The loose genre of “bedroom” (or DIY, lo-fi, etc.) music is not normally associated with technical prowess. It’s defined by a certain lack of professionalism; artists who are lumped into it are known for ramshackle home recordings that attempt to convey an intimacy that is sometimes lost in a recording studio. On her debut solo album, Wildly Idle (Humble Before the Void), Meg Duffy — aka Hand Habits — proves that the intimate, home recording style doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive from artistry and skill.
This is her first full length album, but Duffy is clearly not one of these artists who decided to throw together a record at home for the fun of it. Wildly Idle is remarkably self-assured; its songs all mosey along at a slow pace, as she gently unspools her melodies and beautiful psychedelic-tinged guitar parts. The structure of these songs shows her confidence: Duffy knows she’s good enough to keep the attention of the listener, and this album is never boring despite its languid style.
Much of that is due to her sheer ability as a guitarist. Duffy’s mellow guitar heroics are reminiscent of Deerhunter/Lotus Plaza’s Lockett Pundt and Galaxie 500’s Dean Wareham — guitarists who aren’t necessarily flashy, but create feeling with their instrument and have the confidence to show restraint when the song calls for it. Her judiciousness with the guitar makes it more effective when she does display her shredding ability, like in the middle of “All the While,” a highlight that also sums up this album’s looking-outside-the-window-on-a-rainy-day feeling.
Over in the world of food, a controversy recently brewed over a review The New York Times’ Pete Wells wrote about a California restaurant, LocoL, which from what I’ve gathered is an attempt to make a neighborhood fast food place with healthier options that will serve lower income neighborhoods. Wells gave it 0 stars, because he didn’t like the food. The restaurant’s founder, Roy Choi, responded with this:
Zero stars. I know many of you want me to respond or snap back at him but the situation to me is much more than that. I welcome Pete’s review. It tells me a lot more about the path. I don’t know Pete but he is now inextricably linked to LocoL forever. So I’ll share with you what I wrote to a friend and our team. We got that PMA: “The truth is that LocoL has hit a nerve. Doesn’t mean all people love it, some hate it. But no one is indifferent by it. That’s the spirit of LocoL. It has nothing to do with my ego. It’s something bigger than all of us. Pete Wells is a component to its DNA. His criticisms are a reflection of us and the nerve that LocoL touches. And our imperfections. Also the nerve of challenging the binary structure of privileged thought patterns and how life is not just about what’s a success or failure, but some things are real struggles and growth journeys. We all know the food is not as bad as he states. Is it perfect? NO. But it’s not as bad as he writes. And all minorities aren’t criminals either. And all hoods aren’t filled with dangerous people either. But the pen has created a lot of destruction over the course of history and continues to.. He didn’t need to go there but he did. That’s why he’s a part of LocoL. The power of this change and this nerve that it hits. It compelled him to write something he knows would hurt a community that is already born from a lot of pain and struggle.. Crazy, right? But I see it as a piece to this whole puzzle.” #LocoL #Watts #Oakland
Choi’s response sort of set me off, because it is so emblematic of this irritating type of response to criticism that I see all the time, including in music. It’s when someone thinks that, because the thing they are doing is admirable, it’s exempt from criticism, and anyone who does criticize it is on this fictional “other side” and is an enemy. What Choi doesn’t get is that it’s unlikely Wells strolled into LocoL looking to tear apart this restaurant that clearly is trying to do great things for people. He wanted it to be good, because if LocoL’s food is good, that means it is more likely to make the positive impact is striving for (as the last line of Well’s review reads: “The most nutritious burger on earth won’t help you if you don’t want to eat it”).
After receiving this criticism, Choi could have taken it and looked to improve his menu. But instead, he does what most people in his position do lately: he went on the defensive, portraying Wells like he was out to get him, and seemingly learning nothing from the review. In particular, I find his implied stance that the quality of his food is somehow irrelevant to his mission to be insulting to his customers.
I respect Wells’ review a lot, because I read so many writers that treat art with kid gloves and would just fawn over a restaurant like LocoL because of its concept instead of its execution. This is understandable: it’s hard to criticize something that is coming from a very honest place, and there’s a lot of external pressure to be positive and nice. But it does a disservice to art and the people who make it to act like everything is great. If anything, something like LocoL needs criticism the most, because it can do so much good if it is done well.
Lately I’ve been depressed over how nobody seems to understand the purpose of criticism anymore, especially younger people who have grown up with the internet and sites like Buzzfeed, which are popular because of their unrealistically positive tone. I can often be overcritical — to the point that it comes off as kneejerk negativity and cynicism — but I do wish everyone was a little more skeptical and a little more willing to dish out and accept criticism.
I remember first thinking this when I was taking creative writing classes in college. I’ll pat myself on the back slightly here: I think I’m a pretty good writer, or I wouldn’t write as much as I do. But I also know I’m not close to perfect, and I often ended up submitting pieces that I wasn’t proud of in these classes. In each session, there was typically a roundtable where we read our pieces aloud, then the rest of the class would critique your work, and invariably everyone would get all Minnesota Nice and only say positive things (I was also guilty of this, because I was too afraid to come off as “mean”). The professors were also rarely any help, as they understandably felt like they couldn’t rip into their students for a variety of reasons.
Eventually, it got to the point where I pretty much tuned out the roundtable, because I knew nobody was going to call out the mistakes I knew I made or give me concrete advice on how I could do better in the future. And I had this wish that someone would finally just be like “Josh, this piece sucks. Here is a list of all the things that are horribly wrong with it.”This would sting initially, but assuming the criticism was reasonable and substantive, I would be glad I received it.
So that is my experience with criticism on a micro level. On a macro level, I’ve recently started to see real consequences that happen when a society devalues criticism. One of my pet reasons for Why Trump Happened is that liberals became too complacent and were unwilling to criticize and improve parts of their platform and message that weren’t working. It became so easy to deride the extreme right wing crazies and feel proud of not being Those Guys that we didn’t stop to look within ourselves at the things we could be doing better. So this isn’t just about art — I think the world would literally be much better if criticism and its lessons were more widely understood.
And of course, now our president is a guy who can’t handle or tolerate criticism whatsoever. Trump’s constant lies and thin skin make him the perfect president for a populace that no longer emphasizes thinking critically and favors comfortable decorum over honesty. In the next four or eight years (oh my god), Trump is going to constantly test America’s ability to think critically and to not believe everything you hear. Let’s hope everyone improves at this very quickly.
Before there was Carly Rae Jepsen and Kristin Kontrol, there was Annie. The Norwegian singer gained some amount of fame over a decade ago with her 2004 album, Anniemal, which was a hit on music blogs back when music blogs were semi-relevant and people read them. I heard the album a few years later, when I was a stereotypical indie snob who looked down on any kind of pop music, and it helped convert me into someone who saw the craft and emotion that good pop can have.
Annie has fallen out of the limelight since, in part due to not being a very prolific artist (she’s released just one full length since Anniemal, 2009’s underrated Don’t Stop) and in part due to music websites turning into PR factories for established pop stars. Once Pitchfork and the others started celebrating celebrity-driven pop made by Beyonce, Drake and Rihanna and covering their every move, there wasn’t room for artists like Annie, who had found her niche as a pop artist for the people who enjoyed a good song but didn’t particularly care about the public lives of famous people.
That’s why I missed Annie’s Endless Vacation EP in 2015; it got some token reviews from websites, but virtually no discussion that could be heard over everyone clamoring for Taylor Swift and others. It turned out to be one of the releases in I listened to the most in 2016, and has a couple perfect Annie songs on it: the opening track, “Kiara Mia,” and “Out of Reach,” which I think is the best song she’s ever recorded.
At its best, Annie’s music combines the blissful feeling of pop with melancholic, wistful lyrics, like on “Heartbeat,” which was the song she was most known for back in 2004. “Out of Reach” is like the platonic ideal of this type of pop song, with a tropical sound, Annie’s light, dreamy vocals and lyrics that I find deeply relatable and poignant. On the surface, it tells the story of a potential lover that got away, but for me it taps into deeper feelings of how I live my life and parts of me I want to change.
I’m a very introverted, passive person, and it leads to me always feeling like I’m missing out on something in the moment because I’m too scared to go out of my comfort zone. Then, like Annie on this song, I spend time in the present dwelling on those mistakes in the past; the possible friends I could have made, the dumb things I said, the various forks in the road where I went down a path I wish I hadn’t. I assume this is a somewhat universal thing, but I am egregiously bad about it, and instead of confronting the issue head-on, I tend to stay to myself and listen to songs like “Out of Reach” while avoiding human contact.
I am not typically a New Year’s resolution type of person (I’m more one of those obnoxious “YEARS ARE JUST CONSTRUCTS THAT MEAN NOTHING” people), but in 2017 one of my hopes is I can be less of a recluse and take some of those chances that I’ve avoided in the past. And I don’t know if I would have been fully motivated to do that if not for “Out of Reach” and how perfectly it articulates that human experience.
Possibly the most satisfying feeling I get as a music fan is hearing an artist I like become an artist I love. After showing potential with all of her previous work, Emma Ruth Rundle finds her voice as a solo artist on Marked for Death, a stunning album that is brimming with intensity and musicality.
Rundle’s development as an artist has been fun to track for the last few years. I first heard her playing with her band Marriages, and on their debut, Kitsune, she showed a gift for creating gloomy, heavy guitar riffs. But her singing mostly took a backseat on that album to her guitar and was used as an instrument to blend in with the music — it was much more about the atmosphere and mood than the lyrics or Rundle herself. Her solo debut, Some Heavy Ocean, went in more of a folk direction while retaining her ambient style. It was one of my favorite albums from that year, but I sensed Rundle had more in her.
Last year, Marriages released Salome, which put Rundle in a different role from her previous music as a more traditional rock frontwoman. This was when I began to notice her singing and lyrics, which became much more integral to the music, and I noted in last year’s year-end extravaganza how Rundle’s passion and intensity as a singer made that album work.
On Marked for Death, all of her skills crystallize on one album, and the result is spellbinding. While it takes the form of a traditional singer-songwriter album, nothing else quite sounds like this. It all comes back to Rundle’s abilities as an ambient composer: while I feel a lot of folk focuses on lyrics at the expense of sound, the gloomy, haunting landscapes she creates with her guitar make Marked for Death an album that would work even if there were no lyrics or vocals.
Rundle is my favorite kind of guitarist: her instrument feels like an extension of herself, and it’s used on this album to build an atmosphere while creating a cohesive whole with her voice and lyrics. It lurks out of the spotlight and supports the vocals, until it springs out of nowhere like on “Protection,” where it shatters the quiet with a massive, scuzzy riff. Even on the acoustic finale, “Real Big Sky,” Rundle’s guitar has a heaviness to it that gives the song an apocalyptic, doomy feeling.
This album sounds so good (which I know is non-descriptive, but like… it just does) that the lyrics and vocals almost feel like a free bonus. But it’s in these areas where Rundle shows the most improvement from her previous music. Her voice works on a similar level as her guitar: she sings in quiet, hushed tones, but then will show the true power of her vocals when the music gets loud, like at the end of “Heaven.” Her lyrics are obsessed with death and the afterlife, with a lot of religious themes and symbolism, which fits her sound and leaves room for interpretation for the listener.
It’s hard to describe why this album works so well (if you can’t tell), but it started to make sense to me when I watched this performance of Rundle performing in the Oregon woods in a rusty old truck. It’s a perfect setting for her music because it underscores her naturalness as a performer. Marked for Death is so original and different, but it’s not an album where the artist is self-consciously trying to sound like nobody else has ever sounded. Rundle is just being herself, and this album firmly establishes her as one of the most unique and compelling artists in music today.
Most bands make “songs” and “albums.” SubRosa create entire universes. The metal band’s third full length, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, continues down the path set by their earlier work, with a sound that is massive and unmatched in scale. Their signature combination of doom metal guitars and violins is otherworldly in a literal sense — when I listen to this band, I feel like I’m in a fantasy world, far from earth.
But while SubRosa often sounds not-of-this-world, their music speaks to what is happening on this planet right now. Inspired by the Russian dystopian novel, “We,” the album’s long, winding pieces grapple with major themes of free will, identity, and the intersection of suffering and happiness. The album closer, “Troubled Cells,” is an explicit statement by Rebecca Vernon on the plight of LGBTQI people in her Mormon church, but it’s done in an allegorical way that is nuanced and speaks widely to other disenfranchised people. “Wound of the Warden” is told from the point of view of a puppet-master, who sneers at his underlings that believe their lives and choices matter — it can be interpreted as a religious fable, or as a commentary on government control and surveillance.
This is a grim album, with lyrics that are every bit as crushing as its heaviest guitar riffs. But amid the chaos and doom, SubRosa find moments of humanity and beauty, and For This We Fought the Battle of Ages strikes a surprisingly optimistic message: that the world is harsh and unforgiving, and the people in it are stronger because of it.
In a just universe where actual pop songcraft was rewarded over celebrity, every song on X-Communicate would be a hit. Of course, Donald Trump is going to be president, so we don’t live in that universe. But Kristin Welchez, who formerly fronted Dum Dum Girls, can take solace in knowing she has made her most complete album yet, on her own, and further established herself in my mind as a low-key pop genius.
X-Communicate feels like a pop clinic, put on by an artist who has listened to it her whole life and has memorized the recipe of a memorable song. There is a virtuosic feel to its verses, choruses and bridges, and to Kristin’s vocals, which have range and expression that she couldn’t show in Dum Dum Girls. The album doesn’t stray much from traditional pop structures, and it doesn’t really break new ground, but this is by design: Kristin uses the nostalgic sounds of the past to make an album that is a celebration of the pop song as a form of personal expression.
One of my favorite quotes from any television show is from Seinfeld, when Jerry is trying to beat a lie detector test and asks for George’s help. George gives this piece of advice: “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”
When it comes to musicians — and disproportionately women musicians — there is often an assumption that the singer is being “confessional” and sharing experiences from their own life. Artists who do this are applauded for being honest and real, for putting every piece of themselves into the music.
While I admittedly love albums like that too, I think it has become overemphasized, and it doesn’t give music enough credit as a storytelling medium, or the artists enough credit as weavers of fiction instead of people singing out of their diaries. And it doesn’t give fiction credit for sometimes being more truthful than reality.
The Bride is a work of pure fiction by Natasha Khan, aka Bat for Lashes, which might be why it got a fairly muted critical response compared to her usual work. But while this album is all “lies,” Khan believes them. She commits fully to her story of a woman whose husband dies on her wedding day, and in unraveling her story gradually through the album, she finds real truths and moments of deep sadness and humanity.
This album is audaciously slow-paced, requiring a level of patience that I’m not sure many listeners have, and I’m sympathetic to anyone who thought it was boring. But I really admired how it was so self-contained and how dedicated Khan was to telling her story on her terms, even though she had to know not many people would meet her halfway.