Music is why we do this. The late night jams or the soundtrack to our weekends, appreciation of squiggly air in the lame duck days of summer leads me to enjoy a couple selections from the past.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
For those of you playing Daft Punk trivia at home, Laurent Brancowitz of Phoenix used to be with the robotic duo as a member of the “daft punky thrash” outfit known as Darlin’. My better half and I have been enjoying this throwback to 2009 while joking about her music taste being “late 00s-early 10s car commercial fodder”, thanks to how frequently the song 1901 off this album appeared on television.
Humor now out of the way, I have gained a newly found appreciation for this project after originally having 1901 as a singular representation of the artist on my iPod so many years ago. Lisztomania introduces the album with a bubbly celebration of staccato accents that subverts the expectations of the fever’s namesake. The aforementioned 1901’s intro is synonymous with the Cadillac SRX commercials from 2009, but the instrumental palette and tonal character of the instruments screams “nightlife” from 10 or so years ago. The fuzzy and deep synthesizers and electric bass providing some abrasive rumble, the guitars plucking along like streetlights in the downtown, and the hollow accenting keys like the echoes of the night all add up to just one vignette in this collage of passages. The chorus has the euphoric energy of the “millenial woah-oh’s” with the vocal acrobatics of Thomas Mars.
Fences has a nice couple moments when the drums drop out, which oddly reminds me of fall leaves. The guitar strumming in the background while Mars’ lyrics read a little haunting over this skeletal backdrop. Lasso almost sounds like a Vampire Weekend-adjacent track, but with Phoenix’s signature pocket groove tempo employed. Andy Kellman said it best, “Maybe they’ve just hit their stride.”
The Chain Gang of 1974 – FELT
I want to spotlight this artist for multiple albums that I enjoy, but primarily this 2017 release. I think I have put on the newer album, Honey Moon Drips, more times simply by the nature of having the instrumental version available on Qobuz while owning the full retail release locally. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to pin down an appreciation of an artist or album. All I can muster in those times are “it sounds good”, “I like it”, or some positive counterpart to the ever-present “it’s mid”.
Admittedly, I discovered this album in the summer of 2020. I have a lot of personal history with these tracks as a method of escapism for the obvious series of events that come to your mind when you think of that calendar year. I was directed to the track Human, but I pride myself on being an album-oriented when I have the available time at home.
This indie-electro/alt-pop album allows me to embrace blissful choruses and beautiful harmonies like a backyard fire on a cool summer night. If there’s a miss on the album for me, it’s It Needs You, and even then, it’s hardly an undesirable track to get through even if it’s my least favorite. Why do I mention my least favorite song? Because I feel like the rest of the tracks are tight as can be.
Slow kicks the album off with a driving bass line, and picks up with accenting distorted instruments that hit opposing channels while the vocals increase in intensity leading to the chorus. And the chorus, my goodness, the first time I heard this I was washed over with frisson. Wallflowers has these youthful multi-tracked vocals in the chorus and post-chorus that continue the ethereal presentation into I Still Wonder. A song that starts out hollow, but has enjoyable dynamic phrasing across the run time. Forget continues to get me with the musical catharsis a little over three minutes in, while Looking for Love has a chorus that’s instantly infectious.
Stick around for the penultimate track Human. If you’re this far into the album and enjoying it, it’s the most sappy injection of euphoria that I can recommend this week.
Beyonce – Renaissance
I have some unflattering history highlighting Beyonce albums, and since those days of doing low-brow essays I’ve grown to appreciate Lemonade and some of her back-catalog. This summer brought two high profile releases that celebrated house music, and this release certainly beat out the other one.
This album isn’t mastered too well and will likely make a few audio-aligned folks dissatisfied with its sonic presentation. What I can applaud this album for are the house-tinged bops that have caught my ear in the time since my last contribution to The Music Den.
Break My Soul is the lead single, and as much as I’d like to celebrate it, so many others have beat me to the punch. Instead, I’d rather shout out the other songs. Drama put aside, Energy opens with a punchy bass line that sounds like something right out of a dream I’ve had. Cuff It is a groovy piece of disco-esque pop that effortlessly transitions into the previously mentioned Energy. As much as it isn’t necessarily a house track, All Up in Your Mind’s lyrical hook is a trademark sultry vocal that deserves revisits for all the hidden gems in the production.
And finally, deep through the trenches of Daft Punk trivia, I can highlight that the Donna Summer song Summer Renaissance pulls some inspiration from was produced by Giorgio Moroder, who features as a guest on a track bearing his name on Random Access Memories.
George Clanton & Nick Hexum – Self-Titled
A certain bandcamp comment said it best, “Released during the summer we never got, but made for every summer”. To me, this album is more George Clanton than Nick Hexum, but the vocals Nick provides on this album are entwined with just enough handsome musk that it keeps this album in rotation every summer since its release.
Being months deep into this summer means I’m starting to get a little tired; the excessive heat, the obnoxious drivers flexing their muffler-less hot rods, the fact that even in the period of most daylight per 24 hours, it feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day... all of this is contributing to a slight sense of lethargic ennui that makes me not want to do the work of discovering new music and just vibe with things I already love.
However, in this period of modest apathy I was lucky enough to be finishing the new series of Stranger Things, in the aftermath of which my significant other somehow found out that Maya Hawke (Robin) actually has a burgeoning music career.
Since I loved her performances in these last two seasons, I was pretty sure the music would be at least decent... But I had no idea it’d be one of my favorite easy listening discoveries this year. Hawke’s 2020 debut record Blush is all at once the familiar traipse of an indie darling apparent and a deceptively nuanced singer/songwriter record.
Particularly of note is Bringing Me Down, a song that reminds me of late-2000s indie with a little more Norah Jones jazz pedigree hidden beneath the floorboards of this cozy yet bouncy romp. This record came around at a time when I was already a bit tired of music and wrestled me back with nothing but a pretty voice and a familiar and easy-to-love pop sensibility.
Even better is it seems she has a new record coming out, by the title, Moss. A new single called Sweet Tooth from the forthcoming album actually came out this week, and it’s a little more jaunty and fun than any of the songs on Blush, sporting a more danceable tempo and sly vocal meter.
Overall, Hawke is extremely worth paying attention to, as I find I’ve yet to dislike a single one of her songs and I think this album is gonna be lovely when it finally arrives in full.
Further building on the theme of being too lazy to explore past the familiar, I’ve been revisiting music from my past. One record I’ve had a lot of fun with is Pile’s Dripping from 2012. Back then I remember the first thing gripping me was the massive sound of the drums on the opener Baby Boy, and with my now considerably better listening setup I can say: it’s only gotten better. The drums are just huge. The guitars are gronked in all the right ways, having enough size and bite to be imposing and clearly intimate their urgency, but not forward or boisterous enough to drown out frontman Rick Maguire’s signature sardonic snarl.
My favorite cut from this LP is definitely Bump a Grape, which vacillates between a more downtempo—almost americana-tinged—dirge, and a more antsy, anxious headfirst charge. The constant dynamic swing between fast and slow, loud and quiet, dense and vacant, is no doubt one of the best things this band had going for them on this record, and it along with the exceptional (if a bit restless) songwriting chops made this an absolute treat to revisit.
In retreading the territory of songs loved previously, we can find everything from a familiar solace to a new perspective. Listeners know that whether its the first time or the 101st time hearing a track, there’s always the chance we’ll hear something that clicks an entirely new way. But while we can mine for new understandings in songs we’ve known forever, we can also notice songs we already love being echoed recognizably in songs we’ve never heard before. We’re always discovering, and we’re always looking for the next rush of enjoyment that comes with unpacking the mysteries and the comforts of any piece of music.