonic weapons to craft anthems that feel so much like Big Pop Songs that they end up coming off as parodies. They leave you with the feeling of wanting something deeper, something that’s more distinctly her and less an idea of pop. It’s the reason people were disappointed watching her Boiler Room set: she’s relying on the Vengaboys when we know she could be doing something better.
Which is definitely part of the whole point, and that’s why Art Angels works as a concept record. But it won’t translate for a bigger audience. She wasn’t lying on Twitter – she really is bored with pop, and it’s evident on this LP. Even if she isn’t trolling (and she insists that she’s not) it feels like these songs are making fun of us. They’re empty simulacra, delivered quickly, and ultimately forgettable.
Force of concept and strength of identity narrative can be enough for many indie darlings to succeed…as long as you’re not, say, signed to Roc Nation. But reviewing this album requires one to answer the question posed by the italicized subhead of that New Yorker piece: “Can a former noise musician become a star?”
Based on Art Angels, I think my answer is no.
If this appraisal seems unfair, then my response is, “welcome to the big leagues, Grimes.” Being a pop artist doesn’t simply mean incorporating a pop soundscape into one’s aesthetic – it also means being subject to higher, not lower, critical standards. Art may be angelic, but pop is cruelly terrestrial, flesh and blood, never beyond reproach.
A Beginner’s Guide to Linear Downfall
by Lindsay Hogan (@LindsayHogan88)
Dear god experimental bands are hard to define.
What does experimental even mean? It describes a process not a sound. But Linear Downfall from Nashville will have you describe them as an experimental noise band. And then they will proceed to spin you around their unhinged cabaret until your senses are confused into relaxation.
There doesn’t appear to be too much consistency between their songs and albums. In fact, I don’t think I heard them produce the same sound twice outside of a single song. And if that seems like a negative comment to you, just remember how often popular music is accused of ripping itself off. Linear Downfall, for all of their challenging musical decisions, is limitless.
They don’t pigeon-hole themselves into a genre and they don’t even pigeon-hole themselves into music. After releasing the delightfully schizophrenic Fragmental Hippocampus in 2013 and A Pink Floor and Two Others EP in 2014, the band upped their game and wrote, set, directed and produced the film, Sufferland as a visual companion to their latest album of the same name. Over the spread of these three latest releases, you’ll hear dreamlike experimentation, perfectly executed noise break-downs, up-beat jangly pop disintegrating into chaos, lovely harmonies transforming into distorted yells, and even a little hip-hop.
I picked three tracks from their most recent albums to give you an idea of their range. Of course Linear Downfall’s songs are not meant to be listed to in isolation; they are supposed to twirl you uncomfortably from one song to the next over the course of an album. But I’m writing a music column here, so forgive me for trying to hook you with a few highlights.
This track is from the album/film Sufferland, and gives you a sense of the film’s disorienting and tormented themes. Its 2 minutes and 40 seconds that’s easy to get lost in. The synths and drums play off each other and remain relentless throughout the length of the song. The fuzzed-out vocals draw you in before being consumed by the electronic chaos that is equal parts ominous and colorful.
“Bloodhead” exemplifies Linear Downfall’s experimental label, but sounds like nothing that came before it. It lulls you in with its melodies and sensual vocal work, then shifts to a dissonant mid-segment that leans heavily on drums and guitar distortion. At the 2:50 mark, it drops all pretense and launches into one of the band’s most psychotic and sonically unforgiving noise breakdowns. Drummer Will Hicks succeeds in keeping a driving tone of anxiety throughout the whole song, but he really lets everything go in the home stretch.
“Psycho Holiday (Creation or Destruction?)”:
This track starts off like a misplaced funk-pop fever dream. And honestly, they could’ve stretched this over 4 minutes for a solidly catchy single. But Linear Downfall would never be so basic. A self-aware monologue splits the songs, and explains in monotone, “Everyone can go either way; creation or destruction. I dream to create. And I tend to create to help my destruction”. Whether intended or not, this lays out the band’s experimental formula; complex sonic creation building into dissonant destruction. And right on time, the song finishes you off with indistinguishable, glorious noise.
Consider this is a call to every band that thinks it’s enough in 2015 to write songs and play shows. Have you produced an entire film with a companion album? Have you tried at least once to break down the standard formula of a three minute song and really say something? Have you pushed the sonic limit of your instruments and found something uncomfortably new? Have you been pepper-sprayed in the face mid-song and attempted to play that song to completion?
As challenging and indefinable as Linear Downfall is, you will one day be thankful there’s a band out there engaging in perfectly executed, avant-garde chaos. And even if you don’t fancy yourself a fan of “experimental music” (whatever that is), you can’t deny this band’s live show would be something to remember. And if you’re based in Random Nerds’ hometown of Washington DC, you can join me this Thursday the 19th when Linear Downfall will shower resurrected DC house-venue, The Dead Kennedy Center (Google it), with their psychotic, glitzed-out, fuzzed-out wonder.
You need this in your life. At least for one night.
A DC Sonic Smorgasbord
by Bryce Rudow (@BryceTRudow)
My DC flag tattoo is tingling like the Dark Mark, which can only mean that there’s a bunch of local music that deserves plugging.
Polyon – Blue EP
Ryan McLaughlin — the man behind one of my favorite DC bands, the now-defunct Typefighter — has a new group called Polyon, and that new group Polyon just put out their second release, the Blue EP. Ryan got a bit perturbed by a Tom Delonge comparison I once made when describing his jump from tightly constructed pop-punk songs to more cacophonic affairs, but I still think it’s damn impressive that the same man known for his melodic garage pop has reinvented his sound so successfully.
Heavy Breathing – “Gimmie Mine”:
I thought I was going to win the award for most experimental band submission this week considering Heavy Breathing doesn’t even use a real human being as a lead singer, instead incorporating pre-existing samples and vocal tracks, but Lindsay just had to be my Linear Downfall (badum chhh). Nevertheless, if you find yourself in Washington DC this Thursday, I highly suggest checking out one of the area’s most creative musical outfits, who are opening up for !!!# on Black Cat’s main stage.
Future Times – Vibe 3
Future Times is a DC dance-music label launched by Andrew Field-Pickering (1/2 of duo Beautiful Swimmers) and Mike Petillo (1/2 of duo Protect-U) in the mid-2000’s that, over the course of a decade and a few handfuls worth of releases, has established itself as one of the premiere forces in DC’s finally-reemerging underground dance scene. If you want to learn more about them, I recommend this Washington City Paper article by Joe Warminsky, but if you just want to vibe out, I recommend their latest compilation album, which you can find here.
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