For the most die-hard fans, FIDLAR – which stands for “Fuck it dog life’s a risk” – is a band, a motto and an ethos. Rather than become pigeonholed in skate punk for fear of disappointing fans, the Los Angeles four-piece has diversified their sound since their eponymous LP and hit single “Cheap Beer.” That’s what their latest album Almost Free is about. Frontman Zac Carper has said the album was influenced by the aesthetics of Soundcloud hip-hop, but opening track “Get Off My Rock” is more Beastie Boys than Lil Pump.
“Can’t You See” is a departure from FIDLAR’s usual sound with a piano solo and walking bass line, while the satire on materialism is in keeping with Carper’s lyrical style. “By Myself” also revisits a familiar subject – drinking that teeters toward self-destruction – with fresh percussive range. “Too Real” is FIDLAR’s most explicitly political song. Carper howls, “Well, of course the government is going to fucking lie.” While much of Too (2015) focused on Carper’s struggle with addiction and sobriety, tracks like “Too Real” and the Clash-esque “Scam Likely” prove he can write as passionately about the political as he can the personal.
Parts of Almost Free retread familiar territory. “Alcohol” could fit on any FIDLAR album in sound and subject. Blistering forty second track “Nuke” has the intensity of underrated Too track, “Punks.”
“Called You Twice” is a surprise standout. Carper’s vocals meet their match in a duet with K.Flay about both sides of a messy breakup. It’s warm, vulnerable – the album’s emotional core.
While Almost Free is less consistent than its predecessors, the range it displays proves that FIDLAR is far from finished.
To listen to Preoccupations is to plunge into arrangements that are more enigmatic the deeper you go. Though Preoccupations’ third LP New Material is the most listenable in their discography, it reveals a labyrinthine sound. Since name change and subsequent eponymous album, they have moved away from the dissonance that characterized Viet Cong while maintaining the essence of what makes their music compelling: each layer of sound obscures the next.
The obscurity is by design. Scott Munro told label Jagjaguwar, “My ultimate goal would be to make a record where nobody knows what instrument is playing and I think we’ve come closer than ever [on New Material].”
The album opens with echoing percussion, indistinguishably patterned yet not quite arrhythmic. While it is decidedly more subtle than the unyielding pummel of Viet Cong opener “Newspaper Spoons,” it proves Preoccupations’ commitment to percussive experimentation, whether by way of Mike Wallace’s brilliant drum work or Munro’s synth. Espionage is driven by a new wave melody. It struck me at first listen as far removed from the post-punk guitar and bass work for which the band first gained acclaim. However, the post-punk elements are still present are the song’s core.
Likewise, synth has always had a presence in Preoccupations’ music, sometimes as whispers and other times, as on much ofNew Material, as a driving force. Among the discordant layers of Decompose is a shimmering chime, repeated to the point of abstraction. Disarray is the most brightly melodic song in their discography, composed of cascading chords that contrast to Matt Flegel’s unaffected repetition of “Disarray, disarray, disarray.”
Flegel’s lyrical prepossession with technological determinism gives into a sense of futility that leans towards nihilism. OnDisarray, he sings, “Everything you’ve ever been told is a lie.”Manipulation bears the weight of its subject. It trudges towards a final cry, “Please don’t remember me like I always remember you.” Not to be overlooked is the subtle build-up of Wallace’s drum roll.
While Antidote is the best representation of Preoccupations’ style on New Material, “Solace” is the most successful marriage of the band’s old and new style. The former layers rolling drum patterns and distinct bass with effervescent synth. I’m reminded of “Ricochet” by David Bowie, though Flegel’s bass work darkens the mood to better suit the lyrics. The uptempo of Antidote is at odds with the hopelessness of its lyrics: “Whether we asked for it or not, to live is to suffer.” With bellows and clanking in its latter half, “Antidote” moves from post-punk to art rock. Flegel sings as if from the depth of an ocean. Blame it on my bias toward their earlier work, but I’d call ” Solace” the maturation of the Viet Cong style. To hear Munro’s guitar and Flegel’s bass distinctly, enhanced but not overpowered by synth, is immensely satisfying.
While penultimate track “Doubt” matches and exceeds Manipulation in its desolation, it has a gravitas previously unheard in the band’s catalogue. If Antidote is reminiscent of Let’s Dance era Bowie, “Doubt” has the weight of Blackstar with a tone more sinister than melancholy. Flegel’s voice reverberates in whispers of “Multiply” before it fades into instrumental Compliance.
If ever one was to doubt the calibre of Preoccupations’ musicianship, Compliance proves that any such doubts are unfounded. It’s a departure from anything they have recorded previously, darkly industrial. The sound is vast. But for distinct percussion, each instrument melds with the others. It’s enigmatic, evocative and indicative of the depths to which Preoccupations can take their music.
Whether she is rapping, singing or performing spoken word, JB the First Lady‘s smooth vocals and agile flow make her a captivating storyteller. On her fourth album, Meant to Be, JB the First Lady — the pseudonym of Jerilynn Webster —furthers her mission to create music that is both positive, personal and political.
Meant to Be opens with the title track, which functions as the album’s manifesto. She says, “I’m telling a story so open your ears/They wanted us to disappear.” Through the telling of her story, JB resists Canadian History’s attempt to erase the voices of Indigenous peoples, more specifically the voices of Indigenous women. Both her vocal stylings and the autobiographical nature of her music positions JB in a tradition of female MCs like Lauryn Hill. Akin to her musical predecessors, JB the First Lady mixes the personal with the political. When she says, “Justice must come eventually,”it seems like she is hopeful for the future and critical of the distance Canada has to go before we achieve reconciliation.
Yet, JB still finds room to explore minutely intimate subjects. “My Baby” is a mellow R&B track about how her love for her partner builds her up and helps her to “keep shining.” Themes of heritage and culture still remain present, and JB and her partner assert the power of their connection is due to their ancestry. With a refrain of “My baby’s my baby,” it is one of the more repetitious tracks on the album. Still, JB deserves credit for unabashedly representing her love.
In contrast, “O.O.T.G.,” which stands for ‘out of the gates,’ is a rallying cry. With declarations like “No one can take my light,” “O.O.T.G.” is life affirming. JB denounces the injustices Canada has inflicted against her people: “There is no excuse for hate and abuse.” JB’s son Sequoia is her hype man, calling out, “Tell ’em, Mommy!” Horns coupled with a booming bass line make for polished and gripping production.
Building upon this tone, “Still Here” is a forceful closing track and assertion of identity. JB references the Canadian federal government commitment to Truth and Reconciliation, murdered and missing Indigenous women and the staggering number of Indigenous reservations without potable water, and increased suicide rates in rural communities. In spite of the systemic racism and colonialism, the Indigenous peoples of this land endure. JB calls on everyone to dismantle systems of oppression because “Together we are better.” JB asserts both her own resilience and the resilience of her culture. With honest lyrics and compelling storytelling, Meant to Be proposes a better future for Canada.
Slow Turismo self-describes as “the new Hanson but older, [with] one less relative, darker hair and different taste in music.” They previously played as a four piece band made up of brothers Sam, Max and Riley Conway and their friend since primary school Louis Montgomery. Their last single You Are Dead was produced by Ben Woolner from SAFIA.
Pistol Powder opens with effervescent layers of synth and reverb. The arrangement is reminiscent of dream pop duo Beach House, with waves of sound leading into a harmonized chorus. The chorus takes on a sunny groove, moving away from the minimalist opening notes. The full sound is complimented by the contrasting tones of Sam and Max’s voices. Despite the warmth of the chorus, the lyrics are as doleful as the verses: “I need something real to pick me up / More than just the sun shining.”
While Pistol Powder doesn’t sound as melancholic as You Were Dead or the songs from Slow Turismo’s eponymous 2015 EP, its sound is comparable to the poignance of waking from a dream that you try to recall “just before it goes.” The song fades into a whistle and a final shimmering note.
Few album titles better suit current affairs in 2017 than Outrage! Is Now. Toronto two piece Death From Above returns with their third full-length album, the band’s second since their reunion following a ten-year hiatus. (Though they purportedly dropped the ‘1979’ from their band name, they remain Death From Above 1979 on their website domain and their Facebook page.)
DFA makes a roaring return on album opener Nomads.Sebastien Grainger‘s percussion steadily builds before Jesse Keeler’sbass kicks in. The track has a similar intensity to their acclaimed 2004 album You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine but it deviates from the dance punk sound and discord for which DFA is best known. The sound is more in the vein of classic rock. Without referring to it explicitly, Nomads is about forced displacement. “Nomad, never home / No matter where you go,” Grainger wails on the chorus. Lyrically, Nomads sets the tone for an album that is more culturally critical than the band’s previous works.
Rather than the raw emotion that was the lyrical focus of You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, Outrage! Is Now is a social commentary for the internet age. Freeze Me asks, Are we in trouble? to which those in North America concerned by white supremacist rallies are liable to answer with a resounding yes. The album’s titular track simmers without reaching a boiling point. Outrage! Is Now is apathetic, claiming “Outrage is all that rage,” rather than critically engaging with the source of outrage. It feels as hollow as the Pepsi protest commercial that added fresh infamy to the Kardashian brand. Never Swim Alone is a loose criticism on consumerism that relies too heavily on clichés and quirky phrases like “YouTube haircut” and “Satan is my username.”
While the band’s label, Last Gang Records, describes the record as weirder and wilder than its predecessors, the album rarely approaches the passion or experimentalism of seminal track Romantic Rights. Despite the ominous build up on the verses of Moonlight, the chorus never reaches a satisfying crescendo. Similarly, the psych rock riffs of even keeled Statues lack the intensity that has always drawn fans to DFA. The reverberating fade out is the track’s most interesting instrumental element. Outrage! Is Now is nearly temperate when moderation is never what fans have sought in Death From Above.
There are, however, some instrumental standouts that suggest DFA are on their way to successfully diversifying their sound. Lead single Freeze Me is Keeler’s strongest instrumental track, incorporating melodic piano at the track’s opening and powerful bass riffs in its latter half.
Caught Up has a lazier tempo and subdued riffs. Coupled with lines like, “Tell me one thing you care about / Take your beliefs and shake them out, all the way out,” it runs a dispassionate course until the song makes a ripper transition in its latter half. The flailing minute is as unrestrained as DFA sounds on the album. “Caught Up” is a surprise standout in spite of its repetitious opening minutes.
“All I C Is U & Me” is a name that befits the internet culture DFA satirizes on Never Swim Alone. (The same can be said of penultimate track NVR 4EVR.) It could be derivative from the work of any number of the band’s early 2000s indie rock peers. Still All I C Is U & Me is also a fun, danceable track with a few satisfying pitch shifts.
Holy Books ends the album on a high note – literally in the case of Grainger’s falsetto. Keeler’s power ballad piano pairs successfully with the barrage of bass and percussion. The proclamation against organized religion on the chorus is readymade for a singalong when DFA tours the album. It’s a strong track worthy of the closing slot.
While Death From Above can be commended for never seeking to replicate the formula that earned them acclaim in 2004, Outrage! Is Now falls short of its full potential. DFA neither capitalize on the album’s critical possibilities nor invoke the typhoon of angst for which their previous works are known.